Natural Curiosity

My lovely wife Nina was just reading to me some excerpts from an article about one Allison DuBois, who is the real-life sibyl behind television’s popular series Medium. The magazine article gave examples of Ms. DuBois’ abilites; for example, DuBois once told a woman that she saw her recently deceased father sitting nearby, wearing a clown nose – when, as it happens, a box of clown noses had in fact been purchased for the father’s wake. What are we to make of this sort of thing?

In my younger days I dismissed such things out of hand. But have we rigorous justification for doing so? Many of us lump such phenomena – clairvoyance, precognition, telepathy, and so on – together as “the supernatural”, and as good Naturalists we are expected to consign them to the flames.

My good friend Jess Kaplan, whose name by now will be familiar to regular visitors to these pages, is married to a Russian woman named Alla Markuze, a great-niece (if I have the relationship right) of the philosopher Herbert Marcuse. While spending time in Russia, Jess came to know a “remarkable man” by the name of Erich (if I ever knew his last name, I can’t recall it at the moment), a man of many unusual talents. Jess has told me, for example, that he was on the phone once, from his home in Sacramento, with Erich, who was in Moscow, when Erich interrupted their conversation to mention to Jess that there was some sort of animal in Jess’s sink; Jess looked over and saw a very large spider trapped therein. On another occasion Erich informed Jess, again from Russia, that a tree had fallen on Jess’s house; when Jess and Alla returned home, indeed one had. I have no reason whatsoever to doubt Jess’s account of these events; of course, such personal testimony becomes less convincing the farther one gets from the source. It is all quite routine to Erich, and to Jess, who simply see these sorts of abilities as an aspect of the world that science simply hasn’t got its arms around yet.

I am having a harder and harder time pinning down the glib and unspecified distinction so often made between “natural” and “supernatural”, and am increasingly bothered by the common and rather hubrisitic assumption that we have limned with any certainty what Nature is and is not capable of.

Of course, there are some very reasonable obstacles to belief in psychic talents. One of the most troublesome is an objection attributed to Isaac Asimov: if it is possible for some animals to be psychic, then why aren’t we all powerfully psychic? Certainly even a rudimentary ability for, say, telepathy, would be strongly adaptive, and natural selection should have had us bristling with “paranormal” armaments by now if the raw materials were at hand. Another is, of course, the lukewarm results when psychics are put to the test in laboratory conditions; interpreting these results is made even more difficult by the polarization and emotional partisanship on both sides. For example, Allison Dubois has been studied at some length by researcher Dr. Gary Schwartz, director of the VERITAS program at the University of Arizona. Dr. Schwartz, whose credentials would be perfectly acceptable were he studying something less controversial, is convinced that DuBois’ abilities are genuine, but has been taken strongly to task by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). Who is right? I have no idea.

What, then, do I believe? Primarily that it is arrogant to declare what phenomena are simply “off limits”, based on an idea that we have a sufficient knowledge of the limits of the “natural” to draw firm boundaries. I am all for continued scientific investigation, and I have a good deal of confidence in science’s ability to work its way truthward. But there is a conspicuous tendency among many scientists to consider only what is presently known, or what is currently swimming into focus, when reckoning what is or isn’t “possible”.

There is an organization called The Brights, whose members include prominent thinkers such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Steven Pinker – people whom I respect a great deal. There is a short list of qualifications for membership, under the heading “What is a Bright?”

  • A bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview
  • A bright’s worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements
  • The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview

So do I qualify? I have no idea. I do have a strongly naturalistic worldview, but I am not able to find the all-important definition of “supernatural” on their website, so I don’t know if I might be in technical violation if, say, I lend credence to Jess’s anecdotes regarding his friend Erich. And of course I believe that mysticism offers genuine possibilities for our development, although what I’d say about that is that we don’t yet understand in what way Nature makes that possible. Nature may include, as rigorously explicable phenomena, many things that are deemed today to be “supernatural”; much of the technology we use every day would have got us burned at the stake in days gone by.

As I get older I find it more and more curious that so many people feel the need to be so certain about things. Let’s just keep working at these questions without feeling the need to declare the answers in advance; the world has shown itself again and again to be odder, subtler, and more beautiful than we can possibly imagine.

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9 Comments

  1. Nick N. says

    The first definition of supernatural in my Websters is “existing or occurring outside the normal experience or knowledge of man” . By that definition I believe there will always be supernatural occurrences, at least until we obtain omniscience. The second definition is “attributed to hypothetical forces beyond nature”, I see no need to make such a hypothesis.

    Without even an accepted universal field theory, let alone the slightest idea of how consciousness occurrs, I don’t think it’s justifiable to deny frequently reported phenomena on the basis that they are “impossible”. On the other hand, the vast majority of claims of psychic phenomena do not stand up to investigation by persons versed in the techniques of deception. Most academics don’t have this background.

    I still think the “Orchestrated Objective Reduction” theory of consciousness proposed by Stuart Hameroff is a good start at understanding real psychic phenomena in a naturalistic way:
    http://www.quantumconsciousness.org/

    The “Brights” sound interesting, but i find the name they chose annoyingly presumptuous.
    I prefer to call myself an extropian, upwinger, subgenius.

    As to your last point, I couldn’t agree more.

    Posted April 23, 2006 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Nick,

    Yes, I’ve been meaning to write a post about the Hameroff/Penrose model. Quantum indeterminacy is kind of a “loophole” in the deterministic world, and has often been suggested to be the place where consciousness (or the finger of God) might enter.

    I am also disappointed in the Brights having chosen that name. Apparently it was modeled after the appropriation of the word “gay” by the homosexual commmunity.

    Posted April 23, 2006 at 1:48 pm | Permalink
  3. Bob Koepp says

    Hi Malcolm –
    Nice post. How I wish that appeals to “science” weren’t used to dogmatically close off inquiry. Talk about an “unscientific” frame of mind! On the other hand, charlatans,crooks and various well-meaning but self-deluded “practitioners” have done more than their fair share to make serious people very, very skeptical about so-called psychic phenomena. Separating the wheat from the chaff isn’t easy.

    Posted April 24, 2006 at 9:44 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Thanks Bob, as always, for visiting.

    Indeed, this is one area where it is particularly difficult to winnow fact from fraud. Sadly, the reaction of a great many people seems to be to declare out of hand that it is either all wheat or all chaff.

    Posted April 24, 2006 at 10:48 am | Permalink
  5. FrizZ says

    I was searching for the keyword “psychic” on blogspot for kicks to see how many other psychics besides me had a blog, when I ran across your post.

    I would like to say, above all else, that your post was insightful, logical, and very well written. I also enjoyed the links and neat little snippets of information. I think I’m hooked on the skeptic magazine run by csicops. Thank you for introducing me to it! :D

    I’m likely the only skeptical psychic alive, but I loved your post. Thank you!

    Posted April 26, 2006 at 4:04 am | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Why, thank you, FrizZ (I have the feeling that isn’t what your friends call you!), and thanks for dropping in to read and comment.

    It is so important, but so difficult, to find the right attitude, which lies somewhere between cynical narrow-mindedness and credulous gullibility.

    It’s a pleasure to meet you.

    Malcolm

    Posted April 26, 2006 at 11:43 am | Permalink
  7. Malcolm, great post (and even better comments)…

    Here are my two cents on science and supernatural phenomenon… probably closest to Nick N’s comments above (though I must check out FrizZ’s blog!)

    Science is often at odds with psychic/supernatural phenomenon because to get scientific validity, three distinct tests must be met: control, repetition and objectivity. All three are necessary (and rightly so) for science to deem it as ‘truth’. However, there are many life experiences that don’t fit in this nice box. Emotions, love, moral values, subjective opinions etc etc, and these are rather large areas in life! The resulting tendency is for scientists to say “that can’t be true” rather than admitting that science isn’t a good tool in that situation – eastern medicine is an obvious example. When talking about such phenomenon, I take the stance that while the explanation may not be obvious, that one day we’ll be able to measure them and satisfy the scientific criteria (or disprove the hypothesis).

    The analogy I use for science is that it’s like a laser beam.. great for slicing and dicing and examining the minutae inside, be it mineral, vegetable or whatever. However, a laser beam is not good for lighting up a room – there you need a flashlight. Something that casts a general glow over things, exposes shadows and illuminates shapes.

    [I’m sure Malcolm will throw out several paragraphs showing that I’m a loon, but I’m used to it… and my skin is very thick these days.]

    Posted April 28, 2006 at 2:01 am | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Not at all, Salim – I agree.

    When talking about such phenomena, I take the stance that while the explanation may not be obvious, that one day we’ll be able to measure them and satisfy the scientific criteria (or disprove the hypothesis).

    That’s my view as well. It isn’t that science can’t or shouldn’t look at these things, but that we are still some distance from having a scientific framework for understanding them.

    Posted April 28, 2006 at 10:56 pm | Permalink
  9. I did note that you and I agree on that point… however, given past comments I’ve made and your subsequent decimation of my position, I thought I’d throw out a caveat…!

    Posted May 1, 2006 at 4:50 pm | Permalink