Saturday, August 20, 2011

A clarification interlude.

A few clarifications, directed at some recent discussions:

One doesn't prove a negative, because obviously, that is impossible.  However, if there is no evidence of a thing's existence, there is no good reason to assume that it does exist.  See the partial namesake of this blog, Russell's teapot.  If I were to say "Russell's teapot doesn't exist," technically I would be incorrect, because I can't know that for certain.  However, it would be a huge waste of time to need to spell out that distinction for every single potential thing without evidence for it, so assume that if I do say that if something doesn't exist, I mean that there is no good reason to think that it does.  I'm only interested in the existence of things for which there is evidence, either direct observed, or indirect (such as how dark matter is observed indirectly by calculation of the mass that should be there, though it is of course theoretical).

I was indeed a sincere occultist during the years I spent in pursuing it.  I was sincere in my search for truth by pursuing it.  I never really had a position of faith, where I believed without evidence, but for a long time my standards of what I considered "good enough" evidence were a lot lower than what they are now.  Anyone who assumes that because I have now given up on even that meager subscription to supernaturalism that I therefore never was sincere in my pursuit of it should familiarize themselves with the No True Scotsman fallacy.

Science is not a belief system.  Nor is critical thinking.  Both are methodologies.  Neither require one to presume the existence of anything prior to finding evidence of it.  When one does that, one is reasoning backwards.  What I had realized is that I was presuming the existence of supernatural forces and then went looking for evidence to confirm it, conveniently ignoring contradictory evidence and explanations for my so-called "evidence" of the supernatural.

As I learned more and more about the basic irrationality of humans, our very flawed perceptual apparatus, our inability to estimate statistical probabilities accurately, our tendency to fill in gaps in what we perceive with things we expect to see, the various chemicals both external and in our brain that can cause us to see what isn't there, and a plethora of other things that show that seeing is not believing at all, and that just because I experienced something, doesn't mean that it has any existence outside of my own head unless I can confirm it with others.

We'll never fully achieve a sense of objective reality, due to those filters and others, but if we want to talk about things outside of our heads, we're forced to rely on confirmation from others who can reproduce the same results as we have gotten, and those others need to be from outside of our own little ideological circle, so that if we are deluded due to something we really wish is true, we don't rely on confirmation from those who have the same biases, or those who can be coerced into parroting our own beliefs back at us out of social pressure.  Still, we can achieve a degree of intersubjective knowledge about the "real" world by putting these things into practice.

So it wasn't just the lack of evidence in the supernatural that got me to the point where I didn't believe in it anymore, but it was the positive evidence of the many, many different ways that we as a species have tools of perception that can be confused, wrong, and in error about what it is we see.  Also the way we form ideas in our heads, and draw faulty conclusions based on prior assumptions, and I can no longer find any justifiable way to believe in supernatural phenomena based on current evidence.

Some will object that there are aspects of the supernatural that are unfalsifiable, and therefore immune to analysis, and that somehow it's defensible to believe in them without evidence.  My response is that for those things that are truly unfalsifiable, existing outside the natural universe and unable to interact with the natural universe, we don't need to even consider them, as they have no way of effecting us.  For those things that some claim are unfalsifiable but also claim can exert influence upon the natural universe, via healing, magic spells, etc, each of those assertions are testable in themselves, and therefore falsifiable.  So the attempt to try to hold on to supernatural ideas by placing them in a fortress unassailable by science and reason only works to the extent that such ideas have no way of being at all operative in the universe.  Supernaturalists who are ok with this, I have no argument with, but if they want their version of the supernatural to be productive, they have no recourse.

This is not to say that I think that there can never be evidence for the supernatural.  I can conceive of many things that would prove the existence of the phenomena itself, randomized symbols and messages sent from one psychic to another under strict laboratory controls, performance of reiki or acupuncture that consistently and reproducibly beats placebos in effectiveness, actual manifestations to visible appearance of summoned demons that can be repeated in a variety of controlled circumstances.  These successful results for the claims of the supernatural have yet to occur, and in some cases have been falsified already.  I for one encourage the continued research into this area, because if such effects could be demonstrated, I think they'd be damn useful.  But until there is evidence to support such claims, I sadly have no reason to give credence to the existence of such phenomena in the credulous way I would have done so a short time ago.  I remain open to their possible existence, but no longer open to the uncritical thinking that allowed me to deceive myself for so long.


  1. I'm struggling myself w/ the dichotomy of an extremely
    Healthy and overactive set of cynical filters versus
    the litany of self-helpy affirmations and 'positive thinking' progs
    that even the tenets of buddhism can be reducted into.

    That is: the dividing line between
    cynicism (which appears to have a strong emotional subtext)
    and skepticism (which appears to be an intellectual endeavor)
    appears ill defined in practical terms, if not theoretical.

    That is: aren't 'Right Thinking' and 'Cessation of Suffering'
    themselves Magical Formulas? That is:

    "I am Suffering"
    "That is because you are not " 'Thinking Right' "
    No True Scotsman, indeed.

    Or perhaps that was Sid's point, exactly,
    and I am mistaking the (theoretical) Goal
    with the (actual) Path.

  2. I'll be addressing mindfulness meditation a bit in one of my upcoming posts, it's helped me a lot in being able to deal with dukkha in general, and my drinking and smoking specifically. To tide you over, google Sam Harris and "How to Meditate" if you haven't seen it before. It's a good quick and dirty primer, with various references for further reading.