Evidence of the Invisible

Why believers in invisible things aren't awestruck by your oh-so-rational arguments

A unicorn.

Another late night debate over coffee with two of my friends. You know the kind, where friends discover that they see the fundamentals of the universe in completely different ways.

This particular time, it's about The Secret. The Secret has been thoroughly debunked by people smarter than me, so I won't go into all that.

What's more important is when the debate got personal.

One idea in The Secret is that there's a kind of energy or force that binds people's thoughts to the universe. I was trying to get at what exactly this energy is supposed to be made of. It is, of course, intangible and invisible. I bring up the point that it is no different than saying there is an invisible unicorn beside me. No one would take me seriously if I said that, so what gives this "energy" any more credibility?

At that point, one of my friends tells me that there's "no need to be a dick about it."

Huh? She found the unicorn reference offensive?

From my point of view, I was merely using a fairly standard metaphor used in philosophical debates, specifically a variant of the old Russell's Teapot argument. I could have just as easily used the Flying Spaghetti Monster instead. I happened to go with a unicorn because I had recently seen mention of The Invisible Pink Unicorn somewhere on the web.

Still, regardless of whether I said unicorn, teapot, or spaghetti, I was puzzled as to why anyone would be bothered by what I thought was simply a metaphor to explain a point. Perhaps it's overly intellectual and somewhat coldly rational, sure. I've often seen people tune out when they think the debate has become too academic. But cause for being upset, as if I had made insulted her? Where did that come from?

It's a standard tactic, among those who would self identify as sceptics, humanists, or atheists, to try to build analogies in order to place the believer in the position of using their own powers of reasoning to disprove something hypothetical. Once the believer has gone through the act of discovering for themselves the fault with some idea, the non-believer then sweeps the curtain of analogy aside, and says "Aha! The same reasons you used to see the flaw in my metaphor can be used to knock down your belief! Gotcha!"

I'm sure everyone who has tried that kind of argument has found themselves disappointed that, after having made the connection between their invisible straw man and whatever mystical concept they are arguing against, the person they are talking to doesn't immediately have their precious belief disappear in a puff of logic. Instead, the believer goes right on believing what they believe, quite confident that the absence of invisible unicorns in the room is no evidence that what they believe is lacking in reasonability.

The gulf between believer and non-believer here widens to the point of irreconcilability. The believer now thinks that the non-believer does not have the cognitive ability to make rational connections between analogies and what they represent. In its ugliest form, the non-believer dismisses the believer as too stupid to construct a dialogue with. What's the point in getting into a rational debate with someone who can't be rational?

But it's the non-believer who has made the mistake. The fault is not in the rationality of their argument, but in how and why they thought it would succeed. They made a critical presumption about the reasons why the believer dismissed the unicorn, the teapot, and the spaghetti, which is that the believer did it for the same reasons the non-believer did. Worse, the non-believer assumed that the inability to dismiss the unicorn the room was based on an overly emotional, non-rational, desire to cling to their beliefs despite any counter argument.

A non-believer will dismiss anything that does not have observable evidence as either not existing, or at least being entirely useless. There may be an invisible unicorn beside me, but if it literally can not affect my life in any way shape or form, then who cares? The universe could be jam packed full of invisible teapots, unicorns, and spaghetti, but without any way to interact with them, then it is not worth spending one moment contemplating their form or purpose. It's certainly not worth basing morality, future plans, or religions on.

When we say "observable evidence," the scientific minded are referring to the five senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Putting aside the extremely far reaching Cartesian arguments about whether or not the whole of our experience of reality is a lie, it's been a useful tool to look to these senses to determine what defines "objective" qualities.

But where does love fit in that? It is undeniable from personal experience that love is something I feel inside of me, and often it is inspired by and interacts with the world outside of my head. But you can't point to any one particular stimulus or tangible entity that causes it.

People who are fans of psychology might object to the idea that love is a single experience. When someone I'm in love with me gives me a kiss, maybe it's more accurate to say that what I feel is happy, and that happiness is the actual experience, it just happens to be within the social, psychological, and physiological conditions that come together commonly enough that we can cover them with the umbrella term, love. That distinction is important if we really wanted to understand love, because we can feel and experience many things when in love, such as comfort, lust, and sadness, depending on the particular situation in the context of love.

But that's a bit too low level for what we are getting at, which is that whatever love is, it is. For most people, the motivations and experiences that come with love, however we break it down or build it up, are real enough to be experienced. You don't have to have any background in psychology to know that getting a rose from someone you love is experientially different from getting a rose from someone you don't.

The non-believer says that in order for something to be real, it has to be experienced. The believer agrees. Where they disagree on is what it means to experience something. If a loved one dies, we experience sadness. If a total stranger dies, I feel nothing, or at least nothing like the sadness over the loss of someone I know and like. It is not because of any of my five senses that I differentiate between a stranger dying and a friend dying. It is something that I feel inside, but yet triggered by and connected to the context of the world outside of me.

When I casually wave my hand at the empty seat beside me, pointing to the unicorn that is not there, everyone in the room knows it's not there because they didn't experience it. But while I'm sure it isn't there because no light bounced off of it and went to my retina, the believers know it's not there because it had not touched their lives. Which, in the context of experiences like love and sadness, is a perfectly valid expectation of what it means to experience something.

All over the world, people experience internal sensations that they feel connects them to the reality outside their heads, based on the entirety of a context, not specific sensory input.

Take, for example, one anecdote that came up in that late night coffee fuelled debate about the nature of the universe. There is a person in a coma, and a friend of the coma victim. The friend, for a variety of reasons, can't come to the hospital to visit. For a long time, the person in the coma hangs on without any ability to interact with the world. Finally, after weeks or months, the friend comes to visit. That night, the person in the coma passes away. The agreed consensus among those who knew them was that person in the coma had been waiting for a final goodbye from the close friend, and when he got it, he had the closure he needed to finally pass away.

If you are the type to take up a rational debate, then you already know all the arguments against finding anything spiritual in this situation. What about all the times all over the world when somebody didn't get back in time to see a terminally ill loved one before they died? What about all the times when the long lost friend finally showed up to visit, and the person in the hospital went on in the same state for ages afterwards? Humans, and that includes all the rational sceptics, are notoriously bad about accounting for things that didn't happen. It takes a very deliberate effort to place extraordinary circumstances into a larger context that exposes the odds of strange things happening to at least somebody, at some time.

Or, if probabilities and statistics aren't your style, you could take the tack that there is no need for any special energy in the universe to explain that interaction. Yes, the person in the coma was exhibiting no ability to interact with the world, but any doctor will tell you that the human body is way too complicated to be absolutely certain about what can and can't be percieved by a person in a general state of unconsciousness. And we do know that psychological factors like stress levels and a will to live can impact a person's health. Maybe the person in the coma was hoping for a certain closure and hanging on. But that is well within the bounds of non-mystical physiological qualities that humans have, no need for invisible energies.

There are other ways this whole situation could be broken down into rational explanations that would satisfy any scientist. But they would all miss the point entirely. When my friend, who was a friend of the people in the coma patient situation, saw it transpire, she felt something.

What, exactly, did she feel though? We can look at component aspects, like the love she felt for all the people involved, surprise over the timing of the death, sadness over the loss of someone loved. I would contend, though, that to break down all the component parts misses the point as much as it would miss the point to look at love as simply a sum of interactions like kisses, exchanging flowers, and wistful glances. My friend's response is to the entirety of the situation.

Humans have been coming up with words and explanations for the feelings that happen between individuals for as long as we've had language. We use the word "love" to describe a relationship between people that can vary a lot in specific situations, but we have enough consensus on what love is to make the word useful.

But we have no word for the interaction between a person and a context. Unless, of course, one is given to mystical or religious beliefs. Then that relationship can be labelled with all sorts of terms. It's the will of some god, the energy in the universe, the forces we can't explain. It's an awe at the workings of the universe, a suspicion that there are connections within all the randomness, an impression that events matter.

We live in a world far more complicated than the ones our minds are built for. Circumstances of modern living create contexts that refine the categories of our feelings into nuanced variations and previously unexperienced combinations. When a person who is a believer in mystical things experiences something they feel validates their spiritual outlook, it's not an irrational supposition that there is cause. They do, in fact, experience something. The problem is only in automatically assuming that the experience is evidence for something necessarily external.

The debate over the cause and meaning of that internal feeling would take us back out into the wilderness of debate. The semantics alone might do your head in. The point is that I can now see why my friend got a little annoyed with me for suggesting there was a pink unicorn in the room. Equating their beliefs with obviously fictional parallels is the same as if she had told me that the passion I feel for someone I'm in love with is of no more substance than having an imaginary friend.

There is no comparison between an invisible unicorn and "the energy in the universe," because, in the mind of the person who believes spiritual energy, they have directly experienced that energy, and they have not experienced the unicorn. There was no unicorn or anything like it in the room when my friend watched a loved one pass away from a coma into death.

Any variation of Russell's Teapot fails to convince because it is telling the believer they should only believe in things they can experience. To which, they answer, "yes, of course," because they do, in fact, experience the things they believe in.