On nearly every pro-paranormal Web site I’ve been on, and book I’ve read written by believers, the claim is almost universally trotted around that skeptics are not only afraid of the implications of psychic phenomena, but vehemently deny the very possibility of it to calm their fears — and that skepticism toward it centers on the argument that it is impossible, contradicting to all known physical laws.
This claim is not only patently unfounded, a straw man argument, derived from an impatience with skeptics and misunderstanding of skeptical arguments, but in my view is downright silly.
No, the Argument from Impossibility is not the mainstay of skeptical criticism of psi, contrary to popular belief…
Allow me to present my perspective regarding this and what I know of the matter at present.
First, no prominent skeptic of psi whom I can name off the top of my head really argues for its impossibility, since only that which is logically inconsistent can truly be deemed impossible, and skeptics fully admit that our understanding of reality is far from exhaustive.
Second, modern skepticism is all about science, and skeptics do take the time and effort to educate themselves on particulars of this very subject: what it is, how it works, its purpose, its philosophical underpinnings, its findings, and especially its limitations. This means that most who have been skeptics for some time are aware of the fact that modern science is in its infancy, and that we are only now beginning to arrive at an understanding of how the Cosmos operates.
Most skeptics are acutely aware that there are very probably laws of nature, or parts thereof, of which we do not yet know, that our present understanding of the universe is necessarily incomplete, that the most we can say about the current state of our knowledge is just that, that it is simply the current state of our knowledge, and not even close to final, absolute understanding of how the natural world is ‘necessarily so.’
In this sense, skeptics, and myself included, concede that there are unknown facts about the universe that we may yet discover. Scientists are quite aware that they don’t ‘have it all figured out’ yet, or science would have ground to a halt long ago.
The physical science of later on this century, or afterward, may uncover those laws, theories, and facts which allow our use of strange and potentially powerful and wondrous abilities, as our uncovering of those laws we have achieved in the previous few centuries has already done. I cannot say for certain, but I fully concede that wonderful new discoveries have yet to be made, many of which may overturn much of current physics and bring forth new views of reality, new paradigms.
If, by the term ‘paranormal’ one loosely means those mysteries that science has yet to explain, secrets it has yet to uncover, of those wondrous, marvelous, bizarre, or astounding new discoveries that I have little doubt will be made, unanticipated at present by anyone currently alive, in this sense, and in this sense only, I and most of the scientific community, and most of the skeptics I know of, could easily count ourselves as paranormalists despite our views of psi.
But only on this particular…
If on the other hand, the term ‘paranormal’ is used in the more usual sense, to describe certain non-scientific concepts, ideas, and doctrines beyond the bounds of known science that their proponents attempt to pass off as actual science, despite failings of scientific adequacy and a lack of evidential support for them, then I am most assuredly in the camp of a skeptic until better evidence is made available.
Don’t get me wrong, unorthodox ideas are essential for science to move forward, and contrary to the claims of pseudoscientists, most mainstream science journals do feature quite a few of these, a lot of which turn out to be wrong. Pick up a copy of Nature, or Scientific American, and you’ll see what I mean.
But to be acceptable, to be scientifically adequate, to mass muster as a promising idea, the concept in question must abide by standards of evidence and logic proportionate to the degree to which the claim contravenes what we can honestly say we provisionally know to be true.
The more bizarre the claim, the more solid the evidence must be, especially if the claim in question has profound implications.
Those of us skeptical of psi at worst consider said evidence to be worthless, and at best, inconclusive. Simply put, skeptics and believers have differing bars for evidence, not just in interpretation, but upon what counts as sufficient, not just necessary evidence at the present time.
Skeptical critiques of parapsychology, when done well, consist of postjudice, not prejudice, an assessment on the matter made after, not before, looking at the evidence.
Unfortunately, parapsychology is relatively stagnant as a field in contrast to almost every other area of research, and has found nothing new that truly adds to our knowledge of the universe, despite the remarkable implications of that knowledge should it ever be discovered.
I cannot say if this state of affairs will continue, and it would be disappointing if it does.
The uncovering of a new way of looking at reality would be interesting to say the least, more interesting than the only real discoveries of parapsychology made at the time of this writing: the paltry and trite excuses for why psi experiments conducted by those skeptical or unbiased toward the phenomenon in question fail to replicate.
Until parapsychologists can overcome this hurdle, their claims will never be taken seriously by the science community, and their field will continue to be regarded as pseudoscience, nothing more.