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In Doubt

2006-11-7 @ 8:31

David Byrne recently had some interesting thing to say about belief and denial.

I would maintain that a healthy (i.e. substantial) amount of denial is therefore genetically heritable, that it allows us to blithely go on (despite reading Beckett) and to ignore the basic sadness and desperation of life. We can live in an illusion — in fact we are genetically predisposed to do so. These illusions can be small — I am just as good at catching game as Bob, my rival, for example — or they can be very large — that death is not the end and that I will be rewarded for my faith and Bob, the apostate, will rot in Hell.

Either way, they allow me to go on, to persevere in the face of unlikely odds or limited chance of success. We have evolved to be less rational that one might think, and to be slightly more delusional and even stupid. (Happy Idiots)

He details this idea of denial in a subsequent post:

The brain can, in this case, choose to ignore obvious imperfections and evidence and see only what it wants to see. I don’t mean this in a metaphorical way — I mean it in an absolutely literal way — the brain only sees what it wants to see and disregards the rest. One can stare right at something and simply not see it. The contradictory information is simply not acknowledged. I don’t mean “seen and later denied”, but simply not seen at all. Denial is a built-in ability we have, it is essential for our survival, but sometimes, when applied to faked photos of fairies it seems pretty damn goofy. We do not all see or hear exactly the same things — key objects have been censored in the perceptions of some individuals…one wonders if objects could likewise be added to the world in other individuals.

In the midst of beliefs in fairies and the like, there emerged, towards the end of the 19th c., a “Scottish Enlightenment” which heralded a new industrial revolution. These scientist and engineers, strangely enough, could believe in the supernatural, which leads author Marina Warner and Byrne to posit “a link between the belief in the uncanny and this scientific enlightenment. A kind of secret union of opposites.”

Yeats claimed that the Irish were better writers than the English because of their belief in Fairie culture — that these irrational roots left the imagination less fettered. Whether or not he’s right about the 2 nations’ respective writing abilities, he might have a point re: the imagination. I could imagine that somewhere in the unconscious of Thompson, Watt, Doyle and others lay a buried belief, or non-denial, of sprits, forces and entities lurking in the barren misty glens to the north. Could these irrational suspicions have allowed the leaps of faith that are required in a scientific and engineering revolution? To imagine a concept like entropy or absolute zero must surely have seemed just as far fetched as the existence of wee folk. (I’m not saying these guys were literally Fairie believers, but that the deep cultural marinating soaks all parts.)

One of the most important part of scientific endeavour is doubt, the willingness to challenge accepted knowledge. This stands at the opposite of faith, of belief. How then can science reconcile with belief in fairies? Let’s look at it from the opposite corner: how does denying the possible existence of fairies fit in with doubt? Wouldn’t (at that point in history, at least) it be dogmatic to think that the scientific description of reality be the whole truth? That would be exhibiting more faith than scientific doubt…

2 comments to “In Doubt”

  1. Thank you so much for this. As someone who often “invites” the ire and impatience of others by choosing to see and by choosing to speak to what I see, This makes a lot of sense. What is consciousness, political or emotional, when most are quite happily cultivating denial — the ability to not see?

  2. I guess consciousness is the answer to what I see as one of the great evil of our time: obliviousness.

What do you think?