Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Fear Factor

Most of my reading these days has been about materialist responses to phenomena that is not explained. Perhaps this is because my primary read at the moment is The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake, which I’d mentioned in a previous posting. As a refresher―Sheldrake believes that scientific progress is hindered by materialistic assumptions. When science can’t explain something adequately, or encounters an anomaly, it tends to explain it by saying a. it’s an error or b. it’s a hoax.

The problem with this is that it ignores occurring phenomena simply because it doesn’t fit into a worldview that denies the reality of conscious experience. Denying the reality of conscious experience is quite incredible―we experience it every day, and you wouldn’t have scientific progress if there wasn’t independent conscious thought. It also doesn’t explain things like the placebo effect, psychosomatism, and creative dreams (e.g., dreams that lead to new scientific discoveries).

One of my favorite retorts from both clinical psychologists and scientists when it comes to “paranormal” experience is that only people with active imaginations have such experiences.  So, only people who already believe in ghosts and have active imaginations will actually “see” ghosts, which of course are only figments of the imagination (for example).  They base this on studies that show a correlation between people who have very creative/active imaginations and who also believe in ghosts and other “paranormal” phenomena.

There is a glaring problem with this. From all legitimate paranormal case studies (not proven to be hoaxes) that I’ve read (and I’ve read LOTS),  when people encounter something out of the ordinary, they have two immediate reactions. The first knee-jerk response is to find a logical explanation for the seemingly extraordinary event. If there is no logical explanation, then secrecy becomes the next response, and an implausible logical explanation will likely be invented.

I can tell you as someone who does believe in the possibility of ghosts/spirits, though I’m not sure what they really “are”, and who has an active imagination―I have never assumed at the outset of unusual experiences that they were “paranormal” in any way. If I am in my house, and I hear what sounds like footsteps upstairs, I assume that it’s either a. the cat, or b. the furnace kicking on, or c. the house settling or vibrating due to the passing of a large vehicle on the nearby main road. I happen to live in a very old house, across the street from a cemetery, so I have every imaginative reason to see specters everywhere.

But, like anyone else who encounters such things―a logical explanation is not only likely, it’s highly desired. The unknown brings a fear factor with it. If I hear footsteps in my house, no one is there, and I can’t explain them―that is potentially scary. I will cling to any rational explanation rather than believe that I have some disembodied energy in my house. (Incidentally, I do not believe my house is haunted.)

The secrecy factor often comes in, because those who have the experience doubt their sanity, and think others will doubt them, too. Since time immemorial, anyone who has potentially “touched” the other side is somewhat taboo―this is why the tribal shaman lived alone. Even in an era where such things are not accepted by society, we may be fascinated by someone’s ghost story, but if it is seriously believed, the listeners often think that the experiencer may have “a screw loose”.  This is also a fear response―fear of social rejection.

Another thing to consider is that in many paranormal case studies, the profiles of those having the experiences show people who are anything but irrational. Regular people with regular jobs, no history of mental illness, and in the most intriguing cases, people who were involved in active military service. They have no motivation whatsoever to perpetrate a hoax; in fact, admitting to such an experience is likely to draw very negative consequences. The correlation between imagination, belief and experience strikes me, frankly, as bogus. It’s not borne out by the reports.

Reason, for good or for ill, is a defense mechanism. Like religion, it is a defense against the fear of what isn’t known. In our society, we can’t tolerate not knowing something. We laugh at unknowns (another defense mechanism) because we absolutely cannot admit chaos into the picture. We want nice, neat ordered explanations for everything.

But reality is not always orderly, and what we discover about it through the sciences is not always (and not often) “reasonable” or “logical”. The vehemence with which some people deny the reality of things outside the norm is often amazing to me―it almost seems pathological. Interestingly, the ones who scorn “paranormal” phenomena in many cases often respond when confronted with the paranormal not only with fear but with great hostility and anger. They are sure that SOMEONE is playing a trick, and they’re out for that person’s blood. It’s not funny to them―their fear response has been triggered. If they can’t prove it’s a hoax, they’ll still try to pin it on someone or something, because any rational explanation, no matter how improbable, is better than the alternative.

I should note that “paranormal” is not synonymous with “supernatural”.  “Supernatural” implies something outside of nature, a phenomenon that is not subject to natural laws. “Paranormal” simply means “above the norm”. And it’s silly to say that the paranormal doesn’t “exist”. Of course things happen that are beyond  “norms”. Norms just represent the average experience. I don't believe that anything experienced in the world is supernatural.

I  have always felt that such phenomena should be legitimately explored. Judging from the popularity of series like “Ghost Hunters”, it’s clear that many others feel the same way. People would like a scientific explanation of these things, and would like them to be part of the natural order of things. I am certain these experiences are entirely natural, and could likely be tested through evaluation of individual cases, weeding out ones that are clearly hoaxes or hysteria.  Personally,  I think the answer may lie in depth psychology―the hypothesis of the collective unconscious, and the idea of projecting unconscious content onto the environment (and therefore seeing a “spirit”) is not unreasonable. But serious study will never happen if the unproven assumption continues that there is no reality to “consciousness” as something beyond mere brain function.


harry said...

Well, I'd add that reason is not just a defense mechanism, but also a defense. It provides the tools to come to useful understandings about what is not (yet) explained. And it's the best context for figuring out how to incorporate what defies it.

Brigid N. Burke said...

Hi, Harry--yes, that's true, and I think I came across sounding as though reason were somehow a "negative" thing, when I don't mean that at all. I tend to think of reason as a tool, and it is incredibly important and useful, but like anything, there are possible extremes. One who values reason to the exclusion of all other things (emotion and intuition in particular) is going to run into trouble, just as someone who relies exclusively on the latter two things will also have problems.

hourof13 said...

"just as someone who relies exclusively on the latter two things will also have problems." of course! xD (it's the balance of the 4 elements we strive to achive! ;D)

"One who values reason to the exclusion of all other things (emotion and intuition in particular) is going to run into trouble.." that's why I don't get along with atheists. It's too easy/simple. :)