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.
This post fits in perfectly with my comment made in Part 12 about my main grouse with Objectivism (and Libertarianism) is that it almost always knows the answer before it even attempts to grapple with the data that is relevant to the question, thereby leading to the worst form of confirmation bias.
I'm not a believer in paranormal activity, but no doubt, I don't think it can be wished away on the basis of philosophical premises.
I once participated on the Objective Science email list and there were some posters there who had a problem with Quantum Physics and the particle slit experiment because it suggested that faster-than-light influences or non-local interaction was possible. While it was reasonable to a point to hold on to a proposition that one found dear, it is imo ridiculous to think that there are no circumstances under which the truth value of proposition could ever be reconsidered or debated. Some of those circumstances might seem implausible or ridiculous, but again, how to differentiate between a limited imagination and justified certitude?
The refusal of Objectivists to even consider examining evidence of the paranormal/supernatural is reminiscent of the priest who refuses to look through the telescope in Brecht's "Galileo." Basically, the priest argues that "knows" what he's going to see, so there's no point in him looking. Of course, it's a bluff to avoid having to face evidence that he's mistaken in some of his beliefs.
I can't recall in which Rand book I ran across it, possibly IOTE, but her "logical" refutation of the existence of the "supernatural" struck me as especally verbalistic. Basically, it went something like: Supernatural means above or beyond nature, but since nothing that exists can exist outside of nature (which is existence), the supernatural can't exist.
All she did was demonstrate that "supernatural" may not be the best word to use, based on her definitions of the "super-" and "nature," but she ignores the phenomena to which the term "supernatural" is applied, that is, occurences and events that seem to be beyond the natural.
I wonder why skeptics assumed the existence of exoplanets before evidence for them started to accumulate about 15 years ago. Logically they should have classified the existence of exoplanets as an extraordinary, paranormal or woo-woo claim until astronomers produced extraordinary evidence to substantiate the claim. Exoplanets even seemed disreputable by association because of the role they play in Mormonism, some UFO cults and Scientology.
In other words, from hindsight it looks as if skeptics had taken a faith position about exoplanets in the complete absence of evidence. Why did they give exoplanets this special treatment?
Mark Plus: "Why did they give exoplanets this special treatment?"
That wasn't a special treatment. The existence of exoplanets was predicted already long ago on the basis of our knowledge about the solar system and the physics of stars and nebulae. It would have been very strange and unexpected if it had turned out that there were no exoplanets. That it took so long to discover them is due to the fact that they're very difficult to detect, which was also understood already long ago.
That is quite the opposite situation from the hypothesis of a phenomenon that violates the known laws of physics, so you're comparing apples and oranges.
I haven't seen any proof that there were priests/cardinals who refused to look into Galileo's telescope.
@Neil: I was referring to a scene in Bertold Brecht's play "Galileo."
Hume's argument is no good, because it starts with the assumption that we already know "the laws of nature" and can say with certainty whether or not they've been violated. But all we really know is our present understanding of these "laws," which may prove woefully deficient in the light of future knowledge.
And when Hume talks about what is commonly known and reported, he neglects to consider that reports of premonitions, clairvoyance, contact with the dead, etc., are among the most common claims made by humans throughout history. Indeed, most societies are organized around such claims. These phenomena may seem miraculous in the context of materialism, but quite logical in the context of a different worldview.
Hume does have a critique of miracles, at any rate. (Kant dealt with questions of mysticism and the paranormal.) As for Hume's critique of causality, it is based on a Humean lack of affinity between the common run of humanity, with its common sense notion of causation, and the intellectual elite which stands in judgment of its most preciously-held beliefs, whether of natural or supernatural origin.
Kant, by contrast, had learned to respect the unwashed masses through his reading of Rousseau. Thus his theory of causality is friendlier than Hume's.
"In 'Of Miracles,'Hume pretends to stand on philosophical high ground, hurling down thunderbolts against miracles stories. The thunderbolts are supposed to issue from general principles about inductive inference and the credibility of eyewitness testimony. But when these principles are made explicit and examined under the lens of Bayesianism, thet are found to be either vapid, specious, or at variance with actual scientific practice...[Hume] was able to create the illusion of a powerful argument by maintaining ambiguities in his claims against miracles, by the use of forceful prose and confident pronouncements, and by liberal doses of sarcasm and irony....
I find it ironic that so many readers of Hume's essay have been subdued by its eloquence...No doubt this generous treatment stems in part from the natural assumption that someone of Hume's genius must have produced a powerful set of considerations. But I suspect that in more than a few cases it also involves the all too familiar phenomenon of endorsing an argument because the conclusion is liked. There is also the understandable, if deplorable, desire to sneer at the foibles of the less enlightened -- and how much more pleasurable the sneering if it is sanctioned by a set of philosophical principles!"
"Hume's argument is no good, because it starts with the assumption that we already know "the laws of nature" and can say with certainty whether or not they've been violated."
I would argue that Hume's argument, whatever its shortcomings, is at least more sophisticated than that. He is not so much assuming the laws of nature as he is pointing out that these uniformities in nature exist and that there is a great deal of evidence in their favor. This being so, one type of evidence needs to be weighed against the other.
In questions of this sort it will not do to be too lax in our standards. Human credulity, combined with an excessive hunger for the marvelous, has rendered the paranormal a ripe target for scoffers.
"...reports of premonitions, clairvoyance, contact with the dead, etc., are among the most common claims made by humans throughout history."
Most such reports I hear about are either excessively trivial or are made by people who don't seem to have a highly developed sense of truth. Moreover, it must be kept in mind that not everyone who is skeptical of paranormal accounts is committed to disbelieving all such claims. I know a number of people who are curious about these phenomenon but are put off by the credulous and incoherent expositors of them.
I was hoping you would take notice of the Rand-Hume connection regarding their respective writing styles.
If I were to take part of that essay and substitute in the word "Rand" and "altruism," it could not be distinguished as a criticism of Hume.
[Rand] was able to create the illusion of a powerful argument by maintaining ambiguities in [her] claims against [altruism], by the use of forceful prose and confident pronouncements, and by liberal doses of sarcasm and irony....
I find it ironic that so many readers of Rand's essay have been subdued by its eloquence...No doubt this generous treatment stems in part from the natural assumption that someone of Rand's genius must have produced a powerful set of considerations. But I suspect that in more than a few cases it also involves the all too familiar phenomenon of endorsing an argument because the conclusion is liked. There is also the understandable, if deplorable, desire to sneer at the foibles of the less enlightened -- and how much more pleasurable the sneering if it is sanctioned by a set of philosophical principles!"
"In questions of this sort it will not do to be too lax in our standards. Human credulity, combined with an excessive hunger for the marvelous, has rendered the paranormal a ripe target for scoffers."
True, and certainly there are "true believer" types with a limited capacity for critical thinking. But there are also highly intelligent and sophisticated investigators in this area. Precisely because of widespread skepticism, the better parapsychologists have had to develop techniques that are as airtight as possible. For instance, did you know that the technique of double-blind testing was originated by parapsychologists? It's now a standard practice in psychology tests.
The precautions against information leakage in the autoganzfeld tests (which were designed in part by skeptic Ray Hyman) are formidable. Yet the tests continued to produce positive results that were greater than chance by a statistically significant degree. Confronted with this fact, Hyman could only say that he still wouldn't accept the results because "I've learned I have no control over my beliefs." (!)
More recently, the most prominent skeptic in England, Richard Wiseman, was quoted as saying, "I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing is proven, but [this] begs the question: do we need higher standards of evidence when we study the paranormal? I think we do." Wiseman later clarified: "It is a slight misquote, because I was using the term in the more general sense of ESP - that is, I was not talking about remote viewing per se, but rather Ganzfeld, etc as well. I think that they do meet the usual standards for a normal claim, but are not convincing enough for an extraordinary claim."
I don't agree with Wiseman that ESP is an extraordinary claim, given how many people have reported it and how much evidence had already been accumulated even prior to the ganzfeld tests. But leaving that aside, it's significant that Wiseman would acknowledge that ESP is a proven fact "by the standards of any other area of science."
If you have friends who are looking for serious research into the paranormal, perhaps you could refer them to "Irreducible Mind," an encyclopedic overview by Walker and Walker et al., as well as Charles T. Tart's "The End of Materialism" and Chris Carter's "Parapsychology and the Skeptics" and "Science and the Near-Death Experience." These are serious books by serious people.
Actually, I think resistance to psi has little to do with the evidence and much more to do with other factors, including: general opposition to anything that smacks of "religion" or "spirituality" (such opposition is often well-grounded, since religion has much to answer for); an a-priori commitment to materialism; fear that accepting any "weird" claim will open the door to a resurgence of superstition and lead to a new Dark Ages; personal discomfort with the idea of the paranormal (what Tart calls "fear of psi" - an affliction that seems to affect even some psi researchers); and perhaps above all, a quite natural fear of being fooled, tricked, and taken advantage of. No one wants to look gullible; it's much more socially acceptable to be skeptical, even to the point of cynicism.
At any rate, I devote a whole blog to this topic so I won't belabor it here. But if Hume were writing today, he would have much more evidence to explain away.
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