vendredi 28 août 2009

The trouble with stigmata

Here's a funny depiction of what a daily stigmatist's life would look like (this one puts the infamous Padre Pio to shame). This is followed by an hilarious sketch on italians (xenophobia? oh, come on!).

jeudi 27 août 2009

An amusing misprint in a paper on cognitive assessment

I'm afraid this is funny only for neuropsychologists. So here's what I just read in a paper presenting yet another comprehensive battery of cognitive tests for the bedside assessment of stroke patients:

(v) complex visual processing group (occipitotemporal network) including alexias, simultanagnosia, achromatopsias, prosopagnosia, simultanagnosia, object agnosias, visual hallucinations, illusions and delusions

Did you spot the error, and did you get why this is (sort of) ironic?

Ref: Hoffmann M, Schmitt F, Bromley E. Comprehensive cognitive neurological assessment in stroke. Acta Neurol Scand 2009: 119: 162–171. DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-0404.2008.01101.x

jeudi 20 août 2009

Happy Birthday HPL

(credit: Frank Looney, at LOLTHULHU)

mercredi 19 août 2009

New evidence on ghosts

The Skepbitch reports on the hilarious theories of "ghost hunter" Maryanna Chatelaine Moresby. Here are some stuff that I didn't know about phantoms:

"There is enormous evidence of “ghosts” in all parts of the world. And that fact that so many have believed that ghosts could attack a fetus is nothing new. But ghosts through history have had other reasons to enter a woman’s womb in many different cultures from reincarnation to vengeance. Even Dead Babies have been known to haunt their mothers wombs after a abortion or miscarrage.
When a person dies only his physical body ceases to exist. His subtle ghost body (consisting of the subconscious mind, intellect, ego and soul, i.e. minus the physical body) however continues to exist and moves on to the other regions of the universe. Or into someone else’s body through the Vagina in woman or the Anus in men.
Often a womb infested with a ghost is that of the ghost of loved ones, or to those of strangers, and the worst case possible Devils and Demons. Any woman’s womb can attract many different forms of a paranormal haunting at least that is the common belief amongst many. And so can men. The ghost that haunt men are often found living in their genitals, bowels or stomach. And the number of ghosts or demons and devil’s that can infect a person is said to be uncountable."

There's unfortunately much more over there.

Of course, there actually is good evidence for phantom wombs, phantom colons and phantom penises:
Dorpat TL. (1971). Phantom sensation of internal organs. Compr Psychiatry, 12(1): 27-35
Ovesen P, Kroner K, Ornsholt J, Bach K. (1991). Phantom-related phenomena after rectal amputation: prevalence and clinical characteristics. Pain, 44(3): 289-91.
Fisher CM. (1999). Phantom erection after amputation of penis: case description and review of the relevant literature on pnatoms. Can J Neurol Sci, 26(1): 53-6.
Ramachandran VS & McGeoch PD. (2008). Phantom penises in transsexuals: evidence of an innate gender-specific body image in the brain. J Consc Studies, 15(1): 5-16.

Reply to Subversive Thinking

Subversive Thinking responded (some time ago) to my comments on his critique of my review (of which some words here) of Irreducible Mind. I will in turn answer to it, quite at length, but first I want to thank ST for his time and say sorry if I even minimally hurt or shocked him in any way. Personnally, I don't mind about irony and sarcasm at all in a discussion, I'm more annoyed by sanctimony, self-righteousness, whining and boring people altogether. But more on this later. Ok, so now to the lion's pit. I write in black, Subversive Thinking's comments are indented and red (warning, this is the reverse from the previous post, sorry for the inconsistency but that was just easier), external quotes are in green.

I explained in my review and in my first comments that IM's argument amounts to a "soul of the gaps" (i.e. the "transmission" hypothesis of mind-brain relationships). ST insists that this particular “theory” is a logical "conclusion" from the available data, and not an "assumption" at all. This is like saying that Intelligent Design is a logical conclusion from the available data. Sorry, but no, dualism in any of its forms (and “transmission” is certainly a brand of dualism) does simply not follow from what one finds in IM. A “transmission” theory of mind-brain relationships simply needlessly multiplies the number of entities necessary to make sense of the data. Consider an example: either people or aliens are responsible for a particular crop-circle, it does not help at all to put forward the possibility that aliens are remotely controlling enslaved human beings to make crop circles from outer space. At any rate, as long as “transmission” remains such a poorly elaborated alternative to materialism, then one is allowed to adopt any other indeterminate guesswork about how the universe works (divine intervention, an alien trickster, magic wand-like super ESP, and so forth). All of this is utterly unwarranted if one is serious about making scientific progress.

The authors of IM follow Myers in his strategy of building a "bundle" of converging evidence, assuming like him that there is a continuum of normal, unusual and psychical phenomena that suggests a stratified view of the human mind, each layer sort of producing its own phenomena depending on the more of less "permeability" of hidden forces, or something. But this is entirely artificial, there is no obvious reason why stigmata, the placebo effect, genius, NDEs and mystical experiences should all point to the same conclusion, even if there were anything genuinely paranormal about them (which is precisely the question at stake).

Anyway, I’m not here to re-review this book. So let’s take ST’s comments one by one. After making much of my alleged confusion between “assumption” and “conclusion”, he writes:

Dieguez fails to discern between knowing the existence of a fact and knowing the explanation for a fact. This conflating is astonishing in a PhD. student.

See what I mean when I say sanctimonious and boring? This “PhD” thing will come up several times in the discussion, so let me say right away to ST that I like discussion and dialogue (vigorous or not), but I don’t take lessons from complete strangers about the moral and scientific standards a PhD student should hold. If ST doesn’t have a PhD, then I suggest he tries to obtain one so that he can put his particular standards to good use. If he already has one or is doing one, then good for him, he must be proud and very serious about it.

In any case, what he’s doing here is transparent: he simply says that everything that is described in IM are facts, but because not all of them have an explanation, then I simply prefer to ignore them. That’s must be because I’m stubborn, ignorant, and fearful of change. Well, I don’t buy this rhetoric and I dislike it. So let me repeat: the paranormal aspects described in IM (veridical perceptions during NDEs, mediumship, apparitions, ESP in general, etc.), are not facts, have not been established as facts, and do not seem to be in any progress of being accepted as facts anytime soon. Therefore, what needs to be explained, is what is going on with the persons who report such things, the scientists who claim to have observed them and the persons who believe them. This might be ultimately misguided, but it is a reasonable and parsimonious approach (and even the only one who can actually help establish the paranormal as real).

Then he goes on to provide examples of things that exist but that have no explanation:

-Consciousness is known (by introspection), but nobody has presented any adequate model to explain how on earth matter produces it. That is, we don't have an explanation for consciousness.

-Spontaneous remission of cancer is a known (and infrequent) clinical fact. But no one knows the explanation for such fact (and there is not oncological theory that predicts it, because cancer is considered a progressive fatal disease if left untreated).

-The placebo effect is a well known fact in medicine, but no adequate explanation for it exists. In fact, given that the placebo effect is, by definition, caused by the belief of patients (and therefore, by their subjectivity) some materialists have tried to dismiss it.

He could go on and on actually. Nothing in the universe is completely explained. That’s not how science works. But let’s take these examples in turn. I think that consciousness does exist, but only insofar as intelligence, jealousy or patriotism also exist. These are bad examples of what one would consider a “fact”. First, you have to go through the trouble of defining consciousness, otherwise you might as well claim that the soul exists through introspection. But more importantly, this definition will inevitably color your assessment of the neuroscientific data. Some views of consciousness simply beg the question by stating right off that it will never be explained by science. I’m not interested in such an approach. I was at the latest Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness in Berlin (13th ASSC), and believe me, people are working hard on this topic and making progress on many fronts. Now, the scientific study of consciousness is very recent in the history of science, and there is still a long way to go. But even so, it is encouraging to compare the results and progress of cognitive neuroscience in this area to that of psychical research and parapsychology, which have been at it for more than a century. You only have to learn a little bit about what happens in the brain during binocular rivalry, backward masking, synaesthesia, blindsight, hallucinations and so forth. We do know a lot. The phenomena I just listed have been unambiguously established and are beginning to be explained. Can you say with a straight face that ESP and survival have been established in the same way?

Then there is the example of spontaneous remission of cancer. Think of the differences with the previous example. This is something altogether different: what counts as “spontaneous”, what counts as “remission” and what type of “cancer” exactly? How big is the pool of such events to allow for systematic research? What type of explanations has been previously advanced? Etc. I’m not going to do the homework now, this is not my field, but I’m unimpressed by the comparison of this example to, say, the reality of distant healing through prayer (as unashamedly discussed in IM).

Then there’s the placebo effect, which is also discussed in IM, as if somehow this interesting phenomenon should lead one to believe in dualism or survival. The topic has been a hot one in medical science for the last 15 years or so. There are tons of research and reviews on the topic. There are many issues of definition, methodology, interpretation etc., but it is certainly false to say that “materialists” dismiss it. Otherwise, why should literally every study conducted by materialist medical scientists include a “placebo” group?

So there you go, three very bad examples to distract one from the only problem we are dealing with: please establish ESP, veridical perceptions during OBEs-NDEs and communications from the deceased as facts, and then look for an explanation. I do have a problem with the arrogance of IM in dismissing the successes and constant progress of cognitive science without proposing a clear and testable alternative. But this is not my main concern. My main concern is that any such alternative theory is not warranted, because the paranormal as not been established and the real world behaves exactly as if there was no paranormal in the first place. I am reminded here of a 70’s picture showing Uri Geller covered by electrodes and measuring machines at SRI, as if the explanation of fraud and chutzpah was to be found in his physiology.

The example of the placebo effect is immediately followed by this gem:

That "the mind can affect the body's biochemistry" is what we'd expected IF dualism is true.

I couldn't disagree more. Why does ST think that dualism is overwhelmingly rejected by scientists? He surely must realize that the main problem with dualism is precisely the lack of explanation for how "the mind can affect the body's biochemistry". By definition, this problem does not exist for materialism: it is simply a thing we must study carefully. You see, if the “mind” really is nothing but brain processes, then its effect on the body’s chemistry is not such a big problem after all. But then, I’m only being a rude PhD student, what do I know.

So, Dieguez's argument, if applied consistently, would be useful to refute and dismiss much of the data accepted by mainstream science. His argument that an explanation is needed would serve to dismiss spontaneous remission of cancer or consciousness. His argument that the data is controversial would serve to refute consciousness too (since there is controversy about if consciousness exists at all, as argued by some eliminative materialists and even by Dieguez who consider it an illusion of the brain)

This is nonsense. I’m not the one suggesting that one should look for a miraculous and revolutionary non-materialist approach to consciousness, spontaneous remission of cancer or the placebo effect. Persons like ST and the authors of IM are. Because these are gaps in our full understanding of the material world, they jump to the conclusion of the “soul of the gaps” (so one is left with a choice to make: either “promissory materialism” or “the soul of the gaps”: take your bets).

And I want to say something about the use ST makes of the notion of “controversy” here. Consciousness research is controversial in the same sense that there is controversy in any field of science (evolution, physics, animal behaviour, sociology…). That type of controversy is good and scientists just love it, it allows them to compete against each other and therefore accelerate progress. The mistake comes perhaps from also calling such things as parapsychology and creationism “controversial”. This is too weak a word. These things should better be qualified as “esoteric”, “stupid”, “nonexistent” or “false”. This should go without saying, but then believers are convinced that research on ESP and research on consciousness somehow stand on the same ground. This obviously leads to many misunderstandings, so here I brought two simple examples : (i) Uri Geller claims (or claimed) to bend spoons with the power of his mind alone, (ii) there exist some accounts of levitation. So, should we try to confirm scientifically these observations, or right away bring our measurement devices to try to explain how such feats are done? If you don’t do the job to the satisfaction of all parties, if then you nevertheless claim that these “observations” disprove “materialism”, and if eventually you argue that there must be a better explanation but then merely say something vague about the soul or whatever, then you have effectively established yourself as a crackpot. The examples and comments of ST are irrelevant here. Before you try to explain something, there has to be a something.

In the following sentence, ST thinks he caught me in a blatant demonstration of bias.

Thus, Dieguez doesn't reject paranormal phenomena due to a lack of explanation or a lack of a theory for it, but because it's inconsistent with materialism. And this point was explicitly conceded by Dieguez in this comment in Michael Prescott's blog: "Materialism has not been destroyed by the cross-correspondences or by NDEs, because materialism is simply unaffected by the multiplication of GHOST STORIES" (Note how Dieguez conflates paranormal evidence with ghosts, conflating a genus with its species. An amazing and inexcusable intellectual, logical and conceptual confusion for a Ph.D student!. In fact, such a deficient comment suffices to avoid further debate with Dieguez but, seeing as this an interesting topic, I'll continue with my reply)

Read that sentence in green again, it is not a "concession" of any kind, that’s simply a truism. I don't know what is controversial here: materialism, taken as the ongoing activity of scientists in the world, physicists, biochemists, neuroscientists and so forth, works just fine and is unaffected by reports of NDEs and trances of automatists. Or else just try asking any living scientist ("mainstream scientist", if you want, not Radin, Schwartz or Sheldrake) if she ever tried to reconcile her findings with the existing data on Mrs Piper’s mediumship, for instance, or if she merely felt there was any need to do so in the first place. I realize this is a disturbing observation for someone who really believe in the paranormal, but it is uncontroversial that science works just fine without taking psychical science and parapsychology seriously. Day after day, week after week. It is not only that parapsychology and psychical research have not and do not hurt « mainstream » science in any way, but more generally that given the current state of knowledge, the progress made has been so enormous and thrilling that it simply would be stupid to turn everything upside-down merely on the basis of dubious "evidence" (i.e. GHOST STORIES).

I know, like Prescott, ST is shocked by my use of the term GHOST STORIES (which I write in all caps, yes). ST chastises me for confounding "paranormal evidence" with "ghosts". This is "conflating a genus with its species" he says, and (again) this is inexcusable behavior for a PhD student. Maybe ST is totally unable to read between the lines, or he is utterly impervious to any sense of humor, but the relevant thing here is not my alleged sloppiness in basic logic. The question remains: does ST actually believe in ghosts? If ST believes in apparitions, hauntings, mediumship, and poltergeists, then yes, he believes in GHOST STORIES. I personally don’t, but go figure, I’m just a misbehaving PhD student.

He follows by quoting how I characterize the transmission hypothesis as an argument from ignorance, and he writes this:

False. An argument from ignorance consists in concluding X in the absence of the evidence for or against X.

ST doesn’t know what an argument from ignorance and/or from incredulity is. One can find different definitions of these fallacies, but what he says is not one of them. The version I was talking about is the most widespread one, I think, and it only demands that you replace “in the absence of” by “because of the absence, or perceived absence of” in ST’s definition above. But I don’t want to be too blunt here, after all ST, as far as I know, might not even be a PhD student.

What follows, sadly, is more of the same:

But the authors [of IM] are not concluding from the absence of evidence, but from the POSITIVE evidence in favor of X (e.g. paranormal evidence). If you dispute the evidence for X, then there is a debate; but controversial evidence is not the same that the total absence of evidence.

Dieguez conflates controversy about the evidence for X, with the absence of evidence for X. Another logical and conceptual mistake.

ST seems to follow the teachings of creationists. He takes advantage of the ambiguous notion of “controversy” (see above). We could go on for hours, but none of the claims of parapsychology has been established. None. On the other hand, fraud, misobservation, misreporting, wishful-thinking and methodological sloppiness do exist, and happen to be fairly well represented throughout the history of psychical research and parapsychology (how come? One wonders). It’s actually all the same since Myers (at least): pick up GHOST STORIES and tons of very sloppy and bad research, mixed it up with interesting but irrelevant medical wonders that are not ostensibly paranormal at all, and claim that you have made a big bundle with all of this. Each stick of the bundle is weak, but the bundle itself is strong. Well, I don’t find this argument persuasive. In fact, I find it hilarious. (I know, laughter and mockery are not appropriate behaviours for a PhD student). I have a better metaphor for the sum of paranormal “evidence”: it’s not a bundle, but a house of cards. Only the cards are a wild assortment coming from very different decks, and for the moment they are merely scattered around the floor.

By the way, this whole usage of mine of the term GHOST STORIES is not purely idiosyncratic (except for the caps). It was acknowledged by Trevor Hamilton in his biography of Fred Myers. It took me a while to find out where I had read that precious quote, but here it is, from p.194 of Immortal Longings [this follows from a remark about the fact that some persons, including Emily Kelly, were surprised upon first reading Human Personality to find out that there was little discussion of survival per se in there, and much about all kinds of abnormal psychology]:

“Myers, in fact, decided that he would have to address wider issues [than merely survival], including the mind-body problem and human abnormal psychology, as well as the results of research into mediums, if he was to develop a satisfactory and persuasive theoretical framework to which others might give, at least, provisional assent or interest. Otherwise, his and the Society’s work would be treated as just a better written and better evidenced set of Ghost Stories than those of the past (my emphasis, please note the use of capitals in Ghost Stories by Hamilton).

Indeed, that was perhaps bound to happen, even with the presence of psychological mysteries in the book (and these stories are actually not better written, and perhaps not even better evidenced, than those one can find, for example, in the recently reissued Oxford Book of Ghost Stories edited by Cox and Gilbert, OUP 2008).

ST then writes:

Since Dieguez is so "evidence-based", I challenge him to provide evidence for his claim that "the authors never tire of saying that everybody is wrong except them". I await this evidence.

But IM is entirely written in this vein. That’s the main point of the book, to challenge “current mainstream neuroscience”. Now, cognitive neuroscience is a huge enterprise, with thousands of scientists around the world working hard and publishing tons of papers in dozens of specialized journals. If all these persons simply don’t take into account the insights of Bergson, James, Myers and Kelly et al. about mind-brain relationships, then IM is effectively saying all along that everybody is wrong except them (plus a few others, of course, one should not forget about Mario Beauregard and the deluded Denyse O’Leary, which ST obligingly interviewed for his blog). Let me also reprint here the quote that ST himself has conveniently taken from IM in his previous post about my review:

“The authors of this book are united in the conviction that they [“the views of the vast majority of contemporary scientists”] are not correct—that in fundamental respects they are at best incomplete, and at certain critical points demonstrably false, empirically. These are strong statements, but our book will systematically elaborate and defend them".

Yes indeed, these are strong statements, which basically translate as: “thousands of scientists are wrong, we can prove it and therefore we are on the right tracks and they’re not.” Is this an “uncharitable” reading, or a “strawman fallacy”? Did I meet ST’s “challenge” here? I think so, but perhaps that was a little bit too easy.

Let’s move one. What follows is ST trying to explain how I misunderstand the “transmission” hypothesis:

The transmissive theory of mind-brain connection accepts a reciprocal interaction between brain states and mental states. Normal perception is functionally dependent on the brain, and this is consistent both with materialism and the transmission hypothesis, because both of them accept brain causation on mental states. But the transmission theory, additionally, offers room to understand phenomena that materialism cannot explain (like the phenomena explained in the IM).

Yes thanks, that’s a helpful summary of what I was saying all along. Except that, unlike ST, I find this whole thing ridiculous. Without the “phenomena that materialism cannot explain”, which is again the very issue at stake here, the “transmission” hypothesis is just a useless and maximalist (non-parsimonious) way to interpret data (a bit like theistic evolution, or aliens commanding humans to make crop-circles, or the more classic demon in the engine, if you want). Moreover, it is misguiding to claim that the transmission hypothesis accommodates without problems the findings from neuroscience. This is often claimed in IM, but it is wrong. This is why I asked ST to explain basic phenomena in terms of “transmission”, like binocular rivalry or synaesthesia, and I could add data on split-brain patients, on semantic dementia, hormonal modulation of affects and behaviour, and so forth. There is no simple way for the “transmission” hypothesis to explain these things without turning to ad hoc or fanciful explanations.

The result is that ST and the authors of IM need the paranormal to be true if the “transmission” theory is to be taken seriously at all. That’s a first step, but even then, they are at a complete loss (as was Myers) to describe it succinctly and to derive any experiment that could test it. But of course, the evidence is so scarce, embarrassing and unconvincing, as compared to the evidence for “materialism”, that believers prefer to assume that it is amply sufficient and that scientists and skeptics simply are unfamiliar with the relevant literature or prefer to look away. Of course, they could simply do better research, find clear evidence, and publish it in a scientific journal. But they prefer to think that scientists are a nasty and dogmatic bunch (thousands of scientists around the world!), as well as, of course, ignorant and/or fearful. This is not so far from a conspiracy theory, and the scary thing is that I’m not so sure they would take offense with such a comparison (after all, Donald Ray Griffin was well into psychical stuff before he turned to his 9/11 whacko “theories”).

In fact, the existence of such anomalous phenomena is so annoying for materialists, that Dieguez has to use rhetoric and ridicule as an argument (what an example of rationality!). Regarding Dieguez's use of rhetoric and ridicule, he conceded in Michael Prescott's blog: "The “abridged version on my pseudoscience shelf” was a rhetorical device to ridicule the import of Myers, and to anger precisely those that see so much in him" Is that a rational argument? Is that kind of discourse worthy of a Ph.D student? Is the use of a "rhetorical device to ridicule..." a proper methodology of a serious and rational reviewer? I leave the readers to decide that.

Well, I can’t see why mockery and rationality are not compatible. However, reading his comments, I certainly do now accept that being boring and gullible are fully compatible. But I’ll also leave the readers to decide that. Furthermore, it is worth reminding that we are talking about parapsychology and Fred Myers here (and not about Mozart): mockery is de rigueur.

The bottom line is that Dieguez has not presented any factual and rational argument against the authors of ID. Lacking scientific arguments, he instead resorts to the rhetoric, ridicule and other irrational fallacies.

That can’t be the “bottom line”, because it wasn’t my point to present factual or scientific arguments against the authors of IM (notice ST’s very interesting typo here, he writes ID instead of IM). They wish someone would start nit-picking stuff among their myriad pages, but what I did was more appropriate, I think: I simply laid out what the book is. So I have reviewed the overall message and direction of the book in the restricted amount of space I was given, and I gave my opinion about it. The goal was not to debunk the contents of the book, but rather what it’s trying to do.

Now ST unearthed a comment I left on Prescott’s blog (itself referring to another sentence I left on my own blog as a comment), to illustrate my smugness and dishonesty:

Another example of Dieguez's "rational and scientific argumentation" is this comment in Michael's blog: "As for the stance I hold regarding "debates" with believers of all kind, it is true: I prefer a good laugh rather than a serious and useless fight."

If Dieguez is logically consistent, he would have to laugh at believers in materialism too (since his position includes "believers of all kind"). But the logical question is: is laughing a logical and rational argument? Dieguez is so sure that his position is right that he can't deal with other people opinions in rational terms; instead, he prefers to use ridicule, ad hominem and other fallacies.

God this is so boring. Do I really have to explain this quote of mine? Well, I’ll give it a shot. I’m sure ST, and many other believers, must have realized at some point that this type of debate as been going on and on for decades, and that a simple discussion around one particular book will not settle it at everyone’s satisfaction. So, why not lighten up a little bit and enjoy our differences in a frank and relaxed debate? We know our respective positions, right? We both think that the other is wrong, right? So let’s laugh a little bit at the whole situation. And yeah, I laugh at “materialists” too, on a daily basis as a matter of fact. I read scientific papers and I very often exclaim things such as “there you go, we’re one step closer to solving the riddles of the universe”. My snark is not unilateral, but then one has to know me to be aware of this. I accept critiques along the lines of “belief in promissory materialism” and so forth. The point is that it doesn’t matter whether or not I’m “sure that my position is right”, what matters is that I find no evidence in IM that my position is wrong.

One last word about the use of ridicule: ST is the one who believes in GHOST STORIES, not me. We nasty children love to mock such beliefs. One would think he should be used to it by now.

After that, ST takes issue with stuff I wrote about the authors of IM taking the success of parapsychology for granted. They have an appendix listing books and reviews on parapsychology (even reincarnation!), and whenever they make a wild claim about telepathy and such, they refer the reader to it. ST writes:

Their point of citing the literature is to back up their assertions (therefore, not arguing from ignorance!). But Dieguez, uncharitably (and intentionally?) misrepresents the argument as suggesting we have to accept the literature at face value. Another example of Dieguez's uncharitable reading and straw man fallacy.

No, this is not a strawman fallacy at all. The appendix on parapsychology is not there to “back up” arguments at all, it was explicitly put there because the authors do not wish to discuss parapsychology (or “psi”) in the book, and so they merely say that they endorse this literature (although they say it is “still controversial” and “imperfect” and that they don’t endorse equally everything in it). This, in my book, is basically saying that one should take paranormal superpowers at face value if IM is to make any sense. Otherwise, psi and the appendix would not be needed for their argument.

ST then jumps into another wagon and starts explaining why, if the evidence for the paranormal is so strong, scientists do not accept it and do not even care about it. I granted ST that if this could help him feel better about himself, he could just go ahead and blame the nasty and ignorant academia. Here’s his response:

Actually materialism, naturalism, atheism and the fear of the "supernatural" is responsible.

Yeah, that’s what I thought. So it is a conspiracy (presumably, these same factors are also to blame for the absence of creationism and astrology in the classroom, therefore I’m soon expecting a documentary featuring IM’s authors called Banished!).

To back up this claim, which I granted anyway because I have no interest in this particular brand of paranoia and self-aggrandizement so common in crackpots, he quotes a “materialist philosopher”. This would be Thomas Nagel, grand guru of mysterianism, which is enough said as far as I’m concerned (remember, “What it is like to be a bat?”, that’s clearly the favorite paper of “materialists”). Two more philosophers are then quoted, as ST loves arguments from authority (I’m just hoping he didn’t extract the quotes from The Spiritual Brain—which is essentially made of such quotes—, that would be most embarrassing). But more generally, the idea that skeptics and scientists are “afraid” of the paranormal is preposterous. Read my lips: “I AM NOT AFRAID OF THE PARANORMAL”. See? It doesn’t hold. Moreover, I’m not claiming around that believers in the paranormal are afraid of materialism. That’s because I don’t have to, I’m content with the observation that they have nothing to back up their wild claims.

But of course, once one goes there, then everything is permitted and you can simply say that your opponent is irrational for emotional reasons and draw this nail further and further:

you won't see such self-critical and honest concessions of the flaws of materialism in a "Ph.D student" like Dieguez (whose best argument in favor of materialism is that it hasn't been undermined by ghost stories!)

Read again that last sentence in parentheses. Take a good look at current science and its astonishing successes, its continuous progress in numerous fields, and ask yourself why it works so well despite the existence of GHOST STORIES. I know I’m repeating myself here, but the overall resistance of science to the supernatural is indeed a perfectly valid argument for materialism. Again, you can imagine how the world and life should look like if all of IM were true. Instead, what we find over and over again, is that isolated and bizarre “paranormal” events are always just ambiguous or controversial enough so that they turn out to be entirely irrelevant for a sound understanding of reality (but still allows the believer’s will-to-believe to keep rolling).

ST then quotes from Hyman’s assessment of the SAIC experiments, which is clearly off topic here (but then ST likes dropping names very much). I don’t care about this particularly embarrassing phase of parapsychological research at SRI, which has utterly failed to provide evidence of anything paranormal, again. I’m annoyed, however, but not surprised, by the tendency to cherry-pick a few appeasing sentences by Hyman in an otherwise wholly negative assessment of a project that was aimed at training super-heroes. What ST fails to notice, interestingly, is that Remote Viewing, which was the topic of the SAIC project, is not addressed at all in IM. Why?

Thankfully, what follows is funnier. Remember that ST confronted me with a video where Michael Shermer, a skeptic, found evidence supportive of Vedic astrology in a non-scientific televised show. ST is of course unable to perceive the ridicule of this whole situation, but I enjoy it a lot. So I said: yeah sure, go for it, Vedic astrology is for realz because Shermer, like, proved it, you know. And I added for good measure that I found unforgivable that Vedic astrology is not mentioned in IM at all (by the way, how does the “transmission” theory accommodate with astrology? We might never know). But here’s how ST reads all of this:

This is an amazing concession. According to Dieguez, Michael Shermer found evidence for vedic astrology! And he concedes that "So yeah, it totally seems that thanks to the science of Vedic Astrology, one can approximate some individual's personal features merely by knowing his or her date and place of birth" (My God, I'll be referring to this "skeptical" concession all the time in this blog! By the way, note that Dieguez doesn't admit any consequences for materialism and mainstream science by his concession of positive evidence for Vedic Astrology. This will give you an idea of the logical coherence of Dieguez)

Yes, write it down, Sebastian Dieguez accepts the evidence for Vedic astrology, as he is entirely devoted to whatever Michael Shermer says or does, and believes that 10 minutes long TV shows are better than real scientific reports. So you can quote me all you want on this: VEDIC ASTROLOGY IS TRUE (although I don’t even know what it is). I now demand that “mainstream” neuroscientists, as well as the authors of IM, stop immediately their misguided ramblings, and devote themselves to this venerable science. Which raises the question: does ST actually believe in Vedic astrology? And does he think that Shermer is to be trusted when he finds evidence for crackpot notions, but not when he debunks anything else?

I enjoy this so much that I will go one step further. ST asks:

My question for Dieguez is: Do you consider the evidence (gotten by skeptic Shermer) stronger than the evidence for psi (e.g. as explicitly conceded by Ray Hyman)?

Yes, I’m happy to concede this. Again, I am now a full convert in Vedic astrology, all the rest is utter nonsense. Tomorrow, I will talk with my thesis advisor and present him with Shermer’s video. If he doesn’t allow me to switch my topic on the spot to Vedic astrology, I will resign immediately and move to India. So there.

What follows is more whining about my attitude and about the sin of “debunking”. This is only more literal reading from ST, who gets very serious with skeptics but all mellow with certified nutcases like Denyse O’Leary. There’s nevertheless something funny coming, after ST quotes some of my ramblings about the paranormal and how I characterize it as GHOST STORIES:

Ghost stories again...? Man, it's impossible to argue with a person who cannot discern any difference between telepathy, psychokinesis, NDEs, stigmata and even mediumship from "ghosts".

Because of course, it’s much easier to discuss with someone who actually believes in ghosts, as well as GHOST STORIES. Anyway, something more interesting comes after this, where ST dismisses my argument that IM relies in many places on the explanatory gap and the naïve folk psychology of free will. He says that this is irrelevant:

The question is whether materialism can account for free will or not, and if its implications are morally acceptable or not.

This misses the point badly. My concern is not about morality, but about the naïve conception that volition and consciousness somehow pre-exist to brain processes. The extended quote from Keith Augustine is interesting but totally irrelevant in the present context. But it gets even more confused:

It is irrelevant whether most people believe in objective moral values or not; the point is that materialism and naturalism cannot account for them.

Materialism cannot account for free will and morality? Ok, so please feel free to never attempt to do any science on these topics. You would not be helpful.

Then, inevitably, because I said that free will and consciousness are “illusions”, ST is more than happy to explain to me how I defeated myself with such an assertion (like I never heard that argument before):

That comment is self-refuting. If consciousness and thinking is an illusion, then your arguments (which are based on ideas in your consciousness) are illusions too. And we can't predicate the values of "truth" or "falsity" to illusions, because our own conceptual adjudication of such epistemic and logical values would be an illusion too. You can't defend your data on rational grounds, if previously you concede that your own mind is an illusion. You're using an illusion (your consciousness) to justify another illusion (the scientific data obtained by the illusory consciousness of scientists).

Very well done. The problem is that my illusions actually seem to match the real world and help me navigate in it and make sense of it in an honest and humble way (i.e., I don’t think that the purpose of the universe is all about me). And I can also make predictions that work out. On the other hand, ST seems to imply that naïve realism is actually a viable option and that he is not prey to the constructive, anticipatory, pattern seeking and interpretative processes in his brain. Good for him, that will certainly help him understand how the mind really works.

Let’s turn now briefly to NDEs, a favorite topic of mine. That’s about the only direct reference to the contents of IM that I actually made in my review: I dismissed the argument that NDEs are “paradoxical” in the sense that they provide evidence of “enhanced cognition” during a time where the brain is not supposed to be able to support such mental processes. I simply replied to this along these lines: if dysfunctional brain activity cannot account for the type of experiences lived during a NDE, why should no brain activity at all be a better explanation?

Here’s what ST responds:

Because if there is no "brain activity at all", how the hell are you going to have mental experience? If the mind is a product of brain functioning (like materialists like Dieguez think), then the mind ceases to exist when the brain ceases to function. It's a purely logical point, and it is amazing that Dieguez can't see it. If you don't have any brain functioning, how do you explain the mental experience had during that period?

I’m not sure how to put this without sounding too harsh. Let’s try this: ST simply missed the point. The authors of IM, and also Parnia and Fenwick, do not claim (unlike many other believers) that NDEs occur while the brain is entirely shut down (or “flatlining”). It seems that they have carefully read the data, they even have finally opened Sabom’s book and actually read the Pam Reynolds account, and they came to the conclusion that there is no such evidence at all. Rather, they try to be more cautious and say that during cardiac arrest NDEs, the brain endures such pressure that it must not be able to form clear concepts, memories, etc. This simply begs the question, of course, for no one knows when an NDE occurs exactly (except when some external stimuli is incorporated in the hallucinated scene, always when the brain is working), and no one knows what happens in the brain during an NDE anyway. Moreover, as the authors of IM make clear in their book, we don’t even know for sure what type of brain state we should deem able or unable to support mental processes in the first place. So my point was: if they grant that the best one can say about NDEs from a paranormal perspective is that they occur during states of brain impairment that are not compatible with consciousness and memory formation, then why should no brain activity at all be de facto a better explanation? Why not accept that in some cardiac arrest patients, the brain impairment, or the brain recovery allowed by CPR, is such that it precisely produces very vivid vestibular and visual hallucinations? After all, we already know that brain disorders produce NDE-like experiences, don’t we?

Ok, here I skip some further misconceptions and circular reasoning from ST, in order to stay in the NDE domain. Here’s what I wrote in my response to his previous post:If NDEs are a peek in the afterworld, I don’t see why only a tiny minority of cardiac arrest survivors report them, and I don’t see either why so many who report them were actually not near-death at all.” And here is his response:

Because those who report them have been detached from their bodies, and such separation occurs only occasionally, not constantly in each person. This is why most people don't experience a NDEs (and this is what we would expect if the IM arguments are true).

I don’t even know where that comes from. It would be good if ST could explain how it is not circular to claim that those who had an NDE where separated from their bodies, while those who had no NDE were not. Also, one wonders why this process should occur only “occasionally”, and on what grounds, if NDEs really are what believers think they are. Moreover, I can’t see why this vindicates the “IM arguments” in any way. But maybe ST, like me right now, is getting a little bit tired.

He then proceeds to some question begging about how “psi” exists in everybody and not only in “psychics”, is therefore all over the place, and comes in different intensities because it’s just like any other human skill. How does he know all that? He doesn’t say, but refers me to a book by Dean Radin, the man who explains on his blog that skeptics are to blame for witch burnings. Of course, he says that none of this is begging the question, but “an inference from the data”. I don’t want to aggravate my case as a failed PhD student, so I will refrain to take this particular point further (suffices it to say that no, psi is not all over the place, deal with it).

So, let’s now turn to the final points. I really want to know what scientists like me should do if everything in IM turns out to be true. So I asked: should I become a parapsychologist? If not, what should scientists do? Here ST wants to sound reassuring (after all, we scientists are paralyzed by fear, so we need a little patting on the back from time to time):

They should develop models of mind-brain connection that are consistent with all the data. Actually, the IM book tries to give some ideas (e.g. regarding the transmission theory) to account for the data. It doesn't mean that the transmission theory is correct, or the only alternative; the point is to think of alternative models to understand the mind-body connection, in a way to account for all the known phenomena (including the "anomalous" one, which cannot be accounted for by materialism, and have to be dismissed by the use of ridicule, rhetorical devices and speculations about ghosts stories)

Good. I can give some recommendations too: show us good evidence that we need an “alternative model” at all (not rogue phenomena or “bundle” of useless sticks, just good data please), then work out a clear theory, make predictions, make new experiments, publish them, and so forth. Also, dig in the neuroscientific literature and explain why an “alternative model” would make more sense of the data. When you’re done, publish another book in yet another century, with an enclosed CD of Irreducible Mind in it. If I’m still around, I’ll be glad to review it.

We’re near the end. ST thinks that I’m now so tired and devastated by his arguments that I can’t see through his pathetic attempt at shifting the burden of proof. I merely explained that the “transmission” theory, by the own account of IM’s authors, is not clear at all and demands further theorizing. That’s where they introduce my favorite lines of the book, when after some 800 pages they say that the theory that will lead to a new psychology for the 21st century is not yet available, but will be the subject of another book as soon as it is worked out. So I’m not the one who has to explain why the theory is empty here. There simply is no theory, just a vague reference to the Victorian musings of bearded men that had no TV and sought amusement in séances, plus the familiar quantum obfuscation. But then ST is deaf to all my noise, and merely observes:

My point is that a rational review should specify the objections to the theory being addressed. Asserting that the concept is empty, or that the authors make many false claims is not an argument, if you don't back up your assertions with evidence.

One has only to read the following sentence to see how he rejects my characterization of IM as a “soul of the gaps argument”:

The transmission theory is not the "soul of the gap argument". It's an hypothesis that tries to account for phenomena that materialism cannot explain.

ST obviously spent too much time with Denyse O’Leary: he now talks like ID creationists (can it be a coincidence, or even a “meaningful coincidence”, that the term “irreducible” is used in the same way by Kelly et al. and by creationist Michael Behe?).

So let’s turn to the conclusion:

In my view, Dieguez has not understood the IM book. His failure of understanding is a result of his prejudices, conceptual confusions (e.g. telepathy = ghost stories), ignorance of the flaws of materialism, logical inconsistences, and emotional attachment to his worldwiew.

In any case, maybe this exchange will help Dieguez to reflect and reconsider some of his positions (even though I doubt it will happen).

ST is mistaken here. I learned a lot thanks to him. I am now a proud believer in Vedic astrology, has he forgotten?

In our next installment, I will turn to more interesting comments by another critic of mine, Julio Siqueira. Expect more of the same and a lot of repetitions.