- Religion and Philosophy
The Paranormal and the Need for Proof
Belief in the paranormal is common. Everyone has heard stories of people who experience strange phenomena or possess powers beyond our normal senses and abilities. Usually these stories are in the form of second or even third hand accounts, that is, they are usually a story heard from a friend of a friend who saw whatever it is that supposedly occurred. Over time, more stories are uncovered. Some are new, some are new versions of an older story that has taken on a life of its' own. People hear enough of these stories that they begin to think there's something to them. Eventually they hear enough that they become convinced the phenomena are real without ever actually witnessing them and without hard physical proof to back up the claim. Others have experiences, either shared or not, that they believe nothing else can explain except paranormal phenomena.
The problem here is that testimonial evidence is problematic at best. Memories can become faulty with age. People deceive, both themselves and others, intentionally or otherwise. Take two people who witness an accident. Ask each separately to describe what happened, and you will get two different answers. Why? Are they lying? Probably not. However, individuals have unique perspectives to each and every event. So then who is right and who is wrong? The answer is both and neither, respectively. They both are relating events as they remember them. They are both telling “the truth,” yet neither are the whole complete story.
How then do we figure out what is behind these experiences and stories of the paranormal? How do we get around the aforementioned problems? To do that, we must turn to the “Scientific Method.”
The main tenets of science are controlled experiments and duplication. A test for Anomalous Cognition for example, would require an adequate set of controls to be established and in place. Ideally the subject would be in a form of sensory deprivation chamber to prevent the transmission of data via the normal senses during the experiment. The target would then be sealed in another such room at a separate location. With such controls in place, any information the subject receives should be the result of ESP or Telepathy. Since one time accuracy could be a coincidence, and duplication being one of the tenets of science, the next step would be a series of such tests to verify the results.
Another obvious area of interest would be Telekinesis, also known as Psychokinesis or PK. Since telekinesis is also done by thought alone, erecting a transparent shield between the subject and target should be an effective control. By not allowing the subject to handle the target prior to or during testing, and by ensuring all other surfaces are secured in place, the only movement of the target should be the result of telekinesis. Again duplication is key. To verify the results, and improve the available data, multiple tests should be conducted.
Science is in no way perfect. Scientists are people too. They also may have preconceived notions that could taint their work. One of the biggest problems for scientists is confirmation bias. Using parapsychology experiments as an example, suppose your subject is purported to be able to move objects via PK. During the experiment a lab assistant bumps into the table and knocks over the target. If you already believe your subject has PK abilities, you may decide you found proof positive. The lab assistant felt a pull from the subject, which led him to bump into the table causing the target to fall and thus it was because of the subject that the target fell over... experiment successful. On the other hand, if the target does fall during the experiment and you decided ahead of time that it was impossible, then you would look for excuses for the success. The lab assistant walked by too fast, creating a breeze that pushed the target over. The experiment proved nothing.
Going further, there is always the issue of perceptual and cognitive biases. Because of preconceived ideas, a scientist looking at the results of a study may see patterns in the data that are not there or may fail to recognize patterns in the data that are actually present. This is why it is important to come to the research table with a clean slate. Preconceived notions will only interfere with the interpretation of the data.
Other problems involve using only testimonial evidence. This is because of the very nature of perception. Or senses are limited, and the mind extrapolates data it has received and fills in the blanks in ones senses. Take a piece of paper with diagonal stripes across it. Now remove a small section of those stripes. Hold the paper up at arms reach and slowly bring it in closer. At a certain point the stripes will fill the removed spot. How? Magic? Some otherworldly force? No. Everyone’s eyes have a small blind spot due to the optic nerve's connection. We don't notice this blind spot because it is in the periphery of our vision and the brain fills in this gap by extrapolating the information around the blind spot.
Another condition worth considering is this. There is a medical condition where electrical impulses in the brain stimulate the wrong receptors. This has the effect of having “wires crossed.” People with a specific form of this tend to experience the world quite differently than most of us. They will “see” sounds and have other unique experiences. That's not as far fetched as it first seems when one considers that a “normal” person's sense of taste is comprised mostly of smell, and only slightly from the actual flavor. That is why it worked when we used to hold our nose to eat our vegetables as children. Perhaps seeing peoples aura is a mild case of someone seeing what they feel or hear.
There are three basic explanations for what we consider paranormal events. First there is the real Paranormal Event. These events defy explanation by our current level of scientific understanding, and seem to be unaffected by space or time. Next, there is Psychological Events. This seems to be where most cases end up. This category includes cognitive and perceptional biases, as explained before. Imprecise memory recall would fall under this category as well. The third category is Physical Events. These are events where something did occur, but it had a perfectly probable and rational explanation. These events are usually experienced by people going about their business and caught off guard. The surprise and suddenness with which the events transpire leave little information to go on, and the final analysis usually ends up being that the observer just misidentified natural or other physical events.
So as you can see, there are many inherent flaws in trying to use anecdotal evidence to argue a case of the paranormal. Using the stories alone will only further divide the believers and the skeptics. To bridge the gap, science ultimately will provide the tools. The main tool of course being the scientific method, with its' tenets of duplication and control. However that can only happen if scientists are willing to risk their reputations by pursuing matters of the paranormal. Only by coming together and working side by side are we going to find the answers to these strange occurrences. The scientific community must accept that they do not have all the answers, and the believers must realize that stories alone are not proof. The scientific method will be the key to finding those secrets of the paranormal.