One of the most fundamental debates within parapsychology is whether any evidence exists for genuine paranormal phenomena. Simply put, can paranormal events be called legitimate, with no other rational explanation. The majority of the paranormal research decision process doesn’t distinguish between private versus independent verification, i.e., the different thresholds used for individuals and parapsychologists.
In the paranormal literature, around a third of people believe they had contact with a deceased loved one, such as hearing someone’s voice, seeing a deceased loved one. I’m in no doubt that people who experience these phenomena are genuinely reporting these events, i.e., not making it up.
Let us develop an example into a typical experience to examine the decision-making process. Person A recently lost their partner. During the night, Person A woke up and thought she saw her deceased husband beside the bed, he then give her a message that he is well. We examine this experience from person A’s perspective and a paranormal researcher. To answer the question, whether it is a real paranormal phenomenon or a part of the grieving process?
The first part of answering any question is the decision-making process. A 2×2 table can summarise a decision-making process around an event. The table comprises of two decisions (accept or reject hypothesis), and the reality of the decision (there is evidence, or there is not). It is the foundation of the decision-making process in paranormal research.
|Reality- positive||Reality- negative|
|Decision- negative result||Type 1 (False positive)||Correct|
|Decision – Positive result||Correct||Type 2 (False negative)|
Person A will naturally want to make sense of the event. In the decision-making process, Person A will be strongly influenced by her beliefs. If she is a firm believer in the paranormal, she might quickly conclude that her dead husband visited her and give her a message. In contrast, if Person A doesn’t believe in Life after Death or paranormal, she might respond quickly to the conclusion that it is a hallucination/dream. We have seen a person’s beliefs will shape the interpretation of the event. Therefore, potentially increasing mistakes in the decision-making but in different ways. We talk more in the next blog of how beliefs shape our perceptions.
We have seen Person A’s beliefs will strongly influence the decision-making process. However, it is not only personal beliefs that shape the perception of an event. The nature of the event also shapes perception. If Person A received the message from her deceased husband that validates something they agreed on before he passed, it is likely to convince Person A of Life after Physical Death. This provides some internal verification for Person A.
For Person A, they feel they have some strong evidence. However, for a parapsychologist not knowing the person might question whether this is proof of Life After Physical Death. A parapsychologist might argue that the agreed message needed to be documented before and required to be witnessed by other people or recorded for independent verification. Therefore, the paranormal investigator might suggest that this is interesting evidence but falls short of providing evidence for Life after Physical Death. But Person A will personally feel all these criteria are met, as she lived the event.
So, what conclusions can we make in our example? Firstly, Person A might have felt it was a genuine paranormal experience. It is difficult to argue against Person A. However if we examine two hypotheses for this event; (1) hallucination that could be part of the grieving process and (2) actual evidence of the paranormal. An independent researcher couldn’t distinguish between finding proof to rule out one over another. Therefore, making it difficult for the parapsychologist to build a scientific evidence base for the phenomena.
Paranormal investigators have collected various cases of people experiences of being contacted by a deceased loved one, so they have built up a body of evidence. We can say, a third of people believe they have been contacted by the deceased and think it provides evidence for life after physical death. However, researchers can’t rule out either of the above hypotheses. Therefore, in self-report measures, all we can do is build common themes and attempt to develop a theoretical basis to explain these events.
A common phrase used by parapsychologists is “extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence,” but this doesn’t make any sense from the decision-making process. All the claim does is alter the probability of the decision-making process going wrong. Therefore, people who research the paranormal should always be aware of the differences between private and independent evidence, which significantly alters the decision-making process.
I will be presenting a series of blogs around the paranormal: The next topic is “How beliefs shape our perception.”
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Thanks for reading, Ian