Sunday, August 25, 2013

Changing Trains - A Reflection

I am a big fan of Randi's Prize, so when Robert Mcluhan had a post on his blog about changing worldviews, I thought I'd do a bit of reflection on where I've been.

Although I grew up in a Catholic household, was confirmed, and even was an altar server for several years, I never saw eye-to-eye with the church. Even in elementary school, I was incredulous that some people ascribed to biblical literalism, and didn't seem to give much thought to the problem of evil, or the innumerable archaic laws and acts of barbarism of the Old Testament- needless to say, these thoughts made for some uncomfortable moments in CCD. I learned to keep these to myself, along with my fondness for the Bhagavad Gita.

My views on religion took drastic turns in college, where I encountered the extremes of religion for the first time. As someone who believed that our intelligence and curiosity were integral parts of the human experience, I was profoundly disturbed by my first encounters with religious fundamentalists, who unswervingly believed that the Bible supplanted any textbook on the physical or biological sciences, and viewed a class on evolution as a test of their faith. I had honestly never met anyone before who trusted dogma more than their own faculties or believed that prayer is the only acceptable treatment for disease.

After witnessing the frightening effects of fundamentalism on the mind, I began to increasingly identify with the ideals skeptical movement, naively hoping that a dose of rational inquiry would cure some of what ails the world. A university education in biology and psychology had convinced me that biological naturalism was the only logical answer to the mind-body problem, and I came to believe that anything outside mainstream science was a slippery slope to irrationality and superstition. Full of hubris, I derided anything associated with the paranormal, since I was already sure that the world fit neatly into my materialist worldview, and I had seen the battery of many paranormal straw men at the hands of the skeptical movement. Looking back, it was terribly ironic how my commitment to "skeptical inquiry" made me view actual skeptical inquiry into paranormal topics as a waste of time, since I'd already become convinced that such research was pointless.

In an even more ironic twist of fate, it was this hubris that actually lead me to challenge my prior beliefs. I was in the library one day, and happened to see a flier advertising a talk about some paranormal phenomenon. Eager to self-righteously assert my rationalism, I went off to find a legitimate (read: skeptical) book on the topic. While rifling through the shelves, looking for another book, I ended up picking up a copy of The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences on a whim. Unbeknownst to me, this book was not about to lead me to the conclusion I expected.

After my assumptions about the near-death experience (NDE) were roundly refuted, the next few months were spent grappling with cognitive dissonance and what McLuhan calls "rational gravity." Was I missing something obvious? Was I losing my ability to reason? If not, are there other ostensible paranormal phenomena which merit reconsideration? On one hand, it was exciting to learn about the mind-boggling phenomenon of the NDE, but this excitement came with the emotional baggage of having to grapple with what appeared to be a serious challenge to my worldview. This was the first time I encountered the type of serious rational inquiry to which I was supposedly committed, and it bore no resemblance to the straw men which I had previously encountered. This experience began to chip away at my confidence in "skeptical inquiry," and made me realize that I might have to entertain ideas that I'd previously dismissed as absurd, such as dualism or psi. I began to worry that if I began to dig deeper, I would soon be sliding down the slippery slopes into the land of woo woo.

So with great trepidation, down those slopes I went, reading about deathbed visions, cases of the reincarnation type, apparitions, mediumship, and so on - topics that I would have laughed off a few months beforehand. While there are a great number of ostensible paranormal cases which are not objectively evidential or could potentially be attributed to fraud, cognitive biases, cryptomnesia, false memories, inadequate controls, and so fourth, the best cases I've encountered seemed to elude a materialist explanation. I find the topics of psi and survival particularly intriguing, but I'm still unsure what to make of them. Right now, all I can be sure of is that actual skeptical inquiry is far more interesting than derision and confirmation bias.*

* This is poking fun at myself and my own cognitive biases, not anyone else - It doesn't matter to me whether you're a fence-sitter, or are on one side or another, so long as you're actually inquiring.

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