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Good and Bad Reasons for Believing

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I just finished reading  A Devil’s Chaplain, a splendid collection of essays by Richard Dawkins. It’s filled with Dawkins’ sharp insights into a wide array of subjects ranging from science and religion, to his childhood in Africa and the death of loved ones.

Worth sharing, is what I think is probably the best material in the book: a letter that Dawkins wrote to her 10 year old daughter, lovingly and carefully explaining the values of a scientific worldview.

Enjoy.

___________________________

Dear Juliet,

Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me. Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know? How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the Sun and very far away? And how do we know that the Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the Sun?

The answer to these questions is “evidence.” Sometimes evidence means actually seeing (or hearing, feeling, smelling…) that something is true. Astronauts have traveled far enough from the Earth to see with their own eyes that it is round. Sometimes our eyes need help. The “evening star” looks like a bright twinkle in the sky, but with a telescope you can see that it is a beautiful ball — the planet we call Venus. Something that you learn by direct seeing (or hearing or feeling…) is called an observation.

Often, evidence isn’t just an observation on its own, but observation always lies at the back of it. If there’s been a murder, often nobody (except the murderer and the victim!) actually observed it. But detectives can gather together lots of other observations which may all point toward a particular suspect. If a person’s fingerprints match those found on a dagger, this is evidence that he touched it. It doesn’t prove that he did the murder, but it can help when it’s joined up with lots of other evidence. Sometimes a detective can think about a whole lot of observations and suddenly realize that they all fall into place and make sense if so-and-so did the murder.

Scientists—the specialists in discovering what is true about the world and the universe—often work like detectives. They make a guess (called a hypothesis) about what might be true. They then say to themselves: If that were really true, we ought to see so-and-so. This is called a prediction. For example, if the world is really round, we can predict that a traveler, going on and on in the same direction, should eventually find himself back where he started. When a doctor says that you have the measles, he doesn’t take one look at you and see measles. His first look gives him a hypothesis that you may have measles. Then he says to himself: If she really has measles, I ought to see…. Then he runs through the list of predictions and tests them with his eyes (have you got spots?), hands (is your forehead hot?), and ears (does your chest wheeze in a measly way?). Only then does he make his decision and say, “I diagnose that the child has measles.” Sometimes doctors need to do other tests like blood tests or X-rays, which help their eyes, hands, and ears to make observations.

The way scientists use evidence to learn about the world is much cleverer and more complicated than I can say in a short letter. But now I want to move on from evidence, which is a good reason for believing something, and warn you against three bad reasons for believing anything. They are called “tradition,” “authority,” and “revelation.”

First, tradition. A few months ago, I went on television to have a discussion with about fifty children. These children were invited because they’d been brought up in lots of different religions. Some had been brought up as Christians, others as Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or Sikhs. The man with the microphone went from child to child, asking them what they believed. What they said shows up exactly what I mean by “tradition.” Their beliefs turned out to have no connection with evidence. They just trotted out the beliefs of their parents and grandparents, which, in turn, were not based upon evidence either. They said things like: “We Hindus believe so and so”; “We Muslims believe such and such”; “We Christians believe something else.”

Of course, since they all believed different things, they couldn’t all be right. The man with the microphone seemed to think this quite right and proper, and he didn’t even try to get them to argue out their differences with each other. But that isn’t the point I want to make for the moment. I simply want to ask where their beliefs come from. They came from tradition. Tradition means beliefs handed down from grandparent to parent to child, and so on. Or from books handed down through the centuries. Traditional beliefs often start from almost nothing; perhaps somebody just makes them up originally, like the stories about Thor and Zeus. But after they’ve been handed down over some centuries, the mere fact that they are so old makes them seem special. People believe things simply because people have believed the same thing over the centuries. That’s tradition.

The trouble with tradition is that, no matter how long ago a story was made up, it is still exactly as true or untrue as the original story was. If you make up a story that isn’t true, handing it down over a number of centuries doesn’t make it any truer!

Most people in England have been baptized into the Church of England, but this is only one of the branches of the Christian religion. There are other branches such as Russian Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, and the Methodist churches. They all believe different things. The Jewish religion and the Muslim religion are a bit more different still; and there are different kinds of Jews and of Muslims. People who believe even slightly different things from each other often go to war over their disagreements. So you might think that they must have some pretty good reasons—evidence—for believing what they believe. But actually, their different beliefs are entirely due to different traditions.

Let’s talk about one particular tradition. Roman Catholics believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was so special that she didn’t die but was lifted bodily into Heaven. Other Christian traditions disagree, saying that Mary did die like anybody else. These other religions don’t talk about her much and, unlike Roman Catholics, they don’t call her the “Queen of Heaven.” The tradition that Mary’s body was lifted into Heaven is not a very old one. The Bible says nothing about how or when she died; in fact, the poor woman is scarcely mentioned in the Bible at all. The belief that her body was lifted into Heaven wasn’t invented until about six centuries after Jesus’ time. At first it was just made up, in the same way as any story like “Snow White” was made up. But, over the centuries, it grew into a tradition and people started to take it seriously simply because the story had been handed down over so many generations. The older the tradition became, the more people took it seriously. It finally was written down as an official Roman Catholic belief only very recently, in 1950, when I was the age you are now. But the story was no more true in 1950 than it was when it was first invented six hundred years after Mary’s death.

I’ll come back to tradition at the end of my letter, and look at it in another way. But first I must deal with the two other bad reasons for believing in anything: authority and revelation.

Authority, as a reason for believing something, means believing in it because you are told to believe it by somebody important. In the Roman Catholic Church, the pope is the most important person, and people believe he must be right just because he is the pope. In one branch of the Muslim religion, the important people are the old men with beards called ayatollahs. Lots of young Muslims are prepared to commit murder, purely because the ayatollahs in a faraway country tell them to.

When I say that it was only in 1950 that Roman Catholics were finally told that they had to believe that Mary’s body shot off to Heaven, what I mean is that in 1950 the pope told people that they had to believe it. That was it. The pope said it was true, so it had to be true! Now, probably some of the things that that pope said in his life were true and some were not true. There is no good reason why, just because he was the pope, you should believe everything he said, any more than you believe everything that other people say. The present pope [1995] has ordered his followers not to limit the number of babies they have. If people follow this authority as slavishly as he would wish, the results could be terrible famines, diseases, and wars, caused by overcrowding.

Of course, even in science, sometimes we haven’t seen the evidence ourselves and we have to take somebody else’s word for it. I haven’t, with my own eyes, seen the evidence that light travels at a speed of 186,000 miles per second. Instead, I believe books that tell me the speed of light. This looks like “authority.” But actually, it is much better than authority, because the people who wrote the books have seen the evidence and anyone is free to look carefully at the evidence whenever they want. That is very comforting. But not even the priests claim that there is any evidence for their story about Mary’s body zooming off to Heaven.

The third kind of bad reason for believing anything is called “revelation.” If you had asked the pope in 1950 how he knew that Mary’s body disappeared into Heaven, he would probably have said that it had been “revealed” to him. He shut himself in his room and prayed for guidance. He thought and thought, all by himself, and he became more and more sure inside himself. When religious people just have a feeling inside themselves that something must be true, even though there is no evidence that it is true, they call their feeling “revelation.” It isn’t only popes who claim to have revelations. Lots of religious people do. It is one of their main reasons for believing the things that they do believe. But is it a good reason?

Suppose I told you that your dog was dead. You’d be very upset, and you’d probably say, “Are you sure? How do you know? How did it happen?” Now suppose I answered: “I don’t actually know that Pepe is dead. I have no evidence. I just have this funny feeling deep inside me that he is dead.” You’d be pretty cross with me for scaring you, because you’d know that an inside “feeling” on its own is not a good reason for believing that a whippet is dead. You need evidence. We all have inside feelings from time to time, and sometimes they turn out to be right and sometimes they don’t. Anyway, different people have opposite feelings, so how are we to decide whose feeling is right? The only way to be sure that a dog is dead is to see him dead, or hear that his heart has stopped, or be told by somebody who has seen or heard some real evidence that he is dead.

People sometimes say that you must believe in feelings deep inside, otherwise, you’d never be confident of things like “My wife loves me.” But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up. It isn’t a purely inside feeling, like the feeling that priests call revelation. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.

Sometimes people have a strong inside feeling that somebody loves them when it is not based on any evidence, and then they are likely to be completely wrong. There are people with a strong inside feeling that a famous film star loves them, when really the film star hasn’t even met them. People like that are ill in their minds. Inside feelings must be backed up by evidence, otherwise you just can’t trust them.

Inside feelings are valuable in science too, but only for giving you ideas that you later test by looking for evidence. A scientist can have a “hunch” about an idea that just “feels” right. In itself, this is not a good reason for believing something. But it can be a good reason for spending some time doing a particular experiment, or looking in a particular way for evidence. Scientists use inside feelings all the time to get ideas. But they are not worth anything until they are supported by evidence.

I promised that I’d come back to tradition, and look at it in another way. I want to try to explain why tradition is so important to us. All animals are built (by the process called evolution) to survive in the normal place in which their kind live. Lions are built to be good at surviving on the plains of Africa. Crayfish, to be good at surviving in fresh water, while lobsters are built to be good at surviving in the salt sea. People are animals, too, and we are built to be good at surviving in a world full of other people. Most of us don’t hunt for our own food like lions or lobsters; we buy it from other people who have bought it from yet other people. We “swim” through a “sea of people.” Just as a fish needs gills to survive in water, people need brains that make them able to deal with other people. Just as the sea is full of salt water, the sea of people is full of difficult things to learn. Like language.

You speak English, but your friend Ann-Kathrin speaks German. You each speak the language that fits you to “swim about” in your own separate “people sea.” Language is passed down by tradition. There is no other way. In England, Pepe is a dog. In Germany he is ein Hund. Neither of these words is more correct or more true than the other. Both are simply handed down. In order to be good at “swimming about in their people sea,” children have to learn the language of their own country, and lots of other things about their own people; and this means that they have to absorb, like blotting paper, an enormous amount of traditional information. (Remember that traditional information just means things that are handed down from grandparents to parents to children.) The child’s brain has to be a sucker for traditional information. And the child can’t be expected to sort out good and useful traditional information, like the words of a language, from bad or silly traditional information, like believing in witches and devils and ever-living virgins.

It’s a pity, but it can’t help being the case, that because children have to be suckers for traditional information, they are likely to believe anything the grown-ups tell them, whether true or false, right or wrong. Lots of what the grown-ups tell them is true and based on evidence, or at least sensible. But if some of it is false, silly, or even wicked, there is nothing to stop the children believing that, too. Now, when the children grow up, what do they do? Well, of course, they tell it to the next generation of children. So, once something gets itself strongly believed—even if it is completely untrue and there never was any reason to believe it in the first place—it can go on forever.

Could this be what has happened with religions? Belief that there is a god or gods, belief in Heaven, belief that Mary never died, belief that Jesus never had a human father, belief that prayers are answered, belief that wine turns into blood—not one of these beliefs is backed up by any good evidence. Yet millions of people believe them. Perhaps this is because they were told to believe them when they were young enough to believe anything.

Millions of other people believe quite different things, because they were told different things when they were children. Muslim children are told different things from Christian children, and both grow up utterly convinced that they are right and the others are wrong. Even within Christians, Roman Catholics believe different things from Church of England people or Episcopalians, Shakers or Quakers, Mormons or Holy Rollers, and all are utterly convinced that they are right and the others are wrong. They believe different things for exactly the same kind of reason as you speak English and Ann-Kathrin speaks German. Both languages are, in their own country, the right language to speak. But it can’t be true that different religions are right in their own countries, because different religions claim that opposite things are true. Mary can’t be alive in Catholic Southern Ireland but dead in Protestant Northern Ireland.

What can we do about all this? It is not easy for you to do anything, because you are only ten. But you could try this. Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: “Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority, or revelation?” And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “What kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.

Your loving

Daddy

New book by Pat Churchland

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Yes! Pat Churchland has a new book coming out on July 22nd, according to Amazon. She is a pioneer in the field of neurophilosophy (the intersection of neuroscience and philosophy) and one of the reasons why I decided to get a philosophy degree.

Here’s the book description, lifted from Amazon:

A trailblazing philosopher’s exploration of the latest brain science—and its ethical and practical implications.

What happens when we accept that everything we feel, think, and experience stems not from an immaterial soul but from electrical and chemical activity in our brains? That is the question at the heart of this new book by Patricia Churchland, one of the pioneers of neurophilosophy. In a narrative detailing her own personal and professional transformation, Churchland explains what the latest brain research into consciousness, sensory experience, memory, and free will can tell us about enduring philosophical and ethical questions: What is the self? How are our personalities created? What determines our decisions and behaviors? These questions have real-world repercussions—for example, whether an adolescent or someone mentally ill can be held responsible for his or her actions. As Churchland reveals, once we accept that our brains determine everything about who we are and how we experience the world, neuroscience offers new, critical insights into a fascinating range of ethical and philosophical dilemmas.

If Churchland’s previous books are anything to go by, this should be another entertaining, insightful and profound read into the relationship between science and philosophy. Can’t wait.

Professor Brian Cox’s fantastic new series Wonders of Life premiered a couple of weeks ago on BBC Two. Here’s the first episode, What is Life? A visually stunning and intellectually stimulating look at the possible origins of life and why no spooky stuff or magic is necessary for it.

Enjoy.

Consciousness and Buddhism

I just ran across this great quote by Stephen Batchelor, lifted from his book Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, which made me wonder how different the world would be if Buddhism—and not Christianity and Islam—was the most dominant form of spirituality:

"Consciousness is an emergent, contingent, and impermanent phenomenon. It has no magical capacity to break free from the field of events out of which it springs."

Buddhism surely has its problems and its superstitions, but failing to accept the nature of consciousness as something natural grounded in the laws of physics doesn’t seem to be one of them. Well, in some Buddhist traditions, at least. 

Is it too far-fetched to say that a world where this simple truth is accepted and not fought to the death, would be at least a tad less superstitious, a lot more humane, and a bit less insane?

¿Religion for atheists?

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Last year, writer and philosopher Alain de Botton gave a TED Talk at the TED Global 2011 in Edimburgh, Scotland. It has been doing the rounds online for a couple of months now. He had been writing a book called Religion for Atheists (coming on March 6th), in which he asks atheists not to succumb to the temptation of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We atheists are already convinced that the factual claims of religion are false, says de Botton, but “even if religion is wrong, why can’t we enjoy the best bits?”

It seems like a perfectly sensible question to ask and one that causes a knee-jerk reaction from many of us. Some of us see religion in the same way that Bertrand Russell did when he said that “[i]t is possible that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will be necessary first to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is religion.” We think this way because there is plenty of empirical evidence to support this conclusion. To put it mildly, religion has been a roadblock on the way to knowledge, human development and world peace in a way that no other idea or philosophy has ever been. To put it bluntly, it has been the direct cause of many of the world’s misery. It has inspired wars, crusades and inquisitions; it has ennobled dogmatic faith, which is a painfully wrong way to think about the world; and it has divided the world into “Good” vs “Evil” camps. As Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “[t]he Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.” This is not limited to Christianity, of course. What some vocal atheists have been doing is pointing out these things, as well as pointing out that the whole thing is ridiculous to begin with. 

We are all perfectly justified in thinking this, says de Botton, but if we concentrate too much on this aspect, we take the risk of missing out on some of the good bits that religion has to offer, which are the ones that make them so attractive to people in the first place. And that is a very dumb risk to take, according to de Botton. “[W]e invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill” says de Botton. “[f]irstly, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And secondly, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.” This, in short, is his central argument. The reason he wrote a book, the reason he appeared on the TED stage.

I agree with his assessment on why religions were invented in the first place, although I believe that the issue is much more complex than that. What I don’t agree with is his other assessment - that secular society has not been able to deal or engage with those things. One has to wonder what he means by “secular society”. Perhaps he explains it in much more detail in his book, but the impression that I get so far is that he means something more akin to an atheistic worldview, than a society with secular values per se. If this is the case, I need only to point de Botton towards a subject he’s very familiar with: philosophy. It may not be perfect or provide one with answers to all of life’s riddles, but then again, neither does religion. Philosophy can help you realize that there might be more than one or two sides to every issue, and it can get you thinking about questions that may never have popped-up in your head if it weren’t for Plato, Hume or Nietzsche. Hell, even Heidegger can stimulate the occasional neuron. Ever wonder where morality comes from? Read Plato’s Euthyphro. Reflect upon it. Go out for drinks with your friends. Read David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. Reflect upon it. Go make love to your loved one. Read Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. Reflect upon it. Resist the temptation to kill yourself. Read them all over again. You may not have come out of the experience with an absolute answer to your initial question, but at least your ignorance is much more informed than before. Repeat this experience with enough books, and you will very likely discover a deep truth about the human condition - our lives are driven by uncertainty, and one of the best things we can do for ourselves and for humanity is to learn how to live with it. 

Another area that can be very illuminating and opens up a whole new world of ideas, answers and possibilities is science. It shows us exactly where we stand in the grand scheme of things, and can fill us with deep humility. And, continuing with the road opened up by philosophy, a scientific understanding of the world can inform our ignorance even further. It is often said that philosophy asks questions and science answers them, providing philosophy with more things to ponder about in the process. Sticking with the question of where morality comes from, scientists can take the ideas of Plato, Hume and Nietzsche and get to work in the lab, thinking about possible ways to test them and come up with actual answers. Often, scientific research in other areas, can bring in ideas and data from unexpected places. Such was the case with morality and Charles Darwin. His work is now the unifying theory in all of the biological sciences, spawned new ones and even illuminated philosophy. This is because, as philospher Daniel Dennett puts it, “[t]here is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.” Thanks to Darwin’s work, which was expanded upon by many scientists since his time, we now know that morality is certainly a trait that evolved in social mammals, all the way to humans. Thanks to neuroscience, we can correlate moral behavior with neural activity. So, where does morality come from? According to the best of our knowledge, it arose in nature and stayed with us because it provides us with behaviors that are useful to social animals such as ourselves. There are still some gaps in our knowledge of morality, but there are many people - very intelligent people - determined to close them. Just as with all the gaps that currently exist in all of our knowledge.

Some say that scientific knowledge is “dry”, that it fails to connect with human preoccupations. Such people surely have never read Carl Sagan. He dedicated his life to bringing scientific knowledge to the masses, and more importantly, into taking such scientific knowledge to its ultimate consequences, providing a “naturalist spirituality” of sorts. His work is filled with awe-inspiring words such as these: “We are star stuff which has taken its destiny into its own hands […] We are a way for the cosmos to know itself. We are creatures of the cosmos and always hunger to know our origins, to understand our connection with the universe.” This awesome reflection is based on the “dry” knowledge that the atoms that form our body are created in the cores of stars. If this does not elicit a feeling that can be called “spiritual”, about nature, then I suspect that you might be clinically dead.

Contrast all of this with sticking to what religious books and leaders have to say, and you will rapidly see why de Botton is seriously misguided. Atheists are most definitely not “living on a spiritual wasteland under the guidance of Walmart and CNN”, as he is eager to claim. Atheists are actually sitting in the middle of an enormous library whose shelves are filled with thousands upon thousands of tomes written by some of the most thoughtful mammals that have ever lived on this planet. All they have to do is get up from their chairs and begin to indulge. Most atheists have already done this. It’s precisely why they are atheists now. A lot of atheists have already realized that religion can only ever address important questions, never actually answer them. And it does so in a mediocre way because it has to adhere to one or several dogmas. Science and philosophy may sometimes be questions without answers, but religion is answers that can never be questioned. Even the religious have been realizing this for several years, and church pews have been slowly emptying. The impression that I get is that de Botton is catering a banquet of attractive-looking meats to people who do not like the taste of meat.

De Botton does point out something very important that countless academics before him have pointed out. Namely, that our dominant educational system sucks. He is not the first one and will most certainly not be the last. We know that secular schools and universities are doing something horribly wrong when they fail to interest people in science and philosophy. Which, as I have argued above, are vastly superior ways to head towards truth and meaning. The problem (if it can even be called a problem) with science and philosophy is that they require effort. They require active learning from people. Reading, thinking, discussing, investigating, questioning. Some of these things come naturally to us when we are children, but are seriously diminished as we grow up and go to school. We are often not taught to think, but to memorize. Parents play an important role in this too. How many times is an inquisitive child wanting to know why things are the way they are, brushed away as an annoyance? So, this is truly a problem. But what is it exactly that de Botton is proposing to avoid this? A “new way of being an atheist”. He calls it “Atheism 2.0”. In a nutshell, in Atheism 2.0, “[t]he real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where one takes the argument to if one concludes he doesn’t.” And according to de Botton, we need to take the argument right back to religion and “steal from [it]”. Sermons, rituals, services, clothing, hierarchies, food, temples. The whole shebang. Minus the supernatural doctrines, of course.

De Botton thinks that gathering in a place built specifically for the occasion, to hear someone read from books and deliver sermons about “living well”, is a good way to fill the void of secular education. He says that people often forget why they do the things that they do, and religions cope with this rather ingeniously:

By constantly hammering them into their heads.

Right here, I’m not sure de Botton is identifying a real problem. People forget why they should be generous or why they should not embark on murderous rampages? Most atheists deal with a godless morality rather well. And religious people have their own - often reward/punishment based - reasons for their actions. I don’t share them and wish they would reconsider them, but they have them, nonetheless. What a misguided and condescending view of humanity that de Botton has. Furthermore, I am very confident that what this constant hammering of points accomplishes is lazy and dogmatic behavior. So, what de Botton identifies as virtue in the repetitive educational methods of religion, is really a vice. Instead of creating people who think critically about things and who are able to find depth in anything Plato, Hume, Nietzsche or Sagan have to say, while at the same time identifying the deficiencies, de Botton’s way only makes the problem worse. Educating in sermons is not only a horrible idea, it is also condescending and insulting. Which is something that I perceive along the entirety of “Atheism 2.0”.

Matters become worse when he proposes to blend this communal aspect of religion with art and architecture. Plans to construct an “atheist temple” (reminiscent of A.C. Grayling’s example of “sleeping furiously”) in the center of London are already underway. Some atheists (his intended audience) are already pointing out that this is a waste of time and money and an embarrassment to what atheism is all about. I agree with them, for the reasons I already pointed out. Also, atheism has had to deal with misguided and often derogatory accusations of being just another religion, when in fact, it’s nothing of the sorts. It’s like calling non-stamp collecting a hobby or calling baldness a hairstyle. What is an atheist temple going to do in the minds of the religious?

Exactly.

To add insult to injury, de Botton completely ignores the uncomfortable fact that billions of religious followers around the world do believe the doctrinal bits, and take them so seriously, that they are often willing to strip people of their liberties or even kill them. The reason those people from “North Oxford” have been so vocal is because of these things. I have often discussed with fellow atheists that if religious people were just “comforted” by their beliefs, and those beliefs were limited to finding meaning in life, we would have no need to be “loud”. Not at all. However, religions often make claims about reality that are completely at odds with what we know through the aid of science. And not content with holding these misguided beliefs, they constantly pressure governments to create legislation based on them. They don’t want homosexuals to get married. They want to stop the teaching of evolution. They want government to control women’s reproductive rights. “Shrill” atheists like Sam Harris, Salman Rushdie, Kurt Westergaard and Aayan Hirsi-Ali, often speak about these uncomfortable, but necessary subjects, often at the risk of their lives. By failing to engage with these facts, de Botton appears too eager to own the friendly-sensitive-atheist-who-gets-standing-ovations-at-TED niche and joins the ranks of people who should know better than to hammer these vocal atheists for their troubles. Yes, some of their methods are open to criticism, but this holier-than-thou attitude does nothing to advance them. Ironically enough, the people he criticizes so much, would most likely agree with de Botton’s concerns - if not with his solutions - and have even publicly expressed their appreciation of religious art and architecture.

I don’t know how this whole thing is going to end. After all, I haven’t read the book yet. But considering that de Botton seems to have thought about all these things for a time shorter than thirty seconds before writing his book, appearing at TED and embarking on architectural enterprises; together with the fact that atheists are the ones who are supposed to engage with his “Atheism 2.0”, I have a feeling that it will not get past the beta stage. All we may be left with is a jarring abandoned tower in the heart of London as a reminder that we atheists - or anyone else, for that matter - do not need religion or religious imagery in order to lead fulfilling lives.

To answer de Botton’s original question - “even if religion is wrong, why can’t we enjoy the best bits?” Well, while there are some good things about religion - community and an interest in morality for example - I feel that de Botton seems very confused about what the “best bits” actually are. He seems to want to steal bits that secularists already have, or the things that allowed the worst things to flourish in the first place.

Materialism and Naturalism are Myths.

At least according to Anthony DeStefano, that is. A self-proclaimed authority in Christian spirituality and writer of a book called The Invisible World: Understanding Angels, Demons and the Spiritual Realities that Surround Us.

If there is one thing that must be credited to the New Atheists, it is that they have managed to inspire a lot of religious folk to take a new approach to writing or speaking in defense of their faith. It has forced them to think a bit deeper before they write or say anything, but since their logical reasoning has already been distorted by faith this often results in hilarious mental gymnastics. As amusing as these logical pirouettes often are, few of them have raised the bar to stratospheric new heights as a recent piece by DeStefano in USA Today, called How Easter and Christianity undermine atheism. In relatively few lines, DeStefano manages to pinpoint in vivid detail just what is it that prevents a good portion of the faithful to think clearly about reality: they are ignorant and they are proud of it.

First, DeStefano expresses his concerns that “those who believe in nothing”, a common euphemism for atheism, are gaining new adherents every year. While atheism is often depicted by religious apologists and the public at large as the “belief in nothing”, that is a far cry from what atheism really is. It is not true that we atheists “believe in nothing”, we believe in a lot of things, actually. We just happen to appreciate one simple concept that the faithful appear to either disdain or define in a strange way: evidence. And in the case of gods, angels, demons, and every other supernatural phenomena, there simply is no evidence to warrant belief in them. On the other hand, there have been extensive studies performed on these phenomena that demonstrate that there are rational, natural explanations for them. But in an ironic twist of events, DeStefano thinks that to hold this approach towards discovering reality amounts to deluding ourselves with myths and superstitions. He writes:

Of course, it’s not quite fair to say that atheists believe in nothing. They do believe in something — the philosophical theory known as Materialism, which states that the only thing that exists is matter; that all substances and all phenomena in the universe are purely physical.

The problem is that this really isn’t a theory at all. It’s a superstition; a myth that basically says that everything in life — our thoughts, our emotions, our hopes, our ambitions, our passions, our memories, our philosophies, our politics, our beliefs in God and salvation and damnation — that all of this is merely the result of biochemical reactions and the movement of molecules in our brain.

What nonsense.

My grandfather used to have a saying: “The problem is not that he is ignorant, but that he flaunts his ignorance in public”. I think it would be hard to come up with a more accurate description of DeStefano. According to him, myths and superstitions are all those things that do not agree with his magical conception of the Universe. I wonder what term he uses when he speaks of Prometheus or the inconveniences of spotting black cats. My money is on “spiritual realities”.

Our brains, as powerful as they are, did not evolve to figure out the innermost workings of the Universe. They evolved over millions of years as a powerful and effective tool in the survival of the individuals that possessed them. They were not designed by natural selection to discover quantum mechanics, to figure out our origins, to philosophize about the true nature of reality, to write poetry, to invent computers or to build rockets to fly us to the moon. They were built by evolution to aid us in performing the tasks that were essential to our survival like hunting, gathering, nurturing and social living. This, however, does not undermine the fact that we do engage in science, engineering and the arts and that all of these things are quite remarkable feats worthy of awe and admiration. It does not mean, however, that we should just stop there and let the sense of awe and admiration overcome us. That is exactly what our ancestors did for thousands of years, and it led to completely wrong explanations, not only of natural phenomena like rain, thunder and the seasons, but of humanity. It was thought that diseases were caused by evil spirits and mental illness was a product of demonic possession, for example. These beliefs, based on the same embracement of “spiritual realities” that DeStefano proudly promotes, led to huge amounts of suffering and misery for millions of human beings. Many completely innocent but mentally ill men and women were burned alive at the stake for being suspects of witchcraft. These were not Neanderthals, these were pious believers in the “spiritual realities” of Christ’s church that were igniting the flames. It was only when we moved further and further away from this mentality that the real causes of things began to be uncovered. It is worth mentioning that theists like DeStefano, turn blind to the fact that while this was taking place over the span of several hundred thousands of years, their god was sitting in his throne watching the misery and the suffering ensue. The omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent god of Christianity found it important to “reveal” to us that a woman who is menstruating is unclean but said nothing about germs, medical procedures or how to prevent fatal diseases by simply washing one’s hands after wiping.

DeStefano’s explanation of why atheists are deluded by myth and superstition goes on:

We can’t reduce the whole of reality to what our senses tell us for the simple reason that our senses are notorious for lying to us. Our senses tell us that the world is flat, and yet it’s not. Our senses tell us that the world is chaotic, and yet we know that on both a micro and a macro level, it’s incredibly organized. Our senses tell us that we’re stationary, and yet we’re really moving at incredible speeds. We just can’t see it.

While this is true, it is only true in a narrow and incomplete sense. Our senses are indeed unreliable when it comes to interpret the Universe in a deeper sense than the one we need to survive. As I said earlier, our senses evolved -just like those of every other animal- as useful artifacts for surviving, not as a toolkit to figure out the shape of the Earth, the organization of the Universe, or celestial mechanics. But even if that is the case, our senses and our reason capabilities have proved to be very useful in those tasks as well. Oh yes, because that is a fact that DeStefano leaves out: our senses, by themselves, give us nothing really useful for our science or our philosophy; what gives them their value is the brain that interprets them.

Take Eratosthenes of Cyrene, for example. Using only his senses and his knowledge of Euclidean geometry he managed to figure out that the Earth was not flat, but spherical; and calculated the length of its circumference with a margin of error of less than 2%. This was almost 2300 years ago. Carl Sagan gives a clear and brilliant explanation of Eratosthenes’ logic and methods in the first episode of his wonderful Cosmos series. Another great example is that of Aristarchus of Samos, who interpreted the same observations that everyone else before him had access to and came to a different conclusion about the mechanics of the solar system. Pretty much everyone thought that all celestial objects revolved around the Earth, as it sat still in the center of the Universe. Aristarchus, on the other hand, had trouble reconciling the mathematics with the observations. Exactly how he reached his heliocentric model is unknown. On the only book of his that is still preserved, On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon, he accurately calculates the size of the Moon and its distance from Earth. He also attempts to estimate the size of the Sun and how far from Earth it is, although incorrectly. He thought that the Sun was about 20 times further from Earth than the Moon, and about 300 times bigger. The reality is that it is 400 times further and 1.3 million times bigger. These gross inaccuracies were due to poor observation and faulty measurements, but his logic and his mathematics were incredibly sound. Judging from this, it is believed that when Aristarchus realized that the Sun was so much larger than the Earth, he had difficulties reconciling it with a geocentric model. After looking at other options, he realized that a heliocentric model provided a simpler mathematical explanation of the observations and was therefore, more likely to be correct. Aristarchus was right. And the rest of humanity would have caught up with him sooner had his work not been lost in the burning of the Library of Alexandria by pious Christians, presumably aware of the “spiritual realities” that DeStefano talks about.

Aristarchus' notebook

As these two examples show, sometimes our senses are receiving the right information but we are unable to do the required logical reasoning to interpret it correctly. In fact, history is filled with similar accounts like those of Democritus, Kepler and Darwin, for example. The problem is not that our senses are lying to us, but rather that we are too lazy or too ignorant to figure out that the truth is often more complex than it seems and requires intellectual work on our behalf to arrive at it. There are other instances, though, in which our senses do deceive us. Look at the below picture, for example:

Which square is darker? A or B? Upon a first glance, it seems obvious that A is much darker. However, they are exactly the same color. If you do not believe this, then open the image with Photoshop or any similar image editing software and see for yourself. Both squares should have the same RGB: 120-120-120. Or simply cover the areas surrounding both squares and watch the illusion vanish before your eyes. By performing these simple tests on the picture, the truth is revealed and with more sophisticated research, we learn that the illusion works because of the way the brain uses the information it receives from our visual system to construct images. The specific details are not important for my purposes, but if you are curious you can find the explanation here.

In other occasions, our senses give us a completely accurate depiction of the phenomenon we are observing but reason tells us that it must be wrong and therefore we refuse to accept it. Pretty much everything that happens at the atomic and subatomic level falls under this category. Even though Democritus arrived at the conclusion that matter consists of indivisible particles nearly 2400 years ago using nothing but his reasoning abilities, he never could have devised the actual atomic model as we know it today nor the behavior of matter at this scale. That took great efforts, both in developing sophisticated instruments to allow us to study things at this scale, and intellectually, to correctly interpret measurements and observations which defied all logic. The field of quantum mechanics was born this way. As we dug deep into the atom, new particles were discovered and their behavior was absolutely baffling. In the realm of quantum mechanics the simple act of observing influences the behavior of particles; waves behave like particles and particles behave like waves; matter can move from one place to another without having to travel the required space. DeStefano affirms that “[…]our senses tell us that the world is chaotic, and yet we know that on both a micro and a macro level, it’s incredibly organized.”, but in fact it is the other way around. We perceive things as organized because we are only looking at a narrow scope of reality, but when we study things deeper we see that chaos is what rules. Quantum mechanics has showed us that the Universe is a collection of infinite probabilities, that fortunately for us, breaks down at our scale. This is the value of science, it helps us when our senses lie to us, when we need to look further than it is possible to look with our unaided eyes, or when our observations defy logic. As Richard Feynman once said: “Science is what we do to keep us from lying to ourselves”. Sadly, people like DeStefano are not interested in doing that, as is shown by this next comment:

But the most important things in life can’t be seen with the eyes. Ideas can’t be seen. Love can’t be seen. Honor can’t be seen. This isn’t a new concept. Judaism and Christianity and Islam and Buddhism have all taught for thousands of years that the highest forms of reality are invisible and mysterious. And these realities will never be reducible to clear-cut scientific formulae for the simple reason that they will never be fully comprehensible to the human mind. God didn’t mean them to be.

Of course they cannot be seen directly in the “spiritual realities” sense that DeStefano understands them. Things like “ideas”, “love” and “honor” are just the names that we give to human phenomena that we observe or that we directly experience. They have not been reduced to “clear-cut scientific formulae”, not because they cannot be reduced, but because the principles that underly them are probably very complex and discovering them will take time. The fact that something is unknown today does not mean that it will remain unknown forever, it is a fallacy to think that way. Charles Darwin said it before: “It has often and confidently been asserted that man’s origin can never be known. Ignorance most frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science”. Again, instances of the sort of thing that Darwin was talking about are abundant throughout history, but people like DeStefano have not been paying attention. In the specific cases of mental concepts and emotions, science has already begun to explain them in strictly naturalistic, materialistic terms. It has been shown, for example, that if certain parts of the brain are damaged, the ability to “love” is lost. The deficiencies of certain chemicals in the brain, for example render one incapable of feeling empathy towards others. Whether DeStefano likes it or not, emotions and thoughts that for centuries have been considered as abstract or immaterial by philosophers, are turning out to be completely material in nature. A lot of people, philosophers and academics included, have been very slow to understand this.

DeStefano goes on to say that it is absurd to think that humans would invent a god that makes such harsh demands like “[sacrificing] our own desires for the sake of others” or “[loving] our enemies”, or that requires people to “believe [they’re] going to be judged and held accountable for every sin [they’ve} ever committed” simply because they’re afraid of death. On the surface, this looks like a reasonable objection to make, but once again, DeStefano is either not looking at the whole picture or willfully building straw men to help him sell his nonsense. The origins of religion are much more complicated than that, they do involve a fear of death and an overall ignorance of how the Universe works, but that is not the whole story. For one thing, religion has been a very powerful instrument in controlling people. As the first-century Roman philosopher Seneca once said: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful”. In any case, who ever said religion has to make sense?

While DeStefano is very fond of calling Materialism a “superstition”, it is quite obvious that the one who is so engaged in superstitious nonsense and self-deception is himself. Materialism is based on what our science has revealed. It could be wrong, of course, as all good science and philosophy should be, but quite honestly, I do not see any threat on the horizon. If any evidence that shows that Materialism is in fact wrong and that a supernatural world exists, I will change my mind. DeStefano’s Supernaturalism is based on the assumption that not only a Universe outside of our physical reality exists, but that the basic principles were revealed by a creating entity to a group of ignorant peasants in the middle of the desert in an ancient book that is riddled with factual errors and self-contradictions. Talk about “wishful thinking”.

Engaging in the usual tactics of manipulators, DeStefano even cites Albert Einstein in a spurious attempt to use his name to give his worldview any credibility:

No less a genius than Albert Einstein once said: “The most beautiful thing we can experience in life is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: for his eyes are closed.”

This is taken out of context, of course, and used to support a worldview completely opposite of Einstein’s own. He was a pantheist, which is really just “a sexed-up atheist”, as Richard Dawkins described it. He did not believe in deities of any kind, the name of his “god” was spelled “N-A-T-U-R-E”. He was often the victim of quote-mining due to his extraordinary intellect, and thus the desire of theists to recruit him as one of their own. Here’s one of the many things he said regarding gods and religion:

“It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

Furthermore, what was actually meant by Einstein in regards to the mysterious can be cleared up by citing the quote in the actual context of his book The World as I See It:

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery—even if mixed with fear—that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvellous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavour to comprehend a portion, be it never so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.

Ah, very different from what DeStefano is trying to sell, is it not?

 So far, DeStefano has emphatically demonstrated a deep ignorance of the advances that are now a part of our knowledge of the Universe and a remarkable intellectual dishonesty. As amusing as that is, it is not as harmful as this toxic bit:

Too many people go through life today with their eyes closed. They miss out on the mysterious because they’re so fixated on what they can see and smell and touch and taste and hear. They’re so steeped in the “superstition of materialism” that they’re totally blind to the existence of another world — a radically different world than the one they’re familiar with, but a world nonetheless: a world of miracles, a world of grace, a world of angels, a world of diabolical warfare, a world where the highest values are completely opposite from those of our secular societywhere weakness equals strength, sacrifice equals salvation, and suffering equals unlimited power.

The emphasis is mine, but the overwhelming stupidity is all DeStefano’s. Whenever I am told that I should be polite with religious people and leave them alone to believe whatever they want to believe, this is exactly the kind of thing that I point out. If religion was only about believing nonsense in the privacy of your own home, and providing us atheists with endless comedy, I would not be as hostile. But that is not what religion is about. It is about being certain that one’s book has all the answers, no matter how absurd or harmful they might be, no matter how much suffering they might inflict because, in fact, suffering is a good thing and should be cherished and desired, for it is just a test from God. The values of a secular society are rooted in Humanism, the belief that ethical principles should be based on a deep understanding of human nature to seek the well-being of humanity, not in supernatural beliefs. Religious ethics, however, are not concerned with the well-being of humans: they are concerned, as DeStefano readily admits, in gaining the favor a deity through sacrifice and suffering to be allowed entrance into paradise after death. This was what the Inquisition was all about. I am aware that not all religious people think this way, but that is not a triumph of religion. It is a triumph of secularism. A fact that many religious people ignore, is that secularism is winning so much, that the most prosperous nations on Earth are now those in which religious belief is lowest. Countries with large percentages of atheists and agnostics, like Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, New Zealand, Czech Republic and Finland, consistently rank at the top of all measures of human flourishing.

If you are religious and you managed to read all the way through, and think of yourself as a responsible citizen of the world, then please for the love of everything that is good and worthy, examine your beliefs. By not doing so, you are enabling ignorant demagogues to spew their filth under the banner of “respect for religion”.

A “stroke of insight”? Yes. Into complete nonsense, that is.

I got acquainted with Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor and her TED talk on her “stroke of insight” through two very different sources, both within one day of each other. Just last morning through a friend of mine who’s father suffered a stroke this week, and today through a blogger who sent me a comment after reading my blog post debunking the pernicious left brain vs right brain myth.

After watching the video, I must acknowledge that Dr. Taylor is a very good motivational speaker. But that’s about it.  She might be great at telling stories and connecting with people’s emotions but she is really bad at science.  Technically, she is a scientist, but what she is doing is most definitely not science.  And she dresses everything in so much poetry, mysticism and cheap philosophy that it is quite difficult to point out exactly what is wrong with it, or even know where to begin a rational criticism of it.  There is just too much.  Watch the video for yourself, and see what I mean.

After being treated to an explanation of why she decided to be a brain scientist (she has a brother with schizophrenia), we are also given a peek at what might turn out to be an ironic twist of events, because schizophrenia, the inability to tell dreams from reality, is a very suitable explanation of what is happening with Dr. Taylor. Next, she gives a poetically articulated but very factually wrong explanation of the differences between the left and right hemispheres of the brain (yes, that ugly myth again).  Since I already tackled that subject on a previous post, I will not do it again here.  The only thing I will say about it is that no matter how many times she repeats it at her frequent conferences, that does not make it true.  Calling your dog a fish will not magically turn it into a fish, regardless of how many times you say it or how strong your conviction is (unless you are a Jedi, of course).  If you want to prove that your dog is a fish, you will have to give evidence that it is.  If Dr. Taylor wants to bring back that myth, that is fine by me as long as she has evidence to support it.  Hint: “It was revealed to me during a stroke” is not evidence.  To be fair, she does not seem to be trying to bring back a previously debunked conception, it is that she does not seem to be aware that it was debunked over thirty years ago in the first place.

Aside from those two things, the first thing that became obvious to me was that Dr. Taylor is a perfect example of something that I have pointed out many times before.  Namely, what happens when a scientist is bad at philosophy.  In this case, I mean philosophy in the simple sense of keeping your ideas in order, of structuring your own thoughts and to be cautious in your conclusions.  In this sense, Dr. Taylor is as bad at philosophy as Charlie Sheen is at staying sober or Lady Gaga at keeping a low profile.  She had a very unusual experience resulting from an hemorrhagic stroke in her left hemisphere, and she describes in vivid detail how she gradually loses her faculties and how her conscious experience of the world is changed multiple times.  This is what she says:

And then I lost my balance, and I’m propped up against the wall. And I look down at my arm and I realize that I can no longer define the boundaries of my body. I can’t define where I begin and where I end, because the atoms and the molecules of my arm blended with the atoms and molecules of the wall. And all I could detect was this energy — energy.

According to her, this is evidence that a) losing the left hemisphere of your brain enables you to get a better picture of reality because by losing its influence over your consciousness, you are treated into some privileged viewing angle of what reality is. And b) we are one with the “energy” of the universe.  She goes on:

And I’m asking myself, “What is wrong with me? What is going on?” And in that moment, my brain chatter — my left hemisphere brain chatter — went totally silent. Just like someone took a remote control and pushed the mute button. Total silence. And at first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind. But then I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of the energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there.

We are all obviously packets of energy interacting with the energy that composes the universe and all that energy is one and the same.  Her left hemisphere is the only thing that was preventing her from realizing this “truth”, and it is exactly what is preventing us too.  Unfortunately for her, it did not last long:

Then all of a sudden my left hemisphere comes back online, and it says to me, “Hey! We got a problem! We got a problem! We gotta get some help.” And I’m going, “Ahh! I got a problem. I got a problem.” So it’s like, “OK. OK. I got a problem.”

She is now attached to the “normal reality” (she refers to it that way several times) that all of us experience every day.  But luckily, she slips out of it again:

But then I immediately drifted right back out into the consciousness — and I affectionately refer to this space as La La Land. But it was beautiful there. Imagine what it would be like to be totally disconnected from your brain chatter that connects you to the external world.

As a philosophy student, this sort of thing is particularly irritating.  Since she claims that the left hemisphere of the brain is where a person’s “rational self” is contained, this amounts to saying that rationality is what keeps people from getting in touch with reality.  I am sure Dr. Taylor holds this conviction strongly, and is admirably consistent at it. Throughout the whole eighteen minutes of the talk, not a single shred of a rational argument can be found.  I know that I might be starting to sound extremely harsh, but I am just being honest.  She bases everything she is saying on bizarre experiences that she had while suffering from brain failure, explains them by alluding to a physiological and psychological model of the brain that is demonstrably wrong (the left brain vs right brain myth), and then concludes that her experiences are a reliable indicator that provides insight into the true nature of reality.  This is simply a non-sequitur, and the reason why I said that her philosophy is abysmal.

I said that her science is also really bad, and mentioned one reason above (her failure to acknowledge that the left vs right view of the brain has been thoroughly debunked), but there are other reasons.  When one does scientific work, what one does is simply apply the scientific method to one’s ideas.  I can have a really crazy idea but that does not immediately disqualify it.  Neither does the fact that I have a seemingly reasonable idea, immediately validate it.  In science we have a lot of ideas competing with one another for a place in our scientific explanations of the world.  Which of these ideas prevail?  The ones that survive a process of thorough experimentation, publication, peer review, and independent verification.  Again, Dr. Taylor has not done this.  All she has done is write a book, go on intervews with Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra, a monologue on TED and give pep-talks to audiences as diverse as MRI technicians, university students, prison inmates and 4th graders (I’m not making this up, it’s all on her 25 page resume), where she presents what she’s doing as a revolutionary scientific discovery and as a scientific basis for spirituality and new age bullshit.  The end of the talk is probably the worst part of the whole thing, where she claims that the secret to world peace is to learn how to get away from the rational, calculating, reasonable self of your left hemisphere and step into the right to become the “life-force of the universe”. This is as simple as deciding to do so.

So who are we? We are the life force power of the universe, with manual dexterity and two cognitive minds. And we have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world. Right here, right now, I can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere, where we are. I am the life-force power of the universe. I am the life-force power of the 50 trillion beautiful molecular geniuses that make up my form, at one with all that is. Or, I can choose to step into the consciousness of my left hemisphere, where I become a single individual, a solid. Separate from the flow, separate from you. I am Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: intellectual, neuroanatomist. These are the “we” inside of me. Which would you choose? Which do you choose? And when? I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner-peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be.

And I thought that was an idea worth spreading.

I, on the other hand, do not.  As I said before, ideas must compete with one another before becoming accepted into our body of knowledge.  In an age where the internet allows immediate global propagation of ideas, some really bad ideas are getting undeserved air time.  This is one of them.  It does not even have a value as an inspirational piece, I believe, because it is not even grounded on facts and I cannot help but feel that she is almost touting the benefits of having a stroke for one’s own enlightenment.  It is almost as if she is recommending to have a stroke so that you can get in touch with the “life-force of the universe” (whatever that means), and your spirituality. Even further than that, she is presenting a false image of what a stroke is to people with loved-ones who have suffered from one. Some people might find comfort in the idea that a loved one experienced unparalleled bliss as opposed to agony and suffering, but as it happens with several other things that are not grounded on facts, like religion and the paranormal, false comfort is no comfort at all.

Everything that I have said so far is based on the assumption that her elaborate metaphors are a somewhat accurate representation of her experience.  They are grounded on the assumption that what she is saying is true.  I believe, however, that there are good reasons to suspect that she is not telling the truth.  Some of her descriptions do not make any sense at all.  Take her description of the experience of losing her language faculties:

[…] my colleague picks up the phone and he says to me, "Woo woo woo woo." (Laughter) And I think to myself, "Oh my gosh, he sounds like a Golden Retriever!"

And so I say to him — clear in my mind, I say to him: "This is Jill! I need help!" And what comes out of my voice is, “Woo woo woo woo woo.” I’m thinking, “Oh my gosh, I sound like a Golden Retriever.” So I couldn’t know — I didn’t know that I couldn’t speak or understand language until I tried. So he recognizes that I need help and he gets me help.

What enables us to understand what is going on in the world around us is precisely our language faculty.  The way that you know that you are sitting in a black leather chair reading about Dr. Taylor from your computer monitor is because your brain is able to relate the objects around you to words like “black”, “leather”, “chair”, “Dr. Taylor”, “computer” and “monitor”.  It also relates other things that are more abstract in nature, like activities, with words and the concepts that they represent such as “sitting” and “reading”.  The same process enables you to understand the words written on the screen.  So, how on Earth is Dr. Taylor able to be conscious of the fact that she lost her language faculty if she lost her language faculty?  It would be like saying that I am conscious that I am dead, even though I’m dead.  If she said that she could not articulate her thoughts because she is unable to coordinate her vocal chords and her mouth, that would be perfectly understandable and reasonable.  That kind of thing does happen.  That is not what she is saying, however, since she claims that she was both unable to speak words and understand what other people were saying to her.  I call shenanigans.

In any case, no matter how great her presentational skills are and how inspiring some people may find her story, Dr. Taylor is just another snake-oil salesman spreading bad ideas dressed as science to anyone naive or emotionally affected enough to listen (and pay for it).  She is really bad at science and really bad at philosophy and she might not even be telling the truth about her experience in the first place.

Addendum: There is a movie, directed by Ron Howard, based on her book that is coming out soon.  Considering that Ron Howard is directing and that Jodie Foster is probably going to star in it, it may even get some Oscar nods and make Dr. Taylor a millionaire. I sense a disturbance in the “force” coming soon.

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