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Philosophy & the Paranormal

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The Paranormal, Urban Legends and Critical Thinking

Tim Madigan takes time out to tell some high school students a no-ghost story.

As a self-proclaimed freelance philosopher, I am often called upon to give lectures by people who have difficulty finding anyone else to speak to their groups. So I was not surprised to receive a phone call from a high school librarian, asking me to give a talk. I jumped at this opportunity to enlighten young minds to the necessity of critical thinking. However, when I checked with her the day before my scheduled visit, I found out that she didn’t want a lecture. Instead, she wanted me to speak for ten minutes to five different study hall groups which were being held in the library. Memories of my own high school days flashed through my mind — kids in study hall are not noted for their undivided attention. Even worse, this was an all-boys parochial school, so the testosterone level would make aggressive behavior all the more likely.

Doubting that I could withstand this ordeal alone, and not wanting to renege on a promise, I invited Tad S. Clements, a friend of mine and a retired professor of philosophy, to accompany me. The offer of a free lunch was enough to entice him to join me in this endeavor. While driving to the school, the two of us racked our brains as to what to tell the assembled hordes. A learned discussion on the differences between Stratonician and Cartesian skepticism didn’t seem quite appropriate. I encouraged Tad to speak first, but he demurred. He strenuously argued that, since I was the person directly contacted, I had a moral responsibility to precede him. I began to question the wisdom of inviting a professor of ethics along.

Entering the library, where flashbacks to my own parochial education assaulted me, I noticed several books about U.F.O.s, Bigfoot and the Bermuda Triangle on the shelves. Not a good omen. As the first study group marched sullenly in, I began to understand what actors mean by the concept of ‘flop sweat.’ Cursing Tad under my breath for his refusal to be first in front of the firing squad, I wondered what I could possibly talk about that would interest these young men and get them to understand the importance of critical thinking. And then, like a gift from heaven — secularly speaking of course — it came to me: Tell them about urban legends!

Urban legends are contemporary stories passed along as true — such as the ‘spider in the bubble gum’ or ‘the vanishing hitchhiker,’ which, while usually quite entertaining or frightening, turn out to have no basis in fact. As Jan Harold Brunvand points out in his many books collecting these legends, when you try to verify them, the usual response is that “they happened to a friend of a friend.” Such ‘FOAFs’ never seem to have a definite name or other identifying features when you wish to track them down.

“How many of you saw the movie Three Men and a Baby?” I asked the students. Most of their hands went up. “Has anyone heard anything unusual about it?” Indeed they had. As the story goes, in one scene in the film, you can see the ghostly image of a young man hovering in the background. It was rumored to be the spirit of a young boy who had been killed years before in the home the movie was filmed in. Apparently he must have been a member of Screen Actors Guild as well.

Tad, sensing that we were not going to be pummeled with flying projectiles, got into the act. “What might you do to investigate this claim?” he queried. He was on to my scheme — get the kids to come up with their own version of Occam’s Razor: What might be the simplest explanation for this ghostly apparition? After some vigorous give-and-take, I explained to them that a few skeptics had decided to find out what it was that was captured on film. They discovered, by freeze-framing the video, that it was the blurry background image of a mannikin that had been featured earlier in the film. Also, it couldn’t have been the ghost of a former inhabitant of the home, since the scene was filmed not in a private home but rather on a sound stage. The legend was interesting, but so was discovering the truth behind it.

The students came up with other urban legends they were familiar with, and we discussed what sort of support would be needed to verify them. Tad and I then ended with a few basic pointers on the scientific method and how it can be applied to paranormal claims. We chanted together the skeptics’ mantra: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The students seemed, for the most part, genuinely interested — we could at least hold their attention for ten minutes, and most importantly, we had made them active participants in the discussion. I highly recommend this approach to any of you who might find yourself in a similar situation.

Tad and I heaved a sigh of relief that we’d escaped our ordeal. To show her appreciation, the librarian led us to the school cafeteria, where she bought each of us lunch. Come to think of it, maybe we didn’t escape unscathed after all — I’d repressed the memories of how awful such meals can be. It reminds me of the story of the rat in the fried chicken ...

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2003

Tim Madigan is Editorial Director of the University of Rochester Press and a U.S. Editor of Philosophy Now.

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