As someone who spends a fair amount of time reading philosophy, I find that I have pretty strong commitments to physicalism/materialism (i.e. the physical world is all that there is, and all non-physical things can be reduced to physical objects). I’m also extremely confident that any forces that can affect objects over long distances have already been discovered (i.e. gravity, and electromagnetism), and as such whether psychic powers (of any kind) exist is an answered question: psychic powers are not a thing. Neither is speaking with the dead. Given my stance on physicalism, the concept of a consciousness surviving the death of the brain is just not at all viable.
That said, I’m open to being proven wrong. Not hugely open: anyone attempting to demonstrate the existence of psychic powers, or mediumship, are effectively claiming that all studies to date that have found only four physical forces are in error, and that there is an additional force/energy/whatever that the lump of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen known as the human brain can access (but only some of them), but other lumps of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen cannot. In terms of proportioning the evidence to the claim, this particular claim is going to require quite the mountain of evidence.
I wrote about philosophy of science back in 2012, and a recent spat in biology has brought this up again. The Wired article “Twitter Nerd-Fight Reveals a Long, Bizarre Scientific Feud” explains the details of that fight pretty well, and I just want to dig into a particular comment that seems to represent the core of the disagreement here.
“They said if you want to use another method, you have to show that it’s philosophically better, not scientifically better,” Eisen says. “That’s why I said it seems like they’re dropping science for dogma.”
“I’ve never in my life, in any area of science,” says Eisen, “seen something presented where people said, ‘We’re not going to judge something on the science, we’re going to judge it on the philosophy.’”
Eisen, frankly, couldn’t be more wrong (in principle).
I’ve been recently discussing with someone the possibility that, basically, magic is a real thing that really happens in the real world. Really. In fairness, those are not the terms that they use, but nevertheless that’s the argument being presented.
The idea is that since our intentions can affect water, and humans are “70% to 90% water, depending on age”, then we can totally affect the health of other people with our thoughts. As evidence for this claim, when pushed (and it was like pulling teeth) they refer to Dr. Emoto’s work on water and intention. Ironically, Dr. Emoto appears to have done very little science on this topic, insofar as he has a total of one (1) paper published, and even then it’s in the fringe science Journal of Scientific Exploration. The paper is titled (this link goes to a PDF) “Effects of Distant Intention on Water Crystal Formation: A Triple-Blind Replication“. The rest of this post will be a breakdown of that paper.
Recently, a Jason Mitchell of no less than Harvard University published a piece of writing entitled “On the emptiness of failed replications“, within which Mitchell decries the focus on replications within Social Psychology, and (to, I hope, a lesser degree) within science as a whole. I found it an interesting read, and an excellent example of how references/citations can serve the purpose of signalling (i.e. name-dropping) rather than adding anything substantive to a paper. Invoking Quine and Kuhn certainly signals that one has a passing familiarity with Philosophy of Science, but the rest of the essay quickly highlights how mistaken that impression is.
While I think it’s important for popular science sites to highlight this kind of thing, as Annalee Newitz at io9 did, the article just abuses Mitchell: there’s no explanation of how he’s wrong. This is, I think, a common problem within skeptic/atheist/science-enthusiast circles whereby “let’s point and laugh” is often substituted for understanding the problems. Here’s my breakdown of Mitchell’s article.
Recently, a number of people have opened their mouth to deride Philosophy. Notably, they tend to be people who are well-placed academics such as Krauss and Dawkins. Likewise, Atheistlogic has stuck their oar in too, though much more articulately. Atheistlogic spells out the general objection quite well, I think, so I’m going to focus on their comments as a stepping off point.