UnScientific American
October 18, 2014 8:59 PM   Subscribe

Things happen. "Psychic" events mainly take place in dramatic and family-based situations. Not in a lab. Here is one example.

Many of us believe that unexplainable events take place outside of the "falsifiable" and "peer-reviewed" domain of scientific papers. This is one. Here is the context of this article:
posted by kozad (227 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
 
There's a reason these 'events' don't take place in a lab.
posted by Huck500 at 9:03 PM on October 18, 2014 [30 favorites]


And if we are to take seriously the scientific credo to keep an open mind and remain agnostic when the evidence is indecisive or the riddle unsolved, we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious.
I consider myself to be a skeptic. I'm honestly puzzled at what I'm supposed to take away from this article. I recognize that it was a beautiful and touching moment for Mr. Shermer and his wife, but what exactly does it mean to be "open-minded" about a touching family anecdote?

If my dead grandfather has never spoken to me through a radio or any other mechanism, does that mean I'm close-minded, or that he just doesn't love me enough?
posted by muddgirl at 9:07 PM on October 18, 2014 [32 favorites]


Someone please tell me this is a poor attempt at some sort of point-making hoax on Shermer's part?
posted by pixelrevolt at 9:11 PM on October 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


An electronic device that works intermittently, a sure sign of the paranormal? Yow! I've been misinterpreting half the flashlights I have in the house as well as the electrical system in my old Ford truck.
posted by ecorrocio at 9:14 PM on October 18, 2014 [34 favorites]


Shermer apparently forgot that keeping an open mind is indeed very important in science, but not so open that your brains fall out all over the floor.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 9:17 PM on October 18, 2014 [33 favorites]


As for me, I was aware of my mother's death and my mother's mother's death immediately and dramatically only to later find out the details of the times of their passing. We Westerners dismiss the commonplace wisdom of other peoples too easily, I think: those who accept intuition as valid as empiricism and deduction and induction as methods of discerning truth are not deluded. We are just a little insensitive to other ways of knowing.

And as for muddgirl: no; lack of paranormal experience does not indicate lack of compassion or anything else. These kinds of things happen to some people, but I don't know why. Most of us don't experience these kinds of things, especially those of us on Metafilter, as opposed to New Age Daily or whatever the equivalent is. Most of us are skeptics here. I am a skeptic too, through and through. But science does not explain everything. (I think religion is a terribly primitive way of interpreting way of interpreting reality, compared to science. But nor do I think science explains all, obviously.)
posted by kozad at 9:20 PM on October 18, 2014 [7 favorites]


I guess I'm missing the part where he opened up the radio and determined which faulty component his wife's dead grandfather had made functional again?
posted by 0xFCAF at 9:24 PM on October 18, 2014 [17 favorites]


Perhaps it signals the unraveling of the epistemologic hegemony of science, not to be soon replaced with another knowledge system that merely extends its explanatory devices, but leading, rather, to a time of unknowing, a time of paradox and contradiction.

...or, perhaps this isn't a signal at all, but merely a peculiar happenstance. Perhaps the author merely desperately wants it to be such a signal.

There is a world of difference between "unexplained," "unexplainable," and "meaningful." At the moment, we can be confident that this event falls into the first category. Huck500 insists that the event belongs to the second category, but that's an unjustified leap. Had Shermer hired a couple of experts on antique radio repair, perhaps they would recognize the cause from a detailed description of the event that a mundane explanation (e.g. raising the temperature closed a circuit somewhere that depleted the remaining charge in a capacitor). Or, perhaps, at great cost, the device could be examined in detail to discover plausible mechanisms. Continued failure at that point would push us toward the "unexplainable."

But, of course, Shermer wouldn't do that, because that's crazy. He had a wedding to participate in, and subsequently, a life to get on with. The aim of science is not to examine the death of every single sparrow, or to explain every curious occurrence. It's to build an ever-improving system of the world whereby we can account for specific situations using general principles.

The difference between healthy skepticism and superstition is that, when the unexplained occurs, the impulse to assign a meaning of our choosing to such events doesn't overwhelm the awareness that many answers might be plausible. Skepticism means being comfortable not knowing, and it also means understanding the difference between wanting something to be true and needing it to be true. RealitySandwich's hopeful speculation that we might erode the ramparts of science may be safely disregarded as a more subtle case of someone seeing Jesus in their burnt toast.
posted by belarius at 9:28 PM on October 18, 2014 [44 favorites]


Michael Shermer has recently come under massive criticism from women in the Sketpical community for being, not to put too fine a point on it, sexually predatory.

My theory? He's ready to jump ship and find a more welcoming community, one where he'll be feted as a high-value convert, and where the women won't know to warn each other not to be alone with him at a conference. (See, the article is about a wedding! See what a gentleman he is?)

I mean, he's looked in the faces of thousands of people with similar anecdotes and told them they were full of shit. Sorry, I mean "woo." He can't think that his anecdote is different from all the others he's scoffed at over the years. This has to be a calculated move.

That's my take on it anyway. I'll be curious to see if that's the way it plays out.

I expect to see him hawking chakra rebalancing kits within two to three years. And *raking* in the cash for speaking engagements about how he "saw the Light."

And a whole new community of women will begin warning each other not to be alone with him at conferences.
posted by edheil at 9:28 PM on October 18, 2014 [91 favorites]


We Westerners dismiss the commonplace wisdom of other peoples too easily, I think: those who accept intuition as valid as empiricism and deduction and induction as methods of discerning truth are not deluded.

You understand that this is pretty racist in addition to massively mistating Western beliefs? 75% of Americans hold at least some paranormal belief. Science is not a hegemonic belief in the West, ignorance is not a property of non-Westerners.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:29 PM on October 18, 2014 [63 favorites]


There are probably loads of random things happening around us all the time. And because of the randomness we don't notice them. Other times the nature of the random event is enough to be noticed, usually because it is just obnoxious. But there are the few times when these events can take on significance due to the relationships we bestow upon the elements of the events. If it was just an old radio that you found and then replaced the batteries, that suddenly started to play, you would think it was weird and probably just some electrical thing that happened. But in this case it was grandpa's radio, and it was their wedding day, so the semantic significance took control and the intrinsic randomness disappeared and the event became meaningful. We are always busy applying meaning to things around us. I don't think it is necessarily wrong to enjoy those rare times when a lot of random elements converge into something powerful, or even magical.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:37 PM on October 18, 2014 [15 favorites]


yes, i remember when i was younger and supremely confident that anything that couldn't be explained by science had to be an illusion.
posted by bruce at 9:38 PM on October 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


ignorance is not a property of non-Westerners.

And you're calling me a racist? I am from a family of scientists; science is the primary lens through which I view the world. But noticing that indigenous people assume that, among other things, that primary familial connections are an intrinsic part of their experience, even outside of Western concepts of death, has long been an anthropological observation, and to dismiss these beliefs as mere superstition can also be interpreted as racist, in my view, although I have never called a chimeric online "person" a racist, and am not going to start name-calling now. (Sorry if this seems condescending, man…I love your posts, Pope Guilty…I just have to go to sleep; it's late in my time zone and in my work schedule).
posted by kozad at 9:48 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Right. The only possible explanation is that grandpa took a small appliance repair course in heaven and came back to show off, but he kinda sucks at it so it broke again after a few hours. To suggest anything more mundane is sheer youthful ignorance. One day we will all hopefully have the aged wisdom to embrace such comforting nonsense.
posted by klanawa at 9:48 PM on October 18, 2014 [17 favorites]


Many of us believe that unexplainable events take place outside of the "falsifiable" and "peer-reviewed" domain of scientific papers. This is one.

This framing was unfortunate. This event was not unexplainable. There is a perfectly rational explanation for what happened here, plus a coincidence of timing. It would have been unexplainable if the radio had no batteries in it and wasn't plugged in.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 9:49 PM on October 18, 2014 [6 favorites]


Science is just not up to investigating things it does not understand. They don't understand, or can't explain- so it is impossible. You have to hit the hardened shell of the community with a hammer to get it to consider what might be happening.

I've been spending lots of time in a long term care facility and live in an old house where 3 people went down in the same spot over the years. Neighbors and I have seen some mindbending stuff around here and at the LTC, where people often die.

Tell me all these people are lying.

http://allnurses.com/general-nursing-discussion/whats-your-best-108202.html
posted by Mr. Yuck at 9:51 PM on October 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


Science is the pursuit of useful explanations of the natural world.

Something that can't be "explained by science" is literally an oxymoron.

If it can be explained, then it can be explained by science, because that's all science is...explaining things, then using those explanations.

If this person's radio was activated by the consciousness of the dead grandfather, than by gum that's an explanation, and it opens wonderful new lines of scientific inquiry. The reason no scientists are interested in investigate this is not because they are close-minded, but because they don't want to waste their time trying to investigate something that (thanks to our richly detailed, verified, existing knowledge of the framework of physical laws) almost certainly has a banal explanation.

But don't let me distract you, I think you have that strawman of science on the ropes.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 9:51 PM on October 18, 2014 [60 favorites]


yes, i remember when i was younger and supremely confident that anything that couldn't be explained by science had to be an illusion.

Science is already trying to understand why a radio might start working out of nowhere. We have some decent theories; none of them involve ghosts.

The idea that ghosts can fix our radios at emotionally opportune times is the egotistical one. I've certainly had some weird shit happen to me, but I don't chalk it up to "not explainable by science". If you've lived a billion seconds and haven't seen a one-in-a-billion event, you're just not paying attention.
posted by 0xFCAF at 9:52 PM on October 18, 2014 [24 favorites]


Science is the pursuit of useful explanations of the natural world.

I agree that that's what it should be. Too often, the explanation is "That's not possible."
posted by Mr. Yuck at 9:58 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Everyone should read the other article linked in the original post; it addresses a lot of the criticisms being leveled here.
Certainly, Michael Shermer would not discard scientific reasoning in light of his experience. Nor would I. The challenge is to hold different paths to knowledge alongside each other, to stand in paradox, until one day, perhaps, a hidden unity is revealed. Some of the commenters on line, admonishing the author via various mechanistic explanations, seemed not to understand that the significance of the experience had nothing to do with the absence of a physical mechanism to explain the radio turning on. It was the synchronicity of the event, the timing, the circumstances.

One might think it marvelous if any physical explanation (per accepted physics) could be eliminated, proving that consciousness after death, or perhaps telekinesis, exists after all. One might think it marvelous to expand the realm of known forces and the entities that can wield them. But for me, there is a possibility far more marvelous, beyond a mere extension of the existing catalog of physical phenomena. It is that the causal mechanism – whether a departed spirit or a heat-and-humidity-induced completion of a circuit – is merely the means through which a deeper truth becomes manifest: that the universe, and the events of our lives, possess intelligence, consciousness, purpose. We are not the sole repositories of these qualities, surveying an alien universe of force and mass. We are at home in the universe.
posted by Backslash at 10:06 PM on October 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


I think people misunderstand the scientific dismissal of the events.

With the exception of some zealots nobody is claiming to know that the experience didn't happen. What they are saying is that it's not worth anyone's time to try to prove or disprove a particular explanation -- the basic data items used for proof just aren't present.

So people trying to prove these things (I refer to them as "daily miracles") are barking up the wrong tree. Which they were anyway: these events are all about feelings, and those will remain the center of the event no matter how it happened. They're the important bit.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:13 PM on October 18, 2014 [14 favorites]


Science is just not up to investigating things it does not understand. They don't understand, or can't explain- so it is impossible.

I am with you---until the "so it is impossible" part. Science doesn't attempt to investigate supernatural claims because they are not testable claims. Science CAN'T say "ghosts don't exist or God doesn't exist because to say so would be making a substantive claim. Instead, science doesn't touch those claims--it can't address them--which is not the same thing as saying they are not possible. So science can't claim that the dead grandfather didn't do it. But that isn't an invitation to embrace the claim as truth and it certainly doesn't mean that the dead grandfather did do it.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 10:19 PM on October 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


People don't like death and like it being final even less, even smart and sophisticated people. Skeptics sometimes loose the forest for all those irrational, emotional trees.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:19 PM on October 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


Too often, the explanation is "That's not possible."

That is never the explanation. No one is denying the phenomenon. They are denying the massive leap it takes to go from "currently unexplainable" to "outside the boundaries of human knowledge."
posted by mrgrimm at 10:27 PM on October 18, 2014 [12 favorites]


But noticing that indigenous people assume that, among other things, that primary familial connections are an intrinsic part of their experience, even outside of Western concepts of death, has long been an anthropological observation, and to dismiss these beliefs as mere superstition can also be interpreted as racist,

The point is that the idea that Western epistemology is dominated by science is absurd; we manifestly overwhelmingly believe in the paranormal. Further, the idea that there's anything inherently nonwestern in superstition, or inherently superstitious in being nonwestern, is insulting and racist.

Science is just not up to investigating things it does not understand. They don't understand, or can't explain- so it is impossible.

You are proposing an explanation for events which you have no reason whatsoever to believe in except that you have been culturally primed with specific ideas about life after death. It is equally valid to say that God was smiling upon the wedding and showed it by letting the radio play for a little bit, or that Oberon made the radio play as part of a bet with Titania, or that a Culture Mind activated it from afar with a field generator because it thought it would be funny to get Shermer to believe in ghosts. All of these are equally likely as "grandpa's ghost reactivated the radio", but because we live in a culture where ghosts are a popular belief and petty divine intervention, fairies, and the Culture are not, somehow "a ghost did it" is regarded as the most likely explanation, more likely, even, than the myriad of chances and coincidences that we live with daily.

But you know what the real problem is? Science can investigate things that are investigatable. Random anecdotes about "and then the radio turned on!" or "at that moment, I knew my relative was dead!" or "I dreamed of the crash before it happened!" and so on cannot be investigated. You had an experience that you can't explain? That's fine. But it's an incredible leap of arrogance and narcissism to proceed from "I can't explain what happened" to "nobody can explain what happened", and it's also a hugely arrogant leap from "I can't explain what happened using a particular framework" to "this other particular framework must be true".
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:29 PM on October 18, 2014 [70 favorites]


I'm skeptical that this story would have been published in Scientific American if it had been written by someone who was not a Famous Skeptic.
posted by rtha at 10:33 PM on October 18, 2014 [18 favorites]


It was the synchronicity of the event, the timing, the circumstances.

Yes...we call those things coincidences. They happen. Again...you are free to attach some kind of supernatural forcing to those coincidences. Science can't stop you from making such a claim. Science does have limits. It certainly can't make claims about whether "the events of our lives, possess intelligence, consciousness, purpose". Some people believe in resurrection. Some people believe that dead people channel messages through old radios. Some people believe in intelligent design. These kinds of spiritual/supernatural beliefs are not new. What is weird about this story is the idea that this particular event is an earth shattering event that shakes the foundation of anything. It doesn't. it is of no more significance than looking up at the sky and seeing the profile of Jesus or your dead grandfather in the clouds.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 10:36 PM on October 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


Science doesn't attempt to investigate supernatural claims because they are not testable claims.

Nonsense. Science can easily investigate supernatural claims. The (implicit) claim here is "ghosts (under sufficient emotional pressure) can fix radios".

We could test this. We could get 1,000 engaged couples to find broken electronics belonging to deceased relatives, get 1,000 engaged couples to find broken electronics with no emotional significance, and see if on the wedding day, the experimental group found more working devices than the control group.

Now maybe this "spoils" the data because ghosts simply do not like to be studied this way, and will refuse to fix radios from beyond the grave if they know they're being watched. You could fix this by contacting some large cohort of randomly-selected newlyweds and asking if they had any electronics start mysteriously working, compared to some randomly-selected cohort of non-newlyweds.

Of course, we could still posit that ghosts can move backward through time and will refuse to fix radios when they know that people will be contacted later by scientists looking to win a Nobel prize by isolating the ghost-fix-radios phenomenon. You could test that hypothesis with a new experiment where instead of rolling dice or asking a computer to randomize a sample, you used the stock market closing values to randomize your data for you. Presumably this would also fail to find a significant effect (because duh, ghosts do not actually fix radios).

At this point, you have to consider that ghosts are really sneaky and can manipulate almost anything to avoid detection. Use this against them. Randomize your data based on the rate of AIDS infection in Africa, or the math test scores of underprivileged youth, and design your experiment such that ghostly intervention would necessarily improve those statistics. With enough work, we can solve all our problems this way, or disprove the "ghosts can fix radios" hypothesis. Hopefully we can settle it either way.
posted by 0xFCAF at 10:39 PM on October 18, 2014 [69 favorites]


I remember back when I was a kid in the 1970s, Scientific American was THE magazine to read for cognizant, yet properly researched articles on science and technology. A lot of what I learned about science, I learned from SA. I stopped subscribing it a long time ago, when it's decline became too much to take.

And now this. This is just a fucking travesty.

Scientific American is dead.
posted by happyroach at 10:44 PM on October 18, 2014 [15 favorites]


Scientific American is dead.
But its ghost is very active.
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:47 PM on October 18, 2014 [57 favorites]


You are proposing an explanation for events which you have no reason whatsoever to believe in except that you have been culturally primed with specific ideas about life after death.

I was raised by a marxist and an agnostic. I am unchurched. I propose no explanation.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 10:50 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


We knew it was Grandpa. Would it have killed him to take a look at the intermittent problem with the central heating thermostat? Couldn't he at least have fixed the phone charger while he was here? But no, with Grandpa it was always futzing with that crummy radio he wouldn't throw away, that always goes wrong again the next day in any case.
posted by Segundus at 10:55 PM on October 18, 2014 [17 favorites]


This is strangely -- and to me very uncomfortably -- like the head of an evangelical organization dedicated to converting gays into heterosexuals, who are, in his view, alone acceptable in the eyes of God, finally coming out and admitting that he himself is gay; and I find it hard to believe that Shermer did not become a proselytizing Skeptic precisely in order to repress an underlying and involuntary conviction that the 'supernatural' is real.

Because as anecdotes of the unexplained go, that one is extremely weak.
posted by jamjam at 11:13 PM on October 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


Now I feel stiffed: my dead grandfather never did a damn thing for me. As slap*happy said above, all of religion and this kind of similar hokum is purely the narcissistic refusal to believe that the world can actually go on without your sorry ass in it. Inconceivable! If I'm disrespecting certain beliefs it's only because I --IMHO-- find them eminently disrespectable.
posted by umberto at 11:16 PM on October 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


I am drowning in bullshit, here.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 11:23 PM on October 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


The evidence in favor of grandpa is not compelling. Unless grandpa was a warlock before he died, how exactly is he to have acquired his occult radio repair powers? It's far more likely that the couple accidentally summoned Barbas, the Great President of Hell, who "answers truly on hidden or secret things, causes and heals diseases, teaches mechanical arts, and changes men into other shapes" [bolding mine]. After all, what is a broken radio but a mechanical disease, in a sense? Making broken radios play again is totally in Barbas' jurisdiction.

Look at it this way: Barbas commands 36 legions of demons. I don't want to unnecessarily trash grandpa, but let's face it: he probably doesn't command a single legion of hell. And if it takes all of Barbas' influence and power to answer simple questions about hidden things, what is the likelyhood that grandpa, who is at most like a lieutenant of hell, can fix a radio from beyond the grave? Not very likely, I think we can safely say. And this is assuming grandpa ended up in hell at all: heaven has a far more top-down management style that would preclude grandpa from making personal visits to fix radios.

So the simplest explanation is that the couple accidentally (or intentionally? maybe we haven't been told the whole story) summoned Barbas. When it became clear to Barbas that the couple wasn't going to give him the respect due a demon of his station, he went back and broke the radio again.
posted by Pyry at 11:24 PM on October 18, 2014 [46 favorites]


who accept intuition as valid as empiricism

Intuition describes the subjective sense of knowledge that you can't precisely account for in empircal terms, but acknowledging that this subjective sense occurs is not the same as "accepting" that there's a system separate from empiricism governing these events. An inability to personally account for something is not the same as no accounting being possible.
posted by anazgnos at 11:26 PM on October 18, 2014 [7 favorites]


As slap*happy said above, all of religion and this kind of similar hokum is purely the narcissistic refusal to believe that the world can actually go on without your sorry ass in it.

I have literally no personal use for religion, as I am an atheist who puts a great deal of stock in science. I am constantly skeptical, in general. But your characterization of religion is incorrect. It certainly fills that role for many people, but there's more to it than that. For many people, it's also about finding meaning in life and existence. I think that religions are invariably incorrect about many things, and perhaps always so when they hypothesize on matters of physics and metaphysics.

But I am certain that many of my beliefs are mistaken (I just don't know which ones) and confident that the true nature of the universe is not only unknown to us, but unknowable. So I try not to feel too superior even as I dismiss 95% of what religions have to say. And if nothing else, I recognize kindred spirits in those who earnestly seek meaning and value.

I believe that atheism, as a movement, falls short on this score. Meaning is critical, even if it is purely personal. I believe in a kind of spiritualism that isn't trying to answer what happens when we die or who made the world, but how we should live in it and what kind of relationship we should have to it and each other.

I would like to see, someday, a kind of spiritual movement rooted in real science. I see no inherent contradiction except as implied by the existence of obsolete traditions.
posted by Edgewise at 11:35 PM on October 18, 2014 [21 favorites]


When I was fourteen I went on a month long trip a continent and ocean away. One night in the middle before I got very ill I had this fantastic dream that I had come back to where I was living and met some friends at 42nd and Sunnyside [an intersection] and we smoked weed. I invited one particular friend to come back to where I was. In the dream the airplane had these weird seats that hung out from underneath the plane.

When I returned from the vacation that particular friend said, "Oh man, I had this weird dream that you had come back to in the middle of your trip and we met some friends at 42nd and Sunnyside and we smoked weed. We flew back and the airplane had these weird seats that hung out from underneath the plane."

There were many other details in agreement and I'm skeptical but:

Half a world away and my friend was sleeping while I was awake and vice versa renders this as some type of ESP as utter BS.

So I don't think there was some kind of magical force. Science is a product of refining and has in the past advocated some principles that are laughable, I'm looking at before Copernicus and staring you down Spontaneous Generation.

I think me and my friend might have just missed each other.
posted by vapidave at 11:36 PM on October 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


My private definition of a religious belief is one that can't be distinguished from a delusion. (Mind, this isn't to imply that religious beliefs are delusions.) Science, even when it fails, tries to collapse that waveform; religion explores the superposed state, navigating by other beliefs that, likewise, can't be distinguished from delusions. I find the latter approach useful for understanding the psyche, the former for everything else.

But ghosts? Fuckin ghosts? Get a grip. Because it seems to me that

The emotional interpretations of such anomalous events grant them significance regardless of their causal account

is just a fancy, faux hardnosed-empiricst way of saying SPOOKY.
posted by Zerowensboring at 12:14 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


"My grandfather is here with us,” Jennifer said, tearfully. “I'm not alone.”
"Is he... Do you think he's planning to stay here in the bedroom like... all night?"
posted by Segundus at 12:36 AM on October 19, 2014 [30 favorites]


Why don't ghosts or other supernatural entities, or folk's god(s) do useful things? It's always knocking shit off a shelf or sparking around in an old radio.

Where's the cash? Where's the help finding those keys? Where is the lipstick message on the mirror that those pants with that shirt is a huge mistake?

And how friggin depressing would it be that yes, life after death (??) is a reality, but you're going to turn into a helpless, nearly powerless entity who can only flail at the living incoherently?
posted by maxwelton at 12:36 AM on October 19, 2014 [29 favorites]


but you're going to turn into a helpless, nearly powerless entity who can only flail at the living incoherently

So more or less just like living then.
posted by Justinian at 12:42 AM on October 19, 2014 [19 favorites]


confident that the true nature of the universe is not only unknown to us, but unknowable

What does this even mean.

I would like to see, someday, a kind of spiritual movement rooted in real science.

Also this.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:47 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


When I was fourteen I went on a month long trip a continent and ocean away. One night in the middle before I got very ill I had this fantastic dream that I had come back to where I was living and met some friends at 42nd and Sunnyside [an intersection] and we smoked weed. I invited one particular friend to come back to where I was. In the dream the airplane had these weird seats that hung out from underneath the plane.

When I returned from the vacation that particular friend said, "Oh man, I had this weird dream that you had come back to in the middle of your trip and we met some friends at 42nd and Sunnyside and we smoked weed. We flew back and the airplane had these weird seats that hung out from underneath the plane."

There were many other details in agreement and I'm skeptical but:

Half a world away and my friend was sleeping while I was awake and vice versa renders this as some type of ESP as utter BS.

So I don't think there was some kind of magical force.


Try probability. What would you say the odds are of two friends having the same dream? One in 10 billion? One in 100 billion? Let's make it ridiculously improbable: 1 in 10 trillion. That should be enough to ensure that if it ever happens, it can't be coincidence, right?

Say, 3 billion people are asleep in any given 24 hour period. There are maybe, 3 dreams per night. Times 365 nights...

3 trillion, 285 billion events per year. So for basic probability... .999999999999^3.285x10E12

Damn. my calculator broke. OK, so try again with a bigger calculator.

.36789. Or 36.79% chance per year.

Now I may well have dropped a decimal or two here or there. And frankly, some of the probability I pulled out of my ass. But the basic idea is, even really improbable events can happen when there's enough events involved.
posted by happyroach at 1:08 AM on October 19, 2014 [8 favorites]


To elaborate on this point:

I think people misunderstand the scientific dismissal of the events.

To dismiss the event is to claim that the person describing it is either lying or misremembering. This is sometimes appropriate (especially given what we now know about the fallibility of memory), but often this is not really what is at issue. More often than not, both the skeptic and the believer will agree about certain basic facts. What skeptics do is dismiss the interpreted meaning of an event.

Did Grandma's cancer go into remission? Did the radio unexpectedly play music? Did your best friend get cancer? Suppose each of these things happened. The event is no longer in question. A skeptic might have some speculations about what mechanisms may have contributed to these events, and an honest skeptic will generally be comfortable being limited speculation. What they will not be comfortable with is the superstitious insistence that each of these events must mean something, often a very particular thing that suits the beliefs of the person insisting it.

This is why skeptics annoy believers: If I needed something to be true, as a matter of identity, and this motivated me to leap to conclusions, having those conclusions undercut is an indirect attack on me. Feelings of comfort and empowerment arise from being able to assert why things happen, so someone who attacks the legitimacy of the act of assigning meaning to events is threatening something many people are loathe to abandon. Even the "sense of mystery" that many people enjoy independent of religious views is itself a kind of selfish indulgence, insofar as replacing an exciting uncertainty with a banal answer, to many people, robs them of a pleasing emotion. Telling someone that a rainbow is the result of innumerable spheres of water acting as prisms may be true (and, in my view, fascinating), but telling someone that while they are enjoying the mysteriousness of the rainbow effectively short-circuits the emotional experience and replaces it with a technical explanation. To make matters worse, many people learned to hate technical topics (due, often, to awful teachers), giving them even less reason to put stock in such material.

So long as people give priority to emotion over established bodies of knowledge, there will be a contingent of people who experience science as a threat. These people are not "afraid of the truth" (indeed, many feel quite passionately that "emotional truth" is the most important kind) but they are willfully ignorant and deliberately incurious, because incurious ignorance ensures that emotional resonance won't be undercut by inconvenient facts. Thus, when people get upset because a claim is being dismissed, pay careful attention to which aspect of the dismissal upsets them, and this will tell you what it is they need to be true.
posted by belarius at 1:10 AM on October 19, 2014 [32 favorites]


Many serious issues with Shermer at the moment as mentioned upthread, but putting that aside for a moment: I'm baffled by all the people who seem to read this piece as making some kind of claim about the objective reality of the paranormal. It clearly doesn't. It describes what happened, and what it meant to the author and his wife, and it refuses to deny that significance just because it doesn't mesh with the project of explaining what happened. Insisting on the distinction between these two things is a completely legitimate thing for a piece in Scientific American to be doing.
posted by oliverburkeman at 1:25 AM on October 19, 2014 [7 favorites]


Weirdly absent from the account and the discussion of it here is what an old, well-worn trope the "spirit that speaks through the radio"—and with it the idea that media are inherently "spooky"—is. There's a whole mythological framework here unconsciously structuring the "event" and its reception that's going unspoken, one that Jeffrey Sconce talks about at length in his book Haunted Media. I would say this kind of thing shows why STEM types need some form of background in the humanities, but I guess I'm biased that way.
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:31 AM on October 19, 2014 [11 favorites]


Insisting on the distinction between these two things is a completely legitimate thing for a piece in Scientific American to be doing.

No, it isn't. Not like this. This is advocating Shermer's position that we should all take a minute and really consider his feelings, no matter how ridiculous or foolish they sound to us. It's them giving him a space to ask our validation. Just look at it:
The emotional interpretations of such anomalous events grant them significance regardless of their causal account. And if we are to take seriously the scientific credo to keep an open mind and remain agnostic when the evidence is indecisive or the riddle unsolved, we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious.
He wants us to buy this thing where how we feel influences how we look at things, which is the exact fucking opposite of how progress is made. It's the reason we need skepticism in the first place: so that we can set aside our preconceived notions of how events play out in order to learn more about them in a manner not tainted by what we wish was true. So we don't cook books to support pet theories, so we don't stop looking when we're satisfied with what we think we know.

It has absolutely no place in a magazine about science, except perhaps in a piece that explains why we should strive to rise above such childishness.

More than that, the notion that marveling at the mysterious entails not trying to engage with it and understand it strikes me as vile, not appreciative. It means holding a thing of beauty away, for fear that it can't bear scrutiny. In more concrete terms: if something convinced me that spirits of the dead could communicate with the living, I'd get cracking on how to do it on purpose, not use it to write some puff piece about what an open mind I had because I couldn't fix a radio.

Fuck this guy for claiming to be a skeptic when he has no idea what that means, or why it's important.
posted by mordax at 1:49 AM on October 19, 2014 [7 favorites]


I don't think science really comes into this - this is within the realm of common sense. As Jane Austen would have said, the 'lovematic grandpa' hypothesis doesn't deserve the compliment of rational opposition.

I do, btw, agree with those who say that materialistic physics does not provide a comprehensive ontology of everything. But the comprehensive view we need is more sophisticated and coherent, not less.

Third, like most of these stories this one has built-in emotional protections that try to make it rude and unfeeling to scoff. Hey, respect her grief, don't piss on her cherished wedding day memories! Well, cop this: you should show your grandfather more respect. Allow him his dignity, and acknowledge his death. Over-writing his memory with some crappy idea that he's now Tinkerbell is grossly trivialising a real human life.
posted by Segundus at 1:58 AM on October 19, 2014 [14 favorites]


Also, what belarius said was gold, and I wish I could favorite it many, many more times. That's a more graceful explanation of why this sort of thing is corrosive. Especially this:

So long as people give priority to emotion over established bodies of knowledge, there will be a contingent of people who experience science as a threat.

It's why talk like this dances such a jig on my nerves: superstition is literally a driving force in why we can't have nice things. In the United States in particular, it's big and awful and very well-funded on countless fronts. It doesn't need to be in a magazine I loved as a kid.

Upon preview:
Over-writing his memory with some crappy idea that he's now Tinkerbell is grossly trivialising a real human life.

You almost owed me a new keyboard with that one. Well played.
posted by mordax at 2:05 AM on October 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


More than that, the notion that marveling at the mysterious entails not trying to engage with it and understand it strikes me as vile, not appreciative.

I don't have a huge appetite for defending Michael Shermer, but just briefly: I don't read him as saying that a focus on the emotional significance of events must be at the expense of a scientific understanding of them, like it's an either/or. My point is just that these are two different, and legitimately different, things; explaining things isn't the only meaningful way of engaging with human experience. Not everything somebody says about the significance of an event is necessarily to be evaluated solely on the basis of whether it adds to our scientific understanding of why the event happened.
posted by oliverburkeman at 2:05 AM on October 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


(I mean, maybe I'm wrong, maybe he does think that his experience means that a paranormal explanation is a possible or even likely one for what happened here. But he doesn't say that anywhere that I can see.)
posted by oliverburkeman at 2:08 AM on October 19, 2014


The emotional interpretations of such anomalous events grant them significance regardless of their causal account.

And this is the sentence that encourages me to believe Shermer has not completely lost the plot, thankfully.

As others have observed, the temporary reawakening of a malfunctioning electronic or mechanical device - and one that had recently been tinkered with, remember - is not a particularly unusual occurrence. Fake psychics (but I repeat myself), when on TV or radio (i.e. when broadcasting to a large audience), and back in the days of wind-up watches, used to do a stunt where they claimed they would be able to restart stopped watches. And lo and behold, perhaps half a dozen people (out of an audience of maybe a million or so) reliably called in, utterly amazed that their long-dead watch had restarted at just that moment! Or maybe a few minutes later... which is still impressive, right? Or maybe it wasn't their watch that restarted but the clock on the mantlepiece. Even more impressive - the guy can start any stopped timepiece, not just watches! It doesn't take a lot of thought to see through that stunt, but it illustrates how coincidences happen to someone, somewhere, all the time. Winning the lottery - how amazing is that? In the UK the odds against it are fourteen million to one! And yet somehow it happens (to someone) almost every week... and naturally, to that individual it seems like a miracle, fate smiling on them. Maybe it was their prayers that did it. Or their lucky rabbit's foot. Nope. Just the perfectly normal workings of events and their probabilities.

Richard Dawkins has a very good piece on "impressive" coincidences in his book Unweaving the Rainbow. He illustrates that coincidences become far less impressive when you look at the number of opportunities for coincidence in our lives. Every waking (and, indeed, sleeping) moment is an opportunity for coincidence. We dream about someone we haven't seen or heard from in years and then they call next morning. Coincidence. But what about all those times we dreamed of such people and did not receive a call? Or maybe we could have received a letter, email or text instead of a call. Or maybe we could have heard news that they died. Or got married. Or had a kid. Or anything worth reporting to us. Would we still have been impressed if we got the news the following day? Or even in the same week? To some extent, we probably would, right? Pretty much any event pertaining to this individual, happening in a relatively short period after our dream, would have been marked down by our insufficiently analytical minds as an impressive coincidence. Careful consideration of the massive extent of the "field of opportunity" for coincidence soon makes it apparent that it would actually be rather surprising, given these constant opportunities for coincidence, if we went through our lives without having at least one such personally impressive event occur.
posted by Decani at 2:09 AM on October 19, 2014 [8 favorites]


Also, belarius: YES.
posted by Decani at 2:14 AM on October 19, 2014


There are different ways of knowing. Eventually most grown ups realize this. Welcome to the rest of humanity skeptic guy. Congrats on being married.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:28 AM on October 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


There are different ways of knowing. Eventually most grown ups realize this.

You're mistaken. "I know this because I want it to be true" is how children view the world. A large part of becoming an adult is coming to terms with the fact that our desires do not determine reality.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:53 AM on October 19, 2014 [20 favorites]


[A couple of comments deleted. Let's cut out the personal insults. ]
posted by taz (staff) at 3:00 AM on October 19, 2014


This is a good example of why a solid education - regardless if self-taught or through an institute - is so important. A firm grasp of, say, the cognitive sciences, statistics and the scientific method should make it obvious why this incident is more about how our buggy brains works and randomness in the universe rather than grandpas haunting radios. An enlightened person should be able to view even the most extraordinary personal experiences through a less egocentric lens that doesn't require them to throw out the very foundations of their knowledge simply because they experienced a very specific event that they personally can't make sense of.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 3:14 AM on October 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


"Knowing [x]" need not mean "understanding the objective explanation for [x]". Obviously, we should strive not to let our desires influence our judgment of scientific explanations.
posted by oliverburkeman at 3:22 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


You're relatively lucky, if the Science! Daleks merely confine themselves to informing you that what you clearly remember happened to you is "impossible". Normally they will tell you that you are an idiot and/or lying.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:31 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


You're relatively lucky, if the Science! Daleks merely confine themselves to informing you that what you clearly remember happened to you is "impossible". Normally they will tell you that you are an idiot and/or lying.

I'd like to say that this is the first time I've been called a genocidal monster for not simply accepting that people having strange experiences that they can't explain means that science is a lie and desire determines reality, but usually people stick with "fascist" or "Nazi" instead of going all galactic.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:47 AM on October 19, 2014 [33 favorites]


From the article: the universe, and the events of our lives, possess intelligence, consciousness, purpose. We are not the sole repositories of these qualities, surveying an alien universe of force and mass. We are at home in the universe.

From Ray Brassier's Nihil Unbound: "...there is a mind-independent reality, which, despite the presumptions of human narcissism, is indifferent to our existence and oblivious to the ‘values’ and ‘meanings’ which we would drape over it in order to make it more hospitable. Nature is not our or anyone’s ‘home’, nor a particularly beneficent progenitor. Philosophers would do well to desist from issuing any further injunctions about the need to re-establish the meaningfulness of existence, the purposefulness of life, or mend the shattered concord between man and nature. Philosophy should be more than a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem."
posted by Pyrogenesis at 3:49 AM on October 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


It's all like dark matter, maaaaan.
posted by telstar at 4:10 AM on October 19, 2014


Here's my latest "paranormal" story. I collect omens when I notice them, and check against what they seem to predict. It's a minor hobby of mine.

I have an older friend who is quite ill, with a disease that will almost certainly kill her, if complications of age don't do it first. I hear from her every few weeks, but not much lately because she's been much worse and can't talk on the phone.

Yesterday morning, I woke up early, and in that time between waking and the alarm, I was either awake wishing I was dreaming or dreaming I was awake wishing I was dreaming, and I heard a voice very clearly say "your friend is dead."

So I calked around noon, when I figured she or her husband would be awake, and she answered, and we had a nice 15 minute chat. So another failure for the omens.

Unless I assume the intent of the voice was to encourage me to call, which is getting dangerously into the No False Omen territory....
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:44 AM on October 19, 2014 [9 favorites]


I was brought up by someone who mistook schizophrenia for spirits, and lapses in memory for precognition. This, of course, is something I only started to realize in adolescence. So, while I am sympathetic to the reasons one might believe, or want to believe, I am of the firm opinion that people who believe in paranormal phenomena are deluded.
posted by smidgen at 4:53 AM on October 19, 2014


There is one primary unexplained phenomenon in my life. There are others, of course, as everyone has "weird" things happen to them, but the one that makes me itchy is the fact that, at the same time that my grandmother had a stroke, I fell out of the bed in my sleep for the only time in my adult life. I fell out of bed and woke up with a feeling of horrible doom, and a couple of hours later my mom discovered that my grandmother lying on the floor where she'd had a stroke, which doctors placed at 6:30, the same time that I fell out of bed.

The thing is, I know this is unexplained; I accept that it is unexplained; and I derive no real beliefs from it. I think about it, of course; maybe there are connections in our mind to those people with whom we share a strong emotional connection? But then nothing happened to me when my other grandmother died...

Life is weird. The mind is weird. The trouble comes in trying to fit pat theories on the universe in response to one of these outlier events, when there are so many possibilities. A radio started working, thus ghosts! is a ridiculous theory.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:29 AM on October 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


Growing up, I quite regularly glimpsed what I can only describe as a small apparition in our house. It was always the same apparition at the same location. Day or night. Rarely did I go a week without seeing it. It wasn't scary...just...odd. I never once told anyone about it because...well...you know. Straitjackets.

Anyway...Flash forward about 15 years or so, I am very recently married and my wife and I are sitting with both my parents at that same old house having a nice dinner together. Of course, mom and dad are doing their best to embarrass me to my wife with various stories of my childhood. In this spirit of walking-down-memory-lane, I speak up and tell about the apparition I constantly saw as kid.

Well, that brought the conversation to a screeching halt...crickets...

To my surprise, my parents said they had seen it, too. To my utter shock, my wife, who had only been visiting the house for just over a year, was wide-eyed amazed. She had seen it, too! Several times!

It was silent for awhile, and then we kind of went on to other topics.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:31 AM on October 19, 2014 [9 favorites]


Scientific American used to be a good magazine.
posted by grobstein at 5:32 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


Desperate times have arrived in the magazine business.

Also can we leave "indigenous people" out of this? You don't survive thousands of years subsisting in harsh environments without being scientific and rational in your practices, whatever philosophical, spiritual, metaphysical, or socially appropriate framing you surround those practices with.
Or as I've heard it put by more than one Native American colleague, where'd you get this idea that Indians don't like science or that their integration of spiritual and practical domains is somehow fundamentally different from any other human society's similar balance? As Pope Guilty eloquently says above, calling the modern west a "scientific" culture is clearly wishful thinking. We too sometimes treat scientists and shamans as indistinguishable.
posted by spitbull at 5:36 AM on October 19, 2014 [15 favorites]


Or in other words, modern indigenous communities are tired of representing the prelapsarian fantasies of white folks. Native people are modern too.
posted by spitbull at 5:38 AM on October 19, 2014 [19 favorites]


My mother has psychic experiences, which she calls 'feelings'. She'll get one and know, uncannily, that something is wrong and thereupon move heaven and earth to contact the person for whom she's experienced the 'feeling'.

There's just one tiny problem with her communications with the spirit realm - she has never in my entire life ever had a 'feeling' when anything was actually wrong. But I guarantee you that if she ever does get a 'feeling' and something does turn out to be wrong, she'll dine on that story for the rest of her life.

That's how I see these kind of tales - they're accounts from people who had a 'feeling' that coincided with an event once and have forgotten all the times it didn't.
posted by winna at 6:10 AM on October 19, 2014 [9 favorites]


Look at it this way: Barbas commands 36 legions of demons.

and they all have opinions and net accounts
posted by pyramid termite at 6:10 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


By now, I've met a number of people whose experience of unusual events has either led to or strengthened a supernatural belief. In every case, during (what I hoped were) respectful and engaged discussions, we established that the events in question really didn't provide evidence for those beliefs... but those beliefs didn't change.

Two examples: one person was living in a house in the 1980s where light bulbs kept blowing at random and the phone kept ringing at the same time every night - but nobody was ever on the line. This went on for some time and (they said) resisted investigation by the phone company and electricians. Therefore spooks.

Now: light bulbs blowing constantly can be a result of a number of things, some of which any electrician would have told them - but my friend says that their electrician was mystified. Conclusion: they never got an electrician in, or if they did he or she was utterly incompetent. As for the phone calls - I knew that at the time this was a generic problem from a kind of burglar alarm that used phone lines to call in to control with diagnostic information, but could dial incorrectly.If I knew this then most definitely the phone company (who provided the alarms in question) would... and in any case, phantom calls can be traced. Conclusion: my pal didn't call in the phone company either. I didn't voice my conclusions, merely presented the more probable explanations. Which my friend accepted as possible, but refused to be convinced by. Irrational to me, rational to him, but I don't think I'm the one being closed-minded.

Another was sadder: an evangelical Christian friend who was rather, shall we say, ardent in proclaiming his faith. In arguments over knowledge and faith, he said that he KNEW he was right (he had a habit of speaking in capitals) because he'd actually witnessed a resurrection.

Now this was quite something. Was this something metaphorical? No, someone had been clinically dead and was brought back by prayer and laying-on of hands. Was this someone long-dead or recently deceased? Couldn't say. Why weren't doctors there? There were, in fact, it was in a hospital.

Curious stuff, especially as our friend then got a bit circumspect about the exact details. It turned out that his wife was late-stage pregnant, but the baby stopped moving. They went to hospital, and the first doctor couldn't pick up a heartbeat. There was a pause while specialists were summoned and more equipment brought, during which husband and wife prayed. On the next test. there was a heartbeat, nothing untoward was found and in due course, a healthy baby turned up. Why didn't the doctors think this notable? Oh, they said that the heartbeat isn't always picked up in triage and that everything reported was within normal experience. He said he didn't believe that, and that the doctors were scared of the truth. Well.

I am sympathetic to people who believe in the supernatural, in psychic phenomena and in invisible powers beyond our knowledge. I would very much like these to be true, not out of any sense that there should be such things to provide purpose, immortality or divine justice (although as side effects, they're not bad) but because I am intensely curious about our existence and don't want to miss stuff.

But in my experience, humans are imperfect at truth. We are easily deluded and especially skilled (as Feynman said) at deluding ourselves. There's not much we can do about it, and it's often helpful in getting through this peculiar life with our tails held high. But if you actually want to dig down into what's going on and would like a pop at scratching beyond the surface, I am convinced that science is where it's at. It works, and there's proof, and we're living it.

Applying the principles of science to supernatural claims - because it works and there's proof it works - I have only ever found the human mind at work. Human minds that don't think mathematically, because we don't. Human minds that infer agency to events, because we are social animals and so much of our experience is due to agency. Human minds where love, hope and fear instruct our thoughts far more vigorously than frameworks of philosophy, because emotion is our raw material which logic only goes some way towards channeling. I have never found a supernatural event that has provided information unobtainable any other way. I have never found an anecdote that, where susceptible to investigation, stands up as an event inexplicable to, or even unlikely according to, science. (And I include such large collections as anecdote as, say, the Bible.)

There could be stuff out there, of course there could. I hope we find it, just as I hope we find that signal in the X-ray emissions of the sun that unlocks dark matter. The former just seems most unlikely, when other explanations - including for why we want this stuff to be true and will attempt to mold reality as a result - are much, much more likely.

Voltaire was right, and should have said so more starkly: God does not exist, and we have found it necessary to invent him.

(I will say that if I am utterly wrong and I do end up in the spirit world, I am delighted that wireless repair ghost is apparently an available career option. That's my eternity sorted.)
posted by Devonian at 6:11 AM on October 19, 2014 [12 favorites]


Did the History Channel buy Scientific American?
posted by bukvich at 6:37 AM on October 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


I was just coming here to post this. How's that for a coincidence? Spooky.
posted by chavenet at 6:39 AM on October 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


I fucking dare someone to tell me they can get in touch with my dad. Everything you need to find me is in my profile.

Until then, every single psychic that has ever lived is a theif.
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 6:42 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


You're relatively lucky, if the Science! Daleks merely confine themselves to informing you that what you clearly remember happened to you is "impossible". Normally they will tell you that you are an idiot and/or lying.

Heck, edheil went out of his way to connect the writer of this article to sexually predatory behavior, and over 30 users have favorited his comment so far. I know nothing about Michael Shermer, but it’s a hilarious comment on Metafilter’s “skeptic” group-think that such a libelous claim can be presented here with NO EVIDENCE, and everyone laps it up because it takes this guy down a few pegs.
posted by foot at 6:44 AM on October 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


By an eerie coincidence I recently had a conversation on this very topic.

Doing a podcast with a couple of philosophers was eye-opening, because there really is a much broader range of human experience and consideration out there than you tend to realize if you stay focused on naive materialism. It is very pigheaded to insist that every single person who has made an observation like this -- and there are millions of such people and millions of such observations, enough to fill thick books -- are all either stupid, crazy, or trying to pick your pocket. If those experiences do not add up to something that defies science, then their prevalence does add up to something deeply disturbing about the human condition. Because as the OP demonstrates anybody can have such an experience, and slieght of math is not adequate to explain them all away.
posted by localroger at 6:45 AM on October 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


I know nothing about Michael Shermer, but it’s a hilarious comment on Metafilter’s “skeptic” group-think that such a libelous claim can be presented here with NO EVIDENCE, and everyone laps it up because it takes this guy down a few pegs.

The evidence is to be found elsewhere, from the written reports of multiple women whom Shermer sexually assaulted. That's what makes this shit so unbelievably maddening: DON'T believe the women who say Shermer assaulted them; DO believe a sentimental ghost story.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:01 AM on October 19, 2014 [27 favorites]


It's obviously Richard Feynman screwing around from beyond the grave.
posted by TedW at 7:01 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I know nothing about Michael Shermer, but it’s a hilarious comment on Metafilter’s “skeptic” group-think that such a libelous claim can be presented here with NO EVIDENCE

Well I think that a lot of people here probably do know something about him.
posted by St. Sorryass at 7:02 AM on October 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


It is very pigheaded to insist that every single person who has made an observation like this -- and there are millions of such people and millions of such observations, enough to fill thick books -- are all either stupid, crazy, or trying to pick your pocket.

Fortunately, it is possible to say no such things about those who make such observations, without inferring that the observations reflect some objective exterior truth.

I don't understand what 'sleight of math' is, though. Is it incorrect math? Inappropriate? Examples, please!
posted by Devonian at 7:03 AM on October 19, 2014


I don't understand what 'sleight of math' is

Sure you do. Once it's established that someone like the OP is neither fraudulent nor stupid nor having some kind of hallucination, the next step is always that whatever happened isn't really so improbable because of the large number of opportunities for a coincidence to occur. The parade of people trying to math away the observation I describe in the podcast would have been comical if they hadn't all been so earnest and hostile.
posted by localroger at 7:10 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


the true nature of the universe is not only unknown to us, but unknowable
What does this even mean.
Sorry, but the true nature of the statement "the true nature of the universe is not only unknown to us, but unknowable" is not only unknown to us, but unknowable.
posted by Flunkie at 7:18 AM on October 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


Here's what the haunted radio looks like, by the way. It will be interesting to tell my husband, the electronics wizard, this story, since he's even at this moment actually out with a couple of friends celebrating the successful restoration of the innards of a much older, very rare radio.

At any rate, having watched him fix about a million things, I see items like this not working, then working, then not working again, etc., all the time while he is in the process of identifying and repairing/replacing the dodgy bits. It's a nice story, and a lovely bit of serendipity for the newlyweds, but nothing very weird at all, in my estimation.
posted by taz at 7:21 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


The parade of people trying to math away the observation I describe in the podcast would have been comical if they hadn't all been so earnest and hostile.

Yeah, and then they tried to logic away the observation. Bastards!
What's the quote about being unable to reason people out of a position they didn't reason themselves into?
posted by signal at 7:32 AM on October 19, 2014 [8 favorites]


trying to math away the observation

Wait, so is your claim that there are some types of events - statistical occurrences - that math cannot be correctly used to talk about? Is it important to take on faith that something is improbable, without applying any actual analysis to the probabilities in question? There are some random events that are unlikely, and we can talk all day about likelihood and populations and birthday paradoxes, but the things that are spooky unlikely also prevent you from doing math to them?

You know what's weird, is that there aren't any dead programmers who get the attention of their friends and family by causing hashing functions to collide unusually often. Seems like it'd be a pretty reliable method - someone would want to understand what was going on, people would go over the code and data, and they'd figure out that there's no rational explanation and have their eyes opened to the truth of spooky math.
posted by NMcCoy at 7:32 AM on October 19, 2014 [9 favorites]


proposing an explanation for events which you have no reason whatsoever to believe in except that you have been culturally primed with specific ideas about life after death.

I am primed with different ideas from my psychotherapy training and so suggest this explanation:
Mr. Shermer had a strong wish that his wife be happy on their wedding day and she had a strong wish for a sign of her grandfather's presence. These strong desires were sufficient to cause a PK reaction "fixing" the radio to fool and relieve them both. So, yes, it was paranormal in that desire affected matter, but their explanation was powered by their wish to delude themselves.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:33 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


If those experiences do not add up to something that defies science, then their prevalence does add up to something deeply disturbing about the human condition.

What do you mean by defying science? Do you mean unexplainable by science? Because that right there is the whole point. If you claim that these events are unexplainable by science, then you are making a substantive claim about the cause of such events. And why is your substantive claim that these things defy science better than some other claim, like a statistical explanation?

If you want to believe that the millions of weird things that people experience add up to something that defies science--perhaps a supernatural presence--then great. Science can't tell you that you are wrong (see the claim that God exists). And there will be others who embrace "naive materialism" who will explain these same things with known physical laws and statistics.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 7:34 AM on October 19, 2014


Presenting something as inexplicable and getting mad when people respond by offering several explanations, each of which you dismiss in sequence with special pleading followed by blanket condemnation of all explanatory schema, THAT is what just seems weird to me.

Maybe it's caused by ghosts.
posted by Scattercat at 7:49 AM on October 19, 2014 [12 favorites]


I really don't understand what you mean by 'sleight of math'.

An example of why I don't understand it, in supernatural terms. Intelligent design proponents claim that evolutionary theory is incorrect in claiming to explain certain complex features in organisms, because the probabilities of those happening are far rarer than the age of the universe and the incidence of mutation would allow. When evolutionary biologists say otherwise, the IDers would have it, they're using what I imagine you're defining as 'sleight of math', using numbers to wish away a fact.

The trouble is, when you actually run the numbers as carefully as possible, it turns out they're right and it is not only possible it is both probable and demonstrable in real experiments to show evolution working according to the numbers. The maths is, as far as scientifically determinable, correct.

So, for 'sleight of math' to be an incorrect approach, you do have to show why. That an awful lot of phenomena are explicable - or at least, well-describable - by maths is a fact of life, because maths is the language of science. Its ubiquity is not a failing.

I do have to ask again: what about a mathematical explanation renders it a sleight?
posted by Devonian at 7:49 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


I have virtually this same story, only the broken item was a TV and instead of happening during a wedding it came on while I was trying to sleep and played Saturday morning informercials, so rather than providing me with a meaningful, joyful experience, it merely annoyed me. I assume Scientific American will be contacting me forthwith to write the column.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:50 AM on October 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


Proper responses to all of the last few comments to me are contained in the podcast, and also in the kuro5hin thread which isn't that hard to look up. Having that conversation was a waste of time then and I'm not going to do it now.

I will summarize my final conclusion:

Science operates on the assumption that the universe is a big swarm of dumb particles interacting on simple principles which never vary, and this "world" thing in which we live is a phenomenon that emerges naturally from those simple interactions, and any unpredictability the world exhibits is due to the system's inherent chaos. Makes a lot of sense, really.

Now the Universe (or at least the part of it to which we have access) is finite. It's very big, but not so big that certain probability weird outs can't be so weird they have no business ever happening in such a small space. That so many people see so many such weird-outs could be due to perceptual bias or some other cognitive malfunction, but if so it would have to be a very common and dangerous malfunction, because shit like this happens a lot.

So, if there isn't something wrong that wrong with so many of us, is there an alternative? Well, there is. The Universe tells us a very convincing story about this big swarm of dumb particles, but it might only be a story, like the story our computer tells us about places like World of Warcraft or Second Life. Being much larger than the machines we build within it such a story might be told very convincingly, but being just a story it might provide for the occasional exception or hack. This is an idea which has occurred to other people, and the difficulty of telling whether it's really particles or a story about particles is generally called the "simulation paradox."

Science is helpless to investigate the simulation paradox because science only works if the Universe isn't such an exception-prone simulation. Science might still be very useful in such a simulation, as it has proven to be, but it might not be the last word for the same reason cheat codes and aimbots are a problem in video games.

Now one might ask why anyone would even consider such a crazy possibility, and the answer should be right in front of you; all kinds of weird stuff happen to a lot of people which make a lot more sense if the Universe permits exceptions or hacks, and we have the example in front of our faces of virtual worlds being built with the best possible verisimilitude for the purpose of having a constructed experience. So it's not like building such a simulation isn't something anyone would ever do; we've been doing it ever since the 1980's to the best of our ability.

Now, I do not believe the Universe is such a simulation, but I do accept the possibility that it might be, e.g. I do not believe the universe is strictly made of simple dumb particles. Sometimes one assumption is more useful than the other. At our current state of the art it is not possible to prove the situation either way but to stake out either of these two hills to die on at this point is self-limiting and reductionist.
posted by localroger at 7:53 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


The evidence is to be found elsewhere, from the written reports of multiple women whom Shermer sexually assaulted.

You’re right. I did some digging, and I had no idea that the skeptic & atheist communities were swarming with so many sexual predators and sexual assault claims.
posted by foot at 7:56 AM on October 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


I do not believe the universe is strictly made of simple dumb particles.

So what substrate is the simulation running on? Dumb particles, or another simulation? Turtles, etc.
posted by signal at 7:58 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


So what substrate is the simulation running on?

It doesn't really matter; obviously at some level it needs to be particles or something similar, just as World of Warcraft exists in a larger universe that might be simple and dumb. The importance is that exceptions are possible at the level where we live and they are likely to manifest in very abstract, computationally intense ways.
posted by localroger at 8:00 AM on October 19, 2014


Ghost always struck me as Not Even Wrong.

/science guy by training
posted by readyfreddy at 8:01 AM on October 19, 2014


Seems clear that Shermer is not saying "and that's when I realized grandpa had come back from the grave and was manipulating the radio." He's saying, "Even though I knew it was a coincidence, the experience carried an emotional weight that didn't depend on the explanation." Which is a completely legit thing to say and in no way conflicts with skepticism; it just restricts skepticism to its proper domain, which is telling us how to explain stuff, not telling us how to feel about stuff.

Comparison: we know that reading a poem or a story can make us feel a certain way. We may even feel that a long-dead author is communicating directly with us. On the one hand, science doesn't and almost surely can't have clear-cut answers as to how literature works. That doesn't mean it doesn't work. To say "You shouldn't have cried when that character died, he wasn't even a real person, he was just ink on a page" goes way past skepticism into, I don't know, some kind of hardcore anti-humanism.
posted by escabeche at 8:11 AM on October 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


Science is helpless to investigate the simulation paradox because science only works if the Universe isn't such an exception-prone simulation.

Dammit we're not supposed to talk about Roko's Basilisk.
posted by winna at 8:11 AM on October 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


The importance is that exceptions are possible at the level where we live and they are likely to manifest in very abstract, computationally intense ways.

So your argument is:

1) Weird stuff happens.
2) I reject any statistical explanations of said weirdness as 'sleight of math' because in my gut I know that something else is going on.
3) Therefore, we're living in a glitchy, undetectable simulation, presumably built and maintained by beings for reasons.
posted by signal at 8:12 AM on October 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


That is not what I said at all, signal, but it's obviously what you're going to read no matter what I write.
posted by localroger at 8:15 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


The Universe tells us a very convincing story about this big swarm of dumb particles, but it might only be a story, like the story our computer tells us about places like World of Warcraft or Second Life.

So some of us took the blue pill and some us took the red pill?
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 8:15 AM on October 19, 2014


I have virtually this same story, only the broken item was a TV and instead of happening during a wedding it came on while I was trying to sleep and played Saturday morning informercials
I hate to break it to you, but one of your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents really hates you.
posted by Flunkie at 8:17 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm really not clear how the fact that we can't prove whether we live in Beebe or the Demiurge has anything to do with whether or not statistics works. Yes, some things will likely be beyond our ability to explain, either because we don't have enough information (and can't go back in time to gather it) or because we don't have the time or computational ability to process all the possibilities. Shrugging and moving on seems like a more sensible approach than concluding "Therefore, ghosts" or "Therefore, The Matrix."
posted by Scattercat at 8:18 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


It does seem to me that the people who claim that phenomemon x "cannot be explained by science" are in fact trivializing their own beliefs and experience.

Science is the process of performing rigorous tests and analysis in order to gain a better understanding of the universe, and with that analysis produce models of that universe that make useful predictions. Scientists, in general, are immensely driven to figure out what's going on. Trying to understand unexplained phenomena in physics becomes the lifelong obsession of some people. If you present a scientist with "hey, there's something unusual going on here, and this is where our existing models do not correctly predict this outcome" they're gonna be all over that. I mean, sure, if you call it ghosts they'll laugh at you, but if you point out data that is literally unexplained by science then scientists will pay a hell of a lot of attention. Think about all of the spooky unexplained things that scientists investigated in the past that opened up entire fields of study - magnetism, for example. These rocks spookily attract each other of their own volition! Science has no explanation for it - yet! Do you think any scientist worth their salt would turn down the opportunity to make a discovery as big as that?

There's a lot of unsolved problems in physics, and lots of people working very hard on all of them. If someone claimed that the ghost of their dead grandfather was responsible for baryon asymmetry, that hypothesis would be summarily dismissed due to lack of any evidence for it, but that wouldn't stop scientists from trying to figure out the phenomenon itself.

If you say that something simply cannot be explained by science, then isn't that in fact a claim that "this has no effect that meaningfully impacts any of the fields of scientific study"?
posted by NMcCoy at 8:19 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


So some of us took the blue pill and some us took the red pill?

Well if we'd taken the red pill we'd know. But The Matrix is one of the better fictional examples of the paradox, and a very old one being essentially a Gnostic gospel.

One difference between myself and the Gnostics is that I don't consider it inherently evil or deceptive for the Universe to be a simulation, any more than it's evil or deceptive for my computer to do its best to portray a 3D world for me to interact with. The fact that it's a "lie" really only becomes of interest when I suspect someone is using an aimbot, which is not supposed to exist within that particular story.
posted by localroger at 8:20 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


> "That so many people see so many such weird-outs could be due to perceptual bias or some other cognitive malfunction, but if so it would have to be a very common and dangerous malfunction ..."

There are, not incidentally, entire fields of cognitive science which show with a good deal of evidence that this is, in fact, the case. I could dig up some links when I have more time if you like.
posted by kyrademon at 8:21 AM on October 19, 2014 [11 favorites]


Anytime I've heard stories like this growing up was when kids would play with a ouija board during a sleepover. One girl said that she contacted a dead aunt and the room smelled of roses, which the aunt used to bring to the house. Another claimed that the piece began wigging out and moving under its own power.

I'm just astonished that Parker Brothers would market and sell a cordless phone to Hades without a warning sticker or something.
posted by dr_dank at 8:24 AM on October 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


Which is a completely legit thing to say and in no way conflicts with skepticism; it just restricts skepticism to its proper domain, which is telling us how to explain stuff, not telling us how to feel about stuff.

Which is really interesting to think about in the context of the accusations against him of sexual assault and harassment: if he feels that those incidents were consensual (or didn't happen at all), then those feelings must be accorded weight. I wonder if he believes the same thing about the women's feelings.
posted by rtha at 8:24 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


I happen to comfortably live on both sides of this particular fence. I should be the penultimate skeptic, engineer for decades, many of that dealing with stochastic processes and probability, but as I've grown older, my skeptical side has softened considerably.

Like others, I've had those inexplicable events. Is the rational conclusion that those events are coincidences, or are the result of other mundane physical processes? Absolutely, but (and here's where some skeptics often miss the point), the experiences were real *to me* and have special meaning *to me*. Now, I also completely agree with the skeptic community that trying to use these types of events to further some agenda or to try and foist some belief system on others is misguided and wrong. Or just generally, it makes no sense to try and extrapolate some larger objective meaning from these events (though it's valid to assign subjective meaning).

I think I'm trying to say that there is a difference from what is "observed" and what is "felt", and that people can confuse the two. The objective reality of the observed is something that science can analyze and define. And even though science recently has begun to explain what it means to "feel" something, that does not translate as insight as to what is actually felt by that person at that moment. In the future, science might even be able to explain what it was that was felt in the moment, but that explanation would still not invalidate the actual feeling.

As a more concrete example: If an event occurred that made me feel there was evil presence in the basement, I will still feel dread when I consider going down into the basement. A rationalist (as I happen to be), may press on and work to overcome that dread. But, most skeptics would yield if by sheer (bad) luck, something seriously untoward happened three, four, five times in a row of trying to disprove the link between the event, the dread, and the basement.

Or to say it another way, because humans feel and are innate pattern matchers, it is pretty much a probablistic certainty that many will hold non-rational beliefs because of the sheer enormity of emotionally important coincidences that can occur. The world would be nicer place if the believers would not try to foist their emotional constructs on to the rest of us, but I also think that skeptics should be more accepting that many people come to these beliefs legitimately.

So my long winded point is that people feel real things from random events. Saying essentially "you should not feel that way because the event was random" is just as wrong as someone saying "I saw Jesus in my Doritos so you should believe as well".
posted by forforf at 8:25 AM on October 19, 2014 [8 favorites]


I have no problem believing we're living in a glitchy simulation where the glitches mess with science. Because we are, and it's called consciousness, and there's lots of evidence for this.

I just don't see what the point is creating a second layer of the same, with none.
posted by Devonian at 8:26 AM on October 19, 2014 [16 favorites]


(I mean, maybe I'm wrong, maybe he does think that his experience means that a paranormal explanation is a possible or even likely one for what happened here. But he doesn't say that anywhere that I can see.)

Right. The cryptic and ambiguous conclusion absolutely doesn't endorse paranormal explanation or whatever, but is deliberately coy about what kind of space is being carved out for "savoring the experience"--enough so that the Reality Sandwich guy hears an implicit endorsement of "synchronicity." But if the piece really just sketches the idea that life is big enough that we can have (and fully savor) "anomalous experiences" without then subscribing to paranormal explanations or whatever, Shermer is getting it across in a maximally, and surely deliberately, oblique way.

The other thing that's striking about the piece, as Sonny Jim points to above, is that the core of the story is this really hackneyed sentimental ghost story. It's almost like a lesser Rod Serling or Charles Beaumont story, where the smug "explanationist" is chastened and made newly alive in the enactment of a folk mystery.

Shermer has got to be trolling. To what end, who knows, and, frankly, who cares?
posted by batfish at 8:26 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I would like to say that whether Schemer is or isn't a sexual predator has exactly nothing to do with the main argument going on here, and considering their enthusiasm for maintaining civil discourse in other threads I am mildly astonished that the mods have let those comments stand.
posted by localroger at 8:30 AM on October 19, 2014


I dreamed Elaine Stritch died and then I woke up and found out that Elaine Stritch had died the same night I dreamed it.

What are the submission guidelines for "Gee-What-a-Coincidence American?"

Holy fuck, the lengths humans will go to in order to avoid understanding coincidence, probability, and their nigh-complete irrelevance to all the shit that has ever happened or will ever happen in the known universe are embarrassing.
posted by tzikeh at 8:30 AM on October 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


Shermer is getting it across in a maximally, and surely deliberately, oblique way.

Absolutely...his piece ends with: we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious.

It isn't clear at all what he is trying to say here. Is he just saying sometimes it is great to let yourself "feel" mysterious connections and gather deep meaning from them, just for fun? Or is he implying that science needs to make substantive space for supernatural claims?
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 8:33 AM on October 19, 2014


I mean, I'm really prone to skepticism (even cynicism, if I'm being fair). I don't deny the possibility of emotional resonance - I even embrace it, for myself. I talk to inanimate objects and allow myself to feel irritated with them when they malfunction, as though they were capable of acting deliberately to thwart me. This is not true, but I can't stop myself from perceiving it that way, and it eases frustration to just call the washing machine an asshole when it refuses to unlock the lid.

But it would be extremely silly for me to insist that other people call my possessions by the names I give them or take care of their "feelings." The drive to narrative and anthropomorphism is a central feature of the monkey-brain; insisting that the existence of the ability to detect coincidences and impute motivations in a social primate means that the Universe had a Plan or that there has to be some deeper meaning behind it seems to be making things unnecessarily complicated.

And Shermer being an asshole who tends to dismiss other people's evidences is relevant insofar as he wants to agitate for people to accept his experiences and narratives as valid.
posted by Scattercat at 8:37 AM on October 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


if he feels that those incidents were consensual (or didn't happen at all), then those feelings must be accorded weight.

This comment wasn't directed at me, but in my opinion, yes his feelings should be given some weight, but with two very important conditions. The first (and lesser of the two), is that his feelings were felt only by him and his feelings do not give him license to do whatever he wants. The second (and much more important) is that the victim's feelings should be given even greater consideration , especially if the goal is an objective outcome (i.e., justice).
posted by forforf at 8:40 AM on October 19, 2014


but as I've grown older, my skeptical side has softened considerably.

Mine too, even though you wouldn't perhaps glean that from my comments here. And you know why? Because I am getting older---and entering those decades where sudden death or a slow horrible death isn't so anomalous anymore. And everything just seems so much more fragile. I have even thought about going back to church--just to "feel" it again. But it would have to be a grand church---like a beautiful cathedral---because I want to really feel it.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 8:44 AM on October 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


different ways of knowing

This exact phrase has shown up here twice, now. What does it mean?

whether Schemer is or isn't a sexual predator has exactly nothing to do with the main argument going on here, and considering their enthusiasm for maintaining civil discourse in other threads I am mildly astonished that the mods have let those comments stand

Except the comment that originally brought it up did so as a potential window (however spurious in [naive] reality) on his motivations for writing this story in the first place.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:45 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


I went out last night for another episode of a rolling wake that's been going on for almost two years now, an evening of food and company and conversation and victuals with people I either never knew or barely knew before the person at the center of this curious new orbit flashed away into death, leaving a void that we all still orbit. We met, and moved closer in, solely because our friend was gone, shot to death by a gun slipping in a laundry basket on another floor of a house he was visiting, and we moved to clear out his house for his mother, and before long, there was a standing appointment that we have all honored since. It's not a glum occurrence—we all have just come to love the things about each other that our friend loved about us.

Of course, he and I had been estranged for twenty-seven years, largely because he was my first true and proper love, in that old sad story of what happens when a guy falls in love with his best friend and everything's just impossible and wrong, but my friend come alive again since, in the form of stories told, complaints exchanged, and discoveries made about how those we love and lose live on through the software they built into our systems.

Then, just this year, one of the most stalwart of our group died suddenly, his heart going wrong and clattering to a stop at the dinner table with his wife and four young children, at 39.

I was devastated, having just met and become the friend of another of those kinds of people who was properly described as a force of nature, as rich and complex and awesome as a summer storm, and our group was just struck into a funk by the absurdity of it all…and then we took in more members for our march around the world. What's interesting, having to process grief on such scales, is the difference in skepticism among our number.

I believe in nothing, myself. I believe we are made of software, running on machines, and that the end of our run is the end of everything for us, and that's all there is. Inasmuch as we live on, it's through the good and bad things we give to others, and how they pick up that line of execution and carry it forward.

Many of my friends are more prone to the mystical, and are more comforted by the notion of afterlives and interested parties checking in on us. My skeptic hates this and my poet loves this.

This, of course, is my point of understanding, because I believe in science and data and the whirling cold clockwork wonder of the world and I believe in poetry, too, as raw and shaggy as cartoon bears tap-dancing wildly to Jelly Roll Morton on layers of swiftly tilting daydreams, and there is no need for reconciliation, except when one of the two planes seeks to assert control and authority over the other. Poetry will never explain the orbit of objects in space, tangled up in realms of gravitational influence, and strict rationality will never explain why the image I plucked out of the air just now was of cartoon bears tap-dancing wildly to Jelly Roll Morton on layers of swiftly tilting daydreams. The two are perfect, interlocked in our software like the sweeping tails of the taijitu, and are necessary to human life with no need for dominance on either side.

So, as I'm struggling through a white russian, a raucous chatterbox at a table of raucous chatterboxes, when the widow of our most recent casualty describes having visited a psychic who told her that her husband is somewhere, looking out for her, and that someone else is there…a man with a name that's a V, or maybe a D…with an arm around him, and that they are both okay—

My internal skeptic rolls his eyes, but wisdom tells me that it's really none of my business to decide what should be another person's process, and what's comforting for some does not need to be comforting for me, and so I just listen, and surrender, for the moment, to poetry, and see the light in her eyes as something that is as real as it needs to be. I have no need to force the proof and challenge the moment, and I have the resources to embrace the unlikely branching vines of poetry unfolding around the architecture of the mechanical world and, for that moment, I can just climb and climb and climb until I, too, can break through the clouds and feel the warm sun on my face.

Whether it's best for us as a species to cling to things like this is another question, and yet, someone we loved and who loved us is gone, suddenly and without warning or fairness, and that is why we walk in two interlocking worlds, and what makes humans so difficult and amazing.

I think about my friend often, occasionally with the little stabbing instant of pain over how I never had the courage to tell him why we couldn't be friends anymore, and I think of my new friend, and feel the grinding frustration to have made a new friend and had all the richness and fun of a blooming friendship torn away by nothing more important than a glitch in the body's hardware.

Are they looking in on me? Can they see me through it?

If I listen, will I hear them?

When my father died in his own glitch seventeen years ago, I knew then and I know still that the available evidence makes it abundantly clear that his software stumbled and dissolved into a million little failing subroutines as the machinery of his brain lay with his shuddering body on the floor of his office, next to the settling leaves of his newspaper and the shards of his favorite coffee mug and the Rorschach arc of instant coffee hurled into the grimy fibers of a worn out golden rug, with my mother running in, in cinematic slow motion, crying his name. I know that he is gone, and yet—

One of our longest battles was a twenty year argument over the firebombing of Dresden, and it was a cantankerous, ridiculous, fever-pitched ongoing dispute that would flare up unexpectedly at birthday dinners and family reunions and days around the office that everyone in the family was exhausted at having seen except for the two of us, because we loved the fight, and loved the engagement and the spit and the fervor and the conversational violence of it all. In retrospect, I think it's one of those ways fathers and sons bond, through our mutual commitment to pointlessly digging in our heels, and we never soft-pedaled our way through; reading up, building cases, seeking out the other's weak points.

In the harsh, troubled year after my father died, when I was stuck extracting something from the ruins of the collapsing family business that had been one of the agents of his demise, and was doubly stuck, because my process for working my way through grief was so alien to the rest of my family, my dad started to visit me.

He'd show up at the door in my dreams, carrying a bucket of tools and wearing his old overalls with one broken strap and a big splortch of black on his ass where he'd sat in roofing tar, and he'd talk to me about plumbing and carpentry and all the things he really loved doing before the family business had grown to take over his whole life and keep him forever as a salesman in a Brooks Brothers three-piece suit. He'd explain the tricks and deeper processes of assembling raw copper pipe and fittings into networks of flowing water, and I'd always want to ask questions about other things, and about, well—

As a sleepwalker, I'd stagger through my darkened apartment, acting out aspect of these dreams, and my ex, who'd returned temporarily from setting out on his own life to comfort me through the wreck of the family, would patiently shape those somnambulist ballets, guiding me back to bed, and we'd spoon with the dog at our feet and my father would put his tools in his bucket and leave the dream.

Then, there was one last visit. I answered a ringing phone in the dream, and it was my dad.

"Son, I've been talking to some people from Dresden here, and I think you might have been right."

I was sitting on the end of my bed, clutching the black handset of my old rotary phone in the real world, and it was making that horrible bzzt-bzzt-bzzt that phones make to tell you that you've left them off the hook.

"Joe? Who are you talking to?" Paul asked, as I was sitting there in that inexplicable place between places.

"My dad called, about Dresden."

"Dresden? Why weren't you fighting?"

I was slipping sideways back into myself, and the room sort of took shape around me out of a blur, with Paul sitting beside me on the bed and the phone making that horrible noise and the dog snoring just behind me.

"He said I was right," I said, and suddenly my face was wet. My ex slung an arm around my shoulder.

My dad was probably lying, of course. He rarely backed down that easily, and yet, he would surrender, sometimes, when that was the kindest course of action, but he was imaginary, of course, just a construct of poetry, all metaphor and angles and the perfect word at the perfect moment, and he is still as dead as was. I hung up the phone, took my place as the big spoon, and faded into a perfect void.

I have never dreamed of him since.

Not long after, though, in the process of moving and resurrecting the family business in a much smaller, much more mobile framework, so that my mother would have an income, I needed to come up with a complex temperature-regulated water supply manifold to feed the smaller microfilm processor that we could fit into the compact rented space we moved into after we liquidated the bulk of the business.

I cut a piece of three-quarter marine plywood, sketched out my design, mounted a series of blocks hold the works together, and in an afternoon, constructed a complex temperature-regulated water supply manifold that was a masterpiece of plumbing art, with beautiful lines and elegant curves and absolutely perfect little beads of silver solder around each joint and the chromed regulator mechanism with its dials and gauge like the face of a temple idol. I'd painted the plywood an apple green and done the little finishing flourishes that my father always did, because he was, at his heart, a craftsman. It was my first-ever piece of plumbing work and it was adept.

My mother looked in and raised an eyebrow.

"How on earth did you manage to build this?"

"I have no idea," I said. "Turns out that I'd been paying attention all those years."

I thought, on some level, how absurd it would be if there was an afterlife, and if my father had crossed those boundaries to come to me and teach me how to be a plumber in my dreams, and it struck me that it's all poetry, all the magic of that unreconcilable aspect of being, because I'd obviously learned plumbing from watching my father, despite my then-haughty protests about how I was never, ever going to be anything as mundane as a tradesman, and I had masses of other experience with mechanical work, and my brain, running its software, made it all come together even as poetry made it all distinct and mystical and glorious. The two can't be reconciled, and they don't need to be, either, when they work together so beautifully.

There's no reason for "or" when "and" works so well.

So I remain a skeptic, and I remain a poet, and nothing is forbidden and everything is true, and the voice of my father, carried along in all the subroutines he left running in the operating system of a wet and haphazard biological computer, sometimes says "I told you so," ever so quietly, leaving me to grin and keep on pushing forward.

Science explains the possible, poetry redeems the absurd, and reason and love and precision and gentleness bring it all together, so that this clockwork world of probability can be as magical as it is functional.

When the phone rings, just as I pick it up, I occasionally wonder—
posted by sonascope at 8:47 AM on October 19, 2014 [59 favorites]


That so many people see so many such weird-outs could be due to perceptual bias or some other cognitive malfunction, but if so it would have to be a very common and dangerous malfunction, because shit like this happens a lot.

I think you've glossed over the more likely explanation here. Humans have a lot of common, dangerous malfunctions that cause us a lot more harm (on an individual, evolutionary-selection-pressure level) than a bug that makes some people believe in ghosts. And there are a lot of well-documented, very common cognitive biases that can be readily shown to be dangerous in certain circumstances.
posted by NMcCoy at 8:49 AM on October 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


When it became clear to Barbas that the couple wasn't going to give him the respect due a demon of his station, he went back and broke the radio again.

I see what you did there.
posted by solotoro at 8:50 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


You're relatively lucky, if the Science! Daleks merely confine themselves to informing you that what you clearly remember happened to you is "impossible". Normally they will tell you that you are an idiot and/or lying.

But that's not what happens. What happens is this:

Credulous: "Paranormal Thing happened!"
Science Dalek: "No, Normal Thing happened."
Credulous: "But Totally Made Up Thing is the only explanation!"
Science Dalek: "Probably not. More likely is something really boring. The Universe is a cold and unfeeling place and you are a microscopic entity within it, sorry."

The idiocy is in attaching paranormal explanations to events.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:52 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


>So what substrate is the simulation running on? Dumb particles, or another simulation? Turtles, etc.

"A universal quantum computer, capable of rendering any physically possible environment, that exists near the end of spacetime in every universe and is maintained by sentient beings with the knowledge required to increase its memory, computing cycles, and energy supply." (source)
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 8:54 AM on October 19, 2014


For all this yammering nobody's taken me up on my dare. Sure, it was hostile but if you can actually commune with the spirits the only one who's going to look like an idiot is me.

Or do I need to wear a racist-ass turban or some shit?
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 8:56 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Doing a podcast with a couple of philosophers was eye-opening, because there really is a much broader range of human experience and consideration out there than you tend to realize if you stay focused on naive materialism.

Maybe a tangent and somewhat unrelated: philosophers who reject materialism are dime a dozen. This does not mean that they are into the paranormal or the unexplainable. The reason is rather that 'materialism' as a philosophical concept is different from the commonsensical one. The commonsense one is roughly that materialism = science, and therefore opposition to materialism = the supernatural. But many philosophers are against materialism because in fact it may easily turn out to be a form of idealism (i.e. the world is thought). I'm sort of busy right now so I have no time to explain it with my own words, so here are two quotes from... er... Laclau? Maybe. Anyway:

"Philosophers of antiquity are also predominantly idealist. Both Plato and Aristotle identified the ultimate reality of an object with its form—that is, with something ‘universal’, and hence conceptual. If I say that this object which is in front of me is rectangular, brown, a table, an object, etc. each of these determinants could also be applied to other objects—they are then ‘universals’, that is form.

[...]

It is important to note that, from this point of view, what has been traditionally called ‘materialism’ is also to a great extent idealist. ‘Atomism alleges that this thing, the atom, is the ultimate reality. Let it be so. But what is this thing? It is nothing but a congeries of universals, such perhaps as “indestructible”, “indivisible”, “small”, “round”, etc. All these are universals, or thoughts. “Atom” itself is a concept. Hence even out of this materialism proceeds idealism."
posted by Pyrogenesis at 9:19 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


>>I have virtually this same story, only the broken item was a TV and instead of happening during a wedding it came on while I was trying to sleep and played Saturday morning informercials

>I hate to break it to you, but one of your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents really hates you.


I suspect is was the Invisible Hand of the Market urging you to buy something, anything to keep the system afloat. Unlike God and ghosts, that Hand is always rooting around in someone's pocket.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:26 AM on October 19, 2014


So, for 'sleight of math' to be an incorrect approach, you do have to show why.

to my knowledge, no one's come up with any numbers for the set of "random happening in the world against which we are going to measure a certain odd coincidence", or "odd coincidences that have happened"

so if it can't be quantified, then any mathematical explanation is "sleight of math"
posted by pyramid termite at 9:41 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


if so it would have to be a very common and dangerous malfunction

Uh... Turn to Fox News sometime. rationality is something that needs to be learned, it does not come naturally, at, all.
posted by smidgen at 9:44 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


to my knowledge, no one's come up with any numbers for the set of "random happening in the world against which we are going to measure a certain odd coincidence", or "odd coincidences that have happened"

That's as much an argument against the "you can't explain that!" crew as for. I mean, localroger hasn't provided any numbers for how many of his fabulous occurrences happen all the time, despite saying that they happen more than you would expect (pretty loose language).
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:47 AM on October 19, 2014


Anyway, as an addition to what I said above: one of the more recent and more famous anti-materialist stances in philosophy of science is what is called 'structural realism'. Here's a book about it [pdf]. And it is as pro-science as it can be. A very crude summary: as far as scientific theories go, materialism is false because there are no things, only explanations of persistent structure.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 9:50 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


Nobody's come up with any numbers?

Oh, but they have. Studies on intercessory prayer, or the Princeton PEAR to name but two. They may not have come up with any number for "radios bursting into life on wedding days", but, like the Drake Equation, there's no reason you couldn't have a go. We can have a lot of fun arguing about that before geting anywhere close to applying it, but to say there are things going on that probability maths doesn't explain - well, nobody's found anything like that yet where actual maths exists.

Where there are large data sets and a decent methodology, then there's no evidence of anything untowards happening. Where there are not, you are free to argue that magic is happening - you are free to argue that anyway - but it's very much a ghost of the gaps and thus unconvincing to those looking for a way to move the argument forward.
posted by Devonian at 9:55 AM on October 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


>>different ways of knowing

>This exact phrase has shown up here twice, now. What does it mean?


It means that there is more than one way of approaching the world. In the West, we tend to get told that Science and Technology explain and solve (or will explain and solve) everything, and any other system is incomplete, inaccurate, or both. I have complicated feelings about this.

On the one hand, it doesn't take a lot of attention to realize that the scientific method is, indeed, the best way of getting at how the world works. People have always informally formed hypotheses and tested them, but a rigorous process is the key to real progress. However,

We often fetishize science and, worse, scientists, accepting statement by their authority rather than seeing with our own eyes and thinking through the problems on our own. We ignore that, while science is neutral and objective, scientists, being human, rarely are either, and the scientific method works poorly if we are asking the wrong the wrong questions or assuming settled truth where none exists. Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man is a collection of essays on some of the ways science has gone wrong around race, for example. Then there is the problem of applied science people, notably doctors and engineers, who speak with the authority of science (often outside their expertise) despite not actually "doing science."

There's also the tendency to assume that, because the modern West has done so well with science and the technology that we've produced that our other philosophical and cultural stances are equally valid and valuable. That Christianity, Capitalism, and Individualism define the world just like science does, and that's an unwarranted leap. I think we lose out as a species when we let one approach to the world conquer everything. It makes us less flexible with fewer tools to address the crises and contradictions that arise in our political, social, and philosophical systems.

Additionally, while science explains the natural world pretty well, it has boundaries beyond which it is much less useful and is even harmful. Economists like to pretend that their predictions and recommendations are based solely on objective science rather than social and cultural ideas that have no more validity than any other. Applying science to society (along with a big dollop of 19th C racism and classism) gave us the abomination of "Social Darwinism" and the horrors of Eugenics (despite the good intentions of either). When science gets out of its boundaries, it becomes a more subtle form of pseudoscience.

So, "other ways of knowing" are well worth looking at. The taxonomies (say, of birds or plans) of indigenous peoples are not "wrong" because they arise from use rather than genetic similarity. The idea of "no self" is not less real than the idea of "the rugged individual." The belief that where you live is important because that is where you ancestors crawled out of the earth or were created or dropped from the sky may be disprovable in some sense but in another explains in a very helpful way social dynamics and political aspirations may play out. And telling people the way they view the world is stupid and wrong is rarely a good way to get the best outcome.

However, I have seen "other ways of knowing" presented as a reason why, say, students on reservations shouldn't study science or people in an immigrant community should rely solely on the neighborhood herbalist or priest rather than go to the hospital or a therapist. And those are troubling, because they almost always lead to damaged lives and lost opportunities. So while it's wrong to think that science has all the answers, it's also wrong to think that it doesn't often have the answer, especially within its appropriate range.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:05 AM on October 19, 2014 [9 favorites]


sonascope: That was a great read. Thanks.
posted by vernondalhart at 10:10 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


Where there are large data sets and a decent methodology, then there's no evidence of anything untowards happening.

the PEAR study seems to indicate that there was

"The observed effects were usually quite small, of the order of a few parts in ten thousand on average, but they compounded to highly significant statistical deviations from chance expectations. "

as far as the prayer studies are concerned, some do and some don't, but i have to point out that there can't be anything like a control group for this, because someone might be praying for the members of the control group and you wouldn't know about it

They may not have come up with any number for "radios bursting into life on wedding days", but, like the Drake Equation, there's no reason you couldn't have a go.

assumptions in, assumptions out
posted by pyramid termite at 10:16 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


confident that the true nature of the universe is not only unknown to us, but unknowable

What does this even mean.

I thought it was pretty self I explanatory, but I'm glad to elaborate. I'll put it this way: do you think a dog is capable of understanding the nature of reality I.e. physics, mathematics, etc.? Of course not. So why assume we have met the necessary threshold of intelligence? In the big scheme of things , humans and dogs are probably a lot closer to each other, intellectually, than we are to certain beings out there in the universe. So if there's a threshold of intelligence which one must reach to be capable of understanding the laws of nature (such as all the ones we have yet to discover), and we're not at the top of the continuum, then...you see where I'm going with this by now.
posted by Edgewise at 10:54 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I would like to say that whether Schemer is or isn't a sexual predator has exactly nothing to do with the main argument going on here

No, but the fact that he's an asshole, and has been since anyone in the skeptical "community" can remember, taints everything he says with the suspicion that there must be some ulterior malevolent motive behind it. Plus, Shermer isn't really a skeptic to begin with, he belongs to the one religion that MetaFilter freely mocks: libertarianism. He may feel like he's experiencing some kind of awakening, but he's just figuring out what everyone else already knew, that he's just as credulous as the rest of us.
posted by klanawa at 11:06 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


...with whether or not statistics works.

I think I should make clear that in the train wreck which developed after I made the mistake of offering a specific example on kuro5hin, it was not me who was arguing that statistics do not work.

The example I offered, which is just one of many from my notebooks, was of a series of Tarot card readings and so is very amenable to having numbers applied to it, contrary to the more usual situation pyramid termite describes. And it's a fairly straightforward permutation problem to establish that nothing like that should have ever happened in the history of such a young and small Universe.

The sleight of math consisted of attempts to reduce this improbability by broadening the number of possible things that might seem similarly unlikely. The thing is I do know this math and such arguments amount to pissing into a hurricane. The whole reason you do a Tarot reading is to observe the positions of the cards, so cards lining up in the same position on multiple readings is a primary phenomenon. Once it became clear that I was both not an idiot and not persuaded by this line of reasoning, as knocking even three or four orders of magnitude off of a 4-digit exponent is pretty meaningless, as I describe in the podcast the attack switched to my card shuffling abilities.

And y'all really should listen to the podcast. After the excerpt from my interview Pete and Richard switch to a conversation with Gregg Caruso where a major thread is that skeptics and "new atheists" aren't nearly as new as they think they are, tend to be remarkably ignorant of philosophy, and are remarkably assholish about throwing their ignorance around as if it is ultimate knowledge.

I am remarkably ignorant of philosophy myself, but at least not so ignorant as to not know I am ignorant which is probably why my conversation with Pete and Richard went pretty well.
posted by localroger at 11:15 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


You don't survive thousands of years subsisting in harsh environments without being scientific and rational in your practices, whatever philosophical, spiritual, metaphysical, or socially appropriate framing you surround those practices with.

Yes. To be an effective hunter gatherer, for example, requires exquisite attention to detail and the ability to understand how the observed physical evidence relates to the possible explanations. How many animals are in a herd, their age and size, where they've come from and where they're going, whether any are pregnant, whether any are injured and in what way, how long it's been since they've had food or water, and many other important facts become apparent from reasoning about the evidence they leave behind them. We often stereotype indigenous peoples as being somehow more connected to nature in a vaguely spiritual or ethical or cultural sense, but whether that's true or not, their most tangible connection to nature is in their deep functional understanding of its minute details.

By contrast, for someone who lives in a modern society to assume that a ghost turned on the radio from beyond the grave is an abdication of intellectual curiosity about how radios actually work. Unlike the the spiritual flavoring that goes along with indigenous practices, this non-explanation is not associated with any practical skills related to the building or repairing of radios.
posted by hyperbolic at 11:19 AM on October 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


If you have ever said "I love you," and meant it, you have experienced a irrational epistemology.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:40 AM on October 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


if there's a threshold of intelligence which one must reach to be capable of understanding the laws of nature (such as all the ones we have yet to discover), and we're not at the top of the continuum, then...you see where I'm going with this by now.

I see where you are going, but you have not even remotely done the math to get there, i.e. you started with a conclusion and said some words and called it good.

Economists like to pretend that their predictions and recommendations are based solely on objective science rather than social and cultural ideas that have no more validity than any other. Applying science to society (along with a big dollop of 19th C racism and classism) gave us the abomination of "Social Darwinism" and the horrors of Eugenics (despite the good intentions of either). When science gets out of its boundaries, it becomes a more subtle form of pseudoscience.

Gets out of its boundaries? The things you mention aren't failures of the scientific method, they are rationalizations of human desire with an appeal to science as a substitute deity. I don't think that proves anything about said method as a way of discovering causal mechanisms in a repeatable manner, in which endeavor the scientific method is without peer.

If you have ever said "I love you," and meant it, you have experienced a irrational epistemology.

Deep, man.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 11:45 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


The thing is, there really are different ways of knowing: positivistic science is one way of knowing which tends to produce reliable knowledge about the material world, with the human/social sciences being one notable (but only partial) exception.

And there are issues even with positivist science. For instance, depending on the field, it may under-emphasize the potential benefits of using inductive investigative logic in favor of deduction, or vice-verse. It may have a slight bias toward covering laws, or nomothetic principles, which could deter investigators from being open to exceptional cases that could prove new rules. It may be too interested in establishing causes to properly characterize what's actually happening in the first place. Not that it's fundamentally flawed or anything, at least in my opinion, or that those three items I just listed are serious problems everywhere, but there are meaningful discussions one can have about the relative merits of different explanatory frameworks or modes.

However, the kind of thing under discussion here is not explanation. If you're interested in explanation, you're equally interested in what is true and how the determination of truth has been arrived at. What's being discussed here is magical thinking, which is a hermeneutic style in which trivial events and coincidences are interpreted as evidence of something that people already want to believe for emotional reasons.

This kind of thing ("Grandpa made the radio work! Grandma made that creaking noise in the house just when I was thinking about her!") seems like explanation because it links a cause with an event, but it's not. I find that it's best not to argue with people about claims like this, because they are invariably arguing (from their perspective) that their feelings and knowledge are connected in some intimate and mysterious way that nobody else has a right to question. You never get anywhere with them because they're only ever really talking about their feelings, and so you have to address them in emotional terms rather than empirical ones just to have a real conversation in the first place.

And that's something that's worth knowing about people. Understanding how people operate, why we do things like conflate knowledge and emotion, is also an empirical matter, I would argue, and being nasty or dismissive to actual persons just because they have different epistemic priorities is often perceived as unkind. Of course, that's unlikely to be helpful if you're trying to convince someone that no, their dead uncle didn't actually reach into the world of the living from The Other Side just to make a sparrow land on a branch, but I think it's important to keep in mind when we talk about what these claims mean in a broader sense.
posted by clockzero at 11:47 AM on October 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


I thought the Shermer-as-sexual-predator thing was common knowledge, or at least easily enough googled that it wouldn't rustle any jimmies as being a crazy product of anti-SCIENCE groupthink. But apparently I was wrong.

Here's a good place to get started educating yourself.

I wasn't kidding btw, I honestly think that manipulating public opinion about himself with an eye towards his own future is the most parsimonious explanation for a long-time skeptic suddenly finding significance in the kind of mysterious event which he has laughed off for decades.

Entia non multiplicanda praeter necessitatem. All the necessary entia are on the table.
posted by edheil at 11:56 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'll put it this way: do you think a dog is capable of understanding the nature of reality I.e. physics, mathematics, etc.? Of course not. So why assume we have met the necessary threshold of intelligence?

Despite being a hardcore materialist I actually agree with this, though coming at it from another way. You hear religious types say incredulously "well where did all this come from, then?" which strikes me as arrogant. It's an assumption that, as a human, the highest most intelligent being there is, I am entitled to an explanation of the entire universe which makes total, intuitive sense to me on a layman's level, and it's materialism, or atheism's failure that it hasn't done that yet.

So, I'm all about saying why should we as humans assume that we should have total intuitive access to deep universal wisdom? It might actually be beyond our apprehension, without actually proposing or suggesting there's any necessarily to apprehend.
posted by anazgnos at 12:11 PM on October 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


"That so many people see so many such weird-outs could be due to perceptual bias or some other cognitive malfunction, but if so it would have to be a very common and dangerous malfunction ..."

"There are, not incidentally, entire fields of cognitive science which show with a good deal of evidence that this is, in fact, the case."



Such biases may be common and dangerous, but not malfunctions at all. These biases are, as has been remarked on in this thread, universal to human functioning and experience. They are part of our genetic heritage because - they work. The world does appear to behave in a coherent way when interpreted according to these beliefs, and these beliefs function to allow their adherents reproductive advantage - or they would not exist. Science is the epiphenomenon, rather than magical thinking.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 12:11 PM on October 19, 2014


Also, holy shit, sonascope, I hope you do something with that little meditation besides leave it here as a comment because it was amazing.
posted by edheil at 12:12 PM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


Define "deep universal wisdom". Is this the same thing as knowledge? Maybe we can't ever know some things for various reasons (though I am far from convinced this is true), but some people are awfully quick to throw up their hands and go, "Welp, that's that!"

You never get anywhere with them because they're only ever really talking about their feelings, and so you have to address them in emotional terms rather than empirical ones just to have a real conversation in the first place.

"I have feelings." "Your feelings are valid." (Really, what else are you going to say? People who value their feelings that highly are rarely interested in hearing that maybe the expression of their feelings isn't going to do them any favors in a given situation.) isn't my idea of "a real conversation, but I understand what you are saying, even if the phrase "different epistemic priorities" makes me roll my eyes a little.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:17 PM on October 19, 2014


OK, as the guy who made the FPP, I'm kinda regretting it now. That was kind of a hokey story, about the radio starting up at at a time that happened to be an emotional one. There are better stories out there. The one about my mother? Well, I was a dozen miles from civilization and felt her presence and heard her voice give me a very personal and pertinent message, only to later discover that was the exact moment of her death. I have had precisely two precognitive experiences, and each one may have saved me from death.

But none of these got published in Scientific American. That was the funny part to me, although I had kind of forgot that I stopped reading the magazine twenty years ago when it started looking like what The History Channel looks like now. I didn't know about the author's sketchy backstory.

I have no belief system that necessitates my acknowledging events that are unexplainable by science as I understand it (I'm not touching the quantum physics woo-woo intersection!). But I feel comfortable with accepting extraordinary events as evidence that the universe is more than I usually perceive it to be. There is sensation of expansiveness that comes with acknowledging one's intellectual limitations, as well as a feeling that the interconnectedness that promotes compassion (admittedly kind of a Buddhist belief) could be as real as the piano I am looking at as I type this.
posted by kozad at 12:33 PM on October 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


I just can't bring myself to care about the feelings-based conclusions of someone who has demonstrated a lack of concern about the feelings of others (by raping them).
posted by NoraReed at 12:35 PM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


"I have feelings." "Your feelings are valid." (Really, what else are you going to say? People who value their feelings that highly are rarely interested in hearing that maybe the expression of their feelings isn't going to do them any favors in a given situation.) isn't my idea of "a real conversation, but I understand what you are saying, even if the phrase "different epistemic priorities" makes me roll my eyes a little.

Well, consider the following. In everyone's experience, there are different kinds of social situations. Among friends, we might speak openly and freely about our feelings, whereas at the workplace we might want to focus instead on problems and their solutions. My point is merely that when someone speaks about things like dead relatives causing lights to flicker or whatever, even though they might seem to be talking empirically about causes and effects, they're actually talking about emotions and relationships between people. There's obviously quite a bit more to say about things like that than "I have feelings"; you could, for instance, if your were talking to someone about that, ask them about the relationship they had with that person when they were alive -- maybe the beyond-the-grave ideation is a way of preserving a close emotional tie, or maybe it's a revisionist way of casting that person as involved and perhaps even protective when they were neither of those things in life. Sure, perhaps any given person isn't interested in having such a conversation, but because of the emotional realities of what it means to be human, such conversations are possible.

As for "different epistemic priorities," I would say that there isn't any universal kind of epistemic model: you wouldn't challenge a crying spouse to prove that he or she is sure that they have interpreted the upsetting event properly before offering comfort, for example. Not every situation in which someone talks about events and causes is obviously a candidate for positivist critique, but that doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with positivism as a way of investigating the material world.
posted by clockzero at 12:40 PM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Define "deep universal wisdom". Is this the same thing as knowledge? Maybe we can't ever know some things for various reasons (though I am far from convinced this is true), but some people are awfully quick to throw up their hands and go, "Welp, that's that!"

I guess what I'm saying is, I run up against an expectation that science hand down layman-accessible, emotionally resonant explanations about the universe, and my attitude is, like, I/you/we are just a dumb animals, why should I expect to be able understand anything about the universe as a layman? I could have studied astrophysics and then I might have learned something, but to expect that to filter down to the kind of instantly appealing emotional truths is too much to expect.
posted by anazgnos at 12:46 PM on October 19, 2014


you wouldn't challenge a crying spouse to prove that he or she is sure that they have interpreted the upsetting event properly before offering comfort, for example

Oh, for sure, but knowing when to comfort someone for maximum social harmony doesn't really strike me as a way of understanding the universe.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:49 PM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


I see where you are going, but you have not even remotely done the math to get there, i.e. you started with a conclusion and said some words and called it good.

Did I say something rude to invite this kind of response? Were you expecting a scientific proof? "Done the math"?? There's no math to do here, friend. It's just speculation. My statements are not the sort of thing that can be proven or disproven. Not all my statements are scientifically defensible. Nobody's are. Have a nice day.

Despite being a hardcore materialist I actually agree with this, though coming at it from another way.

I'm also a hard core materialist, and we're actually coming at it very similarly. When asked by religious people how I explain existence, I reply that I would not be arrogant enough to try. There is no burden to do so. Lacking an explanation does not mean I have to agree with nonsense and wish-fulfillment.

It's funny, but it seems like some folks assume I'm some kind of new age quack because I am yearn for some kind of scientific spiritualism. I understand the assumption, but nothing could be further from the truth. I'm a hardcore skeptic, meaning I don't believe in telepathy, life after death, omnipotent creators, or any other form of magic.

It doesn't mean that I can prove everything that I do believe, but it does mean that I'm open to the possibility that many of my beliefs could be mistaken. I do enjoy speculation about things that are fundamentally untestable, like the nature of consciousness, the simulation hypothesis, this, etc.
posted by Edgewise at 12:56 PM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


OK, as the guy who made the FPP, I'm kinda regretting it now.

I'm sorry to hear that. I don't happen to believe that the article is describing something more than a coincidence, but I'm not hostile to the suggestion. I think many people here are. There's a fair amount of high-handed dismissal going on in this thread, and your post didn't warrant that. I feel like mefi is becoming increasingly hostile to ideas that lie outside The Consensus. I'm on the verge of not commenting here anymore.
posted by Edgewise at 1:07 PM on October 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


"OK, as the guy who made the FPP, I'm kinda regretting it now."

I feel like mefi is becoming increasingly hostile to ideas that lie outside The Consensus.

Yeah.... this kind of thing happens every time someone posts something along these lines. I honestly don't think anything like this should be posted here because this is what happens.

Now, I'm in the vast minority on this one because I have have Weird Inexplicable Shit happening to me off and on since around age eleven. I have had had witnesses around at times to verify that yes, the weird thing happened. However, since it can't be repeatedly replicated by science, it always boils down to You. Are. Just. Crazy. And stupid for thinking there's more out there than black and white science rationality. I'm still looking for logical, rational, scientific explanations (that don't boil down to You. Are. Just. Crazy.), but so far haven't really come up with any. I probably never will, and I will always be Just. Crazy. Sigh. Well, if I'm that batshit I guess I should be in a rubber room instead of in my place posting online, eh?

I still think there's some weird inexplicable shit going on out there that we can't explain. But it will always boil down to I. Am. Just. Crazy., so what does it matter.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:17 PM on October 19, 2014 [15 favorites]


I honestly don't think anything like this should be posted here because this is what happens.

Well not to get too MeTa but it seems like the number of topics of which this is true is growing steadily.
posted by localroger at 1:53 PM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


[If folks want to get meta, no big deal but probably the thing to do is actually get meta and go to metatalk with it.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 1:59 PM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


To be perfectly honest I'm not one to debunk paranormal claims right off the bat, and tend to keep an open mind about things that, perhaps, our current science has no good way to detect and measure. But the radio coming on would be what's known as a "coincidence."

Actually a similar thing happened at my wedding. My wife's father had passed away years previous, and like the woman in the article, she was only sad on that day because he wasn't there. During the reception, which was held outdoors, we did the cake cutting. It was a partly cloudy day, but basically sunny and bright, but right when we started the cake cutting, a single small cloud let loose a splash of rain on us. Someone took a really great pic of us cutting the cake and laughing at the rain, all while the sun was still shining. Even the people twenty feet away didn't get wet; it was our own personal little rain cloud that was gone after about a minute.

My wife thinks--or rather likes to think--that it was her father visiting her, saying hello. It's a nice thought but can't go much past the thought stage. A lot of paranormal encounters probably hinge on this: do I want to believe or want to disbelieve?
posted by zardoz at 2:09 PM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Even if no one alive can explain some event or phenomenon scientifically today, that does not mean that they cannot do so tomorrow. In 1078, Shen Kuo wrote:

"A house belonging to Li Shunju was struck by lightning. Brilliant sparkling light was seen under the eaves. Everyone thought that the hall would be burnt, and those who were inside rushed out. After the thunder had abated, the house was found to be alright, though its walls and the paper on the windows were blackened. On certain wooden shelves, certain lacquered vessels with silver mouths had been struck by the lightning, so that the silver had melted and dropped to the ground, but the lacquer was not even scorched. Also, a valuable sword made of strong steel had been melted to liquid, without the parts of the house nearby being affected. One would have thought that the thatch and wood would have been burnt up first, yet here were metals melted and no injury to thatch and wood. This is beyond the understanding of ordinary people. There are Buddhist books which speak of 'dragon fire' which burns more fiercely when it meets with water instead of being extinguished by water like 'human' fire. Most people can only judge of things by the experiences of ordinary life, but phenomena outside the scope of this are really quite numerous. How insecure it is to investigate natural principles using only the light of common knowledge, and subjective ideas."

Today an event like this would be totally mundane, because we now understand lightning in terms of electromagnetism, and thus can observe that the steel sword would conduct the electricity more readily than the wood, paper, or lacquer. But to people of Shen Kuo's era, the event must have seemed totally inexplicable. We have to learn to be comfortable with the idea that something can be understood, but not always in our lifetime.
posted by hyperbolic at 2:15 PM on October 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


Today an event like this would be totally mundane, because we now understand lightning in terms of electromagnetism, and thus can observe that the steel sword would conduct the electricity more readily than the wood, paper, or lacquer. But to people of Shen Kuo's era, the event must have seemed totally inexplicable. We have to learn to be comfortable with the idea that something can be understood, but not always in our lifetime.

I think it's worth pointing out that there wasn't an extremely specific explanation that was offered here. It's one thing to say that we don't understand why something happened; it's quite another to assert that something which is otherwise unremarkable happened because of some cause that's only observable from effects which prove the cause.

Now, I'm in the vast minority on this one because I have have Weird Inexplicable Shit happening to me off and on since around age eleven. I have had had witnesses around at times to verify that yes, the weird thing happened.

Like what?
posted by clockzero at 2:26 PM on October 19, 2014


True story:

I was at my girlfriends house, which she said was 'haunted' by the spirit of someone who once lived there. I was skeptical, of course, but always accepted her belief in the supernatural with a bemused good humor because I did not see the point of starting a fight over something like that.

One evening we were sitting in her living room, her in a big comfy chair and I on her couch, about six feet to her left. We were sitting apart because she suffered from Fibromyalgia and the chair gave her better support for her back than the couch did. Anyway, I was looking up something or other on my laptop, and she was reading her mail, when suddenly, in the space between us, I heard the very loud and distinct sound of a man clearing his throat. I looked up a second or two after it started, and was staring across at my girlfriend, who, while the sound continued for another second or so, was looking right at me with one of those 'see, I TOLD you so' looks on her face.

There was no TV or radio on...and only the two of us in the room. She lived alone, so I could not be hearing anyone else in the house making the noise. She was not making the sound either, as 1) I was looking right at her while the sound was still occurring, and 2) a woman clearing her throat would have been pitched higher, and I had heard her clear her throat numerous times during the coarse of our relationship.

Needless to say, I now accept as fact the idea that we do survive death, since there can be no rational explanation for what happened other than that there was a presence in the room that made that unmistakable sound.

Laugh and scoff all you want, unbelievers. I used to be one of you, but not any more...
posted by Quasimike at 2:27 PM on October 19, 2014


I now accept as fact the idea that we do survive death, since there can be no rational explanation for what happened other than that there was a presence in the room that made that unmistakable sound.

What's rational about your assumption that this presence was a human who survived death? It may be the case that there exist non-human, disembodied spirits, who so happen to make noises like throat clearing. Perhaps it was a non-dead human spirit, traveling astrally. It may be that witches can cause two people to have the same auditory hallucination, just for the lulz. And so on. That this was a ghost of a human is far from the only explanation for your experience, even if you grant that it was a paranormal experience.
posted by thelonius at 2:45 PM on October 19, 2014 [9 favorites]


kozad:
I stopped reading the magazine twenty years ago when it started looking like what The History Channel looks like now.
They dumbed it down about 10 years ago (I remember when the physics articles contained actual equations), but it's nowhere near bigfoot-is-an-alien The History Channel bad. I'm not really sure where that comparison comes from.

Shermer's column jumped the shark a long time ago, though, when he ran out of interesting things to say. As far as I'm concerned, between this latest piece and his gross misconduct at conferences, he's put the nail in his own coffin. Whatever, goodbye Mr. Shermer, don't come back.
jenfullmoon:
However, since it can't be repeatedly replicated by science, it always boils down to You. Are. Just. Crazy.
You aren't crazy; sometimes unlikely things happen. When they do, it's useful to remember that you are part of a vast cohort, or else start to speculate that all unlikely events have meaningful, empirically extraneous causes. Someone's personal experiences don't need to manifest in unknown laws of nature to be emotionally valid. I think Shermer stopped short of saying this, and that's a shame, because it really muddied the waters and there's a lot to say and think about if you can get over that barrier. For example...
sonascope:
My dad was [...] just a construct of poetry, all metaphor and angles and the perfect word at the perfect moment, and he is still as dead as was.
Have you read Douglas Hofstadter's I Am a Strange Loop? He makes a case that I think resonates with what you're describing. The book puts forward the notion that the mind is a strictly emergent but still mostly identifiable thing, though without a clear conceptual boundary. Toward the end, he talks about what this means to him in relation to the death of his wife. It's been a couple of years since I read it, but what I took away is that human bodies are substrates for a thing that can reasonably be described as a self, but that self need not be contained within a single body. In a meaningful way, we become diffuse in those we share our lives with, and those versions of ourselves that other people build in their own minds are also us. When we die, that is more us than our former bodies; the loop-within-a-loop, mind-within-a-mind, independent despite being part of someone else, is a diminished but real version of a self.

It's Hofstadter's driest and most difficult work, in my opinion, but also his most emotionally direct, and the ideas within stuck with me in a way I didn't appreciate at first. You might find it enlightening, or perhaps that it just treads over ground you've already walked to exhaustion in your own life. Either way, I can rarely pass up the chance to recommend one of his books; even if science ultimately proves his theories wrong, the creativity and clarity of his thought is inspiring.
posted by WCWedin at 2:48 PM on October 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


The alternate model I propose in the podcast (and emphasize that I do not believe, only that I accept it as a possibility) provides a framework in which science can work the way we observe but where experiences like Quasimike's are also not necessarily just misperceptions. All of your alternate posits work within that framework, and many more, including the very likely possiblity that Quasimike is being trolled by the equivalent of human 14-year-old Internet users whose target machine is our Universe.

I hear a lot of demands as to why anyone would think such a model is reality, but considering the number of people who have reported weird experiences I'm wondering who is stepping up with the evidence that such a model isn't the way the Universe really works.
posted by localroger at 2:53 PM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's Hofstadter's driest and most difficult work

That is seriously like advertising Brett Easton Ellis' most provocative, violent, and sexually fucked up novel. Not gonna start a stampede to Amazon that way.
posted by localroger at 2:56 PM on October 19, 2014


OK, as the guy who made the FPP, I'm kinda regretting it now.

I wish you wouldn't and I don't think you should.

As I went to bed last night, I was hoping the thread would attract at least a few more anecdotes about people's own experiences; it has, and I've gotten a lot out of reading them.

Here's one I shared on AskMe ~8 years ago:
One morning when I was 15, three years after my sister ran away from home to San Francisco on her 18th birthday, and 8 months since she had bothered to tell us where she was or even if she was still alive, my mother, with her back to me stirring my oatmeal (I couldn't eat it if it had lumps) said "I had the most horrible dream last night; I dreamed someone cut off your sister's cat's tail and put it in her mail box." The next night, about 40 hours later, I answered the phone to someone sobbing uncontrollably whose voice I didn't recognize, who finally managed to choke out "oh Jimmy, somebody cut off my cat's tail and then they put it in my mailbox." Then she started off on some truly serious bawling which went on I don't remember how long.
This was remarkable at the time but not completely amazing because it was just kind of another day at the plant for my mother, and would have been for her mother before her as well, and our family simply accepted it and went on.

I didn't start to have similar experiences of my own until my mother's death six years later, which I felt as a stunning blow to the back of my head that caused my knees to buckle as I was dancing around Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in a big arm-linked circle with a bunch of other people as he sang and played his guitar.

Since then I've had more than a dozen experiences I see as having a family resemblance to my mother's dream, and I begin (I think) to have inklings of a possible natural history of such things, but I have very mixed feelings about having any more of them myself, because they've had the effect of making me afraid of my own ordinary bad dreams when those dreams happen to have realistic content.
posted by jamjam at 3:21 PM on October 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


I have had weird experiences that were not easily and immediately explainable, but since I did not subject them to the scientific process I am unwilling to say that they cannot be explained by science, or that such an explanation is beyond the pale.
posted by rtha at 3:22 PM on October 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


MeTa
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 3:56 PM on October 19, 2014


I think lots of people believe that weird and unexplainable things happen. Unexplainable things, which means unexplainable both by science and by (for lack of a respectful term) woo.

At least most of the people I have ever discussed such things with take as credible on some level people's experiences of weird and seemingly paranormal things, but do not take as credible the explanation of the event as "telekinesis" or "ghosts" or "precognition" or "drunk", "crazy" or "high".

They just take the strange phenomena as real, at face value, as a weird, inexplicable, wondrous and possible Awesome in the sense of creating awe event. Not as a thing weird and explicable by phenomenon bordering on magic than cannot be demonstrated at will.
posted by crush-onastick at 3:58 PM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


What we don't know about this Universe would fill many, many universes.
posted by dbiedny at 4:12 PM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


oh god which ones?
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:38 PM on October 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


Since you asked. One night in my twenties I woke up choking. I had some reflux and had aspirated it. It was a bit scary and uncomfortable for a while but didn't seem like "medical emergency" level.

The next day my sister called to check up on me (an infrequent occurrence) because she dreamt I had choked to death. No shit.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 5:20 PM on October 19, 2014


"Frequency" was a nice movie.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 5:43 PM on October 19, 2014


localroger: " but considering the number of people who have reported weird experiences I'm wondering who is stepping up with the evidence that such a model isn't the way the Universe really works."

What's the ratio of weird experiences / non-weird experiences that signals that the "we're all living in a simulation" theory is credible? What's the threshold of weirdness before an experience can be considered to count towards validating it? Say I need some money, like $10, and I stick my hand into an old coat and find $10, is this part of the evidence for simulation?
posted by signal at 6:49 PM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Well, signal, did that actually happen?
posted by localroger at 7:07 PM on October 19, 2014


Yep, a few times. Other times, I've needed money and not found any. What ratio of finding/not-finding triggers the simulation theory?
posted by signal at 7:09 PM on October 19, 2014


Well I described my experience in the podcast nobody listened to and the kuro5hin thread nobody bothered to look up.
posted by localroger at 7:13 PM on October 19, 2014


Still not really answering my question.
posted by signal at 7:14 PM on October 19, 2014


i've looked for that k5 thread and couldn't find it - which is annoying because i'm almost certain i participated in it
posted by pyramid termite at 7:16 PM on October 19, 2014


If you actually wanted an answer you wouldn't need another link to the podcast or a hint that there's a kuro5hin thread.
posted by localroger at 7:17 PM on October 19, 2014


Not really that hard to find
posted by localroger at 7:19 PM on October 19, 2014


That is seriously like advertising Brett Easton Ellis' most provocative, violent, and sexually fucked up novel. Not gonna start a stampede to Amazon that way.

That's kind of a weird thing to focus on when I was trying to talk about the impression of oneself in another as a entity worthy of independent consideration.

But whatever, I'll bite: Hofstadter is often difficult, but rarely dry. While notoriously dense and long, GEB was basically a manic romp down every side street in Consiousness Town; he wrote it like a kid who'd just discovered his own personal Disneyworld. Metamagical Themas was based a collection of off-beat Scientific American columns he wrote (back in the good old days!), and as such was downright breezy, and a hell of a lot of fun. For what it's worth, I'm just starting Le Ton beau de Marot now.
posted by WCWedin at 7:25 PM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think that a true scientist would never use the word "impossible," but would instead try to figure out how it might be possible, even though all current knowledge denied the possibility. Just a quick examination of "science" should be enough - look at what we know now that was thought "impossible" 50 years ago.

As for the paranormal incidents, of course they're possible; if they weren't, a kazillion intelligent people wouldn't have experienced them. We don't know even a tidbit of the links our own selves have to greater things in the universe, to each other, to historical times, to the future. I think you'd have to be incredibly foolish to stand on any argument that rules out paranormal experiences entirely.

I've had a few of them, just like everyone else; they were each completely unexpected, startlingly clear and left no doubt about what had just happened. One of them was witnessed by others. For that reason, I don't discount the stories that others tell, although I'm seriously skeptical about material that's intended to bring money to the storyteller - also someone who claims paranormal experiences as something they can make happen. No matter what the issue, someone will try to make a lot of money by cheating others - the trick is to not throw the baby out with the bathwater, to retain an open mind about the issue itself.

Interesting thread - thanks for posting it.
posted by aryma at 7:30 PM on October 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


thanks, localroger - and yeah, i was all over that

wcwedin - le ton beau de marot is a wonderful book
posted by pyramid termite at 7:32 PM on October 19, 2014


Needless to say, I now accept as fact the idea that we do survive death, since there can be no rational explanation for what happened other than that there was a presence in the room that made that unmistakable sound.

I can't even tell if you're joking, and I'm not sure I want to know.

Well I described my experience in the podcast nobody listened to and the kuro5hin thread nobody bothered to look up.

Maybe because this isn't kuro5hin and I don't even like podcasts. I did glance over that big old thread, but blech. Any numbers in there?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:14 PM on October 19, 2014


I can't even tell if you're joking, and I'm not sure I want to know.

I can't decide if it's a woo woo comment or a parody of a woo woo comment. Welcome to the internet!
posted by Justinian at 10:50 PM on October 19, 2014


localroger: "If you actually wanted an answer you wouldn't need another link to the podcast or a hint that there's a kuro5hin thread."

Please link to the kuro5hin comment or the podcast timestamp where you give the ratio of finding/not-finding $10 bills that triggers the simulation theory, or, perhaps, just answer here.
posted by signal at 3:56 AM on October 20, 2014


Well I described my experience in the podcast nobody listened to and the kuro5hin thread nobody bothered to look up.

Funny -- to me, "There's a podcast but no transcript or even text summary, and a thread but I won't link to it," sounds much the same as, "I don't actually want anyone to find this information." (I saw that you have linked to the k5 thread now but I'm on my lunch break and don't have time to read it right now, sorry.)

I found the Scientific American column a cute, light read, but I'm baffled that Michael Shermer apparently thinks his anecdote should shake the foundations of anybody's worldview. Similarly, I've really appreciated the stories that other commenters have shared in this thread. My own family has a few along the same lines, of course. They haven't changed my feeling that we live in a universe where science is the best method at hand to explain how things work, where it would be stranger if we didn't experience a few weird coincidences, but that we're creatures with brains evolved for superstition more than for maths. I act based on my disbelief in (for example) ghosts and telekinesis, but I let my brain keep the idea that my granddad sent a sign to my mum after his death, in the form of rain out of a clear blue sky, because it's a comforting story.
posted by daisyk at 4:28 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


Oh, forgot to add -- because of how I read the column, I was actually mostly interested in the speculation on Shermer's motives for writing this now, but the thread has gone in a different direction and that's fine too.
posted by daisyk at 4:38 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


I mean, interesting anecdotes are interesting, but as others have said, when there are a variety of plausible (unreliable memories, retrofitting, coincidence) and implausible (ghosts, deities, universe haXXorz) explanations for people's paranormal experiences, none of which can be confirmed as the absolute true explanation due to a variety of factors (time, lack of evidence, etc.), then the most sensible thing to do is to shrug and examine what we can study. It is interesting to encounter something that cannot be explained, but the existence of such an incident does not invalidate the existence of all explanations, any more than one person failing to climb over a wall invalidates the possibility of parkour.

Saying that because we cannot disprove that we live in the Matrix that we must therefore accept all proposed explanations or disregard what we know and understand about math and probability is nonsensical. We know for a fact that improbable coincidences can and, in fact, must happen all the time. EVERYTHING is coincidental with at least one other thing. It would be more remarkable if apparently spooky coincidences were uncommon and rare rather than what we find here, which is that many if not most people have at least one "woah, that was weird" experience to tell about. If you want to use the rate of weird coincidences to prove that reality is an illusion or that spiritual monkey live in your hair or whatever, well, that requires a lot more math. We know a plausible mechanism for unusual coincidences (sheer numbers and probability). We have no plausible mechanism for how aliens caused it or whatever.

To those who have experienced paranormal phenomenon: That you experienced such events is not really in doubt (with some exceptions, like people whose perceptions are determined medically disordered for whatever reason). Heck, I've experienced weird coincidences and spooky events myself. Nor does anyone dispute that strange events can have deep emotional resonance. (I love that story about sonascope's plumber father.) The dispute is whether those events signify anything for the rest of us, other than just being interesting stories to share around.

(And my answer is: unless it can be studied and objectively confirmed, I'm not changing my actions or behaviors based on it, and similarly do not expect the same of anyone else. I don't really see how someone can hold a tenable position other than this, honestly. Why should people alter their beliefs and understanding of the universe on something we have to take your bald assertion for?)
posted by Scattercat at 4:57 AM on October 20, 2014 [6 favorites]


what I took away is that human bodies are substrates for a thing that can reasonably be described as a self, but that self need not be contained within a single body. In a meaningful way, we become diffuse in those we share our lives with, and those versions of ourselves that other people build in their own minds are also us.

The thing I find sort of interesting is that people live on in those they've touched in a way that's very similar to the way they are when they're alive, albeit without the orienting mechanism of access to the original copy.

The old metaphor of broken holograms is always useful to me, in that when you break a traditional hologram in two, you don't get halves—you get two copies rendered with reduced clarity.

My father, my friends I've lost, my grandmothers, and even men with whom I've had deep and complicated relationships, only to split in acrimony or defeat—these people were always alive to me as constructs made of light and sound and presence and my own perception and predicting coding about what I can expect from them, and while I am close with them, I can assume that some part of my holographic understanding of that person is being reconciled in the interaction with the person. When they're gone, the shards of the hologram that remain contain some essence of the person as they existed for you, and they drift over time, suffusing your software and emerging in fits and starts and conversations with your interior monologue, and in that sense, they only die when you do, or when the last person with the last shard of the copy of the copy of the copy of some long-lost original goes.

For the original person, of course, the lights go out. What the rest of us get to keep isn't that little spark of I AM that exists in each of us, the running cursor at the infinitely thin edge between past and future that thinks and feels and dreams and loves and hurts and longs, because that's just gone, depending on your faith or lack thereof. Everyone I ever loved who left too soon, or just soon enough, is gone as a little light buzzing around behind the windows of their eyes like a firefly caught in a house, and the light we keep is a reflection of how we knew that light.

It leads into the existential queries that lead almost entirely to ibuprofen, at least for me, but when I go, I will haunt, for good and ill, all those who knew and loved me, and some of them will use the tools of optimism and pareidolia to find me out there, looking in on them and sending them signs, while others will be sad, and others will just let my shard fade until I'm just a whisper on the wind and then nothing, but it will always be their me, not the signed first edition.

The thing is, you can reconcile the possible and the impossible with the introduction of poetry as an element, because the thing within poetry that lets Russell Edson's work transcend logic to function as complete units of understanding concepts that exist outside of mere language lets you, too, accept that things can be explainable, impossible, contradictory, and all true.

When I was in the deepest end of my doomed romance with Jim Nightshade, I was walking back to his apartment, wild with electricity after seeing Mouse On Mars rock the holy filthy earthshaking fuck out of The Black Cat in a concert that he'd refused to attend with me, and I was, as was my custom then, trying to make sense of my lurching, searing, soaring, thoroughly nonsensical relationship with the guy, and as I cut down a side street, all I could think was "why is this so fucking hard?"

I was midway through crossing the street when a breeze roared through, and the air was filled with leaves, billowing and swirling and carried on the soft shoulders of dust devils and I had to just stop right there, put my arms out, and laugh, as if the leaves were coming to take me away like all the lost balloons in Paris. As soon as it started, the wind retreated, the leaves settled in gently to the street, and I walked the rest of the way full of grace, kicking a trail into the crackling carpet as I made my way from joy to the site of my frustration.

It's just wind. It's just leaves. It's just math that explains my presence there at that moment, and it's my wishful thinking that, in a world where there is no such thing as "fair" except what we manufacture out of our own kindness, that makes it seem like I asked a question and received and answer.

While I know this, and reaffirm my faith in almost every following moment that the universe does not operate in the way we wish it would, when I was standing there, on a dark and empty DC street, with my arms raised in like an old lady in a hot church in the full ecstatic grip of holy madness, I was okay. I was okay.

This is why I embrace the faulty Improbabilty Drive of the poetic reconciliation of incompatible things, and why I am followed by the ghosts of everyone I've ever loved, wronged, or otherwise come to know on a holographic level. They are everywhere around me, whether it's my father climbing out of a ridiculous twelve-cylinder Jaguar in his overalls outside the old newsstand a few blocks from here to buy a fishing license or my grandmother teaching me "the hustle" in the wood-paneled basement of her Baltimore rowhouse or even just all the discarded early editions of myself, still walking home to a trailer park on Route 1 with his ill-advised girlfriend Lurleen after another showing of Purple Rain, they are always here.

How close do we ever get to that perfect intersection, when our little spark and someone else's make a break for an unguarded earhole and meet between us in a bright flash of recognition and complete exchange?

Does it ever happen? Do we ever know each other?

Does it matter?

So I give up on the deep thought and chase the leaves, a lover of science and reason as much as I love the sensation of prickling awe that comes when the surreal charge of the inexplicable comes tangled up in the cold hard facts of how things are, and when the moment is right, I can embrace it all, throw out my arms like an old lady in a hot church and open myself until I can feel the world turning at a thousand miles an hour, orbiting the sun at sixty-seven thousand miles an hour, and all the hearts beating everywhere building up to one single, perfectly synchronized THUMP that cries out to everything everywhere that we are all here, we are all here, we are all here and alive and this spark can never ever fade

It's all impossible, of course, but I take my lesson from the Queen:

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
posted by sonascope at 7:44 AM on October 20, 2014 [11 favorites]


Saying that because we cannot disprove that we live in the Matrix that we must therefore accept all proposed explanations or disregard what we know and understand about math and probability is nonsensical.

It would be indeed if anyone had said that. But that's a nice straw man you got there, be a shame if someone was to knock it down or something.
posted by localroger at 8:08 AM on October 20, 2014


Hey is that a metaphorical aim bot moving those goalposts
posted by aydeejones at 8:59 AM on October 20, 2014


Also on the throat clearing story...that wouldn't for a second make me reconsider whether or not ghosts "exist" but I would certainly engage local law enforcement in flushing out the squatter making noise above. Because that shit happens all of the time and I bet the ghost narrative is of benefit to both those who refuse to accept the possibility that there's literally a dude in their attic, as well as said dudes or dudettes.
posted by aydeejones at 9:08 AM on October 20, 2014


OOooh ok I want to do this this sounds fun... so... this one time I was looking at the sunset and there was this really pretty sunset and it looked like my grandma IN THE SUNSET! And the cloud that was her face it was like a big yin-yang symbol out of pink and grey. And I was reading about Odin and then I saw a raven! And this morning I was looking at pictures of cave people heart art (did you know cave people drew hearts because LOVE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) and then I found a rock with a heart in it! Because the rocks love me!!!!! OMG!!!!

I know ya'll are all "nu-uh the universe doesn't have super love in all things" but I'm all UH HUH.

Oh also, these rainbows come visit me in my house because the rainbows love me! Sure you could be all "and because you have a glass table that makes rainbows" but that would be the lame way to think of it. WHY do I have a table that makes rainbows and I didn't even know? Because the rainbows wanted to visit me! DUH.

So you COULD hear there are dancing fairies in space energy and be all "yeah that's just like particles or whatever and I know that particles can't be more complex than they seem with my human understanding because it's my right to define whether another entity is conscious or feeling or not and destroy or torture it or whatever because... (??) I don't understand the logic really but... okaaaay. Or you could be like MAYBE there are already phenomena in space and around us that way more complex and involve experiences of being beyond our understanding all around us?

You could find out that Orion and Osiris both seem to have been arranged with a star producing nebula in his.... well... ahem.... (whispers.... PENIS hehehe)

Lucky guess? sprites ; Aurora borealis ....


Belief without evidence can be very terrible and cause damage, but so can ignoring the possibility of sentience in order to do something that would cause horrible suffering if there was a sensing entity attached to what you're doing. You can acknowledge possibilities while still retaining skepticism and assuming that seeking evidence and trying to understand things using evidence based reason are still good and needed things. But so much of what we think is "true" even about the ground we stand on, is designed to comfort our minds and reinforce what we want to be true and what "feels" right rather than based on anything proven.

SERIOUSLY how did peeps be knowing about Osiris's penis? The answer is that once people and space beings did IT like ALL THE TIME, ya'll would not believe the space orgies. Mmmhmmm. Okaaaay I suppose there is room for other possibilities, but I like the space orgies explanation because OBVSLY. Also because we're doing spirit talk, root for the Lakota in their quest for the blackhills!

Also this recent study on accurate reporting of events while proclaimed dead yielded some interesting results and possible implications for future study.
posted by xarnop at 9:38 AM on October 20, 2014


Hey is that a metaphorical aim bot moving those goalposts

Maybe, but not on the side of the field you're thinking...

...that we must therefore accept all proposed explanations or disregard what we know and understand about math and probability

I never said that. That is, in fact, almost exactly the opposite of what I actually said, which is that I do not think it's a good idea to faithfully accept any such beliefs at all, including the belief that the Universe isn't a simulation. Can't prove and don't know mean exactly that.
posted by localroger at 9:40 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think my favorite part about your theory, localroger, is that it is by design unfalsifiable. I admire how you have turned "not even wrong" into a feature.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:55 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


localroger: "That is, in fact, almost exactly the opposite of what I actually said, "

You know, localroger, if you feel that people keep misrepresenting you, either: a) they're in cahoots to pretend to not understand you just because or b) you need to work harder to get your points across, like, for instance, answering repeated questions directly, not with 'go listen to my podcast'.
posted by signal at 11:22 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


not with 'go listen to my podcast'

Tell you what, signal. I'll save us all a couple of days of grief and tell you what would happen if I give you what you want.

You are currently convinced that whatever I observed isn't really as unlikely as I've been saying. When I tell you what happened, you'll realize that if I am describing it accurately it is pretty goddamn unlikely. You will then probably spend about a 100 comment exchange with me trying to convince me that the pool of possible alternate weird things is large enough that one of them happening is much more likely than any particular one.

Had that argument, end result was no, the whole thing is pretty damn unlikely. Not in a "all of human history" or "anywhere in the world" sense, but more in "in only 13 billion years in a universe this tiny" sense. Knocking a few orders of magnitude off of that is meaningless.

You will then tell me that I obvoiusly can't shuffle cards and was getting a slug out of the deck. I will remind you that a friend of mine made a couple of million dollars card counting and I happen to know a bit about that too, and I was in fact salting the cards in random order throughout the deck between each cut and shuffle sequence. I also have an entire notebook full of readings, and there is no big pattern of such shuffle sloppiness.

At this point I'll also probably mention the other notebook full of I Ching readings, which do not depend on card shuffling, some of them equally weird. The one example I floated is far from the only one, just the easiest to analyze.

Finally, you will announce that I am either some kind of idiot who is missing something basic, or some kind of fraud lying about it to make a point, because those are the only possible conclusions your worldview will allow.

Battlestar Galactica notwithstanding I don't feel the need to let history repeat itself today. As I told Richard IN THE FUCKING PODCAST I don't believe these experiences, if they are being arranged, are meant for general consumption. My experience won't convince you; it wasn't meant to. For the most part these things are personal.

And getting back to the OP, that's the relatively simple thing Shermer is really saying so many people seem incapable of reading: After a lifetime of looking down his nose and believing himself superior to people who don't share his worldview, he realized that many of those people have powerfully persuasive reasons for feeling the way they do. Not necessarily reasons that are correct, of course, but reasons that might be grounds for giving them a little more credit despite their failure to fall into line with Obvious Reality.

Shermer did not at any point say his experience was really evidence for the paranormal, any more than I said mine was evidence that we should chuck physics and statistics and start making sacrificies to the Agents. But you keep reading those things we didn't write because it makes us much easier to disdain and ridicule than a considered and reasonable opinion would be -- that yes, science is great and most of the time it's best to stick with it, but sometimes the temptation to believe something else will be very powerful, and sometimes it might be best just to let that feeling ride a bit instead of smacking it down like a bad puppy.

If you really find that so threatening, then I can only characterize your own devotion to the "rational" as being essentially religious in nature, and not rational at all.
posted by localroger at 11:50 AM on October 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


Uh-oh. I wonder if this means Shermer is going to get a visit from this guy.
posted by homunculus at 11:59 AM on October 20, 2014


localroger, you sound like a pretty classic crank.

I mean, in that one single comment, you covered the following Crank Bases:

1.) I'm not going to bother to give you the data you asked for (but I totally have it).

2.) Even if I did give it to you, your narrow, so-called "rational" worldview wouldn't permit you to accept it.

3.) My (utterly unscientific) experiment (which I can't even tell if you repeated) could not have possibly been biased in any way.

4.) I know more about this subject than you can possibly imagine.

5.) This knowledge is special and Not For Everyone.

But let's be honest. It doesn't matter what you present or don't, because it's worthless. By your own admission, your theory is totally untestable and unrepeatable. It's not inconceivable that an otherwise rational actor might accept such a thing as "true," in some sense, but you seem way too emotionally invested in the acceptance of your (not really very original, anyway...the ultraterrestrials of John Keel come to mind) theory to really be counted among them. Could it be that you prefer to direct folks to your podcast because your interlocutor there was quite a bit more credulous than folks here would be?

That's my guess.

And you know, it's fine. Whatever! I find your contributions on other topics to be fine. You just have this weird blind spot about your supposedly anomalous experiences. I'm not really attacking you, but I think you should know how you are coming across (though I suspect you don't care, which is also fine).
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:45 PM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


Thing is, we should know enough that asking somebody to relate what they ate for damn breakfast is rife enough with the opportunity for both intentional and unintentional fabulism, obfuscation and confabulation, and yet we're supposed to believe that their deeply personal, jealously guarded faith narratives about throat-clearing rainbow genies that upend all of physics are totally ironclad reliable.
posted by anazgnos at 1:23 PM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


localroger: "Tell you what, signal. I'll save us all a couple of days of grief and tell you what would happen if I give you what you want.
"

Actually, what I want is for you to answer my question, which you still haven't. I'll repeat it: "What's the ratio of weird experiences / non-weird experiences that signals that the "we're all living in a simulation" theory is credible? "
I haven't asked anything about your personal experiences.
posted by signal at 1:33 PM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


For people who don't want to wade through localroger's podcast, the unlikely event was that he got four tarot card draws in a row with 8 out of 10 cards the same. With ideally shuffled cards between draws (i.e., so that every possible permutation of cards was equally likely), this would be extremely unlikely. But mechanical shuffling, even with good technique, is a notoriously bad source of randomness. So yes, localroger, you're right: in the absence of other evidence, I'm going to blame your shuffling. You might consider investing in a gopro to record these experiments so you have more evidence in the future.
posted by Pyry at 1:44 PM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


I wonder what Persi Diaconis would say about all this.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 2:49 PM on October 20, 2014


You might consider investing in a gopro to record these experiments so you have more evidence in the future.

You must have missed the part where the entities responsible for these events don't do their parlor tricks for the benefit of people doing actual, rigorous investigation.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 2:50 PM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


"What's the ratio of weird experiences / non-weird experiences that signals that the "we're all living in a simulation" theory is credible? "

Sorry, I thought your question was "what was the experience you've already described 4,096 times including on both the podcast and the K5 article I've already linked."

The answer to this question is ... well, zero. The simulation theory is credible on its face, which is why it has a name and an ongoing discussion. The question is whether it's likely, and that's not something I would prosyletize about because it involves not just your experiences in the Universe but your opinions as to how (and why) certain features might be implemented.

As it happens I learned programming young and I find it natural and interesting to speculate about how both consciousness and the Universe might be implemented by a machine. What I have been doing is not drawing arguments for the simulation, as everyone seems to insist on reading no matter what I write; rather I'm drawing the limits under which such a simulation would have to work. I have said very specifically and several times that I think whether the truth is dumb particle swarm or such a simulation is probably unknowable.

If you're asking me why I think you should believe in my idea, the answer I've stated several times is I don't think you should believe in it. I don't believe in it. What I believe is that it may be possible, just as it may be possible the universe is a swarm of dumb particles. If you insist that it has to be particles, though, I'm not the one making an assertion that can't be supported by evidence.
posted by localroger at 3:14 PM on October 20, 2014


localroger, you sound like a pretty classic crank.

Ah, I knew there was another one besides crazy and fraud. Thanks for the reminder.

1.) I'm not going to bother to give you the data you asked for (but I totally have it).

To quote Jon Stewart, "I'm not your monkey." I posted the thread and described it in the podcast, the link to which was my original reason for entering this thread so yeah I keep bringing it up.

2.) Even if I did give it to you, your narrow, so-called "rational" worldview wouldn't permit you to accept it.

OK, got that one.

3.) My (utterly unscientific) experiment (which I can't even tell if you repeated) could not have possibly been biased in any way.

Except that it wasn't an experiment, it was an observation, and I have said that it was personal and probably wouldn't convince anyone else. I only brought it up to illustrate why I have a bit different opinion about the whole thing than most people; that is not an appeal for anyone else to change their beliefs. I have in fact repeatedly denied having any belief at all in the matter.

4.) I know more about this subject than you can possibly imagine.

How you can read this out of "which of the two big possibilities is unknowable" utterly baffles me.

5.) This knowledge is special and Not For Everyone.

Again, point to anywhere I have said anything remotely like this.

Could it be that you prefer to direct folks to your podcast because your interlocutor there was quite a bit more credulous than folks here would be?

No, but it could be that the answer to every single question anyone has directed at me is contained therein, and I tire of repeating myself. Rather than finding Pete and Richard a soft audience I found them quite challenging, because I am a relative n00b at their discipline and was rather pleased not to come out of it sounding like an idiot.
posted by localroger at 3:22 PM on October 20, 2014


As long as there are experiences to which human perception, cognition, memory, and verbal accouting are the only testament, there will be crazy universe-rending anomolies.

Clearly, universal surveillance is the only answer.
posted by anazgnos at 3:48 PM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


But mechanical shuffling, even with good technique, is a notoriously bad source of randomness. So yes, localroger, you're right: in the absence of other evidence, I'm going to blame your shuffling.

I can't wait to hear your explanation for how the I Ching did similar things :-)
posted by localroger at 4:16 PM on October 20, 2014


What the heck...

When I was about 9 years old, I was playing in the living room. My grandmother was on the couch. The phone rang and my mother answered it in the kitchen. After a moment she started crying hysterically and ran into the bathroom. I looked at my grandmother and said, "Uncle Vincent is dead." And shortly we found out that he indeed just passed away. I heard nothing of the phonecall. My mother said nothing, she just started crying. There was no way that I could know. Yet I did.

I have no explanation. This is the first and last time that anything like this has happened to me. I draw no conclusions. It is a single datum in my life.
posted by Splunge at 4:48 PM on October 20, 2014


I woke up in the night a few months ago with the heavy knowledge that my uncle had passed away.

Thankfully, he is alive and well.
posted by alexei at 5:27 PM on October 20, 2014 [9 favorites]


How you can read this out of "which of the two big possibilities is unknowable" utterly baffles me.

"You will then tell me that I obvoiusly can't shuffle cards and was getting a slug out of the deck. I will remind you that a friend of mine made a couple of million dollars card counting and I happen to know a bit about that too, and I was in fact salting the cards in random order throughout the deck between each cut and shuffle sequence. I also have an entire notebook full of readings, and there is no big pattern of such shuffle sloppiness."

Whenever this comes up, you talk about your expertise with cards and probability.

Again, point to anywhere I have said anything remotely like this.

"As I told Richard IN THE FUCKING PODCAST I don't believe these experiences, if they are being arranged, are meant for general consumption."
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:16 PM on October 20, 2014


Oh man, the "waking up with knowledge/a bad feeling" thing happens to me ALL THE TIME. I'm pretty sure it's the same kind of feeling that makes people think they're psychic, because if you have the leftover dregs of that still in your heads when you get bad news it would feel really spooky, but it happens to me often and lasts a long time sometimes, like a mood hangover. I've never had reason to connect it to any actual events, but I can see how having it line up with them could feel powerful; I've had it happen where I wake up with ideas for fiction or art or occasionally even food where it feels like gods or muses are guiding my work; it's not a stretch to inagine a similar feeling connected to events.

And though it's a bit depressingly mundane an explanation, I have to say that getting off Lexapro has really helped, though the Effexor has similar but less traumatic effects. I'm imagining a "tired of the burden of the Sight? Switch your antidepressant!" campaign.
posted by NoraReed at 6:28 PM on October 20, 2014 [12 favorites]


Whenever this comes up, you talk about your expertise with cards and probability.

So you missed the part where the article series that made my original reputation on K5 was the story of my friends with the card counting team? I do have some expertise with cards and probability and a paid-off house to show for it. While the team never used it one thing we investigated was shuffle tracking. I really do know something about this.

And besides, the I Ching which operates by flipping coins produced similar probability weird-outs. What's your rationalization for that?

"As I told Richard IN THE FUCKING PODCAST I don't believe these experiences, if they are being arranged, are meant for general consumption."

That is a very serious misreading. While particular experiences are personal, the phenomenon of having such experiences is very common. This is why I find them of interest. It is not just a few cranks, frauds, and crazy people. It's also people like G. Harry Stine who clearly have their heads screwed on straight and who gain nothing from fabricating such claims.
posted by localroger at 7:07 PM on October 20, 2014


And besides, the I Ching which operates by flipping coins produced similar probability weird-outs. What's your rationalization for that?

Supposing, as a thought experiment, that people have these experiences that are genuinely so unlikely as to require supernatural explanations, I still don't think your simulation world hypothesis is remotely plausible. For one thing, there is no consistency across accounts-- the events do not appear to follow any kind of mechanical rules as might be expected if they were all simulation hacks, but instead seem to follow a kind of narrative logic. Why does tarot work for one person, prayer for another, I-ching for a third? Why does grandpa reach across the void of death to do something as mundane as fix a radio? If these events are really happening, instead of trying to shoehorn in all these disparate systems and elements into one hodgepodge metaphysical system, I think the simplest explanation is latent psychokinesis.

In other words, if we're going to speculate about the supernatural, the simplest supernatural explanation for your probability quirks is that you are subconsciously manipulating these events through psychokinesis to come out in unlikely configurations.
posted by Pyry at 8:20 PM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


The human brain is weird, and all human brains have more things in common with each other than not. It is not all that surprising that most people have similar experiences thanks to shared biological similarities.
posted by rtha at 8:21 PM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


As it happens I learned programming young and I find it natural and interesting to speculate about how both consciousness and the Universe might be implemented by a machine.

Neuroscientist here, I need to tell you something about that brain + body combo of yours... IT'S A MACHINE! A machine that simulates the universe!*

And your universe-machine has bugs! Documented bugs! Like, your retinas have holes in them where the optic nerve crawls out, so your brain just fills in the spots and you never notice! (Can you guess which institutionalized information-gathering organization found out about this and many other bugs?)

There are also known conflicts between the DISPASSIONATELY_INTERPRET_EVENTS library and the following libraries: AVOID_NEGATING_PRECIOUS_BELIEFS, SELF_AGGRANDIZE, PASSIONATELY_INTERPRET_EVENTS, to name a few...


*one subregion at a time, subject to linearization
posted by serif at 8:35 PM on October 20, 2014 [12 favorites]


For one thing, there is no consistency across accounts-- the events do not appear to follow any kind of mechanical rules as might be expected if they were all simulation hacks, but instead seem to follow a kind of narrative logic. Why does tarot work for one person, prayer for another, I-ching for a third?

This is actually why, if these phenomena are real, it has to be some kind of highly abstract simulation.

I think the simplest explanation is latent psychokinesis

I think science has pretty much eliminated the possibility that psychokinesis is possible in a world represented at the atomic level.

Look, my ideas aren't about challenging naive materialism; for the most part I operate on that basis myself. It's more about placing limits on the parameters of belief. I do not believe a universe represented at the atomic level -- even if it's a computer, as in my novel -- would permit these things to manifest the way they seem to. I don't see where the computation comes from or why, if they're possible at all, they don't happen more often or more consistently and why the forces responsible for them aren't detectable by instruments.

So I asked myself, is there a kind of system that would permit these kinds of exceptions -- exceptions that seem to deliberately hide, which involve highly abstract computation, and which only interface with the material world in certain sideways ways? And I decided that yes, there is a way the Universe could be built that would allow that, a simulation at a certain very high level of abstraction with a strong but imperfect security model and an active population of entities sneaking around behind that security model might look just like what we seem to observe.

But the point of this -- and it supports your world view far more than you probably realize -- is that there is no half an enchilada here. If you decide to believe in ghosts or sympathetic magic or that divination devices are talking to you, then you are pretty much believing that the entire Universe is something much different than we've thought for the last 200 years. It means that everything we think we know about the Universe -- its size, its history, its principles of operation -- may be a constructed story instead of the emergent result of a simple, reliable, somewhat predictable system. And it means we really have no expectation that it will continue to work the way it does now in the future.

And this is really a pretty solid argument for being skeptical about such things. Because if they're real, the implications are much vaster than Grandpa's radio playing at your wedding. And I don't think most of the people who believe in ghosts etc. realize just how much they would have to disbelieve for that to be consistent.

But I wouldn't discount either of these two possiblities out of hand; there are strong reasons favoring both, and to pick one and dismiss the other would be arbitrary dogma.
posted by localroger at 5:27 AM on October 21, 2014


I need to tell you something about that brain + body combo of yours... IT'S A MACHINE! A machine that simulates the universe!*

This is honestly why I don't feel the need to make supernatural explanations about the world for myself; reality is far, far weirder than anything I could imagine.

It's the same reason that I'm baffled by people who say that being irreligious takes wonder out of the world - the world is a miraculous, peculiar, awe-inspiring thing and it's so much more interesting to me personally to think that we might be able to puzzle it out than to just assume it's all being stage-managed for our benefit.

But the point of this -- and it supports your world view far more than you probably realize -- is that there is no half an enchilada here. If you decide to believe in ghosts or sympathetic magic or that divination devices are talking to you, then you are pretty much believing that the entire Universe is something much different than we've thought for the last 200 years. It means that everything we think we know about the Universe -- its size, its history, its principles of operation -- may be a constructed story instead of the emergent result of a simple, reliable, somewhat predictable system. And it means we really have no expectation that it will continue to work the way it does now in the future.

And this is really a pretty solid argument for being skeptical about such things. Because if they're real, the implications are much vaster than Grandpa's radio playing at your wedding. And I don't think most of the people who believe in ghosts etc. realize just how much they would have to disbelieve for that to be consistent.


And on preview, this makes perfect sense and is also why I prefer the idea that the universe is based on rules that are explicable, even if we may not have the capacity at this point to resolve them. If one believes in ghosts and the Shining Folk and the afterlife and all that, the world is based on rules that cannot be explicated using the tools that we possess and may in fact be deliberately hidden from our understanding or change at any time. That is one of the roots of Lovecraft's horror for me - the idea that we may tip over the wrong rock in scientific inquiry and discover that our reality is only a veneer over supernatural truths larger than we can assimilate:
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
I would prefer not to be honored by encountering the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young.
posted by winna at 6:16 AM on October 21, 2014 [5 favorites]


But I wouldn't discount either of these two possiblities out of hand; there are strong reasons favoring both, and to pick one and dismiss the other would be arbitrary dogma.

"Your" theory is entertaining to think about, but this is pretty much where you lose me. One the one hand, all of the rigorous observations we collectively call science, and the worldview it has enabled through painstaking logic applied to those observations. On the other hand, a handful of kinda weird-seeming stuff that happened to me and maybe some other folks, and the wild leaps of inference I have made based on that. Equally plausible!
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:22 AM on October 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


If the universe was indeed a simulation with "a strong but imperfect security model," it stands to reason that it is imperfect in other ways. Ergo, there should be some bugs, some repeatable flaws. Every single instance of the software going weird shouldn't be purposeful. Yet you insist that these things defy analysis because there are conscious actors behind them. Why the one and not the other?

I mean, I'm sure there are holes in the above, but it's just as plausible as your flights of fancy.

Pretty sure this thread is Over, now.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:29 AM on October 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


Pretty sure this thread is Over, now.

Well that certainly settles that.
posted by localroger at 9:39 AM on October 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


On the other hand, a handful of kinda weird-seeming stuff that happened to me and maybe some other folks, and the wild leaps of inference I have made based on that. Equally plausible!

On the one hand thousands of hours of work by dedicated engineers working in well-equipped offices in a nice building with a famous logo on the front, thousands of pages of documentation, millions of hours of testing and use. On the other some hacker in his Mom's basement looking for buffer overruns. Clearly the latter could never have any real effect on anything.
posted by localroger at 9:42 AM on October 21, 2014


On the one hand thousands of hours of work by dedicated engineers working in well-equipped offices in a nice building with a famous logo on the front, thousands of pages of documentation, millions of hours of testing and use. On the other some hacker in his Mom's basement looking for buffer overruns. Clearly the latter could never have any real effect on anything.

This is a weaselly metaphor. In this scenario, you're not the Hacker Hero vs the Security Establishment trying to Keep You Out, you're one guy standing outside of a vast, distributed, non-hierarchical (well, partly, anyway) network of observers studying all available facets of an enormously complex system. You are one guy surfing the web who has possibly encountered a bug, when there are people out there doing real, rigorous research on the structure and function of the systems that underlie that very web.

You think you have discovered Something Important that has escaped the notice of the so-called Serious People. Well, it wouldn't be the first time, but you know what, stuff gets investigated and incorporated into the overall picture or it gets falsified. The problem is that your idea is totally unfalsifiable. It's an unprovable flight of fancy. There is no reason to believe it. Why should we believe it? Why should I believe in your simulation and not, say, the Orlanthi pantheon? There is no evidence for either, aside from spilled ink, and plenty of absence of said evidence for both.

Oh, but you do have evidence, you say. Except, by your own admission this evidence is not gatherable by those who would subject it to rigorous analysis. I can't get my own evidence, I just have to trust you about yours. Why should I? A rational person would understand how totally bonkers all of that sounds, and wouldn't get all huffy when people rightly reject their weird tales in favor of what has worked time and time again. You don't do that, though. You lash out verbally.

I actually forgot one of the Crank Bases you've hit, which is insisting that only you have the clarity of vision to see that your own extremely idiosyncratic worldview could very well be the REAL story, and those clinging to an independently-verified worldview are the REAL religious zealots!

Maybe you're not done, but I am. I have said all that I can possibly say on this topic. Feel free to address my objection, re: repeatable bugs vs security holes for posterity, but I'm out.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 11:40 AM on October 21, 2014 [3 favorites]


Repeatable bugs get discovered and fixed fairly quickly precisely because they are repeatable. Security holes remain until they are discovered by chance, in human computer systems often for decades.

And you keep with the stuff "I say" none of which I have actually said, much of which I've said exactly the opposite of. You are still too busy going GRAR WOO to understand what I'm really getting at, which is a more subtle dig at people who believe in things like ghosts without considering the wider implications.

Anyway, don't let the screen door injure you.
posted by localroger at 12:14 PM on October 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


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