People who have a belief in something that can broadly be defined as paranormal often find themselves in discussion with other people who hold opposing views. If they wish to convince such people of the legitimacy of their claims, there are certain pitfalls that they need to avoid. These are mainly to do with the use of language, but also require some knowledge of logic. This short article points out some of these pitfalls, and thereby shows how they can be avoided

Nick Sabini looks at


THE FIRST thing that we have to accept is that, unlike a certain character in Alice in Wonderland, it is not up to us to decide what words mean if they already have a fixed meaning in general usage. The most misused of these is the word know. Basically, there are very few cases where we can use this word. We can say that we know Fred, and we can demonstrate this by describing him. We can know of something, like Australia, because we can produce evidence of its existence. We can know how to do things, that certain things have happened, when things have happened, and sometimes why they happened. But in every case where we say that we know something, we must be prepared, if necessary, to produce tangible proof that what we say is true. If we believe something to be true, but have no way of proving its validity, we can only state that we believe it to be the case.

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Evidence of the existence of Australia

The point at issue then would not be whether the thing that we believe is true, but whether we really do believe it, or are pulling someone's leg. Philosophers make a big distinction between belief and knowledge, and many people these days have more than a passing interest in philosophy.

The next important words are all, always, every, and never. If we make a statement based on one of these words it is a generalisation, and it only needs one exception to be found, and the whole statement becomes null and void. Another word within this category is anything. To demonstrate this I will quote Harrison's Paradox, that states,

"If anything is possible, it follows that some things must be impossible."

OK? We only have to think of one impossible thing and the statement "anything is possible" is negated; but also the statement negates itself, because anything being possible includes the possibility of some things being impossible. In other words, if anything is possible then an imposibility is possible.

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Harrison's Paradoxical Cat

If human beings did not make decisions fairly quickly very little would get done. We think of a way of doing something, and if it doesn't work we try something else. This is known as empiricism, the Rule of Thumb, or the Suck It And See system. Humans are, therefore, very good at looking for confirming evidence for an idea. They are not so good, however, at looking for disconfirming evidence. A young man once insisted that everything has an opposite until asked the opposite of a cat. One could propose an anti-cat, but it would have to mean something more (or less) substantial than a creature that didn't like cats.

The next thing we have to be wary of is a misconception regarding theories. It is true that many theories are superseded by better theories as years go by, but it is not necessarily true that all theories will go this way. Think of the heliocentric system, or blood circulation, or evolution. Many theories are here to stay. Also, we have to accept that some theories are better than others. The yardsticks by which they are judged include proof, elegance and economy.


The mathematician, Roger Penrose has suggested that theories fall into three main types; Superb, Useful, and Tentative. He hesitated to suggest that there might be a fourth category - that of Crackpot theories. His book, The Emperor's New Mind, is well worth the effort of reading, if only to get an idea of the complexity of some problems.

Another problem related to theories is that some people try to use a theory to prove itself. An example would be a Freudian dismissing a critic by saying that he or she is in denial. The same applies to Christians who quote the bible or the words of Jesus to justify the existence of God.

Much of what has just been said about theories also applies to opinions. We are all entitled to our opinions, but that does not mean that they are all of equal validity. Remember that when we make a statement we are offering our thoughts into the public domain where they are subject to the rules of debate.

Rene Magritte "Chateau des Pyrénées" c.1961, oil on canvas, 200 x 140 cm, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem - Image supplied by
Redefining the laws of physics?

Occam's Razor is a term that many of us have heard of, but do not fully understand. The term means that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. For example, if we are faced with a strange phenomenon, and suggest a supernatural explanation, we have not solved the problem, but have created an even bigger one, because we now have to explain how our solution fits in with the laws of physics . It is not satisfactory to say that the laws of physics must be wrong, as the onus would then be on us to demonstrate an alternative theory that would be as elegant, economical, and provable as the one we wish to replace.

The next major stumbling block is the question of truth. We usually talk of something being true if it can be proven beyond doubt. This works fine in most of our worldly encounters, but questions arise with complicated theories, or explanations which are satisfactory in terms of usefulness, or the ability to predict, but which may, at some future time, be superseded. We may not be able to say that they are true in the same way that we can speak of more simple truths. However, we must bear in mind that reality is actually a social construction. We are given information and ideas by others, and in turn offer information and ideas to others. We also receive, and sometimes give, misinformation. Therefore, ideas and information are subject to scrutiny. Statements are examined for internal consistency, their relationship to the existing body of accepted knowledge, and verifiability.

Refutability is another consideration when advancing a statement. A suggestion that our civilisations were constructed by visitors from another planet, who have left without any evidence of their origins, or existence, other than the civilisations, cannot be refuted. Irrefutable does not mean that it is beyond doubt. It means that it was a waste of time suggesting it in the first place, as there is no way of testing it for validity.


A hypothetical construct is something that we suggest exists in order to explain behaviour, feelings, or phenomena. This includes such things as evil, soul, or phantoms. It is true that some people behave in a way that we would call evil, but that does not mean that evil exists as an entity. The same applies to the soul, or spirit.

Another pitfall is the concept of an open mind. It has been said of people who profess to be open minded that their brains have probably dropped out. To any new phenomenon we bring preconceived, or fixed ideas that we are not necessarily aware of. We would like to think of ourselves as open minded, but we have been building up a world picture since birth, and this picture is clouded by all manner of firmly held concepts, including such misconceptions as a belief that "anything is possible".

With regard to strange phenomena, or unusual experiences, we would do well to consider that after the phenomena itself (which may, actually, be imagined rather than real) comes observation, interpretation, description and explanation. All of which are fallible. Our intuition may opt for a particular interpretation or explanation, but intuition is equally fallible. Indeed many scientific breakthroughs have proved to be counterintuitive.

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A scientist yesterday

It has been said that science looks for answers, whereas religion pretends to have the answers. Science has led to some dreadful tragedies, such as Chernobyl, and BSE, but there is much that is on the positive side. There is, and has been for centuries, a popular movement that is somewhat anti-science. It holds that science is materialistic and reductionist, and therefore denies or obscures man's spirituality. We must consider, however, that scientists, like us, are just as awe struck by the wonders of the cosmos, and are every bit as spiritual (whatever that may mean) as the rest of us. Many arguments against science show a considerable misunderstanding of the subject, and it has also been said that many of the people who hold science in contempt are simply unwilling, or unable to put the effort into understanding the world at a more complex level of analysis.

One of the main reasons that people debate the problems that bother them is that they seek equilibrium. If other people question the beliefs that we hold, we are thrown into a state of disequilibrium. This is a very unhappy state to be in, and our desire to re-establish equilibrium means that we will often go through all sorts of mental gymnastics to get there. It also means that we will seek out people who share our ideas in order to feel that the ideas, and ourselves, are OK. People who believe in really crackpot ideas often have to meet regularly with supporters of such beliefs, because doubts creep in when they are not with them. This is why cult members herd together.


We have to be very wary. There are far more hoaxers at work than most people realise. There are also many people who much prefer the mysterious to the mundane. While some folk work hard to de-mystify things, there are others throwing spanners in the works. There are also many who are irrational; we only have to study the rise of Nazism, and its melting pot of crackpot ideas to see the danger of not being rational.

Enquiry into matters occult can be very rewarding if we employ the powers of critical analysis. We would do well to bear in mind, however, James Webb's definition of the occult as "Rejected Knowledge" in his books, The Flight from Reason, and The Occult Establishment. The history of the occult is a fascinating and absorbing subject. Good luck, and remember - whatever our ages, we must do our homework!

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