I was just wondering how someone should address supernatural/spiritual claims. I've had people tell me all sorts of crazy stuff. For example, I had one person (someone quite close to me actually) tell me they had a book which taught them how to get in peoples heads, and that by using the book they were able to get in someones head and see through their eyes and things like this. Supposedly the person they did this to said he was creeped out by it because apparently they knew things about him that they couldn't have known without getting in his head. I've also had people claim other sort of supernatural and spiritual things and I really don't know how to address them. I can pretty well take on people who claim to have personal relationships, but outside of those types of claims I have no idea. Of course I could ask for proof, but there is no way for them to prove it, essentially I'd have to have been there seen everything myself, but anyway, how could I go about addressing this stuff? I know there is an explanation for it, and I don't want to just flat out say the person is lying because often times I think people are genuine and things really did happen which aren't explainable to them so they attach supertnatural explanations since they know no other way of explaining it, and then they exaggerate things to make sound more remarkable than it actually is.

Tags: claims, spiritual, supernatural

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I remember reading in James Randi's Flim-Flam! how many practitioners of paranormal "powers" genuinely believe that they're doing something supernatural... even when those powers completely fail in a proper controlled experiment.

I have that book by James Randi Grinning cat - it is a great book.

We all create personal myths. That's how we make sense of the world. The exaggerations are meant to essentially tell the story in a way that makes sense. The problem is that the story doesn't always make sense... but we will always try to make sense of it.

About all that can be done is point out cognitive biases and logical fallacies. That rarely works if it's the first step, but if you instead express interest, then you can often get them to back down from their claims.

John: "I can get into people's heads, see what they see, know what they think."
Me: "That's actually really fascinating. Could you try it on me?"
John: "It sort of freaks me out. There's a lot of private thoughts that I have no business knowing, so I don't like to do it."
Me: "I actually believe in radical honesty. You would not find a single thought in my mind that I would not be willing to share with you. If you did, then that thought is one that I should especially share. On top of that, my willingness to share should make this easier for you. I'll make myself a psychically open book."

From there, my theoretical John will probably try to backtrack. At first, it was a bit of a boast that could not be proven. Then once it became apparent that it could be proven, he would probably try to back off of the claim a bit. It would probably soften considerably and perhaps even whither into something like "well, I could do it when I was a kid, but I think I've psychically shut myself off to it. I can't do it anymore." It would be rare indeed for the person to completely back off the claim and say that they were making the whole thing up, but the internal conflict would cause some degree of cognitive dissonance (they would know that they had lied) and they would be less likely to repeat said lie in the future.

I was just wondering how someone should address supernatural/spiritual claims.


Option 1) Roll your eyes and walk away.

Option 2) Nod knowingly and say, “Yeah, I read that book too. And now that I’m inside your head, I can see that it’s full of crap.”

Option 3) Demand evidence. The more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary the evidence needs to be in order to be convincing. As Grinning Cat and Nathaniel Summers point out, claims of the supernatural tend to evaporate rather quickly when carefully scrutinized or tested.

I would not be confrontational, unless necessary. If someone tells me a crazy notion, I either say nothing, or just let them know that I have no experience of that to which they refer. On the other hand, it's religious flim-flam, where the believers, with respect to their own beliefs, expect certain behaviour or standards be adopted by everyone else. Then I'd challenge their so-called knowledge, and why I should accept what they say as true. Circularity of reasoning or preaching by them should 'cut no ice'. If I don't believe as they do, I see no reason why I should meet the demands of their religious dogma.

Perhaps they are telling the truth and what you should look into is DMT. DMT may be an explanation for the "personal relationship." I'll give you a link to start you off with this stuff:


One can point out that there are other possible explanations besides paranormal ones.  Often people who make these paranormal claims seem extremely ready to believe them.  Actually a paranormal explanation ought to be the very last explanation one believes in.  There are many much more likely possibilities. 

As for "addressing" paranormal claims - what do you intend to achieve?  Usually the person won't be persuaded by skepticism - they believe what they believe because they want to for some reason.  But perhaps they would have a more questioning attitude if you're questioning it. 

Someone I knew in college, is currently either a ghost-believer or a ghost-hopeful - it's not clear which.  He came up with a supposed quantum theory of ghosts, in the form of a "ghost Lagrangian" (which has so many problems as physics that it's really only the germ of a possible physics theory, it can't be called a theory, yet)

So my first reaction to his "quantum ghost theory" was to bring up a lot of the orthodox skeptical objections.  He told me for example, that 200 people saw a ghost at one time, shouldn't that be enough evidence?  Well if you believe that, what about the Catholic miracles that hundreds of people supposedly witnessed?  By the same standards of evidence, shouldn't you believe in faith healing also?  etc. etc.?  So he came up with some kind of runaround. 

He also said at the very beginning that since I "had a deep-rooted hate of anything paranormal", he hesitated to bring up his ghost theory.  In other words, he was guarding his paranormal beliefs by calling me prejudiced.  I find such statements to be quite offensive.   Being offensive is a way to guard your beliefs, it pushes people away.  It wasn't a justified accusation - actually I've been the one among atheists to say that claims of NDE's and OBE's should be tested - people should be given the opportunity to come up with more than anecdotal evidence.  And I love Stephen King novels!

But I knew after awhile that it was pointless to argue with him, he would always come up with some kind of verbiage to "answer" me.  So I instead became obsessed his "quantum ghost theory" for about a month, making many criticisms and suggestions for improvement.  It was a great way to learn about Lagrangians, in any case :)

Mike Shermer is one skeptic who does a very good job of casting doubt on paranormal claims.  I found his book The Believing Brain worth reading.  For example, he says that some experiments found evidence that people can read others' minds better than chance - but when you rely on a person to generate a "random" sequence, what they come up with isn't actually random.  So another person can predict what they'll come up with, better than random - just because they're also human, so their own mind works in a similar way!

It's very helpful to have basic skeptical knowledge - of how people can hallucinate, how their memories of something can be changed, to agree with other people around them, what the placebo effect can do and can't do ... and so on.  Mike Shermer goes over a lot of this basic skeptical knowledge in The Believing Brain, and probably other books and videos of his are also useful this way.

He is also good at being sensitive about his skeptical challenges.  He used to be a Christian, so he knows what it is to believe something incredible, and he doesn't come across as arrogant.  He seems like a nice guy actually. 

A lot of people use skepticism as an excuse to be "snarky", to relieve pent-up hostilities.  Had a bad time in the commute back from work?  Log on and read a skeptical blog holding up for ridicule some kind of alternative medicine, and relieve yourself in the "Two-Minute Hate" comments section.  It isn't likely to persuade anyone out of their beliefs, but it can be soothing to feel wise. 

But Mike Shermer and a lot of the other experienced skeptics and atheists aren't like that.  They know it isn't effective for what they're trying to do. 

Perhaps it would be helpful to suggest to people, reading books like The Believing Brain.  It very quickly comes to feel like a waste of time to argue, though. 

When I was a teenager I was a lot more open to the possible truth of weird stories, like claims of reincarnation.  I didn't realize, as I do now, just how extraordinary paranormal claims are, what a revolution they would cause in our most basic concepts about how the world works.  Over time, learning more made me more skeptical of such stories.  With so many skeptical ways to question the stories, they become much less convincing. 

It is better not even to attempt to address such claims. Those who have accepted them are not likely to want logical explanations. You may lose friends or worse find yourself someone's enemy with undesirable consequences. It is a rare person indeed who can stand being proved wrong about anything at all, let alone having cherished beliefs demolished. Since you cannot enter another mind to verify its claims, there is little effective counterargument you can make.

There is an amusing interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who became interested in spiritulism and took part in seances. He says that absolutely he knows it is the truth since he has personally experienced it himself. It is quite clear that he is convinced beyond rationality. The interview is available on YouTube, like everything else these days.


It is better not even to attempt to address such claims. Those who have accepted them are not likely to want logical explanations.

But such ideas would probably not be so prevalent if people questioned them.  Admittedly I've gotten hostile reactions for it.  A guy who worked on my house told me his naturopath had recommended he drink shale water, as a "miracle" mineral supplement.  I looked this stuff up online and found he was getting something like 50x the WHO-recommended max amount of arsenic (I think it was arsenic, altho this stuff also has cadmium and other toxic elements in it).  So when I mailed the check to him, I included a note about the arsenic - how could I not in good conscience? - and he GLARED at me when I saw him in the health food store a couple months later.  The anger is there to guard people's beliefs.

Rarely would any argument dissuade someone from a dearly-held beliefs at the moment - but skepticism might get them questioning for themselves, and maybe later they'll change their beliefs.  People are influenced a lot by the attitudes around them. 

People are proved wrong about math claims and they just say Oops!, unless they're a crank. 

Challenging people's irrationality is also a kind of respect, and a way of being engaged with what people are saying.  I'm interested in the sasquatch phenomenon, and when people come up with evidence (like videos) or make paranormal claims about them, I want to know about testing the claim.  For example, in videos you see a creature off in the distance that looks and acts sasquatchy - why doesn't someone go back to the scene and videotape a human doing the same thing, to get an idea of the creature's height, how fast it was moving, etc.?  (this is actually sometimes done.)  These people, at least the saner ones, are doing amateur research, so it needs to be criticized and questioned as one would question science.  People get defensive when their ideas are questioned - but that's no reason to avoid challenging them. 

There are many ways to do good in the world. If it is your choice to disillusion people about to consume toxic substances, I am quite prepared to admire your courage and applaud your noble intention, but very reluctant to join you in any effort to disabuse them of supernatural notions. For two reasons: 1) it's usually not successful and 2) as soon as they discover my atheism is a motivator, the tables are turned and they bombard me with religious apologetics.

I'm always honest in answering questions about what I believe and I don't mind serious discussions with close friends who may be genuinely interested in an exchange of views, but with casual acquaintances my usual experience is that they automatically assume I am ignorant of their particular brand of Christianity—that all that is necessary is for me to devote myself fulltime to learning about it, and I will convert. Objections that I have considered these questions for a long time and have remained an infidel for 65 years do not avail. They are supremely confident that they can save my soul from its inevitable fiery finale. Sometimes the only escape route they afford is out and out rudeness.

Perhaps you will have more success denaturing the faithful—were this not an atheist forum, I would wish you Godspeed—but I've concluded that what little time and energy remain to me in this world are better spent on drink and loose women.

True, I wasn't thinking so much of discussing things with Christians, but with other kinds of paranormal claims.  I don't know that I'd try to argue with them, the most I might be inclined to do is inquire closely about what DO they really believe.  It seems people are embarassed by going into detail about their literal beliefs.  And perhaps to suggest that wanting to believe something, that it feels good to them, doesn't seem an adequate argument for it.  A lot of times the reason for people's belief seems to be only that it helps them with difficulties. 

I actually dread being buttonholed by christians whispering "have you been saved?", one does indeed tend to hear a lot of what could be a tape recording, if one engages at all with them. 

A young colleague once asked me to give a lecture in his philosophy course, which had the paranormal as its overall theme. He expected the topic would produce lively discussions pro and con—the reason he chose it in the first place—but the only students who signed up were those who firmly believed in the paranormal. They expected to have their beliefs confirmed and learn more about the paranormal, not call it into question. He was stunned at the students' willingness to believe. Several claimed to have had paranormal experiences.

Being a mathematician and skeptic, I spoke about statistical tests for ESP and how to design valid experiments and bored them silly. The only question I got was, "Do you believe in out-of-body experiences?" My answer was that I had not yet finished my research on out-of-clothes experiences.

Another time at lunch the wife of a wealthy donor to the university questioned me as to why, as Dean of Science, I had not created a department of paranormal psychology. Rather than dispute with her, I pointed out that the present department of psychology reported to another dean and that it would create enormous difficulties if I began to poach on his territory, but that she might very well put her question to him and that I was sure that with sufficient start-up support, he would probably be interested. I succeeded in boring her, which was far better than offending her. Fortunately her husband was not interested the the paranormal—probably due to her influence.

I am impressed with the number of people who enthusiastically subscribe to belief in the paranormal. It's not uncommon.


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