Issue 3, Volume 18
One Saturday afternoon during Uni break I had lunch with a person who informed me he had "recently been enlightened”. He told me he was on a conversational basis with a number of aliens and that these aliens were helping him explore past lives through extended, LSD-fuelled bouts of meditation. "Apparently, I used to be an African-American woman living in the Bronx," he said, brushing a strand of Irish blond hair from his blue eyes. "And before that?" I asked. "Oh many things,” he replied and began listing them like a kid boasting of all the presents he received that Christmas. "Let's see, I was an orphan, an Aztec emperor's slave, a Chinese rice farmer’s baby, an Amazonian green frog…".
Two things about this person. First, I used to be good friends with him (if you can believe it) though we hadn't seen each other for more than a year. He had gone overseas, I had moved suburbs, and we had drifted. The lunch idea was mine -- a simple catch up after a long hiatus.
Second, not once in the six years that I had known this guy -- sitting next to him each day in class at school, playing footy with each other, going to events together -- had he ever mentioned aliens or past lives or anything abnormal at all. Indeed, he was about as normal as a guy could get. And yet here he was telling me he used to be a frog.
Imagine if this happened to you. Picture a close friend of yours -- someone you thought you knew -- telling you, in full seriousness, what my friend told me. What would you think? You'd think your friend had gone crazy, right? That something had gone terribly wrong upstairs.
Except my friend was in perfect psychological health. Barring the alien-chatting beliefs, everything about him was in order. He was still studying medicine. He was still very logical. Very sensible. Very in control of his life. And he still had his extended crew of Uni friends who loved him. But, more than that, I had never seen him so happy. He was effervescent that day, laughing and chatting and joking around with the people next to us.
In fact, intellectually, my friend seemed to have reached new heights. Our conversation ranged from global politics to moral psychology to the science behind a Covid vaccine to Indigenous rights -- all of which he spoke compellingly on while I tried to keep up. He was articulate in a way I'd never heard him be before. He was even thriving physically, having shed a few kilos.
When I told him he seemed to be doing well, he replied "that's because I am. Truly, Max, I've never felt better in my life. I’m learning so much about who I am by engaging with my past lives. I feel I've attained a peace I never had before."
Putting to the side, for the moment, the question of why my friend believed what he did, there is a bigger issue at hand. That is, should obviously false ideas -- and I take a belief in telepathy with aliens and past lives to be an obviously false idea in the same way a belief in unicorns is -- that happen to produce beneficent effects for the idea-holder -- e.g. "I feel I've attained a peace I never had before" -- be condemned or supported? In other words, should I have excoriated my friend that lunch for indulging in fantasies and so attempted to "wake him up" from his delusion? Or did the better path lie in adopting a more accommodating attitude given the clear benefits he was enjoying due to this new shift in thought? (An accommodating attitude would have looked like me saying "That's great! I'm happy to hear about these talking aliens given how great they're making you feel”).
Assuming that my friend's weird beliefs really were benefitting him, it seems to me that the degree of emphasis you place on the importance of truth-considerations will be the determining factor on which side of the issue you fall. That's to say, if you have little patience for ideas not based in empirical fact, you will likely oppose supporting my friend’s representations, despite their positive effects on him. To my eyes, however, three principles speak towards adopting a more supportive attitude, even though doing so entails the uncomfortable consequence of tacitly accepting plain gobbledygook. These three principles are all based on maintaining a particular role in relation to others. There are of course many other principles one could acknowledge.
A particular idea of what a good friend ought to be might encourage the conclusion that I should support my friend's alien-chatting. If we understand a good friend as a person who lifts up his friends by encouraging them to pursue endeavours that better themselves, regardless of whether he thinks those endeavours are absurd, then provided my old friend had been enhanced in some important respect by his new-found beliefs, and that there is no obviously better alternative available that I could encourage him to pursue, it is therefore incumbent upon me to support that belief, or otherwise relinquish the title of "good friend". Assuming trying to convince my friend to dispense with his silly ideas would do no better than letting him maintain them, the "good friend principle" would seem to apply to my situation.
The good friend principle can be extended beyond my and my friend's specific situation. A variation of it is that in a multicultural liberal democracy, which values a diversity of belief, and considers tolerance of such diversity critical to advancing its members individual and collective summum bonum, the beliefs of citizens that concern only themselves and produce no harm for others, are not open for reproach. The citizen holds an entitlement to such beliefs. Hence, tolerating my friend's odd ideas is not just about being a good friend, it's also about being a respectful citizen.
When I asked my friend who else knew about his new beliefs in aliens and past lives, he said just his girlfriend and another close friend. I was, it appears, one of a select few to be entrusted with this information. My friend therefore didn't merely tell me something, he confided in me. He divulged a matter he deemed inappropriate for a more public forum. In doing so, he invited me to play witness to an otherwise secretive aspect of his private self. A witness is a passive role: it's that of a listener and an acknowledger, not an aggressor. In accepting his invitation to play witness, I therefore bound myself within the limitations of the role. It would be inconsistent with the discursive position I was in to then betray his confidence by impugning rather than accepting his statement of admission.
In this respect, the good friend principle, the respectful citizen principle, and the confiding principle, all point against a vigorous attempt to expose the error of my friend’s beliefs. They encourage us to occupy a certain social role, one of tolerance and acceptance, in those moments when we come face-to-face with utter (but harmless) gibberish. Had these principles been with me during that strange Saturday afternoon lunch, I might not have laughed so loudly -- to my friend's dismay -- while he recounted in a hushed voice his "recent enlightenment".
Max is a first year JD student.