Mailbag: Truth, Happiness, and Books

Some of the mail I get is worth my time, some not. Some is just on the borderline. But it occurs to me that sometimes, I might be better off giving a thorough response in my journal, rather than responding privately (or not respond at all).

I’ll start with a mail from a person who recommended that I read the books (or watch the videos) of a particular spiritual author. (I will not say which one here, since I see no reason to give that author any publicity in my journal.) Usually I ignore that kind of thing, but this person seemed genuine enough to deserve to know why. He writes (translated to English):

These teachings have changed my life, it sits in my body and I use it as a tool more or less every day. I couldn’t give anyone any better advice than to refer to this person, and I think these works ought to be taught in school to help children and future adults. It’s about understanding humans.

My response: Well, good for you that you’ve found some kind of religion that works for you and makes you happy. However, it doesn’t please me when people who get hooked on something starts thinking that means it must be perfect for everyone else, too. People are different (and they should be); don’t assume that what works for you, works for everyone. For me, this is just evidence that you still don’t understand humans (especially not children in school).

If you get skeptical when you find out he’s practically created a movement […], don’t be scared, just try to give it a chance.

Don’t conflate skepticism with being scared, they’re very different things. There are many good reasons for skepticism, like the fact that history shows that through the ages, almost every movement, cult, ideology, religion, paradigm, and even civilization, have ultimately failed the test of time. (Sure, there are some that have managed to stick around for a number of generations, but not always for the right reasons.) Many of these was founded on some pretty clever-sounding thoughts, and certainly made many people happy in their belief that they had found their answer.

But I have a science education. I know that happiness and belief do not imply truth, and clever-sounding thoughts do not necessarily imply truth, either. In fact, we have examples of that in the history of physics:

In classical physics, especially after the introduction of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, physicists thought that they had all the major laws of nature figured out, and that a complete understanding of the whole universe was within reach. Albert Einstein himself was one of the people who believed this, in part because the equations and theories they had worked out together were very elegant and beautiful. (In a sense, art and classical science both believe in a relationship between truth and beauty.)

But then the Aspect experiment and others came along and proved that, oh crap, the universe just don’t work like that at all. Einstein was wrong. Eventually, physicists were forced to accept the truth of quantum mechanics (which is hardly elegant at all, at least with the current understanding), and that a complete understanding of the universe was still very far off.

Similar stories exist within politics. For example, communism started with some very good thoughts, and movements and even revolutions happened to realize these thoughts. But where are we today? Those nations that still call themselves communist states, mainly run on corruption, censorship, and human rights violations. (In fact, the most well-developed nations tend to be those running on some unelegant patchwork of systems. That’s not a coincidence, but I won’t go into it.)

So the fact that some author has managed to create some movement neither surprises nor scares me. I understand humans enough to know that such things happen — and that when they do, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Movements come and movements go. It’s not worth it for me to spend my time on any one of them in particular.

I saw that you’re interested in healing and shamanism, too. Then you’re such a seeking person that you’ve probably already heard about him.

Am I a seeking person? Yes and no. I’m seeking truth, yes, but I don’t believe that finding the ultimate truth is possible within a single lifetime (though it might be possible to get close), nor do I believe that I would be happy if I did find it (it’s entirely possible that the truth is depressing). In fact, I don’t even need to believe in anything; I used to be an atheist and I’d still be perfectly fine with it. (If I had still been convinced atheism is true, that is.)

Why would I seek, then? Perhaps because I see the alternative, to not seek, as worse. I see people who believe they’ve already figured everyone and everything out as toxic and damaging. And as for the people who aren’t even trying to figure things out, well, that’s just not for me. Not only was I born with the curiosity and capacity to learn about things, I find that I get depressed if I don’t. Learning new and interesting things is just one of the things that make me happy. And, as a bonus, knowing about things allow me to make a difference.

But being a seeking person does not mean I’m a naive person. I’m a natural skeptic and don’t settle for the first answer I find, even if it sounds good at first. I generally don’t believe anything with certainty until it’s been proven somehow (ideally using the scientific method). And unsurprisingly, I’ve encountered many false answers along the way (but also some true ones). I certainly don’t believe truth can be bought off a shelf. Inspirational thoughts, maybe. Something to believe, maybe. But not the truth about life. And I don’t need inspirational thoughts, and I don’t need something to believe. And I certainly don’t have much free time to waste on books that are of no use to me.

My interest in shamanism stems in part from the fact that it is, at least in principle, scientifically provable. It’s just that scientifically-minded Westerners who met shamanic cultures mostly worked under the prejudiced assumption that it didn’t work, and so only described it in a religious context, but never bothered to actually test it. In other words, Westerners implicitly assumed that tribal people that had survived for 100000s of years, were idiots. (Historic documents from, say, the Christian missionaries that tried to eradicate the Sami culture, on the other hand, strongly suggest that Sami shamanism did work, and spectacularly so. The Christians only won by employing shamanic techniques themselves.) One of the first Western scientists to actually test shamanism, Michael Harner, found out, to his surprise, that it does work, and so he ended up becoming a shaman himself. So, there’s at least a potential for objective truth to be found there. If there hadn’t been, I probably wouldn’t have been interested.

So, don’t waste your time trying to recommend your spiritual books or videos to me just because you think I sound like “the type” or something. They’re not for me.