One of my favorite things on television right now is Doctor Who, a very old, very weird, very British sci fi about an alien who goes traveling through time and space and saves the day through sheer ingenuity. Just recently, there was an episode that gave me pause about the nature of belief.
(Sci fi and fantasy are very good for philosophy, because they can throw out all the mundane problems in favor of asking a question you may never have thought about.)
In this episode, we meet our new heroine, Amy, at the tender age of seven. She’s home alone – she’s an orphan and her aunt is away on business. She’s afraid of this weird crack in her wall. And our hero the Doctor crash-lands his time machine on top of her garden shed. She invites him in (probably making the parents in the audience squirm, even if we know the Doctor is a good man) and after raiding her kitchen, he investigates the scary crack and discovers that it’s a crack in the universe, leading to a prison, and that something has escaped through it. He’s about to figure out the rest of it when his ship threatens to explode and he has to fly it away for awhile, and promises Amy he’ll be back in five minutes.
Did I mention that this show is about time travel?
‘Cause at this point, those of us who know the show are groaning because it is a well-established fact that the Doctor has trouble with landing in the point in time he’s aiming for. For him it was indeed five minutes. For Amy, it was twelve years.
And the plot runs off with how there’s an alien convict on the loose and his jailers are threatening to blow up Planet Earth, but there’s hints and things dropped of what happened in those lost twelve years. Amy, being a normal seven-year-old, told everybody what happened. And no one believed her. She was probably laughed at and teased. Or worse, told in infuriatingly patient tones that she was wrong. She tells us she saw four different psychiatrists, all trying to convince her it wasn’t real. She learned to doubt her own memory, and swept it under the rug, along with fairy tales and Santa. There had never been a man with a box in the garden. She’d made it all up, or dreamt it. Or if there was, he was some crazed tramp who invaded her house and made her see things. Either she was crazy, or someone else was.
And then he comes back. Her imaginary friend is not imaginary after all. She had been right all that time, and even she had ceased to believe it.
And I got to thinking: why do we stop believing in something? Or refuse to believe it in the first place? Usually there’s good reasons: no evidence, or badly interpreted evidence, or better evidence for the contrary. Not everybody’s reliable. Things can be interpreted different ways. We could be missing something. And that’s fine.
But we’re not always that reasonable.
Why did Amy stop believing? Because it was silly? Because it was weird? The world is often both. Because it happened in the middle of the night and nobody else saw? Still not a good reason. Because she was teased, and normal, reasonable, adult people told her it couldn’t be? Dude, that’s just life. She says it’s because she grew up. Okay, so there are things we learn as children that turn out not to be true. But that isn’t because we grew up. Santa does not cease to be real because we hit a certain age: he wasn’t real to begin with, and we get better evidence. Amy was there. She’d spoken with the man, had him in her kitchen, let him show her some very strange things. She even had the demolished garden shed for proof. Her being seven at the time had nothing to do with it. Truth is not dependent on our age, or experience, or knowledge. Truth is outside of us. We can encounter it in a bad way and come to a wrong conclusion, but even then, the encounter was true.
Are there things we believe because everyone else does? Because no one else does? Because we’ve always believed it, or because we learned about it from someone we admire? Because it’s new, because it’s old, because it’s cool, because it’s comfortable?
Or do we have the audacity to believe a thing because we saw it? Because we were there? Because it does, in fact, make sense? Because it explains our experience more fully and truly than anything else we could come up with? When we have proof, when we have logic, when we have reason and testimony, we can have doubts – it’s not wrong to doubt – but we should be making our choice on those, not on the unfaithful scaffolding of “this is not what I expect/remember/like.” We should have the humility to believe that truth is both stranger and stronger than fiction.
This is an old subject. I watched that episode and thought of another fictional little girl who discovered something weird. Lucky for her, there was someone around who knew a thing or two about truth, and its weirdness.
“There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies, and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any other evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.”
— “Back on This Side of the Door,” The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Whether or not a thing is real doesn’t depend on whether we like it, whether we want it, whether it feels right, whether we’re young or old. We can experience truth different ways, we can express it different ways, but we do not create it. Improbability isn’t impossibility, and the reasoning can be through facts we don’t yet know.
And that which is true should never be denied.