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Leaving Las Vegas … Rich

Report from the Front Lines at TAM and Freedom Fest

By “rich” I mean intellectually, of course, because as all skeptics know, the laws of probability are precisely employed by all Las Vegas casinos to insure that if you play long enough the money in your pocket will end up in their coffers. It is not for nothing that it is called Lost Wages.

Actually, there are two ways to win at gambling. You can do it the way I did after the final session at TAM Sunday: play for a brief period of time and quit when you are ahead. I started with $200 at a $5 minimum Blackjack table. For around 20 minutes I bounced around between $150 and $250 in chips artfully stacked in front of me as I pretended to be a big spender. The inevitable losing streak then kicked in and I was suddenly down below $50, then clawed my way back up to $228 when it was time to go, saving myself from the over-confidence bias that would have, in time, left me with nothing but green cloth beneath my empty palms. (The other way to win at gambling in Las Vegas? Be the owner of a casino.)

Wednesday afternoon the Skeptics Society photographer Dave Patton and I made the drive to Vegas after our annual bike ride to Mt. Wilson and subsequent Subway sandwich stop to assuage the guilt to come from eating and drinking too much in Sin City. Wednesday night I dined with Mark Skousen and guests at the world-famous Circo restaurant at Bellagio’s, a joint so pricey that the prices are not even printed on the menu. I got to sit next to John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, who just completed his book entitled Conscious Capitalism (due out 12-12-12), in which he wants to rewrite the economic narrative of conservatives who have too long embraced the “greed is good” and “the virtue of selfishness” messages of conservatives and libertarians such as Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand. As he told me (I’m paraphrasing from memory, slightly cloudy from imbibing some very fine red wine), “Entrepreneurs, inventors, and creators don’t go into business just to make money. They go into business because they want to change the world, follow their passions, create something new. The money is nice but it isn’t the most important thing.” Conscious capitalism puts people and community and jobs and quality products and service first, money second. Mackey believes what he preaches, carefully selecting from the Circo menu a vegetarian dinner with only the healthiest ingredients, and he tries to do that in his grocery stores. Yes, eating super healthy can cost more, and in some cases some skepticism is appropriate as to whether or not those more expensive foods really make you healthier or not. (I went Vegan once—it started just after breakfast one day and ended at dinner that night.)

John Mackey is an interesting contrast with Steve Jobs, a comparison I made at a Friday panel discussion at Freedom Fest on the late Apple CEO. I noted my concern that the popularity of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs is an example of a selection bias in publishing: no one writes biographies of all the failed Silicon valley entrepreneurs of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. People scour through the personalities and developmental histories of successful entrepreneurs and CEOs in search of the (pick your number) X habits of highly effective leaders (and such). It’s all malarkey. Yes, optimism can be a good trait to have in order to overcome the normal obstacles that one encounters in building an organization or company, but pessimism might make one more realistic when it comes to risk taking, changing directions before it is too late instead of stubbornly pressing on when there is no hope of success. Yes, perhaps being tough minded makes for strong leaders who get more out of their employees by intimidating them or staring at them without blinking (Jobs’s tactic), but tender-minded leaders can also motivate employees through empathy and caring about their welfare. Open-mindedness is good because you are more likely to see the value of new ideas, but if you are too open-minded your brains might fall out and you’ll believe every wacky (and wrong) idea that comes your way. And so forth. You get the idea. There are lots of ways to be successful. Steve Jobs and John Mackey have (near as I can tell) radically different personalities, and yet both were and are successful entrepreneurs and CEOs.

I also sat on a panel with Charles Murray about his new book, Coming Apart, about the state of white America from 1960 to 2010. Murray argues that a cognitive elite has arisen as a result of the fact that our economy is now so dependent on science, technology, and information that requires cognitive skills learned in college and graduate school, and these needed skills under employment have led to a distinct two-culture system of those who live in Fishtown (blue collar) and Belmont (white collar). It’s a good book chockablock full of sociological data, so I focused my attention on his claim that the decline of religiosity and increase in secularism has contributed to the culture divide and the loss of values (so he claims). I disputed that premise that America is losing its religion, given that the polls consistently show that 90% to 95% of Americans believe in God, although I did acknowledge the fact that the fastest growing religious group in America is the “nones”—those who tick the box for “none” when asked by pollsters for their religion.

Murray holds that America’s Founding Fathers, while not especially super religious themselves, believed that religion was necessary for self-governance. That is, if moral controls are not imposed from above by government then they must be imposed from within through religion. Murray believes that the rise of secularism has led to a decline in morals. I asked him what he believes. He said, “I’m a reluctant agnostic who wishes he could believe.” I cited Gregory Pauls’ 2005 study published in the Journal of Religion and Society—“Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies”—that found an inverse correlation between religiosity (measured by belief in God, biblical literalism, and frequency of prayer and service attendance) and societal health (measured by rates of homicide, suicide, childhood mortality, life expectancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, and teen pregnancy) in 18 developed democracies. “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies,” Paul found. “The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so.” Indeed, the U.S. scores the highest in religiosity and the highest (by far) in homicides, STDs, abortions, and teen pregnancies.

In fact, I sent this study to Murray before Freedom Fest so that he would have time to think about it and provide a thoughtful answer, rather than my trying to ambush him or trip him up. I made the point that I do not believe that religion causes these societal ills, and that in fact I am quite certain that each of them has a different set of causes. Sure homicides have one set of causes different from that of STDs, and the like. But, I noted, if religion is suppose to be such a powerful prophylactic against sin and other societal problems, why is it not working very well here in America, the most religious of all the Western democracies. As well, I pointed out, South American countries are 99% Catholic. All those South Americans accept Jesus as their savior, and yet crime rates are high, poverty is high, etc. By contrast, I concluded, Northern European countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, etc. have some of the lowest rates of religiosity in the Western world and yet they have exceptionally low rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, STDs, etc.

Murray’s response surprised me: “Michael, to resolve these issues would best be done over a late night drink and long conversation. But in general my sense about your writings on religion is that you are unnecessarily harsh and unsophisticated and non-subtle in your analysis.” He then explained that even though he’s not a believer his wife is a deeply believing Quaker who takes her religion very seriously, and this impresses him and makes him respect religion.

Interestingly, Charles Darwin felt the same way. He called himself an agnostic (in the sense that his friend Thomas Huxley meant it when he defined the word in 1869 to mean “unknowable”) and noted: “In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God. I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind.” But his wife Emma was a deeply religious woman who bemoaned the fact that if her husband did not believe then they would not spend eternity together. Thus, Darwin avoided the subject when he could. For example, in 1880, Darwin clarified his reasoning to the British socialist Edward Aveling, who solicited Darwin’s endorsement of a group of radical atheists by asking his permission to dedicate a book Aveling edited entitled The Student’s Darwin, a collection of articles discussing the implications of evolutionary theory for religious thought. The book had a militant antireligious flavor that Darwin disdained and he declined the offer, elaborating his reason with his usual flare for quotable maxims: “It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science.” He then appended an additional hint about a personal motive: “I may, however, have been unduly biased by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion.” My sense is that Charles Murray is taking a page from the playbook of Charles Darwin in the interests of domestic tranquility and out of love and respect, admirable qualities both.

Nevertheless, I would have liked to get an answer to my question about why the über-religious America has so many societal ills, why über-Catholic South American countries are so socially ill, and why the practically non-religious northern European countries are so socially healthy. Inquiring minds want to know.

I’ll post more later on TAM and Freedom Fest, including an analysis of one of the most magnificent take-downs of a pseudoscientist I’ve ever seen when I arranged to have skeptic Steve Novella debate an anti-vaxxer at Freedom Fest. I’ll also summarize my own debate at Freedom Fest with a Catholic Thomist philosopher on the question: “Is Man a Machine, Animal, or Special Creation?” I think I did about as well as Novella did against the anti-vaxxer, but libertarians are a mixed bag when it comes to religion, with some super skeptical of Big Government but have not an ounce of skepticism when it comes to Big Religion. Likewise when it comes to corporations, which they adore, unless it is Big Pharma in cahoots with Big Government conspiring to make us all sick in the name of Big Profits. (Bill Maher, an anti-vaxxer himself, is the liberal doppelgänger of these libertarians, loving Big Government unless they are in cahoots with Big Pharma, in which case they’re all evil.) Stay tuned…

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How to Learn to Think Like a Scientist (Without Being a Geek)

Or: What it was Like Teaching a Course in Skepticism 101?

Explore the Skeptical Studies Curriculum Resource Center

On March 31, 2011, I debated Deepak Chopra at Chapman University on “The Nature of Reality” that also featured Stuart Hameroff, Leonard Mlodinow, and several other commentators, all choreographed by the Chancellor of Chapman University, mathematician Daniele Struppa. In the greenroom before the debate Dr. Struppa was reviewing my bio and noted that I am an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University and made a comment that I should be an adjunct professor at Chapman as well. I said something like “sure, why not?” and when he introduced me on stage he said something about how I might also one day teach there. Daniele said I could teach anything I want as part of their Freshman Foundations Courses, so I suggested a course on Skepticism 101, or how to think like a scientist (without being a geek). I taught it the Fall semester of 2011 to 35 incoming Freshman students and it was a blast.

During the semester I hatched the idea that since the Skeptics Society is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization specializing in science education, that we should organize all the course materials that professors and teachers around the world are already utilizing. That is, as I was developing my own course materials I remembered all the requests we had received over the years at the Skeptics Society from educators to reprint articles from Skeptic magazine or use videos of our Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech. There are, in fact, hundreds and hundreds (maybe thousands) of such courses that go under various names that involve skepticism, science and pseudoscience, science and the paranormal, psychology and parapsychology, the psychology of belief, the history of science, the philosophy of science, science studies, critical thinking, and the like. As I went digging through our own webpage Skeptic.com and surfed the Net for other teacher’s webpages in search of good teaching materials, we thought it might be good to invite people to submit their course syllabi, lectures, Powerpoint and Keynote presentations, videos, student projects, reading lists, and the like, which we just launched last week.

EXPLORE THE SKEPTICISM 101 RESOURCE CENTER

Thanks to the support of my good friend Tyson Jacobsen I was able to hire an outstanding graduate student, Anondah Saide, to organize the Skepticism 101 program for us, which began with her TAing the Skepticism 101 course at Chapman University. Anondah was one of my graduate students at Claremont Graduate University who conducts research into the sociology of pseudoscience and the paranormal, and she has a deep interest in education and how to teach students to think critically about the paranormal and the supernatural, so she was a perfect fit for the class and this program.

The premise of the course is that we have a serious problem: we live in the Age of Science and yet pseudoscience and the paranormal are believed by far too many people still. Yes, it is better than it was 500 years ago when nearly everyone believed nonsense, but these figures from a 2009 Harris Poll of 2,303 adult Americans, who were asked to “Please indicate for each one if you believe in it, or not”:

  • 82% believe in God
  • 76% believe in miracles
  • 75% believe in Heaven
  • 73% believe in Jesus is God
    or the Son of God
  • 72% believe in angels
  • 71% believe in survival
    of the soul after death
  • 70% believe in the
    resurrection of Jesus Christ
  • 61% believe in hell
  • 61% believe in
    the virgin birth (of Jesus)
  • 60% believe in the devil
  • 45% believe in Darwin’s
    Theory of Evolution
  • 42% believe in ghosts
  • 40% believe in creationism
  • 32% believe in UFOs
  • 26% believe in astrology
  • 23% believe in witches
  • 20% believe in reincarnation

Yikes! More people believe in angels and the devil than believe in the theory of evolution. And yet, such results match similar survey findings for belief in the paranormal conducted over the past several decades, including internationally. For example, a 2006 Readers Digest survey of 1,006 adult Britons reported that 43 percent said that they can read other people’s thoughts or have their thoughts read, more than half said that they have had a dream or premonition of an event that then occurred, more than two-thirds said they could feel when someone was looking at them, 26 percent said they had sensed when a loved-one was ill or in trouble, and 62 percent said that they could tell who was calling before they picked up the phone. A fifth said they had seen a ghost and nearly a third said they believe that Near-Death Experiences are evidence for an afterlife.

This got the attention of these Chapman students and they got right into it. We had them write an Opinion Editorial as if it were going to be submitted to the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, in order to teach them how to communicate clearly and succinctly to a wider audience about a controversial idea (they could pick any idea from the course, which was quite broad in scope). They also had to do an 18-minute TED talk or participate in a 2 x 2 debate. It won’t surprise you to know that most 18-year old students are well aware of TED talks and have watched numerous videos at TED.com, including my own. The point was to teach them how to organize a short talk and say something meaningful in a brief period of time. The point of this exercise was to have a point! They did. And then some. Most were skeptical of the paranormal and the supernatural, so of course we had a few pro-atheist TED talks, but there were a couple of pro-God and pro-paranormal talks as well, just to spice things up. The most memorable talk had to be by a student who in explaining evolutionary psychology and why natural selection shaped us to prefer (that is, find attractive) symmetrical faces, clear complexions, shapely bodies (wide shoulders and a narrow waist in men, an hourglass figure in women with a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio), and the like, then put up a slide of Rosie O’Donnell as an illustration of pure ugliness and why no male could possibly find her attractive. Needless to say, in the requisite Q&A (every talk had one) the women in the class made mince meat of this fellow.

As well, the students were given a midterm and final exam in essay format based on the readings for the course, which included my own Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain, bookended around Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, Stuart Vyse’s Believing in Magic, and the book they all loved the most: Richard Wiseman’s Paranormality. In Paranormality, Wiseman provides numerous examples of how to test paranormal claims, and this led to the students final major assignment, which was a research project and YouTube video production to accompany it (or a Powerpoint presentation of their data). Check out the student projects that we have already posted in our Skeptical Studies Curriculum Resource Center.

The point of these exercises was to get students doing things that involve skepticism, not just reading and answering test questions, as well as encourage them to have fun doing so by trying to make their presentations entertaining as well as educational.

I also tried something new (for me anyway) in grading: Anondah and I independently rated each student’s OpEd, TED talk, midterm and final answer, research project, and YouTube video or Powerpoint presentation, then compared our ratings, added them up and divided by 2. During the student talks and presentations Anondah and I sat at the back of the room as the “judges”—I joked that we were like Simon and Paula on American Idol playing good cop-bad cop. That was kinda fun.

Because the course deals with many serious subjects, such as religious beliefs, political positions, social attitudes, and the like, we also outlined for them our policy on controversies:

Controversy Disclaimer

This course deals with many controversial topics related to people’s deepest held beliefs about god and religion, science and technology, politics and economics, morality and ethics, and social attitudes and cultural assumptions. I hope to challenge you to think about your beliefs in all these areas, and others. My goal is to teach you how to think about your beliefs, not what to think about them. I have my own set of beliefs that I have developed over the decades, which I do not attempt to hide or suppress; indeed, as a public intellectual I am regularly called upon to present and defend my beliefs in lectures, debates, interviews, articles, reviews, and opinion editorials. But in the classroom my goal is not to convince you of anything other than to think about your beliefs. I am often asked “why should we believe you?” My answer: “You shouldn’t.” Be skeptical, even of skeptics.

Finally, I explained that the goal of the course was parallel to the goal of the overall skeptical movement (as I see it anyway):

The Goals of the Skeptical Movement

  1. Debunking. There’s a lot of bunk and someone needs to debunk it. Like the bunko squads of police departments busting scammers and con artists, skeptics bust myths.
  2. Understanding. It’s not enough to debunk the things that people believe. We also want to understand why they believe. Through understanding comes enlightenment.
  3. Enlightenment. The power of positive skepticism linked to reason, rationality, logic, empiricism, and science offers us a world wondrous and awe-inspiring enough.

If you want to teach your own course in Skepticism 101, or are already teaching such a course, I encourage you to go to our webpage and have a look and take what you need. All materials are free.

If you would like to support the Skepticism 101 project, please make a tax-deductible donation. We are happy to accept anything you can afford, but might I suggest a $100 donation or even an automatically recurring monthly donation of $5 or $10?

In appreciation to all those who have already help support the Skepticism 101 project.

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The Reality Distortion Field

Steve Jobs’s modus operandi of ignoring reality
is a double-edge sword

Robert Friedland was a long-haired, sandal-wearing, spiritual-seeking proprietor of an apple farm commune and student at Reed College when he met Steve Jobs in 1972 and taught the future Apple computer founder a principle called the “reality distortion field” (RDF). Macintosh software designer Bud Tribble recalled, “In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything.” And yet the blade could cut two ways: “It was dangerous to get caught in Steve’s distortion field, but it was what led him to actually be able to change reality.” Another Mac software designer named Andy Hertzfeld said, “The reality distortion field was a confounding mélange of a charismatic rhetorical style, indomitable will, and eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand.” The first Mac team manager Debi Coleman said Jobs “reminded me of Rasputin. He laser-beamed in on you and didn’t blink. It didn’t matter if he was serving purple Kool-Aid. You drank it.” And yet when the power was properly channeled, “You did the impossible, because you didn’t realize it was impossible.”

The RDF is an extreme version of what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls a “pervasive optimistic bias” in his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). “Most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favorable than they truly are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be.” For example, only 35 percent of small businesses survive in the U.S., but when surveyed 81 percent of entrepreneurs assessed their odds of success at 70 percent, and 33 percent went so far as to put it at 100 percent! “One of the benefits of an optimistic temperament is that it encourages persistence in the face of obstacles,” Kahneman notes, while also citing study in which 47 percent of inventors “continued development efforts even after being told that their project was hopeless, and on average these persistent (or obstinate) individuals doubled their initial losses before giving up.” Failure may not be an option in the minds of entrepreneurs, but it is all too frequent in reality, which is why another bias called “loss aversion” is felt by most. Thus, Jobs’s success story is also an example of a selection bias whereby those who failed tend not to have biographies.

Jobs’s optimistic bias was off the charts. According to his biographer Walter Isaacson, “At the root of the reality distortion was Jobs’s belief that the rules didn’t apply to him. He had the sense that he was special, a chosen one, an enlightened one.” Jobs’s self-importance and will to power over rules that applied only to others were reflected in numerous ways: legal (parking in handicapped spaces, driving without a license plate), moral (accusing Microsoft of ripping off Apple when both took from Xerox the idea of the mouse and the graphical user interface), personal (refusing to acknowledge paternity of his daughter Lisa even after an irrefutable paternity test), and practical (besting resource-heavy giants IBM and Xerox in the computer market with a fraction of their budgets). Jobs’s RDF unquestionably contributed to his success in revolutionizing no fewer than six industries: personal computers, animated films, digital music, cell phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing.

There was, however, one reality his distortion field could not bend to his will: cancer. In 2003 Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which further tests revealed to be an islet cell or pancreatic neuroendrocrine tumor that is treatable with surgical removal, which Jobs refused. “I really didn’t want them to open up my body, so I tried to see if a few other things would work,” he later admitted to Isaacson with regret. Those other things included consuming large quantities of carrot and fruit juices, fasting, bowel cleansings, hydrotherapy, acupuncture and herbal remedies, a vegan diet, and, says Isaacson, “a few other treatments he found on the Internet or by consulting people around the country, including a psychic.” They didn’t work, and in the process we find the alternative medicine question, “What’s the harm?,” answered in the form of an irreplaceable loss to humanity.

Out of this heroic tragedy a lesson emerges: reality must take precedence over willful optimism, for nature cannot be distorted.

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A Weekend of Woo (Or why I love the Esalen Institute)

For the forth time in my life I journeyed north on Pacific Coast Highway along the ragged California coast line north of San Simeon and the Hearst Castle where the road turns twisty and the cliffs bend vertical. The Esalen Institute is nestled on the ocean side of the highway atop some bluffs dotted with buildings that include yoga rooms, Yurts, Spartan housing overlooking the ocean, a soup kitchen-like cafeteria serving spectacularly healthy food (lots of Tofu and veggies, no tri-tips or ribs), and workshops catering to just about every belief ever investigated and found wanting in the pages of Skeptic magazine.

Nevertheless, I loved my time there once again, not only for the breathtaking scenery and unprecedented views, or the invigorating cycling and hiking, or the natural hot springs pouring out of the mountain and into elegantly designed hot tubs (clothing optional, and most opt to go without), but for the apparent incongruity made congruous when we consider our mission as skeptics to take our message of science and critical thinking to those who need to hear it most.

My workshop was entitled “Science, Spirituality, and the Search for Morality and Meaning.” First, I must say that the 24 participants in my workshop were already as skeptical as one might find at one of our Sunday Caltech lecture series meetings and dinners. All were well-read in the sciences and humanities to the point that I learned as much as I taught, and the ensuing conversations both during and after the lectures, along with at the meals, were exceptional.

Thus, I needed to trek down to the hot tubs in order to really sample the population of attendees at other workshops that weekend. What I heard was most entertaining, as well as educational in terms of why people believe weird things. To be fair, the workshop on couples massage sounded thoroughly grounded in the reality of how relaxing it can be to give and receive a massage, and I have no doubt that the couples in this class were probably brought closer to one another and learned a skill they could definitely take home with them.

But there were other workshops that sounded more like the touchy feely without the touchy. This goes by the generic descriptor of “energy work.” Lots of hot tub soakers waxed enthusiastic about getting their chakras adjusted, their Chi energy re-energized, the miracles of acupuncture, acupressure, and Chiropractic, and how this and that “natural healer” could cure everything from migraines and depression to pain and bowel ailments.

(A note parenthetical on the clothing-optional hot tubs: if you’ve never opted as such it probably sounds either positively off-putting or on-turning, depending on your imagination. It is neither. It is nothing, in fact. No one cares or stares. It actually does seem natural and normal in that environment. At night it’s pretty dark so you can’t really see anything anyway, and during the day people are discrete and polite. It’s all cool.)

If there is one work that best captures how people think (or miss-think) at Esalen it is “anecdotal.” Everything is couched in anecdotes. “I tried this” — “This worked for me” — “I know someone who said he used X for his headache” — “Ever since I started doing X my headaches have disappeared” and so on. No one ever discusses studies, experiments, control v. experimental groups, epidemiological studies, and the like. I heard one guy in the hot tub proclaim “I’m a skeptic, a man of science,” which was followed by a litany of anecdotes about the amazing wonders of this acupuncturist he’s been going to. Revealingly, someone asked him if the needles hurt. He pronounced without hesitation that the needles never ever hurt. And yet five minutes later he confessed that the ones in his hand, wrist, forearm, and shins all hurt like hell.

The problem with anecdotes is that 10 anecdotes are no better than 1, and 100 anecdotes are no better than 10. As I’ve repeated numerous times in numerous books and articles, “anecdotes do not make a science.” Or as a new trope going around these days (the source of which escapes me), “the plural of anecdote is not data.” (Who first said that? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?) Anecdotes are fun and interesting, and they may even lead one to construct an experiment to test a hypothesis (“does sitting naked in a natural hot spring tub lead to anecdotal thinking?”), but by themselves they are often worse than nothing because they lead one to draw conclusions that are more often than not misleading or wrong.

Thus it is that in one of my hot tub sessions I brought up the famous 1990’s “Emily experiment,” in which little Emily Rosa, for her 4th grade science project, tested Therapeutic Touch (TT, or the original touchy feeling without the touchy) by observing under controlled conditions if this “healers” could even detect her “energy field” behind an opaque screen in which they slid their hands through two cut out openings at the bottom. Emily flipped a coin to determine whether she would hold her hand a few inches above the TT therapist’s left or right hand, at which point they had to declare which hand detected the energy field. As a simple coin-flip model it’s a 50/50 guess. Emily’s subjects scored less than 50%, worse than chance, even though before the experiment began they all declared that they could with 100% certainty detect her energy field standing before her. After I recounted this experiment the other people in the tub said something to the effect of “um,” and “oh, uh, okay,” and “well…uh…um.” I have no idea, of course, if they went back to their rooms and revisited their deepest held beliefs about human “energy,” but I hope to have planted a small seed that may one day grow into a skeptical tree. Who knows?

Since so much of the Esalen Institute is experiential, I’ll let my iPhone pics speak louder than my words for what it was like experiencing Esalen, one of my favorite places on the planet. (Click any image to enlarge it and view the entire image gallery.)

photo photo photo photo photo photo photo photo
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Shermer in Seminary School

My weekend at the New Orleans Baptist Seminary discussing God, religion, and the afterlife

On Friday, April 13, 2012 in the chapel of the New Orleans Baptist Seminary I debated the Liberty University philosopher and theologian Gary Habermas on the question: “Is There Life After Death?” I went first. I stated that since Gary is taking the affirmative I’m suppose to defend the negative, but in fact when it comes to the afterlife, “I’m for it!” Tellingly, that line didn’t get the usual laugh it engenders in audiences, but then in seminary school the afterlife is a deadly serious subject. I began with this thought experiment:

Imagine yourself dead. What picture comes to mind? Your funeral with a casket surrounded by family and friends? Complete darkness and void? In either case you are still conscious and observing the scene.

I then outlined the problem we all have in thinking about life after death: we cannot envision what it is like to be dead any more than we can visualize ourselves before we were born, and yet everyone who ever lived has died so death is inevitable. This leads to either depression or humor. I prefer the latter. For example, Steven Wright: “I intend to live forever—so far, so good.” Or Woody Allen: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Of course, you won’t be there when it happens because to experience anything you must be conscious, and you are not conscious when you are dead. I then outlined four theories of life after death, gleaned from my recent Scientific American column based on Stephen Cave’s marvelous new book, Immortality, which I highly recommend reading.

The Four Theories of Immortality

1. Staying Alive. That is, one way to achieve immortality is to not die. I then reviewed the various realities involved, such as the 100 billion people who lived before us who have died, and the various problems involved with longevity efforts, genetic engineering to change the telomeres involved in aging, cryonics, and Tulane University physicist Frank Tipler’s Omega Point theory about how we will all be resurrected in the far future of the universe in super computer-generated virtual realities.

2. Resurrection. I then explained Theseus’s Ship and Shermer’s Mustang: how Poseidon’s son Theseus sailed to Crete to slay monster Minotaur and how his ship was preserved for posterity but rotted over time and every board was replaced with new wood—is that still Theseus’s ship? Ditto my 1966 Mustang, which I purchased in 1971 and wrecked and ruined to the point where there was hardly an original part on it when I still sold it as a classic car 16 years later. Is that really still a 1966 Mustang? I then segued into discussing the transformation problem (how could you be reassembled just as you were and yet this time be invulnerable to disease and death?) and Julia Sweeney’s challenge to the Mormon boys who told her that she would be made whole again and when she asked them if she’d have her uterus back (which she had removed because of cancer) told them “I don’t want it back!” And what age are you resurrected? 5, 29, 85? And how would a duplicate you be any different from your twin who happens to have your same memories?

3. Soul. I explained to these young seminarians that there isn’t a shred of evidence for anything like a “soul” that survives death, no new physical system that scientists have discovered to allow soul stuff to survive. I noted that Thomas Jefferson made this killer observation: we do not understand how the mind causes the brain to act, or how thoughts are transduced into physical movements. Adding a soul only doubles the mystery, as believers would then have to explain how the soul effects the mind, and how the mind effects the brain. In reality, I explains, there is no soul or mind. Just brain. I asked rhetorically: Under anaesthesia, where’s your soul? Why is it knocked out? And: If the soul can see, why can’t the souls of blind people see when they are alive?

4. Legacy: glory, reputation, historical impact, or children. But as Woody Allen said: “I don’t want to live on in the hearts and minds of my countrymen. I want to live on in my apartment.” Clearly this is not what most people desire for life after death, so…

Which Afterlife Theory is Correct?

Which religion’s afterlife story is the right one? Egyptian, Christian, Mormon, Scientology, Buddhist, Hindu, Deepak’s Quantum Consciousness? What are the odds that Gary Habermas’s theory of the afterlife will happen to match that of the God and Religion he believes in? Virtually 100%!

Afterlife myths follow the same pattern as all religious myths: where you happened to have been born and at what time in history determines which myth you believe. To an anthropologist from Mars these are all indistinguishable.

Where do you go to live after death?

I then noted that ever since Copernicus and the rise of modern astronomy and cosmology there is no place for heaven. This has led some to speculate that perhaps it is in another dimension. But those dimensions are physical systems subject to the laws of entropy, so that doesn’t help. I then recounted a few other “theories” of the afterlife:

  • Egyptians: a physical place far above the Earth in a “dark area” of space where there were no stars, basically beyond the Universe.
  • Vikings: Valhalla—a big hall in which to drink beer and get ready to fight again
  • Muslims: “the Garden” with rivers, fountains, shady valleys, trees, milk, honey and wine—all the things Arabian desert people crave, plus 72 virgins for the men. (No one seems to have asked what the women want.)
  • Christians: eternity with angels at the throne of God.
  • Hitchens: The Christian heaven is a Celestial North Korea at the throne of the dear leader
  • Who’s to say that Heaven will be good? What if it isn’t? What proof do we have?
  • What if it’s boring? My college philosophy professor Richard Hardison once asked rhetorically: “Do they have tennis courts and golf courses there?”
  • Ethnologist Elie Reclus describes Christian missionaries attempting to convert Inuits with the promise of a God-centered heaven. Inuit: “And the seals? You say nothing about the seals. Have you no seals in your heaven?” “Seals? Certainly not. We have angels and archangels…the 12 apostles and 24 elders, we have…” “That’s enough. Your heaven has no seals, and a heaven without seals is not for us!”

Evidence for Life After Death

  1. Talking to the dead: Frank’s Box/Telephone to the Dead/Psychics.
  2. Information Fields and the Universal Life Force. —21 Grams: 1907 Duncan MacDougall tried to find out by weighing six dying patients before and after their death—medical journal American Medicine: a 21-gram difference —Rupert Sheldrake
  3. ESP and Evidence of Mind. Experimental research on psi and telepathy
  4. Near-Death Experiences

    • Clue: “Near” death. Not dead.
    • 80% of people who almost die and recover have no NDEs at all.
    • OBE: people “see” themselves from above. But what is doing the seeing?
    • TPJ (temporo-parietal junction) stimulation = OBE
    • G-Force Induced Loss of Consciousness, Dr. James Whinnery: “dreamlets,” or brief episodes of tunnel vision, sometimes with a bright light at the end of the tunnel, as well as a sense of floating, sometimes paralysis, and often euphoria and a feeling of peace and serenity when they came back to consciousness. Over 1,000, apoxia, oxygen deprivation: “vivid dreamlets of beautiful places that frequently include family members and close friends, pleasurable sensations, euphoria, and some pleasurable memories.”
    • Neurochemicals such as endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine produce feelings of serenity and peace.
    • Methylenedioxyamphetamine (MDA) triggers long-forgotten memories and produces the feeling of age regression, while di-methyl-tryptamine (DMT)—AKA “the spirit molecule”—causes the dissociation of the mind from the body and is the hallucinogenic substance in ayahuasca, a drug taken by South American shamans.
    • Olaf Blanke, 2002 Nature article: willfully produced OBEs electrical stimulation of the right angular gyrus in temporal lobe of 43-year old epileptic woman.
    • Andrew Newberg: Buddhist monks meditate, Franciscan nuns pray, brain scans show low activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, a region of the brain the authors have dubbed the Orientation Association Area (OAA)—orient the body in physical space.
    • 2010 discovery by Italian neuroscientist Cosimo Urgesi: damage to posterior superior parietal lobe through tumorous legions can cause patients to suddenly experience feelings of spiritual transcendence.
    • Ramachandran: microseizures in the temporal lobes trigger intense religiosity, speaking in tongues, feelings of transcendence.

Why do people believe in the afterlife?

  • Impossible to conceptualize death, or a world without life
  • Agenticity: we impart agency and intention to inanimate objects such as rocks and trees and clouds, and to animate objects such as predators, prey
  • Natural born dualists: corporeal/incorporeal, body/soul, brain/mind
  • Essentialism: Hitler’s jacket, Mr. Rogers’ sweater, Brad Pitt’s shirt, organ transplants
  • Theory of Mind (ToM). We project ourselves into the minds of others and imagining how we would feel. ToM occurs in the anterior paracingulate cortex just behind our forehead. We project ourselves into the future.
  • Extension of our body schema. Our brains construct a body image out of the myriad inputs from every nook and cranny of our bodies, that when woven together forms a seamless tapestry of a single individual called the self that we project into the future.
  • Extension of our mind schema/Decentering. afterlife is extension of our normal ability to imagine ourselves somewhere else both in space and time, including time immemorial.
  • Cosmic justice.

Habermas then gave his opening remarks and we went back and forth twice, took questions from the audience, and I ended with this call for us all to live life in this life and not in some imagined next life:

Not Life After Death…Life During Life

Either the soul survives death or it does not, and there is no scientific evidence that it does or ever will. Does this reality extirpate all meaning in life? No. Quite the opposite, in fact. If this is all there is, then how meaningful become our lives, our families, our friends, our communities—and how we treat others—when every day, every moment, every relationship, and every person counts; not as props in a temporary staging before an eternal tomorrow where ultimate purpose will be revealed to us, but as valued essences in the here-and-now where purpose is created by us.

Science tells us is that we are but one among hundreds of millions of species that evolved over the course of three and a half billion years on one tiny planet among many orbiting an ordinary star, itself one of possibly billions of solar systems in a commonplace galaxy that contains hundreds of billions of stars, itself located in a cluster of galaxies not so different from millions of other galaxy clusters, themselves whirling away from one another in an accelerating expanding cosmic bubble universe that very possibly is only one among a near infinite number of bubble universes. Is it really possible that this entire cosmological multiverse was designed and exists for one tiny subgroup of a single species on one planet in a lone galaxy in that solitary bubble universe? It seems unlikely.

Through a natural process of evolution, and an artificial course of culture, we have inherited the mantle of life’s caretaker on Earth, the only home we have ever known. The realization that we exist together for a narrow slice of time and a limited parsec of space, potentially elevates us all to a higher plane of humility and humanity, a provisional proscenium in the drama of the cosmos.

Matthew Arnold, Empedocles on Etna:

Is it so small a thing,
To have enjoyed the sun,
To have lived light in the Spring,
To have loved, to have thought, to have done;
To have advanced true friends, and beat down baffling foes;
That we must feign a bliss
Of doubtful future date,
And while we dream on this,
Lose all our present state,
And relegate to worlds yet distant our repose?

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