A Skeptic’s Guide to Belief | Ken Crispin

A Skeptic’s Guide to Belief

The following is an excerpt from A Skeptic’s Guide to Belief by Ken Crispin. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.

“Not all who cling to unquestioned beliefs are stupid or naive; many are intelligent people who approach other aspects of their lives in an entirely rational manner. But beliefs about the fundamental issues of life are often treated differently. In fact, many people seem to form a mental capsule, like the intellectual equivalent of a diving bell, so their cherished beliefs can be maintained in an enclosed and protective environment, hermetically sealed from the wider and perhaps threatening sea of knowledge and reality. Such capsules are usually formed subconsciously and they are entrenched as time passes. The walls may lack the steel plate of diving bells, but they are forged from powerful emotional factors, such as loyalty, duty and fear, and may be equally impenetrable.

It is often assumed that only religious adherents sequester their beliefs in such a manner, but this is also true of atheists, whose self perceptions as champions of reason and objectivity sometimes seem remarkably thin facades.”

…“But if life is not simply some by-product of our flesh, what is it? Dictionary definitions suggest it is the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter,3 but this really avoids the issue. Within science there is no broadly accepted definition and interminable controversy seems inescapable.4 Whilst J. B. S. Haldane5 and others have wisely declined to answer this question, Brig Klyce has suggested a simple formulation: ‘life is cells.’6 is has the virtue of brevity, though it glosses over suggestions that at least some large DNA viruses should be recognized as non-cellular life forms. It also contains an element of truth; cells are alive.7 Unfortunately, it misses the essential point.

Frank Sinatra’s song, “My Way,” is played at countless funerals. In the absence of any necessary feminist revisionism, it invites the mourners to ponder the question, “for what is a man?” Is the only real answer that he is a conglomeration of cells? Is that all life is? What if he dies like the hapless person whose demise has prompted yet another rendition of the song? It is routinely said that such a person “has gone.” is may not be a scientifically verifiable concept, but there is a sense that some intangible but nonetheless real thing has left the body that once contained a person with a character and personality. e corpse still has cells. So what could have gone?

Lynn Margulis makes a somewhat similar claim: ’the units of life are cells.’8 But what could the concept of a ‘unit of life’ actually mean? Is life nothing more than an accumulation of biological Lego blocks? Are some bodies or organisms more alive than others because they have more units of life? And, conversely, if you lose an arm or otherwise lose cells, are you less alive than you were before? Should nurses who spend their lives taking blood samples, and hence depleting the number of cells in patients, be prosecuted for genocide?”

“In fact, neurology has not unravelled the mystery of consciousness. We now know that the human brain contains about 100 billion neurons interconnected by trillions of synapses and that these connections transmit signals. But what does that reveal about consciousness? It has been suggested that “Somehow. . . that’s producing thought.”48 This does not inspire confidence either. A telephone system transmits electronic impulses through numerous connections, but this does not mean that it somehow produces the conversations. Research on neutral activity may well yield further insights but that does not mean that we are on the threshold of an adequate explanation. Chalmers suggests that, like space and time, we may have to take consciousness for granted. This has not been received with enthusiasm by committed physicalists, but neither speculation nor optimism about future discoveries do much to dispel the mystery.

Susan Greenfield believes that consciousness is an emergent prop-erty of the brain, similar to the ‘wetness’ of water or the ‘transparency’ of glass.49 but she does not claim that this belief can be scientifically verified and, again, the comparison is not reassuring. Wetness and transparency are physical qualities of physical things and they are discernible by the physical senses. e baroness has also highlighted the fact that we do not even know what kind of explanation to expect: “If I said to you I’d solved the hard problem, you wouldn’t be able to guess whether it would be a formula, a model, a sensation, or a drug.”

There are even further theories: there may be a more basic substance underlying all matter with both phenomenal and physical properties;51 such a substance may be neither phenomenal nor physical but may underly both;52 or all physical things may have an underlying phenomenal nature.53 There may be no evidence to support any of these propositions, but some are enchanting. My own favorite is the proposition that consciousness might correlate with physical matter in this world but perhaps separate from it in a different world.54 The implications of this theory are not clear. Would it mean that astronauts landing on some other planet might find themselves suddenly discorporated, leaving mindless bodies in their spacesuits? Or, if you prefer to put a more positive gloss on this hypothesis, would the path to immortality begin with the stairs leading up to a space ship and end when a conscious soul disengages from the body on some alien landing place? Would consciousness be reabsorbed during the return journey or hover in disembodied amusement whilst earnest psychologists try to debrief the mindless body it had abandoned? Only a spoilsport would wish to see such flights of fancy dashed on the rocks of reason, but a skeptic might wonder whether an a priori insistence that everything must be physically based has not led some theorists astray.”

Praise for A Skeptic’s Guide to Belief

“With all the balanced expository and forensic skills of his brilliant legal mind, and an erudite command of the literature in several related fields in science, philosophy, and theology, Kenneth Crispin offers that rare thing in debates on skepticism and belief, a ‘fair go’ to all sides, and a compelling case for doubt and trust in the service of truth.”
WIlliam Storrar, Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey

“Ken Crispin’s achievement here is groundbreaking. He brings to his work both the fairness and restraint of a highly incisive legal mind and an outstanding breadth and depth of understanding in science, philosophy, and theology. From this he avoids hackneyed debates and produces an interpretation of doubt and belief that will open new and exciting vistas for every reader.”
James Haire, AC, Emeritus Professor of Theology, Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia

About the Author

Ken Crispin

Ken Crispin began practice as a Sydney barrister in 1973. He moved to Canberra in 1979, where his practice flourished, and he appeared for a number of high-profile defendants, including Lindy and Michael Chamberlain. He became a Queen’s Counsel in 1988, and was appointed director of public prosecutions for the Australian Capital Territory in 1991, chairman of the Bar Association in 1996, a Supreme Court judge in 1997, and president of the ACT Court of Appeal in 2001. He chaired the ACT Law Reform Commission between 1996 and 2006. In his spare time, Dr Crispin has completed a PhD in ethics, and written three books, numerous articles on law and ethics, and the libretto for an opera. He is currently the Commissioner for Standards for the Australian Capital Territory and a member of the board of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture.

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