Somewhere in his lectures, William James discourses on the topic of live options. As I recall, he told his classroom of British university students that for many of them, whether or not they were religious, the resurrection of Jesus was a live option - meaning that they would at least take the idea seriously and not dismiss it out of hand. On the other hand, the idea that the prophet Mohammed rode a flying horse (a story recounted in the Koran) would not even be considered. This was because the students, raised in a Judeo-Christian environment, were inclined to treat articles of the Christian faith with at least a modicum of respect, while they were not inclined to treat other religions the same way. James went on to say that for all of us, there are live options and others that are not live - things we are willing to think about in a serious way, and things we reflexively reject.
Times change, and if James were speaking today he would use different examples. But his basic point is still valid. All our opinions are filtered through a screen of preconceived assumptions about what is or is not worth considering. If a given subject can't get through the screen, we won't accept it on even the most provisional basis. It's not that we necessarily have taken the time to examine the claim in detail and refute it. Sometimes we do that, but more often we just brush it off as nonsense.
People may refer to their particular screening process as common sense, the way things are, the way the world works, or their BS detector. Or they may call it the laws of physics or simply science. ("Science says ____ is impossible.") Or they may call it the word of God. ("Scripture tells us ____ is impossible.")
It's easy to see the screening process at work in other people, but much harder to see it in ourselves. Subjectively, our personal filter appears to be absolutely identical to reality or logic or revelation - whatever our standard of judgment is. Objectively, the filter differs from one person to the next; probably no two people have exactly the same filter.
In describing things this way, I don't mean to suggest that the filtering process is bad. On the contrary, I think it's essential. We're bombarded with ideas and claims and opinions. We need some way to cut down the clutter. Just as an email program would be overrun with junk without a spam filter, our minds would be overwhelmed by distracting irrelevancies and intellectual dead ends without a screening system.
I feel this way even in cases where I disagree with the standards imposed by the particular filter. For instance, the great physicist Helmholtz famously said that he would not believe in telepathy no matter what the evidence, even if he witnessed it firsthand. For him, telepathy was not a live option. Though I think he was quite mistaken, I can understand how someone who had organized his worldview around the principles of classical physics would reach such a conclusion. For him, the implications of telepathy were too shattering to bear thinking about. Proof of telepathy would upend his entire belief system and throw his thoughts into chaos. As a matter of psychological self-defense, he had to repudiate the very possibility. And why not? Nobody is obligated to embrace an idea that will destroy the entire intellectual structure of his life.
I have my own filter, of course. There are ideas that I reject out of hand, seldom troubling to investigate them. Examples include:
- conspiracy theories claiming that the moon landings were faked
- conspiracy theories claiming that 9/11 was an "inside job," and the Twin Towers fell because of "controlled demolition"
- assertions that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, has a fake Social Security number, or was fathered by someone other than Obama Sr.
- any form of young-Earth creationism or special creation of all species at once (I'm open to more sophisticated intelligent design arguments)
- claims of "ancient astronauts" who built the pyramids
- claims of shape-shifting aliens who live among us
- claims regarding the Illuminati or other mystical cabals that secretly rule us
Then there are ideas that strike me as so implausible I'm just not interested in pursuing them. I don't necessarily rule them out altogether, but I don't take them seriously. Examples include:
- pyramid power
- stories about Atlantis, Lemuria, and other lost civilizations (unless presented as legendary treatments of known civilizations like Crete)
- the Loch Ness Monster, the yeti, Bigfoot, and other creatures of cryptozoology
These lists are far from exhaustive. They are only meant to show that I have my own filter, just like anyone else.
When we see skeptics bending over backward to contrive a non-paranormal explanation for some well-documented anomalous phenomenon, it would be a mistake to assume that they're being churlish or deliberately obtuse. Even if there are obvious holes in their logic or clear misrepresentations of the reported facts, we should not necessarily assume dishonesty (unless a particular skeptic has a track record of intentional deception). In most cases, these errors are the result of dismissing the claim too quickly, without really studying it or even thinking about it - i.e., without taking it seriously. And the inability to take it seriously is a function of the skeptic's own individual mental filter. For him or her, this kind of claim is not a live option.
Proponents of the paranormal sometimes complain that skeptics are willing to latch on to any explanation, no matter how far-fetched or absurd, as long as it obviates psi or life after death. But in a certain sense, this kind of thinking is quite logical. If psi and an afterlife are ruled out of bounds - if they are not live options, are inconceivable, are something that cannot possibly be considered, ever - then any alternative explanation must be preferable. It may seem unlikely that NDEs can be explained by brain chemistry given that the brain is minimally active during a cardiac arrest, but if any non-materialist explanation is impossible, then brain chemistry simply must be at work somehow. It may seem unlikely that all of the thousands of children who spontaneously report past lives are lying or being manipulated by unscrupulous parents, but if past lives are out of the question, then deceit must be involved somehow. And so on.
The old saw is that we should have "an open mind, but not wide open." In truth, nobody's mind is wide open. We all have mental gatekeepers - bouncers on autopilot, whose job is to keep out the riffraff. We simply differ on which ideas should be bounced.