Site Archive: Commentaries
Nine Reasons to Fear the Paranormal
A Commentary by Michael Grosso
Reprinted from The Anomalist 4
I was standing outside the doorway to the American Society for Psychical Research on Manhattan's West Side when Alex Tanous, a well- known psychic (now deceased), approached. Alex, whose eyes were dark and penetrating, apparently had the ability to leave his body at will, and was about to begin a series of experiments with Dr. Karlis Osis.
As I opened the door, Alex smiled and extended his hand. Suddenly I froze, remembering that this psychic was known for something else--an uncanny ability to foretell death. He once told me he got his most accurate death impressions when he shook somebody's hand. Hey! I thought, I don't want to shake this guy's hand. Instead I threw my arms around him, and we embraced. And as we embraced, I thought to myself in rapid succession--"I don't want to believe Alex can do any of these things!" And then, "I don't believe he can!"
I admit that at that moment I suffered a spasm of disbelief in the paranormal. The idea that Alex could leave his body at will, wormhole through space, and maybe snoop on me--worse, that he could divine the onset of death (possibly my death)--left me feeling extremely uncomfortable. In his presence I felt exposed, stripped bare, an uneasy loss of privacy; I felt, in a way, out of control, the victim of an inscrutable power. So I became an instant skeptic, clouded by fear, stiffened with disbelief.
But my experience helped me understand why some people might be repelled and, in fact, sincerely afraid of the paranormal. If they are, I can't really blame them. I can think of more than one good reason to be afraid of the stuff. There is plenty to fear, plenty about the paranormal to induce feelings of uneasiness. All in all, I reckon on nine reasons.
Ray Hyman, a stalwart crusader for Western rationality who likes to play St. George to the Psychic Dragon, is a psychologist from the University of Oregon. Hyman once wrote: "Belief in paranormal phenomena is still growing, and the dangers to our society are real." He urges everyone to do "battle against the irrational." Thus, for Hyman fear of the paranormal is equivalent to fear of the irrational.
Unfortunately, Hyman's battle takes us beyond the paranormal to the ends of existence. For the irrational is everywhere. At bottom, (the Cosmological Argument aside), our very existence on earth is just a brute fact--and in that sense, totally irrational. Only people of religious faith think something else, necessary or meaningful, is at the heart of the cosmic game. "Rationality," in our modern scientific world, consists of the rules we invent in the struggle to tame the wildly contingent jungle of reality. I'm afraid Hyman is fighting a losing battle; for the paranormal just adds some twists and turns to a world intrinsically uncentered, deconstructed, and irrational at its core.
Another critic of the paranormal, James Alcock, has called the ideas of parapsychology "essentially those of magic." If by magic he means belief in the sheer power of mind to directly influence physical reality--then parapsychology does qualify as a science in quest of magic. J. B. Rhine's dice-throwing experiments were attempts in a safe lab setting to demonstrate the power of what witches call spells or theists prayer. Magic, in short, is belief in the unmediated power of intention. It's a belief that might stoke the fires of paranoia, for it would imply we are vulnerable to the sheer intentions of others (including our enemies). One might reasonably prefer, like James Alcock, not to believe in "magic"--not to believe in such strange powers. The world of magic is a frightening world.
But there's more to fear, if there is anything to the paranormal. All sorts of strange entities, thought to be happily banished from the world by science, would return to the fray, newly baptized and certified by parapsychology. Talk of spirits, angels, fairies, phantoms, demons, aliens, and other space-time vagabonds might in fact be based on some nugget of paranormal reality. Instead of a tidy universe, we'd have a multiverse crawling with mind-monsters. Who needs it?
There is also the fear of life after death. The paranormal isn't just implicated with magic (mind on the rampage), it's full of reports that force us to rethink our idea of death. The paranormal preserve includes such things as ghosts, fetches, apparitions, mediums, near-death visions, reincarnation memories, and much more that goes bump in the night. A part of us just doesn't want to be reminded of death--even the unsettling prospect of life after death.
I have a hunch that resistance to the paranormal veils an underlying resistance to the idea of life after death, which is so entangled with religious ideas we thought we outgrew with the rise of science and the European Enlightenment. After all, if there is a psychic factor in nature that somehow escapes the constraints of physical law, it may also be what makes an afterworld possible. If an afterworld, then possibly hell. Who knows?! The hell that spooked me when I was a kid might, in some strange psychic way, be real. I can already feel my old Sunday-school terrors flaring up. There's an outside chance I might actually go to hell! What could be more frightening? It seems we've hit on another good reason to fear the paranormal.
Another fear, and one I especially sympathize with, is the fear of gnostics or what I call mystic know-it-alls. There have always been people in history who claimed they knew what they knew--flat-out--by gnosis, inspiration, revelation. In short, by paranormal means. Fear of the paranormal is the praiseworthy fear of the mystifying dogmatist, the prophetic con-artist. Scientific certification of the paranormal might give this type of person more intellectual ammunition than might be desirable.
The paranormal might also stir up the fear of fatalism. Suppose Alex could really know the future, (say, that I change my job or move to another state). Wouldn't that wipe out my free will? Not really. Alex, assuming he saw my future, would not then see what I must do but merely what I shall do. The former would impinge on my freedom; the latter wouldn't. Still, logic seems defeated here; for how could anyone see what has yet to occur? The fear now is that our sense of time gets screwed up. Suddenly, backward causation becomes possible; the future casts shadows on the present. This upset in my idea of time leads to my last, and possibly the strongest, reason to fear the paranormal.
The paranormal can pretty forcibly take our world-view by surprise. Catastrophe theorist John Casti may be working on a "science of surprise" (see his book Complexification), but extreme surprise can cause anxiety attacks, especially when it involves shock to our basic sense of reality. A universe with minimal surprises is probably a lot easier on the nervous system. In a rapidly changing world such as ours, the paranormal just adds to our general cognitive chaos, and to the instability of our collective mental health. In short, if the paranormal is real it would force us to do cartwheels with our paradigms.
So, toting them up, there are nine reasons to fear the paranormal: loss of privacy, loss of control, the irrational, magic, strange entities, hell, mystic know-it-alls, fatalism, and angst-producing surprise. Of course, these may be motives to disbelieve in the paranormal; but the fact remains--they are not arguments against its existence.
Copyright 1996 by The Anomalist