Worlds in Collision: Applying Reality to the Paranormal
Paranormal claims are a double-edged sword, and many believers would likely be unhappy with the logical implications of their beliefs. Our world would be a very different place if paranormal abilities truly existed. Psychic powers, if they were real, would raise serious ethical and philosophical questions regarding individuality, privacy, freedom, and free will.
The paranormal world and the real world are two separate domains, and odd things happen when the two meet. Skeptics live in a world without unnatural causes, where unexplained phenomena can be attributed to a lack of information instead of mystical forces. Skeptics see coincidences as a natural result of a random world and personal experience as subject to myriad distorting influences, including belief systems, mood, and expectation. Many believers, on the other hand, live in a world where miracles exist, meaningful coincidences are guided by higher powers, and personal experience is the ultimate truth.
But on one level, we all share the same world; we drive on the same highways, eat the same food, see many of the same films. A skeptic might watch Poltergeist or The Sixth Sense and enjoy the film as good fiction, while a believer might say, “Well, it’s a movie–but that really does happen,” much the way a film about, say, a murder case is clearly fictional, yet based in reality.
Skeptics are often accused of not raking psychic powers seriously, of having closed minds regarding the paranormal. So let’s take the believers seriously and picture what the world would be like if certain psychic powers really did exist.
The Double-Edged Sword of the Paranormal
Psychic phenomena are claimed to have many variants, prominent among them precognition (knowing the future); clairvoyance (“clear seeing,” also called remote viewing); and telepathy (mind reading). Imagine that such psychic powers did exist: What would it mean in the “real world” if psychics really could read minds and “see” events far away in time and distance?
Telepathy and Clairvoyance
* The use of psychic power would be a gross and unethical violation of privacy. What right does anyone else have to read your mind, to have access to the most intimate details of your life? Would you want to associate with people who had such an ability? Any psychic could watch as you make love, scold your children, or fill out your taxes. You could have no secrets; no details of your life would be private or personal. Anything you think, feel, or do could be accessed, reported to others, or used for blackmail.
* If psychics were real, professions that involve deception would be worthless, including undercover police and detectives, industrial and international spies, etc. Furthermore, criminal organizations would employ them to stay a step ahead of the law. Organized crime would have psychics on hand to screen new recruits for police informants, and bank robbers wouldn’t need to case their targets, simply going right for the richest safe-deposit boxes or bank customers.
* There would be few or no mysteries or accidents if psychic powers existed. No one would wonder why EgyptAir 900 went down; we’d have clear, accurate answers from psychics and confirmed by science. They would have warned us about problems at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and with the Challenger space shuttle. Of course, psychics wouldn’t be expected to necessarily solve the problems; after all, they’re nor nuclear or rocket scientists. But surely they would let us know if a national (or international) tragedy is looming ahead.
* Psychics would be held responsible for the powers they claim. Along with power comes responsibility; if psychics really did have powers, then they would know that Tim McVeigh was going to bomb the federal building in Oklahoma. If they didn’t sense that, then they aren’t psychic, and if they did sense it, they didn’t warn anyone and are just as culpable as McVeigh. Having prior knowledge of a crime and failing to report that information can be considered conspiracy, a felony offense. Perhaps following a terrorist attack police would do well to incarcerate psychics until they can prove they didn’t have foreknowledge.
* In a similar vein, psychics would be held liable for incorrect information. Just as engineers and scientists who give police or the FBI false or misleading information can be prosecuted, so could psychics. When police psychics name the wrong suspect or direct search teams looking for a body to an empty lake or woods, they should be held responsible. During the TWA 800 investigation that began in 1996, the FBI was told by a psychic that the explosion was a result of a bomb near the left wing. The psychic was found to be wholly incorrect, and should be held to the same standard as other “experts.”
* Most psychics would be very, very rich; a handful of correct predictions on the right stocks or in a casino could easily make a gifted psychic wealthy. The common answer for why that doesn’t occur, that psychics “don’t use their powers for personal profit,” is both insulting and laughable. If they don’t use their powers for profit, why do they charge $40 or more for an hour-long reading? It’s incredibly naive to assume that all psychics would adhere to such a code of ethics. There are thousands of people around the world who claim psychic powers. Are we to assume that all of them have taken such a vow of relative self-imposed poverty? That question aside, the whole problem could be avoided by psychics simply donating any money they make to help the homeless, feed the hungry, or shelter battered spouses.
Precognition and Free Will
* Psychic predictions would be the most accurate type of prediction. We’d know at the beginning of the year what day Princess Diana would die in a car crash and when the stock market will plunge. All we’d have to do would be to check the events off a list as they occur. And unlike predictions based upon “normal” criteria (such as predicting the number of disease cases by extrapolating current ones or using past performance of a stock fund), information gleaned from supernatural powers would presumably be much more accurate. Uncertainty in prediction is usually the result of human error or inability to predict unforeseen circumstances. By removing human limitations from the method of prediction and placing it in the hands of a supernatural force or entity, psychic information should be uncannily accurate. (Ignore for a moment the paradox inherent in precognition: The future would be changed by knowledge of the future. For example, foreknowledge of an accident–a car crash, for example–would move any responsib le person to prevent the tragedy, thus making the precognition inaccurate.)
* Psychics would have near-universal agreement in predictions. Instead of pockets of occasional, correct predictions, we’d get thousands of psychics saying the same thing, coming to each prediction independently. Granted, a person might consult three different doctors with the same malady and get slightly different diagnoses, but they would be pretty similar: one won’t claim the problem is a broken leg, for example, while another insists it’s dandruff.
Perhaps the claim might be that there are different forces at work, and not all psychics can “tap into” powers of equal quality or strength. But to claim that, well, some “higher powers” are better than others just begs the question. Either a prediction comes true or it doesn’t, and if two different psychics are consulting two different “powers,” and only one gets it right, doesn’t that call the entire idea into question? If these paranormal powers are so fallible, why use them at all? We can get bad advice right here on Earth, and it’s usually free.
* Accurate psychic predictions would have serious implications for individual liberty, responsibility, and free will. If psychics can tap into powers and see the future, that means that our future is predetermined. Our paths in life would then apparently be already set, yet for the price of a palm reading, we can get a glimpse of our roadmaps.
I suspect that many people who believe in precognition aren’t aware that if they are right, they have answered one of the fundamental questions in philosophy, that of free will versus determinism. Most people would prefer to believe that they control their own actions and make their own decisions in life; but anyone’s ability to know the future would prove them wrong. Our society presumes that people have free will and assigns individual responsibility to each person accordingly. But there can be no responsibility in a world in which we are all essentially puppets going through scripted roles. Perhaps if psychic powers were proven real, criminals would be able to avoid penalties for their crimes. After all, society shouldn’t punish people for crimes they had no choice but to commit. If Hitler and Pol Pot were simply following their predetermined paths and could do nothing but commit genocide, surely they are not to blame for the vicious roles given them.
Some psychics, astrologers, and fortunetellers try to get around the free will problem by claiming that their powers show only a possible future, that individual free will does exist and can alter the future. But what good is that? Presumably the whole point of tapping into a higher power is to avoid the uncertainty that muddles predictions in our world. One doesn’t need to consult a psychic or astrologer to come up with a limp “possible” future of what might happen; anyone can do that. Most people want to know what will happen, and to them the psychic’s disclaimers should ring hollow.
A Question of Evidence
What constitutes evidence for or against a claim varies greatly between individuals. Skeptics generally require a higher standard of evidence to believe claims than the average person, while believers and New Agers may rely heavily on “intuition,” “feelings,” “vibes,” and so on to guide them.
Presumably, people who accept paranormal explanations for phenomena they find mysterious don’t apply the same criterion to other facets of their lives. Say, for example, a psychic or astrologer had car trouble and took her vehicle to a mechanic.
Do you suppose she would accept an explanation such as, “Well, the car’s fine, just that the energies aren’t balanced,” or “The stars just aren’t right–try it again when Mars is out of Leo”?
More likely, the psychic or astrologer would demand a concrete, real-world, mechanistic explanation for why her car won’t work, such as that the spark plugs are shot or the alternator isn’t charging. She knows that in the real world, paranormal influences are not a realistic factor. Yet the mystical energies (and “information” from those energies) by which psychics and astrologers make their livings are apparently valid enough to “sell” to other people through readings and consultations.
To avoid what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, the uneasiness of knowingly holding two contradictory and mutually exclusive beliefs, people adopt a separate frame of mind and references for different parts of their lives. In this way, for example, a lawyer who deals with logical arguments all day at work can come home, read his astrological chart and call his “psychic friend.” To him, the vastly different standards of evidence he uses at work and home don’t contradict each other, because work and personal life are two separate spheres.
ESP and the Law
When the paranormal and real worlds collide, the sparks can frequently be seen most brightly in the judicial system. The polar opposites of the two worlds make the clashes all the more stark. In the courtroom evidence is key; in the seance room evidence is sparse and subjugated to emotional testimonials.
On the whole, the paranormal hasn’t fared well in the courtroom (though pseudoscience has made inroads, such as the false memory hysteria of the 1980s, with its falsely-convicted day-care workers and shattered lives). In an infamous 1986 case, Judith Haimes, a proclaimed psychic, sued her doctor and a hospital, alleging that she suffered an allergic reaction from a dye used in a 1976 CAT scan and lost her psychic powers. A jury awarded her $986,000; the judge later set aside the award and the case lingered until February 1991, when it was finally dismissed on appeal.
Despite repeated claims that psychics routinely help police solve crimes, the fact is that whatever accuracy they may appear to have is attributable to such factors as simple guessing, retrofitting (making many general predictions, and, when the crime is solved, pointing out the small minority that were correct or could be interpreted as having been correct), or simply gleaning information from news reports and police officers. Psychics frequently waste valuable police time and resources investigating dead ends and accusing innocent suspects.
The courts, with their emphasis on rationality and logic, don’t put much stock in psychic claims, and why should they? If they take a dim view of defendants who claim to hear voices in their heads (e.g., “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz), why would it be any different for those claiming to see visions or read other people’s minds? Who would want to have aura readers, fortunetellers, and psychics assuring judges and juries that their “feelings” and “visions” say that a defendant is guilty? America already went through several periods of witch hunts; surely we need no more.
Perhaps police and psychics come in contact with each other most frequently when the former are arresting the latter for fraud. Courts can and do prosecute such scam artists, and hundreds of fortunetellers and psychics have been arrested on fraud charges, usually after bilking clients out of tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of dollars.
Some people find the paranormal enticing and reassuring, with its promises of hidden powers and mystical energies. But psychic powers, if they were real, would raise serious ethical questions regarding individuality, privacy, freedom, and free will. The fact that we do have individuality and privacy strongly implies that the paranormal realm doesn’t exist. For my part, I’m happier with free will and without psychics being able to know my thoughts and future. The further apart the worlds remain the better off we all are.
Benjamin Radford is a writer and Managing Editor of the SKEPTICAL INQUIRER.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal
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