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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Monday, December 8, 2014

What Kind of Minds Could Plausibly Exclude the Paranormal?

Many a skeptic rules out paranormal phenomena in a perfunctory, dismissive manner, taking a kind of “things like that just can't happen” type of attitude, in which claims of the paranormal are automatically associated with fraud, error, or superstition. Is that type of attitude appropriate? To shed light on this question, we can consider: what type of mind could plausibly rule out paranormal claims in this type of automatic manner? In other words, what type of mind in what type of environment would be justified in saying things like “I don't even need to look closely at that kind of report,” when getting a report of a paranormal phenomenon?

First, let's consider where such a mind might live. Many reports of paranormal phenomena involve UFOs or extraterrestrials, and a mind would never be justified in ruling out such reports dismissively if the mind lived on a planet like our planet, within a plausible transit time of thousands of potential solar systems in the light years around us. This is because any mind living in such a location could not plausibly exclude the possibility of far away visitors, just as a person living in a city cannot plausibly rule out the possibility that someone may knock on his door one day. But we can imagine one type of location where a mind would be justified in excluding any possibility that some phenomenon was caused by extraterrestrials from some other planet. One such location would be in a planet revolving around a star that had somehow formed in lonely isolation, in the vast empty space between galaxies. Such a star might exist by itself perhaps 500,000 light years from any galaxy such as ours (which is about five times the length of our galaxy). There might be no stars nearby. Travel between galaxies (not to be confused with travel between stars) is probably impossible, and even if it is possible, it would be very, very unlikely that any spaceship traveling between galaxies would ever stop at a star midway between galaxies (simply because of the huge amount of empty space between galaxies).

So if a person lived on such a planet, he could plausibly dismiss any claims of extraterrestrial visitors (some spaceship coming from outside of his planet). Such a person could argue with some plausibility that the chance of such visitors arriving at the incredibly remote location of his home planet would be almost zero. 

Inhabitant of an isolated planet, far outside of a galaxy

What about other claims of the paranormal – claims such as ESP or apparitions? To imagine a mind that could plausibly exclude such claims dismissively, without even examining them, we must imagine some mind that is part of some culture vastly older and more advanced than ours. Over the eons such a civilization might have unraveled all the mysteries of mind and brain function that we are just beginning to investigate. Understanding exactly how consciousness works, and fully understanding all the mysteries of how the brain works, a mind that was part of such a culture might then theoretically be able to rule out various possibilities involving life and death or mysterious human powers, assuming that the culture had achieved a complete understanding of exactly how consciousness could exist based on purely on material factors and brain activity.

We must also imagine that this culture vastly older and more advanced than ours had achieved over the eons a complete understanding of time, space, and other mysteries that confuse and confound us. Such an understanding would be necessary for a mind to be able to authoritatively dismiss claims involving unusual phenomena related to time, claims such as precognition.

So is this all that we need to imagine to get a mental picture of a mind that could plausibly exclude paranormal phenomena dismissively? No, we must imagine one more thing. We must also imagine that the culture had existed for ages during which paranormal phenomena had not been reported. For one cannot dismissively reject reports of a phenomenon unless you can say with plausibility that “things like that just don't happen,” and you can't really persuasively say that “things like that just don't happen” unless a huge length of time has passed in which an alleged phenomenon has not been reported. For example, if someone reports that a giant shining fairy appeared in front of his house, you can rather convincingly dismiss it with a claim such as “things like that just don't happen” (given that no has ever reported such a thing), but you can't convincingly use such a claim to dismiss a claim of ESP, a type of claim that people make all over the world every year.

So now we have completed our rough sketch of minds that could plausibly wave away reports of paranormal phenomenon in a dismissive and perfunctory manner. They would be minds living in some incredibly remote planet so remotely located that it would have no chance of visitors. They would be godlike minds part of some culture many thousands of years more advanced than ours, a culture that had figured out all the main mysteries of time, space, mind, biology, brain function and consciousness many ages ago. Their culture would be one in which reports of paranormal phenomena had not been made for many thousands of years.

Such minds bear no resemblance to any minds on our planet.

We, of course, live on a planet that is not remotely located, and that is a plausible travel target for visitors from other planets. Far from having figured out all the main mysteries of time, space, brain function and consciousness, we have barely begun to ponder such mysteries, having only created really organized sciences a few centuries ago. Do we even understand such limited, simple things such as matter and energy? No, not at all, as scientists say that most of the energy in the universe is some mysterious “dark energy” we don't understand at all, and most of matter is some mysterious “dark matter” that we know basically nothing about. Having merely a fragmentary knowledge of matter and energy, we cannot plausibly claim to understand all or most of the forces which may be working in the universe. We don't even understand how our brains store memories, or how the brain produces consciousness, or whether the brain is even the sole producer of consciousness or the sole storage agent of memories. Far from having had ages of no paranormal phenomena to use as something to support a claim such as “things like that can't happen,” we have had an extremely wide range of paranormal phenomena abundantly reported throughout human history, often by credible investigators backed up by photos or experiments.

Living on such a planet, being part of a species befuddled by a thousand unsolved mysteries of time, space, and mind, the person who dismissively rejects paranormal phenomena is therefore someone acting with a misguided intellectual hubris. When faced with anomalies and mysteries of mind and nature, an appropriate attitude is one of humility rather than hubris. We have traveled only a few miles on the vast winding road that may lead ages hence to understanding the true nature of reality.

Postscript: Speaking of people who dismissively reject paranormal phenomena, the Daily Mail has a revealing expose of one famous skeptic, one that claims to debunk the king of the debunkers.