As many readers have pointed out, I am not going to make many friends by expressing my skepticism of such cherished beliefs as extrasensory perception, flying saucers and life after death.
Why do I do it, then? I guess it's because a skeptic, like a believer, must assert his faith now and then to reinforce it.
Remember that scene in "Crime and Punishment" where the young prostitute, Sonia, says to Raskolnikov, the murderer, "Don't take away my faith. It's all I have."
And Raskolnikov says to her: "Don't take away my unfaith. It's all I have."
"I won't bore you," writes Lionel C. Meeker of Temecula, "by hauling out the famous statement from Shakespeare about 'stranger things in heaven and earth. . . . ' "
But of course he has hauled it out, if only to misquote it slightly. Hamlet has just talked with his father's ghost and learned of his uncle's perfidy, and when Horatio calls this confrontation "wondrous strange," Hamlet says:
"And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
The point is well made, though, misquoted or not.
As Meeker says: "The fact remains that in spite of 'science' and Carl Sagan and the professional debunkers, there is more, far more in the universe that we are totally in ignorance of. We are limited by our five senses. Once in a while we get a few fleeting insights on inexplicable phenomena, but that doesn't mean the whole of the inexplicable should be rejected because 'they cannot be duplicated in a laboratory.' "
Susan Colla of Ventura assumes that I base my skepticism of life after death on my own recent experience, when my heart stopped and I was in a coma for six hours.
"Just because you don't remember having any experiences outside your conscious awareness, does not necessarily mean you didn't have any," she says. "We remember what we want and forget what we don't want. It's as simple as that. It does remain with us at a subconscious level and is there for you to tap into anytime you open your mind to it."
"Are you intent on making everyone as depressed as possible?" writes Vi Wolfson of Beverly Hills. "Or are you trying to convince yourself that you can stand strong and purely intellectual in a meaningless world?
"I'm sure you've heard about the many after-death experiences that have been reported. Phil Donahue some time ago devoted an entire program to people who claim to have had them, and they were not crazies but normal-seeming people. . . . A prominent heart surgeon told me personally that when he revived clinically dead patients, they expressed displeasure with him for bringing them back because 'it was so wonderful over there.' "
"Is any conjecture about an immortal soul and a life after death any more mind-boggling than life itself?" asks Joe Coughlin. "Suppose you were told 100 years ago that you would somehow one day suddenly find yourself 'alive,' that you would inhabit a small helpless organism, that you would experience various sensations, that the organism would gradually expand in size and strength, that it would develop a degree of intellectual ability and that, in time, and just as strangely, the organism would deteriorate and ultimately die; would that not have struck you as beyond reason or the wildest imagination? Is it not possible that the mystery of this life is merely a demonstration of what may await us?"
(I should have said I don't believe in life before life, either; I don't believe there would have been any me to be told.)
I must say that I am mystified by an experience told by Carol Nahin, who describes herself as a social scientist and an educator who has often been called unromantic and a skeptic. Mrs. Nahin takes issue with my casual dismissal of "ghost dogs" as being no more likely than ghost people.
Mrs. Nahin and her husband were visiting another couple whose home they had never been in before, and Mrs. Nahin felt that she was being followed about by a dog.
"I felt a strange, warm presence. I had the strangest sensation that something was following us, something warm near my legs. Finally we went into the living room and our host brought us each a glass of wine. I was about to sit down in a large, comfortable-looking chair when I felt warmth--or a sensation of warmth--coming from the chair. I changed my mind and went over and sat on the couch, next to my husband. But there it was again, warmth, near my legs."
Mrs. Nahin was so distracted that she couldn't follow the conversation. Finally, she blurted out: "Do you have a dog?"
The wife's eyes widened; she burst into tears and left the room. The man explained: "We used to have a dog, a little dachsie, but we had to put him to sleep about three months ago--he was nearly 14. That chair was his."
"It really happened, Mr. Smith, to this skeptic, this disbeliever. And I shall remember it as long as I live, because my experience suddenly made me feel part of a whole system of life and afterlife that I am still unable to credit on any pragmatic level. I am very grateful that it did happen, because it provides a small measure of hope. Maybe it is true; maybe this isn't really all there is."
That's why all my dogs were outside dogs. I didn't want any house ghosts.