10 January 2009

A word to the skeptics

There are at least a couple regular visitors who are interested in hearing me talk more about my thoughts and experiences with non-physical reality (the paranormal, as it's often called). I'd like to do that here too, but before I do, I need to address the skeptics.

Up until very recently, the definition of "skeptic" had always been "annoying pest on the sidelines who can't see what we can see, and who insists that we can't either. The ones that say 'Just because you feel it doesn't mean it's there.' Just ignore them and get on with things." The notorious leader of the skeptics is James Randi. His name comes up from time to time, and then he's dismissed, and the real conversation moves on.

Then I became friends with some people who proudly call themselves skeptics and see James Randi as some kind of hero. I happen to like these friends, as people, very much. This has created a bit of cognitive dissonance that is taking a while to settle.

I don't doubt that Randi has done some good work, debunking frauds of the paranormal world. Yes, indeed there are frauds calling themselves psychic - just as there are frauds calling themselves lawyers, physicists, and military personnel. But this doesn't mean that all psychics are frauds, anymore than the existence of Wagner means that all lawyers and physicists are frauds.

This is my blog. This is the place where I present to the world my view of it. Non-physical reality is part of my worldview, and I want to present it. Some of it probably won't sit well with the skeptics at all, though I hope people will try to keep an open mind. If not, well, I'll still be making other posts on a variety of topics, so skipping these ones with "agree to disagree" is fine too. What I don't want is arguments that basically boil down to "my opinion and interpretation of your experience is somehow more valid than your firsthand view of it." Whatever you might want to say along those lines, you can rest assured that I've heard it already, and have zero interest in hearing it again.

Just because you can't see it, doesn't mean it isn't there - especially when there are, in fact, other people who can.

14 comments:

Random Michelle K said...

I would like to hear/read what you have to say/write.

My opinion of the paranormal is the same as my opinion of God: Just because I don't feel anything doesn't mean it's not out there.

For me, it's like a talent for doing math in your head. I'm incapable of comprehending how it's done, yet I know people claim they can do it.

Lots of people believe deeply in spirituality (or a religious or a paranormal sense). The fact I feel nothing proves only that I don't have an ability to sense such things any more than I have an ability to math in my head.

And to be honest, I'm kinda jealous of people that have those abilities. It'd be nice to feel sure and certain about something. Me, I think I'm just left with Descartes: Cogito ergo sum.

Eric said...

MWT, I'd just like to say that's never been the definition of "skeptic." It may be that that's how you perceived skeptics, and that's fair enough, I guess--you're entitled to your opinion. But the definition of the word is:

1. a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual.
2. a person who maintains a doubting attitude, as toward values, plans, statements, or the character of others.
3. a person who doubts the truth of a religion, esp. Christianity, or of important elements of it.
4. (initial capital letter) Philosophy.
a. a member of a philosophical school of ancient Greece, the earliest group of which consisted of Pyrrho and his followers, who maintained that real knowledge of things is impossible.
b. any later thinker who doubts or questions the possibility of real knowledge of any kind.


...and the derivation is from the Latin and Greek words for "thoughtful" and "inquiring."

I'm not going to challenge your experiences in your own house MWT; I consider you a friend and it would be rude. But I do have to say that your attitude towards skepticism, ironically and perversely, doesn't much jibe with your plea for open-mindedness. After all, you might well evaluate the evidence and reject non-paranormal explanations as improbable or inconsistent with your observations--but a truly open mind would nonetheless consider non-paranormal explanations en route to choosing a paranormal explanation, and would continue to test the chosen paranormal explanation against other paranormal and non-paranormal explanations. (E.g. supposing, arguendo, that one explains an instance of alleged poltergeist activity by positing ghosts: an actually open-minded person might continue to test "ghosts" against psychic powers, demonic intercession, extraterrestrial visitation, poor witness recollection, fraud, earth tremors, mental illness, etc.)

The point being obvious, I hope: rejecting skeptical inquiry isn't any more open-minded than the POV you attribute to Randi et al.

That's all. :-)

MWT said...

I'm aware of the dictionary definition, Eric. I was talking about the perception of a particular type of skeptic by a particular group of people in which I am included.

but a truly open mind would nonetheless consider non-paranormal explanations en route to choosing a paranormal explanation, and would continue to test the chosen paranormal explanation against other paranormal and non-paranormal explanations.

I did and have for many years (many, many years of "well I might just be hallucinating all this but..."), and ultimately rejected those as not fitting my observations.

If you drop a ball and it hits the ground, and it does that every single time, eventually you have to consider the possibility that gravity exists. Sure, you can throw the ball at the ground instead of merely dropping it, or throw it sideways or up, and you'll get slightly different results. But after a while you have to draw the line on how many times you're going to run through the same tired litany of alternate explanations to explain what you see, and get to the point. Yes, gravity exists. Because only then do you get to go past it and ask things like "well, what's gravity like? What's it do? What's it good for?" I passed that point a while ago and have not seen any reason to go backward.

I'm going to post my observations here, starting with the simplest possible ones. I realize it might be difficult to take me at my word for what I say I see, because it's secondhand. Nevertheless, I hope you'll consider that I might not just be making things up.


Michelle: I have abilities you don't have. You have abilities I don't have. It all evens out in the end. ;) Thanks for your support.

MWT said...

Put another way, Eric: it's not just a scattered hodgepodge of random isolated freak events. I have a paradigm within which all of it fits in a consistent manner. Explaining the paradigm to people who can't see any of the parts is going to be ... well, challenging, to say the least. But for the people who can see at least some of the parts, seeing my paradigm might help them work out their own paradigms - and vice versa. And that's what (and who) these posts are really going to be for. It's a comparing of notes.

Eric said...

MWT, as you know, I'm philosophically a materialist and, yes, a skeptic. However, "making things up" is the last explanation I'd strike upon for any experiences you might have. You've never given me any reason to doubt your veracity; of course, that also doesn't mean that I'm not going to gravitate towards explanations that suit my experience and awareness (e.g. natural phenomena, mistake, misperception--e.g. apophenia or pareidolia, etc.). To be honest (and maybe it's an example of close-mindedness on my part), I might even prefer, "I cannot explain your experience as you've described it, but a supernatural explanation strikes me as extremely improbable" as a statement over either a paranormal explanation or an accusation that you made something up.

I look forward to reading whatever you have to relate. And I'm not going to jump in and whack you on the head if I find your account difficult to accept.

One other point you might consider insofar as my perspective is concerned: I routinely deal with people who give accountings of mundane events that are clearly (1) honest and (2) completely inconsistent with objectively verifiable physical evidence--i.e. the witness who says something that isn't "true" isn't necessarily lying. The brain didn't evolve to be a video recorder, it evolved to be a pattern-recognizing device with cognitive and imaginative faculties capable of interacting socially with other brains. (I started to add something about memory, but it strikes me that memory itself may prove to be a part of that pattern-recognition software.) Along these same lines: you mention that you once considered the possibility you were hallucinating, but that also isn't necessarily an issue--that is, a human brain that perceives something which objectively isn't there (and let's leave out the paranormal in our example--let's say we're talking about a rape victim who sincerely and honestly is mistaken about the facial features of a man she heroically attempted to remember accurately) isn't necessarily hallucinating--the brain may simply be attempting to use neurons that developed to avoid tigers and falling out of trees to assemble data into a cognitively resonant whole (the brain's software doesn't seem to like gaps, and will try to fill them without the owner even knowing what the program is doing).

Anyway, MWT: I'm not going to accuse you of dishonesty, mental illness, or hallucination--but I may nonetheless be skeptical of your accounts in the dictionary sense of the world. And hopefully I won't be (and hopefully haven't been) disrespectful.

MWT said...

Heh, memory is a whole other discussion. I've never understood how people who remember things that they've done in the third person (i.e. their viewpoint is hovering overhead somewhere watching themselves) can call those "memories." If it's in the third person it's already an interpretation, not a memory. Yet apparently that's how most people "remember" things.

Anyway:
I look forward to reading whatever you have to relate. And I'm not going to jump in and whack you on the head if I find your account difficult to accept.

is good to hear. And you're welcome to think "I cannot explain your experience as you've described it, but a supernatural explanation strikes me as extremely improbable" as you read each of my posts, and to come up with any explanations you'd like that fits your own experiences ... but I'd prefer that you go into lurker mode for it, or do it on your own blog, or something.

Yes, I know, I'm going to be saying things in a somewhat authoritative way - "this is how it is as I see it" - and some of it is meant to be taken as given and not open to argument (questions, yes, but not argument). Yes, I know that's bad. But I want to see if I can lay out all the cards on the table before I figure out how to organize them into a coherent explanation, or have a discussion on all of it as a whole. Because the deck is fairly large, this will take quite a while - and the first few, especially, probably are going to look random and unrelated to each other.

Imagine if someone said to me "explain everything about biology." Really, I'm not sure where to even start, other than "anywhere."

Imagine also if, every time a geneticist wanted to do something new, they had to re-evaluate and rejustify the existence of DNA. If you want to do that, go right ahead - but I'm more interested in getting to the "new" part.

Anyway, now I'm just rambling, so I'll stop here.

Eric said...

Yes, I know, I'm going to be saying things in a somewhat authoritative way - "this is how it is as I see it" - and some of it is meant to be taken as given and not open to argument (questions, yes, but not argument). Yes, I know that's bad.

Well, no: it's your blog, be as authoritative as you wanna be. I was just tweaking you on the whole "skeptic" thing, but this is your house, here, I'm just a guest.

And, like I said, I don't plan on being rude in your house. Quote, "I'm not going to challenge your experiences in your own house MWT; I consider you a friend and it would be rude." In other words, I hope you didn't think I'd be challenging your experiences here, because I won't. Maybe in person over a beer somewhere, sometime, but not here.

We cool?

Jeri said...

I'm looking forward to the rest of the story - and while I'm a fan of empirical evidence, I'm not going to give someone's firsthand, subjective experiences any less weight just because I don't share them, if the source is credible. And - I consider you a credible source - no psychotic ramblings about LHCs, Hitler, unproven theorems or a covert intelligence career.

Wait a minute... ;)

MWT said...

Eric: Yeah, we're cool. Sorry if I jumped on you a bit with this post. I'm glad we're on the same page.

Jeri: Pay no attention to those headless giraffes! o.O

They're ... uhh, they're Eric's. Right Eric?

Eric said...

Well, they would be, if somebody would go ahead and place them on the roadside like they were contracted to. A deal's a deal, MWT.

::taps foot impatiently::

MWT said...

*mutters about slavedrivers while shuffling off to fetch the cart*

mattw said...

My stance on the paranormal has always been that I'm open to the posiblity of it being out there, I just haven't ever had any personal experiences.

I look forward to seeing what you have to say.

Random Michelle K said...

*mutters about slavedrivers while shuffling off to fetch the cart*

Bring out yer dead!

CLANG!

Tom said...

I hope this isn't a double comment. If it is, I'll try to delete the duplicate.

Oh, cool! There have been some tantalizing hints previously of some of what you will be talking about, and I am interested, mainly because I've found you to be quite interesting to talk to, as well as interesting to overhear, mostly on the Back Fence.

I'll be on the Skeptical side, too, but I also promise no bludgening. I think a good skeptic just hasn't seen enough to convince, but is willing to listen. After he stops listening he becomes a debunker. You've earned my respect, and that won't be taken away lightly. And this post has definitely engaged my interest.

Bring on the new series of posts! :)