ASSAP: Paranormal Research
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The Unexplained

The unexplained is a term generally considered to mean the same as 'anomalous phenomena'. However, there is a big difference between 'unexplained phenomena' (which is similar to 'the unexplained') and 'unexplained cases'.

Unexplained cases

When we investigate strange phenomena ('the unexplained'), much of what we discover ends up being explained by natural causes. It is not paranormal but xenonormal - normal phenomena that a witness was simply unfamiliar with, and so mistook for something extraordinary. There are, however, cases where at least some of the phenomena remain unexplained.

When we try to understand the paranormal or anomalous, it is obvious that we should concentrate on this unexplained residue. Unfortunately, the standards used to investigate paranormal cases vary hugely, some 'cases' consisting of little more than a newspaper report and a ghost vigil! The result has been that, when researchers have tried to form overall conclusions about certain phenomena, by examining the results of many cases, they have unwittingly included much xenonormal material. This means that much 'common knowledge' about paranormal phenomena may, in fact, be wrong. For example, many paranormal researchers take the idea of 'recording ghosts' (or the 'Stone Tape Theory') as a given - but it is not. See here for a discussion.

Because a case contains aspects which are unexplained, it does not necessarily follow that they are paranormal. If you investigate a UFO case, for instance, and cannot explain the sighting, it is definitely 'unexplained'. However, this does not automatically mean it has anything to do with alien spacecraft! There is no 'default' explanation for a case - if you can't find enough evidence to explain it, then it simply remains unexplained. A report of a paranormal phenomenon can remain unexplained for at least two major reasons:

  • Often there is simply not enough good evidence available to decide WHAT really happened in a case. If something wasn't seen or heard well enough, and left no physical trace, then it may simply be impossible to eliminate rival explanations.
  • Even if a case has been well recorded and remains unexplained it might, in future, have a natural explanation. For instance, some old ghost cases may nowadays been explained by magnetic hallucinations even though, at the time when they occurred, they were completely inexplicable. In other words, the unexplained of today could become the xenonormal of tomorrow.

Unexplained phenomena

Unexplained phenomena fall into two groups. There are 'simple phenomena', like orbs, which can be easily described and probably have a single explanation. Then there are 'complex phenomena', like hauntings, which are difficult to describe simply because they have many aspects. Such complex phenomena consist, in fact, of several simple phenomena put together under one name. A haunting may, for instance, may include apparitions, the sounds of footsteps, light phenomena, etc, all of which may have different causes. The reason they are grouped together as 'hauntings' is mainly cultural tradition.

Simple unexplained phenomena only remain 'unexplained' if there is no substantial evidence of natural causes. Where there is substantial evidence in favour of natural causes for a particular phenomenon, it is reasonable to assume that it applies to all examples of that phenomenon. A phenomenon cannot be partially unexplained! For instance, if 95% of orbs can be explained by out of focus dust, it is unreasonable to think that there are 5% of orbs that have other, paranormal explanations. Why should the 5% of 'paranormal orbs' just happen to look exactly like the 95% of 'natural orbs'? There is no compelling logical reason for it. It is much more likely that the explanation for 95% of orbs actually applies to all 100%. This may seem obvious but some paranormal researchers have advanced the argument that, while a natural explanation accounts for most reports of a phenomenon, like orbs, it does not necessarily explain all such cases. This only makes sense if there is something consistently different about this minority of cases. In which case, it may well represent a different phenomenon entirely, with its own explanations.

Are traditional investigation methods useless?

When we investigate the paranormal, we do so by eliminating the normal (or xenonormal). However, as explained above, that does not mean that what is left is necessarily paranormal. It could be, but we can't say so for certain. Does this mean that the traditional method of investigating the paranormal, by first eliminating the normal, is flawed and useless? No, but it does mean the method has to be treated with caution. You certainly couldn't say, for instance, that because, after thoroughly investigating a case, there remained unexplained elements, they must be paranormal. You could, however, say that paranormal involvement was one possibility that hadn't been eliminated.

Scientific knowledge is always provisional. It can be superceded at any time when new evidence becomes available. Paranormal investigation is no different. What may look like a good case demonstrating the existence of ghosts may, in future, be explained by new information. It is the way science works. Looked at more positively, it means that science always has the best available information at any given time. If we can achieve the same with paranormal research, it will be an excellent state of affairs.

Final thoughts

In the end, if paranormal phenomena are proved to be true, they will become normal! And remember - the unexplained is not the paranormal!

© Maurice Townsend 2007