One last blast at psi:
Paranormal phenomena can be explained in three ways. One explanation views these phenomena as miracles, divine overrides of nature’s laws. According to this view, God grants psychic powers to certain special people, who can part seas, change water into wine, see the future, heal the sick, even resurrect the dead. Even disregarding the lack of empirical evidence, I find this explanation—which rests on the assumption that God plays favorites—philosophically and theologically repugnant.
The second, slightly more palatable explanation—espoused by
That third and obviously correct explanation is that psi stems from our innate compulsion for extracting meaningful patterns from the chaos of the world. This compulsion can help us discover genuine cause-and-effect relationships—embodied, for example, in the laws of physics—as well as spurious ones, which lead to belief in paranormal phenomena.
The British psychologist Susan Blackmore—mentioned by a respondent to “Who Believes in ESP?”—has done studies of psi-believers, called sheep, and non-believers, called goats. She found that sheep detect patterns in random, Rorschach-type images more readily than goats. Sheep are also more prone to misjudge probabilities. If someone flips a coin and it comes up heads five times in a row, the odds that the next flip will also come up heads are still fifty percent. Sheep tend to underestimate or overestimate the odds because they assume that the previous tosses somehow influence the next one. Similarly, when asked to generate a string of random digits, sheep are more likely to avoid repeating digits or putting two consecutive digits together, when chance dictates that these coincidences should occur quite often; conversely, if given a string of random numbers, sheep overestimate the significance of repetitions.
The categories “sheep” and “goat” are not immutable. As she notes in a wonderful essay on her website, Blackmore herself was a sheep, but rational inquiry and an insistence on evidence transformed her into a goat. If only more people were persuaded by reason!