Monthly Archives: October 2011

What would a real skeptics’ movement be like?

“Skepticism,” as the word is used by self-proclaimed professional skeptics, means being skeptical of heresy.

Some people doubt the official versions of such historical events as the Holocaust, the moon landing, the JFK assassination, and 9/11; others believe these events happened more-or-less as advertised. Which group do professional “skeptics” belong to? Some people question the dominant scientific theories about evolution, AIDS, and climate change; others are impeccably orthodox. Which ones get their views endorsed by Skeptical Inquirer?

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Doesn’t skepticism imply being critical of received opinions? The only received opinions “skeptics” criticize are old-fashioned religious beliefs — and those are déclassé. Debunking prole beliefs and fringe beliefs is not meaningful skepticism. We already have a perfectly good word for debunking everything that goes against received orthodoxy: apologetics.

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But to be skeptical of A is to be an apologist for B. So who is “really” a skeptic rather than an apologist? Possible answers: (1) someone who focuses criticism on dominant (mainstream and respected) beliefs; (2) someone who criticizes everything and supports nothing, focusing on the unexplained and on the imperfections in every theory. Either of these would be infinitely more valuable than the self-appointed sci-cops and inquisitors who call themselves skeptics today.

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Filed under Language, Philosophy

Lying

I recently read Sam Harris’s short e-book Lying (my first book by Harris; I’ve never read the atheist tracts that made him famous). The message: Lying is wrong, and the exceptions to that precept are about as rare, and about as relevant to most people’s everyday life, as the exceptions to “Thou shalt not kill.”

It’s an attractive principle, and one that I very much wanted to agree with, but Harris’s book nevertheless left me with a few major reservations.

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Overall, Harris makes a compelling case against the telling of so-called white lies, but they still seem necessary in some cases.

For example, Harris tells the story of a couple who had invited some guests to stay at their house for a week. The husband, Daniel, didn’t really like one of the guests and had tried to argue his wife out of the idea of inviting them, but had in the end relented. When the unwelcome guest arrived, Daniel greeted him with, “It’s great to see you. We love having you here” — only to have his young daughter, who had overheard him arguing with his wife, blurt out, “But, Dad, you said you didn’t want them to stay with us.” Daniel of course denied having said any such thing, but the damage had been done and the entire week was extremely awkward.

The source of Daniel’s problem certainly seems to be that he incautiously spoke the truth in front of his daughter, who then repeated that truth in front of his guest — but, incredibly, Harris presents Daniel’s story as a cautionary tale against lying! He concludes the anecdote with this moral: “A wasteland of embarrassment and social upheaval can be neatly avoided by following a single precept in life: Do not lie.”

So what would Harris have had Daniel do? Should he have greeted his unwelcome guest coolly or even hostilely in the name of honesty? When his daughter let the truth slip, should he have said, “That’s right, honey. I didn’t want them to stay with us, but your mother insisted”? Such behavior could hardly have made things any less awkward. Should he have concealed his dislike of the guest entirely, lying even to his wife and daughter? Harris would obviously find that unacceptable.

I suppose Daniel’s real mistake was allowing his wife to win the argument in the first place. People who want to be both honest and polite should never allow anyone to set foot in their house whom they are not literally delighted to see.

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The behavior of Daniel’s daughter also raises another issue. The decision to either lie or tell the truth is not always a strictly personal one, because the information you share is rarely ever just your information. Suppose that, rather than being a little child who didn’t know any better, Daniel’s daughter had been an adult consciously following principles like Harris’s. Would it have been morally justifiable for her to tell a truth about her father which her father himself was unwilling to tell?

One of the points Harris makes is that lying is a violation of the autonomy of the person being lied to; the liar presumes to decide what another person should and should not be allowed to know. But telling the truth about another person against that person’s will also seems to be a violation of autonomy.

To take an everyday example, say you answer your home phone, and the person on the other end (Bob, let’s say) asks if one of your family members (Alice) is there. Alice says, “Is that Bob? Tell him I’m not here!” Whether or not you approve of Alice’s lie, what should you do in such a situation? You could lie to Bob as instructed (or use some other lie, like “She can’t come to the phone right now”), you could do your best to repeat Alice’s lie without lying yourself  (à la Jeeves: “Mr. Wooster asked me to say that he has gone to Switzerland”), or you could be bluntly honest and say something like, “Yes, she’s here, but she doesn’t want to talk to you.” The first option wrongs Bob, the third wrongs Alice, and the second will be functionally equivalent to one of the other two, depending on how bright Bob is.

In such situations — and they come up all the time — it’s not at all clear that honesty should always trump all other considerations.

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Another potential problem is that strict honesty about your own uncharitable thoughts, bad habits, etc., may encourage those thoughts and habits. Giving voice to bad thoughts doesn’t “release” them; it reinforces them. Brigham Young put it well:

Let not thy tongue give utterance to the evil that is in thine heart, but command thy tongue to be silent until good shall prevail over the evil, until thy wrath has passed away and the good Spirit shall move thy tongue to blessings and words of kindness. So far I believe in being a hypocrite. This is practical with me. When my feelings are aroused to anger by the ill-doings of others, I hold them as I would a wild horse, and I gain the victory.

So far I think I believe in being a hypocrite, too. If hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue (as La Rouchefoucauld said), then perfect honesty is a refusal to pay that homage. For those of us who have not yet achieved sainthood, unconditional honesty entails shamelessness. If someone asks me what I think of a particular person, and I say, “I fantasize about having sex with her” or “I hate his guts and hope he dies a horrible death,” the implicit message I am sending, both to my interlocutor and to myself, is that there is nothing wrong with harboring such feelings. A too ready honesty about unworthy thoughts and deeds conveys and reinforces an attitude of moral nonchalance. (Even by writing those as examples of thoughts an ordinary person might often have, I convey such an attitude.)

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Having said all that, though, I still find myself wanting to agree with Harris and feeling that absolute honesty is indeed a virtue worth striving for. I hope to find some way of addressing the above concerns within the framework of honesty.

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Filed under Ethics

Weird coincidences in connection with reading Rupert Sheldrake

Having had my interest piqued by Bruce Charlton, I’ve been reading Rupert Sheldrake. I bought the Kindle edition of Morphic Resonance on September 27, and on October 4 I bought Kindle editions of two other Sheldrake books: Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home and The Sense of Being Stared At. I had never read anything by Sheldrake before.

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October 10, which is a national holiday in Taiwan, fell on a Monday this year, so we had a three-day weekend (two-day for me, since I work Saturdays). On the night of Sunday, October 9, my wife and I were shopping at Carrefour and found some old DVDs for sale. My wife found the 2000 film The Gift and suggested that we buy it. I wasn’t particularly interested, but we ended up buying it (along with a few other movies) and watching it that night.

The Gift stars Cate Blanchett as Annie, a psychic who reads cards — not tarot cards, but plain white cards with black line drawings of simple shapes on them: a circle, a square, a plus-sign, a five-pointed star, and a few parallel squiggles suggesting water. Several readings are shown in the movie, but only those five shapes ever show up. The deck apparently contains several copies of each of the five cards, and in one pivotal reading Annie draws four or five “water” cards in a row. After the movie, I mentioned the cards to my wife and said, “What kind of cards were those, anyway? They’re obviously not tarot cards or anything. They only had, I think, four or five symbols–” and then I proceeded to list the five symbols from memory.

On the morning of Wednesday, October 12, I read the following passage in The Sense of Being Stared At:

Rather than using ordinary playing cards, [Joseph B.] Rhine and his colleagues invented a special pack, called Zener cards, with five different kinds of card, each with a different symbol: square, circle, wavy lines, star, and cross. Each pack contained twenty-five cards, five of each kind.

I’m relatively well-informed about the history and varieties of playing cards, tarot, and cartomancy, but this was the first I’d ever heard of “Zener cards.” Obviously, though, the deck described in Sheldrake’s book is the one Annie uses in The Gift.

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On the morning of Monday, October 10 (or possibly very late Sunday night; I didn’t note the time since it seemed significant only in retrospect), I read the following passage in Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home:

Pigeon number 167 was identified by the number on its leg ring. The owner of the pigeon was a twelve-year-old eighth grader from Summersville, West Virginia, where his father was sheriff. This racing pigeon had stopping in his backyard; the boy had fed it, and it had stayed and become his pet. Some time later, the boy was taken for an operation to the Myers Memorial Hospital at Philippi, 105 miles away by road (70 by air) and the pigeon was left behind in Summersvile. “One dark, snowy night about a week later,” according to [Joseph B.] Rhine and [Sara] Feather, “the boy heard a fluttering at the window of his hospital room. Calling the nurse, he asked her to raise the window because there was a pigeon outside, and just to humor the lad, she did so. The pigeon came in. The boy recognized his pet bird and asked her to look for the number 167 on its leg, and when she did so she found the number as stated.”

That afternoon, a matter of hours after reading the above passage, I was going out to run some errands, and when I stepped out the front door, I saw something black and white dart under my wife’s car. Thinking it must be a stray cat, I looked under the car and found that it was a pigeon! Not a wild pigeon, either, but obviously some kind of domestic breed (slate-gray and white, with metallic green patches on its shoulders, bright red feet, and what seems like an unusually short neck for a pigeon; I haven’t been able to identify the breed so far). Except for the occasional Red Turtle Dove, I never see pigeons in Taiwan. I stepped back into the house to tell my wife. She was on the phone with a friend, but I interrupted her to say, “There’s a pigeon under your car!”

I went out, ran my errands, and came back, but the pigeon was still there under the car and wouldn’t come out. It seemed unwell, so we got it out from under the car using a broom and caught it. It had a leg ring with a number: 378. We tried to feed it some bread and sunflower seeds, but it refused to eat. It seemed to weak to fly and had bright green diarrhea. After trying several places (most were closed because of the holiday), we finally found a vet that was open and could treat pigeons. The vet said it was obviously a racing pigeon and belonged to someone, but he didn’t know any way of tracking down the owner. He prescribed some medicine and instructed us on how to nurse the bird back to health. As I write this, the pigeon, which we call Xiaoguai, is sleeping in a box in my living room, much improved but still not completely recovered. We hope he/she (even the vet couldn’t tell the gender) will be well enough to release within the next day or two.

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It seems perverse to dismiss these astronomically improbable events as coincidences — and yet how could they possibly be anything but coincidences? Reading Sheldrake has made me more open to the possibilities of telepathy, precognition, and the like, but even assuming the reality of such “paranormal” phenomena, it’s hard to conceive of any way there could be actual causal connections involved in these cases. I really have nothing intelligent to say here except (to quote Spock, by way of Chrs), “I note it, Mr. Scott, without necessarily understanding it.”

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Filed under Anecdotes, Coincidence / Synchronicity