Thursday, May 2, 2019

How Will You Know?

I was reading a story on exorcism the other day. Now as someone who doesn't believe in spirits of any sort, possession isn't real for me, but I understand the people do believe and that possession is real for them. Which one of us is right, in the grand scheme of things, is a somewhat interesting question, I suppose. But what I'd much rather know is: How could you tell?

This, of course, is the $64,000 question with any sort of supernatural phenomenon, from hauntings to magic. If it doesn't have some sort of obvious physical impact on the material world, how can one tell that it's genuine? Of course, given that I can't actually prove that I'm not a brain in a jar, there's the bigger problem of how does one prove that anything is genuine, but going deep on epistemology makes my brain hurt.

In the end, this is what faith is all about, but it does raise an interesting question: Is the phenomenon of possession agnostic? That is to say, does one need to have a preexisting belief in possessing demons in order to be possessed? As near as I can determine, possession is a culture-bound syndrome; that is to say, it only manifests itself in specific cultures. This creates the ironic circumstance that people in cultures that don't believe in the supernatural have, in effect, an absolute protection against possession. In Christianity, you can come up with something of a rationale for this; the possession of non-believers would be a for of proof of the supernatural, and obviate the need for faith. A bit wonky for my tastes, but semi-logical enough. But in Buddhism, is there the same understanding of the necessity of faith? If not, it seems strange that māra will or can only possess Buddhists, and not other random people.

I'm not sure that it actually matters what the answer is. People believe in both possession and exorcism, and pointing out that it seems odd that these would be limited to believers will not deter them from that. And, of course, proving anything one way or the other would be difficult. But it's an interesting question.

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