About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Friday, December 12, 2008
The LA Times on ghosts, aliens and why paranormal belief is good for us
Klinghoffer begins his tale by telling us that the Hasidic rabbi who circumcised his son gave him an amulet “for protection against demons.” Klinghoffer was amused but “glad to have it.” That’s because he believes that we all hunger for what William James referred to as “the reality of the unseen” (but if it’s unseen, how do we know it’s real?), or what Puritan (and witch-hunter) Cotton Mather termed “the invisible world.” You would think that approvingly quoting a witch hunter would be a bit embarrassing, but apparently you would be wrong.
Klinghoffer cites poll after poll showing that, for instance, 48% of Americans believe in ghosts, and a whopping 22% claim to have seen one (really? Did he have chains?). These surveys show an increase in the acceptance of some paranormal phenomena, as the percentage of Americans believing in alien abductions is now at 40%, up from 25% in the 1980s (I wonder how many claim to actually having been abducted and, more importantly, if they had sexual advances made on them by the aliens). Klinghoffer doesn’t think this is a problem, far from it, he is glad that his fellow Americans long for the unseeable unseen.
As the article progresses we learn that our hero regularly listens to “Coast to Coast AM,” a radio program where people get to call in to share their twilight zone stories. Not surprisingly, then, Klinghoffer approves of conservative writer Russell Kirk, “who valued the paranormal for its suggestion that reality consists of more than mundane material processes.” But what if reality does not consist of more than material processes? And what exactly is “mundane” about the material world? (I’m not talking Madonna here.) Klinghoffer “get[s] the persistent sense that something profound is affirmed by the eerie accounts on [the Coast to Coast] show.” And, pray, what exactly, or even approximately, would this “profound affirmation” consist of? Alas, Klinghoffer doesn’t elaborate.
But he does tell us that scientific “explanations” of religious and supernatural beliefs just don’t cut it. He claims that evolutionary psychology is about a bunch of “just so” stories that are largely unfalsifiable. I’m with him on that, as I've made clear several times on this blog. But immediately thereafter we read: “Another possibility is that the human need to believe in the unseen world itself points to, while not proving, the reality of hidden dimensions.” Oh? And how on earth is this any better than a just-so story? At least evolutionary psychology doesn’t invoke fairy tales. I mean, if falsifiability is the standard here, how exactly does Klinghoffer plan to test claims of the supernatural?
It is near the end of the article that we get to the real problem, according to the author. You see, the issue is “materialism,” the philosophical assumption that matter (and energy) is all there is. This is a “prejudice,” according to Klinghoffer, a prejudice that apparently doesn’t sit well with “the human hunger for a vigorous, unapologetic interface with the unknown.” I call that interface science, and it happens to be based on the eminently reasonable assumption of materialism. I call what Klinghoffer is looking for a simplistic delusion no more worthy of an adult human being than a persistent belief in Santa Clause (as the immortal Chico Marx said in A Night at the Opera, “Ah, you’re joking! There is no Sanity Clause”). Then again, much light is thrown on the whole article if we can stomach arriving to the byline at the end: turns out, surprise surprise, that Klinghoffer is a “senior fellow” at the Intelligent Design so-called think tank, the Discovery Institute (do they have junior fellows? Or is it structured like the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where all the correspondents are “senior”?). I guess they are still pursuing their infamous “wedge” strategy to dislodge the evil doctrine of materialism from our culture, reason and evidence be damned.