Suspension of Disbelief (SoD)

Spurred on by another thoughtful evening of conversation, 2 things popped into my head last night that have been major components in prior discussions, just without significant clarity. I write them, here, just to keep track. They are:

  • Agnostics and atheists seem to view SoD differently.
  • Agnostics and atheists seem to view knowledge vs. belief differently.

I’ll write about the SoD first and knowledge vs. belief later.

One of the prime drivers of my commitment to agnosticism, despite most of my acquaintances’ labeling of me as an atheist, is that I seem to have the ability to dive into others’ belief systems with relative ease. It’s just as easy for me to talk about mythical worlds as it is about, say, scientifically explored reality. And I don’t usually get them mixed up. I’m very aware of the boundaries of any particular fantasy world we may be exploring in any given conversation. For example, I have a fantastic time discussing things like the medical efficacy of acupuncture or glucosamine with those believers. I have fun discussing the Illuminati or the 10 rich and powerful men who rule the world. And I have just as much fun discussing Cthulhu and Yog as I do Yaweh or Zeus.

I can’t explain why I am capable of (and enjoy) adopting these fantasy worlds. I will admit that I played D&D as a kid. I even played some into adulthood. As kids, we spent a massive amount of time constructing fantasy worlds (some sci-fi, some ancient, some medieval, etc.) and teasing the imaginary details out of each others’ minds. We didn’t really obey the rules of the games. We just engaged in this kind of collaborative fiction. As an adult, I tried and failed to find like-minded players. Most of the people who continued to play into adulthood were more into the game of it, as opposed to collaborative fiction. Perhaps this childhood activity is where I honed my SoD skills.

I also spent way too much time reading sci-fi and fantasy novels. I read so much, my extended family used to make fun of me for it. Luckily, hard sci-fi lead me straight to speculative science and, from there, actual science and engineering.

In any case, I see my SoD (in one-off conversations with wackos or, even, entrepreneurs – or in long-term relationships with seriously deluded people) as a type of empathy. It’s one thing to have physical or emotional empathy, to put yourself in someone else’s immediate shoes… cry when others cry… make “ooomph” noises when you watch Jackass: The Movie, etc. But it’s an entirely different thing to temporarily believe the beliefs of another person.

Now, most atheists I talk to are quite capable of playing Devil’s Advocate, of adopting a set of assumptions, a hypothetical belief system, for a short time, to “play along” with another’s wacky ideas. And there is a subset of them, common amongst humanists, that really approach empathy while playing along. But, in the end, even the most sympathetic atheist will stop short of believing the belief system. These hypotheticals are firmly pigeon-holed as, demoted to, counterfactuals.

As an aside, I run into this sort of immovable commitment professionally, too. As a simulant, I am committed to an integrationist method(ology). Tools and techniques are chosen solely on the basis of whether and how well they will solve a particular problem, not based on prior familiarity with the tool/technique or any other bias. But I find the majority of my colleagues much prefer to limit the number of tools in their toolbox. My “agnosticism” toward tools/techniques seems undisciplined and ad-hoc to them.

To sum up, it seems to me that atheists make a clear distinction between SoD and temporary belief, much the same way as many of them argue that atheism is simply the lack of theism, rather than an anti-theism. But I don’t see that clear distinction. For me, the SoD implies temporary belief, a temporary adoption of the belief system. And that temporary belief is necessary to fully empathetic, active listening. You cannot understand another person’s perspective unless you actually take that perspective, honestly and authentically, if only for a short time.

Thus the way I think of SoD is core to my commitment to agnosticism. If you ask me what I believe, you’d better be ready to take notes on who’s nearby, where we are, what we’ve been talking about, and what I ate for breakfast, because if any of that changes, my beliefs will change … albeit usually in tiny imperceptible ways.

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