Normality and Rationality

I was thinking about two issues of how people respond to that which is conventionally thought of being outside of the “normal”.


The first issue I’ve thought about many times before as it comes up in the literature of UFOs and the paranormal.  I was skimming through some books by the likes of John Keel, Patrick Harpur and Keith Thompson.  These books confirmed the data I’d seen for myself in public polls.  Simply put, the vast majority of people believe in or have experienced something that seemed to defy a rationalistic, materialistic worldview.  Most people have had at least one strange experience in their life.  Many people have had multiple strange experiences in their life.  However, skeptics and debunkers (whether atheists, scientists, media reporters, or government officials) treat the paranormal as if it were abnormal.  Furthermore, it is treated as if belief or simply acceptance of it might be dangerous for society.

I was thinking about an interview between Dawkins and Radin.  Dawkins told Radin that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.  Radin pointed out that it depends on what one considers extraordinary.  Dawkins was trying to dismiss from the start experiences that were common to most people.  There is a further problem with Dawkin’s statement.  Parapsychology gets very little funding and so is unable to do the largescale research that is necessary to produce “extraordinary” evidence, but its mainstream scientists such as Dawkins who argue that parapsychology doesn’t deserve funding because it doesn’t produce “extraordinary” evidence.  So, Dawkins’ statement is disingenuous because he really doesn’t want parapsychology to produce extraordinary evidence.  Still, a surprising amount of parapychology research has been done considering the factors of ridicule and limited funding.  Radin even offered to discuss the actual evidence and Dawkins refused.  So, Dawkins represents the rational scientist who precludes certain evidence by coming to a conclusion before even looking at the evidence (if they ever look at the evidence).

It reminds me of CSICOP, the skeptical organization by various mainstream scientists (incuding Dawkins).  The problem with CSICOP is that it isn’t headed by scientists and the scientists who support it have no professional experience with parapsychology research.  CSICOP has no peer-reviewed journal and doesn’t support research even in disproving the paranormal.  Hansen says that CSICOP did do some research early on, but it ended up proving what they were trying to disprove and so they never did research again.  Worse still, they use their influence (via mainstream scientists) to keep parapsychologists from getting funding.

Another example would be the military.  The Air Force had some programs to collect data on UFOs, but the public side of these programs was to debunk.  The main issue wasn’t necessarily to discover whether such things existed or not.  The Air Force had plenty of data to know that there indeed were unidentified objects “flying” in unexplainable ways.  Their own pilots were constantly reporting these things.  The reason debunking was necessary is because of a need to control.  If UFOs were either enemy experimental craft, aliens, or strange paranormal phenomena, the Air Force doesn’t like anything to exist in their airspace that they don’t control.  And if they can’t control the objects, they must control the information about them.  They must put up an image of always being in absolute control. 

George P. Hansen, in his book The Trickster and the Paranormal, goes into great detail about this need for authority figures to control and how the paranormal seems inherently contrary to such control.  Hansen goes into immense detail about the problems parapychology researchers have had trying to study something that can’t be confined to the boundaries of research.  Another interesting point he brings up is the issue of personality types.  According to Ernest Hartmann, thin boundary types are more likely to experience the paranormal and more likely to be open and accepting about such experiences, and thick boundary types are the complete opposite.  Most people are somewhere in the middle as I was pointing out how most people have had paranormal experiences at some point in their life.  An extremely thick boundaried person is a minority, but very interesting is the fact that they’re more likely to be hired for positions of authority in hierarchical organizations (government, military, education, corporations, etc.).  So, authority figures don’t end up representing the actual experience of most people.  Someone like Dawkins is being honest in that he has never experienced the paranormal (or at least has always managed to explain it away), and so it makes no sense to his worldview.  The other problem with thick boundaried people is that they have a harder time imagining the experience of someone than someone different than them.  So, not only do most authority figures not represent the experience of most people neither do they understand.

However, why do most people remain silent about their experiences?  There is the possibility that most people take other people’s silence as demonstrating that their experience is uncommon.  Everyone is afraid of being the first one to bring the subject up because that would mean risking ridicule.  However, I believe it was Patrick Harpur who offered another possibility.  Paranormal experiences aren’t even easy to explain to ourselves.  Like spiritual experiences in general, the paranormal commands a sense of awe and even reverence.  People feel something important happened that shouldn’t be taken lightly.  So, maybe people don’t talk about them because trying to explain them would seem pointless and unecessary.  But many people when asked without fear of ricicule are willing to admit to their experiences, and that is why we know from polls that such experiences are so common.


The second issue is about how people talk about things that are outside the “norm”.  This is mostly an issue of Western civilization, but increasingly it probably applies to other cultures as well.  When talking about the non-rational people feel a need to make sense of it rationally.  I’ve thought about this less than the first issue and so I have less to say about it.  I became aware of it listening to an interview on NPR.  The person being interviewed was an expert on behavior that is so far outside the norm as to be called “evil”.  He was discussing it in rational terms of psychology and historical events, but its a subject that touches upon the metaphysical and the just plain inexplicable. 

It’s hard for most people to wrap their minds around what makes other “normal” people do horrible things such as Nazi medical doctors.  And it’s even hard to come to terms with mass murderers who are usually motivated by mental illnesses few of us ever have to experience.  At least, a Nazi doctor was following orders.  Simple self-preservation can explain following orders no matter how grotesque.  But this expert pointed out that the people who did the actual killing of Jews were often given the choice of whether to participate or not. 

I was watching a documentary recently about the part of WWII involving Russia and Germany.  These were two totalitarian superpowers who were willing to go to any length for victory.  All morality and social order was gone.  The actions taken on enemy soldiers and just innocent civilians was at least as horrifying as any of the Nazi death camps.  It was all out thuggery and brutality.  It didn’t surprise me that the people involved were so-called “normal” people.  During what is called the partisan war, there was a lot of torture and random killings and most of it was not done because of any orders given.  They were typically just local people doing horrible things to other local people, often to those they were friends and neighbors with before the war.  One guy who terrorized a particular town used to be the teacher for that town and before the war he showed no signs of being vicious.  That is disturbing but other wars have shown that repeatedly that your neighbors may one day turn on you and do horrible things beyond imagination.  This potential is within every person.  Even psychological research shows how easily people turn to brutality.  What is called “civilization” is a thin veneer. 

What is surprising is that the people interviewed who were involved in the atrocities from WWII were mostly unrepentant and said they’d do it all over again.  These people were now old, possibly grandparents and great grandparents now.  But given another opportunity they’d gladly torture their neighbors all over again.  “War is war” seemed to be the rationalization.  Nothing else mattered but kill or be killed.  These were just “normal” people.  It’s hard for Americans in particular to understand this attitude.  Unlike Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, America idealizes morality and civil rights even though we don’t always live up to those ideals.  Of course our soldiers have done horrible things as well, but we tend to look down on this type of behavior.  The US soldiers involved in the recent torture incidents are mostly repentant when interviewed.  They act as confused by their own behavior as the rest of us.  They explain it as following orders.  We all can understand that and we sadly nod our heads.  But guerilla warfare is a different entity, something more close to the behavior of serial killers.  Americans haven’t personally experience guerilla warfare since the Civil War.  The atrocities of war are what happen elsewhere… well, until 9/11 that is.

Anways, the callers from the NPR interview were mostly Americans I suppose.  And so maybe my observation applies more to Americans.  The majority of callers seemed only indirectly interested in the “evil” behavior itself.  Instead, they took issue with how “evil” was defined.  Everyone had their own definition.  It seemed extremely important that we get our definitions precisely correct and that everyone should come to a rational agreement about how we discusst it.  The process of discussing was almost more important than the subject.  Maybe it’s because these behaviors are so challenging to our normal understanding.  It’s almost as if the right definition could be found then it wold all somehow make sense, somehow seem less threatening.  We moderns define ideas and terms in the way that Christian theologians in the past categorized sins and demons.  If things are in their proper place, at least there is a sense of there being an order to the world.  It doesn’t stop the “evil”, but it turns it into an object that can be safely studied.

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