Skepticism is fine, but dismissal can hurt

Skepticism is fine, but dismissal can hurt
May 31, 2010
Philip Card

Richard scoffs at people who believe in UFOs, precognition, ESP, poltergeists or other so-called "paranormal" phenomena.

"Superstitious fools" is what he calls them.

Foolish or not, even where science is widely taught in schools, many people harbor such beliefs. Arrayed against them are skeptics who argue that there is no empirical evidence to support claims of things that go bump in the night.

As a psychotherapist, I've worked with many clients who ascribe to what Richard calls "magical thinking." Those who disclose to me their paranormal episodes usually do so reluctantly, recognizing that shrinks often look askance at such matters or consider them symptomatic of mental illness.

However, I am not so inclined.

"I believe you've had a real experience," I tell many. "What is open to question is how you are interpreting that experience."

Most magical thinking arises from a murky but persistent sense that there is more to the world than what is obvious or measurable. Many of us undergo mysterious happenings that feel quite real but for which there is no evidence-based explanation, leaving plenty of room to conjure up our own versions.

Since our ancestors first threw rocks at the moon, we've been making up causes to explain the seemingly inexplicable. Phenomena that we now understand, such as lightening, were once ascribed to magical forces.

As science has evolved, prior explanations for various mysteries have proven false with facts. However, given how little we know about such things as human consciousness, cosmology and life force, it's obvious that science doesn't have all the answers.

So when folks like Richard dismiss paranormal phenomena as fictitious or delusional, they may be making their own interpretive error. As I reminded him, "The absence of proof is not the proof of absence."

There may be another way to view all this.

Author and futurist Arthur Clarke, who wrote "2001: A Space Odyssey," stated that, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." So if you could go back a few centuries and pull out your iPhone or laptop, you'd be viewed as a wizard in your own right.

By way of analogy, people reporting paranormal experiences may be encountering a "sufficiently advanced technology" that is embedded in the underlying structure and functioning of the universe itself. After all, what we do know for certain about so-called reality is far exceeded by what we don't.

It is possible that some paranormal episodes represent moments when we encounter, even if only briefly, unseen forces and phenomena that surround us but which still elude our detection. Consider theoretical physicists who mathematically describe dimensions that may be invisibly intertwined in our midst.

Skepticism can be a good thing, but it improves when also applied to the skeptic's own assumptions.
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