Extraordinary Claims
Posted: 07 March 2013 04:18 AM   [ Ignore ]
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We all know the famous line, and most of us probably agree with it, but I want to argue here that the main difference between believers (in ESP, ghosts, clairvoyance, astrology, etc) and Skeptics is the way they interpret and understand the ‘extraordinary claims’ bit.

Now, for believers, these claims really are not extraordinary at all. After all, they will say, people in all times and at all places have seen ghosts, communicated with the dead, and predicted the future. So if somebody down the street sees a ghost tomorrow, then that’s perfectly normal. This kind of thing happens a lot with human beings. It’s just an ordinary part of human life. 

For the Skeptic, though, things are completely different. So when somebody claims to be talking to your dead mother, the skeptic will say (quite rightly, in my view) that it’s extremely improbable that your mother still exists with the same personality, emotions, values and memories but with no brain or body! They will also point to the evidence from neuroscience and the like showing that brain damage can completely change one’s personality and destroy memories.

So, I want to say that the skeptics have the correct interpretation of the ‘extraordinary claims’ part of the famous line, whereas believers really don’t get it at all. The fact that people in many or all cultures have found it extremely difficult to accept that loved ones are gone forever, and have therefore been deeply interested in things like ghosts and communication with the dead, does not make it probable that any of these things are real. You need to focus in on the specific claim being made and think about how probable that specific claim is. For example, the notion that I will continue to exist as pretty much the same person after the death of my body and brain is extremely improbable, but the notion that something might survive the death of my body (e.g. some kind of pure consciousness or something) is much more probable.

I feel it’s pretty important to try to sort these things out, because believers and skeptics have such completely different starting points in all of these debates that they just end up talking past each other, and sometimes just resorting to name-calling and personal attacks.

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Posted: 07 March 2013 11:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I agree. And I think this is why to me at least, actions speak louder than words. It’s only when someone encounters a situation themselves that they can change their minds about something.  For example, a friend was a Catholic, and no matter what I could say to him, he wouldn’t change. Then he visited the Vatican (I think it was there, or one of the big churches in Italy) and saw how everything was adorned in gold. Came back converted. According to him, if the church really believed what it was peddling, they would have boiled all that gold down and used it to help the poor.

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Posted: 07 March 2013 12:48 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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CuthbertJ - 07 March 2013 11:16 AM

I agree. And I think this is why to me at least, actions speak louder than words. It’s only when someone encounters a situation themselves that they can change their minds about something.  For example, a friend was a Catholic, and no matter what I could say to him, he wouldn’t change. Then he visited the Vatican (I think it was there, or one of the big churches in Italy) and saw how everything was adorned in gold. Came back converted. According to him, if the church really believed what it was peddling, they would have boiled all that gold down and used it to help the poor.

Shoot, the Vatican is a great example of such excess, but there are plenty of examples of churches here in the States who feel it’s appropriate to spend resources on spectacular adornment and huge buildings rather than helping the poor.

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Posted: 07 March 2013 05:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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My point is that this is not really a debate between believers who think there’s loads of really strong evidence vs skeptics who disagree. For the believer, these things are so common throughout history that there’s just got to be something in it. Believers think they don’t need mountains of evidence to force us to throw out everything we thought we knew. All we need to do is think about how widespread these reports are, look at some interesting work from people like Sheldrake and Raden, and perhaps think about some of our own personal experiences. If we do all that then we will probably end up as strong believers. The mistake, of course, is that their starting assumptions (e.g. that there’s a good chance people can talk to their dead loved ones) is completely wrong. Actually, this is an extraordinary claim, and it will take absolutely loads of evidence to convince the skeptics. It’s not impossible to convince them, but it’s very difficult, and so it should be. 

I guess the philosophical question here is how it is that people who’ve grown up and lived in the same country can have such radically different starting points. People who are into Bayesian probability will say that the prior probabilities are very different. Anyway, it seems to me that this is where the big difference is between skeptics and believers on many of these issues.

[ Edited: 07 March 2013 05:13 PM by Dom1978 ]
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Posted: 07 March 2013 05:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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A good part of that “extraordinary” evidence that’s required is ability to be replicated by others.  If someone claims to have had a conversation with their deceased grand mother, that’s fine, but to move toward proving the existence of a deceased person’s mental existence, they should be able to show how everyone else can communicate with their dead relatives.  After we’ve all done it and verified the accuracy of such contacts, then we might begin to accept the idea.  However, until then. . . .

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Posted: 08 March 2013 11:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I get your point about different starting points. The same can be said for anything really. Why do two neighborhood kids who’ve gone to the same schools, had pretty much the same community involvement, etc. end up one as say a scientist, and the other a priest?  So many factors play into it I imagine, one being the actions they’ve observed by others, or have been told about by their parents.

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Posted: 10 March 2013 12:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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CuthbertJ - 08 March 2013 11:21 AM

I get your point about different starting points. The same can be said for anything really. Why do two neighborhood kids who’ve gone to the same schools, had pretty much the same community involvement, etc. end up one as say a scientist, and the other a priest?  So many factors play into it I imagine, one being the actions they’ve observed by others, or have been told about by their parents.

To get the point I’m trying to make here, think about this example. Person one is a believer. He thinks that it’s very likely that people can communicate with their dead relatives, since such things have been widely believed in many different cultures throughout history. So when he looks at the literature on experiments with mediums and so on and finds all sorts of statistical anomalies and weird things that are difficult to explain, he now feels sure that the science is on his side too. Person two is a skeptic, and thinks it’s extremely unlikely that your dead relative could still be the same person without a body and brain etc. He looks at the literature on experiments with mediums, and the statistical anomalies and weird things that are hard to explain do in fact push up the probability a little bit that communication with the dead is happening. But the prior probability for the skeptic was so low in the first place that this doesn’t make all that much difference, and all things considered he still finds it very unlikely to be true, even if perhaps a little bit more likely than he had originally thought. 

So the key issue in many of these debates is the starting point, and in my opinion the skeptics are right to have a very low prior probability. The problem is that ‘extraordinary claim’ is ambiguous. ‘Extraordinary’ here could mean weird, uncommon, funny, or many other things. For the skeptic, though, ‘extraordinary’ here seems to mean that if the claim were true then we would have to throw out a lot of science. This contrasts with the believer’s understanding of ‘extraordinary’, which is something like ‘uncommon’.

How common a claim is has nothing to do with whether or not it’s an extraordinary claim. This may seem like an obvious point to most people on this forum, but unfortunately many believers in the paranormal don’t seem to get it. Communication with the dead is an extraordinary claim for logical, philosophical and scientific reasons, and this will be true no matter how many people claim to have done it. The key mistake that some skeptics make, however, is to say that it’s impossible. This is definitely going way too far, and makes skeptics seem dogmatic.

But this is not just a case of skeptics and believers using the word ‘extraordinary’ in different ways. I think the believer is a particular personality type. It’s no surprise that the typical believer is open to angels, UFOs, ghosts, ESP, and communication with the dead. These things may not seem to have much in common, but they’re all very commonly reported so in the mind of the believer there’s got to be some truth to all of them. Moreover, believers tend to see skeptics as elitists who are ignoring the folk wisdom of the ordinary people.

[ Edited: 10 March 2013 01:09 AM by Dom1978 ]
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