What is "paranormal"?

In this thread, Peter Morris claims that some phenomena, once considered paranormal, are no longer, but have become mainstream science. I challenged that statement, and it appears that we may have a different definition of “paranormal.”

Peter Morris offers up three examples of things once considered paranormal: polio, meteorites, and ulcers.

Polio, at least in the Middle Ages, was considered unexplainable, and the work of demons or worse. We now know it is caused by a virus and is preventable.

Meteorites (rocks falling from the sky) were pooh-poohed by mainstream science (“impossible!”) but are now considered “normal” celestial objects.

Ulcers, once assumed to be caused by stress, are now often cured by treating them as a bacterial infection.

My claim is that none of these were ever truly “paranormal.” Misunderstood, misdiagnosed, lacking sufficient information, puzzling, sure, but not paranormal (at least not since the dawn of the scientific age, when demons were discounted). Peter Morris seems to consider anything unknown as paranormal. So we may have a definition problem.

Looking up google’s definition, [“define” paranormal"] gives us this list. (I’m not sure if this will return exactly the same URLS to all, worldwide.)

Some selected definitions:

Not bad. Ambiguous.



Now this one I have a problem with. Is the “unknown” automatically “paranormal”? I don’t think so. If I see something strange, I might say, “Hey, whatzat?” I don’t say, “Look at dem ghosts, Martha!” A strange light in the sky might not be readily identifiable, but I don’t assume it is paranormal until proved otherwise. Quite the contrary, I assume there is a rational explanation first.

I’m not sure how I would define “paranormal,” but I’m working on it. Any ideas?

From the “Ghosts” thread,

Remote Viewing, Astral Projection, Psychic Surgery, Aromatherapy, Bach Flower Therapy, Reflexology, Iridology, Astrology, Bioharmonics, Therapeutic Touch, Channelling, Crop Circles, Ectoplasm, Facilitated Communication…

Shall I go on? I’m only up to the “F’s”, and I skipped a lot.

To those that just arrived, I apologize for mixing threads. Peter Morris, others, and myself have been participating in more than one simultaneously, yet they have some common ground (besides us, that is!)

Thread #1 is Can Ghosts be scientifically proved to exist"?

Thread #2 is James Randi and dry spots, which is a spinoff from thread #1.

Cat, (in time for dinner, BTW), I think that of the defs. you selected, this one:

comes the closest for me.

Do depart definitions and breach explanations, the paranormal for me are those phenomenon which are regularly, though perhaps rarely observed, which are validated through concentric validation, and for which a satisfactory scientific is currently lacking.

Please note, this definition is designed to eliminate quackery.
Astrology? Is it demonstrable in its efficacy? Is it accurate? If not, quackery.
Ghosts? Are they reported in much the same ways by independent observers? Paranormal.
And so on.
Para = alongside, normal. Not fitting within normal, but not in opposition, either.

Into paranormal I’d toss: ‘ghosts’ (all types included), ESP, predictive dreams, channeling, psychometry, spoon bending, and other similar phenomenon.

A light in the sky may be a UFO, but UFOs aren’t paranormal, they’re just unknown. If an alien landed, it’d just be an alien, unless it claimed to come from a different time or dimension, then it may be paranormal.

My take on paranormal is more on what it says about us. Some people seem to be able to perceive things that are invisible to others. Like a sensitivity to other energies (and all our senses are sensitivity to energies) too fine for detection by others. We all have different degrees of various senses; I think this is kinda along the same lines.


Snake, I don’t buy it. You selected the one definition that doesn’t match the others and doesn’t jibe with science. Just because you can’t immediately explain it doesn’t mean it is ultimately unexplainable. And the unexplained does not necessarily require a out-of-the-normal explanation. Occam’s Razor and all that, y’know.

Nonsense. To some, Astrology is “accurate.” They are ignorant of many things, including how we fool ourselves. I assure you, astrology is quakery in any guise of any kind, anywhere.

Nonsense. Multiple observations, even with apparent similarities, do not make something paranormal.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary defines Paranormal as

With reference to the last line, it would seem that more knowledge would lead to less tagging events with the “paranormal” description, although the famous line credited to Arthur C. Clarke would seem to be the opposite end of the spectrum, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

So did scientists in, say, the 19th century, look at electricity and, because they understood very little about it, call it “paranormal”? “Out of this world”? I don’t think so. I think they set out to examine it and find out just how normal it was.

From Twenty things to consider when regarding paranormal phenomenon, by James Randi

If I told you I saw a ghost who looked like a green lizard, you’d probably discount my report. But if I said it looked like Casper or someone in a bedsheet, it would be consistent with other reports. It could still be as bogus as a bad burrito repeating on you in the night.

That is a pretty big distortion. I never said that “polio” was paranormal. What I said was that a particular medical treatment for polio was condemned as quackery for 30 years, then became mainstream medicine. That medical treatment was “paranormal” or “quackery” through those 30 years. At no time did I suggest that polio was paranormal.

True enough. That’s what I said. Meteorites were “paranormal” 200 years ago, but are normal today.

And he’s back to the distortions.

It’s not “ulcers” that were paranormal. Its the treatment for ulcers. When medical science knew that ulcers were caused by stress, this guy came up with the strange theory that they were actually caused by bacteria, and could be cured by simple antibiotics. Strangely, for years after he made his claim, no other doctors could detect their presence. But after facing 10 years of hostility and riducule, his claims were vindicated.

During those 10 years, the medical treatment he offered was “paranormal” or “quackery” or “fringe science.” Now that it’s vindicated, its mainstream medicine.

yeah, that’s the problem. Anything you can’t disprove you word-game away.

This claim fails - its paranormal, and false.
This claim fails - it’s paranormal, and false.
This claim fails - it’s paranormal, and false.
This claim fails - it’s paranormal, and false.
This claim … my god, it succeeds. It’s true but IT ISN’T PARANORMAL. It not. It can’t be. I’m still right. No paranormal claim has sever suceeded.
This claim fails - it’s paranormal, and false.
This claim fails - it’s paranormal, and false.

since you seem to be a mind-reader, why don’t you go for Randi’s prize?

The “unknown” is NOT paranormal in my definition. Nor is the “unexplained” There are plenty of things iin science that are unknown and unexplained, yet nobody would call them paranormal. For example, gravity. We can predict the effects of gravity, but we can’t (yet) explain the mechanism. What gravity does, we can predict. How it works, we don’t know. Being unknown does not make gravity “paranormal”

There are two features of a “paranormal” claim:

  1. An ability, discovery, theory or event that is ouside of ordinary experience.
  2. It is widely doubted.

Very few of us have ever walked on the Moon. It is outside normal experience, but it’s not paranormal. It meets the first criterion, but fails the second. Most people don’t doubt the truth of the Moon landings. It is believed by the majority, and therefore not paranormal.

The three example I cited ARE paranormal because they meet both tests.

Meteorites were paranormal 200 years ago. Few people had ever seen one, and those that had were treated as cranks. Science did not believe in them. They did not fit into orthadox scientific theory of the time.

Today, the theory has changed. Meteorites are no longer doubted, hence no longer are paranormal.

The paranormal is mainly defined by doubt. Any wild and crazy idea attacked by science IS paranormal. These people like Randi and Lavoisier who set themselves up as guardians of logic and rationality make things paranormal by attacking them. Any claim that the skeptics attack is paranormal, by virtue of the fact that they are attacking it. Anything they try to debunk is paranormal.

Well, if one chooses (as I do) to define “paranormal” as “describing a phenomenon which is in violation of known laws of physics”, then citing examples which occured before the relevant law of physics was known is moot. Meteorites weren’t “paranormal” 200 years ago, because the relevant aspect of “normal” (i.e. that outer space is teeming with meteoroids, some of which get pulled into Earth’s gravity well) was unknown.

You might as well argue that sunburn was “paranormal” before the discovery of ultraviolet radiation. Using the word “paranormal” in this way weakens it to the point of uselessness.

Well, the existence of meteoroids within the solar system (some of which fall to Earth) was unknown 200 years ago, so why was meteor theory “paranormal” while gravity isn’t?

From what I’ve seen, you’re fond of acusing people (including me, by the way) of using slippery semantics. I’m afraid I’ll have to return the favour. You are using “normal” in an improper manner. In physics terms, “normal” should mean anything permissable by the laws of physics, not something an ordinary person would experience during an ordinary lifetime. That anyone doubts or doesn’t doubt the moon landings is completely irrelevant to whether or not the moon landings are “normal” (i.e. within the laws of physics).

Well, if that’s how YOU define it, okay. I’d personally say that the paranormal is mainly defined by contradiction, not doubt or attack, and contradition to established and well-tested laws of phsyics, not the beliefs of Randi or Lavoisier or anyone else.

From what I’ve seen, you’re claiming to be defending logic (or at least accusing others of doing a poor job of it) and you’re attacking Randi. Does that make you a skeptic and Randi paranormal? Just curious.

Oh, come on, Cat. You know by now (I’m sure) that I believe the “paranormal” is quite ‘normal’ - … as soon as we find the explanation. Our science is just in its (relative) infancy! Are you looking for an argument? You won’t find it here.

It’s the closesest definition that matched my own. If you want opinions, you got mine. If you want “scientific truths” I think you’re asking the wrong question!


Well, according to my Webster’s dictionary, paranormal in the strictest definition is, " that which is not explainable by science." However, it is also listed as being synonymous with things that are considered supernatural.
To me this implie that many things that were “paranormal” in the past would no longer be due to the advances made scientifically over the years.
Supernatural (to me) implies things which may NEVER be explained scientifically simply because there is NO PROOF that they exist at all.
This is where you get into the existence of things which people believe exist and witnesses claim they know. But since there is no measurable evidence of their existence they aren’t subject to scientific method. Therefore the term supernatural and paranormal (IMHO) should NOT be synonymous.
“Nothing unreal exists”. It seems like I heard that somewhere before. Does it sound familiar to anyone here or is it just something I imagined? :wink:

Oh, hey Bryan good to see you. :slight_smile:

Are you sure you can see me? Because any doubt means I am… PARANORMAL!

“Nothing unreal exists” was the answer to a trivia question presented to Spock (along with chess problems, mathematical equations and whatnot) during his hopped-up “retraining” at the beginning of Star Trek IV.

Here you go again, taking everything I say literally. :wink:

Yeah, wasn’t that the one that asked him, “How do you feel?”
Followed by the infamous line…“Captain, there be whales here.”
Now that’s gotta be paranormal. :smiley:

So, where did the line originate or was that its origin? :confused:

The test ended with all three computers asking “How do you feel?” “Nothing unreal exists” was the answer to “What is Kiri-kin-tha’s First Law of Metaphysics?” A search on the phrase doesn’t turn up any pre-1986 references though, interestingly, a number of “inspirational” websites have included it, without attribution.

"Inspirational websites" heh… I won’t even go there dude! :smiley:

Wait a minute…Bryan…did you say “laws of metaphysics?” Okay, now we’ve got something to debate. Would you mind quoting some of these laws, please?


First of all, your definition: “describing a phenomenon which is in violation of known laws of physics”. I can agree with that.

But the rest is absurd. Not paranormal because it was *before * the law of physics? Ridiculous. The fact that it was before the law of pjhysics was discovered is what makes it paranormal. Meteorites were paranormal 200 years ago because they were in violation of the laws of physics as they were known at the time.

According to your usage, ieven if a claim is true, you will never agree that it’s paranormal.

Consider ESP. At science stands at the moment, ESP violates the known laws of physics, thus is paranormal. But just suppose for a moment it could be demonstrated in the Lab. What would be the result of that? According to you: all we’ve done is demonstrate a new law of physics, one that was unknown previously. ESP doesn’t break the laws of physics, it obeys the newly discovered law. Calling it paranormal is moot because it was before the law was discovered.

Ridiculous analogy. Sunburn was a known, observable phenomenon, even if the precise cause wasn’t known. Nobody doubted the existence of sunburn. It didn’t fit my definition of paranormal.

Precisely BECAUSE it was “unknown.” Gravity has never been “unknown”

I’m using your word, though I think it’s the wrong one. Rather than “unknown” say “outside orthadox scientific theory.”

I think the assertion here is a pretty good one – phenomena regarded as “paranormal” either have a “natural” explanation or are pure coincidence. If we were to start an IMHO thread asking members to make ten specific predictions on events that will happen during 2005, and eighty people answer, a dozen or so of those 800 predictions will actually happen, not because the members in question are precognitive, but because the laws of chance call for that sort of coincidental “hit” rate.

My son-in-spirit and I are telepathic – put the two of us in the same place, and we will know what each other is thinking. This is not a claim of psychic powers – we simply know and understand each other’s reactions to the degree that body language and the flow of conversation will clue us each in to the other’s thinking to the extent that we can in fact “read the other’s mind.” We had one long “conversation” one night in 1991 that consisted of nothing more than sitting next to a stereo mute and playing the particular song(s) that said what we needed to say in response to what the other had “said” in his selection – mostly because we both have the sort of quirky sense of humor that made doing that little exercise something we both enjoyed.

I don’t like the word “paranormal” and put it in quotes or say “so-called” unless I’m being careless. So for me the question is rather moot. Whatever is is normal.

So sad but so unsurprising to see Peter Morris’s reply getting trashed here in such a dull manner, as it is spot-on in terms of the psychology of the thing. After all, “paranormal” is a label, basically a pejorative label, for a certain group of phenomena that are considered reprobate. “Paranormal” phenomena are what those damn believers believe without proof, nay! without any evidence whatsoever.

I think there are two conflicting perceptions of the state of science that inform one’s take on “paranormal” phenomena. It would seem that the skeptics belive that our science has reached a high degree of completion: We’ve figured out most of what is knowable, and now we’re just filling in the details. Sure, there might be a major discovery or two left, and a lot of new applied science, but our basic vision of the universe won’t be overtuned.

I and New Agers in general, however see science as only having begun. We probably know only 10% or so of the major truths of the universe, and our technology at this point is purely Hasbro and Fisher Price stuff. To me the skeptics seem to eager to rebuff anything that might challenge their overconfident worldview: “It can’t be true, dammit, because we’ve got all the major truths down already!” My feeling is, “Bring it on.” The sooner our ignorance rudely bumps into the next thing it does not understand, the sooner it can be worn away and more of truth’s core exposed.

I seem ludicrous, worthy of mockery, to the skeptics, who feel they know most of what will ever be known. I, on the other hand, think they will go down as the greatest anal retentives of history.

Nice post, Pete.