New Age bunkum

PHILLIP A. STAHL

April 16, 1992|By Phillip A. Stahl

WEEPING CHURCH statues and portraits? Priests suffering from stigmata? Esoteric messages from saints and the supernatural? Granted, this makes great copy, but media attention to such phenomena only serves to bestow undeserved legitimacy on so-called "supernatural occurances" and feed irrational beliefs.

The fact is, all the reported phenomena can be explained entirely in physical or natural terms -- if the observers are objective, rational and analytical. For example, paint solvents are known to leach out of surfaces under certain conditions of humidity and temperature.

There isn't a shred of evidence for any hypothesized "supernatural" realm -- weeping statues to the contrary. The world -- indeed, the entire cosmos -- operates entirely within the physical laws of science, with random chance thrown in for good measure.

The recent crash of a USAir flight at New York's LaGuardia Airport is a case in point. I was astounded at the level of magical thinking and supernaturalism in some of the survivors' comments -- "My guardian angel protected me," or "God protected me." Perhaps when these people revive sufficiently from their shock they will be objective enough to ask why "God" or their "guardian angel" didn't also deign to protect the person sitting next to them. The fact is those who survived were simply lucky -- a random fluke, nothing more. Had they been assigned a different seat they might well have died in the crash.

People are, of course, entitled to believe whatever they want. If a person chooses to believe that, say, three-headed aliens or invisible demons have a colony in Baltimore, fine. But they must bear in mind that without verifiable data, such beliefs are baseless speculation. Those who would be taken seriously must present documented evidence, direct or indirect, to substantiate their claims. The same applies to weeping statues, "stigmata" and assorted "miracles" and "heavenly signs and wonders."

Paul Kurtz, the founding chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, put his finger on the root cause of why humans tend to jump to supernatural conclusions. He attributes this to a brain-wired tendency to "transcendental temptation." Such a neural effect could explain the spectacle of millions of people being duped year after year by supernatural bunkum -- astrology, numerology, "channeling" and other assorted New Age mumbo-jumbo.

Recent work by Michael A. Persinger of Laurentian University in Ontario supports the idea that the "supernatural" is purely a mental construction. Persinger used a specially designed helmet to stimulate the temporal lobes in the brains of various subjects. In each case he was able to generate an "experience" which the subject described as "religious" or "mystical." In one case, a subject went so far as to aver that he "had discovered the unity of the cosmos," and described a feeling of "immortality." The bottom line is that our own brains are complicit in the transcendental temptation; that is why it is so hard for people to RTC recognize it in their compulsion to embrace the "supernatural."

How might we circumvent our tendency to grasp for illusory answers from an illusory realm? The key is in educating students to question and to think critically, instead of simply gobbling facts to regurgitate later. A critical thinker is more likely to be a rational skeptic. Such rational skepticism is the best insurance against succumbing to the ever present transcendental temptation. Humankind might then get on with solving life's problems in the here-and-now instead of wasting mental effort on drivel about mythical realms and entities that exist only in our heads.

Philip A. Stahl writes from Columbia.

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