Monday, December 22, 2008

Psychic powers, poltergeists and reason.

I am not a believer in supernatural phenomena but I can understand why some people are. When I say I can understand why they are believers I don’t mean they have valid reason for doing so. I simply mean I can understand how people make the errors that they do which lead them to false conclusions.

Let me give two examples from my own life. One from tonight and one from a few years ago. Both incidents, could give those inclined to believe reasons for their beliefs. Both had other explanations which are not immediately apparent without careful observation and thought.

Tonight I was doing laundry. I had a very large load of clothes in the dryer tumbling about. The heat was off but the tumbling continued so as to prevent wrinkling. I was standing there opening the dryer, pulling out shirts, closing the dryer and then putting the shirt on a hanger. Once that was completed I did it over again. It was a simple task.

I pulled out a shirt and shut the dryer. As I was standing there hanging the shirt on a hanger I was looking down at the shirt. This also meant I was looking down at the door of the dryer. Like most dryers it was a front loader. As I was putting the shirt on the hanger the dryer door suddenly opened. That alone wasn’t particularly weird since it opens downward and there are numerous rational reasons for that to happen.

But what immediately struck me as weird was that a rapidly as the door opened it also popped back and closed turning off the dryer. I could see why a door would drop down but it was not immediately apparent why it would then fall upwards and back into place. My first inclination was to ask myself if this really just happened as I loudly said to myself: “That’s weird.”

The typical person observing this incident would find it very, very strange indeed. Those inclined to supernatural theories would probably posit such a theory for this incident. And if they were so inclined they may not have bothered to look for a rational explanation. But, no doubt, they would share their supernatural experience with all and sundry. I’m sure you want to know what really happened. And by the end of this you will know.

The second incident was not something you see as much as something that happened.

I was talking with my friend Frank. He suddenly blurted out: “Guess who I saw today?”

My instant answer was: “Dylan.”

At this point Frank had a shocked looked on his face and punched me in the arm saying: “I hate it when you do that.”

Of course, I should have allowed him to tell me. I just answered his question because that is my first inclination. With a mixture of astonishment and anger he said: “How do you do that?”

I’ll tell you how shortly but first let’s put the potential poltergeist in the dryer to rest.

Luckily, when it flipped open, I was looking directly at the dryer door. Had I been standing in a slightly different position I would not have seen something which could easily be missed.

Some of the laundry inside the dryer had become tangled into a knot. One sock had really wound itself around a bunch of other clothes as it tumbled about. The bunch was big enough that when it tumbled at a particular angle it hit the door at just the right speed, with just the right weight, to knock the door open. So down came the door about three inches before suddenly shooting back and slamming closed.

What explained the door slamming closed, however, was not immediately apparent nor visible to the naked eye. In fact I wasn’t sure, at first, how this happened. So I did an experiment. I opened the door about three to four inches, as had just happened and let go. Again it slammed shut. The door is weighted in such a way that you have to open it about two-thirds of the way before it will open the rest of the way and stay open.

There was a rational reason for the door suddenly popping open and an equally rational reason for it just as suddenly closing. I only found those reasons because 1.) I happened to see a clue that could easily be missed under most circumstances and 2.) I assumed there was a rational reason and looked for it. If I were believer I would tend to take this as confirmation that my believes were right.

When I inadvertently ruined Frank’s surprise he was rather astonished that I got the guess right. After telling me how he hated me doing that he asked: “How did you do it?”

My first inclination was to say: “I don’t know.” I could have left it there and and claimed some latent psychic power. Many people would love to have evidence that they have some undeveloped psychic abilities. But after I told Frank I wasn’t sure how I did it I said: “Let me think about it.”

I then thought out loud. Here is pretty much what I told him as I traced my thinking from his question to the answer.

“First, because you sounded surprised and said, ‘Guess who I ran into today?’, I immediately assumed it was not someone who normally lives in San Francisco. [I was living in San Francisco at this time.] That means it had to be someone from somewhere else.”

“Before you moved to San Francisco you spent your entire life living in Connecticut. You really don’t know anyone from anywhere but San Francisco or Connecticut. And your surprise at seeing them ruled out them being from San Francisco. So, it would have to be someone that you knew in Connecticut.”

“Of the people you knew in Connecticut there were family members and people you went to school with. Family members wouldn’t just show up unannounced. So it has to be a friend, probably someone from school.”

“Of the people you went to school with Dylan, at one time, had lived in San Francisco. Therefore. it makes sense that he was the person most likely to return to San Francisco. And so the most logical answer to your question was ‘Dylan’.”

If Frank had not asked me how I “did it” I would not have given it much thought. His question forced me to think it through. The answer was basically instantaneous. It took far longer to think it through consciously than it took place subconsciously. Rational thinking is often lightening-speed, going through multiple steps in almost no time at all. Only when I slowed down the thinking intentionally did I see all the steps between the question and the answer.

There is an entertaining television showed based on this very thing. Psych is about a detective who has pretends to be psychic but who actually uses his ability to notice obscure clues. Of course, this is precisely how “real psychics” actually work.

The reality is that people who are inclined toward supernaturalism don’t look for realistic explanations. If anything they may avoid seeking out explanations that wouldn’t confirm their prior held beliefs. The truth is that many believers in supernatural, or theistic, explanations for things managed to cling to their beliefs because they have intentionally avoided explanations, or evidence, that doesn’t confirm what conclusions they already held.

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