One Night in Taxco: Beyond Faith and Reason

This is the second post in a biased two-part discussion of the paranormal, religion, skepticism, and spirituality. Discretion is advised.

It’s Not Just a Clever Name

Altar atop the pyramid of Tepozteco in Tepoztlan
We’ve been using science to build monuments to faith for thousands of years.

Aside from being an allusion to Beyond Good and Evil, penned by my favorite philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, “beyond faith and reason” sums up my worldview: lots of people identify as pro-one-or-the-other and look down on the other team, but everyone uses both to interpret the world around them. Scientists favor certain unproven theories over others for no particular reason, and theists use logic to debate the meaning of the words of their gods, even if the words themselves are never questioned.

As discussed in part one, Venezia and I (Evaric) recently had an experience in a presumably-haunted hotel in Taxco that made us question the boundaries between faith and reason. Inspired by the experience, we sat down to discuss and reflect on our deep-seated beliefs.

Coolness Bias

A table board at a cafe made to look like a ouija board
In defense of witchcraft: isn’t it awesome?

I’m skeptical about everything, but open to the idea that anything could happen. There’s a lot more about the universe that we don’t know than what we do. Of course, I have to check myself sometimes when it comes to the topic of the paranormal due to the fact that I kind of want to believe. I don’t necessarily think, for example, that witchcraft, tarot cards, or other occult arts work, but I love and am fascinated by them. Same goes for ghosts and the Loch Ness Monster. I don’t have any evidence they exist, but I’d probably be happier if they did.

Venezia shares my interest, but she’s more cautious about it. She would try innocuous forms of the occult, like reading tea leaves, but gets nervous about some of the darker stuff. She was raised Catholic, and even though she stopped buying into Catholicism a long time ago, some of the fears the religion instilled in her as a child are hard to escape. Venezia draws the line somewhere between tarot cards and ouija boards: she would try the former but not the latter (I always remind her that Hasbro invented the ouija board as well as the word “ouija” itself, but more on that later).

In contrast to my blanket skepticism, Venezia is pretty confident in some of her beliefs. She believes in forces similar to magic, and while she doesn’t believe in ghosts due to a lack of solid evidence, it wouldn’t take much to convince her. In fact, she thinks she is only hesitant to believe in a lot of things like that because so many people have ridiculous beliefs surrounding the paranormal and she doesn’t want to be like them. I can relate: I think there’s a good chance other sentient life exists somewhere in the universe, but don’t bring it up because to a lot of people, the belief aliens might exist and the belief that aliens built the pyramids and have been secretly manipulating the human race ever since are the same thing.

What Does It All Mean?

Abstract drawing of vague figures embracing
Your guess is as good as mine.

As you might have guessed by the fact Nietzsche is my favorite philosopher, I’m a nihilist. I don’t think there is a point to anything, and the only meaning in life is that you choose to create. That said, I won’t have much to add to this part of the conversation, so let’s jump right into Venezia’s theology.

Venezia believes in a cosmic force that could be referred to as a god. It isn’t as involved in human affairs as the gods of most modern religions, but it does want people to achieve their “purpose”. There’s an opposite cosmic force that enjoys suffering. People can’t necessarily control these forces through prayer or magic, but it might be possible to attract certain forces via ritual or traditional practices. If you attempted a tarot reading, for example, you might attract some force that is aware people have used cards to try and predict the future for thousands of years. You can’t make this force help you, but it might choose to help you and cause the right cards to fall where they should.

Her theory is the main way to attract these forces is through will. The tarot cards are largely a prop; the cosmic forces respond to your desire to know what you should do next. That said, they may respond to certain rituals. If people have been using similar words and actions to evoke a certain outcome for long enough, the forces of the universe might learn to respond to them.

Or, maybe it’s the humans who are learning…

The Pseudoest of Sciences

This is where Venezia’s and my beliefs link back up. That’s ironic, because I expect we’re about to lose any skeptical readers. Bear with us…

I might be hesitant about the idea of God or of each person having a predetermined purpose, but I can get behind the idea of ritual. As mentioned above, this is as least partly me wanting to believe it, but maybe there’s something to it.

As Venezia was telling me her theory of the universe, she mentioned there could be cosmic forces or other entities that, for whatever reason, respond to the stimulus of a certain ritual by creating what we would perceive as magic. If this were the case, wouldn’t people learn these rituals over time, even if they didn’t know how or why they worked?

This struck a chord with me, as I’ve had a similar thought before but felt to embarrassed to ever say it aloud. The idea works in terms of both cultural and biological evolution. Let’s say a long time ago, a culture decides the sun is a god and decides to worship it. One priest worships by chanting, another by shaking a stick. The second priest consistently brings fair weather and good harvests. Now, maybe he’s attracted some cosmic force that has no affiliation with the sun and responds favorably to the shaking of sticks for completely arbitrary reasons. Even so, that culture is probably going to adopt stick-shaking over chanting.

On a biological level, it’s basic natural selection. If we take it for granted that magic does exist and can be influenced by humans (and I know that’s a lot to take), then it would be absurd for natural selection not to favor individuals who are able to harness magic – seems like a clear evolutionary advantage to me. Again, genes that caused people to perform certain actions or worship in certain ways would be favored, even if the individual who carried those genes had no idea he was practicing magic.

Okay, we’ve clearly gotten pretty far-out at this point, but the magic-as-biology theory has a little more of a place in science than you might think. Not a lot, but at least a bit. I recently heard a discussion about the overlap of biology and architecture that kind of blew my mind. The very first buildings arose because humans had a biological need for shelter, and had evolved the brains and the opposeable thumbs to construct that shelter. Buildings got bigger and fancier because of a biological need to assert dominance and attract mates. We even find certain shapes and colors pleasing in architecture due to what those shapes and colors signaled to us in nature thousands of years ago – green is a lively color because it usually meant food, poison, or a hiding place for predators, and either way your brain knows it needs to be on alert when it sees it. Some biologists would argue there’s little difference between a modern city and the shell of a hermit crab. If certain genes led us to build skyscrapers, couldn’t other genes help us tap into, well…something?

So, the question stands. What do you believe?


One Night in Taxco: Hotel de La Llorona

This is the first post in a biased two-part discussion of the paranormal, religion, skepticism, and spirituality. Discretion is advised.

View of Taxco and surrounding landscape
For those who haven’t been, Taxco is a beautiful example of a colonial pueblo in modern Mexico.

Last weekend, Venezia took me (Evaric) to Taxco de Alarcón for her cousin’s quinceañera. The beautifully bizarre celebration that is the quinceañera is a whole other discussion, but this post is about the hotel I stayed in overnight: Hotel Victoria, a charming little bungalow on the edge of town which nobody told me was haunted until we arrived. That was fine, since I don’t believe in ghosts.

Alone in the Dark

Arched hallway in Hotel Victoria in Taxco
Seems ghosts appreciate a tasteful interior as much as the rest of us.

“I don’t believe in ghosts” is something I like to say when I’m at home in the daytime, surrounded by familiar comforts and faces. It’s easy for us skeptics to laugh at supposed accounts of the paranormal: unlike those who experience strange events, we have the luxury of responding only with reason, rather than emotion.

A funny thing happens to reason when you find yourself alone in the dark. Let’s back up, though. Leading up to that night, everything was aligning just right to make me feel I was living in a poorly-written horror movie. Entering the Hotel Victoria, Venezia recounted the stories of family members who had seen and heard strange things while staying there. We noticed crude crosses nailed to the front gate; the hotel’s proprietor unironically explained that La Llorona, a popular Mexican folk, had been coming by the past few nights and he was trying to ward her off. As I settled into my room, I noticed I had lost cell service.

Pool surrounded by plants in Hotel Victoria in Taxco
Beautiful, in a haunted sort of way.

A storm rolled in during the party, and when I returned to my room the lightning was so close that the walls literally shook with the thunder. The hotel is up on a hill a little outside of town, and being an old-school rural pueblo, Taxco gets dark at night in a way even small-town Americans aren’t used to. The second-to-last thing I noticed before turning out the light (and plunging myself into pitch darkness) was a cockroach half the size of my hand crawl out of the wall. I wish I’d gotten a picture – didn’t seem a priority at the time.

What I did get a picture of was the last thing I noticed: the little square hole cut in the blanket of the bed beside mine. I’d already made myself antsy by imagining waking up in the middle of the night to see someone else in the other bed looking back at me, but usually I’m a little too old for under-the-bed nonsense. I didn’t have any explanation why someone would cut a window in the blanket, though, or why when the bed was made it just happened to fall to the level where something could peer out at me from a hidden spot beneath the bed.

A square hole cut in the blanket of a bed
It opens its eyes when you close yours.

The Cold Light of Reality

Sun setting behind a mountain over Taxco
I didn’t take any pictures of the sunrise so this is actually a sunset. But shhh, don’t tell anyone.

I had a brief scare when I woke up. Before going to bed, I’d closed all the curtains and the door leading to the other room. I was awoken by light streaming in through the cracks in that door. For a horrible minute I was convinced something else was in there with me – something had to have turned on the light in the other room. It turned out that the sunrise was in fact so brilliant that it shone bright enough through a curtain and a door to wake me up. I laughed at myself and went back to sleep.

My experience didn’t make me a believer. Nothing happened that I couldn’t explain, and if nobody had told me the place was haunted, it would never have crossed my mind. Only with that in mind did I begin to form a narrative out of ambiance and coincidences.

I did rethink the way I look at believers. If anything even slightly spooky had happened that night (and I had survived the ensuing heart attack), I doubt logic would hold much sway over how I interpreted things.

I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Venezia, who has earned most of a degree in Molecular Biology, is one of the smartest and most rational people I know, and didn’t even experience staying the night in the hotel, admitted she was nervous about leaving me alone there. There we were, two highly-educated people raised in an age of science and reason, still ruled by the same primal fears as our caveman ancestors, ten-thousand years ago.

Science and Scienceability

Family attending Catholic Mass during a quinceañera
The quinceañera that afternoon involved attending Catholic Mass at a local church. Maybe that saved my life?

Inspired by this experience, Venezia and I sat down to discuss our perspectives on science and religion, skepticism and the paranormal. The conversation was full of surprises: not only did we not know everything each other believed in, we each believe in concepts that the other had never even considered. We both came away with at least small changes to our worldview.

We’ll share our discussion next week – stay tuned. In the meantime, we would love to hear from you in the comments. Are you a believer, and have you had any experiences, paranormal or otherwise, that shook your deeply-held beliefs?