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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Monday, December 19, 2016

Why Are We Surprised by the Paranormal in a Universe That Began in the Weirdest Way Imaginable?

Discussions about the plausibility of the paranormal typically involve discussions of whether particular examples of evidence for the paranormal are convincing. But there is a very different way to approach the issue of whether the paranormal is plausible: we can consider the matter from a kind of a priori standpoint. We can ask ourselves: given what we know about the universe (its origin, its composition, its contents, its laws), and what we know about mankind's level of knowledge, should we be surprised to witness paranormal phenomena?

I can imagine someone arguing in a certain way that given what we know about the universe, we should not expect to see the paranormal. The argument would go a little like this:

The universe we see is very orderly, intelligible and predictable. In such a universe we should not expect to see disorderly, mysterious and unpredictable things such as are described in the literature on the paranormal.

Such an argument is fallacious for several reasons. One reason is that you are not entitled to conclude the unlikelihood or non-existence of non-X simply because you have made some observations of X. An example will show this. Let us imagine some African villager around 1700 who has observed only black skins on humans. From such observations, such a villager has no basis for concluding that he should not expect to see humans with white skins. In fact, at any time such a villager might have been abducted and sold into slavery by one of the white slave traders who plagued African villages at this time.

There is another reason why the argument above is fallacious. Within the set of all possible universes, which would include an infinite number of chaotic, messy, disorderly universes, the set of universes that are orderly, lawful, and predictable is presumably a very tiny subset. So if we are in an orderly and lawful universe, this may imply some intelligent agency that helped to bring about such order. If such an agency exists, the door is opened to the paranormal in innumerable ways. There might be miracles or paranormal acts performed by such an agency, or other spiritual agencies that it created. Living in an orderly universe, we might think such things are quite possible; but they might be very unlikely if we somehow lived in a disorderly and chaotic universe. So from the orderliness and lawfulness of nature, we have no basis for concluding that the paranormal is unlikely.

Let's consider another facet of the universe: its size and extent. We live in a planet revolving around one star, a star that is only one of billions of similar stars in our galaxy. There are billions of galaxies similar to our own. The universe is believed to be about 13 billion years old. Do such facts imply anything about the likelihood of the paranormal?

It would seem that such facts should imply a much higher likelihood of the paranormal. Our galaxy may be teeming with intelligent life, and that life may be mysteriously interacting with our planet in any number of ways. Intelligent life that arose many millions or billions of years ago may have evolved into some immaterial or godlike state (Arthur C. Clarke imagined extraterrestrials evolving into a pure energy state). This implies that an incredibly large number of paranormal possibilities might occur. The possibilities are not limited to spaceships appearing in our skies. Perhaps such godlike extraterrestrial entities might interact with us in some mysterious way that we interpret as a psychic phenomenon, an apparition, or an angelic visitation.

If ours was the only planet in the universe, we might rate such possibilities as being very unlikely. But in a galaxy that might be teeming with life, the likelihood of such things occurring may be very high.

Another thing we know about the universe is its beginning. The beginning we have discovered is the strangest beginning imaginable. Scientists say that in the Big Bang the whole universe suddenly popped into existence, and that an instant later the whole universe was some tiny size, almost infinitely hot and dense. We are told that all of the mass-energy of the observable universe was once crunched into the size of a baseball.

This is the weirdest universe origin we can imagine, and in light of such a supreme weirdness we should not be very surprised about observing weird paranormal things. It's rather like this. Suppose you go to a baseball stadium, and you are told that some hitter once a hit a baseball clear out of the stadium. Given such a fact, should you be very surprised to see a hitter hit the ball not so far, merely into the first row of the center-field bleachers? No, you should not be surprised by that. Similarly, in a universe that began in the weirdest way imaginable, should we be very surprised to see some bit of paranormal weirdness (a UFO sighting, an apparition, some telepathic event) that is nowhere near as weird as such a beginning? No, we should not.

Another way to ponder whether we should be surprised by the paranormal is to ask: should we be very surprised by the paranormal, given the current state of human knowledge? It is quite common to try to discredit claims of the paranormal by advancing various types of triumphal narratives in which modern science is depicted as an almost-completed undertaking, and scientists are depicted as those who have “pretty much figured out” nature.

But there's a counter-narrative that's a lot closer to the truth. Modern science is only a few centuries old. Modern computerized science is only a few decades old. Why should we expect scientists to have largely figured things out in such a short time frame? When we make a list of the things that scientists do not know and typically admit that they do not know – for example, the nature of things such as dark matter and dark energy, the cause of the Big Bang, how life originated, how memory retrieval works, and whether life is common or very rare in the universe – we have enough to discredit any claims that scientists have “pretty much figured out” nature. When we add to this list the set all of the things that scientists typically claim to understand but do not actually understand because of their current runaway overconfidence – things such as how species originate and whether consciousness is generated solely by the brain -- we have a list of unknowns so large that any claims that our scientists have things “pretty much figured out” become rather laughable.

In light of such realities, we should regard the paranormal as being far from unexpected. We may also consider the habits of the modern scientist, who by force of social pressure implicitly declares many types of inquiry to be taboo (as shown in this deplorable recent example of censorship). When you are not investigating something, and your community has by custom declared it to be kind of “off limits,” then what business do you have making pronouncements about its likelihood or unlikelihood, its existence or nonexistence? 


Facing the paranormal, the university professor is always ready to chime in with simple slogans such as, “Things like that can't happen.” An equally simple reply can be given: “How the hell do you know?” But a better reply may be: “Things like that can happen, and have been abundantly observed to have happened.”

In the early seventeenth century there was an entrenched orthodoxy which was making some dogmatic pronouncements it had no business making. Moving beyond their field of expertise, some Catholic authorities had declared support for geocentrism, the idea that the earth is at the center of the solar system. But there was a lone investigator, Galileo, who made observations challenging such a doctrine. Galileo had no “big science” culture behind him, no fancy heavy iron instruments. All he had was a little hand-held telescope no heavier than a walking cane.

Now in one way the tables have turned. It seems that our university scientists are now the entrenched orthodoxy sometimes making dogmatic pronouncements they have no proper business making. Moving beyond their sphere of expertise, we sometimes hear such people make pronouncements about the paranormal as unwarranted as the seventeenth century church bishop's pronouncements on the solar system. And these modern experts often fail to examine the paranormal topics they are talking about, in a way reminiscent of the Church authorities who refused to look through Galileo's telescope when he invited them to do so. In defiance of such declarations are individual paranormal investigators armed with things as lightweight as Galileo's little hand held instruments: things such as point-and-click cameras, palm-sized tape recorders or a pack of Zener cards. Are  some of these investigators the new Galileos?