2016-3-1 UPDATE

Sublime skills and supernatural powers

What is the difference between the skills of an expert craftsman, honed by years of practice, and paranormal abilities, the underlying mechanisms of which are unknown?
Would ESP be easier to accept if we simply had a rational theory?

In many fields, there are people known as “masters.” For example, in martial arts, there are some who have acquired seemingly superhuman skills through long years of intense practice. It’s the same in sports. At the crucial moment, the star player makes a brilliant move and seems to have the gods of fortune on her side. Among craftsmen, some are revered for their special expertise. “Only he could do it,” the others say. From the point of view of mere mortals, the powers of these masters are at an almost inconceivably high level. That such people exist is beyond question, but what if we were to call their abilities supernatural?

“Don’t insult me!” is probably what most of them would answer. But why? Both the sublime skills of the masters and paranormal powers are abilities that ordinary people will never achieve. Yet, for some reason, the skills of the first type are praised, while the others are derided and treated with utmost suspicion. Perhaps this is due to the mechanisms through which these abilities are realized.

The people who come to be known as masters probably have some natural aptitude as well, but above all their skills are regarded as the result of long years of arduous training, through which they have fine-honed their perceptual and physical abilities. In the case of telepathic or precognitive abilities, on the other hand, although parapsychologists conjecture that they are extensions of some yet unknown perceptual faculties, they haven’t a clue as to what those mechanisms might look like. Most likely, it is precisely this cluelessness that causes such distrust of paranormal powers. If at least we had a working theory, people might find the notion more acceptable, even if the details had yet to be worked out.

The idea that UFOs are “alien spacecraft” is well established, even though there is no firm proof of that theory either. While the term “Unidentified Flying Objects” literally implies that they are of unknown origin, adding the theory that they are spaceships made them much easier for people to think about. A similar, plausible-sounding hypothesis for telepathy or precognition – for instance, some organ in the brain for which the function is not yet known, or specific wavelengths moving across time – might lead to wider acceptance of those fields as well, even if the hypothesis as such was unverifiable.

The demand for reasons is similar to the commercials for health foods and dietary regimes we are assaulted with every day. This kind of ion or that kind of magnetism will make you healthier by leaps and bounds, the ads proclaim. Whether the “scientific” explanations of these ads are really correct is a moot point, but the general public seems to be convinced and pays good money to buy those products, and the phenomenon is accepted by society at large as well.

Meanwhile, mainstream natural science too has its own strands of dubious reasons and twisted logic, doesn’t it? Only a hundred years ago, all the world’s physicists believed that light traveled through a medium called the aether.