Category Archives: questioning

Awkward doubts – two poems

Awkward questions

I was once a rather quiet sceptic.
Tolerant of others’ cherished illusions,
(even those that seemed rather septic)
and unwilling to provoke confusion.
Why should I dampen their enthusiasm
with awkward questions and doubts
that might perhaps reveal the chasm
between what their faith made them shout
and what, meanwhile, I quietly thought.
But it always seemed that their credulity
was far too easily bought.
And having once let faith make a fool of me,
I know that faith that’s blind is no harmless charm
and I’ve heard too often of beliefs having effects that are fatal.
(If you doubt that belief can do active harm
Consider Nicaragua’s mortality rates – maternal and pre-natal).
So I find I must, politely but firmly, refuse
to tolerate sermonising in dissenting silence
(however good may appear the sermon’s news)
And so, without resorting to violence
I now ensure my doubts get said.
I try not to let dogma thrive uninterrupted,
or tacitly permit narrow-mindedness to spread.
And though it can sometimes seem disruptive,
I won’t believe someone’s words just because
they claim that they have seen the light.
When someone preaches fanatically about the wonders of Oz
I’d rather mention their emerald specs than be dishonestly polite!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Doubt and fear

Even when my eyes were damp with tears
You wouldn’t hold me close. Left me lonely.
I, the sceptic who wanted to believe in you.

For you feared my doubts would interfere
With the strange things you needed to believe.
You, who told me I was afraid of what was true.

But it was not my awkward doubts, but your tearing fears
That in the end were fatal to our love. How we grieved!
We, who had not imagined the pain our love could turn into.

And so you rejected me, and disappeared
To chase your illusions uninterrupted. With only
They who would not challenge your strange world view.

Mere differences of opinion can’t tear friends or lovers apart
It is only fear that has the power to choke the loving heart.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

These two poems were written for the Friday Five at Poefusion – to write a poem including the words sceptic, awkward, uninterrupted, fatal, damp.

The first one is roughly clerihewish – deliberately using clumsy or eccentric rhymes and odd line lengths, which seemed to support the idea of awkwardness. The reference to Nicaragua was inspired by this article.

The second poem is more or less a sonnet – though the rhyme scheme (ABC ADC ADC ABC EE) isn’t typical. And I’ve thrown in a pronoun pattern too. I did wonder whether it would be better to use just the first twelve lines without the “moral” at the end – what do you think?

Though they may seem very different in mood, there is a definite connection between the events in the second poem and the attitude expressed in the first.

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Vision

You stare with visionary wonder at a sudden flash of insight
>>And a new light of knowledge starts to glitter in your eyes
>>Doorway to the quest that beckons you towards a mystic prize.
Your eyes are newly gifted with a special, higher sight,
>>Which can never be deceived by humans’ incessant lies.
From you their masks cannot conceal their weaknesses or fright
For in their auras their stories are written in patterns of rainbow light,
>YAnd you are gifted to cure the world with the truth you realise!

But humility and healthy doubt were banished by your insight
>>And obsessive is the light that glitters in your eyes.
>>To be a healer, not to heal, is what you truly prize. 
The brightness of the vision has overwhelmed your sight,
>>With radiant temptation to believe these flattering lies.
Leaving you so cruelly trapped between pride, hope and fright,
That you lash out at any attempt to question the vision’s light.
> Oh, how much more hurt will you do, before you realise?

 

This poem responds to a prompt at sundayscribblings – to write a poem about vision. For me one of the interesting things about a really powerful vision is what you don’t see – the brighter the light you stare at, the less you can see anything else. (There’s an interesting discussion about the links between egotism and mysticism at Cafe Philos.) 

Those who know my blog well will already be familiar with the experiences that are behind my response to this prompt – I used to go out with someone who believed his energy reading gave him special insight into me. But what he saw was utterly dominated by his fear and projection… and so his “vision” was deeply destructive. 

I am not denying outright that people can have powerful and meaningful personal insights… that would be to commit the reverse error myself. But I think there is a very real danger that insights that are taken too seriously can blind us to other people’s insights, causing us to close off from the questioning that opens the mind. And so, even if the original vision had an element of truth, its effect, in the end, is to block our minds to the truth.

(Photo by jhhwild at flickr.)

Truth and fear

(A wordle cloud based on the top 100 words in this post)

I realise that I’ve been writing a lot of posts that in some way relate to the truth – to the struggle to see what is true rather than what we wish to be true, and to be honest with ourselves and with others. I thought it might be a good idea to explore what I feel about truth.

I am in the slightly odd position of being deeply committed to an end goal of personal and spiritual growth (tolerance, honesty, compassion, freedom from fear etc) that is similar in some ways to that which is praised by religions. But at the same time I find the supernaturalism of religious and new-age beliefs fundamentally alien, and their approach to key issues like truth and fear unhelpful at best. Which doesn’t leave me much in the way of reliable guidance for the personal growth that I am seeking. Or indeed any help with defining what exactly I aspire to.

But let me try anyway. One of the things I am seeking is a resilience in the face of the problems that life throws at me – not a permanent happiness, but an emotional buoyancy. A state of mind that deals with problems and obstacles with the minimum of pain and misery. (This ideal owes quite a bit to the non-supernatural elements of buddhism)

Part of that process is about overcoming fear, which is often both unnecessary and counterproductive, and replacing it with a confidence and acceptance. And another part of it is about truth – seeing things the way they are. Because I’m curious to know the truth, and because I feel that honesty, integrity and openness are all valuable characteristics of the person I aspire to be. And because if our beliefs lead us to make false predictions about the world, we’re in danger of being unnecessarily prepared for the problems that arise, or of dealing with them inappropriately.

I also value truthfulness as a great tool for identifying and overcoming fear. From my experience, it’s almost always fear that makes me reluctant to see or speak the truth, so working to overcome that reluctance, or at least defy it, can help me to overcome that fear.

For me the work of moving away from fear and towards truth is a vital part of my life at present.

When I feel I am tempted to lie, I try to ask myself, what am I afraid of? When I feel afraid, I ask myself, why am I afraid, and what is the worst that can happen? And I try to decide whether the fear is of something real, or something imaginary. If, as mostly happens, it’s imaginary, I try to do exactly that thing that I’m afraid of. I don’t always manage it – it’s amazing how easily the mind dreams up excuses why it’s not necessary on this occasion! But step by step I am working on my fears.

And similarly I am trying to eradicate the prejudices, biases and fears that are the biggest obstacles to seeing what is real. I keep trying to remember that, although I believe that every one of my beliefs is correct, is is, in practice, certain that I believe something that is not true. Which doesn’t help me to identify which one it is, but it’s a useful principle. (It would be great to be able to swill out my brain with some sort of epistemological plaque detector, which would stain the areas of false belief so that they could be removed with energetic brushing). But it’s a useful way to counter the pride of having to be right about everything all the time.

It’s also helpful to remember all the different ways in which we can be wrong about things, and how difficult it is to really get at the truth. I’ve recently watched several youtube clips of Derren Brown (e.g. this one) which demonstrate very neatly how easy we can be to fool, and how misleading our own experiences can be. (I recently tried dowsing with a pendulum, and it’s quite shocking how strongly it appears that an invisible external force is involved, even when you know intellectually that it’s nothing of the kind!) It seems that humans work in such a way that we arrive at beliefs easily and quickly, and change our minds reluctantly and slowly – I can’t help feeling the reverse would be more useful!

One of the most inspiring websites I know is The World Question Center, which includes a collection of short accounts from 165 people about issues on which they changed their minds. Some of the changes are really significant, others smaller. But what I find inspiring is the courage with which they have been prepared to put their beliefs to the test and say “I was wrong”. And in reading their accounts, I don’t think the less of them for being wrong – I think more of them for admitting it. Which encourages me to try to feel the same about the scary idea of being wrong.

One of the most important ways in which I’ve changed my mind over recent years is this: what people believe really does matter, because it affects their behaviour, and a “live and let live” relativistic attitude to the beliefs of others is dangerous. It also cuts us off from putting our own views to the test – indeed, as I argued in a previous post, I think one of the attractions of relativism is that we don’t have to put our own views on the line and accept that we might be wrong.

For me discussion is a crucial way of putting our beliefs to the test and learning more about ourselves and others. But for a discussion to be real, all parties have to be willing to discover that they’re wrong. And that is a rare attitude for people to have, particularly on issues that matter to them. Pride and fear all come into play and bias our view of the evidence despite our best efforts. Which, yes, brings me back to fear – indeed it seems hard to separate them!

Moving towards truth and away from fear is a daily challenge, and some days I feel I’ve made no progress at all. It’s a hard slog. But it seems to me that it’s a fascinating and important journey.

Though, I could be wrong, I’m afraid….

Scrambled horoscope

Star-Forming Region LH 95 in the Large Magellanic Cloud

Take a deep breath – better days are due,
building a vortex of energy around you.
Mercury coaxes you to look to the past
from your house of confidential meetings.

(perhaps if I owned a house of confidential meetings,
or even had some idea what one was,
I would hear the voice of that coaxing planet.)

Planets in the double-bodied sign of Gemini also suggest
little will go as smoothly as clockwork
With your arsenal of positive planetary power,
make that endeavor a four-star winner now.

(recent endeavours have led me wandering
under skies brillant with endless stars –
what need have I of an arsenal?)

The full moon will fall in the distant-travel sign;
The new moon will give you a platform to shine brilliantly
Mars will send a powerful, positive beam to Pluto at that time.
both orbiting on opposite sides of the heavens.

(I prefer to stand on the earth –
though closer than the other side of heaven,
reaching the moon would be a difficult jump!)

There will be reason for hope, though –
that new fledgling relationship would likely have staying power
You’ll be concentrating hard as news pours in
thrilled with what’s being stirred up for you.

(thanks, but I prefer to do my own stirring,
and find my own reasons for hope,
fledgling or otherwise!)

The Sun and Saturn, the ruler of your house of true love,
will be in divinely compatible angles
possibly far from your present base.
Try to hold off giving your final answer…

(These strange predictions seem less than compatible with my life.
I am glad I do not depend on their strange angles 
to find my answers or feel wonder at the brilliance of the universe.)

I am definitely not a believer in horoscopes, but sometimes find them entertaining to read. I do enjoy the strange mystical language they use, as it’s often delightfully weird – so long as I don’t try to think about it as being supposed to mean anything – I mean, what does a divinely compatible angle look like? And sometimes I find good advice in a horoscope… whether for my star sign or not!

Anyway, I found this interestingly worded (though only randomly relevant to my current situation!) horoscope by following a link from red ravine, and felt that it was begging to be the basis of a found text poem. So I pulled out some of the weirder lines, rearranged them completely, made a few tiny changes, and added my musings on the predictions. Only the words in italics are mine.

The photo is one of many stunning images taken by the hubble telescope which are available at www.hubblesite.org

Elite

Each of us is brilliant with an internal
Light that illuminates inside and out:
Intelligence, that gift that lets us
Teach, learn, discover, describe and
Enjoy!

Everyone has it – but not everyone
Learns it is theirs to use and enjoy.
Ignorant that they share this gift, some say
This intelligence and its fruits is
Elitist.

Elitist. But why? Intelligence is not
Like money or status – in sharing it we all become
Information millionaires. Yet crushing forces
Teach many to exclude themselves from the
Elite.

Expertise should be valued and open to all whose
Learning or curiosity makes their voices worth hearing.
Ignorance should never be prized, just prised open
To let in the light (and the heated debate!) of
Experts.

Excellence is our birthright. To question is to
Live alive to the world. Having the daring to
Inquire opens the door to discovery. And seeking
Truth is a gift, a joy and a challenge for
Everyone!

 

An acrostic poem inspired by the Carnival of the Elitist Bastards.

Miracles

I don’t believe in miracles

Or at least, I’ve never seen one that struck me
As truly miraculous, beyond chance and doubt.

And where others see miracles
I see the chances of life
The vitality of thousands of interactions
Seen through the prism
Of the human wish to see patterns.

A wish to see the world
As a movie which we star in
Where divine gifts and mysterious forces
Bless or curse our path – with intent.

(like a puddle, thinking how perfectly
the hole around it
seems to have been made
to fit its unique contours)

I’m just an extra, enjoying my journey through the backstage of the world
It’s not about me, but I am me. And I enjoy what I see.

Who am I to say,
that the pattern you see
Is chance, is pure illusion?
It’s clear to me that’s all it can be
But I don’t want to hurt your dreams.
– though I will, if I think they will hurt you too

For there are people who exploit
This wish to believe –
Cold reading. Horoscopes. Psychological tricks.
Exploiting the wish to believe in miracles
To create a financial miracle of their own.

I have been hurt, too, by the illusions that others believe,
the special sensitivity they claimed to possess,
the fear-driven intuition they called extrasensory guidance.

I have nearly been killed by a driver who thought himself
Divinely protected and therefore able to take risks
With the lives of himself and his passengers

(It matters, oh how it matters, what we believe.
For what we believe shapes what we do and what we are.)

Is it a gift, to believe in miracles?
Is it deprivation, to believe they are not miraculous?

I don’t feel deprived… I just enjoy
The passing slideshow of the diverse earth
And take joy when my searching eye
Finds a special beauty in random chance.
Without making it more
Than a natural thing.

(The joy of rolling a double six
just when you needed it. Of drawing just that card
from the shuffled deck.

Almost more pleasing, for being random!)

Everyone is always at the centre of their own rainbow.
Not because of rainbows.
But because of humans being human.
Our creativity. Our hopes. The stories we tell.
These, if you like, are miracles I can believe in.

This poem-ish reflection was a response to a post over on red ravine, about miracles. I wrote in response:

I think it’s all about what you want to see. We are very good at finding patterns when we want to see them. Some people see the dot of earth on the iris… Others just random splashes. Others see a pointy-nosed mouse face looking out from her left collarbone…

Is it a gift to believe in miracles? Should sceptics like me butt in when people talk about them? I don’t know. I know people take a lot of comfort in miracles and strange coincidences.

But I’ve also been hurt by people who believed in things like this, who believed in signs and patterns relating to me when there was really no such pattern. At the end of the day, I think it does matter what we believe in. And for me, believing that such appearances are random chance rather than miraculous doesn’t actually take the comfort away.

 

Having the courage of your convictions…

I came across an interesting post at Cafe Philos asking are all aesthetic and ethical opinions “relative”?

I think Paul’s conclusion could be fairly summed up by this quote:

The notion that everything is just an opinion and that everyone’s opinions are equal is not always true.   More care and insight goes into some opinions than into others.  

I broadly agree with him, but had some points I wanted to add to amplify this. So I started writing a comment, and then it sort of expanded to post length so I thought I’d take up my own blog bandwidth rather than Paul’s!

The first thing I wanted to say was that to some extent it depends how we express our judgements, and in particular who we claim they’re true for. If we’re just expressing a personal preferences, that can, without contradiction, vary from person to person. E.g. my feelings about the taste of marmite probably differ from those of many people, but I can say “I like marmite” and you can say “I hate marmite” without that being a contradiction. But if I say “Marmite is delicious” or you say “Marmite is disgusting”, then there’s a sense in which we can’t both be right. The trouble is we tend to use these two different types of statement quite interchangeably. Sometimes out of casualness… but sometimes because we believe that everyone should react the same way as we do.

If we keep to the I-like-marmite kind of statement, then we can happily bounce along together and never disagree. But at the same time, we don’t actually learn much about the way the world is, because we’re not seeking out other people’s reactions.

I think making a “Marmite is” statement requires us to go beyond our own experience, to bring in objective data to support our argments, and take into consideration other people’s opinions, definitions and so on. If we are trying to make a claim about how other people should view something, then we need to do more than state that we view it that way.

Of course, this doesn’t matter much with marmite, because nobody is forcing other people to eat it/not eat it. But when it comes to obscenity, to pick up Paul’s example, then it does become important because people are trying to act as if their personal reaction was a universal desiderata. And I think there are some important principles – valuing informed experience over lack of experience, valuing the opinions of those who consider the opinions of others, acceptance of some greyness combined with a wish to minimise it, and so on.

But why should we go to all this trouble? Isn’t it easier to accept that everyone has different views. Well, it’s easier, but a lot less interesting.

I think relativism is a great excuse for not putting your own opinions to the test of real discussion with someone else.

If two people disagree about a “marmite is” or a “pornography is” issue, then you can either say that all you really meant was an “I like” statement. Or, if both of you are interested in truth and willing to be wrong, you can start trying to establish whether pornography or marmite are good or bad.

The willingness to be wrong is crucial here. Relativism allows us all to be “sort of” right. But if it means we’re not prepared to consider that some of our views may be wrong, it becomes dangerous. I believe that all the opinions I hold are true, but I also think that it’s virtually certain that at least one of them is wrong. (Hat tip to Alonzo Fyfe at Atheist Ethicist, who keeps mentioning this rather important but uncomfortable truth!) I want to find out which of my views are wrong, even if finding that I’ve been wrong about something I sincerely believe is embarrassing and uncomfortable.

Collision with someone else’s equally sincerely held views of reality is one of the best ways of putting your views to the test. Saying that everything is relative and everyone’s entitled to their own opinion is a great way of avoiding collision of worldviews. It’s also a great way of getting the subjective and objective hopelessly mixed up. And of stopping learning anything meaningful about the world we live in. 

Someone said that if you want to increase your success rate, you need to increase your failure rate. I think something similar applies to opinions. If you want to have a lot of well-founded opinions, you need to give the world lots of opportunities to prove you wrong!