Thursday, February 12, 2015

Quantum Foolery

It's interesting, but recently I've noticed when engaged in discussions of magical thinking (faith), the more intellectual masters of credulity tend to pull what I like to call the "quantum card."  Quantum psychics might be a sexy and somewhat intellectually stimulating conversational topic, but I don't see it as anything more than an irrelevant distraction, feebly utilized as an attempt to give unverifiable beliefs more credibility:  by trying to make inherently magical assumptions sound more "science-y" (as if the average person on the internet could ever fully grasp something that most esteemed scientists continue to have difficulty fully understanding).  For me, quantum discussions (or discussions regarding higher powers) are merely abstract, mental speculations that accomplish absolutely nothing in terms of addressing the deeper issues of humanity, such as how to alleviate needless human suffering or to deepen compassion and understanding of one another, and make meaningful connections.  If I really wanted to have existential discussions, I’d grab a bong, or drop acid and head for the nearest college dorm room (no thanks).  

Science is by no means perfect (and I don't think anyone is saying it is) but it's the closest we can get in our quest for truth. Scientists have biases and beliefs (like every human), but science has an inherent self-correcting mechanism that adjusts its views based on what's observed (biased studies inevitably get tested and retested by follow up studies that correct any flaws in the original study design). Faith on the other hand, is generally a belief which is held without verifiable evidence, or quite often, the preservation of a belief through the denial of observation (the "word of God" is generally seen as more convincing than contradictory evidence because "he" works in mysterious ways that mere humans couldn't possibly comprehend - which to me seems to be a relatively arrogant and self-preserving view that lacks inherent awareness of its own hubris). There's are major difference between how informed belief and blind credulity approach the "truth." To me, the answers from Bill Nye (the Science Guy)'s recent, ill-informed "debate" with Creationist, Ken Ham sum it up best:

     Question: "What would make you believe the others     
     Ken: "Nothing." 
     Bill: "Evidence." 

To me, that's the main difference between the glorification of voluntary ignorance (pure belief without evidence) and a scientific understanding based on empirically validated evidence. With that said, I don’t think any good scientist denies that they maintain the own set of subjective values judgments or beliefs when approaching a problem. This is why we have controls built into the scientific method, and hypothesis are continually tested and retested.  But belief should never be mistaken for faith. I can have a belief, such as the fact that the earth is currently heating at an alarming and unsustainable rate. This is based on concrete, empirically validated evidence and is a hypothesis shared by roughly 97% of the planets scientists. My “faith” in the conclusion (if you wish to call it that) is based on verifiable evidence. Religious faith on the other hand, is a belief often based on dogma or doctrine (unsubstantiated hypothesis). Such doctrine often states something to the effect that humanity’s values/morals were endowed to humans by a supernatural deity, and without such a deity, humans could not tell right from wrong. I completely reject this hypothesis. Values are not intrinsically faith-based. Multiple disciplines of science have shown that they arose directly from a basic understanding of cause and effect and were shaped by millions of years of evolutionary pressures.  Without understanding, we can not have compassion.  Values come from understanding the suffering of another, not faith of any sort.

Complexity theory states that evolution (from the atomic level, to humanity, and outward into the Universe) is shaped much more by cooperation than it is by conflict. Many religions may claim one must have faith to have values/morals, but these human qualities have been shown to predate the dawning of the planets major religions.

Evolutionary science has shown that our species social reactions were developed long before we developed a complex brain able to process any concept of faith. Animals do not require faith to respond to others in meaningful way. It is a product of their evolutionary history. There is ample evidence of primate fossils, for example, which appear to have survived well into adulthood with physical deformities, which should have killed them, suggesting their fellow primates had compassion and valued life enough to care for them.  We are merely another animal inhabiting this planet, sharing a common ancestor, which we’ve inherited our compassion from.

I think the question “what is the meaning of life” is an erroneous and disingenuous one that completely misses the point. Humans ask questions like that, when animals already know the answer. As you said, the Universe does not care. Evolutionarily, the meaning is “to live and pass on your genes to the next generation.” That’s it. Everything else is merely icing on the cake. Neil DeGrass Tyson’s explanation of the meaning of life is based on the fact that humans have evolved to “make” meaning, which initially enabled us to survive. Many animals have the ability to make meaning out of pure coincidence as well (see B. F. Skinner’s “superstitious pigeons”). I don’t see that as faith. It’s simply one animal out of millions that has been wired to respond to its environment to enhance survival. Without compassion, our species would have never survived.

Let me sum it up with an example. A person sees an unrelated, helpless child being physically abused by an adult. For most people, the injustice is immediately apparent (understood), felt by the body, compassion naturally arises, and there is an overwhelming desire to move to end the child’s suffering (no divine intervention required). The same can be applied to animals, as one sees a helpless puppy being kicked by an angry human. The belief that humans are more valuable than animals is based primarily on ignorance (i.e.: lack of understanding of the suffering of animals). One does not need for a religious faith to value life (human or otherwise).  We could not have evolved as a species without our capacity to feel another’s pain. This is where our values intrinsically stem from, not any sort of faith. Faith can guide humans to values, but it is not where they stem from. Compassion arises naturally within our species (and animals when you take away environmental/survival pressures). The only requirement for compassion is understanding (which is consequently the primary goal of science as well, but I digress). 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Exploring the Burden of Proof in Psychic Predictions

I recently had a conversation with an old friend of mine about psychic predictions.   Through the course of our discussion, I heard that old familiar statement, that science and spirituality are "separate domains," and that one is rooted in understanding and the other in logic, each containing "two different methods of knowing."  Despite this argument being an obvious false dichotomy (the fallacy that an argument "logically" boils down to a simple either/or dichotomy), I believe that people often make this mistake for two simple reasons; 1) we've heard countless religious leaders state something to this effect (likely in an effort, conscious or not, to protect their underlying supernatural premise) and, 2) a fundamental misunderstanding of the basic tenets of scientific understanding. 

It is simply untrue that science and spirituality are separate domains and/or diametrically opposed to one another (science vs. dogmatic religion on the other hand, is something completely different).  Neuroscientist Sam Harris for example, is doing a great deal of really excellent work in regards to consciousness and how the act of meditation affects the physical, neuronal structures of the brain.  He recently wrote a book called “The Moral Landscape” in which he discusses the notion, "that which brings the greatest amount of happiness to the largest amount of people" as the true definition of morality, and how if morality can be defined in such a manner, it can therefore be measured within a scientific domain.  Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh often states that without understanding we cannot have compassion - an extremely logical statement that should in no way imply that understanding is mutually exclusive to spirituality alone.  Far from it.

Science simply stated, IS about understanding, especially the understanding of complex patterns and/or phenomena.  Is such understanding not what Buddhist psychology is also fundamentally designed to explore?  Are both neuropsychology and Buddhist psychology not both concerned with the general study of human consciousness?  Apart from the the obvious, if not over-simplified fact that each domain tend to speak to opposite hemispheres of the brain, I do not see them as different or opposing one another.  Just as science has suggested that optimal human functioning depends upon reliance and utilization of both hemispheres (the left/logical half and the right/experiential half) the Dali Lama has suggested recently that one must have deep understanding of both western and eastern psychology to fully understand and appreciate the human condition. 

The Buddha himself reportedly never discussed gods, heaven or the supernatural because he saw them merely as “mental distractions” from being fully present and gaining a deeper awareness (i.e.: they’re not fundamental or necessary for understanding and compassion).  I read Jack Kornfield’s “Path with Heart” years before I learned to conduct cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in my therapeutic practice.  One might be surprised to learn that the Buddhist techniques described in the book directly parallel the treatment methods of modern CBT.  While such therapeutic cognitive-behavioral techniques are relatively new, developed independently over the last 3 or 4 decades, similar Buddhist methods essentially predate modern psychology by roughly 2,500 years.  Fascinatingly enough, these “truths” were arrived at completely independently of each other in what's known as "convergent evolution (i.e.: the independent evolution of similar features in species of different lineages).  Often the best approach to a problem comes forth this way, in this case, a natural manifestation of focusing on awareness and consciousness and the inevitably pursuit of happiness.  Regardless of whether your “goal”  (for lack of a better word) is enlightenment or self-actualization, the basic methods for achieving deeper understanding remain the same. 

To shed more light on the power of human consciousness and our species susceptibility to  illusion and ignorance, let’s continue with the general theme of convergent evolution.  To the untrained eye one might assume that a bat and a bird both share a immediate common ancestor.  They don't.  Though they have many similarities in both wing and body structure, evolutionary science has shown us that both species evolved their individual anatomies and ability to fly completely separate of one another, both to meet the independent needs of their particular species in their respective divergent environments.  The same goes for insect and pterosaur wings or the evolution of eyesight (which itself has developed independently somewhere between 40-65 times in the course of evolution).  To the untrained eye (no pun intended), we might naturally assume there was a direct connection between the two when there actually is none (other than divergent natural selection and a much more ancient common ancestor), despite the “superficial” similarities in the body structure of both creatures.  As with Buddhist psychology and cognitive-behavioral psychology, the best answer to solving the problem (in this case, the transcending of human suffering) inevitably "presented itself."  The same basic paradigm applies to bats and birds.  Without scientific understanding, we would never know this, no matter how “open” we chose to be in our consciousness.  If we just accepted that these two species “evolved together” because in our gut it “felt right” (because they share similar body structures), we would be severely limiting our understanding of the world.  

Science is meant to open our eyes to the wonder of the world and the quality of “openness” is actually a fundamental mandate of any good (i.e.: reliable) science.  The connection that appears in the anatomy of bat and birds is nothing more than an illusionary connection created by consciousness that is wired to find meaning in a chaotic world.  Our brains have evolved to “create” such connections quickly, which has helped our species adapt and survive through multiple generations.  What might be great for basic survival however, provides a great deal disservice to fundamental truth, as much of the meaning we give to phenomenon is just plan wrong.  It might be easy for example (and quite logical I might add), to make a leap and assume that convergent evolution of either essential wisdom or species ability to fly has been guided by a divine hand, but again, this may be nothing more than our consciousness not fully understanding reality and attempting to make phenomenon meaningful within the contexts of a particular worldview.  Now I'm not arguing the fact that this is no god in the universe, as that subject deserves a separate discussion in and of itself.   I am asserting what Stephen Hawking has so eloquently wrote about in The Grand Design, that everything in the universe that has occurred can be naturally explained by science without divine intervention: 

"Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing.  Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, whey we exist.  It is not necessary to invoke Got to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going." - Stephen Hawking

As a multitude of studies have shown, humanities ability to observe the whole picture and/or make computations of complex statistics and probability in our heads is still stuck in the stone age, as we continue to give importance to what is most likely nothing more than powerful, emotionally satisfying (and therefore motivating) coincidence.  Though entirely random (and/or deviously manipulated to appeal to ones emotional reasoning), such stimuli has been positively reinforced and therefore appears extremely meaningful to the person making the (mostly erroneous) connections.

I see a very clear parallel here in the way in which some people gravitate towards supernatural and/or psychic explanations.  We might feel it in every fiber of our soul that X is true, but without deeper exploration, we remain ignorant in our small minds, incapable of seeing the bigger evolutionary picture.  We become sure of ourselves and our perceptions, despite the vast amount of published research which suggests that our perceptions are highly flawed.  Scientists continually strive to replicate studies to get ever closer to the truth, while science as a whole adjusts its views based on these new observations.  It would be a mistake to believe that science and spirituality are separate, or that there is a general close-mindedness toward psychic phenomenon within the scientific community.  Science isn’t closed off to these explanations.  To the contrary, there has actually been a quite a large amount of published research devoted to the subject. 

Consciousness has been wired over a vast expanse of time to have us believe in a separate sense of self, which has been extremely adaptive from an evolutionary standpoint, when ancient spiritual traditions and modern science suggest that we are all actually much more deeply interconnected that we could ever imagine.  Such a fact does not imply however, that supernatural phenomenon, such as the ability to see into the future or into other people's minds, exist, or is suggestive of a supernatural explanation.  As it stands today, there is absolutely no empirically validated evidence (other than extremely fallible anecdotal evidence) to support the claims of psychic abilities.  With this fact in mind, is it not alternatively possible that those who believe in such phenomenon are merely experiencing the illusion of ego, created by consciousness, driven to make sense of the world (and ignorant of the overwhelming influence of coincidence and probability), and merely "conceptualizing" a psychic experience?  Within the scope of current evidence, this seems to be a much more logical conclusion.    

Simply stated, there are things that we can't understand (and that it’s pure hubris to assume that we do), and the most adaptive stance is to remain open to experience, rather than remaining rigidly closed off.  Aren't we merely limiting our awareness to a simple dualistic conceptualization when we put our uncertainty into a distinct category, such as describing phenomena in terms of "psychic experience?"  Have we not seen in our lifetime, the potential of rigid mental conceptualizations (such as modern “interpretations” of the bible) serving the purpose of shutting down human empathy?  Is there not a fundamental difference between being naively open to the world vs. maintaining an educated AND open awareness of life in all its complexities?

Science has shown humanity the errors of perception and emotional reasoning just as Buddhist psychology has shown us that we limit our experience by putting labels on and conceptualizing phenomenon.  Is it not arrogant to assume we KNOW (for a fact) exactly what is occurring?   Is it not possible that labeling something a "psychic experience" merely biases our perception to expect psychic experiences and thus closes oneself off to other alternatives?  I think the real trap is believing you know when the fact of the matter is that you merely THINK you know something based on (possibly) flawed logic and emotional reasoning – something I find to be inevitably dangerous to society due to the fact that it leaves us open to blind credulity and the influence others who may not have our best interests at heart. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am not denying psychic experiences are possible, though it seems highly unlikely to me.  I'm simply denying the fact that there is any reasonable evidence to support the existence of such phenomena and am simply holding out for more compelling evidence before I can definitively say either way.  Don’t be fooled, despite what questionable articles one might read, ignorant of the full body of scientific evidence and the basic flaws of many of the study designs which are often cited might say (convincingly, I might add), there is no reputable evidence for such phenomena within the scientific community. 

From the dawn of consciousness, humanity has felt the need for certainty in an uncertain world.  We obviously gain a great “sense” of control in a random and chaotic universe.  Religion and astrology are two such efforts.  Science has shown the extreme power of coincidence in the influence of the mind that craves certainty in an effort to make sense of the world (calling something a "psychic experience" for example). 

In the infamous words of Carl Sagan, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."  Otherwise, isn’t it just the ego making barriers to direct experience, by labeling and conceptualizing said experience and viewing all future experience through that point of view?  Personally, I find it best to stick with the "not knowing" of a beginners mind.  It's simply hubris to assume we know all answers when we don't have all the evidence. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Demanding Credulity in the Workplace

I recently recieved this letter in my professional mailbox (keep in mind, it is now the middle of November).  The names have been hidden for the purpose of confidentiality:

Hi Christopher,

Wow, I am embarrassed that this is dated August 11 and I just now read it.  Thank you so much for your interest in ________ [therapy clinic] and your email, it is really appreciated, and I am truly sorry it did not get read until now.  I don't know if you are still looking for a place to land part time but if you are let me tell you a little bit about us so that you can determine if you'd see yourself working with us.  We specialize in working with people who have eating disorders and food issues many of them are dual diagnosis with D/A issues as well as trauma and a variety of other issues.  We also work with anxiety, depression, sexual addiction, OCD, couples (including co-habitating, married and premarital) and trauma.  I particularly specialize in working with severe trauma and DID although I do not expect anyone else to do the intensity of work I do, it can sometimes lead to the unexpected so I do disclose it to potential therapists.  We are a Christian organization, while we work with people from all kinds of faith traditions and never expect them to believe like we do, we do expect our team to be followers of Jesus.  This is a small bit of what we do.  If you still think you would be a good fit with all of us please let me know, I'd love to meet you and hear about what you would like to do.

Thanks again for your email and your patience!!!

My honest response:


Thank you so much for taking the time to get back to me.  Sounds like your clinic does a lot of really important work!  As a practitioner I strive to utilize best practices by providing evidence-based treatment to my clients while teaching cognitive-behavioral methods aimed at improving critical thinking skills and challenging maladaptive thoughts and emotions.  The practice of non-judgmental awareness (mindfulness) is extremely important aspect of my work, especially the trauma work I do with individuals, as a great deal of research has shown that trauma is often held within our bodies, which you are likely well aware.  As an ethical clinician, I also strive to remain respectful of the various cultural and faith-based belief systems my clients ascribe to; no matter how alien they may appear to me (especially if such beliefs do not interfere with my clients functioning and they find strength within them).  I have always felt that my own belief (or lack thereof) on the subject has no place in the therapy room. 

While it’s exciting to hear all that ________ [therapy clinic] seems to offer, I have to admit however, that I am somewhat perplexed as to why an agency would explicitly demand credulity from their practitioners, especially when they don’t seem to require their clients to be of any particular culturally sanctioned belief system themselves. I’m wondering whether this requirement is thought to benefit the clients in some meaningful way, but I’m honestly at a loss as to how. I could understand how being fluent in Spanish would be of use if one were working with a Spanish speaking population, or being a follower of a certain religious and/or mythical figure would be essential if that is the exclusive belief of the population one is working with, but as you previously stated, this doesn’t appear to be the case. 

I am genuinely confused as to what this requirement aims to serve and am unclear as to why a clinic would require its “evidence-based practitioners” to hold strong supernatural beliefs without evidence.  Such a requirement seems to go against the basic tenets of a scientifically informed method of understanding which is essential for the success of any empirically validated treatment approach.  The practice of mindfulness, for example, is considered a best practice in many hospitals and treatment centers throughout this country and others.  It has been shown effective by multiple, peer-reviewed studies, and the basic underlying neurological functions have been studied extensively and are beginning to be understood more clearly.  It is also a core tenet of a 2,500 year old Buddhist psychology, which cautions practitioners to “be a lamp unto yourself”:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” - Buddha

To me, this is the mindset of an effective therapeutic approach, where the questioning rigidly held assumptions are be encouraged as part of the path in working towards freeing oneself from suffering.  To confine ones spiritual path to one particular tradition is like limiting ones happiness merely to the center of a dartboard – only the bull’s eye counts.  To me, this just leaves a great deal of the mystery of life unexamined and/or explored and goes against the basic tenets of a self-actualizing treatment approach (in my humble opinion).  To require practitioners to follow Jesus (or Ganesh, or Yahweh, or Buddha, or Zeus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or whatever) ironically speaks to the limiting rigidity and/or cognitive fusion therapy aims to alleviate.  While I feel spirituality is an essential aspect of any therapeutic relationship, I don’t see how requiring clinicians to hold a strong belief in a particular Bronze Age mythology of 2,000 years ago would be of any meaningful benefit to the clients, as there is absolutely no empirical evidence to support such an assumption. 

With that said; while I wish you and your agency the best, I must humbly decline the opportunity of becoming a clinician at ________ [therapy clinic].

-Christopher Tucker, LPC, CADC I