MNQ | Monday’s Noontide Query for September 19, 2011


Miracles des Ardents

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Earlier last evening, some friends were over at my place for gaming night, involved in a dinner and role-playing session, and the subject of the power of belief on organic diseases came up, particularly on such illnesses as terminal, or at the time, seemingly terminal cancer.

Well, long story short, that discussion ended with an agreement to disagree on the matter, but it presented itself as a perfect bloggable moment on a subject I don’t often touch on directly and some other things in previous discussions that bear clearing up: The effects of our personal worldviews on our assessment of various sorts of evidence, and the value afforded certain concepts, such as faith and evidence, by those same worldviews.

Yes, I’m an argumentative bastitch, but as Dave Hume said, ‘Truth springs from argument amongst friends,’ and even when that argument is annoying, it is still intellectually healthy when done constructively.

How much worth should we give belief in terms of performing seemingly miraculous events? How much worth should we give personal accounts of mysterious (to us) happenings? Are we being unimaginative, overly dismissive, too rational for our own good in not affording them great value as proof of something beyond what we really know? Is it dismissing personal experience as at all valid to be cautious of anecdotes without some other data to corroborate them? Is it closing our minds to new and wonderful things, against our best interests?

I do not consider myself particularly rational. For the above though, my responses would be that the first two require us to be very cautious, no to the third, no to the fourth, and absolutely f**k no to the last.

I deny the possibility of nothing that is true in any knowable, and thus in any showable sense. But I require that certain truth-criteria be met before I concede to the claimant that it is.

And I really shouldn’t have to, but I’m occasionally forced to point out that requiring evidence before accepting a claim is in no way the same thing as denying the very possibility that the claim could be true…neither logically nor semantically the same thing…not even close…

…After all, if you were on trial in court for a serious crime, and I mean really serious, wouldn’t you rather the jury need the prosecution to meet certain standards of evidence to establish reasonable grounds for your guilt rather than assuming it on faith just because it’s possible you might be guilty? Or at the other extreme, refusing to convict a defendant despite evidence?

My money’s riding on the jury seeking evidence for the conviction and accepting what it demands.

Well, that’s how skepticism works. If something is true, show it. And if you can show it, then you know it.

But what is experience anyway, and why is it such a powerful motivator for belief?

We are prone to thinking about things, about reasoning our way, maybe not as logically as we might, from point to point, from A to B, from factoid to conclusion, however hasty.

But we do not think in a vacuum. We need input for our thinking, and we get most of that from experience. Whether it’s things we directly see, hear, feel, taste or smell, or any of our other sensory channels, or second-hand experience, no less useful, consisting of what we read and hear from others, experience gives us most of the data we process with our thinking.

Everything we can say we know, we know through some form of experience, and we can convey that experience to others, not directly from our own minds, of course, but by demonstrating our claims to them through the same sensory channels, or if needed, others, that we came to know something, such as playing a recording of something we heard, showing the text of an article in a medical journal, or even directly showing the item of discussion itself for the examination of an unbeliever, as close to ‘proof-positive’ as there ever was.

It would be foolish to reject such direct proof, but often the availability of this is lacking, and we must resort to less direct means.

One way we try to convince is by giving accounts of what we believe happened. But because our minds can deceive us, even when working properly, our senses mislead us under unfamiliar viewing conditions, and our memories fade and distort with time, we must be careful to have something more than personal testimony as our proof. If we do have other evidence with which to verify our claims, testimony can be useful, and even without it, it can still be a good starting point for inquiry. It gives us a reason to say, “That’s pretty neat, let’s look into it further and find out if it really happened, and why,” or, “Let’s see if we can examine this closer and explain it.”

But anecdotal accounts cannot serve as evidence on their own, not without some other form of data to support them. Twenty anecdotes are no better than one in the court of science, much less a court of law, and 400 anecdotes are no better than 20. Even in a court of law, there must be corroboration of eyewitness testimony by other forms of evidence.

I’ve learned to give anecdotal accounts a wide berth, as they are notoriously unreliable as proof of anything by themselves, no matter how compelling they seem in the telling, no matter how sincere, honest, and reputable the one telling them.

I believe many things, rationally and not so, and have a worldview which can accommodate any phenomena that offer good reasons to accept their existence, to fit them within my ‘reality equation’ with few problems.

But as a skeptic, I’m aware of many ways we can be misled by our experience, and though I’m no more immune to being fooled, I’m more alert for those instances in which I may be fooled. I call it hedging my bets.

My friend’s account was certainly interesting, and if it could have been verified independently of what either of us believes, it would certainly be wonderful. If true exactly as related, it would mean that all we need do to cure the most horrific cancers is to motivate people to think positive thoughts, or perhaps artificially induce mystical or religious experiences in patients to induce healing.

We know how to do this last, and reliably too, with trans-cranial magnetic brain stimulation, drugs, meditation, and some neurological conditions can cause these experiences as well. We know how to stimulate what part of the brain to achieve whatever effect we seek to…

…and if this was as effective as often said, it would be standard medical procedure. It would easily, cheaply, and conveniently eliminate the need for expensive, dangerous treatments like chemotherapy if it really worked. It would revolutionize the treatment of malignant cancers.

But if my friend’s experience is to be a guide for his beliefs, so must my experience guide me, and my experience, both direct and indirect, has shown me consistently that the world just does not appear to work that way. I’ve never found even one soundly conducted clinical study that has validated the curative power of pure belief on aggressive cancers, anywhere in the medical literature.

Mind you, I was not always a skeptic, nor a religious non-believer. I became these after my own experiences disillusioned me about the power of faith. Belief can be a powerful motivator, but life has shown me, to much dismay, and much more disappointment, that belief by itself cannot literally work miracles.

My understanding could be wrong. Maybe miracles do happen, but just because someone doesn’t know how to explain a horrible disease seemingly vanishing from the one afflicted with it, there is no real reason to suppose that no one can possibly explain it, that therefore it constitutes proof of the power of faith, or whatever.

I don’t mean this in an arrogant way, but one must be careful to not commit an argument from ignorance…drawing a positive conclusion from what one doesn’t know, in this case, the lack of a mundane explanation, or even dismissing a mundane explanation out of hand.

Anything can be believed…In my experience, everything has been and is, somewhere or at some point in time. There is really no limit to what people can or will believe if the need is strong enough.

But belief should be based on reality, not the other way around, because every belief has its rival, and reality cannot possibly accommodate them all when they are so often obviously inconsistent with each other.

I no longer believe in belief, and giving up that belief was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. My worldview currently affords more weight to reason, observational data, and objective standards of evidence, and has not impaired nor handicapped me in the least. My friend gives more credence to the power of belief than I do, and whether rightly or not is not under discussion here, in keeping with his own experiences.

So:

How do your own experiences influence your perspective on the world?

How does this affect your assessment of claims?

What are your own criteria for truth?

How do you yourself judge what is real from what is not?

Do you even care about assessing claims?..

…Or is it enough to just believe?

MNQ is a question that I pose to you, my readers, and is posted each Monday at 12:00 PM. Do feel free to comment, and don’t worry yerselves overmuch… I’m not an ogre and I don’t bite…much.

About Troythulu

I seek to learn through this site and others how to better my ability as a person and my skill at using my reason and understanding to best effect. I do fractal artwork as a hobby, and I'm working to develop it to professional levels, though I've a bit to go till I reach that degree of skill! This is a crazy world we're in, but maybe I can do a little, if only that, to make it a bit more sane than it otherwise would be.

Posted on Monday, 12:00, September 19, 2011, in General and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I have been reading about alien abduction and specifically the Hill case the last six months. It is often said the Hill case is respected because of the undoubted reliability of the witnesses and the corroborating evidence. But reading through the primary sources, something else emerges:
    1) the evidence is almost entirely anecdotal
    2) all of the anecdotal testimony for the abduction portion of the case was produced in an altered state (dream, hypnotic)
    3) when the psychiatrist did not affirm this hypnotic testimony, the Hills shopped around for a hypnosis “expert” who would affirm it
    4) most of the physical evidence was never produced but is merely anecdotal (e.g. there are no photos of the spots on the trunk; the UFO investigators were told of the spots but never looked at them; the friends/neighbours alleged to have seen the spots are never named and never interviewed)
    But the best part is that abduction proponents cite the Hill case as a template for what followed, however, the proponents ignore the reported facts of the Hill case to suit their own agenda. For instance, these facts are almost never mentioned in second-hand accounts:
    5) the Hills’ aliens are not grays. This is clear from reading all the first-hand accounts. In a 1999 interview, Betty affirms this, saying she’s never met a gray
    6) though initially frightened, the Hills also made positive statements about the experience, clearly expressing awe. Several of these kinds of statements are in Interrupted Journey, published in 1966. In her 1995 book and 1999 interview, Betty says explicitly that she had a good time and the aliens are not interested in harming us
    7) Betty thought the modern abduction scenario (a lifetime of recurring abductions, hybrid breeding) was absolute bunk
    But you would never know these last three points reading the material written by abduction proponents. They have a fear-based theory of abductions and the facts don’t get in the way of the narrative.

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  2. i had an interesting Sunday evening, playing computer games with Cyndi. We also had the “tube” on. During our play, several episodes of Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman ran on the Science channel. The proposed the following, that C is NOT constant, we HAVE a sixth sense, events LEAK BACKWARDS in TIME, that there is a GROUP MIND for all humanity that KNEW of 9-11 and the Obama election BEFORE they happened, we CAN affect random number generators……. …..OH, and the pre-selection of erotic images behind a random curtain PROVES the need to propagate……… And people ask ME why I play WoW since it is obviously a fictional fantasy……

    Like

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