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Review by Douglas Cowan
Thinking Critically About New Age Ideas
William D. Gray
Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1991. xii+ 164 p.
Some time ago, a colleague remarked that a good proof for the veracity and reliability of the Bible was the fact that so many people had believed it for so long a time. Fortunately, I had my handy-dandy copy of William Gray's, Thinking Critically About New Age Ideas with me, and was able to parry deftly his exegetical thrust. I pointed out that my learned friend had conflated an argumentum ad populam with the Fallacy of Past Practice, and that neither the truth of the Bible nor its credibility were proved thereby.
He, of course, asked if I wanted french fries with that.
Removing tongue from cheek, though, it should be pointed out that Gray's book is not about the New Age, nor was it intended to be. However, using New Age concepts as examples, it is a very good introduction to logical analysis and some of the many fallacies to which logical argument is prey. Written "to be used in a logic or critical-thinking course" (p.xii), Gray identifies three objectives for his book: (a) "to enable [students] to be more rigorous in their reasoning about paranormal topics and about matters of fact in daily life" (p.x); (b) to help students discern when it is important to demand evidence for claims and when an argument is taking place at the level of language; (c) "to teach readers to identify an argument and to recognize classic cases of bad arguments as they occur in reasoning about the paranormal" (p.xi). As a beginning textbook, his third objective is the one I believe best rendered. He notes that ideas around the New Age and the paranormal are natural vehicles for teaching logical analysis. They are "intrinsically interesting, and the students are already involved" (p.x).
Gray begins with a consideration of "Language: The Starting Point." In this chapter, he discusses the importance of language awareness. Four principles govern this discussion: (a) "language is a human product" (p.4); (b) "whatever meaning a word has is due to the use that humans put it to" (p.5); (c) "the meaning of a word is arbitrary" (p.5); and (d) "in order for there to be symbolic communication between people, there must be agreement on the use of those symbols" (p.5). From here, he reviews the various kinds of communications possible: word types; empirical, analytic, value, attitude, and metaphysical statements. Chapter Three begins his discussion of "Common Fallacies," thirty of which are covered in the entire book, ranging from ad hominem to post hoc propter hoc, from the Fallacy of Deriving Fact from Possibility Appeal to the Fallacy of Projected Specifics. In each of these, Gray illustrates the logical structure of premise(s) and conclusion(s). For example:
Premise: X is a mystery.
Conclusion: Therefore, X has a mysterious cause.
(Fallacy of Jumping to Fantastic Conclusions, p.99)
Chapter Four moves on to the consideration of specific fallacies as they obtain in the New Age and the paranormal. Chapter Five concludes the book with a discussion of "Science versus Pseudoscience." At the end of each chapter, there are numerous pages of exercises and review questions. As a consideration of New Age phenomenon, readers will find Gray of marginal value; there are far better treatments available. However, once one has located those resources, especially if they are "New Age" themselves, Gray's book will be invaluable as a handy reference tool. The objective of the book is to teach critical thinking skills; Gray's use of popular New Age concepts and ideas to do that is a welcome addition to the field.
Douglas E. Cowan
Department of Religious Studies, University of Calgary