Is The Glass Half Full Or Half Empty?

Mind against heart

By Gerald Alper

When does over the top, unbridled emotion lurch towards chaos (as in Donald Trump)?  When does passionless sustained rationality become soul killing (as in Hillary Clinton)?  From the perspective of the devout believer, the equally committed skeptic can only appear as an alien presence, a mean spirited, cold hearted rationalist.  They do not understand why anyone would ever want to exchange a belief system based on hope for the soullessness of a negative world view.

To make this clear, here is a hypothetical debate between a believer and a skeptic who are trying to understand each other:

Believer: “You seem to think that science is the royal road to the truth.  But there are many sources of truth. There’s the truth of poetry. Of dreams. Of literature. Of imagination. And the truth of faith”

Skeptic: “I agree truth can come from myriad by-ways. But I’m not talking about the countless triggers of what we agree to call the truth. I’m talking about the best method, the only tried and true method we have for determining the accuracy of any given truth claim, as against the almost infinite possibilities for error. True, we can have all the hunches in the world, but if you want to seriously assert that what we are describing is an important aspect of objective reality, whether inner or outer, at some point we have to bring in the skeptical method. And that means reason as well as intuition, logic as well as imagination, and shared evidence as well as subjective experiences.”

Believer: “And I agree that truth has to be differentiated from error.  But I emphatically disagree that the presentation and gathering of physical evidence is the only means of establishing the authenticity of the world we live in.  I agree the skeptical method is the sine qua non for establishing scientific truth. But we have a spiritual as well as a physical world, and no one to my knowledge has ever arrived at a spiritual truth by means of the skeptical method alone.”

Skeptic: “You are, I presume, talking about faith here?”

Believer: “Yes. Faith. Not faith that can move mountains. But faith, in partnership with reason, that is an indispensable guide for reaching the spiritual side of life.”

Skeptic: “When you say, ‘the spiritual side of life,’ are you talking about anything more than the indescribable feeling, the noble strivings, that admittedly have characterized our human species from the dawn of recorded time? Or, are you, for example, talking about supernatural agencies, about miracles, about divine inspiration, about a Biblical God, for example, who supposedly created heaven and earth in a specified number of days?”

Believer: “I am talking about God, but not God in a concrete, literal sense. There may not be many gods, but God reveals himself in many ways. There is a metaphysical God, an abstract, theological God, a god that one prays to, a Got that one questions and a God that one yearns to know.”

Skeptic: “Tell me, is there a God who reveals himself not in Biblical miracles, but through physical signs, signs that can be measured and evaluated, reasoned about, tested and are at least theoretically capable of being consensually validated?”

Believer: “And, when necessary, falsified?”

Skeptic: “You are finally understanding me. Yes”

Believer: “if you are asking me, as I think you are,  if God can be reduced to a physical quantity the answer of course is no.”

Skeptic: “I am not asking if the essence of God, whatever that is, can be reduced to a physical quantity. I am asking if the means by which we apprehend the physical manifestation of his presence or intervention can be verified. I am asking the very questions, except on a much broader scale, that investigators of paranormal phenomena, such as ghosts, regularly ask. Is there any proof at all that supernatural agencies manifest their presence in the physical world as reported routinely?”

Believer: “If you are asking if the soul can be weighed, if the afterlife can be measured, if heaven can be glimpsed through some some sort of super electron microscope, the answer is still no.”

Skeptic: “All I am asking is that for once in our history, that a single claim of alleged divine intervention, of the millions of such claims that are daily made by devout believers, be actually verified by the only means of verification we know that has stood the test of time.”

Believer: “You obviously do not accept massive subjective testimony of millions of intelligent believers. You only accept the weight of mute physical evidence.

Skeptic: “So long as you are claiming, and I think you are, that supernatural agencies can make their presence known in physical manifestations the answer has to be yes. And by physical manifestations, I include, as does every reputable neuroscientist, the entire inner world of our immensely complicated private subjectivity.”

Believer: “I believe in neuroscience, too, but I think people are more than their biology. There is a spiritual or transcendental side, a higher side. The testimony of faith, faith that is fully compatible with reason, is the best evidence we have for this indispensable dimension of the human equation.”

Skeptic: “Can you tell me how faith can be compatible with reason, if it is not based upon evidence—evidence that is capable, when faulty, of being falsified?”

Believer: “I know from personal experience, from the testimony of countless others, that faith alone, faith without the necessary help of science, can also reveal the truth.”

Skeptic: “And I know from personal experience–not only that I lack faith–but there are millions of people who have such faith, faith of a different persuasion, that directly contradicts your faith.”

We can see that such a debate cannot ever be resolved. They do not agree on what evidence is. They did not agree on what should count as belief or what the rules of the game are. Their disagreement runs deeper than an intellectual or metaphysical dispute. Their conflict is psychodynamic, not epistemological. 

The skeptic is someone who believes you cannot ask the question — “is there a God?” — if you are certain you know the answer. You must be prepared to hear the answer you may not like, i.e.; “Is there a God?” — “no” or “maybe” or “Yes, but it is beyond our human capacity to ever have the foggiest idea of what he is like either in this life or the next.” You can, in short, certainly have belief, but you must also have reason and doubt.

The devout believer, by contrast, has a different mindset. He does not love reason less; he loves emotion more. He may also love language and logic, but what most moves him or her tends to be inexpressible. Such differences can only be understood psychodynamically.

So, finally, what is the best balance, the best partnership of reason and emotion? Is there an answer? The answer is proportionality.  Is there then one proportionality, one size that fits all? Obviously not. The answer my friend is not blowing in the wind. It's in you.

For the reader who wishes to pursue these ideas further, see my new book, God and Therapy: What We Believe When No One is Watching (I Books, Alper). 

Published January 28th, 2016


Gerald Alper is an internationally recognized psychotherapist who is the author of 20 books.  These include besides the celebrated Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Patient, The Paranoia Of Everyday Life, The Dark Side Of The Analytic Moon, The PuppeteersThe Elephant In The Room: The Denial of The Unconscious Mind, and more recently the just published God And Therapy: What We Believe When No One Is Watching (I Books, Alper). He's been a Fellow of The American Institute of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis since 1985, a reviewer for The Journal of Contemporary Psychology, a contributor of articles and essays to leading professional journals, a frequent guest author appearing on public access radio programs throughout the United States and Canada.  His classic paper, A Psychoanalyist Takes the Turing Test, was included in the 2004 pioneering interdisciplinary anthology by Italian neuroscientist Franco Salzone who brought together seminal papers from both psychoanalysis and neuroscience. He lives with his wife in New York, stays in close contact with his two grown sons who remain hunkered down in Los Angeles and has been a practicing psychotherapist in Manhattan for the past 25 years.