I had another, stronger encounter with paradox recently, watching this TED lecture by magician/conjurer, James Randi.  Let this small article serve as an exploration of this physiological paradox… as well as a challenge to James Randi himself and his foundation.

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Having been in the profession of “magic” for a long time–he’s also known as “The Amazing Randi”–he turned his attention to debunking other so called magicians, psychics, and professors of the supernatural, and often works with Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic magazine.  The fact that Randi made his fortune as a magician and now debunks others who make money off the willingness of human beings to believe, is pretty interesting… but is not the paradox I became aware of in watching this lecture.  In general, I believe him when he says he’s debunking psychics because they end up causing more pain than they purport to relieve, i.e. he has a sense of the good and is trying to carry it out.  In this talk he debunks several sectors of alternative belief: homeopathy, psychics communing with the dead, and people claiming psychokinesis, such as a water dowser.  On stage he swallows a whole bottle full of a homeopathic sleeping agent and then reads a label saying to call a poison hotline if overdose occurs, or something like that.  He explains the philosophy of homeopathy which is that by distillation of some herb, or dilution, it becomes vibrationally more potent… but you’re watching him talk for a while and he doesn’t appear to get sleepy, as one would expect if you’ve swallowed a whole container of sleeping pills.  So he debunks homeopathy that easily.  (By examining his body on stage in this talk, I get the sense that he’s a guy that takes a lot of naps though; I think those pills are having some cumulative effect on him.)  He describes exposing a faith healer, Peter Popoff, many years ago, who claimed to be healing his congregation through the holy spirit and by divine connection knew a lot a priori about the people who would come to his televised megaplex for healing, when in reality he had a small radio in his ear and his wife was giving him information about the attendees.  Shortly after the exposure, Peter Popoff claimed bankruptcy.  I watched some of the footage he gives of Peter Popoff here and was a little nervous about his conclusions.  Here’s why: I am as big a fan of any of the dissolution of basically anyone who heals people through Christ on TV… but watching the people get healed in Popoff’s congregation, I suddenly could see that they truly believe in what they are experiencing.  Randi opens that youtube interview with this statement: “I want to be sure–if I can–of the real world around me, the world as it really is, as is possible.”  I couldn’t get that statement to dovetail with these people getting faith healed and then expressing actual relief from arthritis, or rheumatism, or a bad hip or whatever.  I mean, even though this guy is a fake, aren’t these poor people actually getting help?  If they are, there’s a paradox there.  A really big one.  We will explore it in a few sentences.  The first thing I would ask Randi is this: OK, you’re exposing a fraud… but this fraud is providing televised entertainment, as well as actual–albeit temporary–relief from real pain that Western medicine probably doesn’t have a cure for.  So I ask, how much is attendance to one of these congregations?  $30, $50?  How much was a ticket to one of your magic shows back in the day?  Are the two really so different?

Then comes the harder question.  If people get bona fide relief from something fake, is the treatment actually fake?  It turns out that the very institution that James Randi would rely upon for his reality, i.e. Western Medical Practice, actually has a whole doctrine for this gray edge of its science: it’s called the placebo effect.  The definition of the placebo is a sham or fake procedure that produces a real effect.  The phenomenon is so strong that Western science often has to conduct a double blind placebo in clinical trials in order to insure that the results of a REAL procedure aren’t placebo induced, meaning basically that the patient isn’t just healing himself because he’s being treated by REAL doctors in a real office, etc., meaning that both the doctor and the patient do not know if what is being administered as treatment is real or false.  If nothing happens, it’s false.  If, however, a patient is suffering from something which either can’t be treated with normal drugs, because of the condition itself–as in the case with some severe respiratory diseases–or because the condition is simply undefinable, a placebo is often very practical and effective.  For example, with a case of severe pneumonia where a patient needs to reduce pain and slow the heart rate–but where the use of opiates or morphine derivatives would compromise the condition even further–a physician will inject saline solution into a patient hypodermically and tell the patient that he is getting a dose of the strongest pain killer there is.  Often, that alone will create tremendous relaxation in the patient and achieve the results the doctor is seeking.  (  There are vociferous debates all over Western medical practice about the morality of placebo induced results because it is a practice based on deception.  But often, because placebo procedures widely reap good results, doctors say that they should be employed because anything to aid in the healing process could be interpreted as part of the hippocratic oath, and in the aforementioned article, based on scientifically conducted polls, medical journals report that 60% of physicians around the world utilize the placebo effect.

That there is stated scientific doctrine for the placebo effect, including a placebo effect for homeopathic treatment, is grounds to form a conclusion about the actual and documented power of human belief.  It is at this point that I cannot see the entire logic of James Randi’s crusade to dispel the efforts of alternative medical and otherwise practitioners, when those individuals are not competing with or excluding the care of rigorously tested treatments (of the West) that could heal the same ailments.  In other words, if Science itself grants power–and a relatively large domain of power at that–to the placebo effect, wouldn’t it in fact be more of a detriment to individuals receiving this treatment to debunk and demystify the practice?!

The paradox for Randi is that perhaps in thinking he is doing good, he is in fact, not.  Perhaps just as he allowed his audience to believe that he was actually bending a spoon, so should he allow a psychic let his patients believe they are receiving real treatment.  Because the power of belief is REAL and documented under scientific conditions.

Not too long ago I read a volume about hypnotism, and pretty shortly after starting the book, was able to hypnotize myself.  The author, Raphael H. Rhodes, in Hypnosis: Theory, Practice, and Application, says this:

This phenomenon [hypnotism] first attracted my attention several decades ago when, as an impressionable adolescent, I witnessed an operation in a dental surgeon’s office.  The dentist was cutting deeply into the patient’s gum.  The patient sat back, composed and comfortable, though no drug had been administered.  She had merely been hypnotized.  The hypnotist had told her to relax.  He had said that she would feel no pain.

At the conclusion of the operation, which lasted about half an hour, the dentist laid his instruments aside, and nodded to the hypnotist.  The latter then addressed the patient: “When I wake you, there will be no pain, no headache, no after-effects.  You’ll feel well and happy.  Now when I count to ten, you’ll wake up.”

Upon the final count she opened her eyes and smiled.  “When does he begin?” she asked.

(From the Introduction)

When you consider this: that surgery, or something which would be considered quite painful, is possible without anesthetic, it becomes evident that within our own physiological/psychological construction, there are internally higher tools to aid in healing.  The body knows that pain is a map towards wellness; it also knows how to turn the pain off in order to surpass the negative effects of the pain itself, to achieve the wellness it seeks.  Read this for another example of surgery under hypnosis.

I would argue that a hypnotist, who in 30-60 seconds is, able to subdue a patient properly for a 90 minute typical Western surgery is equally as “magical”–if not more–as someone who could bend a spoon or speak to the dead.  I haven’t witnessed any of these things, but knowing that the former is entirely possible and has been documented by science, I would like to submit to James Randi that a broad stroke effort to debunk the world of alternative healing is short sighted.  The path to hell is paved with good intentions, etc.

James Randi has a one million dollar challenge available to anyone who professes a paranormal, supernatural, or psychic ability.  I would like to recommend that the $1,000,000 challenge offered by James Randi’s foundation, to find someone with supernatural, paranormal, or psychic powers come to rest with this article, and be submitted to ME for use in a positive way, in the formation of a new foundation which works on the fostering of hope as opposed to the erosion of it.  For if a hypnotist can make you think you’re a cat, so that you’re saying, “I’m a cat, I’m a cat!” or can put you to sleep while you undergo open heart surgery, then you’ve got a psychic power there, insofar as that person has used his mind to manipulate another body into undergoing a totally unexpected event, and that’s more psychic than turning the page of a dictionary with your mind or bending a spoon.  I personally would love to take responsibility for the $1,000,000 and do some work in Haiti, rebuilding, and putting the money to good use…


I originally posted this as one article and it proved a little rambly I think.  So i have reformulated it into two ideas; two different formulations of paradox.

I would not be surprised if every field of study arrives at a somewhat gross paradox in one way or another, a paradox which seems to bring the entire field of study into question in one way or another.  I would like to provide a couple of examples of significant human paradox, the first being a psychologically based dilemma, the second (which will appear in PARADOX DEVELOPMENT PT. II) a more physiological one, and one which has a particularly high profile character sitting right in the middle of the problem.

I just finished a book by Adam Phillips and Barbary Taylor called “On Kindness”  which is a thorough exploration a possible ‘instinct’ for kindness and psychological groundwork for what is actually a pretty mystifying component of modern culture: being kind.  To grossly paraphrase the project of this book, the author(s) ask, ‘Why are we kind to one another?  Or: are we kind to one another.’

onkindnessThe authors do a very good job of presenting the idea that perhaps being kind is not as simple as it seems.  This proposition then turns into an exploration of everything else connected to that impulse to be nice: our love for brethren, for a lover, for a parent, for humanity, and perhaps finally for oneself.

In good philosophical fashion, the authors arrive at some stiff paradoxes with regards to our instinct to be kind.  These are a few of the components to the paradox: our original sense of love and attachment comes from a connection to the mother.  We feel unbounded love from her, at first.  But then there’s a sense for the mother that her child is not reciprocating this feeling, he just cries and makes messes and expresses no gratitude, and a sense of resentment is born in her for the child, according to the history of psychoanalysis.  The child ages and begins to learn to ask nicely to get what he wants… and the scope of what he wants broadens as he ages.  He begins to foster a resentment for the mother as a part of normal formation of individuality alongside sexual awareness.  There is then a complex series of evolutions into independence between parent and child.  At the end, even if all severance is made in a “healthy” way there is this paradox about the meaning of the act of kindness:

The kindness of childhood–upon which parenting depends–makes a problem of desire in adulthood.  Affection is inevitably entwined with strong feelings for parents; it becomes a nice word for incest.  Kindness and prohibition are inextricable; kindness is our recognition of the forbidden and our refusal of it… Because of the incest taboo our desire is experienced as a risk.  Our kindness, in other words, is the key to our sexual problems, and not the other way around…. If there was to be a viable modern kindness, the psychoanalysts had begun to believe, it had to be allied to aggression, it had to possess a more forceful vitality; it couldn’t be a wishful refuge from the patent brutality of human nature.  The kindness of Christian humility had begun to seem, from a psychoanalytic point of view, very suspect.  Freud had said, before the First World War, that kindness split off from sexual desire breeds a fundamental frustration which in turn leads to a destructive hatred that, directed against the self, becomes impotence and frigidity.

(Excerpted from pp 86-88)

I don’t really even want to comment on the material quoted there… but to point out the glaring, wonderful paradox that a human comes to when he investigates something so intrinsic to our condition as loving and hating.  This paradox encompasses the Oedipal Complex, as well as–in part–the nature of war, and the nature of disharmony between the sexes in relationship.  And it is at the end of a string of paragraphs like that–written by an accomplished expert–that I ask, “Who are we!?”

My sense is that there is a natural quality to this fundamental paradox.  In other words, perhaps part of being human, is to dwell within paradox.  Paradox itself is easy to say and easy to point out.  Zeno’s paradox, for example.  Or the paradox of the river crossing with the fox, the chicken and the feed.  But to be within a real paradox, and to be aware of it, is something else altogether and requires a skill somewhat alien to human practice, even though the actual paradox is not at all alien; on the contrary, it is intrinsic.

My father wrote a book recently with a PhD psychologist, called Quicksilver:

quicksilver… in which they generate a nice formulation of the effect of a paradox upon the psyche, or the mind.  The doctor with whom my father wrote the book calls this dwelling-with paradox a PDQ, a Paradox Development Question… and when a paradox is presented, or self-presented, the mind–as well as the subconscious–latch onto the problem of the paradox.  The mind loves puzzles.

There are myriad examples of thinkers dwelling-with paradox throughout the ages; a famous example would be the challenge to Archimedes made by King Hiero II–who suspected that a goldsmith who’d recently made him a crown, did not make the crown entirely from gold and had kept some for himself.  This is a paradox because the king wants to know if the crown is solid gold without opening it up and verifying, melting it down to discover it were some kind of alloy.  This gives rise to the famous tale that Archimedes made his revelation in the bathtub, when he realized that the specific gravity of that volume of pure gold would displace a different amount of water to that of an alloy…. and ran through the streets, shouting Eureka!… which in Greek means, “I found it!”… which conclusion led to this article by Malcolm Gladwell, which details another interesting psychological phenomenon in the presence of paradox, which is the necessity for relaxation after concerted effort to solve a problem; in other words, that it is only when the mind relaxes after a diligent effort to solve a puzzle that the subconscious is able to enter its 2 cents.

One of the best cognitive exercises we can engage in is paradox formulation.  But it also turns out that we are involved not only in cognitive paradox, but physiological paradox, with respect to our own health and wellness.  Please continue on to PARADOX DEVELOPMENT PT. II.