Two-for-One Review: “Many Lives, Many Masters” and “Crimes Against Logic”July 23, 2009 at 10:01 am | Posted in Nonfiction, Two-for-One Review | Leave a comment
These books might seem, at first glance, like strange bedfellows for a Two-for-One Review. I have to do it, though, because on our trip last weekend my man Rocket Scientist and I found ourselves reading these books at the same time. Every time I would nudge him and have him read a few lines, he would laugh and point at his book, because it seemed to be addressing something relevant.
Many Lives, Many Masters is subtitled: The True Story of a Prominent Psychiatrist, His Young Patient, and the Past-Life Therapy That Changed Both Their Lives. I read it because my mom wanted me to. When I gave it back to her, I said, “When you offer me a book and ask me to tell you what I think, you should make sure you really want to know.” See, my degree is in history, and my family often calls upon me to critique things like the costuming in historical movies. I read a few reviews of this book, and none that I could find seemed to address this book from an historian’s perspective.
Let me start right out by saying that I am not a debunker. In fact I’m a big old New Ager. I believe in reincarnation. Why not? Frankly I don’t think it matters in the slightest what happens after death. It just doesn’t. We’re here now and we need to make the most of it, because when we do die, we’re definitely not going to carry on just as we are here on earth. Who cares what’s next? There’s no way to prove it, and nobody agrees, so let’s move on to things we can agree on, like having less stress in life. And if we’re bothered by something, it doesn’t seem to matter whether it originated in a past life experience or not. The fact is that we’ll have to accommodate our reaction to the bad experience one way or the other. Maybe I have a chronic pain. Is it related to a spear wound my spirit received in 963 AD? *shrug* My problem is, it’s bothering me now. Back to the review.
Weiss’s patient makes some specific comments about things that happened in different time periods. (Most of her regressions seem to involve general comments about hair and eye color and family composition). There is a pretty basic problem with trying to “prove” reincarnation by “verifying” past life regression information: if it’s based on verifiable facts, it’s open to criticism, because the person could have heard of that information somewhere; if it’s not verifiable, well, then we can’t verify it. We would need someone to say something under hypnosis that was then verified years later by a brand-new archaeological dig, or a rediscovered document that had never before been translated into that person’s language. The deeper problem is that when someone in this context does make a statement that can be verified, we’re under an obligation to do so.
“Elizabeth” says (p. 41) that she wore clothing “made from animal skins” in “Kirustan Territory” in the Netherlands. In 1473. To quote a famous scientist, “That’s not even wrong.” Look, clothing made from woven fabrics predates written history. The 15th-century Dutch definitely wore what we would consider to be real clothes, and anyone – even a rural villager – who ran around in skins would have excited commentary. Look at some of Jan Van Eyck’s paintings, for example.
One of the underpinnings of this book is that “Elizabeth” knew things under hypnosis that she couldn’t have known at all, or didn’t know when she was conscious. On page 111 she starts talking about Egyptian deities, and mentions Hathor. Dr. Weiss is amazed. Yet she came to him for therapy in the first place after visiting an Egyptian exhibit at a museum! These hypnosis sessions occurred in the early 80’s, so Weiss’s belief that Elizabeth had never been exposed to ideas like reincarnation or karma seems odd. Anyone who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s could hardly have missed exposure to album and book covers, posters, movies, magazine articles, and overheard conversations, many of which must have dealt with unconventional spiritual matters. It was the zeitgeist. Say I’m wrong and she was hermetically mentally sealed against all things New Age – Weiss’s belief that Elizabeth learned private personal matters about him through psychic powers really kinda belongs in a separate book. Proof of psychic powers doesn’t simultaneously prove reincarnation, though that would be cool.
On pages 167-8 Elizabeth is talking about being a soldier. “I hear them talking about Moors… and a war that’s being fought…. The year is 1483. Something about Danes. Are we fighting the Danes? Some war is being fought.” First I have to ask if this is the same lifetime in which she was wearing animal skins in the Netherlands, because that was 1473. Second, I have to ask what on earth we are talking about here. If there had been a medieval war involving both Danes and Moors, I’m pretty positive we would know about it. In the 15th century, there were Moors in Spain, sure, but warfare in Denmark was limited to its quarrels with Sweden. “Danes” usually refers to Vikings, who were lost to the depths of history by the 12th century. When I had my man Rocket Scientist read this paragraph, his eyebrows about shot off the top of his forehead. We giggled helplessly while the other plane passengers tried to ignore us.
What laypeople don’t always understand about history, especially recent history like the late medieval period, is that it’s backed up by many overlapping sources: books, diaries, letters, paintings, archaeology, dendrochronology… It gets progressively harder to miss large-scale events the closer we get to contemporary times. It’s important to learn about history because it puts the present in context, and it helps us avoid the mistakes of our forebears.
On the other end of the skeptical spectrum is Jamie Whyte’s Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders. We can only applaud Whyte’s desire to bring critical thinking skills to the masses, and we wish to assist in whatever way we can. We do, however, want to ask Mr. Whyte about his audience.
See, there’s this phenomenon we call “preaching to the choir.” If you want to exhort people to believe something, they tend to fall into three categories: already agree with you; neutral and prefer not to be bothered; and The Opposed, who know what you’re selling and hate you for it. Whyte addresses this issue in his section on Begging the Question. There are people out there who cherish their irrational beliefs. If you want them to discard these beliefs, you have to meet them in the middle. How are you going to motivate your opposition to buy, read, and be converted by your book? Take them seriously and set the debate using their terms.
Like most skeptics, Whyte appears to take atheism for granted. Ten pages in, he tells us: “Most of my friends… claim to believe in a “superior intelligence” or “something higher than us.” Yet they will also cheerfully admit the absence of even a shred of evidence.” So you’re saying there is nothing in the universe greater than the conscious human mind? Then how do you keep breathing while you sleep? Does the conscious human mind organize and propel galaxies? Come on. If you think the human brain is so powerful, have you ever tried to get a song out of your head?
On the same theme, that there simply must not be a divine universal power of any kind, Whyte addresses the problem of evil (p. 85). There can’t be a god because of the inconsistency of an all-powerful, all-good being that allows evil. Skeptics and believers are never going to agree on this – it’s another case of begging the question. Who defines evil? Is a hurricane evil if no beings are harmed? What makes it ‘evil’ is the fact that people live in its path and some of them die. That’s our perception. People have died from choking on food. People die. If nobody died and the birth rate remained constant, I guarantee people would wish for death eventually! I believe evil derives from free will and human perception. If a deity controlled our every act and thought, there would hardly be a point in living. But these are religious/philosophical beliefs. To me there is very little point in debating these topics.
Whyte trips over himself a bit when he uses the Declaration of Independence as an example of illogic. He says it isn’t self-evident that all men are created equal and entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (I should mention that he’s not an American, a fact of which I’m sure he is quite glad). Undoubtedly he is right – our Declaration is a beautiful piece of outrageous rhetoric – but where would we be if we had to compose every decision like a mathematical proof? “We hold these truths to be backed up by rigorous double-blind psychological testing, that some people tend to resent slavery.” Erk. Similarly he takes issue with an element of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He even points out that it’s illogical to write off a belief just because Hitler believed it. Um, could you not have found less controversial examples to teach us logic?
The section on Weird Ideas (p. 91) takes the cake. Whyte writes off numerology, astrology, and homeopathy, among other things, saying we know they’re just weird. Now, how is this going to convince anyone who believes in these things to stop believing in them? I happen to think it’s weird for people to wear uncomfortable shoes to work, and even weirder for everyone to work a 40-hour week when the amount of work required varies from person to person and day to day. Not everyone agrees on how to define weirdness.
Somehow there must be a path between being too credulous and too logical, between Shirley MacLaine and Mr. Spock.