The Suspension Bridge of Belief

“What Must I Do to Be Saved? It is impossible to ask a more weighty Question! It is deplorable that we hear it asked with no more Frequency, with nor more Agony.”
Cotton Mather


The Suspension Bridge of Belief

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834) was a smart guy. He came up with the catchy phrase “willing suspension of disbelief”. Every high school Theater teacher since then has been using it in their classrooms. It explains that the audience in the theater knows that it is Bob from church standing in front of a painted canvas but is willing to set that obvious thing aside to enjoy Bob playing Benjamin Franklin. Hopefully no one yells “go Bob” during the show.

This is not a big step for anyone, including you and me. We do it all of the time in everyday situations and, I’d argue, that we have a tendency to do so.

Let’s take mathematics. Math does not appear in nature, it is a human design that is layered on top of the world like a template to help us make sense of a massive amount of information. We have all heard “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” but we are willing to accept that 2+2=4. And because we are willing to accept mathematics, even though the basis is obviously wrong, we can design huge equations that help us to understand and predict what will happen in the world and universe.

We know that math is not magic. We can not shout “E=MC SQUARED!” and expect anything to happen. At best, it is only close; a new math in fifty years will get closer but it is never really real. We are willing to suspend our disbelief to follow down this path to see what results might happen. It is not truth or fact or real.

What is astonishing is that each of us audience members get something different from the experience than any other audience member. I could sit in the same pew with you, in church, side-by-side for forty years and we would have different views of what God means to us. I could grow up as your brother and have a very different idea of what is “home” or “family” and we are in the same house; imagine someone living two blocks down or across the world in Spain or Brazil.

Any abstract idea that we consider is what makes us human. Humans alone can think of money and God and debt and magic and genealogy and so on. Aristotle dealt with this a long time ago, how can we see twenty different chairs but we all know that it is “chair”? He had some idea of the perfect chair out in the ether that we all somehow knew as chair or chairiness.

Back to the math guys, some think that we change the universe by observing it! That, somehow, we impose our own reality and, in the abstract, I can kind of believe that because I can walk through a parking lot and see friendly people but you might see child snatchers and robbers as we walk side by side.

So, how do we know what is real? The Sufi master would punch me in the nose and say THAT is real! And the shock would bring me back to earth, I suppose, so as to not drift off on such goofy ideas.

I realize that my view of the world is different than yours and that yours is different than your Aunt Louise and hers is different than her employer. We willingly suspend our disbelief with each other’s reality to accept a false yet shared version so that we can agree to be together for a goal or for company. That is the human capacity for a civilization; about as abstract an idea that you can imagine.

And, finally, we do believe what we are seeing. I believe that Cotton Mather really did see demons and witches and cows dancing in the moonlight. He saw that and wrote it down! The miracles of Jesus really did happen. They sound fantastic now but at the time is was real and solid — so it happened. How could I not believe when someone tells me that they saw an alien and a spaceship? Or that my country is in a Depression even though I feel great.

It is a human super power to explore the abstract and to layer those ideas on top of the world. There is too much going on to not do this and I still can’t make sense of any of it.

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