Thursday, August 4, 2011

Are There Reasons to Fear the Paranormal?


When I was in my thirties, I used to visit a psychic that specialized in Tarot Card readings. She was a skilled reader and most of her readings were spot on. The last reading I had with her, at times weighs heavily on my mind. She predicted the divorce that followed and also told me that I would remarry and have 12 wonderful years with a new husband. She also mentioned that I would die before he at the age of 52.  In September, I will be 52. Am I frightened? Not really. Having read Tarot for many years myself, I know that the foretelling of death doesn’t always mean physical death. It can mean the death of an old existence or mode of living or thinking giving way to rebirth. That is how I choose to look at this now. At first, the idea that someone could divine my death left me feeling vulnerable and out of control, the victim of some inscrutable force . Later on I felt a giant wave of skepticism. From this experience I recognized why some people may be repelled by and fear the feelings of uneasiness brought about by the paranormal.
For some people the fear of the paranormal is the equivalent of the fear of the irrational. “Rationality” in our modern scientific world consists of rules invented to tame the wilderness of our reality. I think the paranormal adds some twists and turns to our very existence which at it’s core (cosmological theories aside) is irrational.
Some critics of the paranormal, have dismissed the ideas of parapsychology to be “essentially those of magic.” If magic means belief in the sheer power of mind over matter–then parapsychology does qualify as a science in quest of magic. J. B. Rhine’s dice-throwing experiments were attempts in a controlled, secure lab setting to demonstrate the power of what witches call “magick spells” or theists prayer. Magic, in short, is belief in the unmediated power of intention.  It’s a belief that might stir the fires of paranoia, for it would imply that we are vulnerable to the sheer intentions of others (including our enemies). One might reasonably prefer, not to believe in “magic” or not to believe in such strange powers. To some, the world of magic is a frightening world.
If there is indeed anything to the paranormal, all sorts of strange entities, thought to be dismissed from the world by science, would return to our midst, newly validated and certified by parapsychology. Talk of ghosts, angels, fairies, phantoms, demons, and aliens might be based on some of factoid paranormal reality. Instead of a tidy universe, we would have a “multiverse” with plenty of things “that go bump in the night”.
There is also the fear of life after death. The paranormal isn’t just implicated with magic, it’s full of reports that force us to reexamine our ideas of our own mortality. One could surmise that resistance to the paranormal is actually resistance to the idea of life after death, which is so entangled with religious ideas we thought we had outgrown with the rise of science and the European Enlightenment.  After all, if there is a psychic factor in nature that somehow escapes the confines of physical law, maybe that’s what makes an afterworld possible. In that afterworld, the heaven and hell that frightened us as children may very well be real. The disturbance to our world as we know it now from the mere implication of an afterworld would be monumental.
Another fear is the fear of gnostics or what I call mystic know-it-alls. There have always been people in history who claimed they knew what they knew–flat-out–by gnosis, inspiration, revelation. (Harold Camping comes to mind.) In short, by paranormal means. Fear of the paranormal is the praiseworthy fear of the mystifying dogmatist, the prophetic con-artist. Scientific certification of the paranormal might give this type of person more intellectual ammunition than might be desirable. It would be much tougher to weed out the charlatans who capitalize on the vulnerable.
The paranormal might also give rise to the fear of fatalism. Suppose we could really know the future? Would we be stripped of our free will? Not necessarily. Assuming the psychic Tarot Card reader saw my future, she would not then see what I must do but merely what I shall do. The former would impinge on my freedom; the latter wouldn’t. Still, logic seems defeated here; how could anyone see what has yet to occur? The fear now is that our sense of time gets disrupted. Suddenly, backward cause and effect becomes possible; the future casts shadows on the present. This upset in our idea of time leads to the last and most compelling reason that I think paranormal is feared.
The paranormal can significantly can take our world view by surprise Catastrophe theorists work on the “science of surprise”.Extreme surprise can cause a great deal of anxiety, especially when it involves shock to our basic sense of reality. A universe with minimal surprises is probably a lot easier on the nervous system. In a rapidly changing  world such as ours, the paranormal just adds to our general cognitive chaos, and to the instability of our collective mental health. As humans we gravitate toward what we know. In short, if the paranormal is real it would force us into overturning our paradigms of our entire existence on a monumental level.
There are reasons to fear the paranormal: loss of privacy, loss of control, the irrational, magic, strange entities, heaven and hell, mystic know-it-alls, fatalism, and anxiety-producing surprise. Commonly these reasons remain motives to disbelieve in the paranormal; but the fact remains–they are not arguments against its existence. I believe that Carl Sagan expressed it best:
“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

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