Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Into the Intro: Extraordinary Beliefs

Peter Lamont

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 Observations on an extraordinary feat

An extraordinary thing happened…in front of a crowd of strangers, a man asked a woman to think of a word. He asked her to concentrate on the word, and then he looked into her eyes. After a moment or two, he began to speak: it was a word of about six or seven letters, a name, no, an object, and there was a T in the middle, no, there were two. There were two Ts in the middle. She nodded. Don’t nod, don’t give me any feedback, just concentrate. It’s a small thing, not so small, but small in a sense. It’s alive, it’s an animal, it’s a pet and it’s very cute. You’re thinking of a kitten! She stared at the man. The strangers, who had been staring at him, turned to stare at her. They could tell, simply from the expression on her face, that he had read her mind.

Perhaps this was a magic trick, though it is hard to imagine how it could have been done. The woman was asked to think of any word she wanted, and nothing was said or written down. In any case, there was a magician present, and he said that he could not explain how it was done. Some thought it was the result of clever psychological techniques, of reading subtle facial cues. After all, anyone could tell from her facial expression that the man had read her mind, so perhaps he was able to pick up on more subtle information? However, there was also a psychologist present, and she was certain that psychological techniques could not account for the demonstration. If it was neither trickery nor psychology, then surely, as others thought at the time, this was a genuine paranormal demonstration? Of course, you were not there, and are understandably sceptical. Nevertheless, the description is accurate, since I was there myself, and saw this (with my own eyes, as all competent observers should). You have my word.1

This is rather typical, in certain respects, of cases of extraordinary (e.g. paranormal) phenomena throughout history. It begins with a reported observation of something for which there seems to be no ordinary (e.g. normal) explanation. Faced with an anomaly, we are forced to consider whether or not it is real. If we are initially sceptical, as everyone claims to be, then we first consider possible ordinary explanations for it. These may be considered in depth, or far too briefly, and some may not be considered at all. Nevertheless, whatever ordinary explanations come to mind, they need to be rejected before an extraordinary conclusion can be reached. That, after all, is what extraordinary (or paranormal) means: beyond the ordinary (or normal). In other words, belief in anything extraordinary depends upon the exclusion of ordinary explanations.

Others, of course, have not believed, and this is always an option. We can always reject the testimony as untrustworthy, as invention or exaggeration of something less impressive. After all, human observation and memory are notoriously unreliable. Or else we can assume that, though what happened was highly improbable, it was nevertheless coincidence. After all, winning the lottery is highly improbable, yet nevertheless happens to somebody every week. Or else we can assume that it was fraud, despite the failure of magicians and psychologists to explain what was going on. After all, magicians and psychologists are only human, limited in knowledge and capable of being deceived. In choosing one of these options, we might admit that we do not have an adequate explanation, but we can nevertheless believe that one exists. In other words, we can always assume that, though the event is unexplained, it is not inexplicable.

We therefore have a choice between one belief and another. We can believe that the event has no ordinary explanation, or we can believe that it does have one. And the problems of testimony, chance and fraud always make the latter an available option. So why would anyone believe in extraordinary phenomena? This is the question that psychologists have long seen as the one of primary interest in terms of extraordinary beliefs. And yet it has been answered on a regular basis, indeed since before psychologists began to ask the question: people believe because they do not consider the ordinary explanations as adequate ones for the event in question. After all, as in the above case, they are often barely explanations, lacking not only in detail but also in any supporting evidence. This is a point that believers have been making for a very long time, that ordinary explanations are sometimes inadequate, which is why an extraordinary one is sometimes necessary. One need not agree, of course, and people have also disagreed for a very long time, but it hopefully makes the point that disbelief is not a self-evident position. Thus, instead of wondering why people believe, it might be more useful to consider how people come to the conclusions that they do.

This is partly a matter of individual differences, as many psychologists have long stressed, since there are obviously individuals who believe, and individuals who do not. But before we consider individual differences, we need to remember that belief is also a product of social context, since at certain times, and in certain places, almost everyone has accepted the reality of certain extraordinary phenomena. Indeed, what is considered ordinary has varied significantly at different times and places. To take a rather obvious example, mobile phones would have been considered extraordinary by anyone a century ago. Few of us now, of course, truly understand how such things work, but we accept that they are ordinary enough because we are used to them, and because we assume that there are others who know how they work, and who could explain it all if necessary. In other words, people believe according to a wider context of plausibility, based upon what they regard as ordinary, and their trust in those they regard as experts (magicians, psychologists, telephone engineers) to be able to explain things.

There is also the matter of the particular event in question, of what is going on here? Regardless of any individual or wider social factors, what someone believes depends upon particular events. It is hard to find a single believer past or present who has not declined to believe in some phenomena. Thus, whether or not someone believes depends upon the event in question, and not only for believers but also for disbelievers. After all, any self-respecting sceptic would have to admit that they would accept the reality of certain phenomena, providing the evidence were sufficiently convincing. Indeed, there are countless reports by those who began as sceptics, but became believers, as a result of particular phenomena that they were unable to explain. That, at least, is what they tell us, though the reliability of testimony has been part of the problem. Meanwhile, to put it another way, which is the way it is invariably put by both believers and disbelievers, it depends upon the evidence, and what counts as adequate evidence will always come down to considerations about particular events. Beliefs are always based upon particular events, since to believe in extraordinary phenomena is to believe that certain events have occurred that are extraordinary.

About The Author

Peter Lamont

Dr Peter Lamont is the author of Extraordinary Beliefs: A Historical Approach to a Psychological Problem (2013). He is a senior lecturer at the School of Philosophy, Psychology and...

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