Subject: A difference that makes no difference is no difference Summary: When a parapsycol

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From: turpin@cs.utexas.edu (Russell Turpin) Subject: A difference that makes no difference is no difference Summary: When a parapsycological hypotheses becomes religious Date: 24 Jan 91 00:47:24 GMT ----- Descartes, in wondering what we can know, created a famous gedanken. What if, he asked, the world as we know it does not exist, but instead, we are souls completely controlled by a demon who fabricates all our sensory experience? The modern version of this gedanken places the subject's brain in a vat connected to a gigantic computer run by an evil scientist, but the effect is the same. In both gedanken's, an ordinary view of the universe is replaced by a more complex one, where perceived reality is based on a deeper one that is perfectly hidden. The key assumption in both cases is the same: the demon or the evil scientist has contrived (so far) to create experience for us that exactly duplicates what it would have been if the universe were exactly as ordinary perception leads us to believe. Such a hypothesis is "bulletproof". There can be no evidence for it, but it is also immune to disproof. There may be aspects of reality that are totally hidden to us. Most people, on understanding that this is not such a profound claim, indeed, that the opposite would be quite surprising, accept a pragmatic resolution. There is little point in speculation on the kinds of things that if they are, are also perfectly hidden. In investigating our universe, we are practically restricted to looking at the kinds of things that make a real difference in what we can perceive. (Descartes preferred a religious solution. In essence, he assumed that the demon is real, but is a good god rather than evil devil, and so we should place our faith in it.) The acceptance of any such hypothesis is inevitably religious or metaphysical (in the bad sense), and in my opinion, needless. It certainly lies outside science, history, and every other kind of empirical study. Despite this, bulletproof hypotheses are often put forth to defend a putatively empirical position. Perhaps the most famous case of this occurred with the first clash between creationists and scientists in the 19th century. Why, asked a preacher whose name I forget, does the universe show evidence of vast age, when it was created a mere few thousand years ago? Because, he answered, the Christian god is perfect and would not create anything without giving it a history! The universe was purposely created to give evidence of vast age, even though it is young. This "theory", named Omphalos because it answered that famous question about Adam, was quite popular for a while. Philosophers critized it, and pointed out that it was precisely the same kind of hypothesis as the existence of Descarte's demon. Indeed, such a god could have created the universe a mere five seconds ago, replete with our memories of yesterday! (Today, this argument is viewed as mere sophistry, except, as one might expect, among certain creationists.) A more subtle way of bulletproofing beliefs is to let them make a difference, but only in special and guarded fashions. Thus, say some believers, there really *are* miracles and people really do see them, but only believers. Miracles never appear in a fashion that permits their common study, because god will *not* be tested. It is not hard to see that this is another bulletproof hypothesis, and leaves belief in miracles a matter of faith or special dispensation. One can empirically investigate the age of the earth, but one can also bulletproof one's hypotheses about time and history so that they become solely a matter of faith. The same is true with parapsychology. Hypothesized abilities such as telepathy and precognition could exist in a way that is clearly testable, even if only few people experience them, or they appear only sporadically, or only in times of stress, or only with practice, or only when not previously used, etc. But it is also possible to bulletproof hypotheses about such phenomena, in much the same way as it is possible to bulletproof hypotheses about the age of the earth or the existence of miracles. "Precognition insures that telepathy occurs only when it cannot be tested." "Parapsychic effects make sure that only those who believe in them can see the evidence". Etc. When a hypothesis is bulletproofed in this fashion, it is moved beyond the realm of empirical study and shared investigation. We can no more "expand the scientific paradigm" to study such hypotheses than we can somehow empirically determine the number of angels that strut on pinheads. Those who suggest such things show only shallow philosophy, their misunderstanding of science, and the pernicious desire to disguise *their* faith as a matter for empirical study. Parapsychologists who bulletproof their hypotheses, who I hope are few, are practicing sophistry, not science. They do not need a new "paradigm"; they need to understand philosophically what it is that they have done. Russell

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