Archive for the ‘Skepticism’ Category

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Two Modes of “God”: the Sticky Label & as Anaesthetic

March 28, 2019

Science and religion do in fact have one thing in common: both are very effective means of closing down subjective conscious experiencing of our inner world. Science can do it by denying that consciousness even exists, or by limiting itself to the study of its appearance in others instead of direct first hand experience (which admittedly can anyway not be shared with others). In any case, the wonder of consciousness, surprise at one’s own existence, and the uncomfortable awareness of complete aloneness and fact of mortality operate mostly in the subconscious, and anyone who denies these things affect their behaviour simply hasn’t looked very hard.

Religion, on the other hand, (and I include its soft core version found under the label ‘spirituality’ here), can shut down this awareness by immediately declaring the whole territory of ‘the inner’ as already well known and in the private possession of some entity called “God”.

This goddy tendency is ubiquitous among humans, and for me personally (an atheist of pseudo-buddhist orientation), quite baffling. Awareness — consciousness — is all we have. Why switch it off and label it? And why then start yelling at or killing anyone who tells you you’ve been hasty and you’re missing something? Why assume that anyone who stops using that word is shallow?

Whatever the reason, I identify here the two main ways in which the “God”-word seems to me to be used:

  1. as a kind of sticky label with the word “God” written in it that the believer wants to stick onto some part of their private subjective experience; and
  2. as a kind of anaesthetic, which is administered through vague words and soft priestly intonations that are designed to be so fuzzy around the edges that no one even tries to pin down to any specific meaning. It is especially used at times of crisis in the attempt at switching off pain.

(There is of course, a third, in which belief in “God” is a supposedly rational conclusion, derived only through reason — usually with the words “I didn’t have enough faith to be an atheist.” It usually amounts to either an argument from design, or the insistence that the resurrection of Jesus was a historical event attested to by eye witnesses, so we are compelled to believe it. I find this argument so utterly fatuous that I can only assume it is rhetorical and insincere, and only masks a belief in 1 or 2 above. The idea that such a creator has any interest in humans or exists in any way comprehensible to humans no doubt sounded a little better when people thought the earth was the center of the universe. It sounded slightly better until 1925 when we thought there was only one galaxy and our sun was the centre of that. But now that we know the size and age of the universe it is just absurd to use that argument, regardless of whether it is is given a fancy title like ‘The Anthropic Principle’ or not.)

The Sticky Label Theory of God

So you were born, and everyone was already using the word “God” as if it means something, and you didn’t know what it meant. You probably thought you were the only one in this boat, so you tried your best to know what it means. It means ‘authority that can’t be questioned’, or ‘big power that created the universe’, or — even more mysteriously — ‘love’: that much is clear; but what exactly IS it? Or HOW is it?

In any case, you’ve got this word written indelibly on a metaphysical label, and everyone else seems to have stuck it somewhere. They say they have stuck it onto the most valuable and precious location in their inner world that they can find.

So what about you? Well?

…A limited number of possibilities are apparent at this point.

You can stick it somewhere and it feels right — and good luck to you!

You can say you’ve stuck it somewhere and occasionally toss the word into conversation, often enough to keep the mullahs or the annoying uncle with the fake smile off your back; but the whole things seems a bit weird and pointless, but you’ve got other more pressing concerns in life.

You can try out as many different places as possible to stick it, and agree that this label could, in principle, be stuck in many places, so they all must be “God”. This is a popular one these days, especially among academics and anyone who for whatever reason wants to avoid making waves, but couldn’t be bothered to take any clear position.

….Or you could say the label was already peeled off by someone and handed to you by default, and you don’t see any point in sticking it anywhere.

This last option seems to upset everyone who has stuck their label onto something, and even enrages the aforementioned group who think that in principle you should have stuck it somewhere. All seem to think that you deny the existence of whatever it is they stuck their label onto: that which is most valuable. How could you, you unfeeling cad. Ha — you don’t believe in yourself! Etc.

In fact all you have done is declared your inner world an unexplored continent open to no one else. You might find it has rocks and trees and deserts and rivers, and places you can fall to your death into if you’re not careful; or if you are just unlucky.

But that “God” label stops that exploration. It’s too loud, and too meaningless. Too burdened with other people’s meanings, that they only guessed at and asserted in the first place. And always — ALWAYS — that sticky label you were given has some fine print that indicates who you are indebted to, and which agents can collect that debt.

Perhaps worst of all, having stuck the label somewhere, it means that all the rest of you is not “God”, and therefore unclean. For fanatics and those terrified from birth by fanatics, it often means that another label called “Satan” has been stuck onto other parts. (The wonderful comedy duo Garfunkel & Oates wrote a nice song for repressed puritanical teenagers on this topic, called F*ck me in the Ass Because I Love Jesus. “Careful not to touch Satan’s doorbell.”)

This dissociation from and denial of one’s mammalian origins and nature has pointlessly blighted humanity with incalculable misery.

The Word “God” as an Anaesthetic

This usage of the word “God” tends to see God as an external and benign force. It is used to switch off thought, discussion, and inner exploration. The whole point is that the words don’t mean anything. Their fuzzy edges are supposed to dull sensation, not to clarify or locate a source of pain. In an utterly hopeless or extreme situation, I can understand trying it, but unfortunately it is used routinely by priests and theologians. (New Age spiritual teachers use it too, but they usually intersperse it with concepts from quantum physics in the place of Jesus.)

The danger here is that it may also distract one from locating a source or cause of pain, and debilitate one from finding a solution to it. But pointing out the meaningless nature of such intonations, or that the accompanying behaviour (the smirking and stooping of popes and Dalai Lamas) is insincere and fake, makes the critic appear “not nice”, and a spoil sport, at best.

Despite what proponents of this approach say, it chews up a lot of energy to generate the desired neurochemicals associated with these pious words. Just because others don’t share the addiction to these substances, doesn’t mean that they don’t also use or value those same neurochemicals, perhaps in a different manner.

Eschewing all of this doesn’t make an atheist or non-theist a klutz who sees no mystery or wonder in the universe. Rather, it leaves doors and gates in the inner world open or unmarked. Although this does make it harder for such people to talk about their experiences, it does mean that when they do, they are forced to develop their own terminology to describe what they experience. Those more accustomed to the use of the “God” label will find such words glib or baffling, but if they took the time to ask any of their co-religionists what exactly they mean by the “God” word, they would find it just as glib and baffling.

Posted by Yakaru

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Another ‘Berlin’ post: Arthur Koestler & the story of his great novel Darkness at Noon

February 10, 2019

The author, journalist and multifaceted thinker Arthur Koestler (1905-83) lived, on and off, in Berlin from the mid 1920s until 1932. I studied his work when I was at university, reading many of his books except, including his great anti-communist novel, Darkness at Noon (published in 1940).

I was deeply affected by pretty much all his works: his account of his life as a (Jewish) communist in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis, his incarceration under a death sentence in one of Franco’s prisons. But I was also profoundly affected by his ideas: his struggle to free himself from the mid-forged manacles of communism and cultish thinking in general; his philosophical explorations trying to make sense of human nature…

I forgot about him for a couple of decades, but began re-reading him a few years ago. Living as I was at that time in Berlin, I suddenly realised that not only had his ideas influenced me far more deeply than I had expected, but also that many incidents from his life story occurred in parts of Berlin that I knew well. His work had always seemed extremely real – something that very few people manage to do when writing about the Nazis, but this added a dimension for me.

But despite having written one of the great novels of the twentieth century, there are no memorials or plaques to Koestler in Berlin. In the red brick buildings of the artists’ colony in Bonner Strasse where he lived, there are plaques memorialising many of the anti-Nazi activists, but none noting the domicile of one of the most important authors of the twentieth century.

The buildings housing the artists’ colony in Bonner Straße where Koestler lived until 1932

Plaque commemorating one of the artists — none for Koestler

Koestler’s undeserved non-fame in Germany is, in fact, easier to understand in the light of the extremely unusual history of his most famous book.

Arthur Koestler (probably in the 1930s)

Koestler had conceived of Darkness at Noon amidst tumultuous events of one of the most tumultuous times in world history. Having witnessed the rise of the Nazis, he had also just evaded a death sentence during incarceration in Spain. He escaped to France, but the Nazis soon invaded, forcing him to flee Paris to southern France. His partner, Daphne Hardy, had managed to translated the novel into English and send it to London before they had to flee again as the Nazi invasion rolled southwards.

Unfortunately in the chaos of this flight Koestler left the manuscript — the only copy — on the kitchen table. The translation thus effectively became the original.

And, it should be noted, the original translation had been further hampered by the fact that Hardy, was a sculptor, not a writer. The sharp edge of German communist terminology was often lost in a clunky transliteration, or simply skipped over. Other times she added elements to text that were not in the original. Her task was made even more difficult by Koestler’s highly strung nature, already exacerbated by the circumstances.

Yet Hardy’s translation and, above all Koesatler’s searingly insightful and tragic narrative, were sufficient for the book to be ranked No. 8 in the US Modern Library’s list of the Top 100 English language novels of all time.

In 2016, in an extraordinary twist of fate, a German doctoral student (Matthias Weßel) was reading through the contents list for a box of Koestler’s papers in a Swiss archive when he came across a listing for a manuscript titled Rubaschow — known to be the working title of Darkness at Noon. Incredibly, the manuscript that Koestler had left on a kitchen table in France had somehow landed in this archive and sat there for decades undiscovered.

In September of 2018, it was published for the first time in German.

Finally published in September 2018 (Koestler’s working title was Rubaschow. Translator Daphne Hardy suggested the English title.

Not many books become classics 78 years before they are published! And, I suppose, this also means it’s no longer a great English language novel.

Darkness at Noon dropped like an intellectual bombshell in 1940, upon many whose sympathies for communism had been heightened by a loathing for Nazism. When translated into French, “it was one of the primary reasons the Communist Party never came to power in France, a real possibility at the time”. This claim may sound exaggerated, but Anne Applebaum (the author of the this quote) is not given to hyperbole, and is not the only historian to reach this conclusion.

A German edition, (reverse translated with Koestler’s help) was published for that country in 1946.

Printed in London in 1946 for distribution in Germany but suppressed by the Allies! (Not a museum exhibit: my copy bought on Amazon for €1)

Like so much in Koestler’s life, there is a bizarre story attached to this event: the Occupying Forces in Germany, wanting to appease their new ally Joseph Stalin, suppressed the book and prohibited its distribution. (To add yet another layer of absurdity to this, Koestler’s application to emigrate to the US was rejected due to his communist background.)

In the novel, a communist leader, Vladimir Salmanovich Rubashov, has been arrested and is about to be tried for treason. His interrogator, Ivanov, (an old friend of Rubashov’s) has just told Rubashov he must sign a confession of treason or face execution. Rubashov asks,

“Why actually do you people intend to have me shot?”

Ivanov let a few seconds go by. He smoked and drew a few figures with his pencil on the blotting-paper. He seemed to be searching for the exact words.

Listen, Rubashov,” he said finally. “There is one thing I would like to point out to you. You have repeatedly said ‘you’, meaning State and Party, as opposed to ‘I’ – that is, Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov. For the public, one needs, of course, a trial and legal justification. For us, what I have just said should be enough.”

Rubashov thought this over; he was somewhat taken aback. For a moment, it was as if Ivanov had hit a tuning fork, to which his mind responded of its own accord….

Rubashov immediately recognised the error that had crept into his thinking. His great personal weakness: he could not prevent himself from considering the perspective of others. He had begun to hesitate and reflect rather than carry out orders: revealing unacceptable doubts about the inexorable course of history that the Party embodied. He had begun to feel guilt — a petit bourgois sentiment entirely foreign to historical necessity. Either he would decide that his tendency towards self-reflection was correct and thus betray the Party; or he must recognise his fallibility and maintain his faith in the Party.

Koestler himself had internalised communist logic that the interrogator Ivanov so deftly expresses. As a brilliant thinker of rather unstable personality, communism no doubt gave him a structure he could accept and submit himself to. As a Jew in Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he, quite accurately, saw the Party as the most powerful opponent of Nazism.

But for Koestler this it wasn’t just Realpolitik. He ultimately highlighted three characteristics of communism that made it especially persuasive: the way it used idea that the end justifies the means as a way of evading ethics; communism as a kind of religious faith; and that it carried a built in mechanism for disabling all criticism of Stalinism, and all self-reflection. These are of course, all interrelated.

He quotes, in Darkness at Noon, a declaration from a 15th century bishop:

“When the existence of the Church is threatened, she is released from the commandments of morality. With unity as its end, the use of every means is sanctified, even cunning, treachery, violence, simony, prison, death. For all order is for the sake of the community, and the individual must be sacrificed to common good.”

Koestler has Rubashov struggling with his doubts in his cell:

The ultimate truth is penultimately always a falsehood. He who will be proved right in the end appears to be wrong and harmful before it.

But who will be proved right? It will only be known later. Meanwhile he is bound to act on credit and sell his soul to the devil, in the hope of absolution.

(Incidentally, the incongruous phrase ‘sell his soul to the devil’ is not in the original German — an example of an addition by Hardy.)

Later Rubashov, compares his own own strength of conviction to that of the leader of Party (clearly based on Stalin).

No. 1 has faith in himself, tough, slow, sullen, unshakable. He has the most solid anchor chain of all. Mine has worn thin in the last four years… The fact is: I no longer believe in my infallibility. That is why I am lost.

The context in the novel is the tumultuous years of war and, within Russia, the attempted transformation of an agrarian society into an industrial super power at high speed. History was, so to speak cutting a destructive course through tens of millions of lives, regardless of which side was right or wrong.

Rubashov realises his self-doubt not only sets him outside the Party, but even prevents him from criticising the Party decisively. No one who doubts themselves believes they will be proven right by history. He ultimately goes to his execution still suspecting that No. 1 may be right after all.

Koestler himself, however, was able to extricate himself from this mental prison and clearly perceive the true nature of Stalin’s purges:

It is a logical contradiction when with uncanny regularity the leadership sees itself obliged to undertake more and more bloody operations within the movement, and in the same breath insists that the movement is healthy. Such an accumulation of grave surgical interventions points with much greater likelihood to the existence of a much more serious illness.

In Spain in the mid 1930s, Koestler had witnessed Stalin’s betrayal of Spanish communists. But his encounters with fascism also began to sow seeds of doubt about. He had decided to remain in Malaga to as the only journalist to report on the fall of that city to Franco’s troops in 1937, when he was arrested. Managing to evade summary execution, he was transported to Seville where he was incarcerated for 90 days in solitary confinement. Franco had signed an order for his execution.

Koestler’s mugshot upon his arrest in Malaga 1937

His status as foreign journalist working for an English newspaper seems to have delayed his execution long enough for Hardy and some English diplomats to successfully petition Franco for his release.

It wasn’t his so much his own apparently imminent execution that challenged Koestler’s communist beliefs — his ideological training had prepared him for that. And the amount of suffering and death he had witnessed in the preceding years had inured him to self-pity. Koestler later estimated that several thousand prisoners must have been executed in that prison during the period of his incarceration in Seville. As a communist he could have marked this up in the historical ledger as a fascist war crime. But he could not help but recognise an appalling reflection in the actions and mentality of Franco’s army. He could no longer use the exigencies of supposed historical necessity to cloak his conscience.

But something else happened to Koestler too during his incarceration that, as he later put it, demolished the foundations of his communism at a subconscious level.

To explain it, he borrowed a term from William James: the oceanic experience. Having lost everything except his own consciousness, and despite the agonies and deprivations he was being subjected to, he seems to have experienced intervals of profound peacefulness, or bliss. He didn’t quite realise it at the time, but it propelled him out of the ideological trap he had so deliberately entered.

His communist training — his conception of consciousness as the product of the economic substructure — simply had no place for this experience.

His extraordinary prison diary, published as Dialogue With Death, recounts his arrest and internment in a manner that is infused with this light. He writes of his own pain and terror in a way that is oddly neutral or non-emotional, yet vivid in detail. His horror and disgust are often palpable in his writing, but the sense of ‘drama’ that is usually to be found in accounts such as these, is entirely absent. In fact, this peculiar light imbues all his autobiographical writings, as well as Darkness at Noon.

His obsession in later life with pseudo-science is also largely a product of this, and I think he has been a little too harshly judged by history for this weakness.

That Darkness at Noon would end with Rubashov’s execution was intimated from the beginning of the book. But its unforgettable final passage is drawn from an incident in Spain. Koestler, being held after his arrest in a police station in Malaga was being forced to watch the brutal treatment of other suspects. The young soldiers seemed to be from elsewhere, but an older police officer doing paper work was probably, he surmised, a local. Koestler began surreptitiously observing this man for his reactions — he had probably lived and worked here all his life and must be shocked to find himself swept up in these events. The officer eventually noticed Koestler watching him, and at one point when another victim was being dragged out, he half-looked at Koestler and gave a barely perceptible shrug of his shoulders.

Thus, the final passage of Darkness at Noon — the moment when Rubashov is executed — somehow manages to contain an echo of both the oceanic feeling and this man’s helpless indifference:

A second smashing blow hit him on the ear. Then all became quiet. There was the sea again with its sounds. A wave slowly lifted him up. It came from afar and traveled sedately on, a shrug of eternity.

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Comment From a Reader

January 31, 2019

I received an interesting comment from reader Valerie, who tried to send it as an email but the address didn’t work, so she posted it to the comments in the ‘About’ page (sidebar top right). I was happy to get it, not only because she took the time to share some personal experiences, but also because she noticed that I am not blindly hostile to ‘spiritual’ things, which is something I am often accused of (by Louise Hay fans).

I don’t do anything at all to promote this site, because it is aimed, above all, towards people who are interested in some ‘spiritual’ product but have asked themselves ‘Is this real?’ (I also appreciate those couple of dozen or so people who read here regularly and those among them who comment — I doubt I would do any of this without that, and it also makes me want to take care and try to maintain some standards. And it is an important experience for me to learn to express my thoughts and feelings without concerning myself with what the neighbours will think of me.

Anyway, I thought that many who read here will find plenty of resonance with much of what Valerie shares here (posted of course, with her permission). Please feel free to share your own experiences here too…

Hi..your email comes up as not valid, so I am just going to paste it here instead;

Dear Mr. Y;
I wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your blog, which I just stumbled upon last night after being given a copy of Mutant Message by a well meaning friend. I decided to google author Marlo Morgan, since it looked like another one of those white lady as indigenous savior tales..and pretty much was. (Fun read, though!)
I’m particularly thrilled that you can spell and write well,….that always gets my attention on the interwebs! Your observations are really interesting and, I think, very helpful to anyone with an open mind. Plus I love exposing frauds.

As I read your observations about Marlo Morgan and a few others, I was impressed by the fact that although you have a critical and discerning approach, you don’t rant on and on about what jerks these people are, or really look down on the people who follow them..and it’s clear that you are knowledgeable about numerous traditions. You don’t condemn the message as much as the deceptive messengers.
I myself was formerly of two minds about much of this stuff. I converted to Tibetan Buddhism 24 years ago..Nyingma School. I have also been a Tarot reader for about 30 years, something that runs in my Scottish family for several generations, and something I do not charge money for. I wanted to grow up to be Thomas Merton.
But I also feel that the New Age movement is just ridiculous and is mostly large white, middle aged ladies who wear lots of scarves and men who want to start their own cults. People who want to use potential mystical experience as a drug..something to get high on and entertain themselves with.

I studied with my Lama for 3&1/2 years.. and watched my love of the dharma be turned into some sociopathic, narcissistic man’s sex cult..because “Tantra”! I left. I tried studying with HIS teacher, who arrived here after we all busted our guy..but it was the same girl in a different dress as it were. I still do some of my practices, but steer clear of teachers now, though I did study for a time after that with a very ethical Pure Land monk whom I liked a lot, just to experience another Buddhist tradition.

I am also a breast cancer patient for the past 3 years and have been on the receiving end of all the ‘create your own reality’ crap that is out there. “Stay positive!” “Eat only this, don’t eat that!” and on and on. When people tell me to “stay positive”, or “you’ll be fine!” I tell them to go fuck themselves. I know tons of “positive thinking” women who are just as dead as anyone, and that’s just an easy way for a healthy person to imagine that THEY will never be in my position, because they do their stupid affirmations or whatever. Making cancer a “choice” as it were, is the worst kind of victim blaming and causes a lot of suffering among patients. I’ve always been a happy soul, am thin, exercise, don’t smoke..and here I am..all cancer-y. (I’m not a huge fan of regular oncology medicine either, but I did subject myself to the basics in addressing my cancer, while refusing some treatments due to extreme side effects.) All these purported “natural” cures and protocols just make us poorer.. and feel like WE have somehow failed when they don’t work. Forget the toxic environmental problems we all face..cancer is because we don’t think right, or ate some candy!

5 years ago I was introduced to a Native American couple who host a local pow wow and who introduced me to a lovely Grandmother/Elder who has taught me some things. I asked if she could give me a few teachings because Buddhism is very focussed on getting out of here and never coming back..nature is just something to transcend. I work in animal rescue and humane education and liked the NA respect for the natural world..but here again.. she and NA’s in general attract lots of white people, who want to play make believe and live at a sort of “spiritual buffet”. This week it’s angels, next week find your spirit animal and learn to be a shaman in only three days, and oh look, a Medicine man is visiting, so let’s all vision quest! (Not to mention the two Lakota medicine men the grandmother hosted turned out to be the usual sociopathic narcissists in holy person’s clothing and really screwed over this lovely old woman.) So I’m out of there as well and now just see Grandma privately at her house.

All this to say that I think the human impulse to connect with the All That Is, the Mystery, is a universal one and very valid..but I no longer feel that teachers and the parent/child dynamic have any value, leading as they do to very human abuses of power, and learned helplessness on the part of seekers. This doesn’t mean we can’t learn from each other, or that people do not have things to teach that are valuable..but in the final analysis, spiritual practice is between the individual and Spirit itself. There are no prizes for it, a chosen path is not some pink cloud. It can be, and should be, difficult as one digs deeper, and outside validation means nothing. When I was younger I longed to be “seen” somehow..for someone to recognize my sincerity..but consider myself so fortunate that my Lama turned out to be a shitty person, because it cured me of this in record time. Now, halfway through my sixties, it pains me to see people fall for things that are not sincere or real in their quest for communion. So I really like the things you have to say!

Lately I am very taken with the writing of Elaine Pagels…just finished her new book “Why Religion?’ She is the theological scholar who translated the Gnostic Gospels from Coptic, in case you aren’t familiar with her. If you haven’t read the book, you might find it interesting.
In any case, I thought it would be fun to write to you..it was! and I will now be checking in on your blog with interest!

Thanks and be well!

I can’t help but note that not only have I found Elaine Pagels’ work valuable, but that the work of her late husband has also been featured here. He was a physicist who wrote a book which Bruce Lipton read and completely misunderstood. I covered it in a post called The Book That Changed Bruce Lipton’s Life (this is really stupid!).

 

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There is No “Western Paradigm”

October 4, 2015

The argument that there is an inherently exploitive “Western” way of perceiving the world, reflects justifiable concerns about neo-colonialist oppression and bigotry. But while it is perfectly valid to criticize lazy or demeaning assumptions about other cultures, the term “Western paradigm” can also be used in a similarly lazy manner, to discredit a particular line of inquiry.

There are other problems with the use of such terminology, too. Often, characteristics that are labeled “Western” are in fact universal. Racism, greed, and colonialism are not exclusively Western; nor, on the positive side, are curiosity and reason. 

It’s neither Western, nor inherently oppressive, to ask straight forward questions about matters of fact. Yet, as we shall see below, such questioning is often dismissed as part of the Western paradigm that tries to subjugate everything to the standard of reason.

The historian Tom Holland made a documentary film a few years ago. in which he asked whether or not the early accounts of the Prophet Mohammed’s life and the development of Islam are really true.

Holland, of course, was aware that the questions he was asking (as well as the evidence he found) were likely to upset some people. He was not merely concerned for his own safety, but also aware that he occupied a privileged position of some academic power, far removed from the people whose history and traditions he was studying. Of course he also comes from a culture that has often exploited and oppressed many predominantly Muslim countries.  

At one point in the film, Holland asked a professor of Islamic Studies if he thought that this line of inquiry was “complicit with the brute fact of Western imperialism”. The professor, Seyyed Hossein Nasr responded:

No, not necessarily, as long as you remain aware of what you are doing. If you come as a western scholar or historian and in all honesty present what your world view is, and say, “When I look at the Islamic world from this paradigm, this is what I see”, and bring out why this is different from how Muslims see themselves, then I think it’s a very honest effort…

This is an intelligent and reasonable answer — an invitation for Holland to do his research and present his results. It is a stark contrast to those who screamed abuse and Holland and made death threats. But Nasr also makes some highly questionable assumptions.

He continues:

Gradually in the West, for the intellectual elite, the sense of the sacred was lost. A tribal person in Africa or in the Amazon has a natural sense of the sacred, whereas a graduate student at Oxford probably doesn’t….. It is from the West that this kind of history came up: that reason is the ultimate decider and judge of the truth…

But “this kind of history” — checking stated facts against available evidence — did not arise “in the West”. It arises pretty much all by itself from human nature. To ascribe it purely to “the West” does a disservice to everyone who has ever asked the simple question, “Is that really true?”

In the 9th Century in Persia, the celebrated physician Al-Razi considered the scriptures of his own culture and started a discussion for which he clearly was not celebrated. He noted that the various prophets contradicted each other and therefore cannot possibly all be right; nor can revelation — varying so wildly between the divine authorities — be trusted as reliable.

Al-Razi:

Prophets are impostors, at best misled by demonic shades of restless and envious spirits. But ordinary folk are fully capable of thinking for themselves and in no need of guidance from another….

How can anyone think philosophically while committed to these old fairy tales founded on contradictions, obdurate ignorance and dogmatism?

Reason, he argued, unlike revelation, is available to all.

Persian_Scholar_pavilion_in_Viena_UN_(Rhazes)Muhammad Zakariyā Rāzī (Al-Razi/Rhazes)

Al-Razi’s genius and importance as a physician no doubt protected him from serious persecution. (His heretical writings, however, were destroyed and are known only from quotations by those who argued against him.) Obviously, anyone daring to speak like that in Iran today would be in grave danger. 

Moreover, if someone speaks like that today in the West, they will probably be accused of letting their imperialist Western paradigm get the better of them. Or, that label’s big brother would be applied and they’d be called an Islamophobe. And, of course, the accusers would remain baffled by the issues raised, and meekly capitulate before their own ignorance for a few centuries more.

Naturally, bigots find it easy enough to doubt the religions of others too — but never their own. (One You-tube user who uploaded a copy of Holland’s documentary used the name martyr4Jesus!)

If there is a peculiarly “Western paradigm”, it would involve the use of the term paradigm.

This idea of a paradigm is quintessentially Western. Of course, the complete package includes the notion of a paradigm shift — which for some reason is only ever predicted to be awaiting those who supposedly hold a “Western” or “materialistic” paradigm. I can’t imagine Professor Nasr predicting that the Amazonian natives will have a revelation and drop their supposed “sense of the sacred” in favor of a materialistic paradigm.

Similarly, the “sense of the sacred” is a vague notion whose only clearly defined quality is a fence that divides it from the “materialistic West”.  The whole of Western scholarship is deemed to be an inherently exploitive paradigm that ethnocentrically distorts and demeans its subject matter, simply to avoid the uncomfortable truth that some stories are myths rather than factual history.

One non-Western academic who took issue with this over-simplification is Ibn Warraq. His book Defending the West identified three aspects of Western culture that are overlooked by those who see Western scholarship as inherently colonialist.

Here is Warraq’s list:

1. Universalism, i.e. recognition that the rights granted to oneself must be granted equally to others.
2. Curiosity and learning for learning’s
sake. (Edward Said had claimed that all knowledge of the Orient was acquired merely to enable colonialist exploitation. Warraq refuted this by pointing to the vast German scholarship of the 19th Century that was carried out in countries where Germany had no colonial interests.)
3. Self criticism.
(I would place the awareness of various paradigms in this category!)

To sum up, it is certainly easier to practice free inquiry in the West. But this should make us want to try to spread this freedom to non-Western countries, not do the opposite: to hinder and devalue it with pejorative labels and lazy judgments. It is ironic, and potentially disastrous, that the only truly Western idea that might ever spread to the Orient is that reason is not a universal quality, but part of an exploitive Western paradigm.

Posted by Yakaru

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Skeptic Fail #2: Manipulation vs Critical Thinking

March 8, 2015

Welcome back to this series that looks at the blind spots and failures that skeptics are especially prone to making.

In Part 1 we saw the well known skeptic Michael Shermer fail to debunk the “law of attraction”, simply because he hadn’t researched the topic enough — before making a silly, self-indulgent video about it.

This post features Dr Shermer again, but in a different role. This time he becomes the victim of a rather frivolous piece of journalistic trickery, and thereby demonstrates the mechanisms that get people sucked into scams like the law of attraction. Critical thinking skills offer limited protection under such conditions.

I am going to highlight this incident because skeptics — including Dr Shermer — tend to underestimate the role that deliberate manipulation plays in popular scams like The Secret. The bad science in that film has been well covered by skeptics, but as far as I know, no professional skeptic or large skeptic organization has commented on the emotionally charged advertising tactics that the film makers employed. And none seem to have noticed the highly manipulative subliminal images in the opening sequences.

27-cScreenshot from The Secret – in ancient Egypt a terrified young priest tries to protect the “secret” for future generations, as soldiers with burning torches run towards him. The flaming figures in the background are part of a fade into the next scene. Images of people burning, as well as sexual images abound.

Furthermore, The Secret built an exploitive relationship with the viewer, by surreptitiously pulling them into the film’s narrative until they became participants themselves in the propagation of the story. As well as being impelled promote the film to their friends (viral marketing), countless people were sucked into entering a highly exploitive personal relationship with one or more of the teachers in it — that was the whole aim of the film.

123The first appearance of James Ray in The Secret – a subliminal image. Four people died while attending his events in 2009.

Professional skeptics overlooked all this because they tend to focus on what they are good at: logical fallacies. This leads to a rather superficial view of human behavior, and an annoying smugness, and most importantly, an impotent response to the most successful popular scam in decades. 

No matter how good your “baloney detector” is, it won’t protect an unsuspecting person from a complicated scam like The Secret that’s specifically designed to deactivate their defenses. It won’t even protect you from a simple con trick…. As Dr Shermer discovers in the exchange below….

The email exchange below, published last year on the Daily Beast website, shows how a trickster mimics a safe situation, and how a person under stress will take greater risks than usual, with less care.

To set the scene, Shermer is under stress because of accusations about him that were circulating in the internet (and which will not be discussed here!!!). He has initiated legal proceedings, but this also requires his own silence, no doubt leaving him feeling defenseless and highly frustrated. He is contacted by a journalist called Ian Murphy:

Dear Mr. Shermer,
I’m writing a story about the recent ugliness in the atheist/skeptic community/movement (last week, and the past two years) for The Progressive, AlterNet, or Salon (not sure yet), and I’m obviously hoping you’ll be gracious enough to answer some questions.
Phone would be best, but I’d settle for email–any way to get your side of things out there.
Regardless, thanks for all you’ve done for the skeptics of the world.

The journalist presents this, basically, as an offer of help from a fan. In effect he is saying I have what you need, and I will serve you. This of course is the promise of every scammer in history.

Shermer politely declines, citing his lawyers and a book he is busy writing. The journalist replies:

I figured as much, but I had to ask! And have fun writing. (One fortunate thing about all this is that your sales will be higher than ever! Look at Paula Deen. Silver lining? Yesh. Sorry. ) Anywho, will you please forward my request to your attorney? Pretty please? A presumptuous thanks! Or awwww. Thanks for your time.

Here are offers of emotional and moral support as well as more clearly submissive signals, softening the persistent request for further attention. Shermer refuses again, and it goes back and forth a bit until the journalist blurts out:

To be honest, I’m not entirely certain what the charge is? You bought a woman drinks, for god’s sake?! What, she felt taken advantage of the next day–years later?–because you’re a charismatic person, memories are dramatizations of someone’s dogma du jour!? The story’s not about the “charge,” whatever that actual is, it’s about skepticism, truly, no?

Here the journalist is modeling the behavior he hopes Shermer will impulsively imitate — trying to get Shermer to respond with the same kind of out-blurting. And it works.

Shermer:

“….I haven’t been charged with anything. An anonymous woman told another anonymous woman to tell PZ Myers that I raped her at some unspecified time in the past at some unspecified conference which was alleged reported to unspecified persons who allegedly covered up whatever it is I allegedly did….”

The journalist responds with some speculation about how he might include those remarks in a story he wants to publish. Shermer, still not smelling any rat-like aromas, tries to assert his authority:

Ian. Stop. Nothing I have written to you can be quoted…

Shermer issues this imperative, having believed the journalist’s submissive behavior from before. And when the journalist persists, he sharpens it:

No, Ian, you cannot “convey the meaning of the emails….”

Shermer still thinks he can assert his authority here, and it only slowly dawns on him that the journalist is no longer being submissive. But by then it’s too late.

Shermer is incredulous and invokes his lawyers, but the journalist knows his legal rights and informs Shermer that he will publish the entire email exchange, which he does. (No dire consequences ensue, beyond some chuckling and some grizzling about journalistic ethics.)

Once the Murphy had gained his trust, it simply did not occur to Shermer that the journalist might not share his goals. Nor, of course, would it be likely occur to anyone else in such circumstances.

But, like many scam victims, had he been psychologically capable of doing even the most basic background check, Shermer probably wouldn’t have fallen for Murphy’s submissive signals. A minute on google, and he would have discovered that Murphy had recently spent a week in jail, in preference to doing 70 hours community service — which he found “boring”. And this was after a “public nuisance” conviction for showing up at an anti-gay Christian rally and interviewing people with a dildo. All this does not exactly fit the profile of the obsequious fan-boy he played for Shermer!

And real scammers don’t pull the plug as swiftly and honestly as Ian Murphy did. Once you have signed the charges to your credit card, they keep it rolling until they have taken everything they can get to.

Posted by Yakaru

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There is no taboo on studying psychic phenomena, just boredom

October 20, 2013

Regular commenter (and blogger) @lettersquash left a great comment here yesterday. I want to write a quick post picking up an important point from it. It concerns the repeated yammering from parapsychologists and psychic researchers (not to mention cancer quacks) that mainstream science has a taboo against studying psychic phenomena. Lettersquash notes that Rupert Sheldrake, for example,

rails against the taboo against studying psychic phenomena, although people have been studying it for centuries (and finding nothing).

The ‘taboo’ is boredom, the boredom some of us feel when someone tells us enthusiastically their house is haunted or they saw a spaceship land on their lawn last night or they know their dog can understand everything they’re saying….

The whole rant is excellent and well worth reading and responding to. I will post a few quick thoughts on this topic here…..

It seems to me that far from having a taboo about spiritual or psychic phenomena, scientists and serious researchers have been especially accommodating of such ideas. If people were not so emotionally invested in these ideas (and I include scientists here) there is no way that science would have wasted so much time and energy on them. Yet regardless of how many times such claims are demolished by properly conducted research, and such ideas are shown to be utterly useless by the laws of physics, nutbags like Rupert Sheldrake or Dean Radin continue to insist that it’s merely because of a taboo that these ideas have not entered mainstream science. No. It’s because these presumptious nitwits have published their poorly researched failures too quickly and are too egotistical or too greedy to back down.

The history of science is littered with failed hypotheses and disproven theories. Even very popular and plausible ones were swiftly dispatched pretty much as soon as it became clear that they were implausible. The theory that gravity was due to the existence of an “ether” through which the planets moved was dropped as soon as Newton figured out the math for measuring the exact velocity of planets at all points of their (elliptical) orbits. He was shocked to find that it they moved exactly according to his theoretical calculations which deliberately ignored the effects of the resistance he expected to find. (Like air resistance, it was supposed that ether would also cause a slight drag.) Had ether been equated with the Holy Ghost, or — a more relevant example — been supposed to be the medium through which we can communicate with the dead, we would probably still be forced to speak of it respectfully in hushed tones and fund research into why science “can’t explain” how it allows planets to move through it without resistance.

It’s an insult to science and to scientists to claim this taboo exists. Science itself is the process by which evidence is evaluated for its reliability and usefulness. Scientific method is entirely concerned with this, and scientific knowledge can be said to consist of those things which are so well established that it no longer makes any sense to test it. It’s not that difficult to realize that this valuable knowledge has implications — namely that we don’t need to waste time on investigating clearly implausible ideas.

If there is a taboo it’s against treating religious ideas exactly the same as other ideas and dismissing them when they have been clearly shown to be useless.

Of course, it’s fine if people want to go on gathering data and carrying out experiments (though why not try conducting them properly for once???). Maybe one day you’ll hit the jackpot. ESP will be proven to exist and we will be able to read minds with exactly the same accuracy as if we were guessing; homeopathy will be proven and we’ll be able to heal people just as effectively as a placebo; psychics will legitimately be able to help police find missing children with exactly the same success rate as random chance…. And a Golden Age will ensue….

UPDATE 17 June 2014

I wasn’t joking in the comments below when I warned of a $20 fine for any commenter linking to a paranormal claim that has already been thoroughly debunked. Unfortunately, one commenter below posted this link to a book containing a veritable encyclopedia of idiotic charlatans and woos, (Uri Geller, for example) and a long list of fraudulent and debunked woo practices (Kirlian photography, for example). Many of these topics are no longer worthy of consideration, beyond serving as rather mundane cases studies of well documented fraud, delusion, and ignorance. 

For this act, I hereby fine commenter Roman Voronjanski $20 to be paid to Doctors Without Borders. As an act of clemency, however, a fitting donation has been paid by this website on behalf of the offender. Please do not offend again. Next time I won’t pay it, and you will be placed on moderation until you do.

spende
Confirmation notice – €20 donation (click to enlarge if you can read German)

Posted by Yakaru

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Skeptic Fail #1: Michael Shermer fails to debunk the Law of Attraction

September 28, 2013

I probably should have started this series a long time ago. but I didn’t. I guess I wanted to “focus on the positive”. For many years I’ve only felt able to shake my head at some of the things that professional skeptics do, and simply focus on the good skeptic work — done mostly by amateur “skeptic” bloggers or by professionals who aren’t dependent on skepticism for their income.

I also don’t pay much attention to what professional skeptics and their organizations are doing, and I don’t see any reason to start. But some of their failures do need to be pointed out, as do the blind spots inherent in the usual skeptical approach to many issues.

So let’s start with a generally disgraceful piece of failed skepticism which looks more like a pathetic attempt at self-promotion by Michael Shermer. He attempts to debunk the — dangerous and wrong — “Law of Attraction” as presented in The Secret. Unfortunately he ignores one of the most basic rules of skepticism, in that he didn’t sufficiently research, and therefore doesn’t understand, the idea he is criticizing. The result is that he winds up making a video that would be more likely to reinforce the belief in the Law of Attraction. This is known in the business as a failure.

The segment starts with Shermer and another professional skeptic Brian Dalton having a mock argument about whether or not the law of attraction applies to sick people or people who have had an accident. Did they attract it? Dalton pretends to believe they must have done, and Shermer plays the role of the believer who says it doesn’t apply to sick people.

Had they done a modicum of research they would have discovered almost instantly that, yes, the law of attraction says that you will attract anything you focus on, wanted or unwanted. Every single law of attraction teacher on the planet insists that you do indeed manifest negative things if you are not careful. Thus — 

“The law of attraction works whether you believe in it or not, just like the law of gravity, so buy this product and learn how to use it for yourself.”

I’m stunned that neither Shermer nor Dalton have heard that line….. That’s the basis of the whole fucking scam!

They suck you in with promising to show you how to manifest your dreams and then try to scare the pants off you with the information that you are manifesting things all the time whether you like it or not, so you better watch what you think.

This is why the idea is such a trap. All criticism of it is considered by a believer to be inherently “negative” and therefore dangerous and to be avoided lest one attract negativity into ones life. And it is based on fear — the fear that your greatest fears will become a reality if you don’t strictly control your thoughts. The Secret was carefully designed both to disable critical thinking (by presenting it as if it’s a gift from a child) and to trigger deep-seated fears in people (with numerous images of people being hunted and burned alive), without the viewer realizing what they were getting themselves into.

And Shermer and Dalton missed all of that. They don’t know what they are up against. And they are clearly oblivious to the amount of damage this idea has caused to the lives of millions of people who have tried to use it.

These two have clearly invested a lot of time, effort and money in making this video. It’s filmed in a professional studio and has obviously been scripted. They even went to the trouble of queuing up footage of chickens for the exact moment in their scripted banter when Dalton calls Shermer a “chicken”. Really funny guys. Jeez, you blokes are a laugh a minute aren’t you.

4Skeptic humor from Brian Dalton: “You’re a chicken buckaaark”

More disturbing is their sequence in which they try to “manifest” a parking space.

Shermer introduces the sequence with a smirk: “So we’re here in a parking lot with Jen…. who’s a big believer in the law of attraction.”

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That’s right, two guys, both of whom have a bad reputation for manipulative dealings women have got “Jen” in the back seat of a car in a parking lot and are leering at her from the front.

This pointless and unfortunate sequence has an added piece of stupidity from Shermer which is more in the realm of normal every day poor educational practice than sexism or incompetence. Namely, he says that with Jen visualizing a parking spot, that if they find one “then clearly something is going on.” For Shermer this is just a normal over-stated “strictly for TV” Penn & Teller style mock experiment for entertainment purposes only. But it is also exactly the kind of half-baked “experiment” that millions of law of attraction believers have carried out themselves and experienced “success” with. Any believer in the LoA will simply be nodding their head at this and wondering when Shermer is going to challenge their beliefs. Again, I am stunned that Shermer doesn’t know this.

The scene ends with an abrupt cut back to the studio, with the joke that Jen was so worried about Dalton’s driving that she manifested an accident. (A further bit of patronizing and sexist tastelessness has Dalton joking that the only reason she didn’t want to work with them anymore was because she didn’t like Shermer’s beret.)

Then it gets even more tasteless and disturbing with a sequence in which they get a small child to visualize a bike, and she winds up (fictitiously) getting hit by one and taken to hospital. Again, a believer would be nodding at this and saying, “Yep, that’s why you gotta learn to do it right.” Why are they doing this?

They sum up.

Shermer:

If good things happen because people will it, doesn’t that mean bad things also happen because people will it? Do you really think that things like disease and terror attacks happen because people will it on themselves? I don’t think so.

Excuse me, is this supposed to be skepticism? Is this the best you guys can come up with against the most malevolent, ruthless and above all most successful piece of spiritual mass manipulation in decades? — An unwitting confirmation of its main premise; a replication of exactly the kind of experiment that appears to confirm it; and lamely countering it with the phrase “I don’t think so”?

It’s so easy to assume that the only reason why people believe “weird things” is because the human brain tends to make logical fallacies. But that is to ignore virtually the whole of behavioral psychology. It also underestimates the role of manipulation and above all the ruthlessness of people willing to exploit others by what ever means are possible. Shermer and Dalton are way out of their depth with these issues.

Part 2 looks more closely at manipulation

Posted by Yakaru