Gods, Ghosts, Aliens, Angels and Elvis (part 2)

By Stan Persky | July 8, 2005

[part 2]

From Astrology to Zombies

While this is not the place to take up all extraordinary beliefs, it will be useful to offer a few brief comments on some of the more popular ones, that is, beliefs held by large numbers of people. First, though, in anticipation of our conclusions, we should address a question that may now be on readers’ minds: Have any extra-ordinary popular beliefs been substantiated by evidence? The disappointing answer in practically all cases is, Not so far. There may be some exceptions, perhaps in the field of medicine, but for the most part, evidence for extra-ordinary beliefs has been sparse.

We can also ask, Are any extra-ordinary popular beliefs plausible, even if not susceptible to evidence? Here, we’ll find that at least there is something interesting to argue about when it comes to “faith-based” beliefs in gods, souls, afterlives, and alternative pictures of the universe and ultimate meaning. We’ll examine such beliefs later in our discussion. I’ve used the phrase “extra-ordinary popular beliefs” in order to distinguish them from some extra-ordinary scientific beliefs. Here, I’m thinking of Albert Einstein’s ideas about space and time or Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as extra-ordinary beliefs that have been supported by evidence from scientific experiments and investigations. We’ll also look at some of these extra-ordinary scientific beliefs, especially evolution, later on.


1) Astrology

Although different astrologers make various claims about what exactly astrology is, the basic idea is that the position of the sun, moon and planets at the moment of our birth somehow affects our personalities, careers, love-lives, health, and financial well-being, both long-term and on a daily basis. In its simplest version — found in daily newspaper horoscopes — everybody is categorized as being in one of twelve possible “sun signs,” and the horoscope then predicts the sort of day that will be experienced by some 500 million people in each of the zodiac signs. If that seems too naïve and primitive to be believable, there are far more sophisticated versions of astrology in which each individual’s “chart” is drawn up, based on the specific moment and location of birth.

The big question is, What makes us think that the conjunction of the stars has an effect on our lives? (We’ll leave aside the further questions of what the specific effects might be, and how an astrologer might know what they are.) We have extensive, though certainly not complete, scientific knowledge about how the force of gravity works in the universe, or how the moon’s gravity affects the tides on earth. Astrology seems to suggest that the conjunction of various astronomical bodies produces a similar “force” which shapes human lives. That there are real forces in the universe lends plausibility to the idea that there may be other cosmic forces that we don’t know about. So far, though, we have no positive evidence of the existence of astrological forces, and even some astrologers answer the question, How does astrology work?, by frankly admitting, “The fact is that we do not know how astrology works.” Although there is a great deal of confusing discussion, or what might be called celestial dancing, around this question, I’m afraid that there isn’t a lot more to say about the theoretical basis of astrology other than, Nobody has the faintest idea.(16)

However, another more promising possibility is that we can work from the alleged consequences or effects of the stars in order to establish that there’s something to the theory of astrology. So, if it turns out that astrological predictions have a high success rate, or that people born at the same time and place have very similar personalities and life experiences, that would provide evidence that something seems to be going on that is rather extraordinary.

Several discussions of astrological results focus on “time twins” as a definitive test of astrology. Time twins are people born at roughly the same time and in the same place, but are not genetically related. If, as astrology claims, people born at a particular moment and in a particular place will have particular traits, then time twins should be much more alike than is predictable by sheer chance.(17)

One examination of the time twins question, by Geoffrey Dean and Ivan Kelly, reports on a study, originally done for other than astrological purposes, involving 2,101 persons born in London, England during March 3-9, 1958. They were born on average less than 5 minutes apart. Further, they were all measured at ages 11, 16 and 23 for a variety of psychological and physical traits, including test scores for IQ, reading and arithmetic; teacher and parent ratings of behaviour such as anxiety, aggressiveness and sociability; physical data; and a variety of other self-ratings and more or less objective tests related to life traits.

Here, if anywhere, we should expect to find “really exceptional similarities of life and temperament,” as one astrologer put it. “The test conditions could hardly have been more conducive to success,” the essay’s authors, Dean and Kelly, remark. “But the results are uniformly negative,” they report.

When all of the time twins were examined, the astrologically predicted similarities just weren’t there. That is, though these people had very similar birth charts, they turned out to be very different people whose shared personality traits and similar life experiences amounted to no more than might be expected by mathematical chance. The facts available to the researchers were the similarity of astrological conjunctions and the actual character traits and experiences of the people being studied. There was no match. The study discovered absolutely no evidence suggesting that the conjunction of heavenly bodies at birth had any effect on people’s lives. And there has been no subsequent scientific test indicating otherwise. For now, then, the most famous anti-astrological remark in literature, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, stills holds true: “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.”(18)


2) Psychic Powers

The claim to possess psychic powers takes many forms. Some psychics claim to be able to predict the future, others say they can read minds or contact the dead, and still others claim “kinetic” psychic powers such as the ability to locate missing objects, bend spoons or to see while blindfolded.

As we’ve done with other extraordinary beliefs, let’s begin with a relatively simple claim. In 2002, a 10-year-old Russian immigrant to the United States named Natalia, accompanied by her mother, her lawyer, and her psychic powers coach, attempted to win the million dollar prize offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation to anyone able to demonstrate paranormal, supernatural or occult powers.(19)

Natalia’s alleged psychic power was the ability to both read and to discern colours, despite her eyes being covered with a black, sponge- rubber, blindfold. During an initial trial, the blindfolded Natalia was presented with a series of cards, each imprinted with a word, and sheets of coloured paper. “Natalia strained, turning her head from side to side… occasionally rubbing her chin against one shoulder or the other, and calling out words and colors,” reported Leon Jaroff, “The Skeptical Eye” columnist of Time magazine. She got them all right.

Now it was James Randi’s turn to test Natalia. Randi is a professional stage magician who also works as an independent researcher, investigating and debunking paranormal claims. He first began receiving wide attention in the 1970s when he appeared on popular television programs and challenged the claims of a then much-publicized psychic named Uri Geller, who gave frequent public demonstrations of his alleged ability to bend spoons through sheer mental powers. However, once in a situation where his fellow magician, Randi, could set and examine the circumstances of the demonstration, Geller’s powers quickly failed him, and his reputation as a psychic eventually declined. By contrast, the “Amazing Randi,” the magician who decided to dispell rather than create illusions, built an educational foundation that eventually offered the “Million Dollar Challenge” to would-be psychics.

In the case of Natalia, Randi outfitted the girl with a pair of swimmer’s goggles, the lenses blocked by sponge rubber and aluminum foil. Once more, the blindfolded Natalia was shown the cards and coloured sheets of paper. Again, she passed the test with flying colours. For a final test, Randi placed duct tape around the edges of the blindfold, “taking care to place an extra strip across the bridge of Natalia’s nose.” He instructed the girl not to rub or pull on her face, actions that might loosen the masking tape. “Suddenly, Natalia’s powers vanished… After more than an hour, her lawyer conceded defeat.”

Randi’s account of Natalia’s earlier successes was hardly rocket science, or even sophisticated magic. As columnist Jaroff reported, “He had noticed an unusual concavity in the bridge of her nose and discerned, from the sideways turning of her head, that she was using her right eye to look left — or the left to look right — through tiny, hairline gaps between her blindfold and her distinctive nose.” Photos of Natalia’s “distinctive nose” subsequently appeared on Randi’s website.

Though the deception in this case appears ridiculously simple, Randi and other investigators report that a remarkable number of extraordinary claims turn out to be no more complex than the one exposed here. They are relatively easy to explain and debunk. One important thing to remember about these kinds of psychic power claims is that if the claim if true then there must exist certain forces, energies, or brainwaves that we hitherto hadn’t known about, or if the claim isn’t true, the appearance of an apparent psychic power must be an illusion or trick of some sort.

One of the more popular and spectacular claims of alleged extraordinary mental powers comes in the form of “psychic detectives.” Indeed, psychic detectives tend to be a staple of television programs about paranormal phenomena. Such programs as NBC television’s Medium and Court TV’s Psychic Detectives invariably claim that the episodes they present are “based on” real-life psychic detectives. “Yet a close examination of psychic detectives,” says Skeptical Inquirer writer Benjamin Radford, “suggests they are better at finding publicity than missing persons.”(20)

Radford provides a brief survey of prominent, at-the-time current, missing person cases in which dozens of psychics offered tips, none of which led to the discovery of the missing person. He concludes, “Despite repeated claims to the contrary, there is not a single documented case of a missing person being found or recovered due solely to psychic information.” However, even such seemingly definitive statements leave some wiggle room. Characteristically, in discussions with people inclined to believe in the abilities of psychics to locate the body, the believer will cite, in the face of negative counter-claims, a relatively obscure case, and discussion participants are then drawn into the search, or wild goose chase — not for bodies, but for confirmational evidence and documents.

Leaving aside the often obsessionally-detailed squabbles about particular cases, a few common sense ideas emerge from the broader question about the reality of psychic detectives. If such powers exist, one feature of them is that they are apparently not consistent or reliable enough that law enforcement agencies hire psychics to find bodies that the police are unable to find. There is no evidence to date that psychics are on police payrolls anywhere in North America, nor has there been substantiated documentation of cases successfully cracked by psychics. Since police really do want to find the body, the fact that they don’t use psychic detectives provides a piece of negative evidence suggesting that such powers don’t exist or have not, to date, been substantiated.

Given the available evidence, even believers in psychic detective powers would have to concede that such powers are intermittent and not particularly reliable. Perhaps a more impressive fact about psychics generally is that gambling casinos in major gambling centres do not bar psychics from their premises, whereas they are reported to be distinctly wary about customers with advanced degrees in mathematics. Psychic detectives seem to have most of their success on fictional and tabloid television programs.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about psychic detectives is the number of people who believe in them and the enthusiasm that commercial television has for promoting their claims. It’s easy to see how the general populace might become confused if reputable news and commentary shows mix legitimate public issue interviews with paranormal performances. As it happens, various television interviewers frequently provide air time for such psychics to demonstrate their claims. Added to fictional programs “based on true-life events,” such psychic reality performances can have a significant impact on ordinary television viewers. Certainly, one general philosophic point suggested by this widespread urge to believe in paranormal phenomena is that people find insufficient meaning in their everyday lives and are eager to supplement their ideas about the meaning of life with belief in extraordinary claims.(21)

One final point to remember about claims to psychic powers is that while we’re naturally interested in how the psychics “do it,” i.e., how they produce believable performances, our initial interest is focused on the philosophical presuppositions necessary for there to be the possibility of an extraordinary power. For example, there are several psychics who claim to be in contact and communication with the dead, and they often provide spectacular and emotional demonstrations of their skills.

But even before deciding whether their performances are based on special powers or psychological techniques and tricks, we first have to consider whether the exercise of such purported powers is even possible. We know, or at least have strong evidence to support the belief, that many people are dead. But what we don’t know is whether the dead are, in some sense, “still there,” and available to be contacted. Yet that’s the presumption that must be accepted to lend credibility to psychics who claim to receive messages from the dead.

The extraordinary claim here is not only that the psychic has the power to communicate with the dead, but that the dead “exist” in some realm, and are in possession of some coherent form of consciousness with which they’re able to communicate to psychics, but apparently not directly to their loved ones. Similarly, even the basic claim by many psychics to be able to foretell events in the future presupposes that future events are sufficiently determined in advance that somebody with special powers is able to foresee them. Such a power would be an order of magnitude beyond the mundane ability to make predictions based on, say, statistical probabilities or knowledge that leads to prescient insights. While people deeply skeptical of psychic claims tend to regard them as preposterous, such claims are not philosophically trivial. What they propose, philosophically, is that “reality” is quite different from what it appears to be, and that it is governed by forces and laws to which only a select group of people with special skills and powers have access.


3) Alternative Medicine

Perhaps the largest number of extraordinary claims is related to medical and nutritional issues. The claims range from cures for major and frequently terminal illnesses, such as cancer, to various remedies for an array of ailments, from the latest fad diet for reducing obesity to the use of glucosamine to alleviate arthritis. In between these extremes on the spectrum are such alternative medicinal techniques as therapeutic touch, homeopathy, acupuncture, and psychic surgery.

There are two good reasons that explain why belief in alternative medical regimes is so widespread, and invariably ranks high in polls measuring extraordinary beliefs. First, there are clearly connections between the “mental” processes and “physical” phenomena occurring in any person, and our understanding of those relations is still minimal. Anyone who has consumed sufficient quantities of alcohol or drugs on occasion is aware that these physical substances produce extraordinary effects on one’s thoughts and perceptual apparatus. Conversely, various mental conditions, such as severe depression, appear to have physical consequences for those afflicted. I put both terms, “mental” and “physical,” in quotes because the very meaning of both concepts is still up for philosophical debate. Second, and related, medical and nutritional knowledge is relatively unstable and constantly in a state of development. It is not surprising then that suggestions for medical treatments are made and even tested by people outside the formal, existing, scientific medical research communities. Indeed, there is a long tradition of so-called “folk remedies,” and some of them actually work. Further, since human and other animal bodies have considerable self-recuperative powers, and because some of those restorative capacities may have something to do with mental processes, it is often difficult to test whether a particular medical treatment, mainstream or alternative, really works, or whether a recovery is due to other, unknown factors.

What is fairly clear, in the midst of all the confusion, is that some extraordinary claims about medicine are false, unsubstantiated, and sometimes dangerous. Again, let’s begin with something relatively simple. “Therapeutic touch,” explains Dr. Stephen Barrett, is a curative method “in which the hands are used to ‘direct human energies to help or heal someone who is ill.’ Proponents claim that the patient’s ‘energy field’ can be detected and intentionally manipulated by the therapist.” Therapists engage in such activities as “assessment,” which is performed by “using one’s hands to detect forces emanating from the patient”; “unruffling the field,” a practice that involves sweeping “stagnant energy” away; and transfer of healing “energy” from practitioner to patient. The notion of therapeutic touch was developed in the 1970s, but its conceptual roots go back to the 18th century theories of Anton Mesmer, whose “mesmerism” postulated the existence of a “magnetic fluid” or “magnetic force” in human bodies, whose blockage caused illnesses, and which could be remedied by skilled healers or “sensitives” passing their hands over patients. The notion was revived in the 19th century by an occult religion known as Theosophy, whose metaphysical concepts underlie many current 21st century “New Age” ideas and cults.(22)

Despite its dubious heritage, therapeutic touch (TT) has enjoyed remarkable success, with thousands of people worldwide, including many health care professionals, having been trained in TT techniques. Furthermore, TT techniques have been reportedly adopted by numerous medical institutions, including clinics and hospitals. Yet, argues Barrett, “there is no scientific evidence that the ‘energy transfer’ postulated by proponents actually occurs,” nor is there evidence substantiating any of the other conceptual claims of the TT technique, from the assertions of the properties of alleged energy fields to the existence of persons with special powers or training to detect and manipulate such fields.

In the late-1990s, a registered nurse, Linda Rosa, with the help of her pre-teen daughter, Emily, and Dr. Barrett, designed a ludicrously simple experiment to test some of the claims of therapeutic touch. Since TT therapists were presumably sensitive to energy fields which they detected by using their hands (no claims were made that such detection required visual cues), Rosa’s daughter conducted an experiment to determine whether practitioners could detect one of her hands near theirs. Each of more than 20 TT therapists was tested 10 to 20 times. The therapists rested their forearms and hands, palms up, on a flat surface. Rosa’s daughter then hovered her hand, palm down, a few centimetres above one of the subject’s palms. A cardboard screen was used to prevent the therapists from seeing which hand was selected. As the test was designed to show, perhaps a bit mischievously, it ought to have been “child’s play” for a trained TT therapist to identify the presence of a human energy field.

The TT therapists correctly located the child’s hand only slightly better than 44 per cent of the time in over 275 trials, “which is no better than would be expected by guessing,” Barrett remarks. The results of the experiment were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 1998. Although some 80,000 practitioners of therapeutic touch in the U.S. claim to have the ability to detect and manipulate human energy fields, to date none have come forward to demonstrate that ability under scientific test conditions that would allow them to claim the one million dollar prize offered by the Randi Foundation.(23)

Let’s now examine a more complicated medical claim. One area of social-psychological research that neatly illustrates the confusion to be found in extraordinary medical claims has to do with cancer patients and whether or not positive thinking and supporting techniques help people with cancer to live longer or reduce the chances of the disease returning.

“The notion that cancer patients could improve their outcomes through a sunny outlook,” reported science writer Adam Marcus in a 2002 article, “gained momentum from a 1989 study that suggested women with advanced breast tumors lived longer if they attended support groups.” The study, whose statistics were later challenged, and whose findings were never subsequently replicated, nonetheless sparked a surge of interest in such support groups, and many medical facilities instituted programs for cancer patients that included support group participation and training in various attitudinal improving techniques such as meditation and so-called “visualization” exercises.(24)

Underlying this theory are various ideas about the relation of mental activities to “physical” conditions, such as cancer. If the theory is true, it would certainly have important philosophical implications for our understanding of how minds and bodies work. At its most extreme, and perhaps cruelest, there’s the suggestion that somehow, through our personalities and beliefs, we “cause” our own cancers, that the victims of cancer are themselves responsible for their affliction. As far as is known, there’s no actual evidence for this suggestion. But within such a theory, there’s a sort of logic to such suggestions since, if you can improve your cancerous condition through positive attitudes, then wouldn’t negative attitudes have the effect of diminishing your life chances? At a more benign level, the theory suggests that there is a direct connection between our mental attitudes and the progress of a cancer condition, and the claim is that the adoption of appropriate attitudes will affect, slow, or perhaps eliminate the cancer itself.

One conceptual point that has to be immediately clarified here is the difference between “how you feel about your condition,” and the condition itself. Assuming that feeling “good” while afflicted with a serious or perhaps terminal medical condition is preferable to feeling anxious, depressed or hopeless about your situation, one can see the point of participating in activities or techniques that make you feel better. So, the argument that experiencing cheerfulness in the face of grim circumstances is a good in itself may be plausible, but that’s quite distinct from the claim that experiencing cheerfulness in the face of cancer will affect the outcome of your condition. That is, there’s a difference between “quality of life” improved by positive attitudes, and the duration of one’s life. It’s important to see that these are two different things because it is the blurring of this distinction that is the basis for the extraordinary medical belief that attitudes affect cancer outcomes.

In 2002, a team from the University of Glasgow published in the British Medical Journal a “new review of more than two dozen studies looking at the question of how, if at all, mental state affects the mortality of cancer patients and the recurrence of their disease.” The result? “The power of positive thinking might improve your outlook on life, but it won’t improve your outcome if you have cancer” is the way health reporter Marcus summed up the findings. The study found that there was no evidence that people with positive attitudes, or who engaged in outlook-improving activities, lived longer than people without such attitudes, or that they suffered less recurrence of cancer. One of the points made by the study, according to Mark Petticrew, a psychologist on the University of Glasgow team, is that “cancer patients feel pressure to always have a positive outlook, to put on a particular front. There may be good reasons for doing that, but it’s not going to affect survival.”

A subsequent 2004 Australian study of patients with advanced lung cancer confirmed the Glasgow findings. As psychiatrist Jimmie Holland of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center said about the Australian findings, “This is a very important study because there is an expectation on cancer patients that they need to be positive or their tumor will grow faster –- and that’s just nuts. The idea that if you’re not an optimist, you’re not going to do as well with this disease is just wrong, and it’s a terrible thing to lay on people.”

The reason for examining these studies about attitudes and cancer is that it points up some of the difficulties and confusions in evaluating extraordinary medical beliefs. This is particularly true in situations where the claim contains a grain of truth or a certain kind of plausibility, as in the case of cancer. After all, people with positive attitudes may be more inclined to follow prescribed medical regimes, which may have positive affects on the progression of cancer, and their engagement in healthy exercise or stopping smoking may have some positive effect on the quality of their lives. But there’s a difference between these effects, and the claim that positive attitudes in themselves affect tumor development. As far as we know, they don’t.

I don’t want to leave the impression that all “alternative” medical claims are simply or mainly false. One popular set of remedies for ailments that is mainly outside established medical practice is known as “nutraceuticals.” Nutraceuticals are various substances that occur in nature, and are packaged as “dietary supplements” and “herbal remedies,” and are claimed to improve or cure common diseases. The nutraceutical industry, although generally unregulated, seldom scientifically tested, and whose products are available for purchase without a prescription, is a multi-billion dollar business.

One medical condition that has attracted considerable attention since the late-1990s is osteoarthritis (OA), the most widespread form of arthritis. According to Stephen Barrett, “It’s a degenerative disease of the joints,” and although it sometimes causes acute inflammation, “it is most commonly a ‘wear-and-tear’ disease involving degeneration of joint cartilege and formation of bony spurs within various joints.” It mainly affects elderly people, and according to recent U.S. statistics, some 16 million OA sufferers require medical care. “The main goal of treatment is to relieve pain,” Barrett notes, and the established drug of choice is the pain-killer acetaminophen, although there are classes of other drugs that are also prescribed.(25)

In recent years, Barrett reports, “glucosamine and chondroitin have been widely promoted as a treatment for OA” by the nutraceuticals industry. The claim is that glucosamine, an amino sugar, promotes formation and repair of cartilege, and that chondroitin, a carbohydrate, is a cartilege component, thought to promote water retention and elasticity and to inhibit the enzymes that break down cartilege. Both of these substances are naturally produced by the human body. Glucosamine supplements sold as nutraceutical remedies are derived from shellfish shells, and chondroitin supplements are generally made from cow cartilege. The interesting social feature of glucosamine use is that it wasn’t the result of a mainstream scientific discovery, but based on the reports of non-establishment medical practitioners, advertising, and word-of-mouth testimonials by people who had tried it.

Eventually, scientific researchers became interested in the glucosamine claims, and conducted a 3-year clinical trial involving over 200 people who took either glucosamine or a placebo. A placebo is a substance (in this case a pill resembling the glucosamine pills) without any known medical or nutritional properties, but which prevents a subject in such an experiment from knowing which substance he or she is taking. Often, the researchers restrict their own knowledge of who’s taking what until the results stage of the experiment, and such procedures are known as “double-blind” tests, and intended to prevent “contamination” of the information being developed in the study. The results of the study were published in a leading British medical journal, The Lancet, in 2001.

The researchers found that arthritis symptoms improved a significant 20-25 per cent in the group taking glucosamine, but worsened slightly in the placebo group. Further, as Barrett reports, “X-ray examinations showed that serious narrowing of the knee-joint space –- a sign of progression of the disease –- occurred in only half as many patients taking glucosamine as in those receiving the placebo.” Similar results were obtained in controlled studies of patients taking chondroitin. Now, there have also been some subsequent studies questioning and challenging the test data and claims, and of course, the positive findings in the case of glucosamine aren’t to be generalized to other substances and claims that have not been substantiated. However, the point here is that a remedy developed outside mainstream, established medical and scientific channels, has been shown, as Barrett says, “to relieve arthritis pain and stiffness with fewer side effects than conventional arthritis drugs.”

The glucosamine case demonstrates two things that we’re interested in. First, extraordinary claims and beliefs sometimes turn out to be true and, second, the best way we can find out if extraordinary claims are true is by testing them through standard knowledge-producing scientific methods. In the case of extraordinary medical claims, the argument is often made that since individuals are unique and respond uniquely to various substances, there is no way of making a general determination of what substance works for whom. By now, I hope, this will be seen to be a weak argument designed to avoid agreed-upon standards of determining what substance medically “works.” As we’ve seen in the development of literally hundreds of drugs and treatments, the very idea of a substance “working” means that it produces positive, measurable effects for a broad range of people, if not necessarily everyone.


4) Can we skip the zombies?

Perhaps, by now, we have established the argument about the general dubiousness of extraordinary beliefs and claims, and the ways to go about judging such beliefs, and do not need to provide an exhaustive demonstration that examines all the extraordinary beliefs that people hold. If so, perhaps we can skip the zombies and move directly to a brief summary of where we’ve gotten so far, and where we ought to go next in thinking about reality and knowledge. Zombies, by the way, for those readers insistent on knowing, are allegedly revived dead bodies without souls or consciousness, who can perform actions controlled by sorcerers who use the zombie as a kind of slave. They supposedly turn up in the magical practices of voodoo religions. There’s also a second kind of zombie, the “philosophical zombie” or “p-zombie.” P-zombies are fictional creations of philosophers doing “thought experiments,” and the idea is to imagine a human body without consciousness that would nonetheless behave like a human being with consciousness. The point of the thought experiment is to figure out something about consciousness and how we can identify it. While p-zombies may turn up in our subsequent discussion of minds and brains, and while some philosophy teachers sometimes believe that some of their students are p-zombies (and vice-versa if the teacher’s lectures are consistently boring), for now, I think, we can leave the zombies to grade-B horror movies.(26)

So, where are we in our introductory discussion of questions about reality and knowledge? First, there are a great many extraordinary beliefs about what is real, and those beliefs are held by a surprisingly large number of people, even in industrially highly developed, and intellectually sophisticated societies. The beliefs range from convictions about the existence of a God or gods to being persuaded that aliens have landed on the earth. They include less momentous beliefs about everything from psychic powers to unconventional medical treatments, and the entertainment of such urban and rural legends as the continued existence of now dead public figures, like Elvis Presley.

Second, leaving aside questions about the reality of god, human souls, and what happens to us after we’re dead (all of which we’ll take up later in our discussion), it turns out that many, if not most, extraordinary beliefs are unsubstantiated, implausible, and likely false. It’s false that “Elvis lives,” that “Heaven’s Gate” was anything other than an insane cult, that psychic powers have been proven to exist, that there are magic cures for cancer that the medical and scientific communities are malevolently keeping from the public, or that the aliens have landed. At least, all of those things are false as far as we know, and we have no good reason to think otherwise. Third, determining whether something is true or false, is real or non-existent, requires that we examine our ideas of belief and knowledge. Just from the examples we’ve looked at so far, it becomes clear that things like “facts” and “evidence,” and procedures of “logic” and “reasoning” are of vital interest to thinking people. That last implied question, “How do we know (something)?” points us in the direction that we ought to be headed in order to figure out what is real.

We want to know what the status is of our ordinary, rather than extraordinary, beliefs about the existence of tables, chairs, trees, and other people. We’ll also want to more generally examine what it is to know something, which will mean thinking about knowledge, logic, and philosophical arguments. Finally, in terms of next steps, we’ll want to assess what we, as human beings, know about ourselves and the universe. And since what we know, and our degree of certainty about our knowledge, is a historical development, we’ll also be finding ourselves asking some questions about how knowledge accumulates in time and how reliable it is. Once we have a somewhat securer sense about how and what we know, we’ll be able to turn to a range of broader questions, such as, “Who are we?” as human beings, and “Who am I?” in terms of individual identity, as well as larger metaphysical issues about gods and universal purposes, and ways of thinking about what, at least, some of it means.



(1) Most philosophy books pay very little attention to what I’m calling extraordinary beliefs, even though such beliefs are pervasive in North American society, and elsewhere. Since so many people have a view of reality that includes such beliefs, and since philosophy is interested in reality, you’d think that philosophers would spend some time examining whether or not such beliefs are true. Further, given that we’ve been living in a period, since at least the last third of the 20th century, that might be described as one of “global spiritual and/or religious revivalism,” it might be thought that such a situation would provide additional impetus for philosophers to engage in “critical thinking” exercises with respect to extraordinary beliefs. Yet, there’s little evidence that philosophers have addressed this matter in recent decades, and certainly not in introductory philosophical primers. Perhaps one of the reasons that philosophers give scant attention to such beliefs is because few philosophers hold those beliefs themselves. As well, philosophers may believe that “sophisticated” people regard such claims as preposterous, and don’t need to be persuaded of their falsity. But given that so many people do have such beliefs, it seems contemptuous of philosophers not to examine those beliefs simply because the philosophers think those beliefs are false. Perhaps some other philosophers feel that challenging such beliefs is too controversial or offensive to believers. Both of those possible motives strike me as bad reasons for inattention. The examination of such beliefs not only lead to the establishment of philosophical criteria for broader issues about “reality,” but also raise important and practical related questions, outside of philosophy, about the sociology of education and epistemology.

(2) Gallup results for its 2001 poll on paranormal beliefs is reported, among other places, on www.miraclestv.com, the 2004 website of a television show called Miracles, which encourages extraordinary beliefs. See also, www.scicop.org, June 11, 2001, for commentary on the Gallup results, or search “Gallup poll, paranormal beliefs” for sites containing further details of the survey. The Gallup Organization can be found at www.gallup.com. There are dozens of such polls available, as any computer search engine inquiry shows, and they are remarkably consistent in their findings.

(3) See www.harrisinteractive.com, Humphrey Taylor, “The Religious and Other Beliefs of Americans 2003.”

(3a) Rachel Zoll, “Religious zeal sets U.S. apart from allies,” Associated Press, June 6, 2005.

(4) See The Center for Public Opinion and Democracy, “Evolution, Creationism Still Splits Views in U.S.,” Nov. 20, 2004, reporting a Gallup Poll of November 2004. A similar CBS News poll, “Creationism Trumps Evolution,” www.CBSNews.com, Nov. 22, 2004, confirmed the Gallup results.

(5) Ed Vulliamy, “The King is dead, long live the King,” The Guardian, Jan. 8, 2005.

(6) The most reputable of the many books about the life and death of Elvis Presley is Peter Guralnick’s Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (London: Abacus, 1999).

(7) However, in science, as well as philosophy, the case is never closed. So, for example, Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist at the City University of New York, is working on a theory about “parallel universes.” Professor Kaku said in a newspaper interview, “Some of these universes could look just like ours. I’ve been asked if Elvis Presley is alive in one of these parallel universes and it cannot be dismissed. Maybe Elvis Presley is still alive in a parallel universe and, as outrageous as it sounds, we physicists actively discuss these kinds of questions.” See “We are the final frontier,” The Guardian, Feb. 10, 2005.

(8) For a discussion about what the ancient Greeks believed, see Paul Veyne, Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? (University of Chicago, 1988). The issue of historical changes in beliefs, and the grounds for believing something, will become important to our later discussion about knowledge, and such beliefs as, for example, those concerning miracles at the time of the birth of Christianity.

(9) See Todd Purdum, “Tapes Left by Cult Suggest Comet Was the Sign to Die,” New York Times, March 28, 1997.

(10) Information about the beliefs of the Heaven’s Gate group is available at a variety of website sources, including Heaven’s Gate’s own website, which was accessible, as of 2005, at www.trancenet.org/heavensgate. B.A. Robinson, “Heaven’s Gate: Christian / UFO believers” (March 25, 1997) is at www.religioustolerance.org.

(11) Information about the Hale-Bopp comet is from www.sipe.com, Alan Hale, “What Are Comets?” and “Comet Hale-Bopp Facts and FAQ.” Subsequently, further research has been performed in an effort to learn more about comets by smashing a space probe into the core of a comet. The “Deep Impact” mission, as it’s known, is discussed in Paul Taylor, “Space probe strikes comet to uncover inner secrets,” The Globe and Mail, July 5, 2005.

(12) See “Red Alert” page posted on Heaven’s Gate website, March 1997, available at www.trancenet.org.

(13) Robert Roy Britt, “Hale-Bopp May Have A Satellite,” Nov. 23, 1999, www.space.com.

(14) Alan Hale, “Statement by Alan Hale on Heaven’s Gate Mass Suicide,” March 28, 1997, at www.sipe.com/halebopp, or HB Magazine at www.halebopp.com. See also Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Ballantine, 1997).

(15) David Futrelle, “How Strange Were They?”, Salon, March 28, 1997, at www.salon.com and www.rickross.com. There is also considerable information about other cults with suicidal tendencies. For example, Katherine Ramsland, “The End is Near,” at www.crimelibrary.com, discusses the 1994 suicide-murders of 52 members of a group called Solar Temple, located in Quebec, Canada and Switzerland. Many “doomsday” cults that are not suicidal have historically turned into religious groups, such as the Seventh Day Adventists. There were also offshoots of the Adventists themselves, such as the Davidians and the Branch Davidians. The latter group, led by a self-proclaimed messiah, David Koresh, was immolated at the end of a stand-off with American government agents in Waco, Texas in 1993 in which approximately 80 people died.

(16) The cited remark is from www.astrosoftware.com, a commercial firm selling computer programs dealing with astrology. The quote is taken from their website, as of Feb. 2005, in the article, “Astrology: Science or Superstition?” As always with topics of this sort, there is an over-abundance of information and disinformation. One useful source for astrology information is the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s website, www.astrosociety.org, especially Andrew Fraknoi, “Astronomical Pseudo-Science: A Skeptic’s Resource List,” Aug. 2003. One caveat to the statement that “nobody has the faintest idea” of a theoretical idea about astrology is the work of a former Plymouth University (U.K.) astronomy lecturer, who offers a theory about the effects of earth’s magnetic field in relation to human behaviour. See Percy Seymour, The Scientific Proof of Astrology (Quantum, 2004). Seymour’s book is critically reviewed by Ian Sample, “Written in the Stars,” The Guardian, May 18, 2004, and discussed by Ivan Kelly, “Proof of Astrology?”, available at www.butterfliesandwheels.com.

(17) See Geoffrey Dean and Ivan Kelly, “Is Astrology Relevant to Consciousness and Psi?”, Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 10, No. 6-7, 2003, which includes an extensive bibliography of relevant research in the field. Both Dean, an independent Australian science researcher, and Kelly, an educational psychology professor at the University of Saskatchewan, have a long involvement in critical assessment of astrological claims, and have published extensively on the subject.

(18) ibid. Of course, even a seemingly definitive examination, like the one by Dean and Kelly doesn’t close the door on the issue, nor are its methods exempt from further consideration. So, for example, Dean and Kelly rely on both standard psychological testing of traits and on sophisticated statistical analysis which measures various effects. Both the psychological tests and the notion of “effects” are open to both scientific and philosophical challenges. At the same time, the findings by Dean and Kelly represent a scientific “best-we-can-do” standard that leads us to accept their work as a measure of what we know, at least to date.

(19) The story of Natalia is reported by Leon Jaroff, “Debunking Seeing Without Sight,” Time, Feb. 6, 2002. Jaroff is one of a fairly extensive group of individuals and organizations that specialize in examining extraordinary claims and beliefs. The best known of these organizations is The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), which publishes Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and is available at their www.csicop.org website. James Randi can be found online at www.randi.org. Other useful sites include Robert T. Carroll’s The Skeptic’s Dictionary at http://skepdic.com; Michael Shermer’s www.skeptic.com, website of the Skeptics Society, which also publishes Skeptic magazine (as well, Shermer writes a regular column for Scientific American magazine which can also be accessed at his website); and, for medical matters, Dr. Stephen Barrett’s website, www.quackwatch.org. The Skeptics Canada organization’s website is www.skeptics.ca. All of these are, in my view, reliable sources to go to for information regarding the whole range of paranormal claims. Almost needless to say, this limited group of reputable researchers is vastly outnumbered and often financially out-powered by an array of hundreds of companies, organizations, publications and websites promoting extraordinary claims, beliefs and products.

(20) Benjamin Radford, “Despite Popularity, Psychic Detectives Fail to Perform,” Skeptical Inquirer, Feb. 4, 2005.

(21) One of several studies on the relationship between holding paranormal beliefs and watching television programs that reinforce those beliefs is described in “Never seen a ghost? Then TV may be your teacher,” Purdue News, Oct. 17, 1997, available at www.purdue.edu. See also, Glenn Sparks, “The Relationship Between Paranormal Beliefs and Religious Beliefs,” Skeptical Inquirer, Sept. 2001.

(22) Stephen Barrett, “Therapeutic Touch,” Jan. 4, 2000, at www.quackwatch.org.

(23) Rosa, L., Rosa, E., Sarner, L., Barrett, S., “A Close Look at Therapeutic Touch,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 279: 1000-1010, 1998.

(24) Adam Marcus, “Sunny Outlook Won’t Add Days with Cancer,” Health on the Net Foundation, Nov. 7, 2002, at www.hon.ch. (The HON Foundation is a non-governmental organization that has consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.) See also, Sid Kirchheimer, “Attitude Doesn’t Affect Cancer Survival,” WebMD, Feb. 9, 2004, at http://my.webmd.com, which reports on further studies supporting the claims in Marcus.

(25) Stephen Barrett, “Glucosamine for Arthritis,” Jan. 23, 2002, at www.quackwatch.org. See also, Reginster, J.Y. et al., “Long-term effects of glucosamine sulfate on osteoarthritis progression: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial,” The Lancet, 357:251-256, 2001.

(26) See Robert Carroll, “Zombies and P-Zombies,” The Skeptic’s Dictionary, at http://skepdic.com.

Berlin, July 8, 2005. Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in N. Vancouver, B.C. This chapter is from a manuscript-in-progress titled “What Does Some of It Mean?” 


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

Posted in:

More from Stan Persky: