City City Bang Bang, Columns

Choosing not to disbelieve

This was what my Sunday forecast for the week had to say about how to forestall some predicted health problems-“throwing sweet sugar revadis in flowing river water and burying blue flowers in a deserted place or field just a few minutes before sunset will ensure relief from adverse influences. If your spouse is also unwell, you could donate a brown cow or feed jaggery mixed with wheat every Sunday”. Now it is unlikely that one-twelfth of mankind has hunted down sweet sugar revadis or handed over brown cows to some deserving parties in the last seven days, and it is extremely likely that they continue to be in the pink of health , but the fact remains that much as I sneer at the somewhat unconventional prescription, i did read my forecast and do so pretty much every week as do a large number of readers of newspapers in the world.

This curious combination of outright disbelief that borders on the contemptuous and the hey-you-never-know accommodation is a common characteristic of our times. Nothing illustrates this better than our (now mercifully fading) obsession with Paul the Octopus (capitalised ala Catherine the Great & Conan the Barbarian) and his uncanny predictions of football results. Now there is no satisfactory explanation of his extraordinary run of accurate predictions, except a tepid-sounding recourse to the laws of probability which allow for all improbable events by labelling them as such. And even by standards of new age mysticism, where we are able to make the most extraordinary connections and accept them as logical, the ability of an octopus to tell us about who will win a game of football is eye-popping in its strangeness. Why not baseball? Why an octopus and not a tiger shark? Why of all places in the world, did Paul have to come from the Germany? Serious questions, all of these.

The dominant response to the phenomenon of a prophecy spewing mollusc has been one of amused interest. We find his uncanny run of correct predictions entertaining rather than aggravating. For most of us, Paul the Octopus belongs to an ever increasing space in our lives- a terrain that lies suspended between truth and fiction, acceptance and rejection, knowledge and faith. We choose neither to believe nor actively challenge, but make room for the possibility without feeling an overriding need for explanations. Of course, there are also more passionate believers on both sides- rationalists who fulminate at the absurdity of believing in octopi with foresight or brown cows with healing powers and the believers who see this as proof that so much lies beyond the pale of scientific understanding that such apparently absurd connections are inevitable. To this group, Paul merely proves that science knows very little.

And Paul is not alone. In a world otherwise dominated by technology and the goodies brought to us by science, we find it very easy to believe in a large number of phenomena that lie outside the pale of conventional science. Reiki, magnet therapy, aromatherapy, vaastushastra, numerology are part of a growing tribe of alternative ways of controlling the immediate world we inhabit. We do not for most part see the conflict between believing in getting the vastu checked out in a new house that we buy while continuing to otherwise in all things scientific. If anything, there is a growing fascination for the ‘alternative’ and an easy acceptance of possibilities that science emphatically rules out.

At its heart, we are able to detach action from belief. We don’t need to believe in something in order to act by its rules. Why not give reiki a shot, even though one may not really believe in or understand its precepts? Increasing our interest lies in the outcome, and the process is seen to be a technical detail of interest only to the practitioner of the craft. Science becomes craft, belief becomes expectation, and outcomes become products one can shop for. Like in the case of a product or technology where we don’t need to get into the innards of what makes things work, equally in the case of new age prescriptions, we have little interest in the principles that lie within each discipline. We adopt a cut-paste view of reality where we seek to transfer good outcomes to our personal contexts. We implicitly embrace a position of disembodied empiricism, a belief in the ‘he wore this ring on the index finger and his business flourished and who am I to know better’ school of causality which looks upon events only through a lens of personal needs. The overriding interest is in oneself, not in the means adopted. So if conventional medicine fails, let us try something else, and if that too gives up, there’s always a ring one can wear and a cow one can appease.

Sandwiched between an overwhelming regard for oneself and an inability to control one’s circumstances with the precision one seeks, we are looking for newer technologies of the self. New age beliefs may or may not be science but they certainly in technologies in that they seek to manipulate the world around us in order to give us outcomes we desire. And if that means suspending disbelief about astrologically enabled aquatic animals, so be it.

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