Souls and justice

So being a good atheist, I’m celebrating Easter by writing a paper for class about why atheists are qualified to hold public office. It’s for a literacy class and I’m supposed to demonstrate public literacy by writing about a public debate and I chose the debate over whether or not atheists should hold office. 50% of Americans say no.

Anyway, for my paper I’ve interviewed a few atheists and theists about their opinions on the issue, and one person in particular really made me chuckle a little. He said that atheists are not entitled to belief in justice, because in order to believe in justice on needs to believe in equality, and the only way to believe that people are “created” equal is to believe in a soul. This raises at least on major question: what exactly is a soul?

According to my theist frienemy, a soul is the root of the intellect, emotion, and creativity. This sounds a whole lot like a mind to me, which is one of the things which has always confused me about souls. If one’s soul is simply one’s mind, what do you say about people who suffer a traumatic brain injury and undergo drastic mental or personality changes afterwards? What about folks with schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s? If, however, the soul is not the mind, then what relevance does it have? If we can’t see any evidence of it, how do we know it’s actually always their, or that it’s the same soul we were born (“created”) with? How do we know my soul isn’t currently flying over into my brother’s body on the other side of the room? These are some questions you need to answer if you posit the existence of an immaterial soul.

As for the belief in justice, any good atheist–such as my friend, Tony, whom I interviewed right after this theist–will tell you that what makes people equal is not a soul but our capacity for emotions, empathy, and sensation of pain. Most people are capable of the same basic emotions as everyone else, and everyone has the same basic reactions to some of them: by definition, everyone likes pleasure and no one likes being depressed. Sure, there are rare disorders like anhedonia and congenitive analgesia which prevent people from enjoying (or suffering, in the case of CA) the whole range of human experience, but these folks–particularly folks with anhedonia–are not lesser in any way, because they can still feel other emotions. (Also, anhedonia in particular is usually just a symptom of a larger problem, which can usually be treated, so these people still have the capacity for pleasure.)

So, in a nutshell: souls are silly, and atheists believe in equality. If you doubt that latter fact, just remind yourself that Amnesty International is founded on what is essentially an atheistic philosophy. They don’t appeal to God for the good work they do: they’re just humanists helping humans.

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.

Light and dark

So I’m watching some Ghost Hunters and I’ve gotta say that these silly paranormal “reality” shows are like crack: bad for the brain but highly addictive. Anyway, there’s something that always bugs me every time I see one of these shows: why the hell do they have to do their “investigations” in the dark???

I’m no believer, so I can’t say whether the people who buy into this mumbo-jumbo attribute some sort of magical or paranormal properties to darkness and low-light conditions. However, when they do their little tours of the “hot spots” it is clear that the alleged paranormal activity occurs just as often in daylight conditions (at least at most of these locations). The only explanation I can think of is that they’re priming themselves to have “personal experiences.”

Think about it: humans are usually hardwired to rely mainly on their sense of sight. By crippling the primary sense, these spook-chasers are taking themselves out of their native element. It doesn’t take any sort of genius to realize that when you’re in a low-light condition you mind can play all sorts of tricks on you. Humans just aren’t constructed to do well in the dark. I am generally more at home in the dark than most, and I’m also the polar opposite of a believer, yet when I’m watching a movie with the lights out or going for a walk at night because I can’t sleep I’m always seeing and hearing all sorts of bizarre shit. Ever notice how most of the stuff they claim they see is never caught on camera? It’s because it isn’t really there. It’s a trick of the mind operating in a slightly more paranoid state than usual due to the fact that it’s basically a fish out of water.

Darkness is always creepy for humans; add to it the fact that these people know they are in a location that is reputed to be haunted and they’re primed even further. I’ve always wanted to do a simple experiment: find a bunch of people, split them into two groups, have each group spend the night in the same house (at different times) but tell one group the house is haunted and tell the other that there’s nothing unusual about it (make up some excuse for having them spend the night in the house like a study of conflicting personalities in room mates). I’m willing to bet that in the experimental group (the one which was told that the house was haunted) you would find significantly more reports of paranormal activity than in the control group. I suppose you could run this experiment twice: once with a reportedly haunted house and once with a house that has no history of paranormal reports.

Anyway, the fact of the matter is this: even a diehard skeptic is gonna get freaked out and see/hear all sorts of jazz when you put them in a dark location and tell them scary campfire stories about that place. It’s simple psychology.

Some thoughts on ghosts

I was saving this for tomorrow, but I have big plans for a book I want to review for this site (spoiler: it’s about enneagrams) so I’m moving it up to a New Year’s Eve spectacular post. Huzzah!

When I was a young’un, I was a big believer in ghosts. I suffer from a wide variety of sleeping problems, including hypnagogic hallucinations and sleep paralysis disorder. When I was a kid I used to have recurring hallucinations at night or early in the morning of pressings or mutilated women or family members haunting me, and I was convinced these were real ghosts. This is excusable seeing as how I was in elementary school at the time and also still thought that a fat man in a red suit could visit every child in America in one night. When I was twelve, a doctor explained to me what was going on and that was that.

However, I see the allure of ghosts. If ghosts exist, that is pretty solid evidence for some sort of life after death. It’s perfectly human to be afraid of the end of all consciousness and anyone in their mind is going to spend a lot of time coming to terms with this big, scary idea. It would be wicked awesome if we could be sure that some sort of essence or spirit of ours could possibly go on existing once all the neurons in our brain stopped firing. However, I have serious problems with the whole school of ghostlore, and I think people who believe in them (which is more than a third of Americans) are being highly irrational and simply don’t know enough about science.

First of all, how could a ghost possibly make a sound such as knocking on a wall or disembodied footsteps? What mechanism would be at work here that would allow an incorporeal, immaterial entity to interact with the material world? Isn’t it more likely that these phenomena have material, natural explanations and that incidences of disembodied sounds are simply cases of people misinterpreting natural phenomena and finding meaning where there is none? The same goes for voices. Most of the time it’s probably a non-human sound which the listener misinterprets by recognizing patterns that aren’t really there. Other times it could easily be explained by overactive imaginations or even hallucinations. It’s more likely that some portion of the population is deceiving itself than that the entire mainstream scientific community is wrong about fundamental physics.

Again, how do these spirits interact with the real world? How could an incorporeal being move an object or grab onto a human’s arm? Is it psychokinesis? Is the soul simply the mind? If so, how does the mental interact with the physical? As I recall from my philosophy of mind class, dualism has some major issues…

I know some people claim that ghosts use energy to do their jazz, but by which mechanisms do they channel this energy? In case you flunked physics, energy is a natural phenomenon, and to me it appears that ghosts, if they exist, exist outside of the natural world (hence science being unable to verify their existence). How can a non-natural entity utilize natural mechanisms?

The only explanation for ghosts that I can think of is magic. Simply put, if you believe in ghosts, you believe in magic. I see absolutely no difference between believing that disembodied spirits can interact with the real world and believing that I can kill someone by waving a stick at them and shouting “Avada Kedavra!” If you’re okay with that, go on believing. If you know more about physics than I do and can think of a way in which ghosts can interact with our world, please feel free to leave a comment. However, if anyone reading this thinks they can rationalize belief in spooks and spectres, I think you might want to bring your theories up with James Randi first; he just may have a million dollars for you.

Ghost Hunters: Even worse than Ghost Adventures

I have been studying the popular “reality” series Ghost Hunters and have come to the conclusion that it is even worse than the ludicrously moronic knock-off series, Ghost Adventures. How, you may ask, could anything be worse than a bunch of superstitious testosterone junkies making asses of themselves by acting macho for their imaginary friends on a cable channel no self-respecting person would ever watch? My answer: Ghost Hunters is misleading.

No sane person would ever take Ghost Adventures seriously. Anyone with an IQ above 80 can tell by watching just five minutes of that laugh-a-thon that those dudes are just delusional freaks who are apparently not entirely secure in their sexualities (I’m looking at you, Zak). Ghost Hunters, however, misleads its viewers, as well as the people featured on the show, into believing that they are critical thinkers who attempt for a rational explanation. They do this by making sure to drop the word “debunk” in a supportive light at every possible opportunity. (The fact that they say “debunk” should be a blip on your woo-dar, since most skeptics don’t use that word and consider it derogatory. “Explain” or “demystify” is how I say it.)

I have now seen the first four seasons of this silly little charade and am on episode 6 of the fifth, and I can think of only two episodes where they didn’t explicitly leave open the possibility that the location in question could be haunted. This is ridiculous. They lie to their viewers by claiming to exercise critical thinking skills when any serious analytical reasoner would never jump to the conclusion that a location is haunted without substantial empirical evidence. Not one of these shows presents any sort of replicable evidence; it’s all subjective experience. This is the biggest problem with the “participant-observer” approach to anomalistic research: data are not collected in a scientific manner, they are not replicable, and they are contaminated with subjective validation.

I also take issues with all of these “theories” they advertise. They sound like theories in that if they were validated they would both explain and predict, which are precisely the things that theories are supposed to do. However, what they don’t tell you is that their “theories” make absolutely no sense to anyone who has even a moderate amount of knowledge of physics. The big one goes like this: disembodied spirits of the dead draw energy from their environment to do shit. This makes absolutely no sense in that they seem to not know what energy really is. The ghosts in Ghost Hunters seem to choose either electrical energy or heat energy depending on which is available, but no apparatus for how they channel and then use this energy is proposed. One nut-job tried telling me that ghosts are made of energy, which makes even less sense because it confuses the scientific concept of energy with the New Age concept of vital energy/qi/prana/ki/animal magnetism/subtle energy. The New Age concepts of energy have been tested numerous times, and there is absolutely no scientific evidence that they exist in any way, shape, or form. I urge New Agers to look “energy” up in a dictionary and tell me how ghosts could be made of this jazz without us being able to measure them.

I also get annoyed with how often they refer to their “evidence.” This is clearly meant to mislead the viewing audience into thinking they are searchers for truth who collect data and then weigh it objectively and rationally. Anyone who thinks that dead folks can somehow interact with the real world is clearly not thinking rationally, and our capactiy for rational thought it was makes us so great. Use it, folks! (I won’t get into why believing in spooks and spectres is irrational; I plan on writing a separate post on just that topic in the next few days.)

In conclusion, I would like to propose a new show: real skeptics with real degrees really study allegedly haunted locations and come up with rational, physics-based (or psychology-based, as need be) explanations for all the alleged paranormal activity in these locations. I would watch that shit.