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James Randi – Skeptic, debunker of the paranormal

James Randi in 2008 by Napolean 70 via Flickr

James Randi in 2008 by Napolean 70 via Flickr

James Randi (1928-) is a Toronto born American citizen known for his skepticism and enthusiastic debunking of paranormal truth claims.

In the past, Randi has demanded scientific evidence of paranormal abilities using science as he defines it. This was evident in his “$1,000,000 Paranormal Challenge,” terminated in 2015, with the following exception:

…any established psychic may contact JREF via email to be tested directly (preferably with an independent, third party TV crew.) ¹

During his lenghty career Randi has exposed alleged psychics who couldn’t perform under his agreed upon conditions.

However, Randi tends to emphasize the naturalistic and public aspects of life, making the replication of an alleged effect within these realms the criteria for scientific proof. This is a prominent view in the 21st century. But life, thank God, is rarely that cut and dried. There are other ways of understanding science, its meaning and appropriate method.

James Randi in Sydney as a speaker at the TAMo...

James Randi in Sydney as a speaker at the TAMoZ conference (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For instance, some social thinkers and philosophers of science liken science to an agreed upon social construction, paradigm, myth or fiction. Some even say that science is like another religion. For these thinkers, the conceptual distinctions among science, myth and religion are not mutually exclusive. In fact, some theologians have called theology the “Queen of Sciences.”

Randi was a guest on the popular Johnny Carson show several times, which is not surprising. Randi’s approach arguably gained a measure of popularity not only because he was successful is debunking but also because his weltanschauung resonated with many skeptical and non-religious persons.

In his own words:

“I’ve said it before: there are two sorts of atheists. One sort claims that there is no deity, the other claims that there is no evidence that proves the existence of a deity; I belong to the latter group, because if I were to claim that no god exists, I would have to produce evidence to establish that claim, and I cannot. Religious persons have by far the easier position; they say they believe in a deity because that’s their preference, and they’ve read it in a book. That’s their right.”²

The meaning of the phrase “and they’ve read it in a book” is unclear in this sentence. If Randi is suggesting that reading about God in a book always conforms to or reinforces a belief in God, then I would disagree. Some people have ongoing spiritual experiences which lead them to believe in God in ways not necessarily outlined in a holy book. For these people, living spirituality is not just about choosing to believe and reading something in a book.

Moreover, for those concerned about getting it right in a true scientific sense, reason is applied to any unusual or unconventional experience which they may have. This is somewhat similar to the old medieval theological view that “reason follows revelation” but it differs in that reason is not used to forcibly make revelation conform to Biblical passages or orthodox teachings.³

James Randi Foundation offices, Fort Lauderdal...

James Randi Foundation offices, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the above quotation Randi also says he would have to “produce evidence” to say that no God exists. Essentially, he is applying the same criteria for atheism as he does for religious and paranormal belief.

However, for many a deep, possibly mystical relationship with God is a personal matter that may extend outward to others in subtle ways. It does not have to be publicly verifiable to be real.

By way of analogy, if person “X” has a secret relationship with another person “Y,” others not in that particular relationship, whom we’ll call group “Z,” may be unaware of the connection between “X” and “Y.” But that does not mean that the relationship between “X” and “Y” does not exist. Those who are in that relationship know very well that it exists. Furthermore, that secret relationship may have effects on “Z” without “Z” even knowing it.

¹ http://web.randi.org/

² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Randi

³ In today’s world the idea of revelation does not necessarily fit with ancient scriptures or official religious teachings. Many have revelations that challenge traditional scripture and teachings. Also, revelation may be subtle and ongoing in the forms of grace, insight and intuition. But it seems that if one does not use reason to analyze any kind of revelation, great or small, they run the risk of making mistakes or, at the extreme, become insane persons. Evelyn Underhill recognized this as far back as 1911.

Related » Psychokinesis, Seer


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Carl Edward Sagan – An astronomer who had the right stuff

Carl Edward Sagan (1934-1996), best known as Carl Sagan, was an American astronomer and media figure.

Русский: Карл Саган у модели спускаемого аппар...

Carl Sagan with a model of the Viking lander (Photo: Wikipedia)

His interest in science began at a young age. Getting his first public library card at age 5, he spent considerable time asking the librarian questions and reading up on topics that his family and friends were not so enthusiastic about.

The young Carl got bored at public school because it wasn’t challenging enough. But his family didn’t have the means to send him to a private school for gifted kids.

Nevertheless, Sagan went on to do great things as an adult. He published hundreds of scientific articles, served as an advisor to NASA, and wrote books and hosted a TV series, Cosmos, that popularized science and particularly the idea that we are not alone in the universe.

Sagan differed from many UFO hunters in that he never abandoned his healthy skepticism. An advocate of SETI (The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), his method was couched in the science of his era. Some see that as a strength, others as a limitation.¹

He also made several accurate predictions about the nature of our solar system, contributed to robotic space missions and, slightly ahead of his time,

perceived global warming as a growing, man-made danger and likened it to the natural development of Venus into a hot, life-hostile planet through a kind of runaway greenhouse effect.²

Sagan taught a course on critical thinking at Cornell university and didn’t believe in an anthropomorphic God nor a God to which one would pray to. His vision of God was more in line with the supposed laws of the universe. For Sagan, it made no sense to pray, for instance, to the law of gravity. Gravity would behave the same way, prayed to or not.³

Traditional theologians would say that Sagan confused creator with creation, as so many do. But his popularity in America and abroad was phenomenal and he received many medals and awards. And entertainers like Johnny Carson regularly parodied his sound bytes and unique accent, especially with the phrase “billions and billions.”4

¹ For instance, people convinced that they can psychically connect with ETs will likely not find any kind of proof by looking through large telescopes or by listening to radio signals from outer space. The proof for them, if there is any “proof” at all, might come from situations working out in a positive way by virtue of an apparently helpful psychic ET connection. This, of course, could be further questioned from different angles. But this is beyond the scope of this entry.

² http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Sagan

³ “In reply to a question in 1996 about his religious beliefs, Sagan answered, ‘I’m agnostic.’ Sagan maintained that the idea of a creator God of the Universe was difficult to prove or disprove.” Ibid.

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billions_and_Billions

Related » Occam’s razor


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Skepticism – An old way of finding out new things

skepticism by Christina

Image – Christina B Castro via Flickr

In philosophy skepticism is the notion that we cannot know things beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Extreme skepticism contends that we cannot be certain about the truth of any belief, including the belief in skepticism.

Softer forms of skepticism point to specific branches of inquiry or to a method of doubt that attempts to clarify uncertainties, even if imperfectly so.

One can believe and still be a skeptic, as outlined in the following:

The true meaning of the word skepticism has nothing to do with doubt, disbelief, or negativity. Skepticism is the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. It’s the process of finding a supported conclusion, not the justification of a preconceived conclusion.

It’s thus inaccurate to say “Skeptics don’t believe in ghosts.” Some do. Many skeptics are deeply religious, and are satisfied with the reasoning process that led them there. Skeptics apply critical thinking to different aspects of their lives in their own individual way. Everyone is a skeptic to some degree.¹

The notion of skepticism is, perhaps, traceable to the apparent humility of Socrates (469–399 BCE),  as opposed to the use of Socrates as a literary character by Plato to advocate the theory of Forms. However scholars usually say that the first known skeptic is Pyrrho of Elis (365–275 BCE).

English: René Descartes, the French philosophe...

René Descartes, the French philosopher, by the French engraver Balthasar Moncornot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The influential Islamic philosopher and psychologist Al-Ghazali (1058-1111)  promoted a type of skepticism that some say may have influenced René Descartes method of doubt as found in his Discourse on the Method. Here, Descartes starts off as a skeptic, finds himself in intellectual hot water, so relies on his essentially theological beliefs about the goodness of God to bail himself out.²

Another type of skepticism is geared more toward corrective social practice—namely, professional skepticism. A professional skeptic would be hired to discover and help prosecute frauds, hostile infiltrators and unduly corrupt individuals hiding out under seemingly legitimate covers.³

¹ The reference to this quote also mentions the popular usage that to be a skeptic is to, more often than not, bash certain ideas: https://skeptoid.com/skeptic.php

² Descartes looks into the problem of solipsism, which I don’t think requires a belief in God to reject. The mere uncertainly should be enough. For what if the solipsist is wrong? Can he or she be a truly ethical person with no respect for the (possible) reality of others?

³ http://www.answers.com/Q/What_is_professional_skepticism

Related » Gorgias, Hellenistic, James Randi 


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Synchronicity – A concept that may become increasingly important in our emerging quantum worldview

Chambre de glace dans le pays

Chambre de glace dans le pays by Sýn En via Flickr

Synchronicity is a term coined by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl G. Jung to represent the idea of meaningful coincidence. Implicit to Jung’s idea of synchronicity is the belief that all of creation is somehow interconnected, not only through space but also time.

Whether or not synchronicity is a truly scientific concept remains open to debate. If science is understood as something that must be predictive, then synchronicity can probably never be a scientific concept. If science, however, is understood as acquiring knowledge and wisdom though trial and error, then synchronicity might play into a new kind of scientific rubric, one that believes in an essential connection between consciousness and the world in which it resides.

Synchronicity takes three main forms:

  • The coincidence of a psychological state with a corresponding, simultaneously occurring external event with no evidence of causality
  • The coincidence of a psychological state with a corresponding, simultaneous external event that occurs at a distance, beyond the observer’s normal range of perception
  • The coincidence of a psychological state with a corresponding event that will occur in the future and which may be verified after its occurrence

Also a point of debate is whether or not synchronicity is a causal or acausal phenomenon. Jung says it is acausal but also suggests that the archetypes of the collective unconscious can lead us toward synchronicity, implying some kind of causality.

This uncertainty might result from different understandings about the nature of consciousness—particularly, what constitutes the locus of consciousness. From the perspective of the ego, synchronicity is acausal. But from the perspective of the unconscious, particularly the collective unconscious, synchronicity could have seemingly causal elements. Jung touches on this ambiguity but, as far as I can see, never fully resolves it. Some might see this as a weakness or, more favorably, as a reflection of our essentially mysterious world.

seaorange by shannon kringen

seaorange by shannon kringen via Flickr

Concerning ethics, synchronicity is ambiguous in the sense that nasty people, even murderers, experience synchronicity along with saints, seers and holy people. Because the concept of synchronicity bears some similarity to the notion of the religious sign, it is not surprising that various attempts have been made to link this aspect of Jungian thought to theology.

The following represents an attempt to synthesize Christian belief with the concept of synchronicity:

The natural universe, in the Jungian sense of the term natural, contains physical and spiritual dimensions. A person who acknowledges only the reality of the physical realm is incapable of recognizing how synchronicity operates in the New Testament and in our world and cannot see the power of the spiritual. By contrast, a person who goes to the other extreme, who sees reality only in the spiritual realm and denies reality in the physical world, will not spend much time bettering the world and will fall readily into superstition.¹

Some philosophers dismiss the entire notion of synchronicity with the idea of “confirmation bias.” Confirmation bias is described in Wikipedia as

the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.²

However, we can turn the idea of confirmation bias right back on those who adhere to it as if it were some kind of sacrosanct universal principle. The idea of confirmation bias is certainly worthy of consideration; nevertheless, Jung stressed that one doesn’t look for synchronicity but simply witnesses it. So people who actively seek out “signs” in every bird that flies across the sky, for instance, are not really candidates for the legitimate experience of synchronicity, as defined by Jung.³

Synchronicity (album)

Synchronicity (pop music album) via Wikipedia

Moreover, some theologians consider the possibility that a biased mind, which we all most likely have, could be informed by supernatural influences transcending one’s psychological makeup.

So to reduce all synchronistic experience to a humanly constructed idea of “confirmation bias” is arguably limiting and not scientific in the fullest sense of the word. This is especially so since Jung says synchronicity often involves the inner experience of numinosity along with the observation of external data.4

The following graphic about synchronicity came up through the Zemanta blogging assistant plugin. I haven’t fully reflected on it so am hesitant to say it accurately depicts Jung’s vision. But it is thought-provoking and might help to illustrate some, if not all, of the issues that synchronicity could involve:5

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

¹  Morton T. Kelsey, Christo-psychology, New York: Crossroad, 1982, p. 131.

² Compare to the Wikipedia definition provided at the time of the last update for this entry: a tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and avoids information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs (2009/04/15).

³ (a) See https://epages.wordpress.com/2016/09/08/carl-jung-a-complicated-guy-in-a-complicated-world

(b) Not unlike religious people and their signs, believers often feel that synchronicity confirms choices they’ve made, that they are still on the right path, even if they’ve been through a trying time. I must admit that I have felt this way in my life. But we should keep in mind the possibility that had we made different choices along the way, we still might have experienced synchronicity. A friend once suggested this possibility to me. And although I still do feel comforted by synchronicities from time to time, I think my friend’s suggestion is a good, healthy reality check to keep in mind.

4 I am fully aware that using the term “external ‘is problematic, especially in this context. But a discussion of this complex philosophical issue is beyond the scope of this entry.

5 Compare to Jung’s own diagram, reproduced on p. 197 here http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk3/ftp04/nq21958.pdf

On the Web:

Related » Akashic Records, Causality, Divination, Shakti Gawain, David Hume, I Ching, Joachim of Fiore, Melanie Klein, Arthur Koestler, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Miracles, Morphogenetic Fields, Ram Dass, Michael Talbot


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Rupert Sheldrake and Morphogenetic Fields

Rupert Sheldrake, Toward a Science of Consciou...

Rupert Sheldrake, Toward a Science of Consciousness, Tucson, Arizona via Wikipedia

Morphogenetic fields is a biological term adapted by the English biochemist Rupert Sheldrake to suggest that evolution is a transference of past habits to present ones.¹

Sheldrake says morphogenetic fields have “physical effects” but “are not made of matter.” In contrast to the idea of morphic resonance, which deals with chemical and species behavior over a distance, morphogenetic fields are localized and refer to the development of chemical and biological forms.

When I last wrote this entry, the morphic field was described as a larger family of morphogenetic fields. But today the line seems blurred. Sheldrake himself says that morphic fields are hierarchically nested. So it seems that the two terms are, for all intents and purposes, interchangeable.  Most likely he is streamlining his terminology to make his ideas more accessible.

Sheldrake has gathered archival and previously ignored “anomalous” scientific data that he believes supports his theories. He says morphogenetic fields may explain Carl Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious but does not consider the possible influence of the future on the present, as Jung would.² Also, his theory does not consider possible spiritual influences from heavenly and hellish realms.

In Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home he adapts mathematician Rene Thom’s notion of the “attractor” and says habits “come only from the past, not from the future.”³

Ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and A...

Ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle would become highly revered in the medieval Islamic world. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If we look at Aristotle‘s view of causality within the time frame pertaining to evolutionary theory, Aristotle’s thinking is not entirely unlike Sheldrake’s. Aristotle outlines four interrelated causes: material, formal, efficient and final. However, Aristotle includes a “prime mover” which exists outside of space and time. In Wim Kayzer‘s  A Glorious Accident: Understanding Our Place in the Cosmic Puzzle (1993), it’s clear that Sheldrake is not antagonistic to divine ideas. But he doesn’t seem to fully integrate all that theology has to offer within his scientific theories.

Although Sheldrake’s concepts have caught on within some New Age circles, to some paranormal investigators they seem limiting. Conversely, not a few scientists and skeptics, alike, say his theories are too general or paranormal (connoting “unfounded” or perhaps “speculative”).

To his credit, Sheldrake does advocate a scientific approach to parapsychology. But just what type of science is most appropriate to the study of parapsychology remains debatable. After all, science is variously defined. And those who favor and, perhaps, benefit from a given scientific approach usually champion that approach as if it were the gospel truth. And their own human limits probably prohibit them from seeing things differently.4

¹ Rupert Sheldrake, Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, New York: Crown, 1999, p. 305.

² See this » Click Here

³ Sheldrake, Dogs That Know, pp. 304, 306.

4 When I was even more of an unknown than now, I wrote Dr. Sheldrake via snailmail with images of some Indian dogs (taken during my M.A. in India). These dogs  seemed to know when challenger dogs were going to invade their turf, well beyond the range of sight, scent and sound. Dr. Sheldrake replied cordially, which was surprising given his stature. So I can see why he has a considerable youth following. He seems like a decent person who cares about the advancement of knowledge—and not just a paycheck, like some professors I’ve known.

On the Web

Related » St. Augustine, Synchronicity


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Ivan Petrovich Pavlov – Another Russian pioneer

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936) was a pioneering Russian physiologist credited with developing the scientific study of Behaviorism.

Benjamin Gray – pavlov via Flickr

Rather than spend time rewriting what every psychology 101 student learns, I’ll just copy and paste Wikipedia’s version of Pavlov’s remarkable contribution to the history of ideas:

The concept for which Pavlov is famous is the “conditioned reflex” (or in his own words the conditional reflex) he developed jointly with his assistant Ivan Filippovitch Tolochinov in 1901. He had come to learn this concept of conditioned reflex when examining the rates of salivations among dogs. Pavlov had learned that when a buzzer or metronome was sounded in subsequent time with food being presented to the dog in consecutive sequences, the dog would initially salivate when the food was presented. The dog would later come to associate the sound with the presentation of the food and salivate upon the presentation of that stimulus.[32] Tolochinov, whose own term for the phenomenon had been “reflex at a distance”, communicated the results at the Congress of Natural Sciences in Helsinki in 1903.[33] Later the same year Pavlov more fully explained the findings, at the 14th International Medical Congress in Madrid, where he read a paper titled The Experimental Psychology and Psychopathology of Animals.[9]

As Pavlov’s work became known in the West, particularly through the writings of John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner, the idea of “conditioning” as an automatic form of learning became a key concept in the developing specialism of comparative psychology, and the general approach to psychology that underlay it, behaviorism. Pavlov’s work with classical conditioning was of huge influence to how humans perceive themselves, their behavior and learning processes and his studies of classical conditioning continue to be central to modern behavior therapy.[34] The British philosopher Bertrand Russell was an enthusiastic advocate of the importance of Pavlov’s work for philosophy of mind.[35]

Pavlov’s research on conditional reflexes greatly influenced not only science, but also popular culture. Pavlovian conditioning was a major theme in Aldous Huxley‘s dystopian novel, Brave New World, and also to a large degree in Thomas Pynchon‘s Gravity’s Rainbow.

It is popularly believed that Pavlov always signaled the occurrence of food by ringing a bell. However, his writings record the use of a wide variety of stimuli, including electric shocks, whistles, metronomes, tuning forks, and a range of visual stimuli, in addition to the ring of a bell.†

Related » B. F. SkinnerJ. B. Watson, Daniel Dennett, Free Will

† Follow this link for more https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivan_Pavlov


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Max Planck

Max Planck (Karl Ernst Ludwig 1858-1947) was a German physicist who taught in Berlin from 1888. His work on thermodynamics and radiation challenged Newtonian physics, leading him to develop quantum theory, for which he won the 1918 Nobel Prize for Physics.

He was one of the first to publicly support Einstein‘s special theory of relativity, well before others grasped its import.

The inaugural award: Max Planck (left) present...

The inaugural award: Max Planck (left) presents Albert Einstein (right) with the Max Planck medal of the German Physical Society, 28 June 1929, in Berlin, Germany. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the idea of quantum theory has mostly been within the purview of scientists and New Age thinkers, its practical applications should be more apparent soon.

As noted at earthpages.org:

More recently, we’re seeing a practical application where the conventional “bit” in computing is surpassed by the quantum “qubit,” which isn’t bound by the traditional laws of binary processing.

Who was Max Planck?

Is General Relativity a (partial) Return of Aristotelian Physics?

French Satellite Will Test Einstein’s Theory of Relativity

Researchers create a first frequency comb of time-bin entangled qubits

Einstein Theory Tested by Satellite Could Shake Scientific Foundations

Explaining weirdness with weirdness

Chilling Scientific Inquiry