Re:  - What it Takes to be a Rationalist

Dogmatism of the Paranormalist

By Brent Meeker

E-mail: [email protected] 

Ali Sina reminds us that one cannot be both a rationalist and dogmatic
at the same time. We are finite beings and there is much we don't
know. It is one of the most distinctive characteristics of science
that all theories are held provisionally. Sina notes the contrast
between this and religious and political doctrines that are
held to be beyond criticism and revision. But he presents a false
dichotomy between dogmatism and rationalism - as though one can be
rational simply by not being dogmatic.

He begins with a dictionary defintion of dogma. But only writes about
about dogmatism; the attitude toward dogma, not it's content. In
that case he should have started with a definiton of dogamtism; Like
this one from Dagobert Runes, "Dictionary of Philosophy":

Dogmatism: A term used by many and various philosophers to
characterise their opponents' view more or less derogatorily.

And this is clearly how Sina uses it.

He tells of how he saw a globe
of orange light near hovering over his sleeping sister and how the
globe zoomed away out the window and disappeared. He then calls his
friend dogmatic because his friend cautions agains jumping to a
paranormal explanation of this phenomena. Plainly Sina wants to
believe it is paranormal, i.e. beyond explanation by known science.

But is it? He apparently did not even seek a scientific explanation.
Like those religionists he mocks for belief based on miracles,
his mind is already made up. Had he spent even a few minutes
searching the literature he would have found that a globe of orange
light is what ball lightning looks like. It often moves swiftly
after hovering. It emits a sizzling sound which could have caused
his sister to have a bad dream.

So is this the correct explanation of his experience? I don't know.
It could have been something else - like little green men in a kind
of space craft. But the point is that Sina doesn't have any reason to
jump to the conclusion that it was paranormal. And given that it
could have been just ball lightning there's no reason at all to
assume a paranormal "explanation". I put "explanation" in quotes,
because without some theory about the paranormal, it isn't really an
explanation at all. It is just saying, "I don't know what it was -
but science can't explain it."

Sina's other example of James Van Praagh's performance on Larry King's
TV program is further evidence of his devotion to paranormal
explanations. Van Praagh's answers to questions by phonecallers were
vague and often wrong. Nothing in the least impressive. But which
reading was so specific that Sina "cannot dismiss this as
coincidence." Why it was telling the host, Larry King, that his
father died in a factory! I don't dismiss this as coincidence
either. Since Van Praagh knew he was going to be on TV and he knew
he was going to be with Larry King - well he'd have to be pretty
stupid not to dig up some bit of information about Larry King.

Sina may suppose there are ghosts that speak to James Van Praagh in
platitudes, but being rational means proportioning your degree of
belief to the evidence - all the evidence. All the evidence includes
the fact that Van Praagh never gets any useful information from 'the
other side'; that Harry Houdini, who said he'd communicate from
beyond the grave if possible, never did; that all evidence points to
the mind and spirit as being dependent on the physical function of
the brain. That doesn't absolutely rule out spirits, scientific
knowledge is always provisional, but it makes it infinitely more
likely that Van Praagh researched Larry King biography than that he
communicated with Larry's dead father.

Sina apparently accepts as effacious any medical procedures that "have
gained respectability and are practiced in many hospitals". Even
though some of them, e.g homeopathy, could only be effective if most
what we know about physics, chemistry, and biology were wrong.
Homeophaty has never been shown to be effacious in a clinical trial.
Perhaps Sina should recall that before the use of clinical trials was
common, that snake oil was a respectable remedy and blood letting was
practiced in many hospitals.

Sina says, "Let doubt guide our way." He is certainly a rationalist
in the narrow philosophical sense. He thinks that simply reasoning
is enough. If we find it logically possible to doubt science and to
believe in a paranormal beyond science he thinks we have done all
that is necessary to be 'rational'. But, what we celebrate today
is not the narrow rationalism of the school masters. It is
scientific rationalism. Its motto is, "When in doubt, find out."

The scientist doesn't simply suppose that some phenomena is beyond
science because he has no explanation. He investigates the
phenomena. He experiments. He measures. Sina ridicules James Randi
for offering a million dollars to anyone who can prove a paranormal
claim "scientifically". He interposes the qualifier
"scientifically", which is not in Randi's challenge, as though it
were some special, unreasonable critereon. There is no special
scientific proof. Science is just common sense writ large. If you
say you can find water with dowsing rods, then let's see you do it.
If you say you can bend spoons by mental power alone, let's test the
claim. Randi does not ask the claimant to use a measuring tape or a
thermometer. He only ask's them to show they can do what they claim
by whatever means they chose.

Sina would apparently have us credulously accept charlatans and
mystery mongers and genuflect to the paranormal while chanting
"Beyond Science!" over and over. When scientific explanation is not
available that's a good reason to say, "I don't know". It's not a
reason to say, "That's paranormal and beyond scientific explanation."

The opposite of dogmatic denial isn't rationality; it's uncritical

Brent Meeker
The plural of "anecdote" is not "data".
--- David Ramey

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