I’ve Got Special Powers
Right, this is Jerry – I’m briefly hijacking Ophelia’s space. I kind of said that I would write about my Special Powers, so here goes. (I ought to say that I don’t for a moment believe in Special Powers, but there is a point to this.)
I’ve had three bizarre “psychic” type experiences in my life; two of which I think are explicable, one of which is a lot more difficult to explain.
The first occurred when I was 11. I was in a car pulling a massive caravan; it was being driven by my father. We had just gone over one of the Alpine mountain passes, and we were driving down into Italy. What happened next was very odd. I found myself absolutely terrified for no easily discernible reason; almost crying with terror. I kept saying to my father that he had to slow down, he was going too fast. He slowed down – probably from 60 miles an hour to 50 (the speed limit, I think, for towing a caravan). But I still kept on at him, that it was too fast, that he had to go slower. By this point, he was a bit freaked out – as was my mother – so he slowed down some more (just to mollify me). But it still felt to me that the car was careering along way too fast to be towing a caravan. So I kept on at him. I can remember him getting annoyed – because by this point we were probably travelling only about 40 miles an hour – but my mother kind of said, look, just slow down until Jerry feels better (or something like that). And he did slow down, so we were probably only travelling at about 30 miles an hour when the front right tyre exploded. Caravans have a tendency to snake; I think if it had happened at 60 miles an hour, we would probably have plunged off the side of the mountain into a ravine, but as it was my father just about got the car under control, and we kind of juddered to a halt by the side of the road.
So that was quite strange, but easily explicable I think.
The second strange thing happened about fifteen years ago. I had a dream that I was playing basketball. I hadn’t played basketball for ten years (I was forced to play once or twice at school). I have no interest in basketball. I don’t know anything about it. And so on. I remembered the dream because in it I threw the ball and dislocated my shoulder (my shoulder dislocates a lot – an old soccer injury). I woke instantly and checked my shoulder. So I had committed the dream to memory. The next morning I went to teach a private student at his house. I’d never been there before. When I was teaching him, he asked whether I wanted a game of badminton after the lesson (he knew I played racket sports). I said sure, why not. But I wasn’t expecting the game. It hadn’t been planned. We went to the Sports Centre. He had got changed at his home, but he’d lent me clothes and shoes, and I got changed in the Centre changing rooms. He went on ahead. Anyway, I walked out of the changing rooms, and onto where I thought the courts were. As I came in through the door, he threw me a basketball, so there I was standing on a basketball court for the first time in twenty years, holding a basketball (the badminton courts hadn’t yet been set up), the morning after the only dream I have ever had about basketball, a dream in which I threw the ball, and dislocated my shoulder. I think I just said: “Fuck, I dreamt about this last night. I’m not throwing this ball.”
Again, I think this one is easily explicable.
But the third strange thing I don’t think is easily explicable. I was on an overnight flight back from the States, and my partner – Cheryl – and I had been messing around with that twenty questions game (yes, we’re very boring). In our version, one of us would think of a famous person, then the other one had twenty questions (Yes/No responses) to work out who the person was. Anyway, this went on for about half an hour before we began to get bored, and I said: Right, you know that I have psychic powers, we’ll play one last time, and I’ll just get the person without asking any questions. Cheryl, of course, thought this not very likely. But then, I had an incredibly strange experience; I just *knew* the answer. I get, of course, that nobody reading this will believe that I “knew” the answer, to which I can only reply – you didn’t have the experience. Anyway, I said to Cheryl something like, “I know who you’re thinking of, but I don’t know the name”. She said: “Yeah right”. And I said – “It’s that woman, in the 1920s, she was involved in partitioning up the middle east, or Iraq, or something like that”. Anyway, that was the right answer, Cheryl had been thinking of Gertrude Bell (Wikipedia has an entry on her). Cheryl pretty much looked like she’d been hit by a truck. She actually looked scared. Because: a) I have no particular interest in the Middle East; b) We’ve never discussed Middle Eastern history; c) Cheryl was not reading about Middle Eastern history (though she is interested in Iran, which it turned out is how she knew about Gertrude Bell); d) We had been on holiday, so we hadn’t been watching news stories about Iraq or anything else to do with the Middle East (and indeed, this would have been before the invasion of Iraq); e) I didn’t even know that I knew about Gertrude Bell – indeed, I’m not sure I did know about her; f) Just the weirdness of the way I’d got it right – I had told Cheryl I would get it right, I guessed the correct person, but didn’t know her name (I mean, you’d have thought I’d at least have guessed at someone whose name I did know”); and so on, and so forth.
I don’t have an explanation for this last one. The first weird experience – I think I had picked up on some imbalance in the way the car was running – because of the dodgy tyre – and my subconscious did the rest. The second weird thing – just a coincidence (though a hell of a coincidence given that the dream appeared like a warning; but nevertheless, a coincidence). The third one – no, it’s not a coincidence. The nature of the experience was such that the simple conjunction of Cheryl having chosen Gertrude Bell, and my having guessed Gertrude Bell, isn’t really what’s at stake. What’s at stake is the fact that the experience itself was verdical. In that sense, this experience had a different quality than the first two weird experiences. For the coincidence theory to work, what has to be explained is the conjunction between the already highly unlikely proposition that I would have guessed Gertrude Bell at all, the fact that my partner had chosen Gertrude Bell, and the fact that this all occurred with my having in advance said that I knew the correct answer, and with that “knowledge” having been gained in the context of a kind of experience I hadn’t had before and haven’t had since. It wasn’t a coincidence.
Ophelia and I started talking about this stuff because I was trying to illustrate the importance of dissent. I was trying to make two points: (a) Naturalistic explanations are strengthened to the extent that they are able to meet the kind of challenge that my experience throws up, but you’re much less likely to get this kind of challenge if everybody is committed, in a taken-for-granted manner, to the efficacy of naturalistic explanations (in this instance, it would mean that likely there would be no attention paid to the nature of the experience [because that allows the coincidence explanation into play; or the half-coincidence, half-knowledge of partner, explanation]); (b) Don’t underestimate the power of certain kinds of experiences; if people have “experiences” of God that are as apparently veridical as my Gertrude Bell experience, I understand why they’re not convinced by the arguments of atheists.