I spent the next seven years studying, teaching and researching physics. It was an extremely active time in my life. I met a whole new group of people, and made friends from all over the globe. NMT is specifically a science and engineering university, and is not known as much of a party school. I was extremely diligent in my studies, and I took them very seriously. I could write several more chapters about my experiences in university, but since this Conversions and De-conversions series is specifically devoted to my spiritual journey, this chapter will be the last to cover those years. While I spent about eight chapters describing my few years of religious fervor in Calvary Chapel, I will only write briefly about the long period of time I spent in University. I did not forget about my Christianity entirely. In fact, toward the end of my University years, I sorely missed my religious experiences, and craved to find a decent church congregation again. But in the midst of my studies, I confess, Jesus had to take a back seat.
I learned firsthand how advances are generally made in scientific knowledge. There are revolutionary breakthroughs, but these are actually very rare. The accumulation of knowledge is typically a painfully slow process. I believe that the romantic days of brilliant mavericks like Albert Einstein, who single-handedly overturn scientific paradigms and open the doors to new ones, are pretty much over. These days, most scientific endeavors are the product of huge committees. Major papers are authored by several, if not dozens of collaborators. Formulating, researching, authoring and defending my masters thesis was a simple introduction to that process.
First, I found some anomalous data. Actually, my research advisor found it for me, and told me that it would be something good to spend the next couple of years working on. Without getting too specific into what this data involved, let’s just say that my advisor collected data from Star X for several years. Star X behaved uniformly during most of that time. Much interesting science was done on Star X because of those years of collected data, and its behavior was somewhat predictable. Then, for some unknown reason, Star X acted unexpectedly, strangely, for about a month. The data that was collected was anomalous. It did not act as expected. This is the point where scientists start licking their chops. Scientists love anomalous data. They love when things do not look as they expect. It means that more important work needs to be done. It sometimes means that something new lay out there, just waiting to be discovered. At the very least, it means more funding!
The process is pretty straightforward, although it is arduous and slow. First, I had to research a bit about Star X and other stars like it, and the known physics that they followed when they behaved normally. This meant lots of trips to the research library to read hundreds of peer-reviewed papers in research journals. This meant contacting other experts in the field from around the world, getting them interested in my work, and attempting get ideas and collaboration from them.
Then I would have to form a hypothesis. What could possibly cause Star X to act the strange way that it did? I would literally have to start with a guess, although a somewhat educated guess. After hashing it out with some of my friends and professors, I would weed out most guesses, and stick to one or two of the ones that seemed most likely. These became my hypotheses. Then I would have to flesh these hypotheses out. They involved some physics that I was not as well familiar with, so this led me to read books and papers slightly outside my field. I would have to then model them with mathematics, and analyze these models by programming them into a computer.
I am mentioning all this, because this is one of the main lessons that I learned while attending University, and even one of the biggest lessons that I learned to apply to the rest of my life. It is one of the lessons of critical inquiry that I was never taught before I attended University, that most of the people I knew are never taught, and a lesson that I am certain very few in Calvary Chapel ever knew how to apply. The lesson was not specifically one of scientific inquiry, although that is important. It was a lesson that my advisors and professors constantly applied to my research work, to each other, and one I finally learned to apply to my own work. That lesson is this:
The way to knowledge is not to find reasons why a given idea is true. The way to knowledge is to find reasons why the idea is not true.
That, in a nutshell, is my personal definition of critical inquiry. The method seems absurdly simple, yet it is often counter intuitive. Critical thinking is a skill that one must learn. Often, people get an idea; formulate a hypothesis about something, then cling to it as if they were afraid to betray it. But I discovered that reasons, justifications, even evidence, could be given for any idea. Giving rationale for any position is not difficult, and this is evidenced by the countless conspiracy theories that their adherents are able to justify. But gaining knowledge is not a process of propping up ideas then supporting them with any rationale. Rather, it is a process of propping up ideas, then whittling away the dead weight of the unsupportable until a core of the idea, if that core exists, is left which cannot be as easily discredited. Even then, this does not necessarily mean that the more solid idea that is left after critical investigation is true. It is just a closer approximation to what is probably true.
The process of my graduate research was my life-lesson in critical thinking. I had to present my research to graduate seminars, only to be questioned by suspicious peers. I had to revise my ideas, throw away the fluff, and try to support what was left, then present again to another group of professors. I once had my hopes crushed especially hard when I worked for a month on what looked to me like more amazing new data from Star X that nobody had seen before. I talked for half an hour during a graduate seminar, showing slide after slide of my results and mathematical models to explain those results. A simple question followed from one of the visiting astronomers. “Did you check the uncertainty in your pointing?” Ooops. One month of work down the drain, but a lesson in critical inquiry learned for a lifetime. I gave many seminar talks, and discussed several hypotheses and models to explain the strange behavior of Star X. Most of the questions that I got from my critical peers were those that attempted to knock holes in my arguments.
To the chagrin of all the Creationist pamphlets and propaganda that I read in Calvary Chapel, I learned that the scientific literature is full of ambiguity. I remember plenty of creationist sermons that laughed at the use of ambiguous language in scientific books, then pointed to the sure and solid foundational certainty of Scripture. But scientific theories are not dogmas to be defended at all costs. I had to get used to qualifiers like ‘probably”, “possibly” and “approximation”. My old dogmatic world of religious bedrock conviction was replaced by a nebulous world of vague uncertainty. Most of the scientific work did not result in solid, unquestioned answers, but in methodologies built on well-founded assumptions that led to slightly stronger hypotheses. So I also had to learn a couple of other valuable lessons in critical thinking and inquiry. I taught freshman math and physics for a couple of years, and in formulating and defending my hypotheses, I had to do what I told all my freshman students to do. I must define my terms. I must list and detail all my assumptions. And I must describe and follow my methodology. In other words, I had to show all of my work. Much to my disappointment, most freshmen students were taught to circle their answers in a set of homework problems. I told them that answers were important, but I was much more interested in how they got those answers. I often asked open-ended questions with no easy answers in order to force my students to list all their assumptions, and describe their own methodologies. I did not want to see a circled answer. I wanted to understand what they were thinking to get that answer. I believe that the critical thinker must hold methodology of even greater importance than answers.
Several years of university work taught me to think in this way, but I also learned that this thinking process is often not what comes naturally. Critical thinking is a skill that must be learned, practiced and willfully applied. It is not always easy. It is not innate or natural. Critical thinking is not the same as common sense; in fact it is in some ways the opposite of it. Critical thinking is typically destructive, not constructive. These were lessons that I learned in University, but I am still learning new lessons in critical thinking to this very day.
Critical thinking is a process that needs to be actively applied, and in the field of scientific inquiry, I did not meet a single person who did not understand this. But for most people including myself, critical thinking applied only to natural processes. It is a criterion that we knew well. We could not factor God or the Supernatural into any scientific theory, because these are unknowable variables. They are to be taken on Faith, so the scientific process must be one that must be atheistic. This is not to say that the practitioners and scientists are atheists, in fact I am certain that most of the scientists I knew were not. But their methodology cannot be one that includes any element of an unknowable Supernatural element. We cannot replace a variable with a miracle, simply because this would tell us nothing of the natural science. Likewise, science typically did not interfere with the religious or spiritual beliefs of my friends. Most of the people I knew were not the purely rational thinkers who did not believe in anything without sound reason and logic. No, my friends, all brilliant men and women, had fertile and imaginative beliefs outside of the laboratory.
I still clung to my Christian beliefs. I had grown weary of, what I considered to be, the dead and impersonal ritualism of the United Methodist Church across from Campus. I was certainly egalitarian, but I still never got comfortable with the female pastor who presided over that congregation. Plenty of students and faculty attended that church, but I soon migrated to a small Baptist church outside of town. I still never warmed up to that small congregation. I felt like I needed some form of familiar Christianity in my life, but any time I got too close I was reminded of why I left Calvary Chapel in the first place. I never could find a good balance on that high wire.
Outside of a few strictly rationalistic friends, everybody I knew had some form of supernatural belief. Plenty of folks believed in alien visitors from other worlds. Socorro, like nearby Roswell, had its own saucer crash legend, complete with impact crater. Somebody went through enormous effort to build some kind of UFO landing pad on a nearby mountain west of town. UFOs, and various beliefs of the inhabitants, were part of the culture in the desert southwest. I confess that my imagination got carried away with one related item that Chuck Missler introduced me to, and that dozens of people on campus were also swept up with. The infamous Face on Mars was a blurry photo taken of the surface of Mars by one of the Viking Orbiters in 1976. Chuck Missler, in his sermons, often compared it to the Great Pyramids or Stonehenge, marveled us with its fantastic mathematical properties, and terrified us with the implication that somebody had to have built it. But The Face on Mars was another lesson in critical thinking. The famous photo of that mysterious face on another planet was blurry. Pixelated. Ill-Defined.
But when something that provocative lacks too much information, it leaves everything else to the imagination. Books were written at that time, loaded to the brim with whimsical but fascinating speculation about The Face on Mars. In 2001, another orbiter, Mars Global Surveyor promised another photo of the famous Face, this one promising much higher resolution. A raw photo was promised to be uploaded to the Mars Global Surveyor website as soon as it was transmitted back to Earth, and a friend and I sat at the library computer as the photo rolled in. That day I learned that definition and clarity, when applied to a mysterious and cloudy revelation, kills faith.
Plenty of my brilliant friends were adherents of astrology, tarot, and crystal vibrations. These were not passing hobbies, but bordered on obsessions. Some of my friends had a shelf or two full of books on these subjects, and held to their beliefs with uncritical devotion. I continued my fascination with Reiki, and even though the mental source of its power was always obvious to me, I still wondered if there was not something more to the powerful experiences that I often felt. I remember one amazing vision that I had during some meditation exercises. I floated high above the Cosmos, which slowly undulated under me like an immense flag in the wind. I was above the fabric of space-time. I was a transcendent observer and could look from outside the fishbowl, just as if I were part of the Divine. Then the Cosmos became bigger, or I floated too close to it, until I was swallowed up into it, and got lost in the immensity. Had I been a religious ecstatic from another time, I can easily imagine myself as Enoch traversing the Heavens and learning the secrets of the Cosmos from the archangels.
Unlike the days when I was in Calvary Chapel, I did not scoff at the beliefs or others, or try to convert them to my own beliefs. I was intrigued with Reiki, but I also asked plenty of questions about the beliefs in things like astrology and reincarnation. I found the answers unsatisfactory, so I did not believe in such things. It was as simple as that. But I had learned that if I was to be taken seriously, I had to take others just as seriously, and it was just too easy to view the beliefs of others as crazy.
I met one particular woman in one of my math classes, and we began dating. After several months of dating this beautiful and brilliant Chemistry PhD candidate, she felt she could trust me enough to tell me a secret about herself. Her secret came out slowly, in bits and pieces, over the next couple of weeks. I only knew her on the material and physical realm of Earth, she told me. But on another plane of existence, she was a warrior princess. She fought trolls and monsters to protect her loyal subjects. She could shoot fireballs of pure energy from the palms of her hands.
This was a bit much. Was she kidding me? Was this a stunt? Was Allen Funt going to step out from behind the curtain with his hidden camera?
She also had a familiar guardian cat who served as her psychic advisor.
I never ridiculed her. Never. I had learned never to do that. Instead, I asked her if I could see. Since she trusted me enough to tell me, could I see and experience the things she did?
“Can I see your familiar cat?”
“No. She is invisible. But she is right there watching you,” she said pointing to the floor.
“Can you take me to your other world? Can I see what you see? Can I travel there with you?”
“No. It is a place that you do not travel to physically. You only get there through the astral realm. You are not ready.”
I wanted to take her seriously. What if she is right after all? It would be beyond fantastic! I would be one who truly bore secret knowledge and my life would never again be the same!” But too many things that I asked about were invisible, or inaccessible, or beyond my understanding. I was convinced that she was experiencing something, but if I were to continue to take her seriously, I would have to accept her by Faith alone. I simply could not do that, and I had to confess to myself that she was simply deluded. The experience of breaking up with her was extremely painful. I felt like I had been trusted, and that I had betrayed her trust. How could this intelligent, seemingly rational young woman hold these beliefs? How could she cling to these beliefs, and drop out of a University PhD program rather than face her unbelieving, skeptical ex-boyfriend?
It was also around this time that I stumbled into James Randi’s book The Faith Healers in the university library. Randi, a well-known stage magician and professional investigator, detailed his personal investigations into the world of Faith Healers. Some of his favorite whipping boys were Peter Popoff, Ernest Angley and W. V. Grant. These men who posed as itinerant evangelists were obvious conmen, who used stage tricks to magicians, to fool the needy into tithing money into their personal savings. It said nothing about belief in a True God, but about conmen posing as God’s prophets, I reasoned. I had never heard of Popoff or Grant, but I did hear of some of the other people in his book. Oral Roberts was a well known Faith Healer when I was a child, and my mom had even owned a copy of his book on Seed Faith. If we tithed, it was a sign to God of our faithfulness, and he would reward our planting of seed faith many fold! That made perfect sense to me as a youngster, and Roberts was revered as a devout and holy man of God! That childhood fantasy was shattered by The Faith Healers, in which Randi exposed Robert’s bogus claims of various miraculous cures and resurrections. Katherine Kuhlman was another family favorite. My mom once saw her on the traveling tent revival circuit, and my mom marveled that she saw Katherine Kuhlman lengthen a crippled man’s leg right before her eyes! But Randi again showed how W. V. Grant performed the same cheap stage illusion. Sure, I would not be fooled by such obvious chicanery by cheap suits like Popoff and Angley, but I figured that was because I had never heard of them before. I knew Roberts, and I knew Kuhlman, both of whom were doing the work of God. Yet, Randi lumped these well known paragons and models of my youth in with the rest of the crooks who lied and swindled in the name of God. The Faith Healers was did not affect my faith in Jesus, but it did make me suspect that most of the preachers I knew in my youth were nothing but conmen. What shocked me that most was that my family was fooled by these people. We were intelligent people, yet we were fooled, and could be fooled again. We did not know how to think critically. Nobody ever taught us. We were just taught to have Faith.
We all have the propensity to be fooled if we do not actively apply critical thinking skills. I became friends with an elderly woman who was a retired music professor from Canada. She moved to New Mexico with her beloved dogs because she loved the solitude of the desert southwest. But one of her dogs got very sick, so she went to see a ‘healer’. I noticed that my friends used the term ‘doctors’ for impersonal practitioners of western medicine, but ‘healers’ were more empathic of their patient’s needs and generally more non-traditional. A woman certified in Reiki was a ‘healer’. So when my elderly friend told me she was taking her beloved dog to a healer, I knew it would not be the vet. After the visit, she asked me to listen to a cassette.
“I know you are more skeptical than most, and you may think I am crazy, but I want you to listen to this recording. I just need your opinion, because you are skeptical and I don’t want to make the wrong decision.”
“What is the recording?”
“I recorded the session I had with my dog and an inter-species translator. She placed her hands on my dog, and told me the dog’s thoughts.”
Oh dear. This intelligent, elderly woman, a retired professor who had traveled the globe, a woman who told amazing stories of her work in Africa with Jane Goodall in the 1960s, this otherwise rational human, took her dog in for a Mr. Spock style mindmeld. But I did not ridicule. I took her seriously. I took the cassette and listened to it on my own.
What I heard was stunningly obvious manipulation. The healer said that the dog was talking through her. He does not feel good. He ate some road kill. He has an upset belly that will not go away. He wants you to understand that he will be better but he needs a more sensitive diet. My friend sometimes interjected with astonishment. How could the healer seemingly read the mind of her dog? Incredible!!
I told her I thought she was being had. I advised her to proceed with caution, and take the sick dog to a vet. I am impressed that she listened to me. But all these stories that I am telling boil down to one of the most important lessons that I learned while in university. Critical thinking is a skill. It must be learned and actively applied. It does not come naturally. Even the most intelligent of us, even brilliant scientists and other educated people, can be fooled, in fact, are likely to be fooled if our guard is not up. And there were plenty of people out there who knew this, and were ready to trick us into earning their trust, manipulating our emotions, and maybe even draining our pocketbooks.