Archive for the ‘Spiritual People Don’t Understand Science’ Category

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What Spiritual People Don’t Understand About Science: Part 9 — Biologists don’t think animals are machines

October 12, 2019

Along with blind and mysterious attacks on Charles Darwin, (to be covered soon in this series) a common accusation leveled by spiritual teachers against biologists is that they conceive of living organisms as machines.

I’ve already covered Rupert Sheldrake doing this (here), but pretty much every spiritual teacher who claims to be in some measure “scientific” will inform their audience that about 400 years ago Rene Descartes declared that animals are nothing more than a collection of levers, pulleys, and other mechanisms, who clunk and ratchet about until they stop functioning.

It is true that Descartes presented physiology in these terms. He really did think that just as the difference between a rock and a clock is simply a matter of complexity, so too is the difference between a clock and a dog. For Descartes, a dog was no more “alive” than a clock. Nor for him did a dog any more have an inner life than would a clock.

Descartes granted humans, uniquely, a soul. This non-physical, immaterial soul grants consciousness to the human body, and can reach down into the brain and steer the body about, guiding its movements and actions. In itself this idea was not an entirely new notion: previous thinkers (Galen, for example) thought the soul inhabited the ventricles, the several empty channels that run through the brain. But Descartes decided that the pineal gland, as it was a single structure in the centre of the brain, unpaired like many other recognisable structures on either hemisphere, was the “seat of the soul”.

This conception raised a number of problems, all of which were raised at the time.

Where did all this complexity come from? Descartes said God designed it, built it, wound it up and set it off running. God then withdrew and watched the various components clunk out their fate, with only humans able to choose a non-determined path.

What exactly is life? Many animals do unmistakably appear to have an inner life. Descartes simply ignored this. As the biologist Ernst Mayr wrote in 1982:

[Descartes’] proposal to reduce organisms to a class of automata had the unfortunate consequence of offending every biologist who had even the slightest understanding of organisms. Descartes’s crass mechanism encountered, therefore, violent opposition…

Here we come across the first problem with the claim by spiritual teachers that modern biology is simply an extension of Descartes; that biologists simply took Descartes’ assumptions and ran with them. According to Sheldrake, Mayr should be reporting that Descartes was right, and his ideas were immediately accepted.

Instead, we find that many of the objections that spiritual teachers raise against Descartes today are not devastating criticisms to which modern biology has no answer. In fact, exactly the same objections were raised by biologistsas soon as Descartes published his work.

And now it gets weird. Because some of Descartes’ ideas that were roundly criticised, disproven and discarded by biology were in fact adopted by various spiritual traditions. Embarrassingly for any spiritual person who realises this, these ideas are still being promoted today, by the very same spiritual teachers who have built their career on their attacks on Descartes.

Even more embarrassingly for them, it leads them to make exactly the same mistakes that Descartes made: errors that were already cleared up 450 years ago! And then they wonder why biologists today get a little impatient with them when they indignantly trot these same ideas out as being “answers to the questions biologists refuse to ask.”

The pineal gland as the seat of the soul was kept alive somehow until Helene Blavatsky picked it up and stuck it into Theosophy, cobbled together in the late 1800s out of Christian mysticism and some stuff skimmed off from Hindu scriptures. It can still be found in New Age teachings today, still associated with the 6th Chakra, Ajna, or “third eye”. But where in yogic traditions this “Chakra” is analogous to the ability to visualise, the idea that it’s the pineal gland that does this is obviously stupid, as we now know that it’s a gland.

But Descartes should have known he was wrong about the pineal gland at the time he wrote about it. He argued that it is suspended on very fine fibres and that it can somehow vibrate in accordance with the subtle winds of the spirit, that everything else in the physical world is oblivious to; and that only humans have it. Had he been a more careful anatomist, he would have seen for himself that these fibres don’t exist, and had he checked with other anatomists, they could have told him this. And the pineal had already been found in animals as well.

The next problem that was solved hundreds of years ago, but which spiritual teachers still haven’t caught up with is a more serious one: Descartes’ theory of matter.

Descartes conceived of matter as consisting of tiny inert particles. According to him, these are like tiny oddly shaped billiard balls, whose interactions are determined by their shape. It was God, the unmoved mover, who set the grand clockwork in motion.

According to spiritual teachers, biologists still believe this, only without God. And where, these teachers indignantly ask, does the complexity of life come from? Ha! Biologists have no answer.

As Rupert Sheldrake says, claiming that no one knows how mushrooms grow:

How on earth did these separate threads know what to do? They’re all [chemically] the same to start with, but some form the cap, some form the gills, some form the stem, some form the membrane at the top. How on earth did these cells know what to do, to harmoniously coordinate with the rest?

Different parts of a plant–

have completely different structures and yet they have the same veins and the same chemicals, so the chemicals alone can’t explain it.

Yep, those little inert billiard balls can’t organise themselves, can they? Biologists, according to Sheldrake, simply refuse to consider this issue because they know they have no answer.

Unfortunately for Sheldrake and his multitude of colleagues, botanists don’t have a nervous breakdown at the sight of a mushroom. And while embryologists no doubt feel wonder and awe (and maybe a bit of shock too underneath it all) watching an embryo develop, they don’t lose any sleep over what to say if a student confronts them with a Sheldrakean question.

There are two developments that Sheldrake and all the rest have missed out on. One is chemistry. The only people today who use Descartes’ ideas on chemistry are Sheldrake, Lipton, Chopra, and all the rest. Any spiritual teacher who says “it can’t just be random chance” is in fact a follower of Cartesian chemistry — which was unpopular in the 1600s, and completely discarded by science due not only to Newton (which spiritual teachers today don’t realise — gravitational theory is anti-Cartesian), but also in part to alchemy.

Yes, alchemy. Alchemy contained the notion that particles, whatever they, are not inert; rather they are dynamic thingies, have more properties than shape and react to each other in more dynamic ways than simply bouncing off each other, as Sheldrake thinks they do.

This means that where Sheldrake thinks that atoms must need a (supernatural) “higher organising principle”, Paracelsus could have told him in 1450 that the elements can organise themselves in highly complicated ways. Such ideas were transformed into the foundations of modern chemistry by Robert Boyle and others, shortly after Descartes’ time. This in turn revolutionised biology.

(Paracelsus also conceived of the human body as a kind of alchemical lab, where chemical reactions occur — an important contribution to biology. Spiritual teachers still like Paracelsus, but his actual contributions to science have of course dropped off their radar.)

But chemistry alone indeed “can’t explain it”, as Sheldrake notes. But what he hasn’t noticed is that biology is a separate subject to chemistry. Although laws of physics and chemistry are the basis for biology, biology is above all a study of systems. Evolution, for example, wasn’t discovered by going into more and more detail, but rather by taking a step back and looking at how the whole thing functions. Evolutionary theory looks at the various processes by which diversity and complexity arise. Common descent demonstrates that life is indeed one. You might call it “holistic”. But for some reason, spiritual teachers won’t have a bar of it.

Biology freed itself from the conception of matter as inert billiard balls, but modern spirituality hasn’t. And it never will, because that would ruin everything. Inert billiard balls need “higher powers” to organise them. “Inanimate” matter needs a vital force, an energy, to animate it, otherwise life itself is impossible. And the distinction between animate and inanimate is built squarely on a foundation of inert billiard balls.

And this holds the door open for “quantum physics” to come to the rescue, with its “energy”, which can be renamed a life force, which can then organise all those little billiard balls.

But it’s too late. Biology has already explained all this and has moved on. That’s why biology has progressed, and spiritual teachers are still stuck in their dumbed-down version of the science of the 1600s.

Posted by Yakaru

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What Spiritual People Don’t Know About Science — Part 8: “Science ignores the unmeasurable”

August 31, 2019

Science does not ignore the unmeasurable. But what it also doesn’t do is claim to have measured it. If you point to a rose and say it is beautiful, a scientist will not say “You can’t measure beauty, therefore there is no beauty.”

Science has a different approach. If something can’t be measured, scientists simply don’t measure it. They don’t claim to know that the rose is beautiful because God created it or because it has a portion of the divine in it. And they don’t then pretend to measure the portion.

For a couple of thousand years, scientists and philosophers di try to measure it though. They saw nature as divine. In fact, that was one of their motivations for studying it. They tried for two and a half thousand years to place every species on a great Scala Naturae or Great Chain of Being envisioned by Plato and Aristotle. It was effectively a measure of the quantity of divinity within creatures: from the cold and dry snake, to the warm and watery human. But they could never quite get animals to fit into just one position on the scale. Even Aristotle refused to kid himself it was perfect.

Eventually they figured it was better to follow one of Aristotle’s other great ideas. He had always encouraged his students to get over their instinctive revulsion towards worms and creepy-crawlies, and simply look at animals as they are. And dedicated as he was to his grand scale and his methodology, he also declared the importance of simply following the evidence and allowing knowledge to advance. He famously and wrongly argued, for example, that worker bees can’t be female because “nature gives no weapon to females”, but later added that the facts “…have not yet been sufficiently grasped; if they ever are, then credit must be given to observation rather than to theories…”


A scientist is perfectly capable of looking at a rose and finding it beautiful. They will probably be capable of seeing even more beauty in it than the average passer-by will. They might perceive it as a moment in an slowly unfolding process of seed to flower to seed, its evolution; the careful artwork of selective breeding by an earthly gardener unwittingly sculpting genes out of a wild beauty…. — all that stuff.

During a deep inhalation of the fragrance, the scientist might find themselves reflecting for a moment on how the flower uses its colour to attract bees: bees which, as they learned from other scientists, see in trippy ultra-violet colours that plants use to entice the bees to where the pollen is. They might too for a moment reflect on our own perception of beauty — the “beauty” supplied mysteriously, effortlessly and irresistibly from within; a gracious by-product, in this case, of our own evolution.

Flower seen with (left) visible light, and (right) ultra-violet and it might appear to a bee

But those experiential, perceptual, conceptual doors remain closed to those who insist on returning to the God-made-it door. That particular door, for all its popularity, usually has nothing but a brick wall behind it. It doesn’t lead anywhere.

The idea that God or the presence of a “divine element” made the rose beautiful, is not really a spiritual idea at all. In fact it’s just a bad scientific theory. (It originated, in fact, from Aristotle — divine element is his terminology.) And these days it’s just a lazy and quite banal speculation. It might cause some to hyperventilate with excitement, but really it’s just an abstract idea weighted down with private feelings of importance — which the feeler tries to somehow transfer to others, usually quite indignantly.

It must be admitted however, that science does indeed have an odd, perhaps even discomforting indifference to personal preferences and sensibilities. Doubtless this can lead to a personal dullness in scientists, and in the case of animal experimentation and military technology, a horrifying indifference to suffering, but that is not built in to science itself. Much of that (though not all) could well be classified under technology rather than science — an effort to gain control or dominance over phenomena, that could be used for good or for ill.

This distinction between science and technology can be made clearer by noting the way that all theocracies reject science, (with its unacceptable truths and free inquiry); but fall over themselves in their haste to embrace technology, (with nuclear weapons and such).

For spiritual folk, only the latter is science — the harsh destructive inhuman technology. But ask them what kind of science theocracies reject, and they will probably find themselves listing objections strikingly similar to their own: science says that we are apes, it says there is no God… Ultimately, it says things that undermine the knowledge I claim to hold and have based my identity, my worldview, and sometimes my income upon.

That impersonal follow the evidence wherever it leads mentality of science is an inconvenience for those who want to claim their own unchanging, inviolable truth.

Pity. They could have seen it as transcending egotism; as devoting oneself to a higher cause: a higher cause with no “earthly” or materialistic purpose. They could have found the impulse that Aristotle noticed and happily dedicated his life to following: “Humans, by their nature, desire to know.”

Humans
by their nature
desire to know.

Posted by Yakaru

(The other posts in the series can be found in the “Science” category on the sidebar and scrolling down quite lot. Aristotle on bees is quoted by Anthony Gottlieb, in The Dream of Reason. The final quote is the opening sentence of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.)

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What Spiritual People Don’t Know About Science – Part 7: “Science doesn’t know everything”

March 5, 2019

(This series has lain idle for a few years. Earlier posts can be found by scrolling through the ‘science’ category on the right sidebar.)

One of the most common and most pointless criticisms of modern science is the accusation that “Science doesn’t know everything.” It is popular both among fans of modern esoteric spirituality as well as among spirituality oriented academics. The latter especially should know better – the mere idea is entirely alien to science and scientific method.

Scientists are usually baffled as to why this banal statement of the obvious is being so triumphantly hurled in their direction. They are equally miffed as to how best to respond. Agreeing with it appears to the accusers like a meek back down, and any talk of provisional truths or falsifiability is interpreted as a capitulation.

A classic exchange runs something like this:
Scientist: Humans evolved from earlier life forms; we are African apes.
Spiritual person: Who are you to tell me what I am? Explain to me then how life began.
Scientist: We don’t know how life began, but we’re working on it and have found some fascina-
Spiritual person: Ha! You see? Science doesn’t know everything.

There are several threads to follow when seeking the origins of this accusation. One is an incident around 1894 when physicist Albert Michelson apparently stated that we were on the verge of knowing everything about matter. Shortly afterwards, x-rays were unexpectedly discovered, surprising physicists and ruining any illusion of being on the verge of completing the science of physics.

Three things are to be noted here:
1. This merely shows that in the 1890s some small number of scientists thought they might soon solve all mysteries;
2. the discovery which overturned this belief was made by other scientists; and
3. this discovery was immediately accepted by scientists.

Furthermore, 1894 is rather a long time ago. Why then, are people still criticising scientists for it? But this is the nature of spiritual culture: once an idea has taken root – that is, become a hit with the fans — it never gets discarded regardless of how out of date it has become or how often it has been disproven. The selfish meme simply keeps reproducing.

Another source of confusion is the fact that science does indeed do something which can look a lot like some kind of absolutism or finality: it disproves ideas. Once an idea has been conclusively disproven it is discarded with the kind of certainty that to many spiritual folk appears positively fundamentalist. But this too is a misunderstanding. It is just the nature of reality that a single fact inherently excludes an infinite number of hypotheses.

When I was still harbouring spiritual beliefs a decade or two ago, I thought that evolution might be driven by some kind of ‘transgenerational will’ by which an entire species somehow responds creatively to its habitat in order to survive. I thought that scientists would never discover this, as their commitment to seeking only material causes like genetic mutation and natural selection precludes them from even looking for such a force.

Unfortunately for my theory, scientists suddenly developed the ability to read entire genomes. Such a ‘transgenerational will’ would have left its fingerprints all over the genome of every individual. But instead of revealing the kind of genetic superhighways that would appear if my theory were true, all that was revealed was the usual crooked paths of mutation, in accordance with the known mutation rate. So my theory was sunk. It took me a moment or two to digest this when I realised it, but I survived without sustaining any serious injuries.

(Anyone wondering what on earth ‘transgenerational will’ actually means, join the club. Or ask Rupert Sheldrake to come up with something.)

Another great source of indignation among spiritual folk is the way scientists dismiss vitalist (life force) theories without even taking a second glance. This looks, of course, like biologists thinking they already know everything. But what spiritual folk don’t realise is that scientists have already spent at least 300 years searching for such a life force. Every conceivable avenue of research was explored, and nothing was found.

Ultimately the concept wasn’t so much discarded as exhausted. It just didn’t bear fruit. Spiritual folk, especially the academics among them, would realise this if they took the time to explore that great repository of modern pseudo-science and popular spirituality, the history of science.

They would also discover that throughout history these supposedly materialistic dogmatic scientists have also discarded an even higher number of entirely materialistic theories and ideas, not just spiritual ones – all for the same reason: the ideas didn’t lead anywhere, didn’t work, and didn’t provide any useful framework for understanding natural processes.

Another origin of the idea that scientists “think they know everything” is probably the fact that at their core, most spiritual traditions effectively make exactly this claim for themselves: that they effectively know everything, or at least possess the golden key that unlocks the secrets. Thus, any encroachment on their territory by unexpected disproofs is inevitably interpreted as someone else trying to “know everything” instead of them.

Here we encounter the great divide: between, on the one hand, those who think the world was created and revelation is the key to understanding, and on the other, those who want to try to understand nature without recourse to such appeals to divine authority.

This broadly recapitulates the historical argument between Plato and Aristotle. Spiritual people usually prefer to link their ideas to Buddha or ‘eastern’ traditions, but they don’t realise how much they in fact derive their ideas from Plato.
And while Plato himself wasn’t as dismissive of the natural sciences as many spiritual folk today are, he did invent a philosophy that says that the ultimate knowledge can only be gained through revelation. And as always, revelation presupposes a creator whose divine laws can be revealed.

Through Christian theologians (borrowing extensively from Plato), and the occasional Christian mystic, and to a degree through sufism – itself profoundly influenced by Neoplatonism – modern spiritual folk have taken on board two grand ideas: (a) that scientific knowledge is merely non-essential ‘lower’ knowledge; and (b) the idea that their own intuition is an inside track to understanding those laws by which the demiurge created the things of the world.

Scientists therefore have merely turned their backs on their own inner path that would have led them to higher knowledge were it not for their materialism. They are unimaginative, narrowminded plodders, following Aristotle into the mud of the earth to study earthworms and innards of reptiles.

Thus the apparent snootiness of many spiritual folk when encountering science: they have the golden key to the laws of creation, whereas all scientists have is a blunt tool for second-guessing our shadowy three dimensional world.
Enticing and convincing as this accusation may appear, it should be noted that scientists are the ones flying about in space ships, sequencing Neanderthal DNA, and curing polio.

Spiritual people could learn a little humility and realise that they haven’t progressed a single step since the time of Buddha. But they could also learn a little pride too, and realise that spirituality in fact cannot progress. Meditation can’t be passed on the way scientific ideas and tools can be. The meditative path is a narrow one, as Basho said. Each person has to start from the start, and no one else can even take you that far.

And simply living and staying awake and aware is already more than enough to go on with, without trying to outdo science as well.

Posted by Yakaru

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Spiritual Believers Don’t Understand Science – Part 6: Knowledge v Speculation

November 23, 2014

Scientists have two tendencies that confuse and infuriate believers in modern esoteric spirituality.

One is their apparently unshakable certainty about some matters.

The other is their tendency to suddenly declare I don’t know or We don’t know when challenged on some question.

The first horrifies believers because it looks like fanatical dogmatism. The only other people in history to appear so certain of their rightness were the inquisitors. The second looks like a pathetic back-down, making their initial show of certainty appear all the more laughable.

Scientist: Evolution is a fact. Humans evolved from earlier hominids.

Believer: Oh? Well how did life start?

Scientist: We don’t know exactly.

Believer: HA! Science doesn’t know everything. Well I do know how it started. You see, you are infinite consciousness that is embodied in the space-time continuum through a process of quantum entanglement and non-local events…

The spiritual believer thinks that the scientist’s hubris has been exposed by their dogged questioning. It’s even quite fashionable for academics to join in with this misunderstanding. They are, however, unaware that science involves some methodological steps that spiritual people are loath to even contemplate — namely, scientists clearly distinguish between established knowledge and speculation. 

But they don’t do this in a black and white manner. Rather they differentiate gradations on a kind of sliding scale of certainty.

fadeFact — quite certain —  probable  — quite likely —  possible — unknown

Good science places each fact, piece of data, and idea somewhere along this scale, ranging from strong certainty to unknown validity. Certainty is represented here as dark, implying the weight added by repeated verification. Nevertheless, the lighter, more speculative end is where the most interesting and important scientific work occurs. 

Scientific knowledge is not there for scientists to passively sit on while smugly dismissing people’s spiritual beliefs. Rather, it forms both the theoretical foundation and the conceptual tools for scientific research. It is the platform from which scientific advancement arises. It consists not merely of facts but also theoretical ideas that have been confirmed and verified so many times that it would simply be a waste of time to re-test them. There is no need, for example, to re-test the chemical composition of water, or whether it might perhaps flow uphill. One can simply get on with planning the irrigation program.

The Problem

Spiritual teachers really do not like that dark end of the scale at all. They don’t like the boundaries it sets. They don’t like the way that those who are ignorant of its contents can be excluded from scientific discourse. They don’t like it when scientists mention facts that conflict with spiritual teachings. All their teachings — all of them — belong way up in the light, speculative end of the scale. And that factual knowledge stuff down the dark end sets considerable limits and prerequisites for speculation. They don’t like it at all. It hurts their ego and is bad for business.

But they do like the instant credibility that science is granted, and they want a bit of it for themselves. So they imitate scientific language and method. They make up their own rigged but official looking studies, designed “to prove” their pet theories. They plunder the language of science with the same kind of rapacity with which they plunder Hindu philosophy and indigenous cultures, for fancy sounding words and exotic concepts to distort and filter through their marketing department.

Spiritual teachers are ignorant both of the content as well as the sheer quantity of knowledge is down the dark end of the scale. They don’t realize how often their own teachings replicate well establish scientific knowledge of phenomena that have long been explained, and processes that have long been mastered. When challenged, portray their superfluous or spurious ideas as legitimate speculation (“we’re just saying keep an open mind, give the new paradigm a chance”). But thanks to their ignorance (or blinkered ideology) their work does not build on any factual basis and is therefore rendered utterly useless.

Louise Hay, for example, behaves as if our knowledge of human physiology is still in the state it was during the time of Christ. She drags her readers down into believing that what goes on under the skin is a vast inexplicable and unexplored mystery, where the demons and angels of negative and positive thoughts prowl. In fact science today is well equipped to check all of her unsupported assertions. Don’t expect to hear this from her though.

Science has of course advanced spectacularly during the last few centuries. But the only advances in spirituality have been improvements in marketing and packaging. Spiritual teachers want scientific status, but they don’t want the trouble that honest inquiry, fact checking and criticism bring. All I can do is suggest to their fans that they underline the speculations in the literature that their favorite teacher produces, and then go back and run another line through it if the teacher presented it as fact. If anything is left over, insert the necessary qualifying terms — “perhaps”, “maybe”, “hypothetically”, etc — into the factual statements of their favorite teachers, and see how it sounds.

Previous posts in this series (I’ve altered the title a little since it started) can be found here.

Posted by Yakaru

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10 Things New Agers Don’t Understand About Science: Part 5 — Paradigm Shift

January 4, 2014

The previous post in this series looked at the way disproof drives scientific inquiry forward. It noted that disproof will be welcomed by anyone who is sincerely trying to solve a problem or understand how something works. Better known as falsifiability, this idea was a great contribution to the understanding of how science works, and is an essential element of scientific methodology. 

But it also carries some problems. It seems to imply that science progresses in a linear fashion, with all progress involving minor adjustments to a universally accepted model, never endangering anyone’s career or reputation with any radical changes. This in turn makes it all too easy to ignore research and ideas that do not fit the accepted parameters. And this fits rather too snugly with the idea that science is restricted to privileged white men from the politically dominant culture. These lucky folks control research funding and get to decide where the “cutting edge” is…. All of which means the system is wide open for all kinds of shenanigans.

Paradigms & Paradigm Shifts

In contrast to this, is the idea of paradigms, which recognizes that progress can at certain times be discontinuous with the past. An existing model can be completely overturned, not so much by new data or new evidence, but by a new vision.

Thomas Kuhn, the originator of this idea, used the example of the Copernican Revolution. changing from a geocentric model of the solar system to a heliocentric one. Here an entire cosmology was completely overturned by a fairly simple idea. A radically different model of the solar system fitted the data better than the dominant model.

Kuhn clearly recognized that a paradigm is more than just a conceptual model. It’s an entire world-view. It exists in a political context, a social context, and ultimately, in the context of human psychology. It is therefore subject to the same conditions as all other ideas — customs, norms, political restrictions, habits of thought, etc. 

This must be taken into account when evaluating scientific ideas: is a new idea lacking in evidence, or is it merely unwanted by certain highly regarded professors, priests, etc., because it conflicts with their prejudices or interests? And above all, is it being disregarded simply because we are not used to seeing the world in this manner? This is an important contribution to science. It opens broader perspectives for inquiry and research.

The down side of this is that silly people can use it to reject those parts of scientific knowledge that conflict with their pet theories. They say that the dominant paradigm will one day be usurped, so it doesn’t matter if science says their ideas are implausible and their products won’t work. The coming dominant paradigm will, they somehow “know”, confirm all their theories. 

They are unerringly selective in rejecting only those aspects of the “dominant scientific paradigm” that render their ideas implausible. The bits of science that they like –computers, air travel, luxury items, sanitation, etc. — they blithely take for granted. The bits they don’t like are exclusively singled out for vociferous and indignant rejection.

ps3

Paradigm shifts — almost as popular as quantum leaps

Well steady on there, folks. You can’t isolate certain bits of a paradigm for exclusion without affecting all the other bits. It fits together as a system. DUH. That’s the whole friggin’ point of a paradigm!!!

My favorite example of this is the enormously popular idea that the law of attraction is true, “just like the law of gravity.” Wrong. If the law of attraction were real, it would disprove the law of the gravity. Stupid example, you people.

Also, if you argue that the dominant paradigm can be disregarded purely because it will eventually be overthrown anyway, then why don’t we save time and turf out your paradigm as well for the same reason.

Sorry guys, but……..

If you really had a “new paradigm” it would be supported by existing evidence, not flatly contradicted by it.

If you really had a “new paradigm” you wouldn’t be saying that the evidence is “emerging” or “will soon be found”, or even more pathetically, hasn’t been found “yet”. Instead, you’d have bucket loads of evidence from the existing dominant paradigm and would just be interpreting it in a smarter way. And by the way, if you haven’t got any evidence, just admit it for heaven’s sake. And never say “What scientists are beginning to see is….”  unless you want to immediately identify yourself as a quack or a fool.

If you really had a “new paradigm” it would not come with a built-in free pass exempting you from presenting evidence. Rather, it would tell you where new evidence is likely to be found. In fact it would help you make falsifiable claims about it.

If you really had a “new paradigm” you would have understood the old one well enough to accurately point out anomalies in it which no one had noticed before. You would also have a better (and probably simpler) explanation for these anomalies — not merely vague speculations and hand-waving about the supposed weaknesses of what you have just arrogantly declared to be the “old paradigm”.

If you really had a “new paradigm” it would probably be sweet and simple. It would not be “cut from whole cloth” without need of improvement. It would not “overturn” vast swathes of the most blatantly incontrovertible, non-controversial and utterly and totally obvious, solid and well grounded natural laws. And it would not attempt to replace them with layer upon layer of complicated speculations about supposed new natural laws to explain the supposed anomalies. It would not come already complete with special skills or gadgets to control these supposed new natural laws, all of which you just happen to have recently published a book about.

If you really had a “new paradigm” it would be unlikely to be identical with religious dogma from previous ages which has already been overturned by several other paradigm shifts and mountains of evidence. Most especially it would not be based on 17th Century mechanistic dogma derived from Descartes. (Don’t know what I’m talking about? Good, so you’re not about to claim you’ve discovered how mind controls matter, are you.)

If you really had a “new paradigm” you would recognize the power structures and conflicts of interest within your own subculture and you would oppose them. You would not see them as an opportunity for cross-promotion with other community members without regard for standards or ethics. 

And finally, if you really had a “new paradigm” it would not be exactly the same as all the other new paradigms since about 1970, all of which are justified by the same mis-reading of quantum physics thanks to Fritjof Capra, and all of which come with an exploitive business plan and a highly manipulative marketing strategy attached.

Posted by Yakaru

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10 Things New Agers Don’t Understand About Science: Part 4 — Disproof

August 6, 2013

Esther Hicks once said, “There is not a shred of evidence that the Law of Attraction doesn’t work.” And she’s right. In fact the Law of Attraction cannot be disproven.

But this is not a strength; it’s a weakness. And it’s why spiritual ideas and systems never advance or improve in any way beyond better marketing. 

It’s also why spiritual believers are so miffed and confused by criticism, and don’t know how to respond to it.

Scientific advancement is in fact driven by disproof. Disproof is the dark (but less complicated) brother of proof. It’s hard (and by some standards impossible) to completely prove something. But disproof can be much clearer. And once it has happened, an idea can be dropped and need not cause any further distractions. The more clearly an idea or theory is stated, the easier it is to disprove.

This post considers how world views or belief systems get constructed, and what they need in order to be useful on a practical level.

An Ancient Theory of gravity: Natural Place and Natural Motion

Aristotle, two and a half thousand years ago, wrote one of the first decent explanations for why things fall. It is in their very nature, he said, for them to move toward their “natural place”, which is at the center of the of the earth. In other words, if you let go of a stone you are holding, something within it — in its very nature — will drive it straight downwards.

ptolemaic

In the Aristotelian system, the earth is at the center of the universe. And the center of the universe is the Natural Place for all heavy things. The earth itself is the spherical coagulation of the all the heavy elements in the universe.

Here we meet the ancient Greek concept of the four elements: Earth, Water, Air, Fire. The elements Earth and Water are heavy and their natural motion is straight down. Air and Fire, the lighter elements, have a natural motion which impels them straight up. A tree will grow because it has enough Air and Fire mixed in with the heavy elements to enable a motion upwards, but when it decays, its elements will decay and move towards their natural place.

Aristotle saw “motion” not only in terms of changes of place. He also identified qualitative and quantitative changes as forms of “motion”. The growth (increase in size) of a tree or an animal he saw as “quantitative motion”. Even more strangely, he saw the ripening of an apple or the psychological maturing of a child as it grows, as “qualitative motion”.

In other words, it is in the nature of an apple to turn red, just as it is in the nature of a stone to fall to the ground !!!

A force within the apple makes it ripen. A force within the stone moves it towards its Natural Place.

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Disproof

A brilliant experiment carried out by Henry Cavendish in 1798 ultimately disproved this notion in the most direct and convincing manner.

Essentially, Cavendish placed two small lead weights of equal mass on each end of a wooden beam, and suspended the beam, perfectly balanced, on a wire. He then carefully maneuvered two larger lead weights into closer proximity with the two smaller weights, and saw the beam swing, as the smaller weights were attracted to the larger ones. He had canceled out the earth’s gravitational pull, and could then see and even exactly measure the gravitational force of the weights as he moved them. These measurements confirmed Newton’s formula for universal gravity.

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Graphic from The Physics Classroom website

The Value of Disproof

Aristotle was trying to discover and state universal laws of nature in an unequivocal manner. Had he been right, Cavendish’s experiment would have supported him. (That is, the smaller weights would not have moved.)

It would be easy (at least superficially) to think up ways of rescuing Aristotle’s system from this disproof. In fact one pope argued that as God is omnipotent, He could be responsible for causing all change in the universe in an infinitely varying number of ways and therefore be undetectable to science. Nice try, but it would have stopped scientific advancement in its tracks in 400 years ago had anyone taken it seriously.

Scientific advancement is based on the disproof and discarding of ideas. Each step forward is necessarily accompanied by a multitude of missteps and the minute refinement of ideas that partly work. Esoteric systems on the other hand (think of astrology, for example) are usually cut from one piece of cloth and will unravel when one tugs on the first loose thread. 

Adding on special rules, exceptions or obfuscations to evade disproof can give the appearance of strength. But if nothing can disprove it, nothing can support it either. Anyone believing a system of beliefs which evades all possibility of disproof should start recognizing this as a sign of weakness and learn to suspect a trap.

Concluding Thoughts: Aristotle’s Death

Aristotle died persecuted and isolated in self-imposed exile from Athens. After becoming increasingly entangled in political complications, he was accused of teaching that prayer and animal sacrifice don’t work. Certainly there is no place for such things in his system, but how ironic it is, that although the refutation of Aristotle’s cosmology is today calmly accepted, we are still arguing about prayer and various forms sacrifice and magic.

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Notes & References

* Esther Hicks claims to channel some kind of disembodied corporate entity that goes by the name Abraham. She was initially involved in making The Secret, but left after some kind of squabble. She tried to copyright the idea of the Law of Attraction, but failed For more information about this scam, see the Post-Abe blog,

* The term falsifiability is a more correct term than disproof, but I didn’t use it. My apologies to Karl Popper.

* Anyone who thinks it is a little harsh to compare esoteric ideas like the LoA to the greatest ideas in natural science obviously hasn’t seen The Secret or read any statements by proponents themselves. The LoA is regularly compared to the law of gravity in terms of effects and certainty. It is regularly claimed that Isaac Newton and even Albert Einstein “knew” of and believed in it. When challenged in this, believers usually say “Prove they didn’t.” Rhonda Byrne’s book The Power (which I’ve reviewed here) claimed that the Law of Attraction is an established part of modern physics. In fact, the system she proposed was vastly more simplistic and far less plausible than the system Empedocles dreamt up in 450 BC! Unlike Byrne, Empedocles managed to notice that there were forces of repulsion as well as attraction. I doubt there has ever in human history been a theory as stupid and hubristic as the one Ms Byrne invented.

* The pope who made the claim about God causing events in an infinite number of ways was Pope Urban VIII. He agreed to allow Galilleo to publish his book about the heliocentric system in the condition that Galilleo include a fair hearing in it for this idea. Galilleo put it on the last page, in a dialogue where it was expressed by a character called Simplicius. I guess you know the rest!

* Newton in fact also claimed gravity was the activity of god, Newton was of course a devout Christian (in fact quite a fanatic and even a heretic by the standards of his time) and an alchemist. It appears he was deeply disturbed by the incipient atheism in the mechanistic clockwork systems of the universe that were current. It has been speculated that he drew on alchemical ideas when formulating his theory of gravity. Certainly the “action at a distance” implied by gravity is completely at odds with early mechanistic models.

* A fascinating and beautifully made documentary about Aristotle’s biological studies, called Aristotle’s Lagoon is at this link.

Anyone with any kind of background in science will have noticed that I don’t have a background in science. I’ve checked everything as well as I can, but any corrections or improvements are welcome.

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Posted by Yakaru

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10 Things New Agers Don’t Understand About Science — Part 3: We are now more capable than ever of proving a miracle

July 13, 2013

This post concerns miraculous or paranormal events. That is, events which “science can’t explain” or which seem to involve the suspension of the laws of physics. It’s often argued that science is dogmatically opposed to even considering the evidence for such events, or that it is blind to, of incapable of detecting such evidence. This post will argue that if in fact paranormal events really do occur, the chances of them being detected and accurately verified by science are better now than they are ever were.

As an easy entry into the topic, let’s start with a hypothetical paranormal event. How about the story told in this song written by Tommy Faile in 1968, and performed here by Tom Waits.

Big Joe and Phantom 309 performed by Tom Waits

For those who can’t make head or tail of it, here are the lyrics. And for those who didn’t want to listen, I’ll recount the story briefly.

A young kid is hitchhiking his way home across the US. He is waiting by the road on a rainy night, when a truck stops for him. The driver introduces himself as “Big Joe” and proudly says his rig is called “The Phantom 309”. The two talk for a while, each telling their stories and enjoying the company, until Joe stops the truck near a roadhouse and says the kid will have to get out here, as he has to be making a turn soon. As the kid climbs out, Joe tosses his a dime and says, “Go on in there son, and get yourself a hot cup of coffee on Big Joe.”

The kid goes into the diner, orders his coffee and mentions that Big Joe is paying for it. The place goes deathly quiet. It is explained to the kid that everyone there knows about Big Joe. About ten years ago he was driving his truck along that road when suddenly a school bus full kids rounded the corner on the wrong side of the road. Joe jack-knifed the truck to avoid hitting them. The kids were saved, but Joe lost control of his truck and died. And now,

Every now and then, when the Moon’s holdin’ water, they say old Joe Will stop and give you a ride….

In a nice touch at the end, the kid is told to hang onto that dime, as a reminder of Big Joe.

Stories like these often have a few common elements. A strong one is the pure enjoyment or attachment to the idea that the story is true as well as the confirmation of outlandish events by an innocent third party, (circumstantial evidence) and some direct physical evidence (the dime).

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10 Things New Agers Don’t Understand About Science #2 — Science is not a satanic ideology

May 30, 2013

Variations on a theme by various spiritual and religious ideologies see science as some form of satanic or “fallen” thinking that sees only a portion of reality. 

William Blake put it quite enchantingly, that when we see a butterfly, we are seeing merely the hem of the gown of a dancer, gliding and whirling across the floor of our three-dimensional realm. As he famously wrote, When the doors of perception are cleansed, we shall see things as they truly are – infinite.

Blake opposed the materialistic science of his time which he characterized as single vision and Newton’s sleep. But what makes Blake’s work rise into the realm of great art is that his poetry arose from a creative vision, rather than an intellectual squabble. He was responding to some deep psychological tug in his being, informing him that there is more going on than we can perceive with our senses. His poetry survives the transition to a time of greater scientific knowledge, and steps easily into expressing a vision of a world of atoms dancing, forming, and recombining eternally.

The same cannot be said of modern spirituality in general. Where Blake used esoteric ideas and his creative insight to make great art, New Age ideology is driven mostly by marketability of ideas. Despite the sincerity of many New Age believers, it should not be overlooked that science poses a massive threat to the profits of all pushers of pseudo-science and sellers of magickal powers. The usual response to this danger is to misrepresent and attack science on ideological grounds. 

The numerous ideologies that see science as blind to spiritual phenomena, have a few common elements: for example, the view that there is indeed evidence for the spirit and it has been ignored or actively suppressed; and the view that science is blind to the spiritual, or has defined it out of reality. Later posts in this series will look at both these viewpoints more closely, but in this post I will especially focus on a third element: the idea that science is somehow alien to humanity, inhuman, or “unnatural”.

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10 things New Agers Don’t Understand About Science: Part 1 — Science says life is “just” chemical reactions

April 8, 2013

Welcome to this series of ten posts on the most common misunderstandings about science, which form a surprisingly large part of the foundation for New Age teachings.

Just for the record, many of the views dealt with in this series are ones which I myself have previously advocated, (though never online, and never on any public platform).

This first post is about the extraordinarily popular idea that Science says we are “just” chemicals and molecules, and that love is “just” a chemical reaction.

I remember about 25 years ago asking a woman I knew who was studying psychology if she felt her love for her children was just a bunch of chemical reactions. She spluttered a bit, but said yes. I countered that the love must come from somewhere, and that it wasn’t on earth before she felt it, was it? I concluded and believed that love is being poured into us from the “outside”, from the spirit world. Subjectively it felt like that to me at the time.

Something within us (or at least within many of us) rebels at the idea that we are “just” matter.

I invite those who think and feel this way to do this: take up a marking pen and draw a neat line through the word “just”.

Science says that life is chemical reactions.

That is in fact exactly what science says. Some idiot scientists may have put the “just” in there, as the behaviorist B.F. Skinner did, but the correct representation of science’s findings so far is that chemical reactions are the basis of life. You don’t even need to give up any beliefs in the soul, or divine love at this point. Science is good at distinguishing between what can be termed knowledge (i.e. things that seem to be reliably true enough that retesting them for each experiment or equation would be a waste of time) and speculation.

That we have a soul is, from a scientific viewpoint, a speculation. Even if it seemed to a scientist to be subjectively undeniable that we have a soul, it would be more prudent to acknowledge that scientifically we have neither evidence, nor any purpose for such a speculation. We can go a long way using only that which we can justify with a foundation of scientific knowledge, without needing to fill in too many gaps with speculations. And we certainly don’t need to create gaps in established knowledge to force a place for the soul to be crammed into!

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