Bootstrap

By Bias        

The first part of this article appeared originally in a slightly different version in The Malta Times. It formed the introduction of an invitation to attend an open lecture to be given by me at the Malta University under the title of "The mental powers of a Sceptic". The very well attended lecture resulted in the founding of a Malta Sceptics group. This body asked me to contribute to their publication The Beacon. I submitted (under the pseudonym Bias) the Malta Times article in its present form, extended by the promise of further critical contributions (see 3-doors and Ignorans Generalis).

Once upon a time the well-known Baron von Münchhausen quite by accident drove his coach, drawn by six horses, into a swamp. However much he applied the whip, the horses were unable to extricate him from his predicament. Nothing daunted, Von Münchhausen got a firm grip on his own shoe-laces (or bootstraps), gave a mighty heave, and presto!, deposited himself on firm ground. And off-handedly coined the expression bootstrap-operation.

Children just love this story. They see the implausibility of Von Münchhausen's boast: after all, how can you perform such a feat without any firm footing? But then, children are very skeptical . . .

Not so some of their parents. They are prepared to suspend their critical faculties. Not as regards Von Münchhausen's feat of course, the fallacy being so obvious. But in a variation on the same theme: paranormal phenomena such as clairvoyance, teleportation or moving objects with mental powers, telepathy, predictive powers, mind-reading, dowsing and what have you.

In principle, interchange with these phenomena - should they exist - would require a sort of sixth sense; on that point there is no disagreement between believers and non-believers. If our normal perceptive equipment would be adequate, there would be no need to speak of something para-normal. But we are talking of just that. This hypothetical sixth sense goes by the name of extra-sensory perception or ESP. It is this faculty that enables us - always assuming the believers hold the right end of the stick - to undergo and exert all kinds of mysterious external influences, variously described as 'forces', vibrations, rays, emanations, personal magnetism or whatever. They go by the collective noun of PSI.

But how can we be so sure that ESP is a human faculty? The answer is very simple. It must exist. How else could we possibly perceive PSI?

So far so good? Now it only remains to demonstrate that this PSI actually exists. Again the answer is very simple: our ESP tells us so! And there you have your bootstrap operation!

Put like that it boggles the mind, doesn't it?

The mind of philosophers who would call the proof circular.

The mind of physicists who searched and never found a trace of PSI.

The mind of psychologists who could explain things very well without having recourse to a hypothetical ESP.

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The following part appeared in The Beacon only

In the foregoing I quite casually introduced the distinction believers/non-believers. In their pure form they don't exist however. Ever met a believer who was not skeptical of at least something? Like embracing even the quaintest healing practice while scoffing at astrology?

They are mirrored by skeptics who in their messianism to discredit para-normal belief have recourse to one kind of pseudo-science (in which they believe, say psychoanalysis) to discredit another kind of pseudo-science (which they know to be false, say reincarnation). There is one consolation however: both sides claim to be afflicted with an open mind. Definition of open mind not given, by either side.

But what kind of belief are we referring to? Not belief in the sense of faith. Faith needs no proof, faith is enough unto itself. No, it refers to belief that stands or falls with proof. Or at least some sort of evidence. And only scientific evidence will do, no less! Scientific at least in the eyes (or mind?) of the beholder.

And here we are more or less back where we started. A futile discussion in other words? Well now, here's where the open mind comes in handy! I propose to confront you in my next columns with a few examples of common fallacies. To show that at times we are all labouring under some misapprehensions.

The articles are: Three doors and Ignorans generalis. You can click them in the contents-column.