Several readers sent me this story from CNN.com about astrology (click on screenshot below). And like me, when they saw it they assumed it was part of the regular CNN news feed, and so were appalled. One reader wrote this:
Woke up this morning to see this story on CNN.com. One of the best examples of astrological nonsense I’ve seen in a while. In a major “news” website, no less. Candles are the cure. Really one long ad for the “cures.” Reads like something in the Onion.
It is in fact a merchandising piece, but that’s not at all obvious, and it is on CNN.com and looks like a feature piece. I therefore pronounce this piece bullpucky and fault CNN for pushing woo, even if the network is doing it as a disguised advertisement.
Click to read and weep.
If you squint, you’ll see this at the top of the piece:
Enlarged: CNN Underscored is your guide to the everyday products and services that help you live a smarter, simpler and more fulfilling life. The content is created by CNN Underscored. CNN News staff is not involved. When you make a purchase, we receive revenue.
So here’s some of the woo it pushes, and at the bottom of the piece they link to products that can supposedly palliate the effects of the retrograde, like soothing crystals, candles, and blankets. This is hokum, of course; they’re using astrology (and presenting it as accurate and curative) to make money. That’s triply immoral. Fie on CNN!
Here you go:
On Sept. 27, Mercury will go retrograde for the third and final time in 2021. During this period of Mercury retrograde, which ends on Oct. 18, you’ll probably hear a number of people carrying on about how everything is going wrong — and it’s all because of Mercury retrograde.
But what exactly is Mercury retrograde, why are people so afraid of it and is there anything that can be done to avoid its wrath?
But when it comes to the astrological significance of Mercury retrograde, Saxena explains, “It’s a different story. According to modern, Western astrological traditions, Mercury is the planet that represents communication of all kinds. When it goes retrograde, the theory is that our communications get thrown out of whack.”
Effects of Mercury retrograde
You’ve probably heard warnings about not buying a new computer during Mercury retrograde, or horror stories about dropping a phone in the toilet; electronics gone haywire are typically associated with Mercury retrograde because they’re items we use to facilitate communication. But it’s not just the electronics themselves to look out for, Saxena says. You may find yourself replying all to an email you meant to forward or sending text messages that don’t go through.
But it’s not just electronic communication that’s impacted by Mercury retrograde — all forms of communication can go sideways during this time. “Perhaps you worded something sloppily and now your friend is mad at you, or you forgot to make a point in a meeting you wish you had, or you just feel generally flustered and misunderstood,” Saxena says. She also warns that Mercury retrograde can influence the way we communicate with ourselves, “so you may have a harder time being in touch with your own feelings and motivations.”
If it sounds like Mercury retrograde can and will make everything that could possibly go wrong actually go wrong, well … yes. “Basically,” Saxena says, “anything that involves you having to communicate, which is unfortunately just about everything, can be affected.”
So what’s to be done about this difficult time? While it may be tempting to go inside and lock the door for the duration, that’s not an especially realistic way to cope with Mercury retrograde’s disruptions — try these ideas instead.
In other words, enrich us by buying the products below. Astrology will help you lead a “smarter and more fulfilling life.”
Why is astrology seemingly making a comeback these days in major media like the NYT? I suppose the religious will say that as religion wanes, we need a substitute, and astrology is one of them.
Yesterday I wrote about an unbelievably weird paper in the Elsevier journal Ethics, Medicine and Public Health. It reports a survey on Facebook and Twitter by three European scientists, curious about which saints respondents thought were the best ones to pray to for those who get Covid. This wasn’t just a survey of Catholic opinion, but was presented almost as a crowdsourced guide about which saints to call upon should you get the virus. The title is below, but presents only bits of the paper, and I couldn’t access the full thing because our library doesn’t get that journal. To see the snippets, click below:
Further, trying to ascertain if this paper was real by looking on the journal’s website (yes, it’s real), I also found that there was a “comment”, which I automatically assumed was a critical letter. (Click on screenshot below to see the site, but again, it’s paywalled):
Now, however, several kind readers have gotten hold of both the entire original paper and the reply, which you might be able to see via judicious inquiry. The short original paper is as bad as I suspected from the snippet, and the letter is completely weird, as it praises the original paper and then suggests that the authors left out one important saint. San Gennaro, known to Catholics as St. Januarius. (You might recall that the young Godfather murders Don Fanucci during the San Gennaro festival in New York City, with the fireworks masking the gunshots.)
First, the original paper. The authors surveyed, over just four days, followers on Twitter and Facebook. They asked the following question (it’s not really a question; this paper badly needs editing for English):
“Which saint you would pray for fighting against a Covid infection?”
They asked 15,840 people (92% from Europe) and got 1158 responses. There’s no information on the sex, age, or cultural background of the respondents. Here are the answers:
St. Rita is said to practice self-mortification, had a difficult marriage, and “is considered patron saint of lost causes.” The next two, Saints Roch and Sebastian, are seen as protectors from the plague. The authors go on to discuss the saints not only as if they were real, but as if the miracles they were said to perform were real! An example (I can’t copy from the pdfs so am giving screenshots).
Bow wow! Here’s your loaf!
And here’s the paper’s summary, which certainly lends credibility to my guess that the authors do think this list will help people get over the virus. You could argue that it’s just a sociological report of what Catholics think, but I suspect there’s more behind it.
As for the “letter,” it’s not a critique, but praises the “brilliant” paper of Perciaccante et al. and then adds that the authors missed an important saint—perhaps because some regions of Italy that worship St. Gennaro (e.g., Naples) weren’t included in the survey. They end by saying that there are conflicting results about whether prayer “works” in curing disease, but that it does make people feel psychologically better. Here’s the whole thing, written by three Italian researchers:
Note that the miraculous liquefaction of St. Januarius’s blood is taken for granted as a real miracle. (See here for naturalistic explanations.)
Two papers are cited (#3 and 4) that, say Brancaccio et al., show conflicting effects of remote intercessory prayer on the outcome of coronary patients. The first coronary care paper is well known, and found no effect (in fact, there was one negative effect of remote intercessory prayer on healing). The second, which I just scanned, appears to give marginal positive results, with the probability that the “improved” effect of prayer could be due to chance alone being 4% (lower than 5% is considered significant, but the authors did not correct for using multiple indices of healing, which one would normally do using a Bonferroni test). The effect of prayer, even accepting their wonky probability, is very small.
Regardless, even if researchers are going to waste their time trawling for marginally significant effects of prayer on healing, do they need to also investigate which saints should be prayed to? What is the patron saint of heart issues? Did the intercessory prayers evoke that individual, or were the prayers generic? The paper doesn’t say, so apparently the selected “pray-er” was just given the first name of the patient and told to go to town.
Given the possibility that prayer promotes favorable medical outcomes, I’m surprised that doctors and scientists aren’t doing tons of research on this important issue. I wonder why.
Inquiring minds want to know, and three Europeans (perhaps in cahoots with the divine) have answered:
When a reader sent me this article, and I read the online condensed version (it takes two minutes), I thought it as a joke. But no, it’s for real. You can see the journal site here, and a response to the article is the first one listed on the contents page of the latest issue. I’d love to see the response, or the full original paper (you can see a precis by clicking on the screenshot below). I’ve archived the article’s precis here in case that for some reason they ditch the article.
Okay, I’m going to show you the whole “snippet” of the paper as presented by the journal:
Which Saint to pray for fighting against a Covid infection? A short survey
In the absence of a treatment still considered universally effective, and of a vaccine validated by the health authorities, we wanted to know which Catholic saint the European Christian community turned to in the event of infection with Covid-19 to request a miraculous healing.
An online survey was carried out on a sample of 1158 adults using social media tools.
All results are presented in this research, with a few saints in the majority, and some dictated by the symptomatology of the Covid-19 infection or the personalities of certain « doctor guru ».
This medico-anthropological study is revealing the psychology of Western patients vis-à-vis the magic-religious means used in the fight against diseases, particularly in the epidemic/pandemic context.
The relationship between religion and medicine is well known in human communities since antiquity. Medieval medicine was based on Hippocratic and Galenic doctrines, but it was also characterized by spiritual and divine influences. So, in European countries, in Middle Ages, Saints’ invocation for the curing of diseases was an usual practice.
Despite, the spiritual and religious dimensions have deviated from medicine after the Renaissance and the Late Enlightenment, the intercession to the Saints. . .
We conducted a survey on two of the most used social networks: Twitter and Facebook. The survey was conducted between August 21 and 25, 2020. Each author posted on his Twitter and Facebook page, the following question: “Which saint you would pray for fighting against a Covid infection?”. The total number of followers targeted by the question was 15,840 people (92% from Europe).
A total of 1158 adult anonymous participants (mainly from France and Italy) answered to our question. For obvious ethical reason, no sex, age or cultural background are available. All results are summarized in Table 1.
Analyzing the results in more detail, from the survey it emerges that the majority saint is St. Rita (Fig. 1). From a young age, Rita of Cascia (Italy, 1381-1457) dreamed of consecrating herself to God, but she was destined to marry a violent man. Rita’s patience and love changed her husband’s character. After the violent death of her husband and two children from illness, Rita decided to follow the youthful desire by entering the monastery of the Order of Sant’Agostino in Cascia (Italy) .
This short medico-anthropological study is revealing the psychology of Western patients vis-à-vis the magic-religious means used in the fight against diseases, particularly in an epidemic/pandemic context. The survey confirms that Catholic people continue to entrust their sorrows, their anxieties and their hopes to the divinity, especially in time of global stress, mainly if it is a suddenly-presented difficulty that have changed the people’s lifestyle. Moreover, the choice of the Saints to. . .
AP had the initial idea of the search and contributed to the survey. AC contributed to the survey. PC wrote the first draft of the manuscript, with significant critical input from all other coauthors. All authors have read and approve the final article. PC is the manuscript guarantor.
Disclosure of interest
The authors declare that they have no competing interest.
So if you don’t get vaccinated, you better start praying to Saint Rita.
This is unbelievably stupid. And their research used subjects garnered from Twitter and Facebook!
Note that this isn’t just a survey of opinion, but is somewhat prescriptive: “In the absence of a treatment still considered universally effective, and of a vaccine validated by the health authorities, we wanted to know which Catholic saint the European Christian community turned to in the event of infection with Covid-19 to request a miraculous healing.”
Matthew forwarded me this tweet and told me to look at the fourth picture, which I’ve put below. What is wrong with it? Nicholas Booth is an author who writes about diverse subjects, especially space. (Beneath the Night is not, by the way, a book on astrology.)
As I started to write this post, my stomach literally became queasy, for it makes me unhappy to not only see woo like astrology purveyed to the public (there’s no evidence that it works, at least as predicting your personality or future), but also see it purveyed in a magazine like The Nation. Now I don’t often read that magazine, but when I have I got the impression that it was a serious periodical tilted toward the Left. Wikipedia notes that it’s the oldest weekly magazine in the U.S. (replacing an antislavery periodical in 1865), and that it covers “progressive political and cultural news, opinion, and analysis.”
I guess “progressive” now includes “woo”, because “progressive” periodicals, including the NYT, are now running articles on discredited or unsupported practices like dowsing and astrology (see Greg’s post on the latter).
Now, as it appears from the article below (click the screenshot), The Nation has also drunk the Kool-Aid with a profile and interview of astrologer Alice Sparkly Kat.
But wait! It’s even worse. Sparkly Kat connects astrology with anti-racism, intersectionality, and colonialism, though you won’t learn much about their connections from the loosey-goosey interview. Sparkly Kat has even written a book about “postcolonial astrology” (see photo below), which you can learn about here—if you can stand to see a dozen buzzwords all strung together. Oh, hell, read for yourself. This is what we’ve come to:
Astrology is a language that millennials, Gen Zers and many others continue to build fluency in, and look to to inform their everyday lives, decisions and relationships. But so much more than a fad, astrology is an intersectional, political and magickal language with a cross-cultural history that informs our relationships to the planets. According to Brooklyn-based astrologer Alice Sparkly Kat, astrology is the ideal magical lens through which we can parse the harsh neolliberal [sic] and colonial systems of power that harm marginalized people. It’s these very systems that misappropriate the language, symbols and wisdom of the planets to prioritize self over the collective.
Impeccably researched and informed by the author’s deep knowledge, Postcolonial Astrology offers an advanced course in politicized astrological history and application, and an explicitly Queer, POC and instersectional [sic]resource. This is not a “learn your sun sign” introductory guide. Rather, the book serves as a history and toolkit, decoding the planets from a postcolonial perspective. In one chapter Sparkly Kat traces the disparate cultural applications of the planet Saturn. Once symbolically linked to fortune and a mythic agrarian “golden age” of abundance, Saturn’s qualities have been co-opted by political agendas and misused by power and capital interests. We see this misappropriation of Saturn’s wisdom embodied by the Jeffersonian vision of a white, land-owning state that mythologizes an imaginary agrarian golden age that perpetuated violence against marginalized bodies.
Note as well that The Nation puts the piece in the “Colonialism” section.
Everything’s in there: woo, colonialism, post-colonialism, racism, gender, marginalized people, and capitalism. It’s a witches’ brew of nonsense, and not palliated by any content that makes sense. As usual with many astrologers in “mainstream media”, Sparkly Kat is koy about whether astrology actually connects the alignment of stars and planets with your personality as well as your future, but if you go to their website (which includes the expected victim narrative), you’ll see that yes, it does. Sparkly Kat does “readings”, though the price isn’t available and they’re booked up “until the summer” (but it is summer). They are just not explicit it about it in this interview. (Sparkly Kat uses “they” and “their” as her pronouns.)
So have a look at these four Q&A interchanges and see if they make any sense. (They don’t to me.) And then tell me why on earth The Nation is publishing stuff like this.
MR: Why did you decide to analyze astrology through a postcolonial lens in this book?
I suspect that nearly all these connections are tangential, just like one can connect rejection of evolution with white supremacy because some evolution rejectors are racists.
MR: Each of your chapters looks at the history and etymology of a planet. I particularly liked how you used the chapters about Venus and Mars to look at gendered power dynamics. How do you believe we can use astrology to complicate Western ideas of gender?
ASK: The binary gender system is very Western, so going into the book I was interested in learning more about how these ideas came about historically. While reading Hebrew stories from around the time of the Roman empire, I learned that the way that Venus and Mars were conceptualized was often in relation to the military, which also explains how we think about gender today. Venus was a city under siege—she’s vulnerable, needs protection, and is automatically feminized. While Mars is an invading army, so it becomes very masculinized.
What’s interesting though is that in later astrological interpretations, Mars was often seen as very effeminate, and Venus was also seen as a masculine planet. In Western astrology today Venus is more like an idea of femininity that was created by men.
First of all, just because some societies that aren’t Western don’t describe genders as absolutely binary doesn’t mean that “the binary gender system is very Western.” I suspect that long before the rise of the West, cultures in Asia, Africa, and South America were pretty much doing the male-female thing ages ago.
But what does this have to do with planets? This interview is a series of assertions about gender, the West, colonialism, and racism, with no clear connection to astrology. Is there now a new generation of astrologers who don’t really have to study astrology, bogus as the practice is, but can slap the label on themselves, make up stuff and then connect it with the Zeitgeist, charging a pretty penny for an intersectional consultation? That is my theory, which is mine.
A bit more, and then it’s time for Pepto Bismol. This is the part where they’re koy about whether your personality and fate can actually be affected by the planets and how they were aligned when you were born.
MR: Though you write about astrology as a political force, that’s not how mainstream astrology is often practiced. Do you think there are any limitations to contemporary mainstream astrology?
ASK: Yes, definitely. The most popular type of astrology right now is usually horoscope columns, which are usually written by white women, though this is starting to change. Horoscopes today can often be very limiting; there’s something about horoscopes as a genre that’s like, “You’re going to talk about relationships and career,” and that’s it. As a form, I think horoscopes can do much more, but we don’t always get to see that. I know astrologers who say that horoscopes are like a recipe, or your medicine for the month: They can be a poem, a collage, a series of questions. I write monthly horoscopes, and I usually try to leave my readers with questions, a way to introspect, and a way to interrogate their relationship to capitalism.
The “white woman” reference is obscure, but you can probably guess what she means. Here we see that horoscopes can “do a lot more” than just tell you about your career and relationships, implying that they are potent predictors or guides, but see the next exchange for the caveat. Horoscopes are also recipes, medicines, poems, and questions, as well as guides to introspection. But do you need planets and stars for that?
Below you see where she evinces the deeply unscientific nature of astrology. In reality either works or doesn’t work (the latter is the case), and is not something that becomes true if you believe in it. And what does Sparkly Kat mean by saying “it’s a social agreement”? Does that mean that when you go to an astrologer, the agreement is “I’ll pay you money and pretend to believe you if you pretend that the stars and planets will guide my future”? I think they’re confusing “social agreement” with “social construction.”
MR: For as much as astrology has grown in popularity, there are still a lot of skeptics. What would you say to people who think that astrology is fake, or believe that astrology can never be political?
ASK: I think it’s a personal choice. I’m not an evangelical, I don’t think everyone has to believe in astrology. I don’t “believe” in astrology. I think it’s a social agreement, and I believe there’s something really mystical about imagining something together. It’s a consensual space too, so if you don’t like astrology, there’s nothing wrong with that.
I want people to talk about astrology in a more political way, because it’s already this intimate language—it’s already political. So let’s make it explicitly political. I want people to be more aware of how astrology exists as a political form.
As for astrology “existing as a political form”, I have not the slightest idea what Sparkly Kat means. It’s a sad state of affairs when someone can actually support themselves peddling stuff like this. But, as P. T. Barnum supposedly said. . . .
Most important, why are MSM places suddenly afflicted with a penchant for publishing stuff about woo?
Oh, I found a video in which Sparkly Kat talks to another astrologer, Kirah Tabourn. It’s more or less what you’d expect. The conversation starts at 6:50.
According to Wikipedia, The Globe and Mail (G&M), is regarded as Canada’s “newspaper of record”. Well, I rarely read it, but know from articles that readers send me that, unlike America’s Newspaper of Record (the NYT, of course) it has a mildly conservative slant. But like the NYT, the G&M has a weakness for woo, spirituality, and the numinous. The latest is an article by Liz Worth, a professional tarot card reader who does her readings on Zoom and has a Tarot School (courses start at $500).
Now tarot started as a card game, like bridge or poker, but in recent years has transmogrified into a way to predict the future for gullible people with worries or questions. In this sense it’s like astrology, and tarot readers function very much like astrologers. But the scientific and evidential basis for these two forms of woo is the same: NONE. While I know that scientific tests of astrology have failed, I know of no double-blind (or of any) tests of the efficacy of tarot. My guess would be that there is no way that selecting pieces of cardboard from a stack can tell you about the future, or shed insight on your problems that a good therapist couldn’t do without using cards.
And yet people flock to tarot readers. After the customer shuffles the deck, the reader lays out a selection of cards (“the spread”), whose guide the gullible client towards answers, either about the present or future. As Worth reports in her longish piece (click below to read), while other businesses languished during the pandemic, she was inundated with requests for readings, which she can conviently do via Zoom.
What she writes below is a justification for the woo she purveys to the credulous.
In this article, as with many articles about astrology and woo in mainstream media, the woo-defender doesn’t make a blanket statement that he/she can predict the future. It’s in there, of course, because that’s probably the main reason people consult astrologers and card readers. But readers cover up the predictability aspect with a number of rationalizations: the readings are really about the present, not the future; they help people understand themselves better; and the readers act more as psychologists than woo-mongers, using cards or stars simply as a convenient props to suss out the problems of the clients. But note the article’s title, part of which is “Tarot isn’t JUST about the future”, implying that it’s PARTLY about the future. So it goes.
Here are some statements by Worth to that effect:
Tarot is a collection of ideas, an organic invention that has been shaped by various influencers over several centuries. There is no ownership over it and no singular perspective on what it is for. While the common perception of tarot is that it’s a fortune-telling device, you’ll find many tarot readers who don’t use the cards to predict the future at all. Tarot’s modern iterations are diverse and ever evolving. It shows up in psychotherapy practices, life coaching and yoga studios. It’s been used in conjunction with personality tools like the Enneagram and Human Design. Some people see tarot as a tool to develop your intuition, others see tarot as a visual language.
Nailing down one clear definition is like trying to distill a centuries’ deep history into a sentence or two. What’s best to keep in mind when discussing tarot is that its purpose is not always to look to the future, but also to make sense of the present. Many of my clients come to gain insight about what’s currently holding them back, and what changes in their mindset or behaviour they can make to help shift their lives. Tarot is not therapy, but it can feel therapeutic for many. To divine is a verb, after all, and means to discover a truth through intuition or insight. Divination isn’t just about foreseeing what’s to come, but about seeking knowledge of the unknown, overall. We all have blind spots: If you’re not sure why you keep making the same mistakes over and over again, or you need help finding clarity in a confusing situation, a tarot reading can fill in the gaps.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? It’s not always a prediction device, but often a way of “life coaching” and personality improvement. “It’s not therapy, but it can feel therapeutic.” Well if it’s not therapy, what is it? It sure sounds like therapy—that is, outside the many instances when it’s used simply for predictions. But if it worked, tarot readers wouldn’t be in business: they would have predicted how the stock market would go and made a pile.
But I digress. Here’s more defensive posturing from Worth:
The world of divination is much more than popular depictions of cheesy fortune tellers who make generic promises of fame, fortune and secret admirers. I owe so much of my spiritual development to astrologers, tarot readers, mediums and magicians. [JAC: Magicians???] And having grown up in this world, I know how easy it is to dismiss divination as fraudulent or deluded. Or even flat out evil. To be honest, there are people out there posing as psychics who do run scams on their clients. It doesn’t hurt to have a healthy dose of skepticism when you’re navigating this industry.
But everything requires balance. The beliefs, assumptions and misconceptions about my work – and trust me, this is real work – tend to come from the perception that I just sit down and get grand visions of my clients’ lives. That I see everything playing out like a movie, and will be able to tell them the dates and times they’ll meet their future partners, or get a phone call with an exciting opportunity.
Divination is not omniscient. When people come to me for a reading, I often remind them that they know themselves best. I encourage them to get clear about their values, boundaries and desires, rather than sitting back and waiting for me to tell them what to do.
Tools like tarot and astrology are meant to help people tap into their own coping skills and inner resources, or offer perspectives they hadn’t considered. It’s not about seeing into the future. That being said, sometimes predictions do come true. There is a prophetic element to divination, but it’s not always as clear-cut as mainstream beliefs make it out to be. And we need to remember that there is a whole world outside of ourselves. Many factors shape our lives. The economy, politics, societal norms, technology and more all influence our opportunities, decisions and challenges.
What a swamp we must wade through here? “Yes, there are fake diviners, but I’m not one of them.” “I’m doing real work!” “The real purpose is to help you ‘tap into your own coping skills and inner resources’, and I also offer ‘pespectives you haven’t considered’.” No, it’s not about seeing into the future BUT “sometimes predictions do come true.” (Well, sometimes they don’t, which is why claims like this need to be empirically tested). “And other stuff affects your life beyond how the tarot cards fall.”
Here you see the idea that the reader can indeed do predictions, but they’re not perfect predictions. That gives them an out, and a way to pretend that it’s not about prediction at all. It’s the perfect scam: an airtight system that can’t be disconfirmed.
Wait! Here’s a bit more:
Tarot readers aren’t here to build fantasies, but tell the truth of what we see – for better or for worse. Which is why, in my practice, I work to bring people back to themselves first and foremost: What do you need? What’s important to you? What steps can you take to get yourself to a good place? We can’t escape the possibility of job cuts, lay offs [sic] or business closings. Those are part of our reality. But we can focus on managing our fears, and accepting that the future always holds unknown variables – including pandemics.
. . . Intuition is important, but it works best in tandem with common sense. Predictions shouldn’t trump good judgment, and readings don’t replace decision-making or personal responsibility. Nor do they override public-health measures, science or the benefits of good hygiene.
What the hell does hygiene have to do with this? Is this a hint that some clients might have life problems because they don’t wash themselves?
At any rate, if this isn’t being sold as therapy, it sure sounds like therapy. And it may be therapeutic for some people—people who need others to talk to about their problems: “paid friends”, if you will. And that would be okay except for several things:
Tarot is often, or usually, sold largely for its supposed ability to predict the future.
There’s no evidence that it does predict the future.
If tarot readers like Worth are really doing a form of therapy, they are not trained to do therapy. They are trained in how to read tarot cards, which may involved “cold reading” of subjects.
The cards, as with astrological charts, are critical in any therapeutic functions. There’s a word for tarot readers without cards (or astrologers without charts): “unemployed”.
All this adds up to the fact that tarot readers, and other purveyor of woo, are taking money under false pretenses. Psychic services in the U.S. rake in over two billion dollars per year, and that’s a lot of dosh. Well, not many people go broke using these services, so you can say, “What’s the harm?” The harm is that they add up to a lot of money, a lot of fraud and, in the end, the enabling of a form of faith: belief without evidence. It’s religion without God, and it’s an insult to rationality.
And why did the Globe and Mail publish this unpalatable pablum in the first place? What were they trying to accomplish? For one thing is for sure: the article will simply increase the number of people who flock to tarot readers.
There are some posts I’m compelled to write even though I know that they’ll make me angry, take a lot of time, and won’t stimulate my brain in the least, for they involve religious arguments that have long been refuted. This is one of those posts.
I’m always puzzled when people who show reasonably high intelligence confess that they’re religious—even deeply religious. These people include Andrew Sullivan, NIH head Francis Collins, and NYT columnist Ross Douthat. Though I usually disagree with Douthat and his conservative views, at least they’re based on data, however misinterpreted. But his deep faith (pious Catholicism), which he displays in embarassing detail in his new NYT essay, is beyond my ken. For here Douthat not only advances some of the common and unconvincing arguments for God (many taken from Intelligent Design), but also makes many of them, and says that they’re based on science itself.
But none of his claims will convince the skeptic. Further, Douthat fails to deal with arguments against God—especially the argument from physical evil (tsunamis,childhood cancers, and so on). He doesn’t answer the question of where God came from, nor how we decide what beliefs about God are are true in the face of conflicting faith claims—though he does mention these issues. He punts on the question about why he’s a Catholic instead of a Jew or a Muslim. Is this just his preference, or are there facts about the world that vindicate Catholicism? Douthat doesn’t say.
As I began to write this summary and critique of his arguments, I felt more and more that even very smart people are willing to accept dubious claims if it makes them feel good. In other words, they lack well-tuned organs of skepticism and are ridden with confirmation bias. If you have other answers (e.g., God gives us answers to questions we can’t solve—another of Douthat’s “reasons”), weigh in below. And I remind readers of Michael Shermer’s relevant book, Why People Believe Weird Things.
But first click below to read and weep:
In this long piece, Douthat makes five arguments for God that I’ll summarize and discuss briefly. But first lays out his claim: that, in fact, believing in God, especially these days, is the most parsimonious thing to do. Atheism is less parsimonious than faith. And, even though science has advanced and explained via naturalism a lot of things once imputed to God, Douthat sees these advances as simply confirming God’s existence even more strongly.
A couple of introductory quotes. He first dismisses two reasons to at least pretend to believe in God: it can give you a communal system of ethics and philosophy, or, if you act as if you believe, perhaps eventually you will believe, and then you’re home free. Douthat doesn’t like those reasons, though, as he’s a true believer:
But there’s another way to approach religious belief, harder in some respects but simpler in others. Instead of starting by praying or practicing in defiance of the intellect, you could start by questioning the assumption that it’s really so difficult, so impossible, to credit ideas of God and accounts of supernatural happenings.
The “new atheist” philosopher Daniel Dennett once wrote a book called “Breaking the Spell,” whose title implies that religious faith prevents believers from seeing the world clearly. But what if atheism is actually the prejudice held against the evidence?
In that case, the title of Dennett’s book is actually a good way to describe the materialist defaults in secular culture.
. . . there are also important ways in which the progress of science and the experience of modernity have strengthened the reasons to entertain the idea of God.
Dennett gets bashed a couple of times, and I hope he’ll respond. But after recounting several reasons why medieval people believed in God, and claiming that they’re still good reasons (e.g., our consciousness, which allows us to observe ourselves from the outside, leads us to believe that we’re clearly made in the image of the Creator—which isn’t an argument at all), Douthat moves on to how modernity has only buttressed the case for a divine being. I find five reasons in his essay.
1.) The fine-tuned universe proves God. Here we have this argument again, which physicists have refuted repeatedly. And even if Douthat’s answer be true—the multiverse leads some universes to be suitable for human life—that is an argument against God, not for him. For if God wanted to simply create life, with humans as its apotheosis, why did he go to all the bother of setting up multiverses, many of which don’t allow life? Here’s Douthat:
The great project of modern physics, for instance, has led to speculation about a multiverse in part because it has repeatedly confirmed the strange fittedness of our universe to human life. If science has discredited certain specific ideas about how God structured the natural world, it has also made the mathematical beauty of physical laws, as well as their seeming calibration for the emergence of life, much clearer to us than they were to people 500 years ago.
In other words, the multiverse explains why the laws of physics in our universe, though not in others, allow life to exist.
Are you kidding me? That’s an argument for God? The multiverse hypothesis posits not that the laws of physics are calibrated for life, but that they differ among universes, and in at least one universe (ours) those laws allow life to exist. (This, of course, assumes that the laws of physics really are “fine tuned” for life, and life couldn’t exist under any variants of those laws—a claim which itself is dubious.) Now we can’t test whether a multiverse exists, but if it does, and the laws of physics vary among them, then the “fine tuned universe” is in fact an argument against God and for naturalism.
2.) The “hard problem” of consciousness proves God. Oy gewalt, my kishkes are already in knots.
Similarly, the remarkable advances of neuroscience have only sharpened the “hard problem” of consciousness: the difficulty of figuring out how physical processes alone could create the lived reality of conscious life, from the simple experience of color to the complexities of reasoned thought. So notable is the failure to discover consciousness in our dissected tissue that certain materialists, like Dennett, have fastened onto the idea that both conscious experience and selfhood must be essentially illusions. Thus the self that we identify as “Daniel Dennett” doesn’t actually exist, even though that same illusory self has somehow figured out the true nature of reality.
This idea, no less than the belief in a multiverse of infinite realities, requires a leap of faith. Both seem less parsimonious, less immediately reasonable, than a traditional religious assumption that mind precedes matter, as the mind of God precedes the universe — that the precise calibrations of physical reality and the irreducibility of personal experience are proof that consciousness came first.
What “leap of faith” is he talking about? I suspect it’s that naturalism hasn’t yet explained consciousness (or other stuff), and therefore God is a more parsimonious explanation. But, as Hitchens noted, that still leaves you with all the work ahead of you, for what explains the pre-existence of such a complex God? How did such a god get here? Saying he always existed is not an answer, for one could say that the multiverse always existed, or that single universes pop in and out of existence because “‘nothing’ is unstable”. And if God’s main aim was to create humans to worship and obey him, what was he doing before he made the Earth. And why use evolution to get to hominins rather than poof them into existence? After all, the Bible explicitly contradicts evolution.
Here Douthat simply offers the Argument from Ignorance: because there are hard problems that we can’t explain, we should default to the God Theory. You’d think that, observing the history of science and seeing that one argument for God after another has fallen in the face of naturalism (evolution, for instance, replaced the most convincing argument humanity ever had for God: creationism), Douthat would have some proper Catholic humility. But no, he claims that, with consciousness (and other phenomena described below),science has reached the end of the road. Ergo, God.
I beg to differ. Naturalism is the one route to understanding the universe; it’s the only game in town. Scientists, as Laplace explained, have discarded the God hypothesis because it doesn’t help us explain anything. Further, naturalism is already helping us understand consciousness: the parts of the brain that are necessary for the phenomenon to appear in our species, the chemicals that can take it away and bring it back, and so on. As with Patricia Churchland, I believe consciousness will be explained when we know all the parts required, and how they interact, for a being to become conscious. (Yes, I do realize how hard that endeavor is.) Beyond that, there’s no “hard problem.”
As for the “ultimate” explanation for consciousness—whether it’s a phenomenon favored by evolution or simply an epiphenomenon of the brain—I have no answer, but I could think of possible reasons. But let’s move on to Douthat’s next reason for God.
3.) The comprehensibility of the Universe itself is proof of God.
Because their discipline advances by assuming that consistent laws rather than miracles explain most features of reality, they regard the process through which the universe gets explained and understood as perpetually diminishing the importance of the God hypothesis.
But the God hypothesis is constantly vindicated by the comprehensibility of the universe, and the capacity of our reason to unlock its many secrets. Indeed, there’s a quietly theistic assumption to the whole scientific project. As David Bentley Hart puts it in his book “The Experience of God,” “We assume that the human mind can be a true mirror of objective reality because we assume that objective reality is already a mirror of mind.”
This again is not a new argument, and has been made for centuries. It involves two connected claims: that the Universe is comprehensible because God made it that way, so that it obeys laws (let’s leave the annoying lawlessness of miracles aside), and that God forged the human mind so that it could understand those laws, thereby appreciating God’s greatness.
As to why there are physical laws in the first place, we don’t know, but it’s likely there could be no universe to observe unless there were physical laws. They may differ among different universes, but if laws changed within a universe, what would we have? We wouldn’t have planets orbiting the Sun according to the laws of gravity, we would not have matter, whose existence depends on many regularities, and so on. In other words, we could posit a “weak anthropic principle” for physical laws.
As for why humans can investigate and understand those laws, we don’t need to posit God. The blind and naturalistic process of evolution, for which (unlike for God) we have evidence, will suffice. And if God gave us brains to comprehend the universe, why didn’t those brains include a universal belief in the real God—the one that Douthat thinks exists. All scientists worth their salt accept the inverse square law of gravity and the existence of evolution, but different populations of the world have very different concepts of God—or no god at all. Did God intend to punish atheists by withholding from them the ability to believe in God while still vouchsafing them the mental ability to detect gravity waves? I’m puzzled.
Now note that if you combine arguments #2 and #3 you get this result:
When there’s stuff we don’t understand, that’s proof of God
When we do understand stuff, that’s proof of God, too.
This means, of course, that Douthat has a watertight argument for God that can’t be disproven.
4.) Demonic visitations, near-death experiences, and other numinous phenomena prove God. This is truly bizarre, especially given Hume’s postulate that one should take a parsimonious view of such occurrences, accepting them as real only if a naturalistic explanation (including deluded observers) is less parsimonious.
Here’s Douthat, whom I’ll have to quote at length (there’s a lot more than this!):
Read the British novelist Paul Kingsnorth’s recent account of his pilgrimage from unbelief through Zen Buddhism and Wicca to Christianity, and you will find a story of mysterious happenings that would fit neatly into the late Roman world in which Christianity first took shape. (Except back then he would have probably been a Platonist rather than a Buddhist.) Or read Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Living With a Wild God,” a memoir by an inveterate skeptic of organized religion, which describes mystical experiences that came to her unbidden, with a biblical mix of awe, terror and mystery.
“It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once,” Ehrenreich writes. “One reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it.”
So the bolt from the blue still falls on nonbelievers as well as on believers. The nonbeliever is just more likely to baffled by what it all might mean, or more resistant, as Ehrenreich remains, to the claim that it should point toward any particular religion’s idea of God.
Likewise with experiences that seem like hauntings and possessions, psychic or premonitory events, or brushes with the strange “tricksters” that used to be read as faeries and now get interpreted, in the light of science fiction and the space age, as extraterrestrials. In the 21st century, as in the 19th or the 14th, they just keep on happening, frequently enough that even the intelligentsia can’t completely ignore them: You can read about ghosts in The London Review of Books and Elle magazine; you can find accounts of bizarre psychic phenomena in the pages of The New Yorker.
. . . .Similarly, when today’s evolutionary theorists go searching for a reason people believe so readily in spiritual powers and nonhuman minds, they are also making a concession to religion’s plausibility — because most of our evolved impulses and appetites correspond directly to something in reality itself.
. . . Maybe they are all just mental illusion (even if some of their features are not exactly easy for existing models of brain function to explain), the result of some evolutionary advantage to feeling peaceful at the brink of death. But just conceding their persistent existence is noteworthy, given how easy it is to imagine a world where these kinds of experiences didn’t happen, where nobody came back from the threshold of death with a life-changing account of light suffused with love or where the experiences of the dying were just a random dreamlike jumble.
Let us first note that a. there are reasons why people would want to take these phenomena as evidence for a God, for who wants their life to end at death? But the phenomena, which can be reproduced with drugs, chemicals, meditation, and so on, are not themselves evidence for any kind of divine being. Anyone who’s ingested LSD or other hallucinogens will experience all kinds of bizarre things, including great and ineffable beauty that eludes us in our quotidian life, and perhaps a sense that we’re all part of one Universe. But just because we can reproduce mystical experiences with chemicals is no proof that non-chemical experiences of the numinous are evidence for God. In fact, people who are severely mentally ill often have such experiences, including the sense that they themselves are gods! Douthat is incredibly credulous about human experiences and what they mean.
And no, an evolutionary explanation for “nonhuman minds” is NOT making “a concession to religion’s plausibility”; it’s a scientific/sociological attempt to explain why people so readily buy religious claims. Pascal Boyer’s explanation, for instance, that “agency detection” would be of evolutionary advantage, does not give even an iota of credibility to religious claims. It’s simply an attempt to see why people so readily impute unknown phenomena to God. It’s arguments like this one that makes me think Douthat is either not as smart as he seems, or, more likely, is deeply blinded by his will to believe. He hasn’t the slightest idea why evolutionary biologists seek explanations for religion, or what that seeking means. We want to know why so many people believe stuff that’s unsupported by evidence. The only concession that people like Boyer or Dennett make when they study how religion might have come about is that religion exists, not that it’s plausible !
5.)Finally, because evolution leads us to believe in things that are real and true, ubiquitous belief in God must give us greater confidence that God exists. I’ve already discussed a bit of this claim, for it’s in this bit of Douthat quoted above:
. . . .Similarly, when today’s evolutionary theorists go searching for a reason people believe so readily in spiritual powers and nonhuman minds, they are also making a concession to religion’s plausibility — because most of our evolved impulses and appetites correspond directly to something in reality itself.
I mentioned above the fallacy of asserting that evolutionists’ study of religion gives the content of religious beliefs—including God—more plausibility. Now I’ll address the idea that evolution tells us what’s true about the world. This is often the case, for an individual who thinks a lion is harmless, or that jumping off a cliff won’t hurt him, is less likely than others to pass on his genes. But, as many have pointed out, evolution has also endowed us with faculties that can be fooled. Optical illusions are a good example. But there are many more, and here I’ll quote from Steve Pinker’s excellent essay, “So how does the mind work?”
Members of our species commonly believe, among other things, that objects are naturally at rest unless pushed, that a severed tetherball will fly off in a spiral trajectory, that a bright young activist is more likely to be a feminist bankteller than a bankteller, that they themselves are above average in every desirable trait, that they saw the Kennedy assassination on live television, that fortune and misfortune are caused by the intentions of bribable gods and spirits, and that powdered rhinoceros horn is an effective treatment for erectile dysfunction. The idea that our minds are designed for truth does not sit well with such facts.
One would imagine that Douthat could have talked to more evolutionists before he started making The Argument for God from Evolution. But the man is clearly beset with confirmation bias, and his willingness to make the fivefold assertion that modern science proves God more strongly than ever testifies to that bias. And because of his personal issues, we get this wretched essay that’s come from his word processor.
I’ve alluded to Douthat’s evasion of the issues of evil, and of the problem of many and conflicting faiths, and you can read for yourself how he punts on these issues, which actually are critical ones. Just one quote here:
But wait, you might say: Given that Hinduism and Christianity are actually pretty different, maybe this attempted spell-breaking doesn’t get us very far. Postulating an uncreated divine intelligence or ultimate reality doesn’t tell us much about what God wants from us. Presupposing an active spiritual realm doesn’t prove that we should all go back to church, especially if these experiences show up cross-culturally, which means they don’t confirm any specific dogma. And you haven’t touched all the important problems with religion — what about the problem of evil? What about the way that institutional faith is used to oppress and shame people? Why not deism instead of theism, or pantheism instead of either?
These are fair questions, but this essay isn’t titled “How to Become a Presbyterian” or “How to Know Which Faith Is True.” The spell-breaking I’m offering here is a beginning, not an end. It creates an obligation without telling you how exactly to fulfill it. It opens onto further arguments, between religious traditions and within them, that aren’t easily resolved.
Well, at least he admits the problems, but doesn’t face the fact that these are arguments against God—especially if you use his own claims! He thinks his arguments are so strong that niggling worries about how many gods there are, or why little kids get cancer, can be ignored or put off for some other time. I, for one, look forward to Douthat’s explanation of those issues.
This article just appeared in Nature, and while it’s well intentioned, and gives advice that will work sometimes, it’s not, as the author implies, a panacea we can use to convince science deniers of the truth.
Click on the screenshot to read (it’s free).
Now there are lots of techniques for changing the minds of creationists, anti-vaxers, people who think the Jews plotted the 9/11 attacks, and so on. One is good old-fashioned mockery, and don’t think that that’s not effective. There are few things as effective at getting you to examine your views than being laughed at by people you respect (or should respect). Then there is giving lectures on the evidence, or writing books about it. That’s what I spent much of my career doing to counteract creationists. I debated one of them once (Hugh Ross), but it was clear that the audience (the Alaska Bar Association) was in no position to adjudicate the evidence, and of course debate usually involves rhetoric rather than truth (viz., the “Gish gallop“). I won’t be debating creationists again.
Author Lee McIntyre has another way: a kindlier version of debating. McIntyre has just written a book on the topic; Nature gives his bona fides this way:
Lee McIntyre is a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University, Massachusetts, and author of the forthcoming book How to Talk to a Science Denier: Conversations With Flat Earthers, Climate Deniers, and Others Who Defy Reason (MIT Press, 2021).
And perhaps the specific beliefs of his opponents—those loons who believe in a flat earth—are the key to his success.
McIntyre feels that the way to convince someone who thinks the earth is a disc that it’s really a sphere involves first gaining their trust by respecting them, and then asking them leading questions. So he first listens carefully to the deniers and then goes to work. Here’s how he describes it:
So how does ‘technique rebuttal’ work in practice? Here’s my experience. When I attended the Flat Earth International Conference in 2018, I chose to say nothing on the first day, although it was hard to keep my mouth shut when I heard that Antarctica is a wall of ice that keeps the sea from flowing off Earth. By the second day, I was glad I’d waited. I knew if I’d offered evidence, they’d say that space was fake and scientists were liars.
Pseudoscience and COVID-19 — we’ve had enough already
Although I didn’t convince any flat-earthers on the spot, I did learn how to get them to listen. I let them speak, then followed up with questions once the dialogue was rolling. Instead of refuting arguments, I asked, “What evidence might change your mind?” If they said they needed ‘proof’, I asked why existing evidence was insufficient. If they shared a conspiracy theory, I asked why they trusted the evidence for it. By doing that — and not monologuing the facts — I was able to let them wonder why they couldn’t answer my questions.
It is an axiom of science communication that you cannot convince a science denier with facts alone [JAC: I don’t believe that because I’ve seen it happen repeatedly]; most science deniers don’t have a deficit of information, but a deficit of trust. And trust has to be built, with patience, respect, empathy and interpersonal connections. Because I spent the first day listening, even committed deniers were interested in what I had to say.
At one Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas, I had two ex-Hasidic Jews come up to me (in a single day!) and tell me that they realized evolution was true when they started reading about it as kids. That led to them abandoning not just creationism (a belief of many Hasids), but their faith—and ultimately they were rejected by their families. But it was the facts that did the job.
Unfortunately, McIntyre doesn’t actually tell us how many—if any—of the flat-earthers came around to his side. If you know of a panoply of ways to convince science deniers that they’re wrong, the way to find out the best technique is to test the different techniques and compare the results after some months have passed. Nobody’s really done that. Now virtually all methods will work on some people, but different methods may be required for different people, so I’m wary of McIntyre’s “one method cures all” approach.
He does report that it works (as all methods will) with respect to the vaccine hesitant:
Arnaud Gagneur, a researcher and physician at the University of Sherbrooke in Canada, and his colleagues conducted more than 1,000 20-minute interviews in which they listened to new parents’ concerns about vaccinations and answered their questions. Those parents’ children were 9% more likely to receive all the vaccines on the schedule than were those of uninterviewed parents whose babies were delivered in the same maternity ward (T. Lemaitre et al. Hum. Vaccin. Immunother. 15, 732–739; 2019). One mother told him: “It’s the first time that I’ve had a discussion like this, and I feel respected, and I trust you.”
Well, sure, that would work (to the extent of 9% success), but what if you show them an ad like the one I’ll put up later today: an ad depicting the ravages of Covid? (I’ve suggested something similar before: showing ads with the relatives and loved ones of those who died of the disease giving their heartbreaking testimony?)
What if you showed parents videos of kids with whooping cough or tetanus? Might that not work better? The problem with Gagneur’s experiment is that the control is “no intervention,” not a “different intervention.” If you’re weighing strategies to combat the science-deniers, you have to test them all.
With respect to my own bête noire—creationists—I’m wary of McIntyre’s method, for I’ve used it. When you use it on creationists, and then ask them questions, they don’t start listening to you simply because they respect you more (well, a few of them will), for you’re attacking not just science, but the entire foundation of their faith: the veracity of the Bible. Doing what McIntyre recommends might change some creationists’ minds, but it’s time-consuming. I’d rather lecture on the evidence for evolution, contrasting that with what creationism predicts, and let the chips fall where they may. In fact, just attacking religion itself might be a better way to dispel creationism than discussing scientific beliefs and evidence, for when religion goes, so goes creationism. You can have religion without creationism, but you can’t have creationism without religion.
This is why I’m always wary of those who tell me the best way to convince people of the truth of evolution, or of the efficacy of vaccination. (Remember Chris Mooney’s similar advice?) With science denialists, let a thousand strategies blossom!
So yes, by all means, if you’re so constituted, follow McIntyre’s recommendations below. They surely can’t hurt. But sometimes I just like to point out the follies of faith.
Where should you do this? Wherever science deniers can be found. Speak up in line at the pharmacy. Volunteer to speak at your kids’ school. Or, if you’re ambitious, join me at the upcoming flat-earth convention. I already have a physicist friend coming along.
Those who want to make a difference can learn how to do so. Resources are available through the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science in Stony Brook, New York, and the University of Cincinnati’s Center for Public Engagement with Science in Ohio. It isn’t as comfortable as cheering with fellow marchers, but it can be more effective.
Lately the New York Times went soft on dowsing, and of course they’ve been perpetually soft on astrology. Nobody seems to bring up the paper’s penchant for woo when they’re praising it for “fact-based journalism.” Even in the op-eds or “personal” stories—stories that, like today’s—give credence to woo, the Times fails to call attention to the lack of evidence for these phenomena. The result is that some readers, perhaps open to “spiritual” things that don’t involve goda, get sucked into the black hole of confirmation bias.
Today’s story is particularly invidious because it’s about reincarnation, and author Sara Aridi basically endorses her own sister’s belief in the phenomenon—a belief so strong that her sister eventually became a “past-life regression therapist” herself.
Click to read and weep; author Sara Aridi is actually a NYT employee, described as “a staff editor on the Home team, where she produces the home screen and mobile app. She joined The Times in 2016.”
To summarize, author Aridi and her family are Druze (a Middle Eastern religion), and one Druze belief is that “every human being is reincarnated. Your body is a shell, and your spirit can claim another life form to live on indefinitely.” Some Druze also think that people can remember parts of their previous lives.
One of these was Aridi’s sister Heba, who was only three years old in Lebanon when she claimed that her real name was Nada (and began making sandwiches for her “husband” Amin) It turns out that a woman named Nada lived half an hour away, but had died, and did have a husband named Amin. It’s not at all clear that the putative soul of Heba, that of Nada, left Nada’s body before or after Heba “recovered” her memories.
At any rate, Nada’s relatives came to visit Heba because they’d heard of this remarkable reincarnation. (Tellingly, Aridi says “word gets around in small villages”.) They allowed Heba to visit their home, and when she did so Heba coughed up a few unconvincing “memories” about an old lady and a garden that jibed with the past.
Eventually Heba gave up all the reincarnation stuff. But then, after moving to Los Angeles, Heba discovered “past-life regression therapy”, one of those forms of therapy that convinces you that you’ve repressed important parts of your memories or life, and whose practitioners aren’t objective but tendentious. (They resemble the “recovered-memory therapists” who make their living convincing people that they were abused when they were children, and have simply “repressed” the memory.)
Heba was so taken by this therapy that she became certified in the practice herself and started treating others. And so the termites dined further.
I’ll simply reproduce the rest of the article in which author Sara Aridi gives considerable credence to her sister’s beliefs and practices. But wait! There’s more! She touts not only reincarnation, but also astrology AND “oracle cards”, which I suppose are like tarot cards. I’ve put some “reincarnation might be real” bits in bold.
On the other side of the country, I was starting a career in journalism, and was ambivalent about Heba’s new profession. I wondered why I had accepted her experience with Nada so matter-of-factly without looking into it further. Questions nagged at me: How do I explain something I don’t understand? Are someone else’s memories enough evidence of them having a reincarnated soul? It wasn’t until this past year, while my sister and I were living under the same roof again, that I started to truly reconcile our worldviews.
Before that, living on my own over the past several years meant I could carefully curate my life, and engage only with people who shared my beliefs, mainly journalism colleagues who prioritized evidence-based facts. I thought I was open-minded — until I had to discuss politics and spirituality with my family around the dinner table.
Note the half derogatory phrase “evidence-based facts”. What other kinds of facts are there? But Aridi continues:
Last December, during the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, the first time in 800 years the two planets aligned incredibly close to each other and were visible in the sky, I joined Heba and our pandemic pod for a ceremony at a friend’s house. We sat in a circle, drew cards from an oracle deck and wrote down our reflections and hopes in an attempt to manifest our goals for 2021.
It was new and refreshing for me; it felt like much-needed talk therapy after an isolating year. And, my oracle cards were freakishly on point. The first said “Growth,” and mentioned leaving behind antiquated relationships, beliefs or systems. The beliefs I needed to let go of were not the spiritual ones though.
No, Sara clearly needed to let go of the “evidence-based facts” and retain her view that there’s something to reincarnation. But of course these generalized statements like “growth” can apply to anyone. There’s more:
I still have questions — many questions — about past-life regression therapy, but I support Heba and her work. Some of my closest friends have become her clients. She has repeatedly offered to conduct a session with me, but I don’t think I believe in the therapy enough to go under. And if I do, I’m afraid of what I would discover. This life has been challenging enough at times, I don’t know that I could bear the memories of another one.
That, of course, assumes that “going under” might give her evidence of a previous life. There’s more:
I also drew a second card that night: “Boundaries.” Heba and I glanced at each other. The card displayed a symbol of a red jaguar, its fangs out. As my friend read the card aloud, I was amazed by how elegantly it spoke to my struggle to be independent from my family while accepting them. The jaguar “has a healthy sense of boundaries and respects magic and the unknown,” it said. I may not be ready to confront my past lives, but at least I’m more open to having fuller experiences in this one.
Well, the last sentence sounds good, but what does it mean? Why would accepting past lives, which the author explicitly does in the last sentence, make her more open to having fuller experiences now? Wasn’t it the “oracle cards” that woke her up?
No matter, it’s all a bunch of hooey. One could of course do controlled tests of people who have claimed past lives rather than the usual anecdotal “matching” of feelings with data, but so far as I know, the whole schmear rests on these kinds of anecdotes. And if you claim a memory of a past life in which, for example, you were of a different language group, you should be able to speak that language fluently. The evidence doesn’t support that.
But the strongest evidence against reincarnation is that there is neither evidence for a soul that can move between bodies, nor any known physical mechanism that someone’s personality and memories can leave the body and somehow enter another body (and when does the latter happen?). In my view, it’s all wish-thinking, based on the desire to be immortal in the face of the fact that we’re not immortal. So we simply posit that our soul lives on my making itself at home in someone else’s body. (In fact, the observation that people have a strong motivation for wanting to live on after death should make us even more cautious about accepting reincarnation.)
Like all claimed spiritual or psychic phenomena, we can’t say for certain that reincarnation doesn’t occur, but the lack of a mechanism for the process, or rigorous testing by skeptics, certainly doesn’t give the phenomenon much credibility. As Carl Sagan used to say, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” And we certainly don’t have that kind of evidence in Heba’s testimony. All we have are a bunch of half-baked assertions that don’t survive even slightly rigorous scrutiny.
For reasons that defy me, the New York Times evinces a weakness for these spiritual and numinous phenomena. Is the paper catering to the large fraction of Americans who believe in reincarnation? For, according to a 2018 Pew Survey, fully a third of American adults accept reincarnation. Have a look at the depressing first line of this table from the survey, which is somewhat mitigated by the “atheist” line lower down.
So be it. Those who argue that the NYT remains the newspaper of record must also explain why it shows such a weakness for woo.
I’m heartened to see that other scientists and philosophers of mind I respect, like Sean Carroll and Patricia Churchland, have analyzed the idea of “panpsychism” and found it wanting. As I noted yesterday, adding some of my own criticisms, panpsychism is somewhat of a philosophical fad (or even a religion). It claims that we’ll never understand consciousness through a combination of neuroscience and philosophy, but instead must posit that every bit of matter in the universe has its own form of consciousness. And if you put enough of those conscious atoms and molecules together, you get “higher” consciousness: the feelings of subjectivity, pain, pleasure, and the perception of colors known as “qualia”.
The problems with panpsychism are at least fourfold: the theory is untestable, there’s no evidence for consciousness of inanimate matter, there’s no explanation how the “rudimentary” consciousness of molecules and atoms can combine to produce to the complex consciousness of humans and (surely) other mammals, and we have made no progress in understanding consciousness by considering or adhering to panpsychism. It seems to be a view that, ultimately, will not help us understand consciousness.
The physicist Sean Carrol takes another angle in a new (and yet unpublished) paper that was cited by reader Vampyricon and is online. Click on the screenshot to read it. I’ve included the abstract and the place where it will be published (the book referenced, Galileo’s Error, is advocate Philip Goff’s big defense of panpsychism, but I wasn’t impressed).
As he has in previous books and papers, Carroll demonstrates that our present theory of physics is perfectly adequate to explain the physics of everyday life—unless we go sticking our heads in a black hole or something. Further, adding “mental” properties to our known core theory of physics not only changes that core theory, but is unlikely to explain consciousness, which, though we don’t yet understand it, is in principle perfectly consistent with the laws of physics, with consciousness being an epiphenomenon of physical processes. Yes, we don’t understand it, but that doesn’t mean that we must go tinkering with the laws of physics to explain consciousness or positing untestable mental properties of inanimate matter.
Carroll’s is a long paper, and has some equations that I don’t understand, but his conclusions are clear, and demands that panpsychism clarify its propositions in explicit physical terms beyond merely saying “all matter has consciousness”. Here’s his conclusions:
Any discussion of mental aspects of ontology must specify one of two alternatives: changing the known laws of physics, or positing that these aspects exert no causal influence over physical behavior. We cannot rule out the first option either through pure thought or by appeal to existing experimental data, but we can ask that any modification of the Core Theory be held to the same standards of rigor and specificity that physics itself is held to. The point of expressions like (1) and (3) is not that mentally-induced modifications of physical parameters are impossible, but that a promising theory of consciousness should be specific about how they are to be implemented.
The passive mentalism option, where mental aspects have no impact on physical behavior, seems even less promising. “Behavior” should not be underrated; the behavior of physical matter is literally “what happens in the universe.” Crying at a funeral is behavior, as is asking someone to marry you, as is arguing about consciousness. No compelling account of consciousness can attribute a central explanatory role to metaphysical ingredients that have no influence on these kinds of behaviors.
We don’t know everything there is to know about the laws of physics, and there is always the possibility of a surprise. But the solidity of our confidence in the Core Theory within its domain of applicability stands in stark contrast with our fuzzy grasp of the nature of consciousness. The most promising route to understanding consciousness is likely to involve further neuroscientific insights and a more refined philosophical understanding of weak emergence, rather than rethinking the fundamental nature of reality.
I have a feeling that in one or two decades panpsychism (which has been around in one form or another for centuries) will no longer be regarded as a fruitful way to understand consciousness.