On testable claims / Open thread on episode #691

Sorry I’m late with this, but I noticed some people wanting to comment on the recent show with me and Jeff, so I thought I ought to put up a thread. If you didn’t see the show, here’s what you missed:

(Thanks for the Photoshop job, Eik!)

I want to mention a point about one of the callers. This caller told us that he had experienced what some would consider to be “out of body experiences” or OBEs. However, rather than just assuming that he had experienced a supernatural event, he came up with the idea of hiding playing cards so he could look at them while projected. If this worked, he would have been able to predict what was value was on the cards and check them while awake. Much to his complete lack of surprise, it did not work.

We also discussed some other alternatives at dinner. I brought up an example I heard from Martin Gardner: you should keep a book of limericks handy in your house but not read it. It’s easy to recognize a limerick on sight, but it’s not easy for your brain, conscious or subconscious, to invent a unique limerick on the fly. So if you’re not sure whether you’re experiencing the real world, just open up to a random page and find a limerick you haven’t read yet.

Now, I noticed in my email that someone had written a comment on the blog, but later deleted it. I won’t quote the comment in full, or identify the poster, but I think the content is worth mentioning because it demonstrates a common method of dodging attempts to make supposedly supernatural events become testable. The commenter said that it would be foolish to try this sort of experiment, because all the experts on OBEs know that you cannot read text or see drawn images while you are out of your body. The page will show either random gibberish, or something completely different each time you look at it.

And I say, gosh, how amazingly convenient that is for somebody who wants to to believe in OBEs but doesn’t want it to be disproved by science. In the first place, how does anyone, in fact, know this? How did the researchers come to the conclusion that it was actually the text or pictures that were changing, and not (as most skeptics would suspect) simply the brain making shit up as it goes along? And in the second place, what is it about “text” and “drawn images” that make them prone to being changed randomly or become nonsensical scrawlings, while the rest of the physical world is not?

To his credit, the commenter proposed an alternative test, which is to have a friend place a random assortment of objects in a box so you can later identify what they are. But it seems pretty arbitrary to me to be separating drawn images from other real world objects. Writing doesn’t have mystical properties on its own; it’s ink that has soaked into paper, or it’s physically chipped out of a hard surface such as stone, metal, or plastic. If your experience can include this sort of physical stuff being scrambled around without any reason, how do you know you can trust any of your senses? You could be looking at, say, a rubber ball, and it would appear to be a fully grown cow. It’s all just a sensory perception of the real world anyway, so that doesn’t make any less sense than words in English changing into words in French, or a random string of ASCII, or Arabic characters.

There is, of course, something our brain does already which generates a proxy version of the world as we understand it without requiring any reliable sensory input. It’s called dreaming, or hallucinating.

And making an experience off-limits to testing by constantly introducing completely arbitrary reasons why the tests you propose are invalid… it’s the oldest trick in the book.

Talk amongst yourselves.