Supernatural and the Senses

  • I am having a fascinating discussion with someone who is deep into believing in supernatural things. Kind of beyond the usual “religious” view into the realm of occultism etc. I honestly didn’t realize this person believed what they apparently do, and it was brought up as if it’s a common casual thing to do ….so I pressed her on it.


    This whole discussion relates to the Epicurean idea that the senses are the standard for truth. This particular person believes she sees “things” like angels, spirits, demons etc. I truly don’t believe this person is mentally ill, but I must now evaluate this situation based in my knowledge of Epicurean Philosophy. Because we need to draw a distinct demarcation line in the sand between casual superstition, harmful beliefs and prudent reasoning.


    Again, I truly don’t believe this person is clinically ill, but now I’m forced to analyze their behavior and their conclusions.


    As Epicureans, we do not believe in supernatural anything. Full stop.

    So any explanation must preclude supernaturalism to be the conclusion. So that leaves two options either the person is in fact Ill (with some sort of physio-chemical aberration in the brain) or this phenomena is a sort of social immaturity or imaginative delusion of superstitious idealism that has been allowed to prosper because society allows it to persist and eventually the person believes their imaginative false experiences are somehow relevant or true. Like believing a brief daydream of dragons flying through clouds has reality other than in your own mind. We know it’s just an imaginative daydream, but to others who hold these particular beliefs about spiritual realms etc. they may believe they have “insight” into these realms.


    A delusion for a mentally ill person is “real” for them. As real as they cognitively can process that the experience is real and true, such as seeing things or hearing voices. That is a real phenomena in the chemical and physiological makeup of a person’s brain who has a diagnosis. But for someone who doesn’t have something affecting their neural processes “seeing” and “hearing” things is pure imagination.


    And I will take the position that people who maintain these “beliefs” are socially immature or at worse fraudsters. I believe the person I’m speaking to now is in the socially immature camp, though they are well into their 50’s. They are claiming to see things that children might claim are invisible friends.


    Where this is relevant is that we can see that the Epicurean standard of truth, a strong basis in reality and sensory data is critical for a person’s social and mental well being. Believing in supernaturalism, even casually, will lead to very different conclusions about reality and as with the person I’m speaking with, it separates us from each other by testifying that one of us is speaking truth while the other is lying.


    At this point a person must use prudent judgement for the best to “correct” this person. Either by using frank speech to shock them out of their imaginings by letting them know they are in jeopardy of having their friends lose faith in their ability to perceive reality or simply to leave the person to their imaginings neither reinforcing them but also never speaking of them again. I guess it depends on the relationship a person has with the other.

  • As Torquatus relates in “On Ends”…


    “Moreover, unless the constitution of the world is thoroughly understood, we shall by no means be able to justify the verdicts of our senses. Further, our mental perceptions all arise from our sensations; and if these are all to be true, as the system of Epicurus proves to us, then only will cognition and perception become possible.”

  • You know, I think that in the end, it comes down to what you define as ill.

    Also, I think that, as Epicurus said, what our senses tell us is real, but how we interpret them isn’t.


    So, let’s jump into the first question: what do you define as ill? When someone sees something you don’t see, I wouldn’t necessarily call it mentally ill. For example, my mother can’t see colours. She can only see black, white and grey. Is she physically ill? From her perspective, no; thats the world how she perceives it. But from the perspective of a „normal“ person, she‘s most certainly ill. Just the same thing applies here. Illness is very relative, it’s not an objective label.


    now let’s get into the second part. I‘ve made the discovery that as soon as you allow supernatural things to slide into your own life, even when its something as minor as Platos forms, that means that you’ll get very strange results. I think that a separation here is needed: there’s a difference between believing that only what you see is true, as in that case my mom should dismiss every thought of colour, and believing that there are things out there which you can’t possibly perceive. Like God.

    As a conclusion: it may well be that this person see demons and angels. But then, these things aren’t supernatural- they’re simply a part of our world, because they consist of atoms and void. Maybe our eyes simply aren’t adapt at seeing them, just as I can’t smell like my dog can- and this person simply has incredible biological luck. There’s no way in judging if this person is right or wrong. Still, either a) there truly are angels- but then they are normal creatures, and you shouldn’t fear them. Or b) there’re no material angels- in that case, it’s pure superstition and thus worthless.

    So basically, the best thing to do is to follow Pyrrhonist advice here and dismiss judgement on this subject. That doesn’t mean that her viewpoint is valid- it simply means that you can’t prove nor disprove it, and thus you should suspend judgement on that. Easy as that :)


    Hope that helped!

  • Seeing visual data or the lack of seeing such things as colors and claiming to see angels are very different. Colorblindness is a natural physiological condition that is evidentially effecting a percentage of the population. It’s not the same as “mental” illness like schizophrenia.

  • If a person dismisses judgement on this, it is in many ways denying there is a standard for truth. If I concede this person may ACTUALLY be seeing angels and they just don’t effect me…that opens up a massive world of confusion.

  • At this point a person must use prudent judgement for the best to “correct” this person. Either by using frank speech to shock them out of their imaginings by letting them know they are in jeopardy of having their friends lose faith in their ability to perceive reality or simply to leave the person to their imaginings neither reinforcing them but also never speaking of them again. I guess it depends on the relationship a person has with the other.

    So i gather that this person is in a circle of relationship where it is appropriate to try to correct them, as opposed to simply separating from them?


    This particular person believes she sees “things” like angels, spirits, demons etc.

    That's a pretty specific list. So you do mean this literally, that this person says she actually sees these things in front of her, or is it still at all possible that she is talking figuratively?


    I would almost be tempted to think it is possible that this person thinks that they are "ministering" to you by insisting on something that she really doesn't believe herself, out of a desire to try to bring you back into the fold.

  • This is not my first go around with people like this, I’ve met people have claimed that they see ghosts, angels, spiritual guides etc. I just didn’t know this particular person believed it.


    My question to them is very, very simple and the answer I get is one of a duality…that they simultaneously believe that there is a supernatural realm and they have access to it AND the natural world as we experience it is real and true. So a “normal” person may be living their life in this reality like the rest of us and also simultaneously hold absolutely shockingly bizarre beliefs that they “see” supernatural things.


    This type of thing doesn’t come up much, but I can tell you I’ve met a handful of people that share these similar beliefs.

  • Quote

    If a person dismisses judgement on this, it is in many ways denying there is a standard for truth. If I concede this person may ACTUALLY be seeing angels and they just don’t effect me…that opens up a massive world of confusion.

    Wait, which confusion? First, I don’t really get why one is thus denying the standard of truth. I may be mistaken, but my goal was to apply this standard of truth, although I may have done it incorrectly. And secondly, in my eyes, the bigger problem is that if you accept that your viewpoint is the truth, then you’ll come to the conclusion that she is wrong and thus ill. And how do you plan to communicate further with this knowledge? :)

  • I’m of the mind I can just depart company with this person…it’s not worth my time to deep dive into their delusions. But because this isn’t the first time I’ve dealt with this type of thing it has caused me to really want to draw the line in the sand between what is casual belief in something supernatural and what is on the complete verge of madness. But again if the person doesn’t truly believe what they say they see…then we have an untrustworthy person.

  • My position is that there are two options…either the person is ill or that there is some sort of social and mental immaturity. Since a supernatural third position is impossible.


    If the person is attempting to minister…and simultaneously doesn’t actually see or believe what they are saying, we have a whole other discussion about ethics in religion. And believe me…I believe that people do this exact thing all the time, fabricate things to maintain cohesion of belief.

  • I was a christian during much of my teens. At one point a woman told me that she had seen angels, and I believed her. I pressed her on what it was like and in the end she admitted it was not a "seeing" seeing as an experience on the sensory cortex but rather a feeling of someone being present, and, in one case, a sensation like someone putting a hand on her shoulder.

    If you have a dualist worldview it might make sense that you can think of things like that as a kind of evidence, like seeing with the soul.

    Also: after being told this, I wanted very badly to experience angels too. I can empathize with wanting this, perhaps to the extent that you tell others that you have done so in order to feel it by proxy if that makes sense. Like a teenager telling their peers that they have totally had sex/smoked weed/whatever.


    A lot of words to say that I agree with your "immaturity" assessment.

    Mental illnesses generally don't create visual hallucinations, mostly auditory ones.

    It does not make sense to believe in miracles reported by others unless them lying or being deluded would be more miraculous than the miracle they are describing, to paraphrase Hume.

  • SimonC absolutely…and your experience goes to show that this isn’t an isolated thing. Many, many people say they see and hear things that otherwise appear to be fabrications. For us it is simple to dismiss as fantasy, but for those who say these types of things and testify to their reality we have a problem…especially if it’s deeply cherished belief that is a part of their identity.

  • But because this isn’t the first time I’ve dealt with this type of thing it has caused me to really want to draw the line in the sand between what is casual belief in something supernatural and what is on the complete verge of madness.

    My only caution is that most of the time when I have gotten too deeply involved with a person who is so clearly out of touch with reality nothing good has come of it. The chances of your changing their mind are next to none. Of course on the other hand we all have many casual relationships with people of all types and it doesn't really matter what they believe as long as their general relationship with us is beneficial.


    No doubt there are lots of people in the world like that and always will be, and many of us will even have relatives that way. Possibly the real issue before the house that ought to be discussed is something like PD39 on what general methodology can be used to accurately decide whether someone (1) can be made our friend, or (2) can at least not be treated like an alien (stranger?) or (3) ought to be someone we actively separate ourselves from to the extent possible.


    I don't necessarily think that Epicurus was suggesting that we ought to have only Epicurean friends, but those are interesting questions to consider -- such as "what really is a friend?" -- in realistic rather than poetic terms.

  • Agreed, my issue is that there are a good number of people just like the person I’m talking with. For example I know of another person who in a similar way is so deeply involved with psychics that she has altered actions in her life to follow what the psychics foretell…


    Even further this can go into people getting detached from reality while perusing the internet and social media, believing unfounded things and altering their lives to fit what might as well be the same as religious fiction. And the line blurs even more.


    I don’t suggest we have only Epicurean or secular minded friends…but there really needs to be a line drawn where people who perceive reality in vastly different ways must reconcile reality either by disassociation or direct ideological confrontation.

  • If I add the “internet” crowd to this number of detached people that believe in lizard people, deep underground bases and other “fringe” ideas and those people are those that are not using the canon as the standard of truth, the number of detached people would exponentially multiply.


    In recent times in light of certain ideologies that seem to have taken hold among people, I’m way less inclined these days to let certain things pass by without notice. The supernaturalists are in reality a minor problem, but someone who believes certain apocalyptic eschatological narratives in a casual way may be much more inclined to believe fabrications they read online to “act” upon them in reality. So what I see is a bigger problem in society in general…casual unfounded beliefs in fantastic things can quickly turn into serious real life issues.

  • so deeply involved with psychics

    My experience with people who are into psychics is that they are probably easier to deal with than hard-core religion.



    I’m way less inclined these days to let certain things pass by without notice.

    I agree - the question is more what to do about it after you notice it. I am all in favor of gently steering people in the right direction, maybe by dropping some ideas of reading that they might find interesting. Depending on whether they are left or right or some kind of weird religion, you can often find people they identify with who have in the past had some good things to say about Epicurus. But as far as hard-charging efforts to change peoples' minds, I am not sure there is a really good method.

  • Some years ago, I briefly studied Carl Jung's ideas of "archetypes" and the "collective unconsious". People who believe in the supernatural are at a place in their lives where they are "needing" to engage with this primitive part of the psyche. The majority of people only interact with this through their dreams. And modern people often cannot even remember their dreams.


    It is important to be clear that any "messages" that come through should not be taken on a literal level. These messages are for making sense of the "inner landscape" of the individual psyche. These are the elements, motifs, and archetypes of art and the creative forces of the psyche interacting with the realm of emotions, passions, and unconscious repressed desires. The psyche strives for coherence and "wholeness".


    We can dance with these "archetypal symbols" to enhance creativity in life. But some people might take it all too literally, somehow believing that what is "mythic" in the inner worlds, is also true in the out physical/material world...as in the above stories shared by Matt . (And then people with mental disorders of schizophrenia cannot manage any of this properly unless they can get modern medical treatment...it is as if they are dreaming while awake).


    This is not my first go around with people like this, I’ve met people have claimed that they see ghosts, angels, spiritual guides etc. I just didn’t know this particular person believed it.

    I would either decide to "enjoy" their stories...listen and say: "hmmm, that's interesting"...or decide to move on...because you won't be able to talk anyone out of these beliefs, they have to do it on their own. And I would simply say: "I have a different belief. I believe in a materialist, scientific understanding of things."

    If I add the “internet” crowd to this number of detached people that believe in lizard people, deep underground bases and other “fringe” ideas and those people are those that are not using the canon as the standard of truth, the number of detached people would exponentially multiply.

    I wonder what Carl Jung would have to say about this, if he were alive. As these are the mythological elements that could haunt peoples dreams.


    As for approaching it from science: this book might be relevant: The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan.

  • Kalosyni you have a very good way with people.

    Well, thank you...I don't know...


    Just remember that pleasure and pain is the teacher here...with a focus on moving toward both short-term AND long-term pleasure (and the consideration of not just your own pleasure but also the other person's pleasure...because this has a built in feed-back loop).


    I studied "Nonviolent Communication" by Marshall Rosenberg, and took classes and workshops. He said: "Don't do anything unless you are as happy as a child feeding a duck."

    And this also points the need to be clear (inside yourself) about why you are doing something. So you trust your inner feelings about what feels good inside, for your own situation, and for your own needs. At some point I'd like to share more about it on the forum, as I see it as being in sync with Epicureanism, and has some helpful ideas.


    (Unfortunately "Nonviolent Communication" didn't help me fix my marriage, and I am now divorced).