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Doubting a Mystic

Kris Schnee

There’s no such thing as objective truth. We make our own truth. There’s no such thing as objective reality. We make our own reality. There are spiritual, mystical, or inner ways of knowing that are superior to our ordinary ways of knowing... If an idea feels right to you, it is right... It doesn’t matter whether beliefs are true or not, as long as they’re meaningful to you.

New Age beliefs, summarized by

Theodore Schick Jr. and Lewis Vaughn in “How to Think About Weird Things”

Professor John Mack, an M.D. at Harvard Medical School, recently wrote an article in the Boston Globe that starts with fiction and goes progressively further away from reality. In “Long Live Magic and Wizardry,” Dr. Mack defends Harry Potter, wizard hero of a popular new book series by J.K. Rowling. Citing a school principal in Georgia who disapproved of “exposing” children to books involving magic, Mack says that the books are exciting and appealing to a wide audience, and fulfill the goal of making kids want to read.

There is nothing wrong with fantasy. It is admirable for its creativity, and harmful to no one -- as long as fantasy is not confused with reality. Unfortunately, many people have this problem; they tend to confuse wishes with truth. Using Harry Potter’s critics as an example, Mack points out a major problem he sees in the world: “The steady loss of a sense of wonder and enchantment.” By these, he means not respectful awe for reality -- for the complexity of a bacterium, a brain, or an ecosystem -- but an uncritical acceptance of the unreal. He complains that the Western world’s insistence on observation and experiments, on science, is a limited worldview which abandons “the sense of the sacred” and of “mystery,” and that science is being treated as the only way to truth.

Dr. Mack has personal experience with the “paranormal,” he claims. He is the author of books such as Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens, and has claimed that interdimensional extraterrestrials are visiting the Earth to create a race of hybrid beings. His main evidence is the personal testimony of his subjects; physical evidence is rather scanty.

This is exactly the sort of claim science shuts out -- statements that important things are going on which deserve our attention, with no proof behind them. People who repeat the mantra “I Want to Believe” tend to discount the value of scientific, rational thought, probably because there is no rational justification for their beliefs. Instead they hold up irrationality as a virtue, even though it will get them nowhere.

Has any fan of magic, aliens, or any other New Age belief ever demonstrated any supernatural power at all? Or are such beliefs (when put to the test) indistinguishable from pure fantasy? No one has ever shown that there is any reliable way to learn about the world other than rationality and science.

But, Dr. Mack insists, science is now proving that science does not work. New research, he says, is “revealing a multitude of phenomena which, if not magical, seem not to be understandable by the methods of science as we have known them.” Let’s be scientific and list the examples he gives.

First is “action at a distance” between particles. Strange things have been noticed in studying quantum physics -- a meaning of “strange” unfamiliar to people living in a macroscopic world. For instance, pairs of photons can apparently be linked in such a way that, even when separated by large distances, each can respond instantly to a change in the other. (Could a faster-than-light communications device be built this way?) While we do not yet fully understand the phenomenon, we are learning, and there is no reason to believe science cannot solve the problem.

Another is the apparent acceleration of the universe’s expansion, which Mack oddly calls “quintessence” (a non sequitur). Based on observations of a certain type of supernova in distant galaxies, it seems that the universe is spreading out at an increasing rate, a strange and counterintuitive notion. But it is not incomprehensible at all! In fact, Einstein’s once-rejected idea of a “cosmological constant” (representing energy present in a vacuum) is being revived as a possible explanation of the data. A new satellite study is planned for launch in 2000 to gather more information on cosmic background radiation, which could bolster or disprove the idea of accelerating expansion. Theory and observation are working perfectly well, without the need for mystical explanations.

Mack also gives, as an example of mysterious phenomena, the “exquisite complex designs” appearing in grain fields -- i.e., “crop circles.” Surely this is strong evidence; there is no conceivable logical explanation for these designs except, perhaps, two guys dragging around a wooden board. Various crop-circle creators have confessed; no aliens are among them.

The most interesting of Mack’s examples is “experiments that demonstrate the capacity of the mind to affect physical objects.” Presumably this means classic telekinesis, like making large rocks levitate, and not the brain’s ability to control muscle fibers in the arm by electricity. The latter is explainable; the former is nonsensical. But if Mack really does know of people with proven telekinetic abilities, it would be much appreciated if he would arrange a public demonstration in Cambridge to convince the skeptical. He could also contact James Randi, who offers $1M for any such proof of the paranormal (see <http://randi.org>).

In short, Dr. Mack celebrates ignorance. He holds up examples of things not yet understood and declares that they cannot be understood; he presents frauds as facts. Starting from his acceptance of “magic,” he draws people in by showing them “a cosmos as wondrous as our dreams and imagination.” If mystical, not-quite-rational beliefs make the universe interesting, why not believe them?

The answer is that they are false. They do not work. And in the end, Mack and other mystical thinkers are cheating themselves. Why limit ourselves to belief a universe only as strange as human imagination, when the real one is much more interesting?