Why magic doesn’t work for/on non-believers: More Mormons

So the Mormon missionaries have been paying me weekly visits and they stopped by today to harass me on my spring break (I say “harass,” but I really enjoy speaking with them, which is why I let them keep it up). Anyway, I’d tried praying a few times to no avail, and then I did some research and studied up on the neurophysiological effects of religious experiences and presented them with alternative hypotheses as to why they feel so sure God speaks to them during their gab sessions and posited that maybe my brain just doesn’t work that way. Since then they’ve been trying to convince me that prayer really works, and these past two weeks they’ve brought in a friend who is not a missionary but is a member of their church and also has a knack for explaining away contrary evidence. Today he tried explaining to me that my prayers weren’t answered because I went into them already believing that I wouldn’t receive any answer that couldn’t be explained through natural phenomena, and in order for prayer to work you have to actually believe that it can work.

This seems to me to be the ultimate ad hoc hypothesis simply because it can be applied in any situation in which magic is involved: if my magic doesn’t work for you it’s because you don’t believe it can. This is rather frustrating, because the way I seem to be wired is that I require some sort of solid evidence before I can bring myself to believe something. (I also found it rather coincidental that they brought up this argument today, since last night I watched Skeleton Key for my nightly shitty horror movie. Perhaps it is synchronicity? Maybe God’s trying to tell me to become a Jungian New-Age therapist.)

Obviously, this sort of argument falls flat on non-believers, because the obvious rebuttal is that the supposed magic is just some psychological side-effect of the belief in the ritual. I pointed this out to them and they began describing something that sounded like priming, which hardly seems magical or godly to me. Sounds like a lot of superstitious magic-believers fooling themselves.

I guess the upshot is that if I have to believe that God is real in order for his magic to work, I don’t have to worry about his divine wrath since he’s obviously impotent when not dealing with one of his followers. This seems like an adequate rebuttal for when the pious frauds threaten me with fire and brimstone if I don’t convert to their brand of magical thinking.

The nice thing about this new guy is he actually listens to evidence, or at least he realizes that when I have contrary evidence it takes a lot more than some teenagers and their fairy tales to convert me. He began by trying to convince me that religion leads people to be more altruistic until I found empirical evidence to the contrary (theists and atheists are just as likely to be altruistic). He also tried to argue that spirituality helps people reach their true potential, but I pointed out that since I began therapy I’ve gotten back to school, back on the dean’s list, offers for scholarships and graduate programs, and a job offer. Obviously secular therapy with a secular humanist helps me with my problems just fine. (Pristiq helps, too.)

One thing these folks seem adamant about is that their received wisdom is the only certain knowledge in the world, which I thought was rather amusing because they were never able to offer me any proof that it was certain. (I like to think that being a clear-headed individual I would convert in an instant to any religion that could offer me proof that their belief system was indubitable.) Really, I think spirituality is less certain than science. Science at least uses some form of logic, whereas spirituality is all about people receiving magical telepathic messages from extradimensional beings. Call me crazy for believing in microscopes and graduated cylinders over telepathy.

Anyway, the point is that if you are a believer of any sort of supernatural or pseudoscientific/pseudohistorical mumbo-jumbo trying to convince a non-believer that what you believe is true, you’re probably going to need some empirical evidence that is universal and easily quantifiable. You may like to live by your gut, but when leaders trust their gut we tend to find nothing but senseless wars and economic catastrophe. Maybe it’s time to give reason a try. As Richard A. Weatherwax once said, “You don’t need the Bible to justify love, but I know of no better tool to justify hate.”

The amazing properties of Chinese purple

So I’ve been celebrating my Spring Break by geeking out and watching PBS and National Geographic documentaries on Netflix. I’ve always been a big Nova fan, but now I’m starting to get into the newer series Secrets of the Dead. I just watched an episode of the latter about the ancient Chinese terracotta warriors and learned something interesting about a rather popular ancient Chinese synthetic pigment. It’s called Chinese purple and its origins are most likely rooted in ancient Chinese alchemy. The theory advanced in this episode of Secrets of the Dead is that it was first created in experiments to synthesize jade, which the ancient Chinese believed to bring immortality (I guess it was the ancient eastern version of the philosopher’s stone). Anyway, the evidence for this argument is that the chemical composition of Chinese purple is identical to the chemical composition of a form of synthetic jade from that period known as Chinese glass.

Being more well-versed in Egyptology that ancient eastern anthropology, I was familiar with a similar pigment, Egyptian blue, but this Chinese purple stuff seems a lot cooler because of an interesting discovery.

A physicist inserted a sample of Chinese purple into the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory’s 45-Tesla/32mm Hybrid Magnet’s core (the world’s strongest magnet) and super-cooled it in order to analyze its physical properties and found that at extreme temperatures the pigment actually loses its third dimension! Not being a physics expert (but having been raised by one, if that counts for anything) I had heard that stuff such as this was theoretically possible, but I didn’t think it had ever been observed (some scrounging on the internet confirms that this is the first time such a miraculous occurrence has been experimentally observed). Being a computer nerd, I’m quite excited about what this could mean for the future of computing. (Secrets of the Dead tells us it also has some bearing on rail travel, if you’re a real nerd.)

More about Han purple and super-science.

CLass schedule for the fall semester

Just signed up for classes for next fall! Here’s the schedule:

  • Writing Theory and Practice for Consultants
  • Fiction Writing III
  • Spinoza
  • Ethical Theory
  • Intro to Physical Anthropology (w/ lab)

Strangely enough, I’m most excited about the physical anthropology course. I’m a nerd for anthropology. I probably should have majored in it.

The most obnoxious form of pseudoknowledge

So a lot of people call me an angry skeptic, because I get really frustrated with mumbo-jumbologists when they refuse to listen to reason and properly examine evidence. My problem is that I used to have a lot of fantastic beliefs, particularly of the occult kind, but once I learned more about science and history and what have you I realized that those beliefs were silly. The way I see it is if I can do it, why can’t they?

Anyway, nothing gets me pissed off more than the theory that human history was intervened upon by some sort of super-advanced race (either a previous terrestrial civilization or ancient astronauts). Until recently I tried to play along with folks when they brought this sort of jazz up, and I actually have at least two friends who believe this nonsense (although they disagree as to whether it was aliens or a lost civilization). However, I just started watching Season 3 of Is It Real? and it started off with an Atlantis episode and also includes an ancient astronaut episode, and I’m at my wit’s end. In my opinion, these people are not only deluded, but they are suffering from an extreme inferiority complex. The tacit premise in every one of these theories is that humans really aren’t all that smart. No way primitive Meso-Americans could have built complex cities or Egyptians could have built massive monuments. Humans are really the special needs kids in the class. How down on yourself do you have to be to believe this nonsense?

I’m especially offended as an artist and writer by these self-deprecating morons. Another tacit premise in their argument is that the human imagination simply isn’t expansive enough to create these myths; apparently humans (or at least early humans) were devoid of concepts of symbolism and metaphor and were completely incapable of advance visual stylization techniques. In other words, they had no aesthetic sense whatsoever. Preposterous! The human mind seems virtually custom-made to imagine things. Look at the nutjobs who believe in ancient aliens! If they can come up with something as absurd as pyramid energy with nothing to go on but some bizarre intuition, why couldn’t the ancients dream up beings from the sky? Myths were essentially the proto-science and proto-philosophy all rolled into one enchilada: they served to explain, predict, and instruct in the absence of more advanced forms of knowledge. They also had some entertainment value. A lot of myths are based on a kernel of truth, I’ll admit that, but they are usually so far divorced from that truth that it is absurd to interpret them as anything other than symbolic fables.

I am especially shocked that these people have apparently never studied any form of classical studies or anthropology. Before I switched to philosophy, I was studying art and classical studies and intended to go into either philology or archaeology. I’ve actually studied Egyptology at a legit academic institution with legit classics scholars; I’ve translated texts (well, photos of massive stone blocks) explaining how the Egyptians built the pyramids. It all makes sense to me. Was this some massive ancient conspiracy to take credit for extraterrestrial beings’ doings? I doubt it. Why can’t these pseudohistorians give credit where credit is due?

The only conclusion I’m forced to draw about these people is that they have a thought disorder of some form, perhaps a relatively benign form of psychosis. Not everyone who believes nonsense has a thought disorder; I used to believe that the Egyptians had advanced technology that we don’t know about. However, once I learned more about ancient Egypt, I realized that this was a childish fantasy not fit for academic circles. Reason and evidence caused me to see the light; why doesn’t it work for them? Mental illness is the only explanation for people who don’t give up ludicrous beliefs when presented with sound evidence to the contrary. This is the very reason I believe in a more outspoken (some would say aggressive) form of skepticism: we need to help these disturbed individuals live better lives.

Pretty decent paranormal TV show

So I was scrounging on Netflix yesterday looking for more paranormal TV shows to ridicule when I found a pretty good one that ran on the National Geographic Channel from 2005-2007 called Is It Real? It’s not your usual paranormal show in that it actually includes real legit skeptics giving their explanations for all the mumbo-jumbo that believers spout. So far I’ve seen all of Season 1 and the first episode of Season 2 (I watched it all day yesterday instead of doing my homework, which I am doing now…). The way the show is structured is they have believers talk their nonsense for a bit and they present the evidence from the believer camp, then they let the skeptics loose and the skeptics end up tearing the believers’ arguments to shreds. Pretty fun, actually, except some of the people in it seem genuinely disturbed. Particularly the woman who was friends with a whole tribe of English-speaking Sasquatches. And “Pam,” the alien abductee who wishes it wasn’t real but won’t listen to reason to save her peace of mind. I also enjoy the fact that they present people with scientific backgrounds who believe in this nonsense, such as the “physicist” from the TM university and the biologist who believes in telepathic animals and something called a “morphic field” (still not sure what the hell that’s supposed to be). It’s a great study in various forms of confirmation bias, ad hoc hypothesizing, post hoc hypothesizing, and various other logical problems. I especially like it when the believers fail to perform on an experiment and come up with rationalizations for why their magic doesn’t work in the presence of skeptics. Anyway, I highly recommend it as a good introduction to various debates in the battle between science and magic. They leave out some major key points in a few of the episodes, but I have a feeling that that’s mostly a time constraint since they only have 45 minutes to provide a rough overview of the state of the given topic as it stands at the time the show was made. Still, it’s pretty good and worth watching.

Doomsday averted! (Oh-oh-oh)

So things are looking up! I was freaking out after getting shitty grades on my last philosophy assignments (or what I deem as shitty, which is basically anything that isn’t perfect) and worrying about my Philosophy of Language paper which I was supposed to have back by now. When I wrote it I felt good about it even though it took me no more than an hour and a half (I knew exactly what to say), but I also felt good about that exam that I got a B+ on in Theory of Knowledge, so in my depressive funk I was freaking out and thinking I got an F- on this paper. Anyway, I emailed my professor and she told me I got an A+, which makes me especially happy since she grades on a 4.3-point scale and even though it doesn’t actually show in my official transcript I like it when professors acknowledge an exceptional grasp of the material (I may not be a whiz philosopher, but my verbal IQ is so high that I could probably write my own dictionary so I’m down with this philosophy of language jazz). On top of that, I’m all over every single one of these study questions for the midterm tomorrow. Motherfucker, I’ma dominate this class!

Funny how the mood changes. It might also have something to do with the fact that I started taking my meds again. (I was broke and couldn’t afford them.) Either way, I’m no longer anti-world. (For now.)

(It’s the only one I could find!)

The world is a terrible place

SO I disappeared there for a while! These things happen. I’ve been going through a really crazy existential funk. Basically I’m losing my appreciation for the academic world, which is the only place I ever really fit in, so I’m working on trying to find my place in the world, which is causing lots of depression. The good news is that I got a new writing project out of it. It’s another novel (I’m still working on the other one; that’s actually what I’m doing right now), and I think I may post the tentative first chapter here once I’ve fixed a few things. (It’s more of a brief introduction.)

In other news, I’ve been slacking off on my studies just to see how much I can get away with. I found out that English professors are oblivious to slackerliness, whereas philosophy professors can spot it a mile away and punish it (I got B+s on an exam I didn’t study for in Theory of Knowledge and a paper I didn’t do all the reading for in History of Modern Philosophy, whereas in my English classes I’m writing my papers literally hours before they’re due and not proof-reading them and getting A+s). I should be working on a paper for a writing class right now, but instead I think I’m going to watch some shitty History Channel “documentary” about UFOs, which I intend to write about later. I don’t like being a slacker, but it’s hard to work when you’re incredibly depressed, especially when you can get away with it and not have any negative repercussions. (I have resolved to work harder in my philosophy classes, and intend to study for my Philosophy of Language midterm for a considerable chunk of time tonight and tomorrow morning.)

To make matters worse, I had a dream last night that an ex that I’ve never completely gotten over was killed and replaced by a really obnoxious doppelganger who seemed to embody the antithesis of everything I loved about the real woman. I’m sure any psychologist reading this would have some things to say about that. (Incidentally, she was killed by a cute fuzzy bunny and a really adorable cartoon penguin. For reals. I wonder what that means?) Anyway, the point is I woke up wanting to shoot my subconscious mind in the face. It’s times like this that I envy the lobotomized. Life would be much easier if we were all mindless drones.

Anyway, since I know I have a few friends who check in here just to see how I’m doing, I thought I’d post an update. More to come soon (hopefully).