Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science

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Wednesday, March 10th, 2010 | ISSN 1556-5696

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In this week’s eSkeptic, Massimo Pigliucci examines the alleged parallels that religious scholar, Huston Smith, draws between science and religion.

Dr. Pigliucci has a Doctorate in Genetics from the University of Ferrara (Italy), a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He has done post-doctoral research in evolutionary ecology at Brown University and is currently Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of biology, in particular the structure and foundations of evolutionary theory, the relationship between science and philosophy, and the relationship between science and religion.

In the area of public outreach, Prof. Pigliucci has published in national magazines such as Skeptic, Skeptical Inquirer, Philosophy Now, The Philosopher’s Magazine, Secular Nation and American Atheist magazine. Pigliucci pens the “Rationally Speaking” blog (rationallyspeaking.org), hosts the podcast by the same name, and publishes the 5-minute Philosoper videos on YouTube.


photo

Dr. Massimo Pigliucci

The Place of Science

by Dr. Massimo Pigliucci

“SCIENCE BUMPS THE CEILING of the corporeal plane… From the metaphysical point of view its arms, lifted toward a zone of freedom that transcends coagulation, form the homing arc of the ‘love loop.’ They are science responding to Eternity’s love for the productions of time.” This grandiose bit of poetical nonsense concludes a chapter of Huston Smith’s Forgotten Truth dedicated to put science in its place. Smith is one of the world’s foremost authorities on religions, and his aim is to demonstrate that science is not an omnipotent force that can answer all questions posed by humanities. That is, science needs to be put in its place.

Fair enough, although I don’t know of any scientist who would claim otherwise. Contrary to what many anti-intellectuals maintain, science is by nature a much more humble enterprise than any religion or other ideology. This must be so given the self-correcting mechanisms that are incorporated into the scientific process, regardless of the occasional failures of individual scientists.

But what is most astounding in Smith’s essay is his attempt to develop a parallel between science and mysticism in order to “demonstrate” that the world’s great religions are capable of insights at least as powerful as science’s because they actually use similar tools. Let us then briefly examine this alleged parallelism and in the process try to understand what the proper place of both science and religion ought to be.

item of interest…
15 Myths of Science, by Dr. William McComas
15 Myths of Science

Amazingly, science textbook writers are among the most egregious purveyors of myth and inaccuracy in science. Through time, one author after another can simply repeat inaccurate information without bothering to check its validity or utility. More…
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Smith’s first insight is that science and religion both claim that things are not as they seem. For example, you have the perception that the chair on which you are sitting is solid, but modern physics will tell you that it is made of mostly empty space. This, apparently, is analogous to the following bit from C.S. Lewis: “Christianity claims to be telling us about another world, about something behind the world we can touch and hear and see.” Never mind, of course, that physicists can bring sophisticated empirical evidence to support their claim about the emptiness of space, while Christianity is made up of a series of fantastic and contradictory stories backed by no evidence whatsoever.

Second, according to Smith, both science and religion claim that the world is not only different from what we perceive, but that there is “more” than we can see, and that the additional part is “stupendous.” Of course, electrons, quarks and neutrinos are “more” than we can see, although they are stupendous only to those few scientists who spend their lives working on them. Well, this is apparently the same as Shankara’s “notion of the extravagance of his vision of the summum bonum when he says that it cannot be obtained except through the merits of 100 billion well-lived incarnations,” a cornerstone of some Indian sacred text. I hope you are starting to appreciate the depths of the similarities between science and religion. But wait, there is more.

The two quests for truth also share the quality that this “more” that they seek to explore cannot be known in ordinary ways (otherwise, presumably, one would need neither science nor religion to get there). Science’s ways lead to apparent contradictions, such as in the case of some aspects of quantum mechanical theory. To which Smith juxtaposes some gems from the Christian literature that he says uncannily resemble modern notions of quantum physics. For example, did not Nicholas of Cusa (De Visione Dei) write that “the wall of the Paradise in which Thou, Lord, dwellest is built of contradictories,” pretty much like the dual particle-wave nature of light? And did not Dionysius the Areopagite (The Divine Names) say “He is both at rest and in motion, and yet is in neither state,” thus anticipating Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle? I am not making the examples up—these are Smith’s very own.

Fourth, both science and religion have found other ways of knowing this “more” which cannot be accessed by our ordinary senses. The language through which science accomplishes this is mathematics; the one of religion is, of course, mysticism, which Smith describes as a “comparably specialized way of knowing reality’s highest transcorporeal reaches” (whatever that means). This, according to Smith, is “not a state to be achieved but a condition to be recognized, for God has united his divine essence with our inmost being. Tat tvan asi; That thou art. Atman is Brahman; samsara, Nirvana”. Yes, of course.

The fifth parallelism is that in both science and religion these alternative ways of knowing need to be properly cultivated. A scientist needs to dedicate a lifetime to her education and research if she wants to make a contribution. This is apparently similar to the asceticism of saints because, as Bayazid ‘correctly’ pointed out, “The knowledge of God cannot be attained by seeking, but only those who seek it find it.”

item of interest…
Postmodernism and Science, by Dr. Tony Rothman
Postmodernism
and Science

Does cultural upbringing affect the way scientists think about the world? Pulitzer Prize nominee and physicist Dr. Tony Rothman considers such deeply meaningful questions as: Is the Universe Knowable? Is the World Symmetrical? Are Doubt and Certainty Complementary? Can We Learn Anything From Parallels Between Physics and Eastern Philosophy? What is science in a “postmodern” world?
ORDER the lecture on DVD

Finally, in both science and religion profound knowing requires instruments. In science, these are microscopes, telescopes and particle accelerators. In religion, the equivalent is provided by the Revealed Texts, “Palomar telescopes that disclose the heavens that declare God’s glory.” If gods who dictate texts are not palatable to you, there is an alternative: “Spirit (the divine in man) and the Infinite (the divine in its transpersonal finality) are identical—man’s deepest unconscious is the mountain at the bottom of the lake.” Get it?

I would not have bothered the reader with this mountain of nonsense if it came from the local televangelist screaming bloody hell against the humanists’ corruption of the world. But this is Huston Smith, one of the most respected intellectual exponents of modern religionism, one who is hailed as offering the deepest insights that not just one, but all the world’s religions can offer!

This is a maddening example of what Richard Dawkins (in Unweaving the Rainbow) called “bad poetry.” Metaphors make much of the world’s literature a pleasure to read, but they can also be exceedingly misleading. There is no parallel whatsoever between science and religion. One can practice one or the other or both, but to pretend that they yield common insights into the nature of the world is an intellectual travesty. To go further, as Smith and so many religionists do, and assert that science is arrogant because it claims to provide the best answers to a circumscribed set of questions is astonishing, especially when the alleged alternative is so obviously the result of Pindaric flights of imagination. Now, here is my modest proposal: what if religions would treat themselves to a little dose of humility? Imagine what the world would be like in that case.


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25 Comments »

25 Comments

  1. Pete Swinford says:

    Beautiful. The problem with preachers and such is that the ignorant come to think of them as deep thinkers. This article clearly shows the difference.

  2. Jeffrey Herrmann says:

    Risible twaddle from a pompous gasbag. He brings to mind Extreme Distinguished Professor Jonas Elijah Klapper from Rebecca Goldstein’s Thirty-Six Arguments for the Existence of God. Perhaps Alan Sokol can be enlisted again to spoof this fool.

  3. M Henri Day says:

    Thanks, Professor Pigliucci, for this incisive description of the distinction between natural science and religion ! The fact that Mr Smith chooses to use (misunderstood) examples from quantum mechanics to represent science, on the one hand, and ancient and medieval writers to represent religion, on the other, is telling : in the case of natural science, we (H sapiens sapiens) have come a long way since Galileo Galilei laid the foundations of modern science at the beginning of the 17th century, while as regards religion, we «know» nothing more than we thought we did hundreds or even thousands of years ago. «Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens….»

    Henri

  4. Ben Paul says:

    I love this article, Dr. Pigliucci. Thank you for taking the time to write it. However, as someone who recently took the GRE, I feel compelled to mention one tiny thing: Your use of the word “travesty” was incorrect. A travesty is an inferior imitation of a serious work. So, to make a claim (e.g., that science and religion yield common insights) can’t be an intellectual travesty, because the claim is not trying to imitate anything. Sorry to nitpick a splendid article!

  5. opinionated old fart says:

    Half way through the first sentence I thought “what is this crap?” I didn’t expect to see such verbiage on this site. Fortunately I noticed the quotation marks around it and finished the article. Good article! Too many people (especially preachers) seem to think that flowery rhetoric is a brain substitute.
    As far as Anoracle’s comments are concerned, I have to say that paranoid hyperbole on the part of skeptics doesn’t help matters. A few religionists fit his description, but most are just well meaning people who believe a lot of nonsense, and cause a lot of harm.

  6. kennwrite says:

    C.S. Lewis: “Christianity claims to be telling us about another world, about something behind the world we can touch and hear and see.” Never mind, of course, that physicists can bring sophisticated empirical evidence to support their claim about the emptiness of space, while Christianity is made up of a series of fantastic and contradictory stories backed by no evidence whatsoever.

    I’m extracting this passage from the article because the statement is not true. Christianity doesn’t merely create “fantastic and contradictory stories…” The gist of Christianity rests on one fact alone: Did a man walk out of a tomb after he died in order to live again? If you believe it, you can be a Christian, and if not, no matter. But to those who believe it, it matters. The “evidence” is a moment of acceptance that guides one’s life to a better state than life would be without this acceptance. Why not put a little magic in your coffee?

    Keep in mind, I’m not a Christian, but love the stories. Paul the Apostle, the preserver of the Jesus-got-out-of-the-tomb experience, used this device to give people definitions of faith, love and hope in a world of despair, and created a sense of community. These definitions, for millions, hold true today.

    Many Christians find solace in their definitions of faith, hope and love based on a guy who got up out of the ground and wafted into a place called Heaven. To them, this is a fact.

    What I constantly question as I grow old is this: Is this such a bad fact to base life on? Science doesn’t bring us back to life. According to my understanding, if science could make me live to 700 years old, gravity would flatten me to the shape of a pancake well before that time was reached.

    Give people a few “lies”, the stories of Christianity, and for some, life ain’t so bad. I fear that religion becomes quashed so much so that there will be few alive who will appreciate Milton’s Paradise Lost … Milton, by the way, was probably a creationist, though the term applied to him as understood by today’s terms is somewhat anachronistic.

    I love that science pursues fact. I also love that my old grandmother, a few months before she died, in her senility, could summarize a scientific discussion with an absurd phrase: “I don’t know what you’re all talking about, it’s all mind over matter.”

    There is a place for religion and its stories, “facts” to some. I hope we don’t ever become Stalinesque and quash the church and kill the beauty of the stories and what they mean to many who find faith, hope and love in them.

    The preachiness of science as a new religion is just as taxing as a Jehovah witness cramming a new insight into Revelation down my throat. However, I have to admit, I love a good debate about Revelation.

    Sometimes I wonder … which is more likely, a wormhole opening up somewhere just past Andromeda, or a man in a white sheet who suddenly walks up on a crowd after an accident, heals a victim with the touch of his hand, and proclaims himself the savior? Which would I rather see, and which would be more likely to send chills through my spine?

    Science is great, but so are the stories of the Bible.

    • Mary says:

      Your romantic view of a little “magic” in your coffee would be charmingly harmless if religious fervor were kept to oneself. Unfortunately, enormous damage has been done when zealots think everybody else should abide by the same beliefs and values. There’s a lot of blood on the hands of those fighting in the name of their God, both figuratively and realistically. That’s where the “beauty” ends. Go ahead and base your life on the “fact” of wafting up to heaven — just don’t impose it on me.

      • CDN says:

        Mary,

        “The blood on the hands” is not a function of religion – its more a function of not being able to control ones mind and emotions. Patriotism has probably killed more people than religion. You could also argue atom bombs and the billions of dollars spent on weapons related science has killed even more people.

        Assigning blame to religion for deaths shows an unscientific analysis – similar to the ones you criticize.

        Cheers

        CDN

        • P K Narayanan says:

          It is not the recipe that matters; what matters is the taste and ingestion of the stuff that is cooked.

          • CDN says:

            Please point out to flaws in logic, rather than quoting a metaphor – that is the tool used by fake Godmen to fool the masses, not used by someone who follows a scientific/rational approach.

    • Loughlin Tatem says:

      Alice in Wonderland is an interesting inspirational story, but people would be mad if they believe they are going to live in Wonderland after they die.

  7. Robert Reynolds says:

    Here is the view of “Who Are We?”, a webbook I’ve posted at

    Do religion and science provide complementary viewpoints?

    … some people think of religion and science as being complementary, religion talking about things unknowable (necessarily mysterious) and science talking about things knowable.

    Religion offers consolation without explanation and science offers explanation (in the form of description) without consolation. It depends on what we are looking for whether or not we see them as complementary.

  8. Robert Reynolds says:

    Well, I guess promotion of web-based material is a no-no. Google “Who Are We?” webbook if you’re interested.

  9. Inayat says:

    I have not read Huston Smith so cannot comment.
    The tone of Dr. Massimo Pigliucci’s article sounds sarcastic and a quite a bit contemptuous of religion. This tone seems to demean the nobility of skepticism and blur it with cynicism and arrogance.
    I have no love of christianity or other forms of organized religion as they have often been practiced. But I believe any skeptic could agree that humans need meaning. Religion has been an attempt to meet that real need and has even succeeded in part. Science has had some serious moral breaches in its past as well.

    “There is no parallel whatsoever between science and religion.” seems like a hasty and overly broad conclusion to come to in a book review. Esteemed skeptic Carl Sagan has done a masterful job bridging the illusory gulf between our need to know and our need for transcendence. Let us get over this “science vs religion” game and honestly acknowledge the virtues and shortcomings of both. If Smiths book is pompous nonsense, then lets keep it to that and not implicate all religion as well.

  10. Andrew Glynn says:

    Aside from stating nothing of substance, this looks like another straw man attack on a nobody to prove a point Mr. Pigliucci could never make if discussing somebody of merit. Whomever the target is (and I’m not altogether familiar with him, what he loosely calls ‘metaphysics’ I call superstition) he certainly isn’t a metaphysician on the level of Hegel, a mystic on the level of Meister Eckhart, or a philosopher with a strong sense of the limitations of science on the level of Heidegger or Derrida. If you want to attack a viewpoint you have to attack its strongest incarnation.

    This kind of Dawkinsian smug self-conceit is not going to convince anyone with superstitious views to abandon them, nor on the other hand is it going to satisfy anyone with an understanding of what philosophy, metaphysics, religion, or science itself are actually concerned with. It is there to preach to the ignorance of the scientistic faithful that subscribe to your magazine.

    Your ignorance of the religiosity of your own viewpoints would amaze me were I not reminded that while intelligence is always finite, stupidity is our most common and perhaps only experience of the infinite.

    Andrew Glynn

  11. Gerald Guild says:

    I believe spirituality does not necessarily demand mysticism. It’s too bad that those who seek “the meaning of life” cannot get it through a deep understanding of the splendor of nature. As a formerly religious person I have garnered deeper and more meaningful spiritualism through developing an increasingly complex understanding of the world around me. Through the “teachings” of astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and evolution I have come to see the “miraculous” quality of our existence and to sit in awe of our ability to think and debate these concepts.

    Science cannot define meaning, but to suggest that it cannot provide meaning is selling it short. I deeply value this ideology-free empirical endeavor with governing rules in pursuit of truth. I do not view it as a religion; as science and religion employ vastly different rules (falsifiability for one).

  12. Disappointed says:

    I just signed up for eSkeptic and after reading this first article was about to unsubscribe, but the comments gave me hope.

    What audience is the author writing for and with what purpose? I fail to see the value in this piece.

    In my field, medicine, science is misused by people who claim to be scientists, not by people claiming to be religious. The numerous statements about treatments being “proven safe and effective” are but one glaring class of examples. Articles signed by researchers which are ghostwritten by pharmaceutical company marketers is another. Publishing studies that support a hypothesis and canceling or burying studies that disprove the same hypothesis is another.

    Taking on those who distort science in the name of science (the pharmaceutical industry for example) is a far more important, and difficult, task than poking fun at those who distort science in the name of religion.

  13. P K Narayanan(Dr) says:

    It is painfully astonishing to see that the so-called propagandists of religion are given so much publicity through out the world today: All the media, especially the electronic media, including websites, are full of the trash called religion and omnipotent powers of entities outside the realm of physical world.

    Religion is a set of “beliefs” concerning the cause, nature and purpose of universe and it is an organized system of belief in and worship of god or gods. “Belief” is a process of holding as true in mind an event, matter,thing or anything that has no objective reality in the material world. Therefore the very sound ‘religion’ denotes something that has no truth or factuality, something that which is a product of subjectivism.

    Science is a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of truths and facts systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws of physical or material world.

    How stupid it is if someone tries to equate religion with science! What a perversity it is on the part of those ‘learned’ religionalists to draw parallels between religion and science! Of course science is really omnipotent because science has authority science has power: But the authority and power are veste4d in the domain of physical world; not in the realm of hallucinatory imaginations of subjective cognition.

    • CDN says:

      Dr Narayanan,

      Your comments smack of the same bias that the people you criticize appear to have. If you really had bothered to read the essence of religions (not the myths, folklore, fairy tales – but the principles they point to – since you are an India read Advaita – Ramana Maharishi’s talks or Nisargadatta’s I Am That), you would realize that it is NOT based on belief.

      Just like you are shocked that “religious” people can talk about science, so am I that you can talk about religion! What perversity!

      Science is arguably about the process you follow in arriving at your conclusions, not the conclusions themselves (otherwise there shouldn’t have been so many discoveries in science that go against what was previous accepted as scientific truth). So if it is really about the process, then how can you criticize religion without following the same process in investigating religion?

      If a “religious” person says the universe came out of nothing, you would ridicule it. Scientists say the same – that the universe came out of nothing through a big bang. Ha! The statement would be “unscientific” coming out of the mouth of someone who has not followed a scientific process to investigate that statement and arrive the conclusion and vice versa.

      Please get your thinking straight, try to remove your bias, investigate what you criticize with so much arrogance.

      Have fun.

      • P K Narayanan(Dr) says:

        Hi CDN,

        From my past pursuits of physiology of nervous system and the phenomena the stimuli from the environs bring out and from the experiences I have gained from the study of sensations, perceptions, conceptions and judgments leading
        to the formation of memories, including those which have no objective reality in the physical plane, I strongly feel that my comments were/are not biased, not the least meant to open and close the issues involved with some smart idea of making sound: When I put the words, it was straight from my learning of what religion is, what belief represents and what science means. The definitions were quoted from most referred to Dictionaries. I hesitate to think that you would disagree with the meanings of these words, (religion, belief and science) which I had quoted.

        I am primarily a world citizen and secondly an India born Indian. Being an Indian does not and should not necessarily make a person an Advait: I know what is “Thatvamassi:- I AM THAT. The very complexity in the development of human brain, the development that led to the formation of second signal system, enabled humans to think, evaluate and present things that have empirical evidence and also things which cannot be proved through the method of science. All those philosophical thoughts and explanations, including Thatvamassi are the products of the latter caliber. In the annals of history of sciences, it is never ever written that an invention at a particular point of time in space is final and unalterable. Such a concept is foreign to science, it is against the principles of science, it is anathema.

        Science and religion represent different paths, one path cannot be equated with the other path: Path of science traverses a different line of pursuits from that of religion. What I said in my comments was not at criticism
        of religion in the perverse sense it purports but a critique of factual positions of both science and religion.

        As on date, Astronomy concludes that the universe came into being as a result of that big explosion of the tiny but heavily concentrated ball-like matter. This big bang theory is currently being studied by CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research): Results of the experiments at LHC (Large Hadron Collider) conducted in November 2009 indicate that there is ample credence in the premise of the “big bang”. Religion might agree to the idea of big bang but the exception religion makes is that god created the bang, no proof, no experiments to fathom the mystery as to how and when god made the explosion. Nothing to wonder about it: For, that is the difference between science and religion, nay, science and god.

        CDN, I thank you for your advise to think straight and to remove bias: The process of thinking is a physiological function of the Central Nervous System. In this process there is no such thing as straight or curved thinking. I have no biases: really, truly.

        PKN – 2.30 PM IST – 17-3-2010.

  14. David says:

    It is not true that Science is only about the process, but it is most importantly about the conclusions themselves. Science needs both: the process (such as experiments, reproducibility of evidence, etc…) AND the conclusions which are creating a model that can be used. When Netwon “discovered” gravity, he followed a scientific approach (observations, measurements, formulation of hypothesis and validation by experiments) but the result was a mathematical model that could be used to predict planet movements, and a few centuries later, to send men to the moon. Science can be applied (and quite likely it’s applicability was most likely the primary reason for the scientific journey). This is why on the other hand, the God hypothesis doesn’t bring anything to the scientific endeavor: you can not create any predictive model out of it.

    For your other misconception, actually, a “religious” person doesn’t say the universe came out of nothing (that’s what scientists say), but “religious” persons say the universe came out of God. So, I’m afraid religious and scientists do not say the same on that point. As far as I know, “scientists” say the universe came out of a singular event called “big bang” about 14 billions years ago, while “religious” say the universe came out of a magic creation from a super being a few thousands years ago, and that it took him 6 days to create it… I do not see any commonality between those 2 statements.

    • CDN says:

      David,

      I will start by responding to your second paragraph as it leads logically to the first one.

      In response to “For your other misconception, actually, a “religious” person doesn’t say the universe came out of nothing (that’s what scientists say), but “religious” persons say the universe came out of God. ” PLEASE DO READ texts from Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism. That is EXACTLY what these religions say i.e GOD is Emptiness, Nothingness, Cognizing Emptiness. The crux of all these religious teachings is the “Nothingness that is the potent source of everything” or “cognizing emptiness” as the Buddhists refer to it. (If you want I would be happy to quote dozens of ancient books that mention EXACTLY that – but you can google it yourself and read. Among the modern western experts on this topic read Sailor Bob Adamson, Leo Hartong, Randall Friend, Francis Lucille, etc or read from India Nisargadatta or Ramana Maharishi). If you define “religion” to be just Christianity, then you may be right. I am not an expert on that. However, The Gospel of Thomas appears to be much closer to what the eastern religions say. However, for the sake of being a true Skeptic, do your research before dismissing eastern religions so lightly and flippantly. Please understand that is an “unscientific” attitude and does not meet the standards this website sets for itself in exploring all other matters.

      This takes me to your first paragraph. The only difference between modern “science” and the Eastern religions is that the latter claims that every person can directly experience this truth (universe coming out of nothingness) for themselves. When the Eastern texts were written thousands of years ago,the only “lab” they had was the “internal” one. So yes, the essence of these religions do have a defined outcome. The outcome is experiencing the “Oneness”/”Non-duality” – the source of all creation – which is Cognizing Emptiness as the Buddhists refer to it or “Nothingness/Awareness” as it is interpreted in English.

      For the sake of science and for the sake of truth, I invite each of you to PLEASE investigate this fully before dismissing it – failing which would make me, and others who read this site, lose faith in the Skeptic’s claim to, well, be a Skeptic (Dictionary.com defines Skeptic as “a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual”).

      Claiming that “religious people say universe came out of God” is NOT the same as “scientists claim the universe came out of nothing” is factually incorrect.

      If you want to keep the discussion purely to Christianity vs. Science, then that statement may be ok.

  15. Aryeh Siegel says:

    You seem to agree with Huston Smith that science is not the only source of knowledge – and this is his main argument against what we calls “scientism” not science. He states clearly and correctly in non-poetic language that science cannot justify claims regarding meanings, values and purposes. The existence of general parallels between religion and science is a side point that may be a source of philosphical reflection, but is not essential to the thesis of “Forgotten Truth” – that wisdom can be found in the spiritual traditions not in science.

  16. maria says:

    Sarcasm is indeed the lowest form of wit- in this case shoddy scholarship. If you had not been so vicious I might have been inclined to find you more reasonable and heard the content of the debate more equitably. If you had said something to balance out your criticisms and explained why you bothered to read Huston other than rectify what you consider presumably to be his unmerited status in society you might have led me to consider you a balanced scholar.

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