Supernaturalism and the Paranormal

It is quite obvious that paranormal phenomena, if they exist, play an important role in the formation of supernatural beliefs and sustenance of religions.  If they do not exist and are simply imagined (which seems to be the case nearly everywhere), they play the same roles.

Ironically, most religions deny the existence of the paranormal, at least insofar as the phenomena in question do not fit within the parameters of accepted theology or doctrine.  Paranormal phenomena outside these accepted parameters are variously characterized as either fake, magic, or worse — the work of malevolent spirits.

I have long avoided this subject in the blog, primarily because the field is filled with quacks, charlatans, magicians, the credulous and the imaginative.  Although there has been serious scientific work done on paranormal phenomena, it has a checkered history.  But not all such research has been fruitless, and there are some scientists who have obtained surprising and inexplicable results.

However, after reading Ben Goertzel’s detailed examination of the paranormal, which is called “psi” by those study it, I have decided to create a new blog category to examine the issue and cover some of the more compelling studies being done by highly credentialed scientists and published in well known peer reviewed journals.

While Goertzel’s article provides a comprehensive overview, his primary focus is on Professor Daryl Bem at Cornell University.  In a soon to be published paper, Bem reports on precognitive abilities and his results, while anomalous, are statistically significant.  Here is a portion of the abstract:

The term psi denotes anomalous processes of information or energy transfer that are currently unexplained in terms of known physical or biological mechanisms. Two variants of psi are precognition (conscious cognitive awareness) and premonition (affective apprehension) of a future event that could not otherwise be anticipated through any known inferential process. Precognition and premonition are themselves special cases of a more general phenomenon: the anomalous retroactive influence of some future event on an individual’s current responses, whether those responses are conscious or nonconscious, cognitive or affective.

This article reports 9 experiments, involving more than 1,000 participants, that test for retroactive influence by “timereversing” well-established psychological effects so that the individual’s responses are obtained before the putatively causal stimulus events occur. Data are presented for 4 time-reversed effects: precognitive approach to erotic stimuli and precognitive avoidance of negative stimuli; retroactive priming; retroactive habituation; and retroactive facilitation of recall. All but one of the experiments yielded statistically significant results.

For an introduction into this minefield of a skeptic’s subject, I encourage you to read Goertzel’s entire article and look at the several papers listed in Professor Bem’s website.  There does indeed appear to be something going on, which in my estimation will eventually be understood in scientific (that is naturalistic) terms.

If and when this occurs, yet another phenomena will be removed from the realm of the supernatural and be placed within the ambit of science (this process has been the history and fate of all religions).  My guess is that the explanation will revolve around quantum or subquantum effects and their interaction with wave functions, all of which can be affected by natural forces such as magnetism.

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6 thoughts on “Supernaturalism and the Paranormal

  1. Craig Martin

    I’m unconvinced that paranormal phenomena (if they exist) have anything to do with what we call religion. It’s quite possible that psi phenomena are real, but I think those cultural traditions we call religious can be explained without any reference to psi phenomena whatsoever.

  2. admin Post author

    My thinking is that if people, and let’s just take Paleolithic humans as an example, experienced psi phenomena, they would naturally attribute them to the supernatural. Because the supernatural is the sine qua non of religions, it seems that psi phenomena — especially if real, and experienced by those who deem themselves religious — would serve only to confirm their belief that the world is a spooky, spiritual place.

  3. admin Post author

    I see it, in other words, as but one strand among many which contribute to what I call the religious stance. The other strands arise from the ordinary operations of the brain-mind, and from massive cultural inputs that depend on these operations for their efficacy.

  4. admin Post author

    On a final note, I happened to read this article about psi and Bem’s work the day after watching ESPN’s splendid 30 for 30 documentary on the magnificent Marcus Dupree, who somehow knew that if he played in a game one day, he would suffer a career ending injury. It happened, and the whole thing got me thinking along these lines.

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