Building the World from Scratch

Since they tend to fly in the face of our current scientific understanding (even violating physical laws as we recognize them) any given paranormal or supernatural claim will have world-changing implications if true. Just how world-changing is usually, in my experience, seriously underestimated by the claimant.

One of the reasons for this is the route a person often takes when formulating a belief for which evidence is lacking. He’s already started on a backward path by deciding to believe something before the truth of it is sufficiently demonstrated, and he has to continue backwards when he tries to force the belief to fit into his understanding of the rest of the world. It’s a top-down approach — starting with the conclusion and seeking evidence that supports it. To believe it, ambiguities and elaborate excuses are needed to substitute for the undergirding that evidence normally provides.

This approach allows a lot of errors, contradictions, and gaping holes to go completely overlooked by the believer. His imagination is given a very tiny yard to play in. Because he’s already assumed that the phenomenon in question is true and that the world we live in today is the result of it being true, countless possible consequences of his belief that may very well invalidate it go unconsidered. His chain of reasoning can only arrive at the world as it is, when the belief may demand a different world entirely.

The popular description of God is an excellent example of a belief that suffers from backwards thinking. People start with a human being as their template (it being the only model of sentience they’re familiar with) and grant it superhuman knowledge, abilities, and influence. They ascribe emotions to it out of reflex, but why should a being lacking brain chemistry have anything like emotions in the first place? They say it exists outside of time and space, and yet they assume that it acts, communicates, thinks, creates — all necessarily temporal if not also spatial behaviors. Rather than envisioning true, alien divinity, they’ve merely dressed a man up as a god. The top-down approach has failed to reveal the extent to which this picture misses the mark because no other god but a conscious, personal, human-esque god was a viable endpoint.

Spinoza’s Ethics is one of my favorite works of philosophy because in it Spinoza begins with the universally accepted assumptions about God and meticulously carries the reader through to their logical consequences. He creates a deity from the ground up based on the qualities everyone says a deity should exhibit — infinitude, perfection, causelessness — and discovers that the result doesn’t resemble anyone’s conception of God much at all.

I recommend doing the very same. Forget about what the world looks like today. Start with a blank slate. Build the world from scratch as if the paranormal claim you’re evaluating had been true from the very beginning of time. What sort of society would it lead to? How would history have unfolded? Where would we all be today?

Constructing a completely accurate picture would be impossible, but you’ll find that problems with a claim — problems the top-down approach never would have led you to — will become obvious very early in the process. If the claim isn’t backed by reality, you’ll probably find that the world you fashion and the world we live in are two very different places.

Let’s try a quick exercise with one of the oldest paranormal claims in the book: the ability to see into the future.

Someone who could predict the future in an unambiguous, statistically significant, actionable way (which is the only kind of prescience that matters, really) shouldn’t find it too hard to verify his ability. He doesn’t have to be right all the time; he merely has to be on par with a financial analyst or a meteorologist. His tendency to yield accurate information much more often than not would give him all the validity he’d need.

So what would a world containing such people look like? Assuming they were rare, they’d be some of the most highly paid consultants around. They’d be hired by major corporations to get a peek at the nation-sweeping must-have products of tomorrow (especially those developed by their competitors). Insurance companies would use them to determine the approximate risk of major natural disasters in any given year and adjust their premiums accordingly. Disaster relief organizations would make additional preparations based on psychic forecasts just as they would in anticipation of hurricane seasons. World governments would be engaged in psychic arms races, clamoring over each other to gather the best of the best for remote reconnaissance. The entire political landscape would change with every politician carrying an oracle in his pocket. Decades of research (for which there would be an avalanche of funding) might even lead the scientific community to identify the precise mechanism by which foreknowledge is possible and replicate it technologically, giving the gift of prescience to all.

Our preliminary draft does contrast a bit with today’s world already. And we’re barely scratching the surface. Going all the way back to the dawn of civilization, you might find that the world should have taken a different course entirely. And this is without even touching on the harder problems of future sight, like determinism vs. free will, temporal paradoxes, etc.

Now let’s try another exercise. Let’s envision a world where the ability to predict the future doesn’t exist and never did. What would the world look like if fortune telling was all in our heads?

Well, it would look a lot like our world, actually. There’s nothing about a total absence of prescience that I can think of that would steer human society off of the course it’s already taken. The most glaring discrepancy might be the fact that people believe in it at all. Could a world devoid of psychic foresight produce such widespread belief in it in the first place? Could there be so much smoke without fire?

My first instinct might be to say no, but then I’m reminded of all the other things that millions of people have been dead wrong about like geocentrism, Martian canals, homeopathy, Zeus, and creationism. Poorly founded belief is neither rare nor difficult to sustain.

This experiment isn’t really a claim-buster all by itself since it leaves the door wide open for bias and wishful thinking; it’s just another handy tool for our toolboxes.

Reading science fiction, especially hard science fiction, is a good way to condition your brain to take a bottom-up approach to paranormal claims. Science fiction writers tackle a very similar problem: as the human race gains new capabilities, what sort of world can we expect to be ushered into? And these authors have to live up to standards of rigor and accuracy which are frankly nonexistent in the New Age section. Exposure to world-building of this caliber will make the holes in backward chains of reasoning stand out for you that much more.

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