The above was something I’d posted to Facebook earlier today, though in plain text, on the wonder felt even — no, better — especially by religious nonbelievers toward our connection to the universe, not the trivial sorts promised by mysticism or supernaturalism, but our actual, deeper connection and our awareness of it.
This feeling of the sublime I think is something that anyone who’s seen the night sky, or beheld a waterfall, seen the Earth from orbit, or better still, seen it from the orbit of another planet in our solar system though a spaceprobe’s camera, can relate to.
There’s the serious misconception (I think it’s myopic) that reality is dull, lifeless, drab, uninteresting, and that another world, an ideal perfect world beyond this one, is far better and much to be preferred over this life, this ‘vale of tears.’
I understand this, but I also think it’s wasteful and shameful — reality has both beauty and horror, not one or the other — and the phrase “none are so blind as those who will not see” applies just as easily to dogmatic belief as dogmatic denial, and many times in the same individuals.
The desire to believe fantasy as truth, to denigrate the real, and to spead this desire and denigration to others by indoctrinating the young and vulnerable, is one of the greatest — if you’ll excuse my use of the word — sins — against the human mind, crippling its ability to appreciate what actually is over what never was nor likely will be.
Supernaturalism promises wonders, but it only promises them — there is no instance it it ever having fulfilled that promise — and I think it would take better evidence than someone’s favored holy book to show otherwise.
In the entire recorded history of our species, brief flash of time though that’s been, no mystery that has ever been adequately looked into and explained has ever been shown to have an occult or supernatural cause, and the cases that haven’t been explained are just that — only unexplained, and only through a lack of data — not vindication of anyone’s pet doctrine.
Supernaturalism poisons the mind, and dulls the imagination, starving it of and blinding it to the real wonders and feeling of awe that comes from understanding of what is, supplanting these with unrealistic and unreasonable expectations of centrality to the universe, imposing on us a false sense of purpose and meaning rather than letting us find our own, endangering our personal integrity and intellectual honesty in uncritically accepting tales told originally by those ancients whose knowledge and understanding of the world pales before our own in the modern era.
To be frank, even with what little I’ve learned about the worlds discovered through science and philosophy, I find reality far more interesting and preferrable to believing the evidently unreal. As a former religionist, I’ve thrown off the chains of doctrine and dogma, freed my mind from its demons — and its gods — and my only regret is not having done it before I did.
I’ve no reason to believe in anyone’s god, least of all the one I walked with as a child and now without as a man, no idols, no gods, no devils, no celestial saviors nor tyrants, no myths except those I may free myself of whenever they are brought to my notice.
It seems so strange now, having been so focused on an imagined hereafter that both the awesomeness and terror of the world around me seemed dull and distant, but now seems so sharp and clear.
I’m not a scientist, not yet, but from what I see now, reality, however it turns out to be, is far preferrable, far stranger and for more interesting that anything any human mind can imagine.
Even mine….especially mine.
And to me, the unending search for truth is far more important than the supposed guardianship of it by those absolutely convinced they’ve already found it in millennia-old books or the claimed revelations of bronze-age hermits.
No one owns a sense of the numinous, no matter their belief or conviction. Appreciation of the truly wondrous can happen to anyone, and belongs to us all as a species.
Just this last evening, the gang came over to my place to do some gaming, in our urban fantasy GURPS campaign, and we kicked eldritch butt! After giving short shrift to a rogue supernatural being, our team had to deal with a cult summoning an eldritch horror, a greater servitor of the Nameless gods, into our world.
Well, after much wanton mayhem and gratuitous destruction of cultists, finishing up with a rocket-propelled grenade fired into the screaming horror’s maw (according to the following formula: Grenade + Open maw = Asploding horror, with eldritch goo flying everywhere and violating several local EPA environmental regulations) we discovered that according to the laws governing reality on our game-setting’s universe, the appearance of that sort of being, of the immense power it had (we had to nickle & dime it to death for the grenade shot to have a chance) should not have happened – “The stars were not right,” as H. P. Lovecraft would have said, and that implied a seeming violation of known physical (and in this particular supernatural setting, metaphysical,) laws.
…in short, it was an anomaly according to the known science and metascience of the setting.
First, a few pics from the early hours of the game session:
Okay, I’ve tortured you enough. The character I play in this campaign, as I’ve written here, is a scientist who is one of the foremost authorities on eldritch creatures in theory and application, even being able to give a comprehensive rundown of the habitats, biology, and especially the weaknesses of many of the sorts of alien monsters Lovecraft wrote about.
If you’re having trouble with nameless horrors, he’s the man you call to get rid of them. Back off…He’s a scientist.
How does this relate to science in the real world?
First, we have at any one time only a provisional understanding of physical laws, even the most well-established, always open to revision when anomalies, physical behavior of phenomena out of keeping with our current understanding, happen, and this occurs even within a given overall framework of theory, popularly called a paradigm as coined by Thomas Kuhn.
Anomalies seem to violate the known behavior of the universe in the area observed, but this bodes not ill for science, since scientific laws are descriptive, not prescriptive as human legal codes are: If we see a physical system misbehaving, we don’t, as Professor James Hall said, pull out the whips and punish the phenomenon for violations of natural laws, we try to identify what was causing the apparent anomaly and use the new data to rethink, to reformulate our understanding of natural laws to fit the new data.
We fit theories to facts, not vice-versa.
We find the courage to admit to ourselves that we misdescribed the law in question, amend our description and move forward to a better, clearer understanding of the governing physical principles in question. This reflects the inherent honesty and strength of scientific methods in that they lead to step-by-step genuine progress in our knowledge, far from the impossible absolute certainty demanded by religions and spiritual traditions.
In the game setting our characters play in, the same applies, though even the “supernatural” of the setting has laws governing what special powers can do what, how well, in what way, and how often, making it with these limits subject to the laws of a sort of arcane mystical science.
This is necessary for both game-balance and for plausibility in the game, though this is not what most people think of concerning real-world supernaturally-based belief systems and doctrines.
Most modern science is less like the Kuhnian version, with its dichotomous periods of normal science alternating with paradigm shifts, and more resembles a continuum between normal science and the radical paradigm shifts, and along this continuum, incremental progress, punctuated the occasional anomaly and its resolution here and there.
These are what drive much modern science.
Ultimately, science as a whole doesn’t declare any documented phenomenon impossible, though before it’s so documented, individual scientists may, but rather over time and further research, science incorporates the newly discovered behavior of a physical system into its body of knowledge.
And isn’t doing the work to find out, to actually look, much better, much more satisfying, than throwing up one’s hands in despair at a poorly understood (to you, someone you know, or even anyone else) part of nature and essentially giving up by calling it magic?
To me, that would be simply arrogant, thinking one’s own knowledge to define the limit of all knowledge, and the ultimate in intellectual lassitude.
Science thrives on weirdness.
Previously, I’ve written about the approach of science to supernatural claims & supernatural explanations, two entirely different things, and hopefully, that’s come across in my writing.
Supernatural claims are certainly acceptable, and many like the Shroud of Turin, weeping statues, and alleged hauntings can be looked into scientifically — and have been — but those who’ve looked successfully into these matters have never resorted to supernatural causes to explain them, nor should they have.
It is simply incorrect to say that mainstream researchers have never looked into such claims. They have and often still do, time, interest, and funding permitting, but have always found conventional explanations for them.
The reason is inherent in the methods of science: Supernatural explanations are not admissible because being by definition outside of all natural laws and so not bound by them, there are no theoretical constraints upon any supernatural agent that would allow supposing such causation to be scientifically useful.
Any hypothetical supernatural beings could thus do whatever they wanted, without limit (again, being unrestricted by any natural laws) and any effect they could produce would be compatible with all states of affairs we could possibly imagine, so there would be no meaningful way to test that — such explanations are by their very nature outside the realm of scientific inquiry.
This rejection of supernatural causation is not due to any ‘prejudice’ by scientists against it, it is simply because science’s methods are limited to seeking natural causes for natural effects, because these are the only ones that it can possibly do anything with, the only ones capable of being formulated to be usefully answered by its empirical methods.
You cannot have it both ways…Both claiming scientific evidence for your position and retreating behind the defense of saying that it is outside of science when it suits you.
In the past, I’ve suggested that science can only consider something paranormal only after exhaustively looking into every conceivable natural explanation — the problem is that I’m wrong to say that — science can never give up and call anything supernatural or paranormal, if by either we mean anything outside the laws of science. To do so would be to commit two common fallacies — an argument from ignorance and simultaneously confusing the currently unexplained with the forever unexplainable — common errors made by believers in the paranormal.
This is not acceptable. Since human beings are not omniscient, there are almost sure to be causes of which we are unaware and did not control for in an experiment or observation. No one with a finite amount of time on their hands can possibly think of all of them, only those which are known of, can be thought of, and accounted for at the time.
There are potentially a greater number of possible natural explanations for any currently unexplained phenomena than we can be aware of at once, and it is not scientifically permissible to throw up one’s hands in despair and declare something a miracle. This is because our knowledge of possible natural causes is sadly far from complete, even collectively, and especially as individuals, and there are sure to be those of which we are still ignorant.
You can never be absolutely certain that there is no possible natural way to explain something — it may just take you longer, perhaps decades, to figure it out. But every question science has fully examined so far originally started out as an anomaly, one which eventually yielded an answer through investigation, yielding deeper, more subtle mysteries that we are looking into even as I type this into my browser.
As long as science remains a viable means of asking questions and gaining answers in its interrogation of reality, I’ve no reason to suppose that it will ever call it quits and stop looking just because a problem seems currently insoluble.
That would be intellectual cowardice of the worst sort.
Maybe there will be anomalies that take centuries to answer, perhaps even longer, but science has only been around for a few hundred years, and is young as a human enterprise with much room to grow…
The fact that science doesn’t know everything in the here and now is a strength, not a weakness, for it means that there will always be new discoveries to make, always new findings to uncover, new refinements to current ideas, and that’s something that promoters of supernaturalism, with their need for metaphysical certitude sans empirical knowledge, can never accept.
Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills, by Steven Novella M.D. the Teaching Company, 2012
- Can Science Test the Validity of the Supernatural? (skepticalteacher.wordpress.com)
- Can Science Test the Validity of the Supernatural? (randi.org)
Ah, here’s something different, for my 1,600th post! Earlier last evening, some friends of mine were over at my place doing some gaming with me, and of course tormenting Eccles with a laser light pen. Here are some pics from that evening of fun…
The gang’s at the gaming table, and yes, that’s my thumb in the pic (on purpose)!
Spoils of War! We sorted out pieces from my old gaming dice collection for my friends’ use — I’ve no further need for it!
Our almighty GM ponders our characters’ fates during the game!
Mister Eccles is on the prowl, looking to catch the point of red light from our GM’s laser pen!
Last evening, we were playing a 4th edition GURPS RPG campaign set in a world were supernatural beings and forces really exist, but seek to hide themselves from the much more numerous, clever, and fearful, ordinary folk…
…after all, Ceteri, as the supernatural beings are called, are powerful, but humans are many and inventive, and enough mundanes can take down even the mightiest wizard, so the Ceteri work together…or ELSE!
In the real world, a psychic is a normal person who plays the role of a psychic using conjuror or mentalist tricks — as far as anyone’s been able to prove, pending the unlikely scientific documentation of genuine psychics — but we speculated on the reverse, what real psychics would do in an otherwise supernatural world of dangerous normals.
An aside: Self-styled psychic Craig Weiler, (whose blog is here) has proposed an interesting mythology of what he calls “psychic people,” an embattled special subset of humanity of which he imagines himself a member, who suspiciously resemble the X-Men, a notion he understandably takes exception to, since I’m sure the comparison strikes a little close to home.
But what if there really were such special people with psychic abilities, and what if they really were wary of persecution by normals? Well, they’d hide in plain sight, and not by announcing themselves as psychics on shows by people like Montel Williams, or Oprah Winfrey, but by posing as skilled normals, and make a healthy, honest living in the process, quite unlike those doing the reverse in reality.
Here’s how that would work:
Psychics whose powers involved telepathic or psychokinetic effects would pose as mentalists or conjurors, in the manner of Banachek, James Randi, or Penn & Teller, but to make their act foolproof, would also have actual magician skills to conceal themselves in the presence of otherwise mundane magicians and supplement their powers with extra things to do on stage.
Such a performer could use genuine powers in the first part of an act, then like in a Penn & Teller “reveal” at the end of the act, avert suspicion by showing how the trick was “really” done to the audience.
Those psychics given to abilities involving prediction could pose as astronomers, meteorologists, statisticians, and other researchers who ordinarily use mathematical models to make predictions in their fields, and these psychics would only have to know just enough math to make their imposture as normals plausible, while keeping their day-to-day predictions believable (to a mundane scientist) while doling out their more spectacular and unusual predictions to other supernatural beings covertly.
In the setting we play in, there is a Council of allied supernatural creatures that works to keep the normals “in the dark” to preserve it’s existence, keep the peace with the normals, and prevent the very sort of embattlement that Mr. Weiler imagines “his people” to be experiencing.
On pain of sounding incredibly arrogant, I’m sure we all like to feel that we’re somehow special and a cut above the rest, but Weiler has it the wrong way around — I think that the genuine psychics, if there were any, and with the situation he believes to be the case, would NOT show themselves to the world on television, in seminars, or giving readings in dark rooms to gullible marks — a blatant display of actual ability would be suicide — but would keep themselves perpetually hidden from a world of normals who would never fully know of their existence, those normals being, to paraphrase Tommy Lee Jones’ character in Men In Black, fearful, panicky animals…and who would definitely not suffer a (real) witch, or a psychic, to live free and unexploited if caught.
Skepticism is hard work, and being a skeptic 24/7 is no bed of roses. This is because skepticism requires more effort than leaping to a quick shortcut by invoking the paranormal instead of conventional explanations for seemingly weird events.
It’s easy to believe in the supernatural, since it suffuses almost all cultures and is often uncritically promoted and reinforced by the media outlets we watch, listen to, and unfortunately, unthinkingly trust to reliably inform us on matters of fact.
It’s no stretch to say that claims of the supernatural are heavily advocated through childhood indoctrination by the world’s religious institutions, especially those with theistic doctrines, and most of those without as well.
Because of the ubiquity of such claims, drilled into many of us as we grow up, and because of the perfectly normal functioning of our magnificent brains, we find it a simple matter to use whatever first comes to mind when strange things happen, and dismiss all other alternatives as unnecessary or too complex, or too time-consuming, or perhaps as too counter-intuitive.
But reality IS complex, AND counter-intuitive, so understanding it more accurately takes time not all of us have, and more effort than we often find convenient.
That’s the availability heuristic at work, a particular rule of thumb our brains use, a, otherwise reliable shortcut for drawing inferences about our experiences, using what data is most easily at hand in our storehouses of knowledge and can be most easily recalled.
We are, even the smartest of us, cognitive misers if we aren’t careful.
During seemingly odd happenings this cognitive miserliness can lead us astray. Seriously astray, and sometimes dangerously so, when ignoring the possibility of a better explanation in favor of what we want to believe can get us poorer in the purse, sicker, injured, or killed.
Conventional explanations are different.
Few where supernatural beliefs are commonly held as part of the culture are well-acquainted with them, save the scientifically literate, and even they must take care in applying possible explanations and weighing them against each other and the world.
To those ordinarily accustomed to resorting to paranormal explanations, figuring out conventional explanations without having them at the front of one’s mind requires the skilled use of a remarkable trait humans possess: our imaginations, a trait often claimed by believers as exclusive to them.
It doesn’t necessarily require delusional mental illness or clueless gullibility to be fooled by strangeness and the lack of an immediate explanation, otherwise professional conjurors would have been out of a job long ago.
That’s why heuristics can be at once so useful, but when we are out of our depth so deceptive.
An active imagination is essential in explaining the world, especially in science, since one must spin as many different hypotheses as one can, compare them for testability, and then weigh them against that most harsh of taskmasters, reality, whether by experiment, observational comparison, or data convergence from many different fields all leading to the same conclusion.
And any idea that fails these tests should rightly be rejected, not considered ‘alternative knowledge.’
Science is the stasis, the fulcrum-point where imagination and skepticism meet: with skepticism used to winnow the golden ideas from the bullsh*t, the good ideas from the bad generated first by imagination, since most ideas conceived are ultimately unworkable.
Science is a method, not a position. Okay, I can grant that.
It is, however, a method for reaching a position, a tentative one, on the nature of reality.
There is a way things really are, and over time, scientific inquiry and similar approaches can get us closer to a serious understanding of those things.
Show me a better set of methods, and I’ll happily switch to that instead, hands down.