Angry Doctor

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Why there are no ghosts


An anonymous poster made this comment on an earlier post:


what dawkins is doing is to eschew all forms of inquiry that do not conform to the scientific method. if this isnt narrow-mindedness i don't know what it is.


angry doc asked the poster what exactly it was that Dawkins eschewed that the poster thought should not be subject to the scientific method, to which our poster replied:


How about ghosts for instance? I'm not saying for sure that they exist because honestly I haven't had any encounters with the supernatural. But there have been reported sightings. People have claimed to have seen them. To Dawkins, this wouldn't count as knowledge because you'd find it incredibly difficult to conduct experiments to investigate the veracity of the claim due to the inconsistency with which such sightings occur. But why should you disregard this claim simply because by scientific standards it fails to qualify as knowledge? Isn't there a possibility that the eyes of these witnesses were not playing tricks on them? Isn't there a possibility these people were not lying when they swore they had seen ghosts? Isn't there a possibility that there are indeed ghosts?


Of course it is possible.

By the same argument it is also possible that unicorns, leprechauns, and the chupacabra exist, and that Elvis lives. Everything is possible, except that the existence of all those things we’ve mentioned are unlikely and unproven.

Well, maybe not Elvis.

But what does Dawkins have to say about the subject of ghosts?

As it turns out he *had* heard a ghost as a child, and he touches briefly on the subject in his book The God Delusion, part of which is reposted here.

angry doc abstracts the relevant parts:


One of the cleverer and more mature of my undergraduate contemporaries, who was deeply religious, went camping in the Scottish isles. In the middle of the night he and his girlfriend were woken in their tent by the voice of the devil — Satan himself; there could be no possible doubt: the voice was in every sense diabolical. My friend would never forget this horrifying experience, and it was one of the factors that later drove him to be ordained. My youthful self was impressed by his story, and I recounted it to a gathering of zoologists relaxing in the Rose and Crown Inn, Oxford. Two of them happened to be experienced ornithologists, and they roared with laughter. "Manx shearwater!" they shouted in delighted chorus. One of them added that the diabolical shrieks and cackles of this species have earned it, in various parts of the world and various languages, the local nickname "Devil Bird".


The argument from personal experience is the one that is most convincing to those who claim to have had one. But it is the least convincing to anyone else, especially anyone knowledgeable about psychology. Many people believe in God because they believe they have seen a vision of him — or of an angel or a virgin in blue — with their own eyes. Or he speaks to them inside their heads.

You say you have experienced God directly? Well, some people have experienced a pink elephant, but that probably doesn't impress you.



[The formidable power of the brain's simulation software] is well capable of constructing "visions" and "visitations" of the utmost veridical power. To simulate a ghost or an angel or a Virgin Mary would be child's play to software of this sophistication.

Once, as a child, I heard a ghost: a male voice murmuring, as if in recitation or prayer. I could almost, but not quite, make out the words, which seemed to have a serious, solemn timbre. I had been told stories of priest holes in ancient houses, and I was a little frightened. But I got out of bed and crept up on the source of the sound. As I got closer, it grew louder, and then suddenly it "flipped" inside my head. I was now close enough to discern what it really was. The wind, gusting through the keyhole, was creating sounds which the simulation software in my brain had used to construct a model of male speech, solemnly intoned.

Had I been a more impressionable child, it is possible that I would have "heard" not just unintelligible speech but particular words and even sentences. And had I been both impressionable and religiously brought-up, I wonder what words the wind might have spoken.



That is really all that needs to be said about personal "experiences" of gods or other religious phenomena. If you've had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don't expect the rest of us to take your word for it, especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings.


Well, angry doc has something to add to that:

We all require evidence of one sort or another to believe; we just happen to have less stringent criteria for accepting someone's claims as valid evidence when we want or wish for them to be true, and vice versa.

Labels:

12 Comments:

  • Dawkins is flawless in all his arguments and explanations.

    I am so in love with his mind.

    Oh he is cute too but isn't my type.:-)

    PZ

    By Blogger PZ, At August 12, 2007 12:54 pm  

  • Very clever of Dawkins to give examples of ghostly brushes which all turned out to have negative conclusions. (Manx shearwater and wind through a keyhole instead of some out-of-the-world phenomenon)

    We all require evidence of one sort or another to believe; we just happen to have less stringent criteria for accepting someone's claims as valid evidence when we want or wish for them to be true, and vice versa.

    I agree this whole issue is really about the criteria for the justification of claims. (though I’d say other modes of inquiry like religion employ a different criteria from science rather than a less stringent one) So far, I admit I have yet to find an argument that can defend my non-scientific beliefs (religious beliefs for example) from attacks that they are in the same league as myths, legends, superstitions and other figments of human imagination. We do require a leap of faith (literally) to proclaim with conviction that God exists, or that there are ghosts in the world, or any other non-scientific claim. At the end of the day, it’s about making a choice. (justified or unjustified) I just do not understand Dawkins’ particular hostility towards religion. He doesn’t even entertain the slightest possibility that there might be truth in religion. His arguments merely serve to reduce the credibility of theology, and do not disprove it entirely.

    I understand if people are agnostic but if atheistic, narrow-mindedness comes to my mind.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 12, 2007 3:12 pm  

  • "Very clever of Dawkins to give examples of ghostly brushes which all turned out to have negative conclusions."

    Perhaps then you will furnish us with an example of a ghostly brush that turned out to have a positive conclusion?


    "... I’d say other modes of inquiry like religion employ a different criteria from science rather than a less stringent one"

    "We do require a leap of faith (literally) to proclaim with conviction that God exists, or that there are ghosts in the world, or any other non-scientific claim. At the end of the day, it’s about making a choice. (justified or unjustified)"

    There are a few problems with that position.

    First of all, we need to ask ourselves: why can't a subject be investigated by the normal scientific method?

    Second of all, if it cannot be investigated by the normal scientific method, which other method of inquiry should we use, and how do we know that that method of inquiry is the correct and valid one?

    If we allow a certain system to claim exemption from the normal rules of evidence and substitute it with another, then essentially any system that cannot stand up to scrutiny can and will use that exemption. Invariably, you will find, they choose a system of inquiry that proves whatever it is that they claim.

    If it all comes down to faith, what makes your faith more valid than that of a worshipper of Mithras or the Great Juju under the sea? Who then can say who is right or wrong? We can't all be right, can we?

    You are right that ultimately it is a personal choice, but there is a difference between believing that Captain Kirk is a better captain than Captain Picard, believing in which meat one ought not to eat and on which day of the week one ought to rest, and believing that God wants you to kill unbelievers.

    The fact is Captain Janeway is a better captain than Kirk or Picard, chicken never seems to get spared, and that people have killed unbelievers because they believed God wanted them to.

    Religion is not the only institution to claim exemption from the normal rules of evidence - you can add racism, ballet, Communism, and certain alternative medicine therapies to that list. Dawkins chooses religion as the target of his campaign because he sees it as the most dangerous of such institutions in our time. If it were Communists who flew a plane into the World Trade Centre he would probably have written "The Kapital Delusion" instead.

    By Blogger angry doc, At August 12, 2007 4:30 pm  

  • Anonymous August 12, 2007 3:12 PM said...

    "I understand if people are agnostic but if atheistic, narrow-mindedness comes to my mind."

    I believe Dawkins' logical position is an agnostic one since one cannot disprove the existence of God. He is atheistic in the same way as one is in disbelieving the existence of green goblins and elves even though these mythical creatures cannot be disproven to exist.

    "So far, I admit I have yet to find an argument that can defend my non-scientific beliefs (religious beliefs for example) from attacks that they are in the same league as myths, legends, superstitions and other figments of human imagination."

    The simple answer and truth is that religious beliefs and superstitions are the same. How does one defend the indefensible?

    Belief in religion and superstition both require the abandonment of logic and reason. It's called faith.

    The believers have been programmed to believe the propaganda that faith is good and a virtue. The blinder the faith the greater the reward in Heaven.

    Abandoning the most important thing you can possess - your critical faculty - is sheer stupidity and highly dangerous. Religions like Islam and Christianity require that you do this. It leads to Islamist suicide bombers and Christian murderers of abortion doctors.

    Believing in Allah or a Judaeo Christian God is no different from believing in Thor, Wotan, Apollo, Zeus or green globins and elves.

    PZ

    By Blogger PZ, At August 12, 2007 5:29 pm  

  • "At the end of the day, it’s about making a choice. (justified or unjustified)"

    It's not just a choice if religious beliefs can directly cause incidents such as 9/11 or sucide bombings. Just the way most of you would not agree that a murderer can just choose to kill someone else.

    Religious isn't as benign as you think it is. Sure most people of faith are moderates. But it's like a benign cancer, waiting for a chance to turn malignant. It is the way blind faith makes people throw their reasoning abilites down the drain that makes it dangerous.

    By Blogger I must be stupid, At August 12, 2007 10:25 pm  

  • Ok my reply's a bit late but I haven't had the time to follow up.

    Dawkins chooses religion as the target of his campaign because he sees it as the most dangerous of such institutions in our time. If it were Communists who flew a plane into the World Trade Centre he would probably have written "The Kapital Delusion" instead.

    In the same vein, let's not forget the possibility of mad scientists out there who are so obsessed with advancing science that they disregard ethics? Think eugenics, think cloning. Also, without planes, there is no 9/11.

    "Very clever of Dawkins to give examples of ghostly brushes which all turned out to have negative conclusions."

    Perhaps then you will furnish us with an example of a ghostly brush that turned out to have a positive conclusion?


    What about encounters that science cannot explain? The Singapore Paranormal Investigators website has some mind-boggling stuff.

    Religious isn't as benign as you think it is.

    Science too, isn't it? We have atomic bombs and all sorts of nuclear (and non-nuclear) weaponry.

    It is the way blind faith makes people throw their reasoning abilites down the drain that makes it dangerous

    Whether we put religion (or science) in bad light depends on the way we use and abuse it isn't it? Just because we have some idiots going around killing people and purporting to uphold their religious values does not mean every religion adherent "throw(s) their reasoning abilities down the drain". We have Good Samaritans too.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 17, 2007 4:08 pm  

  • Anonymous August 17, 2007 4:08 PM said...

    "Whether we put religion (or science) in bad light depends on the way we use and abuse it isn't it?"

    Please name me one scientist who has killed in the name of science.

    "Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. For good people to do evil things, it takes religion." - Steven Weinberg

    "Just because we have some idiots going around killing people and purporting to uphold their religious values does not mean every religion adherent "throw(s) their reasoning abilities down the drain".

    Faith based believers are by definition those who abandon fact and reason. This is the default position of a monotheistic, religious person. So one shouldn't be at all surprised if they do indeed commit acts of stupidity.

    What's even more insidious is the spin, indoctrination and brainwashing that would have you believe that the blinder the faith, the better your reward in heaven.

    Just have faith and accept that Thor, Zeus, Poseidon, Allah God or the Juju man of the forest exists - unquestioningly.
    Abandoning critical thinking is a good thing.

    Besides, suicide bombers or Christian murderers of abortion doctors are not "idiots". However misguided we may think them, they are motivated by what they perceive to be righteousness, faithfully pursuing what their religion tells them. They are not idiots; but religious idealists who, by their own lights, are rational.

    We have Good Samaritans too."

    The problem about faith-based altruism is that it is contaminated with religious ideas that have nothing to do with the relief of human suffering.

    You have say a Christian minister who's doing really good work, helping those who are hungry and healing the sick. However, as part of his job description, he feels he needs to preach the divinity of Jesus in communities where literally millions of people have been killed because of inter-religious conflict between Christians and Muslims. That added piece causes unnecessary suffering.

    It would be better if he simply wanted to feed the hungry and heal the sick.

    PZ

    By Blogger PZ, At August 17, 2007 6:30 pm  

  • "Also, without planes, there is no 9/11."

    Wow.

    You win. I can't argue against that type of logic.

    "What about encounters that science cannot explain? The Singapore Paranormal Investigators website has some mind-boggling stuff."

    Of course.

    Everything science can't yet explain *must* be due to ghosts.

    Or aliens.

    By Blogger angry doc, At August 17, 2007 7:35 pm  

  • Anonymous August 17, 2007 4:08 PM said...

    In the same vein, let's not forget the possibility of mad scientists. Also, without planes, there is no 9/11.

    I have a question anon 4:08. If your head gets bashed with a baseball bat(by a mugger)is it the manufacturer's fault or the forest from which it came?

    Can you please elucidate?

    PZ

    By Blogger PZ, At August 17, 2007 11:22 pm  

  • "...an example of a ghostly brush that turned out to have a positive conclusion?"

    Maybe a night call or two in the old Changi Hospital might have changed your mind.

    By Blogger blacktag, At August 19, 2007 9:09 pm  

  • Either ghosts exist or they don't.

    It's not a matter of opinion. It's just one or the other. Ghosts don't exist for one person "just because" and then exist for someone else, again, "just because". If they did, it would make them meaningless.

    It's not about various levels evidence required. They do or they don't.

    By Blogger M, At February 02, 2010 3:10 pm  

  • Angry Doc, love your blog. But you have no contact information.

    I'd like to add your blog to the Paliban Daily's "Paliban World" aggregator . . . but I don't add feeds without the owner's permission.

    You should be able to see my email address (I think), so please contact me. If not, go to the site I won't give a link lest I be caught by a spam-catcher, but you'll find it via Google easily enough) and use the contact form.

    Thanks, and keep up the good skepticism!

    By Blogger JennyD, At February 16, 2010 2:32 pm  

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