My New Republic piece on woo and consciousness

Just a note: I’ve extensively rewritten my post on Jeffrey Kripal’s execrable defense of woo in The Chronicles of Higher Education (thanks to my secular pals who gave extensive feedback), and it’s just been published in The New Republic as “The latest anti-science argument comes down to ESP.” You’ll see that it’s largely a new piece, or at least has big new chunks.

If you’re so inclined, favor the New Republic site with a click or a comment, for I want to keep the message of secularism and naturalism in the public eye.



  1. Greg Esres
    Posted April 3, 2014 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    It reads very, very well. Great job!

  2. Sastra
    Posted April 3, 2014 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    I went to the New Republic and laughed. About halfway down the page there was an ad for “Jello: The uncomplicated way to go coconuts.”

    That entire line sounds like a description of the Sophisticated Arguments you’ve been reading, including this woo one by Kripal.

  3. eric
    Posted April 3, 2014 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    The first quote starts a sentence too early (i.e., part of your own writing is indented as if its Kripal’s). But a regular reader should be able to discern that it’s an error from the context.

    Good article. Reading it a second time around makes me think that the ‘radio’ metaphor actually hurts Kripal rather than help him. Yes, the San *would* be able to figure out that the sound was coming from an external signal – by moving the radio around and hearing the signal go in and out. By putting it in a metal box and watching it drop off. And so on. The radio hypothesis is testable. And yet the human brain doesn’t work differently when we move it around. It doesn’t work differently indoors vs. out.

    Phil Plait did an article a long time ago disproving astrology in an elegant fashion: first, he showed that if some mystical astrological influence fell off with distance, astrology would be wrong. Then, he showed that if it didn’t fall off with distance, astrology would be wrong. I feel like the same sort of logic would apply to the radio-brain concept of mysticism. If one posits that this signal can be stopped by various physical, experimental conditions, its going to be shown to be testably wrong (i.e, by testing those conditions). But if one posits that the signal isn’t stopped by envirnmental conditions, then it also must be wrong. Therefore, it’s wrong.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 3, 2014 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      There’s another good argument against the radio metaphor. When a radio is damaged the program it was receiving doesn’t subsequently change content. If you’re listening to a cooking show and drop the radio the host doesn’t start telling you to bake the pie on the roof or go fishing. The program is simply harder to hear (or doesn’t come in at all.)

      But brain damage can and does change personality. A gentle person develops a temper or a happy person becomes chronically depressed. Is the radio brain now ‘tuning in’ on another person? The consciousness-comes-from-the-spirit-realm hypothesis doesn’t explain this result as well as mind/brain.

    • lkr
      Posted April 3, 2014 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      The San would presumably notice that the radio signal was getting weaker over time. That may be why we are seeing fewer miracles than the Old Ones — the batteries are running down on our sensi divinatorum.

  4. Posted April 3, 2014 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    From the NR article:

    “It’s not that we’ve taken non-materialism off the table—it’s simply fallen off the table.”

    Love it!

    “As for the evolution of consciousness, well, there’s a clear evolutionary advantage for a complex mammal to perceive and monitor its environment, including the psychology and behavior of our fellows, and so adjust our behavior to promote our survival and reproduction—all the things that consciousness does for us. Subjectivity—the feeling of “I-ness” that many claim is a great mystery, may simply be an ineluctable byproduct of our highly evolved system for processing information.”

    Well, thus far there’s no consensus on how the neural correlates of consciousness entail the existence of consciousness itself, so imo it remains one of the great unsolved mysteries *within naturalism*. Of course lots of naturalists (e.g., Dennett, Owen Flanagan, Patricia and Paul Churchland) deny there is any such “hard problem” of consciousness. They tend to either deny the existence of phenomenal experience itself (Dennett), or confidently assume that, based on past successes of science, that a non-mysterious physicalist account of consciousness will be forthcoming (Flanagan, Churchlands). But as far as I know there isn’t thus far any clear leading candidate hypothesis of how subjective experience could be identical to some physical state of affairs.

    This isn’t to say naturalism has failed and that therefore supernaturalism gains support, only that naturalists don’t yet have all the answers, which of course we don’t.

  5. Posted April 3, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Is it just me, or are comments going into a black hole over there?


    • Achrachno
      Posted April 3, 2014 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

      You did get through. Maybe not all comments though?

      • Posted April 3, 2014 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, it showed up after a while.


    • Larry Gay
      Posted April 4, 2014 at 3:18 am | Permalink

      The arguments appear slower than at WEIT, but the discussion is actually pretty good, with little name calling.

  6. Leigh
    Posted April 3, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Pardon my suspicious nature, but the first thing I thought of when reading the account of the wife who called police telling them where to find her husbands body was not that she received a mystical message from beyond, but that her involvement in the death of her husband needed investigating. Much as I admire Mark Twain, his credlousness and gullibility are well-known traits that allowed him to invest in screwy business schemes that led to his impoverishment. The examples provided by Kirpal are poorly chosen if his intent was to convince me to abandon rationality.

    I haven’t read your New Republic article yet, but I am glad you brought this to my attention.


    • Filippo
      Posted April 3, 2014 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      “Much as I admire Mark Twain, his credlousness and gullibility are well-known traits that allowed him to invest in screwy business schemes that led to his impoverishment.”

      Well, as “The Book” says, we’re to be “wise as serpents and guileless as doves.”

      One thing Clemens wasn’t gullible about was the U.S. subjugation of The Philippines, railing about it extensively.

  7. Beau Quilter
    Posted April 3, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Well done – I like the updates to the article!

  8. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted April 3, 2014 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I agree this version feels more polished. Nice work.

    Brilliant use of the secret weapon of science that received dogmatists can never match: refinement of arguments in response to constructive criticism.

  9. Diane G.
    Posted April 4, 2014 at 12:01 am | Permalink


%d bloggers like this: