Derren Brown and Hypnosis

I was always a big fan of Derren Brown. As far as his work goes, I think he’s one of the best illusionists of all time. His stage entertainment is best described as “illusion” because almost everything he does is false. Even “effects” (to use the correct phrase in magical circles)  which he hints at being due to one thing are in truth another. Years ago, I was taken in by his ability to ostensibly pick up clues in mouth twitching or facial movements to deduce what word someone was thinking of. I’m not saying he isn’t doing this in some cases, for example – asking people a series of questions and picking out the single lie from the truthful answers has a readily-observable explanation (which he provides) and makes perfect sense. It’s not fool-proof, but it’s a nice ability that anyone could do with a bit of practice in the right setting. But most of the time, if Derren Brown is giving you an answer, or even hinting at the answer, he is almost always deceiving you.

I got into a discussion with a friend recently about DB’s latest TV show. In this episode, which admittedly I didn’t watch, he hypnotised a man into believing a bath of freezing water was mild, even having him lie in it for 8 minutes without discomfort! This supposedly demonstrated the power of hypnosis, or suggestion.

As much as I admire DB’s skill and most of the effects he achieves, in recent years my interest in him has cooled. There are two main reasons for this. One is his over-(mis)use and over-misdirection of supposedly scientific means and his own mental powers (which lessens the impact of his effects), and the other is his use of hypnosis.

Contrary to popular misconceptions and what hypnotists would have us believe, hypnosis is merely socially-learned unconscious behaviour. It is a form of reciprocal role-playing based on how the hypnotised person believes they should act, and how the hypnotist believes he should act. Both expect certain results and play their parts to achieve them. Hypnosis is very much like “speaking in tongues”; of course, the holy spirit isn’t really possessing people and causing them to utter nonsensical sounds, rather, these people are so hyped up in religious fervour they believe they are overcome with holy spirit and unconsciously act how they believe they should. They are playing a role, albeit unknowingly. This is all hypnosis is. Or in the words of Irving Kirsch, it is a “nondeceptive placebo”. In other words, hypnotised people believe they are “hypnotised” and act how they have come to understand a “hypnotised” person behaves. This behaviour can be guided or moulded by the hypnotist in more specific ways.

So, when you see DB take a young lady up on stage, ask her to look ahead, then up, then at him, after which he clicks his fingers and tells her to sleep – and she drops her head and closes her eyes – you are not observing magic or any abnormal power at work. He is doing nothing that you couldn’t do. (Consider that those who don’t believe in hypnosis can’t be hypnotised.) There is nothing going on here except the power of suggestion.

Now, the power of suggestion is very real, and is probably a testament to what the human mind can achieve when so conditioned. If anything, we should really take inspiration from it as a tool in our lives, (for example by having a positive outlook and an expectancy that we can and will achieve our goals). Hypnosis is simply an elaborate game to dress up suggestion and make it appear that something deeper is going on. Hypnosis adds a sense of wonder to the proceedings, if done for entertainment, credibility, if done professionally, otherworldliness, if done for occult or supernatural reasons.

There is no such thing as a hypnotic trance, and “hypnotised” people will not perform actions that are far removed from what their regular sensibilities will allow. For example, someone under hypnosis will not shoot themselves or jump off a cliff. The “power” of hypnosis will only go so far, and is curiously similar to what the subject is prepared to do anyway for attention, keeping the hypnotist happy, entertaining the audience, or the pressure to play along. In other words, if you really don’t want to get undressed on stage, you won’t – no matter how hypnotised you are or think you are.

But Derren Brown knows all this. He knows that hypnosis is largely convoluted, but is more than happy to perpetuate the myth because he needs people to believe it works. Even if they don’t believe it, he needs them to play along.

There is more going on with a good DB effect than the effect itself. He is perhaps most famous for being the guy who achieves seemingly supernatural effects by natural means, and is firmly opposed to the harm done by supernaturalists. He can cold-read better than most of the best “psychics” out there, levitate tables and chairs, produce coins with messages from beyond the grave, and have you subconsciously intuit dead from alive merely by looking at photographs. We know he isn’t doing any of this, but the effect is powerful, and those rational in the audience accept that it’s all done naturally. It  amazes us and baffles us, perhaps sends a shiver down our spine, and discredits the fraud and evil of the mystics all in one go. We don’t need to know how he does it, all we need to know is that it’s a trick.

But when it comes to hypnosis, this is one quasi-scientific area he’s happy to leave alone. You can’t say that we, the ones in the know, us clever people in the audience, aren’t supposed to be fooled by it, because we are supposed to be. For me it’s a bit like his “prediction” of the National Lottery numbers. It seemed impossible, and the effect was amazing. But then he went and ruined it by explaining how he did it. Not because he really explained it, but because he tried to feed us the most bullshit explanation ever, which most sane people wouldn’t buy, and which he himself would never believe! It was exactly the kind of mystical anti-scientific crap he works hard to discredit! He’d have been better off not explaining anything, or actually showing us how he really did the trick. To be fair, he admitted himself he didn’t like this stunt and wished he’d have done it differently.

But the point is, don’t take anything DB does as a performer at face value. Not even the stuff you think he’s explaining. As I mentioned earlier, a favourite trick of his is to intuit a secret word in the mind of a guest by their mannerisms or face movements. Of course, no human being in the world can do this – and I challenge anyone to guess a word I am thinking of. He drops hints that he’s picking up on subconscious clues and invites us to do the same to the subject. In reality, he is doing nothing of the sort.

Similarly, an effect he performed for his original TV show had a man separate photographs into two piles based on whether he got a superficial positive or negative vibe just by looking at the pictures. At the end, it was revealed that the “positive” pile were people who were alive, and the “negative” people happened to be of deceased. (I won’t reveal how it’s done, but this trick is very famous in its original form). But, it was a better effect by not being accompanied by some pseudo-rational explanation, which would’ve been a discredit to reason and somewhat condescending to the audience.

In another effect, and a more light-hearted one, he identifies the “liars” from a row of people just by listening to their answers without even looking at them. It’s a great trick, and gets the audience laughing, as the dirty liar gets exposed from the most innocuous answers. His brilliant showman skills allude to being a master of reading people, when the secret behind this effect is incredibly mundane. It took me 10 seconds to figure out how he did this: there is more deception on deception taking place here, and a good example of taking everything Derren says with a pinch of salt. (By the way, I’ve been to all DB’s stage shows each year. Ironically, and unfortunately, the most powerful and beautiful effect he performed last year was also the easiest to explain. I won’t say which one it was. During the intermission, my friends and I figured it out – and I was disappointed, not because of how he did it, but because afterwards the emotion of the effect evaporated. I would rather not figure it out, or more precisely, not be able to. Once the mystery is revealed, the emotional resonance is lost. What remains, and is by no means trivial, is an appreciation for the technical skill of the illusionist. I should also mention that whilst the emotion of the effect was thereafter lost, the meaning and the accompanying message was still beautiful and true.)

Of course, it doesn’t matter that he’s lying – because he’s an illusionist. He’s supposed to deceive us spectacularly, and the delivery and style is unique and engaging. But do some of his alleged “powers” actually give a false notion of science and the human mind? My problem is not with any of his effects, but is it better to maintain total mystery than to hint at a lie? How much credibility should be given to the idea that words and truths can be plucked from someone’s head before it goes from “it’s obviously only a trick” to “it takes a special skill to do that” to “I can do that with people myself”? How healthy is it to lend credence to hypnosis, just for an effect, if people run off to buy books on it, or spend hundreds on classes for it, visit a hypno”therapist”, or worse, attempt past-life regression?

In one effect (I mentioned the girl on stage who was hypnotised after a click of the fingers), DB gets the subject to use “unconscious writing” to apparently divine a word or number she couldn’t otherwise have known. You can say that it’s not supernatural, which it isn’t. You can say that DB despises mediums and abhors the supernatural as an explanation of anything, which he does. But the effect is: ‘under hypnosis, this person achieved a feat they couldn’t have otherwise’. If that isn’t the effect, why hypnotise them? One answer is: he is recreating a supposedly paranormal effect using natural means, thereby discrediting the former. But this effect wasn’t even about the power of suggestion (like the bath tub one was). Hypnosis is here just a means to an end, and did it present a false image of hypnosis? Did it give hypnosis a rational scientific credibility? It surely misrepresents the power of suggestion and the capriciousness of the human mind. Now, one could object that what it really does (with stunts like The Heist, where people were “brainwashed” to perform an armed robbery), is show how gullible some people can be, in which case DB is providing a very important object lesson for us all. Though I’m not sure how positive or life-affirming it is to perpetuate the idea that we can all be controlled to varying degrees to act completely out of character, just with the right “programming”. This isn’t a healthy self-image, nor do I believe a correct one. It is a trick staged with purported rational and scientific credibility. Is DB doing reason and science good or harm here? And if he is painting a false picture of the world, how is this any different to some of the people he denounces? Again, you could say that he is genuinely able to achieve these results using manipulation alone (which is the implication) – but when so much of his patter is nonsense, how can we be expected to know the difference?

Perhaps my gripe, and it’s really minor I must stress, is personal instead of professional: perhaps I feel slightly let down because I think in some ways I’m being patronised. If you know for example that hypnosis is rubbish and have a good idea how DB performs his effects, a lot of the delivery and window dressing loses its impact. I’d rather be told nothing and be totally stumped on a mystery, than be offered some half-truth. DB invites us to “meet him half way”, between what he apparently achieves and what is really happening. That’s all well and good, but he isn’t really meeting us half way is he? Even his half is a deception, yet another misdirection on a misdirection, leaving us in the position of not being able to take anything he says with honesty. And when you do that, you start to scrutinise his effects more for the real answer, which in my experience dilutes the power of the illusion. A far simpler and more famous trick, like sawing a woman in half, is far more impressive to me than programming people to commit a crime.

Similarly, when one has achieved so many great things in a career, it’s natural to keep pushing the boundaries and going for bigger and more extravagant. I wonder if DB has reached the limit of what his amazing skills can achieve, without redressing an old trick in new garb. In my opinion, magic is best when it’s personal and confined, and the emphasis is on the emotional impact of the effect, not on the sheer size of the effect. That’s why the illusionist Dynamo is much better when he’s materialising a phone into a sealed bottle than walking on water across the Thames. The former is personal: my phone teleported inside a jar – impossible! Incredible! Right before my eyes! A man walking on water? Meh. There’s glass under the surface; the trick is so incredibly false and surreal it’s hollow. Predicting the lottery results? Not interested, but making this chair float? That’s magic! Hypnotising someone to forget how to be a pianist? Social role-playing. Winning a race with the losing ticket? Jaw-dropping!

The best effects are usually the simplest. But if DB is going to be a champion of rationality and oppose the mystical, like the Randis and Dawkins of this world, then perhaps it’s worth looking at what image he himself generates of it. DB is at his best when he’s performing the incredible and being honest about it. One example is using a voodoo doll on a New Age believer only to present a twist at the end. The New Age movement (and the subject) come off looking silly and undermined, whilst the power of belief and suggestion is demonstrated, and there’s a lovely little sleight of hand to go with it. But we know what we need to know about the effect. A better example is his use of cold-reading to recreate paranormal effects. We know that he can’t commune with the dead, and we could never hope to match his skill and delivery, but we know how it’s done; we understand the trick and skill involved, and we’re wiser as a result. We aren’t being fed some crap about lip movement or crowd wisdom.

Nor are we led to believe that a psychological response is anything other than expectancy-based suggestion. The power of suggestion is real, but hypnosis is elaborate garb which detracts from a very real, fascinating and potentially useful ability. The truth might be better served by not giving hypnosis more power than it really has. And if hypnosis is worthy of anything, surely it must be separated from those who misuse it, even unknowingly, like hypnotherapists and occultists? Just like cold-reading should be separated from communing with the dead, so should genuine suggestion be from the act/game/con that accompanies the field of hypnosis. If hypnosis has reasonable and practical applications, like any placebo effect, all the more reason to be clear about what it is, and isn’t. There’s a reason medicines are medicines and placebos aren’t. One could retort that by being totally straight about hypnosis, any power it has is destroyed. But isn’t that the point? If some get comfort from hypnotic treatment, despite it being superficial, and despite most practitioners being well-meaning people – how is this different than the comfort one might get from a visit to a well-meaning medium who isn’t aware they are being fraudulent?

Perhaps I’m just saying that Derren Brown, one of the great performers and showmen of all time, is at his best when he’s deceiving us honestly.

My Soul – Thu 21st Jun 07

What does it mean to have a soul?

Does the expression have any importance?  Does it have it any meaning?

I believe we can answer these questions.

First of all we must decide what a soul is.  There are three interpretations that I’ll consider:

1.       The soul is a spiritual supernatural entity that exists in humans.

2.       The soul is synonymous with “body” and just another word for being.  i.e.: Genesis says that Adam “became a living soul”; it does not say that he was given one.

3.       The soul as a metaphor.

I don’t accept the first interpretation because it defies common sense.  Although many beliefs are based on the idea of an immortal transcendent component, that doesn’t make those beliefs right.  After all, the soul is the only way to explain such far-fetched flights of fancy like the afterlife, karma, reincarnation etc.  Though maybe not strictly revolving around the same thing, they all posit “something” that enables thoughts/memories/fate etc to survive after death.

There are at least two good reasons why the soul in this sense is irrational.  First, the soul is often described as a ghostly being with the ability to see, hear, sense, and even touch.  This makes no sense.  Everything we know about the world shows us physical creatures that interact with a physical world through physical senses.  Is this artificially limiting our understanding?  No.  Why?  Ok, close your eyes and tell me what you see.  Put headphones on and tell me what you hear.  Do both and tie your arms around your back and see how far you get.  To invent an entity that can see without any sight organs and hear without any auditory equipment, and sense without any physical form or nerve endings, is precisely that: pure invention.  You might as well be writing science fiction or fantasy.  It is a contradiction in terms.

For the same reason, so is the notion of life after death.  You’re alive now, because your body temperature is being regulated, your brain activity is at a certain level, your lungs are bringing in oxygen, and your heart is circulating the oxygen around your body and bringing deoxygenised blood back to the lungs for expulsion.  These processes maintain your vital signs. 

Your consciousness (despite what junk science and blatant fabrications might tell you) is a property of the very complex workings of your brain.  Intelligence and consciousness is directly related to brain size and activity; specifically in the cerebral cortex.  Dogs, cats, and pigs having greater cerebral cortex surface area (grey matter) than fish, horses, and mice.  As a result they are more intelligent.  The human brain is the most sophisticated brain of all on the planet.  Our brain has considerable portions devoted to higher thinking, reasoning, and language.  This is why we have the unique abilities we do.  At some point in the past, the brain of what became Homo sapiens (literally: thinking man) reached a critical mass where it was able to reason and think so much it became aware of its own existence!  Consciousness was born.  Still in doubt?  Drink a pint of vodka.  See how good your consciousness is then.  This is because alcohol (very loosely speaking) interrupts brain activity, and the result is a loss of function and reasoning.  If you’re still not convinced that consciousness resides in the brain, I suggest a less subtle approach: run into a brick wall at full speed head first, and see if you remain conscious after a concussion.

To be consciously aware when one is unconscious is a contradiction; this is common sense and no one would disagree surely.  It is as much a contradiction to talk about still having fingers without hands.  Think about that for a few seconds.  Now imagine that some terrible incident has ended your brain activity, such as: gunshot; blunt-force trauma; myocardial infarction; watching too much Big Brother.  To talk of still having consciousness after brain death is to speak of unconscious consciousness!  Our consciousness and thinking, indeed what makes us human, resides in the encephalon floating in your skull.  In other words, life after death is like talking about handless fingers, a non-brain thought, or a square circle.

I know to many the idea of life after death is necessary and comforting, but you really are kidding yourself.  I cannot put that any simpler.  Life after death is the ultimate human fantasy.  And in some cases it’s also the greatest lie of all.

What about the soul as the body itself?  Well I have no problem with this interpretation, but it doesn’t get us anywhere; it’s just another word for being or body really, so there isn’t much more to be said.

I believe there can be a use for the word “soul” though, if one is clear that the word has no supernatural connotation.  Unfortunately this isn’t always the case so it’s up to you whether you agree with me or not.

I think the word soul can mean something when we talk about what makes us human.  It is a convenient, (perhaps lazy) way of referring to all the things that define a human intellectually.  These might be: intelligence; empathy, conscience, capacity for humour and love etc; ability to reflect and predict.  No animal shares all these traits.  There might be more, and I’m not a psychologist but I believe that small list is sufficient for what we’re talking about.

I sometimes use the word soul metaphorically, perhaps poetically.  When I do, I refer to a person owning these traits above, i.e.:  their humanity.  So by this thinking, a perfect example of a soulless person would be a psychopath.  A psychopath might have no empathy for other human beings, or might not have the capacity for love.  A psychopath or sociopath might have no conscience.  These would be paradigm examples of people with no soul.

People who commit acts of terror could be thought of as courageous and brave.  It is said that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.  Whether we agree with this isn’t the point.  Humans flew planes into the World Trade Centre, and their convictions were so strong they had enormous faith and belief in what they were doing.  They were human beings, but they were blinded by their faith and dogma so intensely, they could not reason for themselves.  Their intelligence was compromised.  I think soulless could refer to this type of person too.

The type of person that is in some respects rational and intelligent, but in others blinded by their own beliefs or faith or fear, doesn’t act normally.  They act like zombies, or robots.  They lose that thing that makes them human; and a human that acts like this is no better in some ways than an animal that either acts on instinct or does whatever it’s told.  A good example of this type of person might be a fundamentalist.  I don’t think fundamentalists have souls.

I’m not saying that people without souls aren’t humans.  I’m just speaking poetically; I’m simply invoking the word metaphorically to mean “that which is unique to humans; that which makes us human.”

If you accept this line of thought, a soul is not some ethereal cloud of magic floating around you.  Your soul is in you; your soul is part of you.  You can lose it, but you can also regain it.  And perhaps humans as the often-capricious beings that we are, oscillate between soulful and soulless each day.

The point is that if you don’t have the capacity for reason, for empathy, for love and humour, for reflection and prediction, and have a conscience, you aren’t metaphorically human.

Fortunately, very few people are like this, and I believe thinking of the soul in this rather natural poetic way is far better than the mystical quixotic mysterious entity of fairy tales and religion and all the metaphysical baggage it carries.  It’s also perhaps a far better way to check our human centres for what we really are about, instead of what we’ll be in an imaginary afterlife.

The Light of the World

I’ve talked about science a lot lately on here and with friends, discussing the pros and cons. I don’t want to overkill the points here but there are things that need to be said. So I’ll just share with you my musings and we’ll see where we go:

I’d like to explain briefly what science is and isn’t and what it does and doesn’t do, but this list will not be exhaustive.

First, despite what New Agers, pseudoscientists, or Joe Philosophy with his own metaphysical worldview might think, science doesn’t dismiss anything a priori. Science does not have a list of rights and wrongs and check off new ideas against them. Science doesn’t assume it knows everything and that its theories can’t be changed.

Science tries to understand everything in the world around us. It doesn’t pretend that it can know everything. It doesn’t say that the supernatural doesn’t exist. It doesn’t say that god doesn’t exist. It doesn’t say that chi doesn’t exist. It doesn’t say that metaphysics or spirituality is rubbish.

Science uses natural explanations of the natural world. It tests claims. It tries to disprove claims. This is important, because if one tries to confirm something, one can look for things that confirm an idea and ignore things that don’t. In other words, if it’s true or false, it might always appear true. But, if you start out with an explanation and try to disprove it, if it’s true you will still prove it and if it’s false you will disprove it, but what you can never do is prove it if it’s false! That’s the difference.

Despite science’s great track record, some people don’t like science because they don’t like playing by the rules. It’s as simple as that. If you make a claim and want others to believe it, you should test it. If it fails a fair controlled test then maybe it’s just wrong!

Now, it’s been said that there are some things that science can’t explain. Ok fair point, there might be. Anyone care to give an example? You will find that the things science ‘can’t explain’ are things designed to be so mysterious, intangible, and ethereal that they are by definition unknowable! (e.g.: the supernatural). Science isn’t some special rigid limited way of getting knowledge that we can use in some situations and not others. We all use science in some way every day. Does something work? Test it, re-test it. Try and disprove it. Explain how it works. Make predictions with it. Surely that’s just common sense? That’s what we should do to test any claim.

When someone asks to remove their beliefs from the study of science, they’re basically asking for the easy way out; for special treatment. What they want is to believe comfortably, or make others believe by making science out to be the bad guy! Oh well there are some things that science can’t explain! Really? It’s funny that, because people have been saying that for thousands of years, and every time there has been a mystery it’s been solved by empirical evidence, natural explanation, tests, re-tests, and logical natural theories. Nothing in human history has ever been solved by supernatural explanations. Ever. EVER. That doesn’t mean that the supernatural doesn’t exist. But come on, how many times does this have to happen before we admit that ok, science just might be pretty good at discovering stuff; more so than anything else we’ve got.

What I’m saying is that people of a more metaphysical disposition, that is, more likely to believe in gods, spirits, chi, karma, spirituality, ghosts, vitalism, TM, synchronicity, Freud etc, recoil at the label ‘science’ as if it were an enemy, but embrace it if it seems to support them. But science is just another way of saying “testing claims in controlled conditions, objectively, using evidence and rationality, and explaining what happens naturally.” I can’t see what the problem is! What other way is there of finding out if something works or not than this?! If someone says they can cure your brain tumour with a crystal, wouldn’t your very first question be “how do you know it works?” Well that’s all science does. But it is ruthless and has no preference, sentiment, or favourites. And if you can’t demonstrate your claim repeatedly under controlled conditions, that’s not science’s fault! No one in their right mind would accept anything less than this, but when you put the label ‘science’ on it, all of a sudden these types of people think they’re being badly done to.

I know many would like to believe that there is another world beyond the scope of science, and as long as they believe this their beliefs can last a little longer, (before science shines a light in these regions and maybe blows their beliefs out the water too). This way of hiding beliefs in the recesses of the unknown is called the God of the Gaps fallacy. It basically works by saying “we can’t explain X, so [insert your belief here] did it”. That could be God, aliens, chi, etc.

However, history has shown that science eventually figures most things out. That’s not to say that it always will. But, if science can’t do it, why the hell should anything else be able to?!

Science can be wrong. Science has been wrong in the past. E.g.: the theory of plate tectonics. But when science was proved wrong; when the existing scientific theory was disproved, it was disproved by other scientists! It was disproved by a better scientific theory! Science has never been proven wrong by religion or faith. No scientific theory has ever been defeated by a supernatural one. Ever. It has never happened.

In fact, what tends to happen is that we start out not knowing something. Religion, faith, superstition, and the supernatural have a go at explaining it. We gain knowledge, we study it, we test it, and we come up with a testable natural explanation that clears everything up. Why does it rain? Why is the sky blue? What causes thunder? What is the sun? What happens after death? Where do we come from?

One by one, what appear to be questions beyond the scope of science and firmly in the realm of pseudoscience, metaphysics, religion, and faith, actually get answered by science. So perhaps they were answerable all along! Maybe, just maybe, these questions aren’t beyond science. Maybe, just maybe, certain parties with a vested interest in having it their way don’t like what science has to say so just reject it! E.g.: evolution. I know if evolution is fact it blows apart most monotheistic beliefs. Well guess what, evolution is a fact. So what? I don’t feel sorry for you. Get over it. It’s called accepting the facts. If creationism was true you’d want everyone else to accept it! So now it’s your turn.

Unfortunately, for those who side against science, they’ve picked a rather one-sided war. A war with no victories for them and only defeats. Note: not accepting a defeat doesn’t stop it from being one. You’d think these people would have learned by now! But because they don’t like to play by the rules it’s easy to paint science as the evil atheistic sledgehammer with an agenda. (Science is equally viable for theists and atheists.) But the rules are fair and objective, so when someone says their belief is beyond science, what they’re saying is that it can’t be proved fairly or objectively. Now, if you’re happy with that kind of basis for belief that’s your choice, but I’m not!

And this is why, and it’s so simple!: if you have the truth on your side, what have you got to hide?! The ones who shy away from tests, analysis, scrutiny, facts, and evidence, have probably got something that isn’t worth testing, analysing, scrutinising, and has no facts or evidence to support it. In other words, if you don’t want to live in the dark you’ve got nothing to fear from the light.

Science is a spotlight. Nothing more, nothing less.

To say there is something beyond science is really to say there is something beyond the world we can detect. I cannot strictly say this isn’t true, but I will say that it is so capricious and whimsical as to be meaningless. Yes, I suppose there could be something beyond this world, and a fish with a trunk could be an elephant. But if there is something we can’t detect in any measurable way, then how can it have any measurable effect on us? In other words, what is the point talking about it, as it would be meaningless in the world we live in anyway? One might as well talk about alternative universes or parallel dimensions.

So if this world is all there is, and science is the best way to study this world, how can anyone have a problem with it? To paraphrase Richard Dawkins: if science can’t figure it out, then sure as hell nothing else can!

My Honest Opinion – Sun 10th Jun 07

I think almost everyone who knows me, knows that I’m sceptical of extraordinary claims. As the adage goes: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Depending on the situation and context, whenever the subject of the supernatural or paranormal comes up in conversation, I will generally throw a few common sense questions in there, (assuming of course that it’s polite to do so). I might point out how cold-reading works, or subjective validation or confirmation bias. I might casually point out how science really works, or that testimonials and anecdotes are not really solid proof of anything.

I was speaking to a woman on the phone a few weeks’ ago. She believed she was psychic and had special powers. In many ways she was the paradigm True Believer. She claimed to have actually seen angels and spirits, and could directly divine events. She’s even given readings to people who I work with, and impressed them. The conversation lasted quite a while and we managed to have a very frank discussion. It was about 10 minutes before I said anything of interest really as she spent the first ten minutes telling me stories and anecdotes of her own experiences. I mean no offence to her, but these stories (whether she realises she was doing it or not) were simply there to try and impress me. And if I would have been more inclined to believe in the supernatural or female (in my experience women show far more interest in these things than men) I would have been blown away. I wasn’t, and I think she sensed that. I explained to her some of the principles mentioned in the first paragraph, and said that I didn’t think she had any special abilities. The conversation was very amicable, but I challenged her to “read” me the next time we met; hopefully this will happen in the next few weeks or months.

Now again, I mean no offence to this lady, but imagine that instead of saying that she’s actually seen and communicated with angels and spirits, she said aliens – what would your opinion be of her then? Less credible? Perhaps a little bit too farfetched? What if she said animals spoke to her, or evil invisible Mexicans? Would we be inclined to think she’d lost the plot? Well, I don’t know what the lady’s state of mind is. In all fairness, she’s able to hold a normal job and life on a day-to-day basis, but then most people are regardless of their mental health. There is no difference between saying you can talk to animals, aliens, invisible evil Mexicans, or supernatural beings. If anything, we know that animals, aliens, and Mexicans exist. But yet, counter-intuitively, because of today’s culture, most people would be more likely to invest belief in her supernatural claims.

Personally, I don’t know what goes on in the head of people like that. But the experts have had a very good go at explaining it. There are many good explanations for paranormal experiences: brain-states, hallucinations, sleep-disorders, chemical-imbalance, emotional-instability, ignorance, misunderstanding perfectly natural events, magical-thinking, wishful-thinking, self-delusion. None of these terms are meant aggressively or pejoratively. The truth is any of us may be affected by them at any point in our lives. Sometimes our experiences seem incredibly real and very powerful. And they happen to us. It’s much easier to dismiss other peoples’ claims, but take our own seriously. This is human nature, but it’s also very self-centred when you think about it. Are we so convinced that other people are probably just wrong, but when something incredible happens to us, we just know we’re right?!

And so people ask me, what if you saw a ghost? What if something happened that you couldn’t explain? What if you had a supernatural or paranormal experience? What if a psychic told you something she couldn’t possibly know?

Would I still believe? No. Stubborn, close-minded, I hear you say? Absolutely not, and I’ll explain why soon.

Because of what I just said above, we all know that people can be wrong about their experiences. Remember that what people think they are experiencing might not necessarily be what is going on. Even something as mundane as a cold draught on the back of the neck could be interpreted as a ghostly presence if someone was inclined to think that way. Perhaps the breeze occurs when a person is thinking of a loved one, perhaps recently passed away. Hey, perhaps they’re even holding a photograph of the deceased in their hands?! Now do you see how spooky that rather boring gust of wind is? All of a sudden the experience has taken on a whole new meaning, and when that person recounts their story it will probably be embellished and exaggerated (most of the time unintentionally). Because you’re not that person, it’s not possible to know what happened at the time or know what happened in their minds. But what is more likely to be true?

“When confidential information leaks out of an organization, people suspect a spy, not a psychic.”
–John Allen Paulos, Innumeracy

This quote above had me smiling for a while. It’s so delightful in its parsimony, and so full of sheer real world common sense. Think about it. Also think about this: when was the last time a psychic was banned from a casino? It’s never happened. Why?

It’s often jokingly said the best way to not get abducted by aliens is to be a sceptic. Sceptics never get abducted by aliens! All joking aside, this is actually pretty good advice. Sceptics for example, understand that sometimes the natural paralysis that starts at sleep and ends with consciousness sometimes doesn’t activate and deactivate properly, leaving people with a temporary waking paralysis. It’s rare, but explains a lot of reports of alien abductions. Isn’t it strange that people who don’t believe in aliens never get visited? Why don’t sceptics see ghosts? For that matter, why don’t Christians see Allah, and why don’t Muslims ever see Christ?? Could it be that they are all having ordinary or natural experiences, and interpreting them their own way?

I know how “psychics” work, so if a “psychic” impressed me, she’d just be impressing me with how good a con-artist she is. Even if she isn’t trying to deceive, I know how they work and the techniques they use, so I wouldn’t be led to believe in them. The only way a psychic would convince me of anything is if they were tested in controlled conditions. Any psychic who passes such a test would make history. It’s never been done at all, so why would we believe that the one time we get a reading it’s actually real? Surely that’s pretty arrogant of us.

You see, it’s precisely because I know I can be wrong, even about myself, that I wouldn’t accept supernatural or paranormal experiences of my own! You cannot get less stubborn and close-minded than that! Also, if I rejected other people’s fallacious reasoning and “proof” (rightly so) but accepted my own, wouldn’t that make me a hypocrite? Wouldn’t I be just as guilty of incorrect thinking as the ones who accept “paranormal” experiences?? Of course I would!

What sceptics do is stick to their principles. We know we can be wrong. We know that humans are prone to being emotional, illogical, fallacious, and can suffer from a variety of mental problems that can be rather innocent and also very serious at times. A person might swear on their family’s lives that they saw a ghost stand before them in the room. This person might be joking or plain insane. There’s no way to know, which is why we simply cannot accept the anecdotes of people, no matter how genuine they sound, as proof. We need real evidence.

And yet the popular view of sceptics and debunkers is of being cynical, close-minded, stubborn, and arrogant. But as I’ve explained, we are anything but! The very reasons we’d reject even our own experiences proves great integrity, honestly, and humility. And once you admit that no matter how convinced you are of something, you might still be wrong, there is only one option left: rationalism; that is, a world where evidence decides facts, and we don’t choose our beliefs.

We should believe what we know, and not know what we believe.


(This article isn’t an exhaustive debunk of the paranormal or supernatural. My main purpose was to highlight that applying critical thinking even to our own experiences, although it doesn’t come naturally, is actually one of the most honest and modest things we can do. It’s also incredibly rewarding!)

My Worldview – Fri 27th Apr 07

I had a conversation earlier with a friend about reaching theists. I don’t mean reaching out to them, I mean actually reaching their rationality with logical arguments that will make them re-examine their beliefs. By extension, this applies as much to any kind of true-believer, not just theists.

This friend quoted another acquaintance who had something interesting to say on the matter. It was ‘if your beliefs are not themselves based on evidence, then you aren’t likely to be swayed by evidence.’

This is very interesting, mostly true, and rather worrying. I’m sure anyone with their logical cap on could look at the situation and think “that’s stupid. Who would actually believe something without any evidence, and actually in spite of the contradictory evidence?” Well yes, it is stupid. But we’ve all been guilty of it, mostly as children when we didn’t know any better. We can probably all think of someone we know who disagrees with us (except me; everyone I know agrees with me because I’m infallible), but it’s interesting that we mostly disagree with others over ambiguous (at least seemingly-so) or subjective issues; for instance morality, politics, tax, beauty, music, or art. I can’t remember the last time I’ve ever argued with somebody over gravity, the orbit of the earth around the sun, the colour of the sky, etc.

In general areas of debate, the intensity of argument seems to be inversely proportional to the knowledge available. For example, I am pro-choice, but understand the ambiguity that surrounds abortion. The problem is that not everyone is aware of the facts, and emotion and propaganda get in the way of logical thinking often. Another example might be music or beauty, inherently subjective and very broad subjects; we may argue for hours over Bach or Mozart, the Backstreet Boys or the Pet Shop Boys; or who has the nicest physical features between Christina Aguilera and Avril Lavigne. The obvious problem here is that evidence to support positions is not readably available. And thus we spend hours fighting over whether the Matrix: Revolutions was a stunning action movie or a disappointing clichéd pile of faecal matter. If you introduce objective parameters into the discussion, it makes it easier to reach conclusions: e.g.: camera work, acting, directing, storyline etc – I might agree with you 100% that Film A is objectively superior in ways x, y, and z than Film B, but that doesn’t mean I like it more – how can you prove me wrong? You can’t.

However, if our purpose is to reach an agreement, we help ourselves greatly by establishing some objective criteria. If what we’re arguing about isn’t subjective, and there is sufficient evidence, then we should reach a conclusion that everyone can agree on.

Returning to an earlier example: all the facts in the world can’t tell you to agree with abortion or not. That depends on further issues. But if the question is: is abortion (before a certain time) the taking of a human life? That is an objective question, and the answer is no (fact based on evidence). Therefore abortion isn’t murder, and there is nothing wrong with it from that sense. The question: is it right to terminate the life of a glob of cells living inside a woman? If someone answers yes, then I hope they’ve never stood on ants or swatted a fly, or killed any insect/animal life of any kind. I’d personally answer the question with “no”. In fact, “pro-life” arguments usual appeal to emotion or spirituality of some kind. Whether these arguments are right or wrong is not my point, but they aren’t objective, and they aren’t based on evidence.

A sinister example of belief not based on evidence is theism. Theists make claims that aren’t based on evidence, and they actively deny the evidence that would prove them wrong.

This allows me to return to the conversation I mentioned in the opening paragraph: I used to believe in God. But I think the biggest reason I was able to deconvert is because my beliefs weren’t based on faith. I had faith, but it wasn’t necessary for my belief. When I believed in God, I honestly believed I had good reason to. I believed there was evidence for his existence, and I thought I could logically and rationally prove it. Now, as wrong as I was, perhaps it was because I was receptive to evidence in favour of my belief, I was also receptive to evidence against it. Of course this isn’t always the case; I think the majority of believers are open to evidence for their beliefs but not against it. But how can we tell the difference between a believer and a “true believer”, that is one who will believe no matter what? This is an interesting question, and I think the proof of the pudding is in the eating. That is, a person’s true colours will be shown only when they have to finally decide between their faith and their intellectual integrity.

For me, I didn’t think I had anything to be afraid of, so I learned and read and studied. I have always rejected the notion of censorship because, what does the truth have to fear?! That day unwittingly came upon me, though it was more a brief period of time than a specific day and it didn’t all happen consciously, when I had to either retreat back to the beliefs I’d always held, or reject them. By that time, I’d lost too many bricks in my wall of belief and it crumbled very quickly.

But I have argued with people online and in person, some of them very close to me, and I have seen the first cracks appearing in their wall; I have eliminated every argument they had; I have countered all the “reasons” and supposed evidence for their beliefs, to the point when logic had triumphed – they simply had nowhere else to run; there was no possible logical argument to give to support their belief. And then I’ve seen their eyes glaze over, the bricks in their wall get another coat of filler, and their desire to continue debating end. This is the acid test I referred to above. Want to know if your beliefs are really based on evidence or not? Then see what the evidence has to say! And if you still find yourself wanting to believe despite the evidence, then perhaps your belief was never based in evidence in the first place. It was based on your desire to believe. You wanted to believe, and whilst the evidence seemed to agree with you that was all fine and dandy. But when you discovered that what you thought was evidence was not, and what you thought was proof and reason were not, did you reconsider or run away?

My friend above recently had an e-mail conversation with a fundamentalist Christian. After both sides debunked the opponent’s positions and offered critiques and counter-arguments, one person was left with the same arguments and evidence unchallenged, and one person was left with their arguments and “evidence” debunked, resorting to “I believe” and “I know he exists” and “you will never convince me that the bible isn’t God’s word”. (I’ll leave you to decide which side is which). The funny thing is, this is quite a strong and irrational thing to say. Actually admitting to someone that nothing will ever change your mind is, to me, a concession! Even when I was a theist I would never say that because I honestly thought my position was logically unassailable. To acknowledge that you cannot be swayed by logic is the slightly less-playground version of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting “la la la la la!”

However, it takes an actual logical argument and review of the evidence to find out what someone is really basing their beliefs on. Perhaps this is why religions discourage honest enquiry and peer-review? Could this be why fundamentalists are so ignorant – in a twisted way it’s not their fault: they really have no interest in the evidence at all so why would they bother looking at it? At least they’re being consistent, but then why even pretend there is evidence anyway? They may as well come out and say “I can’t find any problems with the theory of evolution, and I can’t really objectively prove that my God exists, but I’m going to believe in him anyway.”

The irony with religion (and other false beliefs) is that most of its claims are actually objective. If there is a god there should be evidence. If there are aliens where is the evidence? If people are really psychic then prove it. If faith healing works then reattach severed limbs. If evolution is rubbish then explain why. Evolution is one of the best scientific discoveries of all time – what part of it is hard for you to accept?

Is any book the word of God? This is an objective question. Let theists and atheists come together and establish some criteria. Then, with the rules set and no one allowed to flake on them, analyse the book. Unfortunately, this has been done countless times:

…to name but two of myriad atheist articles on the internet that prove that no holy book can be the word of a divine being. (But they’re a good place to start).

Many wonder why the debate still goes on then if the facts are so obvious and dramatic. I’ll tell you why: one side of the debate will not accept the facts and the evidence. One side has a vested interest in their beliefs being right. One side has emotion and hope invested in their beliefs, not to mention control, power, and money. One side has a history of deception, superstition, ignorance, delusion, and oppression of opponents. One side will twist and distort the language and words of their own text so as not to appear contradictory or to justify any chosen course of action. One side has absolutely no problem with science until it says something that conflicts with its cherished notions, and then it insists that science change to match its beliefs!

And the other side is atheism.

This may sound like a simple case of tu quoque with theists and atheists pointing the finger at each other. But it really isn’t. When was the last time an atheist got to the point in a debate where they had to resort to faith? When was the last time an atheist ever said anything like “well, nothing will ever convince me that God exists?” It would be silly of me to claim knowledge of everything every atheist has ever said or done, but it almost certainly the case that this hasn’t happened. There is a very simple and powerful reason why this is so: atheism is usually the result of rationalism and critical thinking. For an atheist to use faith would be a contradiction of their worldview because faith is irrational. Theists have no such problem though! Faith is encouraged for them! If the going gets tough: faith. Having doubts about all the suffering in the world? Faith. Evidence for evolution indisputable? Faith. Atheists’ debunking of holy book unassailable? Faith.

As long as theists rely on faith their position is ultimately indefensible. This is because 1. Faith requires the rejection of logic and is the last resort of the desperate and 2. Faith is an admission that there is no evidence, e.g.: if God came down in the sky and revealed himself to all mankind, whether we accepted him or not, everyone would have to believe – so there would be no use for faith). (And we could add 3. Faith isn’t objective).

So if faith is irrational and basically a refusal to argue objectively, then what is its purpose? Why do theists start out handicapping themselves? Well, the simple answer is: because they have to! Faith only exists because there is no evidence or objective proof.

And this is why atheists will always defeat theists in arguments, because an argument is a logical proposition to support a position, and ultimately religion is rooted not in logic, but faith. And the further irony is that theists will of course disagree with me – but not on logical grounds!

So is there a solution? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Speaking for myself, when I had to make that decision, I chose reason over faith – it was a non-contest for me. In all fairness, I did it myself without being pressured or attacked. I never had to react defensively or feel my faith and beliefs being criticised by “evil” atheists. When atheists argue with theists for any length of time, theists are unavoidably going to feel uncomfortable if the discussion gets to the stage where the theist’s belief system is starting to shake. That can be a very scary feeling, and this is often why theists retreat even deeper into the belief system. It’s asking a lot for a theist to be deconverted in one conversation! But what is the alternative? In an ideal world anyone trapped by false beliefs would scrutinise them and free themselves. But then in an ideal world people wouldn’t be so deluded by their belief system that they fly planes into buildings, or set off bombs in schools, or try to change the law of the land to reflect their personal opinions.

Atheists keep speaking out, but not to deconvert. I think this point is lost on many people. Atheists speak out because some theists would change the way other people live their lives. If fundamentalists didn’t try to affect anyone else’s life, atheists probably wouldn’t bother saying anything. I cannot think of any atheist who actively sets out to deconvert people. At most, critical thinking, knowledge, and rationalism is encouraged – but this is just good advice. What results from these will be a multitude of good traits, and a lack of superstition and rejection of belief systems just two examples.

And apart from trying to counter the dangers and lies of organised religion that is trying to wield its power politically, atheists who are prepared to give their time and effort (and often money) to provide resources for other atheists or curious theists, are doing something special. If it wasn’t for websites like the Skeptic’s Dictionary, the Internet Infidels, or Ebon Musings, I might very well still be a theist. Becoming a rationalist is the best thing that has ever happened to me, and I know I am not alone there. Rationalism has had so many positive results for me – actual measurable, useful results that benefit me in every aspect of life. One result of thinking rationally was my rejection of gods, and that makes me an atheist. So most of the positives in my life I have as result of that, I owe to the websites above, and I know many other people have their own similar stories to tell. But if those places didn’t exist, many lives (such as mine) wouldn’t have gotten changed. There are hundreds of thousands of people who were trapped in their belief systems and have been freed because there were other people prepared to argue and debate with them. And when the facts and evidence were presented, the walls of faith came crashing down; the prison break from belief was complete. The deconvertees could just as easily have rejected the evidence and retreated to faith. But how could this be known in advance? Like I said above we’ll never know unless we try.

If believers want to be irrational, that’s their choice (as long as they don’t hurt anyone). But it’s important that everyone knows why: because the reason and the evidence isn’t on their side. Reason and evidence and objectivity are and ever shall be on the side of rationalists. One day, that might result in belief in god; a rationalist might also believe in psychic powers. But if it happens, it will be because the evidence proves it, and not because any belief system tells you “you must believe this, no matter what the evidence says”. And faith will not even enter into it. This flexibility to go wherever the evidence points, wherever the truth leads, is surely what every mind should yearn for: freedom! Rather than being bound by the mind shackles of dogmatic beliefs, why not just follow the evidence? If you already have the truth you have nothing to fear, and if you don’t you will acquire it. Sounds like a win-win situation to me!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 68 other followers