In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part V: Cognitive Science

Note: This is the fifth and penultimate installment of an article series refuting claims made by the online book “Debunking PseudoSkeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers” written by Winston Wu. For all posts in this series, see the index post here.

Winston Wu treaties.

Previously, we have explored the psychological techniques used by alleged psychics (such as cold reading and time-shifting), replication of scientific experiments, adequate controls, placebo effects, appeals to popularity, the difference between unexplained and inexplicable, the scope and influence of pseudoscience, the unreliability of memory, the nature of evidence, scientific plausibility, Occam’s razor, confidence in proportion to evidence, extraordinary claims, anecdotal evidence and the burden of evidence.

In the fifth installment of this article series examining the defense of paranormal beliefs by Winston Wu, we will take a closer look at supposed precognitive dreams, intercessory prayer, near-death experiences, neuroscience and scientific confidence. Like we saw in previous installments, the arguments provided by Wu, which mainly consists of anecdotes and bizarre requirements for absolute certainty, do not hold up to critical scrutiny.

Misunderstood principle #21: After-the-fact rationalizations

The next topic Wu discusses is prayer and supposed fulfilled prayer. He makes a simplified description of the skeptical position, namely that apparently answered prayer is due to selective memory and chance. Here is a simple mathematical argument. Let us, for the sake of argument, only look at Christians and Muslims (the argument is stronger if we look at larger groups than that). Together, they make up about 2.2 + 1.6 = 3.8 billion. Assume, again for the sake of argument, that a mere 10% of these people pray at least once every day. That is a minimum of 0.1*3.8 billion = 380 million prayer per day and 380 million*365 = 138.7 billion prayer per year. That some prayer appear to be fulfilled due to random chance is not particularly surprising.

While this theory may be true in some cases, it does not explain every account of answered prayer.

We do not need to explain every possible account of supposedly answered prayer. We know the statistical background, and if we accept that the vast majority of prayers come true by happenstance, it is likely that all of them do.

First of all, we don’t even know what a coincidence really is or even if it really exists. It’s just a term to define something that behaves unpredictably or doesn’t behave according to a pattern that we can see. According to physicist David Bohm, there may be two kinds of order in the universe, implicit and explicit. (See his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order) Things that appear random may in fact contain a higher degree of order that we can’t perceive.

When arguments fail, refer to quantum woo! Seriously, it does not matter if we do not know if true randomness exists or not. What matters is this: we have two models, one is a naturalistic model and one is a supernaturalist model. The naturalistic model can account for the phenomena of allegedly answered prayer without appealing to supernatural entities and there is no credible, independent evidence for prayer answered by a supernatural power. We are therefore justified in holding the provisional position that prayers are not answered.

Second, as I heard one preacher said “If answered prayer is coincidence, then there sure are many more coincidences that come up when I pray than when I don’t pray.” For spiritual or religious people, praying results in a higher rate of coincidences that help manifest the desire or wish, often higher than by ordinary chance.

This is a textbook case of confirmation bias whereby people remember the hits and forget the misses, thereby artificially increasing the perceived success rate.

Third, based on conversations with some Christian friends of mine, I have found that God doesn’t just answer prayer through coincidences. There is a more amazing type of answered prayer. Often, as in my own case above, a prayer is answered with the help of other people who themselves don’t know why they are doing what they’re doing. (as if they’re hypnotized).

This is anecdotal evidence: there is no way for us to independently verify this, or know if it is anything more than chance or bias.

Fourth, recent studies on prayer done by Duke University and others have revealed the effect that the power of prayer has on those who are critically ill. Double-blind tests done have shown that those who were prayed for recovered much more quickly and at a higher success rate than those not prayed for.

The full study found no effects on the pre-specified primary outcomes of:

  • death
  • new signs of heart attack
  • a rise in the damage-indicating enzyme creatine phosphokinase to more than twice the upper limit of normal
  • new congestive heart failure
  • the need for additional coronary stenting
  • the need for heart bypass surgery
  • re-hospitalization or death within the six-month post-discharge follow up

There was an effect on some of the secondary study endpoints, but these were either arbitrary subsets of primary outcomes or emotional distress. This kind of analysis is very sensitive to data dredging and the definition of subgroups, so it is likely to vanish in follow-up studies. The main message here is that the full study found no effects on the primary outcome measures.

Fifth, In my experience with prayers, it seems that prayers from a selfish nature tend to get answered less than when they come from a desire for what is right and best for all. One metaphysical explanation for this that I’ve heard is that when desires come from an altruistic motive, they reach the energy from higher astral planes or levels of consciousness.

This is yet another anecdote of little to no scientific value. Furthermore, the “reach the energy from higher astral planes” mumbo jumbo is not an explanation, but an obfuscation. It does not lead to any testable hypothesis and it uses vague and ill-defined terminology that itself is suspect from an empirical stand-point.

Wu finishes this section by outlining his out theory of why prayer works, but since he has failed to establish that prayer does, in fact, work, his outpourings is of little intellectual or scientific merit. His suggestion also relies heavily on quantum and energy woo in different forms, thereby making it even less credible.

Misunderstood principle #22: Dreams

There are an estimated 7.3 billion (= 10^9 here) people on earth (as of November 2015). Most people have 4-6 dreams per night. Taking 5 as the average, we have 5* 7.3 billion = 36.5 billion dreams are dreamt per day and per year this is 36.5 billion * 365 = 13322.5 billion = 13.3225 trillion (approx 1.3*10^13) dreams per year. Due to the fact that dream content can reflect events in the person’s very recent past, selective memory, confabulation, confirmation bias and self-fulfilling prophecies, we should not be surprised that some dreams appear to “predict” the future.

Wu is apparently completely unaware of this simple mathematical argument when he brings up an anecdote about how a mother brought her child in from the crib to their bed and later had a chandelier crash into the bed. This is already doubtful because what mother in her right mind would put a baby crib right under a chandelier big enough to crush a bed if it fell?

Misunderstood principle #23: Near Death Experiences

One mainstream scientific explanation for so-called near death experiences (NDEs) — seemingly weird experiences people have when they have a close brush with death — is that it is the neurological consequences and physiological reactions of a brain that is dying due to e. g. oxygen deprivation. Wu makes a startling confession:

Although many features of the NDE can be explained by neurological or physiological processes, this doesn’t explain the message being sent.

If modern science has explained “many features” of NDEs, then it is unclear why one needs to appeal to supernatural explanation. Remember, the unexplained is not necessarily explainable. The supposed experiences during NDEs are probably due to individuals memories and experiences, together with a good dose of the brain trying to make sense of what happened.

In fact, the neurological effects could just be the result effects of the NDE, rather than the cause.

If we can understand NDEs by neuroscience, there is no reason to propose another supernatural cause of NDEs that in turn cause the neurological effects. It is even more problematic than that, since Wu is proposing that an immaterial cause influences material entities. This would of course violate several conservation laws of physics, and so Wu shoulders a heavy burden of evidence.

First and most importantly, there are many well documented cases where the NDEer while out of body were able to see specific details and hear conversations in other rooms and far away places that they couldn’t have known about beforehand, and yet upon returning to the body find that what they saw or heard was in fact verified to be accurate and true.

What is more likely: that the laws of physics are broken and supernatural events occur, or that people make up or otherwise construct stories to make sense of their near death experience? I pick the latter.

Second, NDE’s usually result in permanent life changing effects whereas dreams and hallucinations do not. Usually, real experiences are what cause life changes, not imaginary ones.

You usually do not brush with death while dreaming or hallucination, but you do when having an NDE. Thus, the permanent life changes are probably caused by the fact that the person almost died and therefore reevaluated his or her life. Sure, the NDE was a real experience, but the supernatural nonsense that Wu attributes to it does not have to be real.

Third, people have had NDE’s while they were declared dead with flat EEG lines on their brain activity. Any activity in the brain/mind, even simple thoughts, results in some EEG activity. Therefore, it should be impossible (according to materialistic science) to have any kind of conscious experience while your brain shows a flat EEG line, yet this has happened with NDE’s.

No, because that argument assumes that the NDE experience happened during the flatline instead of before and after and then being pieced together by the brain afterwards. There is of course no way to match the subjective passage of time during NDEs when being unconscious with the external time.

Fourth, some people have NDE’s even when they were not in danger of death

The example with the miners sound more like hallucinations due to isolation, and there could be other explanations other than oxygen starvation. For instance, perhaps it is enough to think you are close to death to trigger massive panic and associated neurological effects.

Misunderstood principle #24: Neuroscience

Wu seems to be running out of steam since he does not address any evidence from neuroscience that the mind is the function of the brain. He does not comment on the fact that specific brain lesions produce specific neurological and cognitive declines, he does not mention any such scientific case studies, nothing about brain evolution and so on. He makes no effort whatsoever to interact with the scientific knowledge mass on the topic.

Instead, he falls back on anecdotes, self-published ebooks, forum posts, and Youtube videos.

Misunderstood principle #25: Scientific confidence

Wu goes on to talk about the origins and causes of alleged “spiritual experiences”. Unfortunately, he goes complete batshit unreasonable by repeating several of his previous misunderstandings and now requiring absolute certainty for knowledge:

Since no one knows all that exists in all of reality, including skeptics, no one can say with infallible authority what exists and what doesn’t. Even if we take something out of fantasy like unicorns and dragons, for instance, we don’t know that those type of creatures don’t exist in the trillions of other planets in the universe since we haven’t even been to any others beside our own.

We do not need infallible authority to make reliable claims about the world. All you need is evidence and adjusting confidence in proportion to that evidence. Furthermore, it does not matter if unicorns or dragons exist on some remote planet billions of light-years away when the question concern their existence on this planet. Since there is little to no evidence for dragons and unicorns, and some evidence against their existence (both of them requires chimeras from disparate lineages which is not possible for mammals, birds or reptiles according to evolution), one can say that they are unlikely to exist on this planet.

Furthermore, if Wu requires absolute certainty before we can accept a position, then he cannot hold any of his own paranormalist beliefs, because he has not established them with absolute certainty or infallible authority.

Furthermore, string theory in physics suggest that there may be many dimensions, which if true may suggest other planes or levels of reality that we don’t understand yet. These other levels of reality could contain creatures or beings that we can’t even imagine, even unicorns and dragons

These “extra” dimensions are thought to be very small, which is the reason why we currently cannot detect them. Is Wu honestly making the claim that dragons, unicorns or spiritual experiences exist on enormously small scales, larger scales that we can detect? If that is the case, of course, nothing in our brain can interact with it even in theory (because then we could detect it). Making sweeping references to string theory is no help to paranormal believers.

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  1. In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Addendum and Index | Debunking Denialism
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