December 08, 2008

Discovery Institute Paranormal Apologetics: Klinghoffer's Baffling Illogic

The Discovery Institute has been for some years now a leading Disenlightenment think-tank. We could point to some rather strange stuff that emanates from its phlogiston-strewn halls well beyond its advocacy of Neo-Creationism. Nonetheless, it's left to David Klinghoffer to thoroughly explain what's at the core of this bizarre institution's ideology, which he does in an opinion piece appearing in today's Los Angeles Times:

Ghosts, aliens and us

By David Klinghoffer

When my wife and I had our twin baby boys circumcised in our home last year, the Hasidic rabbi who performed the bris left us with a surprising parting gift: an amulet for protection against demons... When I queried the rabbi about this... he gracefully dodged, referring me to unspecified kabbalistic secrets...

It was a reminder that, as much as we think of our age as cynical and literally disenchanted, supernatural belief has hardly been erased. In fact, it may be on the rise. A CBS poll in October reported that 48% of Americans believe in ghosts (and 22% claim to have seen one). Among those younger than 45, 54% believe, as opposed to 41% over that age. Belief in other forms of paranormal and occult phenomena is on the rise too: In the 1980s, 25% of Americans accepted the idea of alien abductions, for instance, but 40% say they do now, according to Newsweek...

...Sure, I'm skeptical about crop circles, conspiracy theories and cryptozoology. However, I'm also sympathetic to the late conservative philosopher and ghost-story writer Russell Kirk, who valued the paranormal for its suggestion that reality consists of more than mundane material processes. I get the persistent sense that something profound is affirmed by the eerie accounts...

Another possibility is that the human need to believe in the unseen world itself points to, while not proving, the reality of hidden dimensions. It could be that materialism -- the philosophical assumption that reality is nothing but physical stuff -- is a prejudice rather than a fact. Perhaps an unseen reality does exist, revealed in flashes that can be confusing or misleading, to which we sometimes give flaky designations. Like "Bigfoot."

Religions used to confidently navigate this twilight realm. Some faiths still do, quietly...

...As for the rabbi who presided over our twins' bris, the evangelistic branch of Judaism to which he belongs, Chabad, stands out as bucking the trend elsewhere in Judaism toward a pallid rationalism.

The same trend is mirrored in other faiths, especially the shrinking mainline Protestant denominations. It may be that such pallidness helps explain why Americans turn to florid paranormal beliefs, as opposed to traditional supernatural ideas...

Religious leaders representing respectable faiths, intimidated by secular prejudice, may wish to take note as they scan the empty pews. The human hunger for a vigorous, unapologetic interface with the unknown can't be entirely repressed...
In a nutshell (the best way to summarize the assertions of nuts, after all), Klingoffer's argument is that belief in UFOs and bigfoot are erroneous (don't tell Michael Medved!), but they arise because of an absence of the preaching of traditional forms of supernaturalism in religious institutions, and this belief, in turn, is evidence for the existence of the supernatural. This, in turn, indicates that materialism — or, more accurately, naturalism — is incorrect. Where to begin in this chain of fallacies?

I'll start off with Klinghoffer's lumping of bigfoot and UFOs with the supernatural. While these are, indeed, beliefs that something exists in the absence of any evidence that they do, or even can, exist in the real world, they are not themselves beliefs in anything supernatural. The belief that extraterrestrial spacecraft have or do visit our planet is a belief in quite natural, albeit unearthly, things. The aliens in the postulated ships are the products of the same natural forces we find all around us and the ships themselves would work by physical laws. Likewise, bigfoot, were it to exist, would simply be a huge North American ape that ate, breathed and reproduced like every other mammal. No prevalent ideas about bigfoot, as wrong as they might be, offer the conjecture that sasquatches are or do anything supernatural, and while the arguments in favor of their existence are incorrect, they are based precisely on naturalistic sciences like biology and ecology. Klinghoffer is equivocating right from the outset by redefining "supernatural" as meaning any phenomenon for which there is no reputable physical evidence. Given such a redefinition, he can proceed, as he does, to offer the misunderstanding of the physical world as evidence for the existence of a supernatural world or, as he puts it, "unseen dimensions." If one recalls that a common religious definition of "faith" is "belief in things unseen," it becomes immediately clear what he's up to. By doing it, he can assert that ignorance is religion; bigfoot is now an article of faith.

Which goes right to the next fallacy, namely the assertion that popular supernaturalism is the result of some diminishing of religious supernaturalism. This is a rather bizarre contention; all religion is based on belief in the supernatural. That is to say, there can be no religion that doesn't posit the existence of at least one deity which operates in a manner unbound by natural laws. Every religion, no matter how liberal it may be when it comes to social ideas and how rational it is when it comes to empirical reality, is rooted in a deeply held belief that something exists beyond the scope of the senses and beyond the possibility of measurement. Whether we're talking about non-evangelical forms of Judaism or mainline Protestantism, all religions must do this, and none of which I'm aware contend something to the contrary. Moreover, the postulation of supernatural causation to natural phenomenon is not some new thing; it has certainly diminished in modern times, but it just as certainly existed in the past, and that past is filled with any number of strange beliefs about the material world that have nothing to do with religion at all. Not so long ago, the supernaturalistic religious worldview was essentially all that existed, and yet the same people who believed in the religion also believed in ghosts and dragons and wizards. If anything, belief in those things were even more widespread in the past than they are today. When I walk down a city street today, I'm surprised if I see even one amulet hanging in a doorway to ward off the evil eye. If I were taking a walk through a 10th century village, I'd be equally surprised to see a doorway without one. Religious belief in the supernatural is a factor that makes beliefs in other flavors of magic more palatable, not less. Conversely, the pews of churches and similar structures designated for the worshipful become emptier because the same knowledge that has led much of humanity to dispense with belief in ghosts and warlocks leads to less credulity when it comes to gods and devils. The former pair is far less of a leap, after all, than the latter couple. They were at least of human origin; ghosts used to be people, mages still are, and we know at the very least that people actually exist. There's empirical evidence that tells us at least that much. These other things, though, evaporate utterly when examined from a position of empiricism. It takes less of a leap of faith (and logic) to believe in magic than it does to believe in omnipotence or disembodied malevolence.

Still, all of this is but an appetizer before the main noxious entree, the assertion that any belief in the supernatural provides even a scrap of evidence that an "unseen dimension" exists. Using Klinghoffer's redefinition of "supernatural," this equation works out to the solution that one erroneous idea supports the validity of a different error. If I believe that cats visit the moon while I am asleep then angels are real. If I think that lightning bolts are hurled at the heads of sinners by angered ancestor spirits that live among the clouds then Moses parted the Red Sea. I am not exaggerating about this; Klinghoffer is actually asserting, after all, that belief in bigfoot means that there is a Kingdom of Heaven. It's an absolutely bizarre sort of reasoning, to use that term equivocally myself, but it's exactly what Klinghoffer proposes. Any sort of ignorant faith in things unseen and unevidenced will do for his purposes. This is the biggest and blackest tent of them all, and by accepting such things into it, Klinghoffer reveals to us the basis of all that he advocates as a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute. A statue of him should be erected at the front door of their offices, much like the Statue of Liberty. This statue would similarly hold a torch aloft, though it would have no flame upon it and the inscription upon the monument would read
Give me your ignorant, your superstitious,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe nonsense,
The innumerate refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the credulous, mistaken to me,
I lift my lump beside the night-dark tent flap!
The irony that someone who would himself engage in an archaic ritual in which the genitals of eight day old boys are cut up to mark a covenant with a deity, followed by hanging a magical talisman whose origins he does not know and is incurious enough not to bother investigating, arguing that naturalism is "bias" because it doesn't leave room for ghosts and demons, is rich and thick, indeed. That he accepts the "graceful dodge" of a holy man at its word and then denounces empiricism is laughable. This is the very stuff from which Dark Ages have always been made, no different from the taboos regarding treading in the shadows of ancient Egyptian priests or burning incense for the pleasure of the lares and manes. This is the very meat of the Disenlightenment served upon a darkly glittering platter of intellectual misdirection and garnished lovingly with something scraped from the bottom of a boot that has just come in from the cow pasture. For someone like Klinghoffer, the world can never be demon-haunted enough. Why else hang talismans warding off Lilith around one's home?

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