Monday, January 19, 2009

Skeptics and the paranormal

The paranormal is an interesting category. One dictionary definition says that paranormal is anything that is beyond scientific explanation. In this sense it’s a loaded term, and implicitly defines “normal” as those things which do have scientific explanations. It’s often defined as anything supernatural, or which appears to defy natural scientific laws. It often includes things like ESP, telekinesis, astrology, ghosts, and so forth. It also usually includes UFOs, which is interesting since UFOs are not really considered to be supernatural, but rather aliens from other planets.

A 2005 Gallup poll indicated that over 70 percent of Americans believe in one or more of a list of ten paranormal phenomena. Items which Gallup included in the evaluation were (along with the percentage of Americans who believed in each): ESP (41%), haunted houses (37%), spirits of the dead returning (32%), telepathy (31%), clairvoyance (26%), astrology (25%), communicating with the dead (21%), witches (21%), reincarnation (20%), channeling (9%). The survey indicated that Christians are somewhat more likely to believe in one or more of these things than non-Christians (75% to 66%), though not by a huge margin. It should be noted that the options for each item were: believe, not sure, don’t believe. Thus there was a group of people for each item who were agnostic with respect to that particular item.

There were some very interesting results when the data was analyzed. The poll showed no statistically significant difference in the percentage based on demographic categories. Thus, the percentage was about the same regardless of age, education, gender, race, or region of the country. Naturalists often insist that belief in “superstition” (which for them includes anything having to do with religion, the supernatural, or the paranormal) is something which education eliminates. It’s only ignorant and unlearned people that believe in such things. Well, at least according to Gallup that’s another skeptical myth. Level of education is not a factor in belief in the supernatural (readers may also want to refer to my post on Christian Intellectuals). This also presents a challenge to another persistent skeptical myth, namely that religion will eventually disappear to be replaced by human reason. Of course, this has been the skeptical belief for at least the last 200 years. The 19th century was probably the zenith of rationalism. The 20th century saw not a decline of religion, but a resurgence. As of yet the 21st century shows no sign of this trend reversing, and every indication that it will continue. But the skeptical utopia of a world without religion is such a compelling vision for some people that apparently facts don’t seem to matter.

Interestingly, three questions asked by Gallup were omitted from the final analysis because they were determined to not be paranormal. These were: psychic or spiritual healing (55%), possession by the devil (42%), and extra-terrestrials (24%). The reasoning for the omission of healing was that “The healing powers of the mind have been demonstrated empirically, reflected in the power of placebos, among other examples.” This is interesting reasoning. The reality of the placebo effect was one of the topics covered in The Spiritual Brain by Denyse O’ Leary and Mario Beauregard. The authors, however, take this as strong evidence that the mind is more than just a product of brain function, but actually has power to produce effects in the physical world. That Gallup omitted the question because in their opinion it has been demonstrated empirically to actually exist is somewhat startling, given that there is no naturalistic explanation for it. But it actually shows the bias of the pollsters – the paranormal isn’t supposed to include things which have been proven to be real! But this is simply begging the question (arguing in a circle).

Their reasoning for omitting possession by the devil was that they determined that it was impossible to know how many people took this literally or not. This is another rather strange conclusion, since the wording of their question was if people believed “that people on this earth are sometimes possessed by the devil.” It’s hard to see how someone could answer yes to that question but think of it only metaphorically.

Finally, they excluded extraterrestrials because, in their words, “although definitive scientific evidence of such visits is lacking, in principle the existence of extra-terrestrial beings and their ability to visit earth are subject to empirical verification.” Now, I do see the point of excluding extraterrestrials if "paranormal" is understood to mean "supernatural." But Gallup's reasoning is that paranormal should only include things which are not even verifiable in principle. But surely at least some items on the list may be subject to such verification, such as ESP, telepathy, and clairvoyance. Psychic or spiritual healing was removed from the list precisely because it has been verified! But it is also true that many of the items listed are really not verifiable. However, if the paranormal only includes things which can't be verified even in principle, then how should we categorize such beliefs as the multiverse (the belief in many universes outside of our own), or belief in dark matter and dark energy? These are normally considered to be in the realm of science even though it's questionable whether any of them can be verified empirically.

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My ministry in Hungary involved teaching theology and training Hungarian church planters. I have a great interest in apologetics as well as missions.