Friday, September 28, 2012

Conversions and De-conversions – It’s Science. It’s Magic

I spent the next seven years studying, teaching and researching physics.  It was an extremely active time in my life.  I met a whole new group of people, and made friends from all over the globe.  NMT is specifically a science and engineering university, and is not known as much of a party school.  I was extremely diligent in my studies, and I took them very seriously.  I could write several more chapters about my experiences in university, but since this Conversions and De-conversions series is specifically devoted to my spiritual journey, this chapter will be the last to cover those years.  While I spent about eight chapters describing my few years of religious fervor in Calvary Chapel, I will only write briefly about the long period of time I spent in University.  I did not forget about my Christianity entirely.  In fact, toward the end of my University years, I sorely missed my religious experiences, and craved to find a decent church congregation again.  But in the midst of my studies, I confess, Jesus had to take a back seat.

I learned firsthand how advances are generally made in scientific knowledge.  There are revolutionary breakthroughs, but these are actually very rare.  The accumulation of knowledge is typically a painfully slow process.  I believe that the romantic days of brilliant mavericks like Albert Einstein, who single-handedly overturn scientific paradigms and open the doors to new ones, are pretty much over.  These days, most scientific endeavors are the product of huge committees.  Major papers are authored by several, if not dozens of collaborators.  Formulating, researching, authoring and defending my masters thesis was a simple introduction to that process.

First, I found some anomalous data.  Actually, my research advisor found it for me, and told me that it would be something good to spend the next couple of years working on.  Without getting too specific into what this data involved, let’s just say that my advisor collected data from Star X for several years.  Star X behaved uniformly during most of that time.  Much interesting science was done on Star X because of those years of collected data, and its behavior was somewhat predictable.  Then, for some unknown reason, Star X acted unexpectedly, strangely, for about a month.  The data that was collected was anomalous.  It did not act as expected.  This is the point where scientists start licking their chops.  Scientists love anomalous data.  They love when things do not look as they expect.  It means that more important work needs to be done.  It sometimes means that something new lay out there, just waiting to be discovered.  At the very least, it means more funding!

The process is pretty straightforward, although it is arduous and slow.  First, I had to research a bit about Star X and other stars like it, and the known physics that they followed when they behaved normally.  This meant lots of trips to the research library to read hundreds of peer-reviewed papers in research journals.  This meant contacting other experts in the field from around the world, getting them interested in my work, and attempting get ideas and collaboration from them.

Then I would have to form a hypothesis.  What could possibly cause Star X to act the strange way that it did?  I would literally have to start with a guess, although a somewhat educated guess.  After hashing it out with some of my friends and professors, I would weed out most guesses, and stick to one or two of the ones that seemed most likely.  These became my hypotheses.  Then I would have to flesh these hypotheses out.  They involved some physics that I was not as well familiar with, so this led me to read books and papers slightly outside my field.  I would have to then model them with mathematics, and analyze these models by programming them into a computer.

I am mentioning all this, because this is one of the main lessons that I learned while attending University, and even one of the biggest lessons that I learned to apply to the rest of my life.  It is one of the lessons of critical inquiry that I was never taught before I attended University, that most of the people I knew are never taught, and a lesson that I am certain very few in Calvary Chapel ever knew how to apply.  The lesson was not specifically one of scientific inquiry, although that is important.  It was a lesson that my advisors and professors constantly applied to my research work, to each other, and one I finally learned to apply to my own work.  That lesson is this:

The way to knowledge is not to find reasons why a given idea is true.  The way to knowledge is to find reasons why the idea is not true.

That, in a nutshell, is my personal definition of critical inquiry.  The method seems absurdly simple, yet it is often counter intuitive.  Critical thinking is a skill that one must learn.  Often, people get an idea; formulate a hypothesis about something, then cling to it as if they were afraid to betray it.  But I discovered that reasons, justifications, even evidence, could be given for any idea.  Giving rationale for any position is not difficult, and this is evidenced by the countless conspiracy theories that their adherents are able to justify.  But gaining knowledge is not a process of propping up ideas then supporting them with any rationale.  Rather, it is a process of propping up ideas, then whittling away the dead weight of the unsupportable until a core of the idea, if that core exists, is left which cannot be as easily discredited.  Even then, this does not necessarily mean that the more solid idea that is left after critical investigation is true.  It is just a closer approximation to what is probably true.

The process of my graduate research was my life-lesson in critical thinking.  I had to present my research to graduate seminars, only to be questioned by suspicious peers.  I had to revise my ideas, throw away the fluff, and try to support what was left, then present again to another group of professors.  I once had my hopes crushed especially hard when I worked for a month on what looked to me like more amazing new data from Star X that nobody had seen before.  I talked for half an hour during a graduate seminar, showing slide after slide of my results and mathematical models to explain those results.  A simple question followed from one of the visiting astronomers.  “Did you check the uncertainty in your pointing?”  Ooops.  One month of work down the drain, but a lesson in critical inquiry learned for a lifetime.  I gave many seminar talks, and discussed several hypotheses and models to explain the strange behavior of Star X.  Most of the questions that I got from my critical peers were those that attempted to knock holes in my arguments.

To the chagrin of all the Creationist pamphlets and propaganda that I read in Calvary Chapel, I learned that the scientific literature is full of ambiguity.  I remember plenty of creationist sermons that laughed at the use of ambiguous language in scientific books, then pointed to the sure and solid foundational certainty of Scripture.  But scientific theories are not dogmas to be defended at all costs.  I had to get used to qualifiers like ‘probably”, “possibly” and “approximation”.  My old dogmatic world of religious bedrock conviction was replaced by a nebulous world of vague uncertainty.  Most of the scientific work did not result in solid, unquestioned answers, but in methodologies built on well-founded assumptions that led to slightly stronger hypotheses.  So I also had to learn a couple of other valuable lessons in critical thinking and inquiry.  I taught freshman math and physics for a couple of years, and in formulating and defending my hypotheses, I had to do what I told all my freshman students to do.  I must define my terms.  I must list and detail all my assumptions.  And I must describe and follow my methodology.  In other words, I had to show all of my work.  Much to my disappointment, most freshmen students were taught to circle their answers in a set of homework problems.  I told them that answers were important, but I was much more interested in how they got those answers.  I often asked open-ended questions with no easy answers in order to force my students to list all their assumptions, and describe their own methodologies.  I did not want to see a circled answer.  I wanted to understand what they were thinking to get that answer.  I believe that the critical thinker must hold methodology of even greater importance than answers. 

Several years of university work taught me to think in this way, but I also learned that this thinking process is often not what comes naturally.  Critical thinking is a skill that must be learned, practiced and willfully applied.  It is not always easy.  It is not innate or natural.  Critical thinking is not the same as common sense; in fact it is in some ways the opposite of it.  Critical thinking is typically destructive, not constructive.  These were lessons that I learned in University, but I am still learning new lessons in critical thinking to this very day. 

Critical thinking is a process that needs to be actively applied, and in the field of scientific inquiry, I did not meet a single person who did not understand this.  But for most people including myself, critical thinking applied only to natural processes.  It is a criterion that we knew well.  We could not factor God or the Supernatural into any scientific theory, because these are unknowable variables.  They are to be taken on Faith, so the scientific process must be one that must be atheistic.  This is not to say that the practitioners and scientists are atheists, in fact I am certain that most of the scientists I knew were not.  But their methodology cannot be one that includes any element of an unknowable Supernatural element.  We cannot replace a variable with a miracle, simply because this would tell us nothing of the natural science.  Likewise, science typically did not interfere with the religious or spiritual beliefs of my friends.  Most of the people I knew were not the purely rational thinkers who did not believe in anything without sound reason and logic.  No, my friends, all brilliant men and women, had fertile and imaginative beliefs outside of the laboratory.

I still clung to my Christian beliefs.  I had grown weary of, what I considered to be, the dead and impersonal ritualism of the United Methodist Church across from Campus.  I was certainly egalitarian, but I still never got comfortable with the female pastor who presided over that congregation.  Plenty of students and faculty attended that church, but I soon migrated to a small Baptist church outside of town.  I still never warmed up to that small congregation.  I felt like I needed some form of familiar Christianity in my life, but any time I got too close I was reminded of why I left Calvary Chapel in the first place.  I never could find a good balance on that high wire.

Outside of a few strictly rationalistic friends, everybody I knew had some form of supernatural belief.  Plenty of folks believed in alien visitors from other worlds.  Socorro, like nearby Roswell, had its own saucer crash legend, complete with impact crater.  Somebody went through enormous effort to build some kind of UFO landing pad on a nearby mountain west of town.  UFOs, and various beliefs of the inhabitants, were part of the culture in the desert southwest.  I confess that my imagination got carried away with one related item that Chuck Missler introduced me to, and that dozens of people on campus were also swept up with.  The infamous Face on Mars was a blurry photo taken of the surface of Mars by one of the Viking Orbiters in 1976.  Chuck Missler, in his sermons, often compared it to the Great Pyramids or Stonehenge, marveled us with its fantastic mathematical properties, and terrified us with the implication that somebody had to have built it.  But The Face on Mars was another lesson in critical thinking.  The famous photo of that mysterious face on another planet was blurry.  Pixelated.  Ill-Defined. 

But when something that provocative lacks too much information, it leaves everything else to the imagination.  Books were written at that time, loaded to the brim with whimsical but fascinating speculation about The Face on Mars.  In 2001, another orbiter, Mars Global Surveyor promised another photo of the famous Face, this one promising much higher resolution.  A raw photo was promised to be uploaded to the Mars Global Surveyor website as soon as it was transmitted back to Earth, and a friend and I sat at the library computer as the photo rolled in.  That day I learned that definition and clarity, when applied to a mysterious and cloudy revelation, kills faith.

Plenty of my brilliant friends were adherents of astrology, tarot, and crystal vibrations.  These were not passing hobbies, but bordered on obsessions.  Some of my friends had a shelf or two full of books on these subjects, and held to their beliefs with uncritical devotion.  I continued my fascination with Reiki, and even though the mental source of its power was always obvious to me, I still wondered if there was not something more to the powerful experiences that I often felt.  I remember one amazing vision that I had during some meditation exercises.  I floated high above the Cosmos, which slowly undulated under me like an immense flag in the wind.  I was above the fabric of space-time.  I was a transcendent observer and could look from outside the fishbowl, just as if I were part of the Divine.  Then the Cosmos became bigger, or I floated too close to it, until I was swallowed up into it, and got lost in the immensity.  Had I been a religious ecstatic from another time, I can easily imagine myself as Enoch traversing the Heavens and learning the secrets of the Cosmos from the archangels.

Unlike the days when I was in Calvary Chapel, I did not scoff at the beliefs or others, or try to convert them to my own beliefs.  I was intrigued with Reiki, but I also asked plenty of questions about the beliefs in things like astrology and reincarnation.  I found the answers unsatisfactory, so I did not believe in such things.  It was as simple as that.  But I had learned that if I was to be taken seriously, I had to take others just as seriously, and it was just too easy to view the beliefs of others as crazy. 

I met one particular woman in one of my math classes, and we began dating.  After several months of dating this beautiful and brilliant Chemistry PhD candidate, she felt she could trust me enough to tell me a secret about herself.  Her secret came out slowly, in bits and pieces, over the next couple of weeks.  I only knew her on the material and physical realm of Earth, she told me.  But on another plane of existence, she was a warrior princess.  She fought trolls and monsters to protect her loyal subjects.  She could shoot fireballs of pure energy from the palms of her hands.

This was a bit much.  Was she kidding me?  Was this a stunt?  Was Allen Funt going to step out from behind the curtain with his hidden camera?

She also had a familiar guardian cat who served as her psychic advisor.

I never ridiculed her.  Never.  I had learned never to do that.  Instead, I asked her if I could see.  Since she trusted me enough to tell me, could I see and experience the things she did?

“Can I see your familiar cat?”

“No.  She is invisible.  But she is right there watching you,” she said pointing to the floor.

“Can you take me to your other world?  Can I see what you see?  Can I travel there with you?”

“No.  It is a place that you do not travel to physically.  You only get there through the astral realm.  You are not ready.”

I wanted to take her seriously.  What if she is right after all?  It would be beyond fantastic!  I would be one who truly bore secret knowledge and my life would never again be the same!”  But too many things that I asked about were invisible, or inaccessible, or beyond my understanding.  I was convinced that she was experiencing something, but if I were to continue to take her seriously, I would have to accept her by Faith alone.  I simply could not do that, and I had to confess to myself that she was simply deluded.  The experience of breaking up with her was extremely painful.  I felt like I had been trusted, and that I had betrayed her trust.  How could this intelligent, seemingly rational young woman hold these beliefs?  How could she cling to these beliefs, and drop out of a University PhD program rather than face her unbelieving, skeptical ex-boyfriend?

It was also around this time that I stumbled into James Randi’s book The Faith Healers in the university library.  Randi, a well-known stage magician and professional investigator, detailed his personal investigations into the world of Faith Healers.  Some of his favorite whipping boys were Peter Popoff, Ernest Angley and W. V. Grant.  These men who posed as itinerant evangelists were obvious conmen, who used stage tricks to magicians, to fool the needy into tithing money into their personal savings.  It said nothing about belief in a True God, but about conmen posing as God’s prophets, I reasoned.  I had never heard of Popoff or Grant, but I did hear of some of the other people in his book.  Oral Roberts was a well known Faith Healer when I was a child, and my mom had even owned a copy of his book on Seed Faith.  If we tithed, it was a sign to God of our faithfulness, and he would reward our planting of seed faith many fold!  That made perfect sense to me as a youngster, and Roberts was revered as a devout and holy man of God!  That childhood fantasy was shattered by The Faith Healers, in which Randi exposed Robert’s bogus claims of various miraculous cures and resurrections.  Katherine Kuhlman was another family favorite.  My mom once saw her on the traveling tent revival circuit, and my mom marveled that she saw Katherine Kuhlman lengthen a crippled man’s leg right before her eyes!  But Randi again showed how W. V. Grant performed the same cheap stage illusion.  Sure, I would not be fooled by such obvious chicanery by cheap suits like Popoff and Angley, but I figured that was because I had never heard of them before.  I knew Roberts, and I knew Kuhlman, both of whom were doing the work of God.  Yet, Randi lumped these well known paragons and models of my youth in with the rest of the crooks who lied and swindled in the name of God.  The Faith Healers was did not affect my faith in Jesus, but it did make me suspect that most of the preachers I knew in my youth were nothing but conmen.   What shocked me that most was that my family was fooled by these people.  We were intelligent people, yet we were fooled, and could be fooled again.  We did not know how to think critically.  Nobody ever taught us.  We were just taught to have Faith.

We all have the propensity to be fooled if we do not actively apply critical thinking skills.  I became friends with an elderly woman who was a retired music professor from Canada.  She moved to New Mexico with her beloved dogs because she loved the solitude of the desert southwest.  But one of her dogs got very sick, so she went to see a ‘healer’.  I noticed that my friends used the term ‘doctors’ for impersonal practitioners of western medicine, but ‘healers’ were more empathic of their patient’s needs and generally more non-traditional.  A woman certified in Reiki was a ‘healer’.  So when my elderly friend told me she was taking her beloved dog to a healer, I knew it would not be the vet.  After the visit, she asked me to listen to a cassette. 

“I know you are more skeptical than most, and you may think I am crazy, but I want you to listen to this recording.  I just need your opinion, because you are skeptical and I don’t want to make the wrong decision.”

“What is the recording?”

“I recorded the session I had with my dog and an inter-species translator.  She placed her hands on my dog, and told me the dog’s thoughts.”

Oh dear.  This intelligent, elderly woman, a retired professor who had traveled the globe, a woman who told amazing stories of her work in Africa with Jane Goodall in the 1960s, this otherwise rational human, took her dog in for a Mr. Spock style mindmeld.  But I did not ridicule.  I took her seriously.  I took the cassette and listened to it on my own.

What I heard was stunningly obvious manipulation.  The healer said that the dog was talking through her.  He does not feel good.  He ate some road kill.  He has an upset belly that will not go away.  He wants you to understand that he will be better but he needs a more sensitive diet.  My friend sometimes interjected with astonishment.  How could the healer seemingly read the mind of her dog?  Incredible!!

I told her I thought she was being had.  I advised her to proceed with caution, and take the sick dog to a vet.  I am impressed that she listened to me.  But all these stories that I am telling boil down to one of the most important lessons that I learned while in university.  Critical thinking is a skill.  It must be learned and actively applied.  It does not come naturally.  Even the most intelligent of us, even brilliant scientists and other educated people, can be fooled, in fact, are likely to be fooled if our guard is not up.  And there were plenty of people out there who knew this, and were ready to trick us into earning their trust, manipulating our emotions, and maybe even draining our pocketbooks.

In May 2003, I finally earned an M.S in physics and found employment in El Paso, Texas.  I was 39 years old.  I was still single, with no children, and ready to begin the next huge chapter of my life.  I had been saturated in the scientific world while living in Socorro, and I felt like I was stuffed to the brim with potential energy.  I was ready to apply everything I had learned to life, to a career, to my faith and to my future.  But I also felt somewhat empty.  I felt the call of my Spirit crying out to Jesus again.  I had not forgotten He whom I had reluctantly left on the back burner for seven years.  Jesus was my everlasting Savior, and I was ready to meet Him again.  I started looking for a new church in my new home. 

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Larry, The Barefoot Bum said...

Always good.

What did you eventually find out about star X?

DoOrDoNot said...

I'm enjoying getting to read more frequent installments again. It's interesting to hear about the beliefs of your friends. We seem to need to believe in something. I appreciate the you are both skeptical of and open to new ideas. You're the sort of person I enjoy discussing ideas with.

HeIsSailing said...

Hi Larry – Glad to see you are still reading this never ending De-Conversion story!

Since you asked, Star X is B0531+21, otherwise known as the Crab Pulsar. It is a cosmic lighthouse, and rotates on its axis in a fairly predictable manner. We can easily measure its lightcurve, which we did at the VLA radio telescope outside of Socorro. About a dozen or so years ago, its lightcurve acted in a very unusual manner for about a month. The pulsar is surrounded by the Crab Nebula, which is remnants of the star before it imploded into a pulsar. I modeled the filamentary structure of the Crab Nebula as interfering with the lightcurve in such a way to explain the strange behavior of the lightcurve. It was an enormous amount of work, but very rewarding. I have not kept up on the research since I left grad school.

HeIsSailing said...

DoOrDoNot, thank you again for keeping up with this story. I took a break for a few months while I was on Holiday away from the computer – and I am afraid I lost a few readers along the way. Ah well…!!

Yes, I learned my lesson about dogmatism a long time ago – back around the time I left Calvary Chapel. It is best for me to keep an open mind and take people as seriously as I can, rather than be a dogmatic Fundamentalist. That includes life after Christianity too. Stay tuned – loads more coming very soon.

unkleE said...

HiS, thanks for another interesting post. I agree with much of what you say (the value of careful checking of evidence and the folly of placing trust where it should not be placed), but I feel you make these principles too absolute.

1. Is critical thinking always the right approach to an issue? I think it can be taken too far.

CS Lewis gives the example of a happily married man who hears a rumour that his wife is being unfaithful. He has never had any reason to doubt her love and faithfulness. If he then employed a private detective to watch her every move and test the hypothesis that she was indeed being unfaithful, he would be using critical thinking and following your dictum: "The way to knowledge is not to find reasons why a given idea is true. The way to knowledge is to find reasons why the idea is not true." But would he be right?

I don't think so. Do you agree? This shows me that there is a time for that type of thinking, and a time for a different approach. Philosophers tell us there are other ways of knowing, and sometimes they are more appropriate to the situation.

2. But other times, there is need for more critical thinking. For example, your mention of Kathryn Kuhlman, and your inference that because Randi showed how another 'faith healer' could have faked a particular miracle, you could somehow disregard Kuhlman's apparent healings without actually investigating them.

Now I don't know whether Kathryn Kuhlman sometimes faked healings or not, but I do know that a competent medical researcher investigated a number of apparent healings after prayer by her and obtained the before and after medical records. These showed that a number of people were definitely severely afflicted, they definitely recovered quickly after prayer, and this was highly unusual because spontaneous remissions are not normally known in many of these cases. (You can read an account of the investigation in Ten healings.)

I realise you are recording what you thought back then, not necessarily how you think now, but I think these two points are worth making. Thanks for the opportunity.

Larry, The Barefoot Bum said...

Awesome :-) Very interesting stuff. Are you still working in astrophysics? (I won't ask about the details, since they're certainly way above my head. I'm an economist, not a physicist.)

And yes, I've got you on my RSS feed, and I look forward to every installment of your story. As a lifelong more-or-less atheist (usually more), it's very interesting to read a completely different perspective, especially one told with such skill and style.

HeIsSailing said...

Larry, I am still a physicist, but no longer study astrophysics. I never pursued my PhD in astrophysics, which means the only thing I am qualified to do in the observatory is clean out the toilets. I now work in private industry. Truth be told, I am glad I got out of astrophysics when I did. At that level of study, the fields of study become to hyper-specialized for my tastes.

HeIsSailing said...


1. Is critical thinking always the right approach to an issue? I think it can be taken too far.

What is being carried too far in your example, the means or the methodology? Are you saying that it is wrong to suspect the wife of wrongdoing if you have good evidence of her adulterous behavior? We know that such things happen to couples, men and women, all the time, so this kind of behavior is not so hard to believe. Or are you saying that it is wrong to go to the drastic measure of hiring an investigator to follow the wife around, hunting for suspicious behavior, when more subtle methods could be employed? Then what degree of investigation and suspicion is appropriate? All these things come on a sliding scale. It is a judgment call.

I will apply your example to my marriage. If I heard a rumour about my wife, I would be skeptical, not of my wife’s behavior, but of the rumour. Why should I believe a rumour? Why would the rumour be wrong?? I can think of lots of reasons, and a stupid rumour is not going to trump seven faithful years of marriage. But if I get a love note and flowers delivered to the house, addressed to my wife from some guy named Fabio, you are damned right there is going to be some questions coming from me! Maybe it is a mix-up – and I have to be open minded until I get to the bottom of it. But an investigation must be launched in this case – probably by me demanding some answers! Again, it is a judgement call where to apply skepticism. I don’t see a problem with any of this. What “different approach” did you have in mind?


For example, your mention of Kathryn Kuhlman, and your inference that because Randi showed how another 'faith healer' could have faked a particular miracle, you could somehow disregard Kuhlman's apparent healings without actually investigating them.

The book that I mentioned in this article does talk a bit about Kathryn Kuhlman, but to my memory does not do a full scale investigation on her like it did with several others (I think she died long before the book was published). I brought up the foot lengthening example because I remember my mom being shocked by seeing it when I was a boy, and it is specifically mentioned in the book. Randi explains, with photographs, how it is done. It is nothing but a parlor trick. The leg-lenghtening miracle was a favorite in tent-revival meetings across the U.S. when I was growing up. If W.V. Grant, Peter Popoff, Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, Ernest Angley, Oral Roberts, Leroy Jenkins and Robert Tilton were all exposed by Randi to be liars, crooks, and cheap conmen, why should I think any different of Kathryn Kuhlman, a woman who did the same kinds of miracles and employed the same tactics? Why should she be singled out as the one genuine wonder-worker of God even when all her tent-revival associates appear to be nothing more than crooks who used Jesus’ name as an alibi? UnkleE, are you a fan of Benny Hinn? Even when I was a Christian, I could see through that obvious charlatan. The guy relies on nothing but emotional manipulation and mass hysteria. Kathryn Kuhlman was his great inspiration and role-model.

As far as the link you provide to the alleged miraculous healings, do you know how many amazing and unexplained medical recoveries doctors report that were not accompanied with overt prayer requests and the presence of Faith Healers?

Larry, The Barefoot Bum said...

Let me talk briefly about Casdorph's book.

Of course, I'm skeptical of Casdorph simply because I don't find his conclusions plausible. But a skeptic will not stop there: if the methodology underlying the conclusions is sound, then the conclusions deserve further investigation.

But even if we were to use the book as a source (and it's not at all clear that unkleE himself has read the book or is relying on the Is there a God? website), it poses serious methodological problems.

First, a book is outside the scientific institutional process. I trust scientific institutions not out of blind faith but because they are transparent and I know how they work. (And I trust them only so far for the same reason). It's very easy to make mistakes, and it's not impossible to be dishonest, and scientific institutions — peer-review, scientific reputation, and internal incentives — have elaborate mechanisms to avoid mistakes and punish dishonesty.

Second, anecdotal evidence, even if it's not cherry-picked (which scientific institutions help prevent) is almost always a poor foundation for any causal inference. Anecdotal evidence is not worthless, but it almost never tells us why something happened.

Third, it's very very very easy to find anomalies. This is good, because we want to investigate anomolies, as our esteemed host illustrates. We always have stuff to investigate. But most anomalies turn out to have very prosaic causes (as our host also illustrates), and sometimes, especially regarding the complicated and highly variable human body, we just don't know. So "I found some anomalies, therefore God exists/9/11 was an inside job/the Illuminati are running the world/shape-shifting lizard people rule the world," is really not that persuasive.

What we skeptics want to see is (as again our host has shown), "I found some anomalies. Now I want to turn the full power of science, its institutions and methods, to find and be very confident of a new pattern in the anomalies." Without that second step, I'm not convinced of anything other than the uncontroversial fact that there's a lot we still don't know.

unkleE said...

G'day HiS, it seems to me that we might agree more than you might think.

"If I heard a rumour about my wife, I would be skeptical, not of my wife’s behavior, but of the rumour."

Of course. But that would not be based on critical thinking would it, but experience? After all, you are not forming a hypothesis that your wife has behaved badly and then finding reasons why it is not true (as per your dictum). So it seems we are agreed - sometimes critical thinking is the best way (probably most times), but sometimes it isn't.

" why should I think any different of Kathryn Kuhlman, a woman who did the same kinds of miracles and employed the same tactics?"

Because you say you base everything on evidence, and the critical testing of hypothesis to strip away mistaken ideas. Your hypothesis is that she is a fake, but where is the critical testing of that hypothesis to try to prove it wrong? It seems that you have not tested, but damned her by association.

"do you know how many amazing and unexplained medical recoveries doctors report that were not accompanied with overt prayer requests and the presence of Faith Healers?"

I think this is the most important question. My answer is: No I don't, but I wish I did. And I presume you don't know the answer either, because I doubt anyone has tried to estimate.

But it is the right question, because it would be a start to making a reasonable assessment. It doesn't matter how many faith healers are fake. If we want to test the hypothesis that prayer increases the occurrence of unusual and apparently miraculous spontaneous remissions, then we need to know the number of people healed dramatically after prayer, and the number of dramatic spontaneous remissions without for all different kinds of conditions, and compare the two.

Casdorph doesn't give such numbers, but he does say that spontaneous remissions don't occur in several of these conditions. So I think there is some evidence that these were miraculous, but it isn't conclusive because we don't have the numbers.

But what I do want to repeat is that (a) you have not followed your own dictum in criticising Kathryn Kuhlman, and (b) I have at least tried to.

I don't wish to be unnecessarily critical, but I think these are very important matters. Thanks again.

unkleE said...

Hi Larry, nice to 'meet' you. I should explain that I have indeed read the book, because the website is mine and I researched and wrote the page you refer to..

Your discussion of how we need rigorous analysis is all fair enough, but have you tried to do any such testing, or have you searched out others who have?

I have found that sceptics are often not very sceptical about their own beliefs. Once, as a member of an atheist forum, I reported an apparent healing miracle I had read in several news reports. The sceptics of course found all sorts of reasons why the reports couldn't be true, so I invited any of them to join me in doing further investigation. Not one was interested in gathering further facts.

So I investigated myself, writing to the doctor concerned (I got no reply, unfortunately) and doing internet research. I found further news reports including an interview with the healed person, which gave some sort of verification. So I summed it up in Heart-starting action.

In fact, I have tried to follow up a number of other cases. I have purchased books and done internet searches. Some stories I believe cannot be verified, but some have at least prima facie plausibility. For example:

1. A Canadian Professor of Philosophy investigated a number people who reported seeing visions of Jesus, some of them accompanied by healing. In one case a number of people saw the vision, it was filmed, and he saw the film. He investigated supernatural, psychological and neurological explanations and found that none of them was fully satisfactory. His book Visions of Jesus was published by Oxford University Press, and I report on it and other stories in Visions of Jesus?. I have since had a blog comment by one of the people mentioned in the book, and his healing was permanent and his memory remains vivid.

2. I also investigated claims of healing at Lourdes (I am not a Catholic) and found that the investigation was very rigorous - see Healings at Lourdes?.

3. I investigated another claimed healing and found that there wasn't very good evidence (see Another healing??), as well as several others where the evidence was questionable.

So I believe I have done my 'due diligence', and continue to do so. A number of unusual things have happened after prayer, and it seems like there is a connection. The evidence is there for you to look at if you choose to, but it remains true that scepticism is easier to maintain if one doesn't check unwelcome evidence.

So that's where I'm coming from. Thanks for your comments. Best wishes.

Larry, The Barefoot Bum said...

When you open the discussion by insinuating that skeptics aren't really skeptical, I get irritated. I am already disinclined to interact with you.

In addition to being skeptical, I am also mortal. I'm going to die before I can investigate 1/1000 of the things that interest me deeply, and 1/1000000...000 of important truths as yet unknown.

It is not my job to investigate the claims that interest you. HeIsSailing got interested in physics, and spent the better part of a decade educating himself so he could investigate the issues himself. He did not come on someone else's blog, insult the author readers, insinuate hypocrisy, and then demand that they investigate his own pet project. Similarly, I have become interested in some economic and political questions, so I am, at just a RCH from 50, going to college so I can investigate what I'm interested in. I expect that I will also spend the better part of a decade before I can even begin to deeply investigate anything new of my own choice.

So... you're interested in all this faith-healing business. Groovy. Go get an MD and PhD, find the funding, and do a rigorous, peer-reviewed scientific study, and collect your Nobel prize and the $1,000,000. I promise I will be the first to shake your hand and admit I was wrong.

In the meantime, read Cargo Cult Science. Until you have mastered the art of not fooling yourself, which is a difficult and subtle skill, you will not find skeptics a receptive audience.

unkleE said...

"When you open the discussion by insinuating that skeptics aren't really skeptical, I get irritated. I am already disinclined to interact with you."

OK Larry, I won't push it further. I'm sorry I offended you when I simply meant to challenge you.

But did you not think that your insinuation that I may not have read the book I referred to, with the subtle implication that this lessened the value of what I was saying, was not the initial irritation? I was not offended by that, but it did lead me to decide to challenge you in return.

I'm sorry it worked out this way, so let's leave it at that shall we? Best wishes.

HeIsSailing said...

Hay nako, UnkleE! You claim this about me:

you say you base everything on evidence

Can you tell me where I ever said this? This is not something I would say about myself. This is what I really said:

The way to knowledge is not to find reasons why a given idea is true. The way to knowledge is to find reasons why the idea is not true.

This is my own personal definition of critical thinking. That is all it is. I never claimed that I always apply this to everything in my life. I never said that I do not appeal to experience and trust of what came before. We all do. I am human after all. Please do not try to corner me by claiming I am saying contradictory things.

UnkleE, I need you to understand something. This blog article is not a systematic treatise on critical thinking. I am telling a story about a chapter in my life where I learned something I had never known before. I was never taught what critical thinking was. I was never taught to rely on anything but Faith. This is a story of when I finally learned what critical thinking meant and how to apply it. That’s it! Please do not extend anything from this story beyond its intended purpose.

Because you say you base everything on evidence, and the critical testing of hypothesis to strip away mistaken ideas. Your hypothesis is that she is a fake, but where is the critical testing of that hypothesis to try to prove it wrong? It seems that you have not tested, but damned her by association.

As we all do. 9 out of 10 faithhealers are caught as liars and frauds. A 10th one comes along and says the same things as the other 9. Performs the same healings, with the same tactics in the name of the same deity. Now apply my “dictum”. Can you think of a reason why #10 is also a fraud? ANY REASON AT ALL? That’s good enough in this case to damn her as far as I am concerned. Chances are #10 is also a fraud. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe Kathryn Kuhlman was the one true prophet of Jesus standing alone among a company of liars and frauds. But thinking of reasons why it could be true is not thinking critically. To be critical, we think of reasons why it could NOT be true.

Can you think of any reasons why your Faith Healing anecdotes are true? Yes you can. So can I. I can also think of plenty of reasons why Reiki is true. I had friends in university who had shelves full of astrology books, and they had their own apologetic arguments and anecdotal evidence of why those things were true. I knew a UFO abductee. I dated a girl who claimed she could shoot balls of plasma from her hands! I recently participated in an exorcism to remove sickness from a young woman! Guess what. She is no longer sick! These are sane, otherwise rational, intelligent, normal human beings. They can give me lots of reasons why their stories are true. But I really doubt you are going to believe any of them. Because in those cases, you can think of much more compelling reasons why these things are NOT true. So why would you believe Kathryn Kulhman who has been dead nearly 40 years?

HeIsSailing said...

…The sceptics of course found all sorts of reasons why the reports couldn't be true…

Hay nako, UnkleE! This is what critical thinking is! We think of reasons why these claims are not true! There are too many. These reports are stories! You want stories? You think stories are evidence? I have lots of stories. I live near Roswell, New Mexico, a place where you can see a dozen UFO impact craters depending on which ranch you want to visit. We also have plenty of mysterious cattle mutilations here. Will you come investigate if I give you a few stories?

Visions of Jesus? I followed some of those links. One was a report of a Filipino Muslim having a dreams of Isa (Jesus):

…” This was disclosed by a devout follower of Isa who works among the Tausugs, the largest Muslim tribe in the Philippines.
He relayed some recent accounts of some Muslims who "saw Jesus" in their dreams. A Muslim resident in Sinunuc, a remote village in this city, could hardly believe when he saw Isa (Jesus) in a dream and defeated a giant dragon in a duel. The resident had the same dream the following night as well….”

at this point, credibility is shot. I lose interest, as I suspect your forum atheist friends did. Jesus in a duel with a dragon? This is not evidence of anything. These are stories. My aunt has stories of when she was a girl, and she witnessed a man who changed into a wolf right before her eyes. I have another cousin who routinely saw a ghost who lived in her bedroom closet. She could describe to me exactly what he looked like, his personality, and even some of his habits. My sister once saw one of her children walk on the ceiling. A young childhood friend of mine once saw Jesus in the sky in broad daylight, right after a water baptism. I was with her when it happened. She pointed at the sky and screamed in fear. I had my own vision that I mentioned briefly in this very article. This was a true experience where I floated above the cosmos and watched the fabric of spacetime undulate below me. It was a powerful experience. If I did not know any better, it was as real to me as any waking experience I have ever had.

I told you, I have plenty of stories. Lots and lots of stories. I could go on and on and on… you get it I hope. But I can also think of any number of reasons why these stories are not evidence of anything, as I am sure you can too. That is why I am not interested in these links as evidence. There are other reasons that are of a more methodological nature, but I might expand on that in another article.

unkleE said...

G'day HiS, I'm not familiar with "Hay nako", but I think it means "Sigh!!!". Sorry to make you feel that way!

I'm sorry if I misunderstood you about evidence. You talked about your scientific work, forming hypotheses and testing them, and how this applied to much more than science, and I thought I had summed you up fairly. I'm still unsure where I was wrong, but I'm happy to apologise and leave it at that.

"Please do not extend anything from this story beyond its intended purpose."

Again, I'm sorry, but I didn't think I did that. I was simply commenting on your dictum on knowledge. I'm not inferring how broadly you apply it, simply pointing it's limitations (in my view). I thought that was what blog comments are about. If I'm a pain in the neck, please tell me and I'll stop commenting.

"So why would you believe Kathryn Kulhman who has been dead nearly 40 years?"

I have no belief in Kathryn Kuhlman, I don't think I have ever read anything she has written or ever seen her on video. I simply used her as an example because you mentioned her name and I have a book that provides some reasonable evidence that some of her healings were genuine, contrary to what you inferred.

And I think my point was valid. You said things about her which you have not supported with evidence or critical thinking, while I have presented some evidence. Yet your response has not been to investigate the evidence.

"You want stories? You think stories are evidence? I have lots of stories."

Again, I'm sorry His, but this is avoiding the issue. Of course there are billions of stories, most of which we cannot check and most of which are probably urban myths or inaccurate reporting. The point is that there is evidence for some of those stories. And the question is why do critical thinkers not want to investigate that evidence?

I can understand why, because I regard myself as a critical thinker, and I don't want to bother investigating every crackpot claim that comes along. But if I take that view, I had better be careful what I define as crackpot, else what I like to think is critical thinking is in fact very self-selective. So before I comment on stories, I try to investigate them, as I explained to Larry.

So, let us take stock. You and I have got on well up until now. I appreciate what you write and I am sympathetic to your experience, and don't try to discount it. But since it is a public blog, read by others, I make comments on matters where I think you have presented ideas that I feel are unjustified or over-stated. I think that is the case in your discussion of critical thinking, and I suggest your response to the Kathryn Kuhlman alleged miracles illustrates that.

So what would you prefer I do? Go away? Read but not comment? Read but only make sympathetic comments? Or poke holes in what I think are wrong statements, in a friendly way? I really am cool about this. I want to be friends and I don't want to aggravate, but I do think critical thinking is served by my disagreeing even if it pisses you off a bit. But I hold nothing against you and would prefer to go away than make you wish I would go away (if that makes sense).

Over to you, and best wishes.

Larry, The Barefoot Bum said...

Lemme 'splain... no... that'll take too long; lemme sum up.

We get to consider all the available evidence when evaluating a claim. And, as I said before, we are all mortal, so we use evidence to determine the investigation-worthiness of individual claims.

So, when someone claims to have a perpetual motion machine, or can perform faith-healing, or other paranormal* claims, we look at the evidence of previous similar claims, who have been found without exception to have been fraudulent. Hence, when someone makes these paranormal claims, unless they can show really compelling evidence, on their own nickel, we are justified by the evidence in dismissing those claims, without contradicting or betraying our skeptical, evidence-based philosophy.

*i.e. at odds with what we think is well-understood science

HeIsSailing said...

UnkleE says:
G'day HiS, I'm not familiar with "Hay nako", but I think it means "Sigh!!!". Sorry to make you feel that way!

It is an expression of exasperation in the Tagalog language. Do not feel bad. My Filipino wife says it to me all the time.

Again, I'm sorry, but I didn't think I did that. I was simply commenting on your dictum on knowledge. I'm not inferring how broadly you apply it, simply pointing it's limitations (in my view).

I told you already that I never said I intend to apply my dictum to everything. As you claim I did. I never said there were not limitations.

I thought that was what blog comments are about. If I'm a pain in the neck, please tell me and I'll stop commenting.

Oh stop it with the martyr complex.

Again, I'm sorry His, but this is avoiding the issue. Of course there are billions of stories, most of which we cannot check and most of which are probably urban myths or inaccurate reporting. The point is that there is evidence for some of those stories. And the question is why do critical thinkers not want to investigate that evidence?

I already told you why. Do not ignore what I told you in the previous comment. I do not investigate these because I believe these particular stories are not evidence of anything. There is no way to investigate a story of a vision somebody had. How do we know the person had a vision of Jesus? How do we differentiate a vision direct from a Deity from a dream induced by too many fish tacos? How does the recipient know the Deity they were witnessing was Jesus? How do they know it is a Deity at all? Did he announce his name, or did they just “know”? How am I supposed to investigate something that the recipient has no evidence for except they “saw something”? If any investigation is conducted in this area, it is usually the experience and psychology of the person witnessing the vision – which is not at issue here. As for evidence of Faith Healing, I told you, I am not taking the word of any claimed healing from a woman who has been dead 40 years. Even if somebody recovered from an illness after a FaithHealing rally, with no evidence of any other auxiliary medical treatment, the patient’s doctor is not going to have any explanation of a causal mechanism between the Prayer and Recovery. We do not know how or why anything happened. If that mechanism exists, there is no way to demonstrate it, and it must be taken on Faith. There is no way to differentiate this Faith Healing from some other unexplained natural remission which, by the way, do happen. UnkleE, it is not like I have never witnessed Faith Healings or visions before. I grew up in the Pentecostal tradition. I saw this kind of stuff all the time, and I know exactly where ‘investigating’ these things lead. As far as I can tell, you are presenting nothing I have never seen before. There is nothing to investigate.

I have now repeated to you the reasons I do not investigate these claims. Please do not repeat that you do not know why I do not investigate. Do not again imply that I am intentionally not checking unwelcome evidence to maintain my skepticism, as you have said. You now know otherwise.

more in next comment

HeIsSailing said...


… I don't want to bother investigating every crackpot claim that comes along…

You have to be kidding me. You say this right after you claim you don’t understand why I don’t investigate your ‘evidence’?

I’ll tell you what. Consider these topics: a) UFO abduction b) astral projection c) visions of Jesus d) cattle mutilation e) healing via reiki f) healing via prayer. Please note that there are numerous books, with documentation by trained professionals, devoted to claims made in each topic listed. Please answer this question: When you confront a story that has a fantastic claim in one of the topics listed, what methodology do you follow in determining if that story is sound evidence or a crackpot claim? I do not care so much about your answer as how you arrive at that answer. Please answer this question if you wish to pursue this topic with me further. Be thorough.

unkleE said...

OK HiS, I am up for a challenge. : )

"When you confront a story that has a fantastic claim in one of the topics listed, what methodology do you follow in determining if that story is sound evidence or a crackpot claim?"

1. I don't always try to determine if the story is sound. Why should I? Life is short, and I don't have time for everything. (I suggest this is true for most of us.) So I have an open mind about UFOs, though less open about UIFO abductions, more open about extra-terrestrial intelligence, and I don't really care that much right now.

2. So the first question should be: how do I decide which issues to even bother thinking about? And I think it is a useful question to consider. I think I probably apply some informal mental algorithm built on (i) what I already believe or know about the world, (ii) my preconceived opinions, (iii) how credible the story I hear is, and (iv) how much difference it might make to my life. There might be more, maybe not, I don't think I've ever sat down and worked it out. But I think that would be about it.

3. So let's apply those criteria to the issues you raise:

a) UFO abduction
I think this fails all the tests - for I don't recall seeing a credible story, or thinking that the appearance of abducting UFOs is very probable given the paucity of life in the universe - we are after all the only intelligent scientific life we know about. And so far I see no reason to think about it.

b) astral projection
Pretty much the same here. I have heard some credible stories of NDEs (near death experiences), which can involve something like astral projection, so I have taken a mild interest in NDEs and retain an open mind.

c) visions of Jesus
I have seen credible reports, even heard personally from one who has had this experience, I see that people's lives are indelibly changed by the experience, and I can see that if there's a God such things are quite possible. So I conclude they probably happen, though not every claim is real.

d) cattle mutilation
I'm sorry, I don't even know what you mean here.

e) healing via reiki
f) healing via prayer
Amazing healings quite definitely happen, whatever the explanation - whether it be spontaneous remission, natural processes we don't yet understand, supernatural intervention, or whatever. I believe supernatural intervention is the most probable explanation for some, I am open minded about others including reiki. The fact that I don't hold to the "spiritual"beliefs of reiki doesn't mean I have to believe that every recovery isn't genuine - I may just withhold judgment on how it happened.

Do I pass the test???

And now, since you think I have misunderstood what you are saying, perhaps you can clarify please.

1. Do you try to resolve every claim that comes your way? How do you decide which ones to investigate?

2. What aspects of life do you apply your dictum to?
a) alleged miracles, b) belief in God, c) trust in friends, d) making important decisions about jobs and house purchases, e) NDEs?


HeIsSailing said...

Do I pass the test???

I am afraid not. I phrased the problem almost exactly how I would phrase one of my open -ended physics questions back when I was teaching. Had you been in my class you would have received a bit of partial credit for that homework assignment. For instance, you have phrases like this regarding Faith Healing:

I believe supernatural intervention is the most probable explanation for some…

You are claiming something is more probable than something else. In this case supernatural intervention. How are establishing this probability? What is your methodology? I think I understand a bit how probability works. I have a couple of textbooks on the topic. None of it is based on ‘belief’. I need a methodology. What methodology do you use to determine that miraculous intervention is more likely than natural remission?

I already know that you find many miraculous claims of a Christian nature to be credible, and other types of miraculous phenomena of a non-Christian nature to not be as credible. I wanted to know WHY. I want your methodology. You called claims of Faith Healing ‘sound evidence’ and UFO abductions a crackpot claim. You clearly differentiate enough between the two to have a methodology in place to make that distinction. What is that methodology? I already know what you believe. I want to know why you believe it.

Upon a quick reading, I agree with everything else you said. I never said I apply strict critical thinking to everything I encounter. I never said I rely on evidence for everything, despite you saying that I do. I asked you to show me where I said that, and you have not. I would not even call myself a critical thinker, because I know in many cases that I AM NOT! I never claim these things about myself. Read my article again. I also learned what calculus was in university. That does not mean I apply it to every stinking facet of my life.

I have said enough on this topic, and I am repeating myself. Let me summarize. I would never use the term ‘crack pot’ because I think I understand the experiential aspect of those who claim these things. But I will use it, because it is the term you applied to my examples, and it will make a point. Yes, I think claims of visions of Jesus and Faith Healing are ‘crackpot’ claims. Every claim I have ever encountered in my life has been either fraudulent or delusional – and I have seen many of them. Every attempt at investigation leads to a dead-end. Why should I go chasing after more claims just because you show them to me?

I do not believe in or investigate Faith Healing, or Visions of Jesus for the same, exact, identical reasons you do not investigate claims of UFOs.

I have to move on, so this is my last comment in this thread.

unkleE said...

"I have to move on, so this is my last comment in this thread."

Yeah, I'm with you on that. It seems I aggravated you, and I'm sorry. I think it may be best for me to take a break from commenting and leave you to tell your story in peace. Best wishes.