Book review: Paranormality

By Phil Plait | July 6, 2011 7:00 am

Regular readers may remember my friend: UK skeptic, psychologist, and my evil twin Professor Richard Wiseman. He delights in creating amazing illusions and situations that tease our brains and show us we can’t always trust our senses.

He has written a wonderful new book called
Paranormality: Why we see what isn’t there. In it, he tackles a wide range of "supernatural" phenomena such as ghosts, speaking to the dead, telekinesis, clairvoyance, and more. And he’s pretty clear about it: these things are all explained as psychological effects. Wishful thinking, illusions, hoaxes, and (most interestingly to me) our brain psychology.

I’m pretty familiar with lots of explanations of why we see things that aren’t there (illusions, logical fallacies, and the like), but the sections where Richard discusses our brain were somewhat new to me and honestly fascinating. He discusses how our senses inform our brain, and how these methods sometimes fail to represent reality faithfully.

Don’t think this is some dry recitation of scientific thinking! Richard’s style is very entertaining, always fun to read and with flashes of dry British wit that will certainly be enjoyed by a lot of my own readers here.

Which brings me to an important point: try as he might, Richard couldn’t find a publisher here in the States for this book. Oddly, a book stating clearly that the paranormal doesn’t exist can’t compete with books from the likes of Deepak Chopra and Sylvia Browne.

wiseman_meHappily, though, you can buy it for the Kindle, and his UK publisher will ship to the States.

Obviously, I highly recommend this book to anyone who reads my blog, and anyone who has an interest in the paranormal. This is not a mean-spirited book, nor some cynical denial of anything miraculous. It’s fun, thorough, and honestly delightful. I would actually categorize it as a good read for the beach, if you’re looking to enjoy some summertime repose.

C’mon. Would a guy with an evil twin lie to you?


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- Hidden circles illusion
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- Headless skeptic
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- The best bang since the big one

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Debunking, Skepticism

Comments (72)

  1. LMR

    Just a question: is there anything I’d miss by getting the Kindle edition (pictures, charts, etc.)?

  2. Does he write about Yuri Geller? My all-time favorite case of mass hysteria.

  3. IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE

    Oddly, a book stating clearly that the paranormal doesn’t exist can’t compete with books from the likes of Deepak Chopra and Sylvia Browne.

    There’s nothing odd about that — you never go broke catering for the lowest common denominator!

  4. I’ve just completed reading this and can thoroughly recommend it (along with all of Richards other books – 59 Seconds & Quirkology). It gives a great insight into not only the paranormal but also the fallibility of the human brain – a great read & set of tools for any skeptic.

  5. @LMR, I downloaded the Kindle version to my iPad last night and am greatly enjoying the book. The only issue I’ve noticed so far with the digital version (and this is using the Kindle app rather than an actual Kindle device, which may display things differently) is that where there would apparently be “boxed” text in the print version (borders drawn around some paragraphs to highlight them), there’s just the word “BOX,” followed by the paragraphs, then the phrase “END BOX.”

    The Kindle version does include images, I assume all the same ones that would appear in the print version.

    It’s really quite nice to just tap on a link to view a video or go to the web site. The book also includes QR tags so smartphone users can browse related material from the Internet, so those reading the printed version of the book don’t have to type in long URLs.

  6. I was just looking for something to read. Thanks. :)

  7. Aussie Dave

    Huh, that’s the guy who talked ghosts with Lawrence Leung in “Unbelievable”. He was quite good too…

  8. Grant Gordon

    Heh, I actually ordered this book this morning. The site I usually order books through was having a competition so I decided to buy a book and enter, this happened to be the one to catch my eye.

  9. UmTutSut

    I’ll wait for the local library to get a copy, but I do want to read this. Does he have a logical explanation for occurrences when several individuals see an apparent “ghostly” apparition that is also documented on video? Just my .02 zlotys, but I find it difficult to dismiss such encounters — admittedly rare — as illusions or “brain psychology.”

  10. truthspeaker

    UmTutSut Says:
    July 6th, 2011 at 8:19 am

    I’ll wait for the local library to get a copy, but I do want to read this. Does he have a logical explanation for occurrences when several individuals see an apparent “ghostly” apparition that is also documented on video?

    Has that ever happened?

  11. kevbo

    @1. LMR Says:
    July 6th, 2011 at 7:15 am

    Just a question: is there anything I’d miss by getting the Kindle edition (pictures, charts, etc.)?
    ===========

    I don’t think anything is missing – I picked up (?) the Kindle version, and it has tons of graphics inline with the text. All links and footnotes are included as well.

  12. Calli Arcale

    UmTutSut — why is it hard to dismiss such encounters as illusions? All of the observers share the same (or nearly the same) physiology.

    Personally, I’d prefer to say “brain physiology” than “brain psychology”, because many of these phenoma are caused by the hacks and kludges the brain uses to get around its seeming physical limitations. Take saccades. The eye slews at ridiculous speed so it can fixate on different things. But you never see that slewing! Ever! And your eyes are doing it all the time, especially while you’re reading. Your brain is masking it out by attenuating certain parts of the signal and then just covering the rest up as it renders the image for you. (What you see is not what’s actually there; it’s what your brain thinks is there. Most of the time, this overlaps well with that’s actually there, but not always.) This gives rise to some specific illusions, such as the stopped clock illusion. Have you ever noticed that when you first look at a clock, it doesn’t appear to be moving? Or that first second appears strangely longer than the next? This is because of saccadic masking, and it’s nearly universal — almost everyone will experience the illusion. It can be rather creepy, especially if it’s very late at night. (I’ve pulled a few all-nighters in my time, and these sorts of things always seem to get a) more noticeable and b) creepier as the night goes on.)

    So I don’t think it’s surprising that sometimes several people see the same thing without that same thing being supernatural.

    When it’s documented on video, that’s another matter, but while it’s difficult to dismiss that as a brain hack, it’s also difficult to ignore the possibility of a fake. There have been enough fakes through the years that one must always consider that option. Not everybody who appears sincere actually is. And videos don’t always show what we think they do; while the camera cannot be fooled (because it has no mind to fool), the people watching it certainly can be.

  13. Damien

    Dear Bad Astronomer, since you are such a hardcore skeptic there’s one thing that burns on my mind that I’d like to hear your opinion about … Death! What is your opinion on what happens if a person dies? You don’t believe in anything that can’t be proven by hard, scientific fact so it would be interesting to hear what’s your stance on the ultimate fate. Do you believe that a person who has died completely ceases to exist, including soul (let’s just call it like that for a lack of a better word) and everything?

    I’m not some religious believer who tries to advertise to believe in God, religion, rebirth or anything like that but I myself can’t accept a version in that there will absolutely nothing left after one dies, ceased to exist forever. I find this very hard and actually very sad to believe. Therefore I’d like to hear your opinion on this topic. This might seem somewhat off-topic but it’s not really that much unrelated to Paranormality.

  14. TDL

    Appears to available as a dead tree pre-order in Canada (Sept 2011), available now as eBook for Kobo. I believe that Chapters will ship to the US as well.

    http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/home/search/?keywords=paranormality

  15. Josh

    I checked and see that there is no nook version. I assume this is because BN is a US entity and he doesn’t have a US publisher. But he could always put it up there personally, too. I say this because I like the nook more than the Kindle, but that’s my personal preference.

    That said, I will have to look this up and maybe buy the hard copy if it doesn’t become a nook book before too long. Looks really interesting.

  16. Jim Baerg

    Perhaps it should have a label along the lines of:
    ‘They’ don’t want you to read this book. ;-)
    or
    ‘They’ think you are too stupid to read this book.

  17. Zucchi

    I don’t deal with Amazon; they screw both customers and writers. Maybe I can order direct from the publisher. Book sounds great; might be a nice companion piece to “The Demon-Haunted World”.

  18. Matthew Brannigan

    I’ve added it to my amazon.co.uk wishlist. I have bought stuff from amazon.ca and amazon.fr as well as amazon.co.uk using the same login I use for amazon.com.

  19. eyesoars

    #9 Calli Arcale:

    You do sense things during saccades. Someone used to sell small, battery powered gizmos that looked a little like alarm clocks. Like alarm clocks, they had multiplexed LED displays that flashed through words.

    If you swung them around on a cord (which came with them), you could see the words hovering in the air, as the letters flashed out during the orbit.

    But… you could also see them by leaving the device sitting, looking near it on one side, and then looking away.

    It is a fairly spooky effect: if you and your eyes are sitting still, all you see are lit LEDs. If you twirl the device, or make saccades away when looking near the device, you see the names of things (e.g., flowers) that the device emits. Many people see subliminal effects: they can’t tell what it says (e.g., rose, lily, tulip, …) but express impressions of ‘flowers’ when asked.

  20. “C’mon. Would a guy with an evil twin lie to you? “

    Um… Yes. We don’t know if he or the evil twin in writing this and the evil twin is evil for a reason…

    “Oddly, a book stating clearly that the paranormal doesn’t exist can’t compete with books from the likes of Deepak Chopra and Sylvia Browne.”

    Because far too many media companies decided that they simply can’t tell people “no” and far too many people are used to being placated when they throw a massive “respect mah beliefs and authorata!” temper tantrum, something that companies don’t want to do because it takes time and money to handle it. Kind of a sad situation really.

  21. bigjohn756

    This morning’s ranking of “Paramormality” on Amazon(US) this morning:

    Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #267 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
    #1 in Books > Religion & Spirituality > Occult
    #1 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction > Religion & Spirituality > Occult
    #1 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction > Psychology & Counseling

    @#12–I have been ordering all kinds of things from Amazon.com and their associates since they began operation and I have only had a couple of problems. All problems were resolved satisfactorily and very quickly.

  22. UmTutSut

    Truthspeaker says: “Has that (apparition seen by multiple witnesses & caught on video) ever happened?”

    I’ll have to find a video link, but on the first “Ghost Hunters” investigation of the St. Augustine lighthouse, three team members saw an apparition rush up the circular stairway and *peer over* the top railing at them. Also caught on a camera pointed vertically up through the stairwell.

    I’m watched this video quite a few times, and can’t come up with any logical, physical explanation other than an “entity” (whatever it was) was actually seen and taped.

    Of course, if you think the show faked it, there’s nothing I can say to dissuade you. I believe it to be genuine.

  23. truthspeaker

    “Ghost Hunters” is an entertainment show. Why would you believe it to be genuine?

  24. UmTutSut

    I keep trying to post a video link but the posts aren’t showing up. Perhaps the “entity” doesn’t believe in skeptical inquiry…. ;-P

  25. oldebabe

    Why Kindle, and/or Amazon if one wants to buy the book?

    B &N has the book for sale, tho not in Nook (yet).. Probably other booksellers, too, so, very available int he U. S. And another `must’ read for skeptics, ISTM…

  26. Surgoshan

    Just last night I walked into my kitchen to get a snack. As I walked into the dimly lit room, I saw a person bending over the counter from the corner of my eye! I turned to look, and there I saw! … the trash compactor, a pile of stuff, and a bowl of stuff that combined to create the illusion of a person bending over the counter from the corner of my eye.

    Clearly… I saw a ghoooooooost. < — sarcasm

  27. Arthur Maruyama

    UmTutSut,

    Since this site is part of Discover Magazine all links in comments have to vetted to make sure they are going to 1) something which is family-friendly, and 2) what the commenter said it was.

    I have not seen the video nor do I plan to, but the question you should ask yourself is “Have the Ghost Hunters REALLY followed through on the Holmesian maxim of “when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Most of the time the followers of any psi-phenomenon utterly fail on the first part of the maxim.

    Have the Ghost Hunters completely ruled out a trick of the light or–given the premise of their TV show–seeing something that they want to believe and thus (mis-)interpreting what had happened? It may be that this particular situation was a unique circumstance and absolutely unrepeatable, in which case the ONLY answer anyone should give is “I don’t know” because repeatability is required for any scientific understanding (and just to be sure: while a particular meteor is unique and unrepeatable, the general phenomenon of meteors is not either). The Ghost Hunters have made–or they want their viewers to make–the unsupported leap to “it must have been some kind of ghost.”

  28. Arthur Maruyama

    @ #25 oldebabe:

    I’ve gone to the B&N site and while there is an entry for “Paranormality” if you look up Richard Wiseman there, clicking on that book only gives me a page with “Sorry, we could not find what you were looking for” (at least for me in the US).

  29. VinceRN

    I got the kindle version. It’s popularity on Kindle is climbing. As for why Kindle.? Works better on my Tablet and I’ve been using Amazon since the beginning, so the reasons are convenience and inertia.

  30. mike burkhart

    I’d like a copy , I will tell you that I have some Ghosts in my house ,there in a box full of Halloween decrations and are wating to emerge at the end of September to hang on my walls (by the way Santa Class is my box of Christmas decrations and the Easter Bunny in my box of Easter decrations) I know very funny.

  31. QuietDesperation

    I don’t deal with Amazon; they screw both customers and writers.

    [citation needed]

  32. UmTutSut

    Arthur Maruyama Says: “I have not seen the video nor do I plan to, but the question you should ask yourself is “Have the Ghost Hunters REALLY followed through on the Holmesian maxim of “when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

    Why wouldn’t you want to see the video to make your own judgement?

    That aside, Jason and Grant (TAPS founders) normally try to debunk perceived phenomena before considering a “paranormal” cause. These guys aren’t physicists, neurologists or psychiatrists, so can they make mistakes? Sure. With this particular piece of evidence, however, it’s difficult for me (also not a physicist/neurologist or psychiatrist) to find a logical physical explanation for what’s seen in the video. Unless you think they’re lying about no one else being in the lighthouse, in which case I almost certainly couldn’t dissuade you.

    Look, I’m not a true believer. Especially on the recent GH shows, I find the evidence to be pretty unconvincing. But in my non-physicist-psychiatrist-neurologist opinion,this particular piece of evidence is compelling.

  33. “Look, I’m not a true believer. Especially on the recent GH shows, I find the evidence to be pretty unconvincing. But in my non-physicist-psychiatrist-neurologist opinion,this particular piece of evidence is compelling.”

    I would be triply skeptical of anything I see on Ghost Hunters as evidence for ghosts for the simple reason that it’s a TV show and it subsists on ratings. They simply have to produce enough tantalizing clues and hard to explain moments to stay on the air. Who wants to tune into a show about ghost hunters who never find even the slightest trace of a ghost and issue a thorough debunking about each case? It would be on the air for one season, two tops.

    So are they hoaxers? I highly doubt that, but maybe, just maybe, they don’t struggle too hard to find out the source of that light or that weird shape, or clean up that video or audio track as well as they should. The audience has to think that maybe, one day, they’ll bump into a real ghost and collect striking proof of the afterlife on film. As much as it would be a boon for future scientific study, the kind of rigor needed to collect real evidence of anything ghostly is beyond the needs and outside the motives of a TV show.

  34. humble historian

    I’m a skeptic, but I watch GH for entertainment, and because I did have a personal experience that, while it might be explained away as my mischievous brain playing a trick on me was nevertheless vivid and not forgettable. I agree that the St. Augustine lighthouse footage is worthy of further investigation, whatever the outcome. GH also frequently finds mundane causes for strange noises, etc., and the team seldom if ever experiences what the people who contact them claim. Lately, it seems as if they’ve been trying too hard to turn nothing into something, and that could be for ratings. In general GH International has been very sloppy by comparison; not even getting basic history right, much less eliminating possible other causes. However, compared to some of the other programs with ridiculous claims of ‘evil energy’ being attached to old objects, and every single bump in the night cited as evidence, they’re making what seems to be an honest attempt. Their work does not rise to the level of serious science, and sure, they could be fakes, but they’re not in the same category as most of the others on TV. And they’re on the Sy-Fy Channel, which is for entertainment, not the Travel Channel or History Channel, which should have higher standards of truthfulness. But don’t even get me started on the History Channel . . .

  35. Gary Ansorge

    Phil

    “He discusses how our senses inform our brain, and how these methods sometimes fail to represent reality faithfully.”

    The brain is very good at creating a model of reality and like all models, it is merely an approximation. Our illusions are not so much due to mis-perception. It’s just the limits of the model. Which is why we build instruments. To improve our modeling.

    13. Damien

    I don’t know about Phil but personally I suspect one of two things happen when you die,,either you continue to exist or you don’t. If you cease to exist you’ll have no more worries. If you continue, NOW you’ll have something to worry about. Either you’ll go to heaven or to hell. If you go to heaven you’ll have nothing to worry about. If you go to hell, you’ll be to damn busy shaking hands with all your friends to worry,,,(,,,”I may be going to hell in a bucket Babe but at least I’m enjoying the ride”,,,)

    Gary 7

  36. Got it for Kindle for my iPod touch but haven’t started it yet, I’m waiting for my trip to the beach.

  37. Nemo

    I don’t think it’s right to say the book couldn’t compete — it wasn’t given a chance to. At most, you might argue that the publishers judged that it wouldn’t compete. But that doesn’t make much sense. Even if publishers’ customary practice is to pander to the most common viewpoint, surely they recognize that not all potential readers are served by that — that there’s a market for something else, particularly when it’s been underrepresented?

    So then I have to wonder if there’s some other motive. I could imagine that the publishers are conspiring to keep the masses ignorant and compliant… but that’s too cynical even for me.

    Ultimately, I find it very… mysterious.

  38. Nemo

    @Damien #13:

    I myself can’t accept a version in that there will absolutely nothing left after one dies, ceased to exist forever. I find this very hard and actually very sad to believe.

    Yes, it’s sad. Get over it. Seriously, how sad something is has no bearing on whether or not it’s true.

  39. Gary Ansorge

    39. Nemo.

    Right on! The universe is trying very hard to kill us all,,,fortunately, it doesn’t seem to really care whether it succeeds or not. Sad but true,,,

    ,,,and in other articles,,,

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-believing-brain&WT.mc_id=SA_CAT_MB_20110706

    Belief is a two edged sword but it works well in a low tech society. Science however, works better.

    Gary 7

  40. Wayne Robinson

    Damien #13,

    Mark Twain put it succinctly, noting that he was dead for billions of years before he was born, so the fact that he’ll be dead for billions of years after his death shouldn’t worry him. You should just enjoy the part that comes between as much as possible (which of course doesn’t necessarily mean a life of continuous hedonistic pleasure, which gets boring after a while).

    I’ve finished reading it as a Kindle on my iPad. It was very good. I’ve read ‘Quirkology’ and I must get around to reading ’59 Seconds’ but I don’t have the time currently.

  41. Nic

    Richard Wiseman’s book sounds interesting. I’m English. I live in England. I will look out for it – but Phil, you mention he has no US publisher – perhaps you do not know that I couldn’t in the UK get a copy of ‘Death from the Skies’ – my mother kindly imported a copy for me, and I did enjoy it (and re-read it yesterday, skimming a bit, no pair-instability supernovae? I thought it was in there somewhere so I’m damned as a software guy why I know about that, I thought I’d picked that up from your book).

    Anyway, I will certainly look out for Richard’s book.
    Always love your blog, and I check it daily, be well.
    N

  42. Bill

    @Gary (#36)
    > If you go to hell, you’ll be to damn busy shaking hands with all your friends to worry,,,

    Nice paraphrasing of the learned philosopher William Martin Joel:

    “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints
    Sinners are much more fun…”
    :)

  43. Bill

    @Damien (#13)

    >I myself can’t accept a version in that there will absolutely nothing left after one dies, ceased to exist forever. I find this very hard and actually very sad to believe.

    It’s only sad if that’s the way you choose to look at it. I believe that death is The End, with no afterlife. But I will live on, in a way, through the memories I leave behind with my family and friends and the impact I’ve made on the world around me.

    Every day, I have an opportunity to make my world a little better, and to try to encourage people around me to do the same. If that leaves a positive impact behind when I’m gone, if my actions can inspire others to do something similar, I can be perfectly satisfied with that.

    And I actually find that to be an uplifting thought, not a sad one.

  44. VinceRN

    Fun that this evolved into a discussion about afterlife. My thought is, try to be a good person and don;t worry about it. If there is an afterlife, and if behavior is somehow rewarded or punished, you’ll still be in good shape. If not performing the right ceremonies of one revealed religion or another is punished we’re all screwed regardless.

  45. VinceRN

    Oh, also I’d like to point out that nothing documented on video that is shown on TV is evidence of anything. Any smart 14 year old with a decent computer and the right software can make you video evidence of anything.

  46. Arthur Maruyama

    # 32 UmTutSut asked

    “Why wouldn’t you want to see the video to make your own judgement? ”

    Because in all likelihood the video will not show anything that will help anyone not already inclined in some direction, believer or not.

    Certainly VinceRN is right in his last post as I type this that modern software combined with digital video and photography makes practically anything possible, I do go by the assumption that the Ghost Hunters are at least honest in their videos if not in their presentations of such.

  47. Damien

    @Gary Ansorge The heaven/hell version wont really cut it for me. It’s too much bound to Christian beliefs but there are many more beliefs on earth than that. Then again Earth could just as well be hell or heaven. But I see your sarcasm.

    @Wayne Robinson But Mark Twain couldn’t have known better, and neither does the Bad Astronomer knows or anyone else still living.

    @Bill @Wayne Robinson so you believe in the ultimate end without anything left. The mental part of a person can’t continue to exist without the physical side. That’s the part that I find rather unacceptable. It’s easy to say “hey there’s no afterlife!” simply because nobody knows or has a prove.

    Personally I prefer to believe that there are more things between heaven and earth than we are able to see. Nobody can know anything. There are things that are completely unexplainable, take the big bang for example. That might be something even the BA believes in yet there’s absolutely no way we might even approach to understand how something can be created out of nothing or even trying to imagine “nothingness”.

  48. Ian S

    Damien: “Nobody can know anything” Really?!? I know you have access to the internet…. there you go I know something..

    You say “It’s easy to say “hey there’s no afterlife!” simply because nobody knows or has a prove.”

    I say: “It’s easy to say “hey there’s an afterlife!” simply because nobody knows or has a prove.”

    Here’s the kicker though, since you can’t possibly ever know this answer to this one until you die and since no dead person has ever managed to interact with us after the fact, why bother worrying about it? You’ll find out in due course, in the mean time try enjoying this life.

  49. Nigel Depledge

    Damien (13) said:

    Dear Bad Astronomer, since you are such a hardcore skeptic there’s one thing that burns on my mind that I’d like to hear your opinion about … Death! What is your opinion on what happens if a person dies?

    I can answer this one. All metabolic function ceases (but not instantaneously).

    You don’t believe in anything that can’t be proven by hard, scientific fact so it would be interesting to hear what’s your stance on the ultimate fate. Do you believe that a person who has died completely ceases to exist,

    IMO, their personality ceases to exist (except as memories in the minds of people who knew them). Their corporeal body remains.

    including soul (let’s just call it like that for a lack of a better word) and everything?

    It’s not clear what you refer to here. Even if you had a better word than “soul”, what exactly do you mean?

    I’m not some religious believer who tries to advertise to believe in God, religion, rebirth or anything like that but I myself can’t accept a version in that there will absolutely nothing left after one dies, ceased to exist forever.

    Why?

    Is it not substantially less far-fetched than the idea that there’s some magic kingdom (completely undetectable to the living) to which some indefinable part of ourselves migrates?

    I find this very hard and actually very sad to believe.

    Again, why?

    Does not the concept of a final end render life itself that much more precious?

    Therefore I’d like to hear your opinion on this topic. This might seem somewhat off-topic but it’s not really that much unrelated to Paranormality.

    True, but you must realise how impossible your questions are to answer with anything more than guesswork or arm-waving. Pretty much by definition, there’s no way to know for sure what happens to the consciousness after death, since we currently have no way of measuring that elusive quality in the first place.

    As far as we can tell, consciousness is an emergent property of the way our brains function. Therefore, it is likely to be a product of the brain itself. Therefore, it is likely to end when brain activity ceases. This is the only reaosnable extrapolation one can make from what we know at the moment. Perhaps your questions will have to wait another 50 or 100 years. We may have a better answer for you by then.

  50. Nigel Depledge

    @ 22, 34, 35 -
    It’s entirely possible that the production company employs a team (unbeknownst to the presenters and crew members) to set up “phenomena” for the presenters and camera crew to “experience”.

  51. Bob_In_Wales

    Hi Damien. I’m not going to venture an opinion, just suggest a different question that you might want to ask.

    You say you cannot believe that something does not continue after our death. OK. Then surely it follows that said component of us must be able to exist independent of the rest of us, so that it may continue on after the rest, the measurable, material component has “returned to dust”.

    At the risk of setting up a false dichotomy, said immaterial element must then either have existed prior to our conception or it is created by our physical selves post conception.

    The questions you have to consider then become:

    If it pre-existed, where did it come from, how or by whom was it created, where was it until it hitched a ride in an embryo?

    If it is created during life, then how does a physical process create an immaterial component which continues on independent of the creating mechanism once it ceases to function?

    If you go for the former option then you’re heading towards a view akin to that of those who believe in reincarnation.

    If you go for the latter then you are not far from a purely mechanistic view where mind etc is an emergent property of brain, the main difference being that you are arguing that this emergent property is an entity which once created can continue on its own.

    Leastwise, that’s how I come at the question – by looking at beginnings, not endings.

  52. Nigel Depledge

    Damien (48) said:

    @Wayne Robinson But Mark Twain couldn’t have known better, and neither does the Bad Astronomer knows or anyone else still living.

    So why did you pose the question at all?

    @Bill @Wayne Robinson so you believe in the ultimate end without anything left. The mental part of a person can’t continue to exist without the physical side. That’s the part that I find rather unacceptable.

    Why unacceptable?

    It’s easy to say “hey there’s no afterlife!” simply because nobody knows or has a prove.

    It’s as easy to say “yes, your essence will live on after you die on Earth,” but the burden of proof is on those making this claim, not on anyone making the opposite claim. Why should anyone accept the postulated realms beyond our ability to detect without some serious evidence? OTOH, it is reasonable to posit that such realms do not exist, because if they did there would surely be some way for us to detect them.

    Of course, it is possible to argue that we can’t detect them yet, but it is then only reasonable to say, “so I won’t believe in them yet” too. A true sceptic always reserves the right to change their mind in light of new evidence.

    Personally I prefer to believe that there are more things between heaven and earth than we are able to see.

    Why?

    And on what logical basis do you accept the existence of something beyond that which can be detected or whose presence can be inferred from data?

    Nobody can know anything.

    This is plain wrong. Cogito ergo sum.

    There are things that are completely unexplainable, take the big bang for example.

    I assume that you are suggesting that, because we don’t yet know why or how it started, that we can nmever know why or how it started. What is your basis for assuming that we will never be able to work it out?

    That might be something even the BA believes in yet there’s absolutely no way we might even approach to understand how something can be created out of nothing or even trying to imagine “nothingness”.

    Actually, there are approaches being taken that may prove fruitful. I find your lack of faith in humanity’s ability to understand stuff disturbing. You are making an argument from personal incredulity. Just because you find it unimaginable to understand that stuff does not mean that no-one else can understand it.

  53. gia

    Personally, being an agnostic I don’t particularly care whether there’s an afterlife or not. If there isn’t, once people die they cease to exist altogether and the discussion is pointless because someone who doesn’t exist does not care. If there is an afterlife no one LIVING remembers it nor do we have means of contacting those existing in said afterlife, so we still can’t possibly know anything. Therefore, the whole discussion is really irrelevant because the existence or the lack of existence of afterlife does not affect the living in any way. HOWEVER, there’s one thing I want to point out. In the case where you do accept and believe that such thing as afterlife exists, do yourself a favour and try not to dress it in ridiculous Judeo-Christian concepts such as heaven or hell that were created sorely for controlling the uneducated masses.

  54. Bob_In_Wales

    @54 Gia – I agree with you to the extent that even if there is an afterlife it does not necessarily have any resemblance to the Judeo-Christian vision of it. There have been and are many different ideas of what comes next from supernaturalists of many different stripes and we do not seem to have any way of telling which if any of them is anywhere near the truth.

    I feel however that you weaken your point, and indeed come close to some kind of conspiracy theory of history with your assertion that “concepts such as heaven or hell that were created [soley] for controlling the uneducated masses”. I see this repeated regularly. I have yet to see any proof. Religion, spirits, afterlives, reward & punishment, heaven and hell go back a long way in human history, indeed to the point where there probably were no “masses”, the population was so small. I fail to see therefore how this assertion can be made with confidence as the people responsible have not left notes of their motivations.

    I am however willing to learn if provided with appropriate sources. Hint.

  55. Damien

    @Bob_In_Wales @Nigel Depledge Thanks for your explanations which are approaching my questions from a more scientific perspective! True that by looking at it from beginnings, not endings, it might end up always be related to reincarnation.

    ” Personally I prefer to believe that there are more things between heaven and earth than we are able to see.
    Why?
    And on what logical basis do you accept the existence of something beyond that which can be detected or whose presence can be inferred from data?”

    Probably because I’m more of a right-brain-half-thinking person than you are. ;) … Things don’t always need to be logical for everyone.

    “I assume that you are suggesting that, because we don’t yet know why or how it started, that we can nmever know why or how it started. What is your basis for assuming that we will never be able to work it out?”

    I didn’t say ‘never’ and this was just to give an example on the current state of human knowledge. Sure we might learn in 100 years how it all started (or we might not), also we might learn more about whether death means absolute ending or we might not.

  56. ND

    @Damien “There are things that are completely unexplainable, take the big bang for example. That might be something even the BA believes in yet there’s absolutely no way we might even approach to understand how something can be created out of nothing or even trying to imagine “nothingness”.”

    The Big Bang model does not say it all came out of nothingness or that there was nothing before the Great Kablooee. The model goes back to only just after the start of the expansion and it does not propose anything about the state of things before the expansion began. We don’t what came before the Big Bang. That’s in the realm of speculation.

  57. Gary Ansorge

    48. Damien

    “How can something come from nothing?”

    Easy. If you add plus one and minus one, you get zero. Or one can split zero into plus/minus one,,,then move the minus one,,,somewhere else. This is essentially what happens when virtual particles pop up from the false vacuum. They always occur in pairs, ie, positrons and electrons. If this happens within a strong magnetic field, their vectors will diverge and we have two “new” particles existing where before we had,,,nothing. Or one could use the Hawking, evaporating black hole proposition, where particle pairs arise near the event horizon and one is absorbed by the black hole, while the other zips off into the universe. “Something for nothing and the chicks are free.”

    Gary 7

  58. SkyGazer
  59. Keith Bowden

    When I was little, I used to have vivid deja vu frequently. Sometimes it would even seem that I could remember remembering what was happening at that moment (a third level). Eventually I guessed that what was happening was akin to my mind “playing back” as it was “recording”. (Which is different from seeing or experiencing something that triggers a vague memory of something similar.) I’ve never studied it, and though I know some thought goes along those lines I have no idea how one would test for it. I still occasionally experience the vivid “looped” deja vu.

    I’m not a psychic, but I play one in my mind. :) Hahahaha! (Sorry, I’m having a weird week.)

    Throwing my 2 cents into the conversation with Damien: I’ve seen dead plants, animals and people, and though it’s hard to really grasp that the universe continues without them (and all of us), that’s definitely how I see it. That’s what the evidence indicates. I grant the philosophical argument that we may at some time discover evidence of a continuing consciousness (or soul), but we may actually find ways to travel faster than light, we may find ways to transmute base materials into gold – but until (if) we do, I remain skeptical and proceed under the frame of understanding that we can not. This works for me far better than wishing and hoping for something different.

    “Everything alive will die someday.” – George Hrab

  60. If Phil and Richard are twins … and in all twin pairs, one of them is evil … how do we know that the evil one is Richard, and not Phil? :-O

  61. Nigel Depledge

    @ Tracer (62) -
    How can we ever know that it is Phil writing this blog, and not Richard?

    OMG!!!

  62. Nigel Depledge

    Damien (56) said:

    @Bob_In_Wales @Nigel Depledge Thanks for your explanations which are approaching my questions from a more scientific perspective! True that by looking at it from beginnings, not endings, it might end up always be related to reincarnation.

    ” Personally I prefer to believe that there are more things between heaven and earth than we are able to see.

    Why?
    And on what logical basis do you accept the existence of something beyond that which can be detected or whose presence can be inferred from data?”

    Probably because I’m more of a right-brain-half-thinking person than you are. … Things don’t always need to be logical for everyone.

    This does not really answer the question. It feels more like an attempt to dismiss the question.

    Belief in something beyond anything that we can see or detect or infer is a pretty dramatic idea. Perhaps 4000 years ago, it might have been considered perfectly reasonable (because the world was such a mysterious place then). Now, not so much. I’d be very much interested in your reasons for believing as you do.

    Although we still have gaps, there are many aspects of the universe that we do understand, if not fully, then at least approximately. Is there anything more than wishful thinking in your belief that there is stuff that exists but that is outside our ability to detect or infer its presence?

    “I assume that you are suggesting that, because we don’t yet know why or how it started, that we can nmever know why or how it started. What is your basis for assuming that we will never be able to work it out?”

    I didn’t say ‘never’ and this was just to give an example on the current state of human knowledge.

    So how come you said “unexplainable” rather than simply “unknown” or “unexplained”? “Unexplainable” refers to something that cannot ever be explained, whereas you now seem to be claiming a meaning that would have been better served by “unknown” or “unexplained”.

    Was this a simple slip of the typing? Or does it mean that you really believe that there are things that will forever be beyond humanity’s ability to explain?

    Sure we might learn in 100 years how it all started (or we might not), also we might learn more about whether death means absolute ending or we might not.

    Yes, but how about we try to keep this to what we can know or infer with present technology?

    I’d be interested to read your answers to the other questions I posed, too.

  63. Al

    But Phil, you have evil triplets:

  64. @ Al (67):

    Bah! The one on the left looks nothing like Phil. He has whiskers.

  65. QuietDesperation

    But I will live on, in a way, through the memories I leave behind with my family and friends and the impact I’ve made on the world around me.

    Name one great grandparent and what they accomplished.

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