Tuesday, December 30, 2008

On Weird Theories

AUTHOR: Allen MacNeill

SOURCE: Original essay

COMMENTARY: That's up to you...

"... say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos."
- Walter Sobchak, The Big Lebowski (1998)

I had a next-door neighbor who worked for an aerospace company. One summer afternoon we were sitting beside his barbeque in his back yard, having one of those stream-of-consciousness conversations that often accompanies the guzzling of a six pack or two (his brand was Pabst Blue Ribbon™). I don't remember how the subject came up, but somewhere along the line I must have done what my wife calls "hitting the core-dump button." And he did; for the next couple of hours I listened in semi-horrified fascination as he expounded on his "theory" of reality. Basically, it was a weird variant on the "eagle and snake" mythology of the Aztecs, except that in his own weird theory the snake was the major icon. He went on and on about how the world (and time and everything else) was, at some much deeper level of reality, a snake. Ouroboros and the Midgard Serpent and Satan in the Garden of Eden and Freud's phallic symbols and the Caduceus and on and on and on...it was all tied together in a huge, complicated, and ultimately deranged web of relationships. It clearly was very meaningful to him; at times he seemed on the verge of tears. He showed me a medal of the Aztec eagle-and-snake image, which he wore around his neck at all times (even to bed and in the shower). He told me how it got him through some bad times in Vietnam, and later when he almost broke up with his wife. The emotional connections were so intense that he was shaking at times, and there was a catch in his voice.

This wasn't the first (or the last) time something like this has happened to me. Several times – on the bus or in the bus terminal, on a long car trip with a friend, at the airport, over lunch, at a picnic for work or a fraternal organization – someone hears or thinks of the word or phrase that "hits the core-dump button" and out it all comes. You sit there, in awe and trepidation, while the core-dumper gives you their entire "weird theory" of reality, all in one huge, steaming, highly charged, stream-of-consciousness pile. Sometimes it's clear that they have never articulated this before to anyone. Other times it's clear that they've been working on this particular monolog, maybe for years, and have already "gifted" others with a very similar version. Every time it's always intensely emotional for them, as the whole weird mess unspools and they search your face for some sign of recognition, of empathy, of understanding.

And, with me at least, they don't get that. I listen politely, trying not to look perplexed or horrified, waiting for the whole thing to come tumbling out, and hoping for something to then divert us – the burgers starting to burn or the bus arriving or the teller asking for my driver's license. I nod sometimes, and grunt in what I hope is a non-judgmental way, and quietly wish for someone or something to intervene before the core-dumper realizes that, not only to I not empathize, I think they're nuts.

Because they are, at some very deep level. Almost all of us are; completely whacked. What we almost all have, buried deep in our psyche, is what I call a "weird theory of reality," in which we believe passionately, and into which we shoehorn almost every perception we have about reality. Furthermore, it's clear to me that people have always had such "weird theories" about reality. Today it's alien abductions or UFOs, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis. Yesterday it was angels and demons, fairies, gnomes, trolls, heaven and Hell, transubstantiation, faith healing, walking on water, flying, and speaking in tongues. Tomorrow...well, I can't say for sure, but I am sure it will be something weird.

What makes modern "weird theories" different from those of the past is that today everyone has their own "weird theory". When people lived in small agricultural villages or even smaller hunter-gatherer groups, people had weird theories, but these were pretty similar within those groups. Heresy was difficult, if not virtually unthinkable, because everyone in a particular group was in constant verbal and emotional contact with virtually everyone else, and there was a strong incentive to conform to group norms of belief.

This pattern persisted into historic times with the establishment and enforcement of "state religions" - that is, weird theories of reality that had the force of political coercion behind them. People may have had personally idiosyncratic versions of the group's weird theory, but they generally kept these to themselves. These "group weird theories" (GWT) were the mythologies that held such groups together, that gave them a sense of shared experience and shared purpose, and that facilitated group coordination. This was often a good thing, but sometimes a bad thing: it made possible group coordination in agriculture and response to natural disasters, but also facilitated warfare and small-scale genocide.

What characterizes us now is that our weird theories are almost entirely idiosyncratic, especially in the First World. We have largely given up the large-scale group mythologies and religions of the past, and replaced them with what could be called "personal mythologies and religions". That Protestantism is the most influential religion in America today is precisely because it isn't a single religion: it's thousands, even millions of little idiosyncratic religions, with some shared similarities. Schism, right down to the individual level (and even within individuals at different times in our lives) is the norm, and so our weird theories are not only weird, they're mutually incomprehensible.

So, are the various sciences also "weird theories"? Anyone acquainted with the current state of quantum physics would almost certainly agree, as would most evolutionary biologists. But, it's not really the same, because although there are many weird theories in science, there is also an underlying agreement that is deeply "unweird" – the idea that empirical verification and logical inference is the basis for all of our weird theories.

Ultimately, the difference between non-scientific and scientific "weird theories" is that eventually the latter become generally accepted by the scientific community in the same way that the grand overarching religious weird theories of past centuries were. Yes, there are still schisms in science (think of the controversies surrounding punctuated equilibrium versus phyletic gradualism), but in the long run these schisms tend to heal themselves. Thomas Kuhn described this process well, but he also asserted (and most scientists would agree) that eventually the various scientific communities agree on their dominant paradigms. Science, in other words, tends to become more unified over time, as deep connections between the various weird theories stitch them together into "grand unified theories".

By contrast, the non-scientific "weird theories" schism and schism and schism, until they become the incomprehensible idiosyncratic messes that one taps into when one hits the "core-dump button". Indeed, one of my personal weird theories is that this is a good way to distinguish between useful (i.e. "true") and pointless (i.e. "false") weird theories: the former tend to unify your ideas with those of the other members of your community, whereas the latter tend to separate us to the point of mutual incomprehensibility.

Hence, the quote from The Big Lebowski: say what you say what you like about the tenets of (insert scientific discipline here), Dude, at least it's an ethos.


Shermer, M. (2002) Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. Holt, New York, NY, ISBN #0805070893 ($17.00, paperback), 384 pages. Available here.

Sowin, J. (2008) 25 reasons people believe weird things. Pseudoscience, Life, Science, Religion, 28 April 2008. Available online here.

As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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At 1/01/2009 05:25:00 PM, Blogger Spoony Quine said...

It's snakes all the way down!

At 1/02/2009 06:26:00 AM, Blogger Caspar Henderson said...

Might scientific study of the origins and evolution of morality (e.g. Frans de Waal, Richard Joyce, Marc Hauser etc) lead to a more grounded understanding of a common basis for human motivation and action, and thence to chastened but largely shared and still progressive global ethic (tieing the 'room' together, like Lebowski's rug)?

At 1/16/2009 05:15:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

At least, you are a good listener, which is a good and respectable quality. But at the end, is it 'good', 'bad', or none of the above? If now everybody has his own GWT, we can hope that there will be less religious wars in the absence of an organized core, and according to the evolution of the ideas, only the most rational of those GWT, science, will prevail. Yeah, I am being too optimistic now.


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