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Robert Todd Carroll

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Introduction

I

 The Skeptic's Dictionary: A Guide for the New Millennium provides definitions, arguments and essays on subjects supernatural, occult, paranormal and pseudoscientific. I use the term ‘occult’ to refer to any and all of these subjects. The reader is forewarned that The Skeptic's Dictionary does not try to present a "balanced" account of occult subjects. If anything, this book is a Davidian counter-balance to the Goliath of occult literature. I hope that an occasional missile hits its mark. Unlike David, however, I have little faith, and do not believe Goliath can be slain. Skeptics can give him a few bumps and bruises, but our words will never be lethal. Goliath cannot be taken down by evidence and arguments. However, many of the spectators may be swayed by our performance and recognize Goliath for what he so often is: a false messiah. It is especially for the younger spectators that this book is written. I hope to expose Goliath’s weaknesses so that the reader will question his strength and doubt his promises.

Another purpose of The Skeptic's Dictionary: A Guide for the New Millennium is to provide references to the best skeptical materials on whatever topic is covered. So, for example, if that pesky psychology teacher won't let up about auras being inexplicable occult phenomena, you can consult your Skeptic's Dictionary and become pesky yourself with more than a general skepticism about occult phenomena.

The Skeptic's Dictionary: A Guide for the New Millennium is aimed at four distinct audiences: the open-minded seeker, who makes no commitment to or disavowal of occult claims; the soft skeptic, who is more prone to doubt than to believe; the hardened skeptic, who has strong disbelief about all things occult; and the believing doubter, who is prone to believe but has some doubts. The one group this book is not aimed at is the true-believer in the occult. If you have no skepticism in you, this book is not for you.

The open-minded seeker has not had much experience with occult phenomena beyond some religious training, but does not dismiss out of hand reports of aura readings, alien abductions, ESP, dowsing, channeling, ghosts, etc. The soft skeptic suspends judgment on occult issues and appeals to inexperience, as well as to epistemological skepticism, as reasons for deferring judgment. The hardened skeptic is a disbeliever in all or most occult claims. The believing doubter is attracted to the occult and is a strong believer in one or more (usually more) occult areas, but is having some doubts about the validity of occult claims.

My beliefs are clearly that of a hardened skeptic. I don't pretend that I have no experience or knowledge of these matters. For me, the evidence is overwhelming that it is highly probable that any given occult claim is mistaken or conscious fraud. Earlier in my life I was a seeker. Looking back, I wish I had had a book like The Skeptic's Dictionary. This book will provide the seeker with arguments and a reference book of the best skeptical literature on occult claims. Though clearly it is my hope that the seeker will become skeptical, I do not hope the seeker will just take my word--or anybody's word--for it, but will investigate and think about these matters before coming to a decision.

The Skeptic's Dictionary will provide the soft skeptic with evidence and arguments,  as well as references to more evidence and arguments, on occult issues. In my view, there is sufficient evidence available to convince most reasonable soft skeptics that most occult claims are more probably false than true. However, the soft skeptic recognizes that it does not follow from that fact (if it is a fact) that one should commit oneself to what seems most probable to the rational mind. The soft skeptic often holds that rationality is a value and that the idea that the rational life is the best one for human beings cannot be proven logically, scientifically or any other way. By way of argument, all one can do is appeal to the consequences of choosing the rational over the irrational life. Also, it seems to be true that belief in the irrational is as appealing to the true believer as belief in the rational is to the hardened skeptic. According to many soft skeptics, whether one chooses a life devoted to rationality or irrationality is a matter of faith. For a good period of my adult life, I was a soft skeptic who believed that my commitment to rationality was as much an act of faith as my earlier commitment to Catholicism had been. For years I remained open to the possibility of all sorts of occult phenomena. My studies and reflections in recent years have led me to the conclusion that there is a preponderance of evidence against the reasonableness of belief in any occult phenomena. I have also concluded that choosing rationality over irrationality is not an act of faith at all. To even pose the question as one requiring thought to answer demonstrates the futility of claiming everything can be reduced to faith. For, one must use reason to argue for faith. And while I do not deny that the consequences of believing in the occult are often beneficial, I do deny that such consequences have anything to do with establishing the reality of occult phenomena. A soft skeptic would have to agree that there is a monumental difference between a believed entity and a real entity. I would agree with the soft skeptic that it is impossible to know anything empirical with absolute certainty. However,  I think it is obvious that probabilities do us just fine in this life. We have plenty of ways in many, many cases to distinguish among empirical claims that are of differing degrees of probability. It seems to me nonsense to claim, as Charles Peirce and William James did, that the consequences of a belief establish its validity and that anything with real consequences is real [see Peirce's fatuous argument for the reality of God or James's famous "Will to Believe"]. If I can get some shopkeeper to believe in my psychic hundred dollar bills so that I can keep spending in his shop as long as he believes my psychic money is real, does any reasonable person believe that my imaginary money is real? Try to spend the psychic dollars in a shop where the shopkeeper isn’t deluded or doesn't have faith in invisible money.

The hardened skeptic doesn't need much more in the way of evidence or argument to convince him or her that any given occult claim is probably based on error or fraud. Still, The Skeptic's Dictionary has something for the hardened skeptic, too: it will provide ammunition against the incessant arguments of true believers. Most hardened skeptics don't feel it is worth their time to investigate every crackpot idea that comes their way. They dismiss them out of hand. The following is a letter from an English woman who works in an office in Austria where most of the others lack much skepticism:
 

I work in an office where most of my colleagues believe in living their lives by some wacky theory.  If I make cuttings of my rather profusely growing plants then I am told it isn't the right moon day, although all my plants grow wonderfully due to good compost and regular fertilizer.  If I say I am going to the  hairdresser then someone looks it up on their desktop moon calendar to see if it's the right day.  All colleagues with back pain are running off to the "Wunderheiler", a traditionally trained doctor who does "laying of hands" (I suggested they lose weight and take up swimming instead), or they are constantly swallowing some herbal tablets which they have purchased at some ridiculous price from a specialist shop.  I have one colleague who won't come to my apartment because I live in the roof and the apex would only concentrate "harmful energy waves" and she is convinced that my health will suffer (I am incredibly healthy)  and has some Chinese Fen Chewy (sounds like) [feng shui] theory of  which she is convinced.  I recently had problems with a mouth abscesses and was told by another colleague to make a mouth rinse with cold pressed sunflower oil.  Now even with my rudimentary biological knowledge this would seem like a silly idea which could actually encourage more bacteria to find a nice home in my mouth.  Another told me (and in a very severe tone) to rub my gums with lemon peel to get vitamin C into my membranes, and I told her I wasn't aware that the lining of the mouth was a permeable membrane!  I am surrounded by all this humbug and they all get very annoyed when I debate their theories and am skeptical.  (But what can one expect from a Scorpio)

Under most conditions simply rejecting quackery is intelligent and justified. Often, however,  it is better to provide a seeker, soft skeptic or the doubting believer with arguments, both specific and general. But if one’s antagonists are true-believers like this woman’s office mates, it is probably a waste of time to provide evidence and arguments in response.

Finally, The Skeptic's Dictionary will provide the doubting believer with information and sources to consult that will provide, if not a balanced picture, at least a multifaceted one, of your concern about the power of crystals or color therapy or levitation, etc. It will help the doubter resolve his or her doubts. For, while there will be a few skeptics who can go through all this literature and come out doubting everything, including the skeptical claims, I think the vast majority will emerge as hardened skeptics, not Pyrrhonists.

As already stated, the one group that this book is not designed for is the true believer. My studies have convinced me that arguments or data critical of their beliefs are always considered by the true believer to be insignificant, irrelevant, manipulative, deceptive, unauthoritative, unscientific, unfair, biased, closed-minded, irrational and/or diabolical. (It is perhaps worth noting that except for the term diabolical, these are the same terms the hardened skeptic uses in describing the studies and evidence presented by true believers.) Hence, I am sure that the only interest a true believer would have in The Skeptic's Dictionary would be to condemn and burn it without ever having read it.
 

II

‘Skepticism' may refer to a person's general attitude or state of mind, namely one of doubting or questioning. Often, however, `skepticism' refers specifically to doubt or disbelief regarding supernatural or paranormal claims. `Skepticism' may also refer to the philosophical doctrine that absolute knowledge is impossible and that inquiry must be a process of doubting in order to acquire approximate or relative certainty.

The Skeptic's Dictionary is concerned with skepticism in each of its meanings, but the motivation for the book was undoubtedly the author's doubts and disbeliefs about occult, paranormal, psychic and religious phenomena. Taking my cue from Nietzsche, I divide skeptics into two types: Apollonian and Dionysian.

The Apollonian Skeptic is committed to clarity and rationality. To the Apollonian Skeptic, all things supernatural are essentially vague and irrational. The Dionysian Skeptic, on the other hand, is committed to passion and instinct, and may actually embrace religion because of its vagueness (Charles Peirce) or irrationality (Tertullian, Kierkegaard). The Apollonian Skeptic looks upon belief in God as on par with belief in the Easter Bunny and belief in immortality as being on par with belief in astral projection. The supernatural is rejected by the Apollonian Skeptic not because he or she knows these matters are false, but because they go against the Apollonian Skeptic's grain. The Dionysian Skeptic, however, believes in supernatural things not because they are known to be true, but because they fit the Dionysian Skeptic's feelings and instincts. The Apollonian Skeptic sees no reason to believe in supernatural matters; the Dionysian Skeptic sees no reason not to believe in them. The Apollonian Skeptic sees all the arguments and evidence put forth in support of religious or occult tenets as inept, fraudulent, deceptive, weak, insubstantial or ludicrous. The Dionysian Skeptic sees the Apollonian Skeptic as stubborn and unwilling to risk error for the sake of a possible, sublime truth.

Who's right? Psychologically speaking, I suppose we have to say that they are both right. It would not be healthy to go against one's natural disposition. Is it reasonable, though, to expect each side to be tolerant of the other? William James, who divided up believers and non-believers in a somewhat similar way, thought that this was reasonable. I disagree. Both types of skeptic think that the other type is foolish, not in error. How could it be healthy to tolerate people one thinks of as fools? I grant that in polite society we rarely express our true feelings about one another and that skeptics are no exception. Skeptics are notorious for providing arguments for their positions. Pascal's "Wager Argument" is a gasser to the Apollonian Skeptic; Russell's "Why I Am Not a Christian" is lunacy to the true believer. I don't know of a single case where an Apollonian Skeptic became a believer in the supernatural because of arguments, or of a Dionysian Skeptic becoming an atheist because of an experience.

In fact, most atheists and most believers in the supernatural are not skeptics--but they should be. They tolerate one another or argue with one another because they believe the evidence supports their own point of view and they believe that ultimately any reasonable person would agree with them if only they saw things correctly. They don't think of those who think differently than they do simply as fools; they think of them as ignorant or stupid or misguided. It has been my experience that intelligence, knowledge and education are not essentially connected to the tendency to believe or disbelieve in the supernatural or the occult. As William James put it, our temperament determines these tendencies for us. The value of either type of belief is to be found in its fruits, he said. And, as Nietzsche put it, `our values spring from us like fruits on the tree; what cares the philosopher if the fruits be rotten.'  The problem is that from where I'm standing someone else's fruits appear rotten while mine appear healthy. From where another is standing, it is just the opposite. Pity that we cannot taste each other's fruits.

This book is, therefore, not intended as a set of arguments for the Apollonian Skeptic to use against believers in occult matters. It is especially intended for those who are by temperament Apollonian but who, for whatever reason, hesitate to follow their nature. We live in a society which caters much more to the believer in the occult than to the non-believer. Fear of punishment, of ostracism, and of ridicule are great hindrances to seeking one’s own way. But unhappiness surely awaits you if your beliefs or values are chosen by others and do not suit you. One might call this book the counterpart of the medieval scholastic's faith seeking understanding. If you are already an Apollonian Skeptic at heart, the material which follows will help you understand what you already reasonably believe.

ęcopyright 1998
Robert Todd Carroll