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Choosing Truth over Fact and Holey Jeans

Posted on 19 August 2019, 8:33

When, during a recent presidential campaign speech, former American vice-president Joe Biden said that he chooses “truth over facts,” it was assumed that he blundered and meant to say that he chooses “fact over fiction.” I’m not so sure it was a gaffe.


A number of facts do not necessarily add up to truth.  We have to consider all the facts, including facts science has yet to recognize. In effect, truth may often be greater than the facts.  “The spiritual theory is the logical outcome of the whole of the facts,” said biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, (below) co-originator with Charles Darwin of the natural selection theory of evolution.  “Those who deny it, in every instance with which I am acquainted, either from ignorance or disbelief, leave half the facts out of view.  That theory is most scientific which best explains the whole series of phenomena; and I therefore claim that the spirit hypothesis is the most scientific, since even those who oppose it most strenuously often admit that it does explain all the facts, which cannot be said of any other hypothesis.”


As set forth in the 2017 book, Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments,  Justin P. McBrayer, a professor of philosophy at Fort Lewis College in Colorado, laments the state of morality education in our schools, noting that the majority of college freshman view moral claims as mere opinion – true or untrue only relative to a culture.  He explains that our public schools now teach that all claims are either fact or opinion, and that moral claims fall into the latter camp.  Moreover, all facts must be tested and proved before they can be accepted as truths.

“Things can be true even if no one can prove them,” McBrayer counters the current mindset in our educational system. “For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it.”  Conversely, he adds, many things once “proved” turned out to be false.  McBrayer does not go so far as to consider the maze we get into once we ask about the nature of “proof.”  Are we talking about evidence that provides “absolute certainty,” that meets the “beyond a reasonable doubt,” threshold,  or even the much lower standard of proof based on a “preponderance of evidence”?  Then again, it could be “proof”  based on personal experience.

The bottom line, as I interpret it from what McBrayer and others offer in this book, is that that there are no moral facts, and thus there are no moral truths. To view it another way, if it is only an opinion that murdering someone is morally wrong, if it is only an opinion that all men are created equal, if it is only an opinion that copying homework assignments is wrong, then there are no real truths about what is right and no one should be held accountable.  At least that seems to be the message young people are being indoctrinated with in our schools these days, according to McBrayer.  To be politically correct, the “truths” once set down in “good books” of various religions are no longer facts, just opinions.  That being the case, should we be surprised at all the moral chaos in the world today?

McBrayer applauds our educators on attempting to teach students to act humanely and with integrity, but he sees the curriculum as setting up student for “doublethink” in that “they are told there are no moral facts in one breath even as the next tells them how they ought to behave.”

Christy Wampole, an assistant professor of French at Princeton, offers an interesting observation in suggesting that many Americans born after around 1980, particularly middle-class Caucasians, live “ironically.”  If I am interpreting her correctly, she is referring to Socratic Irony, which means pretending to be ignorant, or admitting one’s own ignorance, in order to expose the ignorance of another or perhaps of the establishment.  As Wampole sees it, these younger generations seem to be suffering from an “existential malaise” and participating in some kind of “competition to see who can care the least.”  As I further interpret it, this existential malaise is in great part a result of old facts now becoming opinion and the younger generation not knowing what to believe.  This non-belief leads to cynicism and attachment to the frivolous and the kitschy.

A recent poll carried out in the UK has 89 percent of people aged 18-29 saying that their lives are meaningless and without purpose.  For those over the age of 60, the number was “only” 55 percent.

Since most young people appear to be “one with their phones,” I have not had the opportunity to interact with many of them in recent years; but when Wampole mentioned that they often attempt to look intentionally nerdy, awkward or ugly, I wondered if I finally had an answer to what has been for me one of life’s greatest mysteries – why so many young people wear raggedy and frayed jeans with holes in the knees and why they put pearls in their tongues and camouflage their bodies with ink. Those things now make some sense, I think. That is, they have not been able to find any meaning in life and have made a “preemptive surrender,” one that takes the form of reaction rather than action.  Actually, I’m still not sure I get it.

I believe we are seeing what renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl referred to as “mass neurotic syndrome” – the result of an “existential vacuum,” a feeling of emptiness and meaninglessness. The more one seeks pleasure, Frankl observed, the more it eludes him. “Pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect, or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree in which it is made a goal in itself.”  A human being, he continued, is not one in pursuit of happiness, but one in search of a reason to become happy. Self-actualization, he further opined, is possible only as a side effect of self-transcendence.

Peg O’Connor, a professor of philosophy and gender, women, and sexuality studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, contributes a very interesting essay to the book while drawing from William James and what he called “world sickness.”  O’Connor calls the first stage of world sickness “pleasure diminished” and the second stage “pleasure destroyed.”  The final stage she names “pathological melancholy.”  In this stage, the person is no longer able to recognize joy and happiness.  “This melancholy leads to a kind of utter hopelessness about the particular condition in which one lives and the meaning of life in general,” she explains, adding that at this point “nothing is worth anything.”

Many of the other 56 philosophers and deep thinkers contributing to this book discuss the connection, or lack of, between a belief in God and morality and ethical behavior.  Unless I missed it, they all seem to assume that finding God is a prerequisite to finding meaning in life.  Not one of them considers the strong evidence supporting the survival of consciousness at death independent of the existence or non-existence of a God, god or gods.   
As biologist Wallace recognized, the inductive approach of psychical research is scientific.  It involves looking at all the evidence coming to us through various paranormal events and closely examining this evidence to see if it suggests a spirit body and survival of the consciousness at death.  The evidence can never amount to absolute proof.  Very few things addressed by science have absolute proof.  The best we can hope for is evidence that strongly suggests survival. 

If “God” exists, but consciousness does not survive bodily death, so what?  Where does that get us?  As with atheism, humankind is still marching toward the abyss of nothingness and there is no purpose in life beyond making it better for the next generation, which will also fall into the abyss.  When we stop to ask, to which generation full fruition, it seems pretty pointless.  In fact, making things easier and better for future generations only appears to rob life of its challenges and learning experiences – things which psychical research suggest are the reasons for the detour from the real life.
On the other hand, if consciousness survives in a spirit world, then there is something to hope for, irrespective of whether there is a “God” behind it all.  Meaning in life is derived from a belief in life after death, not from the existence of a God.  It is the larger life that Christ came to announce, not the reality of a father figure sitting on a throne while demanding worship and threatening to flog anyone who dares not bow in reverence to his dictates.

Psychical research gives real meaning to the words of the Bible and helps us move from blind faith to conviction, or true faith.  True faith is not the blind faith of orthodox religion.  It is based on many facts and a strong conviction that those facts add up to truth, even if we can’t comprehend some of the facts.

Next blog post:  Sept. 2

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.

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The Horses that Defied Science

Posted on 05 August 2019, 8:08

There have been many stories of very intelligent and otherwise gifted animals over the years, but I’ve not heard of any more mind-boggling than that of the Elberfeld horses (below) of Germany (then Central Prussia). As the well-documented story goes, these horses could figure out square roots, cube roots, even fourth-power roots of numbers with six or seven figures. They could also communicate in German and French.  Professor Edouard Claparède, a distinguished Swiss psychologist of the University of Geneva, called the phenomenon “the most sensational event that has happened in the psychological world.”


As the story goes, in 1900, Wilhelm von Osten of Elberfeld taught his horse, Hans, a Russian stallion, mathematics.  He would place skittles, or bowling pins, in front of Hans and count, then ask Hans to strike as many blows with his hoof as there were skittles in front of him.  “The results were astonishing,” Dr. Claparède reported.  “The horse was capable not only of counting, but also of himself making real calculations, of solving little problems.”  But Hans was more than a mathematician.  He was a musician, able to distinguish between harmonious and dissonant chords.  And he had an extraordinary memory, able to tell the date of each day of the current week.

However, following Claparède’s investigation,  Oskar Pfungst, representing a committee of 24 professors appointed to study Hans, reported that the horse merely obeyed visual clues given by von Osten, whether conscious or unconscious. This became known as the “Clever Hans effect,” a term still used by animal trainers today.  It was later revealed that of the 24 professors on the committee, only two of them actually observed Hans.  Science was apparently satisfied with the committee’s conclusion and that pretty much put an end to all the excitement concerning Hans.

After von Osten’s death in 1909, Hans was acquired by Karl Krall, a wealthy merchant, who also brought two Arabian stallions, Muhamed and Zarif, and began to train them in the same manner von Osten had taught Hans.  Within a matter of weeks, Muhamed was doing addition, subtraction, multiplication and division and before four months had passed he was able to figure square and cube roots.  Krall then taught Muhamed spelling and reading. Zarif was a little slower in learning, but was eventually able to do almost everything Muhamed was capable of, as the aging Hans went into retirement. 
Having heard much about them, Maurice Maeterlinck, (below) a world-famous Belgian author, playwright, and Nobel prizewinner for literature, decided to visit Elberfeld and observe the horses for himself. After he was introduced to Muhamed by Krall, the horse was asked to spell Maeterlinck’s name (so many taps of the hoof for each letter of the alphabet).  Muhamed began by lifting his hoof and tapping out an “H,” followed by an “E” and an “R.”  The two men suddenly realized that Muhamed was spelling Herr, the German equivalent of Mister.  But Muhamed then struggled with the surname, first spelling M-A-Z-R-L-K.  When told by Krall that it was incorrect, Muhamed tried again, tapping M-A-R-Z-L-E-G-K.  Krall then repeated Maeterlinck’s last name and after two more attempts the horse spelled the name with one small error.  The two men concluded that it was close enough.


“I assure you that the first shock is rather disturbing, however much one expected it,” Maeterlinck wrote in his 1914 book, The Unknown Guest.  “I am quite aware that, when one describes these things, one is taken for a dupe too readily dazzled by the doubtless childish illusion of an ingeniously-contrived scene.  But what contrivances, what illusions have we here?” 

Concerning the math tests, Maeterlinck wrote that “what strikes one particularly is the facility, the quickness, I was almost saying the joyous carelessness with which the strange mathematician gives the answers.  The last figure is hardly chalked on the board before the right hoof is striking off the units, followed immediately by the left hoof marking the tens.  There is not a sign of attention or reflection; one is not even aware of the exact moment at which the horse looks at the problem, and the answer seems to spring automatically from an invisible intelligence.  Mistakes are rare or frequent according as it happens to be a good or bad day with the horse; but, when he is told of them, he nearly always corrects them.  Not unseldom, the number is reversed: 47, for instance, becomes 74; but he puts it right without demur when asked.”

Maeterlinck carried out experiments of his own in the absence of Krall. Since the horses performed without Krall’s presence and gave some answers to questions that Maeterlinck himself did not know the answers to, he discounted the Clever Hans effect. 
Another theory advanced was that of telepathy; that is, the horse was mind-reading. To test this theory, Maeterlinck took some large cards with Arabic numerals on them, shuffled them and placed them in front of the horse without looking at them himself.  “Without hesitation and unasked, Muhamed rapped out correctly the number formed by the cards,” Maeterlinck wrote.  “The experiment succeeded, as often as I cared to try it, with Hänschen, Muhamed, and Zarif alike.”  Since Maeterlinck was the only person present and did not know the numbers, there was no mind present to be read for the answers.
In one test, Maeterlinck wrote a surd – a number which had no square root – on the blackboard, not realizing that it was a surd.  Maeterlinck looked to Muhamed for a square root.  The horse lifted his hoof, paused, looked back at Maeterlinck and shook his head.  This little test also opposed both the Clever Hans effect and the telepathy theory.

One day, Zarif stopped in the middle of a lesson by Krall.  The horse was asked why and replied, “Because I am tired.”  On another occasion he stopped again and explained, “Pain in my leg.”
Maeterlinck also reported on tests run by a Dr. H. Hamel while Krall was on a trip. Hamel began by giving Muhamed simple math problems and ended with asking Muhamed for the fourth power root of 7,890,481, which Hamel himself did not know until after checking Muhamed’s correct answer of 53, which took about six seconds before he began striking out the answer. 
On another day, Krall and a Dr. Scholler decided to make an attempt to teach Muhamed to express himself in speech. The horse made several feeble efforts before stopping and striking out the message, translated from the German to read, “I have not a good voice.”  They then asked Muhamed what was necessary for him to speak.  He replied, again in German, “Open mouth.”  They asked him why he didn’t attempt to open his mouth, and the reply came, “Because I can’t.”

On another occasion, Zarif was asked how he talks to Muhamed.  “Mit Munt” (with mouth), he replied.  Krall asked Zarif why he didn’t tell him that with his mouth, to which Zarif replied, “Because I have no voice.”

Maeterlinck was clearly flabbergasted:  “You rub your eyes, question yourself, ask yourself in the presence of what humanized phenomenon, of what unknown force, of what new creature you stand,” he wrote.  “…You look around you for some sort of trace, obvious or subtle, of the mystery.  You feel yourself attacked in your innermost citadel, where you held yourself most certain and most impregnable.  You have felt a breath from the abyss upon your face.  You would not be more astonished if you suddenly heard the voice of the dead.”

At least 10 other respected scholars and scientists were reported to have studied the horses, all ruling out fraud and the Clever Hans effect, but not having any answers.  In the absence of a scientific explanation, the Clever Hans effect has gone down in recorded history as the probable explanation. 

If not the Clever Hans effect, if not some other type of fraud, if not telepathy, if not true intelligence on the part of the horses, then what other explanation is there?  Maeterlinck considered the possibility that the horses were mediums, much like human mediums, through which some higher power was working. As to why it was necessary to teach the horses in the first place, he opined that it would be like asking an automatic writing medium to do her thing without knowing how to write.  “Unconscious cerebration, however wonderful, can only take effect upon elements already acquired in some way or another,” he explained. “The subconscious cerebration of a man blind from birth will not make him see colors.”

Maeterlinck had studied the reports of psychical researchers like Frederic W. H. Myers, Richard Hodgson, and Sir Oliver Lodge, and accepted the reality of mediumship.  However, he struggled with the spirit hypothesis as he believed that if spirits actually existed they would be in a much more enlightened state, not “groping and groveling” as so many reports from the psychical researchers suggested.  In concluding, Maeterlinck admitted that he had no answers other than that a “spiritual” or “psychic” epoch was taking place.

While not suggesting there is any precedent for animal overshadowing or control by spirits, Archibald Campbell Holmes, a spiritualistic phenomena historian and author of the day, believed that spirit influence was the most logical explanation for the Elberfeld horses.  He reasoned that if spirits can take control of tables by tilting them and levitating them, and, at the other extreme, take control of human mediums, there was no reason to believe that they couldn’t influence or control a horse.  As to why they would do that is an unanswered question, although spiritualism teaches that there are many low-level and mischievous spirits hanging around the earth plane.  Then again, it could have been a mathematically adept spirit who was experimenting or just having some fun.

My more comprehensive report on the Elberfeld Horses can be found in the book, “Paradigm Busters,” edited by J. Douglas Kenyon, an anthology of 30 mysterious events.

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.

Next blog post: August 19

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