Friday, August 17, 2012

Surfing for balance

Over the last several months I have found myself sitting behind a desk more than I have at any other time in my life. Between writing, reading as preparation and research for writing, and continuing to build my businesses, my time in the seated position as well as my time inside, has multiplied beyond what I’d like. Despite twenty years of combat athletics I don’t think my back and body have ever been as sore as they are after eight hours of “office mode”. How so many professionals manage to do that for forty plus hours a week, I do not know. What I do know is that it’s not healthy. My eyes become blurry and my back becomes stiff. I needed a solution.

Surfing is an amazingly healthy option, one that fulfills my self-imposed prescription perfectly. However, there are a few key obstacles that prevent that from being a regular feature for me. The first is the 90-minute commute each way to the ocean. The second is that I am quite possibly the worst surfer on planet earth.

I had almost given up on finding anything close to surfing, and then I saw paddle boarding. My first introduction was the documentary called Surfwise. There are a few scenes with one of the sons of Dr. Paskowitz moving around the ocean on a paddleboard, and it looked like the perfect fit. It is fresh or salt water compatible, it doesn’t require waves (although you can surf), and it looked a whole lot easier than regular surfing.

A few weeks ago I had my first chance to give stand up paddle boarding (SUP) a try, and found out that I was almost correct, except for one critical piece. It’s not as easy as it looks. My son Liam and I took a two-hour lesson on the Willamette River here in Portland Oregon. After a few basic instructions we pushed off shore and stood up. My son took to it almost immediately, falling off just a couple times before he acclimated to the board and began shooting around the river like Silver Surfer. The benefits of youth. As for myself, I fell off at least twenty times within the first half hour. Looks easy? Maybe. Is it easy? No.

While I engaged in repeated dips into the Willamette, the instructor, Matt, would patiently coach me on my technique using methods that were all too familiar. His advice was as follows:

“You’re thinking too much.”

“Just relax and keep breathing.”

“Find your base and breath.”

“You’re still over thinking it.”

“Try and relax and use your core.”

“Bend your knees, it’s all about posture.”

And finally back to, “You’re thinking too much, relax.”

If you’re one of my students, or one of the thousands of people who’ve taken a class or seminar with me at some point in your life, then I am sure you must be laughing to yourself, at least a little bit. It was as if Matt had attended one of my Jiu-Jitsu workshops, memorized the sum total of my usual advice as well as the flow it is often presented in, and read it back to be verbatim. It was equal parts humbling and reassuring, humbling to be on the other end of the conversation, and reassuring to affirm that the fundamentals of performance transcend specific sports.

After about an hour my feet began to get incredibly sore. I am not sure I have ever felt anything like that before, little muscles spread throughout that region which tend to go unnoticed most of the time, now screaming for a break. I mentioned this in passing to my wife later that evening, and she said she had experienced that before in her yoga practice. It’s a unique sensation that occurs when you’re intensely focused on balancing, each muscle in the foot contracting and releasing in a fluid effort to find, and maintain, that perfectly stabilized posture.

Matt corrected my paddling. Like most everyone else, I was using way too much upper body. The trick, he said, was to fix your arms in position, use your core rather than your limbs, and let the posture do the work for you. Sound familiar? Paddling, he said, was a practice, one where he tried to find ways in which he could get maximum gains, from minimum effort. It was a constant search for more efficiency. He had managed to give what I consider to be the perfect description of proper Jiu-Jitsu, in just a few sentences that were related to the mechanics of paddling; again, the fundamental principles transcending the sport.

After about an hour I found myself able to follow Matt’s excellent coaching advice. I relaxed, feet and all, kept breathing, found my base and posture on the board, and was able to move around without falling off. It’s beautiful on that part of the Willamette, to look back on the city of Portland from the vantage point of mid river, float alongside geese, and move with the wind and water, is just as relaxing and peaceful as you might imagine it to be.

Afterwards I felt refreshed rather than sore. My mind was revived, ready to attack the challenges of the pen in a better, more energized state.

The entire experience brought to light a few things for me. First, the Greeks had it right when it came to our need for a balance between the life of the mind, and the building of the body. Plato was after all, a wrestler. The software of a self-programming computer is indissoluble from its hardware. Exercise absent contemplation and continuing education, or contemplation and intellectual effort absent exercise, doesn’t seem gratifying in quite the same way; at least as far as I am concerned.

Secondly, all professional coaches, regardless of sport, should take a lesson from a good instructor in an activity they are completely unfamiliar with. Aside from being humbling, it also brings to light those core fundamentals of performance which meliorate all athletics; and that knowledge is priceless.

Finally, even when we do manage the mind-body properly, we can still suffer from a lack of communion with nature. I don’t think there is anything particularly mysterious about this evolutionary need, and certainly nothing supernatural. Our brains evolved in ancestors which have been on this spinning rock for over 7 million years. How much of that time was spent behind a desk?

Consider this, when we are in our buildings and in our cities, things produced by thought constantly surround us. If you’re in a good city and a good building, then you may be lucky enough to at least surround yourself by some creative and inspiring thought. If you’re one of those unlucky enough to be trapped in the urban sprawl of corporate suburbia, then you may find yourself surrounded instead by the lowest common denominator of thought; in either case, that unnatural surrounding, combined with the 24/7 bombardment of advertisement we all face, is bound to make you sick after a while. The solution is simple, we need to get outside.

Martin Amis once said, “The first thing that distinguishes a writer is that he is most alive when alone.”  I think about that quote a lot. Writing is above all else, a solitary pursuit. But that doesn’t mean it has to be an unhealthy one. Finding occasional sanctuary in nature and maintaining the body as we engage the mind, will only sharpen the pen to even greater precision. And it makes sitting behind this desk a hell of a lot more bearable.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The MMA - Skepticism connection

It has been a busy summer to say the least. After teaching across Canada I went to Ireland and then back to the UK. Great trips, great friends, and a reminder of how fortunate I am. This was followed by the weekend at the Mundials (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world championships), where SBG managed to bring home a pile of medals, including several golds, and a new world champion from my own Portland Gym. All in all, lets just say life is pretty tremendous.

Between my above mentioned schedule, and the continuing work on my book, it's been tough to find much time to write on other topics. I have however been involved with a few things, including a podcast I did two weeks ago on the topic of MMA, skepticism and faith. The show was Strange Frequencies, and also featured physicist Lawrence Krauss, his interview on a Universe from 'nothing' is excellent.
You can listen to the podcast here

MMA, Skepticism & Faith with Matt Thornton

To new readers or people unfamiliar with the parallels that exist between traditional martial arts and religion/superstition, these two subjects might seem a bit unrelated. However, as those who've investigated this topic know, with the exception of course of religion, and 'perhaps' alternative medicine, few sub cultures remain as embedded with irrationality.

The last twenty years of my career have in one way or another been about the promotion of skepticism, critical thinking and the application of reason within the martial arts, and I don't think this has been in vein. Most of this work was done with the intentional introduction of a one word meme which, and I say this with some satisfaction, has taken hold worldwide. That word, as most of you probably know, is Aliveness. If someone really 'gets' what that means, then they can easily discern between what is fantasy, and what will align itself with reality once someone else actually begins fully resisting. Like critical thinking itself, it isn't the conclusion, or the technique that defines whether someone can actually pull off a movement against a non-cooperating opponent, but the process one used to arrive at that conclusion, in this case the training method, that makes all the difference in the world.
That practical skill set, whether it's learned within the martial arts or a critical thinking class, can easily translate into all the other areas of our lives. We can learn to engage reason and rationality to improve the well being of ourselves, and the world at large.

Occasionally I still get hit with questions like, "why bother explaining Aliveness at all, people will either get it or they won't?" As well as, "Since the advent of MMA everyone 'gets' Alive training now don't they?" Let me briefly address both.
For those who feel that explaining Aliveness at all is a waste of time because those that fall for the traditional fantasy based martial arts, thinking them efficient, are either stupid or lazy, and therefore deserving of their fate, let me just say I don't share that opinion.

About four times a year I guest lecture at the local university in a critical thinking class. This class covers everything from faith healers, astrology, alternative medicine, and fantasy based martial arts. You can probably guess which topic I am there to discuss. We start with various clips taken from people like George Dillman (famous for his "no touch" knockouts), Aikido, yellow bamboo kung fu, Silat, and other related delusions; and then follow with a discussion on the distinction between Alive combat sports and these type of dead pattern fantasy arts. As a skeptic I find that sharing critical thinking skills on these topics is both rewarding, and important; and anyone that thinks distinguishing between reality and these sorts of superstitions is "common sense", just hasn't spent enough time looking at the data, or talking to the average student.
As for the second comment, that everyone now "gets it" and therefore the need for discussion about these old training methods is moot, let me point out that the assumption that it is easy for those of us who've spent a lifetime in combat sports to understand what Aliveness really means, is simply that, an assumption. The reality is that the comments made, questions asked and classes taught by many of these people demonstrate that this isn't the nature of the situation. I still hear comments like "boxers skip rope", or "baseball players have batting practice", as if these comments relate in any way to what is meant, or not meant by Aliveness, and this is coming from people within combat sports. For those of you familiar with what Alive training means, these comments make it self-evident that even within our own functional arts, many people still don't understand what the conversation, or epistemology is actually about yet.

*If you are unfamiliar with Alive training I'd suggest starting here:

Finally, lets not forget that although training in functional martial arts is certainly on the rise thanks in large part to the sport of MMA, the Gracies and others, we are still in the minority. The superstition of fantasy based martial arts is still very much the majority.
So is Aliveness common, or always understood even within the combat athletics field, no, but that doesn't, by itself, explain why it's worth bothering with any form of critical thinking, or advocacy of reason.

Let me explain why I bother with that.
Because standing up for reason is important. The parallels between the promotion of reason within the martial arts and the promotion of reason as it relates to religion or other faith based topics, are nearly endless. One clear example, is the nature of the criticism that tends to get thrown at you. Anytime you tell the truth in plain spoken, non obfuscated language, about anything, martial arts or otherwise, you will end up offending some people. It's just part of the process. But what is important to realize is that these people are not offended because they think what we are saying is factually untrue, they are offended because we are saying something that is factually true, which they don't think we should say. And that is a very different matter all together.

Speaking up about rationality is principal. People deserve respect, compassion and understanding. We need to strive to be fully present, truly listening, if we want them to ever really hear us. However, these same values should not be applied to ideas. People deserve respect, ideas do not. When the philosophy of tolerance is applied to ideas themselves, the result is toxic. We create an environment where reason cannot be used to differentiate between good and bad concepts. If we refuse to admit that our preferences do not determine reality the we create a climate where reality cannot be improved. This is why we should never be timid when it comes to articulating why a bad idea is just that, bad. Because while blunt and authentic dialog might be offensive to some, stupid and dangerous ideas can be fatal to all of us.

If you have a taste for authenticity, if truth in the fact sense of that word is valuable to you, if you, like me, want to have your beliefs align with actuality as much as possible, if you've outgrown the desire for comforting delusion, if you find the polite but insincere distasteful at this point in your life, then feel free to pick up the banner of a free thinker; because reality is way cooler than any fairytale we can make up about it.

And that's why the promotion of skepticism, critical thinking and reason is important, regardless of the field you first apply it in.

Enjoy the podcast.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Faith Hope shell game

The Associated Press recently announced that it is now accepting sentences that begin with the word ‘hopefully’.

To those of us who may not be grammar experts this may seem like an odd announcement to make, but my guess is that the majority of us, myself included until I read the story, probably didn’t know that the original and proper English usage of the word ‘hopefully’ operates much the same as the word ‘joyfully’ does.

“We rode in the car joyfully.”

“We went swimming in the ocean hopefully.”

Through American slang the common usage of the word ‘hopefully’ changed to mean ‘I hope’, as in, “hopefully it won’t rain today”. It became a desire rather than a description.

How many times have those of us within the skeptical community been assailed with one or another variation of the falsehood that goes something like this;

“You defined faith as ‘belief without evidence’, however, don’t we all use faith in one form or another?”

“Don’t you have ‘faith’ in science and reason?”

“Isn’t trusting reason itself a matter of faith?”

I have heard this bit of casuistry time and again from believers of all manner of superstition/religion/woo-woo. As I wrote in:

equating faith based thinking to reason, rationality, or the scientific method is a fallacy, always.

Believers in superstition like to assume that everyone, at some point, needs some form of faith. In order to rationalize this assumption they play between what amounts to three fuzzy descriptions for the term ‘faith’. The first is to define faith as something akin to a positive attitude, as in, “have faith, you’ll do fine”.

The second is in my opinion technically the same, but takes a slightly different tone, and could easily be defined as wishful thinking, as in, “I have faith that tomorrow will be better than today.” Note carefully that in both definitions the word “faith” could easily be replaced with the word “hope”, and the meaning, context and sentence structure would require no modification.

The third use of the word faith is the problematic one. It is a claim to knowledge. For example someone says, “I know Jesus is the one true God” , and when asked to present evidence for this extraordinary claim they state, “It is a matter of faith”. Note that in this case the word ‘faith’ could not be replaced with a word like ‘hope’, or at the very least we can safely say that believers in superstition tend not to replace it with such a word.

Ask yourself the following, when was the last time you heard a Christian minister say anything like this, “We hope that Jesus is Lord and savior”?

When was the last time the Mormon Church declared, “We hope Joseph Smith actually did find golden tablets”?

When was the last time the Catholic Church stated: “We hope Jesus was born of a virgin”?

Have the Jehovah’s Witnesses ever said, “We hope 144,000 truly is the number of people elected to rule in heaven”?

Does the Dalai Lama say that he “hopes” he is the 13th reincarnation?

When was the last time a Mullah got up in the mosque and said that he “hoped” Allah was the one true God?

All of the statements above could be said without any required dishonesty, and if religion came to mean hopes and desires, rather than claims to knowledge, then religious superstition in all its forms would be a lot less problematic for the planet; but religion by its very nature is dishonest. All religions, East and West, make claims to knowledge that we know they cannot possibly know. As such, the use of the word ‘hope’ doesn’t enter into these sorts of assertions that these traditions make.

Here is the sneaky part, when non-believers use the word ‘hope’, believers want to be able to perform a slight of hand shell game and pretend that this too is a knowledge claim. As we can see from the examples above however, this simply isn’t true. If I state, “I hope there is life after death” I am not pretending to know something I do not know, I am simply stating my own desire for how I wish reality to be. However, if, like a preacher I claim, “The soul survives death”, then I am positing an affirmative rather than just a hope, I am pretending to know something I do not know, I am lying; and it is in these situations, when pressed for evidence for these outrageous assertions, that believers are forced to play the ‘faith’ card.

It may seem like I am painting a pretty devious picture of how believers handle argument, but I don’t think it is always that simple. The conflating of faith and hope is nothing more than a confidence trick, one that most likely evolved as many things within religious traditions evolve, as a defense mechanism against critical thinking and the questioning of dogma. To be clear, all manner of superstitions rely on this particular bit of chicanery, from traditional religions, to alternative medical quackery, to New Age sophistry; and believers in these faiths may not even know they are engaging in the artifice, or even understand that it is a form of deceit. In fact, they are probably just thoughtlessly repeating the mistake.

Speaking of solipsists, I had a run in with new age Guru Deepak Chopra where, when called on an outrageous faith claim he was making, he attempted to play the very same card. My twitter ID is aliveness_ape, here is the conversation:

aliveness_ape: until you produce some evidence that consciousness can exist absent the brain, the "cosmic" consciousness talk remains silly.

DeepakCopra: brain exists in consciousness not the other way around.

aliveness_ape: where is your evidence for that statement? Absent evidence for the brain existing 'in' consciousness, all you have is an irrational superstition.

DeepakCopra: where is your evidence that your mother loved you, or that you can feel joy?

aliveness_ape: you're comparing that for which we have lots of evidence, primate love for offspring, to something with no evidence-irrational. The idea that my mother probably loved me, is not a radical hypothesis. The idea that consciousness exists absent a brain, is. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Produce some, or all you have is theology-superstition.

Deepak's follow up, none, I think we reached the end of his reasoning ability.

When I asked what evidence Deepak had for his extraordinary claim, had he answered, “I have no evidence, but I ‘hope’ it is true”, I may not have had a disagreement with him. In truth, I find Deepak’s own Vedantic leanings to be a far more pleasant hypothesis than I do the celestial dictatorship of a sky God.

However, that is not what Deepak said is it? In fact, that is not what any religious or superstitious person says or means when they play the faith card. By definition the introduction of the faith card by the person being asked to present evidence for their claim is an admission of defeat. It is the answer you give when you have no reason, and yet still pretend to know.

This brings me full circle to the point of my essay. The word ‘faith’ is only required when we are pretending to know something we do not actually know. And rather than a virtue, this is a very dangerous character flaw. In a rational world, not pretending to know things you do not know would be considered a moral advantage. After all, the alternative is lying.

Friday, March 30, 2012

A thought experiment on, identity

Many years ago I watched a lecture and subsequent Q&A the Dalai Lama gave to a large crowd of fellow monks and the general public. One questioner asked what is in many ways the obvious question, what is “it”, that reincarnates.

The Dalai Lama was quick to answer, “I don’t know”, and he then moved on.

That particular event has stayed in my memories all these years for two reasons. First, that is the question I too would ask anyone who professed a belief in or taught the idea of, reincarnation. Second, because he wasn’t afraid of giving an answer that while extraordinarily rare in religious or “spiritual” circles, would be for science a straightforward and common response; “I don’t know”. I liked that, it is honest.

Another thing the Dalai Lama has said repeatedly is that should science be shown to contradict Buddhist doctrine on matters related to empirical questions, one must always go with science. That too is rare within religious circles, and something we should admire.

Let me be clear that I am not a Buddhist, and I am certainly not someone who subscribes to the idea of reincarnation or other Tibetan Buddhist doctrines. My mentioning of the Dalai Lama is not an endorsement of his teachings, he has also made many baseless and superstitious claims. However, the Dalai Lama’s answer to the above question frames, in many ways, the larger issue that sits at the very heart of the modern study of consciousness.

I’ve written at length about what can be the vacuous nature of the word “spiritual, see:

I won’t repeat those arguments here. Setting that aside, the central question of “self”, what is the self, what is the nature of the self, what the implications of all that could be, etc., underpin all conversations related to values, ethics, morality, justice, pride, shame, desire, fear, purpose, meaning and even death. And this is true whether we acknowledge that fact or not. As the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland famously asked, “Who are you?”

My reason for revisiting this issue is oddly enough, technology. Over the last year or so I’ve been reading the material by Ray Kurzweil (The Singularity is Near), as well as that of his critics. Whether you find his ideas plausible or not, it is hard not to find the conversation itself fascinating. It really is a case of truth being far stranger than fiction. Kurzweil’s main points revolve around what he calls the law of accelerating returns. And Kurzweil backs his claims with mountains of data. The idea is simple enough, most people, myself included until recently, think of technology on a linear time scale. We assume that a certain amount of time will have elapse before the next level of technology arises, and that span of time is almost always measured against our current state of technological development.

We really don’t have to look much farther than science fiction to realize the truth of this statement. When I grew up, Captain Kirk had a wireless communicator that he used to converse with his Starship. Mind you now, he was a Starship Captain, so of course had access to such ‘advanced’ technology. Take out your cell phone, look at your I-phone, it has far more capability than was even imagined back then, and even more importantly, nearly everyone in the first world owns one. Not only did we vastly underestimate the state of technological development that would exist in the years the Enterprise was supposed to be in operation, we also vastly underestimated the ubiquitous nature of technology itself. It becomes cheaper, and spreads faster, than anyone ever envisioned. As much as I love the original Star Trek, the truth is that even those often fantastic writers had trouble imagining the future we now live in a mere fifty years later.

Kurzweil’s idea is that this lack of foresight is due to linear thinking. Technology doesn’t increase in that fashion, instead it grows exponentially. We always use the current level of technology to create the next, and this process builds on itself to the point where the total sum capability of technology itself begins to double rapidly. How rapidly? According to Kurzweil technology will reach a point he calls the ‘singularity’ in the year 2045, a mere thirty three years away. At that time technological advancement will have reached some state of AI (artificial intelligence), and furthermore, it will have reached a point where it is capable of creating the next generation of itself. Given the law of accelerating returns, this would very quickly lead to a level of intelligence and knowledge well beyond human comprehension.

I won’t bore you with details related to Kurzweil’s evidence, but suffice it to say very smart people all over the planet take him seriously because he offers reliable data. This isn’t science fiction; this is a prediction about where science and technology will go based on the evidence of the past.

If we take an “eyes wide open” look at the state of technology as it exists today, we will see that we have drones infused with rat brains, giving them a sense of self preservation (see: We have the field of epigenetics, which has transformed how we look at the evolutionary process. We have the emerging science of nanotechnology which has implications that are truly mind blowing as it relates to all aspects of human life. And we have the first case of synthetic-biology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, being successfully transplanted into a patient who had terminal cancer, a synthetic esophagus which was sprayed with the stem cells. This isn’t science fiction, this is right now.

As interesting as that is, I want to focus on Kurzweil’s specific claims related to consciousness. To do this one would first need to accept the premise that AI in some form or another is possible. And since we currently use various forms of weak AI daily, this is actually an undeniable fact. A much larger leap, to put it mildly, is to assume that some form of AI will become sentient, or even self-aware. I think this too isn’t only conceivable, but most likely inevitable. If you have trouble accepting this possibility, ask yourself the following question: If scientists are one day able to create an artificial synapse, and you suffer some form of head trauma, and these scientists are able to replace a small area of damaged synapses with these synthetic ones (much the same as Karolinska has with the synthetic esophagus), would that still be you? Assuming you answer yes, which I think most people will, take out a larger chunk. Perhaps a quarter of your brain suffered damage and required replacing, is that still you? Again, the presumption in this thought experiment is that these synthetic synapses work in a manner identical to the biological ones. If you still say yes, and I personally don’t find this idea hard to fathom, then assume for sake of argument that eventually your entire brain is replaced with these artificial synapses; Still you? If you can go that far then you can realize the possibility of sentient AI.

There is no reason to assume that AI would have to mimic a human brain. It could operate using a totally different schematic. But to accept that AI is possible requires nothing more than the realization that our own everyday consciousness is at its core a mechanical process that occurs within the brain, which is exactly what all the current evidence suggests. Given that fact, the only barrier to AI would be the technological knowhow, and that, according to Kurzweil, is something the singularity would achieve handily.

Kurzweil proposes that sometime in the future human beings will be able to download their consciousness, and in this case when I write “consciousness” I mean the entire sum of all your past memories, thoughts, ideas, and personality, into something akin to a hard drive. At the same time, we will be able to easily reproduce various genetic replicas of ourselves, or our body parts, for use in case of accident, or death. Some have even suggested we clone humans without brains and then occupy the bodies.

You may find this idea to be so far out there that it seems silly. But, for purposes of our thought experiment, suspend your skepticism and imagine for a moment that you live in such a reality. Now think of the following scenario. You are about to take a trip overseas. As a regular safety measure you download your consciousness, which includes all things ‘you’ up to that point and you head out of town. Your wife hears that the vehicle in which you were flying has crashed. There are no survivors. Distraught, she uploads your last consciousness update into a genetic replica of you which is created on a 3 dimensional biological printer, your exact DNA match.

It is easy up to this point to see that for your wife, and for everyone else who knew you prior to your last download, you are for all intents and purposes, you. She would know no difference.

Now let’s assume for sake of our thought experiment that you somehow managed to survive the crash. You arrive home ready to surprise your wife with the great news, and what do you find? You find her in the arms of another ‘you’. Aside from all the ethical dilemmas this kind of scenario creates, such as which one of you gets to be intimate with your wife, it would seem on first glance to point to something obvious; the you that your wife created was not in fact ‘you’, the ‘you’ that downloaded yourself into the hard drive, but instead a copy. It may be an exact replica, to her and everyone else they may never know a difference, but to you, it isn’t ‘you’.

In that sense what Kurzweil is offering wouldn’t in fact be a form of life extension, but merely the ability to copy oneself. And that is in fact the exact argument the author Michael Shermer makes in refutation of Kurzweil’s immortality ideas.

When I first heard that thought experiment I found myself agreeing completely with Shermer, that wouldn’t be ‘me’, it would be a copy. But my views on that have since evolved. Let me offer one more, short, simple thought experiment that ends with a yes or no question.

Imagine that we live in the same reality as described above. We have the technology do all that is being suggested. You create an ‘exact’ (that is important for the purposes of this thought experiment) replica of your body. You also download the entirety of your consciousness (again all memories, thoughts, ideas, past experiences), into your hard drive. You set the computer to start transfer 3 seconds after your death, and you then kill yourself. Three seconds later your consciousness is uploaded into the replica body of yourself. Here is the yes or no question, is that you?

Some of my philosopher friends may at this point be wringing their hands at the undefined use of the word ‘you’. Absent a solid definition they will say, no real conversation can go forward. But that delineation is in and of itself hard to grasp concretely when we are talking about the conscious, subjective experience of being. Within the confines of this thought experiment let us say that by ‘you’ we are talking about some continuity of subjective consciousness. And in that sense of the word, is there anything found within the brain or body, absent the patterns of nature and nurture, absent the impact of both genes and environment that would stop and not re-start within the new ‘you’?

I’d be willing to bet that most people will certainly say no, that is not me. Because although it contains all that I was, and is my exact replica, it isn’t the “I” that killed itself just seconds before. In other words, some-thing would have died. There would not be the continuity of subjective consciousness from one vessel to another.

The more I think about this, the more I think that conclusion might be wrong. If you answered no that is not you, then what is it that ‘died’ when the first ‘you’ killed yourself? Your body according to our experiment is identical, your mind, absent the one or two seconds between downloads, is identical and contains all past memories, emotions and experiences. So what is it then that would be absent? What is it that dies?

This brings me full circle to the start of the essay. This is the same question, in a different form, asked by the young woman to the Dalai Lama, if something re-incarnates, what is it?

Assuming I am right, and most readers side with the idea that the second you isn’t actually ‘you’, one is forced to posit either something supernatural, such as a “soul”, or something as of yet unknown, something essential to consciousness that is not in fact related to the biology of the body. Absent those two things, neither of which there is any evidence for, what is the ‘it’ that could possibly cease continuing?

*(As a side note, the original Shakyamuni Buddha had his own answer to a very similar question roughly 2500 years ago. When asked, if consciousness is insubstantial and impermanent, and there is no underlying soul or self, by what mechanism do the impressions of virtuous or non-virtuous actions in one lifetime bear fruit in another? He answered that just as one can light one candle with the flame from another that does not mean they are the identical flame.)

I believe that we as human beings are natural dualists. Most of us seem to assume, due to the very nature of subjective consciousness itself and perhaps due to language, that there is some ghost in the machine. There must be a ‘you’ inside that head somewhere that is the observer of the observed. After all, how can you see thoughts you imagine within your brain, absent some-thing that sees them? However, what modern neuroscience tells us about consciousness seems to be pretty clear, at least so far, there is no homunculus within the brain switching levers or observing from inside. In that sense ‘mind’ is simply a word we use to describe what the brain does, much the same as ‘roll’ would be to 'tire'.

If Kurzweil is right, and if my take on the thought experiment above is right, then the Dalai Lama would have an answer he could give the questioner at his talk. Assuming he holds true to his ethos that in matters of fact science must always trump tradition, when someone asks “what is it that reincarnates”, he could offer a one word reply, “nothing”.

There is, after all, no self.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

“Faith” based reasoning

Last night I attended a lecture featuring my friend, and fellow SBG member Pete Boghossian titled:

‘Jesus, the Easter Bunny and other delusions, just say no!’

As you might imagine the title of the talk has drawn some attention, and that’s a good thing. Pete was featured on talk radio, the newspaper, podcasts, and also received some promotional help courtesy of Sam Harris, Michael Shermer and others.

Pete’s thesis is simple enough, that “faith” defined simply and accurately as ‘belief without evidence’ (after all where you have evidence you don’t need faith), is an unreliable process. Faith takes you farther away from the truth, rather then closer. And by truth, he simply means a more lawful alignment between your beliefs, and actuality itself.

Over the years many of us who’ve been engaged in these conversations with the delusional have realized that the root of the problem, the very core of the issue, isn’t religion, it isn’t pretending to know there is a god, it isn’t even belief in other forms of superstition, though all those things certainly fall under the category of delusions, what it is, is “faith”. Faith is the very foundation from which all these delusions spring, and as such, by addressing the issue of faith head on, you attack the problem at its very heart.

Fortunately this lecture was filmed properly, as was the hour-long question and answer period that followed. Once I get a copy I’ll post it here, so I wont detail the case Pete made during his 35 minute talk; suffice it to say, it was air tight. You don’t try to measure a door by sacrificing a goat, or using divination. Likewise, conclusions that are the result of faith-based processes, things such as astrology, homeopathy, and the power of prayer, have all been shown, conclusively, to not work. Again, faith based processes lead one farther away from truth, not closer.

The morning of the talk Pete and I discussed the question and answer period that would follow, and I made a prediction.

Having seen enough of these events, and having had enough of these conversations, I’ve realized that there are really only three ‘forms’, or versions of questions that those who believe in faith based ideas will offer up.

To be even more precise, there are only really two forms of argument in defense of faith offered by most people, and one additional form which is usually presented by the left, and popular in areas where liberalism is more common.

The first of these forms of argument is a bit of a shell game, it is the shift, which the questioner usually hopes goes unnoticed, between arguing that something is actually ‘true’ (be it belief in a God, homeopathy, astrology, scientology, prayer, insert woo-woo here), to the argument that while perhaps not ‘true’, it is still ‘useful’.

A couple things to note here, first of all that’s a very different argument; and as I stated, it is a difference believers in all forms of delusion usually hope goes unnoticed. Secondly, it is also for the most part, untrue; and I will explain why in detail in future essays. And third, even if it were true, and I don’t think it is, one would still be left asking whether the damage delusional thinking causes is worth the imagined ‘comfort’ people are claiming can come from it. It could in fact be akin to giving someone cancer in order to treat a headache. Again, I will deal in depth with this one in future articles, and I will explain how Pete dealt with this non-sequiter in moment.

The second form of argument people take is the attempt, in one disguise or another, to conflate the processes of science and reason to that of superstition. This pseudo argument takes a million different profiles, but if you listen carefully to the questioner you will discover it is always this same fallacy.

And finally, the third form of argument taken in defense of faith based processes, one that is usually offered up by those of a more liberal persuasion, and one which, sadly, has infected a great deal of academia, is the relativist argument; the my truth is not your truth, all ‘truths’ are equal mentality. Of the three arguments, this one is perhaps the most ironic, because it tends to be both the silliest, as well as the one adopted by some of the most educated of the lot. It seems to take a great deal of education, or more properly stated indoctrination, in order to adopt this particularly absurd delusion.

Given those three forms of argument, and outside of flatly and sincerely arguing that something is actually true, i.e. that (insert delusion here) does indeed work, these are the only three forms of argument you will ever usually hear, Pete took great care in anticipating and addressing in advance at least two of them.

For the relativist, Pete stated at the start of his lecture, “I am not a relativist, if you are, then there is likely nothing I can do or so to persuade you otherwise.”

Given the insipid nature of relativist arguments, I think that was a more then sufficient response.

For the second argument, the bait and switch from this works, in the case of this lecture that faith based reasoning works, to this is useful, Pete made the following move prior to ending his lecture. First he stated, that he would like to stick just to the thesis of the actual lecture he presented, which was simply, that faith based processes are not a reliable way to arrive at the truth, and as such, he did not want to discuss on that particular night, whether despite these things being ‘false’, they may in fact be useful.

Secondly, he made a prediction. Despite having announced this in advance, he predicted that some questioners would still come up and attempt to make that move. He followed that with one more prediction, that despite predicting that this would happen, people would still try and do it.

Can you guess if he was right?

All in all I think it was a very clever way to pre-frame the question and answer period, and intercept the slight of hand move faith based defenders always like to make when the reality of their delusion is placed in the bright light of clear thinking.

Knowing in advance that Pete was going to make these maneuvers in his talk, it was easy for me to make my prediction; that every question he received would be the same question wrapped in a different costume, the attempt to conflate faith based delusional thinking, with science and reason.

The argument goes something like this:

“You defined faith as ‘belief without evidence’, however, don’t we all use faith in one form or another?”

“Don’t you have ‘faith’ in science and reason?”

“Isn’t trusting reason itself a matter of faith?”

“Atheists say there is no god, believers say there is a god, don’t both positions take faith?”

And on and on it goes. To be clear, these questions are always fallacious. Comparing faith based reasoning to the scientific process, and keep in mind science and critical thinking are processes not conclusions, is akin to comparing a disease to its cure; but only always.

I probably don’t have to give you the punch line to this essay, my prediction was of course correct. Every question Pete received was either a variation of the artifice above, or it was an attempt to sneak in an “it’s useful” or “isn’t it all relative” question, despite the warnings given prior. Again, there seems to be only three forms of arguments.

Just to be clear, I would love to be proven wrong on this. I would like nothing more then to hear a new ‘form’ of argument offered by someone who does believe in faith based ideas, it would be an opportunity for me to learn; but sadly, no such argument ever seems to manifest.

The last questioner of the night managed to wrap the entire evening in a neat bow when they asked a variation of the science requires faith fallacy using almost all of the examples I listed above. It went something like this:

“Doesn’t your belief in reason and science as an answer to objective questions also require faith? I stepped on an airplane earlier this week, and it took faith for me to not believe it would crash. And by the way, since atheists claim there is no god, and believers say there is, aren’t both parties operating on faith?”

You couldn’t have asked for a better final question.

By this time in the evening, my patience had been worn down. I turned to my wife and commented on Pete’s patience when answering these topics. I can write on these subjects, but I have to admit that during live question and answer sessions I almost always find myself fighting the urge to throw my hands up and say “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me, this again!” It leaves me with even greater admiration for someone like Sam Harris, who answers these same fallacies time and again, without ever once losing his cool. That is certainly a skill I do not have in these situations, but one I would like to acquire.

That said, I couldn’t refrain from answering from my chair, at which point I was asked to use the mic. Here is what I said.

Atheism does not mean one ‘knows’ there is no god. Having read most prominent atheists, and knowing many, I’ve yet to meet one who makes that claim. What atheism means simply, is that one does not ‘believe’ in god. You, turning to the questioner, are probably an atheist when it comes to belief in Zeus, I simply feel exactly the same way about a divine Jesus; also, I wouldn’t fly on a faith-based airplane.

And there it ended.

Keep an eye on Pete’s lecture. For those interested in staying in touch you can text the word DELUSION along with your email address to the number 22333, and you will be placed on the mailing list. Your info will never be sold, and you will receive no spam; but you will be updated on any future events.

I’ll address the “Faith is useful” fallacy in the next few essays.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Hitchens, courage and lessons

A couple quick updates regarding this blog. First, I plan on updating here on a weekly to semi-weekly basis. So make sure you subscribe, and keep checking back. I will also announce updates on my aliveness-ape twitter account.

This will mark a huge change from the last four years or so, where updates took anywhere from one to two years to complete. In those cases, it was, in part, my desire to have a fully formed essay on a topic, such as all things “New Age” (the last piece), that made for such huge, semi-book like posts.

There are a few reasons for my change on this. The first is my effort to finish a book I am currently writing on the topic of Martial Arts, Aliveness, philosophy, and my personal history with all of the above. Ironically, the more I simply sit and write on anything, the more I finish up writing for everything. I’ve also been given some excellent opportunities, as well as encouragement, from people I greatly admire to do complete that project; so I am on it.

The second major reason has been the death of Christopher Hitchens.

I don’t want to sound overly sentimental here, I did not know ‘the Hitch’ personally, and I would never want to compare my feelings on the matter to those of the many close friends and loved ones he obviously had. I will say though, that I was a bit startled at my emotions upon hearing of his death. It was only at that moment that I fully realized the depth of affection I had acquired for an author and speaker, solely on the basis of having spent so many times reading and listening to, his thoughts. Truthfully, it surprised me.

I will also say, with some sense of sorrow, that along with the outpouring of feelings from others who felt as much or much more than I did regarding this great loss to our culture, many on the political left managed to uphold to my growing sense of disdain for that branches occasional lack of taste, reason, temperament, and nature, by choosing the moments immediately following his death to criticize the one area of disagreement many had with him, the war. This was done, by some, with a semblance of class. Others, simply vomited up vitriol, and once again showed that being liberal has little if anything to do with being a decent human being. *

*(One thing I hope to do, is live and die without ever being accused of ‘passive aggressive’ behavior. There are few things I admire less in a man than that trait. Rest assured that if you are one of my friends, or someone I correspond with regularly, I am not referencing you. You would hear from me directly, but only always.)

I strongly disagree with the utility or even accuracy of terms like “liberal”, “conservative”, or otherwise. I measure my opinions based on the question being asked, not a firm dogma I remain attached to. There are some issues which would place me more in the camp of a conservative, and many more which would have me labeled leftist, especially by the not so bright Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck crowd. What this makes me on a political scale is at times, lonely. In a world where everyone seems to have latched onto some form of identifying mantra, my only stance remains simply, “what do we want, and what does the data say”.

With that aside, let me say that I was against the war in Iraq from its first mention. My reasons for that were many, not the least of which being the Bush administrations hapless, and glaringly obvious attempts at drumming up a threat where there likely wasn’t one. At least not to those of us on American soil; we don’t have to look much farther then FOX News running “news” clips involving the danger of chemical weapons dropped from model airplanes, or Chairman Powell’s anemic presentation at the UN, for evidence as to flimsy nature of the administration’s case for war. I remember sitting awestruck at these events ran live, wondering to myself how anyone could ever buy into this rubbish; and I also remember feeling quite depressed when I realized that so many actually had.

By way of radical contrast, all Iraqi’s and their neighbors lived in a constant state of threat so long as that the psychopath known as Hussein, or his wicked offspring, held power. We should remember that, and the Hitch, having many friends throughout the Kurdish and Iraqi population tried hard to never let us forget.

It also seemed clear, based on history, that once we entered the capitol, something which many of us knew would take only a matter of weeks, if not days, we would then be left with the thankless task of ‘running’ an entirely different nation. This isn’t something our Military is currently designed to do. We were not set up to do what people like Thomas Barnett and others had been urging us to prepare to do; as such, it would likely be a mess.

I am not happy to be in anyway, right. I am glad Hussein is dead and gone; anyone who isn’t is likely to be mentally ill. However, I take no pleasure in having anticipated what a quagmire the whole thing might end up becoming.

Secondly, and this too is important, do not mistake me for an antiwar reactionary. I do believe very strongly that one of the best solutions for certain kinds of problems, both foreign and domestic, is sometimes violence. It always has been, and it always will be; I don’t even consider that a controversial statement, rather, it is an obvious truism, and its case is very easy to make. If you disagree, then perhaps you will refrain from calling an armed police officer the next time you awake to find an intruder has broken into your home. Sometimes violence isn’t a problem, it’s a duty.

So here we are; I too disagreed with Hitch on ‘that’ war, though I would never have wanted to have been across the debate table from him on the issue. I admired and respected him for his other stands; consider his bravery in loudly standing up for his brilliant friend Salman Rushdie. This at a time when many of Rushdie’s more liberal “friends” were cowering in fear under the rancid pillow of political correctness anytime the threats from these mullahs were uttered.

Consider his ability to see clearly what so many of us, myself included, could not; the absolute immorality we all sink into the moment we afford these “faith fibbers” as Dennett rightly calls them, these repulsive men who make their living lying to children and pretending to know things all of deep down know they do not and cannot know, any semblance of undo ‘respect’. For thousands of years these peddlers of superstition have managed to cloak themselves in the disguise of respectability, even assumed grace, all the while spewing the most noxious of garbage out to the world; making the planet and its people worse for their existence, throughout our entire recorded history. And Hitchens saw this for exactly what it was, to quote:

“The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species.”

Daniel Dennett in his recent piece on Hitchens,

Of all the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” Hitchens was clearly the least gentle, the angriest, the one most likely to insult his interlocutor. But in my experience, he only did it when rudeness was well deserved--which is actually quite often when religion is the topic. Most spokespeople for religion expect to be treated not just with respect but with a special deference that is supposedly their due because the cause they champion is so righteous. Then they often abuse that privilege by using their time on the stage to misrepresent both their own institutions and the criticisms of them being offered.

How should one respond to such impostures? There are actually two effective methods, and I recommend both of them, depending on the circumstances: you can follow Hitch and interrupt (“Liar, liar, pants on fire!” or its equivalent). Or you can try something a little bit more diplomatic: You can call the person a faith fibber, my mock-diplomatic term for those who are liars for God. If you are sure your interlocutor is just another religious bully, go Hitch’s route: Call him a liar, and don’t stop until he stops. If you think your interlocutor may have been lured a little over the line of truth by otherwise commendable zeal, you can ask them if they aren’t indulging in a little faith fibbing. That works on occasion too.

The main point is this: Don’t let anybody play the God card in these discussions as if it were a “Get Out of Jail Free” card that excuses misrepresentation. Hitch would not hesitate to call out the pope, or Mother Teresa, or anybody else. Honor his memory by following his example

That too is one of the great lessons I learned from watching Hitchens.

I can think of very few people who have made me want to sit up and start cheering the way he did, as when he would bluntly and correctly, let a Catholic bishop know that he should be “ashamed” for belonging to and supporting such a corrupt institution. Or when he, rightly, called out Rabbi Boteach for the obvious lies he was telling regards Darwin. Who out there can point a finger at those who offer these degenerate teachings better than Hitchens can? Watching him debate these men was like watching a “thing” called ‘justice’ play out before our eyes; it was cathartic.

Professor Dennett puts it this way:

Christopher didn’t wait his turn. “Shame! Shame!” he bellowed, interrupting Boteach in mid-sentence. It worked. Boteach backpedaled, insisting he was only quoting somebody who had thus opined at the time. Christopher had broken the spell, and a particularly noxious spell it was.

Why hadn’t I interrupted? Why had I let this disgusting tirade continue, politely waiting my turn? Because I was in diplomacy mode, polite and respectful, in a foreign country, following my host’s directions for how to conduct the debate. But what Christopher showed me--and I keep it in mind now wherever I speak--is that there is a time for politeness and there is a time when you are obliged to be rude, as rude as you have to be to stop such pollution of young minds in its tracks with a quick, unignorable shock.”

To me that sum up one of the greatest lessons we can all learn from Hitchens, when we are dealing with something so taboo ridden, something that is for all intents and purposes the literal incarnation of a sacred cow, religion, we need to remember this lesson even more.

Just as Daniel Dennett summed up one of the many great reasons I admired Hitchens, Sam Harris managed to sum up my emotions:

One of the joys of living in a world filled with stupidity and hypocrisy was to see Hitch respond. That pleasure is now denied us. The problems that drew his attention remain—and so does the record of his brilliance, courage, erudition, and good humor in the face of outrage. But his absence will leave an enormous void in the years to come.”

I am not afraid to admit being a bit emotional the night I heard of Hitchens death. I polished off a bottle of black label I’d been saving for some time, and watched some of his past lectures with my wife. The next morning I realized I was fortunate to have been made aware of his work, and to have been able to get all the joy from it that I most certainly have.

The most productive thing I can do to honor his memory is to remember the lessons he offered, his willingness to take a stand, his lack of hesitation in calling something wicked, ‘wicked’, his appreciation of irony, his mastery of the English language (I have trouble writing anything now, even a text message, without wondering whether my grammar would pass the scrutiny of such a language master like Hitch), and above all else, his obvious love for life. Something that is made self-evident, as Sam Harris mentions, when you read his memoirs (Hitch22).

So there it is my second major reason for updating this regularly now; in honor of a man whose work, and presence on this planet, I will miss very much.

One more, brief, update; as I’ve mentioned before, whenever I am engaged in ongoing debates on these topics, I start to get the subtle feeling that I may be living in ‘groundhog day’; in the classic Bill Murray version of that title. Time and again I am presented with the same stale arguments, with the only variation being the wrapping the fallacy comes packed in.

One of the latest I keep running into, often from those of a more liberal persuasion (read the 'moderate' religious community), goes something like this:

“In the wild" is it likely, or even possible, that faith can produce goods or sustainable good works that might benefit the greater interests of man, or a subset of mankind? Does faith necessarily have to be a negative? If it was so useful then, who is to say it isn’t so useful now?”

There are a multitude of variations that this form of the naturalistic fallacy falls into, but I assume you get the picture.

I’ve written at length on this, but to sum up this entry let me give you my single sentence reply:

Because someone managed something absent knowledge, does that mean we should therefore make a virtue of not knowing?

Have a great Holiday filled with joy.

-Matt Thornton

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Enlightenment Delusion

The narcissism of the new age and the fallacy of “now”.

"Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, but don't rule out malice”.

That is one of those maxims (Heinlein's Razor) that I try to keep in mind, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. My friend and Jiu-Jitsu Coach Chris Haueter had a saying he would often repeat, “it’s not who is first, it is who is left”. Both sentences capture the tone I would like to introduce this piece of writing with. The bulk of the material contained below has been finished for almost three years now. In that time I sent much of it to several friends whose opinions on such matters I respect, seeking feedback related primarily to the word I chose above, ‘tone’.

noun: style or manner of expression in speaking or writing

My job and my life, have given me the good fortune of traveling all across the world and meeting all sorts of people. Some, like me, are skeptics and atheists. Others hold a religious view, and others still gravitate towards the murkier waters of the new age movement, or as some would say “spiritual” belief systems.

Conversation, the alive, spontaneous and real time communication, offers the best venue possible for being able to listen, understand, relate to, and ultimately discuss with a fellow human being the thoughts and ideas most of us like to share as it relates to such things. And in that context I usually feel quite comfortable talking openly, without concern my intentions or words might be taken the wrong way. Writing is a different matter.

Since writing is how I am now communicating with you, my reader, let me try and establish the tone in which this material would be offered, assuming it was you and I speaking honestly and openly together. I will ask this of you as you read, if at first this comes across as too strident or didactic, give it time; the case that I am making, that new age, pseudo-scientific, psychological and religious superstition is deleterious for human beings, is a solid one. Given enough contemplation and enough factual information, I am confident that you the reader may in the end, agree with much of what I have to offer regarding these matters.

“It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.” – Thomas Paine

I, like you, have a great deal of collected memories from years past, many fond, and a few embarrassing; I think that is likely the nature of memories, and certainly the human condition. The dividing line amongst different types of people is to be found in ‘what’ we find embarrassing, not that we were embarrassed. For me that ‘what’ is fairly clear. There were plenty of moments in my past were I found myself acting in a way which was for lack of a better word unaware, as it relates to the emotions, reactions, and sensibilities of some of those around me. Being on occasion distant, removed, and generally unconcerned by that condition, is nothing short of the shadow side of non-attachment; it is just part of the nature/nurture vehicle that I am. But it is usually those moments, upon reflection, that cause me the most embarrassment.

That brings us full circle to those two sentences. Being the subject of the memory itself, I know full well that it wasn’t malice which served as the volition for many of those experiences of un-awareness. Truth be told, in the cases where I did find myself consciously acting out of indignation, out of anger, I generally don’t harbor any embarrassment; the self conscious unease I have with some of those past memories is due precisely to my clueless-ness at the time, not my intent.

Becoming increasingly aware of this daily, as I watch my daughter grow, as I settle into authentic friendships that I’ve had for decades, and as I enjoy my marriage, is the process of maturing we human mammals all have access to. As Chris said, it’s not who is first, it is who is left.

By way of connection, the periods in my life where I was eagerly investigating the entire “spiritual” scene, much of which I will describe below, were also, unsurprisingly, the periods in my life where I was the least aware, and the most detached from the flourishing of life all around me. The so called “spiritual” journey tends to do that. And for good reason; it is what Siddhārtha Gautama would have labeled ‘moha’, delusion. And often times, the most dangerous delusions are the ones in which he have invested our own self interest; the ones we ‘want’ to believe.

I am proud to consider myself a ‘skeptic’, in all the name implies. Valuing truth (in the ‘fact’ sense of that word), evidence, and the natural world, are all qualities I aspire to uphold. However I can’t always say the same for cynicism. There is a massive distinction between true skepticism, and cynicism; and while proud to be labeled as one, I am cautious to ever lean to far towards the other.

I believe very strongly that most human beings on this planet are good people. I realize that if I were writing an academic piece I would be obligated to offer a solid definition for what I mean by ‘good’, and evidence that most people are ‘that’. But this isn’t an academic piece, so let me keep it simple. Yes, there are bad people (no surprise or mystery at all considering our evolutionary history), but the majority (and no, I wont give a % here), are just like you and me; evolved primates, stuck with all the beauty, ugliness, love, anger, intelligence, ignorance, and humanity that are ancestors passed down to us.

That is the tone, the accent, the inflection with which I would like you to read this piece. I, the author, fell for much of what you will read. I visited gurus, I looked into much of the trite pseudo-scientific ‘pop-psychology’ self help books, I considered myself someone interested in the “spiritual”, and I made many of the mistakes I am about to point out. For those of you who are like me, as I was previously, here is a heads up. I am not trying to attack your character, it’s just that I’ve been there, it is a dead end; and I am about to explain exactly why that is.

One last point, there is an absolute distinction between those that temporarily find themselves searching, seeking, and running through the empty houses of mysticism, religion, astrology, mediums, spiritualism, psychics, bible codes, angel cards, chakras, past lives, karma, crystal healings, self help pop psychology, new age gurus, tarot readings, life coaches, philosophical yoga, and all forms of superstitious rubbish; and con men like Anthony Robbins, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, John Edwards, David Hawkins, Sylvia Browne, PZ Knight, L Ron Hubbard, Sai Baba, bhagwan shree Rajneesh aka: ‘Osho’, A. C. Bhaktivedanta, Rev Jim Jones and their ‘kind’ (to name but a handful), who, with various degrees of malevolence, profit on selling this poison to the credulous. And we must not forget that, just as we must be able to discern between the two when communicating.

People like the above mentioned ‘spiritual’ gurus are to human well being, what methamphetamine is to small towns. And the distinction I am drawing above is much the same as that between a dealer and a user. Users will self medicate in an attempt to ease suffering. Dealers, people like Chopra and Robbins, profit from exploiting the obvious weaknesses in their target market. They may be in the same pond, but they are not the same fish.

In the case of those stumbling through the empty landscape of woo-woo, I am pointing to a way out. For those selling it, I am offering nothing short of ridicule, and the strict isolation that sociopathic behavior requires.


“A wise man proportions his belief to evidence.” – David Hume

It has been more then two years since I last posted in this blog. It isn’t for lack of essays; it has more to do with writing for other purposes and venues. A lot of the topics I covered revolved around the same core issues; critical thinking, skepticism, superstition-religion, “alternative” medicine, and all forms of woo-woo (James Randi’s straightforward and accurate term for general nonsense). Along the way I have also engaged in countless debates, some with the Christian right, some with Catholics, some with Muslims, some with creationists, some with medical quacks, and some with the academic left.

There is a learning curve within all those dialogues. A process of figuring out how to clearly get across the point of view I was advocating. A point of view which, if I were to sum it up in a few words would be, that belief should be proportioned to evidence; that we are better off when we cease pretending to know things that we don’t know, that superstition in all of its forms is deleterious to conscious creatures, and that critical thinking, rational thought, and the scientific method are not just ‘one’ option to solve these issues, they are in fact, the only option.

Part of that education also involved noticing the various points my debate opponents would attempt to make as they tried to rationalize what was an indefensible positions (as all positions based on faith/superstition are). Conversation after conversation brought home the realization to me that although many of these dialogues were about very different topics on the surface, for example the Catholic Churches position on contraception, as opposed to say, the sale of homeopathic “medicine” in grocery stores, that at their root the same faulty thinking, the same fatuous arguments, and the same fallacies in reasoning, show themselves as evident within the justifications of those who claim to believe in such things. So although the names and forms superstition may take on vary greatly, and include genres as diverse as ethics, medicine, religion, self help psychology, and astronomy, in the end it is the same erroneous thought model at the heart of it all.

This brings me to my topic, “new age” superstitions, and under this banner I would include things like astrology, belief in ‘spirits’, invalid uses of scientific terms such as ‘energy’, medical quackery (also known as ‘alternative’ medicine), and superficial adaptations of eastern religion & philosophy to name but a few things (any visit to a large ‘new age’ bookstore should round out your education as it relates to the massive volume of insanity that is contained within this culture). These things are just as dangerous, just as silly, and sadly within the more affluent areas just as prevalent, as a lot of fundamentalist religion is. And this certainly includes fundamentalist versions of Christianity, which ironically remain a hard target for many ‘new agers’ who don’t seem to grasp that their lack of reasoning and misguided belief in childish irrationality is of at least equal measure as that of the staunchest creationist.

Many on the left may protest here, stating that while their beliefs may be just as “faith” based (read lacking in any evidence), their actions within the culture at large tend to be of a more beneficial nature. In example, many will claim to be anti-war, pro environment, socially liberal as it relates to issues like gay marriage, etc, and therefore, much better neighbors to have when it comes time to fill out the voting ballot. And on the surface, and it is a very thin surface, there may be ‘some’ merit to that. I state that based on the standard of living and general measures of well being that tend to score higher in blue state areas then they do in deeply religious red state areas. But, upon deeper investigation I think a very strong case can be made that any social benefit found within blue state areas tends to increase ‘in spite of’ these new age values, rather then because of them. Furthermore, I will also argue that these same new age superstitions will if followed, lead to a more dangerous world, a dirtier environment, and a less tolerant, less rational society as a whole.

In other words, and said plainly, the new age philosophy is built on a foundation of hypocrisy. A state of being that superstition by its very nature, leads to if it goes unchecked.

As I have reflected on this topic over the years I realized a few things, and part of this is certainly subjective and therefore should be taken by you the reader with a larger dose of salt. But when I first started to turn my attention away from Martial Arts (I think I have said all that needs to be said as it relates to the needed skepticism in that field) and onto things like religion, I imagined my greatest opposition coming from bible thumping, conservative, fundamentalist Christians, and in Europe, from their Muslim equivalent; but I have started to realize that some of our biggest opposition may in fact come from the liberal left, the so called religiously “moderate”, the new age crowd, and the cultural studies departments in academia. And furthermore, I also realized that although I disagree adamantly with people on the religious right, as personalities I often find myself liking them. This is especially true when they are obviously sincere, interested in truth, and hard working. Sentiments I can’t say always apply in equal measure to those within the far more liberal ‘new age’ world, one that generally announces itself with a statement like, “well I am not religious at all, but I consider myself ‘spiritual’”; one of those overtly narcissistic comments that has me politely excusing myself and looking for an exit.

Let me pause here for a moment and offer some reflections on that sentence, the ever popular: “Well, I am not religious at all, but I consider myself ‘spiritual’.” Or as is sometimes stated, “I don’t believe in ‘organized’ religion”; as if unorganized superstition is perfectly fine.

When people make these sorts of statements to me now, my usual reply is to ask them to define what they mean by the word “spiritual”. What follows is always a chaotic jumbling of things which, if they made sense at all, would do so only under the banner of something like, “profound”. So let’s grant them that. There are experiences, moments, and values which we, the human animal, can rightly call profound. I would not dispute that. But imagine for a moment someone making the following statement:

“Well, I am not religious at all, but I consider myself ‘profound’.”

That transparently absurd statement, although not likely to be something you hear coming from those of the “spiritual” persuasion, would in my opinion, be far more honest; at least in so far as it represents the individual’s opinion of themselves.

Now back to the topic. In the interest of total honesty here, it is best that I offer full disclosure regarding my past history with these issues and philosophies. As I have written previously on this blog, I have experienced several powerful shifts of perspective over the decades. The largest of these occurring right around the age of thirty, and for better or worse, sending me onto the quest that I rather ashamedly have to admit would fall under the trite banner of “seeker”. Human beings label these types of experiences “spiritual”, a label I now reject because of its chronically misleading implications, and because of its rather narcissistic nucleus, as mentioned above.

Anyone who lives a powerful moment, often labeled ‘peak’, ‘spiritual’, or ‘mystical’, will find that the majority of the literature related to accounts of these events tends to be religious; with the Eastern versions, as drawn from Vedanta (Advaita Vedanta), Buddhist, and Taoist thought, tending to be the most explicit in terms of tangible descriptions. So for better or worse, one is often sent into the realm of mysticism, and by extension Eastern thought, in order to find better meaning as it relates to these brain states; at least up until very recently. And there in exists the problem.

Simply put, these experiences are brain states; in terms of ‘explanatory options’, the one truly worth exploring, is the scientific one. It is neuroscience, biology, and chemistry which offers factual answers to the why, and how of these events. Thankfully that body of work is now growing. The ‘out of body’ and ‘near death’ experiences, to use but two examples, have already been explained in great detail. In fact, they can be replicated in a lab.

Applying the technology of truth, science, to these questions is still relatively new; and this left humans in the past, our ancestors, stuck with the writings of previous mystics as the only shelf of knowledge available; a shelf that has long been hijacked by the frequently vile creatures that run the racket known as ‘religion’.

As for my experience, the thirties were for me a decade that was spent in large part studying Eastern philosophy, religion, and mysticism. There are of course sources in and of, the West; Spinoza, Emerson, the brave heretic Giordano Bruno, Marcus Aurelius (whose book ‘Meditations’ no one should be without), Meister Eckart, John of the Cross, Walt Whitman, William James, Joseph Campbell, I’d even place Heidegger on the list (though I believe much of his philosophy was simply lifted from the East), to name but a very few. However, the vast majority of literature that tends to vividly offer the reader a taste of actuality as it comes to these sorts of experiences is without doubt, from Asia. In my hungry quest to understand what this all was, I consumed a lot of it. From the more trivial, most everything for example that Alan Watts ever wrote, to the more profound, the written lectures of the late Ramana Maharshi being my favorite example.

This decade of research had quite a few unintended consequences; one being that by extension I wound up coming into close contact with the perplexing, humorous, and always confused ‘New Age’ crowd, on a fairly regular basis. Many of the books I was looking for, as an example the extended writings on Ramana Maharshi, tend to be found within the walls of a new age bookshop. A shop which contained one or two shelves devoted to Hinduism, several shelves for Buddhism, and a whole host of shelves for Astrology, channeling, crystal healing, psychics, tarot card reading, all manner of “alternative” healing, and heaps and heaps of other forms of assorted bullshit. One close friend of mine compared walking into a new age bookshop to visiting a candy store. At this stage in my life I think a more apt description would be a sewage plant. *

*(a note here, in reviewing this piece for me, a colleague cleverly noted that candy stores tend to offer only empty calories and cavities; while sewage plants serve a useful role in society. The irony not lost on me, I hope the reader will understand that in this context, the overwhelming smell of pure bullshit leaves the browser of these shops stuck with the worst of both locations.)

Over the years I’ve personally met with literally dozens of ‘gurus’, or spiritual “masters” from places like Tibet, India, and everywhere else on the planet. All of whom were talking about, or pretending to be, some form of “enlightened being”. I attended lectures, sat in on “satsangs”, asked questions, and keenly observed these folks claiming to have answers to all sorts of issues. This included everything from what happens after you die, to how best to handle a particular relationship problem.

My usual method of operation was to sit as far in the back as possible, and observe quietly. The average gig would have the guest expert sitting on some small stage, sometimes in typical guru looking posture, sometimes on a chair, then, after the obligatory long period of silent mediation that usually preceded all such evenings, those around asked questions and offered compliments to the smirking guru on the stage whose entire demeanor was designed to give the hint that he (or sometimes she) knew just a little some-thing, that the audience didn’t know. And there in exists one of the main hooks to this particular con game.

“When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames; for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” - Hume

Sometimes these talks were humorous. And sometimes I also found them quite sad, with many people in the audience bursting into tears and proceeding to tell heart wrenching stories of suffering to the pedestal striding expert. I remember one evening in particular where the obvious pain, loneliness, and above all else confusion, of a great deal of the attending crowd was palpable. I had taken a friend, and upon leaving she said she never wanted to go to anything like that again, after all, couldn’t I see how much pain many of these people were in?

After some reflection, I realized how right she was. This was not, fun and games. Many of these people were in serious need of actual help. And what they were getting instead, as always happens with the ‘new age’, were obvious charlatans playing a game of adult dress up, in this case pretending to be “enlightened”, and offering what never amounted to anything more then cliché fortune cookie “wisdom”. Though not quite as repulsive as those criminals who exploit the grieving by pretending to talk to the dead, these “gurus” were still pretty high on the reprehensible scale. And it was around this point that I stopped attending any such events.

Just to be absolutely clear, whether it was pop-psychology “Life Coaches”, Tibetan Lamas, Yogis, Buddhist monks who had spent years in isolation, or the ever-present “enlightened” Advaita Vedanta culture, these people were all, down to a single one, delusional. I spent years in and around the new age community, and in the end I discovered all of it was utterly, and completely, make-believe.

On a more positive note, if I were to give myself a pat on the back for anything during those times (and I hesitate to do so for reasons I will explain further on), it would be for this alone; I at least had the sense to sort out the completely vacuous and insincere, from the truly relevant literature on the topic. And by vacuous I refer to such things as the ever so silly ‘The Secret’, the repugnant ‘channelers’ such as the infamous PZ Knight whose movie ‘What the Bleep do we Know’ still amazes the intellectually lazy around the world, Deepak Chopra whose ramblings about quantum physics serve only to mislead, or last but not least the terminally insincere Anthony Robbins, whose demeanor alone should scream out “used car salesman!” to anyone with even an ounce of authenticity still clinging for life within his or her being.

If you have been seduced into reading any of the above, or anything like it, and there is literally tons of this garbage on the market, just stop. Just do yourself and the world a favor, and stop. There is a reason the ‘self help’ market in bookshops is huge. The same gullible people buy the same superficial books, over and over. Despite rationalizations related to degrees of maturity, the truth is nobody really needs to be part of that impoverished and mentally adolescent circus.

Check out the empirical claims made within the literature. The science on these things is usually quite easy to sort out. See for yourself that it is all pure fantasy. There is no such thing as ‘the law of attraction’. There is no evidence that human beings can ‘channel’ dead ‘spirits’. Physicists don’t take Deepak Chopra’s version of physics seriously, Anthony Robbins is not taught within real psychology departments. Find out for yourself where the current state of scientific knowledge is in the field. And then do the most unnatural, most rare, and most important thing any human can do, admit you have been taken. There is no shame in that.

The trite literature of the new age is deliberately constructed to appeal to our base instincts, our egocentric traits; our desire for wealth, popularity, fame, power, and overall narcissism; just look at the titles for clues as to this fact.

As a side note, if you’re earnestly looking for something that actually is ‘profound’, then pick up a copy of ‘The Origin of Species’ by Charles Darwin. Within it you will find truth, beauty, and the words of a real hero, a man who managed to bring the entire world a gift of knowledge. A man who possessed more inspiration in one finger, then all of these self help pseudo intellectual ‘gurus’ have within their entire collective being.

Now that I have given myself a reluctant pat on the back for at the very least, avoiding that particular pitfall of what the pseudo-spiritual self-help/new age world, let me quickly, and prudently withdraw it. Although I was able, through some intelligence, instinct, luck, or combination thereof, to navigate the shores of the mystical literature quite well; what I wasn’t able to do was avoid what I am afraid may be an almost inevitable trap which lays in waiting for everyone who ventures too far from a rational, skeptical, truth based path.

The phantasm of solipsism sits rooted in the center of these pursuits, and its side effects, ironically, tend to lead directly away from its promised gifts.


Philosophy . the theory that only the self exists, or can be proved to exist.
extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of one's feelings, desires, etc.; egoistic self-absorption.

I think the above stated dictionary description says all that needs to be said, and rather well.

The first definition, #1, tends to be the conviction that accompanies most mystical, peak, spiritual experiences. A sense of unity, an experience of ‘one-ness’, the realization of ‘Being’ to use Heidegger’s term, the actuality of monism, as expressed lucidly by the brilliant Spinoza. These are the first person reports that humans who have undergone such experiences offer when interviewed on the topic.

One of the best collections of these experiences can still be found in ‘Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences’ by Maslow. Though written in the mid 60’s, the clear prose on what Maslow labeled the ‘Peak Experience’ still hold up well.

It would be foolishness if I tried to trivialize these events as something other then deeply meaningful to those that have had them. The body of literature on this topic is simply too great, we know how powerful these sorts of experiences can be. And we also know, factually speaking, the profound effects they can have on these individual’s lives. So we need to begin by acknowledging these truths.

Once we accept those facts, several important questions open up. I’ve labeled them A-C.

A) First, where do these experiences come from? I have already expressed the fact that what we are discussing specifically are certain kind of brain states. But this still leaves open the question of how, and why, they occur. I realize that for the more analytical minded, this question might at first glance seem itself to be pointless; as so many “why” questions tend to be. But I would offer a couple of examples where this question becomes important. The first is from an evolutionary perspective. Obviously these experiences are possible within the brain due to evolution. And that means they are either a direct adaptation, or a by-product of an adaptation. The question then is which it is, and why it occurred. And this is a question for science.*

*(An important note here:. There is a common preconception that ‘purposeless’ features, i.e. features for which there is no adaptive advantage for the creature, are counter to evolution. This is a fallacy. Think of nipples on men. This would ‘seem’ to be the case when it comes to non-normative brain states; but again we have to remain open to evidence. In the end, this is a question that can only be answered truthfully by science.)

B) The second question regarding purpose, and one that is likely to be far more relevant to the individuals who have these experiences, is this, in what ways do these experiences positively, or negatively, effect these individuals lives. And I would argue that this too, is a question for science, as I will explain below.

C) And the third question, one which very few mystics seem to want to ask, is what we ‘can’t’ imply from the nature of these experiences. And this rarely asked question is one of the most important if what we are looking for has any relevance to actual truth. And without a doubt, the lines that need to be drawn here, that must be drawn here, will be etched into the fabric of information through the tools of science.

For the purposes of this essay I am going to leave alone question A, as this is a question for hard science to answer. It is related to chemical reactions in the brain, neuroscience, genetics, and the general fields of evolution. There are many people in the lab who are working on these issues, and the previously mentioned studies on ‘out of body’ and ‘near death’ experiences are good examples where science has stepped up and offered factual answers to how, and why, those experiences (brain states) occur. And I, like you, will be curiously reading the results as scientists delve further into the nature of these events.

I do however believe that questions B and C can be answered through science, as well as mindful contemplation, observation, reason, logic, careful thought, and experience. I think we can shed quite a bit of light on these questions. And it is there I want to focus my lens.

Let’s start by discussing question B. How do these experiences positively or negatively affect an individual’s life?

I am an atheist. I don’t believe in anything supernatural, having yet to see even the slightest hint of evidence for such. And as result, the idea that some form of “God” offered up morality in terms of what is “good” and what is “bad” is simply absurd to me. Aside from being fraught with philosophical contradictions, I find it ridiculous for a mature adult to still maintain those sorts of fairy tale pseudo-explanations.

As I have written previously, anytime someone uses the word “God” as an explanation, educated readers should recognize immediately that they have inserted a made up an answer in a blank space that should otherwise read ‘mystery’. “God” is never an answer; it is in reality a failure to even explore the question.

As the writer Sam Harris recently stated in one of his essays:

Yesterday my daughter asked, “What is gravity?” She is two and a half years old. I could say many things on this subject—most of which she could not possibly understand—but the deep and honest answer is “I don’t know.”

What if I had said, “Gravity comes from God”? That would be merely to stifle her intelligence—and to teach her to stifle it.

I have to be clear here, this does not make me a “moral relativist” in any sense of the word. I do believe quite firmly that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions. And no make believe super natural entity, no celestial dictatorship, is needed to get us to that point.

What I am talking about here is a ‘moral science’, and this topic is an enormous one. The greatest foe to this concept seems to come from the academic left, whose culture is never better described then in the book, ‘Higher Superstition’ by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt. If you have not read it, do yourself a favor and pick it up. I am not going to go into depth on this topic in this piece, simply because I don’t have the space. I have a lot of writing specifically on that subject, both philosophical (addressing academic objections), and religious, which I will make public sometime in the future. In the meantime I would suggest investigating the YouTube lectures, and book, ‘The Moral Landscape’ by Sam Harris for a primer on the ideas.

Cutting to the chase on this I will sum it up in one sentence. Any form of ethics or “morality” that matters in any meaningful way, will be directly related to the well being of conscious creatures. And that, in and of itself, is the bottom line. If you disagree with that A priori statement then try performing a simple thought experiment. Think of something that has absolutely no effect, relationship, or bearing on conscious creatures, either now, in the past, or in the future, in anyway. Once you’ve imagined that, ask yourself, could that have anything to do with anything we could reasonably call ethics, or morality?

If someone wants to make an argument that, using one example, the marriage between two men or two women is ‘wrong’, and or ‘immoral’, then the onus is on them to explain to the rest of us how that event (the marriage of a gay or lesbian couple) will negatively effect the well being of that couple, others around them, or society as a whole; and that argument, will by its very nature, open itself up to scientific study.

For example, should the hypothesis that the children of lesbian couples will suffer more parental abuse than those of heterosexual couples be offered up, we have ways with which we can study and determine the answer to that; point of fact, we already have, and studies have shown that the children of lesbian couples have an almost non-existent rate of abuse, as compared to heterosexual couples. This is science, the technology of fact, helping determine a “moral” question, based on the original objective of well being of conscious creatures.

Now that we have established that basis for moral reasoning, how does it play out in practical ways as it relates to real world behavior, and public policy? I think the answer to that is also pretty simple, and it has to do with the rules that sane adults need to hold to when having these sorts of deliberations.

As an example, if you think it is wrong for gay or lesbian couples to marry because it says so in a Bronze Age book you take to be written by the one true supernatural creator being, then you have simply, by virtue of your ignorance, bigotry, and absurdity, excluded yourself from adult conversation. When it comes time to discuss issues of public policy, you can and should be relegated to sitting at the children’s table. Because by playing the “faith” card, you have demonstrated an inability, due to your religiously based disability, to offer meaningful dialogue on adult issues of this sort.

I wont go into more detail then that in this piece (though I will expand greatly on it in others), I think it stands as self evidently true. Unless you are a socio-path, the well being of conscious creatures is the very earth upon which all moral judgment and decision needs to be made. And although the term ‘well being’ may at first seem a bit ambiguous, we should recognize it is no more vague then the notion of ‘good health’ is as it relates to medical science, or ‘sanity’ is as it relates to the psychiatry. And it is that marker, one which encompasses the broadest possible range of variation, creativity, and room for distinction, the well being of conscious creatures, which will serve as the measuring line for questions B; how do these experiences positively or negatively effect the individual.

Now that we have addressed the issue of science, facts, and reason as it relates to public policy, let’s look at how it plays out when evaluating an individuals behavior and decision making ability.

Let me offer two very different hypothetical outcomes that could conceivably follow from what we will label as a profound spiritual experience. Let’s start by declaring that in both cases the individuals experienced what was, for the most part, the same realization; let’s say it goes something like this:

Temporarily (as always seems to be the case), they were released from all feelings of anxiety, guilt, shame, desire, and above all else, fear. An overwhelming sense of love and compassion flooded over them, like a blanket, or the vibration of the perfect musical harmony. All sense of individuality, what psychologists would likely label a deep disassociative experience, was lost. Instead of a personal “I”, there was only an “IS”. There was what was in the moment, and they were that, and that was IT. Any further sound of “I” was heard as a ‘universal pronoun’. Said otherwise, while in the experience they had the very real (at the time) flavor of speaking to only themselves, albeit others may have been speaking to them, those others were also I. All in all, it was always the same “I”. And with that “I” there was no real death, as the “I” was, and is, before and after all. There was only one thing, for which we cannot add a label, so using the handicap of language we will call it ‘THAT’. And all was that, including them. Its feeling was love, and its language was Being. Thought was absent. There was no internal dialogue, actively and ever so vigorously maintaining the mental dramas that keep the storyline of the small, first person “i”, real to the mind. That was gone, and with it, suffering. It was quiet. There was only now, there was only being it-self, and its taste was bliss.

Let us, for sake of the hypothetical, say that both human beings in our example experienced the above.

Perhaps it sounds crazy to you. Perhaps instead, some, or all of it sounds familiar, as you too have experienced similar moments. Regardless grant me for sake of further conversation that such experiences occur. And if you doubt that, take some time to investigate for yourself some of the literature (much of which is listed above) on these topics. I think you will find a variety of experiences, as William James aptly put it, a variety that ranges from skimming the surface of the above listed description, to one that delves straight through to what for lack of a better word we will label a universal “I”; or as the Rastas and Hindus often say, I and I, “I-I”. Suffice it to say, this isn’t science fiction. This is what human beings have been reporting since they were able to write.

“When you do transcendent metaphysics the engine of language idles.”
– Wittgenstein

Now that we have described our experience, let’s apply that ultimate measure of ‘moral’ progress, the well being of conscious creatures, to the potential outcomes, and see if we can answer question B, in what ways do these experiences positively, or negatively, affect these individuals’ lives.

If the experience increases the suffering of conscious creatures, in this case that of the individual who had the experience and those he or she has contact with, then in the end it will hold little more meaning then a shot of heroin, dose of ketamin, bottle of whisky, or any other form of escapism does. No amount of “spiritual” platitudes applied to the event will change that fact.

I know for many, the measure of ‘good’ seems too arbitrary to get a firm handle on. But I think that is a clear mistake. Let me give a very simple and very clear definition one could use when evaluating these sorts of things. When I am suffering, wallowing, and or generally being a prick, it takes only a tiny bit of introspection to realize I am nearly always also being selfish and irresponsible. When I am happy, strong, and kind, I find I am usually not selfish (in fact not thinking of my-self much at all really), and I am quite responsible. And I would offer that as a simple test, a quick universal measure we could apply to anyone’s behavior and thought patterns in order to measure the value any particular experience may or may not have on beings.

If prior to the experience the individual was often selfish and irresponsible, and after the experience the individual finds themselves just as selfish and irresponsible, then regardless of the metaphysical ‘knowledge’ one may ‘think’ they have gained, regardless of the temporary happiness one may ‘believe’ they are achieving, the experience itself is of little to no tangible value.

And herein lays the danger in the entire “new age” culture. Almost everything within it, and this includes the rampant use of pseudo science, the vapid attempts at Eastern philosophy, the superstitious ideas related to “energy” chakras, crystals, angels, “detoxification”, transcendence, past lives, karma, spirits, and all the rest of the woo-woo, is inherently narcissistic. It is always all about, ‘me’. It is the upper middle class, liberal version of the faith healer scam. And its prophets hold as much depth as the televangelist with his plastic hair and gold furniture. Wayne Dyer may be on PBS, but his pitch is no different then what you would find on the 700 Club, or the Old Time Gospel hour; it is a scam, and like all scams it appeals to an individual’s greed, and selfishness.

Setting aside the superstition of the new age sub culture for a moment, it is equally true to say that the actual experience of the numinous, what Maslow labeled the “peak experience”, in all its variations and depths, can have an extremely positive effect on the lives of human beings. Again, I would refer the reader to the mountains of literature on this particular topic. These events, often profound and life changing, can give people new perspectives on the world, relationships, love and meaning, that they may not have previously had access to. They can open the heart, and challenge the individual to seek deeper levels of introspection. Acting in much the same way as a good form of therapy (read science based therapy) would.

And that ‘good’ can be measured quite simply, in whether the individual’s ‘behavior’, as it relates to selfishness and irresponsibility, changes for the better.

Another marker I find to be extremely telling is sincerity. We human beings are evolved social animals. For millions of years our evolutionary family tree has been composed of ancestors who lived in small tribes. Insincerity, building that false façade, is a skill set that evolved with us, along with the ability to detect it (a kind of arms race). Other traits and skills evolved as well, things like reciprocity, a sense of justice, and empathy.

The desire to be ‘fake’ can arise for various reasons, insecurity, survival, and manipulation, all play roles here; but in general I would say that most of us can generally tell, at least when we are in a good space ourselves, whether someone has a front up because they are simply insecure, or whether, like the previously mentioned Tony Robbins or so many of the New Age gurus, it is an intentional technique designed to manipulate others for personal gain. In the case of the former, we can often look past it. In the case of people like Robbins (and other gurus), the best option is simply to avoid them. The line between those folks, and sociopath, is often razor thin; if it exists at all.

When I started this section I stated that the definition of solipsism itself, told the story. Let’s look at that one more time:


Philosophy . the theory that only the self exists, or can be proved to exist.
extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of one's feelings, desires, etc.; egoistic self-absorption.

The feeling that all is ‘one’ is an almost universal symptom described by those who have peak experiences, but it is not the only one. I will discuss other descriptions, as well as what they may ‘mean’ further below, but for now let’s stick with the sudden realization of non-duality that characterizes so much of the mystical literature.

At first glance the idea itself doesn’t appear problematic. In one sense, through our very real evolutionary tree, all life on this planet is related. There is absolutely no doubt about that. And in terms of the Universe itself, all mater is related, factually speaking. When I state, “you are made of stardust”, that isn’t metaphorical, it is literal. Within the moment itself, the tremendous release one can find when immersed in nature, or so involved in an activity that the internal dialogue of the small “i” ceases, can be sublime. This is all true. But it is what happens after the event, and despite the philosophical fallacies; there is always an ‘after’, that really matters. And this is where the second description of solipsism can come into play.

Extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of one’s feelings, desires; egotistic self-absorption.

As a personal experiment I would ask you the reader to venture to your local new age bookshop. Most larger cities have some form of new age, alternative healing, counter culture type newspaper, find one and check out the advertisements for “life coaches”, psychics, crystal healers, and all form of wackadoodle. Pay close attention to their accompanied photographs, the cheesy and insincere smiles, the soft edges, the “look at me I am spiritual” image they so badly want to be associated with. Next, take a look at the shelves in the store. How many are devoted to ‘Astrology’, as one idiotic example. Ask yourself, could there possibly be a greater waste of time? Finally, take a look at the titles of the top of the pop psychology, self help, new age book market. Ask yourself, what part of that title isn’t all about ‘me’.

The new age market is a multi billion dollar industry that is intentionally designed to appeal to our selfish instincts, and our frivolous and credulous desires. Those that time and again buy into it, are at best mislead, and at worst willfully engaging in a conceited form of self-deception.

This brings me back around to my years of experience swimming the edge of the pool that is that culture. My curiosity to find others who could validate, or at least describe similar experiences to my own, launched me on a journey that had me meeting dozens of “gurus” and “spiritual teachers” of all sorts, some famous, some infamous, and some known only within the small sub culture, or religion, which they claimed to represent. Much of this was funny, some of it was interesting, and unfortunately as I mentioned earlier, it could also be very sad. The extended versions of some of these stories are things I plan to write in the future, and will hopefully end up being both entertaining, and somewhat telling as to how the whole scene goes down.

Once I stopped focusing on my investigative study of whoever the speaker was, and I turned my attention to the other people in the room with me, it became pretty clear that a good deal of them were in serious agony. I am not talking about the more astigmatic forms of suffering, like self-pity; but real suffering, the death of a spouse or a child, cancer, mental illness, severe child abuse, molestation, rape, and things of this nature. The kind of trauma that often, and in a perfect world shamelessly, requires asking for help. And that is exactly what these hurting people were doing, they were crying out, often literally, for help.

Here they were, the new age “gurus”, the “life” coaches, the spiritual teachers, the self proclaimed “enlightened” ones, the “experts”, sitting on a stage, pretending to offer that guidance. But what they were offering instead, is the only thing they had to hustle, make believe answers, fraudulent claims, shallow and spurious hippie philosophy, and pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo; all of which immediately crumbles apart the moment anyone applies even the smallest bit of critical reasoning to it. And by that time the guru has moved on to a different city, to different people they can assault with sophism.

The more I thought about it, the angrier I became. Here are human beings in real, and intense pain. They were suffering, with all the symptoms that word implies. And what were they getting? They were getting charlatans who pretended to know things they didn’t know, in order to profit off these very vulnerable, very heartsick people. It made me nauseous.

It would be disingenuous of me if I didn’t point out that not ‘all’ the speakers, teachers, and gurus that I visited were as malicious and disdainful of human beings as those I have described above. But the most popular ones certainly were. If you can watch these new age gurus speak to a crowd, and not throw up a little in your mouth, then you are missing something very real that is right in front of your eyes, the vulgarity of insincerity.

They were not all pathologically deceitful, some were well meaning, well intentioned, but just as delusional as the people who were coming to hear them speak. In other words they actually believed the spiritual story line they were telling.

Out of that group, the best avoided large metaphysical answers, such as pretending to know what happens after one dies, or who or what someone was in a previous life, or why bad things happen to good people, and instead focused on more practical techniques involving mindfulness, or contemplative practices. And in so far as they stuck to that path, they didn’t appear to be doing any harm. But the ever-present temptation to fall into the woo-woo is always hovering over these kinds of meetings, and it was almost inevitable that at some point the speaker would lay out some form of empirical claims for which they obviously had no evidence, all the while never realizing they had crossed that threshold between fact and fantasy.

Every single one of these people, from the deceptive hustlers to the oblivious kooks, made claims to knowledge, claims to erudition, which we know they don’t, and can’t, know. That fact is made self-evident in the written literature, and talks given by all these people. And it is both irrefutable and tragic.

It seems perfectly obvious that once we human beings embark down the path of pretending to know things we don’t know, reality, authenticity, appreciation, consideration, and emotional development, quickly fall to the wayside. The organic process most of us refer to as ‘maturing’ gives way to a state of artificiality, becoming an unmistakable case of arrested development.

Where does that leave us as it relates to our original objective, to become less selfish and more responsible? Once we embrace the superstitious, once we start believing the unfounded, once we cease demanding evidence and instead jump headfirst into the world of wish thinking, it leaves our original intention, unnecessarily remote.

Backwards is really the optimum word here, because so much of the new age pseudo philosophy, what I earlier called shallow and spurious hippie philosophy, isn’t just wrong, it is in fact almost perfectly everted.

Let’s take one often used example before we address question C. This is one of many corny platitudes that many of you may be familiar with due to its frequent, and lamentable use:

“Everything happens for a reason.”

How often have you heard someone casually drop that line at the end of someone else’s often-candid disclosure of personal crisis, or adversity? I wonder how frequently those who so flippantly throw out such a banal saying ever stop and think, if even for a moment, about just how superficial a cliché it really is. Superficial? Absolutely. Erroneous? Of course it is. Common? No doubt about it.

The reason a statement like that finds itself so popular isn’t to my mind, much of a mystery. I recently had a chance to guest lecture in a philosophy course that is geared towards teaching university students critical thinking skills. The topic I am there to discuss is skepticism and rational thought, as applied to the field of Martial Arts; a subject I have invested twenty years in. One of the nice things about these classes, is they often veer off into different areas. There is after all only so much you can say about critical thinking in Martial Arts once you have explained the principle of Aliveness. One topic we hit on last time was the concept of ‘karma’.

The entire theory of karma, like all religious superstition, disintegrates as a plausible hypothesis the moment you apply any serious analytical thought to it. It also reveals itself as a profoundly deleterious superstition; a reality that many in the West who want to adopt the idea can’t seem to wrap their mind around. It is an incredibly common belief, even in the West, where a sort of hazy, poorly constructed scheme known as ‘karma’ is said to act as kind of a universal ‘law’, like gravity, or entropy, and ensures some nebulous form of ‘justice’, where good deeds ‘come back’, and one eventually pays the price for bad deeds.

Before we dissect this belief, which won’t take long, we need to establish a few starting points. The first one, as it relates to any kind of conversation whatsoever associated with critical thinking, is this.

We have to agree that some people can be completely delusional about an idea, or the nature of reality.

If we can’t at least agree to this obvious truism, then there really is no point in further dialogue. An easy way to demonstrate this principle is to ask the students in class if the table you are standing next to is made of solid gold, or wood. If someone claimed the table was solid gold, and someone else claimed that no, it was in fact made of wood, would one of them have to be wrong? Another one is to ask whether or not someone who believed they could fly without the aid of any gear jumped off a ten story building, is it true that their statement that “they can fly”, would have a right or wrong answer?

I realize that some of you may at this point be rolling your eyes at the absurdity of having to ask such easily testable and obvious questions, let me assure you, sadly, it is necessary. I’ve sat in a room full of adult university students who have ‘attempted’ to actually argue the questions above. What may seem like a redundant step to anyone with half an ounce of common sense is distressingly vital in the academic world of postmodern cultural studies departments. The genius behind starting with very simple questions that guide the students towards acknowledging the existence of objective reality has become apparent to me, as I have watched my friend work this class.

Once you establish that there are right and wrong answers to empirical questions, i.e. there are chairs in the room or there are not chairs in the room, has a right and wrong answer. There ‘should’ or should ‘not’ be chairs in the room, may in this case be more of a subjective opinion; the next step is to ask how we as human beings can navigate this world of possibilities, and determine which answer is right, and which is wrong. And as every sharp reader has by this time guessed, the answer to that puzzle is always the scientific method. It isn’t that science is the ‘best’ way to answer these questions. That is an indisputable fact. It is in fact deeper then that. The truth is, science is the ‘only’ method we have to establish facts about the natural world. There is no alternative. Science is the technology of facts.

To move forward from here requires a basic, accurate, understanding of the scientific method, and the core ideas behind rational thought and skepticism. This includes what constitutes evidence, and why. How we gather evidence, and how we test it. Falsification of ideas, and along with this, the important edict that the onus to prove a claim lays on the one making the claim.

In other words, when someone says they are sure the Easter Bunny exists, and when confronted by someone who points out the foolishness of such a claim, they answer “prove to me there is no Easter Bunny!” that person has in effect gotten things backwards. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the burden for evidence is on the one making the claim. *(By the way, understanding this simple principle of the scientific method more or less destroys all of religious apologetics, but that is a different article).

Back to karma, the fist step in discussing this is asking whomever the believer is to define exactly what they mean by the word “karma”. It is inevitable that in a large class of people from various cultural and religious backgrounds, there will be an assortment of different ideas that will fall under the same term. It is also inevitable that most people, who ‘claim’ to believe in karma, really have little to no idea what they mean by the term.

If the individual means simply cause and effect, positing nothing supernatural, and offering nothing that could be related to some form of justice, then there isn’t anything to discuss. Of course that exists. But the moment someone postulates some form of ‘purpose’, some form of meaning, some kind of universal reward and punishment structure, they have left the land of nature/reality, and ventured into the make believe world of the “supernatural”.

A simple example to demonstrate this is a very sick and suffering child. When someone claimed that karma was a very real thing, based of course on their own subjective experience (more on that fallacy in reasoning later), I asked them if that is the case, how do they explain a two or three year old child who is diagnosed with a life threatening disease, and over the course of months suffers in painful agony, eventually dying. What could a two year old child have possible done to deserve such a wretched fate? My point in this example is clear, in order to make karma ‘work’ even in theory, one has to postulate supernatural concepts like ‘past lives’, an after life, or reincarnation; things for which we have no evidence. Interestingly, one student claimed that karma could work even without positing anything superstitious, such as past lives, but when confronted with the young child analogy, they were unable to rationalize their belief. And there is a good reason for that, you can’t.

About mid point through the class several students got rather angry, one young woman pointed out that she had suffered from serious health issues all her life, and she was quite sure that she had never done anything in this life, or any other imaginary life to deserve it. And she found the entire “why” question, as in why do bad things happen to good people, or why was she born with these illnesses, offensive. The answer she said was that she was born that way, biologically. It was simply in the genes, no more, no less. There was no “why” beyond that point. And I think she was absolutely right.

Sometimes the ‘why question’ itself is simply fallacious. All religious troglodytes will have pretend solutions to such things, offered with false humility, and the crooked claim that they are providing ‘answers’ to something that is deeply ‘profound’. So deep that it remains something science can’t address. In truth, they are offering nothing more then horseshit fantasy, to irrational questions. Anyone who thinks deeply on these topics will realize that the “why” question isn’t always a valid question. And sometimes, it is even a deeply revolting question, as in why she was born with a certain disease (beyond the biological reasons).

I often wonder what it must be like to be a priest, pastor, guru, or religious person of some kind, and lie to people daily. Spending your days pretending to know things you don’t know. How could you ever sleep at night, absent some very deep cognitive dissonance?

“The only sense to make of tragedies like this is that terrible things can happen to perfectly innocent people. This understanding inspires compassion. Religious faith, on the other hand, erodes compassion. Thoughts like, “this might be all part of God’s plan,” or “there are no accidents in life,” or “everyone on some level gets what he or she deserves” - these ideas are not only stupid, they are extraordinarily callous. They are nothing more than a childish refusal to connect with the suffering of other human beings. It is time to grow up and let our hearts break at moments like this.” – Sam Harris

One of the hardest things we Homo sapiens have to wrap our minds around is evolution. Nobody sane and educated doubts that we evolved; the evidence for evolution by natural selection is overwhelming. To argue against it in the year 2011 is akin to arguing that the earth is flat. That stated, although all of us on the sanity train know we ‘evolved’, few of us actually understand what that means. And fewer still, have taken in all the philosophical implications for our world that Darwin’s truth reveals to us.

One of the most important facts Darwin showed the world was this, that life itself is a process of design without a designer. It is at its core, an algorithm. And despite the ever-present human desire to anthropomorphize the process, the fact remains that all the evidence points to a mechanical operation that is unrepresented in any sort of ‘mind’ or intelligence.

Given that reality, where is there room for “purpose”, where is there space for “why”, except within the minds of the creatures who eventually evolve to the point where they can create such questions themselves? Where else could purpose come from?

Not everyone is ready for that reality. Many fear a decent into nihilism (I will address this further on), and others simply cannot comprehend the ramifications of Darwin’s facts, literally. But the evidence is undeniable, and the implications are equally clear. There is no karma, just as there is no Easter Bunny.

Having dismantled the ‘everything happens for a reason’ meme, let’s take a look at another trite platitude of equal fame and banality. The always patronizing bit of gobbly-gook:

‘everyone is exactly where they need to be’

At this point I would hope that my writing has been coherent enough to avoid having to repeat myself. Without positing the super-natural, something for which no evidence exists, and taking into consideration what we do know about the universe, about the process of evolution, and about mind itself, this new age cliché goes the way of ‘everything happens for a reason’, and the Easter Bunny. The one distinction I would like to offer about this so often quoted bit of conceited delusion, is how profoundly condescending it is.

Anyone who has debated the religious, or those who’ve boarded the woo-woo wagon, knows that when attempting to rationalize the absurd it becomes necessary for them to switch back and forth between the idea that something is true, and the idea that something while untrue may be ‘useful’. The switch in arguments comes in an instant, and those employing the tactic usually hope it goes unnoticed.

It goes something like this, person A argues for something silly, let’s say the ‘law of attraction’ as laid out in the best selling book ‘The Secret’, and as offered in one form or another in nearly every pop psychology self help book on the market. When confronted with facts related to the vacuous nature of that empirical claim, and when person A is therefore asked to produce anything by way of evidence for it, person A quickly switches the cups and balls around and instead says something to the effect of, “well it may not literally be true, in the scientific sense of the word, but we know how it helps some people in their life.”

Please take into account that you could substitute my above stated example of ‘The Secret’ with any religion, any superstition, any unfounded alternative medical or psychological claim, any form of snake oil, and any delusion. This tactic is so common; you are likely to run into it almost every time.

We should note that the idea that something is generally helpful, as opposed to say harmful, or at the very least, useless, is an empirical one. It too is testable, subject to the demand for evidence, and the prevue of science. And it’s here that the entire house of cards falls down for the advocate of the superstition.

Not only are they arrogant enough to claim that universe must have some form of purpose (absent any evidence of course), but they add onto that fallacy another bit of hubris, the ability to know that the universe itself is somehow perfect, and everything within it is therefore where it “should” be. The monumental self importance posited within these claims should be conspicuous. But its glaring obviousness is overlooked, when the believer so desperately wants to believe the belief. And few things are more powerful when it comes to clutching tight to delusion, then the belief in belief.

I should make a distinction here as it comes to use of the word “know”. I am sure some who would defend woo-woo would try and point out that I too am making an empirical claim when I say that asking if the universe itself has a purpose is, according to all we know about it, an irrational question. This often presents itself in discussions related to Theism. The Theist, when confronted with the lack of any evidence for their superstition, will often state that it takes just as much “faith” to claim there is ‘no’ God. In fact, this is such a common fallacy that it often used by very intelligent agnostics when asked why they are not themselves atheists. Here is the problem; all religious people are atheists as it relates to other peoples Gods. Nobody really believes in a literal Thor, or a literal Easter Bunny; yet who among us would claim to be an Easter Bunny, or Thor agnostic?

A-theism is a statement of non-belief, nothing more. I can’t disprove a negative; it isn’t possible. I can no more disprove that a literal Thor, or heavenly Jesus exists, then I could a literal Easter Bunny. But that doesn’t make me an Easter Bunny, or heavenly Jesus agnostic.

The onus to present evidence is on the one making the claim. And in the absence of evidence, the natural reaction is non-belief, i.e. atheism. This is especially true if the claim itself is for something extraordinary. Is there a primate species out there we have yet to find? Maybe. Is there a species of giant apes, with wings, living in the backwoods of Maine? Call me “A-giant flying ape” on that one. But as always, I am open to the evidence.

The same holds true for those wishing to posit some form of representational intelligence to the universe. The onus to present evidence is on the one making the claim. In the absence of any evidence, and with all evidence we do have pointing in the opposite direction, to an indifferent and mechanical universe, there is absolutely no reason to believe such ideas.

Here is where the one great tenant of skepticism must be mentioned. If evidence for an intelligent universe, or a God, or ghosts, or homeopathy, or ESP, or any other such thing actually presented itself, then I would evaluate it. And if I concluded that the evidence was legitimate, and strong enough, I would change my mind in a heartbeat. I have no attachment to the current model of what we know about the universe that would override my love of truth. And since truth is what I, and all sincere skeptics are interested in, we will go where the evidence takes us.

This doesn’t make my position, the skeptic’s position, in any way, shape, or form congruous with those who campaign for woo-woo and superstition. It makes my position antithetical.

"In science it often happens that scientists say, "You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken," and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion." - Carl Sagan

Here is a simple, semi-Socratic way to deal with someone when they proclaim that, everything happens for a reason, or, everyone is where they need to be. First, ask them how they know this. Since you don’t know this to be factually true, and since the often horrendous suffering innocent people around the world go through points instead to an indifferent world, what evidence does the individual have access to that the rest of us don’t?

Remember, the responsibility to present evidence is always on the one making the claim, and it is important to make them own that fact. This may lead to an opportunity to discuss with someone what actually constitutes evidence, and what does not.

What tends to come out when confronted by these kinds of questions, is nothing more then anecdotal stories. After explaining why anecdotal stories are never evidence of anything, you could also help the individual making the claims see the bigger, less self absorbed picture, the one that has fifteen million children a year dying of starvation, the one that has twelve year olds forcing fathers to rape their own children at gunpoint, before beheading them in places like Sri Lanka, the Sudan, and Rwanda; you know, the real world we actually live in. Perhaps this individual, who seems to have access to information the rest of the rational world does not, could explain in what way those fifteen million dead children, were “exactly where they needed to be.”

When an intelligent human being really sits down and seriously contemplates these cliché and frivolous “spiritual” platitudes, they don’t just turn out to be wrong, they turn out in fact to be disgusting.

I’ve stated repeatedly in this piece that absent positing that for which there is no evidence, the supernatural, these claims simply fall apart; and that remains a fact. But what if the person does dive headlong into the fantasy world of religious idiocy, and takes it all one more regrettable step forward; offering some form of overseeing God, some form of afterlife, and or some belief regarding reincarnation, for their attempted rationalization of the unjustifiable, for the type of situations and horrors that occur every day on our planet? For Christians this is likely to be an avenging Jesus, soon to return and make it all better. For Muslims, the despotic desert God, who punishes and rewards, and for the Hindus and Buddhists, it will be a future birth fitting ones actions. And in each and every case, it will be based on a set of cultural fairy tales that are completely devoid of even the slightest bit of evidence.

Attempting to rationalize one delusion, by adding on an even bigger meta-delusion, is the only route the superstitious have available to them, and when they try to take it, it is the responsibility of all those in earshot to let them know that what they are perpetuating isn’t just false, it is in fact harmful.

I’ll be brief as it relates to the Bible, since this piece is directed at the New Age, and since those involved with that movement tend to gravitate towards very shallow interpretations of Eastern Religion, I want to focus my criticism there. But let’s take a very succinct look at how to deal with Biblical claims, before we address the Eastern ones, because within that answer the broader facts as they relate to using any form ancient manuscript, Vedas or otherwise, will come to light.

We have to remember that in ancient times there was no printing press, carbon paper, or anything of that sort. So every book, every scroll, was always hand copied. We also have to keep in mind that well over 90% of the population was illiterate. And of the small percentage that was literate, they were limited in language, spelling, and vocabulary.

The New Testament was widely copied. None of the original manuscripts exist. The earliest copy is from about AD 125-150. By that time, it had been copied many times over. Due to the process, every time a mistake was made (and there were always some mistakes), those mistakes were copied into the next copy. And the author of that copy inevitably made new errors, and those too were copied in future copies. The more copies made, the more errors accumulated. And the Old Testament was the most widely copied collection of manuscripts at that time.

We have to date, over 5,700 ancient copies of the Old Testament. And once it turns to Latin, we have over 10,000 copies in that language alone. None of them are identical. None of this is subjective opinion; these are the facts, as all actual biblical scholars well know.

Interestingly, nobody bothered to really compare the various copies until the advent of the printing press. That invention created the issue of which translation, and which copy, should be the one that gets printed. In 1707 a biblical scholar named John Mill at Oxford University attempted to make the first bible that compared various passages from these different copies. He had at his disposal at that time about one hundred different manuscripts to compare, and each was different. As a solution to this problem, what he did was write a New Testament that contained foot notes at the bottom, every time there was a verse where some of the hundred copies he had to go through, differed. By the time he was finished the book contained thirty thousand foot notes. A point to keep in mind here is that he didn't include a footnote for every difference. He only included a footnote where there was a major difference, and again, he found 30,000 major differences, in the 100 copies he had to go through.

Many people at the time of publication were extremely angry with Mill. They’re claim was that he was trying to subvert the authority of the New Testament. However, it was pointed out by those rational, that he didn't make any of these differences; he just noted their existence. There was of course nothing to be angry about; the facts were what they were.

That was in 1707, and was the first attempt at comparing the various copies of the New Testament that existed then. At present time we have over 5,700 ancient copies, as compared to his 100. Most biblical scholars agree that there exist roughly 400,000 differences between those various copies. This means, there is absolutely no doubt that the statement, “the Bible contains more errors in transcription, then it does total words”, is a verifiable fact. *(see Bart Ehrman for great work on this topic)

None of this should in any way come as a surprise, except to the superstitious, because all ancient literature suffers the same fate. It was all hand copied, each successive copy would replicate the previous mistakes of the past copy (obviously), and then add more. And this is why there are scholars who devote their whole lives to studying the material from specific ancient authors.

To believe that such a book, indeed any ancient book, contains the words of, or from a god, is nothing short of crazy.

So back to where we started, someone posits the vapid claim that “everything happens for a reason”, and when the need for some form of supernatural, in order to make sense of such a claim is made evident to them, they offer the idea that man was given “free-will” by Jehovah, and in the end when Jesus comes back he will sit in judgment, resurrect the dead, and make everything all better. And how does this individual know all this? After all, if ever there were an extraordinary claim, this would be it! What evidence do they have for this claim you rightly ask. And it’s at this point that the claim maker lays their entire belief system on the back of the Bible. A book they believe to be the one true word, of the one true God. And a book you point out, which contains more errors in transcription then it does actual words.

You can’t rationalize these new age clichés, without positing the supernatural. And if you try and posit the supernatural, and are asked to produce evidence for it, only to fall back on the words contained in an ancient manuscript, it should be made clear that you cannot be taken seriously by anyone sincerely interested in the truth. The bible is evidence of a divine creator in the same way the move Star Wars is evidence of a literal Darth Vader, or the Odyssey is evidence of a literal Cyclops.

"So long as authority inspires awe, confusion and absurdity enhance conservative tendencies in society. Firstly, because clear logical thinking leads to a cumulation of knowledge (of which the progress of the natural sciences provides the best example) and the advance of knowledge sooner or later undermines the traditional order.

Confused thinking, on the other hand, leads nowhere in particular and can be indulged indefinitely without producing any impact upon the world." - Stanislav Andreski

I have written extensively on why religious dogma as whole is dangerous, immoral, and destructive for human beings. It subverts reason, encourages stupidity, and makes a virtue of ignorance.

Ironically, many on the left tend to know this. When examples such as, the Catholic ban on birth control that is preached in the poorest areas of the world already ravaged by AIDS, the American fundamentalist attempt to deprive gay and lesbian citizens of their civil rights, the refusal of parents to take their sick child to a medical doctor due to religious superstition, the encouraging of martyrdom under the guise of an after life by Muslim clerics, the spreading of rampant anti-science ignorance in the form of creationism to children (the list goes on and on), are brought up, many an educated blue State resident agrees to the damage these bigoted ideas cause; but without any recognition of the required incongruity involved, they then latch on to equally dangerous, equally stupid superstitions from the East. All the while making fetishes of people like the Dalai Lama, or Indian Yogi’s, who, once you understand the superstitions they are advocating, end up as little more than obfuscated versions of the same religious ideas these people naively thought they were refuting.

This brings us back to the twisted concept of “karma”. As I have shown, absent superstition, the entire idea falls apart. There is no evidence within the natural world, a world in which over 95% of the planets species have gone extinct, a world where fifteen million children a year starve to death, for such a thing as karma. So believers need to posit past and future lives in order to try and make sense of the absurd. And in so doing, they fuel a system that has kept hundreds of millions in abject poverty, for thousands of years. The entire caste system in India is at its root, based in the idea of karma. And that system has helped perpetuate a level of suffering that is difficult to fathom by those of us fortunate enough to have been born into a first world nation.

The willingness to accept these bad ideas, to take these superstitions on board as belief systems, by otherwise rational and educated people, never ceases to amaze me. But I have to be careful, and remember to remind myself that I can’t assume nefarious motives for things, which may otherwise simply be the result of ignorance. And in these cases, it usually amounts to individuals adopting these ideas because they “feel” good, and as a result, never bothering to think deeply enough about any of it; because if they did, most would realize the great damage these religious superstitions do around the world.

A good, concrete example of where this comes into play within the daily lives of people living in middle class America is with yoga. The physical practice of yoga is, when done right, extremely beneficial. It is low impact, focuses on core strength, flexibility, posture and breathing. And like all healthy forms of exercise, it can help with issues related to anxiety and depression, as many studies have shown. The problem is, the wall of voodoo, and the guru trap contained therein, that seems to permeate the yoga culture. That wall of nonsense keeps many a rational, analytical person away from what could otherwise be a very beneficial thing. And for those of us educated on the great harm Eastern superstitions have done, and continue to do, around the world, that wall of woo-woo isn’t something I would want to be infected by. And while some take the reasoned, and logical approach, which is to sort the cultural superstition, religious nonsense, and wives tales, away from the practical, useful, beneficial, physical application of yoga; others, in fact I would venture to say a majority (over half), are going in the exact opposite direction; taking on board a load of poisonous rubbish, and as a consequence, demeaning, degrading, and damaging the entire practice.

A yogi by the name of Miles Neale recently wrote a piece which serves as a useful example of exactly what I am talking about, Miles just didn’t get it wrong, he got it completely backwards. Miles states:

“What’s in danger of getting lost is the philosophical underpinning of yoga, the true purpose of yoga. Yoga is about harnessing life force (prana), opening the heart and freeing the mind of identifications to limited self-views. Yoga is designed for liberation—moksha, getting out of suffering completely, becoming a radically transformed human being, becoming more conscious, becoming fundamentally happy and loving. Yoga is the fulfillment of a meaningful life and the peak of a human beings evolutionary development—homo empathicus—“

In one paragraph he manages to advocate for the very thing that is the real problem when in comes to yoga. Rather then sticking to what we actually do know empirically, from well done studies, and from the only technology we have for discovering actual ‘truth’ in our world, science; Miles jumps headlong into the fantasy land of “enlightened beings”, “prana” life force, and the self centered, condescending, post colonial fairy tale of “moksha”.

So we are back to asking the person making the claim, in this case Miles, what evidence does he have for such extraordinary claims? After all, Miles must have some really astounding evidence for all this, right? “Prana” life force, that’s some heavy stuff. That could dramatically change the way the entire world of science looks at the universe. But alas, there is no evidence for these very old superstitions. So what we have instead, is a human being who likes to pretend to know things he doesn’t know; and who, more then that, wants to pass these fantasies he has onto others, thereby debasing what should otherwise be a very beautiful thing, yoga.

Anyone looking for a surefire way to turn away well-adjusted human beings from the pursuit of yoga needs to look no further then that paragraph. Because that is the kind of bullshit that makes a rational person want to categorize yoga somewhere between crystal healing and astrology; and that’s a shame, because yoga can be a wonderful tool.

Besides make believe invisible energy, and fantasies of “enlightened” beings, Miles makes an additional, equally absurd extraordinary claim, the total cessation of suffering. Perhaps Miles would like to discuss that, after he losses a child to cancer. Or perhaps he would then parse his words and state something along the lines of, well I didn’t mean that “kind” of suffering. And if that is the case, what does he mean by “all” suffering. In this instance I don’t think it is worth asking Miles, because he has already shown himself to be, at least at this point, someone who likes to pretend to know things we know he doesn’t know. So we can chalk the whole story up to that. However, what reasonable and educated adult believes one can “get out of suffering completely”. It is both childish, and delusional.

And this is the heart of the problem. The moment the “yogi” stops telling the truth, and the ‘truth’ when it comes to empirical claims about the universe, which is certainly the kind of claims this author is making, is the prevue of science, is the moment yoga ceases to become a healthy thing.

The ‘truth’ regarding the benefits of yoga will by their very nature transcend culture. If they do not, then they are not true. There is no such thing as Chinese geometry, or Norwegian physics. Empirical truths about the nature of the universe do not ‘know’ culture. They are outside, and indifferent to culture.

Those truths, whatever they may be, will also, by necessity, be available to science; assuming they exist. If they are not available to science, or the “seekers” want to place them outside the realm of science, then it should be quite obvious that what is being discussed is simply make-believe.

So how about this simple rule, Yogi’s stop pretending to know things we know they don’t know.

Let’s repeat Sagan’s wisdom once more, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And the onus to produce that evidence is always on the one making the claim. If Miles would like to make these sorts of radical claims about the nature of the universe, let’s see him put forth some actual evidence regarding their existence. And in the absence of such evidence, perhaps his time would be better served engaging in the positive aspects that we do know yoga offers. Rather then lying to people, and spreading superstition. Because if he wants to take that path, then there will be little to no difference between his Yoga, and the dogma of the Catholic Church, the televangelist, the Muslims, or any other antiquated bunch of mumbo jumbo.

I will be the first to admit here that I have so far, tossed out a great deal of pejoratives. Part of that is unavoidable, because what I am in fact talking about as it relates to new age culture, superstition, and woo-woo, is deleterious to human beings, and our world at large. And part of that is my own growing distaste for the ignorance that the kind of beliefs espoused by new age gurus encourages in people. But I labor moment by moment in writing to remember that I am better served not attributing to malice that which can best be attributed to stupidity. And it’s here that we need to draw some distinctions.

In my years of adventures in and around the new age movement, I found that there were basically two types of “gurus’; and these two types transcend the various cultures, or religious affiliations they claimed to hold. It didn’t matter whether we were talking about Tibetan Lamas, Hindu Yogis, Buddhist Monks, Advaita Vedanta Sat Gurus, Sufis, Christian mystics, coffee ground readers, astrologers, psychics, channelers, “life Coaches”, or insert absurd woo-woo here, it was always one of these three.

The first is the pure, sociopathic huckster. This is someone who knows what they are selling is a pile of rubbish, but doesn’t care. I’d place Anthony Robbins firmly in that category. His shilling for the absurdly useless Q Ray and Q Link “ionized” bracelet scam was ceaseless, a con that had a Federal Judge forcing Q Ray to give back 16 million in profits due to fraud. One wonders if Robbins plans to refund anyone for his efforts to sell this snake oil, but then again we already know the answer to that don’t we.

Then we have Deepak Chopra, whose efforts to sell naïve public false information as it relates to things like quantum mathematics, has earned him millions. I had my own back and forth with Chopra regarding some of his outlandish claims; that you can read below. Wayne Dyer, who offers as his guru the science fiction writer and pseudo anthropologist Carlos Castaneda; the shameless con artist PZ Knight, whose bilked millions from the gullible with her laughable channeling sideshow, and whose fame has grown with the dippy “documentary” ‘What The Bleep Do we Know’; the list goes on and on with many such gurus who travel the new age circuit, but wouldn’t be known by name to most readers. Readers of a certain age might remember past notorious gurus, such as the terrorist and sadist Bhagvan Shri Rashnesh, later to change his name to ‘Osho’, the ‘Maharishi’ of Beatles and the TM movement, the list is long and sordid. As I mentioned previously, these people are all conspicuous crooks, whose insincerity should be immediately self-evident. In fact, they are so obvious that one would be well advised (for multiple reasons) to avoid anyone who fails to see it, and finds themselves wanting to ‘be like’ such swindlers. And in saying wanting to ‘be like’, I am drawing yet another distinction between those who are simply, and hopefully temporarily, credulous enough to buy into the ideas of someone like Robbins, and those who take it all one step further and want to be the guru on the stage, ‘like’ Robbins.

In terms of my previous statement regarding not attributing malice to that which can be attributed to stupidity, in the case of the people mentioned above, those like them, and those who want to ‘be like them’; I think it is safe to say we can attribute their motives to various degrees of malice, narcissism, and greed.

The second class of guru, and I use the term guru loosely to imply anyone who offers themselves as a teacher for some form of woo-woo within the new age, self-help culture, isn’t so much a swindler, as they are a dupe. In this class I would place speakers who, unlike Chopra, or Robbins, are actually as gullible as their audience is. As far as the large-scale stars within the new age movement, sadly, I’ve found the hustlers to out number the credulous. Whether it is Tibetan lama’s selling “Tulku” status to movie stars, or so called psychics who charge large sums of money to grieving parents, desperate to connect with a lost child; amongst those profiting on this kind of superstition, swindlers abound. But, that doesn’t mean you don’t have the sincerely wacko as well.

It is tempting to assume the best about the non-Robbins like new age teachers, who “seem” for all intents and purposes to be interested in helping others, regardless of delusional they are, or how unhelpful their particular field of make believe happens to be. But here too, exists a problem. It really does take a tremendous amount of effort, to remain in a state of fantasy like delusion. One has to close their eyes to any outside influence of reason, evidence, or rational argument. In other words, it takes work to remain ignorant.

Anyone whose freed themselves from some fundamentalist religious cult, like the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, or other, similar belief systems, knows the odd feeling that strikes you when you finally realize what every other sane person on planet earth who didn’t belong to that religious superstition, already knew; that it is astoundingly insane; whether its Joseph Smith sticking his head in a bag and reading magic rocks, or the JW Organization buying a home and a car for the return from the dead of the prophets, the stupidity of it all can’t really fully dawn on you, until you’re free of it. And then and only then, does one ‘get it’.

A child born and raised into that kind of silly and damaging shallowness, simply doesn’t know any better. Hopefully, when one reaches a reasonable age, it is seen for the sad bunch of nonsense it is, and one moves on, into the adult world of knowledge. But the fact remains that most religious people inherited the religious superstition of their parents. And since children cannot distinguish between harmful fantasies like those mentioned above, and the reality of the natural world; teaching religious superstition to children is, without any doubt, a serious form of child abuse.

These cults, knowing the danger rational thought poses, intentionally make its use and growth as hard as possible; by treating ‘outsiders’, ‘secular’ information, science, and higher education in general, with a great deal of suspicion, and in some cases even derision. Offering up child like paradigms, where the world is said to be run by an evil spirit, in the case of some Christians that would be Satan; and in general striving as much as possible, to keep its members in a state of strictly enforced ignorance.

Controlling children this way is rather easy for them, but as an adult, things become far more entangled. A curious and healthy mind, will seek out knowledge for its own sake, regardless of the practical need for it. The real world of facts, history, science, and information avails itself to the human brain. In this age of instant information, that is all the more magnified. And this is a beautiful, optimistic thing.

Let’s take a simple example to make my point. As ludicrous as this sounds, some polls suggest as many as 78% of Americans doubt the fact of evolution. Many born again Christians, as well as the aforementioned Jehovah’s Witnesses, and millions of other ignorant people, actually believe that the Genesis story, Adam, Eve, talking snake and all, is literal.

One point I want to make clear here, having grown up around people who believe such things, these human beings are not “stupid”, at least many of them aren’t. Ignorant, yes, by definition if you doubt the reality of our evolution in 2011 you are ignorant; but low IQ, or a bit simple, no, not necessarily. And this is what many on the more liberal, more academic side simply can’t grasp. Smart people can believe incredibly stupid things.

Any adult of at least average intelligence, who still denies the reality of our evolutionary history, and instead prescribes to a literal creation story, for example the Garden of Eden, talking snake and all, is living in a state of deep ignorance, ignorance about our world, our planet, life in general, and about their own origins. And even with an education system that is struggling, and a population that is by and large illiterate of many things, remaining a believer in creationism as a full grown adult, takes work. By necessity it requires you avoid real scientific texts on the entire field, and read only literature produced by fellow like minded believers, because once that Pandora’s box of factual knowledge is opened, there is no going back; and this is where cognitive dissonance enters the picture.

cognitive dissonance

— n
psychol an uncomfortable mental state resulting from conflicting cognitions; usually resolved by changing some of the cognitions

The entire field of science validates evolution, at every step, from biology to embryology, geology to genetics, the list is long and consistent. One would have to remain ignorant of most all natural sciences in order to avoid the mass of evidence that verifies evolution by natural selection, and if you’re a curious and intelligent human being that is both extremely unhealthy, and difficult to pull off. This is why many of the more toxic religions, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses (to use one of sadly thousands of examples) have built in cultural prohibitions related to quote “worldly” knowledge, higher education, and factual information which conflicts with their own propaganda. And when it comes to science and reality, the facts always tend to conflict with their puerile dogma.

Social insularity protects the community’s consensus. Repetition of dogma reinforces certainty, and promotes conviction. And all of this helps safeguard the group against contrary evidence, other religions, science, and doubt. What they perceive as “normal” outsiders see as collective delusion. In short, they believe that because others believed that before them, therefore they have always believed that, and as a consequence they ‘want’ to believe that.

The interest of these more malignant “faiths” isn’t hard to sort. They need to maintain a population that is ignorant of their own origins. A population which knows little to nothing of factual evolution, and which is instead fed a steady diet, either by intention or ineptness, of misinformation and lies. There is no mistaking the results here; in the end they are left with a body of people that are easy chumps for the organizations own, absurd, religious superstitions. This in turn helps the religion grow, and maintain members, and that in turn helps these toxic practices and ideas spread. It becomes one vicious and pernicious cycle. And this is why I stated earlier, by intention ‘or’ ineptness.

It isn’t necessary to posit an intelligent and malicious designer who purposely sets out to create these kinds of damaging religious practices. These behaviors, by virtue of being self-sustaining, may in fact occur organically.

Let me give another example, as drawn not from Christian superstitions, but instead from New Age superstitions; which as I have stated, are equally vacuous. The ‘Mars Effect’, is a name often used to refer to a reported statistical correlation between athletic excellence and the position of the planet Mars at the time and place of birth. As absurd as this must obviously sound, there are many people who fall for it, and several books devoted to it. The first reporting of the ‘effect’ came from a Frenchman Michel Gauqelin in 1955. As you might imagine, there is of course no such thing as the Mars effect. A little critical thinking applied to Gaugelin’s work would reveal that, as would even a very minor bit of research. One of the best articles on the Mars Effect fallacy was titled aptly, "The Saturn-Mars Effect" published in Skeptic Magazine.

But my point isn’t to refute Gaugelin here, my point relates to motivation. As a skeptic, my interest is in the truth, whether it conforms to what I want to believe about the world, or what I think “feels” good. As such, when someone asked me about the Mars Effect, I did a bit of research. I looked into Gaugelin’s work, and also looked into criticisms of it. In this particular case, the answer was pretty black and white (as one would suspect with something as silly as Astrology), Gaugelin was simply wrong; but if asked why, I can explain my reasoning, and provide evidence, all of this coming as a result of my interest in reality. Imagine for a moment that instead of being a skeptic, I was an astrologer. And imagine as well that I had devoted lots of the most precious resource any of us have, time, to this pseudo-field of astrology. Given that context, when I hear of a “scientific” study said to validate what I already want to believe, how likely would I be to actively seek out contradictory information?

Please don’t mistake my above example as advocacy for the “fair and balanced” concept, the idea that every story has two sides. This too is a fallacy.

It would be ridiculous to have a debate between say an astronomer, someone who has dedicated their life to studying the scientific facts of our universe, and say, an astrologer, who has instead accumulated nothing more then a load of superstitious baloney. Should an actual medical doctor ever debate, as if they are equal but opposing sides, a witch doctor? Clearly, they shouldn’t, and no purveyor of woo-woo should be given equal footing with an actual scientist; fact and superstition are not equal, they are antithetical.

So we bring it all around again to our second question, in what ways do these experiences positively, or negatively, change these individuals’ lives.

I offered that this can measured; and the simplified version of how we do this is to look at behavior, others or our own, and ask if they or we, are being less selfish and more responsible. If so, then it can be truthfully stated that the experience itself has had positive effects on the well being of conscious creatures. And if not, and instead behavior follows the same self involved patterns as before, or has grown to be worse, even more narcissistic, then it can be truthfully said that the experience itself had deleterious effects on the well being of conscious creatures.

So what’s the meaning of such experiences to the individual? Observe the behavior and find out, because as pointed out previously, all meaning that matters, all meaning that is in fact ‘real’, is in, and from within, us. It’s not to be found ‘out there’ within the vastness of space, but in our everyday lives, our relationships with our loved one’s, and our treatment of other conscious beings on this planet.

You cannot posit ‘meaning’ to the universe at large, without positing the supernatural. And as there is no evidence for anything supernatural, attempts to do so with superficial clichés such as, “everything happens for a reason”, or, “everyone is where they need to be”, send you on nothing more then a dead end detour.

And finally, if someone does want to posit the supernatural, the onus to provide evidence for such an extraordinary claim belongs squarely on them; and if the fall back position is an ancient text, or even larger set of delusional beliefs such as a particular religion, take note; because those kind of malignant religious sects cannot survive absent serious cognitive dissonance in their membership. Willful ignorance becomes the norm, and the effect on human beings is both tragic, and destructive.

The summation of those ideas usually leaves one door that those who desperately want to believe in woo-woo can’t help but try and open; and its label is, “but really, what’s the harm?

The rationalization usually goes something like this, “while it may be true that ‘insert superstition here’ isn’t true, what’s the harm? Actions speak louder then words. If the person is still kind, and good, who cares?”

Here we need to acknowledge another reality. Not all superstition is equally destructive. I think of it a lot like disease. Some, especially if caught early, are relatively mild in effect, and treatable. Others, quite fatal, and just like the varying damage disease can cause, the amount of destruction different superstitions can cause also runs a wide spectrum.

I’ve already laid out some of the very serious harm religious superstition directly causes across the globe, from rampant poverty in places like India, to the spreading of deadly infectious disease thanks to the idiocy of Catholic contraceptive superstition, but let’s broaden that idea to the very concept of ‘belief’ itself.

While true actions always speak louder then words, it is equally true that beliefs can have profound effects on actions, on individuals, on cultures, and on entire Nations. And therein exists the problem.

Despite the protests of some on the academic left, it is not an accident that most suicide bombers are Muslim. They are very clear, throughout the entire process as to why they are doing what they are doing, up to and including their own suicide videos where they testify to their religious motivation, and belief in an afterlife filled with rewards. The Islamic dogma of martyrdom plays a direct role in these deadly actions. And whether or not the martyr’s scriptural interpretation of the 1400 year old text is correct, really doesn’t matter at all. What does matter, is that some people, in fact millions, do think it is a correct interpretation. And that causes the death of many innocent people.

In Africa, belief in the power of witchcraft has created a market for the skin of albino children. Said to be a talisman of good luck, it sells at a hefty price. Fishermen weave the hair of albino kids into their nets in the belief that they will catch more fish. Others find novel uses for various child body parts. The problem has become so widespread, that there are entire police units empowered with the mission of rescuing albino kids out of these African nations.

In the UK people have died of malaria because, instead of taking the proper vaccine before travel, they took nothing more then water and sugar pills sold to them under the banner of “homeopathy”, one of the most absurd medical superstitions on the planet.

As you might sadly imagine, the list of harm various superstitions cause globally, is staggering. A good resource is, which lists deaths related to superstition around the world.

Some still wishing to hold to the woo-woo will offer here that, “well we don’t take it that far.” Or “We don’t do that!” In other words, they would see the above examples as the ‘fringe’ of superstitious believers. And to them I always have the same question, in terms of superstition, how far is ‘ever’ appropriate?

Under what circumstance would a visit to an astrologer, as one example, be a wise option in terms of helping to reach a decision? On what planet is an astrologer ever a better option then say, thoughtful contemplation, self-reflection, or an intelligent friend?

In what case is make believe medicine, like homeopathy, a better option then real, science-based medicine for a sick human being? Our local grocery stores carry a rack filled with nothing more then sugar pills, factually speaking; this quackery labeled homeopathic ‘medicine’ is divided up by ailments, including things like “high fever”. In what case is it okay for a parent to give their child sugar pills for a high fever, or perhaps an ear infection? This isn’t just dangerous; in a sane world this would be called what it is, criminal.

In what case is the belief in the power of “witches”, and the power of the skin on albino kids, better then say, a rational understanding of our planet?

Here is the main point, any claims any form of woo-woo, religion, or other form of superstition makes that are true, useful, and beneficial, will never be extraordinary. They will be things any normative human being of at least average intelligence in the year 2011 already knows. And any claims that any form of woo-woo, religion, or other form of superstition makes, that are extraordinary, will either be unproven, or proven to be bullshit.

In other words, there is nothing to be gleaned from superstition that you can’t already find in a better, cleaner, brighter form, within secular literature, and that my friends, is a cold hard fact.

What superstition has to offer humanity is solely this, delusion and suffering.

This brings us back to morality, the well being of conscious creatures, and how these peak “spiritual” experiences effect that scale. Believers in superstition and woo-woo love to throw another bait and switch trick here. It goes something like this:

Yogi Moonbeam declares, “the prana life force is useful in healing all sorts of physical ailments”.

And that is a remarkable claim.

As such skeptic Joe says, “well moonbeam, where is your evidence for that claim.”

Moonbeam, feigning indignation, offers something like this, “well you know not everything is a ‘scientific’ fact, yoga helps people become better humans. I learn to accept and love others from my daily practice involving meditations on compassion!”.

Catch the bait and switch there?

The trick is really as simple as this, when called on the remarkable, the absurd, they will fall back on the unremarkable, the common sense.

Here is an interesting fact to contemplate. A great deal of what we now consider moral, kind, and just, has come as the result of hard earned work, thought, blood, sweat and tears from our secular brothers and sisters in times past. Democritus, Epicurus, Hypatia, John the Scot, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Samuel Johnson, Hume, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, Jefferson, Darwin, the list goes on and on. These were the lucky ones whose work survived the bonfires of the religiously delusional; but make no mistake, every step along the way the main foe to human progress were the clerics of superstition.

What educated and mature human being thinks that anything the Catholic Church would say regarding morality, that turns out to be right (a rarity for them), would be something Spinoza didn’t know? What rational mind believes that some relatively banal claim made by some Indian Yogi, such as its better to feel compassion then it is anger, was a great mystery to our brilliant and brave ancestors; ancestors that led the enlightenment?

Should anyone sane truly believe that prior to the fairy tale of Moses descending from the mountain top with magically inscribed plates containing such pearls of wisdom as ‘thou shall not murder’, our ancestors who walked the planet, who created art, music, loved, lost, had children, buried their dead, created irrigation, cities, cultures and communities, were ignorant of that fact? Learning to live together as social animals, to depend on each other, help each other, and yes, fight each other, were all part of the evolutionary process that brought all of us alive to this point today. And to cheapen that hard earned knowledge, by implying we need some form of superstition in order to know these rather unremarkable moral precepts, is insulting; both to our humanity and our own ancestors.

Let’s recap, the claims that all forms of superstition make that are true, are always ‘unremarkable’. They are things that you as a thoughtful reader, unless you are a sociopath, already know inside your own being. The claims that all forms of superstition, religious, woo-woo or otherwise make that are ‘remarkable’, are nothing more then people pretending to know things they do not know.

In either case, if you’re bright, you should be insulted.

Nobody on planet earth needs the fairy tales of religious delusion in order to know morality. However, since facts need to inform our moral decisions, and since science is the technology of facts, what we do need is science.

If you deny that facts should play a role in morality, then you are insane. And if you deny that facts come from science, then what alternative source would you offer to provide facts? Shall we roll bones? Pray to imaginary sky gods? Consult Bronze Age texts that contain barbaric misogynistic nonsense, and more errors in transcription then they do words?

I think the point here is very clear, the sooner we let go the deformed clutches of religious superstition, both East and West, the sooner we can move on to a true morality. One based on the well being of conscious creatures. And one based in fact.

This brings us to the last question on my list, question C. The question which sadly, very few mystics seem to want to ask, and one that is extremely important if what we are interested in is the truth, what ‘can’t’ we imply from the nature of these experiences.

Descartes famously stated Cogito ergo sum, which is usually translated to English as, “I think, therefore I am”. If that strikes you as true, then I think you may have missed some important points related to who we are, and how we came to be.

I have referenced solipsism several times in this piece. I stated above, “the phantasm of solipsism sits rooted in the center of these pursuits, and its side effects, ironically, tend to lead directly away from its promised gifts”, and I wasn’t being allegorical.

Definition of PHANTASM
: a product of fantasy: as a : delusive appearance : illusion b : ghost, specter c : a figment of the imagination

This brings us back to the mystical experience itself. While it lasts, it seems quite true that the human experiencing that brain state may in fact feel themselves to be experiencing non-duality as a physical, literal, existing ‘All’. But upon reflection ‘about’ that moment, in thinking and speaking ‘of’ that moment, the individual, based on how we as humans evolved cognitively and linguistically, will return back to the small “i” of the skin encapsulated ego.

In other words, to state, “there was an All and I was that” is the fundamental error of mistaking the subjective experience, for the material world observed by that experience. Though it is true in the literal sense that both the individual having the experience and the experience itself, are products of the same material, that does not mean that 'consciousness' itself is ‘universal’ in the way that is usually implied by religious mystics. It also doesn’t mean that all matter is conscious. We have no more reason to assume a rock can think, then we do a hippo can fly.

Is the universe becoming ‘aware’ of itself? Only if you want to consider the fact that the majority of the universe we now know of is uninhabitable by life as we know it. That on the one planet where we know it occurred, more then 95% of the species that have evolved have also gone extinct; that of those species still living, most all will suffer and die painful deaths. Of all those species, it seems that so far only one branch of primates has developed the cognitive functioning necessary to ask these sorts of metaphysical question. And out of the one species, most have died painfully, and early, leaving no ancestors. Of that one species of primates, only those individual animals that survived long enough to have offspring, and whose off spring also survived long enough to have offspring, in an unbroken branch of ancestors leading from the very beginning, all the way to the present day you, is here today. And of those that made it, they remained a product of both nature and nurture, as the influence of culture continued to grow. And from that we have everything, from the music of Mozart and Dylan, to the love between mates and the sacrifices for others, to the building of the Golden Gate bridge, to the bombing of Hiroshima, to the regular occurrence of genocide, to the use by Sri Lankan soldiers of live children’s intestines as roadblocks; for all of that, the beautiful to the horrid, for all of that, you decide to call it ‘You’, or say that because ‘you’, and others like ‘you’ see this occurring now, in this brief millisecond of time that we conscious human beings have been here on this planet, that this fact justifies anthropomorphously ascribing the universe itself 'representation'; then I cannot protest.

After all you will call it allegory if I do, right? You are talking about a change in perspective, not in material reality.

But, make sure you force your eyes open when it comes time to look past the rainbows and unicorns life many of us who have the luxury of asking these questions have received, through the sheer luck of being born when, and where, we were. Witness the full horror of life suffering daily all over this planet. Because if you want to call All that ‘You’, my guess is you will also find yourself grasping for supernatural straws in a vein effort to paint a rosy picture on what is without any doubt, an indifferent universe. And this again, leads to superstition.

But what of those mystics who upon returning from a visit to one of these brain states, is quite sure that there is in fact a “consciousness” (though you will usually find mystics leave the definition of consciousness vague, for good reason, science is just starting up on this topic) which exists absent the brain. A consciousness which permeates, which as some claim actually precedes, the material universe itself; or as some would say, serves as the ground of all Being.

Well, that is an extraordinary claim, and as such, it requires extraordinary evidence. Where is that evidence you might ask? This is certainly the question I had. I looked into as much of the real data as I could find on things like, out of body experiences, reincarnation theory, and ‘alternative’ theories in general that were related to the mystery of consciousness. What I found was, nothing. There is no substantial evidence that there is, or even could be, consciousness apart from the complex functioning of the brain, or some equally complex system of AI (artificial intelligence) that has as of yet (to my knowledge), to be invented.

This brings me to a recent back and forth I had with the new age author Deepak Chopra. Deepak likes to claim that the universe itself is consciousness; that the material world exists ‘within’ consciousness. A Consciousness capitol C, which is also called by Deepak ‘God’; a consciousness that somehow exists absent a brain, and precedes the existence of matter itself.

Now there are a few things to notice bout this claim. First of all, Deepak’s claim is absolutely extraordinary. All evidence that we have currently points to consciousness being what the brain does. There is no evidence that consciousness can exist absent some form of a brain. So Deepak is making one of those rather wild claims that we as skeptics, as human beings interested in truth, must ask him to produce evidence for. Remember, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

And secondly, for those of us familiar with the Vedantic religion, it is quite obvious that what Deepak is offering is nothing more than Vedanta as laid out in the Upanishads, wrapped in pseudo-scientific terminology.

My twitter ID is aliveness_ape, here is the conversation:

aliveness_ape: until you produce some evidence that consciousness can exist absent the brain, the "cosmic" consciousness talk remains silly.

DeepakCopra: brain exists in consciousness not the other way around.

aliveness_ape: where is your evidence for that statement? Absent evidence for the brain existing 'in' consciousness, all you have is an irrational superstition.

DeepakCopra: where is your evidence that your mother loved you, or that you can feel joy?

aliveness_ape: you're comparing that for which we have lots of evidence, primate love for offspring, to something with no evidence-irrational. The idea that my mother probably loved me, is not a radical hypothesis. The idea that consciousness exists absent a brain, is. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Produce some, or all you have is theology-superstition.

Deepak's follow up? None, I think we reached the end of his reasoning ability there.

I would suggest that all of us engaged in the pursuit of truth, in the advocacy of reason and science, have to some degree or another, a responsibility to call men like Deepak out, to demand their evidence for these sorts of religious/superstitious claims. And as you can see, it takes only a tiny bit of light from the lens of rational thought to send them packing.

On a side note, I was a bit taken back when he used the "prove to me your mom/wife/etc love you" line. That old and tired fallacy is dropped by nearly every religious apologetic on the planet when they are cornered on their total lack of evidence; I've gotten it from fundamentalists Christians, Muslims, and "intelligent" designers. I found it surprising that Deepak used it, but it demonstrates how utterly shallow his reasoning actually is. Chopra’s ‘theory’ nothing more than Hinduism dressed in a science costume; which is why he needs to be debating someone familiar with that brand of religious superstition.

This back and forth with Deepak reminded me of an encounter I had years previous at a book signing and lecture by the Buddhist scholar and author Robert Thurman. He is an interesting man, who while advocating in the west for a practical take on the Buddha’s teaching, one which addresses psychology and human suffering, also makes frequent reference to the supernatural. It seems, from Thurman’s own writings and talks, that he adopted a more literal take on Buddhism after a dream he had involving spirit beings.

As he was talking about reincarnation, a man standing in the back of the audience (most of us were sitting), yelled up at Thurman, “where is your evidence for that!” Thurman kept on, and the man yelled again, “where is there any evidence for that!”. This time, Thurman, being agitated, yelled back, “you’ve followed me around for centuries having that same argument!”. The audience laughed a bit, the man, unimpressed, left.

At the time I found myself a bit angry that this guy would interrupt the speaker during a book signing. But recently, upon reflection, I began wishing that I had paid more attention to the question this man asked. In fact, I kind of wish I could go back and have a conversation with him now. It took balls to state the obvious to Thurman publicly, that what he was espousing was simply superstition. Whether or not the proper venue for that was Thurman’s talk is a different question, but given the damage the superstition of reincarnation does around the world, I suspect it was more than appropriate. And it was then that I realized that if I could go back in time, I would thank this man. My attitude on these things has certainly changed over the years.

Back to Descartes. By most interpretation Descartes was a dualist, as compared to a philosopher like Spinoza who was a monist. A dualist, in the philosophy of consciousness use of the word, is someone who believes there are two essential matters to reality, the material world, and *something else*. There are multiple models as it relates to dualism, but all are agreed on one central point, that ‘consciousness’ is something non-physical.

Most religions are dualist, certain branches of the Vedantic and Buddhist traditions being a possible exception. Though as all travelers know, in the Nations where these religions are the norm, dualism reigns supreme.

Most scientists, and almost all neuroscientists are materialists. There are various schools of thought in materialism as well, and many of the distinctions are really fascinating. These branches include behaviorism (now somewhat dated and out of favor), identity theory, functionalism, eliminative materialism, Dennett’s multiple drafts model, etc. Without getting into the details now, the point that all materialists and physicalists have in common is that they believe that ‘consciousness’ is a product of the one ‘substance’ that is, a product of material agencies.

In order to bypass the reality of materialism, people often posit something super-natural, a “soul”, or the ever-mysterious “mind”. But when you ask what that ‘soul’, or ‘mind’ is made of, answers are either not forthcoming, or made up.

The position of a materialist is much simpler. There is no body and soul. There is just the body. There is no brain and mind. There is just the brain; with “mind” simply being the term we use to describe what the brain does. The evidence to this fact is overwhelming.

When someone suffers from Alzheimer’s they slowly lose their memories, and their “mind”, and this occurs precisely as the brain deteriorates. In other words, as the brain cells go, so does the ‘mind’. People can have their brains damaged in very precise places (which neuroscientists are currently mapping), and lose something as specific as the ability to use tools, or being able to distinguish between human faces. All this we know from the hard sciences; and all of it points to the fact that what we consider consciousness, what we call “mind”, is from and of the brain. A material organ which evolved through a state of natural selection, as did every living thing on this planet.

A good question to ask any type of dualist is this, where does the “mind” of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s go, when their brain cells begin to deteriorate.

"As long as your 'homunculi' are more stupid and ignorant then the agent they compose, the nesting of homunculus within homunculus can be finite, bottoming out eventually with agents so unimpressive that they can be replaced by machines."
– Dennett

A quick point here, modern gurus and quacks of all sorts love to begin referencing quantum mechanics in a vein effort to bring forth some sort of evidence, or rational explanation for their fantasies related to human consciousness. The aforementioned Deepak Chopra loves to quote QM. Let me assure you, there is almost certainly no solution there. They will very commonly misinterpret people like Heisenberg, and in the case of men like Chopra, willfully mislead people as it relates to issues such as collapse of the wave function. Make no mistake, I am not going pretend I can engage in even an ounce of honest conversation with a true physicist on this matter. As the late-great physicist Richard Feynman said:

“If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics.”

There are of course many physicists that do understand quantum theory, they work at places like CERN in Geneva, and Caltech. And quantum theory has, to my understanding, proven itself to be extremely accurate in terms of its predictive capability. However, the moment someone, especially someone who is ‘not’ a physicist, begins spouting technical jargon as taken from quantum theory, you can almost guarantee they have little if any idea what in fact they are talking about. And the truth is, they are hoping you don’t either; in fact, they are banking on that.

A recent back and forth between Deepak Chopra (a master at abusing scientific terms) and actual physicist Leonard Mlodinow, showed how embarrasing in can be for Chopra and those like him, when there are people in the audience who really are experts, and immeadiately realize he is using mathmatical terms incorrectly, due either to ignorance, or willful deceit.

Chopra isn’t the only one guilty of misleading the public with scientific jargon, David Hawkins, Wayne Dyer, and thousands of “spiritual” writers do it daily. One of the texts which still receives the widest use, and which certainly excited my interest in my teenage years, is Fritjof Capra’s ‘The Tao of Physics’, which was written in 1975. You will find this book quoted everywhere, and by almost everyone within the New Age movement, from Aikido websites, to self-help books, pop-psychology life coaches, and all forms of assorted woo-woo.

The problem is, that many of the claims made in this book in 1975 (and in keeping with our theme above, this would be all those claims which set themselves out to be extraordinary, rather then banal) are not scientifically justifiable; they are instead based on non-scientific interpretations, metaphysical speculation, and hypotheses that have in fact already been proven wrong.

Peter Woit, a mathematical physicist at Columbia University, criticized Capra’s outdated ideas as follows:

The Tao of Physics was completed in December 1974, and the implications of the November Revolution one month earlier that led to the dramatic confirmations of the standard-model quantum field theory clearly had not sunk in for Capra (like many others at that time). What is harder to understand is that the book has now gone through several editions, and in each of them Capra has left intact the now out-of-date physics, including new forewords and afterwords that with a straight face deny what has happened.

Take note here, the kind of intellectual dishonesty Woit is pointing out here is common within all forms of superstition, be they religious, ‘New Age’ or otherwise. Those dedicated to truth, go wherever the evidence leads. Those dedicated instead to their theories, or to dogma, are forced into either deception, or some form of cognitive dissonace. This in and of itself reveals one reason why these sorts of pseudo-scientific ideas can be so harmful.

Woit continues:

The foreword to the second edition of 1983 claims, "It has been very gratifying for me that none of these recent developments has invalidated anything I wrote seven years ago. In fact, most of them were anticipated in the original edition," a statement far from any relation to the reality that in 1983 the standard model was nearly universally accepted in the physics community, and the bootstrap theory was a dead idea ... Even now, Capra's book, with its nutty denials of what has happened in particle theory, can be found selling well at every major bookstore. It has been joined by some other books on the same topic, most notably Gary Zukav's The Dancing Wu-Li Masters. The bootstrap philosophy, despite its complete failure as a physical theory, lives on as part of an embarrassing New Age cult, with its followers refusing to acknowledge what has happened.”

Though Capra’s ideas were abandoned by the majority of the scientific community before his book was even published, that does not mean that it is only Capra, and the ever growing band of hippie-dippy ‘gurus’ who still hold out hope for quantum mechanics rationalizing a non-local form of consciousness. Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose, have offered up a hypothesis that attempts to explain consciousness at a quantum level. It too receives almost no acceptance among neuroscientists, and those educated in the field of consciousness studies. However, in defense of both Hameroff and Penrose, if asked they openly admit that at this stage they have no evidence for their claims. It is simply an idea. That is the kind of honesty the Deepak Chopras, Anothony Robbins, and Wayne Dyers of the world simply don’t possess.

Penrose, a mathematician, disagrees with the ideas of the late Alan Turing (the father of the modern computer), Daniel Dennett and the majority of the scientists, who believe that at the core of consciousness must exist an algorithmic process (such as exists behind all evolutionary processes we know of). Yet he proposes no evidence at all which would imply a non-algorithmic root to consciousness; and there in exists the problem. For an excellent breakdown of where Penrose is likely to be engaged in a quixotic pusuit, I would recommend one of my favorite philosophers of science and mind, Patrica Churchland, whose work brings to light the way neuroscience is furthering our understanding of “mind” daily.

A funny and insightful historical account of how misunderstanding quantum theory and other complicated scientific principles can go very wrong, can be found in Jon Ronson’s book ‘The men who stare at goats’ (later to be turned into a not so great movie). In a truth is stranger then fiction tale, the US Army actually created a “New Age” unit, engaged in various forms of silly pseudo-science, including things like “remote viewing”, and “telekinesis”. In this case, attempting to stop the heart of goats by means of thought. Suffice it to say, the unit achieved zero actual success. But this didn’t stop one high ranking officer, who in making the classic mistake of confusing one level of measurement with another, thought that due to the nature of quantum theory he should, in practice, be able to run through a solid object. In an effort to prove this he would occasionally sit at his desk in deep contemplation, before sprinting head first into his office wall. The results were predictable.

This brings us full circle to the problems associated with using quantum theory, or any other form of difficult to understand science as validation for metaphysical speculation. The first is of course, that the majority of people doing it have absolutely no idea what the hell they are talking about. It is one thing to listen to someone like Penrose lecture on his, admittedly far out ‘idea’, and a whole other thing to have some new age hippie guru, who knows as much about higher math as he or she does allopathic speciation, which is to say nothing, drop terms like ‘collapse of the wave function’ in a vein attempt to validate their own narcissistic, superstitious, snake oil.

The second is that while quantum theory is incredibly accurate at measuring extremely small things, it is not needed in order to measure something like the trajectory of an arrow, the construction requirements for a suspension bridge, or the workings of the brain aka: “mind”. As the biologist Richard Dawkins has rightly pointed out, we human beings have brains which evolved to be able to understand, predict and measure things at ‘our’ level. When we start dealing with things so small no human eye could ever see them, or so large that our mind can barley understand them (think about the concept of infinity, or the ability to visualize different dimensions as examples), our minds encounter difficulties. When it comes to the brain, we don’t need to drop to the quantum level to understand how it works; anymore then we need to drop to the quantum level in order to understand how the heart operates, or how kidneys and livers work. It is at best, overly reductive.

I stated at the beginning of this piece that very few of us have to come to grips with the majesty of Darwin’s ideas. And this fact is especially true as it relates to the philosophical implications biological evolution illuminates. Up until Darwin, William Paley’s “watchmaker” argument made some sense. After Darwin, it makes none. In modern times only the nutty creationists still don’t realize that. The Catholic church has changed it tune and likes to straddle the fence here, declaring that while Darwin’s theory is in fact, a fact, what we call “mind”, and they call “soul” is what divides man from animal. This moronic idea brings up some amusing questions. For example, if “God” inserted a “soul” at some point, does that mean Neanderthals didn’t have a “soul”. When did the soul come to be? At some point there must have been an ancestor who was more ape then human, who begat offspring who were given a “soul”, right? Did Ardipithecus ramidus have a soul? These are the sorts of absurd questions religious superstition, and pretending to know things we know they don’t know, in other words lying for a living, the occupation of all clerics, missionaries, mullahs, pastors and priests, and by definition what the Pope does daily, lead to.

Back to reality; surprisingly, even amongst educated humans who have fully accepted the reality of biological evolution, the mystery of the “mind”, of the subjective experience of Cogito ergo sum; draws them into the murky trap of actually wanting ‘consciousness’ itself to remain, beyond measure. Dennett rightly calls these types of people ‘mysterians’; who due to bewilderment, cognitive dissonance, or some form of wish-thinking, find themselves un able to acknowledge what is likely the truth; that just as an algorithmic process lays at the heart of the evolutionary process, so to must an algorithmic process lay at the heart of that which we call “mind”.

Stated simply, our “minds”, which is to say the activity that the brain engages in, evolved through natural selection, and like all biological phenomena, is organized and maintained at its core by material substance; there is no mysterious ‘soul’ to be found. We ‘are’ biological machines. Or as Daniel Dennett eloquently states:

I was once interviewed in Italy and the headline of the interview the next day was wonderful. I saved this for my collection it was... "YES we have a soul but it's made of lots of tiny robots" and I thought that's exactly right. Yes we have a soul, but it's mechanical. But it's still a soul, it still does the work that the soul was supposed to do. It is the seat of reason. It is the seat of moral responsibility. It's why we are appropriate objects of punishment when we do evil things, why we deserve the praise when we do good things. It's just not a mysterious lump of wonder stuff... that will out live us.”

I think that sums it up.

I hope I have been clear enough in my reasoning to demonstrate why all forms of superstition, be they religious, cultural, new-age or otherwise, are dangerous. But I also want to point out one other very important fact, they are also profoundly impoverishing.

If you are an intelligent human being, an introspective human being, a curious human being, a human being who fully realizes and faces the reality of life as it is, the actuality that so far as the evidence seems to show, this is likely the one and only life you will ever have, then why on earth would you want to waste one precious second of that life, that consciousness, on something as stupid and vacuous as say, astrology, when you could instead learn what we actually do know regards our awe inspiring universe through the science of astronomy. It is, once you really think about it, nothing short of tragic to squander our minds on the trivial, on the superstitious, when we could instead be absorbing them in the majesty of what is our real, natural world.

One final intellectual roadblock often rears its head here, the idea that, because religious and/or new age superstition is so common, it must therefore have a purpose. In other words, ‘some’ people ‘must’ need it. And this too is a fallacy.

As I mentioned above, because something is common in the natural world, does not by proxy mean that it serves a useful purpose. In fact, its purpose might just as easily be damaging to the individual organism. The only thing we know for sure when we run into something frequently, is that this ‘thing’ is good at replicating itself. We know no more or less, until we really delve into the topic and find ourselves able to move past correlation, to actual causation.

Let me give you an example of where I have encountered this line of thought. In conversation with a good friend and colleague of mine who works frequently with law enforcement, he put forward the idea that people who do this type of job in the rougher areas, along with soldiers overseas; and all of those who are required to perform in potentially life threatening situations; are frequently believers, because they ‘need’ such belief in order to cope with the demands of that type of job.

As people interested in truth, we need to look carefully at the empirical claims made above. First, we cannot deny my colleague’s experience. He was absolutely sincere, and has only good interests in mind for those he works with. We have no reason to assume that in ‘his’ experience, the majority of officers and soldiers he works with tend to people who hold to some form of faith. Granted, this is anecdotal, but through various forms of polling the specific claim that, for example, police officers have a higher statistical probability of being religious believers, can be falsified. In other words, we can find out.

Let’s assume for sake of our example, that it turns out he is right. I suspect he is. We now have a correlation between the job, and a probability for belief. Assuming that turned out to be true, does that therefore mean that those doing that job ‘need’ that belief? And if someone answers yes to that, what evidence do they have for that assertion? Couldn’t there be other reasons for the correlation?

Here is my broader point, we human animals live in a world filled with correlation. Everything we see, touch, and experience is, in one form or another, related to everything else. A bright mind will see correlation everywhere and all the time; it surrounds us, includes us, and is self evident to even the least aware among us. The interconnected nature of nature, is not a secret, or a "spiritual" idea; it is simply a fact. But, to make that very large leap from correlation, to actually causation; you need evidence. And being able to distinguish between correlation and causation is in many cases, extremely hard to do. You can't understand an organism, without understanding its environment. The symbiotic relationship between nature and nurture, between genes and experience, is the reality that those who seek real (factual) answers, find themselves having to navigate.

One very important axiom to remember here:

A failure of imagination is never an insight into necessity.

Hold that principle in mind anytime you find yourself engaged in the intellectual, truth seeking effort of narrowing down answers and possibilities to specific questions.

For example, assuming it were true that certain professions had higher numbers of believers, could there not also be other reasons for this phenomena that held far more weight then the notion that ‘they’ find themselves ‘needing’ it? Perhaps those who tend to apply for that type of job, for various reasons, tend to score higher in the belief department not out of ‘need’, but rather because they tend to come from more religious, working class families? I don’t know if that hypothesis is true, but doesn’t it seem just as likely? Perhaps you the reader can think of two or three other hypotheses that could also explain the correlation; and if you can’t, does that therefore mean there are not other reasons? Keep in mind that above sentence, a failure of imagination is not an insight into necessity.

Remember, because something is found commonly in the natural world, does not mean it is helpful. Our bodies are filled with millions of symbiant visitors, many helpful, many benign, and some that can and perhaps will at some point, kill you. They are not all there because you ‘need’ them, they are all there because they are good at replication. And superstition in all its forms, may exist commonly the same way a virus does, it simply replicates well.

Rather then positing the concept of ‘need’ for the human animals widespread belief in various forms of superstition, let me offer you an alternative possibility; one based on reason, and supported by evidence.

The poet Paul Valery once put it this way:

“A mind is fundamentally an anticipator, an expectation-generator. It mines the present for clues, which it refines with the help of the materials it has saved from the past, turning them into anticipations of the future. And then it acts, rationally, on the basis of those hard-won anticipations.”

In looking for a succinct definition of what the ‘mind’ evolved for, I was hard pressed to find anything better then that above quote. Which brings us to the topic of ‘belief’. There are essentially two types of errors in belief, aptly known as type 1 and type 2. A type one error is what is known as a false positive. A type 2 error is a false negative. The author Michael Shermer describes these two fundamentally different forms of errors as follows:

“So we are left with the legacy of two types of thinking errors: Type 1 Error: believing a falsehood and Type 2 Error: rejecting a truth. ... Believers in UFOs, alien abductions, ESP, and psychic phenomena have committed a Type 1 Error in thinking: they are believing a falsehood. ... It's not that these folks are ignorant or uninformed; they are intelligent but misinformed. Their thinking has gone wrong.”

— Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things, 1997, 2002, Introduction

A simple analogy to explain how these two types of errors could dramatically affect natural selection in humans would go something like this; two people find a cave, both have heard stories of a large creature living within it. One person believes this story to be false; and as such, enters the cave. Assuming there is a bear in the cave, they have made a type 2 error. The other person, believing the story to be true, looks for other means of shelter. Assuming there was no large bear in the cave; they have made a type 1 error, they believe something that is untrue.

Now let’s examine the consequences. Whether or not there is a bear in the cave, by ‘believing’ there was, and therefore avoiding the cave altogether, the person making the type one error will live to procreate another day. On the other hand, the person making the type two error is taking a gamble, should they turn out to be wrong and there is a bear in that cave, they may never live to have offspring of their own. Multiply this effect over millions of years, and thousands of ancestors, and you have minds that have evolved to find themselves biased towards making type one errors.

Now let’s add one more factor. The children of our ancestors who were prone towards type two errors, who, after being told by their parents to avoid the tall grass due to dangerous beasts, ignored the advise of their elders and entered the grass anyway; were not as likely to make it to the age of procreation, as their more obedient siblings were. This tendency in children to obey authority, and believe what there are told by those in authority, is without much doubt an evolved one. And it is a tendency that those who run religion have understood for a long time. This is why most all ‘faiths’ begin brainwashing children with their superstitious propaganda at a very early age. Something, which once you really think about it, is as I stated earlier, nothing less then a very serious form of child abuse.

Combine these two factors, a statistical advantage in procreation for those ancestors which were prone more towards type one errors; and a statistical advantage for our ancestors who tended to obey those older tribal members, and you have a recipe for a “mind” prone towards belief, whether that belief is superstitious or not.

In keeping with Valery’s description of “mind”, it should be more then evident that a large part of what the brain evolved to do, is recognize patterns. We are as human beings, are pattern seeking mammals. The ability to detect patterns in nature, and make predictions from those patterns, is part of what helped our great ancestors survive and procreate. When that pattern seeking software is in working order, it helps us rapidly sort through information; but in areas where emotions run high, or the evidence is ambiguous, it can cause things to go very wrong.

We can be so confident in our ability to distinguish patterns, that we develop a strong certainty regarding our conclusions. One area where trusting certainty may be quite useful is in social interaction, assuming the human is healthy to begin with.

One area where it may not be useful would be large metaphysical questions, things related to causality, or "why".

Once we've created a story which takes us, at least within our own minds in so far as we pretend to know, from correlation to causation, we tend to find anecdotal evidence for this story; and we find it everywhere we look. This is confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true. Once we have a hunch how things work, we seek information that fits what we already believe. Confirmation bias is optimized for efficiency, not accuracy.

Certainty is a feeling, not proof of knowing. But as human beings we often confuse “feeling” for “knowing”, and we discover fairly early that it can be easy to distort evidence to our favor. We remember the positives, and ignore the negatives. Part of this is a lack of understanding regarding how our own minds work; and part of it is a failure to comprehend, what constitutes evidence. The less we understand about the actual scientific method, the easier it is to live a life of delusion. Stated another way, the easier it is not to change.

Said plainly, conviction (feeling) is never (by proxy) evidence of anything. However, we as human animals are predisposed to forget that fact. The more we ‘want’ to believe something, the more we tend to ‘find’ anecdotal evidence which we believe confirms our claim.

Rather than people ‘needing’ to believe in the superstitious, I would offer the following hypothesis. Between the tendency towards belief as opposed to doubt, the ability to seek patterns, and confirmation bias, exists the majority of reasons for why people believe all manner of silly things; from religion, to every form of new age, "spiritual", supernatural, idea on the market.

And there is one more major reason we need to explore as well.

"Je n' ai pas eu besoin de cette hypothese"

Laplace went in state to Napoleon to accept a copy of his work, and the following account of the interview is well authenticated, and so characteristic of all the parties concerned that I quote it in full. Someone had told Napoleon that the book contained no mention of the name of God; Napoleon, who was fond of putting embarrassing questions, received it with the remark, 'M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.' Laplace, who, though the most supple of politicians, was as stiff as a martyr on every point of his philosophy, drew himself up and answered bluntly, Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là. ("I had no need of that hypothesis.") Napoleon, greatly amused, told this reply to Lagrange, who exclaimed, Ah! c'est une belle hypothèse; ça explique beaucoup de choses. ("Ah, it is a fine hypothesis; it explains many things.")

The not so bright Bill O’Reilly, found himself debating an atheist for a segment on his show. As a challenge to the atheist, O’Reilly stated:

Tides go in, tides go out; you can’t explain that!”

The atheist, at first a bit shocked by the stupidity of O’Reilly’s question, began to calmly explain that yes, we actually do know why the tides go in and out, and here is why. Before he could finish his factual explanation related to the moon, O’Reilly again interrupted; “Ya, but you can’t explain ‘why’”.

Rather then trying to educate O’Reilly on 2nd grade science, it may have been better to simply state with a smile: “Perhaps it is because Odin does it?”.

The ‘creators’ (an agent) hand in moving the tide is exactly what O’Reilly was attempting to posit. And as absurd as that is to believe in our modern times, from an evolutionary standpoint it is not at all hard to figure out why the simpler among us, like O’Reilly, would even in modern times, find himself falling for such lunacy. This is the third piece of our New Age puzzle, and it is known as the hyper active agency detector.

”The high cost of failing to detect agents and the low cost of wrongly detecting them has led researchers to suggest that people possess a Hyperactive Agent Detection Device, a cognitive module that readily ascribes events in the environment to the behavior of agents”.
- Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner

Think of a dog that, when it hears the sound of a tree branch brushing up against the window, stands up at attention and barks in the direction of the noise. The dog isn’t talking about a branch, the dog is doing the equivalent of yelling “who is there!”, and making his presence known to ‘what’ made the sound. As human animals we too assume agency. When good things happen someone is responsible. When bad things happen someone is to blame. Things happen for a "reason" related to an agent. That is the fallacy.

To ancients, volcanic eruptions happened due to a god. To some modern Christians, hurricane Katrina happened due to the actions of homosexuals. To ancients, crops failed due to a neighbor’s use of "witchcraft". To modern athletes, a prayer before the game helps raise ones odds. Different times, different contexts, same fallacious thinking model.

Let’s put this all together now. The human animal has a propensity towards type one errors, we are prone to believe something is ‘true’. We mistake the ‘feeling’ of conviction, for a reality that requires evidence. We easily find patterns, and we are biased towards confirming those patterns in the natural correlation of things we see all around us all the time. And finally, when pressed for a ‘why’, we are prone to attribute agency; the actions of some ‘being’. Add it up, and understanding why people believe silly things, religious, new age, or otherwise, is no surprise.

O’Reilly may in fact be an idiot, but his thinking is not that uncommon. Until someone explains ‘who’ makes the tides go in an out; the actual, factual reasons why the tides go in and out won’t ‘feel’ right to him; and he will reject reason due to that conviction, that feeling.

I need to make something else very clear here as well. At the start of this article I pointed out that many of those who battle against ‘reason’ can in fact be well educated, and from the left side of the aisle. And that is indeed a reality. We must remember that all of us, all human beings, are predisposed to make these errors in thinking. It isn’t just people like O’Reilly, or the radical fundamentalists within ‘organized’ religion who stumble into these pitfalls of the evolved mind.

One example I found recently comes from someone who is widely considered to be one of the greatest thinkers and philosophers of the 20th century, Wittgenstein.

“Wittgenstein posited that it is impossible to conceive of a pain and not know who had that pain. Anarchic hand syndrome, they have an arm attached to them that they don’t believe is theirs. If you prick them with a pain and ask “was that painful”, they will say yes, there was a pain, but it wasn’t theirs. We have to be careful comparing unusual cases to normative cases. However, the information we learn regarding how the brain works from people with obscure brain disorders sheds light on just how immense a role various parts of the brain play in constructing our reality, and our behavior.”
- Barry C Smith

In discussion with philosophers regarding this error in Wittgenstein’s reasoning, I find many unable, or unwilling to accept that maybe in this case, he was simply wrong. Had Wittgenstein claimed that ‘normally’ one cannot conceive of a pain and not know who had the pain; he would remain correct. But he did not. He stated, “it is impossible”, and that is a pretty bold assertion.

My point here isn’t to pick at Wittgenstein, what I am doing instead is drawing attention to the fact that all of us, even the brightest among us, have to be careful when making empirical statements about the nature of reality which are not validated by the hard facts of science. Between Wittgenstein’s idea, and the reality that neuroscience tells us, all of us interested in reality have to go with the science; but only always.

It's never enough to be well intentioned, we also have to be right. Once we realize that, the facade of religious superstition and the entire new age movement, crumbles apart in our hands; revealing itself for what it has always been; nothing more then a damaging fantasy.

I started this essay by asking three questions, where does the ‘mystical’ experience come from. How do these experiences affect the humans who have them. And, what ‘can’t’ we imply from these experiences. Step by step, we have investigated all three questions.

As to the where/how question A, what we are talking about is, factually speaking, a brain state. And why exactly we as humans have these experiences is a question for the hard sciences of the brain to answer. We must remember though that it may in all likely hood simply be a by-product, like the belly button, or male nipples; and hold no particular advantage as far as survival or reproduction. In other words, these brain states may be ‘purposeless’ as far as nature is concerned; and we have to remain open to the evidence if that does in fact turn out to be the case.

As to question B, how do these experiences affect the individuals who have them? This is again a question for science, in this case, a moral science; they matter in so far as they effect the behavior of the individual. Has their perspective changed for the better, are they happier? Are the less selfish and more responsible, or are they more selfish and irresponsible? These are the questions one has to ask when evaluating the ‘meaning’ any given experience has.

When it comes to question B, the question of meaning, one the fundamental problem behind most all of the new age superstitions is the fact that they simply aren’t true. Again, good intentions are not enough.

A simple comparison here can be seen between traditional, fantasy based martial arts, and all forms of woo-woo. Fantasy based martial arts tend to take people who are in some palpable way frightened and insecure, and make them, over time, more frightened and insecure. The burden of defending an image, and a position which is built upon delusion, isn't, in the long run, ever healthy.

The new age movement takes people who tend to be narcissistic and myopic, and over time, make them even more self centered and fuzzy headed. Why? Because it appeals to selfishness and wish thinking, and offers nothing more then false promises to the ego.

Finally question C, what ‘can’t’ we imply from these experiences. And this is where the entire mystical experience begins to completely unravel. Either you understand that there is such a thing as “facts”, as reality, or you don’t. In other words, the statement, “the earth existed before I was born”; is a fact. The statement, “I have been visited by aliens”, is an extraordinary claim, not a fact, unless I produce evidence which proves this claim; and the onus to produce that evidence is always on the claim maker.

Where mystics go wrong is in mistaking their own subjective experience, which by my own admission may be extremely powerful, for the material reality of actuality; and the tendency, the desire to do just that, can become a very powerful trap for the human being.

This brings us back to Descartes Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. Because an individual has a powerful experience, the experience of ‘be-ing’ that all mystics describe, does not mean that the ‘I am’ survives the reduction to ‘the brain thinks’. Why should it?

Descartes confused his existential being in the world, with his consciousness of it. And this is the classic mistake of the mystic, the guru, and those drawn into the murky waters of illusion. Descartes ‘res cogitans’, the mysterious “thinking substance”, gives way to the clarity of Alan Turing’s ‘thinking machine’; and once this is understood the real work begins.

It seems clear from history that Descartes was both brilliant and sincere in his philosophical ideas. I think that can be safely assumed about many, whom, having been astonished by the non-normative experiences the brain can produce, find themselves gripping onto a tenuous belief in dualism, whether or not they fully understand that this happening, or what its implications are. The great irony to this is that most all mystics will label their experience non-dual, due to the nature of the experience itself; and this puts them in the awkward position of preaching non duality, while at the same time positing duality with their insistence that ‘consciousness’ itself exists as some-thing non-physical; some-‘thing’ which transcends the death of the brain.

Non-dual realizations leading to a dualistic proclamations, leaves people like Deepak Chopra using ambiguous superstitious terms like ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’, while at the same time desperately grasping at, what remains to most people, the equally mysterious world of quantum mechanics in a hopeless attempt to reconcile the material world and what is for them the *something else* of consciousness.

In the end, when you look at their use of language carefully, and examine the evidence clearly, you find that what Deepak and the other new age-spiritual gurus are peddling is nothing more then smoke and mirrors. For the sincere, it is a dead end. For the insincere, the hucksters, it’s a great paycheck via the self help market.

Once again, we find ourselves needing to draw that distinction I started the essay with, between those that may simply find themselves lead astray due to our evolutionary origins, their emotions, their vulnerability and the nature of our believing brains; and those hucksters and con artists who willfully exploit these weaknesses in reasoning for power, wealth, and personal gain.

I’ve already offered a few ways to watch for the ‘tricks’ these gurus (read con artists) use, and before I detail a few for you, let me make clear that these are same gimmicks you will hear coming from the mouths of priests, rabbis, mullahs, missionaries, and that very elite branch of subterfuge known as ‘theologians’, as well.

1- A consistent use of murky language; of vague undefined terms.

This one is so common, that those few “spiritual” teachers, gurus and priests who don’t use this tactic end up becoming the exception that proves the rule.

What I am not talking about here is a vague term that is said between friends, and which is understood within that context. For example, if I wind up entering a pub in some part of the world and my friend says to me, “I really don’t like the vibe in here”; that can be a perfectly lucid use of human language. I might, and if they are a close friend probably will, immediately grasp what they are referencing, and understand clearly. I am not referring to this type of allegorical language, which is often indispensable to our ability to communicate socially.

What I am talking about is something like this; a homeopathic ‘doctor’, who is selling nothing but water and sugar, which factually speaking is all homeopathic medicine actually is, is administering homeopathic malaria ‘vaccines’ for people traveling to Africa. This potentially fatal bit of insanity was actually occurring regularly at large drug stores in the UK; that is until it resulted in several deaths, received news coverage thanks to skeptics, and has now gone a bit more underground.

When called on this bit of deadly idiocy, the homeopath declares, “yes, it contains no ‘active’ ingredients, however the ‘vibrations’ of the medicine remains present.”

This is clearly a very different kind of use for the word ‘vibe’ or vibration’, then the one mentioned in the pub. And I promise that upon questioning, you will never get a concrete definition for what this snake oil salesman means by the term ‘vibration’. They couldn’t tell you if they wanted to, because in this case, it is simply made up. And rather then using the words ‘magic’, or perhaps ‘bullshit’, they offer something which sounds semi-scientific (think quantum physics, or something equally spooky); yet still murky and vague enough to garner nods of approval from credulous hippies who already want to believe in the charade that is homeopathy. And this, is the art/con of theology, as it is applied to ‘alternative’ (read make believe) medicine.

Theology is that hollow, and once you see past the pseudo profound cloak they ‘try’ and wrap themselves in, it becomes absurd.

I referenced the cultural studies/ post modernism branch of academia earlier in this piece, and this theme of ambiguous language, and purposeful obfuscation is central to these higher superstitions as well. Here are three quotes that make my point, see if you can tell who is who.

Quote #1: “The postmodern sciences deconstruct and transcend the Cartesian metaphysical distinctions between humankind and Nature, observer and observed, Subject and Object. Already quantum mechanics, earlier in this century, shattered the ingenuous Newtonian faith in an objective, pre-linguistic world of material objects ``out there''; no longer could we ask, as Heisenberg put it, whether ``particles exist in space and time objectively''. But Heisenberg's formulation still presupposes the objective existence of space and time as the neutral, unproblematic arena in which quantized particle-waves interact (albeit indeterministically); and it is precisely this would-be arena that quantum gravity problematizes. Just as quantum mechanics informs us that the position and momentum of a particle are brought into being only by the act of observation, so quantum gravity informs us that space and time themselves are contextual, their meaning defined only relative to the mode of observation.”

Quote #2: “Quantum healing is healing the bodymind from a quantum level. That means from a level which is not manifest at a sensory level. Our bodies ultimately are fields of information, intelligence and energy. Quantum healing involves a shift in the fields of energy information, so as to bring about a correction in an idea that has gone wrong. So quantum healing involves healing one mode of consciousness, mind, to bring about changes in another mode of consciousness, body.”

Quote#3: “This subordination therefore takes the form of an “incorporation,” whether that be understood in its psychoanalytic sense or in the wider sense of an integration that assimilates or retains within itself that which exceeds, surpasses, or supersedes. The incorporation of one mystery by the other also amounts to an incorporation of one immortality within another, of one eternity within another. This enveloping of immortality also corresponds to a transaction between two negations of two disavowals of death.”

Still guessing? All three quotes are instructive as it relates to my overall point. The first quote is actually a hoax, a very famous and very beautiful hoax. The ‘Sokal hoax’. It is from an academic paper written by professor Alan Sokal and submitted to the ‘prestigious’ academic journal of postmodern cultural studies, ‘Social Text’. It was by Alan Sokal’s account, “a test in intellectual rigor.”

Operating on the belief that these post modern journals were producing nothing more then obfuscated nonsense, Sokal submitted a make believe paper aptly titled, ‘Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’ (isn't that a beautiful name), and filled with nothing more then, obfuscated nonsense. It was accepted, published in May 1996; and after its publication Sokal publicly announced it was all nothing more then a joke. A brilliant and informative example of one very powerful way to deal with bullshit, i.e. postmodern cultural studies, religion, and all things ‘new age’.

In response the editors of Social Text declared, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, was the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some kind of affirmation from postmodern philosophy for developments in his field and that its status as parody does not alter, substantially, our interest in the piece, itself, as a symptomatic document."

A classic example of people so entrenched in their own make believe, they render themselves unable to realize that in the end, the joke is on them.

The second quote is from the big money mainstream guru of the new age movement himself, Deepak Chopra himself. I am not going to bother with breaking down the blatantly nonsensical prose, or even ask what he means by terms like fields of information, intelligence, energy, or fields of energy information. I would hope that at this stage in the essay, I wouldn’t have to. But if you still find yourself drawn towards this sort of muddled confusion, then you should ask. I am confident that once you do, you will discover what Deepak already knew long before he started selling it all; those words are simply placeholders for what amounts to nothing more then make believe. In short, it means nothing, but only factually speaking.

The third quote is from the very famous, or perhaps infamous depending on which side of the rational isle you straddle, post modern philosopher Jacques Derrida. And due to my inability to find his direct work on the internet, I was forced to write that paragraph directly from my own copy of ‘The gift of death’. Believe it or not, that is one of his least obfuscated books. I hope you,. My reader, can appreciate the pain of having to read this type of information for what turned out to be in the end, this essay. I will let the words speak for themselves. If you find yourself concerned that I took that paragraph out of context, some sort of context that would when taken as a whole make some sort of ‘sense’; they by all means look into it yourself. I am always available by email should you discover Derrida’s actual ‘meaning’.

There is a story-joke I once heard from a philosophers lecture. A group of professors had gathered for a party, and Derrida was present. One professor approached him and said, “I just read your most recent paper on death, I didn’t understand a word of it.” Derrida replied, “thank you.”

There is within that story, the hook to this particular con game. There is a language, a terminology to all fields of human knowledge. Due to this fact, an academic paper written by a biologist, may sound like a different language to say, a mathematician; and vice versa. But absent this reality of tradesman lingo, a good professor, an academic, philosopher or scientist who actually does have ‘something’ interesting to say, some point to try and get across, will do his or her best to make their writing as lucid, as understandable as possible. To do otherwise, to intentionally obfuscate your message, betrays something about the message itself; you may not actually have one.

I think, to borrow a term from the internet, Derrida was nothing more then a highly intelligent, highly advanced, ‘troll’. He, like Sokal, played a joke on those who consider themselves “intellectuals”. Because he, like you I hope (my intelligent reader) realized that those who consider themselves to be part of the intelligentsia, like to pretend to know things they do not know; just as the religious do. And as such, when you write something no one can understand, because it is in reality, gibberish, it creates the perfect vehicle for them to ‘pretend’ they understand; that they are amongst an elite class who can make sense of the great and mysterious Derrida. A clever con game, and one that I think gets used often in both academia, as well as the world of the ‘Arts’.

Author Arturo Muñoz sums up the clear connection between this sub culture within academia, traditional religion, and the the new age movement with great precision. To quote:

The new age movement to which thousands of gurus and their mindless adjuncts belong looks something like postmodernism as sold to children in pop-up book form. This is not a spurious allegation—there is a common thread running between the two philosophies, although in peculiarly different senses. The new age seems to be an extension of the fascination with linking cultural relativism to spiritual and religious matters. This may not have been a negative attribute by itself—at its worst it would have inspired criticism of the monolithic religions of the day and their ethnocentric claims. What happened instead was that the new age, much like many postmodern philosophies, decided that to do away with petty constraints of the past: that is, logic and a desire for truth. Those would be cast aside as manifestations of what the new age was against: inhibitions on spiritual freedom.

It is too bad that tossing away those two things also leaves one in the camps of the cheapest charlatans—and it did not take long for charlatans to find a pen. The fall of the new age from genuine search to mere sophism was so quick, given the nature of those who thought themselves liberated, that it now seems that there was never anything there to begin with. What we have today is Deepak Chopra with his misuse of physics and slurring of science, Sathya Sai Baba the Indian guru who claims to be born of a virgin and who woos audiences with parlor tricks, and of course, the now ubiquitous telepsychics, palm readers, fortune tellers, astrologers and other celebrities in contemporary pop culture.

Equally comical, although in a more ironic and subtle sense, is the traditionalist religious response to this type of new age phenomenon. Dogmatic religions and the new age pseudophilosophies that they decry are but a step away from each other. They are brothers, one of which was bred in a time when many people stopped caring about the stricter rules but still craved their weekly soma doses. Is there really a difference between saying that prayer can affect the universe and saying that positive thinking can? Advertising miracle water blessed by a televangelist is no less deceitful than selling people magic crystals.

We should feel ashamed to cast aside all that we have gained so easily, to forget the many men and women who were honest thinkers and who labored away, often without recognition, for our human legacy. I would like to think that we are leaving something worthwhile for the future, that we have not become so nihilistic that we now worship obscurantism.”

I think that sums it up perfectly.

The first trick-con related to theology and the new age was consistent use of murky language; of vague undefined terms; and you will see it used everywhere.

Here is the second:

#2 The use of ‘deepities’ and use mention errors, ‘UMEs’.

These next two terms come from my favorite philosopher, Daniel Dennett, and you will find them in nearly every new age book, and every text on religious apologetics you find.

To begin with a ‘deepity’ refers to a statement that has (at least) two meanings; one that is true but trivial, and another that sounds profound, but is essentially false, or meaningless with respect to this deeper meaning, but would be "earth-shattering" if true.

The example Dennett uses to illustrate a deepity is the phrase "love is just a word". On one level the statement is perfectly true (i.e., 'love' is a four letter word) but the deeper meaning of the phrase is false; love is many things - a feeling, an emotion, a condition and not simply a word.

Once I figured out this particular parlor game, I found myself disgusted by the consistent use of deepities in the writings of all religious and new age authors. It isn’t just deceptive, it is more then that, by pretending to be profound what a deepity actualy does is help block those for whom its used on from actually seeking out that which may truly be profound; things like the reality behind our natural world, and the relationships of life within it. It cheapens and impoverishes the minds of people who mistake the trivial, for the meaningful; and that is nothing short of dreary.

Here is an example of a deepity.

"God is no being at all." This gem is a quote from the always murky writer Karen Armstrong. If you actually examine what the sentence means, then you will see it is exactly equivalent to the statement, "no being at all is God.” And I have to agree with Karen on that one.

The second artifice used by the hucksters is the ‘use mention error’. The use–mention distinction sometimes referred to as the words-as-words distinction is a foundational concept of analytic philosophy, according to which it is necessary to make a distinction between using a word (or phrase) and mentioning it. The example given by Dennett above, "love is just a word" is booth a deepity, as well as a UME, since the use of the word ‘love’ refers to just the term, not what the term denotes. That little bit of chicanery creates the sense that it may mean more then it actually does.

Here is a classic woo-woo quote from another very popular new age guru, Wayne Dyer.

Dr. Wayne W. Dyer has researched intention as a force in the universe that allows the act of creation to take place. This beautiful gift edition of Wayne’s international bestseller explores intention—not as something we do—but as an energy we’re a part of. We’re all intended here through the invisible power of intention—a magnificent field of energy we can access to begin co-creating our lives!”

This paragraph of astounding banality is nothing short of one long, meaningless, deepity; which also makes use of several other theological confidence tricks, including the first one we listed, vague, murky language.

Let’s take a look, Dyer’s use of the word “energy” involves a pseudo-scientific term (one of the confidence tricks we list further down), is offered vaguely enough to serve as a classic deepity. Is Dyer referring to something astounding, or as Dennett would say, “Earth shattering” when he talks of ‘energy’? Is it some sort of magical force, some sort of actual power? Or is Dyer referring to something much more mundane, such positive thinking, or clarity of one’s goals? Which did he intend?

My guess is that Dyer, being well versed in the con game, will change his meaning according to his audience. Should he find himself talking to skeptics, or scientists, he can choose the scientifically defensible meaning. Should he be talking to a believer in the superstitious, he can alter his meaning to match their desire to believe in such things. Since what Dyer is referring to is make believe anyway, telling the truth about it, or being clear in his use of language regarding it, isn’t desirable, or even necessary. His intentional use of murky deepities helps him sell his con.

The use mention error can be found everywhere, consider the title of Robert Wright's book ‘The Evolution of God’. Is Robert talking about the actual evolution of ‘God’, or is he instead talking about the history of the ‘belief’ in ‘God’. Upon reading the book you discover it is about the history of belief, but his title alone betrays a work filled with UME’s.

The religiously ‘moderate’ crowd, the crowd that believes a more ‘evolved’ view of religion is to see it all as ‘metaphor’, loves use mention errors; because it helps them avoid drawing that clear line between fantasy and fact.

I don’t think that most people within that camp realize how profoundly condescending their take on religion is to those that actually believe the bible, Koran, or other work of ancient fiction to be the true word of ‘the’ God. In my personal experience, fundamentalists often prefer the honesty and sincerity of someone who is upfront with them, and willing to declare outright what they do, or do not believe. As contrasted to the muddled ramblings of someone like Robert Wright, or Karen Armstrong; who, upon close inspection, tend to be offering nothing less then the proposition that fundamentalists just haven’t ‘evolved’ enough yet, all under the trite banner of tacit agreement and shared words like ‘god’ or ‘spirit’. As I stated earlier, it is a mistake to assume that fundamentalists are ‘stupid’. And they know when they are being talked down to, just as much as any intelligent person does.

So far we have a consistent use of vague and murky language, along with a love for deepities, and use mention errors. This brings us to confidence trick #3 used by theologians, gurus, life coaches, and new age quacks of all stripes; the consistent delivery of false promises and false propositions.

Trick #3, the consistent delivery of false promises and false propositions.

This is the big scam the above mentioned hucksters are selling with their murky, obfuscated language and fortune cookie deepities; and its forms are many.

Consider Wayne Dyer’s advertisement listed above, what is he claiming? As we now know, it is as vague as possible, but the false promise is still there, to quote:

We’re all intended here through the invisible power of intention—a magnificent field of energy we can access to begin co-creating our lives!”

A magnificent field of ‘energy’ we can access to begin ‘co-creating’ our lives. Wow, that is a mouthful of bullshit, but let’s break it down. What exactly does Dyer mean by “energy”? The misuse of scientific terms like “energy” or “vibration” or “field” is a classic confidence trick. I will examine it more in depth below, and show you exactly why those words are always used in a completely erroneous context. Suffice it to say that anytime you hear such a word mentioned, grab your wallet; unless you are at an engineering or physics conference, you are probably being scammed.

Let’s set that aside for a moment and look at what Dyer is ‘trying’ to sell. The bottom line is something like this, conceive it, believe it, and achieve it. If you just desire something strongly enough, you will get it. It is free-will plus, it is the idea of uber-free will; or as Deepak Chopra would say, your intention creates the universe.

This extremely common bit of ridiculousness is sold throughout the new age world. In fact, you could almost consider it one of the main tenants of the ‘new age’. It was never offered in such as an obvious package as it was it the bromidic book, and later movie, “The Secret”. Which created a make believe natural ‘law’, which they called “the law of attraction”. How did Howard Hughes become so rich? How did Newton discover so many things about our world? By the ‘power’ of ‘intention’ of course.

If you haven’t already thrown up a little in your mouth, then I haven’t quite done my job as a writer yet. This bit of solipsistic garbage isn’t just wrong, it is in truth revolting once you give it some thought. Did the two year old diagnose with terminal cancer “choose” her fate through “intention”. How about the child born with severe retardation, did they ‘create’ their universe with their thought? Did the men, women and children who were slaughtered with farm instruments over the course of 100 or so days in Rwanda, did all 800,000 of them ‘will’ that event?

The idea behind the ‘secret’, just like the superstition known as ‘karma’ we discussed previously, isn’t just incredibly disgusting once examined it in the light of sincere reason, it is also incredibly stupid.

Children contract disease primarily due to biological reasons beyond their control. Wealthy people are wealthy for various reasons. Reasons which include hard work, education, upbringing, values, and a host of correlated factors that only a fool or a liar would pretend to know precisely (see Gladwell’s excellent book Outliers, for some truly insightful thoughts on this topic). Just as the poor around the world are in poverty for a host of reasons, not the least of which being where, and when, they were born. Which one of us can lay claim to ‘picking’ where we were we would be born? Which one of can give claim to ‘choosing’ our parents?

How much of the “I am a self made man” pride would vanish, the moment people really took the time to realize how dramatically the fortune of being born when and where they were, affected their ‘success’?

Let Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, and the rest of these ‘teachers’ take their “message” to the plains of Africa, or the ghettos of Calcutta. Tell the starving, the blind, and the crippled that if they only “believed” strongly enough, they to could “co-create” their “universe”. There is a reason these prevaricators sell this dishonest gibberish in wealthy first world nations.

Here is another bit of pseudo-wisdom I read recently from the Buddhist Chogyam Trungpa.

Warriorship does not refer to making war on others. Aggression is the source of our problems, not the solution. Warriorship is the tradition of human bravery, or the tradition of fearlessness.”

First off all, we have the adoption of the word ‘warrior’. You will see this misuse of a noble term quite frequently in new age literature. Suffice it so say, if you come from a family that does serve their Nation in some official capacity, seeing hippies and Buddhist gurus use a term like warrior (or anyone else not actually in a war for that matter), can be offensive. I find its use offensive in my own sport. Fighters are not warriors, they are athletes; and neither are monks.

That said, notice that Chogyam also makes an empirical statement in this quote, that aggression is the ‘source’ of the problem, not the solution. What is Chogyam’s evidence you might ask? And that would be a good question.

When a mother defends her offspring in the animal kingdom (a serious show of aggression if ever there was one); something which most animals, including the human one do when their children are threatened, that isn’t a ‘problem’. That is a natural adaptation. And one that helped our ancestors make sure that your line survived long enough for you to be reading this piece today. Aggression isn’t ‘bad’ anymore then adrenalin is bad. Its misuse is bad. But because something is misused does not mean it is never useful, or worse, the source of our problems. Aggression can be perfectly healthy in the right circumstances. And this is something religion does frequently, it demonizes natural human behavior.

Secondly Chogyam offers his own definition of ‘warriorship’, which he calls the tradition of human bravery, or ‘fearlessness’. And there is the con, the delivery of the false promise.

I would urge any of you who, perhaps without thinking too deeply on it, felt there might be some kernel of actual wisdom in Chogyam’s quote, to talk to some actual veterans of real wars; you know ‘warriors’. You won’t find a single one who is sane, and tells you he or she was ever ‘fearless’. As anyone who has faced situations of extreme stress knows, the only people who ever claim to be fearless are the insane, or the idiotic. Our ‘fear’ is also a very natural, very healthy adaptation.

Reviewing once more, we now have a consistent use of vague and murky language, a love for deepities, use mention errors, and the dependable delivery of false promises and false propositions. This brings us to confidence trick #4, the hijacking, and dishonest use of scientific terminology.

Trick #4, the hijacking, and dishonest use of scientific terminology.

You will start to notice a theme here if you are paying attention. All of these tricks I am listing, which are used by everyone from “sophisticated” theologians, to new age gurus, to ‘yogis’, to self help “life coaches”, are so common that you will almost always find all five, used almost every time.

Let’s look again at the advertisement from Wayne Dyer, which uses this classic woo-woo con. It states:

“a magnificent field of energy we can access to begin co-creating our lives!”

What does Dyer mean here by the word “energy”? Whatever it is, once we look into what the term ‘energy’ actually means within the real, material world, we will see that whatever Dyer is trying to say, it is going to turn out to be make believe.

The first thing to do the moment someone uses the term “energy” is to ask them what type of energy is it, and how is it stored? Contrary to the gurus of superstition, energy doesn’t just float around in the air like some sort of monster from Star Trek. Energy must be stored. Energy is a measurement of something's ability to perform work. Given this factual context, when Wayne Dyer uses the word “energy” as he does in the above quote, what he is actually saying is absolutely meaningless. But by now, I am sure you knew that.

Brian Dunning from the Skeptoid podcast has a good test you can use anytime someone drops the word “energy”:

Energy is not really a noun at all. Energy is a measurement of something's ability to perform work. Given this context, when spiritualists talk about your body's energy fields, they're really saying nothing that's even remotely meaningful.

Here's a good test. When you hear the word "energy" used in a spiritual or paranormal sense, substitute the phrase "measurable work capability." Does the usage still make sense? Are you actually being given any information that supports the claim being made? Remember, energy itself is not the thing being measured: energy is the measurement of work performed or of potential.

There's a good reason why you don't hear medical doctors or pharmacists talking about energy fields: it's meaningless. I think it's generally good policy to remain open minded and be ready to hear claims that involve energy, but approach them skeptically, and scientifically. The next time you hear such a claim, substitute the phrase "measurable work capability" and you'll be well equipped to separate the silly from the solid.”

I think that’s clear enough, however, ‘energy’ isn’t the only scientific term hijacked by the hucksters. Others include “quantum”, as in quantum ‘healing’, quantum ‘consciousness’, etc; and nearly every form of terminology used within math.

I won’t bore you with listing all the possibilities here. Just remember, scientists, unlike new age quacks, are very specific when they use words. As such, if you here a scientific ‘sounding’ term, being applied by a new ager, ask for a solid definition for what they mean by that word. That will result in of two possibilities; they will either play the vague, deepity game with you; hoping you don’t notice. Or, they will launch into some wild fantasy of nonsense, which will be completely unsupported by facts or evidence. In either case you will have exposed them, and enjoyed an entertaining conversation while doing so.

Again, let’s review. The tricks used by the new age con men, gurus and yogis include, a consistent use of vague and murky language, a love for deepities, use mention errors, the dependable delivery of false promises and false propositions; and the hijacking, and dishonest use of scientific terminology; which brings us to our last one for this article, #5.

Confidence trick #5 of theology, the hijacking of evolved human values.

There are a couple of very important points I want to make sure I get across when talking about this fifth trick. The first is in my use of the term ‘evolved’. The high human values, things like cooperation, love, reciprocation, self sacrifice, even an appreciation of beauty; are all in the end, either partially or completely ‘evolved’ traits. The feelings of immense love a parent feels for its offspring isn’t the result of a “god”, or even a culture; it is the result of our ancestors, and the process of trial and error known as natural selection.

Some people mistakenly feel that this understanding of reality, in some way diminishes its grandeur, its majesty. In truth, they couldn’t be more wrong. Looking at nature through the clear lens of actuality enhances these experiences, these feelings, and in the end the appreciation itself for these values we all cherish. Values which have always helped organize, motivate, and influence human life, and human culture.

Religion, and all forms of superstition be it new age or otherwise, has, through an organic process of trial and error, as well as through direct human influence, hijacked these values for its own purposes. When you hear the guru, priest or mullah talk of truth, beauty, and above all else, the term they love to toss out flippantly, love; remember, these men don’t have access to these values in a way that you or I, or anyone else for that matter, do not. These values didn’t come from their god, or their religious superstition. Rather, these values are being exploited by them for the gain of their superstition.

Understanding that truth, has for me and for many others, helped to shine a different light on these muddled superstitions. It reminds us that they have no right to appropriate these terms, as if they have some special access to them. My ancestors, as well as yours, fought, suffered, and died for these values, long before the word “god” was ever muttered by some robe wearing guru, or lecherous priest.

Community, music, beauty, and yes love, are adopted by nearly every form of “faith”, which is to say every form of belief without evidence, including the new age. And for good reason, as I stated above, they motivate people to action. Sometimes this action can be positive, as when it is directed towards helping others less fortunate. Sometimes it can be deadly, or at best misguided, as when the Catholics preach anti-condom insanity in poor areas ravaged by AIDS, or when mobs of angry Islamic men storm embassies and murder innocent people over a cartoon.

The late , bhagwan shree Rajneesh, who later changed his name to ‘Osho’ after attempting to poison a community in Oregon with biological weapons, was, like nearly all hippie-dippie gurus, fond of constantly discussing “love”. Love, for these new agers always morphs into a form of deepity. Sometimes it is spoken of in the context of human relationships, as in feelings, sometimes its used as a sort of adverb, denoting some form of action, and sometimes it is used a noun in and of itself, as if it was a thing, yes, often called by them “energy”, which contains some mass or charge of its own.

The various ways the word is used point to its power in motivating human behavior; in Osho’s case, in motivating legions of credulous west coast yuppies to cough up enough money for him to collect the worlds largest fleet of Rolls Royce's; and a harem of sexual concubines to use, as drawn from his female accolades.

Sometimes the gurus drop the love word for another reason, because the intentionally obfuscated overuse of the term, gives off the impression to the impressionable, those who ‘want’ to believe, that the guru has access to something magical, something called “love”, that they just don’t quite understand. It remains, intentionally, a bit of a mystery. And that is all part of the larger con.

If you feel that gurus, who as in the case of Osho often turn out to be socio-paths, have some access to this magical thing called “love” that you, or other well adjusted primates don’t; then you need to wake up and stop dwelling so much on your ‘self’; because only a form of serious solipsism could posit something so absurd. Our primate cousins understand love, as does anyone normative who has ever had a child. It is both twisted, and insulting to imply that we need to be lectured on the topic by some pedestal striding pseudo-expert. The fact that so many are drawn to such an overtly condescending message says a lot about the shallowness of modern humans drawn to it; but it says little to nothing about the guru using the ploy, other then the fact that they too are well versed in trick #5, the hijacking of evolved human values.

That sums it up. This is a short list; I intentionally kept the number to five, a consistent use of vague and murky language, a love for deepities, use mention errors, the dependable delivery of false promises and false propositions; the dishonest use of scientific terminology; and lastly the hijacking of evolved human values, like love, beauty and truth. Add those up, and you too have a recipe for starting your own new age commune. And as you might imagine we have just scratched the surface, an entire book could be written on the various con games theologians, gurus, and life coaches have at their disposal when it comes to separating you from you money, and your senses.

You have, up to this point, plenty of information to arm yourself against the assault on your reasoning ability that new age hucksters will attempt. But be prepared for their counter arguments. As I wrote in my previous article, ‘carving nature at the joints’, there are only ever three arguments for any form of superstition, be it traditional martial arts, ‘alternative; medicine, new age quackery, or religion. They are as follows.

1- The offering of anecdotal ‘evidence’.

This goes something along the lines of this, “I heard this Aikido expert defended himself against two large football players in the taco bell parking lot using only his ‘ki’ power!” Therefore, Aikido must work.

Or, “I rubbed a cat on my head, and my headache went away!” Therefore, cat on head cures headache.

Or, “my sister had an ear infection, and after taking homeopathic pills her infection went away!” Therefore homeopathy works.

Or, “I was meditating with guru sillydass and all of the sudden I felt energy shoot up my spine!” Therefore, guru sillydass has magical powers to engage my “kundalini” ‘energy’.

You get the fallacy here. After explaining to these people why anecdotal “evidence” isn’t actually evidence of anything, since you can find people claiming that every form of nonsense on the planet “works”; you may leave them a bit deflated; but remember, you are performing a public service, whether they realize it quite yet or not.

This often leads the believer onto argument number two.

2- The argument from authority.

This goes something like this, “Doctor John is an actual MD, and he believes in homeopathy!” Therefore, homeopathy must work.

Or, “Francis Collins is a believing Christian!” Therefore, Christianity must be something other then irrational.

You can see how this fallacy operates as well. You would be hard pressed to find an interview or debate by Deepak Chopra where he doesn’t drop the name of Roger Penrose, the mathematician who has posited the hypothesis regarding consciousness at a quantum level. There is to date, absolutely no evidence that such a thing exists. But it is enough for many of Deepak’s followers, for him to simply name drop, and rely on the fallacy of an argument from authority.

Suffice it say, the world is filled with PhD’s who believe in all manner of insanity. You will find medical doctors who are Scientologists, Mormons and faith healers. None of that lends any more credence whatsoever to scientology, Mormonism, or faith healing.

One thing many people on the more innocent side of the woo-woo isle simply don’t understand yet, is the rigors demanded by the scientific process. Science, being the technology of truth in the ‘fact’ sense of that word, has built within its tools, as many safeguards as we humans have so far come up with in order to weed out our own biases, our own misconceptions, and all manner of errors in reasoning. These safeguards are there so that we actually can, and do, get to something which could be called evidence. And it is that process that has allowed us to fly, cure disease, and increase our standard of living generation upon generation post the enlightenment.

Understanding the basics of how, and why science operates the way it does goes along way towards helping those who find themselves confused by silly new age claims, simply due to ignorance, to gain a firmer hold on reality, on their well being, and on their wallet.

I mentioned previously that arguments against any particular form of superstition, be it religious, new age, or otherwise tend to follow a predictable pattern. First, the person arguing in favor of the superstition, lets take for sake of example homeopathy, will try and argue that the superstition is ‘true’, in this case, that homeopathy actually works. Since there is no evidence, or even plausible hypothesis why homeopathy would work, being that factually speaking it is nothing more then water, this argument will inevitably fall into an argument from anecdotal stories, or an argument from authority, as mentioned above.

Once you’ve taken them past this point, and it becomes clear that there is nothing that we could actually call ‘evidence’ for the superstition, in this case homeopathy, the cup and balls switch I mentioned earlier takes place, hopefully so quickly you don’t notice, and the conversation ceases being one about the superstition being true, and turns to it being ‘useful’. Remember, as I stated previously, it is important you acknowledge publicly that they have changed the game, and then proceed to address this argument as well. With homeopathy, or other forms of so called ‘alternative’ medicine, the ‘it’s useful’ argument almost always falls into the realm known as the “placebo effect”.

Every alternative medicine quack on planet earth loves to reference the placebo ‘effect’, believing, falsely, that it implies some form of ‘mind healing the body’ concept. This is not the case, but it is such a common misunderstanding that you will probably have to explain exactly what the placebo effect actually refers to.

Here is how it breaks down. As taken from an excellent piece titled ‘The Placebo effect’ by Nick Barrowman:

A clinical trial randomizes 100 patients to receive an experimental drug in the form of pills and an equal number of patients to receive identical pills except that they contain no active ingredient, that is, placebo. The results of the trial are as follows: 60 of the patients who received the experimental drug improved, compared to 30 of the patients who received the placebo. The drug clearly works better than the placebo. But 30% of the patients who received the placebo did get better. There seems to be a placebo effect, right?

Wrong. The results from this trial provide no information about whether or not there is a placebo effect. To determine whether there is a placebo effect you would need compare the outcomes of patients who received placebo with the outcomes of patients who received no treatment. And not surprisingly, trials with a no-treatment arm are quite rare.”

And there in exists the problem. If you have another group of people with the same symptoms, but who receive no treatment whatsoever, and out of that group roughly 30% also get better, where does that leave the “mind healing the body” placebo “effect”? The answer is nowhere. And in the studies that do follow this pattern, this is exactly what the science is showing. The term placebo “effect” is in and of itself part of the problem because it implies an “effect”. The truth is, there is likely to be no such thing.

The “it’s useful” argument is used to defend all manner of superstition, not just the medical qauckery kind. For example, defenders of religion are quick to run the bait and switch the moment things start to become a bit hairy for them. In an effort to defend Christianity as ‘true’ they get called to the carpet on the errors, discrepancies, and general insanity contained within the bible, and bingo, the subject all of the sudden changes to “Well, it may not be ‘literally’true, but it ‘helps’ people cope with their daily lives.” I’ve already addressed this point, so I wont repeat myself here.

So the argument goes as follows, it’s true, or it works, followed by, okay perhaps its not ‘literally’ true, but its ‘useful’; and finally it descends to, but really, ‘whats the harm’?

Just remember, the best that can be said for any superstition is that it is (since it is all make believe anyway) a profound waste of time. As for the worst, look around at the horror and suffering you find worldwide, you will struggle for no lack of examples.

This brings us back to the three methods used to defend all forms of superstition, an argument based on anecdotal evidence, an argument from authority, and finally our third argument, which isn’t really an argument at all but rather a common tactic used by those arguing for superstition as they retreat, attacking the messenger.

Once the conversation descends to that level, pat yourself on the back. The lack of reasoning behind your opponents position and their turning a conversation about a ‘thing’, be it homeopathy, new age beliefs, or any-thing else, to a personal attack on ‘you’, the messenger, is, whether they know it or not, an admission of defeat by them. Without replying in kind, excuse yourself and move on. But be prepared, you will find conversations about superstition ending this way time and again, for a very simple reason; the defenders of superstiton don’t have valid arguments.

"The only meaning of life worth caring about is one that can withstand our best efforts to examine it". – Dennett

I’ve walked you through my argument. We’ve discussed what the enlightenment delusion is, a brain state, where it comes from, a direct adaptation or a by product of evolution by natural selection, how to evaluate it’s affects, in so far as it makes an individual happier as well as less selfish and irresponsible, and what we cannot say regarding the nature of objective reality based on a subjective experience, which is any empirical statement that enters into the realm of facts, something that is always, and only, if what we are interested in is truth, the realm of science.

We went through the dangers inherent in delusion, and exactly why so many of these so called “spiritual” beliefs are, once you really examine them, deeply pernicious. Like a disease, some delusions are deadly, while others are at best simply impoverishing.

I offered a hypothesis based on evolution as to why people tend to believe superstitious things, and why we must never take the condescending stance of simply assuming ‘others’ must 'need’ superstition, or delusion. Beliefs, like other things, often exist simply because they are good at replication. Or, like a sweet tooth, they may have once served a very useful purpose, but now, due to environmental changes, become deleterious. The ‘value’ of any-thing is never as simple as, its prevelant therefore it must be needed.

We’ve discussed the tricks used by the hucksters and con artists who profit on these new age, superstitious, religious delusions. And I walked you step by step through the progression most of these arguments take, including the pseudo-evidence that will be presented to you by those defending the indefensible, superstition.

That leaves us with one, final concern. One which I earlier promised to address, the descent into nihilism.


[nahy-uh-liz-uh m, nee-]
Philosophy .
an extreme form of skepticism: the denial of all real existence or the possibility of an objective basis for truth.
nothingness or nonexistence.

The concern that many on the religious front have, usually revolves around a lack of a basis for moral behavior once we remove the imaginary dictatorship of the spirit god, and his promised final judgment. As I said at the start of this piece, that bit of sloppy and insulting thinking isn’t something I can take seriously. It’s more than clear that morality, in the behavioral sense we mean it, precedes, rather than follows the advent of religious superstition. In short, we couldn’t have evolved as social primates without it.

Furthermore, there is absolutely no evidence that religious belief is beneficial in any measurable way as it relates to what normative humans would call “good” behavior. In fact, the evidence that does exist all seems to point in the opposite direction. The less religious the people of a society are, the higher their society tends to rank in terms of education, poverty, health care, child mortality, standard of living, crime rate, etc.

Said simply, the connection between religious superstition and morality doesn’t really exist, except in one tangible way; religious belief on a whole seems to make societies worse, rather then better.

"There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point… The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it."
— Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion)

There is however one other, less common apprehension as it relates to a naturalistic view of reality. The idea that once one takes a cold hard look at the facts of actuality, at nature as it ‘is’, rather than as we would ‘like it to be’, we will be left with one unavoidable conclusion. That it is, at its core, absolutely pointless. Or perhaps, as Camus said, absurd. And that this existential conclusion will lead to a life of despair, to an existence based in meaninglessness.

Earlier in this piece I wrote the following:

“…just as an algorithmic process lays at the heart of the evolutionary process, so to must an algorithmic process lay at the heart of that which we call “mind”.

Stated simply, our “minds”, which is to say the activity that the brain engages in, evolved through natural selection, and like all biological phenomena, is organized and maintained at its core by material substance; there is no mysterious ‘soul’ to be found. We ‘are’ biological machines.”

Through the power of scientific inquiry we’ve learned enough about the nature of nature, enough about the universe around us, to conclude the following; that nature, and the universe itself seems to be absolutley indifferent. Neither malicous or caring, simply indifferent. It is a nature that contains neither punishment or reward, only consequences. And we, as evolved animals, live for a fraction of a moment within that natural world, that purposeless and indifferent universe.

Why then does something exist instead of nothing? Why not instead ask, why doesn’t nothing exist instead of something? Who are we to know that the nature of existence is nothing rather than something?

Perhaps things happen simply because they can. Given enough time, things happen. Why? There may not be a ‘why’; beyond the mechanics of the ‘how’.

Do I ‘know’ there is no why? No I do not. I have no special access to information, and neither does anyone else. Like you, all we human beings can do is look at all the evidence around us; and as of now there is nothing to suggest any form of representational intelligence to the universe. There is no reason to propose a ‘why’.

So where does that leave meaning? Is it ‘all’, in the end, meaningless? By tamporing with peoples religious and “spiritual” delusions are we pulling out from underneath them the rug of faith, which though false, gives the appearance, the feeling of providing meaning to them; something they will be without should they look at reality with clear, rational eyes?

To find out, we have to ask ourselves what does happen when we clear away the cobwebs of confusion, the detours of cultural superstition, the pernicious new age hippie-pseudo-philosophy, and the twisted theology of the maladjusted old priests; is there still meaning to be found when looking through the steely eyed lens of evidence?

Let’s find out.

"The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference."
— Richard Dawkins

Those who contemplate the reality of existence, the facts regarding nature, the history of life on this planet, and the universe itself, without falling back on any comforting religious delusions, are bound to eventually draw the conclusion that professor Dawkins does in the above stated passage. There seems to be no doubt that existence is purposeless. And even deeper then that, death, extinction, starvation, and the battle for survival isn’t just an option, it is in truth the way nature balances itself out. Darwin had the courage to look for himself, and see the world of nature as it is, not as the religious said it was, or as one would ‘want’ to believe it is.

Recognition of this fact tends to render ‘why’ questions to the rightful category of silly. And a realization of all this is exactly what had Camus concluding that in the end the best description for everything, for existence itself, was ‘absurd’. Smart and introspective people have throughout human history, been left to live and die, all the while understanding this truism; and every piece of evidence drawn from the collective tools of science has only reinforced this cold indifferent reality, every step of the way.

Once someone has left behind all the fantasies of theism and cosmic creators, and thought deeply enough about pantheism and consciousness to conclude the obvious, that the universe itself shows no signs of any kind of representative intelligence, and if it did, it would be of the cruel and sadistic kind; then you are left rooted in a world aptly described by Professor Dawkins above.

There is no mushy, murky, or mysterious sanctuary from this certainty to be found in romantic notions of ‘love’ either. The concept and actuality of love is both a beautiful and powerful metaphor, and emotion; but emotions are never in and of themselves evidence of anything, anymore then certainty is, and they never exist absent conscious creatures in some sort of platonic sense, as if containing charge or mass. Though it might give one a warm feeling inside to believe that ‘love’ exists as some sort of “energy”, that too has never been even slightly plausible. Given the indifferent nature of nature itself, a nature that has 22,000 children a day dying, many from disease, starvation, and simple neglect; the pantheistic idea of a ‘loving’ whole-ness renders itself nothing more then a callous, and somewhat twisted fantasy. One may worship nature as ‘god’ if they like, dutifully confusing everyone else along the way by using terms like ‘god’ out of normal context, but only the ignorant can maintain that the god known as ‘universe’ is anything other then brutal and indifferent.

If we stop here, if we end on these facts, if we leave our description of the universe to the mechanical, then it is an easy trip forward into a kind of existential nihilism. And although I consider that to be an improvement over it’s shallow self help, new age cousin of solipsism, and light years removed from the state of arrested development that spreads like a cancer within anyone still married to “magical” thinking, as all belief in the supernatural and by definition all religion is; that doesn’t mean we are therefore left with only an existential void when it comes to things related to meaning, morality, and purpose. This I think is a fallacy.

Consider the following conversation. Person A points out the obvious as it relates to nature and existence, that in the human sense of the word, it has no meaning. Yes animals will seek to procreate, genes will be passed down, and life may or may not continue to exist. Most of life has, and will go extinct at some point, and our star the sun will in the end, die out as all stars do. Realizing the inanity of supernatural, of magical thinking, and the silliness inherent in a belief in ‘God’, person A concludes life itself holds no meaning, as nature/reality itself clearly shows no evidence of such.

Person B responds, yes that is all factually true in so far as the evidence we have now suggests. However, it is obvious to me, based on how I have observed you live your life that many things do in fact matter to ‘you’. Your family seems to matter very much to you, so much so that I find it hard to believe you would want to imagine the loss of them. There is also joy, beauty, science, art, knowledge, truth and love, all of which seem to mean a great deal to you as well. Isn’t this correct?

Person A quickly replies, yes, of course but these are just temporary things that matter to me now; they are not . . .

And person A stops, realizing at that moment the obvious; that things do actually matter a great deal to them now, and this state of affairs will likely exist until they die. As there will always be a ‘me that has things that matter now’ until death, there will always, for person A, be meaning until death. And for person A, what more meaning could one want?

Before A stumbles into the mistake of solipsism, they further realize that all that matters to them may in fact not matter as much, or even at all, to another. Yet that ‘other’ will surely have things that matter to them, which may matter little if at all to person A. And if we consider all the things that matter to all sentient creatures alive on the planet, what in the long run would be something that was truly meaningless? The interdependent nature of all things on the planet renders all things, in the end, meaningful in some way, to some thing.

And this is the great flipside of the reality, that there truly is no purpose or meaning. On a planet devoid of meaning, but filled with conscious life, all things become meaningful to the degree that they effect the well being, desires, bodies, and minds (brains) of conscious creatures. In a world truly devoid of meaning, we have at all times, all the meaning that truly matters.

As I end what has become this long, 76 page essay, I feel the pull of the writer’s temptation to try and add something profound, something clever as an end cap. Instead I am just going to thank you, my reader, for staying with me through one long argument. And if, when you read this, you were still straddling the supernatural fence, then I hope I’ve helped make a case to you that a life where beliefs are proportioned to evidence is a life worth having. We can all be that guy standing in the back of the room, asking, “where is your evidence.” In our better moments as human beings, we all are.

And as this is, as far as can tell, the only life I will ever get, I intend to fully live it each day; surrounded as much as possible by those I love. I try and remind myself, just how fortunate I am to have won that DNA lottery. It seems clear that there is no god to fix things, no great judge to make things right. There never was. Nature doesn’t have punishments or rewards, nature has consequences. Our ancestors, whether they knew it or not, did it all by themselves; with no magical help, no supernatural aid. We can be proud of that, it’s something to honor.

“Become what you are.” - Nietzsche