Saturday, 5 November 2011

Extraordinary claims, extraordinary evidence, psychic dreams


"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence".

This is only true when the claim really is extraordinary. 

And the criterion of extraordinary ought to be that of common sense - the wisdom of the ages - extraordinary cannot be defined by whatever weird beliefs Westerners of 2011 have been filled-with.


This phrase "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"is attributed to Carl Sagan - which is hardly any kind of recommendation for its validity in my book - but it is a common, near-universal, rhetorical move used by people to dismiss claims that they want to dismiss. 

It is a standard method of 'debunking'. 


Let's think of one extraordinary claim, as it is perceived to be in mainstream modern discourse: 'psychic dreams'.

I mean dreams that mean something more than having reference to personal psychology and physiology - especially dreams that foretell future events or provide knowledge of remote or inaccessible matters.

Does the claim that there really are psychic dreams count as extraordinary, such that it should not be believed without extraordinary evidence?


1. Every child apparently believes in psychic dreams. Such a belief is apparently spontaneous.

2. All of the hunter-gatherer, nomadic tribes I have ever read about seem to regard psychic dreams as not just real but very important for tribal well being - having and interpreting such dreams may be the role of the 'shaman'.

3. Educated intellectuals in, say, medieval Europe, seemed to believe in psychic dreams. For instance, Chaucer did, and wrote about little else. Langland's great poem Piers Plowman is also structured as a series of symbolic and insightful dreams.

4. JRR Tolkien, C.S Lewis and some of the Inklings believed in psychic dreams and were indeed fascinated by them - as I have documented on this blog and the Notion Club Paper's blog.


5. A lot of modern people in modern societies actually do believe in psychic dreams, as I see from a recent article by Erlendur Haraldsson in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (2011; 75: 76-90).

In Iceland 36% men and 41% women (30% of university graduates) report having had experience of psychic dreams. This proportion rose between 1974 and 2006.

In terms of attitudes, 30% Icelanders thought psychic dreams were likely, a further 26 percent thought they were certain - more than half the population.

In other countries, 40 percent of people in Virginia USA reported experiencing psychic dreams, 35% of people in the UK said they believed in psychic dreams.


So it seems that most people of most types in most places seem to believe in the reality of psychic dreams, and even in modern societies at least a quarter of people still do.

So, why are psychic dreams counted as extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence?

(In practice, to state this about psychic dreams means that there is nothing which would ever be enough to convince the skeptic of the reality of psychic dreams.)


The matter of psychic dreams is important because it shows how a common sense belief, a universal and cross-cultural human belief, and what is more a belief held by some of the most intelligent and able people in history, can be framed by mainstream modern discourse as being so utterly extraordinary that there is no point in considering the evidence of the matter since any evidence is certain to be insufficiently extraordinary.

Vast areas of basic human conviction and experience are eliminated from mainstream public discourse by this method: once a belief has been labelled extraordinary, then that belief becomes intrinsically and irrevocably absurd such that only stupid or evil people could hold it.

The knowledge and experience and wisdom of the ages - matters we all used to know as children - matters which in fact are believed by a quarter or half the population - become (sometimes quite suddenly) excluded from all serious consideration.


Yet the truly extraordinary claims - extraordinary claims made by the intellectual elite concerning matters of the greatest human import such as morality, beauty and the nature of truth; matters of vital fact - such extraordinary claims distinctive to the Leftist rulers rapidly are progress from oddball hypotheses, to careerist intellectual fashions, then to become not merely accepted in public discourse, but positively encouraged, subsidized and rewarded, then ruthlessly enforced...

This is the actual nature of skepticism in modernity.

The official skeptic makes a big display of gagging and spitting on ideas such as psychic dreams which are human universals, then effortlessly swallows great draughts of socially-approved poisonous, nihilistic drivel.



ajb said...

"So, why are psychic dreams counted as extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence?"

It's extraordinary given someone like Sagan's theories about how the world work. Sagan is smarter and better informed than most people. Therefore, it's Sagan's theories that matter when evaluating phenomena like this.

(Or something like that.)

To the extent that there is something to explain, it is how to explain that something *seems to* be the case.

HenryOrientJnr said...

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" seems like simple common sense to me. Indeed, if more people took this idea to heart, political correctness wouldn't stand a chance.

Isn't this really at the heart of what true science is about? If someone makes a claim that is at variance with the established theories, they should be required to work extremely hard to overturn them, since the established theories have proved themselves useful up till now. In essence, this is a conservative statement.

The statistics you cite on the percentage of people who believe in psychic dreams are not convincing to me anymore than the statistics on the number of people in Britain who think that multiculturalism or the euro are great ideas makes me want to change my opinion about them.

"Psychic" dreams may be interesting and they may be revealing, but to posit that they are factually extrasensory or precognitive is an extraordinary claim in my book.


I am enjoying reading the final version of "Thought Prison". The part about PC's tactical use of multiculturalism as a weapon against culture in general is brilliant. Diversity for this crowd actually works out in practice to mean total conformity.

The Crow said...

As they say: "You couldn't make it up".

Psychic dreams are a reality, at least in my world:
Finding myself in the middle of a hurricane, that would shortly vaporize my trimaran, and almost vaporize me, along with it, I became aware of a dream, six months before, that laid out, in great detail, the very events I was then living through.
Knowing how it would end was probably instrumental in my survival.

Bruce Charlton said...

@HOJ - thanks for the kind words about TP.

The whole thing hinges on what counts as extraordinary, and who gets to define it and on what grounds.

In the science I know best, medical research, established ideas are often the product of (pharamaceutical) marketing, not science.

And other established ideas are sometimes created and more often sustained by cash infusions (eg from government) - the fact they have zero scientific validity becomes irrelevant since the money pump creates status.

Another example - the plain and obvious fact that both general intelligence and personality vary, are predictive, and are substantially inherited - is now treated as an extraordinary claim - for political reasons.

So, if ideas are truly extraordinary that is one thing, but in real life what is treated as extraordinary may be the plain and obvious truth.

And many 'parapsychological' phenomena ought to be treated not as extraordinary but as 'ordinary' matters of experience - like love.

dearieme said...

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence".

Such baby-talk. Do interesting claims require interesting evidence, florid claims florid evidence?

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful post.

I note that almost every human culture has recorded encounters with ghosts - the spirits of the dead.

I personally encourage living people to talk to ghosts, and I claim that such conversations are not necessarily heretical.

I am reminded of the findings of the Church:
The Congregation of the Inquisition, 25 June, 1840, decreed:

Where all error, sorcery, and invocation of the demon, implicit or explicit, is excluded, the mere use of physical means which are otherwise lawful, is not morally forbidden, provided it does not aim at unlawful or evil results.

See also:

Wurmbrand said...

The prejudice against the paranormal that you describe, Dr. Charlton, has lost much ground with ordinary people, and I believe is losing ground with the elites, too. Increasingly, what Christians will have to contend with, I suspect, will not be materialism, but a "Therian spirituality." "Therian"=of the Beast, i.e. false religion. There's a rather good little book by a pastor named Baue called The Spiritual Society

that discusses reasons why this change is evidently occurring, drawing on the thought of the sociologist Pitirim Sorokin. But never mind that; isn't this outlook what we find in Seraphim Rose's book about Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - "isn't this outlook what we find in Seraphim Rose's book about Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future?"

Yes indeed it is.

This is *Neo*-paganism - a modern belief in the inevitable goodness of spiritual experience - or, at least, that it is easy to control spiritual experience so that it benign if you want to to be.

The Neo-pagan expectation is that if that your intentions are good in seeking advanced spiritual experience, if you are a 'good person' (as if there were many of those!) then so will be the outcome.

The problem is, of course, that it is so very *seldom* that intentions are good - good intentions (based on Love, Humility, Worship) - these are exceedingly rare in the world of today.

Modern intentions are almost universally seeking of power, pride and pleasure.

When these are the intent, any spiritual or religious experience will almost certainly be an Evil one - bolstering of *self*-worship.

Lisa said...

This is a interesting perspective on the extraordinary claim.

As an experiment, we should tell someone with this extraordinary view of prophetic dreams that his/her memories are really supernatural phenomena and see if they can provide extraordinary evidence to prove their memories are real.

I suspect that might prove to be quite the task.

Prophetic dreams are a can of worms though as the mechanism for how they work is unknown.

I'm with you on their commonplace occurrence though. I don't view matching dreams as anything but normal.