Now, if someone tells us they have witnessed an apparently paranormal phenomenon, the situation is similar. We know their testimony could have originated from either an objective fact about the world that was genuinely paranormal or from a propensity on the observer’s part to make up a story. That is, it could have come from, as it were, either the “Objective Fact bag”, OF, or from the “Human Invention” bag, HI. In many cases we do not actually know which. We know however that the probability of finding a paranormal phenomenon in bag OF is very low indeed: otherwise the phenomena would not be considered paranormal — indeed, years have gone by and the chances are that we ourselves have seldom if ever come across clear examples of paranormal phenomena in our own experience. We also know that the probability of finding such a phenomena in bag HI is relatively high: otherwise human observers would have to be paragons of honesty and reliability, which we know they are not — indeed, every day of the week we have come across examples of people lying, exaggerating, misperceiving, misremembering, saying things for effect, and so on, and no doubt we have done it ourselves on some occasion. Hence, Hume argued, when we are required to choose one or the other hypothesis about where the testimony has come from, we ought always to assume bag HI.It is true, Hume acknowledged, that in some circumstances we might be very unwilling to draw this conclusion. We might find it hard to believe that this person in this case could be capable of such invention. But even when the person involved is a close friend or even ourself, our understandable astonishment at this evidence for human folly ought to be much less than our astonishment at what would otherwise be evidence for natural laws being overturned.
I had cause to think of this passage recently when I heard that a guy I used to work with, a buddy of mine, had gotten a column at one of the local alt-weeklies — the one that happens to be full-on, unfiltered, Age of Aquarius-style lunacy, everything from Alien Abductions to Zodiac Signs. Put it this way: on the page opposite his column, there was a discussion of a couple books written by women who claim to be having regular conversations with Jesus His Own Self, à la Neale Donald Walsch. Fetch me my GOT-damn hip waders, Maw, it’s gonna get deep in here.
So, yeah, I picked up a copy out of camaraderie and read about the powerful mystical experience that put him on his current path of self-exploration. It was replete with all the usual SNR clichés, of course, but there were a couple unusual bits, too. For one, he claims to occasionally hear a disembodied voice calling his name. I don’t recall him saying whether or not The Voice (he capitalizes it like that) actually speaks in sentences to him, but he apparently takes guidance from it. This truly makes me worry about him a bit.
Anyway, his story followed a typical arc to a mid-life crisis, where he found himself divorced and despondent, enough so that, in desperation, he asked the universe for a sign of where to go and what to do next. His “answer” came in the form of a series of mundane coincidences, culminating in a Road-to-Damascus moment in traffic, where he took a “No Fear” license plate frame as an inspirational message from the Universe. Yes, the hillbilly who bought that frame at AutoZone because he thought it would look cool on his jacked-up 4×4, right next to the TruckNutz and the naked lady mud flaps, was actually an emissary from Beyond unwittingly delivering a spiritual pep talk. Since then, his journey of growth has proceeded apace, with people entering his life at just the right time to fulfill their role in his self-discovery, and everything happening for a reason.
I can’t help but be a little mocking in my tone, because the predictability of the script and the narcissistic absorption are just too silly. But I do think of him as a friend and a good guy, so what I really feel most of all is a little sad at yet another example of how easily people project their own power “out there”, rather than own up to it directly. It’s obvious that he wanted to receive an uplifting message specifically like that even as he professed to be open to anything; a goofy brand logo just happened to be the first thing he saw that could plausibly fit the bill. He probably saw dozens of other things that day that could have just as easily been interpreted as a divine message had he been so inclined, but he automatically filtered them out of his consciousness because they didn’t tell him what he wanted to hear. What if, after asking for a sign, you picked up a newspaper and saw a story about a man who jumped off a bridge? How many people would shrug and accept that the Universe obviously wanted them to hurry up and kill themselves already? What if he had seen a car with a bumper sticker that read, “I’m Not Gay But My Girlfriend Is”? Would that be a sign to go get a sex change and become a lesbian? The possibilities are endless when you’re really open and creative. Try it and see! Make a game of it if you’re bored one day — ask for a sign, and then try to interpret the first significant thing you hear or see as a message. You’ll be surprised at what the Universe wants you to do!
He knew all along what he wanted to do and how to go about it, but he didn’t have the courage to admit it, so he had to go through this convoluted process of pretending to submit to some greater wisdom from another source. Horoscopes, tarot cards, palm readers, gurus, etc. all “work” on the same principle — telling you what you already know.