Divine delusions (or, why I prefer observable reality)

The other day, I came across a photo of an Egyptian pyramid. The camera had been pointed in the general direction of the sun, and what  appeared to be a beam of purple light streamed across the top of the monument toward the viewer.

Almost everyone recognizes this phenomenon as lens flare (an artifact of man-made optics that is especially prevalent in cheap, uncoated lenses), but to the person who posted it to Facebook without a hint of irony, it was a supernatural sign. She saw it as evidence that the “goddess era has arrived,” which apparently meant, if I followed her reasoning, that a surfeit of male energy was being rebalanced in favor of a kinder, gentler, female energy. She had been praying for this outcome for a long time, and concluded happily that “The violet ray in this picture is confirmation that our work is happening with ease and grace.”

I wish I could share the photo and the exact comment with you, but it has since been pulled from Facebook. However, here is a similar effect, and a comparable assertion about what it means, courtesy of a self-professed new-age “healer” by the name of Margaret Ruby.

(On a side note, I have a pretty unimpressive five-year-old Canon point-and-shoot whose video mode gives me that same purple streak every time I point it anywhere near a light source.)

Anyway, when I made some throwaway comment about the irrationality of it all, a colleague of mine, a smart guy with Buddhist leanings — let’s call him Dharma Dwayne — took issue, arguing that reality is what we make it.

For her [the Facebook poster] it’s a sign that the goddess era or whatever has arrived. Who’s going to prove she’s wrong? If you look at historical fact, women are coming into more power and rights than perhaps ever before in history. … Just because we can so easily explain the mystery out of life with a simple utterance of “lens flare” doesn’t mean it’s not still miraculous. We tend to see phenomena and respond with only our rational mind, and in turn we sometimes end up neutering reality. A scientific and rational way of seeing is really not the only valid way. It was Albert Einstein who said, “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.”

That made little sense to me, and so I got ready to do battle.

“If we really are to give serious consideration to the viewpoint that purple artifacts in lens optics are a miracle,” I offered,  “then good luck and have fun, but you may count me out. Sorry, Albert Einstein: If everything is a miracle, nothing is a miracle. And if a ‘miracle’ such as this one vanishes as soon as you lower the lens by an inch, or as soon as you use a non-shitty lens with professional coating, it wasn’t much of a miracle to begin with, was it?”

Dharma Dwayne remained unconvinced. He fired back:

You see the purple beam as a lens flare phenomenon. However, if you look at the image symbolically, the pyramid can easily represent stability, power and more specifically masculine power. The pyramid represents balanced and properly proportioned and well functioning masculine power. Purple oftentimes is a symbol of royalty, as well as new age femininity, and also sometimes death. Light coming down in a ray from the sky is easily seen as symbolic of divinity, and some type of divine covenant and promise or connection to earth and humanity. Open space is symbolic of new beginnings, possibilities, etc.

If he’s saying that people constantly go around looking for confirmation of their views, however strange and irrational, I agree. If he’s saying that people have long ascribed divine meaning to perfectly ordinary (that is, explainable) natural phenomena, I agree with that too.

The Norse people believed that lightning bolts were hurled from the sky by an angry Thor (a belief that ultimately spilled over into Christianity by the way, as many pagan beliefs have). The Romans, according to St. Augustine, had a god of menstruation who ruled women’s periods. Well, how else would you explain the monthly visit to the Red Roof Inn?

Knowing what we do today, how much credence should we give such theories? Why should there be otherworldly meaning to everything we don’t quite understand (or choose not to understand)?

Dwayne says that “the pyramid can easily represent stability, power and more specifically masculine power.” Well, yes, I suppose it could. It could also “easily represent” the Christian Holy Trinity (maybe the ancient Egyptians were Jesus worshipers avant la lettre!). Or it could “easily represent” successive Pharaohs’ eccentric aversion to vertical lines. It could also “easily represent” Deepak Chopra’s sphincter (after all, God works in mysterious ways!). I don’t know for sure, but I doubt it!

My colleague went on:

But I do believe in the symbolic meaning of imagery, and that can easily have meaning to people with convictions, etc.

I said before that if everything is a miracle, nothing is a miracle. By the same token, if anything can be said to have special meaning, nothing is truly meaningful.

Look, I get symbolism, on some level. We all subscribe to it, more or less, because we are steeped in it. For instance, when people get married, they exchange rings — circle-shaped objects which, as we have collectively decided, stand for eternity (no beginning, no end). I’ve worn my wedding ring for more than 17 years now. That doesn’t mean I believe the love I feel for my wife can literally never end. And it doesn’t mean that I can’t see that hundreds of millions of people who at one time pledged each other their undying devotion have subsequently gotten divorced.

Reality sucks, because…it doesn’t care about our symbolism. Reality is. Our minds manufacture what it “means.”

Symbolism, then, is conceit. I don’t mind symbolism in the slightest, I’m only saying it doesn’t speak actual truths. Lens flare is not proof of divinity. Pieces of burnt toast do not carry messages from the Virgin Mary. Statues of Ganesh do not drink milk. Sorry.

Still Dharma Dwayne persisted.

So here’s perhaps how she making the connection between her beliefs and aspirations and this photo. This photo for her is a symbol of her convictions: To bring the masculine energy (which she perceives is out of whack) into balance with the feminine energy.

So far, so good, I guess. People can imbue anything with any meaning they choose. I have no problem with it; I wish them well. My motto is “live and let live” (which also means they mustn’t insist on foisting their delusions on others by hook or by crook).

But then he concluded:

So this image is a visual confirmation and symbol of her beliefs, and makes perfect sense.

I don’t see how he arrived there. At all. Unless he means that it makes perfect sense for some poor guy in an asylum to believe that he is Napoleon Bonaparte, or for the cat lady down the street to worship her scraggly charges as multiple reincarnations of Nefertiti. Yes, it makes sense to those two people, I’m sure. But almost everyone else easily recognizes the outsized fallacies involved.

There is no equivalence
between the unprovable views of Cat Lady and Fake Bonaparte on the one hand, and the provable ones of Richard Feynman, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and all the rest of science on the other. Scientists have flown us to the moon, and cured polio.

And here’s what else is cool about them: Scientists tend to be open to changing their minds based on what they observe (real science requires this); whereas faith — in Wodan, Ra, Vishnu, Jehovah, take your pick — is the opposite: the denial of observation.

Quoth the imcomparable Tim Minchin:

Life is full of mysteries,
but there are answers out there,
and they won’t be found, by people sitting around
looking serious, and saying ‘Isn’t life mysterious!

I’m not saying to have “faith” in nothing but science. Personally, I’m a skeptic with some Fortean proclivities, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s fair game to ask scientists “Are you certain about that? I’m not sure I believe you.”

I just find it wiser to place a higher level of trust in people who seek observable truths, and who aim for reproducible, peer-reviewed results, than in people who maintain they have a third eye, that s0-called prophets can part the sea, or that they can discern divine messages in the entrails of livestock.

Or, as Woody Allen once put it: “I hate reality, but it’s still the best place to get a good steak.”

About Rogier:
Rogier is a Dutch-born, New-England-dwelling multi-media maven (OK, a writer and photographer) whose dead-tree publishing credits include the New York Times, Wired, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Reason.
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