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by Rick Lewis
In the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by the late, great Douglas Adams, an advanced race of multidimensional superbeings were so tormented by the great questions of Life, the Universe, and Everything, that they built a massive computer called Deep Thought to work out the answer. The computer required several million years to run its program, but finally the distant descendants of the original programmers gathered to receive the great revelation: “The answer to the great question of Life, the Universe and Everything... is.... is....” “Yes, yes?” “Forty-two.”
Douglas Adams, philosophically sharp as usual, was making the point beloved of analytical philosophers that if you want to make any sort of progress, you have to be clear about what question it is that you are trying to answer. He was also illustrating the vast yearning we have for answers to some very big, rather hazy questions about the meaning of our lives in this puzzling cosmos.
On that note, welcome to the forty-second issue of Philosophy Now. Alas, it doesn't actually contain the answer to life, the universe and everything, but on the other hand it does contain all sorts of interesting articles, including a number on the paranormal. So, what is the paranormal? Well, basically, it is spooky stuff which can't be explained by the normal laws of science. Of course, there are many facts about the world which couldn't have been explained by the science we had three hundred years ago, though they can be explained by today's science. Does that mean that those aspects of the world were ‘paranormal' three hundred years ago? No, because somehow the idea of the paranormal involves the notion that the phenomena in question are beyond explanation by any physical science whatever; that they are fundamentally unconnected to the physical universe and its laws. Examples are ghosts, out-of-body experiences, mind-reading, near-death experiences, and premonitions.
So why should any of this interest philosophers? It links in with some of the most fundamental philosophical debates about what human beings are. Many of these alleged phenomena rely on human beings having a spirit or soul which is non-physical. Unless people have some non-material component which can occasionally leave the body and go walkies, then it is hard to see how such phenomena could occur. Therefore if paranormal phenomena could really be shown to take place, then we would have learned something very important about the nature of human beings.
The theory that people consist of a physical body and a non-physical mind was articulated by René Descartes and is known as Cartesian Dualism (see here). Many people still find this the most convincing and ‘natural’ picture of the way humans are made up. It was also the majority view among professional philosophers and scientists until quite recently, but no longer. Nowadays, most philosophers are materialists, (see here) and Dualists are an endangered species – not yet officially extinct, but so rare as to be like the Tasmanian Tiger, virtually mythical.
If the materialists are right about the mind, then the paranormal must be superstition and nonsense. If the paranormal exists, then they must be wrong about the mind. So do paranormal phenomena in fact exist? To try to answer this, we can either look at whether concepts such as ‘life after death’ and astral travel are coherent, which is what some of the writers in this issue set out to do, or else we can conduct some actual experiments to try to find evidence of such phenomena. Susan Blackmore did this for five years, but as she explains in the interview here she didn’t find any and eventually became a sceptic.
In the past, philosophers such as H.H. Price (see here) and C.D. Broad were deeply involved in psychical research and saw this as part of their philosophical investigation into the nature of human beings. These days it is quite hard to find philosophers who will defend the paranormal. One of the exceptions is Colin Wilson, who recently told me “Look at the evidence for yourself. Dismiss it if you don't like it, but not because you are too lazy to look at it.” That surely is the best attitude for a philosopher on any question.
In Issue 43 we shall be introducing a regular ‘learner's corner’ - so if you have had any interesting experiences learning philosophy, please do tell us about them.