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logo.gif (2126 bytes)the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 47

September 23, 2004

"No educated man stating plainly the elementary notions that every educated man holds about the matters that principally concern government could be elected to office in a democratic state, save perhaps by a miracle. His frankness would arouse fear, and those fears would run against him; it is his business to arouse fears that will run in favor of him." H.L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy

In this issue: SI posts my article on hoaxes and I'm interviewed on Skeptical Sunday; a few updates and comments posted; fiction for the bereaved; mediums fail the test; a lot of feedback on the good god question; Freethought Day in Sacramento; and a trip through some alternate realities.

What's New

Since the last newsletter, Skeptical Inquirer has posted my article from the July 2004 issue on "Pranks, Frauds, and Hoaxes from Around the World." On September 19th, I was interviewed by Seth Shostak of SETI's Skeptical Sunday program. I've also

  • updated the Inset Fuel Stabilizer entry to include a link to Tony Cairn's "Fuel Saving Gadgets;"
  • commented on Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick;s (MMR and Autism) article in the Guardian regarding parents of autistic children who believe their personal experience and research--most of which has been guided only by the desire to prove what they already believe, namely, that their children's autism was caused by vaccinations--qualify them as experts on both autism and vaccination;
  • commented on the Biological Society of Washington, which  published a paper by Stephen C. Meyer on intelligent design and then repudiated the paper;
  • posted a news item regarding Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan assistant minister for environment and natural resources and a professor of biology at Nairobi University, who claims that HIV/AIDS was a biological weapon manufactured by the developed world to wipe out the black race from developing countries;
  • commented on the PBS program The Question of God;
  • posted a letter claiming EMDR "works" and my comments on the claim; and
  • updated my skeptical essays page.

Jon Edward's New Gift

Jon Edward, who says he hears dead people, has found a way to fill in the dead time now that his television show Crossing Over has been axed. He's written a novel called Final Beginnings. He's also come up with a novel way to sell copies of his book. The only way you can get a ticket to his show is to buy a copy of his book for $23.95. Very clever. To those who doubt his gift as a medium, Edward has this to say: "It's like saying not liking apple pie means apple pie doesn't exist."

How to Test a Medium

Psychologists Richard Wiseman and Ciaran O'Keeffe tried to replicate Gary Schwartz's afterlife experiments, a test of the claim that certain mediums are getting messages from the dead in the form of bits and pieces of data that they translate into words and give "sitters" the opportunity to make sense out of. Skeptics think the mediums are using cold reading techniques, although many mediums may be unaware that they are doing so. According to the Guardian Unlimited, Wiseman and O'Keeffe

contacted the Spiritualists' National Union and asked for five mediums with good track records at providing readings by proxy--in which they never meet the person or "sitter" they are producing a reading for.

Each medium was placed in a studio while the sitters sat out of sight and earshot in another room. Taking each sitter--male staff or students from the University of Hertfordshire--in turn, all five mediums attempted to give them readings.

Schwartz usually had his mediums and sitters in the same room. In some experiments, the sitters provided feedback to the mediums. After a session, the sitters would evaluate the accuracy of the reading. In some of the experiments, the accuracy of the reading was contrasted with that of a control.

Wiseman and O'Keeffe criticized Schwartz for judging biases and control group biases (among other things). They eliminated the latter by not using controls in their own experiments and they eliminated the former by jumbling up the mediums' comments and playing them back in random order to the sitters. They asked the sitters if they could recognize which reading was theirs. They couldn't.

Wiseman and O'Keefe presented their research to a meeting of the Parapsychological Association, hosted by the Austrian Society for Parapsychology, in Vienna last August and, according to the BBC.com, have submitted a paper on the experiments to a peer-reviewed journal.

Wiseman co-authored Guidelines for Testing Psychic Claimants with Robert Morris, who held the Koestler Chair of Parapsychology at Edinburgh University from 1985 until his sudden death last month.

Feedback

I received several responses to my comments on whether the concept of a good God is compatible with evil and I have reproduced those responses below. First, my apologies for using 'good' and 'evil' as nouns. I don't believe they name anything. They're adjectives. Secondly, I didn't mean to imply that all atheists would agree that a given particular act or person is good or evil.

Also, I think some theologians believe they have a free pass with a concept of God as inscrutable. Maybe God's a utilitarian trying to squeeze as much goodness as possible out of the universe he created. Maybe he created the universe out of love, a love we can't understand. Maybe. And maybe pigs can fly. It's not logically impossible. It's also not logically impossible that God is evil and allows goodness only to maximize the amount of evil in the universe. If one allows that God is inscrutable (that is, that we can't know for sure what God is like or what God's motives might be) then what is possible about God does not have to make sense in terms of what is possible or what would be expected from any human, even the most moral or most intelligent human designer.

I don't think that defenders of God's goodness claim to prove or know that God is good--they take that on faith--but rather to defend the claim that a good God does not necessarily imply that the universe should have all or mostly good things in it.

I also agree with those who maintain that the conception of gods that makes the most sense is the one that assert that gods can't be interested in anything human because gods are perfect. If anything we did could affect the gods, they wouldn't be perfect. Thus, none of our behavior--sinful, worshipping, or beseeching some god for a favor--could move any god either to punish or reward us or be pleased or displeased with us in any way. However, I recognize that not everybody agrees on what the concept of perfection entails. Some think it entails necessary existence; others are sure it does not entail existence of any kind. Most think it entails goodness, but not everyone agrees on what the concept of perfect goodness entails. And so it goes.

I might also note that intelligent design is appealing to people who already believe in God the designer of the universe and who focus on some small part of Nature where they are unable to imagine—or at least they try to get others to agree that they are unable to imagine—how several parts of a complex item came together by naturalistic forces and laws. But if God micromanages creation, what does this imply about God’s nature? If God is in the details, then don’t the details reveal what God is like? What do the details say to me? They say whoever or whatever is behind them is amoral, completely indifferent to our happiness or unhappiness, pain, or pleasure. The price of intelligent design, it seems to me, is goodness. It would be granting too much to the theologians to allow them to claim that only intelligent design can explain some things but when it comes to explaining the apparent amorality of the design we're asked to admit the possibility that what appears amoral may not really be amoral. If what appears amoral may not really be amoral then what appears intelligently designed may not be designed by any intelligence.

Also, I should have made it clear that I don't accept the idea that there is much probability that a perfectly good, omniscient creator is responsible for the universe known and loved by science. The history of the universe with its extinctions of not just millions of species on this planet but of whole galaxies throughout the universe, with a past of this planet--and most likely the rest of the universe as well--filled with catastrophic collisions and a future for this planet revolving around a dead sun before ultimate annihilation, and so on, do not fill me with awe for a benevolent being. The evidence seems much better explained in terms of impersonal forces and laws.

Finally, I might have explained that the reason the concept of God doesn't resonate with me is because I find it to be utterly useless for explaining or understanding anything.

Anyway, here are the responses to my comments on God and evil. The first letter writer also objected to my  negative comments about Thabo Mbeki's views on treating AIDS and for agreeing with Eric from South Africa who wrote

AIDS dissident and advisor to the South African Health Minister, Dr. Robert Giraldo, recently recommended that HIV+ patients take a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and African potato.

To recommend that HIV+ people consume a substance known to suppress the immune system in a country with an estimated 7 million HIV+ people, strikes me as being criminally irresponsible.

***

Anthony writes:

As a subscriber who enjoys your skeptical newsletter, I object to one of your views below, which is to deplore the unfortunate President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa's stand against the science purveyed by the AIDS establishment.

In this case, your much practiced skepticism fails you and doesn't go far enough. The truth is that the HIV theory of AIDS is unscientific nonsense perpetrated by a pack of thoughtless and irresponsible scientists at the top of the field of retrovirology. The one fine mind in the field who examined this idea in the top peer reviewed publications at the time (1987 and 1988) rejected the idea as baseless and the evidence produced for it inadequate, and has maintained that position since--for which he has been poorly rewarded by being drummed out of the field, and ostracized ever since. If you examine the debate in detail, however, with a skeptical mind such as yours you will find it impossible to accept the current view and its almost endless list of anomalies, which I hope you have already noticed.

I could give you the top references in the issue including some just out which will knock your socks off --if your practised skepticism will stretch that far. Perhaps you have made up your mind in public on the issue already, however.

reply: I'd like to see your references and hope you will send them on so we can all be enlightened. I know about dissident Kerry Mullis, by the way. His views should be taken seriously, given what he has accomplished, but I remain unconvinced that he's right and that the HIV theory is "nonsense" foisted on an unsuspecting world by "a pack of thoughtless and irresponsible scientists." Quite the contrary.

By the way, in this letter you also dismiss the arguments of those who cannot believe in a good, just, all powerful God as inconsistent with the existence of evil. You shouldn't act so fast. It is a generally accepted conclusion now among good philosophers, despite the endless efforts of the apologists from Aquinas on. For an example of the argument in a nutshell, see Simon Blackburn's little book from Oxford University Press, "Think." Pure logic indicates quite quickly that if a God exists at all he cannot have any of these attributes and/or he cannot have any relation to human beings.

I am surprised that you as an atheist haven't advanced to being more decisive on the issue!

Anthony

reply: I'll try to be more decisive in the future. But I think you might also recognize that not all philosophers agree on the meaning of such conceptions as "perfect being, " "goodness," or "God."

***

Jeremy writes:

I take minor issue with this:

"Atheists don't deny there is a real difference between good and evil, but we deny that we need God, loving or unloving, to either determine what that difference is or to help us figure out what we consider good and evil."

As an atheist, I don't deny there is a difference between good and evil, however, that recognition is based on recognition of the definition of 'good and evil' put forth by those who find the construct relevant. I recognize the definition of good and evil just as I recognize that some people believe in god, some believe in UFOs, etc. You say that we atheists do not need god, loving or unloving, to help us figure out the difference between, or our personal conception of, good and evil. That seems reasonable, but why would anyone, atheist or not, need to figure out the difference between, or maintain a personal conception of, good and evil? The answer must be either to judge other's behaviors, modulate personal behavior, or both. I find that I do not require the maintenance of a worldview based on conceptions of good and evil from which to dictate my judgments of others nor to modulate my behavior. I have a feeling that maintaining some type of worldview is crucial to social functioning, however at this point in my life the only worldview I'd adopt would be Hofstader's game-theory-based concept of Superrationality. Superrationality allows for a dichotomy which includes what could be considered good (superrational), and not as good (not superrational), but nothing I'd classify as 'evil'. These days it seems whenever someone mentions 'evil' they sound like they're talking about a comic book.

Jeremy

***

Steve writes:

You said: A reader recommended Lee Strobel's The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity. I bought it and have read the list of the so-called toughest objections and I've read the entire response to the first objection, characterized by Mr. Strobel thusly: Since evil and suffering exist, a loving God cannot. I feel a moral obligation to respond. Neither a logical atheist nor a logical Zoroastrian would make the case against Christianity by maintaining that the existence of evil and suffering are logically incompatible with a loving God.

I respond: Actually, I believe a logical atheist (I consider myself one) could agree with **a version** of this argument, if some unspoken assumptions are brought to light.

You continue: A logical atheist would not maintain that evil and suffering are incompatible with the concept of a loving God as long as loving is not defined in such a way as to make it impossible by definition. But if the concept of a loving God means that there might be some unknown or unfathomable purpose that this loving God has for all the evil and suffering in the universe, then the concepts are compatible.

I continue: The main unspoken assumption is the psychological suffering willfully inflicted by such a God on rational creatures when he/she willfully remains inscrutable in situations where his actions, or passivity, cause or allow evil to exist. A number of quite detailed books by professional philosophers take off on points like this or similar to this in looking at the existence of evil as an argument against the existence of God. Now, this is not the only point that they add to an expanded argument from the existence of evil, but, nonetheless, it is *a* point. So, I think your statement may have been technically correct re Strobel's exact counterclaims (I've read "The Case for Christ" myself) but is incomplete if part of a discussion about the problem of evil in general.

Steverino

***

James writes:

There is one idea in your essay that stood out to me:

"Atheists don't deny there is a real difference between good and evil..."

In simple terms, I agree.

Being a soft atheist myself, I've questioned the concepts of good, evil, morality, and other terms that can imply a supernatural basis. I tried to replace "good" with a more precise term, like "desirable" or "beneficial." What do you think of this idea: there is no good or evil, no sin or virtue, no right or wrong, that is independent of human thought? (Not that this is my original idea; I suppose the Utilitarians and Humanists believe this).

I think Kant got me started on these ideas in biomedical ethics class, because I was taught that he believed there is an absolute good independent of human thought.

James

***

Scott writes:

You opine:

"It is true, however, that there have been philosophers who have argued that God can't be all-Good and all-Powerful because of the existence of evil and suffering. The argument states that if God is all-Good, he would prevent evil if he could. So either he can't and isn't all-powerful. Or, he can but won't, in which case he is not all-Good. Again, this argument fails because one can imagine God as having some good reason for allowing evil and suffering."

This is a classic argument, one of God's inscrutability. However, I believe it to be flawed. If God cannot be known, even from his actions, then he cannot be known at all. In other words, if you can explain away the existence of evil by saying that God is really good but allows evil for ends we cannot fathom, you can equally say that God is evil but allows good to exist for unknown reasons. Heck, you could even say the Bible is a lie designed to weed out the gullible from the true skeptics God embraces.

If the same application of logic leads to completely contradictory conclusions, I think that the argument is pretty well falsified.

In fact, I believe most among the faithful would reject the idea that God is unknowable. To them, he is quite knowable, otherwise why would he be worthy of worship? So the premise behind the argument is weak also. You can't just wave around God's mysteriousness when it is convenient and then pretend you know what he is about at other times.

Scott

Amen to that!

Freethought Day

Sacramento will be celebrating its 3rd Annual Freethought Day on Sunday, October 10, 2004 in Waterfront Park, Old Sacramento, Front and L Streets. The event is free and will run from 11:00 AM until 4:00 PM.

This year the theme is "Dare to Think for Yourself!" Speaking at the event will be former Eagle Scout Darrell Lambert, who will tell the story of his being "kicked out" of the Boy Scouts of America when he refused to profess a belief in a god.

Michael Newdow, who challenged the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance before the United States Supreme Court, will be the featured entertainer. He will play guitar and showcase his singing/songwriting talents.

Also appearing will be local musical talents Roberta Chevrette and James Israel. There will be poetry readings, skits, and magic performed by Richard Kowaleski, a gallery of historical freethinkers, and a children's critical thinking activity station.

Freethought Day commemorates the anniversary of the date in 1692 when the colonial governor of Massachusetts declared that spectral evidence would no longer be admissible in court, effectively ending the Salem witch trials. His was the first declaration requiring that evidence admitted in court be restricted to the real world.

The event is co-sponsored by The Humanist Association of the Greater Sacramento Area and Atheists and Other Freethinkers.

Alternate Realities

The Alternate Realities Center (ARC) is based in Southern Appalachia near Johnson City, which is located in upper East Tennessee. The ARC hosts monthly meetings as well as an annual conference. According to their website, the ARC "performs serious study, research, and investigation of the Paranormal with our goal to sponsor leading-edge research into the potentials and powers of human consciousness. We explore phenomena that do not necessarily fit conventional scientific models, while maintaining a strong and rigorous commitment to scientific methodology and procedures with efforts to focus on the Human equation..." The caps on paranormal and human are theirs and may have some significance in the alternate world. Seriously, though, how can a group of grown-up humans say with a straight face that they are using conventional science to study what conventional science won't study?

According to their website, "The ARC is not a cult, single-cause institute, or political action group [and]...Although not exactly proven, yet theorized by known science, we assume that our Universe is one of many and that each Universe has many levels of existence; In other words, it is multiplanar. In this we may extrapolate that there could be many different 'realities'."

This sounds like something the New Age Gnostics, mentioned in the last newsletter, might be interested in. I don't know what "known science" the ARC is thinking of, but their idea of many layers of existence is one held by the Yanomamö.

Their world of myths and invisible entities consists of four parallel layers, one above the other, including the third layer of forests, rivers and gardens in which they live. Accomplished shamans can call the beautiful hekura spirits from the sky, hills, trees or even from the edge of the universe to enter their bodies through the chest and there to find another world of forests and rivers within. (Blackmore: Consciousness, 316).

Of course, the shamans don't use science to enter these layers of reality, unless you count ebene ("a complex hallucinogenic green powder") as science.

The ARC folks say that their "primary purpose is the attempt to present data and scientific evidence that will alter the 'paradigms' of our modern society."

Maybe they should take some mind-altering drugs.

Often, the accepted way of doing things, or the way we think about our world invokes frustration as it becomes no longer convenient, or appropriate to suit our immediate need. The desire for change often leads us to open our eyes, as well as our minds, and search beyond the accepted truth. When the act of looking 'outside the box' inspires a 'change of mind', we refer to this as a 'paradigm shift'...

The organization most certainly encourages individual exploration of both the 'outer' as well as the 'inner' world. Our focus is to promote and maintain global awareness and open mindedness, broadening our scope of acceptance as a species to what is possible in the Universe. In support of our purpose and goals "The ARC" can best be described by the organization's decade old motto... "People helping people to find the Truth"...

Isn't that what Timothy Leary said he was trying to do?

Anyway, if you are near East Tennessee State University on Saturday (September 25th), you might want to attend the ARC 10th anniversary conference. There will be featured talks on Planet X (without Phil Plait to correct the record) and Zecharia Sitchin. Leah Haley will be there to sign copies of her new book: Unlocking Alien Closets: Abductions, Mind Control, and Spirituality.

On the other hand, you might prefer to fly to Toronto and take in the Skeptical Exposition in the Medical Sciences building at the University of Toronto from noon to 5 p.m. The Canadian skeptics are offering $1,000 to anyone who can determine by mental powers alone the contents of several envelopes. Sounds like a job for paradigm shifters.

***

.....until next time.....

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