Sunday, September 03, 2006

Prove to a blind man that sight exists

I had a discussion with a student today about religion and spirituality. Based on having seen someone who claimed to communicate with the dead some time back on Larry King and the book Hello From Heaven (which I have not read), I asked my student if she believed such a thing was possible. She said that she did not. Then, I asked her how she'd convince a blind person that such a thing as sight was real. For this, she had no answer.

This raises an interesting question about psychic abilities. How can anyone who possesses a sense that others do not prove that sense exists? A person born blind from birth has to take your word for it that sight actually exists and only does so because so many people say it is so. However, does a sense, such as the ability to communicate with the dead, not exist because only a small minority possess it?

We all rely on our senses almost exclusively when estimating the nature of our world. Part of the purpose of meditation is to turn ourselves off from the senses for awhile in order to experience something else. Unfortunately, most people are never able to disengage their sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste enough to find out if there is some other sense that our other senses are covering up our ability to perceive.

It's not so outrageous a possibility that the blaring stimulation one's nervous system receives could be making it hard to sense something else. After all, people who are inundated with sounds often say it is "too loud to think". If your mental clarity can be impeded by loud sounds, extreme temperatures, or bright light, isn't it possible that the cacophony of sensory input in daily life is blotting out other more subtle sensations?

Our senses are also highly fallible. How often do you see something out of the corner of your eye yet upon closer inspection see nothing there. And, how common is it to be with someone and say, "did you say something?" when nothing has been uttered. It's also not uncommon to have non-psychotic olfactory mini-hallucinations though most people do not recognize them as hallucinations. They just think they smell something which has a source they cannot locate.

Yet we trust our senses quite thoroughly and readily dismiss all that we cannot personally perceive. Science is built on a foundation of extending the senses through technology in order to "prove" things. Never mind that theories are mutating and old proof is being proven incorrect because of the inaccuracy of the instrumentation. Remember the pictures of the face on Mars? For many years, tales were spun about the formation in this famous picture taken in 1976 by Viking 1. In 2001, better technology on the Mars Global Surveyer has shown there is no face in the formation and it's simply a mesa. It's about what we think we see, not what is actually there.

I'm not suggesting that we start believing every medium's claim that he or she can talk to Aunt Minnie who passed away 10 years ago or that we disbelieve everything our senses perceive. What I'm suggesting is that we at least be open-minded to the possibility that our senses aren't all that there is and that they aren't always right. We should accept the possibility that we are blind to what some people can sense and that they're not lying because they can't offer proof of their ability.


Luis said...

No, but when the same psychics get most of what they say dead wrong, and use known techniques (the "cold read" and others) used by charlatans since long ago, that's a fairly good indication that they're not actually psychic. In more indeterminate cases, one cannot dismiss psychic abilities, but in such cases, there are usually a host of possible explanations for the results, so there is no reason to accept the "psychic" claim more than any other.

Shari said...

You're generalizing "psychic" to all people who seem to have some extra-sensory perception. There are a good many people who claim to be able to commune with entities outside of this reality who do not claim to possess other skills.

My point is that current scientific methodology can only test that which it is capable of testing. It's rather limited in that way. I'm not sure that we're arriving at any real truths if we constantly limit ourselves to what crude instrumentation is capable of examining. And, as I pointed out, the results of those examinations can be quite misleading.

People who are rigid about the nature of reality and firm believers only in what can be measured by scientific method often claim there are "other explanations". This is quite correct but the problem is that they only accept the explanations that fit into their mental pardigm as being feasible and reject anything outside of it even when their explanations cannot be verified scientifically either.

I respect science and believe in scientific methodology but I think we need to understand the fact that it's extremely crude and limited. Just as you can't see an odor or expect to experience it with the wrong sense, you can't hope to measure certain experiences with current scientific implements. If the scientific community doesn't accept that, they can't begin to develop a means of moving beyond their current instrumentation.

If you only accept that truth is what you can perceive with your own senses, then you have to reject even the observations of science as a lot of what is commonly accepted is beyond human perceptual capability. Truth is bigger than what we can sense but scientists only accept this to the point of accepting that there is more to the physical world than they can presently see. That, in and of itself, is a belief system, not a fact.