The Paranormal and Me

“The Fortune Teller”
Frederick Basile, 1869

The Paranormal and Me

If by “the paranormal” is meant the field of reality that comprises effects not linked to causes by any known physical laws — and if the missing links are likely found in consciousness – then the secrets of the paranormal might await discovery within our own consciousness.  After all, we don’t live in the regions described by present-day physics.  We don’t encounter micro-particles in our everyday experience.  But we do live in our own consciousness and we interact with other conscious beings all the time.  So research into the paranormal would be a study closer to home.

When my parents bought their house in Maine, it lacked water and electricity.  So they had to have a well dug.  Where on the property should the digging begin?  My father didn’t exactly disbelieve in dowsers, but he disapproved of using them.  So mother sent him away, since she was afraid his attitude could interfere with the work for which she had already hired the local dowser.   Clearly, she took for granted that one’s own consciousness could affect paranormal activity apparently centered in someone else.  The way the placebo effect, or the “nocebo” effect conveyed by the doctor can affect the patient, positively or negatively.  (If you’ve got a theory to explain that, I’d like to hear it.)

My mother described to me how the dowser had halted at a particular spot on our lawn, his arms visibly tugged downward by a force only he could feel.

“Dig here!” he said.

They did and soon found water not far down.  He was worth every penny.  I still have the forked stick he used.  It’s nailed to the wall of my office, among other souvenirs.

What other paranormal events have occurred in my personal experience?  Occasionally I’ve had a dream that was a premonition, usually of something negative, as if I were being alerted to brace myself in advance.

One time I dreamed that a colleague was telling me I was going to be fired.  In real life, this news-bearer happened to be someone I liked.  We’d been allies in the politics of the department, though he had the peculiar defect of being noticeably unsupportive. You didn’t want to be stranded in a storm with him.  He was competent, honest and good-humored, but emotionally absent.  In the dream, I reacted to the bad news – as I never would in real life – by emitting a staccato succession of high-pitched, wordless cries of anguished protest.

As it turned out, I did get news of my nonreappointment from that very colleague.  In our department, he had no special access to administrative decisions.  It was only by chance that he learned of the unfavorable decision.  Walking through campus, he happened to pass the college lawyer who, knowing that we were allies, looked at him intently and shook his head deliberately.

Although I didn’t emit staccato cries when he told me, I did feel again the dream’s double disappointment: the bad professional news plus the emotional let-down.

At present, I’m reading a book by a well-respected philosopher of science, Stephen Braude.   In it, he recounts some of his experiences researching the paranormal.  So far, the book has described only one case that was well-confirmed, occurring repeatedly with different investigators, seen in daylight or direct light, with every feasible precaution taken to prevent fraud.  Braude distinguishes this case from others he’s investigated, where the medium was cheating or the evidence ambiguous.  So it’s clear he knows the difference.

I doubt there is anyone reading this column who can’t recall a precognitive dream or highly improbable but personally significant coincidence.

What Braude also reports in his introduction is that colleagues, who had treated him with the mutual respect and deference normal among academic philosophers, suddenly shunned and ridiculed him once he told them that he’d undertaken a sustained, systematic inquiry into the paranormal.  Had he not had tenure, they would certainly have fired him.  Young applicants for positions in his department evinced curiosity about his researches – that is, until they were hired and hoped to get tenure.  Once they were safely on board but not yet sure of job security, they joined in the faint mockery, demonstrating that they too were “one of the boys.”

Tenure is supposed to confer freedom to do independent research.  It’s for that reason that professors, like judges, don’t get fired for making unpopular decisions.  Nevertheless, they risk social death, which is hard on the mind and on the body.  In pursuing a line of research that is simply not done, my dears, it’s clear that Braude has shown considerable courage and love for truth.

In a sense seldom discussed publicly, the reality of the paranormal is a truth “everybody knows.”  What does that signify – for the culture as a whole and for any of us as individuals?

For the culture, it signifies that, sooner or later, current paradigms in physics will need to be revised and replaced by a new paradigm, one that includes consciousness in its wide range of expressions and manifestations.  For that we may need a dramatic “refuting instance” of nonphysical causation — one important enough to shake present intellectual foundations. Or, barring a surprise of that kind, we will need research into the small instances on a statistically significant scale.   That requires major funding – so far unavailable.  Braude’s efforts always depend on private foundations and are constantly hampered by lack of money.  So, in the near term at least, the desired paradigm change is hard to foresee.

What then are we as individuals to make of the reality of the paranormal?  That’s a large topic and a speculative one.  The inferences for a person’s private life are, at this point, “anecdotal,” case by case.  I don’t think my mother was wrong to hire a douser.  I don’t think my father was wrong to leave the house.  For me, the paranormal is, in a sense, “normal.”  But it is to be treated with a certain caution, like anything we don’t well understand.  I’ll wind up with a story that illustrates at least one of my concerns.

I once had a young woman student from some Caribbean island who told me that her mother had been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to contact the dead.  My student reported telling her mother that she (the mother) lacked the psychic power to attempt such contacts, unlike her daughter, who could reach the dead without harm or difficulty.

Feeling that my student’s story was above my pay grade, I made no comment, merely listened.  At the same time, it crossed my mind that arrogant belief in one’s own superiority with respect to the paranormal was probably a bad idea.

A few weeks passed and I began to notice that my student was looking less and less vigorous, more drawn, thinner and more sickly.

 Uh oh.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to The Paranormal and Me

  1. Ken Kaplan says:

    Hi Abigail. Hope you’re well. You might enjoy “Supernormal” by Dean Radin as a further exploration of the “paranormal” topic. It’s a scientific approach documenting overwhelming evidence of what you correctly refer to as small instances on a statistically significant scale. Conclusion…paranormal is more normal than scientific journals would have you believe.

    • Abigail says:

      Hi Ken. Thanks for the reference. Dean Radin is one of the people consulted in Stephen Braude’s book. I guess “normal”is not necessarily the same as conventional.

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