Robert Todd Carroll
February 16, 2003
In this issue: A few additions; Ken Wilber; VortexHealing® and Angel Card therapy; the nauseating Sea-Band; Kennewick Man; Scientologists as Drug Free Ambassadors; and a few words about some books.
Changes in The Skeptic's Dictionary and Skeptic's Refuge
and 12-step programs.
I have had several requests to do an article on Ken Wilber. In an earlier newsletter (#4), I stated that after reading an interview with Mr. Wilber, which I found unintelligible, I doubted that it would be in this lifetime that I would get around to reading him. But things have changed. I've been reading Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe (in preparation for my new course Critical Thinking about the Paranormal and the Occult) and Radin claims that Ken Wilber is the greatest philosopher of science alive today. (Radin has a penchant for exaggeration.) I also met a gentleman on the golf course who, once he found out I teach philosophy, told me about this philosophy book he was reading that he thought was just great and really resonated with him. It was Ken Wilber's A Brief History of Everything. I bought a copy.
The Foreword is written by media guru Tony Schwartz, who tells us that in 1986 he set out on his own "search for wisdom" and found Ken Wilber to be "far and away the most cogent and penetrating voice in the recent emergence of uniquely American wisdom." Schwartz also reminds us that Wilber published his first philosophy book when he was only twenty-three years old. He had dropped out of graduate school (where he was studying biochemistry) and became a Hegelian of sorts, weaving Freud, Buddha, Aurobindo and others into the unfolding stages of Spirit in the Kosmos. I think Schwartz is partly correct in his assessment of Wilber's popularity: He appeals to "those of us grappling to find wisdom in our everyday lives, but bewildered by the array of potential paths to truth that so often seem to contradict one another." Wilber's appeal will be greater, however, if you are also philosophically and scientifically untutored.
Wilber obviously took a liking to Hegel and his view that history is spiritual, purposive, and ultimately intelligible. Everything has its reason and contains something of the truth. Wilber appeals to those romantics among us who desire everything to make sense, who find atheism/materialism/mechanism incapable of fulfilling their need for transformation. Wilber, one of the "fathers" of transpersonal psychology, unites various philosophical traditions, eastern and western, into a kind of vitalistic teleology that promises enlightenment and fulfillment for individuals and the Kosmos.
If you do not believe in the existence of spirit, either personal spirits or one Big Spirit driving the universe, then Wilber's insights are unlikely to resonate with you. Wilber's Note to the Reader isn't too bad, however. It is clearly written and sets out his plan to "deal with" everything from the "material cosmos and the emergence of life" to "the Divine Domain." He lets us know early on that he considers the present state of the Kosmos to be dreadful. He calls it "flatland" and "one-dimensional." (He tells us on p. 19 that he prefers Kosmos to cosmos because that's the term the Pythagoreans used and they meant "the patterned nature or process of all domains of existence, from matter to mind to God, and not merely the physical universe...." Fair play to him.) Wilber does not like this postmodern world but it does provide him with a living as one who can discover "the radiant Spirit at work, even in our own apparently God-forsaken times."
Forty years ago, Herbert Marcuse also expressed concern over this "one-dimensional world." Marcuse was a very popular professor when I was a student at UC San Diego. His most well-known book at the time was One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. The one dimension Marcuse wrote about, however, is not the same one Wilber writes about. Wilber thinks we've lost the spiritual dimension. Marcuse believed that we'd lost the ability to see that the world we live in is not the only possible world, that we'd become so repressed by the totalitarian powers-that-be that we've deluded ourselves into thinking that our lives are free when in fact we've become enslaved. Marcuse didn't think that spirituality was the answer. He thought we'd lost the ability to think critically, which for him meant the ability to criticize our consumer-driven society.
Marcuse would have seen those who seek to transcend this world for something "higher" and "spiritual" as being symptoms of what's wrong with the world. He would have called their solace in Spirit reactionary. Marcuse would have lumped together the folks pushing alternative religions (under whatever name) with the devotees of astrology, mediums, and other irrationalities of our time. Marcuse's ideal man today might be someone like Noam Chomsky. There might be some hope for society, thought Marcuse, if enough of us could criticize the dominant ideology and envision a world where men and women don't exploit each other, where rich nations don't exploit poor nations, and where human beings don't see the planet as their little plaything put here for their amusement and to satisfy their lust and greed. The kind of transcendence Marcuse called for involves transcending ideology. Our one-dimensionality, he thought, was to be found in our worship of the values of the ideology of "advanced industrial society" or what today might be called "the global economy."
Marcuse would not have seen skeptics as providing much hope, either. True, we criticize irrationality, but from Marcuse's point of view our activities are harmless and no threat to the dominant ideology. Hence, skeptics are as much a part of the problem as are the Wilber's of the world. Marcuse was a brilliant man but he was not a scientist and his heroes were Freud and Marx. I wonder what his work would have looked like had he been influenced by Darwin instead. A pointless wonder, so let's move on.
Before I write anything about the content of Wilber's book, I must first comment on his style. The book is written in dialogue form...sort of. One of the characters is Q and the other is KW. However, Q is also KW. The book is Ken Wilber asking himself questions, giving himself answers, and commenting on his own questions and answers. This is not dialogue as Plato, Galileo, Berkeley, or Hume used dialogue: to put forth opposing viewpoints and criticize them. Wilber is only interested in putting forth his own viewpoint.
Okay; now to the content. I found the first chapter well written, clear, and interesting. Wilber shows that he has a good sense of humor and is knowledgeable in many fields, including evolutionary psychology. The introduction is about men and women, male and female, the battle of the sexes. It's interesting and not New Agey at all until near the end. On page 11, Wilber gives us his definition of flatland: "the idea that the sensory and empirical and material world is the only world there is. There are no higher or deeper potentials available to us--no higher stages of consciousness evolution, for example. There is merely what we can see with our senses or grasp with our hands. It is a world bereft of any Ascending energy at all, completely hollow of any transcendence." This seems to be a rather common, if twisted and distorted, view of New Age spiritual people toward atheistic materialists. We're seen as joyless hedonists, incapable of higher order pleasures such as love or friendship. From my perspective, it is these spiritual folks who are pursuing a hollow transcendence by chasing after chimeras. The atheistic materialist is much more likely to be able to see that true transcendence is the ability to see beyond the present state of the world to a better state here on this planet in the near future.
In the first chapter Wilber tells us that he likes Arthur Koestler's concept of the holon so much that he believes it can form the basis of his metaphysics: "the world is not composed of atoms or symbols or cells or concepts. It is composed of holons" (21). According to Koestler, a holon is something that is itself a whole while simultaneously being part of some other whole. This concept of seeing reality as infinite nesting strikes Wilber as profound. It strikes me as pointless. But it's his book. He even goes so far as to claim that "Even the 'Whole' of the Kosmos is simply a part of the next moment's whole, indefinitely." Yes, I suppose so, but so what? Like other Hegelians, Wilber enjoys this vision of Spirit unfolding itself moment by moment. At least it gives the history of the universe a direction, a point. This is comforting to many people. To claim that we're evolving toward some grand spiritual goal is positively thrilling to many of these folks. Apparently, such a vision gives hope and meaning to people's lives. To me, it makes us pawns of some grand Spirit. We only have meaning as a means to an end that we have no part in creating. I find such a vision demeaning.
When Wilber attempts to describe the characteristics of holons it becomes clear that his vision is essentially vitalism all over again. Holons have drives to maintain their wholeness and their partness. In other words, everything has a built-in spirit that moves it to be what it is and to fulfill its purpose. Up to this point, Wilber is simply offering a counter-metaphysical view to atheism/materialism and it is the world view of the 19th century German romantic philosophers like Hegel. It's vitalistic and teleological. Thus far he's just talking philosophy. It happens to be a philosophy I think is outdated and uninteresting, but I can't say it's false. All I can say is that I don't find it attractive or compelling.
Then, however, he starts making claims that are not philosophical, but are empirical and most certainly false. For example, he writes: "The standard, glib, neo-Darwinian explanation of natural selection--absolutely nobody believes this anymore. Evolution clearly operates in part by Darwinian natural selection, but this process simply selects those transformations that have already occurred by mechanisms that absolutely nobody understands" (22). This is complete rubbish. Almost everybody who knows anything about biology does still believe this! Wilber and his admirers should read Richard Dawkin's The Blind Watchmaker and Daniel Dennet's Darwin's Dangerous Idea. I'm not going to waste my time here trying to correct this nonsense. I will comment, though, on Wilber's example to prove his point.
We've all heard these same nonsensical arguments from creation scientists and defenders of intelligent design. I suppose the reason Wilber can write such rubbish and get away with it is that his readers are just as ignorant of evolutionary theory as he is. Wilber assumes that a partial wing would mean non-survival. He assumes that the many functions of the eye could not have been useful to survival except if taken all together. These assumptions are unwarranted. It is false to claim that nobody believes natural selection any more and that everybody has agreed to the notion of punctuated equilibrium.
Wilber doesn't put forth these false claims about evolution in order to promote creationism or intelligent design, however. He puts them forth to support his simplistic teleological vitalism, which he grandly calls the drive to self-transcendence of the Kosmos.
I have to admit that after seeing Wilber dismiss one of the greatest scientific ideas ever in a few paragraphs of half-truths and lies, I found it hard to continue reading....and I was only on page 23! I forged ahead, however, telling myself that it couldn't get much worse.
I was wrong.
Just two pages later Wilber launches into a tirade against the "reductionist frenzy that has plagued Western science virtually from its inception." Wilber is against any reductionism except the reduction of everything to dynamic Spirit. He notes that his view is shared by "religious creationists" and that there has been "a recent warming in some scientific circles" to his way of thinking. The only scientific circles warm to this idea would be the intelligent design folks and the parapsychologists (as described and defended by Dean Radin). In their view, science made a wrong turn when it became naturalistic and excluded supernatural explanations from its domain. They'd like to drag us back to the 16th century or earlier. To me, they're just sore losers. The battle over where the line between science and non-science should be drawn may still be debatable, but almost everybody agrees that the supernatural belongs on the other side of the line.
That's just chapter one. I have to admit that I have little incentive to read on, but I am curious as to how Wilber handles the issue of freedom. Are these holons we call human beings just playthings of Spirit? I'll have to read more to find out. Don't hold your breath, but I might write a part two on Wilber's Brief History of Everything.
Quackery of the Hour
Helen Mapson recommended this hour's winner. It is Ric Weinman's VortexHealing® Institute. His English may not be so good, but that may be because Dutch is his first language (though Colorado is his home). Here's the pitch:
I've been trying to clear the roots of my issues for years. According to Ric, Vortex Healing really works because it's been tested on musical instruments! I didn't know my guitar had roots that needed to be cleared. I learn something new every day. Life is good.
Coming in a close second this hour is something we might call Tarot with wings:
The Sea-Band Acupressure Wrist Band
A press release from Kathleen Van Gorden of KVG Communications (phone 401.454.7591; e-mail: email@example.com) was posted on Yahoo News on February 10th. The headline read:
The press release, however, does not claim that the FDA approved the wristband for relief of nausea or any other symptom. It states that the FDA granted Sea-Brand International "clearance to market the 'Sea-Band' acupressure wristband for the relief of nausea caused by motion sickness, morning sickness, chemotherapy and post-operative nausea." What's the difference between approving a device and granting clearance to market a device. Plenty.
FDA approval means some sort of testing of the device has gone on and the device is safe and effective. FDA clearance means something else. In this case it means that the FDA agreed with the applicant that there are already several similar or identical devices that are legally being sold in the United States. The FDA's ruling is public and states:
If I understand this bit of FDA gobbledygook, the FDA did not test this device and by law had to give clearance to Sea-Band because other devices, which the FDA may or may not have tested, are already legally marketed in the US. By no means did the FDA approve the device. It approved the marketing of the device, which is a very different matter. This difference is easily glossed over in the press release. Many readers, especially those prone to believe anything "alternative," will no doubt cite this as proof that acupressure or acupuncture really works. After all, the FDA approves it!
Note. I am not saying the device doesn't work, only that it has not been tested by the FDA. Leonard Nihan, the president of Sea-Band International, is quoted in the press release as saying that "Studies have shown that by alleviating nausea Sea-Bands can effectively reduce healthcare costs [italics added]." That may be true, but what I would like to know is whether any studies have shown that the Sea-Band effectively reduces nausea. I have contacted Ms. Van Gorden for this information and will let you know if she responds.
However, even if the Sea-Band relieves nausea and is cheaper than drugs, it is a waste of money. It is nothing more than a wrist band with a button on it. When you feel nauseous, you press on the button. Do I need the band? No. If acupressure works, all I need do is press on a spot about where one would take a pulse on the wrist. If I need a visual aid, I could always mark the spot with an x.
James Randi wrote some very eloquent words about the recent court decision to allow scientists to study the bones that may or may not be those of a Native American. Rather than be repetitious, I refer you to Randi's commentary.
Scientologists as "Drug Free Ambassadors"
How could anyone oppose a group promoting themselves as "Drug Free Ambassadors" and their program as "Kids For A Drug Free Future"? Easy, if the group is a gaggle of Scientologists. A city in Australia was quite upset when they found out that the Scientologists had been invited to join their festival under false pretenses. The city fathers felt the Scientologists had a hidden agenda, namely to promote Scientology. The group was passing out an anti-drug booklet that states on its final page: "Learn more about the discoveries of L. Ron Hubbard and his workable technologies that get people off drugs." I wonder if the city would have complained if the booklet had said: "Learn more about the discoveries of Jesus Christ and his teachings that get people off drugs"? We'll never know.
If you enjoy books along the lines of Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science or James Randi's Flim-Flam! then you will love Milbourne Christopher's (1914-1984) ESP, Seers and Psychics (1970). It's out of print, but there are many used copies available from Amazon.com. Christopher was a magician and mentalist. His story of the occult, the paranormal, and the pseudoscientific is told from the point of view of an expert in deception. It's delightful reading and you may pick up a few tricks along the way.
Another delightful book is Melvin Harris's (1930-2004) Investigating the Unexplained (Prometheus 2003), which seems to be a reprint of Sorry--You've Been Duped (1986). (A hardback version of Investigating the Unexplained was published by Prometheus in 1987.) Harris's book is a series of personal narratives on a variety of paranormal and supernatural topics that resulted from his investigations as a reporter for the BBC. I especially enjoyed the chapters on Bloxham and the claims of evidence for reincarnation.
Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias - Why We Need Critical Thinking by Robert E. Bartholomew and Benjamin Radford (Prometheus 2003) is a clearly written series of narratives, mostly by sociologist Bartholomew, on topics ranging from monkey men in India to the strange practice of latah in Malaysia to the aliens of Roswell. The interesting twist to this book is the attempt to turn each narrative into an exercise in critical thinking with review questions. For those interested in latah and other exotic deviances, I suggest you read the book. If nothing else, you should come away thinking more about the blurry line between normal and whatever. Bartholomew is the author of a book I haven't read called Exotic Deviance. Great title.
You may hear of a new book by UK journalist Francis Wheen called How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions (Fourth Estate 2004). Wheen covers many of the same subjects as The Skeptic's Dictionary but he offers a theory as to why the whole world believes weird things that you will not find either in my book or in Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things. The real reason the world has gone mad is Margaret Thatcher. Or something like that. Here are links to two reviews, one positive and one negative, of Wheen's book.
+David McKie of The Guardian - Twaddle unswaddled
-John Gray of The Independent - Lament for the light brigade
Wheen has named his top ten modern delusions. I especially like #4. We mustn't be "judgmental." This is the rationale used by all those folks--and their numbers seem to keep growing--who claim it's only fair that intelligent design be taught as an alternative to any other scientific theory of evolution now taught. Scientists need not concern themselves with what is good or bad science. They should concern themselves with "balance" and "both sides."
What is the other side's view on gravity? electricity? the Pythagorean theorem? Which begs the question: Is our children learning?
Chris Mooney: It just takes one
I also like Wheen's delusion #6. Astrology and similar delusions are "harmless fun."
I'll finish up this newsletter with a quote from UC Davis anthropology professor Sandy Harcourt:
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