Saturday, August 18, 2007

Irrational beliefs

Religion is a popular target for self-identified "rationalists". This essay by George Mason economist Bryan Caplan attacks religious beliefs as being arrived at through particularly irrational processes. But I think we will find that Caplan's criteria are equally applicable to the non-religious belief of reductionistic materialism and the non-existence of psi phenomena. Let's take a look at the first part of his essay:

To tell people that their non-religious beliefs are just a religion is an insult. Why is it an insult? There isn't any nice way to answer, so I'll be blunt. It is an insult because the way that people form religious beliefs is so intellectually irresponsible that their conclusions are almost guaranteed to be false. People:

· accept their religious beliefs with little or no evidence

· accept religious beliefs that are contrary to the evidence

· accept religious beliefs without studying competing views

· are certain about religious beliefs that are dubious at best, and

· accept their religious beliefs not because they are intellectually compelling, but because they are emotionally comforting.

Forming non-religious beliefs in a religious way is irrational because forming any beliefs in a religious way is irrational.

Now let's examine these criticisms in detail and see if they apply to reductionistic materialism and the denial of psi phenomena:

1) Do most reductionistic materialists "accept their . . . beliefs with little or no evidence" or "accept . . . beliefs that are contrary to the evidence"? I think that is the case. Reductionist materialists who deny psi phenomena are real discard a large body of research pointing towards a non-material aspect of mind and consciousness. They also ignore a vast body of anecdotal evidence to this effect, often extremely well corroborated.

2) Do most reductionistic materialists "accept . . . beliefs without studying competing views"? I think the answer to that could easily be "yes". There are certainly exceptions, like Andrew Endersby, but even the designated skeptics in debates about psi are often poorly read on the research they are attacking. I see no evidence that the run-of-the-mill reductionistic materialist has read books like Entangled Minds, Best Evidence or Irreducible Mind, nor that they have read the studies from researchers like Dean Radin, Rupert Sheldrake, Ian Stevenson and the like.

3) Are reductionistic materialists "certain about . . .beliefs that are dubious at best"? I think so. I've discussed many topics with reductionistic materialists on a number of blogs and fora. These kinds of statements are typical: "ghosts are nonsense", "of course mind is reducible to brain states", "death is the end, extinction, annihilation". Very well documented psi phenomena suggests that at least some doubt is warranted about these positions, but instead many materialists express absolute certitude in their uninformed position.

4) Do reductionistic materialists "accept their . . . beliefs not because they are intellectually compelling, but because they are emotionally comforting"? For this question we have to look beyond the surface of the question. Certainly there are discomforting aspects to materialism, such as the nihilism that many of its adherents seem to feel is the ultimate truth of reality. However, looking through a sociological lens, a straightforward answer appears. Materialism provides the opportunity to distance oneself from the beliefs of the masses of "deluded" people and join the club of the wise, intelligent, culturally powerful and unquestioned leaders of academia. So from that perspective it is clear that materialism is quite a comfortable position indeed. I think B. Alan Wallace stated it quite nicely in his Skeptiko interview:

So this is what bothers me about many of the so-called skeptics. What they're doing is defending the status quo, which doesn't take a whole lot of guts, frankly. The status quo, where so much money, power and status is, of materialism. And so no skepticism is required there at all, and so standing up in front with a whole team of scientists behind one all agreeing on the same metaphysical worldview, and then saying "we're skeptics", they're about as skeptical as Pat Robertson or Billy Graham. . .

In short, I think I have demonstrated that the criticisms that Caplan made against religious beliefs apply quite nicely to the unquestioned metaphysical materialism which holds sway in academia. However denunciations of religion are very popular within that circle, while questioning materialism is practically never done. And that's really too bad. . .


Book Surgeon said...

Yes, but what's the point, Matthew? I would like to see an end to true skeptics and supporters of psi research trying to sway skeptics to "our" side of things. I read somewhere that Mormon kids on a mission typically convert 2-3 people during their two-year mission, out of perhaps thousands that they talk with. I suspect the rate of conversion of anti-psi skeptics to open-minded seekers is similar.

As you well know, every dogmatic pseudo-skeptic out there (and I've been seeing some beauts on Jacob's Skeptiko forum) says the same thing: "I'd be open to the evidence, but the evidence just isn't there." Then you find out they won't read the evidence in the form of books or journals, just the work of skeptics debunking the evidence, because the evidentiary work and its creators are pro-psi "woo-woos."

This is what's known as a self-contradictory fallacy: you deny facts, but because you consider the field beneath you, you won't look into the facts, so your denial can never be contradicted. Every super-skeptic things he's the most rational, open-minded person in the world. There's no way to convince these people.

What we're really talking about is a frame for reality. Religion is one. A liberal or conservative political stance is another. New Age credulity is another. And extreme rationalism/scientism/materialism is another. People rarely ever deny or give up their explanatory frames. They have too much invested in them.

Chris said...

Book Surgeon:

"People rarely ever deny or give up their explanatory frames. They have too much invested in them."

Perhaps the time has come to consider alternatives to converting people from one belief system to another.

My philosophical investigations are currently based on this idea (Freedom of Belief)... I think this is a much more workable position than is currently considered, certainly in the political sphere - tougher by far in the scientific sphere! But still, I think this is a valid way forward.

Alas, no time to ramble about it here. :)

Best wishes!

Enigman said...

I agree with your observations. I recently posted on a similar theme (this argument for agnosticism), and the comments by the Barefoot Bum were nothing more than the 'strong' (i.e. argument-as-combat) reiteration of some core beliefs. It's quite amusing, given how much such people criticise religious believers for their irrationality.