Latest Fish Follow-up

I wanted to post a quick follow-up to my last entry on Stanley Fish.  (I do this for mostly for my own interest as, judging from the number of hits on that post, people are far less interested in criticisms of a dominant American post-modern intellectual than they are Pat Robertson, bird poop, or asshats.)  There I discussed Fish’s assertion in a recent article in the New York Times that incoherency was not so problematic as normally thought.  What occasioned this article was the publishing of a book by Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion (The Terry Lectures Series) .  In my analysis of Fish’s article, I was careful not to direct my criticisms at Smith herself.  This is because I thought it unlikely that she took the position that Fish put on her, mostly because such a position is so untenable.  Now Smith herself has posted a response to the wide criticism she has received in response of Fish’s article.  Unsurprisingly, she does some work to distance herself from the extreme position taken by Fish and attributed to her.  Also unsurprisingly, she does so in such a way as to avoid saying outright that Fish is wrong.  That said, the distinction between her position and Fish’s is evident.  Further, I think there is still plenty of room to criticize her own position.

The first thing of note is that Smith makes it clear that she does not think that incoherency is wholly unproblematic.  She writes, “Contrary to impressions drawn by several readers, I don’t think anyone can blow away such facts or conflicts by declaring (via Whitman or otherwise), ‘So we contradict ourselves. So what?’”  She also does not buy into the idea that science and religion are different “domains” or “contexts” that need not intersect.  She both dismisses the oft held up NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria) of Stephen J. Gould and points out that it is quite common for religious and scientific beliefs that contradict to cause very practical problems in a person’s life.  She writes,

For many people, contradictions between religious teachings and other knowledge — experiential as well as formal — create not only very real conflicts but also considerable anguish. Conflicts of this order can sometimes be resolved by rejecting religious teachings on one or more matters. Significant examples of such matters are homosexuality, the use of contraceptive devices and proper roles for women. Sometimes, however, when such contradictions are fundamental, the personal conflicts they create can be resolved only by abandoning religious doctrine, religious observance or, ultimately, religious identity altogether.

This seems to strike right at the heart of Fish’s assertion that “The conclusions we may have come to in the context of fancy epistemological debates (a context few will ever inhabit) will have no necessary force when we step into, and are asked to operate in, other contexts.”  All the better, then, that he followed that with “This last point is mine, not Smith’s (although I have reason to think she would find it agreeable).”  It would appear that Fish might have been mistaken to think that Smith was as willing to embrace contradiction as he was, and that, of course, was the core of my argument against him.

All that said, Smith does seem to hold a position that I see as very problematic.  She explicitly says that those engaged in epistemic approaches from both the scientific and religious mindset are equally unlikely to yield in the face of argument or evidence.  She writes,

This tendency to belief-persistence is well illustrated in the back-and-forth celebratory descriptions of science and pious invocations of the truth of one or another religion that swell the comments on Fish’s column. Such celebrations and invocations are typically accompanied by long lists of the crimes of religion and the glories of science or (in equally long lists) vice versa. What is notable here is that no position in these seesaw exchanges is ever changed. No one is enlightened; no one is converted.

This is not to say that enlightenment and conversion never occur. But, as scholars of religion from William James on have observed, conversions do not commonly occur as the result of such arguments or such evidence. And, as scholars of science from Thomas Kuhn on have added, that’s not quite the way scientific revolutions occur either.

I’m just going to have to strongly disagree with Smith here while expressing confusion as to how she could come to any such conclusion.  While paradigm shifts themselves might be more complicated, within science it is absolutely the case that arguments and evidence overcome beliefs every day.  That is exactly how science works!  Science is antithetical to positions held on unyielding faith.  Refusing to acquiesce in the face of contrary evidence only ensures that you will quickly become irrelevant in the domain of science.  Moreover, in science there is simply little reason to hold onto any position that is not favored by the evidence.  This is simply because of the nature of science itself.  It is not the case that good scientists constantly work to massage the data to make it fit in their favored hypothesis.  Rather, they attempt to form hypotheses that best fit the data itself.  Science is the practice of discovery, not revelation, and this is exactly where it differs from religion.  There the arrow is reversed, and the conclusion is presumed before the evidence is ever gathered. 

Given that the above is the case, Smith’s assertion that those working from the epistemology of science are as prone to belief-persistence as those working in a religious framework just seems bizarre.  It is obviously wrong-headed.  Were that the case, science would never get done.  As it does get done, as science is constantly changing while religion, though not wholly static, is certainly not best described as dynamic, it clearly cannot be the case that those doing science refuse to alter their beliefs in the face of better arguments and evidence.  As such, one cannot help but think that Smith is guilty of serious error, though at least she does not, like Fish, proclaim that incoherence and contradiction is nothing about which we need concern ourselves.

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The Problem of Spiritual Consolation

The Washington Post has been running a series of essays by religious authorities in response to the recent earthquake in Haiti.  The idea of the series is to examine how people of different faiths explain the age old question of why bad things happen to good people.  I would like to say something about this tragedy as well, but I approach the issue from almost exactly the opposite perspective.   I do not believe that there is any good answer to the question of why terrible things happen, but I do believe that it is insensitive to explain away such calamities with fables or myths.  Moreover, I think that "spiritual consolation" becomes offensive when it implies that suffering could have been prevented through alternative thinking, praying, or other "spiritual" practices.

If you believe that God has a Plan or that there is a "cosmic order" to the universe then you necessarily believe that awful things happen for a reason.  This applies not only to natural disasters but also to diseases, acts of malice, and personal tragedies.  Of course, you may believe that particular events are exacerbated by evil human intent (or corruption) and that those who knowingly do wrong things ought to be punished, but this does not get you out of the deeper metaphysical problem of evil.

Let us start with the idea of God’s Plan.  If it is the case that God is omniscient, then God Knows that some priests are going to rape some alter boys.  It is an unpleasant but entirely necessary part of the gift of free will that God allows such acts to occur, just as it is a part of God’s Plan that every day thousands of people will die in accidents, epidemics, and massacres.  From a philosophical perspective, I do not find this position to be particularly problematic because I can accept that God could be omniscient and omnipotent but that His omnibenevolence is so far from what we imagine (usually some kind of cosmic Santa Claus) that it can contain atrocities and still be, ultimately, Good.   What puzzles me is why anyone would take comfort in believing in a god like that.  Moreover, the idea that praying to a god who already has a set plan will make any difference in the course of future events is both absurd and borderline offensive.  After all, if I accept that the same God that allows earthquakes and child rape occasionally answers prayers, then it looks as though I must accept that people who suffer devastation may, in fact, be responsible for their own suffering.  If prayer works, and some people still suffer and die from things God could have prevented, then they must not have prayed or prayed the right way.

So, to recap, the two religious alternatives appear to be that 1) Your suffering is a part of God’s Plan, and can’t be helped or 2) Your suffering is a part of God’s Plan but can be helped by prayer, so if you continue to suffer even after prayer, then it is your own fault.  In light of this, I can see why the not-religious might seek out some alternative form of consolation.  I expect that the appeal of New-Age self-help programs like "Heal Your Life" and "The Secret" has a lot to do with this.  The idea behind New Age thought seems to be that we can explain away our old suffering in terms of a cosmic order (usually something like Karma, but it varies) that we didn’t understand before, and that we can prevent new suffering by understanding this cosmic order and harnessing  "positive thinking" or "positive energy" in our lives.  On the surface, New Age thought seems appealing because it offers up all the reassurances of religion (ultimate meaning, a purpose-driven life, etc.) without a nasty god who may hold you accountable for all of the bad things you did in your miserable life.  Unfortunately, the "cosmic order" view doesn’t offer any insightful explanation for why bad things happen, and it is even more conducive to a blame-the-victim conclusion than the "God’s Plan" view.

What virtually every New Age system holds in common is the belief that "non-physical" aspects of people such as "positive" or "negative" beliefs, "auras", or "spiritual energy" have an effect upon the physical world such that they determine the health of the body as well as events in a person’s life.  For example, the New Age self-help guru Louise Hay claims that she cured her cancer without drugs or surgery through "an intensive program of affirmations, visualization, nutritional cleansing, and psychotherapy."  In other words, Louise Hay claims that she cured cancer by thinking differently.  Leaving aside the obvious empirical problems with this claim (and the serious philosophical problems, and the fact that she is lying), what is troubling about Louise Hay is that her program implies that those who suffer and die of illnesses such as cancer could have chosen to do otherwise (by thinking differently!)  and that, for this reason, they are ultimately responsible for their fate.   The same implication follows from the principle of the self-help documentary "The Secret" which suggests that economic success is not the result of mere fortune and labor but is instead the result of a mysterious "Law of Attraction" whereby individuals attract fortunate events and interactions through positive thinking.  Thus, people who live in poverty could have done otherwise and those who remain in poverty have failed to take available measures to improve their luck.

I understand that most people who offer up their prayers, thoughts, meditations, and/or "positive energy" to those who suffer do so with honest intentions and good will, but this is no excuse for promoting a position that blames the victim.  The people of Haiti did not make a deal with the Devil nor tip the Karmic scales so as to necessitate an earthquake, and no amount of prayer or positive thought could have changed their circumstances.  Consolations based upon spiritual conjecture are an insult to their injury.

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The Incoherent Stanley Fish

It will come as no surprise to long-time readers of this blog that neither Liza nor I are sympathetic to the musings of Stanley Fish that appear over at the New York Times.  One thing I often ponder is the apparent incoherency of some of his ideas.  Well, now there is an answer to this issue:  Fish thinks that incoherency in thoughts is just fine.  In a recent column, he discusses a new book out by Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion.  According to Fish, Smith’s goal in this book is to critique the assumptions underlying the moral and epistemic tensions often seen in the contemporary discussions of science and religion.  The apparent solution to this dilemma is to accept some admitted incompatibility of these different epistemic approaches without concern and move on.  Via Fish, Smith writes, “the sets of beliefs held by each of us are fundamentally incoherent — that is, heterogeneous, fragmentary and, though often viable enough in specific contexts, potentially logically conflicting.”  This statement alone is uncontroversial.  It is, without doubt, the case that all of us likely hold some ideas that are incoherent with others.  But Fish goes much further in his claim in this article.  No, the take-home message here is about more than the assertion of the mere fact that the totality of some individual’s beliefs contains some incoherency.  It is that such incoherency is perfectly fine, that there is no need to work to clear up such issues.  According to Fish, “The conclusions we may have come to in the context of fancy epistemological debates (a context few will ever inhabit) will have no necessary force when we step into, and are asked to operate in, other contexts.”  There can be no mistaking the message here.  The knowledge gained in one context, whatever that is, is irrelevant to other contexts, even if the facts that are taken for granted in one context contradict the facts taken for granted in another.

It would be surprising if most of those reading this were not taken aback by such a bold assertion.  Certainly, it is neither apparent nor intuitive that incoherency is a perfectly acceptable state of affairs.  On the contrary, such is typically taken to be a sign of flawed reasoning.  Fish seems to think that the only people who would be opposed to accepting contradictions in their systems of beliefs are those at the extremes of some ill-defined spectrum.  He writes,

Needless to say, not everyone will be pleased by this argument. Those strong religionists who believe that the overweening claims of science (or scientism) must be denounced daily will not be pleased by an argument that says nothing about redemption, salvation and sin, and gives full marks to science’s achievements. (Smith, a pupil of B.F. Skinner’s, has been a sympathetic and knowledgeable student of science for many years.) And those materialist atheists who see religion as the source of many of the world’s evils and all of its ignorance will not be pleased by an argument that finds an honorable place for religious beliefs and practices.

So, according to Fish, those who will be disturbed by such a counterintuitive position will be “strong religionists” and “materialist atheists,” the implication being that each is a clear extreme, and the tone of Fish’s article suggesting that such positions are in error.  Fish is explicit that he agrees with Smith’s described position, and that these two listed groups will not, thus leaving no room for any doubt as to Fish’s feelings concerning the matter.  What Fish does, then, is set himself up as some kind of moderate between these two “extremes,” the moderate in this case being one who accepts, without worry, incoherency in their beliefs.

I want to suggest that such a position is not moderate at all.  Rather, it is quite extreme in that it asserts something that seems to be obviously wrong, namely that being that incoherency is no vice or fault.  The problem of incoherency is that it leads to contradiction, and, as anyone who has taken an intro class on logic knows, from a contradiction one can derive anything.  Simply put, it is absurd to claim that incoherency, and thus contradictions, are not problematic.  It puts one in the position of saying that both “a” and “not-a” are true.  So, if incoherency is okay, then I can claim that it is simultaneously true that one needs to be coherent and one does not need to be coherent.  This is, as I stated before, just absurd.

A defender of Fish might attempt to point out that what Fish is claiming is not that incoherency is okay, but that apparent incoherency between differing domains is what is unproblematic.  However, as I suggested above, it is completely unclear what constitutes such a “domain.”  Further, however one chooses to delineate between such areas of knowledge, if incoherency is an issue that arises, it is wholly unclear on how such areas could, in fact, be differing domains.  Were they genuinely different, then issues such as incoherency should not arise at all.  Here is an example:  at the highest, most superficial level, let us think of two domains as including automotive repair and floristry.  Here, we can imagine why it is fair to say that such areas of interest are, in fact, contexts that do not overlap.  The problem, however, is that it is not immediately apparent that incoherency between these two domains can even arise.  For example, were some mechanic to suggest the proper timing for some model of some car, it is completely unclear on what that would have to do, how it even could contradict, anything some florist might say about the arrangement of flowers.  As these are differing domains, there is just no clear way for the claims within one area to contradict the claims within the other.   Now, of course, the mechanic might begin to make claims that fall outside the domain of auto repair, and it is then easy to imagine how it might run afoul of something the florist might say.  But, so long as the florist stays within the bounds of floral arrangement, and so long as the mechanic stays within the bounds of auto repair, both at the most superficial level, it does not appear that it is even possible for there to be some incoherency between these domains.

The point of the above is just to say that if some incoherency between ideas arises, then it is not at all clear that the ideas fall within differing domains.  On the contrary, this looks to be great reason to think the opposite, that the ideas belong within the same area of concern.  That leaves Fish’s idea of religion and science merely being different epistemic domains in which any incoherency is perfectly acceptable as looking just weird.  What is the justification for such a claim?  What would such a justification even look like?  Whatever it might be, Fish will have a hard time arguing for it so long as it allows for contradictions to be unproblematic.

In the end, I am just baffled by Fish’s absurd assertion that incoherency is acceptable.  Were this the case, there would be no issue with making the claim that Fish is a philosophical dunce while simultaneously making the claim that Fish makes important epistemic insights.  As it turns out, it is ridiculous to hold both of those to be true at the same time.  In light of that, I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide which is the more legitimate claim.

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Why Reactionary Political Movements Should Scare You

Recently, I had two eye-opening conversations with people who appear to believe genuinely crazy things.   One of the people, a homeless man with two Harvard degrees, told me with conviction that Osama bin Laden is a secret member of the CIA and 9/11 was an inside job.  The other person, a tattoo-covered, minimum-wage-earning bartender, told me that "welfare queens who have babies like cockroaches" are really responsible for the current economic crisis.   The homeless man told me that his "political beliefs" had alienated him from his entire family but that he would never trade in the crippling isolation and depression which accompanied his conspiracy theory to believe the "Nazi-mind-control-myth" that had been perpetrated against the American people.  The other man bragged that he was an entirely self-made man (as evidenced by the fact that he had moved up from dishwasher to bartender after working at the same dive bar for five years) but that socialized medicine (he doesn’t have health care) for "welfare queens" threatened to destroy his way of living.  Given the circumstances of each conversation, I was not in the position to press these men on their contradictions or false assertions, but that didn’t interest me much anyway.  What’s far more interesting to me is the way these men seemed to have invested so much of their personal identities in being members of a persecuted political minority.

What ties these men together is not simply that they are members of political minorities but that they are a part of reactionary movements, and this is really the underlying factor that explains the insanity of their beliefs.  The major difference between a coherent political doctrine and a reactionary movement is that reactionaries don’t worry about how to reconcile competing intuitions about justice.  Usually, they don’t even worry about using a consistent or coherent definition for common political terms because defining terms like "freedom", "justice", "Nazi" or "Fascist" is not what reactionary movements are about.  Reactionaries care about defining the enemy –"Bush-Cheney-CIA-Nazi-mind-control" or "Obamacare-Hitler-take-all-our-guns"– and this makes reactionary positions very appealing to people who want to point to an enemy as the source of all trouble or injustice.  This is dangerous not only because some of the people who are attracted to reactionary positions are already prone to paranoia or delusions but because, almost by definition, a reactionary political position can’t be altered by new evidence or rational arguments.

It is important to distinguish here between reactionaries and radicals.   We can and should question the authority, honesty, and moral intent of political parties and government officials.  Wise people often (perhaps usually) find themselves in a political minority.  However, there is a huge gap between holding an uncommon political opinion -backed up by a rational thesis- and demonizing a constructed enemy.  A person can have a set of political values that are not popular and still hold a coherent position that is flexible enough to allow for new evidence and respond to rational counterarguments.   For example, right-wing libertarianism is a coherent political doctrine which rates the value of individual liberty much higher than the competing value of the common good.  This means that a right-libertarian may have to bite the bullet in arguments about popular social programs and concede that he does not support them because he does not support taxation for the public good, but he maintains a consistent position.  The right-libertarian may also adapt his theory to justify some intrusions on individual liberty (e.g. taxation to fund a military or emergency service programs) by appealing to some higher order position or value (e.g. some level of security is a pre-condition of freedom) which is consistent with his theory.  In contrast, the so called Tea-Bagger or Tea-Partier who has defined his position in reaction to Obama’s proposed health care reform legislation cannot adjust his position in light of new evidence or arguments (e.g. Leading economists agree that a public option would lower overall healthcare costs and improve care in comparison to the current system) because his position isn’t based upon a coherent set of principles but upon the unalterable belief that the policies of the enemy are the cause of injustice, regardless of what those policies are. The same rule applies to the "9/11 Truthers" who move from legitimate arguments that the current U.S. wars are unjustified and the legitimate charge that the government misled the public about intelligence information (it probably did) to the shaky and unverifiable but wholly inflammatory claim that the Bush administration actually planned the murder of thousands of U.S. citizens.

The point at which political dissent is divorced from coherent doctrine and married to fear of an evil and deceptive enemy is the point at which rational citizens should become terrified.  A person who has decided that law-makers are not simply dishonest or corrupt but actually conspiring against him or his people* is not someone who is likely to participate in the kind of political discussion that is the foundation of representative democracy.  If I believe that your bad argument is a sign that you are wrong but your good argument is a sign that you are wrong and trying to trick me, I am not going to be convinced by you either way.  Moreover, I am likely to react badly, even violently, if you continue to assault me with good reasons or evidence because I won’t view the discussion as political discourse but as insidious manipulation by an evil liar.   This is the position that reactionaries hold.

In closing, I would really like to suggest some kind of productive response to reactionary arguments, but for obvious reasons I find it hard to imagine one.  I think the best response is to continue to participate in a rational dialogue with those who will play by the rules (coherent theory, consistent definitions, etc.) and to refuse to glorify or engage those who won’t.

*I feel compelled to add here that there appears to be quite a bit of overlap between the anti-Obama "tea-party movement" and out-and-out racist reactionary groups such as the Conservative Citizens Council.  You can watch an interesting excerpt from a documentary on this connection here.

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Atheists not Accepted as In-Laws

pew research black americansPew Research has released the results of a new poll centered around the self-assessment of black Americans concerning their place in society here in the US.  While there is much of interest in the object of study here, I would like to highlight something buried in the rest of the analysis.  From the report: 

The survey finds that most Americans also are ready to accept intermarriage in their family if the new spouse is Hispanic or Asian. But there is one new spouse that most Americans would have trouble accepting into their families: someone who does not believe in God. Seven-in-ten people who are affiliated with a religion say they either would not accept such as marriage (27%) or be bothered before coming to accept it (42%).

The percentage of those who say they would not accept such a marriage at all is, to me, more noteworthy than those who would be merely bothered before coming to accept it.  This is, in part, because of the very low percentage of people who reported feeling similarly about different characteristics of potential partners for their children.  As the graphic for the report shows, the highest number for any other characteristic for a potential in-law is a low 6% associated with whites who would not accept a black American as a spouse for their child.  The difference between these numbers is significant. 

One point of interest for me is that differences in belief in God can vary amongst family members themselves.  Within my own family there is a variety of beliefs concerning God ranging from fundamentalist Christianity to something bordering on anti-theism, yet everyone in my family gets along just fine.  This is unsurprising given the shared background and common history of the individuals in question.  With that in mind, then, I find it curious that this is an issue of such importance to so many people.  Certainly, it seems as though the possible differences resulting from the racial distinctions would be more dramatic than one’s views on some god’s existence.  What, then, might the core of the concern be?

The-Atheist-eOne possible answer could be the worry over the immortal soul of one’s children, grandchildren, and even the spouse themselves.  So, if one is a Christian, and one believes that those who have not accepted Christ as their personal Lord and Savior are doomed to suffer for all eternity in the fiery lakes  of Hell, then an argument could be made that refusal to accept an atheist as an in-law revolves around this issue.  Surely, one would not want their child’s soul endangered by the sustained influence of one who is him or herself damned.  And, of course, this could extend to a concern for any offspring resulting from such a union.  It could even be that there is a desire to refrain from forming any attachments to someone that is believed to be damned so as to avoid any anxiety that would come about from this new concern for that person’s welfare (though this would seem strange given the Christian’s mandate to spread the gospel).

If the above is the case, then I can see a possible explanation for the results of the poll.  However, that does not appear to be the reason as it looks like atheists are simply viewed in a poorer light in general by the public at large.  In polls conducted by the Gallup Organization from 1937 to 2007, it appears clear that atheists are and have been at the bottom of the pile in terms of whom the public would trust with public office.  In fact, according to the polls, “An atheist would seem to have the hardest time getting elected president, as a majority of Americans (53%) say they would not vote for a presidential candidate who was an atheist.”  This suggests that the US simply has a negative view in general of atheists, though it is unclear what the source of that prejudice is.

I know all this is true.  I see it day to day.  That doesn’t stop it from being weird.  It just strikes me as odd that this is the thing about which people are concerned.  It’s perplexing.  After all, no one is committing crimes in the name of atheism, atheists, in fact, being under-represented in our nations prisons.  We don’t have any examples of atheists refusing to let theists hold jobs, patronize their businesses, or ride their buses.  There is no data that suggests that atheists are more likely to be responsible for any of the things the public is likely to consider undesirable, and there is data to suggest that atheists are less likely to fall into such categories.  This prejudice against atheists is just all so strange. 

I don’t know.  Maybe if all you godless heathens stopped eating babies your public image would improve.

via Blag Hag

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Ghost Hunters and Other Such Silliness

ghost huntersI’ve noticed that, lately, there are quite a large number of shows on television revolving around the supernatural.  More specifically, these are programs that deal with people who claim to do something like hunt ghosts.  Perhaps the most prominent of these is the obviously titled Ghost Hunters.  I must admit to being perplexed at the existence and popularity of such shows.  I actually tried to sit through a few episodes to get a feel for what all the fuss is about, but I just could not make it through an entire episode.  The events in the program are, to put it mildly, lame.  You never get to see anything like a ghost, nor is there anything even remotely close to evidence for the existence of something at all supernatural ever found.  Rather, what you get is a few people running around in the dark with over-tuned instruments acting like they are scared at the sounds they themselves are making.

There are some obvious things about these programs that strike me as just odd.  For example, if the group examining some supposedly haunted location thinks they’ve genuinely found something, why is it that they pack up when they have enough footage for a single episode?  Why not stick around longer and get something that is more definitive than creaking boards or anomalous readings from a cam with nightvision?  More importantly, why exactly are they scared at all?  They jump and yell when the wind blows, so they are clearly afraid of something, but I have no idea what it is.  These are people whose entire job is to hunt ghosts.  They have been doing it for years, and in all that time no one has been hurt.  Nothing ever attacks the “hunters.”  At some point you would think these guys would wise up and realize that, if there really are ghosts, the entities in question either cannot or will not harm them.  Jumping at every “boo” just makes them look ridiculous.

But, unsurprisingly, I have some more serious questions about they entire endeavor, and these become objections to the entire premise of the “hunt.”  What exactly is the supposed nature of the ghosts?  From what I have picked up, it looks like they are supposed to be non-physical, immaterial entities.  Indeed, that’s the typical notion of a ghost.  So what’s up with all the gadgets?  Those over-tuned devices are built to measure physical stuff.  Cameras measure light.  If ghosts are non-physical, then there is nothing off of which light can bounce to hit the camera, or even our eyes.  If these things are truly non-physical, the entire attempt to see them is just…well, stupid.  The same goes for attempting to record them.  Sound is a wholly physical thing.  It is a wave of pressure oscillation in the atmosphere that is picked up by some measuring device, like our ears or an audio recorder.  If there is nothing physical there to move the air, then there will be no sound to detect by ears or otherwise.  I could go down the list for everything else, from heat to electromagnetic interference.  The simple fact is that all such things are physical, and the idea of something non-physical causing them makes no sense. 

Of course, someone might suggest that ghosts are, in reality, physical.  Ok, great.  But then they do not seem to fit what we generally think of as “ghosts,” and it’s unclear on how they’re related to people that died in the past or anything like that.  I mean, it seems pretty clear that when people die the physical part of them is done.  That’s why people who believe in ghosts, spirits, souls, etc say that such things are non-physical, and thus not harmed by the physical death of the individual.  But then we are right back where we started with none of this equipment that measures physical changes being able, in principle, to detect anything having to do with such stuff.  That makes the whole notion of hunting ghosts with these gadgets just silly.

In the end, I am wholly unable to understand the popularity of such programs.  Every episode appears identical to the last, and each ends with no definitive evidence of anything at all.  One would think that people would get bored of grown men jumping at their own shadows and footfalls, and yet…  I’m just left scratching my head.

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Pat Robertson, Haiti, and the Devil

Yesterday, January 13, on his show The 700 Club, Pat Robertson said that Haiti made a “pact with the Devil,” and that such was the root cause of all the country’s woes, including the recent earthquake. 

The video:


That’s right.  Pat Robertson believes that the entire country of Haiti got together, called up Ol’ Scratch, and pledged to do his wicked bidding if only he would help them free themselves from the oppression of the French.  Because, of course, anyone who believed in the Devil and knew who he was would also think that he would be a kinder and gentler master than the French, who are not themselves the Prince of Darkness or the Source of Evil.

I have very little to say about this.  I could rant and rave, but the sheer insanity of this, the wild awfulness of accusing an entire country of people of all being in league with Satan, not as a metaphor, but as real and actual, says more in itself than I ever could.  Anyone who continues to listen to this man, and certainly anyone who gives him money, thereby assisting the maniac, should be wholly dismissed and treated as the idiot they clearly are.  They are a lost cause.  I do not mean this as hyperbole.  I genuinely believe that anyone who can, with a straight face, claim than an entire nation of people would knowingly pledge themselves to Satan, and this is why they have been devastated by a natural disaster, is far beyond any hope of rational thinking.  Further, anyone who could hear such a claim and not recognize the lunacy behind it is also beyond all hope.  Thus, any attempt to convince them of the absurdity of their claim is futile.

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