For the past couple of years, as a sideline to my usual work as a fiction writer, I've posted a series of online essays on paranormal phenomena. The topic is always controversial. Despite massive evidence to the contrary, some people continue to maintain that no such phenomena exist. Those who hold most tenaciously to this opinion characterize themselves as "skeptics."
Now, as has been frequently pointed out, this use of the term "skeptic" is more than a little misleading. In common usage, a skeptic is someone who maintains an open mind, insisting on evidence for any claim. The more unusual the claim, the more stringent the evidential demands. According to this view, the skeptic has no private agenda, no personal bias, but serves only as a guardian of the truth, who weeds out unsupported allegations and superstitious imaginings. The skeptic is the proverbial Missourian; though willing to be convinced, he says, "Show me."
That's the theory. In practice, things are different. Far from being a state of habitual open-mindedness, today's skepticism is characterized by resistance to any new ideas or new evidence, and unwillingness to critically examine its own biases. These tendencies, in turn, rest on a very definite agenda, promoted by a clear and comprehensive worldview, a philosophy of life. This philosophy is rationalism.
In a 1995 essay, Gene E. Veith ably summarizes rationalism's basic tenets. Coming of age in the eighteenth century, rationalism "excluded on principle everything that could not be seen, measured, and empirically analyzed. Revelation was ruled out as a means of knowledge, and belief in a supernatural realm that transcended the visible universe was dismissed as primitive superstition. Not only did modernists [i.e., rationalists] believe in the inerrancy of science, they also had a devout faith in progress. The 'modern,' almost by definition, was superior to the past. The future would be even better. Modernists genuinely believed that science would answer all questions and that the application of scientific principles would solve all social problems. Through rational planning, applied technology, and social manipulation, experts could engineer the perfect society (Veith, 1995)."
Here we have not innocent open-mindedness, but a narrow and intolerant creed, which is today often recognized as such. The word "skeptic" is, in fact, increasingly conjoined with "dogmatic," "zealous," and "militant." Some people accuse skeptics of being nothing but cynics in disguise. A few wags have dubbed them "septics." Admittedly, that's not very nice – but, truth be told, skeptics have brought such attacks on themselves by repeatedly characterizing their opponents as credulous, gullible, simpleminded, ignorant, irrational, and foolish.
Want proof? Look at skeptic Andrew Stuttaford, a frequent contributor to National Review Online. "A séance," he writes glibly, "is, by definition, a gathering of the credulous Stuttaford, 2003b)." Apparently, then, all the researchers who have ever studied mediumship – the noted psychological theorists William James and F.W.H. Meyers among them – were either dupes or dopes. Stuttaford on Crossing Over star John Edward: "He's a fast-talking psychic with slow-witted fans." Although he admits, "I have no idea ... how Mr. Edward does it," Stuttaford opines that "it ... takes, how can this be put politely, a certain special something in the minds of his subjects. It cannot be put politely. Those special somethings are naivety, superstition, and a problem with rational thought (Stuttaford, 2001)."
Crossing Over fans shouldn't take undue umbrage. Stuttaford has many other dislikes. Even Walt Disney movies earn his opprobrium. "It's not easy to decide which Disney character is the most repellent," he muses. "That simpering Bambi would be better roasted, carved and surrounded by potatoes, gravy and parsnips (Stuttaford, 2003a)."
Stuttaford approaches the world from a rightist political perspective, but happily there is political balance among skeptics. Left-leaning gadfly Christopher Hitchens denounces all spiritual interests and phenomena as a "tsunami of piffle" embraced by the "feebleminded." He has high praise for Houdini, who "toured far and wide, exposing and announcing the callous hoaxes of the ectoplasm-artists." Hitchens doesn't mention the fact that Houdini himself is credibly accused of a hoax; the master magician's assistant confessed to having planted a suspicious article among medium Mina Crandon's effects so that Houdini could conveniently discover it later. If Hitchens is aware of this detail, he doesn't allow it to dim his enthusiasm for the famed "fairy-flattener" (quoted in Shermer, undated).
Perhaps paralleling Stuttaford's animus toward Walt Disney, Hitchens has his own bete noir in the person of Mother Teresa, the target of his scathingly polemical pamphlet The Missionary Position. Reviewing this 98-page "book," one critic takes note of "Hitchens' genuine hatred of Mother Teresa. He uses anything and everything to paint her as a phony ... This isn't a reporter examining both sides of an issue; this is a guy with a vendetta (Milner, 1995)."
People who dislike Walt Disney and Mother Teresa must have some heroes of their own. And they do. Well-known skeptic Michael Shermer reports that, although he regards Ayn Rand's philosophy as a cult, nevertheless "I actually have a photograph of Rand on my wall, next to other photographs including Martin Gardner, Penn & Teller, [James] Randi, [Stephen Jay] Gould, Richard Dawkins, Isaac Asimov, Frank Sulloway, G. Gordon Liddy, Houdini, [and] my wife (Shermer, op. cit.)."
What can we learn from Michael Shermer's wall? His heroes can be divided mainly into professional skeptics (Martin Gardner, Penn & Teller, James Randi, and Houdini) and scientists or science writers of a sharply rationalistic bent (Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Isaac Asimov, Frank Sulloway). What connects the people on Shermer's wall is not politics. Asimov, a committed liberal, wouldn't have found much ideological common ground with Watergate felon Liddy. Nor is it a shared view of human nature. Sulloway, who applies Darwinian methods to the study of siblings' birth order for the purpose of explaining human behavior, would scoff at Rand's romantic view of man as "a being of self-made soul." Nor is it any particular point of agreement on scientific issues. Gould, an innovator in the field of evolution, vigorously disputed Dawkins' old-fashioned, unreconstructed Darwinism.
No, the overarching theme of Shermer's portrait gallery is something deeper. It is the same basic worldview summarized in the quotation from Gene Veith above. For the most part, the thinkers on Shermer's wall are rationalists – arch-rationalists, one might say - who do indeed "exclude ... everything that [cannot] be seen, measured, and empirically analyzed." Certainly most of them rule out mystical insight "as a means of knowledge" and "dismiss ... as primitive superstition ... [any] belief in a supernatural realm." (Martin Gardner, a philosophical theist, is an exception to the latter point.) They "believe in the inerrancy of science" and have "a devout faith in progress." They "genuinely believe ... that science [will] answer all questions and that the application of scientific principles [will] solve all social problems," allowing "experts" to "engineer the perfect society."
It is this shared commitment to Reason with a capital R that unites these otherwise disparate opinion-shapers. One may even call it a shared faith, though the appellation will not be met with approval by those on whom it is bestowed.
Of course, there's more to this rationalist faith than the positions already laid out. Rationalism takes its most clear-cut, dramatic, and bracingly simple form in its view of history.
For thousands of years, the story goes, the forces of reason have been doing battle with the forces of unreason, and the rise and fall of civilization follows the victories and defeats in this ongoing war. The ancient Athenians first enshrined reason as the basis of culture and politics, and in so doing, they created the first democracy and the first great literature and art. But Athens fell to the uncultured, unphilosophical Spartans and later to the boorish Macedonians, and the light of reason was nearly extinguished - until the Roman Empire, scavenger of subjugated cultures, adapted Greek philosophy to its own ends. Rome built a complex technological society that endured for centuries. But the Romans made the fatal mistake of adopting Christianity, a move that catapulted them directly into the Dark Ages.
The poverty, superstitious ignorance, and utter stagnation of medieval times persisted until the rebirth of reason known as the Renaissance. This opened up a new era of optimism, prosperity, and scientific progress, all made possible by the burgeoning philosophy of secular humanism, which reached its zenith in the Enlightenment.
Since that time, the forces of unreason have staged an increasingly successful counteroffensive. America is now under assault by a variety of pseudoscientific or openly irrational movements that fall under the rubric of the New Age. If these pernicious ideas consume our culture, then our society will go the way of the Roman Empire, and our future will be a new Dark Age. In this apocalyptic battle of ideas, nothing less than the survival of civilization is at stake.
As you can see, the rationalist version of history is an exciting story, full of high drama, complete with a cliffhanger ending. Will civilization commit suicide? Will all be lost? Tune in next week ...
Great stuff. The only problem is, it's not quite the whole story. In fact, a lot of it isn't even true.
For instance, the view that ancient Athens was a stolidly rationalistic society is a nineteenth century myth that has long since been exploded. We now know that, as early as the seventh century BC, Black Sea commerce had opened Greek society to Eastern mystical ideas. Asiatic teachings of soul-body dualism, reincarnation, and metempsychosis were picked up by leading Greek thinkers, most notably Pythagoras.
Although the intellectuals of Periclean Athens – the Athens of the fifth century BC - were undoubtedly more committed to the primacy of reason than earlier generations had been, Athens remained a hotbed of competing intellectual currents. The same leaders who praised reason also relied on oracles for guidance. The same tragic playwrights who brought powerful psychological insights to their studies of human nature also infused their tragedies with gods and monsters. Euripides' last and arguably greatest play, The Maenads, is a celebration of the wildly irrational religion of the god Dionysus, whose intoxicated followers frolicked naked in the woods in orgiastic abandon.
The admixture of rationalist and irrationalist ideas in Athens helps explain the Hellenistic period which followed, when occultism again gained the upper hand. Had Athens been as uniformly rationalistic as its admirers suggest, the Hellenistic practitioners of alchemy and astrology would never have had a chance. (For a full discussion, see Dodds, 1951.)
What about the decline of the Roman Empire? True, the eighteenth century historian Edward Gibbon argued at very, very great length that Christianity was responsible for sapping the Romans' manly pagan virtues and leaving them open to attack by more vigorous barbarian hordes. Like other rationalists of an aristocratic bent, Gibbon waxed euphoric about the heyday of the Empire: "If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he could, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus (quoted in Pagels, 1988)."
Undoubtedly these years, from A.D. 96 to A.D. 180, were a time when at least one portion of the human race was "happy and prosperous" - namely, adult males who enjoyed the benefits of Roman citizenship. They were, however, a minority of the population, the majority being made up of women, children, resident aliens, and slaves. For them, Gibbon's golden age was decidedly less lustrous. Elaine Pagels writes, "Within the capital city of Rome, three quarters of the population either were slaves - persons legally classified as property - or were descended from slaves. Besides being subjected to their owners' abuses, fits of violence, and sexual desires, slaves were denied such elementary rights as legitimate marriage, let alone legal recourse for their grievances."
Did anyone stand up for these marginalized people? One group did - the Christians. Pagels observes that Clement of Alexandria, an influential second century Christian, "attacked the widespread Roman custom of exposing abandoned infants on garbage dumps, or raising them for sale: 'I pity the children owned by slave dealers, who are dressed for shame,' says Clement, and trained in sexual specialties, who were sold to gratify their owners' sexual tastes. Justin, in his Defense of the Christians, complained that 'not only the females, but also the males' were commonly raised 'like herds of oxen, goats, or sheep,' as a profitable crop of child prostitutes ... Many Christians were themselves slave owners and took slavery for granted as unthinkingly as their pagan neighbors. But others went among the hovels of the poor and into slave quarters, offering help and money and preaching to the poor, the illiterate, slaves, women, foreigners - the good news that class, education, sex, and status made no difference, that every human being is essentially equal to any other 'before God' ... Pagels, op.cit.)."
When Gibbon declaims on the glory that was Rome, it is best to keep in mind the "profitable crop of child prostitutes" and the abandoned infants languishing in garbage dumps. And when he insists that Judeo-Christian religious values "weakened" Rome or made it "effeminate" and "soft," it is worth remembering what casual, everyday atrocities the pagan world was capable of.
But did Christianity weaken Rome in a military sense? Did it cause the Empire's downfall and bring about the Dark Ages? Although Gibbon thought so, more recent research has widely discredited this idea. In a recent book, Greg S. Nyquist observes, "Those who ... regard Christianity as responsible for the collapse of Roman Civilization fail to realize that only the Western half of the empire fell. The Eastern half, which was every bit, if not more, Christian than the West, remained a viable political force during the entire period of the Middle Ages. While Western Europe suffered through centuries of abject poverty and feudal anarchy, Byzantium persevered amid a veritable sea of enemies (Nyquist, 2001)."
As with any large-scale historical event, the actual reasons for Rome's fall are complex and numerous. The Empire was overextended and difficult to defend, and the Romans were eventually obliged to employ Germanic tribesmen as mercenary soldiers to patrol the borders. Unfortunately, the emperors and the senate were notoriously stingy in paying the mercenaries' wages. As a result, the mercenaries periodically rose up against the authorities. One of these rebellions ended in the overthrow of the emperor in AD 476.
That date is often cited as the official fall of Rome, although the Empire, in a somewhat altered form, actually persisted for another two centuries. It collapsed only after the advancing Islamic armies took control of the Mediterranean Sea and made it, in the words of historian Henri Pirenne, "a Moslem lake." The end of Mediterranean commerce sent shockwaves through eighth century Europe, from which the continent's economy could not recover. (This theory is elaborated in Pirenne, 1974; I'm indebted to Nyquist for bringing Pirenne to my attention.)
Perhaps the most cherished chapter in the rationalists' historical overview is that the long, dreary interlude of the medieval period was brought to an end by a glorious rebirth of reason.
Again, the truth is more complicated. In fact, the medieval period blends rather seamlessly into the Renaissance. There were small businessmen, merchants, engineers, artists, philosophers, even nascent scientists in the late Middle Ages, just as there were astrologers, witches, spirit mediums, and religious fanatics in the Renaissance.
Jean Gimpel, in The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages, explores the often neglected technological and commercial innovations of the medieval period. "The Middle Ages," he writes in his preface, "was one of the great inventive eras of mankind. It should be known as the first industrial revolution in Europe ... Between the tenth and the thirteenth centuries, western Europe experienced a technological boom ... Capitalist companies were formed and their shares were bought and sold ... Many of the tasks formerly done by hand were now carried out by machines ... There was a marked increase in the general standard of living."
Later he writes, "It is an astonishing concept to the modern mind that medieval man was surrounded by machines ... The most common was the mill, converting the power of water or wind into work: grinding corn, crushing olives, fulling cloth, tanning leather, making paper ..." A survey of England undertaken in 1086 by William the Conqueror reported 5,624 water mills. "On rivers like the Wylye in [the county of] Wiltshire the concentration of mills is remarkable: thirty mills along some 10 miles of water; three mills every mile."
Readers who prefer to get their history through historical novels might want to look at Michael Crichton'sTimeline, which incorporates a great deal of recent research into its picture of the medieval world (Crichton, 1999).
If the Middle Ages was less mystical than rationalists suppose, the Renaissance was less rationalistic than they would like to believe. Rationalists sometimes credit the rediscovery of the works of Aristotle with laying the foundation for the new progressive spirit of the Renaissance. A case can be made that at least equal credit belongs to Aristotle's polar opposite, the semi-mythical ancient Egyptian known as Hermes Trismegistus, or Hermes Thrice-Great. The corpus of occult writings attributed to this figure, known as the Hermetica, first returned to Western European hands in 1460, when Cosimo de Medici acquired some Hermetic texts from Byzantium. More texts turned up, and by 1593 a complete volume was published in Italy.
The Hermetica is crowded with occult lore of all kinds – astrology, alchemy, witchcraft, magical rituals, invocations of pagan deities. Interlaced with this rather banal material is a more uplifting mystical vision of a hierarchical, purposeful cosmos in which the human spirit is continually evolving toward reunion with the godhead.
Renaissance intellectuals were fascinated by the Hermetica. Such leading figures as Giordano Bruno and Pico della Mirandola became deeply committed to this occult philosophy, which has many similarities to the mystical traditions of Gnosticism and Neoplatonism - and nothing at all in common with classical rationalism. If we want to find the inspiration behind the works of Michelangelo, da Vinci, and perhaps even Shakespeare, we would be better advised to look at the Hermetica than at, say, Aristotle's Metaphysics.
It is true, of course, that rationalism eventually became the dominant mode of thought among intellectuals in the West, a trend that culminated in the Enlightenment in the middle to late 1700s. Even this development was less triumphal than contemporary rationalists make it out to be. The climax and apotheosis of the Enlightenment was not the American Revolution, which blended rationalist and religious sentiments in a common-sense mixture, but rather the French Revolution, which began as a revolt against the privileged but evolved swiftly into a radical onslaught on all religious beliefs, customs, traditions, and values. If you want to see the spirit of the Enlightenment, and therefore of scientific rationalism, in its pure, unadulterated form, look at Paris in 1793.
In that year the Jacobin party, in control of the Revolution, outlawed the Bible, closed all churches, and decreed the death penalty for anyone found guilty of practicing Christianity. The cathedral of Notre Dame was stripped of Christian symbols and transformed into a Temple of Reason, in which an actress made up as the Goddess of Reason received obeisance from the assembled mob. The local bishop was forced to declare that he worshipped no God, but only Liberty and Equality. An ass dressed in priestly garments, with the Hebrew Bible and New Testament tied to its tail, was paraded through the streets to its destination - a huge pile of religious books, which were ceremonially burned.
The new "Revolutionary Calendar" removed all references to Christianity, renaming Christmas as "Dog Day," and All-Saints Day as "Goat's-beard Herb Day." Other holidays included Virtue Day, Genius Day, and, of course, Reason Day. The months of the year were renamed for the seasons and harvests – the month of Mist, the month of Frost, the month of Heat; the months of Seed, of Blossom, of Fruit. Even clocks were remanufactured to count out ten hours to each day, with one hundred minutes to each hour – apparently a more logical approach.
Finally a truly rational society was at hand, or so the reformers thought. But at the very time when the Jacobins were outlawing religion, and perhaps not by coincidence, they were also instituting the Terror – the indiscriminate murder of thousands by means of that shiny, new, technologically efficient killing machine, the guillotine. The dream-turned-nightmare came to an end in 1799 with a coup d'etat that established the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Still, this was hardly the last effort to wipe out all vestiges of tradition and build a new, utopian society on a purely "scientific" basis. The Nazi ambition to establish a master race was founded on the new science of eugenics, while the Marxist attempt to mold the New Soviet Man relied on behavior modification through incessant propaganda and reeducation camps, policies justified by the "rational, scientific" theory of Marxism itself. It has been aptly said, by theologian Thomas Oden, that "modernity" lasted exactly two hundred years – beginning with the storming of the Bastille in 1789, and ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
In making these points, I don't mean to suggest that the pursuit of reason has had no beneficial social consequences. This is obviously untrue and would be just as much of an unwarranted oversimplification as the rationalists' contrary position. What I am saying is that the pursuit of reason as an absolute, an end in itself, can lead to outcomes quite different from those that rationalists expect.
History is complicated. It is not a simple matter of good and evil, with the forces of good exemplified by reason, and the forces of evil exemplified by mysticism. It is more like a balancing act, in which both the rational and the nonrational aspects of human nature must find some degree of fulfillment in a stable social order. When the balance tilts too far to one side or the other, instability results. An excess of nonrational impulses can engender stagnant tribalism or despotic theocracy. An excessive commitment to reason as the be-all and end-all of life can usher in the chaos and madness of 1793.
Rationalists will have none of this. For them, all the ills of the world are the product of irrationalism and can be defeated by the systematic application of science, logic, and technology. This, they feel, is self-evident, and anyone who doesn't see it is either dishonest or stupid. Since a great many people don't see it, rationalists feel a certain contempt for the masses - contempt mixed with fear, since in a democracy the masses have considerable power.
All this is very much in line with the black-and-white mindset that typifies rationalists. There is reason, and there is its opposite, and never shall they meet. The ambiguities and complexities of the real world, the multiple causes underlying massive historical events, the nuances and subtleties of human nature are all quite alien to their streamlined and simplified vision.
For that matter, even some of modern science is alien to rationalists. This may seem odd, since rationalists are, if anything, champions of science. But if you examine them closely, you'll find that they are often more committed to the scientific outlook of the nineteenth century than of the twentieth - or the twenty-first.
The nineteenth century was the heyday of rationalism in science. It was the age when Newtonian physics seemed on the verge of explaining the universe. It was also the age when Darwinian evolutionary theory seemed to have solved the mysteries of life itself. Not surprisingly, rationalists still feel at home in that era.
But science has undergone momentous changes in the past century. The Theory of Relativity and, even more so, the advent of quantum physics have undermined the old Newtonian world picture. Where Newton saw the universe as a great machine humming along in a neat and orderly fashion, following laws that could be mathematically calculated, producing results that could be predicted with pinpoint accuracy, the new physics sees the universe as a place of paradox and ambiguity. In the quantum world, a subatomic particle can be both a particle and a wave at the same time. The distinction between the observer and the observed, so crucial to the classical outlook, has dissolved, and it now appears that the observer can directly affect or even bring about the events under observation. Entities are able to influence each other over vast distances instantaneously - a multiply verified observation that has given rise to the idea that this is a "nonlocal universe," a universe in which, at a fundamental level, space and time do not exist. Physicist David Bohm has compared the universe to a giant hologram, a multidimensional image projected out of a two-dimensional wave-interference pattern at the quantum level. Superstring theory argues that the essence of things is not any material object, but cosmic vibrational frequencies.
Meanwhile, the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection is increasingly seen as incomplete. Some biologists postulate a new view of evolution, "punctuated equilibrium," in which new species emerge suddenly in response to environmental pressures. Other theorists apply chaos theory or quantum physics to the problem, while still others suggest, ever so carefully, that there may be something to the old Lamarckian notion that animals pass along acquired characteristics and thereby accelerate the evolutionary process. The origin of life remains a complete mystery, in which every proposed theory has been discredited and no new theories are thought to be in the offing. Molecular biologist Michael Behe, in Darwin's Black Box, argues that cellular organization represents an "irreducible complexity" that cannot be explained, even in principle, by evolutionary theory. Behe points out that even the simplest cell carries out millions of chemical reactions every second, in a meticulously choreographed array of sequences, and that all this activity is necessary if the cell is to metabolize nutrients, eliminate waste, and (most daunting of all) successfully reproduce. How the first cell ever developed out of nonliving antecedents is unknown, especially since examination of some of the oldest rocks on Earth has shown that microbes came into existence much earlier than previously believed.
In many respects, science is evolving into a more open-ended discipline, one that allows for and even celebrates the enigmas, paradoxes, and ambiguities of the universe. Rationalists are unhappy with this development. They resist it. They gripe about it. They make fun of it. They cannot come to terms with it.
Nor is this surprising. For the most part, the rationalist mindset is simply not flexible enough to adapt to new information or changing circumstances. Although rationalists themselves would vigorously deny it, their worldview is essentially religious in nature - not because they believe in God or the supernatural, but because they believe that they have identified absolute truths and that virtue consists in defending those truths at any cost. Their contempt for religion as a mere "belief system" blinds them to the fact that their philosophy is itself a belief system, subject to the same bias and incompleteness as any other set of beliefs. Philosophically, they have committed themselves to a simple, straightforward theory of everything, and are unable or unwilling to see that this theory, like any theory, can never be more than a rough approximation of the truth.
The quest for truth is an ongoing process, a journey, not a destination. Indeed, science - and reason itself - can be best understood not as a final answer but as a method, a tool. If science is seen as a set of answers with which one must agree in order for one to be deemed "rational" - a viewpoint for which the term "scientism" has been coined - then any new information that challenges the existing scientific worldview is a threat to science and to rationality itself. In that case, one must be perpetually on guard against such threats, by assiduously debunking any new ideas or new observations that fall outside the established paradigm.
On the other hand, if science is seen simply as a method leading to provisional answers that are always subject to revision, then new ideas and new observations are no threat at all.
So now we can see, I think, why the more militant rationalists become militant skeptics - i.e., militant debunkers. Their penchant for denigrating and discrediting the paranormal is not simply a tic of the personality, but the ineluctable consequence of a certain fundamental view of life, mind, and the cosmos.
Unfortunately, people with a powerful personal agenda do not make the best skeptics - at least not if skepticism is understood as the exercise of unbiased objectivity.
A small example will illustrate this point. It involves Dr. William A. Nolen, who went to the Philippines to study so-called "psychic surgeons." Let me be clear that I have no particular interest in psychic surgery and no confidence in its genuineness. My point in choosing this topic is to show that even regarding one of the most dubious paranormal claims, skeptics still indulge in hasty generalizations while ignoring possible nuances and subtleties of the issue. If they play fast and loose even when occupying comparatively solid ground, how reliable are they in better substantiated areas of paranormal research, such as telepathy and psychokinesis, where volumes of evidence and mountains of data weigh against them? (The most up-to-date summary of the evidence for psi-related phenomena is Radin, 1997.)
Dr. Nolen tells us that that his attitude was admirably unbiased. "I was making a very sincere effort," he says, "not to prejudge the merits of the psychic surgeons whom I was about to investigate. If I had already been persuaded they were charlatans, I would never have undertaken the assignment."
But "unbiased" means one thing to people in general, and quite another to a committed rationalist-cum-skeptic. To the skeptic, it means that he is willing to waste a little of his time examining obvious nonsense for the socially beneficial purpose of debunking it. Don't take my word for this. Here is Nolen again, this time being a little more forthcoming.
"I have to confess that I undertook the assignment with fear and trepidation. I knew that by looking into and writing about psychic surgery I ran a serious risk of being labeled a 'kook', a label that might destroy my reputation as a legitimate medical writer. I didn't want that to happen.
"On the other hand, I didn't agree with the AMA's policy. It seemed to me that ignoring the lunatic fringe, hoping they would just go away, was unrealistic. Remaining silent while quacks went out and sold their ideas, unopposed, just wouldn't work ... (Nolen, 1974)."
So Nolen's "very sincere effort not to prejudge the merits of the psychic surgeons" took the form of assuming in advance that they were "quacks" who were part of "the lunatic fringe." Remember this the next time a skeptic boasts about his impartial, objective stance.
Nolen spent a total of two weeks in the Philippines, a rather short time in which to investigate a phenomenon that, by some estimates, involves more than four hundred Filipino healers. Nevertheless, he was able to confidently conclude that the whole business of psychic surgery is a fraud.
George Nava True II, in a sympathetic online essay, summarizes the doctor's findings. "An ‘appendix' which Sison removed from a patient turned out to be a wad of cotton; a 'hysterectomy' made by Mercado consisted of chicken intestines which were passed off as the uterus; a 'tumor' Mercado removed from Nolen was clumps of fat soaked in a reddish liquid that was said to be blood. In one instance where Flores supposedly removed the eye of Joaquin Cunanan, a retired businessman who promoted psychic surgery, Nolen said this was accomplished by means of a dog's eye which the healer produced at the right moment (True, undated)."
So, then – cased closed. Or is it? Before we grant the final word on the subject to Nolen's two weeks of study, we might consider some contrary points of view.
In a recent book on the subject, Sandy Johnson acknowledges, "Sleight-of-hand surgery is common in the Philippines and elsewhere. Here, the healer creates the illusion of removing a tumor. To do this he uses cleverly concealed animal blood and tissue, usually small pieces of chicken liver or gizzard purchased at the corner stall, and proceeds to imitate a real surgery."
She interviews Henry Belk, who founded the Belk Foundation for Psychical Research, and asks why the healers would resort to trickery if they have actual healing powers. "Actually," Belk explains, "among the early Filipinos, sleight of hand existed for centuries. The belief was that if you extract a symbolic object from a sick patient, the disease would disappear. The shaman never considered what he did to be deceitful. His only interest was that the patient be healed. Any and all means of healing came from Spirit, and therefore was miraculous."
Is it, then, just a placebo affect? And what, really, is the placebo effect, anyway, if not a fancy name for a healing that occurs by no known mechanism?
After pondering these issues, Johnson came to believe "that all healing, including modern medicine, contained an element of the placebo effect. If belief and expectation is the spark that activates the immune system - whether delivered by a man in a white coat or a shaman in feathers - won't healing occur?"
Later she visits psychologist Stanley Krippner of the Saybrook Institute in San Francisco, who is described as "an outspoken advocate of the work of Rubens Faria," a Brazilian healer. "I think," Krippner says, "that he's putting on a show that brings out the best in people. Technically, he could do all this without cutting into the skin, without taking on the identity of Dr. Fritz [the doctor whose spirit Faria is allegedly channeling]. But that's not the way people's belief systems operate. People like theater, they like spectacle, they like drama, especially people who go to folk healers. Many folk healers around the country tell me, 'I would not have to call on the spirits. I would not have to cut into the body. I would not have to do the rituals, but people expect it, and I must give them what they expect if they are going to be healed.' (Johnson, 2003)."
And here is Jane Katra, writing in a book coauthored with pioneering laser physicist and ESP researcher Russell Targ: "After a week, I'd seen many so-called psychic surgeries, most of which my rational mind told me were sleight of hand, and yet which my observations told me were efficacious to varying degrees. I saw things that looked like animal entrails appearing as if they were being pulled out of people, and things that looked like real incisions cut into people, through which globs of who-knows-what appeared. I mostly saw sick people feeling better, speaking a common language of hope and fellowship to each other, in a community of affirmative expectation.
"I was looking forward to seeing the renowned healer, Alex Orbito, do his famous eye-check procedure. I decided to team up with an American woman who was writing for a Yakima, Washington, newspaper ... The reporter stood on one side of the patient's head and watched Orbito's hands, while I stood on the other side with my face down, eye-to-eye with the patient. It looked as if Alex had his finger behind the man's eyeball, and that the eyeball was popped forward in its socket and pushed off to one side. I thought to myself, it might be easy to palm a fake eyeball, but why can't I see the man's real eye in there? And how does he get a glass eye to just hang there? ... When I compared notes with the other reporter after Orbito's eye show, we were each disappointed that the other didn't have an intelligent explanation for what we saw ...
"I didn't know what to believe, and I didn't trust what I thought I saw. Some of the operations I observed had been quite bloody, and others not at all. When I asked [a psychic healer] why that was, she told me that 'Some people do better with lots of blood.' I assumed she had meant that they more strongly believed in the power of God to heal them, or that they heal themselves better.
"Why did the healers palm chicken guts if they could rearrange eyeballs painlessly, and remove hemorrhoids with their bare fingers? I thought I had seen a tiny razor blade under one healer's fingernail, so, aha! He wasn't cutting people open with his finger! He was simply using a razor blade! (And then reaching inside people's bodies with his bare hands and pulling out tumors, while the people felt no pain?) Or did he cut people and use chicken guts, so they would believe they were being operated on - and actually heal themselves (Targ and Katra, 1999)?"
One more viewpoint, from an online essay by Juliette Hauser: "Philippine psychic surgeons believe that disease is lodged in the rigid belief systems of the mind. When a patient watches someone's hands pass through the flesh, their belief systems are cracked wide open. The disease loses power as it is severed from its matrix. So although healing can be accomplished without physical penetration, Alex Orbito will continue to use the dramatic demonstration of psychic surgery as long as it is necessary for the patient's mind (Hauser, undated)."
(Oct. 5, 2005 update: Reading Michael Harner's book The Way of the Shaman [HarperSanFrancisco, 1990], I came across a description of traditional healing techniques used by the Jivaro Indians of Ecuador. Jivaro shamans believe they can rid the patient of bad influences, thought of as "magical darts" implanted in the patient's body. These "darts" are called tsentsak and may correspond to various mundane items - "insects, plants, and other objects." In the healing ceremony, the shaman first conceals two tsentsak in his mouth; "they are there to catch the nonordinary aspect of the magical dart when the shaman sucks it out of the patient's body." At the end of the ceremony, the shaman spits out one of the tsentsak "and displays it to the patient and his family saying, "Now I have sucked it out. Here it is." Harner notes, "The nonshamans may think that the material object itself is what has been sucked out, and the shaman does not disillusion them. At the same time he is not lying, because he knows that the only important aspect of the tsentsak is its nonmaterial or nonordinary aspect, or essence, which he sincerely believes he has removed from the patient's body. To explain to the layman that he already had these objects in his mouth would serve no fruitful purpose and would prevent him from displaying such an object as proof that he had effected the cure." [pp. 17-18] )
It appears, then, that the situation may be more complicated than Nolen's hasty judgment - one could say prejudgment - would suggest. There may be a mixture of sleight of hand and legitimate psychic power at work in some of these cases. Certainly, skeptics can point to patients who showed no improvement after a trip to the Philippines. Just as certainly, believers in psychic surgery can find cases in which remarkable healings did occur. Skeptics dismiss the success stories as "anecdotal," even if they are well-documented (although they never dismiss their own examples of failed healings as mere anecdotes). If pressed, a skeptic may admit that some healings have occurred, but will fall back on the "placebo effect" as an explanation - without considering the large questions about the relationship between mind and body that the very existence of the placebo effect opens up.
There is no time for large questions or for deep thought. The committed skeptic, sure of his conclusions in advance, carries out the intellectual equivalent of a hit and run - a few days of hasty "research," then the announcement of his preconceived opinions as verified fact.
Skeptics like to point to the harm that can be done by fake psychics, fake healers, and so on. Rarely do they acknowledge the harm done by their own over-hasty dismissals of legitimate phenomena. A case in point is described in Lynne McTaggart's book The Field: The Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe.
McTaggart tells the story of French scientist Jacques Benveniste, "a specialist in the mechanisms of allergy and inflammation [who was] appointed research director at the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM)." Benveniste became interested studying the characteristics of highly diluted solutions. To his surprise, he discovered that "the weaker the solution, a more powerful its effect."
McTaggart goes on, "Benveniste joined forces with five different laboratories in four countries, France, Israel, Italy and Canada, all of whom were able to replicate his results. The thirteen scientists then jointly published the results of their four-year collaboration in May 1988 edition of the highly prestigious Nature magazine, showing that if solutions of antibodies were diluted repeatedly until they no longer contained a single molecule of the antibody, they still produced a response from immune cells .... To the popular press, which pounced on the published paper, Benveniste had discovered 'the memory of water'."
The editor of Nature, John Maddox, attached a skeptical addendum to the paper, saying, "There is no physical basis for such an activity ... Nature has therefore arranged for independent investigators to observe repetitions of the experiments."
McTaggart continues, "Four days after publication, Maddox himself arrived [at Benveniste's lab] with what Benveniste himself described as a scientific 'fraud squad,' composed of Walter Stewart, a well-known quackbuster, and James Randi, a professional magician who tended to be called in to expose scientific work that had actually been arrived at by sleight of hand. Were a magician, a journalist and a quackbuster the best possible team to assess the subtle changes in biological experimentation, wondered Benveniste. Under their watchful eye, [Benveniste's assistant] performed four experiments, one blinded, all of which, Benveniste said, were successful. Nevertheless, Maddox and his team disputed the findings and decided to change the experimental protocol ... Under their new protocol, and amid a charged atmosphere implying that the INSERM team were hiding something, three more tests were done and shown not to work. At this point, Maddox and his team had their results and promptly left ... Soon after their five-day visit, Nature published a report entitled 'High dilution experiments a delusion'. It claimed that Benveniste's lab had not observed good scientific protocol. It discounted supporting data from other labs ... Nature's results had a devastating effect upon Benveniste's reputation and his position at INSERM ..."
Nevertheless, Benveniste continued to pursue his research, and in 2001 he was apparently vindicated when four outside labs, in a series of double-blind experiments overseen by highly skeptical chemist Madeleine Ennis, reproduced the same phenomenon he had reported in 1988 (Milgrom, 2001; Connor, 2004).
Benveniste himself, not content merely to replicate his earlier findings, has been trying to find a mechanism by which to explain them. He may have discovered it in the possibility of electromagnetic communication between chemicals. His laboratory work suggests that even after a chemical has been diluted out of a solution, the water itself retains the memory of the electromagnetic vibration specific to that chemical - and it is this vibration, or frequency, which brings about chemical reactions.
Every molecule, McTaggart explains, has a unique "signature frequency," analogous to the frequency of a particular radio station. Other molecules can "tune in" to this frequency, allowing molecules to communicate over large distances. "As these two molecules resonate on the same wavelength, they ... begin to resonate with the next molecules in the biochemical reaction, thus creating, in Benveniste's words, a 'cascade' of electromagnetic impulses traveling at the speed of light. This, rather than accidental collision, would better explain how you initiate a virtually instantaneous chain reaction in biochemistry ...
"Benveniste ... was able to record and replay these signals using a multimedia computer. Over thousands of experiments, Benveniste ... recorded the activity of [a] molecule on the computer and replayed it to a biological system ordinarily sensitive to that substance. In every instance, the biological system has been fooled into thinking it has been interacting with the substance itself and acted accordingly, initiating the biological chain reaction, just as it would if in the actual presence of the genuine molecule (McTaggart, 2002)."
This new field of study, termed "digital biology," may represent a major breakthrough in our understanding of life. Yet the whole highly promising avenue of research, along with the career of the innovative scientist behind it, was nearly cut short by the presumptuous arrogance of three skeptics, none of whom was trained in chemistry.
If Benveniste's work yields life-saving medical breakthroughs, will the "fraud squad" apologize? Don't count on it. After the reproduction of Benveniste's results in 2001, James Randi quickly organized a counter-experiment, which yielded negative results. On his Web site, Randi reports only the negative findings, which he calls "definitive," and he makes no mention at all of the positive results from Europe (Randi, 2003). As noted in an online article by Rochus Boerner, a search of Randi's site turns up only one reference to Madeleine Ennis, and "it mentions Ennis' name in the context of discussing a disconfirming study, and calls her a 'pharmacist from Belfast.' Relying solely on Randi's site, a reader would never know that the women is a professor of Immunopharmacology at Queen's University, Belfast, and that she and others have produced a ground-breaking replication of Benveniste's work (Boerner, undated)."
Self-doubt - or at least the admission of same - is not characteristic of the skeptic, who prefers to radiate an aura of unshakable assurance. To admit any doubt is to cede territory to the forces of unreason - the primordial enemy, which, as we have seen, must be resisted by any means.
And here we come to what is, as I see it, the real problem with skeptics. They wish, above all, to be certain – and when reality doesn't oblige them by offering clear-cut answers, they turn away from reality and seek refuge in pre-existing theory.
They oversimplify history as a battle between good and evil, and miss its complexities and subtleties. They resist modern developments in science and cling to outdated, nineteenth century conceptions. They jump to prearranged conclusions and shut their eyes - and their minds - to anomalous data and alternative explanations.
In their quest to prove themselves right, they lose sight of the ambiguities and paradoxes of life. In their desire to be safe and sure, they turn away from anything interesting and new.
They are creatures of comfort and routine, not explorers. They cannot think outside the box. They will, in fact, deny that there is or ever could be anything outside the box - and they'll heap scorn on anyone who suggests otherwise. They'll call names, cry fraud, and holler that civilization is in danger and the barbarians are at the gates. They'll do anything, really - except examine their own assumptions with a remotely critical eye.
And that's why I'm not a skeptic.
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