The unspeakable arrogance of paranormal believers
Yes, I’m controversially turning a cliché on its head again. It’s the people who doubt paranormal claims who are meant to be arrogant. They think they know it all, there are things science can’t explain, you can’t prove it isn’t true, you need to open your mind, and so on. Utter nonsense, of course, but even if it were true, it would be nothing compared to the arrogance of people who push their preferred flavour of woo.
There are many, many different beliefs out there. Even in one small area, some people believe dead people can communicate with us through mediums, some believe their spirits are tied to a specific place where they exist as ghosts, some believe they get reincarnated, the precise details of which are generally dependent on how nice they were when they were alive. All good fun, but you’d struggle to believe all of them at once.
Even if you could pull of that feat of metaphysical gymnastics, there are more beliefs out there than anyone can conceive, all believed by someone or other, and no one believes all of them, quite apart from the trivial example of two beliefs or belief systems which make mutually contradictory or directly opposing claims.
Okay, so what?
So this is where the big difference is. A sceptic approaches each of these beliefs in the same way: asking for evidence, testing the claims, and either rejecting it for lack of evidence or incorporating it into their worldview. It’s nothing personal, just a basic application of critical thinking. Show me the evidence, and I’ll take it seriously. It’s not arrogant, merely sensible and rational caution when faced with extraordinary claims. But believers are different.
There’s never good, robust evidence for paranormal claims. If there was, they wouldn’t be paranormal anymore, but would be incorporated into the scientific understanding of how the world works. The paranormal, by definition, is something for which there’s insufficient evidence to treat it as a scientific fact. It’s possible for these things to change with time, but for now it’s unproven at best.
When you accept a claim for which there’s no good evidence (something which is not just inherent in the paranormal, but implicitly admitted as soon as the “science doesn’t know everything” card is played – and it inevitably is), what’s your justification for rejecting any other unevidenced claim? Even a greater enthusiasm for one claim over another is difficult to justify.
If evidence is irrelevant, all that’s left is individual judgement and personal preference. When someone believes in one paranormal claim and rejects another, they’re elevating their own personal view to be the ultimate arbiter of truth, and saying that it trumps anyone else’s opinion. It doesn’t matter that any number of people believe in completely different things, because their opinions are apparently inferior, and can be ignored.
The clearest demonstration of this is the argument from personal experience. Paranormal and supernatural claims are very often backed up by an unshakable conviction that “I know what I saw.” If this were sufficient to prove a claim true, and our perceptions were always reliable, all such claims should be believed. Otherwise, either other people’s perceptions are considered less reliable or a huge number of people are implicitly being accused of deliberately lying. The believer’s own experience is always considered the final word.
By way of contrast, the sceptical approach treats all testimony equally, even one’s own. We can easily be misled, so confirmation will only come from repeated controlled tests. Even a supposed direct witness is only a starting point for further investigation, whether that witness is me, you or anyone else.
So tell me, who’s arrogant?