Monthly Archives: March 2010

A Can of Worms Revisited

Our beliefs guide what we do, and why, because we base our actions on our beliefs — those things we hold to be true — for the purpose of maximizing the success of those actions. Few people are inclined to act or behave on the basis of beliefs they do not think true, except maybe charlatans and con-artists.

Let me state from the onset that I am not anti-belief. It is not my intent or purpose as a skeptic to ‘make people not believe,’ to otherwise violate anyone’s right to believe. But it’s people who have rights and privileges, not beliefs or claims of fact. All claims of fact are eligible for a fair hearing, but not all have equal truth-value. Nor are all beliefs equally harmless, or equally effective as a result of actions based on them.

I contend that the view that all claims have equal validity is specious, for to paraphrase Carl Sagan, If all claims are equally true, then none have any truth at all.

A problem arises when people confuse what they believe, when what they believe cannot or has not been demonstrated to be true, to be facts. I run into this a lot in some of the comment threads on this blog.

This includes even the claim that it’s a belief that something is a belief, and not whatever one wishes to be fact…

Sorry, but wishes, or to use the new paranormal vernacular, ‘intention,’ have no effect on reality save for the results of our physical actions to fulfill them.

Does one’s belief in a claim unsupported by sound evidence or reasoning, no matter how sincere, justify actions taken on its behalf? Does even sincerity and conviction of belief grant one an ethical free pass to promote or practice any belief, however questionable?

I argue no.

For without casting any doubt or speculation on their purity of motives, many promoters and practitioners of various scientifically and medically questionable claims are often fully knowledgeable that the mainstream research community considers their particular claim to be controversial at best, and its efficacy or factual worth not adequately supported by valid evidence in any case.

Practitioners of various claims not supported by evidence are at best providing a useless service, and at worst causing their clients great harm, such as death or serious illness resulting from the denial or delay of adequate evidence-based medical care for a serious but treatable condition, or even the use of unproven modalities that are not merely ineffective, but actively dangerous. This extends into finances too, when mystics provide what they claim to be ‘divine,’ ‘prophetic,’ or ‘psychic’ advice for a fee, when the services rendered are no more effective than merely guessing, and more often than not, wrong.

Again, they may be perfectly sincere in their belief, but this does not make them right, nor their beliefs true, nor the practice of those beliefs ethically justified.

Even with the purest of intentions, (…and to steal a page from Sir Ian McKellen’s Magneto: “We all know about roads to Hell and what they’re paved with.”) one can believe so strongly in something that they are willing to go to any length to support the belief, even cheat, even lie, sometimes even worse, when cognitive dissonance gives them the means to rationalize these acts, as opposed to using rationality, in their own minds. There is the frequent occurrence of what is referred to by skeptics as the pious fraud, the true believer not adverse to bending the rules and cutting corners a bit.

I say this: Let people believe what they want, but should they desire it, should they ask, provide them with the mental toolkit and methods to assess claims for their worth themselves, of their own free will and full understanding, rather than just being forced to accept or reject claims by coercion of others, a knee-jerk reaction, or on a whim.

People who can think for themselves are much less likely to leave their belief systems up to the vagaries of chance, and much more able to protect themselves both financially and health-wise from those who would take undue advantage of their trust, even without meaning to. Fnord.

Goodbye, Little Sammy (Yes, Skeptics do Have Feelings…)

Sorry, guys, but I can’t guarantee that I’ll be posting this week except for prescheduled entries, including this one. If you see this, it is because I had to put one of my cats to sleep — a beautiful blue-point Himalayan cat of some 18 years named Sammy, who has been my devoted companion for over 12 years. The pictures accompanying this post are an homage to her. Goodbye old girl…your passing left a hole that will never be filled…

TNQ | Troythulu’s Noontide Query

I tended at first to be somewhat capricious about how I write and what I write on, sometimes putting a post on the proverbial back burner to pursue an idea for an entry that pops into my head in the wee hours of the morning, and usually this works: It’s resulted in some of my favorite free-form pieces, though I supplement this by posting on news events and listening to podcasts, discussing things with friends, and so on.

I’ve increased my inspirational resources considerably since this same time last year on this blog, and I fully intend to improve on this. Sometimes I just don’t feel like posting, for whatever reason, even on weekdays.

So I don’t.

Scheduling posting for entries ahead of time by the server, sometimes by several days or more, has proven very useful. I try not to rely so much on those unreliable flashes of inspiration for that reason.

As much as I used to depend on that at first, I’m getting better about that. This is cool by me. So here’s today’s query:

How do you get ideas about what to write? What do you do?

TNQ is a daily question that I pose to you, my readers, and please, do feel free to comment — I’m not an ogre. As per the title, TNQ is published each weekday at 12:00 PM

TNQ | Troythulu’s Noontide Query

One thing I can’t help but notice about most new and unusual claims of paranormal or supernatural abilities is how trite and overly limited they are. It’s the same old stuff, using effects that can easily be explained without invoking magic mind powers.

If Uri Michelle Gellar can bend cutlery by psychic means, truly by mental force alone, why does she need to use her hands to do so? Why not the tip of her nose, her elbows, or the top of her head? If she’s doing this by mental force, why even need to touch the item at all, why need to have full physical control of it, much less any at all? Why do so many demonstrations of psychic powers have limitations that would not logically apply if they really did what their users claim they were doing? Curiouser and curiouser…

I’m a big science fiction buff, and I’ve always thought that the abilities of psionic characters in fiction far outstrip the paltry abilities of real world psychics. Fictional characters can do these things in ways that are very difficult if not downright impossible for a magician or mentalist to imposture.

Fictional psi abilities are often unambiguously real, and unlike real-world psi abilities, often easily capable of being reliably and independently replicated, in most stories I’ve read, regardless of the experimenter’s beliefs or ‘attitude.’ I’m not banking on it, but I really hope that one day, someone will actually be able to verify psi as genuine.

So here’s today’s question…

What is the one paranormal or pseudoscientific belief that you wish were true? Why?

TNQ is a daily question that I pose to you, my readers, and please, do feel free to comment — I’m not an ogre. As per the title, TNQ is published each weekday at 12:00 PM

TNQ | Troythulu’s Noontide Query

As a former Seventh-Day Adventist, I drew my moral principles from religion until I came to see their source, dogmatic scriptural authority, as absolutist, and now consider much of Old Testament ‘morality’ wrong and outdated. We’ve made real moral progress as a species since the Bronze Age of the Middle East over the past 3,000 years.

In my experience, I found much of scriptural morality associated strongly with feelings of anxiety over the most trivial shortcomings and, yes, you guessed it — fear of Hell…

After looking around a bit and being disappointed each time I looked, it hit me that there was no way I was going to have authentic, non-arbitrary ethical or moral values from any sort of faith-based authoritarian belief system or doctrines, so after the futility of looking for a new religion, I eventually stopped believing in faith as a path to valid knowledge and started more closely examining my supposed justifications for believing what I do, looking into more philosophically-based theories of ethics.

And so it goes…

I finally settled on humanist philosophy as just the right fit, and it stuck with me ever since as a guide for proper behavior toward both other humans and other species.

So here’s the pop question–

From what source or sources do you draw the sense of morality and ethical duty in your life?

TNQ is a daily question that I pose to you, my readers, and please, do feel free to comment — I’m not an ogre. As per the title, TNQ is published each weekday at 12:00 PM


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