I’m used to some American media outlets shamelessly feeding crap to the public. Think Fox so-called News, for instance. But the Los Angeles Times? That’s supposed to be one of the most highly respectable papers in the country, on par with the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune or the Boston Globe. Well, once again I was wrong. David Klinghoffer published an opinion piece in the LA Times that argued that belief in the paranormal is not just, well, normal, but actually good for you.
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.
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
Posted by Unknown at 9:46 PM
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But is it fair to conclude that a newspaper is not a quality publication simply based on the decision to publish an opinion piece?ReplyDelete
So, basically, here we are in the 21st Century with an allegedly educated, supposedly intelligent man making an argumentum ad populum in favor of ghosties and ghoulies and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night. Not to mention calling rationalism "pallid."ReplyDelete
Combining occultism and anti-rationalism explains so much about support of ID.
Massimo didn't say that the L.A. Times isn't a quality publication: Rather, he said that their reputation as a quality publication should (ideally) be predicated on the quality of what they publish, and their publication of Klinghoffer's abominable crap is inconsistent with their reputation for quality. Indeed, any newspaper (or other media outlet which purports to engage in journalism) which disseminates any editorial, essay, or press release from the Discovery Institute instead of tossing it in the "reject" pile suffers in quality thereby. Everyone involved with the Discovery Institute is a dishonest hack - a proven con man with a poorly concealed agenda and no good arguments to advance that agenda, only vague bullshit and outright lies. Helping a con artist run their con is generally considered to be at odds with journalistic ethics - or any other ethics, for that matter.
I certainly don't believe in the paranormal, but I do contest the notion—identified as "materialism"—that "matter (and energy) is all there is." As Bill Clinton famously put it, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."ReplyDelete
What, for example, is mathematics? Pythagoras's theorem is true independent of matter and energy. One might object that only a material being can appreciate Pythagoras's theorem, but that seems a bit weak.
I chose mathematics because it's a rather "clean" example, but I believe there are many others. At a very general level, meaning somehow seems to transcend a materialist framework.
nice example, and as I'm sure you know, discussions rage in the philosophy of mathematics about the ontological status of mathematical constructs.
Nonetheless, I maintain that ideas (of which mathematical theorems are just one set of examples) are the product of neuronal activity and exist only insofar a material basis to support them exists. Hence we are back to matter/energy...
I'm more a proponent of naturalism, but I'll grant that belief in the supernatural can have its benefits. One of those is that it gives us a focal point beyond ourselves. What I'm not convinced of is that the same thing can't be accomplished in some other way, without having to delude ourselves that the unseeable is, in fact, real.ReplyDelete
Hmm.. not so sure about the maths example. Do mathematical laws cease to exist when the last neuron dies out? Sounds like Bishop Berkeley's tree in the woods argument.ReplyDelete
I have to agree with Mikespeir, supernaturalism is a natural product of a mind designed to infer deeper structure and revere the profound.
Guess I can expect similar flack when my book "SuperSense" comes out next April
..."are the product of neuronal activity and exist only insofar a material basis to support them exists. Hence we are back to matter/energy..."ReplyDelete
Then couldn't it be said that ghosts do indeed exist as they are the products of neuronal activity of the person imaginining them?
Seems a stronger claim could be made for mathematics?
"Then couldn't it be said that ghosts do indeed exist as they are the products of neuronal activity of the person imaginining them?"
Sure. But they are then phantoms of the brain and not external phenomena to that brain. That is most likely matter and energy but not matter and energy that someone outside of that brain can verify as a phenomena they have experienced. A ghost in that case would not be the kind of ghost that people say that they believe in which skulks, haunts, moves objects, etc. Those ghosts have nothing going for them. Hallucinations...well there's plenty of evidence for those.
"do they have junior fellows?"ReplyDelete
Actually, no. It turns out they only have Senior Fellows and Adjust Fellows. Distinctions without a difference.
see http://www.discovery.org/fellows/ if you don't believe me.
sorry, adjunct, not adjust.ReplyDelete
Indeed, any newspaper (or other media outlet which purports to engage in journalism) which disseminates any editorial, essay, or press release from the Discovery Institute instead of tossing it in the "reject" pile suffers in quality thereby.ReplyDelete
Ah, yes. It's the common plague of "balance in reporting", I guess. They have to always put forth "both sides", regardless. Find any crook who supports "the other side". And of course they assume there are only two sides to anything, to begin with. So if they don't publish the drivel from the DI, they will be accused of "not being fair and balanced", "not hearing both sides".
Re: the math question...ReplyDelete
Well, I'm no philosopher, and math is philosophy to me (it sure ain't science), so all I have is my uninformed opinion -- hasn't stopped me before, has it? :-)
I don't think math is "real", in the Platonic sense, or whatever it's called. I see it as a logical construct of our minds, and therefore limited by the working of our minds. Of course it is linked to things in the real world. But the rules we have now could be changed and still work equally well, be consistent, I've heard -- there was a book about that a while ago, but unfortunately I haven't read it and can't remember the title or author.
Does anyone know which book I'm referring to?
I don't think math is "real", in the Platonic sense, or whatever it's called. I see it as a logical construct of our minds, and therefore limited by the working of our minds. Of course it is linked to things in the real world. But the rules we have now could be changed and still work equally well, be consistent ...
I disagree: math is indeed real. Here's why "changing the rules" doesn't matter. Theorems in mathematics link premises with conclusions. Provided the premises are true, the conclusions necessarily follow. Pythagoras's theorem depends on Euclidean geometry, so that, for example, it doesn't work on the surface of a sphere. There is, however a generalization of it that does. So changing "the rules" is really not an issue.
I've recently been reading Charles Seife's interesting book Zero: the Biography of a Dangerous Idea. It discusses the role of this strange number in our cultural history and its use in our understanding of the world, e.g., in Calculus.ReplyDelete
Its use produces counter-intuitive results right from the start, as in simple multiplication and division, yet it is clearly probative. I have a very thin grasp of these matters, but I would certainly hesitate to say that maths are merely constructs.
By the same token, I would hesitate to endorse arguments such as the the Kalaam Cosmological Argument, which depend on the denial of "real" infinites. Seife provides a context for such arguments in the Aristotelian denial of zero.
Really, Do you think that we can expect something different of institutions based on the law of value?ReplyDelete
Honestly, I wouldn´t expect a change in the content of "news" at least our society change its values for ohter differents to: How can I get from this? This reflects the aim of capitalism and not in fact the unbridled one.
How much can I get from this?...
I'm very happy for blogs where encounter really thoughtful, rational comments something that our society should encounter in long standing institutions, what a mess!ReplyDelete
LA Times is owned by the Tribune Company, which had filed for bankruptcy. Perhaps Intellectually bankrupt content leads to the same financially.ReplyDelete
I think many people who believe in supernatural phenomena, including god, think somehow rationalists are trying to take the fun or wonder out of life. For instance, it boggles my mind that parents actively deceive their children to believe Santa exists and they think it's a cruel deprivation of a fond childhood experience if you tell kids that Santa is not real.ReplyDelete
I really think it's unfortunate in this day and age that while people collectively benefit from the products of scientific advancement, they don't seem to appreciate the actual process.