Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Three Fallacious Arguments: An Interlude

I'm not an enemy of science. It’s probably necessary to say that up front, given the theme I intend to develop in this month’s post. I consider the scientific method one of the half dozen or so truly great creations of the human mind, important enough that I’ve discussed at length in my other blog how best to get it through the imminent crises of our age into the waiting hands of the future. Even more to the point, I enjoy science as an activity and a subject of study; I’ve spent many pleasant evenings reading Darwin’s great treatise on natural selection and other classics of scientific literature; I’ve contemplated the structure of leaf tissues through my well-used microscope, run controlled experiments on the effect of soil amendments on plant growth, and crunched the numbers to see if the results were statistically significant. My first sight of the rings of Saturn through my own homebuilt telescope remains one of the defining memories of my childhood.

Nothing I’ll be saying here, in other words, is in any way meant to devalue the process of science, the richly human activity of testing hypotheses against quantitative measurements of some portion of the world we experience. That process, though, does not exist in a void. Alongside science as process, there’s also science as product, a set of detailed claims about what is and isn’t true about the world, some of which—though not all—have come into being through the systematic use of science-as-process. By and large, I have no objection at all to what science-as-product claims is true about the world. It’s certain of its claims about what’s not true about the world that I find problematic. 

The difficulty is partly a matter of repeated conflicts between certain claims currently part of science-as-product and my own experience, and partly a wholly personal dislike of a certain kind of dogmatism that’s become deeply entrenched among some of the people who claim to speak for science these days. There are far more pragmatic factors as well, but the way that science of both kinds, process as well as product, has been prostituted for the benefit of ideological stances and economic interests is a subject for my other blog, not this one. The point that’s most relevant here is that magic, the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will, works with two distinct sets of processes. One of them is acceptable to even the most extreme materialists, but the other depends on something that, according to current versions of science-as-product, does not, cannot, and must not exist.

We could plunge into a discussion of that “something” right now, but an alternative approach will be more useful, for a curious reason. It so happens that these days, any attempt to raise questions about the claims of science-as-product inevitably fields a flurry of counterclaims, and all these latter depend on the same handful of canned arguments. What makes this all the more interesting is that the arguments in question are all based, in turn, on a set of classic logical fallacies. There’s a rich vein of irony here, since nearly all the people who trot out these fallacies like to present themselves as defenders of logic and reason, but we can let that pass for the moment. What I want to do here is look at the fallacies one at a time, see why they don’t prove what they claim to prove, and thus (with any luck!) get past the rehashing of canned arguments to the actual issues at hand when next month’s post begins talking about the relevant dimensions of magic.

The first of the arguments I want to consider here is the insistence, very common on the lips of today’s skeptics, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.  That sounds reasonable, until you take five minutes or so to think about what it actually means. To begin with, what defines a claim as extraordinary? Does a claim become extraordinary because most people disagree with it? Does it become extraordinary because experts disagree with it? Does it become extraordinary because it violates “common sense”—and whose version of common sense are we discussing here?

The phrase “extraordinary claims” is thus highly ambiguous. In practice, to those who use this argument, a claim is extraordinary if they don’t agree with it, and ordinary if they do. The phrase “extraordinary proof” embodies a similar ambiguity:  in practice, to those who use this argument, a proof is extraordinary if they choose to give it this status and merely ordinary if they don’t. This is very convenient for them, since no matter what proof is offered, they can just keep on raising the bar and saying “That’s not extraordinary enough.” 

That is to say, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” is an example of the logical fallacy of petitio principii, also known as “begging the question.”  The essence of petitio principii is that the evidence and arguments for one side of a debate are judged according to a lenient standard, one that presupposes that they are correct, while those for the opposing side are judged according to a harsher standard that presupposes that they are incorrect. This is a great debating trick, but it’s lousy logic: among the most basic rules of fair reasoning is the principle that the evidence for each side of a question must be judged according to the same standards of proof.  Once any claim, however “extraordinary,” is expected to meet standards of proof the other side can change at will, what’s being offered is a rhetorical gimmick, not a reasonable claim.

The second argument I want to discuss here also depends on petitio principii. This one is a little subtler, though, and is best understood by way of an example.

Back in the early 1980s—I believe it was in the pages of Omni, but I can’t swear to that—I read a lively essay by the late Carl Sagan about near-death experiences, which were getting one of their periodic bouts of media exposure at that time. Sagan talked about some of the common features reported by people who underwent such experiences, especially the sense of rising up slowy through a dark tunnel toward light, and being greeted by a being on arriving in the light. He then proposed that there was a wholly material explanation for these experiences: people who underwent such experiences were having a flashback to the memory of being born; the dark tunnel was the birth canal, the light was the hospital lamp, and the waiting figure was the physician who attended the delivery. 

It was (and is) an interesting hypothesis, but the way Sagan used the hypothesis was more interesting still. Those of my readers who know their way around the scientific method know that the first thing a scientist does, on coming up with an interesting hypothesis, is to think up as many ways as possible to disprove it. “How can I test this?”—that’s the question that drives real science, and makes it something other than a way to make the universe mirror our own ideas back at us. Yet this is exactly what Sagan didn’t do. Instead, he behaved as though the mere existence of a hypothesis that explained near-death experiences in terms conformable to his materialist worldview justified the dismissal of every hypothesis that didn’t fit within that worldview.

This is all the more fascinating because Sagan’s hypothesis is quite testable. It would be tolerably easy, for example, to survey a large population of individuals who have had a near-death experience, note which of them had the experience of rising up through a dark tunnel toward light, find out which of them had been born in the usual way and which of them had been born by Caesarian section, and see if there’s any correlation. If Sagan’s hypothesis is correct, people born by C-section should have different imagery in their near-death experiences.  If no such difference appears, and in particular if people born by C-section also have imagery of rising up through a tunnel in their near-death experiences, Sagan’s hypothesis would be disconfirmed by the evidence: that’s how science works.

What Sagan was proposing, though, was evidently not meant as a scientific hypothesis, as he made no attempt to test it, or even to suggest that it might be worth testing. Rather, it was an example of a common debating trick, the ad hoc hypothesis—a hypothesis that’s supposed to be accepted without proof, because it justifies the evasion of contrary evidence. Where a scientific hypothesis is meant to further inquiry, an ad hoc hypothesis is thus meant to stop inquiry in its tracks. Logically, it’s another form of the petitio principii fallacy, since it presupposes that any hypothesis that supports one side of a debate is automatically more likely to be true than any hypothesis that supports the opposite side of the same debate—which, again, is begging the question.

Thus it proves nothing to say, as so many of our current skeptics like to say, that an experience “must have been caused by” some natural phenomenon or other. In logic, “must” is a very strong word:  it can only be justified by strict logical necessity or overwhelming evidence, and if neither of these is forthcoming, it’s simply another rhetorical gimmick. Nor is it reasonable to insist, as so many of these same skeptics like to insist, that anyone who disagrees with their ad hoc hypotheses has to disprove them, to the skeptics’ satisfaction, while anyone who presents a hypothesis with which the skeptics disagree has to prove it, again to the skeptics’ satisfaction. Here the question isn’t merely being begged, but borrowed and stolen into the deal.

The third argument I want to discuss here is a little different, as it doesn’t rely on the fallacy of petitio principii; its roots descend into a different part of the realm of bad logic. This is the insistence that a phenomenon can’t happen if current scientific theory doesn’t include a mechanism that’s able to make it happen: “If the cause isn’t known, the effect didn’t occur.” Stated so baldly, it sounds preposterous—and of course it is—but that’s far and away the most common angle of attack taken by critics of the subjects central to this blog. Thus it’s tolerably common to hear claims that magic, for example, can’t possibly work, because currently accepted scientific theory provides no mechanism by which ritual actions can make things happen at a distance.

Now of course it’s not as though there’s been any significant amount of research aimed at finding mechanisms that might account for the effects of magic; quite the contrary, any scientist who seriously proposed such a research program would be kissing his career goodbye. Nor, for that matter, would most practicing mages agree that magical rituals all by themselves make things happen at a distance.  Magic, again, is the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will, and all the effects of magic are mediated by consciousness. Ritual—symbolic psychodrama performed in quasimeditative mental states—is an important tool of magical practice because it shapes and reorients consciousness in reliable ways, but you won’t find many people in the scientific community who are willing to take the time to read books on magic by practitioners, or talk to people who have practical experience of the subject, and find that out.

That said, there’s also a logical issue here. The question “does X happen?” is logically distinct from the question “why does X happen?” Thousands of years before Newton worked out the theory of gravitation, people knew that objects fall when they’re dropped, and could make accurate predictions on the basis of their knowledge, even though they had no notion of the cause. For that matter, Newton himself famously refused to offer any hypothesis about what gravity was; his sole concern was to construct a precise mathematical model of the way that it appeared to work. Only the fact that heavy objects clearly do fall when dropped, I suspect, prevented the skeptics of Newton’s day from rejecting his ideas out of hand; after all, late 17th century physics hadn’t yet conceived of the curvature of spacetime, and so didn’t have a causal mechanism in place to explain the effects of gravity.

This latter point can be made even more forcefully, because most of the great scientific discoveries of the last three or four centuries would have been “disproved” by the arguments today’s skeptics use with such eager abandon. Let’s take Darwin’s theory of natural selection as an example. When it was first formally proposed in 1859, to begin with, Darwin’s claims were extraordinary by most standards, while the proof he offered to back up those claims was composed of ordinary scientific evidence, some of it the product of his own painstaking research, some published by others in the scientific journals of the day, all of it solid but none of it particularly amazing.  If extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, as so many skeptics insist today, Darwin’s work should have been rejected out of hand by the scientific community of his time.

Furthermore, there was no shortage of ad hoc hypotheses to explain away the facts Darwin marshalled, without recourse to a theory of evolution. Some scholars in Darwin’s time argued that fossils were the bones of ancient animals that failed to find room aboard Noah’s ark; others insisted that, just as Adam had a navel even though he’d never needed an umbilical cord, the Earth was created miraculously in 4004 BCE with a complete stock of fossils, as though it had existed from measureless time; still others argued that fossils had been put there by Satan in an attempt to lure the unwary into eternal damnation. If it’s legitimate to use ad hoc hypotheses to dismiss possibilities that don’t conform to existing theory, it would have been equally appropriate to insist that the evidence for evolution “must have been caused by” the Flood, or God, or Satan, and dismiss Darwin’s theory on that basis.

Finally, Darwin’s theory required two things for which the science of his time had no causative mechanisms at all. The theory of heredity as understood in the middle of the 19th century argued that the traits of each parent blended completely with the other, and so provided no way for individual characteristics to be passed down unchanged to offspring—that didn’t enter the body of science-as-product until the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s work in the early 20th century. What’s more, 19th century physics provided no mechanism for the Sun to keep shining for the immense periods of time needed for evolution to work, and so physicists in Darwin’s lifetime insisted that life on Earth could only be a few million years old. Evolutionary biologists ignored that, because they were confident that a mechanism that would provide billions of years of sunlight would be found, and of course it was. If it’s reasonable for observed phenomena to be rejected if no causal mechanism capable of producing them is known, though, Darwin’s theory should certainly have been tossed in the trash.

Fortunately, that’s not the way science worked in 1859. Darwin’s theory of natural selection was assessed on its own merits, not dismissed out of hand because it contradicted the science-as-product of its day.  The body of ordinary evidence that bolstered Darwin’s extraordinary claim was recognized as quite adequate to the purpose; the various ad hoc hypotheses brandished about by critics were recognized as such, and mocked merrily on that basis in the scientific and popular press; and the absence of crucial causal mechanisms, far from causing The Origin of Species from being tossed in the nearest dustbin, encouraged researchers to go looking for those mechanisms, and find them.

In Darwin’s time, science was still in what last month’s post described, in deliberately mythic terms, as a Phoenix phase:  less gnomically, a phase in which human thought was more or less midway along its trajectory from concrete images to abstract concepts, and the flight into abstraction that characterizes the next step in the process, the Dragon phase, had not yet gone anything like so far as it’s gone since then. As I noted last month, it’s typical of the Dragon phase for a civilization to become so convinced of the truth of its abstract conceptual models of the universe that any gap between those models and the universe of human experience is argued away with rhetoric, rather than being used as an opportunity to correct the model. The arguments surveyed here are good examples of the type.

Such defensive maneuvers are probably unavoidable at this point in the turning of history’s wheel, and they also serve a valuable function in their own way. Limits are as necessary in the ecology of thought as they are in every other ecology, and the hard defensive shell around the basic presuppositions of an intellectual creation such as modern Western science is what allows those presuppositions to be taken as far as they will go. In the case of classical logic, which completed its own journey through this same process around seventeen centuries ago, the same rigid exclusion of inconvenient realities helped drive inquiry into those fields where logical method could accomplish the most—for example, mathematics—and kept it away from those fields, such as natural history, to which the methods of classical logic were very poorly suited.

In much the same way, the exclusion of such phenomena as consciousness from scientific study in the modern world is almost certainly a good thing, because the methods of scientific research simply aren’t that useful when applied to such topics; the energy that might go in those directions is better used elsewhere, on topics better suited to quantitative analysis and reproducible experimental designs. Just as classical logic was taken up in later centuries as a fully developed system and put to uses the ancient Greek logicians couldn’t have imagined, in turn, modern science will doubtless be taken up by civilizations in the future, and put to work doing things that would baffle or horrify today’s scientists. That’s in the nature of cultural recycling: since every human culture evolves its own set of values, what seems like the obvious and natural thing to do to people from one culture generally looks pretty bizarre from the standpoint of any other.

It would be pleasant if today’s would-be defenders of science and reason were to see things that way, and recognize modern science as a culturally bound phenomenon, one of the supreme creations of the civilization that came to birth in western Europe and now maintains a brittle and fraying hegemony over most of the rest of the planet. From that perspective, the fact that some phenomena are not well suited for study via science-as-process, and are thus poorly represented in science-as-product, would not inspire the sort of furious, fist-pounding denunciations you so often see from today’s “angry atheists” and the like. Still, it seems to be essential to the ripening of an intellectual system in a Dragon era that many of its proponents see it as the royal road to absolute objective truth about everything, and I take sufficient delight in the discoveries of science that to my mind, at least, the misdirected tirades that result from this necessary habit are a small price to pay.

105 comments:

David said...

JMG--

I am greatly looking forward to your discussion of magic as an operator on consciousness. As a mathematician (applied, now that I'm in industry), I am still recovering from my youthful obsession with objective truth, though I have to admit that I've come some distance now. I must confess to having at one time (with traditional youthful fervor) fallen into an anti-/supra- (?) materialist quest for the "pure" Platonic world-of-forms, of which this universe/reality was but an impure and imperfect copy. Algebra is pure; statistics is evil; and engineering beyond redemption...that sort of thing. (Alas, I am now an industrial engineer who does statistical analyses for an electric utility. Go figure.)

Though I am very new to the concept of magic as you are describing it here, I am "translating" it for myself as a form of whole-system thinking, somewhat akin to my operating definition of karma as the echoes of actions propogating throughout a highly-interconencted and very non-linear system. If reality is a mental construct (i.e., the map is not the territory), then magic as a changing of consciousness can, of course, then result in a change in reality (reality-as-perception). Hopefully, I am not too far amiss here.

Sad as it is to witness the ossification of a once-vibrant system of thought, I have begun to reconcile myself to the fact the things must take their course and all forms (systems, living creatures, beliefs) have a life-cycle of birth, growth/flourishing, and decay. But the cycle begins again and I must take comfort in that.

daelach said...

I used, but have ceased to discuss with people who are into scienticism (not science) when it comes to alternative medicine. They say it is only the placebo effect. So what, even then, this effect is well proven - why not using it? Why does Western medicine do so little to exploit it? Western medicine is superb in acute therapy as well as for accident surgery, but has little to offer for chronic diseases and especially psychosomatic issues - which literally cry for some psyche-centric approach, like e.g. magic.

For all the good-willed readers here, being products of the rationalistic phase of our civilisation and yet inclined to combine reason and magic instead of being forced to choose, there is a way even within our own culture. Western philosophy, more precisely epistemology, has to offer a door called "constructivism". It isn't the 'best' approach since there is no objectively best one, but it is well suited as a starter for modern Westeners since it is in a language that we can easily understand.

Not that it is new in any way - the Buddhist term 'Maya' is way older and means quite similar a concept, but is easily misunderstood in Western esoterism.

The 'wall' between rationality and magic is not half as solid as it may seem at the first glance; actually, it is Maya itself.

Rationality, asking why, is for man as creature; magic, asking whereto, is for man as creator, and we are both. Free-whereof, free-whereto - Nietzsche.

Weave the web, create reality! But take care of your wishes since they might be granted.

conflicteddoomer said...

Actually, John Michael, there's a small, but growing, body of research showing that talk therapies and cognitive therapies can produce actual changes in some of the brain structures underlying anxiety, social phobias, PTSD and depression, both with and without medication.
That might be a place to begin looking at a scientific basis for magic - if people were so inclined.
I'm enjoying the series so far. Thanks.

John Graham said...

Probably stating the obvious here, but the dogmatic extremes of your third fallacy are a kind of shadow of a healthy skepticism. I remember once someone said to me, "oh, I thought I saw a green aura around your head". I looked around, and said, "ah, that's probably some kind of complementary colour effect with the red wall behind me". I apply the principle, for any phenomenon, "look for the sensible explanation before the supersensible one" - creating a kind of flake filter for myself as much as anyone else (I can easily go off into woo-woo land).

I think it's the perceived lack of flake filters between x-unexplained phenomenon, and green lizard overlords, that makes arch-rationalists apoplectic - and I suppose paradoxically through the dynamics of rejected knowledge, that makes belief in lizard overlords more likely (thank you for writing about that elsewhere).

A context someone like Sagan is writing into, I'll warrant, is one where there's some *unexplained* phenomenon, and people are striking the note of, "whoa, here's something *unexplainable* in ways mainstream thought can never explain, cue Twilight Zone music" (much as creationists insist there's no conceivable way eyeballs could have evolved).

I'm guessing the question of whether unexplained phenomena are "whoa, unexplainable!" is kind of beside the point when it comes to magic - I suppose magic is more about synchronistic effects. There's nothing unexplainable about a scarab beetle crashing into Jung's window, as it did on that fateful morning...and yet...and yet.

GuRan said...

Thanks JMG, as always. Here's a dragon-era explication of logical fallacies that might be a useful primer for readers.
Hat tip due to one of the readers of your other blog, I don't remember who... sorry dude you know who you are.
Cheers,
Graeme

John Michael Greer said...

David, I tend to think it's good to have gone through a Platonist phase -- the quest for a reality transcending the senses is excellent exercise for the mind. It's not too helpful to get stuck there, though.

Daelach, yes, I've had the same experience with believers in scientism. I'll be talking about some related points in next month's post, oddly enough.

Doomer, I'll leave that for those who want to pursue a scientific basis for magic; myself, I'm exploring the possibility of a magical basis for science. No, I don't mean that as a jest!

John, I have no problem with a healthy skepticism, just so long as it gets applied with equal enthusiasm to sensible and supersensible claims. If I see a green aura around somebody's head, btw, having him walk a few steps so I can see his head against a wall of a different color is a reasonable plan from either perspective!

More broadly, you're right that a great deal of nonsense has come out of the use of "this can't be explained in material terms" -- almost precisely as much as has come out of "this must be explainable in material terms." I see those two as two sides of the same failure of reason; more on this as we proceed.

GuRan, thanks for the link! That's both useful and amusing.

jean-vivien said...

This blog is even more juicy than doomer apocalypse conspiracy porn ! The monthly format really gives time for the ideas to mature, both in terms of abstractions and images. I am like a kid waiting for the comics magazine to reach the doorstep.

David said...

@daelach

Alan Watts pointed out that "classification is precisely Maya". This has presented something of a stumbling block to me, as one trained in mathematics. I'm still working on " direct experiencing" of things-as-they-are. It is a complete rewrite for a Western consciousness.

neil j said...

Hello JMG! Long time reader, first time commenter.

It's interesting to note, with the example about near death experiences, that for Sagan relating them back to the phenomena of flashbacks is apparently enough to halt all inquiry in that direction. But the same phenomena of flashbacks was enough to inspire Freud to write Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and so opening up and exploring such a phenomena lead to the entire theory of the death drive in Freud's work, and consequently a huge range of ideas, books and so on.

So the equating of near-death experience with flashbacks seems a rhetorical move designed only to relate the unfamiliar back to the familiar, a typical thoughtstopper - as Nietzsche says: "What is familiar is what we are used to; and what we are used to is most difficult to 'know' - that is, to see as a problem; that is, to see as strange, as distant, as 'outside us.'"" Saying that it's just a flashback isn't an explanation at all - at most, it's a foundation for the beginning of an explanation! Typical Dragon behaviour - once something is connectively embedded in the mesh of abstractions, it effectively counts as explained.

Tom Hopkins said...

I feel like im over my head intellectually with this blog. I have read most of your books on magic and especially enjoyed mystery teachings from the living earth. I believe that earth is a living organism, although i am not sure i would call her a goddess/god. I speak to her everyday and greet her as the mother and on occassion as nerthus. Mother seems appropriate seeing she is us and we are her, not something distant and to worthy/holy for us. I have had a personal gnosis and believe that is as close to answered prayer as ill get. Apologies for rambling, hers my two questions. 1.Do you believe that western science is reductionism overly concerned with individuality and not whole systems? That certainly mimics our culture today. And 2.do you think darwin espoused survival of the fittest over survival of the most cooperative? Thank you for this blog...i hope to learn more.

John Graham said...

"...just so long as it gets applied with equal enthusiasm to sensible and supersensible claims. If I see a green aura around somebody's head, btw, having him walk a few steps so I can see his head against a wall of a different color is a reasonable plan from either perspective!",

I suppose it depends on whether one can be bothered (in more than one sense) - and what stake one has in not being bothered. Thank you for the reminder of past "paranormal" experiences I conveniently disregard most days.

>"..almost precisely as much as .... I see those two as two sides of the same failure of reason; more on this as we proceed. "

Almost precisely, and yet... I wouldn't want to foreclose closer investigation by being dogmatic about the strictness of the symmetry.

For what it's worth, this passage from Steiner's "A Way of Self- Knowledge", Meditation 1, has always struck me as being important:

"You cannot gain true insight into anything in the spiritual world unless you are quite unbiased and are equally willing to accept "no" as "yes"....
Certainly there are those who believe quite honestly that the dissolution of the physical body annihilates the soul; and they lead their lives accordingly....they do not allow their fear of the soul's annihilation and their desire for its continuation to overshadow their reasoning. To that extent, their ideas are often more objective than those whose unconscious belief in the soul's continuing life is based on a veiled, burning desire for that continuation. Still, the level of prejudice among the deniers of immortality is not less than it is among believers; it is only different."



More objective, yet no less prejudiced.
An unbiased understanding of objectivity and subjectivity gets deeper into the territory you're covering than I'm competent to discuss..... roll on next month!! (btw I'm glad you blog here only once a month - it's quite enough.)

btw also - I'm looking forward to you discussing your understanding of the word "mind", as you said some time ago you would.

JimK said...

Here is an approach by which science might get a glimpse of consciousness: http://interdependentscience.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-mind-in-science.html

which might even bring in some magic! But when a scientist introduces a new move, a shift in their own perspective, can that still be science? It will take a different sort of science to study consciousness and magic. A braver science.

John Michael Greer said...

Jean-Vivien, thank you! That's high praise. ;-)

Neil, exactly. That's the difference between an ad hoc hypothesis and a scientific hypothesis -- the scientific hypothesis is meant to encourage further exploration, not to shut it down.

Tom, over your head is a good place to be -- that's how you learn to swim. ;-) With regard to your questions, first, what's wrong with modern science as it's currently practiced is partly a matter of too much reductionism, but there's more to it than that -- I'll be discussing more of the issues as we proceed. Second, I'd encourage you to sit down with a copy of The Origin of Species, read it from cover to cover, and find out for yourself -- it's really quite readable (Darwin was a very good writer, and his travel book The Voyage of the Beagle was a bestseller in its time) and you'll learn much more from the experience than you will from listening to me.

John, as I see it, it's not a matter of symmetry -- the two errors I outlined are, as I suggested, the same failure of reason seen from opposed perspectives. I'll discuss that more as we proceed -- along with the meaning of the word "mind," and a lot else.

Jim, just as it will take a braver magic to investigate the magical roots of science. It really does work both ways.

John Roth said...

Interesting post. I encountered all three reactions way back when my astrological learning was in high gear; that's why I started calling the practitioners pseudo-skeptics. More recently I've been interested in confirmation bias. I'm no longer meeting pseudo-skeptics on a regular basis, but when I do I have a fond hope of asking one to explain what confirmation bias is all about in simple terms, since I apparently don't understand it.

Cliff said...

Hi JMG,
Your post got me thinking about paranormal phenomena, ghosts and so on, and how rarely I encounter people who experience these things, and cultural perceptions of reality.

My understanding is that Western culture went through a massive shift in consciousness in the centuries after the Renaissance. That era saw the rise of a mechanistic view of the world, and Catholic and Protestant fundamentalism, and quite a few squabbling empires.
One of the results seems to be the obliteration of the older, magical, living-world point of view. Western culture was essentially cut off from nature, right there.

I don't know if this fits with your Unicorn-Phoenix-Dragon timeline, or even if it's accurate.
But I wonder if it could explain why so experiences with the paranormal are so rare and easily dismissed.

D.M. said...

The magical roots of science, to alchemy and beyond! But yes there are magical roots to science, one of the roots is observation.

As some of the commentators here have been getting to, there is also an interesting partition between so-called "objectivity" and "subjectivity" that seems to be the most sharply defined in Western cultures. I am interested in what your thoughts are when people use not wanting to fall into solipsism as a defense.

Kutamun said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Albatross said...

Hi there Mr. Greer,

Hoo! I had exactly the same experience when I was 13. I was given a telescope for me birthday, a reflector with but an eight cm mirror. So, I took it with me to the top of a local hill, looked west to abouts where I had read that Saturn would be, found a star there that I guessed (was but a guess) might be a planet. Well I aimed the crosshairs of the finderscope at it and I looked into the eyepiece. Then. Lo an' behold! My first real look into the Eyepiece showed me Saturn with its rings at the perfect classic angle to the planet. I was totally blown away.

All the best, Juri Aidas

Albatross said...

Hi there Mr. Greer,

(Hm? I tried to post this info just a li'l while ago but went away confused as to if it had been sent. Please delete this one if that one arrived.)

My comment here refers to your first post on this blog, "Explaining the World". I found a review a few days ago of a study on vision published in "Journal of Experimental Psychology" that corroborates your discussion on our perception of the world. You wrote:

"That image or representation is your world. It’s not the unimaginable reality of particles and fields "out there," it’s a representation of that reality, constructed by your mind out of the raw material of sensation according to patterns that come partly from biology, partly from culture, and partly from experiences you’ve had over the course of your life."

The review of that study was nicely summarized by a public post on Facebook by 'Neuroscience Library'. The last paragraph therein has this quote from the original article (which is behind a paywall):

"The experiments show that our perception depends in large measure on stored visual experiences in our memory," says Arvid Herwig. According to Herwig and Schneider, these experiences serve to predict the effect of future actions ("What would the world look like after a further eye movement"). In other words: "We do not see the actual world, but our predictions."

See this link: < https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=723655414356160&id=203745536347153&substory_index=0 >

(By the way, as a more personal note. Your first posting on this blog to which I made a comment referring to the philosophy of yoga and your gracious response to that inspired me to write another book on the stuff I have been teaching since 1971. I do believe I have a new perspective to offer on that subject an' I'm a hunnered pages done by now ... a few more months and it'll be online.)

Juri Aidas, Sweden

Greg Belvedere said...

I love this topic. I have come across these arguments the most when hearing "skeptics" challenge Rupert Sheldrake. You can hear some great examples of this in the PBS series "A Glorious Accident" in which Sheldrake is part of a panel that includes some other prominent scientists and philosopher Daniel Dennett. They continuously challenge him, often with these fallacious arguments. The point where he shreds their ad hoc hypotheses about homing pigeons by talking about the studies that have actually been done is one of the few times they actually give him his due.

Dennett is a particularly good example of dragon age thinking. I am wondering if I will see you skewer his claim that consciousness does not exist. It is such a ridiculous idea, both on the face of it and once you dive into it as well. I'm trying to think of a good analogy that accurately conveys the absurdity of his claim. Something like: thinking consciousness is not real is like announcing over a loud speaker that loud speakers don't exist.

http://www.sheldrake.org/videos

You can find the video at the link above, including the excerpt about the homing pigeons. He has a lot of good lectures and conversations here and in the audio section as well. Dennett is actually in the audience at "Beyond the Machine: Metaphors of the Body". He asks a question at the end of the conversation and their exchange is yet another good examples of dragon age thinking trying to grapple with ideas that don't fit into that view.

Sheldrake has also recently started a website called skeptical about skeptics. I have not gotten a chance to dig into it yet, but I thought it might interest you and other readers here.

http://www.skepticalaboutskeptics.org/

Finally, I don't think science is very well suited to explore consciousness either. I think religion and mysticism have far more to offer in this field and long ago produced way more useful insights than science will ever be able to.

Bill Pulliam said...

"Ad hoc" hypotheses are also known as "Just So Stories," after Rudyard Kipling. Oddly, most scientists are keenly on guard against them so long as you stay within the acceptable bounds of inquiry, but begin spouting them from every orifice as soon as you leave those boundaries.

Also worth noting that "Ad hoc" means literally "for this," in this case meaning "for this specific thing." In other words, I concocted this explanation just to account for this particular thing, without regard to any larger meaning, context, or process. They are often used as excuses as to why a more general hypothesis has not actually been falsified - you come up with a new ad hoc explanation for every instance in which the theory failed, rather than accepting that it has been disproved.

The great irony in all of this is that consciousness itself, which makes scientific inquiry possible, remains almost entirely resistant to scientific explanation. Its existence in other beings (even other people) cannot even be proven, as it is not directly observable. The means by which arises out of "ordinary" processes of chemistry and physics are utterly unknown. The "fact" that it "must" come entirely from those processes is accepted as a matter of faith among most present-day scientists, but at this point that really is an "extraordinary claim" supported by little evidence, ordinary or extraordinary.

Bill Pulliam said...

Now, about the "extraordinary claims" thing. Within the scientific community, when addressing clearly scientifically-addressable issues, this can be a useful guideline, even if it is subjective. In that context, "extraordinary" generally means a claim that goes against an existing well-tested theory, or claim that would represent a spectacular advancement or confirmation of an existing hypothesis. Cold fusion was an extraordinary claim, and their failure to adequately review their own results and be sure they were robust enough for a claim of that magnitude cast a shadow over that term that continues to this day.

"Extraordinary claims" was applied in the 1980s to results that appeared to show "non-Newtonian" gravity; i.e. gravitational effects that were not accounted for by either Newtonian theory or Relativity. And under closer scrutiny I think none of those claims did pan out.

More recently we saw a much-hyped "confirmation" of cosmological Inflation theory based on fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background that were interpreted as "fossilized gravity waves." Inflation theory strikes me as a good candidate for an "extraordinary claim," as it invokes a fundamental process of the universe that did what it was needed of it to rescue the Big Bang theory, then faded away into nothingness and has never happened since then. The theory indeed requires that this process and the particles and fields that produced it be entirely absent at present, if I understand correctly. The words "and it happened Just So" always come to mind whenever I hear a physicist explain it. But, for some reason (probably because it saves the beloved Big Bang) this particular ad hoc theory is almost universally accepted by modern physicists. And its "experimental [really observational] confirmation" was cheered round the world. Except...

More recent studies have cast some doubt on whether the "fossilized gravity waves" would even be observable from Earth in the present, given that our view of them should be blocked by interstellar dust. So maybe whatever they saw in the microwave background was something else entirely? Well, now that you come to mention it, the details of what was observed were not actually an exact match for the predictions... but we kind of overlooked that in the excitement of all the international media attention...

Just confirms the point that the bar for "extraordinary" depends on how badly you want to believe...

Eric S. said...

This month’s dip from the well hit on some of the challenges to both magic and science in an age like this (which, given the emphasis you’ve been placing on ages in the cycles of civilizations so far, is probably the point). You’ve pointed out the logical fallacies scientists run up against when they attempt to shut down experiences that don’t fit within the paradigm. The same happens in reverse where scientists attempt to use methods designed for one type of natural process to “prove” processes rooted in consciousness. This can be seen in the collapse of the field of parapsychology, or the way the near-death studies just keeps rehashing the same handful of talking points without making any progress. Even psychology, which is still making some good returns in behavioral studies and neuroscience boils down to nonsense, denial, or religious metaphor the second it tries to make sense of the aspects of our behavior that are rooted in neither behavior nor brain chemistry.

This reflects back on the practicing mage today too. Many people today treat magical grimoires like recipe books, debunking the practice when they don’t get results or getting mentally unbalanced when the results are unfocused. The study or the manipulation of consciousness, unlike the study or manipulation of matter requires complete participation at every level of being, and achieving that level of participation requires commitment and practice. An effective magical practice takes time, effort, and a flexibility of mind that can accept experiences that challenge notions of reality without immediately rationalizing them away. In an age like this that’s a hard hurtle to jump, and it can be easy to just go through the motions without the right state of mind and convince yourself that what you’re doing is silly and pointless. In dragon times, how does one navigate between the recipe book mentality and the empty husk of ritual that rationalizes away every experience and result?

Phil Harris said...

JMG
An admission: I have found your output - both blogs and books - useful. I find that making the assumption you are wrong, and then working my way through the evidence and logic and making judgments along the way, to be an instructive methodology. Not terribly scientific but you and I both come out of it reasonably well, I think. ;)

My introduction to science was mostly through Natural History. (There were some good professionals with science background answered written questions from children on a regular BBC radio program. They did not talk down to us and did not pretend they knew all the answers.)

I would like a Natural History approach to 'insight'; including insight as a fundamental (typically correct when unpacked) in scientific investigation.

best
Phil H

AA said...

Not sure there is a "scientific method" and to the extent there is, it's responsible only for pedestrian results. The great figures of the last three centuries or so -- Newton, Euler, Lagrange, Gauss, Riemann, etc. -- have been poets and mystics more than anything else. And empirical corroboration of much of modern physics has been tenuous and tangential. For more on how much of a fiction "scientific method" is, you might like to glance at Feyerabend's "Against Method" and "Science in a Free Society."

Violet Cabra said...

Spengler writes in the introduction to Vol. I, Decline of the West:

When, towards the end of the Roman republic, Varro set out to stabi-
lize the religion that was fast vanishing from the people's consciousness, he classified the deities whose cult was exactly and minutely observed by the State, into
"certain" and "uncertain" gods, i.e., into gods of whom something was still
known and gods that, in spite of the unbroken continuity of official worship, had survived in name only.


As Science becomes increasingly rigid, closed to new possibilities and perspecstives, and instead recites past discoveries, we approach a similar point as the Roman religion in Varro's time. Science increasingly is an institution that merely maintains a closed canon of Eternal Truth. This is not a dynamic enquiry into Nature, it is a catechism. And as such is Science in name only.

jean-vivien said...

And in the meantime, Wall Street loses value after Canadian shooting : http://mobile.reuters.com/article/usMktRpt/idUSL2N0SH2FO20141022?irpc=932

Economics are explained by Science but work like Magic. In Dragon terms, magick would work like the economics of consciousness... and Economics like a magic of value. Whereas in Unicorn terms, economics are the prairie where the Dragon confuses Unicorns for Phoenices, and magic the prairie where all three animals discover and tolerate each other.

Bill Pulliam said...

So one loonie with a gun, by shooting the one person at a particular place and time, magically causes hundreds of billions of dollar of "money" to vanish instantly all around the world. Indeed, that is exactly how magic works -- a conscious deed acts upon larger consciousness to bring about an outcome vastly disproportionate to the actual physical nature of the magical act. And, it also demonstrates, magic has no intrinsic moral restraints on either what you do to cast the spell, or what the impacts of the spell might be.

Steve Thomas said...

I find the "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" bit especially irritating, because people who say things like that really ought to know better.

Who determines what is "ordinary"? By what means or processes did the ordinary come about? Those aren't rhetorical questions-- We have 150 years worth of investigation in the fields of Anthropology and Sociology with which to answer them. What is "ordinary" in one place, or time, or culture is unusual in another, anathema in another, impossible in a third. This applies to almost every area of human experience, which brings us back to the question, "What is ordinary?"

It quickly becomes apparent that "ordinary" is a human social construct, and thus like all human social constructs is embedded in the non-rational primate dominance hierarchies and historically contingent cultural adaptations that structure human social groups.

So we're being asked to believe that, unlike all the other belief sets that have arisen out of particular human groups adapting to particular historical circumstances in the context of primate social structures, the belief set of scientific materialism is an entirely accurate description of how the real universe actually works. Meanwhile there is basically no value at all in other belief sets, which have arisen out of the same processes!

The other thing is-- Look what materialists are claiming. Their view of the universe right now is correct. Of course, the current body of scientific knowledge has changed a great deal in the last 200, 100, 50, and even 10 years. What will it look like in 10, 50, 100, or 200 years? Will it be identical? How abut in 500, 1,000, 2,000, or 10,000 years? This is assuming, of course, that there will be a continuous scientific process across those expanses of time, which there won't be-- but set that aside. What if we were able to continue building upon our current scientific knowledge across even greater expanses of time-- 100,000 years, 1,000,000 years, or the lifespan of the Sun? The lifespan of the universe? Would it really look the same?

If so, what if, instead of being done across that timespan by human beings, science was being done by beings with a greater cognitive capacity (pretending for a moment that intelligence is a simple matter of greater than-less than, which of course it isn't). What if science was being done by beings twice as smart as us? Five times as smart? Ten times as smart? A hundred thousand times as smart? Would beings ten million times more intelligent than human beings, practicing science across a trillion years, produce a body of knowledge or a set of beliefs about the origin, nature, structure and ultimate destination of the universe in any way related to that which exists at this time, on Earth, in the early twenty-first century?

If the answer is "Yes"-- well, basically what our materialist saying is that today's scientists are not only the smartest guys around, they're the smartest guys that ever have existed, ever will exist, or ever could exist-- anywhere in the universe!

It's hard to imagine a more extraordinary claim than that.

As for the other part... "If the cause isn't known, the effect didn't occur." I have to admit that I've never heard this before, and it makes absolutely no sense to me. It honestly sounds like one of the most irrational things I've ever heard. More than anything reminds me of the kind of thing you might hear from a Communist Party apparatchik, denouncing critics of the Glorious Worker's Revolution. Do people really buy that? Why?

Bill Pulliam said...

And to the final one, if I don't know the mechanism, then it didn't happen...

Weatherglasses were useful for forecasting the weather long before global atmospheric circulation and the associated high and low pressure systems were understood.

Thomas Daulton said...

JMG, you are totally reading my mind with this month's column! I have extensive notes on a book I'd like to write -- someday if I ever get the time, in this collapsing economy -- which is tentatively titled "Scientific Arrogance". Perhaps I'll borrow some of your more genteel language in the hopes of making the pill a little less bitter for the scientific dogmatists to swallow. The basic thesis of the book is, "Just because _you_ happen to know a scientific law, does not in-and-of-itself mean that I did not observe what I say I observed". I am sick to death of people telling me I need to believe the pure theories instead of my own lying eyes, when I observe something that doesn't totally match a sacred-cow theory.

Other logical fallacies often involved in the construction of this elaborate fortress of arrogance include the "No True Scotsman" fallacy (usually encountered as, "If you tried my reccomendation and you couldn't replicate my preferred results, then obviously you weren't trying _hard_ enough, or _long_ enough, or the _right_ way".) -- and the "Black or White" fallacy (usually encountered as, "If you complain about some side effect or drawback of technology, then you obviously want everyone to go back to caveman days".)

Like how it was very fashionable over the summer to cite a weblog ( http://www.tylervigen.com/ ) with a bunch of extremely spurious, random correlations -- such as, the number of films starring Nicholas Cage correlates extremely well to the annual number of drownings in swimming pools. Now, I am not personally a vaccine denier. But I found it odd that the same people who would post these spurious correlation graphs, and then sneer about how "correlation is not equal to causation"... the very same people would often respond to a vaccine denier by citing a graph showing a strong inverse correlation between flu cases and vaccine doses. Then they'll use the "Black or White" fallacy to claim that... if I suggest the ancillary chemicals which deliver vaccines might have side effects and could be improved... then that means I want to ban all medical science and watch everyone die of smallpox.

It's fashionable on the Internet right now to sneer at people who believe they have celiac disease, but who can't rigorously define the term. I personally don't claim to have celiac disease, but the idea that our corporate processed fake food might be disagreeing with people is certainly worth investigating. The scientific dogmatists would have us believe that, because real celiac disease is extremely rare and most of the people who claim to have it do not in fact have it -- then that proves GMO's are perfectly safe. Q.E.D.

It's easy to see why this type of arrogance leads to its own downfall. Someone once said that "the sound of science advancing is not 'Eureka!!' but rather 'Hmmmmm... that's weird.'" How many scientific discoveries in the past were made when a subtle effect botched the results of a test that should have been very predictable, and then the scientist started investigating why the botch came about? When we close our eyes and our minds to the possibility that events might fall outside the bedrock of our known rules, we close off serendipity, wonder, and the diverse branching of thought: the things from which the most revolutionary scientific advances originally sprung.

Kylie said...

Following on from your discussion of Newton and gravity, I understand from reading about his life that the idea of a force acting on bodies from a distance was an idea taken from his alchemical studies. At the time, the scientific understanding was that bodies could only act directly on one another. Newton's concept of gravity as a force acting from a distance was an 'extraordinary claim' for science at the time.

Nano said...

As our late uncle Bob used to say, "The menu is not the meal."

This could be a great intro into E-prime territory.

Fantastic read!

Blue Peter said...

I thought that the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is a pragmatic heuristic which often has value, but not always. It is thought to come from Hume and his discussion of miracles: you shouldn’t believe in a miracle unless it would be a greater stretch of credulity to believe that the evidence you have for the miracle is wrong.

This seems a valid heuristic. Is it more likely that someone died and then came back to life, or that someone was mistaken? Or that accounts of a death and rebirth initiation ceremony got mixed up with tales of an actual crucifixion? Given what we know about human life and what we know about witness reports (especially decades after an event), it’s more likely that a mistake was made. To not believe this would require changes to so many things that we accept as a fundamental part of our knowledge.

So, I don’t really see it as petitio principia.The evidence for the extraordinary claim has to do much more than the evidence for the ordinary claim – it has to back itself AND explain why everything else that we have painstakingly constructed over the centuries is wrong. So the evidence does need to be out of the ordinary. That seems a useful heuristic, even if it is not guaranteed to be true.


Peter.

Blue Peter said...

I’m interested to hear that you’re looking into the magical roots of science. I don’t know what your take on it is, but from what I have learnt from your blogs, it seems to me that magic is, in a sense, the science of the human mind. And as such, it should lie at the root of all human endeavours.

More concretely, it seems to me that science requires a specific consciousness, which I think Eddington described as one-eyed and colour-blind. In turn this consciousness requires a world which fits in with it – a world of straight lines, exact and measurable amounts, of pure substance and so on. Though we assume that science applies to everything, our experiments and theories only work in very controlled environments (e.g. only the purest water, at sea level and standard pressure boils at exactly 100 degrees centigrade) and much work must be done to make the environments standard. Everything outside the controlled environment is assumed to work in the same way, but not have quite the same results due to “deviations” from the standard (impurities, altitude, different pressures etc.). We make this work, though it is clearly impossible to test everything.

And in as much as we want science / technology to work outside the labs, we must make our world standard. Lots of science wouldn’t work “in the rainforest” because the environment is too messy, there are too many deviations (a concrete example, a colleague once told me that instruments such as cameras tended to just rot away)


Thus, in general, as science advances, and in order for science to advance, the world must be made more exact. And naturally the nature of the world affects the consciousnesses within it – they must be made more “exact” too.

It strikes me that this is like magic on a grand scale, using your definition. Science (personifying our cultural spirit) is transforming our consciousness into something more suitable for itself, which you could presumably describe as “in accordance with the will of science”.


Peter.

Phil Harris said...

I have a theory that 'knowledge' in science is constrained these days by internalised Logical Positivism. I formed this view 20 years or so ago when I was privileged to witness fairly eminent scientists (Brits) trying to do fairly important risk assessments having been called to this public duty. They were very poor at it and some found it impossible. Most of the problem was that they were being asked to reason about matters that we could not 'know' in a ‘proper’ scientific sense.

Now, this view has its uses. It does help prevent some dubious stuff entering textbooks as if it were 'knowledge'. The Scientific University is worth defending as Robert Pirsig discussed in our youth. 'Anything' definitely does not go!

But, curiously to go back to my own witnessed cases, frontline top researchers who were looking into the unknown every day, and staking a lot on their own judgement, were much better at risk assessment, when the going got very much more serious.

Which reminds me of when I was a young sceptic still at school and a Christian Science minister addressed us . He was likeable in his diffidence and the most impressive of a string of different denominations who gave their time. Though still young, a few years before in his early 20s he had been landed as a frontline officer in Normandy. He saw and was in the thick of the action but managed with the help of religious intuition not to lose a man. He also thought they had avoided killing anybody. Needless to say the word got round and there were quite a few troops who tried to get transferred to his unit.

What is the moral of this tale for future times? If you can find a guy who is clearly very good at risk assessment in action, get behind him whatever the oddities of his religious theory or other intellectualisation.

best
Phil H

EnergyLens said...

Really excellent. And the comments on both of your blogs are stellar this week!

I've been in a week's long 'discussion' of these themes with a would be defender' of science and reason, in the wake of your "Clenched Fist of Reason" post from July. I've been suggesting that perhaps science-as-institutions may not pass the "fitness" test when it comes to the changes our species' cultures will undergo as we transition from a high-energy niche and into a different climate regime...

I tried to get him to read this month's post because it is squarely focused on your stance toward science, but he refused.

His main sticking point had to do with your use of linear perspective in "Explaining the World" to illustrate the point you were making about how cultures can shape our perception of reality... I just happened to stumble across a great quote that ties into the theme you started this blog with as well as the 'progress fairy' of this week's ADR and I wanted to share it. This is from Christopher Small's "Musics, Society, Education":


"The existence of histories of music, for example, under such titles as The Progress of Music and The Growth of Music, both written by respected musical scholars, shows how easy it is for us to allow our thinking to be shaped by quite inappropriate ideas of scientific progress, while most of us are not entirely immune to the kind of thinking which assumes automatically that when European painting acquired the techniques of linear perspective it became better, or at least more sophisticated, than medieval painting; similarly in music with the elaboration of harmony and orchestral resource.
This cutting-off of scientific knowledge from the realm of experience is of course essential to the idea of knowledge as cumulative over time, since the most efficient way of transmitting fact and theory is by making it independent of the irrelevant experiential world of the individual. Experiences are unrepeatable, unique to the individual and in the long run untransmissible (except, in a limited way, through the medium of art); if scientific knowledge is to be transmitted exactly it must be divorced from experience, and the more exact the transmission the more completely divorced it must be. In any case, the nature of atomic and subatomic processes, of cell biology and the evolution of galaxies is inaccessible to human senses, and can be inferred only from dial readings, photographic plates, fluoroscope traces and the like. The scientist’s way of objectifying his experience (since even to read a dial or examine a photograph is indubitably an experience) is to reduce it as far as possible to those sets of abstract relationships we call mathematics, but in doing so he imposes severe limitations upon the kinds of knowledge with which he can deal, limitations which we would see more clearly were we not so infatuated with the undoubted degree of mastery over nature which this knowledge has permitted and the material benefits which it has delivered."

daelach said...

@ David:
I don't understand how mathematics can be a blocker since they are an entire world of their own and don't have anything to do with this world. That's why mathematics aren't a natural science. They can be applied, but that's it.

Concerning direct experiencing, the problem is that consciousness is operationally closed (though informationally open). There are only thoughts followed by other thoughts. We only have interpretations/maps of the world, not the world itself. Even the "mapping process" (object->light->eye->nerve->brain) itself is already a map.

If you manage to reach states beyond that, which means beyond ego death, you will not really remember what it's like precisely because there is no "you" in these states that could remember. What you can remember, though, is a deep feeling that there's more to it - the level of existence and meaning that mystics have always known about, but which is beyond words.

As Laotse put it, the Tao you can speak of isn't the Tao. Leads to Wittgenstein, whereof one cannot speak, one must keep silent.


@ D.M.:
1) Well, there's a whole civilisation pretending that we can have endless growth based upon final ressources on a finite planet; and pretending that just because we would like to continue to have what we are having, we will be able to do so - that is solipsism, and obviously not hindered by subject-object-dualism. So the whole defense just does not hold water.

2) Constructivism is not solipsism. That there are many different working models of "world" does not mean that all thinkable models of "world" would work. Some models work, some don't. A key phrase here is "viability, not truth".

John Michael Greer said...

John, funny. Yes, that's another phrase that's flung about with remarkable abandon, isn't it?

Cliff, actually, they're not rare at all. Polls show that up to a third of the population has had what you're calling a paranormal encounter. It's just that in modern times, it's become so thoroughly tabooed a subject that most people won't talk about it, for fear of ridicule.

DM, that's an extraordinarily complex issue, not least because there is no such thing as objectivity -- all we have are subjective experiences, which we can compare with other people's subjective experiences to some extent via the medium of language. No human being has direct access to what's real -- that's why we need the complexities of the scientific method to sort through our subjective experiences and see which ones appear to be shared and replicable.

Kutamun, I've had the sense for some time that the neocons get resource depletion -- it's just that they can't think of any response to it but grabbing as much of what's left as they can. It's also a source of amusement to me to watch people dismiss one problem by saying "this problem over here is much worse" -- as though that makes the first problem go away somehow.

Albatross, so was I. It's a magical experience, one that I wish more children had. Thanks also for the reference -- it's nice that scientists are finally getting around to noticing something that philosophers figured out in the 18th century!

Greg, I'll have to read Dennet sometime -- I can't skewer him until I figure out which logical fallacies he's using to defend his absurd claim. As for Sheldrake, though, we'll be talking about him as we proceed; he's a good example of what happens when somebody applies the scientific method fairly to a taboo phenomenon.

Bill, dead right on both points.

Eric, the answer is simply continued practice. That also makes a great "flake filter" to screen out those who don't have the self-discipline for magical training.

Phil, an adversarial stance is a perfectly valid way to test ideas, so long as it remains honest.

AA, I'm familiar with Feyerabend's critique, but I think he's missing the forest for the trees. The scientific method is a grab-bag of assorted techniques that work together to screen out some of the most obvious sources of self-deception -- which may not seem like much, but it beats the stuffing out of most other ways of finding regularities in the behavior of matter and energy.

Dan L. said...

@Steve Thomas:

Regarding "If the cause isn't known, the effect can't exist."

"Do people really buy that? Why?"

It's a heuristic or, as John Graham discusses in a comment here, a "flake filter".

There are more possibly hypotheses than could ever be fruitfully investigated. Heuristics are needed for sorting out which are more or less likely to be fruitful.

The problems arise when a person mistakes his heuristics for truth. Heuristics are typically non-rational as they can only be justified through utility and utility is itself subjective. No doubt the erstwhile "skeptic" finds utility in dismissing phenomena that threaten his rigid worldview and his heuristics are tuned to that purpose. (I speak here from experience; but don't worry, I'm a recovering certaintyholic.)

@AA:

You have a great point in that boiling down the rich tapestry of the historical phenomenon reductively referred to as "science" to a singular methodology likely obscures more than it illuminates and Feyerabend is a worthwhile critic, but one must be careful not to dismiss the real value that can be found in the patterns and processes found in that tapestry. One must also be careful not to make an idol of a critic like Feyerabend or to make the critique itself a dogma comparable to that which is being criticized. It's apparently popular to quote Nietzsche here, though I'll abstain in this instance since I'm sure you can guess the passage of which I'm reminded.

@JMG:

Speaking of being a "recovering certaintyholic" as I mentioned above, I'd like to thank you for playing such a big part in that recovery. Your work has been incredibly important to me in many ways but mainly in opening my mind to possibilities I never would have considered a few short years ago.

This post in particular is spot on. As I mention above, I'm reading this as a former devotee of pseudoskepticism and I appreciate both the candor of this rebuttal to the scientistic attitude and the admission of the utility of the same.

I was going to quibble that some results of recent cognitive science seem quite valid and useful -- the mind has what Steven Pinker* refers to as a "heterogeneous structure" and science is perfectly capable of mapping out some of that structure. Of course, the important point is that science can't explain the "fact of", and as Descartes argued (rather confusedly) a few hundred years ago, the "fact of" is the only aspect of our personal realities that can't be denied.

*No, I don't take Pinker particularly seriously. In fact, he's one of the worst scientific dogmatists out there. Just trying to give credit where it's due.

John Michael Greer said...

Violet, exactly -- and that's absolutely standard in what I'm calling a Dragon era.

Jean-Vivien, a good workable metaphor!

Bill, true enough. Terrorism is mostly about magic anyway -- an attempt to use symbolic action to cause changes in consciousness.

Steve, ask any soi-disant rationalist about homeopathy and the arguments you'll get against it all revolve around "we don't know any mechanism that can make it work, therefore it can't work." I'll be talking about that next month.

Bill, and species evolved before Darwin told them how to do it. Bingo.

Thomas, good! Please do write that book.

Kylie, that's quite correct. Newton was actually criticized harshly at the time for allowing action at a distance -- it was compared by some other scientists to belief in witchcraft.

Nano, a summary of almost Korzybskian pithiness!

Blue Peter, it's only valid if you set out clearly in advance what counts as an extraordinary claim, and extraordinary evidence -- and then apply those criteria equally to all claims. As for the magical roots of science, good -- yes, that's what I have in mind. We'll get to that as we proceed.

Phil, we know much more than we can prove, and trusting implicit knowledge is usually a good idea in a crisis!

EnergyLens, okay, that may explain the shortage of rationalist trolls here. I'd wondered about that -- usually this sort of thing draws them like flies. If they've already started groping around for excuses not to read these posts, that would make sense of it.

Dan L. said...

I actually took Dennett's philosophy of mind class as an undergrad. Part of my final paper for that class argued against a philosophical precept known as "identity theory" and Dennett called me in to discuss my argument as he seemed inclined to dismiss the argument out of hand but wanted to be fair-minded in dealing with his students. (This is my perception, at any rate; his actual motives may have been somewhat different.)

My argument centered around rebutting the identity claim that "water is H2O". He was skeptical of my rebuttal, arguing that my point that I would be unsatisfied if I ordered a glass of water and was instead given a glass of ice (which would, of course, also be H2O). He argued that context could be used to clear up any misunderstanding of that sort and the claim "water is H2O" nonetheless stands.

I rejoined by asking him to imagine a universe in which there is exactly one molecule of H2O and asked him whether it would correctly classified as any of a solid, liquid, or gas.

He sat back in his chair, hand to his chin, and said "You know, I think you might have something there."

Incidentally, my skepticism of identity claims was inspired by another darling of pseudoskeptics everywhere: Richard Feynman. In his autobiographical book of anecdotes, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! he relates a story about going to a talk by a philosopher in which he was asked about the ontological status of electrons. His attitude was that electrons don't actually exist -- the "electron" is actually a model used to make sense of scientific observations rather than an undeniable feature of the world around us. If only the pseudoskeptics who venerate him took some care to understood his perspective on scientific truth!

Phil Harris said...

JMG
Thanks for the reply to my first comment. I intended something of a joke. I am not adversarial. I decided it was too easy agreeing with you because there is a big overlap between you and the path of my own thinking over the years. Mostly, but not always, I emerge broadly agreeing with you, with quite a bit new stuff learned along the way.

Honesty is one of your characteristics to treasure.

best
Phil H

D.M. said...

@daelach

Exactly, people attempt to use solipsism as a defense against anything that challenges their worldview that they hold to be the absolute truth.

When discussing models, it is less about viability and more about predictive power. Just because one has to ask what standard of viability are we measuring them against? Unless I misunderstood what you meant by viability and you just used that as a replacement for predictive power.

@JMG

Well it was either that or something easier, like calculus, for what I contemplate on. Yes, that is also my understanding of the scientific method, to build a better consensus or model, if you prefer, of what is real. Which of course is where people get hung up because if there is nothing objective than how can anything be "real"?

Eric S. said...

Oh absolutely. And it can’t just be outer practice. Most magical systems have at least a meditation routine to master before even getting to rituals, ritual practice before the next step and so on. Some even lay lifestyle taboos and restrictions before getting to the meditations. A scientific study of magic would have to look at every aspect of the system inner and outer, which includes things that “can’t be poked with a stick” (How can you prove someone’s doing the meditations and not thinking about lunch?). Ultimately to truly understand magic, you have to swallow your disbelief, get to work, and actually do it. But the rationalists would never devote the time and effort to something they don’t believe in to begin with, so instead their “research” looks like this: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1559468/New-age-therapies-cause-retreat-from-reason.html

Hmm… I’m starting to notice the way this blog is structuring itself. You started with topics that would be familiar to regular Archdruid Report readers while challenged an aspect of experience in a way that inspired some of us to go out, look at a landscape, and try to see it in a new way. Then you summoned potent magical images for us to meditate on (dragons, unicorns, and phoenixes). In a comment last month you assigned the homework of reading a set of myths that come from the “unicorn” time of a civilization “at first just for entertainment.” This month you cryptically hinted at “something” you can only begin to discuss after readers are willing to sacrifice attachment to even the fondest sureties of our civilization (a gatekeeper standing guard to deeper mysteries within operating almost as a “flake filter” of its own). And of course our discussions and reflections cycle around a magically significant point in the month. Are we just discussing magical philosophy in a broad, abstract sense? Or are you covertly weaving us towards getting our hands dirty with practice and technique as well? Or, can you even do one without the other?

SLClaire said...

Sometime back at the other blog, you mentioned Frances Yates' books in response to a comment. I read The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age and The Rosicrucian Enlightenment and was fascinated, having not encountered anything like that in my formal education (no surprise). It seems that what she was discussing was the magical roots of science, its unicorn period to use your terms from the previous post. Certainly science is a dragon now, with all sorts of treasure piled up, but much of the treasure most useful to folks in their ordinary lives not available to them for various reasons, and with the potential of being lost. You have my full attention, as a scientist who is learning magic and who is very interested in what each might reveal about the other.

Kutamun said...

Watching the movie " Prometheus " , recently , it struck me that the voyagers were humans who had succeeded in perceiving the world at a subatomic level , much like the quantum scientists of today . The crew included an android who looks a lot like TE Lawrence of Arabia " seven pillars of wisdom " fame . Their motivations ran the usual human gamut of hired hands , want to get rich , want to live forever , want to be famous scientist etc . This mob actually came across some members biblical Nephilim Watchers , who as i see it are extremely disappointed with the outcome of "the human experiment " and are preparing to manifest somewhere closer to the particle level , a virus designed to wipe the failed experiment from the face of the earth . Of course things dont go according to plan , the end result being Noome Rapace , the one crewmember whose primary motivation seems to be Love , survives to begin a journey deeper still to reach the " homeworld " of the Watchers , to learn more about their relationship to humans, and their reasons for wanting us " dead ".
These Watchers are a particularly hi tech crowd who use Pan Pipes to fire up their "spaceship" , and speak in an ancient Sumerian dialect . They were particularly p...d to see that we had created a crude machine in our own image , and when the Old Capitalist stated his purpose in approaching them as being to cheat mortality and death they replied, puzzled " what for " .
All this contrasts in my mind to watching an ABC science panel of physicist Brian Cox "exploring the universe " and mathematician Nalini Joshi pontificating about the mysteries of the universe and all the life that might be " out there" . With Pan- Demic currently threatening our Pan - Genus , and in light of recent ( seeming) throwaway lines by the good Archdruid regarding the intelligence of blue green algae in oxidising our atmosphere , it strikes me , dear fellow Psychonauts , that we may " profit " by continuing to direct our scientific enquiries to the worlds under the microscope , and beyond . Therein may well be carried out much of our future "Voyages " and herein lieth the root of the three ages , seven laws descriped by Monsieur Greer and others ... How to do this without disappearing up ones own proverbial is entirely a different matter ( or maybe not ) , and like Prometheus , there does seems to be a price one must pay in the pursuit of such enquiries .., just ask John Lennon

EnonZ said...

JMG-

I'm a long time reader of your other blog but just started reading here. It's a long way from how I was raised and trained to think; I'm taking a stance of wary open-mindedness as I work back through the material and consider it.

That said, as others have mentioned, I view the "extraordinary claims" adage simply as a useful heuristic or flake filter. For instance, there was quite a media stir not long ago over a report of faster than light neutrinos (adherents of the civil religion of progress seem to resent that Nature might place limits on us and glom onto any possible opportunity to put a stake through Einstein's work; no speed limits!). More sober voices pointed out that as General Relativity is so well established that this was much more likely to be the result of some error, which it turned out to be.

Likewise, I dismiss any claims for zero-point or free energy as almost certainly scams. Anybody claiming to overturn the laws of thermodynamics better come up with extremely strong, compelling (extraordinary) evidence.

I hope I don't use the adage in the fallacious manner you write about, but I'll try to be on guard.

Carl Sagan may have published an essay in Omni in the early 1980s, I don't know, but he did discuss this hypothesis in his 1979 book Broca's Brain.

There are a number of neurologists, António Damásio prominent among them, who be astonished to learn that consciousness is being excluded from contemporary scientific study!

latheChuck said...

Tom Hopkins referred to the popular phrase "survival of the fittest" as a simple statement of evolution. Try to remember, though, that the statement is a tautology. There is no other criteria for "fitness" than survival. The most "fit" is not the biggest, the most aggressive, the fastest, the strongest... The slugs eating lettuce in my garden fail all of those tests, yet they have evolved to survive. The most "selfish" individual may be less likely to survive, in an environment which favors cooperation.

All you really need to say is that "some are more likely to survive than others, based on inherited traits".

dadaharm said...

Hi JMG,

Personally, I think that when one does magic, one should not aim for scientific recognition. It is seeing science as the sole arbiter of truth. That is a form of idolatry.

More seriously though, science is based on denial of some part of reality. It only accepts objective and rational (meaning usually material) explanations.
Denying a part of reality makes reality simpler. This can be very efficient, as it has been in the case of science.
Denial only works if you have good defense mechanisms, some of which you described.

The success of science has as a consequence, that it suffers from a form of hubris or narcissism. The hubris implies that science is not seen as just valid and useful, but as the absolute and only truth. This form of narcissism is also why one can hold on to models and even when they contradict personal experience.

I think narcissism is a standard feature of civilisations in their dragon age. It certainly is of our civilisation.
(Of course only a succesful civilisation does reach its dragon.)

Bill Pulliam said...

latheChuck --

People who study evolution quantitatively have invested a lot of effort into defining "fitness." It is basically a measure of how well you pass your genes along to the next generation. Once Mendel and his peas came along, it became clear that "evolution" was all about which genes were passed on more effectively than others; and natural selection meant how does the expression of a gene affect how well that gene is passed on. It's all become quite algebraic. A simple measure of fitness is the number of offspring you have, relative to others in your population; then you get into various measures of extended fitness, which is not just direct offspring, but nieces and nephews, grandkids, etc.

The short version is, the tautological nature of "survival of the fittest", was gotten past by just not using that terminology and turning it all into equations that examine changes in gene frequency.

John Michael Greer said...

Dan L., you're welcome. Cognitive science is an interesting test case; to a great extent, what it's done amounts to rediscovering what philosophers in the Western tradition figured out in the 18th century (and those in the Hindu tradition grasped a couple of millennia earlier), but it's intriguing to see just how far quantitative analysis of experimental results can take their inquiry. Further than disciplined introspection (the tool of philosophers)? We'll see.

As for identity claims, do you happen to have heard of General Semantics, or the term "is of identity"? If not, I may be able to point you in an interesting direction.

Phil, I don't mean adversarial in an emotional sense -- I mean, precisely, starting from the supposition that a given argument is wrong, and seeing if the argument can convince you otherwise. It's an excellent exercise, especially when directed to things you want to believe -- just as it's useful to take a supportive stance toward things you don't want to believe, and see if the evidence can talk you out of it.

DM, and of course the word "real" is the problem here. To most people, "real" means objective. It takes a certain amount of philosophical sophistication to grasp the fact that "objective reality" is a subjective mental construct, while the representations we experience are themselves real -- that is, your sensation of the computer screen is indubitably there in your consciousness whether or not the computer screen "really" exists or not.

Eric, whether readers take me up on the invitation to practice is up to them. What I want to do here is weave a way of representing the world within which magical practice makes obvious sense, and the various misunderstandings that have been used to denounce magic are shown up as the irrelevancies they are. More on this as we proceed!

SLClaire, exactly. Stay tuned!

Kutamun, while what we see through a microscope is interesting, what we see when we reflect on the consciousness that's aware of what's seen through the microscope is more relevant to the exploration I'm trying to conduct here. (BTW, your post at the other blog keeps on getting flagged for profanity -- keep it clean, please!)

EnonZ, there I think you're mistaken. If somebody claims to have a zero-point energy machine, I want to see ordinary proof. What's the ordinary proof you expect when somebody claims to have built a machine that does something? Having the machine handed over to others, who can put it through its paces and see if it actually does what it appears to do. It was surely an extraordinary claim when Wilbur and Orville Wright said they could make a heavier-than-air machine fly, but they offered perfectly ordinary proof -- "Here, climb on and let's go for a flight." If somebody can do that with a zero-point machine, that's enough for me.

Now of course you and I know that the odds against that are vanishingly small, but the laws of thermodynamics don't have to be defended by dogmatism; the simple requirement of a working model or, better still, detailed plans that will allow someone else to build one and get the same results, is enough to ward off fakery. The problem comes in when dogmatism takes the place of the simple but powerful requirement of replicability.

LatheChuck, if I recall correctly, Darwin himself didn't use the term "survival of the fittest" -- it was a coinage of Herbert Spencer, the guy who gave us Social Darwinism.

Dadaharm, good. Yes, there's a necessary narcissism, even a necessary hubris, that allows a creation such as science to go its full length and turn up everything it's capable of turning up. It's the job of future generations to dump the hubris and figure out the limits of the system.

Kutamun said...

@Katain thanks mate , seems the Russians are going to smooth the way for Indonesia into the BRIC Bloc . Bad news for TPOAOTW ( the pimple on the a..s of the world ). Indonesian politician recently stated on Australian t.v that our relationship is all about beef , bali and ( illegal ) boats . That is to say , cattle live export , bali as a cheap hedonist port for PWTSEA ( poor white trash of south east asia ) to go and get wasted on holidays , and of course the infamous asylum seeker fiasco . The bad blood goes way back to Dutch Colonialism and later the toppling of lefty Indo President Sukarno by the CIA in cahoots with australian intelligence agencies , which led to the deaths of a couple of hundred thousand Indonesian lefties ( at least ) . This is explored in the excellent novel and film "The Year of Living Dangerously " . Of course the middle kingdom was sponsoring the Indo lefties at the time . John Pilger also treats this in " A Secret Country "
Lets also not forget our disgraceful abandonment of east timor and the subsequent genocide there ( Balibo - film) .
Australia is full of communist chinese , islamists of all stripes . I dont think we will be peppering them with battered 303 s on the beaches ( to the strains of " waltzing matilda ") as they charge from their unsinkable orange landing craft ; more likely a TET style offensive with "Invasion A330 " ( the daily reckoning ) style incursion by special forces into major city airports . A polite knock on the door one morning , " you convert to islam and your wife wear Burka from now on , otherwise we castrate you and crucify you on front lawn , and by the way we now own this place and you pay us rent ..have a nice day " ..
You reap what you sow

Greg Belvedere said...

A friend of mine sent me this article on cognitive science in response to this blog.

https://wfs.gc.cuny.edu/DRosenthal/www/TICS-letter-about-Paller-Suzuki.pdf

My response was similar to JMGs take on the subject: that cognitive science can probably only learn things that yogis and mystics have known for a long time. I admit this stance is more diplomatic than my earlier comment about science's ability to explore consciousness. The article actually advocates for something that sounds close to the definition of magic, or at least as close as a scientist is likely to come, "Instead of emphasizing a single paradigm for examining awareness, we can be enriched by enlisting a variety of approaches, combining functional, biological, social, and computational perspectives."

@ Dan L. Interesting anecdote about Dennett. I have read some brilliant thoughts by him, which makes his whole denial of consciousness all the more puzzling.

On general semantics "is of identity", I try to avoid using "to be" in my thought and writing in certain contexts (e-prime as Nano pointed out). At times I have taken it to an extreme. Anyway, I find this has practical, stylistic, and esoteric benefits.

People will often say that you can't judge others. I agree judging people can cause you to have fixed, sometimes negative perceptions of them. But I think some people think this means they can't express an opinion or make a judgement on anything. I find that a bit wishy washy and not really honest. Thinking requires judgement. Therefore, my rule of thumb: judge actions, but not people. It keeps in line with some more esoteric interpretations of the gospel (judge not) and keeps me from defining people by their worst actions. Because I would likewise hate to be judged by my worst mistakes. For example, "He is a murderer" becomes "he murdered someone". The former can make it much easier to dehumanize someone. The latter opens the possibility that this person merely committed this act, or at the least they have the potential to change and grow.

Dan L. said...

@JMG:

"As for identity claims, do you happen to have heard of General Semantics, or the term "is of identity"? If not, I may be able to point you in an interesting direction. "

I have heard the term General Semantics via R. A. Wilson and I'm quite sympathetic to what I've gathered is the intention. I find Sextus Empiricus' exegesis of Pyrrhonian skepticism to be a very useful tool to avoid knee-jerking or clinging to unexamined beliefs -- particularly the notion that I should consider any claim of fact I make to be prefaced with the phrase "it seems to me that..." From what I understand, the purpose of General Semantics is similar.

I haven't heard the particular phrase "is of identity".

I would indeed appreciate any recommendations you might have for further reading. I'd also appreciate pointers for studying history -- would Toynbee be a good place to start or would it be better to build up to that? If the latter, what would be a better point of departure?

daelach said...

@ D.M.: Predictive power is certainly one measure, but not the only one thinkable. Other measures could be stability of the society, and in terms of longevity, our industrial civilisation will not nearly match ancient Egypt. Or the happiness of the people which is, astonishingly enough, not proportional to how much consumerism they can endulge in, and neither to whether they can explain or even know quantum effects or not.

Basically, viability of someone's world model just means that he gets along. People who think they can fly and jump from a skyscraper usually don't get along, so their world view isn't viable. But I could e.g. model an object as an advertising pillar or as a police officer - as long as the purpose of the model is just not to bump into the object, both will be viable. There might be certain differences, however, when trying to stick ads on it. (;

It's quite normal for cultures to see their world view as the best one and others as barbarism. Our culture isn't an exception to this observation.

The actual point now is that if you give up "truth" in favour of "viability", you can have more than one world view (or "reality tunnel", as R.A. Wilson calls it). So you can change between them according to what you find best in a given situation. That's how I can do technical work using an engineering reality tunnel, but that doesn't keep me e.g. from working with runes using another reality tunnel. That way, I can combine the best of many different worlds, some of them compatible with "science", some not.

Since our civilisation is in its rational phase, many newcomers interested to magic have a problem to "believe" in magic, and the easy solution is, they don't have to. The price for this freedom, of course, it having to sacrifice "truth", but that has been an illusion anyway.

EnonZ said...

@JMG

I disagree. In principle, reproducibility is an essential part of the scientific process. In practice, it very rarely happens for the simple reasons that life is short, research monies scarce, and rewards (publishing, prizes, professorships, fame) don't go to the scientists who come in second. In other words, most scientific results are never reproduced. Let's consider two cases:

A. A chemist comes up with a new synthesis pathway that's better than previous ones for some substance. His report passes peer review and gets published in a reputable journal. It's an interesting result to pure chemists but as the substance in question already has a cheap botanical source, nobody picks up on it. Perhaps a few chemists run through the synthesis for their own amusement, but they don't publish as the results aren't novel.

B. A maverick engineer claims to have invented a free energy machine that consistently gives a hundred times more power output than power input. He announces his invention in a press conference. He makes public demonstrations of his amazing machine but allows no one outside his company to look inside while his patent application is pending. He aggressively pursues investors.

Now let's apply some Bayesian reasoning to these two cases.

In case A, knowing that scientific fraud is relatively rare, especially in the physical sciences, and noting that the report of the new synthesis was published in a reputable journal, my Bayesian prior for the probability that the results are correct is extremely high, more than 99%.

A few years later the plant that has been the commercial source of the substance is declared endangered. Several industrial chemists dust off the report (can we still talk of dusting off old publications in an age of digital archives?), reproduce the process and start tweaking it. The fact that the industrial chemists can reproduce the process is not ordinary evidence because in the ordinary course of events most scientific results are not reproduced. It's barely even evidence at all; since my prior that the results are correct was already extremely high, the fact that the process has been reproduced only very slightly changes my calculation of the probability that the results are correct.

In case B, publicity by press conference is always a red flag. Knowing the history of free energy scams and noting that violating the 2nd law of thermodynamics would be a radical, astonishing result if true, my prior for the probability that this is true is extremely low, less than one in a million.

To get me to calculate a probability that's significantly higher that the machine actually works as described, any new evidence has to be very, very strong, extraordinary in fact. I'd want to have an independent team of engineers and physicists, vetted for conflicts of interest, have unimpeded access. The team should also include some experts on scams and deceptions.

I'd never even heard of Bayes until a few years ago. Like statistics in general, he isn't taught in American K-12 schools but really should be. A very powerful way of thinking about evidence and probability.

If your point is that we should be very careful about choosing our priors, I agree. Unexpected results shouldn't just be dismissed out of hand. But asserting that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is always a fallacy contradicts my understanding of Bayesian reasoning. Or perhaps we just have a semantic disagreement about what ordinary and extraordinary evidence are.

Stuart said...

It seems to me that many of the failures of skepticism among "skeptics" boil down to a misleading extrapolation of the null hypothesis into a reality principle.

The null hypothesis-- the conditional presumption that phenomena are unrelated until proven otherwise to statistical satisfaction-- is an essential tool within the magic circle of a scientific study.

Applied willy-nilly to the world at large, it's sort of like a materialist ontological proof-- definitive for believers, but silly from the outside. It's the form of what underlies the posture that the mechanical-material is known and anything else requires impossible proof ("God is a superfluous entity," "God is like an invisible teapot," "brain structure X 'explains' consciousness phenomenon Y," "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof," etc.). These all involve strikingly bold assumptions that somehow don't register as assumptions. It is staggeringly difficult to get a believer in the null principle to see any of this as contingent, or even to grasp how it might be contingent.

(Incidentally I think it's one of the discursive forms of the "infinite space" cosmic image that emerges around 1600, and I think it bears an enantiodromic relationship with the Christian theory of incarnation. See Hamlet for further details.)

Any hobgoblins that find themselves under the null principle's protection, of course, are invincible. This applies even in knowledge areas where there is no rational connection to the application of the null hypothesis-- in the Shakespeare authorship question, to pick an example particularly familiar to me, the extent to which the orthodox view benefits from a null-style evaluation of evidence is striking. To be clear, without getting into the debate, I think the available evidence obviously sustains both Shakespeare and Marlowe (but no one else) as credible candidates, for different reasons; what's interesting for the purpose of the present discussion is how much Baconian-style crypto-evidence gets accepted in favour of Shakespeare. Conversely, there is logically no way to entertain Marlovian ideas that avoids engaging nullish "skepticism." It's a subject that makes for an interesting study in modern superstitions.

Phil Harris said...

JMG wrote
"Phil, we know much more than we can prove, and trusting implicit knowledge is usually a good idea in a crisis!"

I go with that. In my own experience it depends on arriving at the right question(s) at the right moment / context. It doesn't have to be in a crisis, but if the question arrives in time it is best to answer any answering call.

In non-crisis time, more generic answers can appear when the question gets it right. Conversations can trigger the question and answer, and they do not need to be with a person actually present, as long as the recruited actor is genuine enough and sincere. I have known music generate a similar result and sometimes natural phenomena even as fluid as the sky.

I was reassured to read Roger Penrose discuss his own experience in Emperor's New Mind, though oersonally I wish I had made more use of these gifts when they arrived.

best
Phil H

Phil Harris said...

Apropros the Rosicrucian Enlightenment. I have a 1999 book The Rosicrucian Enlightenment Revisited, which is a compilation from a conference in Cesky Crumlov in southern Bohemia. I must have been impressed by the essays The Rosicrucian Afterglow (Comenius) by Claire Goodrick-Clarke, and the The Rosicrucian Legacy by Christopher McIntosh. McIntosh included a reference to a Borges story in Labyrinths that I have not read for more than 30 years. I revisited the book again this year for the first time in a good number of years, a little after submitting a short story to After Oil and was startled how yeasty some of the accounts had been while buried apparently time out of mind and memory.

best
Phil H

Myriad said...

Thousands of Mormons report experiencing a distinctive sensation of "burning in the bosom" upon hearing Mormon revelatory scripture or participating in Mormon ritual. They take this as strong evidence that Mormon doctrine is correct in all particulars, including e.g. the historical importance of horse-drawn chariot battles in ancient America.

This evidence is subjective, but we are not dogmatists dismissing the validity of the subjective. It is not extraordinary evidence (since such sensations are not generally uncommon), but we should not let that deter us, nor be so arrogant as to pre-judge Mormon narratives as factually unlikely or otherwise "extraordinary" claims. We can form ad hoc alternative explanations of why the burning-in-the-bosum sensation occurs (such as, vaguely defined psychological factors), but those should carry no weight. There is no definite explanation of how the burning sensation comes about (other than, that the God worshipped by Mormons is somehow responsible), but that shouldn't matter.

Nonetheless, I note that few correspondents here identify as Mormons.

It seems, therefore, that it must be valid to accept the evidence that burning in the bosom is a real experience that influences people's lives, without embracing the ensuing conclusion of ancient American chariot battles. That is to say, as should be obvious, that not all arguments of the insufficiency of evidence for a claim fall into the fallacious categories listed.

Likewise, if I accept that NDEs are actual experiences that have in many cases changed people's outlook on life without embracing the explanation that they're recollections of the process of people's disembodied individual identities continuing into an afterlife; if I accept that the sensation of being stared at is a familiar phenomenon experienced from time to time by most people without finding any merit in Sheldrake's claim that the sensation results from external morphic resonances; if I accept the generality and diversity of experiences of consciousness without concluding, Searle notwithstanding, that such experiences require non-material causes (e.g. "a mere machine could never experience consciousness"); ...

Well, I find the general discussion interesting so far, so I can only hope that doesn't put me in the catch-basin for an arrogance- or flake-filter.

omerori said...

I would like to ask something more general about your writing project, a question that's been troubling me for some time.

Reading your other blog, I get a strong sense of historical determinism - the predictable cycles regarding the rise and fall of civilizations etc. - and there's some tension between that and the assumptions usually present when one talks about magic: there you usually find an emphasis on our role as creators of reality, rather than mere subjects crushed under forces much stronger than us. I can also guess from the tremendous amounts of energy you seem to put into your writing that there's a lot at stake for you here.

So, my question is this: What can we hope for? If the magic running our civilization isn't working anymore, and a magical Great Turning is not an option (any revitalization movement is just a symptom of decline), and we're on our sure way to a new dark age - what's there to work for? What can be the goal of our magical work?

I understand that your determinism leaves some margins open: One can try and better the lot of oneself and one's community during decline decades, and one can try and save some of our civilization's achievement and thus influence future civilizations. And aside from that there's the simple joy of living one's life fully, regardless of results. Is that it? That's a lot to hope for in itself, I'm not complaining, and it feels good to start working from a clear view of the reality we live in. I'm just wandering what's motivating you, and what motivation you suggest for the many people learning from you.

ibelievethatyoubelieve said...

Where is reality? Can you show it to me?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLqrVCi3l6E

I am real but who am I?

Love the blogs.

Agent Provocateur said...

JMG,

I always rather liked “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs”. Certainly it can be abused by moving the goal posts. But as a principle that requires the claimant to prove the claim, I think it is reasonable. Yes, what constitutes “extraordinary” is determined by the dominant culture (or at least the respondent to the claim). And yes, this can be subjective. Nonetheless, setting the bar higher for largely unsubstantiated claims is very reasonable and a very common practice in science.

The best example is in statistical proofs. The standard criteria in the social sciences to reject a binomial distribution null hypothesis is that the phenomena has a less than 5% chance of occurring if the null hypothesis is correct. On the other hand, the rejection threshold for an alternative hypothesis is typically 4 times this. Thus the alternative hypothesis is rejected if the phenomena has a less than 20% chance of occurring if the alternative hypothesis is correct. The reason this second threshold is often more lax (there is a wider margin for rejection of the alternative hypothesis than the null hypothesis) is that generally we are more concerned about incorrectly accepting a largely unproven proposition than we are about rejecting it when it is in fact true. That is to say, generally we would rather error on the side of caution. This conservatism keeps the body of commonly accepted scientific knowledge from being flooded with poorly proven propositions.

What would be unfair is to expect tests of ESP, or divination, or magic to pass thresholds higher than those required for any other field in the social sciences or to move the threshold once these have been met. Doing either of these is not playing fair. As a point of fact, many of such phenomena have been tested with adequate tests and found time and time and time again to meet the standard thresholds. But these test are never considered good enough by so called sceptics.

Basically I don't take issue with your main point that this principle has been roundly abused; but I think the principle itself, if properly applied, is sound.

magicalthyme said...

I remember snorting with laughter at Sagan's hypothesis re: NDEs. I've yet to read a single NDE experience that involved rhythmic squeezing sensations or being shoved through the tunnel, nor the shrieking and/or cussing of a lone female voice against a background of voices yelling "PUSH!" over and over. Because we all know that flashbacks are visual only, with no other senses involved, lol.

I recently had 3 coyote sightings within a week. First, walking the dogs in the woods, I found a jawbone complete with fang. Then a couple days later a coyote trotted out in front of my car one night on the highway coming home from one job. And then another couple days and I spotted a coyote cantering along a field next to the same highway one night coming home the opposite way from the other job. Still pondering the significance. Usually I hear them in the woods; haven't had a sighting since the goat died in '08.

Mary

Stuart said...

I found this to be a fascinating post: http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/04/28/the-control-group-is-out-of-control/

There is a ton of material to digest and several things to take from it, but one of the main points is that parapsychology studies by Daryl Bem, Wiseman and Schlitz, and others have produced positive-- and *weird*-- results using the very strictest statistical control methods employed in professional science. Further, there appear to be second- and third-order researcher bias effects that have no business occurring but turn up anyway.

The implication, if one is a skeptic and takes parapsychology research as science's "placebo" or control group, seems to be that, quite aside from known objectivity issues in research, there is no inherent methodological guarantee available to ground a privileged knowledge-claim on the part of materialist science. That is, there isn't really a principled empirical way to exclude all scientific results incompatible with materialism that doesn't also radically undermine the general claim of materialist science to produce knowledge.

There's some neat chit-chat in the comments, too.

buho62 said...

Hi JMG, great post as always.

It's interesting to contrast the dogmatism of contemporary science with the much different worldview of many of its revered founding fathers. Newton, for example, was a serious researcher of occult topics such as alchemy. You don't hear that in many of the scientific hagiographies of him!

Phil Harris said...

All
I know we do not need to discuss quantum mechanics on this blog, but it has been mentioned.

I am not sure this article provides an argued explanation of much, but the research it mentions (in the eye of the European Robin) perhaps offers future testable hypotheses.

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/oct/26/youre-powered-by-quantum-mechanics-biology

best
Phil H

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

This post was a tea spitting incident when first I read it. Not because I didn't understand the concepts, but because I'd suffered these outrages first hand a few years back.

Many days later and a whole lot calmer too - I can tell the tale in full.

Dr Carl Sagan was clearly suffering from delusions of his own expertise in areas outside of his own actual expertise and covering his tracks with cheap rhetorical tricks. Sad, nuff said.

However, I suspect that for the scientific community this is not a one off. Ahh, I mourn for what could have been for the priests of progress...

Anyway, a mate of mine has a PhD in science and once said to me whilst visiting the farm and standing next to both myself and a rather large citrus tree (a lemon to be precise), that oranges had to be imported from California because they couldn't be grown in Australia.

This view whilst unsupported in fact that the orange orchards were at the time feeding their fruit to cows because of the competition from importers and also not to ignore the fact that I have a few orange trees not far that lemon tree - did in fact support his worldview as he enjoyed shopping at a particular chain of discount stores that I noted recently has a rather fervent cult like worship. It gives me the creeps when people speak about it.

So, completely gobsmacked, we drove off to visit the local microbrewery - yum - to get some beer and food! On the way to the brewery, a very large 6 foot grey forest kangaroo hopped into the middle of the road and I yelled, "STOP!!!!!". He didn't slow down, but merely swerved around it at high speed and said, "Don't worry, I am an expert on kangaroos" to which I replied, "Mate, I see these animals every day and I have no idea what they are going to do". Fortunately all of us weren't killed in the high speed incident. But I was left further gobsmacked and very, very angry. He still laughs about it today like it was some sort of joke.

What I took out of the experience was this: "A persons worldview is not the facts on the ground". His worldview was clearly that he was an expert as conferred by his studies - even when it didn't relate to his studies or real world experience. I guess that he considered that as he was as member of the exclusive priesthood of science a cut above the average? No wonder they try to shut down or discredit amateur research.

Shame that a lot of the scientific community also displays such tendencies. It would be nice that if it were only an isolated incident. Nuff said.

Interestingly too, in my economic history reading, I noted that Karl Marx was upper middle class, had a terrible grasp on his own domestic economic situation and the most ironic fact of all was that he had a wealthy sponsor who had both family money and industrial enterprises. Is that not richly ironic? hehe!

Cheers

Chris

D.M. said...

@daelach

Okay, thanks for the clarification on your terminology usage, since I use those words a little differently than you did in your explanation. What I am saying is that people use various sorts of thought-stoppers when you attempt to talk with them about various aspects of each others man-olds and the other person wants to declare parts of their man-old as the absolute truth and yours as complete garbage, it gets a little annoying at times dealing with such people who do not have a flexible mental attitude.

Hopefully that made sense to you, since I am not a writer of JMG's caliber. :P

John Michael Greer said...

I've been at a speaking gig this weekend with very limited internet access -- thanks to all for your patience! Greg, e-prime is certainly one approach to dealing with the "is of identity," though there are others; the important thing in any case is to recognize that "x is y" is an extraordinarily problematic form of utterance.

Dan, the phrase "is of identity" comes out of General Semantics -- the major text there is Korzybski's Science and Sanity, but you can find detailed discussions online by googling the phrase. As for history, Toynbee's not my usual recommendation for a starting place; I'd encourage you to start with a few good histories of defunct civilizations -- Michael Grant's The Fall of the Roman Empire: A Reappraisal might be a good first book -- then go on to Spengler's The Decline of the West, and then to Toynbee.

EnonZ, it's precisely the definitions of "ordinary" and "extraordinary" that are at issue, as those labels have been applied in a logically fallacious way -- as noted in my post, for soi-disant rationalists, "extraordinary" means in practice any claim that they don't want to admit. If there's an agreed standard of what counts as extraordinary, and this is applied fairly to the claims of both sides, the thesis to which I'm objecting becomes less problematic (though still always open to challenge on the grounds of strict logic).

Stuart, that's a very compelling analysis -- and your comparison of the null hypothesis to the ontological proof nearly got tea on my keyboard. Thank you.

Phil, now there's a fine bit of synchronicity! I was just talking last night with the guy who organized that conference. Yes, those essays are very much worth rereading.

Myriad, of course questions of adequate or inadequate evidence are valid. We move into fallacy territory when it's claimed a priori that no evidence is adequate to prove something that disagrees with a given doctrine, or (what amounts to the same thing) that any evidence that tends to contradict a given doctrine must be false. That's a common bad habit of mainstream religions, and that's a subject I'll address later on, but it's also a pervasive bad habit of science these days.

Omerori. good. That's a very complex question; the very short form of the answer is that I began blogging in response to a specific historical situation -- the accelerating decline and impending fall of industrial civilization -- in the hope of starting a conversation about that in the Druid community. (I honestly expected The Archdruid Report to have an audience of maybe fifteen people.) The notion that "we create our own reality" is a very recent and, to my mind, very imbalanced bit of pop spirituality; the older and deeper occult traditions tend to affirm that the universe is not subject to our control, except in very modest ways, and that comprehending and transforming ourselves is far more effective and important than trying vainly to make the world conform to our usually unexamined desires. There's more to the story than that, but short of a full-length post, that's about as clear a summary as I can offer.

Believe, you say "I am real." What do you mean by "real"?

Agent, again, so long as "extraordinary" is clearly defined and applied equally to all claims and all proposed proofs, and as long as the entire thing is treated as a heuristic rather than a truth, I won't object to it too much. Neither of those considerations are met in the usual way of things.

John Michael Greer said...

Magicalthyme, fair enough. That's an excellent point, and (if I may say so) one that male thinkers are unlikely to have thought of. As for the coyotes, an interesting omen -- that might have something to say about the state of your local ecosystem as well as any psychological or spiritual relevance it may have.

Stuart, thanks for the link! Yes, that's the sort of confusion you get when the evidence stubbornly refuses to correspond to approved doctrine... ;-)

Buho, true enough. Kepler, for that matter, was a working astrologer, and a very good one. There's a skeleton in the closet of science, and it wears a pointed hat spangled with moons and stars!

Phil, thanks for the link.

Cherokee, I see that sort of thing all the time. One of the most embarrassing consequences of current modes of scientific education is that it teaches scientists to be pompous dogmatists about everything. A degree in molecular biology, say, does not qualify someone to make authoritative statements about philosophy, ethics, or any other science but the specific corner of molecular biology in question -- but you'll see all too few professional scientists who accept that obvious limitation.

Agent Provocateur said...

Stuart et al,

R.e. http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/04/28/the-control-group-is-out-of-control/

What a great link. Thank you.

For those with limited patience and/or time, start at Johann's lengthy comment and subsequent discussion after reading the main article.

The author of the original article is saying, among other things, that the success of demonstrating psi effects sheds a disturbing light on "real" science.

The three fallacious arguments JMG highlights here are on full rabid display in all their foaming at the mouth glory in both the main article and supporting comments.

Scott Alexander and friends provide such brilliant jewels of unconscious self parody: excellent examples of the species and great for some good belly laughs.

Thanks again

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Hope you had a lovely and productive speaking gig. Hope you also left some time too for general good natured gas bagging over a beer or two with pleasant company?

Thanks for the reply. Embarrassing was the word that I was looking for - but couldn't quite come to terms with - to describe my emotional response to that situation. However, it quickly turned into a dull sort of anger and resentment once I realised that he genuinely believed what he said. I also wondered to myself, "I wonder how many times you pull that particular trick as it looked well polished".

It is purely my opinion, but dogmatism and adherence to orthodoxy appear to me to be indicative of the signs of a culture in decline. Dunno really.

It sort of reminds me of the legal system which prides itself on debating endless arguments over legal minutae whilst at the same time ignoring the spirit of the laws and the reason for that professions existence in the first place.

I'm not picking on poor old Karl Marx, but tell ya what, he would have been one big old windbag! That's not a positive sentiment either. My recent favourite quote from him is: "It [the bourgeoisie] has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life". I strongly suspect that he lied about being the outdoors type! hehe!

Cheers

Chris

Ellen He said...

@JMG:
You wrote:
"We move into fallacy territory when it's claimed a priori that no evidence is adequate to prove something that disagrees with a given doctrine, or (what amounts to the same thing) that any evidence that tends to contradict a given doctrine must be false. That's a common bad habit of mainstream religions..."

What about Buddhism?

mallow said...

Can I ask about something slightly off topic? If nihilism is the conviction that no statement is true or meaningful, then nihilism is also a faith right? And if different faiths rest on different values then what values is nihilism based on? Is it something about valuing the same kind of truth that your pre-nihilist religion claimed to offer (in our case objective truth I suppose) but also valuing abstract rationality/reflection?

But then not all religions have claimed to offer knowledge of objective reality so where did the nihilists who followed them in the cycle end up, philosophically speaking? Is nihilism a bit like choosing insanity because you refuse to take anything on faith? Is that what Nietzsche maybe did?

Ellen He said...

@JMG:
Sheldrake's ideas, according to Wikipedia, have no proof. Hmm...?

Raymond Duckling said...

@Ellen He

Thank you so much for posting the Wikipedia page about Sheldrake. I was not aware of his work.

What stood out most at first glance, to me at least, was the condemnation from the part of none the less than Nature journal, titled none the less A book for burning?.

This is most relevant for this month's post because, for the children of Bacon, book burning is beyond Capital Sin; it is what the most depraved amongst the Others do when they decide to take off the gloves.

As a Catholic, it reads as if the Pope would declare publicly that, in order to deal with this Sheldrake guy, the whole Roman Curia should partake in an Akelarre, complete with its Black Mass, a cannibal feast (baby ribs reaped from actual babies) and a good ol' orgy where 1/5 of the participants are required to be non-human.

Even if the said "Pope" had the audacity to claim later on that he was "just kidding", everybody with at least a little something between ear and ear should know something fishy is going on at the "Vatican" this days.

Kutamun said...

Thinking again about magic and the ability to shape ones universe , it occurs to me that the Dragon Age seems to coincide with the arrival of unwanted effects that have come about as a result of ignorance or disregard of one or more of the other seven laws , in our case , wholeness , flow , balance and limits . The Dragon Flight into abstraction compounds this by confusing the planes , which to me seems most evident in the proliferation of modern corporate jargon ; " we are proud to deliver this package of policy reforms , to add to our basket of tools to deal with this current climate " . The debasement of language is its hallmark , i guess .
Each of us by our choices definitely does shape physical reality , e.g drinking twenty beers a day for twenty years , it is the variables and the time frames involved which are by no means linear which tends to confuse the scientists , with their quest for uniformity , and here we are back to non linearity ( circularity ) again !
Cheers , Kutamun

Eric S. said...

Re: Raymond and Ellen

The wikipedia bios of Sheldrake and a few others, along with entire fields of thought are also victims of a convoluted movement devoted to online vandalism of the entries for any topic they don't think deserves to be taken seriously.This is their actual website:
http://guerrillaskepticismonwikipedia.blogspot.co.uk/

For JMG and everyone else, it's worth looking at too since it's an interesting tactic for people who are supposedly devoted to objectivity and neutrality.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, I don't know if dogmatism is generally a sign of decadence -- it seems to pop up in most historical periods -- but it's not a good sign, to be sure.

Ellen, depends on the Buddhist. I've heard some very dogmatic pronunciations from Buddhists of various stripes. Still, I'd also remind you that "a common bad habit of mainstream religions" does not equal "a universal habit of all religions"...

Mallow, excellent! You get tonight's gold star for getting one of the crucial points I've been trying to make. That's exactly the issue that Vico tried to raise in The New Science -- what he called the barbarism of reflection is the self-destruction of reason that drives the claim that it's an absolute truth that there are no absolute truths. Reason taken too far, that is, becomes self-refuting: and at that point you have to turn to something else. We'll discuss more about this as the conversation proceeds.

As for Nietzsche, my take is that he almost got there. His hostility to religion was understandable -- he was pretty clearly gay, and given a heavily pious German Lutheran upbringing, that gave him a world-class God allergy -- but it blinded him to the possibility that the claims of religion are not invalidated by showing that they make no sense when understood in their most pigheadedly literal sense.

Ellen, according to Wikipedia, I don't exist. They got taken over by the pseudoskeptics a while back, and all kinds of propaganda gets posted there these days. You'll get more accurate information elsewhere.

Kutamun, good. Contemporary corporate jargon seems to me to approximate to an antilanguage, something that uses verbal noises to negate and prevent communication.

Eric, whenever anybody claims objectivity and neutrality, it's usually safe to assume that they've got an axe to grind. I find the company of people who admit to their biases far more congenial.

omerori said...

Another relevant link for this discussion:
http://charleseisenstein.net/a-miracle-in-scientific-american/

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, wrote an article on Scientific American describing a beautiful and completely un-scientific syncronicity he experienced, which has shaken his core (pseudo)skeptic beliefs.

It appears that even scientific-orthodoxes are open sometimes to counter-dogmatic experiences!

Seaweed Shark said...

I agree that science is a "culturally bound phenomenon" (though I wonder if you didn't mean "culturally bounded") but I respectfully suggest that the arguments made in this post seem rather weak defenses of your assertion.

1. Regarding the statement that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, the term "extraordinary claim" actually has a definition: it is a claim that runs counter to some very widely accepted foundational aspect of the way the universe is understood to work -- something on which much subsequent research depends. This is why claims of free energy or perpetual motion machines are considered extraordinary: they run against basic foundational understandings of physics that are so consistently recognized they have been given the honorary distinction of "laws". On the other hand, claims regarding nanotechnology often turn out to be wrong or vaporous, but are not thought to be extraordinary because these claims don't violate the basic stuff we know about atoms. That doesn't disprove what you said, but it needs to be taken into account. You could of course say that the so-called laws are just expressions of culture but that doesn't change the fact that overturning one is a Really Big Deal, whereas a claim that doesn't overturn one isn't that big a deal: that's the distinction between extraordinary and ordinary claims.

2. Carl Sagan's explanation of near-death-experience as birth-memory is ridiculous but it is in principle testable -- as you show. I suppose that's why he made it: to demonstrate that there are testable hypotheses for this, as opposed to the hypothesis that an immaterial soul escapes from the body at death and goes to an immaterial realm, which I very much hope is true but which is not testable. I don't think his assertion is an example of the logical fallacy you claim. Carl Sagan actually has made other statements which are examples of that fallacy, the most famous of which is the first line of Cosmos: that the physical universe as we experience it is all that ever was, all that is and all that ever will be. This is ipso facto untestable and amounts to a metaphysical claim. I agree with your point but not with your example.

3. I'm not sure how widespread is the view that something cannot be true if there is no previously understood mechanism for it. I can't recall ever seeing this assertion, and it seems relatively common in science that systematic empirical evidence can justify a theory of causation even if the mechanism isn't known. Scientists agree that life came from non-living matter even though the mechanism isn't clear. In any case, as you must be aware Darwin's hypothesis was not that evolution happened, but an explanation of how it happened. It was regarded as an extraordinary claim at the time, as he acknowledged by armoring his proposal with 700 pages of meticulously gathered empirical evidence. That is an extraordinary effort, not a mundane one as you assert. Darwin was acutely conscious that he would be thought a crank or a fool. As he expected, the theory of natural selection was the subject of intense and often hostile debate for many years, and only gained wide acceptance toward the close of the 19th century, acceptance based on empirical evidence.

Let me repeat that I have no problem with what I understand to be your assertion that science is an expression of culture. I just have concerns about the strength of these arguments.

Bill Pulliam said...

Something to note about the tendency for someone who is an exert in one area to feel that he or she is therefore qualified to make expert pronouncements in other areas as well: this is not limited to scientists. The same tendencies can be seen in many other areas, including historians and religious leaders. It is something that all should be on guard against in our own thinkings and proclamations.

Gloucon X said...

“Now of course it’s not as though there’s been any significant amount of research aimed at finding mechanisms that might account for the effects of magic; quite the contrary, any scientist who seriously proposed such a research program would be kissing his career goodbye.

Hey, that’s a great idea! With your scientific background, you could draw up a research proposal aimed at finding those mechanisms and try to get private funding. I’m surprised no one has done this before. There’s no law against it.
I do seem to recall that there was some research done on the healing effects of prayer. I believe it was privately funded by a Christian hospital, unfortunately the results were unfavorable towards prayer.

Eric S. said...

@JMG:

Regarding the star spangled skeletons in the closets of science and your interest in looking into the magical roots of modern science, I wonder if you've read William Eamon's "Science and the Secrets of Nature?" If not, it sounds like it'd be right up your alley since it's about precisely that. It's highly readable and engaging, and wound up being the book that first piqued my interest in the occult tradition when I read it during the resarch for a paper in my history and philosophy of science class back in college.

http://press.princeton.edu/titles/5510.html

John Michael Greer said...

Omerori, fascinating. I've been wondering when that sort of thing was going to start hitting the skeptic scene; given the normal rhythm of American pop spirituality (and antispirituality) movements, they're very nearly past their pull date, and the first wave of defections ought to be hitting fairly soon.

Shark, first of all, as long as "extraordinary" is defined merely on the basis of whether it supports or contradicts one side's beliefs, the argument "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof" is logically invalid. (I did specify a definition that applied equally to both sides of the argument, you'll note.) I'd encourage you to notice how often that argument is used to defend claims that have nothing to do with positive theory (e.g., the laws of thermodynamics) and everything to do with negative theory (e.g., "X doesn't exist"), where classifying any evidence that X does exist as "extraordinary" is a standard dodge, and a profoundly dishonest one.

Second, I think you're missing my point about Sagan's claim. What makes his argument a fallacy is not that it's metaphysical, but that he's using the specific rhetorical trick I outlined -- acting as though the mere fact that a non-metaphysical explanation could be proposed automatically dismissed all metaphysical explanations. That form of argument based on ad hoc hypotheses is extraordinarily common in skeptic circles.

Finally, if you haven't seen skeptics insist that an effect can't happen if the cause isn't known, I encourage you to go onto a skeptic forum and ask why they don't believe in astrology or homeopathy. If my experience is anything to go by, you'll get a bumper crop of arguments along the lines I've outlined. As for Darwin, I take it you haven't read much 19th century scientific literature; The Origin of Species is a classic, but it's by no means unusual in its massing of data -- that was ordinary science in Darwin's day. Nor are any of the facts Darwin marshalled "extraordinary" in any sense -- that was precisely Darwin's genius, to test his hypothesis with data that anyone could see and grasp.

Bill, granted -- and it's a common failing of archdruids, too. ;-)

Gloucon, I'll take that under consideration. Interestingly enough, the studies I saw on the effects of prayer showed that it had definite positive effects, significant well past the .05 level; it's a source of some amusement to me that skeptics routinely ignore those studies and point to the one or two that didn't find significance.

Eric, no, I haven't gotten to that one yet. Thanks for the reminder!

Gloucon X said...

JMG said...“Now of course it’s not as though there’s been any significant amount of research aimed at finding mechanisms that might account for the effects of magic; quite the contrary, any scientist who seriously proposed such a research program would be kissing his career goodbye.”

“Gloucon, I'll take that under consideration. Interestingly enough, the studies I saw on the effects of prayer showed that it had definite positive effects, significant well past the .05 level; it's a source of some amusement to me that skeptics routinely ignore those studies and point to the one or two that didn't find significance.”

This is the study I was referring to. It is considered the most comprehensive ever conducted. This Christian website admits that results showed that prayer was actually harmful:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/may/27.43.html
“ The result: The group whose members knew they were being prayed for did worse in terms of post-operative complications than those whose members were unsure if they were receiving prayer. The knowledge that they were being prayed for by a special group of intercessors seemed to have a negative effect on their health.”

So which magical effect do you think would be a good candidate for scientific study?

Phil Harris said...

JMG & All
I will try to add a little to the discussion between Glaucon & JMG. I wonder if as a matter of definition, "intercessory prayer" is "magic". (I guess it is if it causes change in consciousness according to the will (intention?))

I became actively interested in remote healing and intercessory prayer sometime after 1997. I had the fortune later to be in correspondence with Elizabeth Targ and her group. They were very lovely people. There was some published work and an encouraging early meta-analysis. Sadly, and a shock to all who knew her even as briefly and remotely as me, Elizabeth Targ died a strangely synchronistic death in 2002. http://www.noetic.org/directory/person/elisabeth-targ/

I agree the universe is weird, and I have personal anecdotes that look like remote viewing, but have come to no firm conclusion. Perhaps especially, our 'bodies' are like the larger Universe, and follow their own rules. A useful (in more ways than one) discussion is in the book "Whole" by TC Campbell, nutritional biochemist at Cornell. "Determinism" even with the proper aid of statistics runs into serious limitation with complex interactivity.

We need some caution here. I have personally and close to hand recently, known sad cases where invocations by meditation and the 'will' have attempted to change physical outcomes that are not amenable to such an approach. The 'placebo effect’ of course can be 'magical'. Communicating 'humanity' (reassurance?) where it connects ‘at the bodily level' has its own real value, whatever the ‘real’ bodily issues and outcome. I hold a provisional belief that it is such 'value' itself that is important. As EM Forster wrote a while back: “Only connect”. Such connection encourages our willing selves and to a certain extent can encourage our servant biochemistry in their own strange language. But I see connection as more a tribute to the spirit and promise of 'humanity' than a medical methodology.

best
Phil H

Phil Harris said...

JMG & All
As a follow on from my comment on mind/body and medicine, I found this conversation with neuroscientist Catherine Kerr to be helpful.
http://www.tricycle.com/blog/don%E2%80%99t-believe-hype

(I follwed a link from the Noetic Science link I provided in my recent comment.)

best
Phil


Maria said...

This is probably related more to your September post than this one, but reading through the comments this month reminded me of something that happened around May of this year that illustrates the power of the dragon.

I had a dream with a big, scary dragon in it -- the kind of dream where you wake up sweating and with a pounding heart -- and I thought "What's that about?" I started researching dragon lore online and in books, and began to unpack and meditate on the different images associated with the stories.

In a surprisingly short period of time, it was like a key turned and something clicked, and I knew exactly what it was in my mental/emotional landscape that I had to face -- a core belief that had been festering in there for, oh, 48 or 49 years. My response is not printable here.

I looked for a loophole, but I became certain that no further progress could be made until I faced the dragon. So I looked at this belief and meditated on it. What if it's true? What if it's not true? How would I live my life then? I'm not going to sugarcoat it -- it took about two weeks and it was terrifying. I don't know if I'd recommend doing it without the help of a therapist, a teacher, or a trusted friend, but on the other hand, it seems like whatever the dragon is guarding is for each of us to face alone. I got through it well enough. I think it helps that I live with my significant other (an eminently sensible and grounded gentleman) and I have a couple of friends and family members that I am in contact with daily or almost daily, so I was able to keep my feet in the here and now while doing this inner work.

Toward the end I was thinking about how the dragon collects things but has no concept of value, so something shiny but worthless (a lie) is right alongside the gem of the truth in the dragon's hoard. It had been there the whole time; I'd just been too afraid to look.

Dagnarus said...

I just read this article

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/04/upshot/the-economy-and-voters-perception-of-it-are-two-very-different-things.html?rref=upshot&smid=tw-upshotnyt

and what immediately jumped out at me was that it seemed to be using a mutation of the second argument to support status quo thinking. From reading the article she noticed that while the American Economy is "objectively" in a robust recovery with 3.5% annualized growth in the last quarter, it seems that the majority of the American population is blind to this reality. She then develops the hypothesis that this was obviously caused by "partisanship". She then looks at the data and sure enough while only 24% of the population think the nation's economy has gotten better over the last year if you, break the numbers down you will find that only 8% of republicans, blinded by partisan hatred of the democratic president, think that the economy has approved. Among those surveyed who were democrats however a whopping 43% thought that the economy had improved, why that's almost half, almost. What do you call it when you interpret counter evidence to your position as evidence for it?

To me this definitely seems to be an example of mistaking the abstract measures of the economy developed by economists as somehow being more "real" than the subjective experiences of actual people.

Scotlyn said...

If this: "magic, the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will"; then a magician needs to determine what it is that she wills. And, to do so is to become aware of the sheer frequency with which others attempt to impose their will, or subvert/conscript hers. Particularly in commerce...

John Michael Greer said...

Gloucon, since magic is the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will, studying its effects scientifically is something of a challenge -- consciousness, after all, is notoriously difficult to put under the microscope! The question of which effects to study is far and away the most important step in any research project. That is to say, that's going to take some serious thought and consideration.

Phil, one of the things that very often happens with magic is that people turn to it as a last resort, when other options have already failed. That's not a productive approach, as magic is subtle and often needs time and repetition to have its effect. In medical situations, in particular, if someone wants to use magic to seek a different outcome they need to get cracking as soon as possible, and keep up the work day after day. I've seen some fascinating accounts of cancer remission produced by such means. If you wait to the last minute and then beg for a miracle, though, you're usually going to be disappointed.

Maria, excellent. That's one of the crucial stages of this sort of work. Nicely handled.

Dagnarus, oh, there's no shortage of that sort of thing in fields far removed from magic. In particular, listening to the Democrats insisting that everything's fine in the US -- after all, all their rich friends are doing well! -- is quite the education in the fine art of self-deception.

Scotlyn, good. Very good. This is one of the reasons why banishing rituals practiced daily are among the foundations of magical training. More on this as we proceed!

Karim said...

Greetings all

JMG said:"Reason taken too far, that is, becomes self-refuting: and at that point you have to turn to something else."

In a way, are you not rephrasing Godel incompleteness theorem?

Gödel's two incompleteness theorems are among the most important results in modern logic, and have deep implications for various issues. They concern the limits of provability in formal axiomatic theories. The first incompleteness theorem states that in any consistent formal system F within which a certain amount of arithmetic can be carried out, there are statements of the language of F which can neither be proved nor disproved in F. According to the second incompleteness theorem, such a formal system cannot prove that the system itself is consistent (assuming it is indeed consistent).

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/goedel-incompleteness/

After all, reason is a formal logical system hence subject to the above limitations which when reached lead to statements that cannot be proved or disproved either way.

The only way out is well and truly to seek a value based system, hence religion or spirituality.


Gloucon X said...

John Michael Greer said...
Gloucon, since magic is the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will, studying its effects scientifically is something of a challenge -- consciousness, after all, is notoriously difficult to put under the microscope! The question of which effects to study is far and away the most important step in any research project. That is to say, that's going to take some serious thought and consideration.

Phil, one of the things that very often happens with magic is that people turn to it as a last resort, when other options have already failed. That's not a productive approach, as magic is subtle and often needs time and repetition to have its effect. In medical situations, in particular, if someone wants to use magic to seek a different outcome they need to get cracking as soon as possible, and keep up the work day after day. I've seen some fascinating accounts of cancer remission produced by such means.
----------------------------------------------------
The time for serious thought and consideration just ended. You just gave us the effect to be studied. You have seen accounts of cancer remission by means of magic. Have you considered publicizing those accounts here on your blog. I would be more than willing to ask my local politicians to demand public funding of the studies.

John Michael Greer said...

Karim, yes -- or rather, I'd say, Godel's incompleteness theorems are brilliantly argued specific instances of the broader problem with logic. It's certainly a good starting place for exploring the weaknesses in rationality.

Gloucon, the time I spend in serious thought and reflection ends when I choose to end it. There have been studies already of the relationship of religious and magical practices to spontaneous remission of cancer; you might want to look into those, and then if you yourself want to pursue some such study, by all means. I'm still mulling over the options, and will continue to do so until I have something in mind that seems worth my while.

magicalthyme said...

I thought I would give an update on my practice. I had chosen Samhain as the date when I would officially start my Druid studies and practice. Life, as always, got in the way and so my practice began not so much with a bang as a toe dipped in the water, and a day late to boot. I actually started unofficially when my Ogham cards arrived back in September. I've been doing a mostly daily simple reading as a way to learn the Ogham and get comfortable with them. From the first, they have spoken to me of two basic themes, both of which are quite accurate. Overarching is transformation, transition, spirituality, learning and completion, fullfilment and fruition. The second is of choice, always when I am focussed on a particular decision I will be making in coming weeks. Patterns definitely emerging, and I often pull the same cards day after day, no matter how much I shuffle them.

For example, this morning I drew Fearn, Koad, Ailim. Fearn in particular has appeared over and over. :-)

I've failed so far at meditation, mostly because when I try to sit I suddenly remember and get the energy to perform some task I've been procrastinating about. I've decided that is a good thing, as I'm getting a lot done. I consider it to be "nesting" which is not a bad thing, and due to my old meditation practice often the work becomes the meditation. I've also failed to find my cauldrons, but have decided they will appear when I am ready, and right now apparently I am not. I've also officially decided to ignore any timetables and will simply introduce new practices as life allows.

Nov. 1 became my official start date as I started keeping my journal on that date...

Mary

John Michael Greer said...

Mary, glad to hear about your work! As for meditation, though, your mind will come up with an infinite number of excuses to distract you from the practice. That's all they are, and as long as you listen to them, the core of the work will remain closed to you. It's crucial, when you decide to meditate, to resolve that you are going to sit down and meditate for fifteen minutes by the clock, and then do that no matter what excuses your mind comes up with.

The training of the will is something I'll be discussing at great length in later posts here. You're fortunate enough to have the chance to get a jump on that! ;-)

Eric S. said...

I was getting into a conversation with a friend about the way big name scientists have been singing the praises of the recent film Interstellar (I got curious enough to pull up the script http://leonardlangfordlexicon.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/INTERSTELLAR-Jonathan-Nolan.pdf, and even if you don’t read the whole thing or anything more than a description of the plot, I would be a bit curious about your opinion of the conversation on page 15-18 in which a criticism of the wastefulness and destructiveness of industrial society is presented cartoonishly and almost villainously even in what’s portrayed as a collapsing society in which that criticism would be fairly justified. It’s a new stereotype, and it leaves me wondering if something’s in the process of shifting culturally).

Anyway, that conversation led us into a rant about Neil Tyson, which wound up leading us to this article which actually offered a surprisingly astute critique of the myth of progress and the short sidedness of modern rationalism and pop science. It seemed like something that belonged in this discussion since it even goes into the occult roots of enlightenment science. That article also linked to a book called “Solomon's Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment” by Paul Monod. It sounds like an interesting book on early modern occult history, have you read it, and if so would you recommend it?

John Michael Greer said...

Eric, have you read David Brin's rants about the evil evilness of those of us who think -- oh, the heresy! -- that the law of diminishing returns applies to technological progress? The bit in the movie is part of that same rhetoric, a continued attempt to ignore the limits to growth by shouting down and vilifying those who mention it. As for Monod's book, no, I haven't read it -- the university library I have access to these days doesn't get such books, and I can't usually afford books by academic presses, so can't offer a recommendation one way or the other.

Steven Dillon said...

Really enjoying the blog JMG! The second fallacy reminded me of Ed Feser's chapter on scientism in his Introduction to Scholastic Metaphysics where he compares it to one who's so impressed by the success of his metal detector that he comes to dismiss what his metal detector fails to detect.

Looking forward to future posts!

Dwig said...

Omerori, thanks for articulating a "troubling question" that's been bothering me too. Cyclical models of history have arisen several times, as John Michael has described in past posts, and have provided some useful insights.

There are different ways to model history, though. Jean Gebser's "Ever-Present Origin" is an example -- he barely addresses the "events" of history, as usually described, but the changes in the ways that people understand the world around them. His evidence is drawn from the arts, etymology, and related sources that bear on what he calls "consciousness structures", and their change over time. In his model, such changes are "punctuated" (to borrow a term from Stephen Jay Gould), changing slightly over long periods, then "mutating" over a relatively short time. (Again, a caveat against judging Gebser's work on the basis of this brief description.)

Of course, there's a danger of becoming seduced by one's models. (As a software developer who's worked with models of reality for most of a half-century career, I can attest to that from personal experience, and observing others' experiences at close hand. You get the best results when you "unclench your fist", and work with what the system at hand wants and will allow.)

Speaking of models, some of the best have come from the System Dynamics folks (e.g., the the Limits to Growth model, whose "standard run" has proved to compare well with actual data since 1970). Donella Meadows, one of the original authors, has an excellent article on learning from and moving beyond models, called "Dancing with Systems" -- it's about the length of an Archdruid post, and equally well worth reading. In it, I sense multiple connections with points our host has made over the years. As I read it, it offers a rather different (though not incompatible) resolution of the dichotomy of whether we're stuck in a deterministic "carousel of time" or can "create our own reality". (The dance metaphor here reminded me of the Dance of Shiva Nataraja.)

I'll be interested to see whether, and in what ways, Meadows' "dance steps" resonate with the magical practices that we'll be learning about here.

onething said...

I don't know where I've been.

The following quote almost brought tears to my eyes as I realized something profound about the religion I spent the first 37 years of my life in. Here it is:

" Magic, again, is the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will, and all the effects of magic are mediated by consciousness. Ritual—symbolic psychodrama performed in quasimeditative mental states—is an important tool of magical practice because it shapes and reorients consciousness in reliable ways,..."

Especially the part about ritual-symbolic psychodrama performed in a quasi-meditative state.

The religion I'm referring to is the Eastern (Russian) Orthodox Church, and no other churches I have visited have the same effect. I suspect the Roman church once did, but it is watered down so far as I can see.

I am working on figuring out how to post some film footage of my son's funeral, and if I can do it I will post it here. One of his friends' was in some kind of shock and came up to me afterwards and said, more or less, "what is this?"

Psychodrama, meditative, a change in consciousness, brought about deliberately is a great description of the liturgy and other services. And deliberately made beautiful so as to be a kind of re-enactment of heaven.

Everything is sung, including the gospel and epistle readings, and all the senses are deliberately filled - lots of incense - so that when you are in church you will be flooded with feelings that are unique to it. Basically, it is a group prayer that leads to a culmination. The priest sings things like "With one heart and with one mind let us pray..."
Before communion there is a lovely and solemn hymn that enjoins everyone to "lay aside all earthly care."

I really do miss it.

Odin's Raven said...

The demise of science may be due to more than diminishing returns.
Here's a very lucid lament for the replacement of 'real science' by bureaucratised 'zombie science'.It's not due to lack of oil, but to lack of honesty.
Corruption of Science