Friday, 13 May 2016

Thoughts on parapsychology

Definition of parapsychology, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Parapsychology is a field of study concerned with the investigation of paranormal and psychic phenomena which include telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, near-death experiences, reincarnation, apparitional experiences, and other paranormal claims. It is often identified as pseudoscience.

I've recently- and by that I mean the past half hour- finished reading my first full-length parapsychology book. I plan to write a review of it (hopefully in the next blog post), but for the current post I want to talk a little bit about parapsychology itself and its relevance to apologetics.

Parapsychology is related to Muslim apologetics in both positive and negative ways. Here are some key avenues of interaction:

1. Debunking Naturalism. The worldview of naturalism (alternatively called materialism)- a commitment to a metaphysics and ontology that only involves things reducible to physical "stuff" i.e. entities and laws postulated by physics- continues to be the dominant strain of academic thought. When you think about it, it's weird that naturalism has been able to persist for so long. I mean, depending on which version of naturalism you adopt, it goes against the most fundamental of human intuitions- teleology in nature, soul/consciousness or agent causation in general, libertarian free will, human exceptionalism (and the almost de novo emergence thereof), even the objectivity of ethical and aesthetic and values. Naturalists, of course, know this and take pride in this. The triumph of naturalism translates into the defeat of common, allegedly superstitious beliefs handed to humans as spandrels of biological evolution. Folks like natural theologians and philosophers of mind have been attempting to rebut naturalism for quite a while (and of course I think their case is successful taken cumulatively). However, parapsychology is a very interesting player in this game. If parapsychological phenomena are veridical, and there's a very strong case to be made in that direction, then naturalism would be empirically refuted. Few arguments could ever be stronger than actual reported phenomena which conclusively rebut the worldview. This would be a brutal and decisive rebuttal of naturalism, and would raise the prior probability of Islam in specific and theism in general.

2. Positive apologetics. The usual arguments for the truth of Islam (i.e. those that purport to prove the miraculous nature of Islam's origins or features) go along the lines of: X feature of Islam/Qur'an/the Prophet's life defies laws of nature, only God can work contrary to the laws of nature, therefore Islam is from God. The second premise there is wrong even according to Islamic theology (jinn and angels can bypass laws of nature too), but that seems to be the implicit assumption made, probably due to the naturalism-minded sociology of today. Parapsychological phenomena, by definition, fall into that category too. Which means this simplistic argument structure must be dispensed with to adopt something more rigorous and inclusive. Violations of laws of nature in themselves don't prove divinity of the person or event associated, rather there are additional theoretical considerations. Our scholars have discussed some of these- e.g. it cannot be learned as a skill, it cannot be replicated, it must come with the proper context of a message, and so on. These theoretical considerations need to be developed further. That's the theoretical burden of proof parapsychology puts on positive apologetics (the practical or empirical burden of proof being establishing that the features of Islam actually do violate laws of nature, like the Prophet's knowledge of other scriptures or the Qur'an's literature). I've written about both the theoretical and practical aspects of positive apologetics earlier in this blog.

3. Negative apologetics. Many parapsychological phenomena seem to, ostensibly at least, run counter to Islam's truth claims. Examples include:

a) Curing of possession/healing from diseases when names of other deities are mentioned;
b) Putative evidences for reincarnation in the forms of verifiable past life memories, biological signs corresponding to manner of death in previous life, acquiring proficiency in a different language, and so on;
c) Astrologers accurately and precisely predicting spatially or temporally distant phenomena,
d) Other 'miracles' happening associated with other religions or deities, and so on.

Again, our scholarship, and even some hadith reports, recognized some of this. The explanation is usually given in terms of the activity of jinns. In order for that explanation to be a serious contender in parapsychology research, as opposed to just being an ad hoc theory-saving attempt, it needs to be made more precise by both scriptural and field/empirical data, focusing on issues like patterns and regularities in jinn activity, association of jinn activity with specific parapsychological phenomena, and so on. I don't know Arabic, so I can't say how rich the Islamic literature on demonology is. Perhaps Christian demonology literature would be helpful to some extent as well. In addition, much of Islamic knowledge reaches us- the laity- in something of a memefied form. I suspect, therefore, many things we commonly hear about jinn phenomena, astrology, and so forth may be more nuanced. This falls within the realms of Islamic studies, and I definitely don't want to comment further except saying that the Islamic predictions and expectations regarding these phenomena need to be fleshed out with as much precision and as much scriptural reliance as possible.

4. Miscellaneous. Much of the challenge of parapsychology (to either Islam or naturalism) would only be unearthed once we look into the issue more. For example, in the Braude book I was reading, things like psychokinesis and extremely improbable and meaningful coincidences (synchronicity, to use the Jungian term) was often explained in terms of some form of an innate psi that human agents possess. As I was reading this book, I was wondering if this has any relevance to du'a. Could it be that psi is the underlying mechanism by which Allah answers our du'as (or angels facilitate certain things for certain people)? If so, how would the explanatory model look? I have no idea yet. Only by reading more can we know what sort of issues parapsychological research raises. Some people are even of the view that certain forms of parapsychology question our commonsense epistemology, and a commonsense epistemology is something Islam implicitly endorses. All of this needs to be looked into in detail.

So parapsychology is indeed a field where much apologetics research is required. And that concern brings us to a sad fact. As I've been recently realizing, to appropriately contribute to apologetics, one must make apologetics his or her career. One cannot merely hope to pursue apologetics "on the side" as it were, e.g. become a scientist as a profession and study women's rights at your leisure. You can only contribute so much that way, and "so much" is definitely not enough given the amount of work that's left. Now certain other fields like molecular biology, cosmology, history, and even sociology are more promising in this aspect- this is why I'm incredibly thankful for my microbiology degrees. Our researchers can make a living while pursuing these apologetics-conducive careers. The same cannot be said for parapsychology. It's highly unlikely that someone can make a respectful living out of a ghostbuster career. That only underscores the amount of funding and such we require if we want to see the success of Muslim apologetics through to the end.

1 comment:

  1. As salamu alaykum, Hassan.

    Recetly I've come upon a very interesting video with Hamza Yusuf discussing the Muslim understanding of how causal existence works:

    The video is only 5 minutes length and won't take much of time to watch it. But I believe, the ideas from there can fairly contribute to an extensive islamic debunking of such a thing as "naturalistic worldview". What do you think of it?