On militant atheism

An op-ed on AlterNet takes author Sam Harris to task. Among other things, the author of the op-ed, John Gorenfeld, writes:

The thrust of Harris's best-sellers is that with the world so crazed by religion, it's high time Americans stopped tolerating faith in the Rapture, the Resurrection and anything else not grounded in evidence. Only trouble is, our country's foremost promoter of "reason" is also supportive of ESP, reincarnation and other unscientific concepts.

Later Gorenfeld continues:

Another book he lists is The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. "These are people who have spent a fair amount of time looking at the data," Harris explains. The author, professor Dean Radin of North California's Institute of Noetic Sciences, which is not accredited for scientific peer review, proclaims: "Psi [mind power] has been shown to exist in thousands of experiments."

Gorenfeld's statement that IONS "is not accredited for scientific peer review" is not merely wrong, it is meaningless. The mistake suggests a bit of motivated inattention.

Gorenfeld presumably added his meaningless clause in an attempt to reduce the credibility of IONS, and by association the credibility of my book. While it is true that institutions providing academic degrees can be recognized by various educational accreditation organizations, IONS does not provide degrees and so accreditation is irrelevant. In addition, "scientific peer review" is not something that institutes do, rather it's what journals and granting institutions do. The IONS research staff has published numerous articles in scientific journals and have been awarded many research grants, including from the National Institutes of Health, so on that score our work is certainly vetted through scientific peer review.

But all this aside, what I find amazing is that some militant atheists, including Gorenfeld but not Harris, equate belief in religion to belief in psi. The fallacy of this belief is that the former is based on an unquestioned acceptance of dogma, whereas the latter is based on a rational, scientific evaluation of empirical evidence. One would think that atheists would support all efforts to understand the world through scientific means, regardless of controversial status. But apparently this is not the case.


Anonymous said…
I'm glad this article made its way to you. I almost sent it to you myself, but got sidetracked.

While I haven't read the book by Harris, Gorenfeld's attack on him by bringing in your work and Dr. Stevenson's work seemed completely irrelevant to anything. It was an unnecessary "guilt by association" approach that, frankly, I'm getting tired of seeing.

If Gorenfeld wants to critique Harris, fine. Have at it. But attack him on his own stuff, not on the work of those he chooses to endorse, or at least acknowledge. It's the equivalent of saying that Harris is "obviously" an idiot, because his clothes are two years out of date.

Gorenfeld definitely had a mixed (or confused, perhaps) agenda with that piece.
Anonymous said…
Ah well you know the saying "the narrower a persons mind, the broader their statements" this person obviosly know nothing about scientific research and the processes involved so why listen to them. The fact is that more and more people and scientists are looking at the data and the things around us and going "hey maybe there IS something here" they are comming across effects and making connections. They look at entanglement and go see its similarity to esp. They look at poltergeists and realise that there is an all pervasive zero point energy field and the only way we can measure [casimir effect pushes two plates together] they find more and more and eventually they and others will eventually open their minds enough to consider that their is more to life than what they have personally experienced.
Not accredited for scientific peer review, eh? Now that's one I haven't heard before. Wow. I guess if you can't find a viable reason to dismiss an institution, you get to just make stuff up. Where are they handing out the journalism degrees and how can I get one?
Anonymous said…
There's a British Labour politician, Michael Foot, who always used to say, if you want to destroy someone's argument, then you must attack it where it's strongest, not where it's weakest.

This springs to mind because much of the attacking on both sides of the fence seems to be this death by a thousand cuts stuff, i.e., endless irrelevent sniping between a gang of school kids whose basic arguments always boil down to, "Don't take no notice of anything they say - they smell!"

Maybe I'm wrong, but to me progress in ANY thing, especially Science, always comes not from covertly dismissing something out of hand but from asking really good questions about it, e.g., "If such and such really IS so, then why this, or why that?"

The reason the Wright Brothers got off the ground was because they stopped looking for reasons why it WASN'T possible and started wondering how it could be done if it WAS possible.
Dean Radin said…
I agree that the level of public discourse on controversial topics, including psi, is distressingly poor. From my perspective the majority of the sniping comes from people who claim to support rational inquiry, but in fact don't.

Many of the snipes seem to originate from angry young men. Having been one a few decades ago, I remember the angst and arrogance of youth, and how that anger often manifests in supremely confident opinions that in hindsight are -- to be charitable -- naive.

As Alan alludes to, there are two approaches to studying anomalies.

The first group is consumed with cynicism and doubt. They adopt the position that anything anomalous or odd is basically impossible, and they're highly motivated to prove that they are correct. The means by which they do this is typically through debate by intimidation, or more rarely, by adopting an expectation of failure while attempting half-hearted experiments until they fail, and then ignoring all positive outcomes, pronouncing the equivalent of "I told you so."

The other approach is taken by those who are fascinated by the sheer wonder of existence. They see anomalies, wonder "what if that is true?", then set out with a positive attitude to find out.
Anonymous said…
Truly, the skeptic/militant atheist subculture has become a self-esteem cult as much as anything. The idea seems to be to thump your chest and shout, "Look how evolved we are compared to those deluded Neanderthals who believe in things that can't possibly be true!" Then you deny and ridicule anything that doesn't fit into your world view. Must feel nice to be so superior.
Enfant Terrible said…
[i]My position on the paranormal is this: While there have been many frauds in the history of parapsychology, I believe that this field of study has been unfairly stigmatized. If some experimental psychologists want to spend their days studying telepathy, or the effects of prayer, I will be interested to know what they find out. And if it is true that toddlers occasionally start speaking in ancient languages (as Ian Stevenson alleges), I would like to know about it. However, I have not spent any time attempting to authenticate the data put forward in books like Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe or Ian Stevenson’s 20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. The fact that I have not spent any time on this should suggest how worthy of my time I think such a project would be. Still, I found these books interesting, and I cannot categorically dismiss their contents in the way that I can dismiss the claims of religious dogmatists. [/i]


Good news, isn't?
beepbeepitsme said…
What may be difficult for theists to understand is that Sam Harris, or any other atheist, speaks for themselves only unless they are nominated as spokesman by a group or collection of people.

I say this because there are NO instructions about what what an atheist thinks or believes, or if they believe anything.

There are concepts that muslims share and concepts that christians share, because their faiths come with instructions.

"Atheism" doesn't come with a set of beliefs or doctrine. Sometimes when atheists speak I agree with them. Other times not.
Anonymous said…
i have just read the wikipedia article on parapsychology and was not surprised at the list of skeptics and supporters of parapychology. the supporters had in their ranks 2 nobel laureates one for physics[brian josephson] one for chemistry[kary mullis] heads of physics departments and eminent physicists such as robert jahn and wolfgang pauli. While the skeptics consisted of magicians [randi, banacheck, derren brown, paul daniels] and psychologists. why are we listening to psychologists and magicians and not to physicists and scientists about these matters?
Dean Radin said…
Mark Szlazak said... Radin does work at a school that has a big spiritual leaning ...

IONS is a research institute, not a school. The organization is interested in the interface between science and concepts traditionally associated with spirituality. But my personal interests and work focus on science.
Dean Radin said…
Enfant Terrible said...My position on the paranormal is this: While there have been many frauds in the history of parapsychology ...

Regarding people who claim special abilities this statement is undoubtedly true. But among investigators the statement is false. In its 120+ year history, I can think of one known case and two suspected cases of investigator fraud.

Highlighting the distinction is important, because oftentimes people confuse the claimaints with the investigators.
Phronk said…
There seems to be a common theme: people who don't have a strong argument, and don't want to bother doing the research to form one, resort to making stuff up and making connections that aren't really there. This is yet another example of that.

I'll also echo the above comments which point out that it's interesting that the most vocal opponents of parapsychology research tend to be the least knowledgeable about science (with some exceptions, of course). In a rational world, that would not be the case.

Incidentally, I wrote about some of this stuff on my blog, in an informal little review of Entangled Minds. It may be of interest to you. Thanks for the amazing book(s)!
Book Surgeon said…
Read the new article by psychologist Steven Pinker in the new issue of Time. Classic piece of reductionist materialist propaganda. It's the usual idea: neuroscience has figured out so much about the mechanical function of the brain and how that function creates various responses that we're obviously just a collection of firing synapses. No free will, no self, no consciousness, just illusion.

Typically, Pinker ignores or arrogantly dismisses the mountain of evidence that suggests that while the brain is clearly deeply involved in creating mental states, something more is going on. He trashes the idea of scientists trying to communicate with the dead (very condescendingly, I might add) and writes that all such efforts revealed only charlatans. Not true by a long shot, as with mediums like Leonora Piper, who convinced every skeptic. He says flatly that near death experiences are the result of oxygen deprivation to the brain, when even mainstream neuroscientists admit now that during cardiac arrest and other such states, the gamma band activity that governs the kind of complex mental experiences people who have NDEs report are not functional. NDEs remain a mystery.

He even has the nerve, as a psychologist, to scoff physics legend Roger Penrose, who links consciousness to quantum mechanics. Dr. Pinker, first of all, you're a psychologist. What do you know of physics? Second, it has been proved beyond any doubt that quantum mechanics and consciousness are linked, because of the counterintuitive yet real phenomenon by which an observer is required to fix particles in a single space and time. In effect, consciousness creates reality on the microscopic scale and possibly on the macroscopic. To say nothing of quantum entanglement as presented by Dr. Radin.

This is a classic example of a reductionist screed written by an acolyte of that creed. No one conducting any alternative research is even quoted. Even hints at other theories of consciousness are written about with disdain, as if they are not even worth thinking about. And unfortunately, this is presented to the reading public as gospel truth.

I'm the last to discount the extraordinary advances in brain research. They're amazing. However, the mainstream continues to not only ignore but ridicule and marginalize any research or evidence that suggests anything that smacks of the paranormal or "spiritual" may be going on. I'm reminded of the smug certainly of mainstream media talking heads during the runup to the Iraq war; they KNEW they were right. It seems the same pop culture preaching is going on here.

As long as the major media outlets treat such one-sided reporting with such reverence while lumping the work of those like Dr. Radin as "fringe", "New Age" and "pseudoscience," we will move very slowly toward answers to some of these great questions, because funding for research will remain scarce.
Dean Radin said…
A simple way to illustrate the neuroscience fallacy of the brain = mind argument is by analogy with understanding how a radio works. Say you knew nothing about physics. You listen to a talk show on a radio and become curious about where the voices come from. You take the radio apart and soon notice that there is a one-to-one correlation between the voices and the electrical currents in the radio circuits. You logically conclude that the voices are obviously caused by the radio itself. If you damage part of the radio to prove your point, then the voices will become degraded or disappear altogether. Case closed.

The brain as a generator of mind is the prevailing explanation in the neurosciences, but the brain as a receiver of mind provides the identical results. If one ignores the psi data then the generator model seems sufficient. But if one accepts the psi data, the receiver model begins to look more appealing.

I recommend a new book, Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century, for a comprehensive and scholarly review of the evidence (more than just psi) suggesting that brain as receiver is a better model of mind than brain as generator. The former model has profound consequences for revising our scientific understanding of who and what we are, which is one of the reasons mainstream neuroscience tends to ignore the countervailing evidence.
Book Surgeon said…
I'm in the process of reading "Irreducible Mind" right now. It's a tough go; a very complex and information-dense book for a non-psychologist. However, it presents a vast realm of data that refute the materialist theory in a direct, honest way. Yes, the authors have a point of view (they favor psi and survival, among other things), but that in no way discounts this scholarly book. It's a challenge at 800 pages, but I expect it to be worth my while.
Dean Radin said…
Mark Szlazak said...
The brain as the reciever of mind! I'm sorry but the evidence stongly shows the brain as the generator of mind.

I disagree. The neuroscience evidence only reveals correlations. The arrow of causation that is assumed to produce this correlation is merely an inference. The generator and receiver models both provide identical predictions of the observed correlations.

Note that mind as receiver supports but does not necessarily require a disembodied mind or the survival hypothesis. It merely proposes that whatever mind may be, it is not purely a epiphenomenon generated by the mechanics of the brain. If it weren't for the evidence for psi there'd be little reason to question the conventional generator assumption. But given that there is evidence, questioning the assumption is reasonable.
Book Surgeon said…
Actually, the author of "Immortal Remains," Dr. Stephen Braude, doesn't draw the either-or line at materiaism versus survival. He analyzes whether the data primarily from mediumship is due to survival or "super-psi," an extremely powerful version of psi.

Aside from the fact that the concept of such a megaton form of psi and its ability to attain the complex kinds of information related by mediums is hardly parsimonious, obviously if either survival or super-psi are factual, they drive a stake through the concept of the mind as generated solely by the brain.

The extensive evidence gathered in the book "Irreducible Mind" (much of which has nothing to do with the paranormal) and the conclusion by a lucid analyst like Braude that much of the evidence for survival comes down to either super-psi or actual survival are extremely sound reasons to question the pure materialist idea.
Dean Radin said…
> Can we shield the brain from the mind like we can shield a receiver from broadcast signals?

Yes, regularly performed using anesthetics.

> If the brain is a receiver then where are the signals coming from?No one knows where this broadcasting mind is.

True, we don't know. But neither do we know where or how or even why conscious awareness arises in the brain.

> Show me the mind in control of it's brain!

Biofeedback and meditation both show that with practice one can alter brain functioning.

> If the mind is separate from the brain then it follows that a fully functioning mind can exist without a body -- and if true then why do we need such a large brain? At most a very minimal brain would be needed ...

In Entangled Minds I report a case published in Science in which a college student with an above average IQ turned out to be hydrocephalic and have almost no brain at all. The brain tissue in his skull was flattened into a millimeter-thick membrane. So perhaps we don't need such a big brain after all.

> Damage to the brain profoundly harms our ability to perceive and think.

The same is true for a radio. Start monkeying around with the circuity and you'll get distortion or failure very quickly.

> If we didn't need such a large brain, which is what the receiver model implies, we would be many times more efficient.

Evolution is not necessarily optimally efficient. Nor is it finished.

> We would be far less vulnerable to fatal or debilitating injury, we would be immune to brain damage and defects that impair judgement or distort perception ...

One can also argue that there's an evolutionary advantage to not lasting very long, to prevent bad "models" from persisting. Relatively robust animals like dinosaurs, for example, persisted for millions of years, but they never invented an iPod.

> As to the evidence for survival, it just isn't very strong.

I agree. But I'm not suggesting that brain not equal to mind necessarily implies survival. Survival in this context usually means that something like individual personality persists after bodily death, and while there is some interesting evidence for this, I don't find it as persuasive as the evidence for psi in the living. In other words, free ranging "mind" may be part of a continnum which also consists of what we presently call matter and energy.
Book Surgeon said…
Let's set aside the question of survival, because as interesting as it is, it's peripheral to the discussion. A few things I'd like to note (and I'm a journalist, not a neurologist, so this may be too simplistic):

• It's been known for generations that we do not use much of our brains for cognitive processing or much of anything else, just as we do not use some of our DNA. I don't know what the percentage is; it's fairly wrapped in urban myth and pop culture. But is it not likely that we will either evolve to shed that extra unneeded brain mass or evolve to utilize it in some way? This makes the question of the extra-large brain somewhat moot.

• The medical literature is filled with cases where a person who has suffered a serious brain injury has regained functions linked to the injured area of the brain because the brain has "rewired" itself as a result of therapy to allow a different area of the brain to perform the functions previously performed by the injured area. A microprocessor cannot do this. This doesn't rule out the brain as generator, but it does raise some questions. If the brain structure generates mind, then why when that area of the brain is damaged or destroyed is that aspect of mind not gone forever?

• I think what disturbs many people who adhere to the generator hypothesis of brain/mind is the idea that the brain becomes some passive receiver like a radio. I don't see it that way. Clearly, the brain is a fantastically complex neural processing network of incredible power. I favor the analogy of a computer receiving a wireless Internet signal. Yes, there is data coming in, but the more processing power you have, the more you can do with that data. A Macintosh G5 can do much more with its data stream that a TRS-80. So clearly, if the brain is a receiver, it is also a processor and a generator of new material which is then broadcast through that same connection. Otherwise, there would be no difference in human intelligence; we would all receive the same "mindcast" and there would not be geniuses or the learning disabled.

Can a computer function on its own without an Internet connection? Of course (mine is forced to quite often). However, to communicate with other computers it needs this method of communication, which brings me to my last point.

• Mark, you use the term "ordinary psi." First, let me say how much this delights me. I would love to hear psi referred to as "ordinary" by a million more people and have it be accepted as part of our understanding of human capacity.

But more to the point, whether we accept "ordinary" psi as shown in countless experiments or "super psi" as discussed by Braude in his examination of the exceptional knowledge gained by mediums which appears to have no other explanation, we cast great doubt on the concept of brain as sole generator of mind.

First of all, I believe your reference to "ordinary psi" is related to Braude's look at xenoglossy, yes? Well, that's long been considered a questionable phenomenon in many circles, hardly established as paranormal and indeed possibly explicable by exceptional mental capacity. But if you look at the informational side of the equation, where mediums have amazed skeptics with things like cross-correspondences and provided detailed information they could not have gained through normal means, clearly if you accept this idea and rule out survival (again, not the focus of this discussion), you're talking about some powerful form of psi.

And if you accept any form of psi, the brain as generator teeters on the brink of failure. Even if you explain psi via observation theory, where PK and precognition in particular are results of the quantum enigma, in which the observer changes the observed, you have consciousness linked to reality in a way that creates all sorts of new questions about the role of consciousness. And if you explain psi by entanglement, some sort of unknown energy or some other mechanism, clearly the mind is not limited to nor constrained by the brain. Psi, distant intentionality and many other phenomena change the entire picture.
Dean Radin said…
As is often the case when competing explanations A and B both have supporting evidence, perhaps the answer is not just A or B but rather both A and B. The brain may be a transceiver of mind.

Besides psi, one of the hints that stretches purely mechanistic models of brain functioning to the breaking point is the existence of genius, truly exceptional human talents that are not considered paranormal but are far outside the range of ordinary mental functioning. Most of neuroscience is concerned with the ordinary, but a really good model will explain the extraordinary as well.
Dean Radin said…
Mark Szlazak said... Anesthetics as shielding! There is no analogy here with shielding like in a receiver situation. Anesthetics just shut down certain brain processes.

A metal shield deflects EM signals and prevents a radio from receiving anything. By analogy, a chemical shield might deflect "mind signals" and likewise prevent it from receiving anything. One wouldn't necessarily expect an organic system to require the same sort of shield as an inorganic one. But more to the point, we are reasonably sure that psi is not mediated by EM, so shielding for EM wouldn't do the trick. Effective shielding may require disruption at the neuronal, atomic or even quantum level. Pure speculation, of course.
Anonymous said…
For those of you who have not already read it, I recommend the following article by NDE (near death experience) researcher Pim van Lommel: http://www.iands.org/research

He was the main author of a NDE study published in the Lancet in 2001.

Now, physiology is not my field (I have a master in physics), but van Lommel's discussion on the physiology of dying and how this relates to the NDE is quite interesting (amongst other things, when the brain is supposed to be flatlined (isoelectric), consciouss awerness expands and often becomes more clear than usual)

When I combine what I know about NDEs (both the research and first person accounts), the work by Ian Stevenson and his peers (reincarnation and more), psi research, mysticism (yes, I believe there is something to it), and the enigma of quantum mechanics I have to go for the receiver/transceiver version (some personal experience also factors in). And I am human enough to admit that I like this view of myself (and all of you) better.

Anonymous said…
Dr Radin, what do you think are the most interesting evidences fpr the survival theory? Do you believe in them and think these theory is some kind of valid?
Anonymous said…
A good review of the evidence for survival can be found at:

A Lawyer Presents the Case for the Afterlife
Irrefutable Objective Evidence

I think the problem with skeptics can be best understood by recognizing that they believe in the religion of materialism. And, like the cardinals who refused to look through Galileo's telescope, they are unwilling to consider anything that might be heretical to their religion.
Anonymous said…

I'll be frank with you. I think Victor Zammit is the best friend that the James Randis of the world could hope to have.

See this post on bestselling author Michael Prescott's blog for why.
Anonymous said…
There isn't a shred of good evidence that mind is somewhere else apart from the brain.

One theory is that "mind" is primary, and brain and matter are manifestations of mind. This theory has been popular for thousands of years in the east, but has also had adherents in the west.

This nicely solves the "hard problem" of consciousness, fits with the facts of psi, and also has the advantage of being congruent with the fact that everything human beings can ever know is a form of "mind", sensations, emotions, thoughts, and the sensing of all these things in the field of awareness.

The "objective universe" goes from being seen as primary, to being simply a description of the regularities we know about what unfolds within our consciousness. Very convenient, since the "objective universe" mental model is, like everything else we know, a subjective mental state. . .
Book Surgeon said…
I have to agree about Zammit. He's red meat for the James Randis of the world: an uncritical believer in everything who freaks out whenever he's confronted with doubt by even the most open-minded skeptic or critic. His site is a useful clearinghouse for information, but you have to ignore his comments and take some things that haven't been independent reported with a grain of sodium chloride
Book Surgeon said…

The problem with that theory (and I do think it's intriguing) is, is it falsifiable? The materialists are going to have their way until someone can come up with a testable theory of mind/brain as transceiver. The authors of Irreducible Mind may have done this; I'm a long way from the end of the book.
Bertsura said…
The term "militant atheism" is just stupid. It sounds like we're trying to fly planes into buildings and bomb abortion clinics.

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