Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Science versus "Spirituality" Brouhaha Again? With TED???

I was away on business when they elected a new pope.   I have an unwritten as of yet lengthy response in mind to my colleagues in the Buddhist blogosphere that were going in a sort of ecumenical direction regarding the new Pope, a.k.a. Francis.

But I saw something else come to my attention that I thought I'd set straight, though it promises to be at least as entertaining from a blogosphere food-fight perspective, and that has to do with the brouhaha regarding TED, two guys named Sheldrake and Hancock, P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne, if I've recalled all the names correctly.   

Apparently some folks don't like that P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne got Sheldrake's and Hancock's videos removed from a TED/TEDx site.    Apparently this is so because Myers and Coyne decried the pseudo-science in the Sheldrake and Hancock material.

I first got wind of this via C4Chaos (who has directed me to John Ratcliffe's blog ).

I myself am loathe to go into the details of Sheldrake /Hancock.  I've seen too many TED/TEDx videos in my lifetime.   However, I will make a few points...

  • I don't have any inclination to view a talk called "The Science Delusion."   The very name of the talk suggests a desire to frame the term "science" as we know and use it today into something it is not.   There is no "materialist science," "alternative science" or "mainstream science" apart from a science that deals with observables and the scientific method. Period.   And I might add P.Z. Myers' one paragraph critique of Sheldrake's video is more or less enough for me.   The constants of the universe might be changing, but that's only observed if we observe it according to the scientific method!
  • I have read a bit about Graham Hancock simply because that was most accessible in the time I had; if I had an inclination to produce TED/TEDx talks he'd be right up there with Ramtha in terms of my preferences for speakers...but I may be meaning that ironically on second thought. I might want to have a TED parody...but I I'm not...
  • Let's get this out front and center: TED/TEDx talks are largely bunk.   They're always more about style than content anyway. They've had some rather questionable folk in the past on, who put on rather questionable material.  Too much Malcolm Gladwell. Too much fancy graphics.  Too entertaining.  But the "curators" of TED/TEDx have the right to define what they call TED/TEDx any way they deem fit.  When people complain about "censorship" they're assuming that TED should put just anything on. They don't have to. And they can still be ideas worth spreading, if only as cautionary tales.
  • Actually I was digressing a bit.  While I haven't viewed the videos in question,  I have read this bit from Hancock to Chris Anderson who is the TED conference "curator."  Hancock quotes from his presentation:
 “What is death? Our materialist science reduces everything to matter. Materialist science in the West says that we are just meat, we’re just our bodies, so when the brain is dead that’s the end of consciousness. There is no life after death. There is no soul. We just rot and are gone. But actually any honest scientist should admit that consciousness is the greatest mystery of science and that we don’t know exactly how it works. The brain’s involved in it in some way, but we’re not sure how. Could be that the brain generates consciousness the way a generator makes electricity. If you hold to that paradigm then of course you can’t believe in life after death. When the generator’s broken consciousness is gone. But it’s equally possible that the relationship – and nothing in neuroscience rules it out – that the relationship is more like the relationship of the TV signal to the TV set and in that case when the TV set is broken of course the TV signal continues and this is the paradigm of all spiritual traditions – that we are immortal souls, temporarily incarnated in these physical forms to learn and to grow and to develop. And really if we want to know about this mystery the last people we should ask are materialist, reductionist scientists. They have nothing to say on the matter at all. Let’s go rather to the ancient Egyptians who put their best minds to work for three thousand years on the problem of death and on the problem of how we should live our lives to prepare for what we will confront after death…”
Now his second and third sentences create a straw-man.   And the "we just don't know" bit has its  own name as a logical fallacy: argumentum ad ignorantiam - the argument from ignorance.   There are models that deal with consciousness that deal with the relationship between what we observe and what is out there, but any of the useful ones, the ones we can talk about, exist in the structure of that which observable. 

I would find it interesting to say the least if Hancock were to litigate this thing.  He'd lose, if what he's quoted above is representative of the rest of his material.  Evidently he got his start pushing something that looks as well grounded scientifically as "the bible code," namely the Orion Correlation Theory.

I know some  people want their consciousness to be indicative of more than observables interacting with each other.  But the nature of observables are such that we can carry out useful things with the observables without any consideration, use or purpose of an underlying metaphysic.  That atheists pointed this out is immaterial to that point, and I'm sure P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne would agree on that - and even that their atheism is immaterial to the science itself.

We Buddhists of the Mahayana variety especially are fond of talking about non-duality, but I think some  do not get that non-duality does not mean that the structures of language and observation are somehow "false" in and of themselves. 事存函蓋合理應箭鋒拄 the Sandokai asserts.   Things exist, box and lid fit, principle responds, arrow points  meet.   The absolute doesn't trump the relative and vice versa.  Physical laws will be physical laws; observables being observed (and consequent measurable distortions therein) aren't trumped by anything "outside the system," because it's all here anyway.   And it's not as though we need to bend either Mahayana Buddhism or science to fit one another.  Our constraints are constraints one way or the other.


~C4Chaos said...

thanks for linking to my post on this latest TED mishap. I agree that TED has every right to censor what they want based on their policies. what I don't agree with is how TED staff and curator Chris Anderson handled the situation and and made up some bogus reasons after the fact, (see Graham Hancock's response to Chris Anderson).

that said, here's TED's policy on good/bad science. most of the guidelines is very sound and should be followed accordingly by organizers. but this part made me chuckle though "Marks of bad science: Has failed to convince many mainstream scientists of its truth". no wonder TED is so status quo. as i said before, its slogan should be changed to "Status Quo Ideas Worth Spreading" :)


~C4Chaos said...

P.S. again, John Ratcliff makes excellent points:

"If the people at TED are concerned about how invited guests at TEDx conference are hurting their brand, and clearly they are, then they need to start revoking some franchise rights immediately.

My recommendation to the people at TED is that you either (A) assume executive control over the peer review and vetting process for invited speakers at TEDx conferences or (B) disband and dissociate from them.

However, and I want to be very clear on this point, what you don't do is slander, attack, and suppress invited guests who gave up their own personal time to give a presentation at one of these events.

It is incredibly rude and hurts your 'brand' far worse than simply letting these popular talks by very famous people stay online in their original form."


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