A Theoretical Physicist's View ...

So you have ignored my good advice. Well then.

I approach this problem by logically excluding alternatives:

Option 0: Paranormal phenomena are not part of the world of physical phenomena at all; they do exist, but they come from a "spiritual world".

- This is an option I added in response to some reactions I received on the previous version of this little essay. There still exist people who think that parts of our world simply disconnect from everything that we have been able to sort out and investigate systematically, and which we discovered to obey physical laws with staggering precision. My friendly advice to such people is to immediately throw away their mobile phones, television sets, automobiles and medicines since these were built on the assumption that laws of nature never fail. Please go back to the Stone Age, where you belong.

Option 1: There is a physical effect not yet recognized by physicists, allowing information to be transmitted in novel ways.

- What kind of effect could this possibly be? It has to be so weak that it went unnoticed in all physics experiments. These experiments are tremendously more sensitive than brain tissue and the like. Deviations from the Standard Model can only be expected in extremely high-energy particles or extremely weak interaction phenomena. The first cannot be emitted by brain tissue, the latter cannot be detected by brain cells. But there are many other reasons why this option can never work. The purported signal(s) should not only be able to move backward in time, over unlimited distances, from dead bodies, etc., but also carry information in a form that brains can encode and decode without any practice (unlike the ordinary senses). All these features are completely uncharacteristic for all physical phenomena, so it will be extremely difficult to keep this option up.

Option 2: All reported events are due to chance coincidences.
- One gets the impression that this is too improbable to be true. It is not as improbable as the first option though.

Option 3: People who make claims for the paranormal are liars and charlatans.
- This option is often adhered to by the extreme skeptics. No doubt, there will be liars and charlatans among the reporters, but this does not explain why the claims are so frequent, and one has the impression that the claims are generally made by honest people. Although this option is more difficult to exclude than the previous ones, it is still not quite satisfactory.

Option 4: We are dealing with a delicate psychological phenomenon; people "want to" believe these things so badly that these are mistaken for the truth.
- According to this option, we are dealing here with a purely psychological effect. The purported observations of paranormal signals were imagined but not real. Signals received from loved ones who have mysteriously disappeared, are wanted so badly that people really believe they received them. Even though this may sound like an improbable explanation to you, it is definitely more probable than the preceeding options given. But it brings me to a related option:

Option 5: People can be tricked by their own brain.
- Imagine a computer memory. It should be easy for any programmer to falsify the date of a file in it, and date it backwards in time. From then on, the computer will treat the file as if it was put there at this earlier date. If compared with later events, the file could appear to be a `paranormal signal'. Our brain could make the same mistake. If somebody tells you: "today something happened that I dreamt about in all detail last week", then how do you really know that the dream took place last week? Your memory has a `date label' attached to each memorised event. It is well-known that these date labels can be inaccurate. It is not against any law of physics to suspect that heavy emotional disturbances can cause our brain to antedate its memories.

Now let us look at the evidence: what do the reported events have in common, and where do they differ? The explanation of course has to be looked for in the common denominator.

1. The reports differ completely when the physical nature of the `signal' is described: the signal could go backward in time, could come from a missing person, from a dead person, from a UFO, or from an object, etcetera. If option 1 were true, all reported effects would require different explanations! Now here I was criticised of sweeping everything on one pile. True, some of the assertions are more ludicrous nonsense than others, but they all come with sincere believers. And I happen to be interested in the most likely origins of all of these notions.

2. The effects have in common that they are most often associated with emotionally distressing events: a missing or deceased person, an extreme danger, etc. This strongly points towards options 4 and 5. The human brain plays tricks on us. If you say that your memory is real, how can you tell? Your brain says so, but an emotional shock may have perturbed your brain.
I must conclude that options 4 or 5 contain the unifying explanation for all paranormal effects. If so, this theory could be tested. I invite anyone who had an `ominous dream' or `strong premonition' to write it down, with dates attached, before it came true! This would enable one to exclude options 2,4 and 5, but unfortunately not option 3. I predict that, if you are honest, you will find, perhaps surprisingly, that you can never produce a dated paranormal prediction!

If the above reasoning sounds offending (or upsetting), don't tell me I did not warn you, number !

I challenge anyone who believes that paranormal phenomena can be scientifically detected with a BET.

See the discussion page.

Last revision: November 13, 2014.

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