If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Monday, 31 October 2011

Things That Go Bump In The Night

A rationalist post for Hallowe'en.

Are you a believer in the supernatural? Sorry, [gravelly voice]The Supernatural[/gv]? I'm leaving religion out of this for the moment, as it's a special case, and talking about ghosts, manifestations, telekinesis, telepathy and the like.

To most people, it's an either/or situation. Let's say you have a slightly unnerving experience - someone pops into your mind and you think about them, and ten minutes later the phone rings and it is that person, to whom you haven't spoken in ten years. (This kind of thing happens often to Anna.) Most people would respond in one of two ways:
  • It's all quite explicable. You think about people all the time and don't dwell on it, but when someone calls you soon afterwards (as statistically they must occasionally) that's the one you remember.
  • The mind has powers we know not of, and did I tell you Aunt Doris says she's happy and she forgives you for the thing with the hairdryer?
In other words, most people either believe (fully or tentatively) in the supernatural or dismiss it absolutely. There's no middle ground. Anyone who tries to suggest that there may be something in all these things (which, after all, have been reported throughout history and across the known world) is derided by the sceptics as a gullible fool and by the believers as a sceptic who needs to open his eyes to the truth.

There was an interesting interview with a photographer called Graham Morris on BBC Radio 5 Live recently, who attended and photographed an alleged poltergeist manifestation in Enfield back in 1977. His photograph of the girl apparently flying through the air screaming became a brief sensation. (Photo and link to the interview here.)

To me, the photograph shows nothing more than an 11-year-old girl jumping off a bed, but apparently there were things flying about the room, and there were a number of solid witnesses. Morris says something in the interview which struck me as very wise.
You had to see it to believe it. I mean, I am just as big a sceptic as anybody else; in fact, I now still refuse to believe that it's hauntings and ghosts and all the rest of it. I think it's down to something that we just don't know, as we didn't know about gravity and magnetism or all sorts of other things hundreds of years ago, so we just don't know about this.
To me, it is stupid to believe everything you are told; but it is also arrogant to believe that we know everything already, and that everything that we observe must be able to be explained in terms that we already understand, or alternatively dismissed as hogwash. Healthy scepticism is good, but let's also have room for the notion that, although something may be inexplicable today, it will not always be so, and should not be dismissed as fiction just because we haven't got round to understanding it so far.

Man (sorry, Person) is a very clever creature, and our understanding of the world is improving all the time. Where fire was once considered miraculous, and then thought to be the result of the unseen element phlogiston, we can now explain it very readily in terms of widely-known and well-understood chemical and physical processes. There's no reason not to suppose that one day there will be entirely rational explanations for sightings of ghosts and other paranormal phenomena - explanations which conform fully with the state of scientific knowledge at the time.

In other words, there is no mystery about these things; it's just that we don't understand them yet. I fully expect that in the future people will be able to say something like:

"Of course, I knew my cousin in Australia was pregnant before she did, and my congrats card arrived on the same day she got the results. The old Binks Effect can be quite useful sometimes."


  1. " There's no reason not to suppose that one day there will be entirely rational explanations for sightings of ghosts and other paranormal phenomena - explanations which conform fully with the state of scientific knowledge at the time."

    Well, there's evidence that magnetic fields may well be behind it all, as MacHeath points out in this thread.

  2. Interesting. I had read the original article but had not followed up with the comments. Magnetism implies some kind of space-time fabric in which to operate (or it might, but I am no physicist), so that may well be relevant.


Comment is free, according to C P Scott, so go for it. Word verification is turned off for the time being. Play nicely.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...