Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Review: Freedom Evolves by Daniel Dennett


I recently read Daniel Dennett's book Freedom Evolves. He offers some interesting speculations about how humans' cognitive and decision-making capacities have evolved, though he sometimes isn't as specific as I'd like. For instance, in the section of chapter 8 titled "A Self of One's Own," paragraph 10, he says he's going to tell a "Just So Story," but what follows isn't nearly detailed or concrete enough to meet this description, by my lights.

Where he loses me is in his fixation with showing how a naturalistic, deterministic account of human decision-making is compatible with the concept of "free will" -- without ever offering a definition of this term. In fact, he doesn't offer any definition of "freedom" either until page 302 of my edition (trade paper), where he approvingly quotes someone else's. How can you devote a book to a subject and not bother to define it -- almost in passing -- till you're nearly at the end?

Perhaps this oversight is related to his preoccupation with proving to "libertarians" -- defined as people who base their belief in free will on indeterminism -- that it's just as compatible with a deterministic view. If one is addressing oneself to people who believe in (and care about) a principle very strongly -- and who therefore must (at least think they) have a clear idea of what it means -- you may forget that other people don't think it's so clear. But he can't claim he doesn't know such people exist; here's how his definition of "hard determinists" begins (chapter 4, paragraph 3):

Hard determinism: Determinism is true, so we don't have free will. Hard-headed scientific types sometimes proclaim their acceptance of this position, even declaring it a no-brainer. Many of them would add: And if determinism is false, we still don't have free will -- we don't have free will in any case; it's an incoherent concept.

Since Dennett presumably disagrees with this last point, we might expect him here to disprove it by offering a clear definition of his own. But he doesn't. Instead, he continues:

But they typically [note: weasel word alert!] excuse themselves from exploring the question of how they can justify the often strongly held moral convictions that continue to guide their lives. Where does this leave us? What sense are we to make of human striving, praising, blaming?... (The hard determinists among you may find in subsequent chapters that your considered view is that whereas free will -- as you understand the term -- truly doesn't exist, something rather like free will does exist, and it's just what the doctor ordered for shoring up your moral convictions, permitting you to make the distinctions you need to make. Such a soft landing for a hard determinist is perhaps only terminologically different from compatibilism, the view that free will and determinism are compatible after all, the view that I am defending in this book.)

Note that Dennett spends fewer (in fact less than half as many) words actually defining hard determinists than he does in an effort to suggest that it's their position, rather than the concept of free will itself, that's incoherent. But this effort is built on a foundation of unproven or overgeneralized attributions.

While I can't speak for anyone else, I have a handy answer to the question of how I "justify" my morality: I don't, because I have no need to. As a consistent materialist, I don't believe there are objectively existing moral principles -- objective in a metaphysical sense, rather than merely that of social consensus. A fortiori, I don't believe there's any objective obligation for me to "justify" the values or principles I use to help guide my actions. Darwin chose an apt turn of phrase when he wrote of "the evolution of moral sentiments" (my emphasis); it may be more plausible, from a naturalistic standpoint, to posit that sentiments gave rise to ethical abstractions rather than the other way around.

Dennett's assumption that hard determinists need to "justify" their morality is clearly related to another assumption implied throughout the book: that one can't have any notion of morality without some concept of free will. Yet he never really states why he thinks this
is so; he seems to just take it for granted. This may work fine insofar as he's addressing himself to libertarians. But for those of us who better fit his definition of hard determinists, it makes significant parts of his book, especially toward the end, seem simply irrelevant.

As I suggested in an earlier post, I suspect that some people's resistance to determinism has less to do with an intellectual or even a moral objection, than with an emotional reaction to the idea. I've tried to discover the basis for this with a "thought experiment" -- meaning, in this case, an experiment actually performed, not just imagined, in my head, because the subject of the experiment is thought itself. It involves contemplating the idea of determinism as it applies to my own decision-making, and searching for whence the discomfort appears. It soon becomes apparent: the idea that my choices are predetermined manifests, metaphorically, as a sort of train track that my mind is traveling on, moving toward a fixed destination. Imagining this fixity entails, willy-nilly, imagining myself being unable to swerve from the track, which, in turn, entails imagining myself trying to swerve from it. And the feeling this imagined effort generates is one of unfreedom -- because real freedom, in the everyday sense of the term, means not being frustrated or obstructed from pursuing one's desire, whether by a physical barrier, threat of punishment, or what-have-you.

Problem is, this feeling of unfreedom is an artifact of the way I mentally experience a metaphor for determinism, which is quite different from the way it actually works. In reality, insofar as determinism is true, I cannot want to swerve, to go any other way than the track does. This is because the track is only a metaphor for the fact that my desires themselves are preordained. Yet it is hard, if not impossible, to imagine the situation "from the inside" without experiencing just the opposite.

This, by the way, draws our attention to the question of what is a "morally relevant" idea of freedom -- a phrase that appears frequently in Dennett's book. To me, it's relevant as all heck whether or not I can freely pursue my desire; and it feels decidedly "wrong" if I can't. And note that this is completely independent of whether I have any ability to reevaluate or change my desire; the experience of frustration is equally oppressive either way.

Of course, I recognize that having "free will" in the latter sense may confer an advantage; it gives my expanded options for adapting to my environment when I can't adapt it to me. Nonetheless, there's nothing intrinsically gratifying about this ability, and Dennett simply hasn't proven his case when he presupposes that this is the kind of freedom most "worth having," or that we can't have morality without it.

Eric Hamell

Susie Abulhawa Running for Palestinian Children

My friend Susan Abulhawa is running to raise funds for Playgrounds for Palestine, which she founded. I encourage people to support her. Her message follows.

Dear friends, family, and supporters of PfP -

As many of you know, Ramzy Baroud and I are teaming up this year to run the Philadelphia Marathon in November to raise money and awareness of PfP. Toward that goal, on Sunday, 21 September, I (along with my wonderful neighbor, Nelson Dunham) ran the Philadelphia Half Marathon, mostly as a half way point in training, but also to put on the table for this email - to ask you to support us! You can see my (unimpressive) results by going to Searchable Results and typing in my name.

Ramzy and I aren't setting any records. Each of us has been told previously by our doctors that we could never run again. Ramzy had a serious back injury that necessitated spinal surgery. Likewise, my herniated discs and a badly injured knee with multiple surgeries is no picnic. Running such distances is a grueling experience and the pain of inevitable inflammation in these injured joints is magnified by exhaustion and depletion. In some small way, to keep going is symbolic of what Palestinians do every day in Palestine. Their refusal to accept a fate dictated by outsiders and their steadfast postures that get them through the impossibilities of each day, is a thing of inspiration that Ramzy and I want to honor with this run. In doing so, we are affirming each child's right to be a child, no matter their circumstances. Honoring that magical ingredient of being young, trusting, full of life and play, curiosity and hope is what we do at Playgrounds for Palestine. Please help us to bring color and play to children living with the deprivations of a military occupation.

Ramzy wrote a very eloquent essay describing what it means to be a child living under occupation and how important it is to have play, no matter the circumstances. To read it, click here.

Our goal is not only to finish and raise money. We want support of Palestinian causes at such events to become common. We'd like to see the young and old of all walks to participate in marathons, walkathons, bikathons, etc in support of Palestine. How well we do in November will help to set the stage and we're asking you to please help us reach our goal of $12,000 for one playground. Anything above that will go to the Deir Yasin Scholarship Fund, which supports Palestinian students entering university. To give, please go here to support the runners.

Warmly,
susie

September 2008


Eric Hamell

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Memes and Frames

In chapter 6, paragraph 16 of Freedom Evolves, Daniel Dennett writes of memes, "[W]e must consider as a real possibility the hypothesis that the human hosts are, individually or as a group, either oblivious to, or agnostic about, or even positively dead set against some cultural item, which nevertheless is able to exploit its hosts as vectors." It strikes me that this is perfectly exemplified by the effect, noted by frame theorists like George Lakoff, whereby particular cognitive frames (e.g., the authoritarian-family frame most active in conservatives), by inducing those who positively dislike them (e.g., progressives) to react to their manifestations unreflectively, actually get themselves repeated and thereby reinforced in public discourse. In effect this means these frames exploit progressives' negative feeling about them to get themselvs replicated despite, or more accurately because of, that negative feeling. In these instances such frames could be regarded as robust examples of parasitical memes.

Eric Hamell

Monday, September 22, 2008

Reading *Freedom Evolves*

Yesterday I started reading Daniel Dennett's book Freedom Evolves. A few years ago my friend Deborah Goddard told me it centers on a concept called "evitability." Although I hadn't heard the term before, I'd given some thought to a naturalistic analysis of the concept of free will, so I hazarded the guess that this term describes the situation in which an individual perceives a possible course of action but has the ability to choose not to take it. (At least I think that's more or less what I said -- this was a few years ago.) She said I had it about right. So I won't be surprised if I don't see anything crucial in this book that I hadn't more or less thought of myself; but how he gets there may nonetheless be interesting.

My own thinking had been guided by a sort of Socratic examination of why people have this concept, starting from the assumption that it comes from some aspect of subjective experience. Clearly the experience is that of making a choice, so the essential question was: why do (some) people see this as necessarily involving some process that is uncaused? It struck me immediately that the reason for this would be that we often don't see the causes of our decisions, at least before we've arrived at them. And perhaps some people are resistant to the notion that something important is going on in their heads of which they're not conscious. As the very notion of the unconscious is a pretty recent one, this wouldn't be too surprising; for people who've by default thought of their consciousness as their entire minds, the notion of the unconscious may provoke some paranoia. In fact I remember my father telling me about the unconscious mind when I was something like eight, and emphasizing -- presumably in response to some discomfort I had with it -- that I shouldn't regard it as my enemy. Despite that, I continue even now to have a little "spooky" feeling whenever I hear the song that became associated with that conversation in my head.

Now nearing the end of Chapter 4 of the book, I would mainly note that Dennett's argument about why determinism doesn't imply inevitability, though sound in relation to the definition he offers for the latter term, may not get at what makes some people uncomfortable with determinism. I suspect that despite his point that determinism doesn't make anything inevitable in a practically relevant sense, this may do nothing to relieve some people's emotional discomfort with the idea that "they" (in the sense of their consciousness) aren't in control of their fate. As for myself, I focus on the practical consequence of the notion, rather than an emotional response to it: if determinism makes behavior on my part that is in my interest -- that avoids things that would harm me -- "inevitable" because of mental processes that occur outside of or prior to consciousness, my response is, "Great -- that's just what I wanted!" Why would such a favorable situation upset me? Nonetheless it apparently does upset some, and I suspect helping them overcome this, if that's possible, may require the application of psychology and not just straightforward philosophical argumentation.

Eric Hamell

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Rogers Has New Website

Marakay Rogers, whom I'm supporting for PA attorney general, has a new website up and running. You can view it at http://www.rogersforattorneygeneral.com/.

A few months ago, in response to an Oklahoma state representative who called homosexuals "worse than terrorists," Dan Savage suggested people give to a gay candidate and inform her they were doing so in her honor. I was already supporting Rogers, who's an out lesbian, so I informed the wingnut that I would give to her campaign. As I'm currently not comfortable with organized political activity, this will take the form of handing out copies of her home page at my polling place.

Eric Hamell

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Is Asperger's a Double-Edged Sword?

I just submitted the following letter to Phactum, newsletter of the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking.

In his recent letter to Phactum, David Leiter discusses anecdotal evidence that skeptics and atheists disproportionately suffer from Asperger syndrome. I considered for a while whether this diagnosis might apply to me, but ultimately concluded that it didn't fit. The therapist I was seeing at the time concurred. I hope it's not necessary to add that, whatever psychological correlates may be found for particular beliefs, they tell us nothing in themselves about those beliefs' validity or lack thereof.

Assuming for the sake of discussion that the correlation does exist, I don't think the hypothesis of Leiter's anonymous correspondent, which might be summed up as "arrogance attracts arrogance," holds water -- not only because no clear mechanism is proposed, but because to my knowledge atheists, agnostics, and skeptics have not been shown to be any more "arrogant" than the general population. I suspect this attribution may simply reflect that some people are offended by anyone's willingness to state their disagreement with prevailing opinion.

Instead, I conjecture the following: like any cognitive ability, recognition of social cues is most efficient and useful if it can function unconsciously. But this has the side effect of sometimes disadvantageous consequences. Since beliefs are a kind of social behavior that can be "mirrored" much like others, unconscious recognition of social cues may result in increased susceptibility to adopting other people's beliefs without perceiving any need to verify them independently, especially if they are beliefs that are prevalent in one's social environment (like theism). In this view Asperger's may be a double-edged sword, offering the advantage of reduced gullibility along with the drawback of greater difficulty in social interactions.

Eric Hamell

Friday, September 19, 2008

Once Again, Surprised When I Needn't Have Been

I got a letter in the mail yesterday from Jim Tayoun at the Public Record. Before opening it I worried it would be something telling me not to write them any more letters if I was going to question his faith. Or telling me that since the paper had moved its offices I wouldn't get it free in the mail any more. Or telling me not to submit letters for publication if I was going to publish them here at the same time.

Instead it was a friendly missive respectfully disagreeing with me. Perhaps I should have expected no less from a former politician, yet I had. Like my recent encounter with Connie Willis, this again illustrates how I still tend to anticipate the worst in how people will respond to me. But I suppose the more I test this expectation against reality and find it false (and see that it doesn't kill me when it's true either), the less it will worry me. The text of Tayoun's letter follows.

Dear Eric

Your response was well thought out by you.

But seeing is believing and that is not the only miracle I have witnessed while in Lebanon. You probably would not believe what the people who benefited from these miracles will say. Sorry for you.

Thanks for letting me know your thoughts.

Jim Tayoun

Eric Hamell

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

De-List Kink from the DSM

Kinky is NOT a Diagnosis!
DSM Revision Petition

A joint Project of NCSF and ITCR: The Foundation of NCSF

The DSM Revision Petition is gathering signatures from individuals
and organizations calling on the American Psychiatric Association
(APA) to adhere to empirical research when revising the diagnoses in
the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Statements currently within the DSM Paraphilias criteria are
contradicted by scientific evidence therefore NCSF must conclude that
the interpretation of the Paraphilias criteria has been politically
not scientifically b based. This politically motivated
interpretation subjects BDSM practitioners, fetishists and cross-
dressers to bias, discrimination and social sanctions without any
scientific basis.

Petition:
"We, the undersigned, support the American Psychiatric
Association's (APA) own goal of making its Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual (DSM) a scientific document, based on empirical research and
devoid of cultural bias. A diagnosis of a mental disorder can
have a severe adverse impact on employment opportunities, child
custody determinations, an individual's well-being, and other areas
of functioning. Therefore we urge the APA to remove all diagnoses
that are not based upon peer-reviewed, empirical research,
demonstrating distress or dysfunction, from the DSM. The APA
specifically should not promote current social norms or values as a
basis for clinical judgments."

To sign, go to: www.thepetitionsite.com/1/DSMrevisionpetition
(You can make your signature anonymous on this secure petition site
so it doesn't appear on the Internet)

To find out more about the DSM and the Paraphilias section, read the
NCSF & ITCR: The Foundation for NCSF's "White Paper on the DSM
Revision" at www.ncsfreedom.org

For more information, email: DSMrevisionpetition@yahoo.com

Please distribute to organizations and individuals and ask them to
sign on!

###

A joint Project of NCSF and ITCR: The Foundation of NCSF

The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom is a national organization
committed to creating a political, legal, and social environment in
the United States that advances equal rights of consenting adults who
practice forms of alternative sexual expression.

NCSF is primarily focused on the rights of consenting adults in the
SM-leather-fetish, swing, and polyamory communities, who often face
discrimination because of their sexual expression.

National Coalition for Sexual Freedom
822 Guilford Avenue, Box 127
Baltimore, MD 21202-3707
917-848-6544
media@ncsfreedom.org

www.ncsfreedom.org

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Too Much Like Old Times

A situation has arisen that triggered unpleasant memories of my experience in the Socialist Workers Party's youth group as a teenager.

The director of a group I've been involved in the past few years has expelled one of the other board members. This was announced on the group's list a few days ago, but I only learned of it yesterday at the membership meeting. The director said that no explanation would be given because of the "sensitivity" of the situation. Unfortunately the expelled board member wasn't present to help explain things.

I don't make snap decisions, and the person who raised the issue at the meeting didn't have a very pleasant manner, so I didn't react immediately, but it didn't sit well with me. Early this morning I awoke with the certainty that this was not a situation I could tolerate. So I just posted the following message as a reply to the announcement of the expulsion on the list.


For me, this way of handling things is unacceptable.

Once before, I belonged to a group that -- without ever saying so outright -- expected me to accept what the leadership told me on faith. Because I didn't do so, I was driven out, and sustained considerable emotional damage in the process. On top of that, when I agreed under duress to resign (rather than face trumped-up charges) I found that I couldn't inform other members of the reasons for my decision since I was no longer a member and so could not attend meetings. I wrote a letter of resignation, but had no way of telling if it was actually ever read to the members.

I'm afraid the present situation just bears too much resemblance to that previous one for my comfort. To be sure, ----- says we can ask him questions off list, but in the end we'd still be in the position of having to take his word for things, wouldn't we? And that's simply not something I can do, especially where it appears that people's rights are at issue.

I'm not judging what happened, since I don't know what happened. What I do know is that I can't be part of a group that functions in this way. Consequently, I am resigning my membership in ---------.


To be fair, yesterday's meeting was at a public venue, so it wouldn't have been so easy to exclude someone. Still, there are ways of making people unwelcome. And it would be a moot point if the person responsible for the decision had explained it himself.

Update from Friday: Despite considerable anxiety, I did tell Connie Willis about what I'd found offensive in Passage (though I didn't make much eye contact while doing so). Her response was respectful, though I got the impression she didn't get the part about how the characters' stupid approach to advertising for subjects disrespected scientific method. I was also pleased that afterward, another person in attendance told me he agreed with my point about that. And, prior to the meeting, I'd run into someone I met at the cultic studies conference and found him readily agreeing with both points. So I'm glad I did it.

One thing that occurs to me, especially in light of my eye contact trouble, is that I probably need more to develop comfort in confronting people on a more strictly one-on-one basis, than in a group setting. So perhaps the next time I have an issue like this to raise with someone, even if I'll be seeing them in a group context, I should try to bring it up with them privately (e.g., in a case like this, expressing my feelings to Willis after the formal Q&A, when people were lining up to speak with her personally and get her autograph).

Friday, September 12, 2008

Getting Something off My Chest

A few weeks ago I decided that many of the activities I'd been involved in for some time were no longer helping me grow as a person. Organizations concerned with science fiction, bisexuality, and skepticism had helped me broaden my social circle and become less (ultimately, I hope, not at all) dependent on politics for my sense of meaning and purpose in life. But most of my activities with these groups were still of a relatively formal, group nature, and I came to feel that they were not helping me develop further my capacities for interacting with people on a one-to-one basis, or really expressing myself creatively. They seemed to have become a comfortable rut which was filling up some of my free time in a superficially social way, without challenging me to learn how to be more intimate with people.

So on 15 August I decided to drop out not only from the Green Party, but also from the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking, and the twice-monthly discussion group of BiUnity of Philadelphia. Nonetheless I will be attending tonight's PSFS meeting, because I have something to get off my chest.

This month's guest is author Connie Willis, who previously spoke to the group about a decade ago. At that meeting she mentioned that she was working on a book that would concern Near Death Experiences, and after her talk I suggested she read Susan Blackmore's nonfiction treatment of the subject, Dying to Live, which is notable for simultaneously championing a materialist view of NDEs, and also looking sympathetically at why they can be so profound and transformative for some of those who go through them.

In 2003 I bought the book Willis had been working on, titled Passage. But I was only about a fifth of the way into it when I found myself feeling profoundly offended.

The two central characters were working together on a study concerned with NDEs. It had been learned that a certain drug caused experiences that shared many features typical of NDEs, and they had advertised for subjects who would be given this drug. What I found extremely offensive was how one of them reacted to interviewing a potential subject who, when asked why he was interested in participating, indicated he's be very interested in finding out what the experience of dying might be like. After the interview the scientist shared notes with her colleague and they agreed that this candidate shouldn't be included because of his "abnormal" interest. (I don't remember for certain if that term was used, but it's representative of the tone of the conversation.)

Now, I was thinking, wait a minute. Doesn't it make sense to be curious about this experience that all of us are, presumably, going to have some day? It felt to me that the characters, and the author, were simply making fun of someone for having an "unusual" interest. For being different.

Well, I spent most of my childhood feeling ostracized or excluded for being different. So I don't take kindly to this sort of thing. At the same time, I grew up believing very strongly in the value of scientific method and critical thinking -- not just for professional researchers, but for everyday life, as a means of protecting ourselves from falling into the trap of our own assumptions. One of the first books I ever read was a biography of Einstein, and the first quote I ever memorized was from him: "What many people refer to as common sense is nothing more than a collection of prejudices accumulated before the age of eighteen." Einstein became my hero, and the idea expressed by that quote helped me sustain my self-esteem in the face of so many peers who thought there was something wrong with me for not having the same interests as they did.

This relates to the other thing that was offensive about that passage, because insofar as they didn't want their subject pool to be biased toward people with an unusual interest in death -- which one may allow could skew the results even if one doesn't think there's anything "wrong" with such an interest -- they could easily have avoided that by not advertising that the study had to do with NDEs! It seems to me that this would have been perfectly ethical, since no actual death or dying was involved.

So, not only was Willis making a cheap joke at the expense of people who are seen as "different," but she willfully disregarded a rather obvious element of sound scientific procedure for the sake of making a cheap joke at the expense of such people. Given how deeply I feel about scientific method on what might even be called a moral level, this really made the passage doubly offensive to me.

So, tonight I will tell Willis how offensive I found this. And that's what makes attending this month's meeting worthwhile for me, because in this case it will be more than an intellectual experience. It will be a chance to get more comfortable expressing my feelings and making myself vulnerable.

Eric Hamell

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Paranoid Guy -- Update

Yesterday I copied the trigger reframing worksheet in the book Recovery from Cults, which I bought at the ICSA conference a couple months ago, and filled it out in relation to the problem with Paranoid Guy. In the process, the questions it posed -- familiar to me from Cognitive Behavior Therapy-based forms in my social anxiety workbook -- led me to reconsider my previous decision to avoid him. I now think it's better to simply ignore him and learn by experience that his statements can't hurt me. (I called my friend Tricia yesterday and she agreed with this judgment.)

In other news, I just bought a gift subscription to $pread magazine for Noam Chomsky. I had a quite frustrating email exchange with him some months ago in which he exhibited a closed mind about both sex work and kink. I'm hoping that regular exposure to the firsthand viewpoints of sex workers may make a difference.

One reason the exchange was so aggravating is that it also triggered me in much the same way as Paranoid Guy does, because Chomsky kept attributing positions to me that I wasn't taking, even after I'd carefully restated my actual position. Because of my particular sensitivity to this sort of thing, I would go for weeks before opening his latest email to me, out of fear of the trauma of being misrepresented again.

I had a similar experience a few years ago when first posting on Nina Hartley's forum board: I kept finding words put in my mouth, and putting off reading people's responses because this was so painful.

Eric Hamell

Friday, September 05, 2008

NPR Commentator Discovers That Self-Esteem Can't Be Built on Shame

For a refreshing change, here's something to applaud: a schoolteacher gave a commentary on National Public Radio in which she described how her experience with one of her students last year taught her that making an issue of how she dressed only had the effect of making that, rather than educational goals, the focus of their relationship.

I've sent NPR a message applauding this insight and encourage others to do likewise. You can read or listen to the commentary at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=94288145.

Eric Hamell

Paranoid Guy

I understand now that Paranoid Guy triggers me. Paranoid Guy is a man I sometimes see in Suburban Station, usually in the men's room. Since I first saw him a couple months ago and approached him to suggest he get treatment for his apparent Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, whenever he sees me he tells me various things about myself which are actually true about him: that I'm paranoid schizophrenic, that I've been in a mental hospital and am homeless, etc.

The first time he did this I tried to argue with him, but he just responded by saying, "You lie." This time I tried telling him these same things about himself, with the idea that this would restore my sense of control in the situation. But I still got unsettled and anxious.

I see the problem is that he's imposing his reality on me while denying my reality. This is triggering me because that's what the cult did, particularly in the process of forcing me out. I'll avoid him in the future, since he can't be good for my mental health.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

It's a Miracle... What Some People Will Call Proof

The other day I sent the following letter to the Public Record, whose publisher recently visited his ancestral home of Lebanon. Unless it was his son, the doctor, who made the trip. They both have the same name.


Jim Tayoun claims that Nohaid Al-Shamy is "monthly proof miracles do happen." She is nothing of the sort.

What are the facts?

She came out of a coma, apparently on her own. This happens all the time.

She had an experience while comatose, which she characterizes as a saintly visitation. It is not uncommon for people to dream while comatose. For that matter, it's not uncommon for someone in a coma have some awareness of their environment, even though they can't show it. So, even if she hadn't known she had a medical problem before becoming comatose, she could have become aware of it from hearing people talk about her condition.

Given that she's a religious believer, it's not surprising that this would have led her to thinking of supernatural entities in whom she believes (saints) in the hope of getting assistance from them.

If the physiological event that caused the painful sensation in her throat and the "wound" (of which we're given no description) occurred while she was dreaming, she would have incorporated that into her dream, by imagining that one of the saints was touching her throat. This sort of thing happens to me all the time: someone is being interviewed on the radio, and in my dream that becomes someone talking to me.

Finally, we're told that her "wound" becomes visible at the time of month that she visits the saint's shrine. We're not told that this has been documented but, even if it has, there could well be a naturalistic explanation. At this time of month she would be thinking more about her throat, resulting in a change of muscle tone in that area. This could make a scar more visible by stretching or compressing it, by increasing blood flow to the area, or a combination of these.

Jim Tayoun can think Nohaid Al-Shamy recovered because of a miracle if he wants to. But he might do well to acknowledge that this is just something he's chosen to believe on faith, and withdraw the baseless claim that there's any proof that it's true.


You might wonder why I bother writing such a letter. After all it doesn't seem likely that it will be published, nor that it will change Tayoun's thinking (though perhaps it might influence the letters editor). I guess I just can't let people think that their sensibilities will protect religious claims from being challenged in the same way that others would be.

You can read the original article at http://issuu.com/phillyrecord/docs/pr-446-p. It's on page 4.

Eric Hamell