A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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Introduction

I

The Skeptic’s Dictionary provides definitions, arguments, and essays on subjects supernatural, occult, paranormal, and pseudoscientific. I use the term “occult” to refer to any and all of these subjects. The reader is forewarned that The Skeptic’s Dictionary does not try to present a balanced account of occult subjects. If anything, this book is a Davidian counterbalance to the Goliath of occult literature. I hope that an occasional missile hits its mark. Unlike David, however, I have little faith, and do not believe Goliath can be slain. Skeptics can give him a few bumps and bruises, but our words will never be lethal. Goliath cannot be taken down by evidence and arguments. However, many of the spectators may be swayed by our performance and recognize Goliath for what he often is: a false messiah. It is especially for the younger spectators that this book is written. I hope to expose Goliath’s weaknesses so that the reader will question his strength and doubt his promises.

Another purpose of The Skeptic’s Dictionary is to provide references to the best skeptical materials on whatever topic is covered. So, for example, if that pesky psychology teacher won’t let up about “auras” or “chi” being inexplicable occult phenomena, you can consult your Skeptic’s Dictionary and become pesky yourself with more than a general skepticism. You may not change your teacher’s mind, but you may take away some of his power over you.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary is aimed at four distinct audiences: the open-minded seeker, who makes no commitment to or disavowal of occult claims; the soft skeptic, who is more prone to doubt than to believe; the hardened skeptic, who has strong disbelief about all things occult; and the believing doubter, who is prone to believe but has some doubts. The one group this book is not aimed at is the “true believer” in the occult. If you have no skepticism in you, this book is not for you.

The open-minded seeker has not had much experience with occult phenomena beyond some religious training, but does not dismiss out of hand reports of aura readings, alien abductions, ESP, channeling, ghosts, miracle cures, and so on. The soft skeptic suspends judgment on occult issues and appeals to inexperience, as well as to epistemological skepticism, as reasons for deferring judgment. The hardened skeptic is a disbeliever in all or most occult claims. The believing doubter is attracted to the occult and is a strong believer in one or more (usually more) occult areas, but is having some doubts about the validity of occult claims.

My beliefs are clearly that of a hardened skeptic. I don’t pretend that I have no experience or knowledge of these matters. For me, the evidence is overwhelming that it is highly probable that any given occult claim is erroneous or fraudulent. Earlier in my life I was a seeker. Looking back, I wish I had had a book like The Skeptic’s Dictionary--a book that provides the seeker with arguments and references to the best skeptical literature on occult claims. Though clearly it is my hope that the seeker will become skeptical, I also hope the seeker will investigate these matters before coming to a decision.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary will provide the soft skeptic with evidence and arguments, as well as references to more evidence and arguments, on occult issues. In my view, there is sufficient evidence available to convince most reasonable soft skeptics that most occult claims are more probably false than true. However, the soft skeptic recognizes that it does not follow from that fact (if it is a fact) that one should commit oneself to what seems most probable to the rational mind. The soft skeptic often holds that rationality is a value and that the idea that the rational life is the best one for human beings cannot be proven logically, scientifically, or any other way. By way of argument, all one can do is appeal to the consequences of choosing the rational over the irrational life. Also, it seems to be true that belief in the irrational is as appealing to the true believer as belief in the rational is to the hardened skeptic. According to many soft skeptics, whether one chooses a life devoted to rationality or irrationality is a matter of faith. For a good period of my adult life, I was a soft skeptic who believed that my commitment to rationality was as much an act of faith as my earlier commitment to Catholicism had been. For years I remained open to the possibility of all sorts of occult phenomena. My studies and reflections in recent years have led me to the conclusion that there is a preponderance of evidence against the reasonableness of belief in any occult phenomena. I have also concluded that choosing rationality over irrationality is not an act of faith at all. To even pose the question as one requiring thought to answer demonstrates the futility of claiming everything can be reduced to faith. One must use reason to argue for faith. While I do not deny that the consequences of believing in the occult are often beneficial, I do deny that such consequences have anything to do with establishing the reality of occult phenomena. A soft skeptic would have to agree that there is a monumental difference between a believed entity and a real entity. I would agree with the soft skeptic that it is impossible to know anything empirical with absolute certainty. However, I think it is obvious that probabilities serve us well in this life. We have plenty of ways in many, many cases to distinguish among empirical claims that are of differing degrees of probability.

The hardened skeptic doesn’t need much more in the way of evidence or argument to be convinced that any given occult claim is probably based on error or fraud. Still, The Skeptic’s Dictionary has something for the hardened skeptic, too: It will provide ammunition against the incessant arguments of true believers. Most hardened skeptics don’t feel it is worth their time to investigate every bizarre idea that comes their way. They dismiss them out of hand. Under most conditions simply rejecting quackery is intelligent and justified. Often, however, it is better to provide a seeker, soft skeptic, or the doubting believer with arguments, both specific and general. But if one’s antagonists are true believers, it is probably a waste of time to provide evidence and arguments in response.

Finally, The Skeptic’s Dictionary will provide the doubting believer with information and sources to consult that will provide, if not a balanced picture, at least a multifaceted one, of a concern about the power of crystals or color therapy or levitation, or other phenomena. It will help the doubter resolve his or her doubts. There may be a few skeptics who can go through all this literature and come out doubting everything, including the skeptical claims, but I think the vast majority will emerge as hardened skeptics. They will not think they must suspend judgment on everything, but will realize that some claims are more probable than others.

As already stated, the one group that this book is not designed for is that of the true believers. My studies have convinced me that arguments or data critical of their beliefs are always considered by the true believer to be insignificant, irrelevant, manipulative, deceptive, not authoritative, unscientific, unfair, biased, closed-minded, irrational, and/or diabolical. (It is perhaps worth noting that except for the term “diabolical,” these are the same terms some hardened skeptics use to describe the studies and evidence presented by true believers.) Hence, I believe it is highly probable that the only interest a true believer would have in The Skeptic’s Dictionary would be to condemn and burn it without having read it.

II

‘Skepticism' may refer to a person's general attitude or state of mind, namely one of doubting or questioning. Often, however, `skepticism' refers specifically to doubt or disbelief regarding supernatural or paranormal claims. `Skepticism' may also refer to the philosophical doctrine that absolute knowledge is impossible and that inquiry must be a process of doubting in order to acquire approximate or relative certainty.

The Skeptic's Dictionary is concerned with skepticism in each of its meanings, but the motivation for the book was undoubtedly the author's doubts and disbeliefs about occult, paranormal, psychic and religious phenomena. Taking my cue from Nietzsche, I divide skeptics into two types: Apollonian and Dionysian.

The Apollonian Skeptic is committed to clarity and rationality. To the Apollonian Skeptic, all things supernatural are essentially vague and irrational. The Dionysian Skeptic, on the other hand, is committed to passion and instinct, and may actually embrace religion because of its vagueness (Charles Peirce) or irrationality (Tertullian, Kierkegaard). The Apollonian Skeptic looks upon belief in a god as on par with belief in the Easter Bunny and belief in immortality as being on par with belief in astral projection. The supernatural is rejected by the Apollonian Skeptic not because he or she knows these matters are false, but because they go against the Apollonian Skeptic's grain. The Dionysian Skeptic, however, believes in supernatural things not because they are known to be true, but because they fit the Dionysian Skeptic's feelings and instincts. The Apollonian Skeptic sees no reason to believe in supernatural matters; the Dionysian Skeptic sees no reason not to believe in them. The Apollonian Skeptic sees all the arguments and evidence put forth in support of religious or occult tenets as inept, fraudulent, deceptive, weak, insubstantial or ludicrous. The Dionysian Skeptic sees the Apollonian Skeptic as stubborn and unwilling to risk error for the sake of a possible, sublime truth.

Who's right? Psychologically speaking, I suppose we have to say that they are both right. It would not be healthy to go against one's natural disposition. Is it reasonable, though, to expect each side to be tolerant of the other? William James, who divided up believers and non-believers in a somewhat similar way, thought that this was reasonable. I disagree. Both types of skeptic think that the other type is foolish, not in error. How could it be healthy to tolerate people one thinks of as fools? I grant that in polite society we rarely express our true feelings about one another and that skeptics are no exception. Skeptics are notorious for providing arguments for their positions. Pascal's "Wager Argument" is a howler to the Apollonian Skeptic; Russell's "Why I Am Not a Christian" is lunacy to the true believer. I don't know of a single case where an Apollonian Skeptic became a believer in the supernatural because of arguments, or of a Dionysian Skeptic becoming an atheist because of an experience.

In fact, most atheists and most believers in the supernatural are not skeptics--but they should be. They tolerate one another or argue with one another because they believe the evidence supports their own point of view and they believe that ultimately any reasonable person would agree with them if only they saw things correctly. They don't think of those who think differently than they do simply as fools; they think of them as ignorant or stupid or misguided. It has been my experience that intelligence, knowledge and education are not essentially connected to the tendency to believe or disbelieve in the supernatural or the occult. As William James put it, our temperament determines these tendencies for us. The value of either type of belief is to be found in its fruits, he said. And, as Nietzsche put it, 'our values spring from us like fruits on the tree; what cares the philosopher if the fruits be rotten.'  The problem is that from where I'm standing someone else's fruits appear rotten while mine appear healthy. From where another is standing, it is just the opposite. Surprisingly, some of us have tasted the fruit of both trees. The proof was obviously not in the tasting!

This book is, therefore, not intended as a set of arguments for the Apollonian Skeptic to use against believers in occult matters. It is especially intended for those who are by temperament Apollonian but who, for whatever reason, hesitate to follow their nature. We live in a society which caters much more to the believer in the occult than to the non-believer. Fear of punishment, of ostracism, and of ridicule are great hindrances to seeking one’s own way. But unhappiness surely awaits you if your beliefs or values are chosen by others and do not suit you. One might call this book the counterpart of the medieval scholastic's faith seeking understanding. If you are already an Apollonian Skeptic at heart, the material which follows will help you understand what you already reasonably believe.

Last updated 18-Feb-2012

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