Jan 31, 2014 I Lee Arnold

Are Paranormal Believers Victims of Flawed Thinking?

The Preface

Sprayed in the face with Oleoresin Capsicum before undergoing the OC spray certification course being held aboard the Marine Corps Base Camp 570x390
Don't shoot the messenger.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the reasons some of us believe in the paranormal and some of us don’t. What I found is the scientific community, and the academic community, think believers need to be studied in more detail, because there is seemingly something wrong with them.

So this is definitely one of those “Don’t shoot the messenger” kind of posts. I didn’t come up with this stuff, I’m just writing about it, because I believe it to be interesting. In believing it to be interesting, it could be a sign there is something wrong with me too.

I’ve developed this type of curiosity before on the subject of conspiracy theories, and it led to the writing of a post about the role a part of the brain called the amygdala plays in tendencies to buy into conspiracy theories. Whether or not one believes in the paranormal, however, isn’t nearly as clearly theorized as the root of conspiracy theories.

A belief in the paranormal, or not, is something deeply rooted in our psyche, and like belief in religion, it helps us cope with things in life we cannot control and helps us make sense of things we do not understand.

There are also those who attribute cognitive abilities as being a determining factor whether a person becomes a believer in the paranormal or not. In other words, paranormal believers are not as analytical as non-believers and are prone to flawed logic because they don’t dig deep enough when solving problems.

That’s what some researchers are saying anyway.

Again, I didn’t say it, and it’s not necessarily my opinion on the subject.

I’m just reporting it.

Believers in the Paranormal Just Want to Cope With Life


I made it a point to repeat the fact that I am just the messenger here, because some theorize when believers in religion or the paranormal have their beliefs threatened, they tend to react negatively and often with anger.

Going back to the early days of civilization man has wondered whether the mind and body are separate entities, or all rolled up into one neat, disposable package. The one part of this that cannot be argued is the disposable aspect of the body. We’re in the jungle, baby, and we’re all gonna die.

This is the point where philosophies diverge.

Is the mind a separate entity that continues on once its container is shed, or does the mind die when the body does?

Even the opinions of the best philosophers and scientists are little more than just poetry when it comes to this matter. Some views undoubtedly move us emotionally, and touch our sensibilities in such a way that we buy into what’s being said. Others… not so much.

None of it can be proven, but like poetry, it can have a deep effect on us if we’re open to hearing the message being delivered.

By definition, the same is true of the paranormal. Some of the stories and theories surrounding topics lumped under the paranormal heading touch our sensibilities and lure us into a particular belief system.

Jimmy believes in ghosts and Bigfoot.

John does not and he thinks Jimmy is a dumbass for believing in them. John believes the mind, body, and soul, whatever that is, are all one entity that ceases to be when the heart stops beating.

When John calls jimmy out on his beliefs and finally drops the word dumbass on him, Jimmy might staunchly defend his position with personal experience stories and tales he’s heard from others.

No matter what Jimmy says, however, John ain’t buying it. He’s just not wired that way. He’ll never believe. For John, there will always be a way to explain those experiences and stories with science, even if it isn’t obvious at first.

On the flip-side of that, Jimmy will always believe his way too, and might even go as far as making it his life’s mission to get John to believe his way in an effort to seek validation.

While the two might eventually agree to disagree and get along with each other, their core beliefs likely won’t ever be the same. Neither really know what happens when we die with any real certainty. None of us do. It’s all just speculation and conjecture as to whether some aspect of a being goes on to after its physical shell dies.

How someone deals with this uncertainty is among the biggest factors in how one believes, according to some research.

Higher uncertainty has been shown to be related to lower self-esteem, higher self- handicapping, lower narcissism, and increased social anxiety. Of particular interest, uncertainty has been shown to increase religiosity, which other work has linked correlationally to paranormal beliefs. It is believed that incorporating a system of paranormal beliefs into one’s cognitive framework theoretically allows an individual to structure events and experiences in life so that they appear comprehensible in some way and able to be mastered intellectually (Irwin, 1993). Psychological threats such as uncertainty may amplify this process. — Graduate Research Conducted at Western Kentucky University

Research does indicate those with religious beliefs and belief in the paranormal adopt a more zealous attitude when challenged on those beliefs. The reaction is based on this uncertainty, and it compensates for that doubt.

This is probably more often seen in religious debates than debates of the paranormal. In my own personal experience, I’ve found myself in some heated discussions I didn’t want to be in, simply because someone asked me whether I believed in “God” and I answered them honestly. The other party involved seemed to take it as a personal insult that I didn’t believe in something they held so sacred in their life.

In reality, I didn’t care one way or another how this person believed, and it had no bearing on our relationship until that very moment. It was, however, an issue from that point forward between us, and it wasn’t because I kept bringing it up. It was because they did.

If the above research cited in the above thesis is correct, the response I received, was just a knee-jerk reaction to a threat to those core beliefs, which were already there primarily as a buffer to the anxiety of intellectually processing the unknown.

So one answer as to why some believe and others do not, at least according to those “science” people, comes down to being comfortable processing things one can’t immediately understand. Crediting a god or ghost with responsibility for a life experience, is easier to grasp than trying to find an answer that might require years of study just to understand.

On a personal level, my gut reaction to this is to lend it some credibility, but I’m also reminded of a quote from Rene Descartes, “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”

I’m doubtful those on either side of the aisle on this issue have a solid grasp on its entirety. Things still remain unexplained on all sides, and both camps require a little bit of faith believe.

Frans Hals   Portret van René Descartes 570x697
Rene Descartes

And speaking of Rene Descartes, he spent a great deal of time contemplating existence and the relationship between the body and mind. There are some who find personal philosophies of ontology as being a key determining factor separating believers from non-believers.

I Think, Therefore I have Questions

When it comes down to it, some claim the difference between a believer in the paranormal and the non-believer comes down to ontologically monistic and dualistic philosophies of the mind.

Are the mind and body just components of one being, or are the two separate entities capable of existing without the other?

This is, of course, a very simplified view of it, but entire libraries have been written about it, and no one wants me to go on and on for 80,000 words or more on a single blog post. Most of you probably would rather this one have stopped around word 300 or so.

A World Values Survey conducted between 1991-2004 indicates 73 percent of Americans, and 43 percent of Europeans believe the afterlife is possible.

Again, I’m only presenting a simplistic view of the schools of thought surrounding oncology and monistic and dualistic philosophies here. It’s a metaphysical debate you can trace as deeply as you want via centuries of philosophical thought from Descartes and Confucius to modern day philosophers.

There are some who have tried to bring the concepts of ontological monism and dualism into a hypothesis explaining their relationship to believers in the paranormal. Naturally, they base their propositions about paranormal believers on whether one buys into ontological dualism or monism.

I hate to use such a long quote, but this hunk from an article published in Advances in Cognitive Psychology explains itself better than I can.

By core attributes, we mean the fundamental attributes of evolutionarily important phenomena that children learn easily and universally at roughly the same age (Hirschfeld & Gelman, 1994; Spelke & Kinzler, 2007; Wellman & Gelman, 1998). For example, if the core properties of physical phenomena (especially independent existence and force) and biological organisms (e.g., living) are attributed to a human mind, it is easy to believe in souls that may live after the body has died. Similarly, assuming that such mental phenomena as thoughts or symbols can exert mechanical causal force on the external world, as physical entities do, enables beliefs in psychokinesis and astrology (Lindeman & Svedholm, 2012). Thus, what associates dualistic beliefs with all kinds of paranormal beliefs and makes understandable that these beliefs cluster together, is that they all confuse core attributes of psychological, biological, and physical phenomena. On this basis, we hypothesize that common sense dualism, reflective dualism, paranormal beliefs, and religiosity are related to ontological confusions about the core properties of psychological, physical, and biological phenomena (Hypothesis 4). If dualism and other paranormal beliefs are related to ontological confusions, it is possible that dualism is not the quintessential explanation for all religious and paranormal beliefs because there is a common denominator, ontological confusions, that theoretically explains why all these beliefs are associated. However, dualism might be understood as an essential building block for the more multifaceted and culture-specific forms of religiosity and paranormal beliefs but not as their quintessential explanation. Therefore, we test whether reflective and common sense dualism mediate the relationship between ontological confusions and religiosity and paranormal beliefs (Hypothesis 5). From Conceptions about the mind-body problem and their relations to afterlife beliefs, paranormal beliefs, religiosity, and ontological confusions (Link to PDF); Published in Advances in Cognitive Psychology

It’s hard to imagine that one day we might just cease to be. While our bodies will assuredly deteriorate as we age, the mind, provided there are no prevailing illnesses, can remain as sharp as ever throughout the process. If there is a belief there is also a soul that has domain over our minds and personalities, then belief in just becoming dust is even harder to buy into.

Without a belief in a separation between the body, soul, and mind, there is little chance many things considered paranormal could possibly be a reality.


You’re Crazy … No, You’re Just Closed Minded

Throughout my reading of scholarly works discussing what separates believers from non-believers, the one common theme I kept encountering is the use of language indicating believers in the paranormal were prone to flawed thinking.

It seemed every study began with a predetermination the world of the paranormal was simply bogus. By not giving any credibility to the beliefs of so many simply because aspects of those beliefs remain unexplained, detracts from the validity of the research itself.

Granted, it is hard to conduct solid research and include cited works from respected scientists when so many aspects of the paranormal, by definition, have not been scientifically explained. This fact should not, however, mean the unexplained has to be interpreted as being the product of flawed thinking.

That’s what I would call being closed minded, and an indication research was conducted with blinders firmly affixed to the side of the researchers’ heads.

Just as my anecdote about Jimmy and John inferred, these two worlds might never come together in a symbiotic existence. Until someone captures a ghost or Bigfoot and puts them in a cage for scientific study, scientists and paranormal enthusiasts will remain worlds apart. They will probably remain worlds apart until the Earth meets its fiery end in some cataclysmic encounter with some random object flying through space.

I hate to go back to Descartes for another quote, but given his influence on the dualistic school of thought, it just seems fitting. Descartes seemed to have a slightly more open mind than today’s researchers do.

On the one hand I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in so far as I am a thinking, non-extended thing; and on the other hand I have a distinct idea of body, in so far a this is simply an extended, non-thinking thing. And, accordingly, it is certain that I am really distinct from my body, and exist without it. — Rene Descartes from Meditations of First Philosophy (1641)

Many have poo-pooed Descartes philosophies concerning dualism and gone a different direction with it, but he remains a household name and many of his ideas that could be proven, have been proven to be correct.

The only truth were certain of at this point is we are all going to die some day. Whether we just decompose and become part of the Earth, our souls shoot off to some land promised in the religion of our choosing, or our ghosts escape into the woods where it will traipse around with Bigfoot for years, is still anybody’s guess.

As one of my favorite modern-day prophets, and I use that word lightly, singer-songwriter Todd Snider said regarding religion in his song Happy New Year, “Believing and knowing, those are two different things.”

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