Note: This is the English translation of one of my previous blogpost. To read the French version, click here.
"Paranthropology: Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal" is an anthology edited by Jack Hunter (PhD student at Bristol University). Its subject is the anthropology of paranormal phenomena. The articles included are mostly reprints of papers published before in the journal of the same title.
How social sciences should study the paranormal? Many researchers argue that we shouldn't engage in the debate about the reality of paranormal phenomena. In that perspective, psychology - to take the example I know the best - should only focus on the psychology of paranormal beliefs and the phenomenology of anomalous experiences.
I have to confess I don't agree with this position.
To the contrary, I think that it's important for social sciences to get involved in the debate about the reality of paranormal phenomena. This book, "Paranthropology: Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal", discusses this very question, focusing on anthropology. Many anthropologists do experience transpersonal experiences (what we usually call in less technical vocabulary mystical experiences) and do report to have witnessed paranormal phenomena during fieldwork. Should we pretend that those reports don't exist or should we include them in our work? I think the response to this question is obvious.
The strength of this anthology is that it aims toward this goal. Its weakness comes form the fact that every single contributor in it is a psi-proponent. Because of that, the answers offered are always along the line of: the existence of paranormal phenomena has been proved by parapsychology, so we just have to take that into account in our anthropological work.
Let's now discuss Lee Wilson's article in more details as an example, The Anthropology of the Possible: The Enthnographer as Sceptical Enquirer (p. 43-56). He argues that instead of adopting rational skepticism (what we sometimes call in French the zetetic), anthropologists should instead adopt Pyrrhon's philosophical skepticism. It's not the first psi-proponent that I read in favor of this. Philosophical skepticism is much closer to the postmodern movement than to rational skepticism. The gist of the idea is to reject any claim to have certain knowledge about reality. For the skeptics living in Antiquity, the only thing we could know is that we couldn't know anything. Of course, critics pointed early on that this extreme form of skepticism is self-contradictory, because it actually claims to have a form of certain knowledge: I have a certain knowledge and that certain knowledge I have is that it's impossible to have certain knowledge.
Lee Wilson advocates taking a philosophical skepticism's stance about projecting from afar in the martial arts. I talked about this subject before when I introduce on this blog the concept of Bullshido. He thinks that we shouldn't argue that striking from afar is not authentically paranormal in nature. I have to confess I don't understand why we should make such a suspension of judgement. At the bottom of this, I think that if someone really advocates philosophical skepticism, that person must conclude that the scientific project is bound to be a failure. If we can't know anything with certainty about reality, how can we do science in the first place?
All in all, I think that the articles in this anthology are of very different quality. As I just explained, I found Lee Wilson's article unconvincing. On the other hand, I found Jack Hunter's Anthropology and the Paranormal (p. 21-41) and David Luke's Experiential Reclamation and First Person Parapsychology (p. 181-197) very interesting.
In short, "Paranthropology: Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal" is a good contribution to the epistemological debate on how social sciences - especially anthropology - should study the paranormal, but the reader will be disappointed by the fact that this anthology doesn't include any skeptical contribution.
Blood Bowl – Cyanide
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