The discussion of special powers seems to have ended, but it raised some interesting epistemic issues, at least I think so; so I’ve thought about them a little more. I think there was a basic, unresolvable problem at the center of the discussion in that JS’s experience was (naturally enough) very convincing to him, but (also naturally enough) not at all convincing to anyone else except perhaps me, and not all that convincing even to me. I think JS didn’t make enough allowance for the fact that there was simply no reason at all for B&W readers to take his account at face value – although he seemed to have made allowance for that, in that he said he’d expect readers to be skeptical; but then he also seemed not to have, in that he called readers’ replies complacent and the outcome predictable. (‘Predictable’ is a tricky word. It can be just straightforwardly descriptive – or it can be a pejorative. Perhaps it was just predictable in a factual, neutral sense that readers would ask skeptical questions about JS’ account; then again perhaps it was predictable in the sense of tediously unimaginative.) To put it another way, I think he’s making a reasonable and interesting point, but I think the account of the weird experience doesn’t have the argumentative force that he appears to think it does or should. It is, as I said, somewhat more convincing to me than it has any reason to be to other readers, merely because I know him and thus know that he’s not, for instance, some giggling hacker playing a joke. On the other hand, knowing him undercuts my willingness and ability to be convinced as well as aiding it, because he has told me of so many jokes of his that rely on sustained deception. And that’s his doing, not mine! So charges of complacency are misplaced.
So, to a couple of specific questions.
But it is a lovely example of precisely the kind of complacency about explanations that I think is a worry where you have a whole load of people who are committed to more or less the same worldview that people are so keen to explain away this stuff by invoking coincidence, when it seems perfectly possible that there might be other mechanisms at work that we either don’t yet understand, or that we understand but will always be epistemologically in the dark about in these situations (e.g., the possibility that you’ve both seen a magazine cover).
But why is that complacency rather than just good practice? Or, what is the difference? Why isn’t it reasonable, rather than complacent, to consider what seems to be the most plausible explanation first? We do that all the time (so in that sense I suppose one could say it’s complacent, but since it also gets the job done, who cares? I mean, maybe it’s complacent to brush one’s hair with a hairbrush rather than with a sock, but it does save time and effort). When we can’t find our wallets, we don’t instantly leap to the conclusion that a space alien came in and stole it to buy linoleum for the chateau in Perth Amboy, do we. We try the more likely scenarios first, and only then check out the space alien possibility. Sure, sometimes routine and habit prevent us from looking for and finding more thrilling possibilities, but the more thrilling possibility isn’t always the epistemically best one.
The thing is though that this is precisely the explaining away that I both expect, and think is undesirable. Basically, it’s a move that relies on the fact that one can never have direct access to the content of other people’s minds, in order to render said contents inadmissible as data in scientific explanation…But if one automatically retreats to those positions in order to explain away phenomena that are troubling for the naturalistic worldview, then that simply confirms the charge that motivates this posting.
Yes and no. Or yes but it can’t be helped. Because the alternative is just plain dumb credulity – for everyone except the person or people who experienced it. As I said Tuesday, I just don’t see any way around that. Since we can’t have direct access to the content of other people’s minds, and we know that, we can’t refuse to entertain the possibility that people who tell stories of Weird Experiences are wrong or joking or lying or misremembering or exaggerating or distorting or all those. If you make it a rule to refuse to entertain such possibilities, you find yourself buying all these bridges you don’t want and don’t have room for. There’s no way (that I can see) to get past that. I get that it was overwhelmingly convincing to JS, and I do find that interesting, and I don’t dismiss the idea that it was some rare natural phenomenon that hasn’t been mapped yet; but I can’t just decide to be as convinced as he is. That would be fatuous. It was his experience, it wasn’t anyone else’s. It’s just a fact of life that X’s experience is not as convincing to any not-X as it is to X. So I consider it unfair to call it explaining away, or a move, or automatically retreating. I just don’t see what else sane people can be expected to do, other than beam happily and throw their brains out the window for the squirrels to eat.
I said this on the subject in comments on Tuesday, and I still think it’s right: “There’s an interesting issue here, because the trouble is, this business of being skeptical and cautious about accepting personal testimony on blind faith is both a valid methodological rule and an evasive tactic. It can be either or both at any given time, and there doesn’t really seem to be anything that can be done about that. That’s true in courtrooms too. Evidence can be entirely true and still be ruled out as hearsay. Objections can be (and are) evasive tactics but still raise valid points. I take myself to be not automatically dismissing your account in order to avoid questioning naturalistic views, I take myself to be raising perfectly valid objections to accepting your account on faith – but of course the upshot is the same (except that in fact I do believe your account, but that’s for largely non-epistemic reasons).”
So I don’t think it’s complacent to be more skeptical of someone else’s experience than the person who had the experience is, and I don’t think it’s complacent or (reprehensibly) predictable to ask searching questions about it. I think if we did anything else we might as well forget the whole thing, re-name this site ‘The Bide-a-wee Home for New Age Woollies’, and talk nothing but nonsense from now until curtain-time.