Graham Pemberton
7 min readOct 13, 2023

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Rational Materialists Cannot Cope with Reality

pixabay geralt

This is a follow-up to my last article entitled “Are ‘Primitive’, ‘Superstitious’ Beliefs Really So Crazy ? — Some Modern Examples”. There I gave some stories from recent times about omens, curses, and the apparent existence of spirits, all of which would be dismissed by the modern scientific worldview as primitive superstition, outdated magical thinking which we have, or should have, now outgrown.

I received an interesting reply from Bruce McGraw, a college professor of philosophy and religious studies, which I quote here: “Another great article pointing out a needed perspective. I’ve concluded that the only way materialistic rational-minded people can break out of their mental prison is to have a mystical or transcendent experience. Without an experience like that, the stories you relate make no sense to them. They can’t relate to them. They don’t fit into their mindset. They have had no experience of anything that would make those stories intelligible to them. They violate their worldview and cause great discomfort in their minds and souls, so not knowing what to do with them, they reject them outright. Had they had a unitive experience of some kind, they would then be much more open to considering them. People can generally only relate to things that fall into their realm of experience” (my italics).

If only this were true. I fear that McGraw may be being unduly optimistic, for it is quite possible for people to be presented with direct evidence of something extraordinary, even to have had a disturbing experience themselves which should change their worldview. They nevertheless remain entrenched in their rational materialism because, as he says, “they violate their worldview and cause great discomfort in their minds and souls, so not knowing what to do with them, they reject them outright”.

As an example of the former, I received this response to my article from Marcus aka Gregory Maidman, which I quote in full here:

“As Alan Arkin writes in his book Out of My Mind (Not Quite a Memoir), which I have written about (https://medium.com/p/7582ce0bad14) and one day will write more about, my essay did not discuss this quote from the book:

‘We hang onto our belief structures as if they are real and tangible things. These beliefs. These huge hunks of granite edifices in our consciousness upon which we base our lives. It’s enough most of the time that our beliefs comfort us, make us feel part of a group — help us get through the day, never mind whether or not they are true’.

“Now I need to give context to Arkin’s statement. There was a man in Brazil known as Arigo. He had no medical training. Through some metaphysical processes affecting both him and his patients, he was able to perform surgeries such as removing tumours from an eye with a pocket knife and no anaesthesia, and the patient wouldn’t even bleed. Arkin and his wife travelled to Brazil and interviewed many people and confirmed that and so much more about this man and his accomplishments.

“Arkin had first heard of Arigo and the surgeries I mentioned above when a reporter showed him a 16mm movie filmed by some American doctors in the 1970s. Arkin recounts the following story just before the quote I inserted above:

‘One night I showed it to a few friends, who reacted in awe, and afterwards, the wife of one of them said, “Well, I refuse to believe this”.

“You refuse?” I asked with some incredulity.

“I refuse”, she repeated. She had been shaken by the film — that was clear. Her voice and emotional state made it obvious that she had witnessed not a piece of theatrical manipulation but an event. But she refused to believe it.

“How can you refuse?” I asked. “I don’t understand. Either what you saw seemed real or it didn’t”.

“No, I refuse to believe it”, she repeated it again, but she went on. “Because if I believe this I’m going to have to believe a lot of other things, and I refuse to do that” ’.

“I can connect this to the philosophy of pragmatism. Not only would it not be practical for her to believe what she saw, it would be immensely impractical as it would unnecessarily turn her belief systems upside down. She wasn’t being lazy. At some level, she knew that critical thinking would not expose what she saw as untrue. She was being practical for self-preservation. Her worldviews didn’t need to be turned upside down and she didn’t need to gaslight Arkin like my mother once did to me when I told her I have had conversations with the dearly departed through my psychic medium and my mom told me to stop consulting Anne and see a psychiatrist”.

So evidence of something magical, beyond comprehension according to the ‘laws’ of medical science, is not enough to shift the beliefs of someone addicted to conventional thinking.

As an example of someone who subsequently denies what should have been a transformative experience, Dean Radin tells an interesting story in his book Real Magic¹. After mentioning the cases of the atheist logical positivist philosopher A. J. Ayer, who had a dramatic near-death experience which only “slightly weakened” his convictions, and the shock of William Friedkin (director of the film The Exorcist) when three prominent neuroscientists and three psychiatrists did not dismiss out of hand a video of a terrifying exorcism he showed them, he goes into detail about Michael Shermer.

Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, therefore a high-profile rationalist. He wrote a column in the September 2016 issue of Scientific American in which he asked “Is it possible to measure supernatural or paranormal phenomena?” As Radin reports: “His answer was an unambiguous no. ‘Where the known meets the unknown we are tempted to inject paranormal and supernatural forces to explain unsolved mysteries. We must resist the temptation because such efforts can never succeed, not even in principle’ ”.

Radin comments: “Shermer justified his confidence by citing Caltech physicist Sean Carroll, because Carroll concluded that the laws of physics ‘rule out the possibility of true psychic powers’. Why? Because, Shermer continued, ‘the particles and forces of nature don’t allow us to bend spoons, levitate or read minds’…

“Sidestepping what history teaches us about going public with such conceits, Shermer nevertheless concluded with certainty that searching for paranormal or supernatural forces ‘can never succeed’. With that, he slammed the door shut”.

All this is exactly what one would expect from such a hardened skeptic. What is interesting, however, is that two years earlier Shermer had had an experience which should have converted him, and apparently did convert him, albeit only temporarily:

“In his October 2014 column in Scientific American, he opened with the following surprising admission: ‘Often I am asked if I have ever encountered something that I could not explain. What my interlocutors have in mind are… anomalous and mystifying events that suggest the existence of the paranormal or supernatural. My answer is: yes, now I have’.

“He went on to describe an event in June 2014, when he was planning to marry his fiancée, Jennifer Graf. Her grandfather was the closest she had to a father figure, but tragically he died when she was sixteen years old. One of the few heirlooms she kept from her grandfather was a 1978 Philips transistor radio. Shermer tried to get it to work. He put in new batteries, looked for loose connections, and tried smacking it on a hard surface. It still wouldn’t work. So he gave up and placed it in the back of a desk drawer in their bedroom. Three months later, Shermer and Graf were married at their home in California. She was feeling sad that her grandfather wasn’t there to give her away. After the wedding ceremony, something strange happened. They heard music. They traced it to the desk drawer in the bedroom. It was the grandfather’s radio, playing a love song.

“They were stunned into silence. Finally Graf whispered, ‘My grandfather is here with us. I’m not alone’. The radio continued to play that evening, fell silent the next day, and never worked again. Shermer’s reaction: ‘I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core’ (my added italics). As a result, he wrote, still reeling with awe: ‘[If] we are to take seriously the scientific credo to keep an open mind and remain agnostic when the evidence is indecisive or the riddle unsolved, we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious’ (my added italics).

(Radin comments:) “What happened between his modest proposal calling for openness in the face of the mysterious and two years later when he slammed the door shut? I can’t speculate about Shermer’s change of heart, but one thing we do know is that when one encounters a belief-shattering event it’s not uncommon to promptly forget about it, or even to deny that it ever happened. Psychologists use the term repression to describe such cases. As magician Peter Carroll once put it, ‘When people are presented with real magical events they somehow manage not to notice. If they are forced to notice something uncontrovertibly magical they may become terrified, nauseated, and ill’ ” (my added italics).

So, in modern times, people are just as terrified of spirits and the paranormal as ‘primitive’ people in days gone by, who at least had the common sense to pray and offer gifts in order to propitiate these ‘spirits’. Modern people are equally terrified, but in order to protect themselves deny the existence of such phenomena. Unfortunately for them, they sometimes have to suffer the consequences (see the stories about spirits in the previous article).

Does this picture sum all this up?

source

I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my lists.

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Footnote:

  1. Harmony Books, 2018, pp5–7

Bruce McGraw

Marcus aka Gregory Maidman

John Ege

Geoff Ward

Armand Diaz

Anders Bolling

Steve Ruis

Quadrivium Magicae

Wes Hansen

Janis Hunt Johnson

Kimberly Meeks-Johnson

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Graham Pemberton

I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com