Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Testing paranormal claims ? The last word

My little discussion with the Two Percent Company continues with this latest salvo of theirs. Now this is turning into a rather ornate argument, so I'll try to keep this as short as I can. Also, this is the last I'll write about it, unless Two Percent Company can fulfill my two little challenges to prove their premises... which I know they can't anyway, so the point is rather moot. I honestly don't want to sanction them any more than I already have - to say that I think they are not good people is about as nice as I can be on this.

I argued in my previous entry that Two Percent Company is wrong in stating that the paranormal/supernatural is a possibility, and that whatever they think it means cannot be anything more than an inter-subjective belief with no connection to reality. It seems their main reply is to argue that I'm playing word games. This seems to me like a pretty fundamental issue to be called a word game.

First, let me point out some areas which I think illustrate some problems. The first misunderstanding I note is the following :

We aren't saying that because we can imagine the paranormal, it might be real.

I never thought that was what they were saying. I mentioned the imagination part as the most common argument, but I understand that Two Percent Company is saying specifically that it is their ability to conceive of the paranormal that makes it possible, not their ability to imagine of it. Since both claims are equally absurd, I don't see the point of dwelling on it anyway.

The fact that any paranormal claim is meaningless is an assertion based solely on his underlying belief that it cannot exist.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. They are taking this ass-backwards. I know it cannot exist because it is meaningless, not the reverse. Let me put it this way : if Two Percent Company can explain to me the meaning of any paranormal of supernatural claim, and show how it is compatible with the facts of reality, then I will concede its possibility. Let's start with... say, ghosts. Can you do it ?

This is really a relatively simple task. All they would need to do is give us the meaning of "ghost", and show that it is compatible with, say, the idea of a "ghost" floating in mid-air at night scaring people off. This is a pretty trivial task to complete for any material concept.

Frankly, we agree that the "paranormal" or "supernatural" doesn't exist

And yet, on their first post :
"Further, the "possibility" always remains to prove the existence of the supernatural, inasmuch as anything is theoretically conceivable."
So which is it ? If it doesn't exist, then it's not possible to prove its existence.

Francois seems to hold that belief due to semantic arguments: supernatural ergo not natural ergo not real ergo meaningless; or, in plain English, if it's called "supernatural" then it can't be part of the natural world and hence it can't exist, period.
As soon as something is scientifically verified to exist, it ceases to be "supernatural" and becomes "natural."

This is an insulting straw man, but never mind that. It's more interesting to note that their position seems to be based on the idea that "supernatural" actually means something (instead of being the empty negative term that it really is), that something "supernatural" can magically turn into something "natural". I would very much like an explanation from Two Percent Company on how something supernatural can magically become natural - especially since, by definition, it cannot be changed through natural laws ! The closest I can think of is the belief in a divine incarnation like "Jesus" - but given their stance against religion, that doesn't seem like a way out for them.

Ultimately, it seems that the people playing word games here is Two Percent Company - if they expect us to believe that words don't mean what they mean !

As we've said more times than we can count, sure: it's "possible" that mediums are real. It's also possible that small gnomes live in our asses.

I'm tired of these nonsensical assertions of probability. Prove that the possibility actually exists, or stop making such absurd claims. As I apparently failed to explain properly in my previous entry, possibility has nothing to do with conceivability or imagination. Possibility is a claim about reality. You would have to be able to describe the physicality of such gnomes and whether they could fit in an ass or not - but there is no point in doing this since you obviously pulled this out of your ass, appropriately enough.

As I said earlier, if Two Percent Company can explain to me the meaning of any paranormal of supernatural claim, and show how it is compatible with the facts of reality, then I will concede its possibility. Until then, they would be well-advised to lay off the "possibility" talk.

Not only do skeptics "have an idea" of what it means to test claims of the paranormal, such tests are actually constructed and carried out all the time.

I deny that such "tests" are more than inter-subjective games. They have no relation to reality. Once again, you cannot test something that has no meaning ! What is so hard to understand about this ? Can you test the existence of "zorglubs" ? Gods ? Ghosts ? Impossible.

What are being conducted are games for the amusement of skeptics, who should know better than to think they are doing something meaningful with their time.

However, if someone offers a claim that clearly suggests a material, physical observation or experiment that could confirm or refute the claim, why should we not test it?

I am aghast to have to point out something so painfully obvious, but if it was measurable, then such a claim would be NATURAL ! You could not have a causal connection from those claimed existents or processes to your sensory organs if the former were not natural to begin with. I hope I don't have to explain to them how the eyes or the ears work ?

As demonstrated clearly in that earlier post, we agree that it is not possible to disprove the paranormal (for the reasons stated therein). However, it is absolutely possible to test and disprove (or prove) specific paranormal claims.

How can you dissociate "the paranormal" from "paranormal claims" ? If you prove a paranormal claim, you also prove that the paranormal exists, if only within that one claim. We're not talking about another universe or dimension or realm of existence here : just of absurd, extraordinary claims and how we classify them (paranormal, supernatural, pseudo-science, religious, etc).

So, how could something be a brilliant and educational move, and yet still be a quixotic waste of time?

I never claimed that the Million Dollar Prize was inherently skeptical (in fact I claimed the opposite !), so I fail to see the logical connection here. It seems to me like they are looking for nits that simply aren't there.

Then they go on and on to discuss the so-called educational value of skepticism, which I simply don't agree with at all. This has nothing to do with the main thrust of my argument anyway, although I have to concede that my objections to skepticism are as much moral as they are epistemic. The fact that skepticism is a force against prudent predators is a moral negative to me, although skeptics also sometimes go against imprudent predators. But I think it would only embroil us more to start a new discussion on the moral issue when we're already embroiled in the epistemic issue.

So what is the gist of the Two Percent Company's argument against my anti-skeptic position ? As far as I can see, it is the delusion that they (the skeptics) are doing something meaningful when they are "testing a paranormal claim". This seems to me to have no more merit than the delusion that Catholics are eating the body of Christ when they munch on a little piece of stale bread. Both rely on inter-subjective agreements which are meaningless to a rational observer.

I'm not saying that inter-subjective agreement is always a bad thing. For example, two people may decide to play a variant of FIDE chess (say, one where pawns capture forward) instead of FIDE chess. This is perfectly valid, and they can have a great time doing so. But they cannot then turn around and claim they were playing FIDE chess all this time ! The problem comes when people cannot grasp the difference between their agreements and reality. To me, skeptics have also lost this ability when they claim to be able to test paranormal claims. It is a game, nothing more.

Let me make my position clear. I am obviously not saying that you cannot test such a claim as "being able to diagnose an illness at a distance". While the claim in itself may be rather wonky (although in some cases rather trivial), there is no paranormal or supernatural term in such a claim. In that case, yes, the skeptic is doing something meaningful when he is testing it, although it seems to me to be more of a medical claim than anything else. If the skeptic, however, thinks that he is testing something paranormal by doing so, or even "spirit communication", then he is out of his mind.

But let me go ahead for a moment and take their epistemic claim at face value. Their position is that, while paranormal claims are not possible in theory, they can still test them. Fine, guys. Tell us what it means to test "spirit communication". And to do such a thing you necessarily first need to explain what "spirit" means. Let's see you once and for all support their position. Can you do that ?

I'm looking forward to seeing you accomplish the impossible. In short, "put up or shut up".

Post a Comment


At 2/23/2006 4:04 AM, Blogger BlackSun declaimed...

Agreed. You can't test supernatural claims. Because, then by definition, the phenomenon, if testable, is natural. Francois, I think this is one of your most air-tight arguments.

We will never discover anything supernatural, or paranormal. Because, like radio waves, which were once undetectable, future natural phenomena, once discovered, will then be known to have always existed.

Supernatural phenomena cannot, by definition, exist.

At 2/23/2006 8:38 AM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

I always thought that "paranormal" and "supernatural" weren't equivalent terms. A paranormal phenomeon was something which is natural, but beyond the scope of current scientific investigation. I'd consider claims of alien visitors or sasquatch paranormal, but decidednly not supernatural.

At 2/23/2006 1:06 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

"I always thought that "paranormal" and "supernatural" weren't equivalent terms. A paranormal phenomeon was something which is natural, but beyond the scope of current scientific investigation. I'd consider claims of alien visitors or sasquatch paranormal, but decidednly not supernatural."

That's fine, but how do you make the difference ?

At 2/23/2006 2:24 PM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

Well, let's take sasquatch for example. According to the belief, it is a biological creature, likely some kind of primate, that is able to interact with the environment naturally (at least, to the point of leaving footprints, hair, feces, etc.)

Such a belief is paranormal because it is outside the scope of science. There have been no specimens examined, and the photographic evidence is not beyond a hoaxer's capacity to manufacture. Given the lack of a physical specimen or overwhelming secondary physical evidence, a scientist would be reasonable to conclude that such a creature does not exist. You could make a similar case for any of the other "paranormal creatures" like any of the "lake monsters" throughout the world, giant birds, chupacabras, etc.

But given that these beliefs do not postulate any attribute of these creatures that is, strictly speaking, supernatural, then I would say that the two terms are not equivalent. Sasquatch, if they exist, are material, biological entities- they would certainly be considered a possibility, especially given the fact that other creatures have existed outside the scope of science in the past, like gorillas.

What confuses the two, however, is that there are many beliefs in supernatural phenomena which are also considered paranormal. Ghosts, for example, as you've already noted. I'd advocate for a complete divorce of the two concepts. Either a belief is paranormal, in which case it is a natural possibility, but unproven. Or a belief is supernatural, in which case it can be conceived of, but cannot be proven at all.

I think if the 2% Co. would adopt this, it would make their case more reasonable.

At 2/24/2006 1:56 AM, Blogger BlackSun declaimed...

Paranormal to me is the same as saying. "We don't have any evidence for this idea, but we like it."

It's normally used in the field of parapsychology, which usually describes telepathy, telekinesis, etc. I'm not going to say one way or the other whether it's possible for the psyche to affect matter. Certainly, we can move things around with our arms and legs under the control of our psyche. It's not out of the question that, like radio waves, there may be discovered at some future date a mechanism whereby we can bypass our limbs and move things directly with our minds. It's highly unlikely, but possible.

If such things eventually occur and can be documented, then they are natural. If there's no evidence now, then it may be discovered in the future. But for now I feel strongly that unless you're a scientist or researcher, there's no reason to talk about it.

It comes down to the argument from ignorance again: "We can't prove there's NOT a Sasquatch." To me there's not a Sasquatch until someone shoots one and tests its DNA. Even then, why is it a Sasquatch? People who want to believe in the paranormal would still probably say that the creature being examined was just another ape, and that the real 'Sasquatch' is still 'out there...'

That's the essence of both the supernatural and the paranormal. They belong to the world of fantasy. And fantasy is almost always better than reality. As soon as the light of truth hits anything, it reveals all the ugly details.

That's why supernaturalists are so insistent on the idea that "there are things that can't be known." This posture safely protects their fantasy world from any outside disturbance.

I vote "paranormal" be put on the list of "hokum words" along with "supernatural."

At 2/24/2006 12:41 PM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

"That's the essence of both the supernatural and the paranormal. They belong to the world of fantasy."

Perhaps, but I like the distinction that Franc made between the two. A paranormal claim is something that is possible given our understanding of the natural world, while a supernatural claim is not, though it may be conceivable to the imagination.

At 2/24/2006 2:43 PM, Blogger clues4cluesakes declaimed...

The scientific process determines if something is paranormal or just normal----paranormal being the equivalent of bullshit. You can't blast someone for defering to the scientific process. Someone snaps a picture of what they believe to be a ghost and this person exclaims "it's real!" The scientific process proves that the guy and his picture are full of shit-----usually very quickly and with little work. You say that the guy is full of shit and won't waste your time on the scientific process. Same conclusion. So why be so egotistical about the method or lack thereof?

At 2/24/2006 2:57 PM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

"Someone snaps a picture of what they believe to be a ghost and this person exclaims "it's real!" The scientific process proves that the guy and his picture are full of shit-----usually very quickly and with little work."

Yes, but in this case you don't need to defer to the scientific method. If you can take a picture of a ghost, then it is a material entity. Since ghosts are immaterial, then obviously you can't take a picture of a ghost.

At 2/24/2006 3:42 PM, Blogger clues4cluesakes declaimed...

Zachary: Point taken, but the picture itself is the only material entity. Is the image on the picture a ghost or an orb created by an unknown light source or a reflection. A scientific experiment in a controlled environment can account for orbs or other image distortions, rendering the "ghost" theory as bullshit.
Again, I think we both agree that ghosts don't exist, but the scientific method will always be needed to debunk those who are as bullheaded in the belief of ghosts as you can be against the existence of ghosts. People like to "manufacture" physical evidence on purpose or through ignorance and that nonsense must be countered each and every time possible.
They believe, we don't. Without the scientific method, it's just their beliefs against ours.
Good discussions. Thanks for the vine.

At 2/24/2006 3:45 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

You mean it's your position that you can test their paranormal claim, against their position that they're right and our position that they're wrong. Neither the believer nor the cynic agree with you.

At 2/24/2006 4:46 PM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

"A scientific experiment in a controlled environment can account for orbs or other image distortions, rendering the "ghost" theory as bullshit."

But there's no way to test for immateriality given the scientific method. The ghost theory is moot before you break out the beakers and test tubes. Every experiment has to have two hypotheses- the null and the experimental. A scientific experiment has to be designed to affirm one or the other, otherwise it's a waste of time. And there is no natural hypothesis that can be used to test for the existence of ghosts.

Even if there was, how would you even go about setting up an experiment to test it? Spend the night in a haunted house and if you see only 10 light orbs, there are no ghosts, but if you see 50 light orbs, there is a ghost? There are no natural standards for something like this.

Even if you had a video recording of a chair levitating, you can't conclude that ghosts exist. At best you can conclude that there's some weird unexplained phenomenon taking place, but that's it.

At 2/24/2006 6:05 PM, Blogger clues4cluesakes declaimed...

Man. Do you people masterbate to this canned rhetoric?
You can't prove a negative. Duh.
If you are diagnosed with cancer today, does that mean you didn't have cancer yesterday? You didn't know about it yesterday and it was only discovered today. I guess you folks would never find out in the first place. Your take:
"I've never had cancer before, so there's no reason to test me for cancer now. Now go fuck yourself."

Sounds elitist to me.
No need to respond, I won't be reading it.

At 2/24/2006 9:40 PM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

Masturbate? Canned? Rhetoric?

Where did all this come from? Geez, all I ask is for an experimental design to test for the presence of ghosts, and all of a sudden I'm "elitist?"

I'll make my point again: incoherent beliefs cannot be tested by science, so there is no point in trying.

At 2/24/2006 11:51 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

Well Zach, you were arguing my point, so I guess that makes you in the same evil category as I am. I agreed with everything you said, by the way.

At 2/25/2006 11:37 AM, Blogger Tracy_tulip declaimed...

I found your site through Two Percent's site and find yours to be much easier to read ;)

I believe in the scientific method too, but the burden of proof is on the person making the claims. If someone believes in ghosts, good for them (and good luck proving they exist). Obviously they can't, so the scientific method becomes a litmus test to weed out crackpots. True skeptics, scientists etc. just sit back and laugh.



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