Robert Todd Carroll
February 8, 2005
"Thinking is what a great many people think they are doing when they are simply rearranging their prejudices." -- William James
In this issue: educational company or cult?; comic relief quackery; a skeptical blog; ask the skeptic; TAM3 and all we missed; some mighty reading; what's new in the Dictionary and the Refuge; and upcoming events.
I received a rather disturbing letter about Lifespring or Legacy, a group some consider a cult. Legacy describes itself as an educational company that wants to "empower people" and "help them live their dreams." Sound familiar? Est? Landmark Forum? Tony Robbins? NLP? And so many other Large Group Awareness Training Programs. Here's the letter:
(Unlike some of my Bright friends, I'm not offended by an occasional blessing, even if it's wasted on a heathen like me.) To the point, though: Like many other such groups, there are message boards of former Legacy members or people who have had bad experiences with Legacy. I checked out one board and here are a few typical comments:
Yes, I know. Some people swear by their experiences in these kinds of groups. However, it's much cheaper, and safer, to check out your local community college if you're trying to get your life back on track. You won't find a more dedicated group of people truly interested in helping you make a success out of your life. And they won't rob you of your life savings to do it. Trust me. I've worked at community colleges for over thirty years. We don't get paid a commission to keep you enrolled and we don't get paid by how many people we recruit into our programs or classes. Sure, we have our share of deadwood. We're not perfect, and we often have to work on a shoestring budget, but we're almost sure to be better for you than any cult!
David Federlein referred me to LightRelief, which doesn't even bother to make wild and unsubstantiated claims about the healing powers of its product (which looks like an infrared computer mouse). It just shows a few pictures of people shining a light on various parts of their anatomy and let's you figure out that this light therapy thingamajig is just what you need for whatever ails you. The only claims made on the website are that it is easy and simple to use and has a 2-year warranty. On the order page, one reads the cryptic message: "Experience the healing power of Light Relief." Looks like this outfit can't be charged with false or misleading advertising, since they make no claims about their product. I wonder how many units they'll sell with this approach. My psychic tells me that they'll do just fine.
St. Nate informs us of "a round-up of bloggers called The Skeptics' Circle, which will collect posts that examine urban legends, pseudohistory, bad science, quackery and other areas where critical thinking should be applied throughout the blogosphere. The overall objective of this group is to combat some of the [junk] stories that are frequently repeated on weblogs with some real information." To see the first edition, go to http://stnate.blogspot.com/2005/02/first-skeptics-circle.html
The Skeptical Inquirer has announced that it will be publishing a new column, The Skeptical Inquiree, where inquiring readers can ask the skeptic whatever's on your mind. Contact Skeptical Inquirer magazine, P.O. Box 703, Amherst NY 14226 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Due to illness, I was forced to cancel my trip to Las Vegas for the annual Randifest, much to my disappointment. Skeptics are often unappreciated and seen as wicked, faithless, party-poopers who want to take away comforting beliefs without providing anything to replace them. So, I relish the time spent with several hundred like-minded people, a few of whom take the time to tell me how much they appreciate the work I do on The Skeptic's Dictionary. I get energized by being around so many rational, caring people, especially Randi. Just being in the same room with the Amazing One is enough to charge my batteries for another year! But this year the microbes laid me low. However, I heard from my friend Phil Plait that the event was bigger and better than ever. He's posted a travelogue of his adventures at TAM3. Also, there was a nice article in the Las Vegas Weekly about the conference. And Christian Schwietzke has posted his personal account of the event. If you want to know more about what we missed go to Randi's website and check out the JREF Forum.
The upside to being homebound for about three weeks was that I got to do a lot of reading. I read three books I can recommend by evolutionary psychologists/philosophers (EP): Robert Wright's The Moral Animal, Michael Shermer's The Science of Good and Evil, and Daniel Dennett's Freedom Evolves. (I also read parts of Richard Dawkin's The Ancestor's Tale, but have found it to be tediously filled with details I don't think I need to know and am sure I will forget as soon as I read them. To keep my mind sharp, I also read a novel: Neil Jordan's Sunrise with Sea Monster.)
One of the subtitles of Wright's book is "Why We Are the Way We Are." The answers are to be found in our biological evolution. The book is exceptionally well written and entertaining. I especially like the way Wright interweaves chapters on Charles Darwin to illustrate points made in an immediately preceding chapter. He also cites one of my favorite quotes from John Stuart Mill
But ultimately Mill's utilitarian ethics can't pass EP muster, according to Wright. Everything, including our ideas of good and evil, right and wrong, has one goal: "to get the individual's genetic information copied" (339). Being concerned about bringing the greatest good to the greatest number doesn't sound like a blueprint or recipe for getting one's gene's transmitted. But, you never know; maybe altruism is the ultimate turn-on. In any case, Shermer is more supportive of utilitarian ethics than Wright is. That may be because he's more sympathetic to the idea of group selection, that natural selection might favor one group over another based on traits that one group has and the other doesn't. Altruism might be one such trait.
Both Wright and Shermer agree that the mere 40,000 or so years that humans have had culture that included language and moral reasoning isn't enough to counteract the millions of years of animal evolution that preceded the emergence of homo sapiens, though Shermer seems to give more credit to the power of culture to form us than Wright does.
Dennett argues that freedom is a necessary condition for morality and that without language and reasoning we'd be like chimps and orangutans. Without freedom, we might have some instinctive sense of justice but we would not be full-blown ethical beings with an understanding of moral responsibility, rights, and duties. Language and reasoning are necessary conditions for free will. At least, I think that's his position. I find Dennett hard to understand, even if extremely enjoyable to read. It's as if he shows you a map and points to two points about an inch apart and tells you that he's going to show you how to get from one point to the other. There might be a few squiggles between the two points but it doesn't look like it should take too long to get from A to B. Then weeks later, after meandering all over the map, he tells you that now you're at the destination.
Shermer, on the other hand, is a very clear writer and is certainly the most optimistic of the three. He works his way to a full-blown libertarianism and wants to take us to the stars. He sees evolution transcending the mere development of moral sentiments co-opted by religion and political society to keep the masses in line. In what he refers to as the bio-cultural evolutionary pyramid, he depicts evolution growing from absolute selfishness at the bottom to 'bioaltruism' and 'biophilia' (from Edward O. Wilson) at the top. He seems to argue that there is some sort of progress to moral evolution, even if biological evolution does not "aim at" producing better and better species. We'll all be better off (have a better chance of passing on our genetic material? or be happier?) when we learn to love each other and our environment. Shermer really would like to see liberty spread around the globe, but true liberty, not the faux liberty promoted by President Bush. Shermer's liberty includes the freedom to marry whom you want and the freedom to do stem cell research for the good of the species. He doesn't restrict liberty to freedom from government interference in economic and business affairs and the freedom to vote.
There are two distinct issues when evolutionary psychologists/philosophers try to explain morality. One is the emergence of the moral sentiments, the feelings that give rise to moral judgments. Many of these feelings exist in other animals and are necessary but not sufficient for morality. When a lion strangles his mate after years of peaceful coexistence, zookeepers are bewildered but they don't make moral judgments. The other element necessary to explain morality is freedom. It is one thing to feel angry when wronged; it is quite another to recognize that the wrongdoer didn't have to do wrong, that he or she could have done otherwise, and that he or she should have known what was the right thing to do. Dennett argues that freedom is not an illusion. Shermer isn't so sure but he thinks we're better off believing in freedom than not (137).
Shermer cites David Hume only a couple of times, even though Hume's thoughts on morals seem to be rather close to Shermer's. I'm surprised he didn't quote Hume's famous line that "Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions." Not just moral reasoning, but all reasoning, services the emotions and feelings. All morals ultimately arise out of the desire for pleasure and avoidance of pain. Moral reasoning is moral rationalization. In short, human nature provides us with the incentive to be moral. Reason figures out a way to justify our natural instincts or intuitions. If I understand Shermer correctly, this is also his view.
Shermer makes one claim I have to take issue with. On page 173, in listing several items the media encourages us to fear, he writes: "The fact is, there is no evidence that secondhand smoke causes cancer." Not true. See my newsletter 50 and Dominion's Skeptical Blog for some references.
I also had time to read several essays from two books I received over the holidays as gifts, both of which I highly recommend: Darwin's Audubon: Science and the Liberal Imagination by Gerald Weissmann and Darwin Day Collection One: The Single Best Idea Ever edited by Amanda Chesworth et al.
I have to admit, though, that the book I'm currently reading may be the most interesting and important of the lot: Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The President and every lawmaker should read this book.
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