Tag Archives: Skepticism

Misplaced Certainty: Vehement Skeptics

GraspingFistI visited my first Skeptic meeting the other night. The varieties of the non-believers around the table were fascinating. But the ones that stood out the most, were the outspoken few who knew what Christianity was, who knew what Religion was, and were convinced both of them were wrong. These folks had a certain type of personality, a recognizable temperament, a vehement certainty.

It is a mistake to think about Religion as a whole, or Christianity as a whole, or even Freedom as a whole. These are abstractions, they are not real. There is no homogeneity in the things these abstractions are trying to capture. And the craving for certainty on such images is pathological, if not sadly displaced.

Question to Readers: I repeat this point over and over on my blog. Does what I write ring true to your experience?


Pic credit: Ironically, the best picture I could find of a desperately grasping fist to spice up this post was on this Christian web post entitled “Grasping God’s Purpose“.  How perfect, showing the shared mentality between two folks who feel each other to be on opposite teams.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Your Skepticism Temperament

Skepticism_MeterA person’s temperament makes skepticism a joy for some, yet uncomfortable for others. In spite of this mechanical fate, we inevitably tend to valorize our own temperaments over the temperaments others. Skepticism can protect us when it sees through lies and delusions but skepticism can also harm us when we find one fault and yet throw out all that is of value attached to that fault. Skepticism can cause further advancement as we throw off long-held misunderstandings, or it can harm us when we hesitate to take action being paralyzed by skepticism concerning inadequate information. Skepticism is a double edged sword.

So, where does your temperament fall on the skeptometer?  What do you feel is the ideal mix of skepticism?  If I were the head of a manufacturing company, I’d want a small percentage of my employees to be manic skeptics, a larger percent to be largely dutiful sheep and everyone else to be a pleasant mix non-confronting skeptics or Bleating Sheep who are joyfully conformative. I think such a company would have better chances than not of being highly competitive and successful against other manufacturing companies.

Well, it seems that perhaps both the human genome and society have realized the competitive advantage of such a mix and thus create a similar mix of temperaments among humans. So if we understand this essentially mathematical Darwinian outcome, we may perhaps be less inclined to unhesitantly declare our own skeptic-temperament to be virtue while imagining the temperament of others to be mere stupidity. Instead, we will understand the inherent frustration of a successful society–its values and dangers.

Questions for readers:  Where do you feel you are on the temperament rheostat?  How would you label the spectrum? Do you ever try to check your own natural tendency to valorize your temperament?


Filed under Cognitive Science

Experience Qi Today!

Click the pic to see:
“My Qi Explosion” post

Today’s Goal: To feel Qi outside your body!
Question: Is it real?
Spoiler: I don’t think it is, but let’s see.

Your body and the universe are enlivened by an invisible energy–Qi .  “Qi” is the Mandarin Chinese word for that invisible energy but it is known in many cultures, by various names: Hei (Cantonese), Ki (Japanese), Prana (Sanskrit), Lüng (Tibetan), Mana (Hawaiian), The Force (Star Wars), Etheric Energy (Theosophical Society) and many more.
You get the idea. (see Wiki if you want more)

Qi is a central concept in Traditional Chinese & Indian medicine, Martial Arts and Feng Shui. Having been surrounded by the concept for decades, I assumed everyone knew what I knew.  But while writing this post in the coffee shop today, I asked three different friends and none of them really knew what it was, yet alone had ever experienced it.

Qi is real! People in China, India and Japan know what it is. But have you ever truly felt it? Are you skeptical? Well, if you are even halfway open-minded, I can get you to feel Qi by the end of this post.  Please read each step slowly.
Key Step: until you get to the last step, you won’t really feel Qi

  • Place both your hands on a table in front of you.
  • Let your hands rest for a minute.
  • Don’t move them. Don’t move them during this whole demonstration.
  • Now, I want you to put your awareness in your right hand.Could you feel your attention move to your right hand?
  • If not, if you are already resisting this whole thing, Let’s try something more obvious.

  • Our brains filter signals so that we aren’t overwhelmed. By putting our attention on something, we can become aware of something we weren’t previously aware of.
  • For instance, put your attention on your butt. Feel the chair pushing up on your butt cheeks while the weight of your body pushes down on the chair.
  • I doubt you were aware of your butt before I asked you to pay attention to it. See how good your brain is at keeping you unaware of boring information.

  • Put your attention back on your right hand. Focus on the right hand. But now, let’s get more focused, but your attention on your index finger. Rest your attention on your index finger for a while.Now, shift your attention to your thumb.Rest your attention on your thumb for a while. Remember, do this slowly with careful, clear awareness.
  • Now try to putting your awareness into your little finger. For many of you this will be a little more difficult but spend some time until you clearly feel your little finger — you will get there.

  • OK, now return your attention to your index finger. Keep your attention there until you clearly feel it differently than your other fingers.
  • Now, let’s narrow down our awareness further. Remember, without moving your hand or fingers, put your awareness on your first knuckle. Yep, sense that small area. Focus clearly. It is not hard. You are doing the same exercise — moving awareness.
  • Congrads.Now, move your awareness up to your 2nd knuckle. Feel it?
  • Now move your attention to the tip of your index finger — to the very tip of your index finger. Your sensation should be clear and focused. Keep working until you can clearly feel the tip of your index finger.

  • OK, now, using the exact same method you have used so far, move your attention to about 1/2 inch off the tip of your finger.Yep, put your attention off your body into the space just in front of your index finger.Take your time. Focus. You will feel it.
  • You will feel it in just the same way you did all the other parts of your body above. Use the same process, the same method of acknowledgement.

You should have been able to sense your body beyond your finger.

That was your etheric or subtle body: your Qi outside your physical body. Sensations inside your body are also Qi but this experiment helps you separate  sensations of muscles from sensations of Qi.

I won’t tell you my opinions about Qi here.  I am reporting as a believer – as I first experienced it just as I did in this post too: “My Magical Introduction to Acupuncture“.  Tell me what you think. Your responses may help me in writing my upcoming posts on this issue.

Series Post: This post is part of my series: Confessions of an Acupuncturist.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Motivations for Embracing Religion

In my recent post called “Rewriting our Religious History” I described how religious folks join their faith for fairly simple reasons, but later report their reasons for joining in lofty, complex theological terms.  Like the boy in this picture, after lots of reading or teaching by religious professionals, a person has a hard time remembering their actual past.

Below I offer an extensive list of those more basic needs for joining a religion and divide them into three groups of needs: Physical, Psychological and Social.  Of course these groups and reasons overlap, but I think this is a pretty good list.  Can you think of other motivations?

British science blogger Tom Reese, at Ephiphenom, published a post today called “Recollections of Childhood Religion” where he describes a study which shows how we may change our religious histories in order to build a more consistent view of self.  A basic foundation in correct thinking needs to be informed by this understanding of the foibles of memory and one of the adaptive benefits of inaccurate memory: building a stable image of self.

Religion can offer many benefits — that is why it persists.  We can not minimize these needs nor their solutions. To solve the down side of religion, we must therefore offer other ways to meet these needs or encourage modifications of the religion itself that neutralize the downsides.  Do you agree?

Basic Motivations for Embracing a Religion

1. Physical Needs

  • desire healing, improved health
  • need shelter, clothing, food, education, health care …
    for yourself or your loved ones
  • hope for better finances
  • to feel safe

2. Social Needs

  • preserve family tradition
  • to pursue/ secure/ preserve a lover or friend
  • need for supportive community: desperate times
  • need for sense of belonging
  • to offer children moral training and social belonging
  • to improve or preserve social status
  • to supply moral framework

3. Psychological Needs

  • to follow childhood tradition
  • to model an admired person
  • to follow a leader, a guide: secure guidance
  • to obtain order: a comprehensive worldview or answers
  • to avoid harassment from other children or adults
  • to resolve confusion – to find meaning, purpose, hope
  • to rebel against former alliances – leave old tradition;
  • to secure a sense of identity: personal, national …
  • to ease fear: of death, of hell, of social loss
  • to secure a niché:  given their temperament, skills, and conditions: a place where they can  prosper psychologically, socially and physically.
  • to help leave old undesired behavior or social circles


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Jesus: Myth or Fact


After comments on my previous post, I decided to make another diagrammatic attempt of the different ways people view the Bible’s Jesus.  Hopefully it is self-explanatory but here are some quick points:

  • For everyone, the percentages vary widely, of course.  These are just examples.
  • I am proud of my splitting both “Myth” and “Fact” into two categories — it may help dialogue

Any compliments, suggestions or criticisms?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Atheism: Reason vs Emotion

Atheists often wave the banner of “reason” as if they are the only tribe who values reason. Yet many atheists are realizing that they don’t have a monopoly on reason. VJack at “Atheist Revolution” just posted “Irrational Atheist” confessing how theists and atheists alike share biases. My impression was that VJack use to be more of a “hyper-rationalist” (believing the unadulterated reason is possible and is the hallmark of atheists) but he appears to have softened up.  Hyper-rationalism is mistaken because the common sense notion of “reason” which we inherited from the Greeks is wrong.

Every thought, even the ones we may call “reason”, are accompanied by emotional states — in fact, emotional states often precede and stimulate thought. We have all seen, heard or read people as they attempt to use logic and reason while they are raging angry. And anger, like fear, hatred, jealously, apathy and other emotions gleefully activate our brain’s bias switches — biases that all of us share. These biases turn reason into rationalization.  Rationalization is probably the vast majority of what we are actually doing when we feel we are using reason.

Thus, when having a discussion, sometimes it is perhaps more useful to focus on our emotional states than on our logic.  Emotions are what add value or weight to our ideas and our logic — we need to understand this critical principle.  Thus, ironically, the emotion of equanimity may aid a reasonable dialogue much more than reason. Sometimes I wonder if cultivating emotions would be a more fruitful endeavor than cultivating reason. Again: the common sense notion of reason is mistaken — thinking is always accompanied by emotions.  Cultivating our emotions may be the quickest way to further reasonable dialogue

Preemptive Caveats:

  • Of course I think cultivating logic and bias filters are also critically important.
  • I am not idealizing any particular emotions. I realize that even supposedly negative emotions can be useful.

Related Posts:


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Sharing Beliefs: Star Trek, Disney & Animals

Star Trek has caused a whole generation of nerds to falsely idealize socialism and expect far too much from medicine.  For instance, often some of my patients are indignant when I tell them we can’t find the cause of their ailments. After all, certainly McCoy could have diagnosed their problem in a mere matter of seconds with his trusty tricorder.

Don’t get me wrong — I love Star Trek but I regret how it has “trekified” part of the US population.  John Barron shares a fun post over at “Sifting Reality”, lamenting how he feels Disney has Disnified America’s animal culture.  But before visiting John’s site, be forewarned that  John is a politically and religiously conservative Christian who loves arguing with Skeptics. His thread is littered with heated debates.  John is a careful, intelligent debater but not a highly skilled listener or facilitator though I am sure his lack of care in conversation is not intentional.   I have not read much of John, but to date I haven’t see him conceding points or looking for commonalities with his opponents. John is a black-and-white kind of guy.  He is rock steady in his views and he is going to show you why you are wrong and how he has it all figured out.   So go there at your own risk.  But I like reading John — he is interesting and writes well.  And I find that people with opinions different than mine stimulate my thinking and effect me in pleasant unexpected ways.  So go take a look.

What follows is a response to John’s most recent post: “Animals are people too … maybe” where he tells us that Disney makes us too sentimental about animals and encourage us to poorly blur the line between humans and animal.  So without further ado:

Dear John:

Concerning animals: whatever opinions I hold about animals are colored by all the following:

  1. In China, I saw animals treated as objects without feelings or sensation of pain. Horrible, horrible treatment — even in public. At least we have the dignity to hide the abuse of our food animals. (sarcasm)
  2. My family raises animals for meat and eggs. We are consumate carnivores. But we have 3 dogs, gerbils, fish as pets and we love our pets.  And even our freezer animals live a very good life before their slaughter.
  3. I laugh at how hard humans struggle to set themselves off to be superior to animals. Sure, we are unique, but then all animals are unique — that is a boring truism. (see here & here)
  4. I use to be a fervent vegetarian, I was very intolerant of non-vegetarians at first and would not even go in kitchens that cooked meat.  I transitioned slowly out of vegetarianism:  started eating eggs, then fish and chickens (afterall, they don’t have lips) and finally, mammal-meat again touched my tongue.  With this, of course, I became much more tolerant until today when I am a full-blown vegetarian apostate. My Christianity was similar — substitute “Christian” for vegetarian in the above and you will see what I mean.  The underlying common principles should be obvious.  I begrudge no one their silly ideas, all I ask is that you keep them out of my face and out of my politics.
  5. If a person thinks animals have rights and feelings or even souls, they should, for consistency’s sake, fight for them. Many people do the same for fetuses. Everyone draws the line differently — so what do we do with each other?

So, for those not familiar with my writing style, this post is distractingly not really discussing animals, vegetarianism, Christianity, politics, or medicine.  Instead, I am most interested in the complex way we form opinions and beliefs — and even more interested on how we go about discussing these with each other.  I feel that listing the many feelings and experiences that feed our beliefs is often more instructive than just giving an abstract propositional declaration of a rarified belief.  As an example, I discussed what feeds my views about animals.  This approach allows the belief to be more honest; it allows in humor, humility, fuzziness and vulnerability; it does things that rarified philosophy often does not invite.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Depth & Complexity Deception

Walking over an open grate is scary for most children and even some adults.  Even though part of the brain understands that the grate is secure, part of the brain is reflexively scared by the vision of depth.

Likewise, swimming in deep water can be more scary than swimming shallow water for similar reasons — even if you can see the bottom.  Part of the brain knows that you won’t “fall” to the deep bottom, but another part reflexively fears a fall.  Depth is reflexively feared and respected and that “depth” can be perceived in terms of both quantity or complexity.

Astrology, Buddhism, Homeopathy, Biblical Studies, and Evolution all share something in common: depth. Volumes of material are written on these subjects. You could fill your walls with impressive book titles on these topics.   These deep walls of information protect your beliefs.  For if someone told you that your beliefs were nonsense, your mind would flash a picture of libraries of counter arguments — not the specific arguments, mind you, but just the image of a deep layers of books. This is one version of depth deception — depth of quantity. It is the illusion that if something you embrace has lots of fellow believers and writers, it must have believable substance.  And depth illusion can also be caused by deep complexity.

Astrology is complicated — it has deep complexity.  Sure, the average astrology fan only occasionally reads superficial daily horoscopes, but enthusiastic believers use complex computer programs to generate sophisticated charts showing the intricate alignment of planet positions and influences. Smart people write these programs. The different perspectives and calculations needed for making an accurate ‘scientific’ reading is mind-bogglingly deep.  This is depth of complexity. It takes lots of time to learn this highly detailed material. In doing all this, the believer’s mind uses such depth in and of itself to support  the believer’s confidence, even if Astrology is complete nonsense.

Believers are usually unaware that depth deception is strengthening their emotional resolve to protect their beliefs. We all do it.

Question to Readers:  Have you ever wondered if your book collection itself offers you more support in your beliefs than they deserve?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Why do you reject Homeopathy?

Sometimes it is OK just to reject something without seeking any deep understanding.  We run into these situations all the time.  Life is too short to spend time examining every suggestion that comes in front of us.

On the other hand, relying on our intuitions to find truth has been shown often to be grossly erroneous.  Ouch, what are we to do?

Homeopathy is practiced by thousands of practitioners and has millions of patients.  Skeptics usually dismiss Homeopathy for very simple reasons (listed by most common to least common):

  • Tribal Doubt:  None of the people you respect think homeopathy is valid.  You trust those in your circle.  Other skeptics think homeopathy is hogwash and so do you.   Besides, you have seen the sort of folks that flock to homeopathy — they flock to a bunch of equally ridiculous notions and aren’t to be trusted.
  • Mechanism Doubt: You can’t imagine how any medicine could work which is diluted beyond hope of having even one molecule of active ingredient.  You haven’t read any of the explanations given by homeopaths to support this crazy notion but you know whatever reason they give has to be ridiculous.
  • Smattering of Science:  You’ve heard of a few studies from what you consider highly reliable sources that claim no evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy and you have no reason to doubt them.
But a few skeptics have taken time to understand the issue:
  • Lots of Science: This is hard.  You would have to be up on the pros and cons of lots of studies.  You may even have read extensively on the subject including sympathetic material and journal articles that claim to show homeopathic effectiveness.  You have thought through all the counter evidence and feel homeopathy is hogwash.

Most probably a given skeptic will have a combinations of these reasons.

Though I think it is fine to reject Homeopathy out of hand and move on.  In these posts, I will endulge the luxury to understand more deeply than simple rejection.  I hope to help interested readers to understand why people practice homeopathy and why millions of patients swear to its effectiveness.  So I am talking to those who are willing to consider not dismissing homeopathy out-of-hand, and instead make an effort to understand why others value it so strongly.   Hopefully I will take you beyond thinking that believers in Homeopathy are just unadulterated idiots — even if you still disagree with them.

Questions to readers:  What level is your sophistication in rejecting homeopathy (if you do)?  What level do you think most skeptics have?  [It should be obvious to readers, that a similar examination of levels-of-rejection approach could also be done for religions, politics, other types of medicine and more.]

See the rest of this series.


Filed under Medicine

25, 35 and the Holy Trinity

In Skepticblog, Michael Shermer just posted a fun article  about his recent run-in with numerology. He tells of an uncomfortable fake interview he had with a proud self-proclaimed Muslim heretic from Kazakhstan who staged the interview with Michael in order to push his Islamic book about the mystical implications of the number 19.  At the end of his article Shermer challenges readers to “employ their own patternicity skills at finding meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise with such numbers and numerical relationships….” In Shermer’s terms, “paternity” is the hyper-over-kill ability to see connection and meaning where it doesn’t exist. Coincidentally (hmmmm?), I just recently discovered an miraculous numerical pattern which I am entering in Michael’s challenge.  See if you agree that it is miraculous. Click more to read my inspiring story:
Continue reading


Filed under Philosophy & Religion