Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Parable of the Spaceship

Imagine that you abruptly wake up to find yourself on an enormous spaceship. Earth appears through one of the viewports as a diminishing globe—only less blue than it looks in the photos you’ve seen, as if you’re looking at it through a brownish film. You have no idea how you got here. You begin to explore, opening doors at random. You find a kitchen, an exercise room, several bedrooms, and other rooms with strange equipment. Some doors are locked.

As you explore, you begin to meet others who, like yourself, have no memory of how they got here. The first people you meet are a middle-aged woman named Jane, who reminds you of your favorite aunt, and a young man named Paul. Together you follow the sound of voices to what looks almost like a classroom. A dozen people have gathered there. You join them. More people trickle in, until your numbers swell to about fifty.

Eventually, several groups of intrepid explorers head off to see if they can learn more. Your own explorations are interrupted by a scream. Following the sound, you find a smashed-in door leading to a deep shaft. At the bottom is Paul, his neck obviously broken.

Having no way to reach him, you gather in the classroom with others who were close enough to hear the scream, and you await the return of the rest. After a time, one of them—whom you’ve learned is a college student named Joe—returns. He says he’s done a complete circuit of every level and found nobody else, certain nothing like a crew. “If there are space aliens flying this thing, they’re hiding behind the locked doors.”

But then, a few minutes later, Jane returns, full of excitement. “I’ve met them!” she announces. People gather around. “Well, I didn’t actually see them. It’s like they exist in another dimension. But they were able to…talk to me…sort of. What they did was make pictures in my head. From what I could gather, there’s been some kind of catastrophe. A nuclear war, maybe. I think the aliens were studying Earth when it happened and decided to save as many of us as they could. There are dozens of ships, and they…beamed us up. I guess the process is disorienting. Wipes your short-term memory. Anyway, we’re being transported to a new home. They’ve used their technology to make the ship as comfortable as they could. But some doors are locked for our safety. We shouldn’t try to go in them.” Jane pauses and shrugs. “That’s it. And I’m not sure I got it all right. It was weird, all these pictures in my head.”

Her story elicits considerable heated discussion. Jane is shocked to hear about Paul’s fate, but takes it as evidence that her visions were honest. Someone points out that her experience sounds suspiciously like hallucinating. Someone else asks if she’s ever taken LSD, which elicits a few chuckles. Jane looks away, turning red, but doesn’t answer.

More explorers return without much to report. And then a frazzled young man, Chris, stumbles in. His story is similar to Jane’s, but with important differences. “They were getting in my head, man. Putting pictures there. Forcing me to see stuff I didn’t want to see. It’s like, I saw explosions, all over the planet. And then their ships were swooping down and suckin’ people up with beams of light. They destroyed the planet, man. Alien invasion! And now they’ve snagged a few of us and they’re taking us to some other place. We’re gonna be zoo exhibits.”

Jane shakes her head. “No, no. You’ve misunderstood.”

“This is nuts,” says Steve, a chemistry professor. “Space aliens? I doubt it. This is some kind of experiment. Someone perfectly human has built this thing to test our psychological reactions or something. These…visions…are probably some sort of post-hypnotic suggestion.”

As hours stretch into days, people stake out bedrooms and establish routines. Steve leads a cadre of “investigators” in a systematic exploration of the ship. They map and describe it, and eventually call a meeting where they report their discoveries. One significant discovery is a room where they can regulate the ship’s temperature, humidity, and light levels. They also note that some of the unlocked rooms contain dangerous machines. “Joe nearly got electrocuted,” Steve explains. “And the nearest kitchen is running low on food. We’re gonna need to find some other food source pretty soon.”

“But what does it mean?” you ask. “Why are we here? Are we zoo specimens taken by hostile aliens, or refugees rescued by friendly ones? Or lab rats in some experiment?”

Joe shrugs. “Who knows? All we can do is describe what this place is like. If you want to know what it all means, ask the mystics over there.” He points to Jane and Chris.

“The mystics are idiots,” Steve snaps. “If we’re gonna survive we need to figure this out.”

“Maybe we can’t,” says Jane.

“Yes, we can. There’s a perfectly…human explanation for all this. We just need more information. We need to break down those locked doors.’”

“No way, man!” Chris rises to his feet, looking fierce.

“Chris is right,” says Jane. “They’re locked for our safety.”

“So says mystic Jane.”

“But remember what happened the first day. That young man who broke his neck.”

“Paul was a reckless idiot. We’ll be careful. We’ve got to figure out what’s going on.”

“I’ve told you what’s going on. They talked to me.”

“Convenient that they only talked to you.”

“Chris, too. Maybe only some minds are receptive.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “Let’s suppose they did communicate with you. Some kind of woo-woo ESP. Why should we trust them? They sucked us from our homes.”

“To save our lives.”

“So says mystic Jane. Mystic Chris has a different interpretation, as I recall.”

“If we need more information,” Jane says, “let’s try to communicate with them again. I was in that room with all the pillows—the meditation room—when they first contacted me. Let’s go back there, try talking to them.”

“A waste of time,” Steve huffs. “If they exist at all, they obviously can’t or won’t do more than put pictures in the heads of a couple of screwballs.”

Jane sighs in frustration. “It’s hard to understand them, but I think they exhausted their ability to affect our dimension when they altered the ship to make it suitable for us. But that doesn’t mean they’re not helping. They can still get the ship to its destination. The drive systems operate in both their dimension and ours.”

“How convenient.” Joe shakes his head. “If you’re right, they might as well not exist as far as life on this ship is concerned. If we’re going to deal with that, we need to help ourselves. Let’s figure out how the ship works, what the dangers are, how to control them. I’m with Steve. We gotta start breaking down doors.”

“They’ll kill us, man,” Chris says. “Just like they took out Paul. You start going where they don’t want us to go, they’ll get mad. They’ll blast us. Not just you. These bastards are nasty. They’ll take it out on all of us.”

“Yeah, right,” says Steve.

“I’m serious, man. We gotta keep these buggers happy. We’re in their power. You start opening doors, I’m gonna have to stop you, man.”

“Just try it.” Steve looks around the room. “Who’s with me?” he says again.

And now, finally, the moment is here. You have to decide what to do. Do you join Steve and start breaking down doors? Do you join Jane in the meditation room? Do you join Chris in trying to stop Steve? Do you decide to ignore all of them and head to the kitchen for some soup?

Let’s suppose you like Jane. She seems a decent person, and her story of what is happening is certainly more attractive than Chris’s. If she’s right, then going to the meditation room with her might uncover some new insight. And so you decide to go, in the hope that her story is on the right track, that there are benevolent aliens guiding the ship, aliens you can trust.

Suppose you go with Jane. Suppose that while you’re sitting in the meditation room, silently asking for the aliens to speak to you, you experience a momentary glimmer of something. It feels like someone is there, except that you can’t see or hear anything. Jane, meanwhile, is ecstatic. “They’re talking!” she says. “They’re worried about Steve and Chris. They don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

The feeling you have might just be the power of suggestion. Jane might be hallucinating. For all you know, Steve might be right about things, or Chris. There’s no evidence that clearly speaks one way or the other. But you’ve sensed something. You trusted Jane enough to follow her to the meditation room, and it produced what felt like contact with someone. You could shrug and walk away. Go get soup. Maybe Jane’s delusion is just rubbing off on you. But you hope otherwise.

You turn to Jane. “What’s it like? Talking to them?”

“Wonderful,” she says. “They want to know us, to be our friends. And it makes it so much better, knowing they’re there and mean us well. You know? It’s all so frightening, otherwise.” She sighs. “Do you hear them at all?”

“I thought, maybe, a little.”

She smiles. “It’s a start. Keep listening for them. In the meantime, just know you can trust them.”

Let’s suppose you do just as she says. Suppose that you orient your life aboard ship in terms of Jane’s teachings, in the hope that she’s right. You decide, out of hope, to live as if her teachings are true. But since her teachings are about benevolent aliens who are looking out for the denizens of the ship, orienting your life in terms of those teachings means trusting the aliens Jane says are there.

And this means rejecting Chris’ claims about nasty aliens that need to be appeased on pain of retaliation. While it doesn’t mean blocking Steve and his group from finding out what they can about the ship, and while it certainly doesn't mean rejecting their findings, it might mean taking seriously the idea that the locked doors are locked for a good reason. But mostly, it means two things: continuing the practice of listening for their voices in the hope that a relationship with them will be possible, and finding some comfort in the promise that the ship is taking you, in the end, to a safe harbor.

And here is the question: Could a morally decent, reasonable person follow this path? If you apply the reasoning of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris to this parable, the answer would seem to be no. After all, Jane is training people to believe beyond the evidence, and therefore priming them to become followers of Chris and his extremism. Right?

Or have Dawkins and Harris missed something important?


  1. You make some excellent points, Dr. Reitan. The only "problem" (so to speak) is it seems Chris has gathered a multitude of followers, whereas Jane only has few. Beyond that, Chris has begun to decree everyone should live in accordance to HIS vision, and live as though he were correct. To do otherwise is of course not merely incorrect, but even dangerous, after all you don't want to upset the aliens do you? .
    You of course make mention of this in the parable (Chris' fury and threat to stop Steve), but I merely wanted to emphasize the point in an effort to explain the perhaps over-zealous anger of Dawkins and the "new atheists." While they are probably wrong to condemn all religion, nonetheless, their condemnation of over zealous religious fundamentalism is practically a necessity. Perhaps their arguments are straw men, but Fred Phelps is no straw man, nor is the Ayatollah Khomeini and both such figures need to be properly addressed. Granted, atheists probably aren't the best to do so because they (we) have a propensity to lump all of religion into one category, and perhaps we go too far by saying ALL religion is irrational, but nonetheless can you blame us for doing so when such figures are incredibly prominent in our culture and so adamant about coercing everyone into agreeing with them?
    Of course, it is also necessary to expose their (both the religious fundamentalists and the angry atheists) errors, and I must admit, you do so quite well. It's rather refreshing to hear religion articulated in way which isn't kin to nails scraping across a blackboard as is (sadly) often the case.
    My sister often calls me ranting about how ignorant and intolerant catholics (and most Christians) are, and I often point her towards religious folk such as yourself to redeem her view of the religious realm and remind her not all religious people are intolerant and unable to articulate or explicate their religious views, just the ones whom you work with.

    Keep up the good work.


  2. Tim,

    Your comments are right on the mark. "Chris" in the parable is intended to represent the species of religion that Plutarch refers to as "superstition." It is the species of religion that is the proper target, I think, of the new atheist critique. And this fear-driven kind of religion is certainly common enough to warrant attention. No straw man there. If the new atheists are guilty of a fallacy, it isn't the straw man fallacy, but rather some kind of overgeneralization fallacy.