Thursday, April 3, 2014

Do You Believe in Magic?

Scene: I was sitting with a friend from back home on a couch, watching him play a videogame.  For no particular reason, it entered my head to say: “Can you whistle?”  It is worth noting here that this was one of those cinematic games, where the characters interact with one another through an elaborate script.  The game had nothing at all to do with whistling in any obvious way, and the context of the scene, to my recollection, would not have particularly inspired thoughts of whistling.  My friend answered "no" to my question.  We didn't say anything for a short while.  Then the eery, skin-prickling event occurred: We both heard a character on screen echo my question back to us -- "Can you whistle?" -- and proceed to do so.

Most of us will accumulate a handful of these stories in the course of an ordinary human life: weird coincidences that seem a little too perfect not to demand some further explanation.  An author at the Chronicle of Higher Education thinks that the number of such incidents has at last reached a critical mass, such that our natural sciences need to be fundamentally rethought in order to take them into account.  The only thing that is preventing us from doing so, he suggests, is not legitimate scientific skepticism, but quite the opposite: it is dogmatism and ideological inertia, arising out of a implicit materialist orthodoxy.  Scientists fear professional disgrace and opprobrium if they seem to take strange phenomena seriously, rather than just dismissing them as coincidence, fabrication, or mass hysteria.  

Okay, so this author isn't the first to say this and he won't be the last.  As many times as the pillars of this argument are knocked down it is reared up again on new ones.  No matter how many times a set of supposedly "paranormal" phenomena are shown to in fact be explained by fraud or trickery, from the "rappings" of the Fox sisters to the Cottingley Fairies to the life's work of Uri Gellar, the partisan of supernatural explanations can still maintain that the presence of of some frauds does not rule out the possibility that the genuine article is still out there.  Each new generation of paranormal writers will therefore have its own set of approved "real deals," even as it accurately dismisses the charlatans of former years and the (often quite intelligent) blunderers who were taken in by them along the way.

Their reasoning on this point is not entirely mistaken.  Faced with the proliferation of reported cases of eery coincidences, apparent mental connections at long distance, visions of departed loved ones, etc. the thought arises: "Okay, so maybe some of this stuff is deliberately invented by tricksters and attention seekers, but given the incredibly large number of such reported cases, can we really say categorically that they are all fabrications?  What about the people who repeat these stories in apparent good faith?  Must we assume they're all lying-- and about their own loved ones at that?"

Indeed, this would seem implausible, not to mention callous.  What about me, for instance?  I know for one that the story I told at the beginning of this post was entirely true to my recollection.  There has to be some ways of explaining these incidents beyond impugning the character of those who relate them.  So what might those be?

One such explanation of the story above is that it reports a random coincidence, nothing more.  Given how much of our lives are spent in the complete absence of eery coincidences, it is not perfectly bizarre that we should, in the span of time we occupy this earth, each accumulate a few remembered instances of weird alignments of circumstance.

A second explanation is more complex and probably more interesting.  Let's look again at my story above, for a moment.  The incident it reports occurred about six months ago.  Though come to think of it, it might not have been that long ago.  I remember being on my friend's couch, but it's also possible that I was watching him play this game via Skype, which would mean the incident probably occurred more recently than I originally thought.  Also, did the character on screen really echo my words exactly?  Did she say "Can you whistle?"  Did I say "Can you whistle?"  All I can really recall with certainty, to be honest, is that we both said something about whistling, and that our utterances were similar enough that both my friend and I took note of it.  Last question: am I entirely sure that one of the characters in the game wasn't already whistling softly before she mentioned anything about it-- and that I didn't hear this and start to think about whistling as a result, even though I wasn't paying close enough conscious attention to put the two together?  We'll never know.

We can see that for all my good faith reportage above, we might still have excellent grounds for doubting my account.  And this porous account of mine, let us recall, concerns events that took place only six months ago, or maybe even less.  (I also flatter myself, but the way, that I don't have an unusually lousy memory).  

What, then, are we to think of Mark Twain's recollection later in life of an incident that occurred decades earlier and involved the death of his brother-- the incident with which Jeffrey Kripal, our Chronicle author, begins his polemic?  Twain writes of a dream he had in 1858, in which he apparently saw his (then living) brother lying dead in a metal casket with roses on his chest.  Twain awoke and realized he had only dreamt it.   A few weeks later, his brother has killed and interred in exactly the way the dream depicted.  It's  deeply implausible that this was mere "coincidence," if the story's true.  But without in any way imputing dishonesty to Twain, can we trust his memory on this point?

Well, just how big a distance of time was it from the night the dream occurred to the day Twain wrote about it?  Kripal seems to deliberately fudge the issue, so I don't know.  Kripal introduces the vignette: "As [Twain] relates the events in his diaries [....]," which seems to imply that Twain recorded these events more or less contemporaneously.

But did he?  What "diaries" exactly are we talking about? (Kripal provides no precise citation since this is a journalistic essay and not an academic paper.)  Do these diaries actually exist?  A Google search for "Mark Twain's Diaries" turns up nothing but some of his fiction, a la "The Diary of Adam and Eve."  As for the text of Twain's anecdote that Kripal quotes, it does not come from any diary, but from Twain's Autobiography, which was not published in his lifetime but was mostly spoken into a dictaphone in the early years of the 20th century.  You can see for yourself that the only date one can find online that is associated with the authorship of the words Kripal quotes is 1906-- a half century after the events it describes!  (The 1906 date is confirmed here, in a selection called "Chapters from my Autobiography" published in 1907 and written a year earlier.)  

Writing about a memory from fifty years earlier is quite different from recording an incident in a diary the same day it has occurred.  This certainly doesn't mean Twain was lying or deluding himself.  It doesn't even mean that events didn't unfold exactly as he relates.  But asking us to overthrow fundamental scientific concepts on such a basis is asking a great deal.

Of course, Kripal doesn't think that Twain's story stands alone; he thinks that there are thousands of similar stories, and that even if some of them can be accounted for by fraud, some by coincidence, and some by the distortions and limitations of human memory, it seems just a little too convenient for the materialist or the scientific naturalist, says Kripal, that all of them should be so easily dismissed.  As he writes: "As with the heads of Hercules’ Lernaean Hydra [...] with every story we so decapitate, three more, or three thousand more, appear."

The classical form of this argument comes from William James, who like an endless parade of smart people before him, was a believer in psychic phenomena (or at least, like Mulder, he "wanted to believe.")  The phrase from James that is often quoted on this subject is the "white crows" remark, made in reference to a Spiritualist medium of his era.  James maintained that we tend to think that "All crows are black."  But if you could find just one white crow somewhere, you would have to give up this belief.  So too, James argued, if even one paranormal phenomenon could be shown to be genuine, we could no longer say that our current naturalist explanations of the world are wholly satisfactory.  So even if 99.999% of all psychic events are hooey, in short, those handful of remaining incidents would still force us to fundamentally rethink our concepts.  And James found it intuitively plausible that he could find a white crow, even amidst a acknowledged army of charlatans and fakers and frauds.

Well, the world is still waiting for its white crows.  They are given every possible opportunity to reveal themselves in a laboratory.  James Randi, the magician and skeptic, is still offering a cash prize of his own money to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal abilities under controlled conditions.  The tests he proposes are quite banal -- guessing 8-digit numbers hidden inside envelopes and so forth.  These are the sorts of things that should be just another day at the office to the psychics of the world, given the powers they routinely claim.  Yet no one has ever gotten the money.  

Kripal anticipates this argument and writes himself a neat loophole to evade it: 
"Debunkers misunderstand such stories as the soon-to-be-dead brother, the appearance of the fatal-car-accident victim, and the advancing fire—all of which happened under extreme circumstances—when they ask, with a sneer, why all psychics do not get rich on the stock market, or why robust psychic phenomena cannot be made to appear in the controlled laboratory.  [...] the answer to why robust events like those of Twain, the widowed wife, and the Stockholm fire do not appear in the lab is simple: There is no trauma, love, or loss there."
Okay, so this stuff couldn't be detected in a laboratory, by Kripal's definition-- unless we perform profoundly unethical experiments on people living under extreme emotional conditions, which Kripal is obviously not recommending.  But is it fair to ask that science incorporate into itself phenomena that it can't, by definition, observe under controlled conditions?

Moreover, Kripal is being selective in the phenomena he thinks are important.  For every set of anecdotes about supernatural events in conditions of extreme grief or trauma, there are countless others that take place in circumstances that are most mundane-- like my story at the outset.  The whistling incident didn't concern death or loss, or even another human being with which I might have been in mental communion.  There is an infinite number of other anecdotes that could be collated to prove anything you want.  Should -- or could -- science incorporate them all into a coherent "non-materialist" worldview?  I doubt it.  The reason science limits itself to experiments that are replicable under controlled conditions is precisely because this problem always arises.  There is an infinite number of reported stand-alone incidents of strange occurrences.  We don't need to assume anything at all about the motives, sanity, or character of the people who report them to still maintain that until they can be replicated, they are inadmissible as scientific evidence.


So why do so many smart and well-intentioned people believe and repeat these stories, if the evidence for them is so shaky?  Why, for instance, did I immediately incline toward Kripal's position while I was reading his article, only to be beat a chastened retreat into skepticism after laying it aside?  What is so appealing about the "white crow" argument?

I fully confess that every time I hear some supernatural event reported by someone in apparently good faith, I believe it! -- and it is only afterward that I slowly argue myself back to a skeptical stance.  This may just mean that I'm a gullible rube-- I wouldn't rule it out.  But James Randi once suggested a more flattering explanation.  In his professional experience as a conjurer, he once remarked, the easiest people to fool by magic tricks were always the intellectuals and scientists and engineers in the audience: the people, in short, who were purportedly the most "rational" and "skeptical."  Why?  

"Intellectuals" are trained to look for deep causes and complex answers, yet the explanations of most magic tricks are in fact rather obvious and banal once they are revealed, so intellectuals don't see them coming.  If someone appears to have had his legs cut off on stage, say, he probably has just tucked his knees up against his chest and is wearing a baggy sweater.  If a faith healer appears to know something "secret" about a member of audience, it is most likely because that audience member is a plant, who is in cahoots with the healer.  And so forth.  

The career of Uri Gellar furnishes us with abundant evidence on this score. James Randi was one of the most relentless critics of Uri Gellar and always maintained that he could have been a perfectly good magician if he hadn't tried to present himself as a genuine psychic and demigod.  Randi often replicated Gellar's supposed "telekinetic feats;" and he did so in most cases by depressingly routine methods.  The spoons that Gellar "bent with his mind"  had actually been bent in advance by Gellar, and were simply held up by him at such an angle that they looked straight, at first, and were gradually turned to reveal their crooked side.  To put Gellar's true abilities to the test, Johnny Carson once invited him onto the Tonight Show and asked him to bend spoons he had never seen before and which he could not touch, all while Carson was watching.  Suddenly, Gellar didn't feel that the spirit aura was quite strong enough that night for him to perform his miracles!

The most obvious explanation of Gellar's "abilities" is simply that he was tricking people and ripping them off in incredibly simple-minded ways.  Yet this explanation is such a dully obvious and predictable one that it is the very last explanation would-be intellectuals are likely to adopt.

Historically, writers and artists and thinkers have often been the people most completely taken in by "Spiritism" and "Psychic Phenomena" and Theosophy and all their innumerable relatives and descendants.  It was often quite literate ministers in the most liberal denominations, for instance, who could be found attending séances in 19th century America, though they considered much of orthodox Christianity to be superstition.  Later on, the role of writers like Arthur Conan Doyle in the "Cottingley Fairies" incident is well known.  And in the 20th century, many a confirmed atheist and socialist intellectual, from Upton Sinclair to Arthur Koestler, became convinced of the truth of "psychic phenomena," even as they regarded traditional religion as bunk or worse.

Part of the explanation has to do with an admirable human tendency we all share, and that is not restricted to intellectuals: We tend to trust people.  In the ordinary business of life, people don't simply lie baldly to our faces, or at least we assume they don't.  It takes a distinctive and rather warped psychology to be able to look people straight in the eye and say something you know to be entirely contrary to the truth.  This means that those few people who are able to do this have tremendous power over us.  It's a version of the "free rider" problem.  Only by a presumption of trust in people can a mass society of strangers function, yet this presumption leaves us open to the abuse of charlatans.

The "intellectual-spiritism connection" is also explained by traits more peculiar to intellectuals, such as their presumption in favor of complexity noted by Randi above.  Intellectuals and scientists have often been trained to assume that the truth is complex (because it often is).  But this means they can be blindsided by those cases in which the truth is simple and banal (as it also often is).  Intellectuals also tend to prize mental stimulation over pure truth-telling.  An elaborate system of thought that seems to "make sense" internally will always have tremendous seductive appeal to intellectuals, even if it is obvious from the outside that that the whole system sits on rotten floorboards.  The internal beauty of the thing, in short, may be prized over its extrinsic plausibility.  In his autobiography, Arthur Koestler warned against the dangers of "closed systems of thought," such as Marxism, and confessed that throughout his life he has been especially attracted to them.  I am suggesting here that perhaps in his later "psychic" phase he had adopted yet another, without realizing it.  It seems to me no small historical coincidence that totalitarian ideologies and esoteric mysticisms often sprang from the same contexts, the same milieus, and even the same minds in the 20th century.  

Like most of my thoughts about the world, this one about the connection between totalitarianism and magic ultimately derives from George Orwell, who made the following observation in an essay on Yeats that is most relevant here:
"How do Yeat's political ideas link up with his leaning towards occultism? It is not clear at first glance why hatred of democracy and a tendency to believe in crystal-gazing should go together. […] A year before the war, examining a copy of Gringoire, the French Fascist weekly, much read by army officers, I found in it no less than thirty-eight advertisements of clairvoyants. [… T]he very concept of occultism carries with it the idea that knowledge must be a secret thing, limited to a small circle of initiates. But the same idea is integral to Fascism. Those who dread the prospect of universal suffrage, popular education, freedom of thought, emancipation of women, will start off with a predilection towards secret cults. There is another link between Fascism and magic in the profound hostility of both to the Christian ethical code."  (Side note: I am relieved to see in this passage that Orwell apparently regarded the "emancipation of women" as a good thing-- It is not uniformly evident from his writings that he thought this).
This business about "secret knowledge" is an excellent segue into my final proposed explanation as to why intellectuals are prone to accept paranormal phenomena as genuine: snobbery-- the contempt for others that is simply the other face of arrogance.  Intellectuals often assume that no one can fool them -- and that it is especially unlikely that "simple country folk" and the like could do so.  As Luke Skywalker once put it: "Your overconfidence is your weakness."  In the case of the Cottingley Fairies, Conan Doyle thought it tremendously unlikely that a couple of young girls from rural England could succeed in hoodwinking him by the simple device of cutting out pictures of "fairies" on paper and photographing them (in James Randi's telling).  But that's exactly what they did, as should be immediately obvious from a cursory glance at the photos.  As for the Fox sisters, these young women managed to convince countless believers that they were in communication with spirits, who spoke to them via "rappings."  These, however, turned out to be the sounds of the sisters cracking their own knuckles!-- nothing more.  There was another Spiritualist medium in 19th century America named Andrew Jackson Davis who purportedly received messages from the Otherworld which he could rattle off for hours in a sort of trance.  The very proper and enlightened gentlemen and ministers who came to examine him and look into his background were convinced that these communications were genuine.  Why?  They found that he had been too "dull" a boy in his upbringing, too limited in his education, for him to be capable of making up such elaborate and sophisticated messages on his own.

I get a kind of democratic glee from the idea of these young people pulling the wool over the eyes of such eminently serious and respectable and snobbish old hares -- and by such simple methods, at that, as making things up, popping their knuckles, and drawing pictures of fairies.  But these things are not always so innocent, let us recall, especially when they start intruding on people's grief, tricking those who have lost loved ones out of their money, and so on.  It's all fun and games-- until someone gets hurt.

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