Thursday, September 05, 2013

Thoughts From A Skeptic


No one can ever say that I don't allow both sides to speak on the paranormal question. Though I have had my run-ins with several skeptics, I'm not above presenting their case if proffered in a respectable manner. The following post was submitted by Robert Browne (bio provided):

I have a love/hate relationship with the paranormal. I work in the industry of Halloween for a reason; the unexplained is a curiosity of mine. A large part of me wants to believe in ghosts, aliens, demons, and the unexplained; that’s the problem. It would be incredible to know these types of entities exist, probably because I’d try and communicate with them in order to better understand our universe. So why am I, like many others, such a skeptic? I’ve been trained as a social scientist. I believe the only things we can say factually are things human beings can empirically verify through the senses. Can I see, touch, taste, smell, and hear it? Without these empirical verifications, we end up with straight conjecture. All we have are incomplete versions of testimonials, or narratives. This is where my skepticism overrides my desire to believe. Paranormal experiences are difficult for skeptics to believe because they lack narrative rationality. Not all stories are created equal and in order for narrative to be believable it must address two necessary parts. Walt Fisher (1989) claimed in order for narrative to be good or plausible it must have coherence and fidelity. These two traits combine to create rationality and persuade us to believe the story being told.

Narrative coherence is something that is usually present when individuals relate their paranormal experiences, at least to some extent. The plot is present, details are given, when possible, and characters behave in somewhat plausible ways. But, more often than not, paranormal narratives lack crucial details and the narrators don’t behave in plausible ways. Take the article Thoth’s Message as an example. The woman in the story is never named and she is not described well. We only know she is a student doing course work. Plausible, but we as humans crave more from a narrative, especially if we are to believe a story about something unexplainable. Often times, the more details we have the more listeners and readers can scrutinize, so crucial details are often missing from paranormal narratives.

Character behavior is also important because it needs to be relatable. If I place myself in the characters shoes, would I behave in a similar fashion? Once again, we’ll look at the woman in the story of Thoth’s Message. She has a strong sensation of vertigo, sees a bright light, and hears voices speaking to her. This woman does panic, but nowhere does it give details of the panic. If I were to experience the same sensations, I would be seriously concerned I was sick, or losing my grip on reality. I would immediately seek the reasons for such sensations. Instead, she hears the voices telling her to be calm and that communication through telepathy is occurring. Instead of asking pressing questions “Who are you and what are you doing to me?” the woman asks how the beings are using telepathy. Not a terrible question, but certainly not my primary concern after having felt like I was brought into a celestial vault. The behavior is not plausible to skeptics and is a perfect example of a breakdown in fidelity. Stories about paranormal encounters almost always have moments like this. Next, the beings tell her to relax and she lets herself go to peace and calm. The woman speaks to herself out loud, further breaking the coherence of the story by referring to herself as an old woman. I thought she was a student? She could be an old student, but we are never given the details to know whether or not she is, all we have is the conflict presented between descriptors of being a student and now being old. But let’s put the issues of coherence aside as they are often easy to identify and glaring. Let’s address the more pressing issue of fidelity.

Fidelity is crucial when it comes to determining whether or not a story or narrative is plausible. This is the overarching truthfulness of the story. There isn’t a science to determining fidelity but it comes from the listener’s own experiences. Our lives become the measure of what is true. Have I experienced something similar? If the answer is clearly no, I would have a hard time believing anything said. Let’s go back to Thoth and look for fidelity. I have never had vertigo that wasn’t caused by a traumatic experience such as being sick, or put in a seriously uncomfortable situation. Anyone that has had vertigo knows it’s a terrible sensation yet this woman seems to deal with it just fine. She sees lights flashing, experiences telepathy, and sees dark figures of humanoid shapes with inhuman features telling her things and prophesizing. I have yet to experience any of these things, and the only figures I’ve seen matching her description are carved from stone in Egypt. They could have spoken to her, but the incoherence and infidelity of narrative are breaking down and rationality is disappearing. Even if I want to believe the story is becoming too implausible.

Finally, the real back breaker is a glossing over at the conclusion of the story. This woman visits Sardinia two years later and disappears for two hours. What type of disappearing act are we talking about and who can verify this story? Did she take a walk and not tell someone or did someone actually see her disappear? There is a huge lack of coherence and fidelity in the narrative. This is not uncommon when reading individuals experiences with the paranormal and it surmounts to bad storytelling and persuasion.

Not all narratives are bad though, and I know I’ve picked on Thoth’s Message a lot in this article. I want to believe in the paranormal, and there are stories that make me think the paranormal is at least plausible. Doris Bither’s story, dubbed “The Entity”, has elements of coherence and fidelity, even though her own personal narrative is less plausible. Dr. Taff and several other onlookers saw an entity and other paranormal occurrences, this is hard to refute because several narratives corroborate one another. The story of “The Entity” is one of the better narratives I’ve ever read as proof of a true paranormal experience. There are several narratives supporting one another, and there is an image with an unnatural light effect that is quite difficult to explain let alone replicate. Unless all of the people investigating the case decided to tell a lie “The Entity” makes a compelling narrative that is difficult to refute even for skeptics. These stories are the golden gems within the paranormal that lead skeptics like me to continue searching for answers.

As someone who is interested in the paranormal, I hope to experience one of these unexplained events at some point in my life. I’ve had odd experiences throughout my life, but upon further investigation perfectly plausible explanations present themselves. Until I have a personal, empirical encounter all I can do is continue to research other narratives for stories that fulfill the narrative paradigm of rationality, coherence and fidelity, and unfortunately I read far too many stories that are lacking in all three leading to conflicting beliefs. This is the foundation of my skepticism.

Source: Fisher, W.R. (1989). Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action (Studies in Rhetoric/Communication) Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Author: Robert Browne HalloweenCostumes.com - I hold an MA in communication studies with in emphasis in rhetoric and theory. My research usually involves argumentation, persuasion, and critical theory. When I am not writing for HalloweenCostumes.com, you can find me lecturing a classroom at the local university. I have many hobbies but particularly enjoy scouring the Internet for things to criticize in order to understand our crazy world in hopes of making it a better place.



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