Posts Tagged ‘New Age’

(For the last few months we’ve been running the best posts from years past, posts that will be new to most of our subscribers. This one is from early 2014. We’ll be posting more blasts from the past for the next several months, and will intersperse them with new material.)

Any system of ideas with an abstraction at its center—an abstraction which assigns you a role or duties—is an ideology. An ideology provides those who accept it with a false consciousness, a necessary component of which is other-directedness. This leads those who accept the ideology to behave as “objects” rather than “subjects,” to allow themselves to be used rather than to act to attain their own desires. The various ideologies are all structured around different abstractions, yet all serve the interests of a dominant (or aspiring dominant) class by giving individuals a sense of purpose in sacrifice, suffering, and submission.
The Revolutionary Pleasure of Thinking for Yourself, by Anonymous

Contrary to what the anonymous authors of The Revolutionary Pleasure of Thinking for Yourself  state, there are other types of ideologies. Some make no demands on you (other than for money), but instead promise you the world for doing nothing, simply because you’re so special. The clearest examples of this type of ideology are New Ageism and Prosperity Gospel theology.

New Age and Prosperity Gospel peddlers promote an inverted, solipsistic ideology in which individuals are posited as being “totally responsible” for their own circumstances, because of their thoughts—in other words, if they simply want something badly enough (usually money), it will come to them. To put this another way—one which New Age and Prosperity Gospel hustlers themselves use—people who are rich and healthy choose to be rich and healthy.

The problems with this assertion are so obvious that even pundits and preachers occasionally notice them: most blatantly, that if the rich choose to be rich, the poor must also choose to be poor, children with brain cancer choose to have brain cancer, and six million Jews chose to be murdered by the Nazis.

This type of childish magical thinking serves the interests of those at the top of socio-economic heap in several ways: it divorces the individual from social context; it allows the rich and powerful to feel smug about being rich and powerful; it induces self-loathing in the poor and oppressed; and it actively discourages the poor and oppressed from taking action to improve their own lives.

While the inverted wish-fulfillment ideologies appear to differ radically from conventional, duty-specifying ideologies, they serve the same ends. They help only those at the top of the socio-economic dungheap and those clawing their way up it over the backs of everyone else — New Age and Prosperity Gospel hucksters and other parasites — not the terminally gullible who they’re swindling, nor anyone else.

* * *

Note:  Most of the above originally appeared in slightly different form as an addition I made anonymously to the See Sharp Press edition of The Revolutionary Pleasure of Thinking for Yourself.

A Narcissist Writes Letters, To Himself

It is a common practice in anger management to write letters to those you perceive in an ill light, but to never actually send them. It is also common practice to project your own unhappiness about your situation onto others as a means of avoiding blame. The Internet has conveniently combined these two activities in a service known as Yelp.

I don’t have a Yelp account registered, but that doesn’t prevent me from logging on and reading way much about people’s lives in the context of how much they like or don’t like Payless shoes.

Life got the better of me these last few days, and after an experience at the vet this morning, I found myself so incensed that I downloaded the Yelp app and wrote my first negative review.

Before sending it though, I took a step back and had lunch with a friend. We went to the…

View original post 1,131 more words





Excerpted from Spiritual Snake Oil: Fads & Fallacies in Pop Culture, by Chris Edwards





Rhonda Byrne’s mega-bestselling book, The Secret, is a fascinating read, but not because of the clarity of its writing or the power of its content. It’s fascinating because it’s a religion and marketing hybrid. Essentially, Byrne’s “secret” is just the old Christian prosperity gospel reworked to take most of the Christianity and references to god out so that the final product appeals to a greater number of people. Don’t worry though, all of the typical New Age elements—a misunderstanding of quantum theory, ramblings about vibrations, an appeal to mysterious sources, and statistical errors—are all present. However, the main theme of The Secret is not religion or New Age philosophy, but consumerism. The Secret, like indulgences, is the perfect product for the seller.

SecretThe assumption the authors make—there are many contributions by different writers scattered throughout the text by “Secret teachers”—is that the reader is not only stupid but horribly lazy. The Secret is not even a book in any conventional sense; it’s more of an elongated Hallmark greeting card. Assertions, backed up purely by anecdotal evidence, if any at all, leap from the decorated pages. The text is very short and very redundant. It’s the equivalent of cereal boxes containing kids’ cereals, which are only half-filled with colorful, non-nutritive sugar and bleached flour. But at least those boxes have a prize inside; put your hand inside The Secret and rummage around, and all you’ll pull out is a handful of fallacies.

Like the author of The Celestine Prophecy, Byrne wants the reader to believe that her Secret was both well-known by every ancient civilization and religion, and is heavily guarded by a powerful cabal. She writes:

I’d been given a glimpse of a Great Secret–The Secret to life. The glimpse came in a hundred-year-old book, given to me by my daughter Hayley. I began tracing The Secret back through history. I couldn’t believe all the people who knew this. They were the greatest people in history: Plato, Shakespeare, Newton, Hugo, Beethoven, Lincoln, Emerson, Edison, Einstein.

Incredulous, I asked, “Why doesn’t everyone know this?” (ix)

A few pages later, Dr. Denis Waitley answers Byrne’s question:

The leaders in the past who had The Secret wanted to keep the power and not share the power. They kept people ignorant of The Secret. People went to work, they did their job, they came home. They were on a treadmill with no power, because The Secret was kept in the few. (2)

Somewhere, I suppose, Secret knowers gather for an annual convention where they all whisper in each other’s ears and nod knowingly. So what is this Secret? (And yes, that sound you’re hearing is Edison and Einstein, both atheists, grinding what’s left of their molars.) Well, it’s not much. The idea is that the universe (the substitute word for God) gives you what you want. This is defined as the Law of Attraction, which is a natural law that works just as regularly as gravity.
Bob Proctor (one of Byrne’s many unknow experts) explains it:

Everything that’s coming into your life you are attracting into your life. And it’s attracted to you by virtue of the images you’re holding in your mind…Whatever is going on in your mind you are attracting to you. (4)

Yikes! Try not to think of knives or Rush Limbaugh emerging from a bath. A skeptical reader might dismiss this simple notion out of hand, since it is so clearly ridiculous. If this is a law, why can’t I imagine a dragon, or a many breasted maiden of virtue true, materializing on my front lawn? Well, The Secret works like prayer, but not in any way that can be tested by science. Prayer might help you get over the flu (and I emphasize “might”), but will it help you to regenerate a lost limb (check out or recover from a serious genetic disorder. It only works in cases where a sick person might recover through normal means. If one prays and prays and prays for a person with cancer who then dies, then the only way to protect the notion of “the power of prayer” is to say that there was something wrong with the believer’s prayers.

This is even worse than the old Christian evasion, “God works in mysterious ways.” Byrne postulates a Law of Attraction. In Byrne’s twisted philosophy, everything that happens to people is a result of their thoughts. If one is sick, or poor, or if The Secret doesn’t work, then it’s the fault of the individual, not of microbes, injustice, or a author preying on the gullible.

Here’s the idea in a nutshell:

A perfect example to demonstrate The Secret and the Law of Attraction is this: You may know of people who acquired massive wealth, lost it all, and within a short time acquired massive wealth again. What happened in these cases, whether they knew it or not, is that their dominant thoughts were on wealth; that is how they acquired it in the first instance. Then they allowed fearful thoughts of losing wealth to enter their minds, until those fearful thoughts of loss became their dominant thoughts. They tipped the scales from thinking thoughts of wealth to thinking thoughts of loss, and so they lost it all. (7)

So companies like Enron didn’t fall and wipe out the savings of their workers and investors because their executives were secretly fixing the books; it was because their workers were having negative thoughts and sending them out into the universe. Interesting. I wonder if the kids in the developing world know that they aren’t poor because of political and economic oppression, but because they insist upon thinking about poverty all the time—the idea being that if you think negative thoughts then you attract negative things. If you think positive thoughts then you attract positive things.

The Secret is almost entirely based upon a single philosophical error, that of reification. Another of Byrne’s unknown experts, Mike Dooley, states:

[T]hat principle can be summed up in three simple words. Thoughts become things! (9)

Just as in the Celestine Prophecy, there is a lot of babble about “vibration” and magnetism. Thoughts are alternatively described as attractive and projective forces that are sent into the universe where, by law, they attract things. Thus, the Law of Attraction becomes a type of faceless deistic god:

The Law of Attraction is a law of nature. It is impersonal and it does not see good or bad things. It is receiving your thoughts and reflecting those thoughts as your life experience. (13)

Later, Byrne describes this law as “the mightiest power in the universe.”(14) The reader might notice that this same conceit is repeated throughout the book like a mantra. I doubt this is an intentional indoctrination technique, but rather the efforts of an author desperate to stretch a banal assertion into a salable commodity. Throughout, there is ample white space, quotes from famous people (some, like Winston Churchill, who really deserve better) and many, many plugs for The Secret DVD, which I have declined to buy.

Inevitably, Byrne brings up quantum physics and reworks it into a creationist creed that is, incredibly, more vapid than the traditional Young Earth delusion: “The Law of Attraction is the law of creation. Quantum physicists tell us that the entire Universe emerged from your thought!” (15)

Quantum physicists do not tell us this at all. Where Byrne got such a notion is a mystery, a Secret, though I’m assuming it wasn’t from actually studying quantum physics.

This error is later repeated by Dr. Fred Alan Wolf, who actually has written some books on science and has a degree in theoretical physics:

I’m not talking to you from the point of view of wishful thinking or imaginary craziness. I’m talking to you from a deeper, basic understanding. Quantum physics begins to point to this discovery. It says that you can’t
have a Universe without mind entering into it, and that the mind is actually shaping the very thing that is being perceived. (21)

This is subtle trickery from the good doctor. Quantum physics does not tell us we cannot have a universe without a mind. You can’t have a rational understanding of the positions and workings of particles without a mind to perceive them. This does not mean that the particles cease to exist if they aren’t being observed. Your mind does shape your perception of the world around you; it shapes it into an understandable vision that allows you to survive. It does not alter physical reality outside your head.

The Secret is, like other New Age spewage, not benign. In fact, it is in some respects perfectly hateful. Again, belief in The Secret is like belief in prayer or other religious rituals. If one begins with the proposition that faith in such things must work, then the only way to explain away incidents where they don’t work is to blame the believer for not having enough piety. In other words, the victim is always at fault. This is made evident early on in an unsubstantiated anecdote by one Bill Harris:

I had a student named Robert, who was taking an online course I have . . .

Robert was gay. He outlined all of the grim realities of his life in his emails to me. In his job, his coworkers ganged up on him. . . . When he walked down the street, he was accosted by homophobic people . . . He wanted to become a stand-up comedian, and when he did a stand-up comedy job, everybody heckled him about being gay. His whole life was one of unhappiness and misery, and it all focused around being attacked because he was gay.

I began to teach him that he was focusing on what he did not want. I [said] . . . “I can tell you’re very passionate about this and when you focus on something with a lot of passion, it makes it happen even faster!”

Then he started taking this thing about focusing on what you want to heart, and he began really trying it. What happened within the next six to eight weeks was an absolute miracle. All the people in his office who had been harassing him either transferred to another department, quit working at the company, or started completely leaving him alone. He began to love his job. When he walked down the street, nobody harassed him anymore…His whole life changed because he changed from focusing on what he did not want, what he was afraid of, what he wanted to avoid, to focusing on what he did want. (17–18)

Perhaps the single most annoying trait of religious believers of all stripes is the tendency to put themselves at the center of every narrative. Surely, none of Robert’s co-workers quit their jobs or were transferred because of anything going on in their lives. No, they were simply bit players in The Robert Show. Robert’s harassment wasn’t due to the ignorance of people, nor to their hateful religious beliefs and practices, it was due to the fact that he was thinking about discrimination. (Let us remember that the Judeo-Christian-Muslim god, as many of its fanatical supporters often point out, emphatically does hate homosexuals—check out Leviticus 20:13 and 18:22.)

Later, this blame-the-victim philosophy reaches its peak:

The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts. Every negative thought, feeling, or emotion is blocking your good from coming to you, and that includes money. It is not that the money is being kept from you by the Universe, because all the money you require exists right now in the invisible. If you do not have enough, it is because you are stopping the flow of money coming to you, and you are doing that with your thoughts. (99)

This must mean that the millions of Africans ripped from their homes and sold into slavery during the Triangular Trade were just too goddamned focused on bondage. Had Rhonda been in the galleys of a slave ship I’m sure that she would have whispered, “Your problem is that you are projecting slavery to the universe. Try to think freedom,” to the people chained there. Poor people in Haiti aren’t suffering in poverty, according to Byrne, because of historical and economic forces beyond their control, but because they just aren’t gosh-darn positive enough and are blocking money coming in from the universe. Such flippant disregard for suffering and poverty borders on sadism.

At times, it seems as if The Secret is literally trying to combine every half-baked thought and money-making con into a single slim volume. It’s not enough for Byrne to combine the prosperity gospel with New Age blame-the-victim pabulum and faith-based religiosity; she can’t seem to resist turning The Secret into a weight loss scheme, too. Forgive me for the length of this quote, but I fear that if I summarize it, it will look as if I’m making this up:

The first thing to know is that if you focus on losing weight, you will attract back having to lose more weight, so get ‘having to lose weight’ out of your mind. It’s the very reason why diets don’t work. Because you are focused on losing weight, you must attract back continually having to lose weight.

The second thing to know is that the condition of being overweight was created through your thought to it. To put it in the most basic terms, if someone is overweight, it came from thinking ‘fat thoughts,’ whether that person was aware of it or not. A person cannot think ‘thin thoughts’ and be fat. It completely defies the Law of Attraction.

Whether people have been told they have a slow thyroid, a slow metabolism, or their body size is hereditary, these are all disguises for thinking “fat thoughts.” If you accept any of those conditions as applicable to you, and you believe it, it must become experience, and you will continue to attract being overweight.

After I had my two daughters I was overweight, and I know it came from listening to and reading the messages that it is hard to lose weight after having a baby, and even harder after the second baby. I summoned exactly that to me with those “fat thoughts,” and it became my experience. I really “beefed up,” and the more I noticed how I had “beefed up,” the more “beefing up” I attracted. With a small frame, I became a hefty 143 pounds, all because I was thinking “fat thoughts.” (58–59)

Byrne must have been thinking about sub-literate writing when she wrote that passage, because that’s what the universe granted her. (I will spare the reader a section where, literally, Byrne tells a story about a magic rock.) Notice that there is no mention of calories or exercise in her illuminating passage; one does not need to work at anything in Byrne’s universe. In fact, she goes out of her way to assure the reader that no work will be required. After Bob Doyle states that for The Secret to work “Action will sometimes be required…” Byrne is quick to say:

Action is a word that can imply ‘work’ to some people, but inspired action will not feel like work at all. The difference between inspired action and action is this: Inspired action is when you are acting to receive. If you are in action to try and make it happen you have slipped backward. Inspired action is effortless, and it feels wonderful because you are on the frequency of receiving. (55)

What this means, exactly, is beyond me. I’m inclined to think that Byrne is trying to assure her customers that they can have anything they want in the world. When those customers discover that this will require work, they may de-convert, so she simply changes the word “work” to “inspired action.”

If work isn’t necessary to make the universe work for you, then one might ask what is necessary. Three guesses as to what it is…that’s right, The Secret requires faith. The problem with faith is that it requires ignorance, something that Byrne embraces with glee:

How do you get yourself to a point of believing? Start make-believing. Be like a child, and make-believe. Act as if you have it already. As you make-believe, you will begin to believe you have received. The Genie is responding to your predominant thoughts all the time, not just in the moment you ask. That’s why after you’ve asked, you must continue to believe and know. Have faith. Your belief that you have it, that undying faith, is your greatest power. When you believe you are receiving, get ready, and watch the magic begin! (50)

So, one has to pretend that The Secret is working in order to get The Secret to work? I really don’t even know what in the hell this means exactly, although I do know that it is a cornerstone of oppressive systems whose goal is to keep people believing in what they are told.

Oh, but there’s more. Byrne makes no bones about borrowing from the Christian prosperity gospel. She notes that “The Creative Process used in The Secret, which was taken from the New Testament in the Bible, is an easy guideline for you to create what you want in three simple steps.” (47)

The New Testament quotes upon which Byrne is basing this statement are, for those who are interested, Matthew 21:22 “Whatever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive” and Mark 11:24 “What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.” (54). Byrne is quite right that the nonsensical sentiments of The Secret are anchored in Christian texts, which just goes to show that portions of the Bible are just as stupid and vapid as Byrne’s “Secret.”

Byrne, by the way, emphatically endorses “The Millionaires of the Bible” series by Catherine Ponder. Byrne notes:

In these glorious books you will discover that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Jesus were not only prosperity teachers, but also millionaires themselves, with more affluent lifestyles than many present-day millionaires could conceive of. (109)

Huh? To begin with, all of the individuals she mentions here are fictional characters. Secondly, some of them had multiple wives and slaves as part of their opulent lifestyles. Should this be an aspiration? And, really, were the stories about the life of Jesus intended to portray his wealth?

There are a lot of personal anecdotes in the book about people curing themselves of cancer with “strong faith.” The story of Norman Cousins, who supposedly laughed until he was over an “incurable disease” is related. “As he laughed, Norman released all negativity, and he released his disease.” (129) The problem with such stories, again, is that we never hear the stories of people who laughed their asses off and still died of their disease. A certain number of people, diagnosed with anything, will be pronounced “incurable” and will get well. To attribute Cousins’s recovery to laughter is to commit the fallacy of “false attribution.” Why should his laughter, as opposed to the position of the furniture in his house, or the breakfast cereal he ate, be considered the cause of his recovery? Unless a clinical trial was done which isolated his laughter from other factors, there is no reason. Also, if laughter is so effective, why can’t an amputee laugh himself a new arm?

There is one small nugget of sanity tucked deep in the babble. Dr. John Demartini wrote:

If somebody is in a situation where they’re sick and they have an alternative to try to explore what is in their mind creating it, versus using medicine, if it’s an acute situation that could really bring death to them, then obviously the medicine is a wise thing to do, while they explore what the mind is about. So you don’t want to negate medicine. Every form of healing has its place. (126)

In other words, don’t really expect this Secret shit to work. I wonder if a nervous lawyer had something to do with this little excerpt.
Finally, if James Redfield sought to make Jesus the central figure of the New Age, one who straddled the real world and the spiritual as an example to everyone else, then Byrne takes this one step further. She simply makes everyone Jesus:

You are God in a physical body. You are Spirit in the flesh. You are Eternal Life expressing itself as You. You are a cosmic being. You are all power. You are all wisdom. You are all intelligence. You are perfection. You are magnificence. You are the creator, and you are creating the creation of You on this planet. (164)

Such humility.

In the end, Byrne strips religion of most of its unsavory aspects and makes it more consumer friendly. She has offered the believer everything she wants, from money to being the central character in the universe’s drama, without the pain of work. All one has to do is believe.

Byrne has created a solipsistic system that by definition is perfect, and that fails only if the believer’s solipsism is imperfect. The product is non-returnable, because it only works if the buyer is using it properly. If it doesn’t work, the problem is with the user, not the product.

Incredibly, Byrne has managed to offer a much bigger reward than almost all traditional religions. In Byrne’s New Age, the believer—like the author—gets to be god.

Enhanced by Zemanta


(Excerpted from Spiritual Snake Oil: Fads & Fallacies in Pop Culture, by Chris Edwards)


Fans of the late Michael Crichton’s science fiction (and I would count myself among them) might be surprised to learn that Crichton had a strong interest in the paranormal. In his memoir Travels, Crichton details a number of his journeys. Some of these journeys involved regular travel—to places like Africa—but others involved delving into various realms of New Ageism. At the end of his book, Crichton includes the text of a speech he had planned to give (though he was never actually invited to speak) in front of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). There are plenty of references to ancient wisdom, even a brief mention of quantum physics, but such things are not at the core of his argument. The point of the “speech” is to defend the New Age against pure scientific materialism, not by giving a rigorous argument in favor of New Age concepts, but by trying to drag science down to the same level as superstition.

Crichton’s essay begins by informing the reader that he is disappointed that CSICOP spends so much time debunking astrology, palm reading, UFO sightings and the like, since he doesn’t believe in these things, either. In that respect, Crichton is a bit like a liberal god believer who nods his head when the atheist debunks the Baptist or Islamic god, but continues to believe in some form of vague deity while considering the atheist to be a scientific fundamentalist, whatever that means. But then the attack begins:

I then said, Has anyone in this room had their tonsils and adenoids removed? Has anyone had a radical mastectomy for breast cancer? Has anyone been treated in an intensive care unit? Has anyone had coronary bypass surgery? Of course, many people had.

I said, Then you’re all knowledgeable about superstitions, because all these procedures are examples of superstitious behavior. They are procedures carried out without scientific evidence that they produce any benefit. This society spends billions of dollars a year on superstitious medicine, and that is a problem—and an expense—far more important than astrology columns in daily newspapers, which are so vigorously attacked by the brainpower of CSICOP.

And I added, Let’s not be too quick to deny the power of superstition in our own lives. Which of us, having suffered a heart attack, would refuse to be treated in an intensive-care unit just because such units are of unproven value? We’d all take the ICU. We all do. (357)

Crichton is quite right to point out that expensive surgeries are performed on people with little or no scientific evidence that those surgeries work. In an article for Skeptic magazine, Steve Selarno noted that the idea that modern science enhances longevity is largely a myth, since life expectancy should be determined by one’s current age. Among other things, Salerno pointed out that a 70-year-old man living in the Civil War era could statistically look forward to being 80, which was what a 70 year old living in 1950 could expect. Today, even with all of the new surgeries and treatments mentioned by Crichton, a 70 year old can only expect to make it to 83.5 years. The average age increases over the centuries emerge only when infant mortality is thrown into the mix. Likewise, Jeanne Lenzer and Shannon Brownlee, writing for Discover magazine, noted that nowhere in the world is there a systematic way to measure the effectiveness of new surgeries and that oftentimes surgery has the potential to cause more damage than the initial problem.

Here’s the problem with Crichton’s argument: modern surgery is not synonymous with the scientific approach to health, and no health care researcher would argue that surgery is a better option for heart care, for example, than regular exercise and a healthy diet, which is what scientific research tells us really works well. A person may have gotten himself into a position where he has a heart attack, not because he believes in science but because he has ignored the lifestyle advice that science has given him. Then, all too often, when someone finds himself to be in ill-health, he fails to do a risk assessment to decide whether surgery will be effective in his particular case. Instead of acting as if surgery is the only scientifically based approach to health, what Crichton should have done is compare the entire scientific approach to health, including diet, exercise, and emotional well-being, with surgery being a last resort in extreme cases, against the health benefits that New Age belief and holistic medicine have given us. Imagine the results if we compared the heart health of a sample of people who ate healthily, exercised regularly, and abstained from smoking with a sample of those who ate poorly, refused exercise, and smoked, but prayed to Vishnu and took holistic medicines.

Superstitious beliefs about disease have had their chance. They abounded for tens of thousands of years, yet no amount of prayer or ritual reduced the infant mortality rate. Scientifically based prevention has. Drastically.

Crichton goes on to write:

Next I reminded [CSICOP] that science as a field does not progress in a uniquely rational manner different from other fields of human endeavor such as business or commerce. Max Planck, who won the Nobel Prize in physics, said, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” (358)

This is not always, or even mostly, the case. There are many instances in history where a scientist has invested much of his life and career in a theory that turned out not to be very descriptive of the facts. When new facts disprove a theory, sometimes scientists choose to ignore the new facts. For example, when Galileo saw that the orbits of Jupiter’s moons could only be described with a heliocentric model, there were Aristotelian scholastics who refused to look through a telescope. Seeing the moons’ orbits would have required them to rethink not just their theories but their entire lives. If Aristotle was wrong, they would have lost all of their status.
The reason that there are paradigm shifts in science, as John Gribbin has written, has a lot to do with the evolution of technology. A lot of people looked at Jupiter before Galileo, but he was the first one to have the technology necessary for the assembly of a telescope (plus the engineering intelligence and the will) which was necessary to seeing Jupiter’s moons. Each generation has access to more facts, and therefore has to create new theories to describe those facts. If the theories are counterintuitive, that is only because our minds evolved to give us a picture of reality that helped us to survive in, not to properly understand, the universe.

New generations of scientists don’t “believe” in scientific theories because they are indoctrinated with them from youth. Instead, they do what their predecessors did: they examine evidence, new and old, and evaluate which hypotheses and theories best describe it; they then invest their lives and careers in fields and theories that are most likely to offer success.

Crichton’s argument also fails to note that, despite the decision of some scientists not to change their minds—many, like E.O. Wilson, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking, to use a few illustrious examples, do change their minds when presented with new evidence—science continues to progress. This is because knowledge accumulates and new scientists, trained to synthesize information and think creatively, continue to push the frontiers. The same cannot be said for New Age thinking. We don’t have better anything due to the “progression” of New Age or religious philosophy.

The next point Crichton makes is that science is just as likely as any other endeavor to fall prey to trendy, non-evidence based, thinking:

Next I pointed out the trends and fads of science, which affected scientists at every level. It was perfectly acceptable for dozens of the world’s most distinguished scientists to propose that our society engage in a costly search for extraterrestrial life, despite the fact that the study of extraterrestrial life is, in the words of the paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, “a study without a subject.” A belief in extraterrestrial life is a speculation indistinguishable from pure faith. (359)

Not quite. We have evidence for life. It exists on one planet that we know of, ours. The question, then, is simple: does life of any form exist anywhere else in the universe? Research on extraterrestrial life does not begin from a position of pure faith. There is evidence that life can exist on planets, so researchers look for more evidence.

Under Crichton’s criteria, a cancer screening is a faith-based initiative. I wouldn’t get a screening based on the assumption, necessarily, that I have cancer. Instead, my screening would be prompted by my knowledge that cancer exists and has been found in other people, therefore there is a possibility it could exist in a like body—mine. I would suspend my judgment until all of the evidence was in

The search for extraterrestrial life is hardly the equivalent of praying the rosary, and it’s grotesque to pretend that it is.
Next, Crichton tries to make the New Age immune to scientific scrutiny, by asserting that scientific rigor cannot be applied to mystical claims. (It seems like I’ve heard this before.) He notes the failure of a variety of psychics and shamans to perform their tricks in a controlled setting, under the watchful eye of researchers. Psychics explain away their failures by claiming that they can’t perform in such sterile conditions because they have to be “in the mood.” Correctly, Crichton notes that most scientists are unimpressed by such an excuse; then he offers a retort:

[E]veryone has firsthand knowledge of activities for which you must be “in the mood”: for example, sexual intercourse, requiring lubrication in the female, erection in the male. Creative work is another state-dependent activity that cannot be reliably performed on demand, as the vast literature devoted to “courting to the muse” testifies. (359–360)

While it is true that some forms of sexual arousal and creative thinking are state dependent, it is not the case that were we to ask people to have sex or paint in a room with people watching that they would fail every time. People have sex on camera or in front of people all the time; for some the presence of watchers is a turn on. Why are there no psychics who perform under pressure? Further, I find it hard to believe that Hemingway or Michelangelo would find it impossible to even begin their creative work just because a few men in lab coats were jotting down notes. (Harlan Ellison once wrote a short story while sitting on display behind a bookstore’s front window.)

Having decreed that science is incapable of studying the paranormal, Crichton then derides scientists for failing to investigate the paranormal more seriously. The supposed reasons for this have mostly to with “intellectual prejudice” amongst scientists, who simply refuse to study the work of less educated mystics who think differently. Interesting. I wonder if there are any cases in history where mystics and religious leaders have oppressed people who thought rationally.

Also, Crichton asserts, scientists don’t look into paranormal claims because they seem to “contradict known physical laws.” This isn’t it at all. The problem is that mystics of all stripes fail to provide enough consistent evidence to warrant an investigation. If psychics want respect, then I suggest that they get themselves “in the mood,” then post their revelations online the day before a big event, such as an earthquake or tsunami. If the specific predictions (where and when) of even a small number of “psychics” were correct, their “psychic abilities” would almost certainly be subjected to thorough scientific vetting. Until then, scientific investigation of the paranormal is a waste of valuable time and resources.

For some reason, Crichton goes on a long tangent about a mythical man named George and asks how much we can really know about the man other than, say, his measurements. He writes:

This, in essence, is the problem with the scientific view of reality. Science is a kind of glorified tailoring enterprise, a method for taking measurements that describe something—reality—that may not be understood at all.
Science is very good as far as it goes. It has certainly produced powerful benefits. It would be crazy to abandon science, or to deny its validity.

But it would be equally crazy to think that reality is a forty-four long. Yet it seems as if that is what Western society has done. For hundreds of years, science has been so successful that the tailor has taken over society. His knowledge seems so much more precise and powerful than knowledge offered by other disciplines, such as history or psychology or art.
But in the end one can be left with a nagging sense of emptiness about the creations of science. One may even suspect that there is more to reality than measurements will ever reveal. (366–367)

Science is merely the enterprise of trying to use evidence to create theories (languages) which describe how the universe works. History works the same way. Historians collect evidence and then try to create narratives which best fit that evidence. New evidence can alter accepted historical narratives just as surely as it can change a scientific paradigm. Historians often debate over which theory best describes the evidence. This does not mean that there are other ways to “intuit” the past or that history is somehow limited in its means of description.

This false proposition is Crichton’s constant mistake. He later writes:

 [T]he experience of these other forms of consciousness seems to me to be ordinary, even mundane. These different forms of consciousness—whether inborn gifts or trained procedures—lead to other kinds of knowing, other perceptions of underlying order in the world around us. They are not mathematical perceptions, but they are perceptions nonetheless. Before you dismiss these perceptions as outright fraud or fantasy, it seems useful to experience them firsthand. If you’re not willing to experience them firsthand, you open yourself up to the criticism that you dismiss what you don’t understand.

And you diminish your own experience of reality. (373)

There’s no reason for me to try to experience mysticism first hand. There are billions of people every day who try to induce an otherwordly experience for themselves. What I am interested in is whether or not there is anything of value in these experiences. Not a single useful idea concerning physical reality has come from such experiences in all of history—the gods never tell their prophets about neutrinos. And the social ideas generated by such experiences have caused enormous misery. So I am not tempted to try them.

Crichton insists that science alone is not sufficient to understand and interpret the world. The reason for this, he insists, is because science can’t answer the “why” questions. Such as “Why are we here?” “Why is there something rather than nothing?” The fact that there are no reasons, and therefore no answer to the “why” questions, does not disprove science. It merely means that the questions themselves are meaningless. Religion is no better at answering these questions. Bear in mind that for thousands of years religions have been telling people that they and the world exist merely to play out a “faith or hell” game with an almighty trickster. Some answer.

Crichton’s “intellectual” defense of mysticism and the New Age seems sincere, but is badly misguided and based upon false analogies rather than outright fallacies. Such a distrust of science is implicit in some of his best known novels, but those were fantasies, harmless and entertaining. The New Age is neither.

spiritual snake oil by chris edwards, cover (excerpted from Spiritual Snake Oil: Fads & Fallacies in Pop Culture, by Chris Edwards)

“[T]he discovery that mathematics is a good language for describing the Universe is about as significant as the discovery that English is a good language for writing plays in.”

John Gribbin (from Schrodinger’s Kittens and the Search for Reality)

“Everything zen, everything zen; I don’t think so.”  —G.W. Bush

Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, deserves a lot of credit for getting a wide readership interested in philosophy; unfortunately he also deserves some of the blame for creating a market in which non-material philosophers and gurus thrive. After reading his book, I found myself thinking about where he went wrong, and eventually wrote an essay about his mistakes. This led me to start reading other pop philosophy and pop science books with the intent of seeing if their authors made the same mistakes as Pirsig.

During that process, I remembered having read, years before I studied logic, a critique of skepticism and science in a Michael Crichton book called Travels. At the time I first read Crichton’s speech/essay, I thought he made some good points. Upon returning to it, however, the flaws in his arguments were obvious.

Both Pirsig and Crichton are/were hyper-intelligent individuals. But that’s beside the point. Logic addresses arguments, not people, and even the hyper-intelligent make mistakes.

Robert Pirsig, author of the wildly popular and perennial bestseller, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, can be seen as the founding father of modern pop philosophy. Pirsig may also be the first modern writer to rework old religious fallacies into mysticism/New Ageism. Many of his errors have been repeated by modern day gurus and shamans such as Deepak Chopra. Pirsig’s book, first published in 1974, sought to undermine scientific thinking and created a cult-like audience of followers who persist in believing in Pirsig’s non-material claims.

Those who doubt Pirsig’s continuing influence might consider Mark Richardson’s recently released book, Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The author of Zen and Now, like so many of Pirsig’s devotees, traveled Pirsig’s famous motorcycle route. I too would like to follow Pirsig’s path, but with a different intention. I’d like to provide maintenance for his logic. Perhaps debunking Pirsig, even at this late date, will be helpful in addressing the claims of the many pop philosophers and gurus who have begun writing for the niche market that he created.

In the Introduction to the 1999 paperback edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig mentioned schizophrenia. In reference to his own battles with what appears to be some version of split personality disorder, he wrote: “There is a divided personality here: two minds fighting for the same body, a condition that inspired the original meaning of ‘schizophrenia.’” The more psychologically correct definition of schizophrenia is the inability of an individual to distinguish between the images in his head and images in the world. When this condition is chronic, it is defined as a mental disorder. When it is selective, we call it faith. Pirsig’s philosophical mistakes are all schizophrenic in that he cannot always tell the difference between things that merely exist in the mind and things that exist in the world. New Age philosophers often try to distance themselves from their more dogmatic religious cousins. However, a close examination of Pirsig’s writing shows that the errors he makes are carnival-mirror distortions of those that plague religion.

In his book, which Pirsig informs us is a “Chatauquah,” kind of a long philosophical discourse told through an individual narrative, the central philosophical theme is Pirsig’s search for something that falls outside of the traditional philosophical arena. His alter ego “Phaedrus” (Pirsig’s personality before a long bout with mental illness) became consumed with the concept of “Quality” and went into a deep cavern of philosophical thought in search of what it meant.

In order to prevent his search from becoming a scientific quest, Pirsig makes a few clumsy attacks on scientific materialism, otherwise known as atheism. Pirsig’s brief dismissal of “scientific materialism” aka “atheism” has an outsized importance in his book. Once he has gotten those pesky rules of science out of the way, he is free to meander through the mystical and philosophical caverns until he finds his Quality—a strange trip, given the fact that he doesn’t even bother to define it.

Here’s a sample passage:

Phaedrus felt that…scientific materialism was by far the easiest to cut to ribbons. This, he knew from his earlier education, was naïve science. He went after it…using the reductio ad absurdum. This form of argument rest on the truth that if the inevitable conclusions from a set of premises are absurd then it follows logically that at least one of the premises that produced them is absurd. Let’s examine, he said, what follows from the premise that anything not composed of mass-energy is unreal or unimportant.
He used the number zero as a starter. Zero originally a Hindu number, was introduced to the West by Arabs during the Middle Ages and was unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans. How was that? He wondered. Had nature so subtly hidden the zero that all the Greeks and all the Romans—millions of them—couldn’t find it? One would normally think that zero is right out there in the open for everyone to see. He showed the absurdity of trying to derive zero from any form of mass-energy, and then asked, rhetorically, if that meant the number zero was ‘unscientific.’ If so, did that mean that digital computers, which function exclusively in terms of ones and zeros, should be limited to just ones for scientific work? No trouble finding the absurdity here. (297-298)

The problem with this passage is that Pirsig reduced the wrong argument to absurdity—his own.

First of all, the number zero was invented not discovered, in the same way that Newton invented, not discovered, calculus and Darwin invented, not discovered, evolutionary theory. This does not mean that moving objects began with Newton or that evolution began with Darwin, it merely means that humanity finally created language that could describe real-world phenomena.

The notion that the Greeks and Romans could not see zero is about as significant as saying that the citizens of a landlocked country could not see a ship. In Charles Seife’s wonderful book, Zero: Biography of a Dangerous Idea, Seife pointed out that Greek mathematics concerned itself primarily with geometry because it was useful for farming and building. The Greeks could not conceive of negative landholdings, for example. The concept of zero was created sometime during the 5th or 6th century in the Gupta Dynasty when Hindu thinkers began to contemplate the infinite and the void. Gupta mathematics was impressive and the calculations it enabled amounted to a scientific revolution.

This being said, it would not be proper to say that Indian mathematics was right and Greek mathematics was wrong. This would be like saying that the French language is right and German is wrong. What can be said is that Indian mathematics is more expressive than Greek.

The Greeks seem not to have spent much time contemplating the infinite or the void, which is why they had no names for them. The Hindus, driven by a religion that encouraged contemplation of such things, did. Similarly, Central African tribesmen could hardly be expected to have a word for snow. Yet snow, the infinite, and the void exist (or in the case of the last, don’t exist but the concept does). It is only when cultures become aware of things for which they have no terms are the mathematical and linguistic “names” for them invented or borrowed. This occurs all the time. When Americans first encountered Mexican salsa they adopted not only the sauce but the word for it as well.

If we were given a certain limited amount of sensory data—say the observation of the sun peeking over the horizon every morning—we could develop two different mathematical models, or languages, to describe this phenomenon: the Ptolemaic (Earth centered) and the Copernican (sun centered).

At first, the Ptolemaic view and the Copernican view would both suffice, and there would be no way of saying which better described the observed phenomena. However, let us say that we get a new piece of sensory data, as Galileo did when he used his telescope to see the orbital patterns of the moons of Jupiter, and that one of these models more accurately predicts and describes these new facts; then we would be able to say that one model was the better descriptor of all the facts.

The Copernican “theory” is more descriptive of sensory data and gives us a more accurate description of what is really happening in the universe. Thus, it displaced the Ptolemaic version. If we understand this we can see that Zeno’s famous paradox, for example, is not a paradox at all. (Zeno asked how, if you go half the distance to a goal, then half of that distance, then half of that distance, etc., you could ever arrive at the goal.) Zeno was simply showing the Greeks that their mathematics (devoid of zero) had no way of adequately describing movement.

Modern mathematics, far from being a hard objective “thing” is instead a mish-mash of concepts that arose from a process of cultural synthesis (almost entirely in Eurasia, where cultures were easily able to intermesh because of war and trade). The Greeks contributed geometry; the Gupta Indians the numbers 0-9 and the decimal system; the Muslims gave us algebra; the English gave us physics and calculus; and the Germans contributed the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. Each time, a culture’s language was adopted and added not because it was “right,” but because it was more descriptive of objective phenomena and therefore a “better” language.

It is important to note that in his “Chatauqua,” Pirsig devotes several pages to the mathematician Poncaire’ (1854–1912) and the supposed mathematical crisis of his time, which involved the “discovery” that two different types of mathematical language—one called Lobachevskian and the other Euclidian (which became known as the Riemann)—could be used. Pirsig writes:

We now had two contradictory visions of unshakable scientific truth, true for all men of all ages, regardless of their individual preferences. This was the basis of the profound crisis that shattered the scientific complacency of the Gilded Age. How do we know which one of these geometries is right? If there is no basis for distinguishing between them, then you have a total mathematics which admits logical contradictions. But a mathematics which admits logical contradictions is not mathematics at all. The ultimate effect of the non-Euclidian geometries becomes nothing more than a magician’s mumbo jumbo in which belief is sustained purely by faith! (335)

We see here that Pirsig is again confused by the nature of mathematics. We cannot ask the question “which of these geometries is right” anymore than we can ask whether Portuguese or Inuit is the “right” language. What we can ask, is, which is more descriptive for the sensory data we have? And, a paragraph down, Pirsig answers his own question: “According to the Theory of Relativity, Riemann geometry best describes the world we live in.” (335)

Reification is not a small mistake. Pirsig’s claim that computers run on Liebniz’s binary code, which works through a series of zeros and ones is not helpful. Does he actually think that computers run on concepts? There are no zeros in a computer but rather a series of electrical “holders” that are either electronically switched on or off. Humans simply describe this in terms of zeros or ones. Again, this description is subjective.

Once this is understood, all of Pirsig’s philosophy falls apart. Consider this oft-quoted passage of a conversation between him and his son:

…the laws of physics and of logic…the number system…the principle of algebraic substitution. These are ghosts. We just believe in them so thoroughly they seem real.”
“They seem real to me,” John says.
“I don’t get it,” says Chris.
So I go on. “For example, it seems completely natural to presume that gravitation and the law of gravitation existed before Isaac Newton. It would sound nutty to think that until the seventeenth century there was no gravity.”
“Of course.”
“So when did this law start? Has it always existed?”
John is frowning and wondering what I’m getting at.
“What I’m driving at,” I say, “is the notion that before the beginning of the earth, before the sun and the stars were formed, before the primal generation of anything, the law of gravity existed.”
“Sitting there, having no mass of its own, no energy of its own, not in anyone’s mind because there wasn’t anyone, not in space because there was no space either, not anywhere—this law of gravity still existed?”
Now John seems not so sure.
“If that law of gravity existed,” I say, “I honestly don’t know what a thing has to do to be nonexistent. It seems to me that the law of gravity has passed every test of nonexistence there is. You cannot think of a single attribute of nonexistence that that law of gravity didn’t have. Or a single scientific attribute of existence it did have. And yet it is still ‘common sense’ to believe that it existed.”
John says, “I guess I’d have to think about it.”
“Well, I predict that if you think about it long enough you will find yourself going round and round and round and round until you finally reach only one possible, rational, intelligent conclusion. The law of gravity and gravity itself did not exist before Isaac Newton. No other conclusion makes sense.
“And what that means,” I say before he can interrupt, “and what that means is that the law of gravity exists nowhere except in people’s heads! It’s a ghost! We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people’s ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious as to our own.” (41–42)

Again, Pirsig mistakes the law of gravity, a description, for a thing. Of course the law of gravity could not have existed before there was anything, because without matter objects would not be attracted to each other because there would be no objects. If we define the “law of gravity” as a description of real-world phenomena, in the same way that the word “rock” is used to describe a hunk of granite, then no, the law of gravity did not exist before Newton. However, if we describe the law of gravity as the attraction that objects, depending on weight and distance, have for each other, then of course it existed—just as sound waves came from the falling tree even if no ears were around to hear it.

Pirsig might as well be saying that the word “rock” was floating around in the universe before there were ever rocks, or that poems about flowers existed before there were flowers or poets to write about them. He might as well be Plato looking at the shadows in his cave.

This fallacious thinking is what eventually leads him to this conclusion about his central conceit, which is the search for Quality:

[Q]uality is not just the result of the collision between subject and object. The very existence of subject and object themselves is deduced from the Quality event. The Quality event is the cause of the subjects and objects, which are then mistakenly presumed to be the cause of the Quality! Now he had that whole damned evil dilemma by the throat. (304)

Actually, he was just strangling a reification, holding a shadow in a headlock. Because Pirsig so often commits the philosophical sin of reification, he turns something called “Quality,” which is elusive by definition, into a kind of creator god. It existed before matter, apparently. This is like saying that the painting of a mountain created both the painter and the mountain. Quality is a subjective term in that it differs from person to person. The fact that most of us recognize Quality in the same way is not particularly remarkable given that all DNA-based humans have far more similarities than differences. Neither is it remarkable that separate human civilizations developed mathematics, language, mythologies, and religions. The mistake is reifying the descriptions of these human developments, such as when people mistake their descriptions of gods for actual gods. Pirsig’s “philosophy” is different only in degree, not in kind, from the “philosophy” of any other religion.

Understanding Pirsig’s elementary mistake—reification of descriptions—is an essential first step in understanding the fallacies of those who follow in his footsteps.

Enhanced by Zemanta