I‘ll begin this article with a very special form of the Argument from Ignorance.Call it the “Argument from Ignorance of Future Discoveries.” This is the fallacious idea that our ignorance of future discovery requires us to strongly consider anyone’s speculation about what might eventually be discovered. Here’s an example from a recent comment:
“People in the middle ages didn’t know about radio waves, yet they were everywhere. They just didn’t have receivers in those days. How can you be sure that there are not spiritual ‘vibrations’ all around us, and our instruments are just not refined enough to detect them?”
“Many things (like every known invention/technology) were once thought by scientists and others to be impossible. As the instruments of inquiry become more sensitive, more of the ‘truth’ becomes known.”
These statements appeal to common human cognitive biases toward making assumptions about the unknown. Some of these tendencies are hard wired. Others are an outgrowth of accelerating advancements and discoveries (and people’s inability to keep up). Most people are baffled by the pace of discovery and change. So they throw their hands up in a kind of “what will they think of next?” confusion. They then wrongly conclude that anything they can imagine that seems “futuristic” is equally likely to be eventually discovered.
These biases are less analytical than a declaration of a desire by the person for a state or phenomenon. The new-age “subjective wish fulfillment” progression is a pernicious mental trap. It goes something like this:
- I thought of it, or I felt it, or I dreamed it, or I experienced a powerful “ineffable gestalt.”
- It gave me a sense of freedom, of possibility, of oneness, and I felt transcendent–for a moment I escaped the humdrum of normal materialistic existence. I want to discover how to inhabit that state permanently (and potentially overcome death).
- We really don’t know everything. You can’t prove it’s not real or it couldn’t someday be real.
- True or not, it gives me hope, and I’d rather have hope than despair, so don’t try to analyze it (because I’m secretly afraid it might not hold up to scrutiny).
The shifting of the burden of proof is the key here. It is one thing to have an imagination–a state of respectful anticipation, saying “I wonder if that might be possible…?” Then we can systematically go about dissecting the problem, and slowly discovering the solution. That takes firm discipline.
But believers refuse to be limited to either a sense of possibility or a methodological approach. They want their quick fix. They get downright specific and declarative about what exists and what will be discovered. They consider it to be self-evident, and they get extremely petulant when pressed to support their claims. They accuse anyone who questions them of harboring “negative energy.” Even Buddhists (who I consider to be the least destructive of the major religions) get carried away with such ideas as: “We are pure energy. We are part of the universal “ground of being.” We are pure thought, all matter is maya (illusion).” Et cetera.
Worse, having dreamed up a universe of pure consciousness, they populate it with personalities of their own choosing–usually archetypes from scriptures or that reflect traditional visions of human perfection or transcendence. These are metaphorical superheroes who are not subject to the puny laws of physics. In so doing they have embraced Platonic dualism, turning an elusive and invisible daydream into a reality they consider to be more concrete than the world in which they live. All mystical persuasions ultimately fall back on the inability to disprove this alternate reality, and the impenetrability of personal experience and subjective consciousness.
But back to our original subject: the painstaking work it took just to make meaningful sense out of something as simple as radio waves. (And radio’s a walk in the park compared to the “ground of being.”) There were many interim steps. Anyone who might have imagined the concept of radio in the middle ages remained a dreamer so long as they lacked a detailed understanding of electromagnetism. My favorite example is of course Leonardo da Vinci, who designed workable concepts for airplanes 500 years before they were ever built. Da Vinci was on the right track, but his designs were impractical because they lacked sufficient propulsive power. Da Vinci knew he was a visionary. Instead of purveying vague notions, he charted a path to the future–one that would remain unrealized until long after his death. It took centuries of scientific discipline to finish what he started.
Dreams without discipline lead nowhere, sap the dreamer’s energy, and confuse others. Dreams with discipline lead to steady material progress and vastly increased awareness.
Practical steps toward the invention of radio began long before the middle ages with Thales of Miletos initial scientific discussion of magnetism around 600 BCE. He also discovered static electricity by rubbing amber. It would be nearly 2,500 years before the true nature of the actual link between electricity and magnetism was discovered. It took more than a half-dozen separate discoveries or developments to bring radio from a concept to a useful and ubiquitous technology:
- Calculus and differential equations
- Physics of electromagnetic wave propagation–simply put: that electric and magnetic fields propagate by inducing each other and travel in 2 separate planes separated by 90 degrees.
- The precise analysis of #4 through Maxwell’s Equations
- Materials science to develop metals needed to construct large radio towers such as the one pictured above.
- Development of high-power amplifiers, first using vacuum tubes, then solid state components.
These steps made radio possible. But entirely other steps were needed to make it commercially practical.
- Wired telegraphy.
- Wired telephony.
- Wireless telegraphy.
This admittedly pedantic discussion has a point: Hindsight is 20-20. And since most of the 2,500 year development cycle for radio took place before we were born, there are few people alive today who remember the days before radio was a fact of life. So there is little direct experience for the incredibly lengthy and detailed process of discovery which led to its use.
So the next time you hear someone use the radio wave argument, remind them of this process. In the middle ages, only a charlatan could have claimed any knowledge of radio. People may have imagined it conceptually, but it would have been about as useful for communication as Da Vinci’s airplane drawings circa the late 1400s were for practical flight. Which is to say, totally and completely useless. His unsuccessful flight test on January 3, 1496 underscored this point.
We should be highly suspect when people claim that science will ultimately “catch-up” to spirituality by validating new-age or Buddhist concepts like “non-locality” or consciousness as “the ground of being” or the spirit world as the origin of the material world. Such claims should be scoffed at and ignored unless and until the phenomena in question can be subject to detailed scrutiny. We should consider these claims as lunatic as a town crier in medieval times trying to sell us airtime on an imaginary radio network.
Here’s a challenge to the know-it-all new-agers who claim “science doesn’t know everything” as they babble about such lofty subjects such as quantum uncertainty and wave-particle duality: If you want to be taken seriously, start by learning to derive Maxwell’s equations. Then we’ll talk.
The radio waves that are always all around us are why I cover my entire head with tin foil 24-7, with holes for only my eyes and my mouth. Obviously, Blacksun, you don’t understand the incredible threat posed by mind-reading radio waves.
BUT, I must praise you for this brilliant sentence: “Dreams without discipline lead nowhere, sap the dreamerâ€™s energy, and confuse others. Dreams with discipline lead to steady material progress and vastly increased awareness.”
Imagine if all dreams were followed through. No harsh realities like the need to support a family, the difficulty of devoting yourself long-term to an idea that will probably yield nothing of value, cost money rather than generating a profit…imagine…what would the world be like if everyone had the luxury to explore the possibilities lying dormant in their minds? What would have been invented, solved, discovered, proved, etc. I’d like to know.
Great analysis of an increasingly common “new age” argument. This discussion is related to the wider issue of people cherry picking evidence to support beliefs that are often elaborately constructed based on their feelings — rather than forming knowledge based on a wide map of empirical evidence. It’s often damned inconvenient to stick to facts, but at least it’s authentic.
Very insightful analysis, good job. I would really like to point out one very important distinction the radio wave argument ignores:
The argument assumes that radio waves are similar to the idea of “spiritual vibrations” in terms of verifiability. (In other words the latter can be verified like radio waves) So you have to assume verifiability in order to accept the argument as reasonable.
But the verifiability is the very argument in question. “As the instruments of inquiry become more sensitive, more of the â€˜truthâ€™ becomes known.” Therefore, I would say this argument is begging the question.
Who came up with this shit anyway?
That’s the rub, isn’t it? New agers are so frustrated that science is holding all the cards that they are desperate to find a toehold. But since none of their claims of “spiritual energy” can be tested, the only thing that works is to say: “Someday, you’ll see. We’re so far ahead of scientists that they can’t even measure the things we’re talking about yet.”
Which assumes without proof that they will one day be able to be measured. Which is unprovable and therefore devolves into a circular argument, or as you said, begging the question.
As to who comes up with this shit?? I get email….
Agreed, all this new age crap boils down to is confusing beliefs based on faith with those based on rationality or empirical evidence. It bothers me when people try to justify their faith through logical argumentation, when they don’t even have a decent grasp of analytic reasoning.
Pretty good statement about the thought process: â€œDreams without discipline lead nowhere, sap the dreamerâ€™s energy, and confuse others. Dreams with discipline lead to steady material progress and vastly increased awareness.â€ Perhaps you have a future with quotes.com. lol
Yes. I’ve often thought so. Science survives because, being for the most part correct, it grants its practioners (and above all it’s more oportunistic supporters) huge power. On the other hand, most people cannot understand science because they cannot think that way (in fact, scientific thinking is so unnatural that it takes the most congenial minds a few decades of training to be able to embrace it), and so they fear it and despise it.
Thus, they will fantasize about being able to defeat it on a level playing field (like the Jack Chick tracts), or, when moved to action, they will attempt to defeat it through sheer force of numbers (like the religious right).
[…] The â€œRadio Waveâ€ Argument […]
I like where you go with this, and that line “Dreams without discipline lead nowhere, sap the dreamerâ€™s energy, and confuse others. Dreams with discipline lead to steady material progress and vastly increased awareness” is a great one.
I’m a very logic oriented person myself, and your argument appeals to that.
I wonder why we can’t allow for the possibility that science will give us some understanding to the mystic? I mean, we needed Da Vinci to point out that flight was possible, to give people a reason to develop it, we shouldn’t “consider these claims as lunatic as a town crier in medieval times trying to sell us airtime on an imaginary radio network. ” We should politely thank him for his contributions, call him a bit queer and eccentric, but remember that if someone has the idea, it provides the spark for future change.
I personally am to the agnostic side of atheist, but I think there are some underlying things going on that we have yet to discover. Could be god, could be the matrix, could be Jung’s collective unconscious, who knows. I think there’s *something* going on, and the more people who come up with crazy ass theories, the more ideas we can test if and when we come up with some kind of measurable effect.
I kind of think quantum physics digs at the surface, but we’ll see (or not).
Either way, your article sparks thought. This is what I like =)
Joe, good points. Here’s why I don’t think science will ever provide insight into the mystical: To understand something is to demystify it. To use our example, radio would have seemed mystical to anyone before it was understood. A way of communicating thousands of miles through the air? Preposterous. A miracle.
As Arthur C. Clarke said, "sufficiently high technology is indistinguishable from magic."
So as science solves mysteries, the mystical shrinks. But the unknown is and always will be boundless. Mysticism as a concept is overrated. It simply implies a state of unknowing–a shroud, a fog. Mysteries should be solved. And solving them does not make our appreciation of the former mysteries any less wonderful. This is the point of Richard Dawkins book Unweaving the Rainbow
Think about the effects of love or music on the brain. Does knowing how brain chemistry induces states of euphoria in response diminish our enjoyment? Does knowing the chemical formula of rose oil ruin our enjoyment of the fragrance?
The unknown is so vast that today we can’t even imagine what people 50 years from now will be wondering about, let alone what they’ll know. I find that concept strangely comforting. We can be certain that most of what people imagine about the unknown will turn out to be laughably wrong. It doesn’t mean don’t speculate. But we should not get carried away, lest we jump on this or that bandwagon that turns out to just one more blind alley of conjecture. Unless they are willing to subject their own thoughts to the scientific method–and put in the time and discipline to learn critical thinking–non-scientists just have to let go of their expectations, and wait to see what science comes up with.
And that my friend is exactly the point!
We should all take the time and discipline to learn critical thinking, and put some of those crazy theories to the scientific method. Creativity is the heart of invention and sometimes you have to believe in what appears to be totally and utterly mystical to the common person, in order to understand it as a reality.
I find it interesting to think that in 50 years, not only did what we thought we know about the unknown prove to be laughably wrong, but that what we thought we know about reality could prove to be just as wrong.
Some people believe in ghosts, some people in UFO’s, some people in attractor patterns that govern chaos. I think we should investigate these theories with as much realism as we can muster. If we discount them as lunatic, we may never discover the truth in them, or at least we will bias any investigations we do conduct. We should use the scientific method to explore these ideas from as un-biased of a position as possible. At least give them the opportunity to be reality.
I mean, my thought process gives drastically more credence to UFO’s than ghosts, but until I have concrete proof that no such thing exists I will continue to allow it a place in my realm of possibility. I have no intention of accepting it blindly, but neither will I discount it rashly.
Following the quote: “sufficiently high technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I agree absolutely. What we currently discount as mystical may yet turn out to be simply higher technology than we understand today. If we say mysticism encapsulates all that we do not understand, that shouldn’t discount the possibility that one day we may understand, and take the mystery out of it.
A soon as science provides the insight, it is no long mystical. Precisely like radio waves, what would have once been considered witchery turns out to be technology. Science has given us understanding into the mystical, and we have realized that it was only mystical, because it remained yet a mystery. Mysticism *IS* overrated, it should not be accepted as the answer(“it’s magic”), it should be a springboard for learning the real answers.
For me, critical thought means questioning both possibility and IMpossibility. Absolutely let go of your expectations.
If someone tells me something is possible, I ask why (or how)?
If someone tells me something is not possible, I ask why not?
Damn i should cut these shorter..
Or not, I enjoy it if you do. ;o)