Is the paranormal “unconstrained whimsicality”?

Apropos of my discussion of the paranormal and Marlborough Street, here (via Jerry Coyne) is an excerpt from an article by the Oxford chemist Peter Atkins:

One aspect of the paranormal versus real science should not go unremarked. As in other forms of obscurantist pursuit, such as religion, it is so easy to make time-wasting speculations. The paranormal is effectively unconstrained whimsicality. Original suggestions in real science emerge only after detailed study and the lengthy and often subtle process of testing whether current concepts are adequate. Only if all this hard work fails is a scientist justified in edging forward human understanding with a novel and possibly revolutionary idea. Real science is desperately hard work; the paranormal is almost entirely the fruit of armchair fantasizing. Real science is a regal application of the full power of human intellect; the paranormal is a prostitution of the brain. Worst of all, it wastes time and distorts the public’s vision of the scientific endeavour.

(Neither Coyne nor Atkins takes any prisoners.)

This seems perfectly true to me. And this is an aid in writing fiction that involves the paranormal: you get to make up the rules, and no one gets to tell you That’s really not how it works. You are the one doing the “armchair fantasizing”; you’re not advancing human understanding, but you may entertain a few people. The hero in Marlborough Street can find missing persons and occasionally dip into someone else’s mind; the heroine of Summit with great mental effort can force a person to change the way he thinks and acts. The only limitation is the limitation of all fiction: internal consistency.  It’s your fictional universe, but once you’ve set up its rules, you have to live by them.

The paranormal and Marlborough Street

When I was writing Marlborough Street (ebook now available!) I did a good bit of reading about the paranormal, especially “psychic detectives,” since my hero, Alan Simpson, was such a beast, the reluctant owner of a gift that allowed him to find missing persons, living and dead.

I decided that there wasn’t much there.  The scientific study of the paranormal didn’t reveal anything, and the anecdotes weren’t much better. I recall reading the autobiography of one self-proclaimed psychic detective, and by the end I realized that she hadn’t really solved a single crime or directly found a single missing person.  As evidence of her prowess she would point to vague hints she had provided the police that later proved to be generally accurate.  But that’s the stuff of newspaper horoscopes — if you say “I see a dark forest near a lake,” occasionally you will end up being sort of right.  But which forest?  Which lake?  How near the lake?  Where’s the body?

But I went ahead and wrote the novel, because, you know, reality is not a novelist’s problem.  I liked the idea of a protagonist whose gift was more a curse than a blessing (and I used the same general concept in Summit for a character with a very different kind of psychic ability).  Anyway, Alan spends a good bit of time pondering the fickle nature of his “gift,” as in this passage, in which it has once again let him down:

He had long ago come to the conclusion that his gift had a consciousness of its own and was determined to be perverse. The worst possible frame of mind was to care about what it gave him.

He recalled the time he had volunteered for a psi experiment at Harvard. He was a freshman, and temporarily in love with rationality. Surely ESP was the next great frontier of science, and surely he could help to conquer it. And if it helped him to understand himself, so much the better.

The researcher was a middle-aged psychology professor who, secure in his tenure, had evidently tired of running rats and wanted to dabble in the occult. In this experiment, a computer randomly generated simple drawings. The subject sat in a booth and tried to reproduce the drawings.

Nothing could be easier. Alan sat down and drew better than he had ever drawn before. The images flowed easily and vividly: a cow crossing railroad tracks, two black boys listening to the radio, a vase of roses lying on its side… When he handed in his booklet he was grinning with delight. You’re onto something now, Professor, he wanted to say.

Then he waited. If the professor was onto something, he wasn’t letting Alan know about it. Finally Alan camped outside his door during office hours and managed to get a few minutes of his time.

“Simpson, Simpson…” The fellow poked around his desk, littered with blue books and overflowing ashtrays, until he found Alan’s folder. “Ah, yes. A. Simpson. Chance level. Some interesting drawings, though.”

It took a moment to sink in. And as it did he was inside the professor’s mind for an instant of utter clarity: God, I’m tired. Maybe that sweet little thing with the black tights will show up. Dental bills. A Cognitive-Affective Theory of Perhaps you’d like to discuss your paper over a…

Chance level. I should mention the black tights, Alan thought. What were the odds on that?

But then he realized what his gift was up to. If I mention the black tights, they’ll probably be wrong too. And Alan started to laugh. “Sorry to bother you,” he said. “Just curious.”

He didn’t feel like laughing now. No VW, no Julia, no cat—but he knew the gift remained, lurking in the shadows of his psyche, waiting to play its next trick. Alan kicked an empty motor-oil can and headed for the exit.

I like the idea of the paranormal lurking mischievously in the background, determined not to be caught by science and rationality.  Do I believe it?  Well, no.  But it makes for a good story.