Reasonable Doubt

Reasonable Doubt February 27, 2011

The title segment of the most recent Standing Stone and Garden Gate podcast concerns reasonable doubt. Brendan Myers does an excellent job of explaining the role of doubt in examining and interpreting our beliefs and experiences. The philosophical tools he presents are invaluable in the attempt to live a life of integrity, but I believe their ultimate usefulness is more limited than Brendan apparently does.

Brendan talks about the concept of “reasonable doubt,” best known in the criminal legal system. If a jury has reason to doubt the prosecution’s case, they must acquit the accused. In contrast, in the civil courts cases are decided by a “preponderance of evidence” – the side determined to be more likely wins, even if it’s only slightly more likely.

In fairness to Brendan, he does not explicitly state that we should reject supernatural interpretations if we have any reason to doubt them… but the implication is there. I think that’s a mistake. If the standard for acceptance is “freedom from any reasonable doubt” then we would reject all supernatural explanations for our experiences – we would all be atheists (or at least religious naturalists). Taken to extremes, love would become nothing more than the interaction of hormones and brain chemistry, loyalty would become nothing more than evolutionary quid pro quo, and free will would disappear.

Now, if you think you hear a goddess speaking to you audibly (something I’ve never experienced) and you later find out your next door neighbor was playing a guided meditation with his windows open, then the evidence – though not conclusive – points you in the direction of a material explanation. We ignore evidence and the direction in which evidence points us at the peril of our integrity. Think of fundamentalists who ignore the overwhelming evidence for evolution because it conflicts with their “biblical worldview.”

The standard by which we should judge religious and mystical experiences and supernatural beliefs is not whether they are materially true beyond a reasonable doubt, but whether those experiences and beliefs are meaningful and helpful.

Does your experience of after-death communication and the Otherworld help you to understand that death is natural and nothing to be feared? Or does it cause you to believe that this life is merely the qualifying round for the next life?

Does your ineffable experience of God or Goddess or The All help you to understand that everything is connected and there is no separation? Or does it cause you to abandon work and pleasure and family to chase ecstasy after ecstasy?

Does your experience of karma and the three-fold law help you to understand the need to act ethically and with respect to the rights of others? Or does it cause you to believe that the poor and others who are suffering are getting what they deserve from past lives and you have no obligation to help them?

Does your experience of magic help you to understand that hope is never lost and that we can influence great matters even if we cannot control them? Or does it cause you to believe that mundane work is unimportant if you have “special” powers or gifts? In one of her recent Elemental Castings podcasts, Thorn Coyle and her guest discussed the idea that “a poor magician is a poor magician.”

The key in all of this is to honestly and diligently look for naturalistic explanations while having the humility to recognize that there is much about the world we don’t know. If accepting our supernatural experiences at face value is meaningful and helpful, that is a good thing. If at some point in the future our beliefs are shown to be clearly incorrect we should change them – but we will not have been harmed by them nor will they have caused us to harm others.

And if at some point in the future the existence of gods and goddesses and the Otherworld and magic are materially proven to exist, well, we knew it all along!

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