One Among Many

The self in social context

In Memoriam

I remember my father, perhaps irrationally.

Piz Palü
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/59/Piz_Palue.jpg
If the meditative state I achieved in the hot-air balloon had a dream-like quality, here’s another one, one that challenges my skeptical convictions regarding paranormal claims. A few years ago, my father, who was living on a different continent than I, was nearing death. I knew that his passing was approaching, but I assumed it was a few weeks away. On the critical day, I was in my office. At around noon, my mental state changed into something that I was not familiar with. My mind felt foggy and I could not focus on anything. I tried to understand this state by comparing it with familiar states, such as the feeling during an allergic episode, the feeling at the beginning of a cold, the feeling at the edge of anxiety. None of these feelings provided a good fit with my foggy state at the time. After three hours I was ready to give up and go home, conceding that I would not be of any use at the office. That very moment, the phone rang. I picked up and heard my sister say that our father “had overcome” (to paraphrase the German). I knew immediately what this meant. Our father had died. At that moment, my foggy state dissolved, and I felt clear and alert (though shocked and sad).

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Now what we have here is an uncanny alignment of a feeling state by an individual in the western hemisphere and the death struggle of another individual in the eastern hemisphere. To those open to extra-physical speculation, there is no mystery here. I had a rather strong attachment to my father all my life, and therefore, a significant event (the last few hours of life) could produce and transmit a signal over a great distance. What this signal consists of, how it is sent, or how it is decoded, is of little concern to those who are open to this interpretation. To them, all that matters is the context of the interpersonal relationship and the temporal alignment of the two experiences.

What might a scientist make of this tale? Presumably, a scientist would question the idea that my review and test of alternative explanations for my strange state was exhaustive or compelling. I could have felt foggy for many reasons other then those I considered. The temporal alignment of my state with the end of my father is remarkable and weird, but it does not force the conclusion that the latter caused the former. In short, a scientist – while not wanting or needing to provide a positive explanation of my state – would be content to argue that the paranormal hypothesis of a rapid person-to-person transmission of some sort of signal lacks sufficient support. The scientist might add – in the tradition of Hume and Bayes – that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and this is not it.

A scientist is also asked to consider how a hypothesis, however outlandish, might be tested. As a rule, tests are most compelling if they involve experimentation. Ideally (I use the word in its most technical meaning), one would select pairs of people with either strong or weak attachments to each other, separate them spatially, kill one (slowly) and record if the other receives a signal. This sounds like a bit much. Perhaps we are condemned to remain ignorant on a few matters, not because experiments are impossible, but because they would be outrageous. Meanwhile, both believers and skeptics can take comfort in the thought that it is they and not the others who understand what is going on.

Since I cannot bring myself to believe that my father’s spirit lives on in some kind of ether, I can still act as if I believed that (I know – it’s an example of irrational cake having and cake eating). I therefore attach a picture of his favorite mountain, the awesome Piz Palü in the Engadin of Switzerland. In his younger days, dad courted the mountain from the cockpit of a glider plane. He took photos that hung in our house for many years. I wish I knew where they are now. But there is no signal to tell me.

- - See The experience of the paranormal for a related essay. 

Joachim Krueger, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Brown University who believes that rational thinking and socially responsible behavior are attainable goals.

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