Wednesday, 26 May 2010

My Position On Psychics

I've maintained for a while that my position on the existence of gods is equivalent to my position on other paranormal phenomena. I've called myself a non-astrologer instead of atheists many times to make this point, not to pick on astrology of course. It could be any equivalent phenomenon. The point of the exercise is to take the reasoning to an abstract and away from any emotional biases that might cloud understanding the argument.

It's in that spirit that I bring up psychics. Again, not because I have anything in particular against psychics but because it's a useful example to discuss ideas that might be clouded by emotional biases. Unless that one is a passionate believer in psychic powers of course.

  • Just what are you sceptical about?
    Psychics quite clearly exist. I've seen ads for psychics on televisions and in newspapers. I've known people who have consulted with psychics and even talked to those who have called themselves psychic. But I don't mean psychic in that sense. Rather I am talking about psychic powers, a number of different phenomena that are the explanations for the psychic's perceived insight.

    This is to distinguish between a magician and magic. A magician does not use magic, they use non-magical techniques to fool an individual. Someone who is psychic who uses cold reading and intuition is not one who possesses psychic powers. It's the psychic powers that I don't believe are real. That one can communicate with the dead, see into the future, read another's mind, move objects with the power of thought - these claims are what I dispute.

  • A strong non-psychic
    I explicitly reject the existence of psychic powers, which I contrast with someone who has never heard such claims. I'm aware of what the claims of the multiple phenomena that could collectively be called psychic powers and don't think that any exist.

    To contrast the difference between a weak an strong belief. A weak belief would be a doubting - one who doesn't believe but doesn't reject the possibility of it being true. A strong belief would be rejection - one who doesn't regard such phenomena as being possible or at the very least conflicting with what is known about reality. I tend to the latter, if psychic phenomena is real it can't just be something on top of what we know. It will have to be a rewrite of reality itself!

  • Certainty?
    It however does not mean I'm absolutely certain that psychic phenomena cannot be real. If it were shown that psychic phenomena is real I'd change my mind. Right now there are two failings of psychic phenomena. The first is the failure for any controlled positive data. There's been plenty of research done into psychic phenomena yet it's still without something substantial. The second is that the claims don't exist in a vacuum, but around other phenomena such as the constraints of physics and biology.

  • Just a materialist
    Materialism isn't an a priori assumption, but a tentative conclusion of the scientific process. Sticking the label supernatural doesn't excuse the absence of evidence, neither does calling something immaterial. Whether or not the cause can be explained by physical processes or not, the effects should be plain. Consider an experiment in which two people in isolated rooms were able to communicate. We should be able to see the results in the material world even if the link between them was immaterial.

  • How do you explain this, skeptic?
    That an improbable event happened doesn't mean that one needs to reach for the supernatural to explain it. If one is thinking of calling a friend and they call, it doesn't mean there was a psychic link there. What about all other times one has thought of calling a friend and the friend hasn't called? Improbable things happen all the time, one has to show there's more than coincidence in order to establish a link. post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

  • How dare you deny my experience!
    I'm not denying the experience, but the interpretation of it. If someone tells of a first hand account of being abducted by aliens, does that mean that they must have been abducted by aliens? That if they are talking to a 900ft Jesus, that they really did talk to a 900ft Jesus? An experience might be very real with the narrative to interpret the experience way off. Sleep paralysis has been known for centuries, yet it's only recently that alien abduction stories have emerged from those who have such experiences.

    Of someone can have a spiritual experience while on a drug such as LSD, do we really need to point to anything beyond brain chemistry to explain it? The experience might be very profound and life-changing, but that doesn't mean that it's anything more than the effects of a drug.

  • Many people are convinced that psychics powers are real
    That many are convinced doesn't mean it's true. At one stage in history many believed in witches to the point they were willing to kill those they suspected of being so. How widespread the belief and the convictions of those who hold the belief is not evidence for the belief itself.

    I'd contend that the widespread nature of a belief is grounds to explore what it is about those beliefs that make people more susceptible to them. For instance, a look at reports of UFOs in the last 50 years shows spikes that correspond with popular science fiction on the matter such as Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and The X-Files. People look for explanations of what they find to be unexplainable, cultural narratives fit this explanatory gap no matter how scientifically implausible. As Michael Shermer puts it, we are pattern-seeking creatures.

  • So there is something that needs to be explained!
    I'd agree that it's more than just a willing participant applying a pattern that intuitively fits. If someone is being given a psychic reading, it's the interplay of the psychic and the participant. If as Uri Geller claims he could bend spoons with his mind and then does so, the spoon bending is what requires an explanation. Just as it is why someone can be so convinced in a psychic reading needs explanation.

    There are ways to explain such events using purely material means. Magicians use the same techniques as psychics, only they don't attribute them to a supernatural force. What looks impressive might be willing or unwilling deceit on the part of the psychic. Techniques such as cold reading or even hot reading can explain why psychics can appear to know more than they do. As would confirmation bias from the participant who forgets the misses and counts the hits.

  • It doesn't mean all psychics are frauds...
    That techniques can explain away how a psychic could pull off a trick doesn't mean that there aren't psychic powers out there. It could be that some who claim psychic powers have them, and even some who don't. But the burden of proof is on them to show that the powers exist. There's always the JREF Million Dollar Challenge open to anyone. A chance not only for a million but to change how we view the universe and stick it to the sceptics, and all one has to do is pass empirical measure.

  • A closed mind
    If the evidence was there, I'd change my mind. Being open minded shouldn't mean being credulous, if someone can bend spoons surely it's worth trying to figure out how than taking it at face value and concluding magic. If someone claims to talk with the dead perhaps it might be good to substantiate such claims first.

    The call to be open-minded often means "accept my interpretation uncritically" and should serve as a reg flag that one is selling snake oil. Being sceptical is a virtue, not a vice. Trying to figure out what's going on should be something to aspire to.

  • What's the harm?
    These beliefs aren't harmless. Families have been financially ruined because of those claiming to be psychic, lives have been changed because of psychic advice, memories of deceased loved ones altered, etc. It's claiming a reality that evidentially doesn't look like its there and that has real world consequences. Everything from psychic crime solving to remote viewing being used for military purposes to even people making financial decisions based on psychic advice - the consequences of such beliefs make it worth speaking out against them.

  • A comforting delusion
    There are those who no doubt have felt a sense of ease at the comfort of "knowing" their deceased loved one is waiting for them on the other side, or even feel special because they have an ability not everyone has. There might be those who feel like they've got insight into the universe that others don't. Yet no matter how comforting such beliefs might be, it doesn't make them true.

    Perhaps one could do more good by training as a nurse instead of selling psychic healing. Become a therapist or counsellor instead of participating in an exercise of crossing over. Use those techniques for entertainment purposes without selling the whole thing as supernatural. By participating out of a desire to help, it legitimises the snake oil merchants and con-artists who use those same techniques to exploit the vulnerable and credulous.

  • Why care what others believe?
    The assumption that being a sceptic is being a killjoy is one that is ill-founded. It's not about ruining what others believe, at least for me and every sceptic I know. It's because we care. We care about what's real, and because we understand the negative consequences that can come from false beliefs. I don't want to watch a loved one try to treat an illness with psychic healing, or them to base important decisions on the supposed authority of someone with magic.

    There's so much out of our control in every aspect of our lives. While magic thinking gives the appearance of control, the lack of correspondence to reality runs the risk of getting stuck in false beliefs and the negative consequences that come with it. When we do have tools to actually accomplish what many try to do with supposed psychic powers, we have more than the appearance of control. It's still limited, but limited real control is much more valuable than an illusion of it!

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