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Baggini's Heathenism

In Randi's Prize I held a brief imaginary dialogue with Julian Baggini, a philosopher who writes for the Guardian. I picked Baggini because he'd made some remarks about mediums, but also because he sounded like the sort of atheist that a person with religious interests could have a conversation with. That impression has been confirmed by the thoughtful articles about religious belief that he has been writing on the Guardian's Comment-is-Free site recently - not least by the infuriated responses of hardline atheists.

Today in the print version Baggini publishes a manifesto, a list of 12 points that distinguishes what a 'heathen' believes. I like the term 'heathen', but use it in a jokey sense, along with 'infidel'. Baggini has a serious use for it: he thinks it helps distinguish moderate atheism from the highly-charged version espoused by 'bishop-bashers' like Dawkins and Hitchens. It shows that 'we do not think too highly or ourselves', unlike terms such as 'rationalist' and 'bright' - which imply (I guess he would agree) that people who think differently are irrational and stupid.

So what's in the manifesto? Baggini starts with beliefs. Like all atheists, heathens are naturalists, who have no reason to believe there is anything like heavens, spirit worlds and deities. They arrive at this conclusion because their first commitment is to the truth,

a commitment to see the world as truthfully as we can, using our rational faculties as best we can, based on the best evidence we have. That is where our primary commitment lies, and we are prepared to accept the possibility that we are wrong about some of the specific beliefs that has led us to.

However heathens are emphatically not followers of scientism. For them, science is not the last word on everything. They can even be made to feel uncomfortable by the way it undermines certain beliefs about free will and rationality. They also recognise that human beings are very imperfect users of reason, easily led astray by biases, distortions and prejudices.

Reason itself always leaves us short of certain knowledge, requiring us to rely on our judgements in order to come a conclusion.

That isn't to say that heathens aren't confident that they're right, they just prefer to be discreet about their certainty. They'll concede that religion may help people to be happier and healthier, if the evidence is there, although it wouldn't make them give up their convictions. They are secularists, but don't demand that religion be banished from society or public life.

Some heathens can even be a tiny bit religious themselves:

A small minority of religions reject the real existence of supernatural entities and divinely authored texts, accept that science trumps dogma, and see the essential core of religion in its values and practices. These are entirely compatible with the heathen position.

In fact religion is often the heathen's friend:

We believe in not being tone-deaf to religion and to understand it in the most charitable way possible. So we support religions when they work to promote values we share, including those of social justice and compassion. We are respectful and sympathetic to the religious when they arrive at their different conclusions on the basis of the same commitment to sincere, rational, undogmatic inquiry as us, without in any way denying that we believe them to be false and misguided.

On the other hand that's balanced by an 'equally honest' commitment to be critical of religion when necessary, especially when it 'promotes prejudice, division or discrimination, suppresses truth or stands in the way of medical or social progress.'

There were some approving comments, although it seems a lot of atheists are attached to their dogmatic warrior status, and would hate to lose it. The idea of giving ground to religions is intolerable to them (eg 'I like Atheist, it's loud, proud and to the point. Heathen sounds like I'm a pussy.') But Baggini predicts that many people of faith will agree with much of what he says, and I think he's right. He's to be commended for making the effort to build bridges and deflate the rhetoric.

Obviously, though, I disagree that scientific naturalism is the inevitable outcome of a 'commitment to the truth'.

Elsewhere, as I mentioned in Randi's Prize, Baggini argues that belief in life after death can only be based on faith, since the evidence and good reasons required for a rational argument that it exists are lacking. True, mediums sometimes make correct statements, but then there are bound to be occasional uncanny coincidences and lucky guesses. If there were genuine communication between the living and the dead, there would surely be many more accurate and otherwise inexplicable communications. The fact that they are so rare suggests they are genuine, but frauds, guesses and coincidences.

I went on to point out that Baggini could not reasonably talk this way if he knew anything about psychic research.

Just now I'm going through the investigative material on Leonora Piper, and it's an extraordinary read. Much of it consists of notes taken of sittings, where one can see the back-and-forth between sitter and Piper, in the form of a distinct trance personality. A sitter will typically hear his or her extended family described in detail, with exact names, ages, characteristics, interests, living or dead and so on, without any feedback or anything that gives the slightest support for the cold reading hypothesis. The communications were not only accurate and inexplicable, they were very far from being rare. On the contrary, this material is voluminous and no serious challenge has ever been mounted against it: such efforts as there have been are trivial. Even well-informed sceptics agreed that telepathy was the minimum needed to explain it.

Those of us who know about this, and about many other similar investigations of other individuals, think of it as evidence. In my case, the findings of psychic research help inform my spiritualistic worldview. That worldview may be in conflict with Baggini's naturalism, yet it's surely consistent with the commitment, as he describes it, to 'see the world as truthfully as we can, using our rational faculties as best we can, based on the best evidence we have'.

I'd add that it doesn't appear especially truthful or rational to insist that all mediums rely on pre-gathered information or cold-reading, when there are instances - and Piper is far from being the only one - that powerfully refute that.

Baggini's excuse is ignorance. As I said in my book, I guess he doesn't know that psychic research even exists. It's not on his radar; the people he mixes with, the institutions he frequents will know nothing about it either. It's part of the naturalist creed - and in this respect a creed is exactly what it is - that all such notions have been swept away by modern science.

If, on the other hand, he knows all about Piper but has a reasoned counter-argument, then I would be interested to hear it. I suspect it would be based largely on the fact of no one having won James Randi's million dollars, the possibility of cold-reading, the gullibility of investigators - all those general nostrums that sceptics typically offer, and that reveal minds that have not yet got to grips with the problem.

I think this evocation of the primacy of reason is made with the sceptic's natural complacency. A true commitment to truth and reason could eventually lead a thinker to interesting places - and expose him to deeply awkward conclusions.


James Randi's Personal Troubles

I don't pay much attention to James Randi, despite what one might think (having written a book with his name in the title). His views are predictable and outdated, and other public sceptics are generally more interesting - Hyman, Wiseman, Shermer even.

But there's no question that he's a cultural phenomenon. In his advancing age he's morphed from entertainer and intellectual street fighter into Grand Old Man. To the young especially, he's a sage, an object of hero worship, munching his homeopathy pills and dispensing wisdom with that avuncular twinkle. I monitored Twitter traffic about him a while back and was struck by the enormous number of 'James Randi is awesome' tweets (a lot of them in Spanish, for some reason). They significantly outnumbered the 'Randi is a pompous twit' type, although there were quite a few of those as well.

It seems that Randi's brand of 'rationality' appeals to young people who are searching for a firm foundation of belief, and are attracted by his simple, confrontational worldview. They gravitate to him as a source of truth. When he remarks in public performances that 'There's a difference between having an open mind and having a hole in your head from which your brain leaks out', it gets retweeted a zillion times, as if it was an original quote.

To those of us who understand the smoke and mirrors in what he does, it's frustrating. So it's not surprising that we look for flaws in his personality. There was a lot of schadenfreudig comment ten years ago when some salacious tapes surfaced of him apparently propositioning young boys. According to Randi himself he was taking part in a police sting, and the tapes were taken out of context, which seems to be generally accepted.

Then two years ago he finally outed himself as gay. Typically, he treated this as another opportunity to bash the opposition. If the likes of John Edward and Sylvia Browne had psychically divined that their arch-enemy was a closet gay, he argued, they would long ago have taken the opportunity to embarrass him in public. (Or as TV mentalist Derren Brown delicately put it, if psychics claim to know where bodies are buried they must surely know where Randi 'buries his salami'.) But this never happened, so hey - more proof that 'psychics' aren't psychic.

A more serious scandal has been getting attention of late. Randi's live-in lover is a gentleman by the name of Jose Luis Alvarez, a highly-regarded artist. It's emerged that Alvarez's identity is actually owned by a New Yorker, from whom he stole name and social security number after arriving from Venezuela some 28 years ago. As a victim of identity fraud the real Alvarez has been having the devil's own time getting official documents and credit, and when he applied for a passport the truth finally came out. 'Alvarez' pleaded guilty in a court appearance last week. He's thought unlikely to be jailed, but risks being deported.

This is all highly reprehensible, of course. But I'm not convinced that it's a good stick to beat Randi with. One supposes, naturally, that he was perfectly aware that his life partner was living under a stolen identity (not knowing about it would surely be more damaging to his reputation than to have covered it up). However it's being suggested that the scandal is a headache for the sceptic community, since it presents clear evidence of their hero's hypocrisy.

Steve Volk, for one, criticises the way sceptics either ignore the wrongdoing altogether, or else jump to his defence.

The identity Randi puts forward for public consumption is truth seeker. His professional role, at least on the surface, is to unmask hoaxers and charlatans-not live with them, or abet them.

Indeed. But should we expect anything else? We think of the psi controversy in terms of science, as a struggle to arrive at the objective truth. But it's also shaped by the same things - temperament, background, influences - that determine our political inclinations. When sceptics attack psychics, they're campaigning for the kind of world they think this ought to be, the reality that they can accept (and of course they think the same about psi-advocates). We take it for granted that politicians will get caught out in personal wrongdoing from time to time. They deserve to be embarrassed about it, but it doesn't necessarily have any wider implications for their arguments.

It seems clear that sceptics feel unsettled by their hero's travails. Should they be blamed for rallying to his defence? One would hardly expect them to renounce him. The best of us will stand by friends and family members who have done wrong.

So although Volk is clearly right, somehow I find it hard to get worked up by any of this. Being preoccupied with making the intellectual case for psi, I'm deeply aware of just how successful the whole concept of the Million Dollar Challenge has been. My priority is to come up with better arguments and get people's attention. This personal scandal is not going to make any of Randi's many supporters think again. Far from it: if Alvarez is deported, the outpouring of sympathy for a lonely old man will be at least as great as any damage to his reputation - a sign of natural human frailty.

In the end it's our intellectual strength that will make the case, not our opponents' personal weaknesses.


More Psi Wars

I reviewed Debating Psychic Experience here a year or so ago, and another review is coming out in the current issue of the SPR Journal. Meanwhile, parapsychologist Chris Roe sends me a copy of a recent exchange in the UK Skeptic magazine.

As usual the critics, represented here by Ray Hyman and Richard Wiseman, want parapsychology to declare itself dead. Hyman contests the claim, based on ganzfeld meta-analyses and supported by Dean Radin and Jessica Utts, among others, that the reality of psi has been established. Wiseman argues that parapsychology is by now 'confined to the fringes of academia'.

However Wiseman also generously offers parapychologists 'one last chance' to prove themselves. They need to focus on one or two of the most promising approaches, he says, aiming for replications in a number of different labs, and pre-registering details in order to avoid the problems that arise with retrospective analysis.

If this approach yields a significant and replicable effect then the scientific mainstream would be forced to take the topic seriously and allow parapsychology in from the cold. If it fails the field needs to have the courage to accept the null hypothesis. In short, the time has come to put up or shut up.

Counter-arguments are put forward by Caroline Watt and Chris Roe. Watt, from the Koestler Parapsychology Unit, points out that parapsychology hardly exists as a discipline: there are fewer than 100 researchers working full time in the world, and many of those study not psi itself but other areas such as paranormal belief.

Roe, a psychology lecturer and psi-experimenter at the University of Northampton, adds that at least 16 UK universities have academic staff whose doctoral training is in parapsychology. Parapsychology has featured regularly at conferences organised by the British Psychological Society, and he personally has had papers accepted by its annual conference. Interestingly, the largest of the A-level (the standard pre-university qualification) examination boards for psychology includes 'Anomalistic Psychology' in its specification, including elements on testing of ESP and PK. This means, Roe says, that 'future undergraduates will come to university with a grounding in parapsychology and an expectation that the subject will be represented on any comprehensive undergraduate syllabus' - hardly characteristics of a subject confined to the fringes.

Roe vigorously contests Hyman's claim that parapsychology doesn't look scientific. According to what criteria, he asks. For instance, studies show that the use of double blind methods are common in parapsychology at a level of 85%, but hardly at all in physics and biology and only 25% in medical sciences.

When it comes to arguments about replication, Hyman picked a poor study but could just as easily have chosen a good one, Roe says. Also, there is a very strong correlation between standardness and effect size, and where the focus in meta-analyses is on standard studies you get something that looks very like replication.

So why aren't there more of these? In such a tiny field, the active players tend to be innovators looking for interesting new approaches, Roe continues, not technicians engaged in replication exercises. This rather reinforces Wiseman's point, and Roe agrees there need to be changes, but then there's the problem of funding.

These arguments are by now quite familiar, and many were covered in Debating Psychic Experience. It's worth noting, though, that Hyman hardly ever talks about flawed methodology these days in the way that he used to. An alert reader might wonder why, if psi-researchers' experimental methodology is no longer the target of critics' attention, they are still often getting highly significant results.

But Hyman does have a new gambit, and it strikes me as one that goes to the heart of the matter. He claims that some psi-researchers themselves agree that parapsychology has failed. These neoparapyschologists, as he calls them - he mentions Dick Bierman, Walter von Lucadou and Robert Jahn - appear to concede that psi fails to meet scientific criteria, and that the evidence for it will never satisfy scientific standards. In that case, he argues, the goal set by the founders of psychical research, that psi be accepted by mainstream science, is clearly unattainable.

Since the time of Calileo, Kepler, Harvey, and Newton, modern science has flourished just because it focused only on phenomena that were available for public scrutiny, were lawful, and could be independently replicated.

Quite so, and for science to restrict its focus in this way has made sense. But it does not follow that a phenomenon for which there is abundant evidence in a number of areas - often anecdotal, to be sure, but also confirmed by careful investigation - does not exist, merely on the grounds that it does not fully meet these three criteria. On the contrary, an entity that arises from consciousness would surely be expected to be fitful and elusive.

Jahn notes that psi's primary correlates appear to be subjective in character, including such nebulous factors as

teleological intention (need, desire); emotional resonance (bonding, meaning, personal importance); attitude (confidence, playfulness, low ego involvement); masculine/feminine distinctions (both psychological and biological); and perceived uncertainty or complexity, all of which may function at the unconscious as well as the conscious level'.

('Change the Rules!', Journal of Scientific Exploration), 2008.

Such an entity is likely to evade detection as long as it fails to conform to scientific objectivity, he says.

This is what Hyman's neoparapsychologists are really talking about. If psi lies outside science, as science is presently conceived, then as far as they're concerned, so much the worse for science. It's time, as Jahn says, to change the rules. In particular - as Rupert Sheldrake too argues in his new book - scientists need to abandon the illusion that what they do is somehow purely objective, as if human subjectivity never entered into it.

The problem, then, is how a methodology designed to deal with material entities can be modified so that it can also deal with immaterial ones. And how can its guardians be persuaded to relax their vigilance?

For Jahn there are plenty of precedents. Change is a characteristic of human endeavour, for instance in sports competitions, where a modification of rules can often lead to improvement. There's a similar process of continuous change and development in the creative arts, religion and spirituality, psychology and philosophy, he notes. (Also in politics of course; there are good reasons why the American constitution has been amended so often.) So why should not change also come to science?

A rather obvious reason is its sheer authority and prestige. Science continues to be a fertile source of new technologies, and continues to attract huge public interest in areas like cosmology and neuroscience. So why tinker with it? For critics like Hyman, changing the rules would destroy science: if you let in psi, you risk endorsing other, equally dubious claims, like N-Rays, cold fusion and polywater. Indeed, from his point of view, an article with the title Change the Rules! might almost have been a spoof penned by a satirical critic.

He surely has a point. Yet all this further exposes the ideological nature of science, as an institution based on nineteenth-century positivism. Reality is held to be synonymous with what is lawful, and psi's irregular and subjective nature puts it beyond the pale. It's as much about the reality that we want than the one we're in.

So the psi debate has shifted to a new and more interesting phase, to the nature and purpose of science itself. And at bottom it's driven by the same differences of temperament and vision that drive political arguments. The Hymans and Alcocks are the reactionaries, for whom the unstable, unlawful nature of psi is intolerable and want to prevent change at all costs. The Jahns and Sheldrakes are the visionary pioneers, mapping paths to a future in which the spiritual components of humans are at last recognised.

History tells us that their time will come, because change always comes eventually - whether we like it or not. Positions that once were defended to the death are overrun and disappear, and with hindsight it's incredible that anyone took them seriously. That will happen with the resistance to psi - of that we can be sure. What we don't know is how long it will take.