Category Archives: Atheism & Religion

Against ecstasy

My friend Jules Evans has recently published an essay arguing that religion has no monopoly on transcendent experience. The essay is in part inspired by his new book, The Art of Losing Control: A Philosopher’s Search for Ecstatic Experience. Despite the title of this post, I have nothing against ecstatic experiences per se, nor do I think that religion has, or ought to have, a monopoly over them. But I do think Jules gets a good number of things wrong, and I’m going to argue why.

Jules’ Aeon piece opens by recounting a mystical experience that occurred to the British author Philip Pullman back in 1969: “[he] was walking down the Charing Cross Road in London, when his consciousness abruptly shifted. It appeared to him that ‘everything was connected by similarities and correspondences and echoes’. [He] wasn’t on drugs, although he had been reading a lot of books on Renaissance magic. But he told me he believes that his insight was valid, and that ‘my consciousness was temporarily altered, so that I was able to see things that are normally beyond the range of routine ordinary perception.’ He had a deep sense that the Universe is ‘alive, conscious and full of purpose.’ He says: ‘Everything I’ve written has been an attempt to bear witness to the truth of that statement.’”

Jules goes on to say that Pullman calls that sort of experience “transcendent,” but that he prefers the term “ecstatic.” I call it hallucination.

Is it possible that a sudden (apparently unprovoked by drugs, but it could have been) shift in conscious perceptions gives a human being temporary access to a deeper reality (whatever that means)? Sure, it’s possible. Is it the most likely explanation of what happened to Pullman? Hardly. And as I wrote in a previous post, confusing mere logical possibility with actual empirical probability is a major portal into woo-thinking, defined as “adj., concerned with emotions, mysticism, or spiritualism; other than rational or scientific; mysterious; new agey. Also n., a person who has mystical or new age beliefs.”

Jules continues: “Over the past five centuries, Western culture has gradually marginalised and pathologised ecstasy. That’s partly a result of our shift from a supernatural or animist worldview to a disenchanted and materialist one. In most cultures, ecstasy is a connection to the spirit world.”

Indeed, although I would call supernatural and animist worldviews rather naive and ungrounded in reality, while disenchanted materialism is about looking at the world as it actually is (insofar as we understand it), and not as we wish it would be. There is, based on what is reasonable to know, no such thing as a spirit world.

Notice, incidentally, Jules’ tendentious use of words here: “disenchanted” and “materialism,” rather than, say, “reason-based” and “naturalism.” To be disenchanted is not usually considered a good thing, as disenchantment is next door to cynicism (with a small-c, not the ancient philosophy). And materialism sounds harsher than naturalism (yes, I’m aware that philosophically the two are not the same thing, but the opposite of supernatural is natural, not material).

Jules mentions an interesting statistic: “The polling company Gallup has, since the 1960s, measured the frequency of mystical experiences in the United States. In 1960, only 20 per cent of the population said they’d had one or more. Now, it’s around 50 per cent.” He takes this as a good sign, telling his readers that if they had some such experience they are not alone. But I find it disturbing that half the population has at times lost contact with reality, and am puzzled by the fact that the percentage has more than doubled in the past half century. Why would that be? Are human beings suddenly developing better abilities to get in touch with the Deep Beyond? More likely (again, possibility vs probability!) we live in times that are alienating and disturbing for a larger and larger chunk of the population, which then seeks relief in fantasies, whether induced by drugs or not. Both the problem (alienation) and the response (fantasizing) are worrisome, because wishful thinking has never been an effective answer to life’s difficulties.

Jules tells us that “the philosopher Bertrand Russell, for example, also had a ‘mystic moment’ when he suddenly felt filled with love for people on a London street. The experience didn’t turn him into a Christian, but it did turn him into a life-long pacifist.” I’m not so sure it did, Russell was a lifelong liberal-progressive. But at any rate I can hardly see one of the founders of modern analytical philosophy entertaining for a moment that his subjective experience was somehow a reliable window into an alternate, and better, perception of reality. The revealing phrase here being “it didn’t turn him into a Christian”…

Jules got interested in ecstasy after he had a bad accident when he was younger, a near-death experience during which he felt “immersed in love and light.” I’m really glad he survived and recovered, but a fleeting sensation one has under extreme circumstances hardly counts as evidence of a deeper reality, as much as I’m sure it was very psychologically useful to him. When he says “I knew that I was OK, I was loved, that there was something in me that could not be damaged, call it ‘the soul’, ‘the self,’ ‘pure consciousness’ or what-have-you,” I would say that no, there is nothing in you that cannot be damaged, and to believe so is a delusion. You just got very, very lucky. But then again, I am a “disenchanted materialist” who thinks that there is no reason to believe in a soul or a pure consciousness. (Though I do believe there is a self, of the Humean type, i.e., a constantly shifting, dynamic bundle of perceptions. That one too, of course, is hardly indestructible.)

Jules departs from the views of the above mentioned Philip Pullman, who thinks that ecstatic experiences just happen, they cannot be sought: “I disagree. It seems to me that humans have always sought ecstasy. The earliest human artefacts — the cave paintings of Lascaux — are records of Homo sapiens’ attempt to get out of our heads. We have always sought ways to ‘unself,’ as the writer Iris Murdoch called it, because the ego is an anxious, claustrophobic, lonely and boring place to be stuck.”

This passage reveals a number of things. First off, Jules is equivocating (in the philosophical sense, and very likely not on purpose, i.e., not in order to deceive his readers) on the meaning of ecstasy. Art surely is an attempt to “get out of our heads,” as he puts it, in a lose sense to “transcend” our selves. But so is, for instance, science. Just watch Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot if you doubt it.

Indeed, anything that we human beings do beyond taking care of our basic need to survive is an attempt to transcend ourselves, from paintings to music, from science to mathematics, from religion to philosophy. But it seems very strange to me to assent to the notion that our ego is a lonely and boring place. It is whatever we make of it. There is a wonderful world out there, full of other, fascinating human beings. There is a vast universe out there, full of wonders beyond our imagination. What sort of a small mind could possibly find that either lonely or boring?

How do we actively seek ecstasy, according to Jules? “In its most common-garden variety, we can seek what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called ‘flow.’ By this he meant moments where we become so absorbed in an activity that we forget ourselves and lose track of time. We could lose ourselves in a good book, for example, or a computer game. The author Geoff Dyer, who’s written extensively on ‘peak experiences,’ says: ‘If you asked me when I’m most in the zone, obviously it would be playing tennis. That absorption in the moment, I just love it.’ … Or we turn to sex, which the feminist Susan Sontag called the ‘oldest resource which human beings have available to them for blowing their mind.’”

Of course. And I lose myself, or experience flow, in all sorts of experiences, including — bizarrely, I know — while writing blog posts or books. But none of this has anything whatsoever to do with Jules’ starting point, which, remember, was the perception of a deeper reality about the world. One can be a perfectly thoroughgoing “disenchanted materialist” and still lose oneself in a game of tennis. Or in sex (I much prefer the latter.)

Jules tells us that “such everyday moments might seem a long way from the mystical ecstasy of St. Teresa of Ávila, but I would suggest that there is a continuum from moments of light absorption and ego-loss to much deeper and more dramatic ego-dissolution. Csikszentmihalyi agrees, saying that moments of flow are ‘the kind of experience which culminates in ecstasy.’”

But there is, in fact, no reason at all to think that either Jules or Csikszentmihalyi are right. Rather than a continuum I see a hopeless mix of apples and oranges, and I seriously doubt St. Teresa would appreciate her mystical views being mentioned in the same sentence as tennis playing and sex.

Yet Jules tells us that “that’s what humans have been doing for hundreds of thousands of years, through various ecstatic techniques such as strenuous dancing, chanting, fasting, self-inflicted pain, sensory deprivation or mind-altering drugs.” Okay, if those are the choices, I’ll take sex and tennis, in that order. Or perhaps a dose of my favorite drug, a dirty martini with three large olives, shaken, not stirred.

Despite his skepticism of disenchanted materialism, Jules does bring in science when it seems to favor his take on things, as many people inclined toward mysticism do: “researchers have discovered that one dose of psychedelics reliably triggers ‘mystical experiences’ — moments where people report a sense of ego-dissolution and connection to all things, including to spirit beings or God. … One dose of psilocybin helped to reduce chronic depression and addiction, and also significantly reduced the fear of death in patients with cancer.”

But, insofar as we can reasonably tell, there are no spirit beings or gods, so what psychedelics are triggering are hallucinations, defined as “a sensory experience of something that does not exist outside the mind, caused by various physical and mental disorders, or by reaction to certain toxic substances, and usually manifested as visual or auditory images” (dictionary.com). And while there is no doubt that drugs can help with medical conditions, that does in no way make them reliable guides to the Deep Beyond, nor does it mean we should take them to buttress our wishful thinking, in turn generated by our “lonely and boring ego.” You feel lonely? Get out and meet people. You feel bored? Read a good book, enter in conversation with the best minds humanity has ever produced. Have sex. Play tennis, even.

And then comes more (pseudo)science from the article: “A 1979 study by the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield in California found that 40 per cent of participants on a two-week meditation retreat reported unusual experiences such as rapture and visions (including hellish visions). Kornfield writes: ‘From our data it seems clear that the modern psychiatric dismissal of these so-called ‘mystical’ and altered states as psychopathology … is simply due to the limitations of the traditional Western psychiatric mental-illnesses oriented model of the mind.’”

Uhm, no. What the study shows is that meditation can trigger side effects of the hallucinatory type. Which may still be acceptable if meditation provides benefits to its practitioners (it does, I myself practice), but, again, is absolutely no reason to reject “Western” science (i.e., science). If you have hallucinations while taking drugs you are normal. If you have them at frequent random intervals in your regular life you should see a psychiatrist.

Jules gives us another fascinating personal testimony: “I spent a year exploring the world of charismatic Christianity, including the globally renowned Alpha course, and eventually succumbed to the ecstasy myself. It happened in a church in Pembrokeshire filled with Pentecostal pensioners. Suddenly, I felt filled with a force that knocked me back and took my breath away. It felt like proof. The preacher asked if anyone wanted to commit their life to Jesus and, at the back of the church, I raised my hand. The next week, I announced my conversion on my newsletter, and around a third of my subscribers immediately unsubscribed.
A few weeks later, however, the high passed, and the doubts came back. There were still basic tenets of Christianity that I couldn’t accept, particularly the idea that the only way to God is through faith in Jesus. So what had happened? Had I been hypnotised by the preacher, the ritual and the crowd emotion? Yes, probably. But that doesn’t mean it was unhealthy or unspiritual.”

Actually, Jules, that’s precisely what it means: it was both unhealthy and unspiritual. As shown by your own rather quick de-conversion (“the high passed”), once you had time to reflect on what had happened.

“Ultimately, there’s something in us that calls to us, that pulls us out the door. Let’s find out where it leads.” Well, go ahead, but proceed with caution. As for me, I’m heading to sharing a nice dirty martini with some of my close friends.

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An embarrassing moment for the skeptical movement

IMG_8356Twentyone years ago physicist Alan Sokal perpetrated his famous hoax at the expense of the postmodernist journal Social Text. It was at the height of the so-called “science wars” of the ’90s, and Sokal, as a scientist fed up with a lot of extreme statements about the social construction of science, thought of scoring a rhetorical point by embarrassing the other side. He wrote a fake paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” full of scientific-sounding nonsense and submitted to the editors of Social Text. They didn’t send it out for peer reviewed and published it as a welcome example of a scientist embracing the postmodernist cause.

Sokal then proceeded to unveil the hoax in the now defunct Lingua Franca, a magazine devoted to academic affairs, thus exposing the sloppy practiced of the editors of Social Text while at the same time embarrassing the postmodernist community.

Sokal, however, is no intellectual lightweight, and he wrote a sober assessment of the significance of his stunt, for instance stating:

“From the mere fact of publication of my parody I think that not much can be deduced. It doesn’t prove that the whole field of cultural studies, or cultural studies of science — much less sociology of science — is nonsense. Nor does it prove that the intellectual standards in these fields are generally lax. (This might be the case, but it would have to be established on other grounds.) It proves only that the editors of one rather marginal journal were derelict in their intellectual duty.”

Move forward to the present. Philosopher Peter Boghossian (not to be confused with NYU’s Paul Boghossian) and author James Lindsay (henceforth, B&L) attempted to replicate the Sokal hoax by trick-publishing a silly paper entitled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct.” The victim, in this case, was the journal Cogent Social Sciences, which sent out the submission for review and accepted it in record time (one month). After which, B&L triumphantly exposed their stunt in Skeptic magazine.

But the similarities between the two episodes end there. Rather than showing Sokal’s restraint on the significance of the hoax, B&L went full blast. They see themselves as exposing a “deeply troubling” problem with the modern academy:

“The echo-chamber of morally driven fashionable nonsense coming out of the postmodernist social ‘sciences’ in general, and gender studies departments in particular … As we see it, gender studies in its current form needs to do some serious housecleaning.”

And (a large chunk of especially influential people in) the skeptic community joined the victory parade:

“We are proud to publish this exposé of a hoaxed article published in a peer-reviewed journal today.” (Michael Shermer)

“This is glorious. Well done!” (Sam Harris)

“Sokal-style satire on pretentious ‘gender studies.'” (Richard Dawkins)

“New academic hoax: a bogus paper on ‘the conceptual penis’ gets published in a ‘high-quality peer-reviewed’ journal.” (Steven Pinker)

“Cultural studies, including women’s studies, are particularly prone to the toxic combinations of jargon and ideology that makes for such horrible ‘scholarship.'” (Jerry Coyne)

Except that a mildly closer look shows that Boghossian and Lindsay are no Sokals, and that the hoax should actually be treated as an embarrassment for the skeptic community. Let’s do a bit of, ahem, deconstructing of the conceptual penis affair.

(i) Like the Sokal hoax, the sample size is n=1. Since Boghossian teaches critical thinking, he ought to know that pretty much nothing can be concluded from that sort of “sampling” of the relevant population. That’s why Sokal properly understood his hoax as a rhetorical success, a way to put the spotlight on the problem, not of showing anything broader than “that the editors of one rather marginal journal were derelict in their intellectual duty.”

(ii) The B&L paper was actually rejected by the first journal it was submitted to, NORMA: The International Journal for Masculinity Study. Boghossian and Lindsay admit this, but add that they were “invited” to resubmit to Cogent Social Sciences, which is handled by the same prestigious Taylor & Francis publishing group that handles NORMA. The reality is that NORMA itself doesn’t make it even on the list of top 115 publications in gender studies, which makes it an unranked journal, not a “top” one. also, if you check Cogent Social Sciences’ web site you will see that it operates independently of Taylor & Francis. Oh, fun fact: NORMA’s impact fact is a whopping zero… And remember, it actually rejected the paper.

(iii) The “invitation” to resubmit to Cogent Social Sciences was likely an automated email directing the authors to an obvious pay-to-publish vanity journal. See if you can spot the clues from the journal’s description of their acceptance policies. First, authors are invited to “pay what they can” in order to publish their papers; second, they say they are very “friendly” to prospective authors; lastly, they say that they do not “necessarily reject” papers with no impact. Does that sound to you like a respectable outlet, in any field?

(iv) But isn’t Cogent Social Sciences said to be “high quality” by the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ)? It may be, but the DOAJ is community run, has no official standing, and to make it on its list of recommended publications a journal “must exercise peer-review with an editor and an editorial board or editorial review…. carried out by at least two editors.” Even vanity journals easily meet those criteria.

All of the above said, I am indeed weary of “studies” fields, of which women and gender studies are just a couple of examples. As I’ve written in the past, my experience actually interacting with some faculty and students in those programs has been that they do have a tendency to insularity, which could be remedied by integrating them into the appropriate classic departments, like philosophy, history, comparative literature, and the like. That, in fact, was the original intention when these programs first appeared decades ago, and my understanding is that it was the traditional departments that did not want to go down that route, in order to protect their turf, faculty lines, and students tuition money.

It is also the case that many in “X Studies” programs embrace left-leaning politics and see themselves as activists first, scholars next. This is a problem, as the two roles may lead to conflict, in which activism may prevail at the expense of sound scholarship. But the problem isn’t confined to X Studies, as it is found, for instance, in ecology (where a lot of practitioners are also involved with environmentalist organizations), cultural anthropology (protection, not just study, of indigenous populations), and frankly even critical thinking and philosophy. I have made a career of studying pseudoscience (academically) while at the same time advocating on behalf of science and reason (blogs, books, articles, podcasts). So the two activities shouldn’t be seen as ipso facto incompatible (as, for instance, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt does). But one does need to thread cautiously nonetheless.

Finally, my observation by talking to colleagues in X studies and reading some of their papers (an approach that Boghossian and Lindsay boast of having rejected, because they apparently know a priori that it’s all bullshit), is that there is a tendency to embrace a form of environmental determinism — as opposed to its genetic counterpart — about human cognitive and cultural traits. This attitude is not scientifically sound, and it even generates internal conflict, as in the case of some radical feminists who reject any talk of being “trapped in the wrong body” by transgender people. As someone who has actually studied gene-environment interactions I am extremely skeptical of any simplistic claim of either genetic or environmental determination. Human beings are exceedingly complex and inherently cultural organisms, and the best bet is to assume that pretty much everything we do is the highly intricate result of a continuous interplay among genes, developmental systems, and environments.

So yes, X Studies are potentially problematic, and they probably ought to undergo academic review as a concept, as well as be subjected to sustained, external scholarly criticism. But this is absolutely not what the B&L stunt has done. Not even close.

And of course, for balance, let’s remember that science too is subject to disturbingly similar problems (thanks to Ketan Joshi for this brief summary, to which many, many more entries could easily be added — here is a similarly good take):

* Andrew Wakefield, a British anti-vaccination campaigner, notoriously managed to publish a fraudulent paper in the (really) prestigious medical journal Lancet in 1998.

* A US nuclear physics conference accepted a paper written entirely in autocomplete.

* A trio of MIT graduate students created an algorithm that produces fake scientific papers, and in 2013 IEEE and Springer Publishing (really seriously academic publishers) found a whopping 120 published papers that had been generated by the program.

* A paper entitled “Get me off your fucking mailing list” was accepted for publication by a computer science journal.

* A 2013 hoax saw a scientific paper about anti-cancer properties in a chemical extracted from a fictional lichen published in several hundred journals.

And of course let’s not forget the current, very serious, replication crisis in both medical research and psychology. Or the fact that the pharmaceutical industry has created entire fake journals in order to publish studies “friendly” to their bottom line. And these are fields that — unlike gender studies — actually attract millions of dollars in funding and whose “research” affects people’s lives directly.

But I don’t see Boghossian, Lindsay, Shermer, Dawkins, Coyne, Pinker or Harris flooding their Twitter feeds with news of the intellectual bankruptcy of biology, physics, computer science, and medicine. Why not?

Well, here is one possibility:

“American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message” — Michael Shermer, 18 November 2016

“Gender Studies is primarily composed of radical ideologues who view indoctrination as their primary duty. These departments must be defunded” –Peter Boghossian, 25 April 2016

Turns out that a good number of “skeptics” are actually committed to the political cause of libertarianism. This is fine in and of itself, since we are all entitled to our political opinions. But it becomes a problem when it is used as a filter to inform your allegedly critical thinking. And it becomes particularly problematic when libertarian skeptics go on a rampage accusing others of ideological bias and calling for their defunding. Self-criticism before other-criticism, people — it’s the virtuous thing to do.

This latest episode does not, unfortunately, surprise me at all. It fits a pattern that has concerned me for years, as someone who has been very active within the movement and who still identifies with its core tenets. When Steven Pinker openly embraces scientism, turning an epistemic vice into a virtue; or when atheists think that their position amounts to anything more than a negative metaphysical stance — and think that being nasty about it is the way forward; or when atheism, skepticism and scientism are confused with each other for ideological purposes; then I get seriously worried about the future of a movement that has so much potential to help keep the light of reason alive in a society that desperately needs it.

The Boghossian and Lindsay hoax falls far short of the goal of demonstrating that gender studies is full of nonsense. But it does expose for all the world to see the problematic condition of the skeptic movement. Someone should try to wrestle it away from the ideologues currently running it, returning it to its core mission of critical analysis, including, and indeed beginning with, self-criticism. Call it Socratic Skepticism(TM).

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Update: Steven Pinker has admitted on Twitter that the hoax was a bad idea: “‘Gender studies’ is an academic field that deserves criticism, but The ‘Conceptual Penis’ hoax missed the mark.”

Book Club: The Edge of Reason, 1, the eternal God argument

After having spent some posts examining Paul Feyerabend’s Philosophy of Nature, it’s time to tackle the second entry in Footnotes to Plato’s book club: Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason, A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. Julian is a founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine, and has written a number of acclaimed books in popular philosophy before. The Edge of Reason attempts to strike a, well, reasonable balance between fashionable postmodernist-inspired rejection of rationality (which, arguably, gave us the dreadful age of “post-truth”) and the older and equally unsupportable rationalist-positivist faith in reason’s essentially unlimited powers.

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Socrates: ancient Humanist?

MNR-Socrate

Socrates, Roman National Museum, photo by the Author

As part of my ongoing occasional series aiming at bringing some of my own technical papers to the attention of a wider public (after all, what the hell is the point of doing scholarship if it only benefits other scholars?), below I reprint a paper I recently published in The Human Prospect. It inquires on the possibility of interpreting Socrates as a proto-Humanist of sorts, and it therefore includes a discussion of Humanism as a philosophy of life, as well its likely stemming from the ancient Greco-Roman tradition of virtue ethics (via the mediation of the Renaissance Humanists, which were informed by, and yet were reacting against, medieval Christianity).

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Should we be fearing death?

Epicurus, National Roman Museum, photo by the author

Epicurus, National Roman Museum, photo by the author

Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus)

Death is one of the major issues in human life, to put it mildly. Because we are blessed and cursed with self-awareness, we know we are mortal, so one of our problems is how to deal with the prospect of our own demise. A lot of religious and philosophical thinking as well as, lately, scientific research, has gone into this. Seneca famously wrote that the point of philosophy is to learn how to die, since death is the ultimate test of who we are. And things don’t seem to have changed much in that department over the past two thousand years.

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Richard Dawkins

Richard DawkinsIf you are following at all the skeptic / atheist / humanist / freethought movement(s) (henceforth, SAHF), last week has been an exciting and/or troubling one for you. First, the announcement that the Richard Dawkins Foundation had merged with (or taken over, depending on whom you ask) the venerable Center for Inquiry, up until then the chief remaining operation established by one of the founding fathers of modern skepticism and humanism, Paul Kurtz.

Then, a mere six days later, the organizers of the North East Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS), likely to soon become the major skeptic conference in North America (given the apparent demise of The Amazing Meeting), dropped a bombshell: Dawkins was being disinvited — probably a first in his career — on grounds of yet another obnoxious tweet he had thoughtlessly sent out to his 1.35 million followers.

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In defense of accommodationism

science and religionA recent essay I wrote for The Philosophers’ Magazine online has, predictably perhaps, generated a minor storm (well, more likely a tempest in a teacup, but still). The piece is what I thought amounted to a mild, substantive criticism of a well reasoned piece by independent philosopher Russell Blackford, entitled Against accommodationism: How science undermines religion. Russell, in turn, was reviewing (very, very positively) the latest book by biologist and New Atheist Jerry Coyne, Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. I am a known critic of New Atheism (though myself an atheist) so I figured I’d add my two cents once again.

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