Tag Archives: sceptical thinking

Brief candles

Focusing your mind on the eternal candle flame…I am feeling giddy at the moment.

I commented in a previous post that “The only school of “alternative” thought which I have not yet found to be intellectually undermined is the Buddhist approach to re-incarnation” and Anticant obligingly provided me with an antidote. I’ve been reading “Reincarnation: A Critical Examination” by Paul Edwards on and off since it arrived.

I’ve always thought a Hereafter was at least possible, and for a lot of my adult life I’ve considered it to be probable. There’s internal coherence to the Hindu and Buddhist world views, but they fall down when you test some of their underlying assumptions using nasty practical empirical science. (The one world-view that has never made any sense to me whatsoever is paradise, judgement day, heaven and hell). So during my adult life, my position on life after death veered from the conclusion that reincarnation made absolute sense to dragging it along like a comfort blankie while I got on with my real life. I think I even put Buddhist down on the 2001 census. I certainly wasn’t going to put Jedi.

Buddha with View by Sean DugganI like Buddhism. I like its practicality. The techniques it teaches, such as meditation, produce real quantifiable changes in the people who practice them. I like the idea of the soul taking several lifetimes to explore different things. I like the idea of karma, that every action has a consequence and that you cannot escape the consequences of your acts. (This is very different from the judgement / punishment view of Christianity, where there is an external deity keeping score. Karma as consequences is more mechanistic and simpler, like a law of nature rather than the whim of a petulant despot). I look around me and I can see karma working on a small scale, and I was comforted by the idea that it worked across lifetimes too. I like the idea that I chose my own parents, that I might get a second chance with lost loves, that I might yet be a mother, that I can catch up next time with what I don’t do this time. I’ll miss Buddhism, but oddly enough I am more interested in it now, not less.

Buddhism, or a Buddhisty theory of reincarnation, provided answers to the questions that I asked, and the aforementioned comfort blankie of course.

Edwards argues simply and fairly clearly that:

  1. there is no credible evidence for reincarnation and even the best cases evaporate into delusion, wishful thinking or fraud under close examination
  2. the mind requires the brain to exist, and consciousness does not survive the death of the brain

Comfort blankies - do not forget to boil them to keep them sterile, otherwise they can harbour germsEdwards also deals with things like Near Death Experiences, (feelings of warmth, love and total understanding, culturally specific spiritual figure at the end of a tunnel of light, etc); Astral Travel (which he debunks as bunk); remembered past lives, (which never produce information not available in this one), and so on.

Ultimately, of course, it comes down to a matter of belief, but religion is essentially a ritualised version of “here be dragons” and as science maps out more and more of the unknown, the remaining dragons are left balancing on smaller and smaller islands. Edwards argues that the dragon of reincarnation no longer has a foot to stand on. Being an Oriental Dragon, it has no wings and cannot fly. Or that’s my metaphor, and I’m sticking to it.

I am trying to absorb various truths. When I die, I’ll go out like a candle. There are no second chances, if I don’t do it this time then I won’t get to do it at all. The people who I know who’ve died have stopped. And the big one: life really is a bitch and then you really do die.

The Dalai Lama and Desmond TutuAs well as the truths, I now have all sorts of other questions swirling in my mind. How can morality have merit if it is merely a human artefact? What practical meaning remains to the word “spirituality”? What merit is left in Buddhism if you take out reincarnation? Does this mean the Dalai Lama isn’t cool any more?

Oddly there is one question I am pretty clear on which is why are there no pre-20th century cultures which are entirely irreligious?

It seems clear to me:

  1. that religions provided creation myths and an explanation for why stuff happened and
  2. that religious belief provides just enough of an advantage to individuals and societies in times of crisis for there to have been a very slight selective advantage in a strong religious faith.

Dawkins is such an evangelist for atheism that I rather like the idea of religion providing an evolutionary benefit. It seems highly likely to me that dogs have gods.

At the moment I veer between two contradictory feelings. Sometimes I am shocked by how dramatically the stakes have been raised: as the the saying goes, “there ain’t no justice, just us”. We cannot rely on any external checks and balances to iron out the world’s problems. If we don’t sort it out here and now, then it won’t be sorted out, and that’s not all right. And then I veer towards nihilism: in the long run we are all dead and nothing is remembered. How can justice matter if the victims can neither know nor care?

It is this spinning around which is making me giddy.


Edwards’ book, incidentally, is irritating in a number of ways. It is printed on very odd paper and the whole thing turns into two parallel tubes when you are reading it. It is appallingly badly proof-read, which is unforgivable in a second edition. He promises to discuss various subjects such as childhood prodigies and extremes of talent, but doesn’t, and he fails to discuss Out of Body experiences at all, refering the reader in toto to Susan Blackmore. It is however also fun, witty and sarcastic. I just wish it had been better edited. Or edited at all, really.

Farewell to flakiness – or why I’m not entitled to my own opinion

A FlakeI was raised by people of great personal and moral integrity with reasonable intelligence who had no exposure to science or scientific thinking at all. This didn’t stop them having Opinions on things so it is no surprise that they were Flakes one and all. Bless ’em.

Flaky thinking is cozy, it provides comfort blankies such as “everything happens for a reason”or “someone was looking after me that night”. It also provides explanations which appear to be simple and easy to understand: ” stimulating the body’s natural healing processes” or “bright lines of golden energy”.

I’m not going to rip into acupuncture, auric photography, biomagnetic bracelets, biorhythm charts, cranial-sacral therapy, earth energy lines, feng shui, food sensitivity analysis, homoeopathy, osteopathy, reiki or any of the other forms of flakiness which I’ve spent money on in my time. To be honest, I cannot be bothered. Either you consider me to be foolishly narrow-minded because I dismiss them or foolishly forebearing because I don’t critique them and we both have better things to do with our time than argue the point.

Let’s just say that I spent my money on all of the above, probably thousands of pounds now that I look at the list, but I don’t feel ripped off; every one of them brought me a good 40 minutes of someone’s undivided attention and a nice warm placebo effect. I was lucky; it was a life-style choice not a fearful attempt to ward off cancer. But I wouldn’t spend my money on any of them again.

So what undermined my warm fuzzy view that the word “energy” means something when used metaphorically, that there are forces which cannot be measured by science, and that there is more to life than meets the eye?

Lots of things. Feel free to skip the list and cut to the conclusions at the end of the piece.

  • I check out the Asthma UK site and realise the approaches described are infinitely more cautious, detailed, rigorous and robust than the approaches of the herbalists I’d instinctively turn to.
  • My father, with cancer, is dramatically better after a stay in hospital which grants him at least another year of good quality of life.
  • A crystal healer describes the “lovely warm lines of yellow energy” flowing through her treatment rooms. When I ask her if she can see them she says “no, but Gordon has dowsed them and told me where they are”. The inane warmth in her voice sets my alarm bells ringing.
  • I read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.
  • I have to describe my symptoms to the German pharmacist rather than selecting the herbal tinctures and ointments I’d choose in the UK; I find myself thinking “These German pharmaceuticals are very effective” and then realising that they might work well simply because they are pharmaceuticals and being German has nothing to do with it.
  • I work for a large petro-chemical company and find that the individuals there are responsible and serious people, and not in fact the spawn of satan who just don’t “get” it.
  • I acknowledge that the scientists working on GMOs are (a) intelligent and (b) not malicious. I think that they are wrong about genetically modified organisms being good for the planet, but acknowledge that if they are wrong then it’s not because they are stupid.
  • A friend sends me a link to DHMO.org and I realise just how easy it is to writes spurious science-speak which is manipulative and emotional.
  • A friend of mine compulsively adds and subtracts numbers to find co-incidences and meanings without noticing that if you manipulate any date enough you can reach the number 7, or 26.
  • I read something which explains that the phenomena described in all documented near-death experiences (tunnel vision, a distant light, etc) are also consistent with specific forms of neurological shut-down.
  • I develop an increasing respect for the methodologies in my own field, and by extension for standards’ based methodological approaches in others. In other words, I come to prefer rigorous testing to instinct.
  • I have a relationship with a statistician.
  • I come across evidence that a feeling that there a ghostly presence in the room can be reliably triggered by certain localised electro-magnetic phenomenon.
  • I read The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan.
  • I regularly flick through copies of the British Medical Journal and discover that the research studies are of varying quality but explicit about their limitations and scope.
  • Triptanes provide effective migraine relief.
  • I read Snake Oil by John Diamond.
  • I start a post-grad degree and within a few months become imensely more picky about authorities and references.

Ok. It’s not a particularly impressive list: a lot of it is based on a distaste for poor critical thinking in others which of course doesn’t demonstrate any improvement in my own, the books are pop-science even if the scientists are credible, the rest of it is un-referenced and at this distance in time I have no way of checking where I got the information about near death experiences and ghostly presences from.

But…

But I think that the real epiphany is that I am only entitled to an opinion on subjects where I have some expertise. Guess what – experts really do know better. It’s a matter of knowing my limitations. I cannot bake cakes, design power stations or diagnose illnesses. I have no choice but to delegate those tasks. Generic intelligence is not the same as experience, training or qualifications and this is hard for people, particularly those educated in the social sciences or humanities, to accept.

Not all experts are equal, of course. Gillian McKeith’s “doctorate” is a tad light-weight to say the least, though the woman is undoubtedly sincere. We cannot accept the word of experts unquestioningly. We must continue to challenge and ask the pertinent questions – how did you arrive at that conclusion – how large was your sample-size – how well conducted has your research been – where do you get your funding, and so on. But challenging does work: 20 years of hindsight bias, selective memory, anecdotal evidence and the placebo effect do not equal one double blind controlled trial. Sorry.

Some people argue that science is just as much a matter of belief as religion is. It isn’t of course. I’ve argued that you have to trust the scientists but as Reagan put it you “trust but verify”. You can by definition repeat and test a scientific experiment or demonstration. You cannot test bach flower remedies, post-modernism or god. In fact there’s even a commandment against it.

This of course means that the opinions of true experts whose conclusions are based on testable and repeatable methods vastly outweigh yours and mine. We are entitled to doubts, concerns, worries, uncertainties and even rage, anger and disgust. Those are emotions and emotions are not opinions. We must also remain entitled to challenge – that is what accountability is.

Comfort blankies - do not forget to boil them to keep them sterile, otherwise they can harbour germs.  Unfortunately boiling may damage the warmth and softness of your blankie.To some extent I do miss the warm fuzziness of flaky thinking, but on the other hand if you acknowledge that real life is unfair, that shit happens, it becomes much easier to deal with. Nastier, but more straight-forward. There are a few flaky things I still adhere to: meditation, NLP and yoga specifically, though I’m not going to defend them here. The only school of “alternative” thought which I have not yet found to be intellectually undermined is the Buddhist approach to re-incarnation. To be honest, I doubt it’s got any validity to it, but does have the merits of being (a) internally consistent and (b) not yet countered by harsh scientific enquiry. However you look at it, the idea that bad things happen to good people for no reason is a nasty one.

I had been going to illustrate this with one of the Cadbury’s Flake ads but I couldn’t find the girl painting a picture in a poppy field in the rain, so I decided to show you this instead which did at least make me laugh.