Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Skeptic's Religion

Skepticism is nothing more than a belief system. Skepticism is the belief that there is one inherent Truth about a single Reality. (Sounds a bit like Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religions already!) This Truth can be accessed by examining scientifically tested facts which, when they fall within a logical, rational and repeatable system of other tested facts, constitute what a Skeptic would comfortably call "reality." In other words, something is only "real" if it makes sense within a system of other things that also make sense.

So, then, why is skepticism a belief system?

Because it presupposes and is based upon an entire pyramid of other facts and beliefs about those facts. This provides a pre-existing context for every new or unusual event confronting the skeptic. So, for example, let's suppose the skeptic, like, say, The Amazing Randi (the well-known magician, avowed skeptic, and psychic-basher who claims full responsibility for the alleged debunking of Israeli spoon-bender Uri Geller) watches someone bend a spoon by merely stroking it gently on the stem of the spoon. The spoon slowly begins to look like it is melting and forms a bent hump at the top of the stem. The skeptic already has a belief system intact about why this spoon is bending without any apparent force.

First, the skeptic believes there is no Force in the universe capable of achieving this virtual melting of metal unless it falls into a certain number of categories such as heat or pressure.

Second, the skeptic believes he is already fully familiar with all possible Forces in the universe.

Third, the skeptic subscribes to an old adage used primarily in the scientific community known as "Occam's Razor" which basically means that if we have a choice between explaining a phenomenon in terms of known facts and principles versus a brand new, unproven theory, then we should accept the former and not the latter explanation.

Fourth, the skeptic is convinced that if he can reproduce the same result (a bent spoon) by means of trickery or magic, that constitutes proof-positive that any time a spoon is EVER bent without the help of traditional physics (heat, pressure, optical illusion, etc.), then it must have been achieved by magic and nothing else.

The problem with the Skeptic's Religion is that, like any other belief system or religion, it must rely upon several leaps of faith.

First, the skeptic wrongly assumes he is already familiar with all possible Forces in the universe and knows all possible outcomes based upon cause and effect. This is false. As human beings, we limited by the machinery of our brains. We are consciously aware of those things with which our brain already feels comfortable, since they have been previously identified and catalogued by the brain. This is a neurological limitation. We do not permit ourselves to experience those things we cannot understand. Moreover, cutting-edge physics is now approaching its much-cherished Theory of Everything which unifies all of the known forces of the universe within a single system by virtue of explaining the universe as having eleven dimensions. Different forces are possible within different dimensions. Conversely, not all forces exist within every dimension. The human body, as our only receptor, is trapped within a 3-dimensional world. What are the implications of this? That there exist Forces in the universe which we are incapable of experiencing by virtue of being stuck in our 3-dimensional world. Thus, the skeptic cannot scientifically "believe" that he is fully familiar with all the Forces of the universe and thus understands all cause and effect.

Second, most skeptics make the mistake of twisting the Occam's Razor rule from meaning that the preferred explanation of an event is the ONLY explanation. That represents a kind of religious fanatism as we often see with Christian or Muslim religious zealots who willingly twist the literal words of the Bible or the Koran to suit their purposes. Magic is a single explanation for a phenomenon - but in terms of pure logic we cannot infer it is the only explanation. We BELIEVE it is the only explanation.

I had occasion to travel to London and met with Uri Geller. He bent several spoons in front of me and for my children. He is an absolutely charming but deeply enigmatic man. Before I visited him, I met with a friend of mine who is a magician. I begged him to break the magician's code of secrecy and show me several ways to bend a spoon using magic. He finally agreed. I learned several ways it can be done. Most such tricks are not really visible to the naked eye unless you know what to anticipate. I also have very talented psychic friends who claim to be able to bend spoons without touching them - defying all known rules of physics. I have tried many times myself but have never been able to bend a spoon in this fashion.

When I watched Uri bend a spoon as we stood in his kitchen, he stroked the stem lightly near the oven top. I kept my eyes trained on the hard-metal spoon like an eagle. I did not look away even for a split second. I was immediately concerned that I might be witnessing an optical illusion like the kid's trick of waving a pencil up and down until it appears to become wobbly and bend. But the spoon actually seemed to be slightly bent - and not in any of the ways shown to me by my magician-friend. However, whether intentionally or not, Uri removed the spoon from my sight for a split milisecond. It was so fast that it probably would not normally register in one's conscious awareness but I was paying extreme attention.

To this day, I cannot say with certainty whether the spoon bent by itself or not. Uri seemed quite proud of it. He wanted me to believe he had psychically manipulated the elemental particles of the spoon. I did not have a belief-agenda when I met him and so I was not emotionally invested in remaining a skeptic or a believer. I just wanted to see this feat with my own eyes.

Consequently, I must keep this strange spoon-bending event forever in an unsolved category in my mind - which feels very uncomfortable on an intellectual level. Most people cannot tolerate ambiguity since it makes us feel powerless. Least of all, skeptics...