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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.)

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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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Are you an Atheist or Agnostic?

Recently my friend and colleague in science and skepticism Neil deGrasse Tyson, issued a public statement via BigThink.com in which he stated that he dislikes labels because they carry with them all the baggage that the person thinks they already know about that particular label, and thus he prefers no label at all when it comes to the god question and simply calls himself an agnostic.

cover image

The Believing Brain
by Michael Shermer

In this book, I present my theory on how beliefs are born, formed, nourished, reinforced, challenged, changed, and extinguished. Sam Harris calls The Believing Brain “a wonderfully lucid, accessible, and wide-ranging account of the boundary between justified and unjustified belief.” Leonard Mlodinow calls it “a tour de force integrating neuroscience and the social sciences.”

I have already written about this many times over the decades, and my 1999 book How We Believe outlines in detail why I too hate labels. In fact, in my later book, The Mind of the Market, I explained why I also do not like the label “libertarian” because people automatically think this means believing something that I very likely do not believe (e.g., that humans are by nature purely selfish, that we have no moral obligation to help others in need, that greed is the only motive that counts in business, and that Ayn Rand was actually the Messiah), and instead I prefer to go issue by issue. Nevertheless, the label “libertarian” and “atheist” stick, and as I explained in my latest book, The Believing Brain, I’ve largely given up the anti-label struggle and just call myself by these labels. In effect, what I once thought of as intellectual laziness on the part of my interlocuters who did not seem to want to bother to actually read my clarifications and what, exactly, I do believe about this or that issue, I now see as the normal process of cognitive shortcutting. Time is short and information is vast. Most of the time our brains just pigeonhole information into categories we already know in order to move on to the next problem to solve, such as why not one Mexican restaurant band I have ever asked seems to know one of the greatest Spanish pieces ever produced: Malagueña. It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a tortilla.

Still, it is worth thinking about what the difference is between atheist and agnostic. According to the Oxford English Dictionary: Theism is “belief in a deity, or deities” and “belief in one God as creator and supreme ruler of the universe.” Atheism is “Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God.” Agnosticism is “unknowing, unknown, unknowable.”

Agnosticism was coined in 1869 by Thomas Henry Huxley to describe his own beliefs:

When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist…I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer. They [believers] were quite sure they had attained a certain ‘gnosis,’—had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.

Of course, no one is agnostic behaviorally. When we act in the world, we act as if there is a God or as if there is no God, so by default we must make a choice, if not intellectually then at least behaviorally. To this extent, I assume that there is no God and I live my life accordingly, which makes me an atheist. In other words, agnosticism is an intellectual position, a statement about the existence or nonexistence of the deity and our ability to know it with certainty, whereas atheism is a behavioral position, a statement about what assumptions we make about the world in which we behave.

When most people employ the word “atheist,” they are thinking of strong atheism that asserts that God does not exist, which is not a tenable position (you cannot prove a negative). Weak atheism simply withholds belief in God for lack of evidence, which we all practice for nearly all the gods ever believed in history. As well, people tend to equate atheism with certain political, economic, and social ideologies, such as communism, socialism, extreme liberalism, moral relativism, and the like. Since I am a fiscal conservative, civil libertarian, and most definitely not a moral relativist, this association does not fit me. The word “atheist” is fine, but since I publish a magazine called Skeptic and write a monthly column for Scientific American called “Skeptic,” I prefer that as my label. A skeptic simply does not believe a knowledge claim until sufficient evidence is presented to reject the null hypothesis (that a knowledge claim is not true until proven otherwise). I do not know that there is no God, but I do not believe in God, and have good reasons to think that the concept of God is socially and psychologically constructed.

The burden of proof is on believers to prove God’s existence—not on nonbelievers to disprove it—and to date theists have failed to prove God’s existence, at least by the high evidentiary standards of science and reason. So we return again to the nature of belief and the origin of belief in God. In The Believing Brain I present extensive evidence to demonstrate quite positively that humans created gods and not vice versa.

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Reason Rally Rocks

Shermer leading the Reason Rally Cheer (photo by John Welte)

Yours truly, leading the Reason Rally Cheer (photo by John Welte)

March 24, 2012 marked the largest gathering of skeptics, atheists, humanists, nonbelievers, and “nones” (those who tick the “no religion” box on surveys) of all stripes on the Mall in Washington, D.C., across from the original Smithsonian museum. Crowd estimates vary from 15,000 to 25,000. However many it was, it was one rockin’ huge crowd that voiced its support for reason, science, and skepticism louder than any I have ever heard. Anywhere. Any time. Any place. It started raining just as the festivities gathered steam late morning, but the weather seemed to have no effect whatsoever on the enthusiasm and energy of the crowd…or the speakers and performers. The organizer and host David Silverman and his posse of tireless staff and volunteers pulled it off without a hitch. Organizing big events can be an organizational nightmare, but they did it, marking what I hope is the first of many consciousness raising events in the civil rights movement for equal treatment for us nonbelievers and skeptics.

James Randi and I arrived well before our scheduled talk time and mingled among the crowds, swamped with well-wishers and camera-hounds and feeling the love from so many people that makes fighting the good fight for science and reason well worth it when you know there are people out there who care. Hanging out behind the stage and in the wings was an especially nice treat for me as I got to watch the speakers and performers and the audience together. Someone snapped this pic:

Shermer hang in out backstage

I think I was watching Tim Minchin, whom I have never met or seen perform live. It was clear from the start that he was a major headliner as the audience exploded in energy for him, cajoling him to remove his boots and perform barefoot, one of his trademark features, along with distinct eyeliner highlighting his radiant blue eyes (he says he uses make-up in order to highlight facial expressions for audiences because his hands are usually both busy on the keyboard). Here we are hanging out after his remarkable performance. He was brilliant, funny, witty, insightful, clever, and most of all inspirational. Minchin is a genius.

Michael Shermer and Tim Minchin

No less a showman in humor and poignancy was Mr. MythBuster Adam Savage, who quickly moved off his scripted comments to do stand-up commentary on why science is the coolest thing one can possibly do. Even though Adam said “I’m not a scientist, but I play one on TV,” I disagree. I think the MythBusters are doing science, at least provisionally in testing hypotheses by running experiments over and over and over until they get some result, often not the one they were expecting. The fact that they have fun doing it, and usually blow up the experiment at the end, should not distract us from the fact that the core principle behind MythBusters is testing hypotheses, which is the core principle behind science. Adam was absolutely loved by the crowd. Here we are back stage after his talk.

Michael Shermer and Adam Savage
God Hates Bags

One observation: there were rumors that the Westboro Baptist Church protestors were going to be there with their now-infamous signs declaring “God Hates Fags”, and in anticipation of this people decided to fight hatred and bigotry with humor and wit, pace signs that read “God Hates Figs” and this one (right) plastered on bags carried around: “God Hates Bags.”

I had 5 minutes to speak. It doesn’t sound like much, but consider the fact that the greatest speech ever given in American history, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech, was only 17 minutes long, and most of his other famous speeches, such as his “How Long, Not Long” speech, were even shorter. I began my talk by inveigling the crowd to, on the count of three, yell out “Skeptics Rule,” then “Science Rules” then “Reason Rules.” I couldn’t resist filming it with my iPhone camera. Here it is, the loudest cheer I’ve ever heard for skeptics, science, and reason.

Michael Shermer next to Thomas Jefferson statue

Here I am with my hero, TJ.

I veered away from my written speech here and there depending on the response from the crowd, and I added this line, which was picked up by the press and published in many places:

“America was not founded on God and religion. America was founded on reason.”

I was especially motivated to make that comment because the day before I visited Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, which is a monument to reason. In point of fact, the Declaration of Independence is a monument to reason, along with the country it created.

READ MY SPEECH AT SKEPTIC.COM

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Singularity 101: Be Skeptical! (Even of Skeptics)

Michael Shermer appeared on the Singularity 1 on 1 podcast after meeting its creator, Nikola (a.k.a “Socrates”), at a recent Singularity Summit in New York (watch Michael’s lecture). Discussion included a variety of topics such as: Michael’s education at a Christian college and original interest in religion and theology; his eventual transition to atheism, skepticism, science and the scientific method; SETI, the singularity and religion; scientific progress and the dots on the curve as precursors of big breakthroughs; life-extension, cloning and mind uploading; being a skeptic and an optimist at the same time; the “social singularity”; global warming; the tricky balance between being a skeptic while still being able to learn and make progress.

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST AUDIO, or watch the videos below:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

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