Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The smedlium case

There's a short piece by me here on systems of measurement - for the philosophers among you. It's on something I call the smedlium case:

Imagine a world quite similar to our own that contains large quantities of a metal-like material – let's call it smedlium – which gradually and unpredictably alters in size. All smedlium objects expand and contract in unison. At one o'clock on one particular day all the smedlium objects are 5% larger than they were at mid-day; at two o'clock they are all 10% smaller, and so on. Despite this peculiarity, smedlium remains a useful material. In fact, it is the strongest and most durable material available. One of the inhabitants of this world builds machinery made wholly out of smedlium. The machines are used in situations where their size relative to non-smedlium objects doesn't matter. The smedlium engineer constructs and calibrates a measuring rule made out of smedlium to use when manufacturing such machines. She measures dimensions in ‘S’s, one S being measured against the length of her smedlium measure. Of course, so far as manufacturing smedlium machines is concerned, a smedlium measure is far more useful than is a rule made out of some more stable material, for it allows the smedlium engineer to ignore the changes in size of the object upon which she is working. For example, she knows that, say, if the hole for the grunge lever measured 0.5 S in diameter at one o'clock, then a grunge lever which measures 0.5 S in diameter at two o'clock will just fit into that hole, despite the fact that the hole is now noticeably smaller than it was at one o'clock.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ice climbing Scotland

Just been to Fort William for ice climbing, but it was a wash out due to weather. Got Fiacall Coulior and Invernookie done in the Cairngorms. I used a guide for one day, Chris Ensoll, who is an envangelical Christian, so we had some interesting chats. He's previously taken me up the Curtain, Comb Gully and Tower Ridge.

Here's photo I took last time round - vanishing gully, at the point where it vanishes (Alan Kimber in photo; Alan is in his early Sixties, so there is hope for us all).

I recommend Chris Ensoll very strongly: he's totally unpretentious, friendly, genuine, enthusiastic, teaches you a lot, and goes out of his way to give you a good day - I'm booking him for 9 or 10 days in Chamonix next summer (09) to do big harder stuff that would otherwise be beyond me.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Alan Bennett: Ban private schools

Those of you that have been reading this blog for a while will know that I have spent some time arguing for the abolition of private schools. I just noticed Alan Bennett takes the same view.

By the way, today's Independent (p.2.) reports that "Students from poor backgrounds 'catch up' at university".

There's an interesting experiment going on at St George's Medical School in London, where you need only show that your A level results are 60% better than the average for your school to get in.

Yet, in their first year final exams, these students' marks were only 1 percent lower than those admitted under the standard route.

Here's a further little bit of evidence to support my earlier contention that we have nothing remotely like a meritocracy in this country. And, assuming we want those with the most native wit and talent to fly highest, nor will we until we ban private schools, which allow a small minority of parents to buy their own second-rate children a ticket to the front of the good jobs queue at the expense of more talented, but poorer, kids.

Indeed, the mere 7% of kids who are privately educated dominate the high status, high earning professions. Because they have more native wit and talent? Pull the other one...

[POST SCRIPT. Incidentally, independent schools' charitable status is justified on the grounds that they provide bursaries and scholarships for the less well off.

Couple of anecdotes for you:

(i) The two kids of some relatives of mine achieved bursaries for them to attend an independent school. But the money was pulled two years later, after the kids had bedded in. The parents now face the prospect of uprooting their children and sending them back to the awful school they fled from, or else finding the eye-watering fees. The same parents tell me they have discovered that bursaries that suddenly disappear like this shortly after the kids have become well-established is a not uncommon occurrence, and may even be a marketing strategy on the part of some schools (so beware).

(ii) The son of a friend of mine separated from his (not rich) mother got an almost full bursary at a famous Oxford school with fees of £7,000 a term. The selection process? A non-academic interview, with Dad in tow to see if the school thought the little chap would (as Dad said) "fit in". I am sure that the fact that the kid is well-spoken, his father a posh-voiced New College school boy and his grandad a Knight of the Realm won't have had anything to do with their generous support for one of the less "privileged" members of our community.

How many kids from local council estates are getting such places, I wonder?

Yes I know it's anecdotes, but I'd love to see some hard statistics on who is getting bursaries and scholarships, what the criteria are, what selection is taking place, etc.

Scholarships and bursaries are small change to these institutions. The fact that the few they do give out are being dished out so cynically in at least some cases should surely strengthen the case for at least pulling their charitable status.

I see the Independent Schools Council says they have "little to fear" from questions from the Charity Commission about public benefit. If the Charity Commission investigates more thoroughly, I suspect the independent sector has a great deal to fear. Here's the sort of question I'd like the C.C. to press: how many children from council estates receive bursaries? And what percentage of those receiving bursaries come from families where neither parent was either privately educated or attended a grammar school? I think this kind of information would be rather more revealing than just data about parental income. In particular, I suspect it would reveal that kids of the educated middle classes are actually the main beneficiaries.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Mystical experiences

We have been discussing mystical experiences with Ibrahim Lawson (who defends a sort of Islamic mysticism) and others. Let's sum up a bit:

I am sceptical about such experiences for many reasons including these three:

(1) It seems to me we have good reason to expect people to report mystical experiences anyway, whether or not any mystical reality exists , because of what we know about human beings, including that:

(i) they are prone to all sorts of weird experiences (on a scale ranging from fairly everyday moments of euphoria, etc. to full-blown schizophrenic hallucinations, delusions, etc.).

(ii) that they are amazingly prone to the power of suggestion, which can shape what they experience. Why is it that the Romans experienced Zeus, the Norse experienced Thor, and Catholics Mary? Clearly, the power of suggestion is very much involved in shaping these experiences. And once we have acknowledged that, we surely have to take seriously the possibility that in many cases, they are wholly down to the power of suggestion.

Given we should expect such experiences anyway, the fact that people do report such mystical experiences gives us no grounds for believing in such a reality.

(2) These experiences contradict each other. e.g. Buddhists have revelatory experiences of there being no God, Christians and Muslims, one God, and Norse and Romans, many Gods. Some experience a God of compassion and love, others (the Mayans) a God or gods who demand blood sacrifices, etc. Clearly, then, many of these experiences are at least partly deceptive. Despite the fact that those having them often find them utterly compelling.

(3) In so far as these experiences supposedly reveal a God of love and infinite power, well, we have overwhelming empirical evidence that there is no such being (the problem of evil), and thus that such experiences must be delusional.

So, it's not just true that we have no evidence for such a mystical faculty, we also have very good reason to be highly suspicious of such claims, and indeed, incontrovertible evidence that much of what these experiences reveal is delusional.

Now, the mystic tells me that, nevertheless, his experience reveals to him, with complete certainty, that there is no other God but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet.

We point to the evidence that he should probably be a little more circumspect and cautious about taking his experience at face value.

He responds by "going nuclear" and insisting we are in the grip of fascistic, Enlightenment-inspired scientism/rationalism. We need to open ourselves up to alternative ways of thinking, which are equally "valid" (where have I heard that before? Oh yes - astrologers, soothsayers, purveyors of magical cures and snake oil, etc., etc., etc.)

Yes. That's our problem. We're Enlightenment fascists.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ibrahim on rhetoric and sophistry vs. reason

Ibrahim Lawson says here (scroll to end) that, in defending Islam,

"The ‘reasoning’ I would use might resemble appeal to evidence and argument but would not be functioning as such, having been uprooted from its empiricist context, so to speak. It would resemble more a rhetorical form of argument or sophistry, which has got itself a bad name in the western tradition. But let’s not forget, the purpose of having an argument is to win; it’s only you rationalists who insist on the use of reason exclusively, and, like good catholics, have declared all other forms of argument heretical.

So I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere while the criticism of religious belief is that there is no evidence to justify it and that it is therefore indistinguishable from any arbitrary belief you can invent or indeed, schizophrenia..."

STEPHEN RESPONDS: I agree with anticant - "the purpose of an argument is to win" is a quite extraordinary thing to say (note the "the"). A central point of a rational argument is to reveal what is true (indeed, a nice feature of cogent deductive and inductive reasoning is, if you feed true premises in, you will get, or are likely to get, true conclusions out).

Mere rhetorical ploys and sophistry aim to convince irrespective of truth. That is why they are rightly viewed with suspicion. They don't provide a different sort of "evidence". They don't provide evidence at all.

Indeed, once you've said all that matters is winning (convincing your opponent), hey, why not just go straight for indoctrination, brainwashing - indeed, anything that convinces!

Oh, I forgot - you do.

As you said on Radio 4:

IL: [t]he essential purpose of the Islamia school as with all Islamic schools is to inculcate profound religious belief in the children.

ER: You use the word “inculcate”: does that mean you are in the business of indoctrination?

IL: I would say so, yes; I mean we are quite unashamed about that really…

(Ok sorry, that was a bit cruel, Ibrahim, but still, can you understand my horror at your remark?)

I think we might here have got to the nub of something.

POST SCRIPT FRI 15TH FEB: Incidentally, this earlier post explains the same point I make here more fully. Ibrahim, I would certainly be interested in your response to this part:

There are, correspondingly, two ways in which we might seek to induce belief in someone. We might attempt to make a rational case, try to persuade them by means of evidence and cogent argument. Or we might take the purely causal route and try to hypnotize or brainwash them or apply peer pressure, etc. instead.

What’s interesting about these two ways of getting someone to believe something is that generally, only one is truth-sensitive. The attractive thing about appealing to someone’s power of reason is that it strongly favours beliefs that are true. Cogent argument doesn’t easily lend itself to inducing false beliefs. Try, for example, to construct a strong, well-reasoned case capable of withstanding critical scrutiny for believing that the Antarctic is populated by crab-people or that the Earth’s core is made of cheese. You’re not going to find it easy.

On the other hand, hypnotism, brainwashing, and peer pressure can just as easily be used to induce the belief that Paris is the capital is the capital of Germany as they can that Paris is the capital of France.

Sound reasoning and critical thought tend to act as a filter on false beliefs. Admittedly, this filter is not one hundred percent reliable – false beliefs will inevitably get through. But it does tend to allow into a person’s mind only those beliefs that have at least a fairly good chance of being correct.

Indeed, unlike the purely causal techniques of inducing belief, the use of reason is a double-edged sword. It cuts both ways. It doesn’t automatically favour the “teacher’s” beliefs over the “pupil’s”. It favours the truth, and so places the teacher and the pupil on a level playing field. If, as a teacher, you try to use reason to persuade, you may discover that your pupil can show that you are the one, not the pupil, who is mistaken. That is a risk some “educators” are not prepared to take.

[Some “post-moderns” insist, of course, that “reason” is just a term used to dignify what is, in reality, merely another purely causal mechanism for influencing belief, alongside brainwashing and indoctrination. Reason is no more sensitive to the “truth” than these other mechanisms, for of course there is no “truth”.]

A mystical poem

Ibrahim has posted a poem to illustrate the mystical Islamic tradition that he admires. Ibrahim in italics. It's in response to my posting on intellectual black holes (which you should probably read first). My comments follow:

IBRAHIM WRITES: I am posting the following as an example of a text from within the Islamic mystical tradition. The author is Muhammad ibn al-Habib, a Moroccan shaykh who died in 1972 (see Wikipedia). It offers a view onto a non-rationalist tradition, which is either nothing but fantasy and imagination (or simple insanity), or an internally coherent and viable worldview shared and practised by millions of adherents past and present – or both. Note the stanza which appears towards the end: “Strip yourselves of all knowledge and understanding”. This is a technique which is referred to in other mystical traditions: “Except that ye be as little children…” and “In pursuit of knowledge, every day something is acquired; in pursuit of the Tao, every day something is taken away…” are two that spring to mind. Intellectual black holes?

The Robe of Nearness

The invocation of the Beloved has clothed us
in beauty, radiance, exaltation and delight.
In drawing near we cast aside every restraint
and openly proclaimed the One we love to glorify
The Beloved gave us a draught of pure love to drink
which forced all but the Beloved to disappear.
We saw the whole creation as mere floating specks of dust:
and witnessed the lights appear openly and clearly.
After having been effaced and annihilated
in a light-giving wine, we returned to creation.
By a pure gift from Allah we were given going-on
and then, with patience, we concealed the One we love.
How often have we looked on a wayfarer who has then risen
to the stations of those who have plunged into the seas!
We have healed the hearts of what had gripped and possessed them
through sciences whose taste is subtle; and then they soared.
We focused on something secretly and then it came about,
and so the One we have chosen to love has come to us.
We heard a secret call from the presence of the Unseen:
"In Our sight you are beloved so be filled with gratitude."
We have authority to quench the thirst of whoever comes longing
for the encounter and not seeking mere information.
Even if presents are plentiful and generous gifts abound,
pay no attention to them, but cling to poverty.
Humble yourselves to its people – they will satisfy your thirst.
You should draw near to them and have no fear of disgrace.
Strip yourselves of all knowledge and understanding
so that you may obtain what the great have obtained.
Freely offer up your self, you who desire union,
and follow the Shaykh in whatever he indicates.
Witness the truth in him, in both your essence and your heart,
annihilate yourself in him: by him you will win through.
He is the light of the Messenger from every point of view,
and the medicine of hearts, both openly and secretly.
So pay attention to him and show him great esteem.
Go into his presence in a completely broken state.
Blessings be upon the Prophet and all his family
and Companions and all who direct other people to him,
And peace, fragrant with musk and every sweet perfume,
and consummate beauty and unrivalled sublimity.

STEPHEN WRITES: Poetry is heady and intoxicating stuff, for sure. This poem encourages humility, and warns against placing love of material wealth and possessions over more important things. We can say "yes" to these parts, of course, as we can to the suggestion that, say, turning off our intellects for a bit and immersing ourselves in a child-like way (Ibrahim quotes "be as little children") in something (a game, a piece of music, etc.) can be a good thing.

But, having got you to start saying "yes" (a well known sales technique) it then starts slipping other messages in, including, crucially, the idea that, in one particular sphere, you should entirely shut down your critical faculties and permanently submit to the authority and majesty of "the one".

This is all dressed up in seemingly profound and heartfelt language, much like a love poem.

Here we find another standard technique of cults everywhere. Inspire people, get them saying "yes!", perhaps add a dollop of pseudo-profundity, and then start to suggest: "Oh and by the way, you have to just believe this. Forget about understanding or making any sense of it yourself - you are not capable. You must just unconditionally submit and open yourself up to THE TRUTH! And then you will KNOW!"

There's also a bit of "The Jesus Light" going on here too - appeal to some sort of inner, undeniable cosmic light.

I have to say, I find this sort of manipulation pretty creaky and transparent. I don't doubt it was written in all sincerity, though.

As I say, it involves a very well-worn and familiar technique, used by cultists everywhere, to which we seem peculiarly vulnerable. As I've also noted, such appeals to mystery and mystical experience and claims that "I just KNOW!" will be familiar to nurses working on psychiatric wards up and down the country.

I think what I need to do is make a still stronger case for distrusting such experiences and invitations to shut down ones intellect and embrace total submission. Will do that shortly...

In short, yes, I think this poem nicely illustrates an intellectual black hole in action.

Ibrahim - do read The Jesus Light if you get a chance. Be interested in your response.

POSTSCRIPT: one of the best ways of immunizing people against being sucked into such black holes is to reveal how they work, and to give lots of examples, so they can begin to see a pattern emerge. Perhaps, in order to reveal how poetry can be used in this way, we should run a poetry competition? You can submit a "mystical" religious poem, perhaps with some explanation of how and why you've constructed it. I suspect there are certain basic ground rules that most mystical religious poems use, so that, when you've got to know them, it's easy to produce your own (perhaps we could then write a computer program, a bit like the postmodern essay generator, to write such mystical poems). Bit cynical and cruel of me, perhaps, but undeniably educational. Shall we...?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ibrahim Lawson responds to last post

Here's Ibrahim's latest response to the immediately preceding post on religion and intellectual black holes.

I think your piece on the ‘madness’ of mystical beliefs is very apposite and highlights the difference between us very well. I would add that the contributor who cites Lois Theroux’s work raises a similar point. I saw the program on white racists and the two girls being brought up to be pop stars singing racist songs who seemed to be quite comfortable with the abhorrent ideology their parents were imposing on them. This raises the quite valid question as to how a committed ‘non-‘, ‘anti-‘, ‘ir-‘ or supra-rationalist such as I may be can justify their own particular brand of ‘mythos’ as the only ‘true’ one having apparently denied any grounds on which this might be done. You suggest that these ‘mythoi’ may be cultural memes that evolve according to some sociological principle until such time as ‘rationalism’ emerges and puts a stop to the process by providing clearly objective and universal grounds for critiquing belief systems that are based on a faulty understanding of how the world, and particularly the human mind, works. You also say that some people will claim that ‘rationalism’ is just another mythos, no more or less true than its rivals, though you do not believe this yourself for some reason.

Notwithstanding the interesting discussion on the social construction of madness, perhaps there is more I can contribute.

You begin your argument with a parody of religious belief in an all good god, intending to show that such a belief is as equally (un)warranted as the object of parody. Arguing from analogy, you conclude that belief in an all good god is as psychologically unsound as belief in an all evil god, from which it is, to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable epistemologically. You suggest that arguments based on the mystical basis of belief in god as traditionally defined serve equally well in the defence of an all evil god, and, by extension, other paranoid or otherwise delusional beliefs.

Clearly you believe that all beliefs not based on empirical evidence are nothing more than fantasy; they are unjustifiable and therefore cannot constitute knowledge. I accept that this would be the case if religious beliefs and claims to knowledge fell into the same category as claims about the existence of material objects. What I feel unsure about is whether or not the same criteria of justification are applicable to non-material entities. I think that there are sufficient examples of claims to the existence of such things as moral and aesthetic qualities for example to challenge us to come up with other ways of acknowledging that belief in their existence is warranted.

In fact, when we look at what evidence and logical argument IS able to prove the existence of, we find that it is very little, if anything. Descartes is responsible for a lot of this confusion (and that is not a negative criticism) when he proposed his infamous ‘cogito’. It does indeed seem that all we can be really sure of, theoretically, is that we are thinking and that therefore we must at least exist even if we can be sure of nothing else.

I have to say that I hope this won’t be taken to mean that I think it is reasonable to doubt the existence of the world as object of experience. The point I am making is only that we don’t have an adequate theory to explain why we believe that such a world exists. In the absence of such an explanatorily adequate theory we should remain open-minded about knowledge claims, even when they are made on the basis of theories of knowledge that we find questionable, such as mysticism. (I say ‘we’ but I mean ‘you’, l since I am quite certain about my own knowledge claims).

In fact, Descartes famously missed out the major premise in his syllogism which should read: (1) thinking things are; (2) I think; thereore, (3) I am. Whether the first premise is true is unclear and the conclusion may not be true.

So where does this leave us? We are committed of the existence of all sorts of things for which there is no empirical evidence because they are not material objects perceivable by the senses. Is there really no other way to decide competing truth claims, whether about god, the wisdom of Lao Tsu, the superiority of the white ‘race’, the morality of sex outside marriage, the beauty of Mozart’s music, Shakespeare’s sonnets or Picasso’s paintings?

You will say that belief in god is in a different category from belief in moral and aesthetic qualities or the existence of gravity (which is unproveable too). I accept this. I say only that we need to have a way of speaking about god that enables us to have some kind of intelligible discourse, as we do about ethics and aesthetics. This discourse will have its own rules and they will not be like those governing discussions about empirical matters, for example.

It is a category mistake to suppose that claims about the existence and qualities of god are equivalent to claims about the existence of material objects and I think it is unwarranted to deny any reality to such beliefs or to categorise them all as a form of delusion or madness. It is necessary to recognise that religious beliefs perform a different function in life from empirical beliefs and that is why attempts to treat them as the same lead to nonsense. The problem is that any way of talking about distinguishing between, let us call them, non-empirical existence claims will seem as ludicrous as the claims themselves to someone who has already written the whole discourse off as ‘madness’ or ‘fantasy’ or whatever.

So much as I would like to say that Islam is not a wacky cult because, for example, we do not believe that Muhammad was the incarnation of god, as Rastafarians believe about Haile Selassie, or that black people are superior to white, as in the Nation of Islam, or that the world is inherently evil (Gnosticism) or the battle ground between two equally matched and opposing divinities (Zoroastrianism) etc etc I will not, as that will inevitably invite from some people the crass question ‘Where’s your evidence?’ to the tune of ‘nah nah na boo boo, you haven’t got any’ (for the benefit in turning to face Mecca when you die, or example).

The ‘reasoning’ I would use might resemble appeal to evidence and argument but would not be functioning as such, having been uprooted from its empiricist context, so to speak. It would resemble more a rhetorical form of argument or sophistry, which has got itself a bad name in the western tradition. But let’s not forget, the purpose of having an argument is to win; it’s only you rationalists who insist on the use of reason exclusively, and, like good catholics, have declared all other forms of argument heretical.

So I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere while the criticism of religious belief is that there is no evidence to justify it and that it is therefore indistinguishable from any arbitrary belief you can invent or indeed, schizophrenia..

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Religion, and intellectual black holes

[This is partly in response to some excellent comments on the preceding post: The Emperor's New Clothes. Commentators have suggested that appeals to God's mysteriousness and ineffability in order to deal with rational objections can be perfectly legitimate. Possibly, but read on...]

Suppose I believe in an evil God. A supremely evil and powerful being. God is hate. Sometimes I even appear to sense this at some deep level of my being. The world seems to me infused with a ghastly, horrific pallor that reflects the infinitely depraved character of its maker (apparently, such horrific visions are not uncommon among some mentally deranged folk).

So gripped am I by this vision of the world that I even write poetry about it in attempt to express what it seems to me I have glimpsed of the fundamental character of reality.

You, of course, think I must be a borderline nutcase. You point out there’s a great deal of evidence against the existence of such an evil being. Why on earth would he give us love, laughter and rainbows? Why would he give us beauty? Children who love us unconditionally? And so on. The world just ain’t bad enough to be the creation of such a being.

I respond by playing the "mystery" card.

I say, “Ah, but you are taking me far too literally. When I say God is evil, I don’t mean what we normally mean by 'evil' but something far deeper and ineffable, so that his transcendental evilness is really, in some mysterious way, compatible with these things you consider good.”

I might also try this: “God is profoundly, transcendentally evil - evil in a way that extends far beyond any modest conception of him we might possess. So I am not surprised you are struggling to make sense of him.”

I might add to this recipe: “Indeed, there are good reasons why he will not want to make the depths of his depravity entirely obvious. For example, he can actually increase evil by not fully revealing himself. So there are good reasons why we struggle to recognize his existence, or even make sense of him. We should expect not to be able to make sense of it all. So the fact that neither you nor I can make sense of it doesn’t give us any grounds for supposing it's not true. And I have glimpsed that it is true.”

Cherry on the cake: "I find the best way to express what I have glimpsed to be true is through poetry and analogy. True, that makes it very hard for you to criticise what I believe. But hey - it's your problem, not mine, if you are so literal-minded and unsophisticated that you can't grasp what my poetry expresses."

These are precisely the sort of moves an intelligent schizophrenic might make to defend their beliefs (in fact, aren't such evasive, self-sealing patterns of thought actually rather typical of certain forms of mental illness?).

By such means, it is possible to construct an impregnable fortress around ones belief system, rendering it utterly immune to any sort of rational criticism.

These are, of course, standard moves of the cultists. It is by such means that they trap people inside their wacky belief systems. Once you're caught inside one of these self-sealing bubbles of belief, it can be very hard to think your way out again (especially if you're a child).

Surely, anyone who encounters a belief system possessing such features should be very wary indeed. Alarms should be going off. For they are now skirting dangerously close to the intellectual equivalent of a black hole.

The question is, do we have good grounds for thinking someone who thinks in this way is deluded? Notwithstanding their appeals to mystery and poetry and the ineffable?

I think we do, don’t we? Certainly, we have every reason to suppose that their appeals to mystery, ineffability, etc., are what the great Woody Allen would call "so much chin music".

Punchline: If we consider the nutcases' appeals to mystery, ineffability and poetry to be "so much chin music", why should we consider the very same manoeuvres more rational when made by the religious?

Also see: atheism: the mystery move.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Emperor's New Clothes

This is a brief response to the several comments Ibrahim Lawson has made here and here. Ibrahim has been defending Islam by suggesting that Islam is mystical, beyond the reach of reason, etc.

Hello Ibrahim

The appeal to mystery and the mystical has of course been a bog-standard technique of cultists and other purveyors of snake oil down through the centuries whenever they are accused of talking cobblers.

Pointing out that their belief makes no sense provokes such responses as -

"But you are arrogantly applying Western-techno-rationality, yet failing to acknowledge its own limits."

"It does all make sense - only in some profound way inaccessible to us mere humans."

and so on...

In this way, the cultists make a virtue of the fact their belief system doesn't make any sense (indeed a logical contradiction in what they believe is considered a plus!)

The failure is not theirs for believing a load of patent nonsense, but ours for failing to be humble enough to recognise our own limitations, or sophisticated enough to recognise the sublimely mysterious depths of their world-view!

It's the Emperor's New Clothes, in other words.

Is there some reason why we should find these moves any more convincing in this case?

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Psychic powers

Incidentally, talking of psychic powers, not everyone who shows an amazing ability is necessarily deliberately deceiving others (though most are).

Funnily enough I discovered this myself, doing a silly card trick with two friends. My first friend and I set up a "mind-reading" situation where he would ask the colour of the next card and I would guess. The clue was he'd say "right" or "ok" depending on whether it was black or red. We appeared to start doing it just mucking around, when we had in fact carefully rehearsed. We made sure we included a few mistakes to add credibility. We were curious to see how long it would take before our other friends rumbled us.

One other friend was amazed, so we tested her. And she found she could do it too. She got more and more excited as she got card after card right - apparently using her own "psychic powers". She was subliminally reading the same clues, of course. Her disappointment on discovering how she was really doing it was, of course, huge. I felt quite guilty.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Sally Morgan - Star Psychic

Sally is a psychic. She communicates with your dead relatives, who are standing right next to you.

I watched a bit of two of her shows (ITV2 Wed 11pm) a few weeks back. She had a rather cynical TV presenter celeb on, and proceeded to tell him all sorts of details about his life, including that he was about to sign up for a big new tv deal, that he had a flat in Brighton and was thinking of buying another, etc.

How did she do it? Most of this information was not, I guess, Google-able.

The TV celeb was certainly amazed. So was comedienne Rhonna Cameron, who got a reading on a different episode. Rhonna was very sceptical, but ended up getting tearful as Sally scored hit after hit, even being able to say she had two dogs that had died, being able to name dead relatives, the dogs, all of whom were supposedly right there in the room, etc. etc.

I'd be very interested to get more information on Sally Morgan's techniques. I believe that psychics do pool info about clients, but these people were new to it, so that wouldn't explain it. Nor, it seems, was it all down to standard cold-reading. Nor, I'm guessing, was much of it down to the TV technique of editing out all the misses (the clients were far too impressed).

Possibly Sally is relying partly on hot reading, i.e. research: e.g. a microphone in the waiting room to overhear what clients are saying, or earlier Private-Investigation-type research. e.g. perhaps Sally's researchers phoned the celeb's agent to do a little fishing (we wanted to book your celeb and were wondering whether he is busy next week? Oh really, what's he doing?). Though, even then, there are obstacles, including that Sally only gets to know who she's reading a short while before (but is this really true?)

The wonderful Tony Youens has something on Sally here.

The one thing I'm disinclined to believe, of course, is that Sally is a genuine psychic (some of you may consider that a bit premature).

The really depressing thing is the programme is nothing more than a highly effective advert for Sally and psychics generally. I think this sort of TV brings shame on its makers, frankly.

Anyone with more info on Sally - do let me know.

Sally's website, with some videos, is here. I recommend Kim Marsh video (bit of standard cold reading in there, though: "Who's Joe?" No reply. "And it's a man". Blank looks. "So he may have been know as Jack." Kim and Mum get hysterical "Oh my God! ...That's unbelievable!" [also notice the so-quick-you-miss-it switch with names : "Joe" is short for "Joseph" and "Jack" for "John" - completely different names!])

The Scouts clarify: atheists are not welcome

Just been listening to a debate on Radio 5 live between Derek Twine (Scouts) and Keith Porteus Wood (Nat. Secular Soc.).

The Scouts require all members swear an oath to God. The NSS wants this oath optional, as atheist children are thereby excluded (or else must lie).

Derek Twine pointed out that those of other faiths are welcome - Sikhs, Hindus, etc. But he made clear that those of none are not. Scouts welcome everyone - except atheists.

Should the Scouts be free to discriminate in this way, or not?

Is this like e.g. a political club discriminating against those of other political persuasions (ok, surely), or more like a golf club discriminating against women/black people (not ok, I think)?

POST SCRIPT at 14.57pm.

One thought I have had about this is, whether or not the discrimination is morally permitted (I don't think it is - but I'll explain why later), there's something slightly distasteful about it . As there would be if secularists started up a similar organization that excluded religious kids (by making them swear an oath). I mean, why would they do that? Why go out of your way to exclude perfectly nice, decent kids in that way?

I sense that lurking back there somewhere is the view that while kids of other faiths are acceptable, there's something rather objectionable about atheists and their kids. There's a sort of implicit "fuck you" being directed at them (as there surely would be if the Scouts accepted kids of all faiths - except Jews).

Which is especially unpleasant when you're dealing with kids. Kids who may even be close friends and school mates of Scout troup members. Frankly, how petty and pathetic to insist, "Atheist? Nope, you're not coming in."