Natural Explanations for ‘Supernatural’ Experiences

This post is by Jesse Galef

We always have better explanations for unknown phenomena than resorting to saying “a supernatural force did it.” Richard Feynman, as always, put it well in this quick black-and-white clip:

From my knowledge of the world that I see around me, I think it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the result of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence rather than the unknown rational efforts of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

It brought to mind a great line of reasoning that Hume has in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish… When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened.

There are known flaws in the human brain.  Not only are we are terrible data-gathering devices, but we have biases and imperfections that affect our interpretation of the data we do gather.  If a person tells you that they’ve had a religious experience, the first question should be how they know it’s due to an external entity, and not just the inner workings of their brain.  And as it turns out, we have an excellent scientific explanations.  When the brain is deprived of oxygen a simple centrifuge people report the same visions and feelings as the so-called near-death experiences. When the temporal lobe of the brain is stimulated, it recreates these “mystical” experiences in labs. 

If someone tells us that they know they’ve interacted with a God, we can reply: It is far more likely that the experience was the result of our known, natural flaws than some unknown, supernatural divine entity.

But for anyone who thinks otherwise, I present you with this holy pattern from the Church of Jesse, which I am moving and distorting with my brain from many miles away.  You have the opportunity to directly experience my power with your own eyes!  Kneel before me, preferably while sending a check.


Optical illusion Jesse’s awesome paranormal powers

Can you PROVE that I’m not responsible?  (Disclaimer: I get bored sometimes and decide not to make it move, especially if you’re testing it too closely.)

About Dr. Denise Cooper-Clarke

I am a graduate of medicine and theology with a Ph.D in medical ethics. I tutor in medical ethics at the University of Melbourne, am an (occasional) adjunct Lecturer in Ethics at Ridley Melbourne, and a voluntary researcher with Ethos. I am also a Fellow of ISCAST and a past chair of the Melbourne Chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality. I have special interests in professional ethics, sexual ethics and the ethics of virtue.

  • http://christyagonzalez.blogspot.com/ Christy

    I think you might be surprised to know that it is actually me moving the picture. I know, I know. I work in mysterious ways.

  • CatBallou

    phenomena. A lovely word.

  • Jesse Galef

    Christy: Heresy! Nobody listen; she’s just trying to exploit my incredible power to con others out of money.

    CatBallou, you’re right. I changed the incorrect ‘phenomenon’ in the first paragraph to ‘phenomena’.

  • http://christyagonzalez.blogspot.com/ Christy

    Jesse: While it is true that your genius created the picture… I created you! That means anything good you do will be attributed to me, and anything bad you do will be attributed to you (or heavy metal music). Sucks, don’t it?

  • Liudvikas

    My eyes hurt while watching at your paranormal picture, is this some kind of mysterious plan?

  • Chal

    Your eyes can be cured for 5 easy payments of 39.99

  • http://ossurynot.com Tony Russo

    It might be irresponsible to push your powers on unsuspecting subjects. You should give us the free will to interpret your message.

  • http://www.bornagainyesterday.com Justin

    Wasn’t phenomena a song the Muppets did?

    “Phenomena! Dit doo dee doo doo. Phenomena! Dit doo dee doo.”

    Maybe I’m wrong.

  • Liudvikas

    Its sounds great, but I’d rather people stop using stupid color schemes on their websites. :) Especially those illusions, they hurt my eyes, even more now when I’m sitting in the dark. :)
    Probably a sign that I was for to long at my computer.
    So I’ll pray for you to get those 5 easy payments and also turn off my computer.
    When you get the money, it will not only show that prayer works, but also that you have miraculous powers of healing. :D

  • Lobar

    Uh… I actually don’t perceive any movement or distortion in that image. Are my eyes broken? >.>

  • Demetrius Of Pharos

    @ Lobar –

    Your eyes might be broken. For example, I have astigmatism in both eyes, and with my glasses off I see no movement. However, with glasses on, it is quite clear that the image is moving due to optical illusion  Jesse’s power  Christy’s power  the FSM.

  • http://ufobmedia.blogspot.com Joseph Capp

    Dear Atheist,
    It just goes to show you that even atheist can be stupid. Stick to what you write on best, the God subject, leave UFOs to people who actually examine the evidence.

    Joe Capp
    UFO Media Matters
    Non-Commercial Blog

  • http://gusonthought.blogspot.com Gustavo Keener

    Looks like someone upset Mr. Capp. Either that or it’s the best tongue-in-cheek satire I’ve seen in a while.

    @Joe: Most of us are skeptics here, so you won’t find a lot of respect for ideas without evidence. That someone experiences sleep paralysis or induces (or is induced to have) false memories by suggestion (or whatever) is a tragedy of the human condition, much like fanatical religious belief. For such medical conditions, I have pity, but not for the stories.

    To me, this is probably the best little summary of what science is. Something compels me to write a check.

  • littlejohn

    Hey, that guy addressed me as “Dear Atheist.” He knows! How did he do that?
    He’s the one making that picture pulsate.
    Must … eat … brains!

  • http://seangill-insidemyhead.blogspot.com/ SeanG

    must not… feed… the troll…

    Mr. UFO, the same request applies to you as it does to any believer in God. Show me the evidence. The evidence that stands up to science, not the wishy-washy conjecture and anecdotes from fallible witnesses. Not the same rehashed stories from the 1960s. Not shaky grainy video. Not ‘evidence’ the requires us to assume the most unlikely explanation. Aliens, God, unicorns, Santa Claus and the easter bunny. It’s all the same. Why do people need to assume some fantasy explanation for everything. I think the natural world is pretty damn cool as it is.

  • sailor

    For more try scienceofscams.com

  • muggle

    Wow! I must be one of the truly faithful. It works for me both with my glasses on or off.

    Dear Joe Capp,
    Are you related to Andy? Just wondering.

  • stewie

    Yes, I can prove it’s not you moving the picture. (Of course, this is kind of critical analysis one would expect from any good atheist. ;) )

    Here’s the proof.

    First, the file is saved as a normal jpeg image. This file format only supports static images. Therefore, it is impossible for the image to move.

    Second, open the the image in, say, Photoshop. The image does appear to move. But only look at only the red channel, or the blue channel. The image immediately stops. It’s only when the colors are combined that the image appears to move.

    We know:
    1. The image is in fact static.
    2. That we, not you, control the motion of the image (by selectively viewing it’s color components).

    So we can deduce that there’s something about the color & pattern of this image that is causing our brain to misinterpret the image. (Which is amazingly fascinating!!!)

    I’m new to this site & very glad I happened upon it. Great work & very thought provoking. Love it!

  • http://www.rationalitynow.com Dan Gilbert

    Curse you, Supernatural Jesse! You have upended my spiritual reticence with your divinely guided moving picture!!!

    ;-P

  • Jesse Galef

    Nice try, Stewie, but the very fact that I can use the static jpg format for my moving Holy Pattern is yet more evidence of my awesome power!

    Also, when you separated the red channel from the pattern I was offended that you would dare try to change My Holy Pattern. In protest, I stopped making it move until you put the channels back together.

  • Alien

    There are two little white dots in the center purple “flower”. These dots are on the vertical axis. I find that if I stare at the dot just above the center and DO NOT move my eyes, the image remains still.
    Alternatively, if you stare off into the distance through the picture (kind of like the Magic Eye illusions) you will see two images (probably with some overlap) but the images are clearly not moving so long as your eyes remain unmoving.

  • Jeffrey

    It’s the motion of the eyes that does it. Those two little “dots” mentioned above(really just thick spots in the white of the design) are in the center, where it’s easiest to focus your eyes. Keep your eyes from moving around the picture, and the picture will stop moving. Move your eyes a lot, and the picture will move a lot.

    Funny that everyone is commenting on the op-art, and not on the Feynman video which was the basis of this post. Talk about a SPOT ON way to sum up the atheist/agnostic position! No wonder this guy was a nobel laureate.

  • llewelly

    Joe Capp. Please do the following: When you are abducted by aliens – remain alert, and aware, watching at all times for an opportunity to pocket some small extra-terrestrial trinket, and keep it with you when you are returned to your home. Then, please allow scientists, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, to examine it. Scientists all over the world will apologize for doubting your claims. You’ll be famous for having delivered the first alien artifact to scientists. Science enthusiasts everywhere be delighted, and grateful for your help in our quest to learn more about the universe around us.

    Please do not underestimate the importance of what I have written here. There are few, if any, discoveries that could be more important than an unambiguous discovery of an artifact made by an extra terrestrial intellect.

  • stewie

    Jesse, that’s a GREAT retort!

    On a more serious note, it also wonderfully illustrates the conundrum of the unprovable. Every rational & factual point can be (seemingly) undermined with an unproven or unprovable statement.

    And that’s the crux of the atheism verses theism debate. Which side you’re on depends whether you choose to live in reality (where the unproven remains possible but is nevertheless discredited until proven) or in fantasy (where the unproven & irrational pervade).

    What’s absolutely shocking—dumbfounding!—is just how many people choose to live in fantasyland.

    And, BTW, I’m happy to set up some tests to prove/disprove your claims ;)

  • Thomas T

    I like the idea of the video. I am not sure who he is but he became a favorite of mine in an instant. It must be a miracle.
    I like the cockroach example of proof for and against gods and such. If I say I have cockroaches I only have to show one to anyone to indicate proof that they are real. If I say I have none than I must, in order to be correct search everywhere I live to verify that there are none.
    This correlates to god this way. If one says they know God and can show evidence of it, then game over they win. But if I say there is no God I have to search the entire universe and some would say even further to prove I am right.
    Of course the issue is not my, or our, lack of proof oh “no god,” but the adherents proof of an actual god.

    All they have to do is show me one roach, er um, I mean God and I will be happy to believe them. I’d even let them use any level of proof they want, as long as it is reality based evidence.

    If I had $10,000, $20,000 or even $1,000,000 to challenge the adherents to proof I would put that up for them to win. Just as James Randi has.


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