Saturday, 19 December 2015

Stephen Law's opinion on "invisible beings"

The philosopher Stephen Law has recently written an article entitled:
Why are we humans so prone to believing spooky nonsense?

The beginning of the article states:

Human beings are remarkably prone to supernatural beliefs and, in particular, to beliefs in invisible agents – beings that, like us, act on the basis of their beliefs and desires, but that, unlike us, aren’t usually visible to the naked eye. Belief in the existence of such person-like entities is ubiquitous. As Steven Pinker notes in ‘The Evolutionary Psychology of Religion’ (2004), in all human cultures people believe that illness and calamity ‘are caused and alleviated by a variety of invisible person-like entities: spirits, ghosts, saints, evils, demons, cherubim or Jesus, devils and gods’. In the United States, for example, a 2013 Harris Poll found that around 42 per cent believe in ghosts, 64 per cent in survival of the soul after death, 68 per cent in heaven, and 74 per cent in God.
Why are we drawn to such beliefs? The answer cannot be simply that they are true. Clearly, most aren’t. We know many beliefs are false because they contradict other similar beliefs.

In order to justify the contradiction claim he mentions the many types of Gods believed in. But the fact we have contradictory beliefs in this regard couldn't justify the dismissal of any type of creator of the world/Universe. At most, it could only apply to idiosyncratic Gods. I illustrate this in an analogy in my A ridiculous conception of God blog entry.

But, leaving that aside, he mentions that we human beings are visible to the naked eye. However, only our bodies are visible to the naked eye. Our consciousness -- which is what we truly are -- is invisible. No one ever perceives someone else's consciousness directly, we only ever infer it from their bodily behaviour. Thus we are invisible agents. Indeed, since consciousness is invisible, it follows that any conscious agent, whether humans or demons or whatever, will be invisible too.

Of course I'm sure that he would object to what I've just said. He might point out that, in the case of us human beings, our consciousness can be inferred from our causal agency as exhibited by our bodily behaviour. Presumably then, it would likewise be legitimate to infer the existence of other invisible agents should they have bodies. Or, alternatively, if they could bring about any causal influence in the physical world by other means. But these invisible agents lack physical bodies (I think?), so cannot enact any influence in that regard. But could they be influencing the physical world by other means?

Stephen Law says not. He maintains that science has demonstrated that many of these invisible agents do not exist -- for example "diseases are produced not by demonic beings but by entirely natural causes". So, what hitherto might have been ascribed to invisible agents such as demonic beings and the like, can now be entirely explained by natural laws.

I think such a conclusion cannot be maintained. Here's why.

The mainstream view held by the "intelligentsia" is that we human beings are merely very sophisticated biological machines. Thus it is the physical events in our brains, together with the input from our 5 senses, which wholly explains everything we ever do, say, and think. In and of itself consciousness could not then be regarded as having any causal efficacy. Hence, I am typing this out, not because of an intent on my part to express certain ideas, but due to physical laws playing out. Thus our consciousness is not only invisible, but causally inert! Instead our behaviour can be wholly accounted for by natural laws. Modern science, so it seems, wholly leaves out the existence of consciousness in its description of reality.

So if we apply Law's reasoning to ourselves it would seem that science has demonstrated that we human beings don't exist either! Or, at least it has demonstrated that we are not conscious, rather we are merely soulless automations (or philosophical zombies in the jargon). Clearly we know this to be false, at least in our own individual case. Every one of us in the most immediate sense is aware of our own consciousness. But, if science is wrong here in its "demonstration" of our non-consciousness, then likewise it cannot demonstrate that demonic beings and the like do not exist.

But what if we assume that reductive materialism is correct? This metaphysical stance stipulates that consciousness is the very same thing as the underlying neuronal activity in the brain, or it is the very same thing as what the brain does. Note here it is not saying that such neural processes causes or produces consciousness, rather consciousness is one and the very same thing as such neural processes.

Now I do not believe such a position to be intelligible, and have argued elsewhere it is not. In addition Stephen Law himself has denied he's a materialist (or more accurately he's "not committed to materialism"). But let's put aside such objections and suppose that reductive materialism is correct. In this case consciousness would then be accommodated by science and, indeed, we would know by observing other peoples' brain activity that they are conscious. We would not need to merely infer it. This is seemingly unlike demonic beings, Gods and the like, since they do not possess bodies and hence brains.

One might then be able to explain peoples' activities in the world at 2 differing levels. One by natural laws governing the processes in our brains, and the other by our thoughts, plans, end goals etc. They are not contradictory, but 2 differing ways of describing the very same cause of our voluntary behaviour. But now we can see that this offers no escape for supposing demonic beings and the like are contradicted by science. For the fact that diseases are caused by natural laws might also be described, at a differing level, as the activity of disembodied demonic beings. Thus adopting reductive materialism is of no help in denying the existence of such beings. I should perhaps hasten to add I am not saying that the existence of such beings is likely. I would guess that such beings do not exist, but I do not know they don't. I am merely pointing out that science doesn't demonstrate their non-existence.

Does Law give any other justification for his position? He goes on to say:

When people are asked to justify their belief in such invisible beings, they often appeal to two things. First, to testimony: to reports of sightings, miraculous events supposedly caused by such beings, and so on. Any New Age bookshop will be able to provide numerous testimonies regarding invisible agency that might seem hard to account for naturalistically in terms of hallucination, self-deception, misidentified natural phenomena, trickery, and so on. Second, many will also claim a subjective sense of presence: they ‘just know’ their dead Auntie is in the room with them.
I find it interesting that Stephen Law, while he is sitting in his armchair, seems to believe he's in a better position to judge whether someone's dead Auntie is in the room than those who undergo the actual experience itself. Surely people who actual undergo a particular experience are the best judges as to what that experience is of? And of course it's often not just a vague sense that their dead Auntie is in the room; the Auntie is often perceived in the form of an apparition. If we're going to dismiss the possibility that something interesting is occurring here, i.e whether an anomalous phenomenon has occurred, then it is of little avail to consider the weakest cases. We need to consider the strongest cases. For example, where one perceives their dead Auntie, close up, in daylight. How are we to dismiss those cases?

At the end of the article Law says:

Suppose I see a snake on the ground before me. Under most circumstances, it’s then reasonable for me to believe there is indeed a snake there. However, once presented with evidence that I’d been given a drug to cause vivid snake hallucinations, it’s no longer reasonable for me to believe I’ve seen a snake. I might still be seeing a real snake but, given the new evidence, I can no longer reasonably suppose that I am.
Similarly, if we possess good evidence that humans are very prone to false belief in invisible beings when those beliefs are based on subjective experience, then I should be wary of such beliefs. And that, in turn, gives me good grounds for doubting that my dead uncle, or an angel, or god, really is currently revealing himself to me, if my only basis for belief is my subjective impression that this is so.
Let's continue to focus our attention on apparitions, in particular let's consider what are referred to as crisis apparitions. This is when someone, let's call him A, undergoes some type of crisis, quite often death. Another person, let's call him B, who is usually a friend or relative, has a visual hallucination of A roundabout the same time. Often B is not aware he is undergoing an hallucination and believes that A is physically present. It is only when the apparition of A disappears he realises his mistake.

It is only afterwards that B learns of A's death, or other crisis that he underwent. For those cases investigated prior to modern communications, this often was days afterwards.

So here we do not merely have a subjective sense of presence. The apparition is typically seen in daylight and is often mistaken for the real person. The person seeing the apparition hasn't typically been taking any drugs. He receives information about the person undergoing the crisis that he could not have received by any normal means. Such crisis hallucinations appear to be far from uncommon. Moreover the experience of them appears to be universal. So, all in all, the standard dismissal of them as being due to folly, delusion, cognitive illusion and pathology and so on are rendered extremely implausible.

I should hasten to add that such apparitions certainly do not prove we survive our deaths. But it seems to me we do have a genuine anomalous phenomenon here, whatever the ultimate explanation for them might be. The standard dismissals simply do not pass muster.

The question I would ask Stephen Law is what good evidence is there that this is not an anomalous phenomenon? What possible justification could he give?

Friday, 11 December 2015

The changing meaning of the word skepticism.

Modern skeptics of the paranormal often appeal to a quote made by the late Carl Sagan that  “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". However, I believe that originally to be a sceptic (I'll spell with a "c" for the original sense and a "k" for the modern sense), was to not simply accept the prevailing beliefs of one's culture, but to question them to see if these beliefs stand up to scrutiny. Crucially, no particular stance was taken. The prevailing beliefs may or may not be true, but the sceptic avoided simply assuming that they are true, and indeed avoided simply assuming they are false. What they attempted to do was apply reason and evidence and reach tentative, provisional conclusions in that way.

In contrast, skepticism in the sense in which it tends to now be currently used, at least as regards the "paranormal", has a supposition that modern science together with its implicit metaphysical assumptions, has successfully broadly painted a picture of what reality is like.  Lots of the details need to be filled in for sure, but in its broad outline skeptics assume it is essentially correct.  And, in general, the background beliefs of the intelligentsia regarding reality are shaped by the message that modern science seems to convey.

Now of course there are certain phenomena which are not consonant with such background beliefs and the conception of reality they entail e.g. apparitions, telepathy, the notion of an afterlife and so on.  Hence, when people claim to experience such things, the supposition of the skeptic is to assume that explanations consistent with the prevailing beliefs of one's culture are sufficient to explain the phenomenon concerned.  This is so even if such normal conventional explanations might be highly convoluted and implausible.  This is because no matter how implausible such conventional explanations might be, they do not rival the implausibility of accepting any paranormal phenomena -- or so skeptics maintain.  Any explanations not consistent with their beliefs are deemed to be controversial and extraordinary.  In order to accept a given anomalous phenomenon for what it seems to be, the evidence, to use Sagan's words, would need to be "extraordinary". 

So, in a nutshell, a skeptic assumes prevailing beliefs held by the intelligentsia are correct, and consequently he or she has a propensity to dismiss out of hand alleged phenomena inconsistent with such prevailing beliefs.  To describe modern skeptics as deniers is perhaps too strong.   But it certainly seems to me that modern skepticism is in many ways quite the opposite of the original meaning of the word scepticism.

Of course, a skeptic could argue that we are justified in subscribing to those beliefs informed by modern science.  He could also argue that the results obtained in parapsychology fall far short of the reliability of the results obtained in physics (as in the case of all "soft" sciences, including psychology and sociology). 

Two points should be made:

First of all, this doesn't justify the hijacking of the word "skepticism" to label this approach.

But secondly, and much more importantly, there is a stubborn misconception regarding what science actually does.   It tends to be conflated with a particular metaphysical interpretation of reality, an interpretation which itself cannot be justified.  More importantly, unless we presuppose materialism -- a metaphysical position which seems to me to be simply untenable -- science leaves out the existence of consciousness in its description of reality.  This includes our normal perceptions from our 5 main senses. Yes, we can describe the neural correlates of a conscious experience, such as a visual perception. But, even in principle, we cannot derive the experience itself, even from a thorough scientific understanding of the brain.  So, if normal perceptions are in principle inexplicable, how on earth can we claim that extrasensory perceptions are ruled out by science?   I suggest only by assuming philosophical materialism.  And materialism, apart from its unintelligibility, is not derived from science, but is a certain metaphysical stance.

Other blog entries by me might be of interest in this regard:

Science, the Afterlife, and the Intelligentsia
Science, the Afterlife, and the Intelligentsia
Do scientific explanations actually explain?
Science and the Afterlife
A very brief introduction to subjective idealism

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