Monday, January 21, 2013
My Fingers Are Not Elephants
The original rabbit link had come from a facebook friend whose affinity for magical thinking is matched only by his passion for science - his feed is a magnificent cascade of authentic scientific appreciation of the natural world interspersed with almost manic platitudes about cosmic energies and galactic spiritual convergences backed up by mathematical formulas derived from religious scripture (often laid out in obsessive charts). Apparently he did indeed do graduate work in the hard sciences at Berkeley, some controversy eventually ejecting him from a NASA project in astrobiology (I can only imagine it had something to do with his spiritualistic interpretations).
A childhood friend of mine in Santa Cruz, CA, that hotbed of new-agism, I've come to realize he is far from alone in his wild theories. Spending some time looking at his ideas, I found myself recalling just how fervent so many in that city were in their particular brand of late 20th century mysticism. A link on the page of a friend of his, a student at UC Santa Cruz, pointed me to a website devoted to something called "DNA Awakening".
After spending much longer than I probably should have watching a young bearded man named Peter (oddly, his surname was absent from the site - legal issues?) pontificating into his webcam, I gathered from the confused and rambling lecture, that our DNA was actually designed to receive electromagnetic signals from hidden dimensions of the universe, yet without proper spiritual training we would not be able to pick them up, and thus not be able to reach higher planes of consciousness. He was also peddling "courses" in that you could purchase from him for a few hundred dollars.
At some point, Peter may indeed have gotten to the part where he explained what evidence for any of this actually was - what the physical process was behind the hypothesis, how you might measure it, and whether there was any research to back it up. I mean, hidden dimensions, higher levels of consciousness, electromagnetic frequency interaction with organic molecules, the translation of that interaction into cognitive awareness, etc. - you would think that even a shred of evidence for any of it would be sort of Earth shattering and worthy of at least a few million dollars of research funding.
Of course, there was none of that. In one segment, he lamented quite passionately how painful it was to hold such radical, unorthodox views among such a skeptical public. I can imagine. His explanation was classic ad hominem: the skeptics' objections arose not from rational, logical conclusions, but rather from deep fears about the truth of what he was claiming, and the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance it creates. Ironically, this sort of rhetorical tactic works beautifully for anyone who himself is fearful of cognitive dissonance and wishes to avoid the possibility of objective analysis of his assumptions.
Which brings me to what I think is the crux of the issue. What are our standards for truth? Sure, none of us can know much of anything for certain, but we can know things, and some things are not true. For instance, my fingers are not elephants. Seems a reasonable enough claim to make. I could be a brain in a vat, but in the meantime, I need to live my life. Part of that means practical, day-to-day navigation of a world that makes sense. Another part, rooted indeed in the fundamental truth that my consciousness is limited, means a lifelong quest to understand myself and the world around me. And logic and observation are the basic principles in which this process must unfold. Believing that my fingers are, or could at any moment be elephants would not only be impractical, but it would represent a major failure to fulfill my goal of understanding the world. It would be a sort of nihilism, a sort of giving up on life itself, a death of consciousness.
But what about the larger world, the one beyond my immediate knowledge and understanding? I can know my fingers with a high degree of certainty. But with most things I must place my faith in external authority. This is a logical step. If I know that certain things exist, or could plausibly exist based on what I already am confident I know, I can then delegate - in a manner of speaking - the gathering and organization of knowledge to others whom I trust. If my wife tells me she saw a man in a clown suit standing by the freeway, as unlikely as it might be, it certainly is not out of the realm of what I know is possible, and therefor I can trust her statement with confidence. If she told me she saw a man levitating by the freeway, I would have to be much more skeptical. The logical device known as Occam's Razor tells me that I ought to trust the most likely probability: that my wife was either mistaken or has developed a mental illness, and not that multiple laws of nature had suddenly been broken.
Gravity I understand pretty well. But when it comes to more complex questions, my trust is tested somewhat further. I don't have personal access to a Doppler radar device, nor the expertise to run one, but when the weather man says a large hurricane is forming over the Atlantic, I trust him. He could, of course, be lying, and if he were the only weatherman in the world I would be much more skeptical. But he is not. His reporting is backed up by the reputation of his organization, which is in turn backed up by other organizations who would take great glee in pointing out his mistakes.
This is not a foolproof scheme, obviously. The weather is hardly controversial. For other, more complex issues it is often hard to feel confident in one's authorities. Yet a few guiding principles allow one to maintain a healthy balance between complete skepticism and complete naivete. The first, of course, is one's own knowledge. I know that 2 + 2 = 4, and I'm going to be very skeptical of a larger claim based on its denial. The second is institutional authority itself. The larger an institution is, the more connections it has to other institutions, the harder it would be for false information to be knowingly peddled for any great length of time, especially if the facts are readily available. Of course, if flawed assumptions are shared by all, then falsities can linger.
But this is quite a different thing than a falsity being conspired upon by large numbers of people within and across institutions, which is the general claim of those with radical, unsubstantiated claims. The truth, according to them, cannot be uncovered and shared because it is being actively kept from us by conspirators. While conspiracies indeed have occurred, I can think of none that have involved the secreting away of knowledge so radical that it would upend standard, accepted assumptions. For instance, conspiracies such as Whitewater or tobacco industry efforts to knowingly sell dangerous products involved quite plausible activities. Their covering-up was limited to a very small group of people within isolated organizations. Wiretaps were found. Internal memos were found. Politicians are often sneaky, and the tobacco industry faced an existential threat.
Conspiracies such as the link between vaccines and autism or a faked moon landing were not plausible at all. With the former, one study was published and faced enormous push-back in peer review against its published results by thousands of scientists and doctors spread across hundreds of reputable institutions, and subsequent studies were done and made available publicly. With the moon landing, decades of research and experimentation had been done in the open, all culminating in an almost completely public event, involving hundreds of respected institutions.
As far as I know, no conspiratorial claims about "DNA awakening" are being made (although I wouldn't be surprised). Rather, the willingness to go out on such a pseudoscientific limb seems to have more to do with a particular susceptibility to magical thinking among the new age subculture. First and foremost, a sort of deep spiritual yearning is present. This then seems to drive the individual towards a scaffolding upon which to invest their yearnings. New age culture is nothing if not a smorgasbord of quasi-religious, pseudoscientific errata.
The spiritual yearning is deeply dissatisfied with traditional, "Western" ideology and its tired baggage, and so seems to ingratiate itself to any cultural tradition, no matter how obscure or bizarre (maybe the more so the better) - as long as it is not Judeo-Christian or European in origination. From this, you get all manner of cultural flotsam and jetsom - funny smelling oils from Turkmenistan, healing ointments made by llamma herders in Peru, astrological navigations written in Sanskrit.
Yet, while "Western" authority is swapped out for that of, well, anything else really - hunter-gatherers in Botswana will likely do, what is maybe most fascinating is the sort of factual relativism that erupts, opening the door for seemingly any old kooky therapy, life lesson, mystical teaching , or spiritual world view. Much like Protestantism overthrew Catholicism's grip on Biblical interpretation, the New Age movement goes a step further and overthrows reality itself. Not satisfied with the fact that viruses cause colds, try this magnetic bracelet. Want to be happy? Drink this concoction of herbal teas and rub this root salve on your temples. Not OK with the thought that no evidence for aliens have ever existed? Go this guy's seminar and hear about how he transformed his life by communicating with an ancient race of one-eyed super-beings through meditation. Want to levitate? Want to teleport? Want to talk to your dead relatives in a past life? Why not?
At this point anything could be true, because nothing is, really. And when Peter tells you that your DNA are vibrating in harmonic convergence with cosmic energies, what is stopping you from believing him. Science has become "science". Truth has become "truth". Authority has become "authority". My fingers may not be elephants. But maybe I'm just not "seeing" the world correctly.
I left a comment on Peter's you tube video, poking fun at his naivete and misguided assumptions. But I shortly thought better of it and deleted it. What good was I doing? This was his religion we're talking about here. Well, religion in quotes, but same difference. I felt bad for mocking him. The internet, the world doesn't need any more of that. He's not really hurting anyone who isn't already on board. In order to believe in such things one must already have given up on objective truth or reality.
Its a funny thing, this vapid posture of openness to anything and everything all the time forever and ever. We all have our ways of escaping. Religion is probably the oldest, and ultimate form of it. Sense. Making sense of the world, finding meaning. One could hardly argue that it isn't a worthy endeavor. So many have struggled with so much, and have such a need for comfort. Who am I to take the pillow from their head, even if it is nothing but an illusion? Lord knows we need illusions.