The general view prevailing among Objectivist is that not only are paranormal occurrences unreal, but it is a waste of time to investigate such phenomenon. Yet given the millions of evidentiary claims that have been made on behalf of paranormal events, it would seem a subject ripe for investigation. If, as is eminently plausible, the Objectivists are right about the unreality of the paranormal, then an empirical investigation will merely serve to corroborate this hypothesis. If, on the other hand, there is discovered some residuum of truth in them, we will have learned more about this strange world that we find ourselves knocking about in.
To understand what is wrong with the Objectivist approach to the issue, it is instructive to compare it with Hume's take on a related issue. In his essay “On Miracles,” Hume set down a general rule for evaluating claims regarding miracles (which can be seen as a type of paranormal phenomenon):
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. Why is it more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happens in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: Because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.
The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), "that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior." When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.
The advantage of Hume’s approach is that it is rigorously empirical. Hume makes no assumptions based on logical, rhetorical, or moral principles but attempts to settle the issue in relation to experience interpreted via human intelligence. Science can extend Hume’s approach by integrating it with a detailed experimental methodology. Hypotheses can then be formed and tested. Results of tests can be subjected to rigorous peer review. Hence all strange phenomenon, whether deemed as miracles or merely as the paranormal, can be made the objects of scientific investigation. Only then can we hope to have any real understanding of why so many people claim to have these experiences.
The American philosopher C. S. Peirce implored us to “Never block the path of inquiry.” Yet this is precisely the consequences of those metaphysical systems which pretend they can determine matters of fact on the basis of “self-evident” axioms. But no principle concerning matters of fact can ever be self-evident. Knowledge is fundamentally transitive and indirect. It involves becoming cognizant of something outside of consciousness, that exists on a different scale from the human mind within a different realm of existence. To arrive at true knowledge of facts requires a great deal of hard work and care. Progress in knowledge requires frequent contact with the relevant facts. When this contact becomes tenuous or is lost altogether, the intellect soon becomes lost in a thicket of arid speculations.