I am going to make some statements in this post that are going to shock most of my readership, but I expect that you’ll consider me sensible if you read it the rest of the way through. I believe that psychic phenomena are real. However, I do not believe that they are physical manifestations of any sort- they are purely in the minds of the people who “experience” them. It is important to note, however, that no other criterion is required to determine if these phenomena are real or not. Let’s say that someone believes they communicate with ghosts- they have what might be called visions and might be called visceral hallucinations. My question is, is there really a difference between these two phenomena or is it simply a matter of connotation of the words used to describe them? True, there is no “ghost” existing in objective reality, this much is obvious. However does it necessarily follow that hallucinations of this type indicate insanity?
Consider the emotions felt by normal, healthy people. An emotional reaction is a complex sequence of chemicals and neural firings to produce a sensation or a reaction, and the mechanisms used are significantly different from other systems in the brain such as those used for memory, spatial or linguistic manipulation, reasoning, and others. They are of course intimately linked because they’re all in the same brain. Consider the fact that there exist drugs that can be administered to produce a “religious experience” which is essentially a complex of emotions, sensations and thoughts that is more complicated but not fundamentally different from more primitive emotions like contentedness. Does this mean that religious experiences don’t exist? Of course not. Indeed I would say this is conclusive proof that religious experiences are a fact. Whether a religious experience means what most users of the idea think it does is a separate question entirely. The hardcore religious who passionately believe their religion because of a personal religious experience, perhaps of connecting with their god or something along those lines, are justified in their sensation, but fatally in error about what that sensation means. Their religion has told them that if certain protocols are followed, a certain religious euphoria will follow, and provided a very intricate framework of religious scripture and ideology which backs this up. When someone experiments in the religion, they might truly surrender to the experience or do whatever else is required and then when they get exactly the reaction promised to them, they take it as visceral emotional proof that everything else that they were told must be true as well. This is, when phrased this way in words, fairly obvious, but it’s actually a very easy mistake to make, even for the highly rational. There is a specific emotion that most people don’t name expressly which I call the “convincement” feeling. It’s that feeling you get when you read or hear something and become convinced by it. This can powerfully bias your view on the matter that convinced you, the author or speaker, and also your future thought on the subject. Indeed, I am actually in quite serious doubt over whether a significant body of my reasoning has been tainted by this “convincedness” on the subject of anarcho-capitalism, among other areas. It happens to me all the time reading articles on the internet but I’m well accustomed to dealing with such things- it just requires fact checking and appropriate degree of due process. The reason the “I’m convinced” feeling is so tricky is because it is the tool you use to gauge whether or not you actually are convinced. In the vast majority of situations, it’s an incredibly useful tool. However, when squared off against an act which is carefully designed to fire off that convinced feeling and thereby sway your reasoning, extra care must be taken. There should be a fancy Latin name for this fallacy, like “argumentum ad convincem” or something. Latin being a dead language, though, coining new Latin phrases is something of a pointless exercise. The point I want to communicate is that just because a reaction only exists in one person’s perceptions, that doesn’t make it non-real, only non-objective. What types of dreams someone has, what ghosts or voices they hear might be very useful for psychoanalyzing that person.
Instead of turning this on religious phenomena only, I want to discuss a broad range of paranormal issues. Those that are obviously nonexistent in reality, and are products of mere superstition, are relatively easy to pick on and done by many other thinkers to great effect. I propose a new category of paranormal phenomena that are real, but only because people experience them, and the fact that they are experienced is the totality of their existence. Psychokinesis is obviously impossible, but is telepathy possible by building on intuition and body language? Mind-to-mind communication is also obviously impossible, but consider the fact that you can look at someone’s face and identify their emotional state. To what degree is that communication, and to what degree is that divination of information that lies in the other person’s mind? A polygraph is a technological attempt to “mind read” using subtle cues. Is it feasible that one person might understand enough of someone else’s thoughts and mannerisms to deduce what they are thinking? To one degree this is a trivial question, people have been guessing what others have been thinking since time immemorial. My question is how much information is actually available, being broadcast continuously by each of us, and available for sufficiently observant people to effectively read our minds. Consider that poker players, especially very good ones, can often deduce exactly what hand the other player is holding. They aren’t using some sort of pineal gland to probe the other person’s brain- they’re studying the other person’s face and behavior, as well as the strategies that they choose to play, and have played in the past. Is this obvious, or is this telepathy? My argument is that the distinction between “duh” and telepathy is meaningless. The fact that it is easy for us to figure out what other people are thinking to some degree proves that “telepathic” phenomena are real, it’s just that it’s, well, normal. The reason why the idea of “super-telepathy” which allows complete observance of another person’s mind persists so strongly in culture is because it’s easy for us to extrapolate the abilities we have to their logical extremes. We can easily conceive of super-strong, super-intelligent, or super-anything people, and indeed all of these caricatures persist in culture as well. These characteristics are treated differently because less subtle human abilities are much easier to verify. If there was a super-strong human, we could just say “lift that bus.” A super-intelligent human should be able to perform similar feats, but of a mental nature. A flying (extrapolation of walking- additional freedom of motion into the 3rd terran dimension) human could just lift off. Abilities like telepathy are difficult to prove or disprove, and so someone could posit “hey, I can mind-read” and get some attention out of it. People like Uri Geller who claim to bend spoons have a carefully constructed magic trick to accompany their act, which in a way acts like the religious experience. Because he claims to bend spoons, and does so on film, therefore everything else he says about telepathy and such must be true as well. Fallacious on exactly the same grounds, but convincing to many.
Clairvoyance and precognition fall into exactly the same mold as telepathy. They can be treated in more or less exactly the same way. These are faculties that all humans have- the ability to deduce what is happening at a different location in space or time, respectively. When someone tells you that twenty minutes ago the lights were out, you can picture in your mind the room in exactly the same state, or with whatever other alterations are supplied to you or fabricated to order by your mind, with the lights off. This isn’t some superhuman power, although the ability to do it with impeccable accuracy is certainly superhuman. The fact that you can conceive of what winter in Russia might be like, even if you’ve never been there, is proof of the power of so-called “clairvoyance” although its accuracy is highly questionable, and you naturally treat it with the appropriate level of confidence (virtually zero). Truth be told, there are actually very few “new” superpowers being coined in a cultural sense, and all superpowers as we know them stem from some natural faculty, trait, or principle carried to a logical, or illogical, extreme. Even very weird powers such as being half-man half-something are formed in the same way by combining concepts of man and something else, usually an animal. The adventures of man-onion don’t sound particularly entertaining because the suite of powers available to an onion are hilarious but boring, and those available to a man, while tremendous, are common to everyone and are dismissed as merely normal.
Now on to UFO encounters. First off, I am quite possibly the most convinced human being on the planet about the existence of extraterrestrials. The Drake Equation is a tough argument to beat. However, the reason why the Drake Equation is so powerful is because space is BIG. As a result, the odds that the aliens are anywhere within a million light years of earth is… extremely small, let’s just leave it at that. Also, the odds are dramatically in favor of alien sea sponges as opposed to interstellar civilizations (and finding sea sponges, or even xenophilic bacteria would be badass). Even in the event that they developed some form of faster-than-light or warp travel, why would aliens have any interest in a society as primitive as ours, relative to their own? Human civilization is at a sub Class-I state. We haven’t even gained control over the energy of our home planet yet, much less our home system. A civilization with both the capability and the need to build an interstellar drive would dramatically outstrip our own in terms of size, population, resources available, culture, etc. etc. Plus, such a society would necessarily have evolved a very intricate social form as well, in a similar way that human societies have evolved modern governments and social conventions to better preserve human life, well-being, property, industry, self-esteem, etc. Iain Banks’ Culture novels present an amazingly accurate view of the type of interactions interstellar civilizations might have (I’ve only read The Player of Games, but it was awesome on so many levels). Such a society “studying” us would be somewhat like humans studying an ant colony. There are plenty of methods by which they would never need interfere in any detectable way, and there are a plethora of methods by which they just step in full-force and there’s not a bloody thing the ants can do about it. Anyway, enough of my geek-out analysis of why the picture painted by UFO fanatics is absurd. The ultimate proof is that there has been no objective verification of claims made on objective reality- namely, the detection of UFO’s. This isn’t strictly true because UFO stands for Unidentified Flying Object, and there have been many, many incidences of objects detected on radar which could not be identified, perhaps by refusal to transmit or lack of IFF or digital uplink technologies. Enemy planes aren’t going to identify themselves, perhaps buying a few seconds before the interceptors are scrambled to engage them. Proposing the existence of aliens in flying saucers is completely apart from the UFO case, even though for some reason they have become synonymous. Show me a crashed UFO, wreckage of a self-destructed one, conclusive photos, or a depth of proof sufficient to confirm the existence of a new species of monkey, and I’ll believe you.
Now, faith healing is an issue I have a very hard time with because the weird thing is that it works. Of course, placebos also work, and it is quite obviously the same principle at work in both faith healing and placebos. Considering that sugar pills are cheaper than real drugs I can imagine a great value to being able to identify where a placebo is sufficient, and where real medication is required. Now, sugar pills are dirt cheap so whether faith healing is cheaper is doubtful. However faith healing does obviate the medical issue with giving out dud medicine. In order for the placebo to work, it is necessary that the patient not be aware that it is a placebo, and this type of treatment is totally unworkable for a reasonably managed medical establishment. One case of prescribing a placebo and having it fail will draw malpractice flak like a giant kite carrying a metal box and trailing a NUKE sign in enemy airspace. A doctor could refer a patient to a faith healer and avoid this type of legal insanity because the faith healer is a separate agent who a pissed off patient could sue independent of the original doctor. Using faith healers as a litigation scarecrow is actually quite an elegant solution to both the overly litiginous medical establishment and also puts people’s ridiculous beliefs to good use, quite neatly killing two birds with one stone. Interesting saying because I would be quite content to kill one bird with one stone- it’s just a rock after all, and reusable at that, but I digress. Faith healing is sticky because while it is totally bogus, it actually does work, and verifiably so. I am amazed at the amount of garbage they can churn out, take a look at homeopathy- it’s just water. Nevertheless people swear by it, citing some assumption about a new property of water which is totally unsupported by chemistry. Damn good thing too, because the water that’s in your body has probably been in contact with all kinds of stuff, and I find it rather comforting that water is just water, no complications- it’s just H2O regardless of history.
There are a lot of gullible people out there. They’re gullible because they want to believe in something, or there’s an engine of social acceptance or consistency behind the choice to “believe” which drives them into accepting irrational precepts without looking at them too closely. This is the secret of getting anyone to believe anything- provide an incentive for them to agree with you that is irrespective of the argument at hand. Then, get them to publicly confirm their belief to someone else, or even just say it aloud, and then a commitment to consistency or self-simplification will push them to actually fully accept and integrate it, a process which when divorced from its rationale is known as cognitive dissonance. Cults use very extreme persuasion and conditioning tactics, and it’s part of the structure of cults to hit each member as hard as their “belief” can handle. To acquire new members, use subtle tricks which appear reasonable. If they accept those, move on to more intensive material. The more extreme and unreasonable the material that they can make that individual confirm to themselves and others, the more deeply ingrained the ideology of the cult becomes, allowing even more extreme material to be put to them. Scientology is remarkable because it has such a rigorous methodology for maximum conversion effectiveness, even going so far as to explicitly call them “levels.” They need to keep their higher-level material secret because if it leaks (as it has) it exposes them as ridiculous frauds spouting utter insanity. If we only knew their outermost material, designed to pull in the unwary using relatively reasonable methods, we might suppose them an acceptable religion. I have a lot to talk about on this subject and I intend to go over it some other time, particularly as it relates to social conditioning by degrees. I bring it up here because psychic phenomena function in the same way. Small topics like palmistry or graphology lead up to more intensive phenomena like full-blown astral phenomena and UFO sightings. Because there is no centralized purveyor of material, there is no controlling agent to make sure that each person receives only material they are ready for, but the sheer volume of information acts like a smokescreen instead. As a result, only people actively searching for a certain subset of information are going to discover a full set of details. The rest of us are left with a stereotypical picture which we recognize as clearly simplified and inaccurate. This means that if at some point we become activated to seek out such phenomena, we can uncover additional information and naturally “refine” our perceptions with the new information, resulting in a new convert to paranormal phenomena. Effectively, you persuade yourself when you are ready to find out. Once again, there is no authority that causes this, there is no conspiracy theory, this just happens. Fiction writers make extensive use of this faculty, particularly science fiction and fantasy writers. They can easily concoct an alternate explanation which is equally fictitious but fulfills the same criteria for “why I used to think that” as the explanation that the true believers of the real-world phenomena ascribe to. For example, a writer about a common myth such as vampires or dragons has a well-known set of properties to address such as blood-drinking or fire-breathing, and these act as an interface that any science fiction or fantasy writer can implement with whatever explanation they like. Myths like this are so powerful because the explanation can be easily adapted with new information or discoveries. Note that the explanation can actually short-circuit the properties of the myth as long as it produces a “common misconception” situation. For example, maybe vampires can go out in the sunlight if the writer desires, but there has to be a reason why everyone thinks they shrivel up in the sun. Writers like Terry Pratchett are so good because they can create a compelling and internally consistent world, and this same principle applies to the real world. People will believe models of the real world that are compelling and internally consistent relative to their own framework. Note that a model can be internally consistent and be fraught with contradiction. A contradiction in such a case is a result of an external inconsistency and can be resolved by placing the model above the actual world, as is commonly done with the Bible. If the real world and the Bible disagree, people so conditioned will side with the Bible because otherwise their world won’t make any sense, which can be why such evangelicals are impossible to convince with reason. They have bitten off so much of the religious conditioning and publicly acknowledged it that they base their identity on it so much they cannot stop. A religion is simply taking the most potent aspects of a collection of stories, myths, phenomena, etc. etc., often based on what phenomena people believed a long time ago, and crafting it into one grand model which can be passed out in pieces the way Scientology does to maximize communicability. The Ten Commandments are an excellent example. Due to the decentralized nature of paranormal beliefs, they aren’t a “real religion,” they’re piecemeal. People who use it as their only belief system are “pagans.” There are no Ten Commandments of UFO sightings because such a centralized and widely agreed-upon document cannot be agreed upon, or even created in the first place.