Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Flat earth reality

Do you want to believe?

Remember the poster in Fox Mulder's office at FBI headquarters? I don't, really, because I never used to watch The X-Files, but I am given to understand that it displayed the sentence “I want to believe.” That's nice. I prefer “I want to know,” even while I admit that “knowing” can be difficult to achieve. But within reason, you know. Reason.

The funny thing about Agent Scully's persistent skepticism as the X-files foil for Mulder's credulousness was that it made no sense. It was unreasonable. In the constructed universe of The X-Files, the evidence for aliens and conspiracies was all around them, so Mulder was the sensible partner and Scully was the wrong-headed one. Skepticism was reduced to a caricature in the fictional context, making it a feel-good experience for the true believers who often confused the television program with a documentary (“based on a true story”).

The question of context popped up for me again today when I saw Wiley's Non Sequitur in the morning newspaper.

What is Wiley's message? The Flat Earth gas station is on the brink of a precipice. Anyone who takes the route labeled for non-believers will go plummeting into oblivion, while the believers have a path to safety. But what does belief have to do with it? Anyone can saunter right up to the edge and easily verify that there is a cliff right there. Perhaps you can even see the back of great A'tuin, the cosmic turtle on whose back the whole world rests. Perhaps not. Maybe it's just a cliff and you can see a valley down below. Whatever. You're not likely to decide that it's a reasonable direction in which to drive.

I have a more faithful model of the distinction between believers and non-believers. Suppose you come up to a fork in the road, one branch labeled “believers” and the other labeled “non-believers.” Each branch goes into a darkened tunnel in a mountainside. The non-believer turns on his headlights so that he can see at least partway into the tunnel before driving in. The believer charges blithely into the darkness of the tunnel designated for believers because he has faith. Who needs headlights when guided by the light of faith!

Which driver are you?

Faith is not the point. Observation and reason will settle the question nicely. We don't need to “believe.”

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