The "woo" of physicalists

From time to time, I have exchanges with people entrenched in physicalism. I usually find great opposition trying to explain that their mindset is, also, a faith. A faith in how the world must be, because the belief brings them comfort, and it's how they prefer it. It's not infrequent that people grow up intellectually oppressed by religion – as did I – so this escape into a vision of a material universe – Completely material! Completely! I tell you! – is understandable, even if frustrating. It is an existential issue, so minds on this are hard to change.

These types of people like to accuse those of us who are less orthodox as believing in "woo". Woo is anything that (A) threatens physicalism, and (B) is not 100% supported by extremely rigorous studies. But none is rigorous enough, d'oh!

This level of evidence is, naturally, understood as unrealistic when it comes to most things. It's mostly just expected for claims that offend physicalism. This is conveyed pithily as: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. What this omits to say is that this quarantine only exists when claims offend believers' sense of existential safety. :-) [footnote]

As I was just having one of these arguments, this came by, serendipitously, at the top of "Today I Learned":
TIL that in 1984, a woman started hearing a voice in her head. The voice told her she had a brain tumor, where the tumor was, and how to treat it. Despite no other symptoms, doctors eventually ordered tests and found a tumor where the voice said it would be. (comment thread)
This links to this post on a blog of the James Randi Educational Foundation – home ground of the world's staunchest skeptics. I thought it must be a gag, but nope! The apparent author, Romeo Vitelli, appears to be a bona fide Canadian doctor of psychology. His post links to the original BMJ article from 1997, which provides the following excerpt:
A previously healthy woman began to hear hallucinatory voices telling her to have a brain scan for a tumour. The prediction was true; she was operated on and had an uneventful recovery.

Born in continental Europe in the mid-1940s the patient settled in Britain in the late 1960s. After a series of jobs, she got married, started a family, and settled down to a full time commitment as a housewife and mother. She rarely went to her general practitioner as she enjoyed good health and had never had any hospital treatment. Her children had also been in good health.

In the winter of 1984, as she was at home reading, she heard a distinct voice inside her head. The voice told her, “Please don't be afraid. I know it must be shocking for you to hear me speaking to you like this, but this is the easiest way I could think of. My friend and I used to work at the Children's Hospital, Great Ormond Street, and we would like to help you.”

AB had heard of the Children's Hospital, but did not know where it was and had never visited it. Her children were well, so she had no reason to worry about them. This made it all the more frightening for her, and the voice intervened again: “To help you see that we are sincere, we would like you to check out the following”—and the voice gave her three separate pieces of information, which she did not possess at the time. She checked them out, and they were true, but this did not help because she had already come to the conclusion …
So – a woman has a tumor that apparently enables her to hear voices (or perhaps she always could? perhaps we all do?), and the voices tell her how to treat the tumor. The tumor is successfully removed, the voices express happiness that they were able to be of assistance, and they disappear.

Classic example of sun rises in the morning, right? You see the sun rising, therefore it's morning? Nope! The sun is an illusion, because a sun cannot exist:
The third explanation offered, and the one that Dr. Azuonye endorsed, was that, despite the lack of any apparent symptoms from the tumour, the presence of a meningioma that size likely triggered enough residual sensations for her to be aware that something was wrong. The information that she was apparently provided by the voices likely came from her own knowledge of London’s hospitals of which she had not been aware. Considering that the voices had vanished completely after the tumour was removed suggests that her psychiatric symptoms were likely linked to her neurological disorder.
Who is engaging in "woo" here?

There are two main straightforward explanations for this:
  • It's a gag. It was a gag before it was published in the BMJ, and no one has bothered to call it.

  • Or, you know, there are actual discarnate entities who could have saved this person's life, and went their way. Which, come to think of it, would not be that implausible if your entire sense of existential safety did not depend on there not being such things.

What about the pseudo-science in the above quote, hypothesizing about the patient's hidden, unconscious medical knowledge? Well, that is woo.


Footnote: This is reflected in what happens when evidence arrives. It is not good enough, duh! Clearly, if a meta-study follows the most rigorous scientific standards, and finds that a small psi effect exists, this must be a problem with science. It has nothing to do with the reader's discomfort! We need better science to avoid uncomfortable results. :-)

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