The Paranormal

by frankbeswick

The Paranormal is a term that covers a range of disparate phenomena that cannot be written off as delusions.

The term paranormal arose from a major philosophical error in the eighteenth century. Thinkers belonging to the movement that we call the Enlightenment decided to establish the view that phenomena could all be explained in scientific terms that worked on the basis that there was only matter and energy. Spirits were rejected and mind reduced to matter. Phenomena that could be thus explained were later to be seen as normal, but later it became clear that there were phenomena that could not be thus explained, and these came to be called paranormal. Attempts are constantly made to explain them away, but this is a fatally flawed tactic that closes us off to new ideas and experiences.

Image courtesy of captblack76

The Conceptual Dustbin

The term paranormal is too widely used to be of any use, for it includes a wide range of disparate phenomena of widely different kinds, many of which need different explanations. The yeti and other cryptozoological phenomena such as Bigfoot are sometimes included in the paranormal, even though such phenomena are merely matters for biology.Yet there are others that challenge the conventional scientific world view, such as telekinesis and the related poltergeist phenomenon, ghosts and telepathy. There are some with a religious dimension, such as reincarnation cases and the strange collection of phenomena that occur around death, such as near death experiences and apparitions. In effect the scientific world-view developed at the enlightenment has created a dustbin in which to dump phenomena and experiences that it cannot handle. The bin needs sorting.

The problem is that adherents of conventional thought systems, especially ones that consider themselves established and are held by members of the intellectual/academic establishment like to explain away phenomena that challenge their consensus. Its simple, really, if you build up a good academic reputation by promoting or operating a certain corpus of ideas, any challenge to those ideas leaves you embarrassed. You don't know as much as you and other people thought, and bang goes your reputation. 

Let's take the Galileo case, which,though not about the paranormal,  is a classic example of this behaviour. Galileo was an innovator who challenged originally not the church, but academia. The academic establishment was devotedly committed to the philosophy of Aristotle, far more than the Church was, and they combined this Aristotelian view with acceptance of the Ptolemaic geocentric view of the universe. Galileo's use of the telescope to see that the moon was rock and that Jupiter had moons confirmed the rival Copernican heliocentric system. Many academics tried to explain away the aberrant phenomena: Galileo was accused of lying and one academic said that there were cracks in the telescope lens that made the moon seem to have mountains. Eventually the academics turned to the Church to back up the failed Ptolemaic system, which sided with the academic establishment to get at someone who had implicitly challenge clerical authority, and Galileo was mildly censured. Surprise, surprise, though the Church was guilty in this matter, academia has conspired to dump the blame on the priests, when really the prime movers in the persecution were academics! But this case illustrates how conventional systems of thought and their acolytes explain away phenomena that do not fit into their narrow world view, and this is what is happening with the paranormal. 


A world-view is your understanding of the kinds of beings that there are in the world and the kinds of causes that operate within it. It includes the whole general account of how the cosmos operates on the broad scale of how the cosmos began and the local scale of the role of evolution in the development of life on Earth. The creationists's world-view excludes evolution.Whether or not there is a deity and the identity of this deity are part of a world-view, as is how the deity relates to this world, whether He/She can act within it and if so in what ways. Linked to any world-view is a theory of knowledge, for it is from this theory of knowledge that we decide what we can know of the world and what we cannot. 

Everyone has a world-view, but it can be well thought-out and theoretical or unreflective, and there can be many shades between. But the obligation on us all is to proceed in developing a world-view in a spirit of complete open-mindedness. We must gather as wide a range of phenomena as we can, however strange and analyse them objectively, and we must be sensitive to the philosophical assumptions and the theory of knowledge we bring to bear on our investigations. We must never say to ourselves, "I know all the beings that there are in this world and all possible worlds." We don't, and if we did the only way in which we could know them is to have thoroughly examined all possible worlds, which none of us have done. So our world-view is or always should not be final, but a work in process. 

The problem is that the thinkers of the enlightenment did not do this. They took the  already limited philosophy of Cartesianism, which limited reality to mind and matter, and got rid of mind. They limited knowledge to mathematics and empirical science known through the senses, and rather than gather a wide range of phenomena from across the world to be explained they hardly worked outside the confines of France, Paris in particular. Hardly the basis  for a complete world-view, but this limited materialistic world-view has been promulgated across the planet, excluding or explaining away phenomena that challenge it. While we rightly criticize the church for its misbehaviour in the Galileo case, this even bigger aberration is still current and well-established in the world. Thought has been in a straitjacket because of this narrow materialism.

It is not that paranormal phenomena are explained ignored, the technique is to perform the intellectually dishonest act of  explaining them away. This is done by questioning the intelligence or mental competence of those who experience them. Such questioning relies on the assumption that all who genuinely experience something paranormal are deluded either about what they saw or the explanation. You saw a ghost, trick of the light, you had been drinking, on drugs, under stress. Or you are lying! Perhaps you have a hidden agenda. But the trouble with the skeptic is that he/she is skeptical about everyone but themselves. Never do we hear any admission that these skeptics might be wrong.Too often demands for open mindedness are for other people only. 

Paranormal and Science

Science is the most effective way of understanding the world, but it is not the only way, for there are disciplines other than science that can make a contribution, such as philosophy, religion and history. So can science investigate the paranormal? Well, from one standpoint it is simply true that some scientists have done so. All we need to do is refer to the work of Ian  Stevenson, the late professor of Parapsychology at Virginia University, who performed a detailed and methodologically rigorous investigation into children's claims to recall past lives. He followed a thorough and detailed scientific approach, checking details and cross checking, excluding cases where there could have been contamination of witnesses through the child's information being acquired from other sources. He was left with a corpus of cases in which reincarnation was a credible or the best explanation for the child's memories. It is notable that while Stevenson applied a scientific method he was not bound by the materialistic assumptions of conventional, mainstream science, and in this he illustrates the way for paranormal researchers to proceed. They can use a scientific method, but not be shackled by conventional assumptions about what is possible or not and what kinds of explanations may or may not be offered. 

Science has several components. It is a method that has succeeded in investigating the physical world. With this method have gone a corpus of assumptions about what the world is made of, and it is also a community of  scholars who peer review each other's work and subject it to a verification process. The scientific method is universally the property of all humans, so you do not need to be a member of the scholarly community to use it, and there could be other, maybe rival, communities of scholars outside the scientific fold, as there is with Creation Science [which I personally reject.] Similarly, the materialistic philosophy formulated at the enlightenment is not binding on anyone if they  see reason to reject, so it is possible to do science without it. 

If we want to investigate paranormal phenomena we can use a scientific method of collecting reports and observations and classifying them. The next step is to formulate hypotheses about the explanation that best fits the phenomena. Some may be reducible to conventional explanations, but we need not be hidebound by the conventional scientific view, and so paranormal researchers need to have the courage and confidence to say that this conventional view is not working and so we need to postulate a different theory of reality to explain the phenomena. At this point science  needs to be augmented by Philosophy, whose role is to formulate basic positions about the universe and the beings in it, and to clarify thought in these matters. Science and philosophy need to work together to solve problems that raise issues about the character of reality. Proceeding with an open mind is absolutely essential, and it is a grave intellectual error that leads us to nowhere when we try to explain away phenomena that our theories and world-views cannot handle.


How abnormal is the paranormal? Is it a rare class of phenomena only experienced by a few, or are paranormal phenomena commonly experienced by many people, though not on a regular basis. If the latter is true we would expect that as people age they are more likely to report that a paranormal phenomenon has occurred in their lives. Currently there seem to be no statistics that can resolve this question. However, when talking to individuals and letting them know that you are open minded and not going to mock them or accuse them of being liars or deluded, people open up about experiences that they or members of their families have undergone. Paranormal experiences may  therefore be more common than skeptics think. 

Investigations cannot be solely in the hands of academia. While experiments have their place, they rely on situations that can be controlled in a laboratory, and paranormal phenomena defy control. They cannot be replicated and their occurrence cannot be predicted. The next best procedure is to collect accounts from as wide a range of people as possible and study them. This technique has been applied by Alistair Hardy in the case of religious experience, and also by Ian Stevenson in reincarnation cases, so it is scientifically respectable. 

The longstanding academic malpractice of disregarding accounts of odd phenomena by non-scientists/academics is not acceptable. Accounts from ordinary people must be fairly considered. This does not mean accepted uncritically, but their being disregarded because of their source outside academia cannot be tolerated. Respect for the experiences of non-specialists is vital. 

It is fundamental to say that if there is one phenomenon that defies conventional explanation, then the conventional world view fails. The theory is falsified. The old escape route of just dismissing oddities as aberrant phenomena is a way of avoiding embarrassing truths. Oddities and fringe phenomena must be thoroughly investigated. Only thus will knowledge advance.

Updated: 05/15/2015, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 05/18/2015

Protestantism believes in only two destinations, heaven and hell, with nothing in between, whereas Catholicism accepts an intermediate state called purgatory. As one intermediate state is accepted, there is room for others..

Mira on 05/18/2015

Why is Protestantism different from Catholicism and Orthodoxy in that respect?

frankbeswick on 05/16/2015

I wrote a review of Beyond the Ashes, which deals with reincarnation memories, that's what you are thinking of. Christianity was not at first against reincarnation, it was only at the second council of Constantinople that the Emperor Justinian interfered in religious matters and got belief in the pre-existence of souls outlawed. Until then there were many reincarnationists in the church, including Origen and Clement of Alexandria.

My personal view is that the afterlife is more complex and subtle than the simple heaven hell purgatory model invented [I use the term advisedly] by the clergy, who have concocted a Christian doctrine to give substance to Jesus' promise of eternal life. Jesus, however, did not give us any details about how the promise was to be fulfilled. He merely promised eternal life to his followers. We have a very clever deity, but we are expected to believe that this superintelligent being could only think up a simplistic heaven hell model for the afterlife. I think that there is far more to it than we have ever dreamed of, and we have much to learn.

But even if reincarnation were proved, Catholicism and Orthodoxy would not collapse, though Protestantism would take a deadly hit.

Mira on 05/16/2015

I read a little about Ian Stevenson and Rupert Sheldrake after reading your comment. It's interesting. The problem is, if you accept reincarnation, the door is open to so much more. Christian clergy is adamant against reincarnation. The whole edifice crumbles if you accept that, doesn't it? I don't know what to think about it. What do you think about it? In fact, I seem to recall you wrote an article on it.
P.S. You didn't, actually. I don't know why I thought that you did.

frankbeswick on 05/16/2015

Rupert Sheldrake is an honourable exception to the narrow mindedness of academia, as is the astronomer Archie Roy, both of whom have studied paranormal phenomena. Sheldrake's book, the Science Delusion, is quite good.

Professor Ian Stevenson made careful scientific studies of reincarnation memories, and while he was alive no one challenged the scientific quality iof his studies, even though they disagreed with his conclusions. I was less than impressed with the person who waited until Stevenson was dead to attack the quality of his work, quite unjustly, but he couldn't defend himself then.

Mira on 05/16/2015

"The problem is that the thinkers of the enlightenment did not do this. They took the already limited philosophy of Cartesianism, which limited reality to mind and matter, and got rid of mind." -- great point, and so are the others: the fact that paranormal events cannot be replicated in a controlled environment, the fact that one single phenomenon upends the whole worldview, and so on. It's a mighty challenger to the status quo!

CruiseReady on 05/16/2015

Your remarks about academia are right on. Though your article addresses the academic attitude towards the paranormal, it's an attitude that's pretty pervasive in that community. No matter the discipline, it's their way or no way, leaving little room for the exercise of intellectual curiosity. Not all of them fall into this category, but sadly, many very vocal ones do.

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