ESP, telepathy and such like

Posted on November 18, 2007


Something I have been wondering about recently is to what degree belief in supernatural abilities such as ESP is related to superstition or, even, is an example of superstition. There are a number of things to consider.

The first is Lindeman and Arnio’s paper “Paranormal beliefs: their dimensionality and correlates” from the European  Journal of Personality:

The aim was to bring together a range of [superstitious, magical and paranormal] beliefs and their potential correlates, to analyse whether the beliefs form independent subsets, and to test a structural model of the beliefs and their potential correlates. The results (N=3261) showed that the beliefs could be best described by one higher-order factor.

This result is very interesting and valuable to me. The study used the Tobacyk Revised Paranormal Belief Scale so among the beliefs examined are such things as the belief in astral projection and levitation along the side of belief in bad luck being linked to black cats and broken mirrors. Given that a single higher-order factor is sufficient to account for most of the variation it appears that the various beliefs are closely connected, possibly sharing a single underlying mechanism.

At the same time, beliefs in supernatural abilities do appear to be somewhat different from common superstitions. Most importantly, common superstitions do not seem to assume any special abilities – you do not have to be in any way special for you to have bad luck from breaking a mirror. While a supernatural element is standardly present in such beliefs, it most often only involves the all-purpose notion of luck. As such, it seems likely that claims about supernatural abilities will most often be made about others, rather than oneself – although I have no concrete evidence at hand that this is actually the case. This somewhat alters the epistemic situation by making it less likely that claims about supernatural abilities will be tested. It also alters the social situation by providing a basis for distinguishing certain individuals.

The reason why I mention the epistemic situation is that it there appears to me a spectrum of supernatural claims that are more of less easy to test. The question with the relatively easily testable ones is why people would believe them contrary to the available evidence. The question with the ones which can not be easily tested is why people should believe them given a lack of evidence. The difference seems significant in that in the case of an untestable claim its truth isn’t going to be available as an explanation why certain people believe in it, meaning that people’s grounds for believing in untestable claims must be independent of their truth. This is actually very useful for claims that have some social significance – religious beliefs, for example, according to Durkheim and D.S. Wilson.

None of which actually helps me to know what to say about ESP and so on.