I think almost everyone who knows me, knows that I’m sceptical of extraordinary claims. As the adage goes: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Depending on the situation and context, whenever the subject of the supernatural or paranormal comes up in conversation, I will generally throw a few common sense questions in there, (assuming of course that it’s polite to do so). I might point out how cold-reading works, or subjective validation or confirmation bias. I might casually point out how science really works, or that testimonials and anecdotes are not really solid proof of anything.
I was speaking to a woman on the phone a few weeks’ ago. She believed she was psychic and had special powers. In many ways she was the paradigm True Believer. She claimed to have actually seen angels and spirits, and could directly divine events. She’s even given readings to people who I work with, and impressed them. The conversation lasted quite a while and we managed to have a very frank discussion. It was about 10 minutes before I said anything of interest really as she spent the first ten minutes telling me stories and anecdotes of her own experiences. I mean no offence to her, but these stories (whether she realises she was doing it or not) were simply there to try and impress me. And if I would have been more inclined to believe in the supernatural or female (in my experience women show far more interest in these things than men) I would have been blown away. I wasn’t, and I think she sensed that. I explained to her some of the principles mentioned in the first paragraph, and said that I didn’t think she had any special abilities. The conversation was very amicable, but I challenged her to “read” me the next time we met; hopefully this will happen in the next few weeks or months.
Now again, I mean no offence to this lady, but imagine that instead of saying that she’s actually seen and communicated with angels and spirits, she said aliens – what would your opinion be of her then? Less credible? Perhaps a little bit too farfetched? What if she said animals spoke to her, or evil invisible Mexicans? Would we be inclined to think she’d lost the plot? Well, I don’t know what the lady’s state of mind is. In all fairness, she’s able to hold a normal job and life on a day-to-day basis, but then most people are regardless of their mental health. There is no difference between saying you can talk to animals, aliens, invisible evil Mexicans, or supernatural beings. If anything, we know that animals, aliens, and Mexicans exist. But yet, counter-intuitively, because of today’s culture, most people would be more likely to invest belief in her supernatural claims.
Personally, I don’t know what goes on in the head of people like that. But the experts have had a very good go at explaining it. There are many good explanations for paranormal experiences: brain-states, hallucinations, sleep-disorders, chemical-imbalance, emotional-instability, ignorance, misunderstanding perfectly natural events, magical-thinking, wishful-thinking, self-delusion. None of these terms are meant aggressively or pejoratively. The truth is any of us may be affected by them at any point in our lives. Sometimes our experiences seem incredibly real and very powerful. And they happen to us. It’s much easier to dismiss other peoples’ claims, but take our own seriously. This is human nature, but it’s also very self-centred when you think about it. Are we so convinced that other people are probably just wrong, but when something incredible happens to us, we just know we’re right?!
And so people ask me, what if you saw a ghost? What if something happened that you couldn’t explain? What if you had a supernatural or paranormal experience? What if a psychic told you something she couldn’t possibly know?
Would I still believe? No. Stubborn, close-minded, I hear you say? Absolutely not, and I’ll explain why soon.
Because of what I just said above, we all know that people can be wrong about their experiences. Remember that what people think they are experiencing might not necessarily be what is going on. Even something as mundane as a cold draught on the back of the neck could be interpreted as a ghostly presence if someone was inclined to think that way. Perhaps the breeze occurs when a person is thinking of a loved one, perhaps recently passed away. Hey, perhaps they’re even holding a photograph of the deceased in their hands?! Now do you see how spooky that rather boring gust of wind is? All of a sudden the experience has taken on a whole new meaning, and when that person recounts their story it will probably be embellished and exaggerated (most of the time unintentionally). Because you’re not that person, it’s not possible to know what happened at the time or know what happened in their minds. But what is more likely to be true?
“When confidential information leaks out of an organization, people suspect a spy, not a psychic.”
–John Allen Paulos, Innumeracy
This quote above had me smiling for a while. It’s so delightful in its parsimony, and so full of sheer real world common sense. Think about it. Also think about this: when was the last time a psychic was banned from a casino? It’s never happened. Why?
It’s often jokingly said the best way to not get abducted by aliens is to be a sceptic. Sceptics never get abducted by aliens! All joking aside, this is actually pretty good advice. Sceptics for example, understand that sometimes the natural paralysis that starts at sleep and ends with consciousness sometimes doesn’t activate and deactivate properly, leaving people with a temporary waking paralysis. It’s rare, but explains a lot of reports of alien abductions. Isn’t it strange that people who don’t believe in aliens never get visited? Why don’t sceptics see ghosts? For that matter, why don’t Christians see Allah, and why don’t Muslims ever see Christ?? Could it be that they are all having ordinary or natural experiences, and interpreting them their own way?
I know how “psychics” work, so if a “psychic” impressed me, she’d just be impressing me with how good a con-artist she is. Even if she isn’t trying to deceive, I know how they work and the techniques they use, so I wouldn’t be led to believe in them. The only way a psychic would convince me of anything is if they were tested in controlled conditions. Any psychic who passes such a test would make history. It’s never been done at all, so why would we believe that the one time we get a reading it’s actually real? Surely that’s pretty arrogant of us.
You see, it’s precisely because I know I can be wrong, even about myself, that I wouldn’t accept supernatural or paranormal experiences of my own! You cannot get less stubborn and close-minded than that! Also, if I rejected other people’s fallacious reasoning and “proof” (rightly so) but accepted my own, wouldn’t that make me a hypocrite? Wouldn’t I be just as guilty of incorrect thinking as the ones who accept “paranormal” experiences?? Of course I would!
What sceptics do is stick to their principles. We know we can be wrong. We know that humans are prone to being emotional, illogical, fallacious, and can suffer from a variety of mental problems that can be rather innocent and also very serious at times. A person might swear on their family’s lives that they saw a ghost stand before them in the room. This person might be joking or plain insane. There’s no way to know, which is why we simply cannot accept the anecdotes of people, no matter how genuine they sound, as proof. We need real evidence.
And yet the popular view of sceptics and debunkers is of being cynical, close-minded, stubborn, and arrogant. But as I’ve explained, we are anything but! The very reasons we’d reject even our own experiences proves great integrity, honestly, and humility. And once you admit that no matter how convinced you are of something, you might still be wrong, there is only one option left: rationalism; that is, a world where evidence decides facts, and we don’t choose our beliefs.
We should believe what we know, and not know what we believe.
(This article isn’t an exhaustive debunk of the paranormal or supernatural. My main purpose was to highlight that applying critical thinking even to our own experiences, although it doesn’t come naturally, is actually one of the most honest and modest things we can do. It’s also incredibly rewarding!)