Human Nature and Supernatural Belief

Nicholas Humphrey

Chatto and Windus, London, 1995.

This study complements Sagan's book, The Demon-Haunted World, as a source of strong arguments for skepticism about the soul in particular and the paranormal in general.

Humphrey notes how suspiciously constrained the supposed power of the psychic turns out to be:

"A clairvoyant may regularly demonstrate to an amazed audience his ability to tell what is written on any page of any book taken at random; but never, so far as I know, has it been heard of for this same clairvoyant to sit reading a novel with its covers closed (or - why not? - while the book remains on the shelf in the next room, or in the bookshop). Strangely enough, instead of conferring the countless benefits we might expect, these powers seem good for only one thing: namely, to take part in stage-shows to prove that they exist." (p.134)

He also remarks on the distinctively kitsch nature of much paranormal stuff, from floating fairy lights and accordeons, to "a young Israeli former fashion model bending the Marquess of Bath's soup ladle."

One of the chief arguments in the tool-kit is the Argument From Unwarranted Design, which is deployed in various cases, from magic to miracles.

Humphrey also discusses social psychology issues. Popular opinion is massively weighted in favour of the paranormal:

"with at least two-thirds of ordinary people being confirmed believers in psychic powers, the likelihood that a person will come under pressure from his friends and family is very high. On the basis… of opinion polls, we can estimate that in Britain the chance… of a man marrying a woman who is a believer is 79%, the chance of his having at least one parent who believes is over 90%, and the chance of his finding himself sitting with a believer when he joins two other couples at a café table is 99%."

This may be difficult enough, but it is compounded by a far trickier problem: people may offer pledges of honesty like "I wouldn't be telling you this if it weren't true."

"For a listener to maintain scepticism in the face of assurances like this is, as I know to my cost, not merely regarded as unfriendly, it can come close to social suicide." (p.186)

However, with the arguments and insights supplied by Humphrey in this book, the reader can perhaps be compensated for these social snags by the very bright lights shone on a great range of issues, such as the notion of prescriptive sufficiency.



Paul Taylor 2001