Tuesday, March 31, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Leaps of Faith: Science, Miracles, and the Search for Supernatural Consolation

In Leaps of Faith: Science, Miracles, and the Search for Supernatural Consolation, psychology professor Nicholas Humphrey accomplishes a brief but thorough debunking of psychics, mediums, spoon-benders, and a whole host of supposedly paranormal phenomena. This is not a detailed examination of attempts to test and measure such phenomena, but a broad and philosophical view, pointing out the ridiculousness of the whole psychic show. Humphrey writes, “I think the search for the paranormal is all a big mistake. Sad to say, there has never yet been an authentic example of soul-power worth the name. The phenomena never pass muster. Their promoters always emerge with egg on their faces, with their hand in the till, or whatever other cliché suits the case” (p. 114).

The writing style is a bit chatty, and at first I worried this might become verbose. But his style quickly turned out to be disarming, as I found myself having picked up knowledge about theories of the paranormal without even realizing it was happening. This is easy reading that will make you think.


One key point is that people want to believe in psychic phenomena because they want to be able to reject materialism. They want to believe that the mind or spirit is something beyond the body, that the self can survive death, and that there is a realm of the spirit beyond matter and energy. As Humphrey puts it, they want “to get their souls back from science.” Psychic phenomena offer evidence, if not proof, that there is a great beyond. This also works in the opposite direction, as believing that mind or soul are some essence other than matter and energy all but  demands observable psychic phenomena. “Once a person has arrived at this dualist model of what it is to be a human being, it is certain to be a powerful enabler of paranormal belief across the board” (p. 195).

Another key point, and one I must confess I never thought of, is the perfect ridiculousness of the claims that are made about the supernatural. Humphrey asks us not to accept the hypotheses advanced by believers as the hypotheses that need to be tested. Instead, he asks us to step back and ask if the proposed hypotheses make any sense at all. If we think about it, we realize that the claims about supernatural suffer from “unwarranted design,” meaning they are too contrived and impractical to be credible. In other words, they are hopelessly theatrical.

I had to think about it for a while before I realized what a potent indictment of the supernatural this is. What possible usefulness is there in bending spoons, identifying photographs enclosed in an envelope, or guiding the gullible through past-life regressions? Would not people with any significant degree of such abilities enrich and empower themselves beyond ordinary people’s dreams? Imagine yourself a political candidate with the ability to know your opponent’s darkest secrets, or to win more often than lose at predicting stock or commodity futures, or to be able to unlock doors and safes with the power of the mind! The common paranormal claims are obvious rubbish compared to what at least some human beings would do if they had such powers.

In a few places, Humphrey overplays his hand. He attempts to define the paranormal as violating basic logic across the board, and here I think he is trapped by his own certainty in the materialist view of the universe. He is probably right in saying it is plainly irrational to imagine that someone could control the numbers that would result from a throw of dice, simply because of the detailed and precise forces that would have to be applied in the realm of the physical in order to accomplish such a feat. But if the paranormal phenomenon in question involves only communication between two minds, and if it is true that mind is a phenomenon of spirit rather than of matter and energy, then such reasoning could not be applied. Humphrey acknowledges that some experts would fault him on this point.

Overall, Leaps of Faith is well worth reading for anyone interested in beliefs about the supernatural.

Leaps of Faith: Science, Miracles, and the Search for Supernatural Consolation, by Nicholas Humphrey. New York: Basic Books (1996). ISBN 0-465-08044-8.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Telling Our Stories

Travis Thompson put together some thoughts on belief and challenged others to share their personal stories

One day I started to think: Why is it that my religion is the right one? Why do I get the privilege of going to heaven while much of the rest of the world has to burn for eternity? These individuals were just being taught what their parents and culture taught them.

What kind of deity would create us and limit us to just believing in one total solution to the endgame of life? And better yet, that solution is only limited to certain parts of the world. This just can not
 be right. Either I'm right and the rest of the world is wrong, they're right and I'm wrong, we're all right or we're all wrong. What are the odds that I am correct in my belief while any other individual who does not believe what I believe is going to be tortured in hell.***

Then I started to think even more. Why would this omnipotent being even want to send individuals to such a place of torment? There was a time before I was born where there was nothing. Wouldn't a more reasonable solution be to just send individuals back to this place if they do not belong in your "Kingdom". Nope, that's not enough, these individuals must BURN for ETERNITY. What kind of all-loving god would do this? Not one that I want to worship, that's for sure. At this point, I rejected all religion and took on a new philosophy on life. This quote sums it up.

"Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but ... will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones."

This is my story of how I became an atheist. Feel free to share yours if you'd like.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Sloppy Biology Does Not Make Good Philosophy

"Aeginura grimaldii by Ernst Haeckel
On March 16th, I attended a talk hosted by the Tulane Philosophy Club. Our speaker, Ilya Dubovoy, a medical student at Tulane, attempted to explain some potential problems with the current understanding of Evolutionary Theory, especially in terms of the randomness or tailored-ness of genetic mutation in response to environmental stress or change.

I was left completely nonplussed by the talk. Its essence was a set of claims about evolution, which is to say about biological science, so why was it presented in a forum on philosophy? It is not at all clear why anyone would expect a vague and preliminary idea about evolutionary biochemistry to inform the field of philosophy. And beyond the basics of epistemology – which were not discussed – it is not clear what philosophy could bring to an observational and experimental issue in science. The speaker had to take some criticism, but that would have been far harsher from an audience of biologists, and I could not help but suspect that he was seeking friendlier shores for a concept he knew would be met with intense skepticism by its proper audience.


The kernel of an idea that I was able to extract from the talk is that there is, perhaps, evidence that a tendency for genetic change (mutation) is sometimes directed toward narrow parts of the genome (an organism’s set of genes) in specified response to particular environmental changes or stress. Dubovoy used the unfortunately loaded term “teleology” to describe this tendency, but I think those of us who are involved in creationism-evolution debates have to be careful not to overreact to that. He seemed to mean by “teleology” that environmental changes somehow direct a tendency to mutate toward sections of the genome that are relevant to that environmental change, and not to imply the usual creationist miscomprehension of evolution, in which “teleology” means that evolution accumulates changes over centuries or millennia toward some future form or other biological goal.

To make this idea of directed mutation more than just the earliest stages of a preliminary notion, Dubovoy would have to propose a host of additional details. By what mechanisms do changes in the environment generate molecular (chemical) signals identifying those changes to a cell, organism, or population? How and where are those molecular signals interpreted as referring to or implicating a particular, narrow section of the genome? What physical-chemical processes then bring about mutations in the implicated section of the genome? Most importantly, is he proposing that this mechanism generically increases mutation in the implicated portion of the genome, or that it somehow narrows or pre-selects those mutations to fit the signaled environmental changes (a critical detail about which he was frustratingly vague)?

It was difficult to understand how many of Dubovoy’s points were supposed to relate to his kernel of an idea. He seemed to think there was something dramatically new and threatening to evolutionary theory in the fact that individual organisms sometimes form cooperative groups, that chemical signaling may activate or deactivate the expression of existing genes, that lateral transfer of genes sometimes happens between species, or that mutation is random only in the sense of “unpredictable,” and not in the sense of “evenly distributed.” None of these facts are news to evolutionary biologists, and none of them imply a problem with the existing theory of evolution, at least not insofar as Dubovoy was able to clarify.

Dubovoy explicitly denied being a creationist, and made no directly creationist claims. However, it seems to me that his proposed “teleology” comes far closer to creationism than he himself realizes. Like creationists, he is claiming that micro-evolution, the slow accumulation of small, undirected changes over long periods of time, is insufficient to explain the diversity of life we see around the world today and in the fossil record. And like creationists, he is hopelessly vague about the supposed limits of micro-evolution, refusing to quantify what micro-evolution can and cannot do, or how his proposal of more directed mutation supplies the missing quantity.

Perhaps, in some years, he’ll have thought this out more carefully.
~Jim Dugan

Friday, March 13, 2015

A Dangerous Kind of Good: Adventures on the Northshore

Photo by John Stringer
On Thursday night March 12, John Stringer and Clint Crain became “part-time” ambassadors for the NOSHA crowd as they accepted an invitation from a Northshore church to attend a dinner event that was proposed as an opportunity to have some dialogue with non-believers in the community. These are their stories:

John Stringer
I and one other member of NOSHA attended the “Why Does It Matter” Men’s Dinner at St. Timothy on the North Shore Methodists Church. The speaker Stuart McAllister was your basic Glasgow Scotland thug who found Jesus after dating a Christian Girl. This changed his life and now he goes around the world speaking about life with Jesus and his pseudo rational approach to the gospel for a fee.

He emphasized his personal relationship with Jesus and does not value the Bible as you would think. A question and answer session followed his speech and I got a chance at the microphone and said “25,000 children starve to death everyday on average in the world. What good is it when you have a god that doesn't answer to the dying innocents?”

Mr. McAllister did not understand my question or else he side stepped it and basically said he did not know why God would allow the evil of children starving to death. His son who was with him stood to add that such tragedies were a result of man's own evil doing and the consequences of free will and evil being in the world. I didn't ask a follow up question. Other topics that were addressed in the Q and A was “Why is god invisible” and “Is Mahatma Gandhi in heaven or hell." An interesting quote that stood out for me was the speaker said “God is a dangerous kind of good”.


This was an all men's group. The women of the church cooked the food, fixed our plates and brought it to us, but we had to get our own tea. I did detect a small, very small amount of reaching out for honest dialogue. I imagine this is coming from the hierarchy of the church who realize a great shift is taking place in America toward secularism and they must prepare their flock for exposure to the coming storm of reason.

There were very few young people at the meeting, which was encouraging. The 25 and under crowd don't seem to be buying into the Christian myth. McAllister's answer was life can't really have full meaning unless a person finds Jesus and can plan on living in heaven for eternity. Nothing really new there, but it was fun. The food gets 3.5 stars. The preaching gets a 1/2 star and Q and A session gets 1.5 stars. There will be another meeting like this next year.

Clint CrainThis was kind of a shot in the dark for me. Going into the event, I had hopes of a more intimate gathering with a little more back and forth interaction. I know of the church, but really had no idea of the number of people that would be present. I did know that I was going to be in the minority as a religious skeptic. 

After arriving, all hope for direct interaction was lost. The room was laid out in a manner that reminded me of a high school talent show. The crowd was made up of men and a small number of women working as coordinators. It wasn't long after arriving that the dinner was brought out and the main speaker took to the stage. He began by talking about his childhood of being brought up in a “nonreligious” home in Ireland and by the age of twenty he became a faithful Christian.

Moving on chronologically, he began to speak about his journey to find reason in his life. At this point, he spoke about thinking of Islam and Judaism, but did not give a reason for his rejection of those ideologies. Pushing to find meaning and purpose became to central topic as he started a PowerPoint of biblical verses mostly from the Old Testament and philosophical quotation.

I found myself at this point looking for the answer to the title question as I interpreted it. What does it matter? This question was ‘what does faith matter’ in my mind, but he was alluding to what does life matter? Faith gave him purpose, but I keep asking why one needs that “purpose” to begin with. We all struggle with finding a self-identity, but to think that there must be some greater plot to abide by seems beyond me.

The Q and A was a high point. The question, “Why doesn't God help the starving children throughout the world?” was quickly swatted with, “I don’t know why there is suffering.” My two questions were about the quality of the biblical God’s character. “How can a book that condones mass slaughter, slavery, and rape be seen as a book of guidance?” was answered with “God changed in the New Testament area.” Then, “If God is a jealous god (Deuteronomy 4:24) and jealousy is a sin (Galatians 5:20), then isn’t god a sinner?” was answered by “God’s jealousy is different.”

All and all it was a nice event.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Thoughts on Darwin Day By Marty Banks

After a long hiatus, NOSHA teamed up with the Department of Anthropology at Tulane University under the direction of NOSHA Vice President and Tulane Adjunct Instructor Jim Dugan to return the annual tribute to the work and legacy of Charles Darwin to the Tulane campus this year. Each year similar gatherings take place virtually worldwide, with most organizers using Darwin’s birthday, February 12, as the date to plan around. In New Orleans, the timing more often than not conflicts with Mardi Gras festivities and is usually scheduled weeks or even a month after the “official” day.


The carefree spirit of the Carnival season did nothing to diminish the educational experience that some 90 participants in attendance were exposed to in the four and a half hour presentation, but those expecting “Evolution 101”, or rote historical recaps of Darwin’s life probably regretted leaving their scratch pads and pencils behind, because each of the four speakers offered presentations about as diverse as possible without abandoning the general theme of Darwin and his contributions altogether. The opening speaker, Dr. Steven Darwin (probably related, he assured us), introduced the listeners to the concept of invasive species, those life forms that are not native to a geographical area or island, but once introduced into the new environment can thrive, often and the expense of native fauna or flora. This fact is interesting as a retort to the theistic creation-style notion of teleological-design, or environments “fine tuned” for certain species, rather than the the life form evolving and adapting to the environment in which it finds itself.

Professors C. Mark Phillips from UNO’s Department of Philosophy and Marc Zender of Tulane’s Anthropology Department applied the idea of evolution in broader senses. Phillips approached the “evolution” and development of the philosophical analyses of the concept of self identity—from Rene’ Descartes (I think, therefore I am) and Hume, who claimed the “self” was nothing more than the collection of perceptions an individual is experiencing at a given time — to Darwin himself, who Phillips called the "Father of Psychology", establishing that self-conscious animals are driven to find out who and what they are. Religion has been from the earliest days of humanity a part of the equation of self-identity asserted Phillips, giving the individual a sense of connection with the rest of the cosmos, which is what makes it very hard to escape for most people.

The concluding presentation was made by NOSHA VP Jim Dugan, but not before he performed the double- and triple-duty functions the lead organizer is often required to fill — greeter, Master of Ceremonies, and extra seating procurer for the overflow crowd. The extracurricular chores did nothing to lessen the liveliness of his discussion about the growth in the size and sophistication of the Christian textbook industry.

From the meager and overly-simplistic library of titles just several decades ago, Dugan said the business has grown to dozens of publishers, including the better known Abeka, Bob Jones University, and Christian Liberty Press, printing a full list of titles for elementary and secondary school classrooms. The increased demand for this material likely came from the explosion of the homeschooling movement in the ‘80s, and an improved academic polish of the materials was becoming a necessity to gloss over the dependence on Biblical text as the ultimate foundation of all historical and scientific truths. Understanding that the creation story, taken literally, is irreconcilable with Darwin’s theory, textbook writers and editors have been forced to cobble a complex index of “Evolution Straw Men” arguments, along with other informal fallacies and specious reasonings, said Dugan, not as proof of their own creation tale, but as attempts to discredit Darwinism. The conflation of the evolution of life forms with an imagined “Theory of Everything” (that all things, from elementary particles, to the grand history of the development of the cosmos) as one and the same process is an obvious misrepresentation of the basic theory, but is often used as an attempt to show a weakness inherent in evolutionary science. Another prestidigitation popular with Christian authors is disproof by way of the Young Earth model—convincing, obviously, if one is taught and believes the Earth is only thousands, and not billions, of years old. Other tired tropes of anti-Darwinism include the “Missing Link”; and the uni-directional progression of development (think Great Chain of Being), in contrast to the ‘branching’ model Darwin’s proposal establishes.

Something resembling comic relief was in order for concluding a program with such weighty themes and was provided in the form of some short clips from several campy Christian youth oriented videos. The variety of topics chosen by the speakers was a tribute to the educational function NOSHA tries serving in the community interest, and to this end the event was an unqualified success. Thanks to everyone who made this possible!

~Marty Bankson