The accidental skeptic

Excuse me if I have written a variation of this anecdote before. Also I doubt that this will be interesting to anybody, but that’s not something that really matters to me right now. And I apologize, although I prefer the English spelling of everything else, I like the American version of “skeptic” with a K. Somehow the proper spelling just looks wrong to me… “sceptic” just feels like the C should be silent which makes it a synonym for shit.

Yesterday in an atheist Facebook group, someone asked for others to admit the most ridiculous thing they believed in back when they were religious. There were some interesting ones, but to me, my story (which is related but not quite the same because I didn’t believe in gods), which should embarrass me, does not. I find it far funnier than I should. Anyway, this is how I took an oddball path to becoming a skeptic.

It was late 2006, or early 2007, and my girlfriend and I were meth heads. We weren’t just addicts… or I guess maybe we were… pretty typical for meth addicts… We smoked meth every day and every night, and we were high all the time. But in the day I went to work, same sort of job as now as a c# software developer though not performing quite on the level I do now (for obvious reasons), and didn’t use there, meaning I spent the whole day 5 days a week coming down at work, then resumed the substance abuse after, starting with buying more meth on the way home, to using with her all the time at home, and normally going out to get more around 3AM before using the last right before going back to work in the morning. Why tell you all this? Well, it’s important to realize that everything I did, I did while under the influence of a lot of amphetamines. And I do mean a lot.

Otherwise we were pretty normal, doing normal things that couples do, albeit with an obsessive edge overlaid onto every interest, because being high all the time does involve taking everything to extremes. She was always interested in some thing, some supernatural or spiritual or paranormal thing. And the latest was astrology. And it was my role to support her. Meth gives you quite the temper and causes many overreactions to anything, so I wouldn’t hear the end of it if I failed to support her. So her interest in astrology meant I had to read every book on it, download whatever astrology software I could find, print out natal charts, the works. And I did that.

The thing is, astrology is almost the perfect candidate for a computer program. It is essentially, a bunch of complex rules and tables, looks ups… Take a bunch of inputs like your time and date and place of birth, and then look up the placement of various constellations and other factors, and compile all this information with various deduced characteristics of your personality into a comprehensive and individualized report that is really quite specific to you. And that’s pretty much what I did… not write such a program (because I didn’t have a computer at home, plus I had better things to do, like smoking meth) but find a decent one and print out 20 odd pages of reports describing both of us.

So I did that. I wrote all the stuff down, then took it to work and input everything into a couple of astrology programs, then printed out the reports and brought them home to her. And one night, we sat for hours poring over those reports. “This describes me exactly!” we both exclaimed, multiple times. And for a few hours, I was a believer. I really was.

Except I’d fucked up.

A common occurrence on meth to be sure, but because I was always so high, and because our birth dates are similar, separated by several years (too many but that’s a story for another day), I’d somehow switched our natal charts and reports. We had each other’s reports, and they still described us exactly.

“But how can this be?”, I asked myself. By then she’d gone off on her own tangent and was tweaking on something else, so I took both reports, and read them both again, several times, noting how poorly put together the software actually must be, but also realizing something else: The stuff that I thought applied to me, or at least a large portion of it, was not in my report at all, and the same for her. But not just that… It was vague, cleverly phrased, ambiguous but generally positive things, things that anyone who read would want to apply to themselves.

And thus I, high as a fucking kite, realized how astrology works. It was an accident, but a good one. Not so much for the relationship though, but for me it was good. She still carried on believing in astrology, psychics, god, Tarot, and many other things. But my role changed. I wasn’t the supporter. I was the debunker. Everything, every interest she had, I still did my due diligence and printed out stacks of pages, but I found skeptical angles on every interest she had. I naively thought that she would be as fascinated as I was to realize that all those things were bullshit, but sadly it didn’t work out that way. Healing crystals, white magic, black magic, Jesus… I did my best to prove to her that all these things were nonsense. But sincere as I was in proving that these things were not real, she became an even firmer believer. That was the beginning of the end of our relationship.

So that’s how I got into skepticism. My foundation in rationality and fascination with critical thinking and asking for evidence, as well as my obsession with trying to understand why it is that we so desperately want to believe in all these silly things, began while high on meth. Unlike the drug habit though, my interest in these things has persisted through the years. It started as debunking, not skepticism, but the search to disprove the bunk that people believe in, and then over the years it has changed to a more open minded approach to asking for evidence and rejecting of all magical thinking. But note there is a big difference between debunkers and skeptics. Debunkers are indiscriminate in what they reject, going as far as to reject actual science and tending towards conspiracy theories. I’m fascinated with that lot of lunatics too.

So that’s it. I find it ironic that I accidentally somehow got into critical thinking while high on a performance impairing, mind destroying drug. But somehow it happened. (And I’m not writing this to encourage meth use, by the way. I’d probably have turned out quite differently if I hadn’t stopped using meth. I just find it strangely amusing.)

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