The Christian and the Paranormal

By Oswin Craton


Extra-sensory perception (ESP) is defined as “ways of receiving information about the world through channels other than the normal senses.” By going beyond normal means, ESP claims to gather information paranormally. While there are many kinds of ESP purported to exist, we will focus on the following four:

Clairvoyance. This is the ability to know of events that are undetectable by normal senses and includes such things as remote viewing (the ability, for instance, to see inside a sealed envelope).

Precognition. This is the ability to foresee future events psychically. Generally speaking, precognition is the ability to foresee events without using cards, dice, crystal balls, or magical incantations, but by receiving information with the mind alone. Many people purport to be able to see the future by using devices like those mentioned above, but the use of such devices would technically be magic, not ESP.

Psychokinesis (PK). PK is the ability to move or affect objects by the power of the mind alone without physically touching them. Uri Geller is one of the most famous alleged PK psychics with his famous metal-bending demonstrations.

Telepathy. This is the ability to perceive or transmit thoughts from one person to another by some unknown means and is also known as “mind reading.”

There are other abilities claimed by various psychics (such as psychometry, or the ability to learn about a person by touching an object belonging to them), but these four are the most common.

Most people who claim to possess certain ESP abilities (some say everyone has some degree of ESP) and those who study ESP (parapsychologists) make no connection between ESP and magic. Although there is some disagreement over this even among practitioners, the majority deny any connection between the two. It is generally assumed that if one has ESP, he most likely was born with the ability and did not acquire it through supernatural means. Just as some people have better eyesight or hearing than others, it is assumed that people with ESP simply have more acute psychic powers than most.

Many tests have been conducted to attempt to verify whether these extra-sensory abilities are genuine, and sometimes these tests are given even to the general public in order to demonstrate that nearly everyone has some degree of ESP. The results have been most impressive and often have shown a fairly strong likelihood that these abilities are genuine. That being said, it is important to examine the structure of these tests to see whether they are valid.

When I teach this course in a lecture setting, I usually administer a typical ESP test to my audience at this point to help demonstrate how these tests are often conducted. It would be helpful if you would oblige me now and answer the following questions by writing down your answers on a sheet of paper. This will not be a genuine test inasmuch as I cannot attempt to project my thoughts onto your mind as you read, but bear with me and simply answer the questions as if I were standing before you.

Test for ESP

Take out a sheet of paper and make no marks on it whatever except for what is called for. Observe absolute silence during concentration periods to avoid disrupting your thoughts. The first test is for telepathy.

1. I am thinking of a number between 1 and 10. For example, the number could be 3, but it is not 3. I will concentrate on the number, and you write it down. Write down the first number that comes to mind.

2. I am thinking of two geometric forms. Draw the two forms as I concentrate on them. I am concentrating now.

3. This time I am thinking of a number between 1 and 50. However, in this number both digits are odd, but they are not the same odd digits. For example, the number could be 15 because it has two different odd digits, but it couldn’t be 11 because even though both digits are odd they are the same. I am concentrating on the number now.

Next we will test for clairvoyance.

4. Inside envelope “A” there are two simple drawings. Both drawings are on the same sheet of paper and are line drawings of ordinary objects. Please concentrate on the contents of the envelope and try to perceive what those drawings are. It is usually best to go with the first impressions that come into your mind. Sketch them out in rough fashion.

5. Inside envelope “B” are two religious symbols drawn very simply. Concentrate on the envelope’s contents and draw the two symbols.

6. Inside envelope “C” are the names of two American presidents written on the same sheet of paper in large letters. Only the last names are written. Both presidents are dead. Try to see inside the envelope and write down the names of these two presidents.

After administering the test I review the questions with the class as follows:

1. How many wrote down the number 7? What about 6? I started to make it 6 but changed it. (In my classes an average of 28.6% write 7 and 14.3% write 6, so 43.3% appear to get a correct answer.)

2. How many drew a circle and a triangle? (57.7% draw both a circle and a triangle, and an additional 8% draw at least one of the two.)

3. How many wrote down 37? (25% typically write the number 37.)

4. How many drew a house and a stick figure of a man? (30.4% draw a man, 17.4% draw a house, and of these 68.75% draw both figures.)

5. How many drew a cross and a fish? (52.2% draw both figures, while 34.8% draw at least a cross and 17.4% at least a fish.)

6. How many wrote down Lincoln and Washington? (70.8% write both names; 100% write at least one of the two names.)

By this time my class is usually convinced that indeed everyone has some degree of ESP, and a few are beginning to think they are genuine psychics. The results are, after all, most impressive, and I dare say that if you took this test at home you scored pretty well too. But my questioning after the test is actually a ruse. Here are the correct answers:

1. 4 (typically only 7.14% get it right)
2. Star and cone (usually 0% correct)
3. 39 (usually 21.4% answer correctly)
4. Umbrella and lamp (usually 0% correct)
5. Menorah and yin-yang (usually 0% correct)
6. Fillmore and Taft (0% has ever written either)

Why the difference in the results? The reason is because the real test factors out what are known in psychology as “population stereotypes.” There are certain questions that can be posed to a broad spectrum of the population for which a preponderance of answers will always be the same. For instance, try asking any number of people to pick a number between 1 and 10 (even without first eliminating the number 3 as I did) and more will stereotypically pick the number 7 than any other; a smaller but still significant number will pick 6. In the subject’s mind when he is asked to pick a number between 1 and 10 on the test he thinks he has only a 1 in 10 chance of getting it right. He believes these are his odds even though I have cut them to 1 in 9 by saying it isn’t 3. But he still doesn’t really have only a 1 in 9 chance of a correct answer because of the population stereotype that shows he most likely will pick 7 or 6 regardless. Factoring in the stereotype, he realistically has a 1 in 3 chance of getting a correct answer if the tester is targeting either of those numbers.

A similar phenomenon occurs with the third question in which I asked for a number between 1 and 50. People are usually very surprised when they get this “right” because immediately they think their odds of a correct answer are only 1 in 50. But note that I had said both digits were odd (now it’s down to 1 in 10 because I have eliminated all single numbers, all even numbers, and all numbers in the 20s and 40s). I also said that the two numbers were not the same odd digits (the odds are now 1 in 8). Additionally, I said it could be 15, but most people will assume it won’t be that number because I have mentioned it specifically. Now the odds are reduced to a mere 1 in 7 — even better than in our first question. When we factor in the population stereotype which shows that more people will pick 37 than any other, it is almost assured that a sizeable percentage of any given audience will get this answer correct if we make 37 our target.

The same stereotypes carry over for geometric shapes and picture drawings as well. Ask any group to draw two geometric shapes and you will end up with far more circles and triangles than any others. Ask for two pictures and you will more likely generate a house and a man than anything else. Two religious symbols almost invariably will include a cross, and a fish and Star of David come in not far behind. Knowing these stereotypes and manipulating the odds can assure a very positive result on any test for ESP.

In point of fact, most early ESP research fell into the trap of population stereotypes, which explains why so many early results appeared to be so promising. When researchers began adjusting for these stereotypes and devised tests more in line with the actual answers I had for mine, even widely hailed psychics performed no better than chance. We could delve deeply into any number of tests in this book, but this one small example should suffice. All carefully designed tests of which I am aware have shown no advantage for those with supposed ESP than for the average populace. (Those interested in more detailed accounts of ESP research are urged to read Psychology of the Psychic by David Marks and Richard Kammann who carefully reviewed a number of the most prominent ESP experiments and conducted several on their own.)

So much for clairvoyance and telepathy. What about PK and precognition?

Uri Geller is perhaps the best known PK psychic even today. He reached his peak in the 1970s and received worldwide attention for his supposed ability to bend metal objects with the power of the mind alone. Examining still photographs of his performances, one would be led to believe that by merely touching an object with the tip of a finger and concentrating on it the object would bend. But if one has the opportunity to view videos of these performances it is clear that what is seen in the still photos is but a small part of his routine. He typically would run all round a room shouting first one thing then another, meanwhile distracting the viewer from what he actually was doing — bending the objects with his hands. I have demonstrated the same technique (though with less bravado) in my lectures. While speaking I would unobtrusively bend a large spoon I’d earlier shown to the audience and then, presto! show them the result of mind over matter. All I really had done was distract their attention from the spoon for a moment and bent it with my hands. With practice one can learn to bend even keys with only three fingers of one hand — an impressive technique, but hardly one that requires psychic ability. Tests with other psychics claiming PK likewise have shown them to be superb illusionists, and often quite talented ones, but with no discernable psychic abilities.

Precognition, on the other hand, is much more difficult to examine in the laboratory. Most precognitive cases are known only anecdotally, and those who appear to have some genuine precognitive skills usually are not among those seeking the spotlight. Professional psychics with alleged precognitive ability who routinely make predictions about world events are found in general to be no better at predicting the future than the average informed citizen. Few proffer detailed predictions but usually predict events only in the broadest possible terms. If even a small portion of their prediction pans out, they will claim it as a success. On the few occasions when they risk giving precise predictions of forthcoming events, they almost always strike out. No public precognitive psychic I have ever known has ever given enough evidence of their ability to warrant any degree of faith in their predictions whatever.

Anecdotally, I can say that I have known a few very private people who seemed to be able on occasion to know certain events ahead of time. Typically they would report seeing events in their dreams before they occurred. Most of us actually have experienced something like that in our lives, which indicates that we do occasionally have what we might term an “oddmatch,” but in most cases there are logical explanations for these events, strange as they may seem to us at the time. An odd-match is simply a set of coincidences that appear striking because of their apparent unlikely happenstance. For example, if I dream about getting a telephone call from an old college friend I have not spoken to in 30 years, and then a few days later I actually receive such a call, that would appear to indicate that I had a premonition that he would call. I readily forget the perhaps 10 or 12 times I may have had similar dreams in the past 30 years in which I heard from him or someone else but never received a call in reality. What I have experienced in this oddmatch is what psychologists call a short-term illusion. I assume that the two events coincide because there is nothing before or after them that shows any firm relationship. Let’s examine how such an oddmatch can come about.

Suppose that at the end of an average day, when prompted by questions, you could recall 100 specific events that occurred that day. (Actually this figure is rather low because literally everything that happens in a given day would have to count, regardless how trivial or unimportant it seemed at the time. In the course of a day one would eat breakfast, get dressed, go to work, interact with perhaps dozens of people, listen to the radio or television, read books or magazines, talk on the telephone, sleep, dream ... the list goes on. And while superficially the day may seem dull and routine, it is in fact unique in every respect as we never do exactly the same things each day.) What we are concerned with in an oddmatch is a pair of events, such as having a dream one night and later having it come true. The dream would be Event A and its apparent fulfillment would be Event B. Together they form a match — a striking coincidence. But first we need to know the total number of pairs of events that would occur in a given day. Assuming a mere 100 events as our figure, we determine pairs by taking one event and pairing it with each of the 99 others. The second event can be paired with the remaining 98, and so on. By adding together these possible pairs in a day with only 100 remembered events, we find a total of 4,950 pairs of events for a single person on a single day.

Now an oddmatch is something you often can remember for years to come. Many people who tell you about a dream they’ve had come true will relate a dream they may have had several years before its actual fulfillment. Assuming a period of, say, eight years between a memorable dream and its eventual fulfillment, and assuming a very boring life with only 100 events in a day, we end up at the end of eight years with a total of 14,463,900 possible pairs of events. (Again, the actual number would be much higher.) Is it really improbable that out of nearly 14½ million pairs of events a person might experience two or three oddmatches? When we look at it that way it is amazing that we have no more of them than we do.

By coincidence, I once experienced just such an oddmatch during the course of one of my series of lectures on this very subject. The night after one of my lectures I dreamed that instead of having a pet cat my family had a small dog. The dog got into our basement and began barking when suddenly it cried out in pain, leading us to believe there was someone or something else in the basement. We called the police, and when they arrived we went down into the basement expecting to find a wild animal or burglar. The rest of the dream doesn’t matter. The next day my eldest son and I were in the backyard when we heard our cat crying. She often did that when we were outside, standing at the back door and meowing loudly. However, she wasn’t at the back door, and as we began looking for her we found that she was in fact in the basement. She had never before gone into our basement. This is certainly an oddmatch, but was it indicative of precognition? If I were a professional psychic I would make such a claim. But despite the similarity between the two events which each included an animal in the basement, no other part of the dream bore any resemblance to the actual event. The cat was still a cat (not a dog), she didn’t cry out in pain, we had no suspicions of anything else being in the basement, and we did not call the police. Yet through a process of subjective validation I could easily dismiss all the non-matches and focus exclusively on the one somewhat peculiar oddmatch. As convincing as oddmatches may appear at times, we must logically conclude that these coincidences are nothing more than coincidences and that they offer no substantial proof of anything paranormal.

Would it be wrong for a Christian to investigate ESP? As far as I can determine it would not, unless the subject purports to employ the occult in his alleged skills. Personally I believe such an endeavor would be a waste of time, but I can see no inherent objection to further study of the phenomenon itself. When one engages in such a study he must be careful to avoid population stereotypes, oddmatches, and subjective validation, and he must design his study with great care; but I can ascertain no biblical objections to his investigating ESP claims since they purport to be nothing more than an unusual ability to use the mind rather than the five senses.

Copyright © 2007 by Oswin Craton. All rights reserved.

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