Max Maven – Magic and Skepticism

January 13, 2006

The great movie director Orson Welles wrote that Max Maven has “the most creative mind in magic.” The New York Times observed that his “category-defying mind-reading veers into conceptual art.” The Los Angeles Times stated that his “improvisational skill is enhanced by a charismatic animal magnetism.” He has hosted eight TV specials in Japan (performing in Japanese) and starred in TV series in Taiwan, Sweden, Norway, Finland, England, the United States and Canada. Behind the scenes, Max Maven has been a consultant to the California ScienCenter, numerous universities, and to the magicians David Copperfield, Doug Henning, and Penn & Teller. He has published more than 2,000 articles. In addition, Maven is the author of The Book of Fortunetelling, and is a contributor to a new traveling exhibition, “Magic: The Science of Illusion,” which is touring science museums across North America through 2007.

In this interview with DJ Grothe, Max Maven begins an exploration of the relationship between magic and skepticism of the paranormal, and how magicians may aid the skeptical enterprise.

Also in this episode, Tom Flynn presents Did You Know? sharing quick facts on magic, skepticism, Friday the 13th, and unbelief in America, and Benjamin Radford, in his regular segment, Media Mythmakers, criticizes “tragedy journalism.” In the second of a three part series Can You Be Good Without God? Paul Kurtz defends godless morality. And Joe Nickell explores the origins of superstitions surrounding Friday the 13th.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, January 13th, 2006. 

Hello, I’m D.J. Growthy. Welcome to a point of inquiry. The radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank affiliated with the State University of New York with branches in Manhattan, Tampa and Hollywood. Point of Inquiry seeks to draw on the Center for Inquiry’s relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. And to bring you each week interviews and commentary focusing on the three research areas here at CFI, first Pseudo-Science and the Paranormal. Second, will focus on the growing alternative medicine movement. Third, on point of inquiry. We focus on religion, secularism and nonbelief. On today’s episode of Point of Inquiry, we will be joined by Max Maven, the world’s leading mind reader. 

Later in the show, I’ll talk with Paul Kurtz in the second of a three part series entitled Can You Be Good Without God? And you’ll even learn how you can get a free copy of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. During our regular feature, we call from the pages of Benjamin Radford will share his regular commentary, Media Mythmakers, and Joe Nickell will explore with me the origins of the superstitions surrounding Friday the 13th. But first, Tom Flynn with a segment we call. Did you know? Did you know that according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, ten point seven percent of all Americans equivalent to 32 million Americans, identify themselves as atheist, agnostic or secular humanist. This is the first major study to estimate the explicitly secular population at or above 10 percent, a psychologically important number for minorities seeking social acceptance. Did you know that months beginning on a Sunday will always have a Friday the 13th and that in the Spanish speaking world? There’s no superstition regarding Friday the 13th. There people have a superstition about Tuesday the 13th. Did you know that the word magic comes from the Persian word Magus, which means priest? Did you know that magician and skeptic Harry Houdini was the first person to fly an airplane in Australia? Did you know that television talk show hosts and comedians Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Arsenio Hall and Steve Martin all started out as magicians? It’s my pleasure to be joined in the studio now by Dr. Joe Nichols, senior research fellow for PSI Cop. Many call him the world’s leading paranormal investigator. He’s joining me today to talk about Friday the 13th. Today is Friday the 13th. Welcome to Point of inquiry, Joe. Good to be here. When I was a kid, maybe eight, nine years old on Friday the 13th, I hit my knee with a pipe. And ever since, I’ve been a little superstitious about Friday the 13th, maybe not these days, but at least for a good long time. Why are people, aside from anecdotes like that, personal experience? Why are people suspicious of Friday the 13th? 

Well, you’re making me too nervous to answer. I’m going to leave now and hide under the bed. Right. Well, it’s it’s a form of magical thinking. People people are superstitious. If they don’t have factual evidence for something, they look for something to fill in with and superstitions. Do their superstitions give pseudo explanations for things in the real world, the world of science and reason, things have causal relationships. We have cause and effect. If you drink poison, it may affect you. If not, we’re really mystified. All right. But if you have a black cat crossed your path, you may think that that has a bad effect because of. It’s an old wives tale or an old husband’s tale. But in fact, there is no cause. For an effect. And so that’s not a logical, rational method of thinking, but a magical one. That’s what a superstition is. 

Where’d the idea? Friday the 13th, being a bad luck day come from? 

Well, as we frigatebirds Guereca phobics know. What was that again? Actually, I’m a certified frigatebirds. Correct. A phobia ologist that is won’t even begin to. That is one who studies the fear of Friday the 13th. Now, how do you know if one is a genuine frigatebirds? Correct. A phobia ologist. Well, the best test I know, as is if you can say it that smoothly. Who got pretenders? Can’t get it, Mo. But it’s something we all have badges that we use on our superstition beiges and we wear badges proudly proclaiming we’re frigates. Friskier take a vote geologist’s. Yeah, that translates to one who’s reading sort of backwards, one who studies the fear of the 13. On a Friday, the free guy after the Norse God that Friday was named for Triscuit Dacca, ancient Greek for 13 phobia fear ologist study of So Frager triskaidekaphobia ologist. And if it is sort of like saying supercalifragilistic xbla dosis only if you do it with with pizzazz, you can appear to be a real, a real skeptical authority. 

OK. So you are a supercalifragilistic ologist and I think I got something wrong. Something like that. Where, where in your expertize would you say that the fear of Friday the 13th came from. 

Well, first, the fear of 13, probably the idea that 13 is unlucky may come because a lot of these things are really lost in the mists of time. We were really a lot of the sources will give you conflicting data. But it may armchair anthropology. Yes. Work. Yeah, but but a lot of a lot of things occur in Twelve’s, for example, that 12 months of the year, 12 signs of the Zodiac, the Twelve Disciples of Christ and so on. And so it’s often seen as as a No. 12 is seen as a number of completeness. And one more step could be seen as a step of departure or a step towards sin. If you look at it from a religious context and many people have 13 is therefore, you know, an unlucky number unless you think it’s a lucky number. And then there’s just as good evidence that it’s lucky Friday. According to some traditions, is the day that Eve gave Adam the apple, which, of course is nonsense. But there is that tradition or it’s the day. Good Friday. It’s the day of Christ’s execution. Or it may actually be a day that Romans did execute prisoners. So there’s some connotations. It’s also the day of the flood, the great flood, again, biblical biblical sources. And if you mix the two Friday and 13, who. It’s really scary. And maybe nine percent or so, according to a Gallup study, suggests that maybe that many people fear actually have a fear right here of desire, or at least 13, I think. Let’s say 10 percent to include Friday. I was asked on a television program this morning if buildings still have a missing 13th floor. I tried to picture that and I said no. They all. All the buildings I know have a 13th floor. It’s just that a few cleverly disguise it by skipping that number and going to 14. 

And that still persists today in architecture, I think. So I think we see some of that. Well, Joe, thanks for exploring with us Friday the 13th on today’s Friday the 13th. So what is your designation again? I’m a frigate triskaidekaphobia ologist. Thank you for coming. And I’ll get you a lozenge in a moment. Thanks. 

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Many of you know, one of the organizations headquartered at the Center for Inquiry is Site Cobb, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Saikat publishes the Science magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, the magazine of Science and Reason. Scientists such as Michael Faraday in England and Robert Hare, the American chemist, he invented the Occy hydrogen blowpipe, the predecessor of today’s welding torches. They conducted research into the spiritualist movement that Whodini later would get involved in investigating. Alfred Russell Wallace, The Code Discover with Darwin of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. And Sir William Crookes. The Discover, a Valium, also spent a substantial portion of their lives investigating psychic phenomena. All of these scientists, except for Faraday, even though they had achieved reputations as outstanding scientists, surprised their colleagues by asserting that they’d witnessed true psychic phenomena, which was very hard to disprove until a generation later, when Whodini came on the scene to reveal the secret methods of magicians that these spiritualists, these psychics used. It’s a real pleasure for me to welcome to point of inquiry today, the world’s leading mind reader, Max Maven, who will help us explore this relationship between science and skepticism and magic, the magic community. The great movie director, Orson Welles wrote that Max Maven has the most creative mind and magic. The New York Times observed that MAVEN’s category defining mind reading veers into conceptual art. The L.A. Times stated that his improvizational skill is enhanced by a charismatic animal magnetism. He’s hosted eight TV specials in Japan, performing in Japanese and starred in television series in Taiwan, Sweden, Norway, Finland, England, the United States and Canada. Behind the scenes, Max Mabon has been a consultant to the California Science Center. Numerous universities, the magicians, David Copperfield, Doug Henning and Penn and Teller, and he’s published more than 2000 articles. Maven is also the author of The Book of Fortune-Telling, which I’d like to let our listeners know can be purchased at a discount on point of inquiry dot org. He’s a contributor to a new traveling exhibition, Magic The Science of Illusion, which is touring science museums across North America through 2007. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Max. Nice to be here. 

I’m really interested in exploring the relationship between skepticism, both as a philosophical stance and as a movement and magic. The magic community people, people who are informed in their critical thinking by the magical background. Max, what’s the relationship between magic and skepticism? 

Well, I think there’s an interesting relationship and one that goes back, as you indicated, many years. Magicians are involved in producing seemingly impossible things and psychics. And I’m using that term in as lucid a fashion as possible are producing seemingly impossible things. If you’re going to investigate these psychic demonstrations with the suspicion that they may not be what’s being claimed, then it makes sense that you would wish to talk to or involve people who create such illusions for a living. And for that reason, the field of mystery performance, if you will, very much overlaps this sort of investigation. Magicians and I’ll use that term in in as lucid fashion as possible. But magicians think about perceptions and make use of the ways that the human mind not only takes in and processes information, but the way the human mind expects information to be and makes use of that to create wonderful things. And so toward doing that, magicians, particularly those who are involved in the inventing of magic tricks, learned to think differently than the average person on the street. It is part and parcel of the profession. 

Scientists are not necessarily geared toward this type of thinking because in a way they are looking in the opposite direction. Scientists are trying to unravel mysteries and magicians are trying to create and bundle them up and make them unravel proof. So scientists frequently in attempting to address these seemingly impossible phenomena are misled. This has nothing to do with intelligence. In fact, I daresay that virtually any magician will tell you that intelligent people are generally easier to fool than the less intelligent. And the reason for that is because one characteristic of human intelligence is the more developed we become. 

The more patterns we recognize and. 

Use quickly to get further along in our thinking, and it’s those heuristics, those patterns that magicians use to deceive and exactly to entertain exacerbation. 

So a scientist or just anyone with a high involvement in academia and that type of approach is used to things following the rules and magicians take advantage of that. So in many cases, scientists are the easiest to fool. 

There is an additional aspect, which is that that people in the sciences, because they have studied things that the average person doesn’t understand and because they are in some cases working with highly complicated and sophisticated realms of scholarship, they develop a sense of hubris. They feel that because they are very smart and know information that is esoteric and rarefied and difficult, that therefore they must be hard to fall. And this hubris leads some scientists, such as some of the gentlemen you named from the 19th century and certainly many others in the 20th. And now to the 21st. There are scientists who have been utterly deceived by charlatans, but who have been convinced I’m too smart to be fooled. And therefore, if anything, the hook has been embedded deeper. I hasten to add, I am not trying to suggest that any scientist who comes down on the side of believing in the possibilities of the paranormal or parapsychology or what have you is automatically being deluded. I don’t think the jury is fully finished with that particular area. I’m aware of the fact that the listeners to this program veer toward a skeptical worldview in which the paranormal is presumed not to exist. I don’t think it’s quite that many of those skeptics. It’s quite that simple. The easiest way to refute that is the field of cryptozoology, which which is the field that talks about animals that may or may not exist. And the obvious examples are things like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, which are almost certainly myths that don’t exist. Having said that, every once in a while some mythical creature gets discovered, whether it’s the miniature deer in Vietnam or prehistoric fish that suddenly are, you know, they show up and suddenly the definition of what’s cryptozoology and what’s simply zoology changes. 

As the late Carl Sagan was fond of saying, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. 

And this is important in the context of talking about magicians and deliberate fraud and fooling people. Then I would quote Czeslaw a Lumbroso, an Italian detective and scholar of investigation, back about a hundred years ago, who said the existence of wigs does not disprove the existence of hair. So it’s important, I think, to remember that just because a magician can duplicate a psychic demonstration or paranormal demonstration does not mean that that is how the demonstration under investigation was done and certainly opens up a very important doorway that if something can be duplicated through deceptive methods. 

That’s an important thing to appreciate so that you don’t automatically, without any skepticism, approach something. But rather you look at something and say, gee, it’s possible this could be fake. I shouldn’t take everything at face value, you know? But I think there’s a balance that needs to be found. 

Right. And I think the best skeptical investigators would agree with you on that point. I mean, there’s a difference between knee jerk debunking, a closed minded skepticism where you say are priori I. That this particular occurrence or that particular phenomenon can not possibly exist. There’s a difference between saying that and saying, well, let’s look into it, let’s examine this claim and then discovering that I can duplicate the phenomenon using these magical methods or other methods. Just cause you can duplicate it does not prove that those are the methods being used, but it is strongly suggested that there are other possibilities than the paranormal or the supernatural explanation. I think leading paranormal investigators like Joe Nickell at Sidecar or others would agree with you completely on this point. 

My personal philosophy on this sort of thing, which I’ve said for years, is that you should be skeptical of everything but accept the possibility of anything. If you get too far to the extreme in either direction on that spectrum, you’re shutting yourself out to possibilities. There are things going on that initially may appear to be pseudoscience and sometimes they turn out to be legitimate. Look at this fellow whose name I don’t know about, roughed up my head, but but who had this theory about ulcers that they were viral. That there were the bacterial nuts. 

Resendes exact, but he was he was laughed at for I think it was ten or fifteen years. Now, ultimately, in the long run, science came over to his side. Enough enough people took him seriously to check on it, to test it and to find out that he was right. But it’s not like he was automatically received with open minds. He was, in fact, put down and belittled and made fun of. And if the scientific community had been a little less quick to disbelieve him, this might have been sorted out in half the time. So I think there needs to be a middle ground. And I think skepticism has great value to our species. But it loses that value exponentially. If it if it if it if it winds up being close minded. Then it turns into a faith based system that is essentially a mirror of the faith based beliefs in the paranormal and such that the skeptical movement is trying to combat. 

In conversations we’ve had before, I’ve heard you refer to yourself as an open minded skeptic, that you’re allowing for the possibility of the existence of the paranormal, but that so far, in your experience, you haven’t found any evidence for it. 

Yeah, yeah. I mean, look, we don’t know everything. And so in many situations, we simply have to make a judgment call and say, you know, I don’t know for sure that the city of Baton Rouge exists because I’ve never been there. But I’ve seen enough evidence and spoken to people who live there and who tell me it’s a nice place. And and I’ve seen videotapes and I’ve been on the phone to someone who told me they were in Baton Rouge. I’ve looked at books that have maps and and there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that Baton Rouge really exists. And so I’ve decided to believe it, even though at the moment I have not fully, empirically verified it. It’s one of the few cities in the United States I’ve never been to. So we make decisions and hopefully they’re intelligent decisions. But we also have to keep open to new information. And it’s possible that someone could say, you know what, this whole Baton Rouge thing is, is a fraud. We’ve been faking it for years in the Cartographer’s schools. It’s one of our ongoing jokes to put Baton Rouge on the map because it doesn’t exist. That’s unlikely, but I have to keep myself open to that possibility. 

I think that’s a really useful example in the skeptic community. I hesitate to call it a movement because it’s not as large or is organized as one might want, especially in the part of the movement that psychopathy spearheading. We make that distinction that you just made between mere skepticism and doubt, which is not ideal. We say this kind of closed minded, knee jerk debunking where you reject a claim out of hand, where you say that all UFO sightings are hoaxes and all faith healers are frauds. There’s that. And then there’s what we call skeptical inquiry, which is, we would argue, very different. We’d argue it’s ideal. Our magazine is called Not the Doubter, Not the Skeptic, but it’s called Skeptical Inquirer, because that’s an open minded, open ended, ideally scientifically humble method of looking into these matters. 

I also think it’s it’s one that’s very difficult to maintain. There is a tendency on the part of human beings not to be humble about their belief systems, but rather to latch onto them because they are secure. And the more secure you make them, the less flexibility you have in possibly changing them. 

There was a speaker here at this conference where attending it should be said that we’re interviewing you here at the Council for Secular Humanism, the 25th anniversary conference, and one of the speakers whose whose first name is Ed and forgive me, I don’t know his last name, but he said that he felt that the best thing that can happen to a person is that something they firmly believe in is proven to be untrue because it’s a liberating experience. 

But, of course, sometimes it’s not liberating. It can lead to existential dread. It can change the way you look at the world in a way that’s not pleasant. 

I think that it works in both directions, that I think it’s also tremendously liberating. That’s something you firmly don’t believe in. Turns out to be true. 

And I think that’s an equally liberating experience, because if there’s one thing that that mystery performers, magicians and mentalists and all of this sort of thing, if there’s one thing that we bring to society. 

In addition to the the enjoyment and the esthetic exploration and all of the other stuff, we bring the possibility of not knowing everything. 

We bring a reminder that we haven’t figured everything out and that there really are mysteries around us and there are mysteries that as performers we celebrate and as audience members, you are brought into this celebration in a way that shakes up your complacency in another way. 

There seems to be a great simpatico between magic and mentalism, mystery performers and call the scientific outlook. Ideally, it’s humble, looks at the universe and says exactly that. We don’t have all the answers. But how exciting it is to explore and discover, to look into things, to realize that we don’t know at all. I’m reminded of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, kind of a sermon for that sense of wonder. And I know that in your new full evening show, there’s just such an overlap between wonder and skepticism, even skepticism of skepticism itself. 

I’ll tell you something interesting that that you probably don’t know, which is Carl Sagan’s son, Dorian Sagan, who is a well-established science writer himself when he was an adolescent. He was a very good magician. He did close up magic. There’s the small sleight of hand that studied intimately across the table. And for a period of time, I was his magic teacher. Oh, I love you. So. So it all comes around full circle. And Dorian, if you’re listening to this. We haven’t talked in a long time. I hope things are well. 

I love that. I’d like to talk about a movement within magic, the magic community, where there are some mystery performers who I think are on on such a fringe of credulity, magicians who also personally believe in shamanistic magic or they might themselves believe in the paranormal, you know, shamanistic stuff, or they get into the woods like Robert Bly or something, and they’re being men together, magic men together talking about magic and mystery. This doesn’t seem to allow for a whole lot of skepticism. The magic of that kind and the skepticism, the kind I’ve been talking about don’t seem to overlap much. 

Well, there is. I keep using this word, but there is a spectrum within the field of mystery performance. There are people who perform magic, theatrical illusion from a point of view that it is a metaphorical performance that represents real magic, whatever that might be. And then there are performers who who focus on the illusory nature of magic as in a way representing a firmly a. mystical point of view. And I think there’s room, frankly, for people on every part of the spectrum. It’s worth pointing out, you mentioned Whodini when we started. Whodini, of course, has been embraced as a poster boy for for skeptics, for skepticism. And that’s not quite true. Whodini, when his mother died, was devastated and he went to spiritualists. 

Because he was hoping to make contact with his mother’s spirit again, because he was a person well versed in theatrical deception. He was able to see through the fraudulent techniques of these mediums and was outraged and devoted much of the latter part of his life to exposing these frauds. 

There is no indication that Whodini ever gave up his belief, at least his desire, to believe in the possibility of life after death and communication between the spirit world and the mortal world. As much of a debunker as Whodini was and as much as he did arguably more than anybody during the early 20th century to shut down a lot of these fraudulent spiritualists got Al Smy or Al Smith that passed the first law. He testified before before Congress on the subject. 

But despite all of that, he himself, from every indication that I know of, never rejected certain types of metaphysical belief. 

He never let go of his hope to be able to communicate with dry loved. 

And I don’t see that as being hypocritical. I don’t see that as being problematic. It’s problematic only for someone who who might hope that Whodini had the exact same worldview that they do. But I think Houdini was able to integrate his skepticism with his belief system in a way that was comfortable for him, in the words of the great physicist Niels Baugh. No progress without paradox. 

Max, thank you very much for joining us on Point of Inquiry. My pleasure. 

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Every week on point of inquiry, we bring you a segment called From the pages of this time, it’s from the pages of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. And I’d like to let you know that you can get a free copy of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, a sample copy by calling one 800 six three, four, 16, 10. This issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, the magazine for Science and Reason, is the January February 2006 issue. I want to focus on one article, one feature of the magazine, this issue, and that is an article entitled Paranormal Beliefs and Analysis of College Students. This is especially interesting to me as director of CFI, his campus outreach program, Center for Inquiry on Campus. We’d like to believe that the more education one gets, the less likely it is that one would believe in all the paranormal claims in society. But according to this article by Brian Farha and Jerry Steward Junior. Twenty three percent of freshmen believe in the paranormal. 26 percent of sophomores believe in the paranormal. 27 percent of juniors believe in the paranormal. Seniors are at 31 percent and graduate students are at 34 percent. Thirty four percent of graduate students in this study and this issue of skeptical Inquirer magazine believe in the paranormal. The authors conclude their paper and skeptical Inquirer magazine by saying Our study examined student beliefs among 13 paranormal dimensions, while the overall sample reported less belief than the participants of the 2001 Gallup Poll. We were surprised that there was less skepticism. Fewer don’t believe answers. Among the college sample, they go on to say, and I quote, Contrary to our expectations, we found that an increase in education level is associated with an increase in the number of people reporting belief. In other words, they say, as people attain higher college education levels, the likelihood of believing in paranormal dimensions increases. Well, isn’t that food for thought? For a sample copy of this issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine cover story is on the Memory Wars by Martin Gardner. Call one 800 six three, four, 16, 10. And now point of inquiry contributor and Skeptical Inquirer managing editor Benjamin Radford brings us the segment entitled Media Mythmakers Offering Criticism and Insight into Current Media Tragedies. 

Recently, the American news media’s attention was focused on the mining accident in West Virginia that killed a dozen miners. While tragedy often brings out the best in people, it almost always brings out the worst in journalism. This is nothing new. It was obvious after the Columbine school shootings, after the September 11th attacks and after the recent hurricane devastation. The mine accident began as a news story, but gradually and suddenly became a voyeuristic entertainment event with hours of emotion instead of information. The accident was turned into several newsmagazine specials, and I’m sure somewhere a screenwriter has already been hired to write the movie The Week script. While there was some information about the accident, most of the coverage focused and fed on the town’s devastation. There was so much pain and grief and outrage that the journalists couldn’t soak it up fast enough. Hard working American heroes in the heartland trapped below the Earth, especially with the original wrong report of the miners recovery. It was pure TV gold. The news cameras were there to cover the tears. Then the cheers. Then finally, more tears. When one solving than elated neighbor or family members tears dried up, reporters moved on to another who they were and what they were saying were nearly irrelevant as long as it filled airtime, was emotional and could be presented as breaking news. It was crass exploitation, no matter how you dress it up. ABC Nightly News achieved a low point in the coverage on his January 4th broadcast when co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas went on location to cover the story in the segment that made any self respecting journalist cringe. Vargas interviewed a young girl and her mother about gathering at the local church to greet the miners who would never arrive. 

Plenette Roby’s children will never forget going to the mine in the middle of the night to welcome 12 men who would never come. 

What were you hoping to do when you went to that church last night? Silver Miners March. What were you hoping to say to the. And then I’m glad they came back alive. 

Vargas, the audience and everyone else knew damn well by the girl and the town went to church that night. The ABC News co-anchor perfectly fit the stereotype of the insensitive, sensationalism seeking reporter. Not smart enough to know when enough is enough. What’s amazing to me is that the piece was pretaped. At no point did an editor or producer had the sense they had crossed the line. Apparently, no one realized they didn’t really need to wring tears from a young girl. They had not videotape of sobbing victims. It was time to turn off the camera, leave the devastated families alone and shut the hell up. Reporters questions are rarely what do you think about this topic, but almost always, how do you feel while reporting on a subject’s feelings may be a legitimate and somewhat newsworthy. It’s also a lazier reporters crutch. Feelings require no fact checking. No other side’s demanding equal time. Instead of reporting the truth such as that, we have nothing new to report. So we’ll move on to other news reporter. Wrong emotions are used as fodder to fill time. There’s also an ethical question to be addressed. Sobbing Victims may make riveting television, but what about the real people being exploited for the camera? Haven’t most survivors been through enough without being put on the spot in front of cameras and bright lights to describe how they felt in the moment of terror? It’s one thing to intrude on a grieving person to get useful information. Police have to do it all the time, but it’s quite another to do so for the sake of ratings. Who benefits from the interview other than the news organization? And what real information is gained anyway? Grief chasing reporters seem oblivious to the contradiction inherent in talking about how devastated the mourners are. There are enough pain to report on, but not so much pain that they can’t spend time being interviewed about it for a live broadcast. Beyond that, the question of feelings is rhetorical one. Most people can pretty well guess how a woman would feel if her husband or daughter is killed. Numbness, pain, sorrow, maybe mixed with anger. It seems distasteful to have a reporter stick a camera, light and microphone in the victim’s face to confirm what we already know. Crying victims are devastated and grief stricken. In conclusion, I ask this of Vargas, ABC News and all the other tragedy, milking victim chasing news organizations and journalists having no sense of decency. At long last, having no sense of decency. 

Think about it. 

I’m joined in the studio again by Dr. Paul Kurtz for the second in a three part series on secular ethics entitled Can You Be Good Without God? Paul Kurtz is considered by many the father of the secular humanist movement. He’s professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. As chair of PSI Kopp, as chair of the Council for Secular Humanism and of Prometheus Books, as well as editor in chief of Free Inquiry Magazine, he’s advanced a critical, humanistic inquiry into the most cherished beliefs of society for the last 40 years. He’s a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has been featured very widely in the media on topics as diverse as reincarnation, UFOs, secular versus religious ethics, communication with the dead and the historicity of Jesus. In the second part of this three part series entitled Can You Be Good Without God? We’re going to explore where values come from, the question of our values, just a matter of deciding for ourselves. Or is there something beyond us that tells us right from wrong? Paul, welcome to the show. 

Delighted to be here again to pursue these important questions about where morality comes from. And that is the challenge that we often hear. I don’t think that you should argue that morality comes from God simply. And unless you believe in God, you cannot be good. As a matter of fact, religions come from human beings. They’re human creations. The great prophets historically are usually men with Jesus or Moses or Mohammed and they human, all too human. So that’s anthropocentric. So where does morality come from? Well, first, I denied the doctrine of original sin. I deny the notion that human beings by nature are evil viel corrupted. So many religious people say, I think that we are potential beings for either good or evil. And whether or not we are depends upon the social conditions under which nourished and we are developed at the society which we live in. 

So you’re saying people have no choice as to whether or not they’re good or bad because it’s all decided by their situation? 

Oh, they are. They do have choices. I think there were a biologic golden sociological constraints and opportunities, but this depends on what we do. So we are responsible. And so I would talk about moral growth and development. And I think children especially need to be loved, need to be taught to empathize, need to develop within an appreciation for others. However, there are also rational elements. And what the religious tradition often leaves out is the fact that we are cognitive moral being. Is such a thing as moral intelligence. And you live and learn. I mean, the mother says, you, Johnny, don’t hit Mary. Why not? He says and she replies, Well, if you hit Mary, Mary will hit you back. Well, I’m bigger than her. Well, I’ll hit you back. You’ll get caught. Well, there’s a reason. But also, there are other reasons that you can give. Do you really want to marry? I mean, this poor, innocent sister of your. You want to harm or think about that. So you do develop a kind of reflective knowledge. I think to such a thing as moral knowledge. And there are moral truths. And indeed, we share them in human civilization. 

So if there’s such a thing as moral knowledge, it sounds like you’re saying that knowledge can be discovered like any other kind of knowledge. Oh, yes. You live and learn and you discover it. I mean, you learn knowledge about the world. 

You. You can become a good mechanic if you want to repair it. Automobile. This technical knowledge, musical knowledge. But there’s also emotional knowledge and moral knowledge. And so it’s a kind of practical wisdom. I call it you practice scifi, good practical wisdom to use a great term. And I think that as you mature and become an adult, there are certain rules of the game that, you know, you have to live by. 

You said in the last segment of this series that we decide for ourselves or figuring out right from wrong is a decision from within ourselves. Yes. Does that make it completely arbitrary? 

No, I don’t think it’s arbitrary. Although sometimes people make arbitrary choices. They’re capricious. They lose their temper. They’re overwhelmed by passion. But I think that what we want to develop is a kind of personality and characteristics which appreciate our deep needs and interests, our values and preferences, but also a rational weighing of them. So critical intelligence is important in life, and the secular humanist says that morality is relative to human conditions. So human. Uber needs and there are certain general principles. Look, D.J., you ought to tell the truth. Why you ought to be honest and sincere. You ought not to knowingly harm other people. You ought not to be cruel. You ought not to torture children. 

But what I’m trying to get at is why if you’re not getting to heaven or avoiding hell, why? 

Why? Because if you can explain to someone. Why should I tell? Why should I keep a contract? Why should I keep a promise? Well, if you don’t keep a contract, you don’t keep a promise. No one will trust you. They’ll find out that you’re a thief or a terrible person. So there are there are conditions of morality that you learn by living together. There are even the Mafia has rules of the game of honor and of trust. 

So you’re saying thieves. So you’re saying it’s not just a matter of taste, it’s objective based on the consequences of behavior? 

Well, that’s very well stated. DHEA has their objective principles that you control upon and you tested by the consequences in human experiences and moral knowledge keeps growing and developing. Look, it took a long time for human civilization to recognize that slavery was bad, that women ought not to be mistreated. That children have rights. So there is a kind of discovery of new moral truths. But there are moral truths and they cut across cultures. I call them the common moral decencies in regard to other people and a whole number of them that you learn at your mother’s knee, that you learn in school with your friends and colleagues. 

So if morality is not just a matter of taste, if something is right, not just because we say it’s right, but because we discover by the consequences whether or not Iberians hit by the consequences and by the use of reason. You’re saying that morality is not democratic. So we can say definitively, we can say certainly that, for instance, the Holocaust was wrong. 

Well, first, the morality is not democratic. There are certain civic virtues which Sechler Umina surely appreciate. And so that such as tolerance of other points of view. 


By Democratic, I meant we don’t come together and vote on whether it’s all right said or the word something is not right or wrong simply because a group of people do it. So you take the Holocaust. The Nazis perpetrated this evil regime which murdered innocent people, the Holocaust. They liked it. Therefore, it was good. No, as a matter of fact, having been in the Second World War and having liberated at least two camps or at least come to them right after. How in bookable. Most Germans were aghast at this. This is this Holocaust was perpetrated by a minority of fanatical fascists and the egg. And they try to keep the secret from the German public, though there were rumors. So I think that there is such a thing as moral conscience. And I think we share a whole number of moral truths, whether Muslims or Christians or Jews or nonbelievers. And we ought to recognize that, though there are differences, of course. And I’m not disputing the fact that their moral disagreements. And in that case, you negotiate these differences by rational debate and discussion. 

It seems like a lot of the moral actions which you promote. Well, it seems like you share a lot in common with some of your ideological competitors on the Christian right. 

You are a Christian right in the Christian left, the Muslims and others. Yes. And the Buddhists and Endersby do share things. 

We are human beings. 

So you do stand up for morality, even though you are godless, even though you’re an atheist, a reality about the interaction of individuals, that there is a whole body of knowledge. The problem is when we become ideological or theological and then individuals lose dignity and value, as today the terrorists commit suicidal bombings of innocent people, which is an affront to, it seems to meet a moral conscience. So in the name of an ideology or theology, often in the name of God, they can perpetrate infamous acts of deeds. 

Thank you very much for joining me this week. Paul, I’d like to remind our listeners that they can get a discounted copy of Paul Curtseys book for Bidden Fruit. His book on secular versus religious ethics on our Web site, Point of Inquiry Accord next week. When you’re back on Paul, I’d like to explore. 

The specific values that as a secular humanist, you promote. Thanks for joining us. Thank you very much, D.J.. 

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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week to hear my discussion with Dr. Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education. Views expressed on point of inquiry do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded in the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiries. Music is written and composed by Michael Wailin. Contributors include Tom Flynn, Paul Kurtz, Benjamin Radford, Joe Niccolò and Sarah Jordan. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.