“God and the Unicorn”

At the fork in the road between here and there, the elderly professor ran smack into a unicorn. “Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going,” they said in unison.

The unicorn gave the man a once-over before asking, “Are you a wise man?” Word had it that wise men typically hung out at crossroads.

“You can tell at a single glance?” the professor said, overjoyed that his fame had reached the mythical.

“I’m not your run of the mill unicorn. I am discerning.” The unicorn drew closer, his vapory breath silvery on the man’s forehead. “Since this is a chance of a lifetime encounter, why don’t you tell me everything about real things, and I’ll explain the rest. For starters, you tell me why God doesn’t exist, and I’ll show you how to compare a pound of infinity to a foot of imagination.”

The professor frowned. “How did you know that I’m an atheist?” He enjoyed the idea of stringing along the unicorn—he was already imagining retelling their conversation at the faculty club. “I said, and then the unicorn said….” Of course the professor didn’t really believe in the unicorn’s presence. In all likelihood, the unicorn was a side effect of his new prostate medication.

“It’s common knowledge that all wise men are atheists. And we know for a fact that none of you believe in unicorns.”

“Can you blame me? To date there is no evidence to support either God or unicorns.”

“Do you need to believe in unicorns for me to exist?”

The professor made a dismissive downward gesture with his hand. He hated solipsistic questions.

“Yes or no. Am I here right in front of you? Can you reach out and touch me?”

Despite knowing that this was a no-win situation, and that humoring a hallucination was sheer folly, the professor extended his arm, his fingers grabbing at thin air. The unicorn was light on his feet, remaining out of reach. After several failed attempts, the professor gave up. He sat on a tree stump, his hands folded in his lap, and blinked his eyes rapidly; surely this would wipe the unicorn from his vision. No luck. The unicorn was leaning forward, almost in his face, and he was smirking. “Touch me,” he whispered.

The professor closed his eyes and took several deep breaths. Thoughts of ill health or worse vied with an irrational desire to continue their conversation. But he was too late. When he opened his eyes, the unicorn was some distance away, standing at the crossroad junction. The professor called out, but the unicorn ignored him. Without so much as a backward glance, he trotted down the right-hand path and was soon out of sight.

The professor didn’t know what to think. He was glad to be returned to the prospect of good health and real things, but was saddened by the lost opportunity. He should have answered the unicorn directly–explained why there is no God. Maybe he could have dispelled the unicorn’s beliefs that there was something beyond everything. At the very least, they could have shared a final goodbye. Next time he would do better, but doubted that there would be a next time.

Despite a life-long skepticism, the professor dropped to his knees to check for footprints or stray unicorn hairs—some shred of evidence to document the unimaginable. If the unicorn had turned to look back, he might have interpreted the professor’s posture as the stance of prayer.

Not surprisingly, the professor found nothing. In his heart, he had known from the beginning how this tale would end. He rose to his feet and started back the way that he had come.

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Robert Burton is a neurologist and author of several novels including Doc-In-A-Box (Soho Press) and Cellmates (Dell), two books on neuroscience and philosophy, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not (St. Martin’s Press, 2008), and A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves (St. Martin’s Press 2013). Recent writings have appeared in the New York Times Book Review and Op-Ed section (The Stone), Nautilus, Aeon, Neurology, and Salon. His website is rburton.com.