Derren Brown is investigating supernatural phenomena in a miniseries of documentaries called Derren Brown Investigates. He wrote a great blog post to introduce the show, which delves into his approach and the nature and necessity of skepticism, which he defines as “reserving judgement until the evidence is weighed.” Predetermined disbelief he calls cynicism. It’s a fair point: I don’t think “cynicism” is the right word for it, but I don’t think there is a separate word for it. Both “doubt” and “disbelief” are widely called “skepticism.”
Many self-labeled skeptics follow more closely with Derren’s definition of cynicism than skepticism: they come with closed minds and attempt to tear down what in their view is impossible, improbable, or simply impermissible. Confirmation bias is present here every bit as much as in the paranormal enthusiast who collects only evidence which supports his beliefs. Both sides can benefit from a more open mind.
- Never theorize before you have data. Invariably, you end up twisting facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
What is an open mind? It is not adopting a new viewpoint merely because it is new, or because it is held by someone who is admired. It is the willingness to reserve judgment, to weigh all the evidence before forming a conclusion. And then, importantly, when new evidence is presented, to let go of that conclusion and weigh all the evidence again.
Each person should decide for him- or herself what to believe. This may be a more difficult endeavor than many people are willing to tackle; in many cases we are given a package of beliefs ready-made to hold as our own, and are even abraded if we question them. It takes courage to form our own conclusions, and to hold them in the face of the sometimes violent response which may come from those who disagree. And it takes courage not to attempt to force those conclusions on others.
In choosing what to believe, it is useful to find a comfortable balance between faith and science, since empirical evidence cannot account for every phenomenon. When faced with a generalized theory the accepted testing method is to attempt to find a counter-example. This is reasonable for philosophies which purport to explain all that is. But disproving the generalization that all spiritual practitioners are honest and truly capable of what they claim, or the one that all paranormal phenomena are real, only disproves that generalization. It does not prove the counter-generalization, that none of it is real. The truth lies somewhere in between.
- There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
Authentic, truly talented psychics do exist. I am married to one. But I wouldn’t assert that the percentage of professional psychics who are completely honest and capable of all they claim is very high. From my experience I would guess it to be rather low indeed. Nor would I claim that the true ones could give you all the answers; we must still decide for ourselves.
That said, there are reasons why paranormal experts and practitioners may be defensive about being questioned, aside from the obvious possibility that they are charlatans. Derren pointed out that it can feel like being endlessly asked pedantic questions, but there’s more to it than that. Most of the questioners do not come with the honest doubt, curiosity, and open mind he is describing, but with torches and pitchforks. My wife welcomes and enjoys honestly curious probing questions, but they are rare.
Another consideration, though, is that these things are influenced by our thoughts. First of all, the true psychic has to train herself to switch off for the duration of a reading most of the mental censorship which goes on constantly in her own mind in order to allow messages to come through. If the practitioner is not confident or practiced enough it can be difficult to do this in the face of aggressive disbelief. Often skeptics actively (if not always consciously) attempt to “psych out” the person being questioned.
In addition, the energy of “cynicism” can have an effect on the energies the practitioner is employing or observing: the attitude of the questioner can influence the results, even before confirmation bias is accounted for. In well-run scientific experiments an effort is made to control the variables in order to limit the possible reasons for variation in the results to a manageable number of factors. When studying the metaphysical, however, the character of the observation can be a significant factor which is generally overlooked.
Ultimately, for capable paranormal experts or practitioners, convincing everyone is not even a goal. They do what they do for their own reasons, and others will decide for themselves whether they believe. The world would benefit if metaphysical practitioners and all skeptics would adopt the same philosophy:
- Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.