I'm really struggling to get a question re-opened (it was open for a while but I changed the title a little bit, @Oddthinking didn't like the change and closed the question as off-topic, then I reverted back the title to how it was before but now no admin wants to re-open it). The main reason why they don't want to re-open the question now is because the question is about a metaphysical claim, which would make it non-falsifiable, and according to @Avery that's off-topic. However, there are several questions already on this site involving metaphysical claims, such as this one, this one, this one, this one, this one and this one. So what's wrong with my question? What is the correct way to ask a question when the claim involves or is related to something metaphysical somehow?

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    Just for clarity, your question was closed by Daniel R Hicks, Avery, Oddthinking♦ Only Oddthinking is a moderator, noted by the ♦. The other two are regular users with the "vote to close" privilege. It normally takes 5 regular users to vote to close, but a moderator vote is unilateral and closes the question with or without other votes being made. – fredsbend Jul 16 '20 at 0:32
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    As previously noted, this question is cross-posted at psych.SE, and now finally has an accepted answer there, so the question should stay closed here. – Arnon Weinberg Aug 29 '20 at 18:45

The problem with questions like this is that the underlying claim is not falsifiable. The most we can do is posit a mundane explanation.

For instance, suppose someone says "I prayed for rain, and the following day it rained. I claim that the rain was caused by God in answer to my prayer". We can of course point out that rain is not unusual, that rain was forecast for that day, and that rain is readily explainable by physical phenomena. However none of this addresses the actual claim. In fact any physical mechanism that caused the rain could be incorporated into the original claim by asserting that this was simply how God made it happen, including events from before the prayer because God (being Omniscient) would know that the prayer was going to be made and therefore arranged for it to be answered.

If a claim is made that only supernatural explanations will suffice then the claim can be refuted by identifying mundane explanations. However in religious cases this is often not made explicitly. Looking through Christian websites on the shaking and fainting that prompted the original question, they do not so much claim supernatural causes as assume it. The main question which seems to divide them is whether the supernatural entities causing this are good or evil.

The problem is particularly acute in this case because the most likely explanations are psychological, particularly "mass hysteria" (widespread fraud is also possible, but unlikely). However this leads us into anecdote and analogy rather than actual science. Historical cases of mass hysteria often have a strong social contagion element, but its hard to see how to go further. Experiments to induce mass hysteria would be unethical and animal models are not possible. Without this it is hard to describe mass hysteria as a scientific hypothesis: short of mind-reading machines it is as unfalsifiable as the supernatural hypothesis.

Looking at the questions you list as precedents:

  • “Chi energy” to withstand an electric drill: this is a physical phenomenon not a mental one.

  • Is Chi an energy flowing through the body?: This should have been closed as off-topic anyway, as it fails to state a clear claim. The only answer doesn't really deal with the question as asked, although it does discuss the lack of clarity.

  • Is there any explanation for a near-death experience?: This is the closest to your question; it is about a supernatural explanation posited for mental states, and in fact good answers were posted. So it is sometimes possible to answer questions about supernatural explanations for mental states.

The remaining questions you cite are about physical evidence for ghosts. As they deal with physical evidence they are unambiguously on-topic.

The first version of this post proposed banning all questions about supernatural explanations for mental states, but the NDE question above is in that category and got good answers.

I confess I keep oscillating on this. On one hand this question looks unanswerable, but that seems to be more about our ignorance of the psychology of mass hysteria than anything else. I don't want us to be closing questions merely because they ask questions that science hasn't answered yet. It seems the best answer to the original question is "It looks like the kind of thing often called 'mass hysteria', but this is not something scientists have been able to study in depth".

  • Thanks for the thorough answer. With respect to the ghost questions and the Chi energy question including the electric drill, you mention that the difference is that the phenomenon being metaphysically explained is of physical nature instead of mental. I disagree with this objection. In the case of my question the body shaking and trembling is clearly a physical phenomenon. Actually, strictly speaking from a materialist point of view everything in the universe is fundamental particles and the laws of Physics acting upon them, so why the exception with the human body and nervous system? – Spirit Realm Investigator Jul 16 '20 at 13:44
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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator If the claim is a physical phenomenon with no mundane explanation, such as the electric drill resistance, then we can investigate the physics. However from a purely physical POV this shaking is well within human capability. That leaves us looking at the mind of the person doing it. Yes, mental states are in theory amenable to physical explanation, but in practice today even our best MRI machines can't read minds and even if they could this phenomenon doesn't happen in them. – Paul Johnson Jul 19 '20 at 7:46

This question has turned into a dog's breakfast, and I think we are at a point where we should pretty much delete most of the content and comments and start again.

  • There is now a whole lot of "meta-discussion" in the question now. Let's get rid of all of it.
  • There are plenty of examples of people shaking. We don't need any more of that. No-one is in any doubt that, in some religious services, people shake.
  • You know what's missing? Someone making a testable, widely-believed claim!
    • running miracle crusades is not the claim.
    • having a ministry about signs, wonders and miracles is not the claim.
    • having a personal encounter with the Holy Spirit on a bus is not the claim.
    • "the anointing over her is very strong" is not the claim.
  • To my eyes, it appears that shaking is a socially acceptable way of expressing that you are feeling euphoric. That they ascribe the euphoria to supernatural forces rather than the situation they are in is irrelevant. (Let me try an analogy: If I see a great performance in a theatre, I feel moved to stand up and applaud. Did the performance somehow force me and my fellow patrons to stand-up? No, but that is the socially acceptable way of expressing strong approval.) This is consistent with other church-goers expressing glossolalia or holy laughter.
  • So find some claims that say "I/they couldn't stop shaking. I/they feel God forcing them to shake." to bring the question on-topic.

now no admin wants to re-open it

Ha, give us a chance. You just edited it a few hours ago.

The main reason why they don't want to re-open the question now is because the question is about a metaphysical claim, which would make it non-falsifiable, and according to @Avery that's off-topic.

Uh, that's not my reason at all.

Although, as I have explained, there is no way the question can be answered here is with "It is a supernatural phenomena." Science can't reach that conclusion.

So, if it is supernatural, the question will remain unanswered.

You should be aware that there are many such phenomena, expressed in different ways in different cultures, which appears to make the explanation that Jesus is responsible less plausible, but it doesn't offer a replacement hypothesis.

I am very wary of empty 'explanations' like "mass hysteria" which give the phenomenon a name, but don't seem to make testable predictions. (I remain open-minded: if someone can show me that it is a theory that makes predictions, I will change my opinion.)

  • Thanks for taking the time to write a thorough answer. I can include several quotes from testimonies of people experiencing the phenomenon first-hand. I'll do it right now. – Spirit Realm Investigator Jul 16 '20 at 14:07
  • @Oddthinking See also my answer to the cross-post on Psychology.SE here, psychology.stackexchange.com/questions/25631/… where I do make some testable predictions based on the "mass hysteria" hypothesis. They're a bit soft, but better than nothing. – Paul Johnson Jul 19 '20 at 12:51
  • @Oddthinking I would like to place a +50 reputation bounty on my question. I already placed a bounty on the cross-post at Psychology.SE and got a pretty good answer at the last minute. I would like to do the same here. At the moment of writing this I have 49 points, and my question is locked. I would like to make a deal. Would you be willing to unlock the question, grant me one extra point, I place the bounty, and after 7 days you can lock it again? – Spirit Realm Investigator Aug 22 '20 at 21:24

It's the subject matter, not the manner, that makes it off topic. Questions about the supernatural are not appropriate.

I don't think "unfalsifiable" is the best term to describe this claim. A better term is "not even wrong". There's simply no coherent claim being made here. "Supernatural" is just a weasel word people use to explain why they aren't giving an explanation. "Why does Kalam's cosmological argument not mean that God needs a cause?" "God is supernatural, so He doesn't need a cause." If I claim that the shaking is caused by an invisible dragon, that's an unfalsifiable claim. If I claim that the shaking has a flabooble cause, and I have nothing but waffle to explain what "flabooble" even means, that's Not Even Wrong.

The first link you present is a mixture of several different questions, such as "is this person faking it?" and "is this person using chi?". The former is a legitimate question, while the second is Not Even Wrong. That question should be clarified and narrowed, but it is salvageable. Your question needs a lot of work before it's out of Now Even Wrong territory, let alone out of Unfalsifiable territory. You may be wanting to avoid tying your question to a particular religious dogma, but a claim that isn't embedded in a wider framework is meaningless. If you were to ask "Is this shaking due to a being who took human form two thousand years ago?" that would at least get you out of Not Even Wrong into Unfalsifiable.

  • I guess you can make the claim falsifiable by tweaking it a little bit: "is a supernatural cause the only possible explanation for at least one case of body shaking and trembling in religious settings?". Then you can falsify this claim by providing a natural explanation for all cases of shaking and trembling, because that would prove that the supernatural is unnecessary. For example, if I ask "is the supernatural the only possible explanation for the origin of sand in beaches?", you can falsify that by explaining how sand can emerge naturally by the erosion of rocks. – Spirit Realm Investigator Aug 7 '20 at 22:31
  • Btw, if you know a natural explanation for the phenomenon but don't feel comfortable posting an answer at skeptics.SE, maybe try answering at psychology.SE either here or here – Spirit Realm Investigator Aug 7 '20 at 22:36

I would like to correct my knee-jerk reaction to one the examples you gave.

Is Shaolin monk Hu Qiong using “Chi energy” to withstand an electric drill?

I initially claimed that this was an untestable claim, but the other answers here have shown me that I was wrong. This claim involves a physical phenomenon. It has not received any valid answer, but it lends itself to one of three explanations:

  1. "Chi energy" is a physical phenomenon that can be measured.
  2. "Chi energy" is one way of thinking about the body's muscular system, which can produce measurable physical effects through contemplation.
  3. The video is a fraud, hoax, trick, etc.

I would argue that all 3 explanations provide potential for a potential objective answer. (The question itself provides an array of possible explanations which I simplify here.)

At some point in the far future a physical, mechanical definition of "chi energy" might emerge, while explanation #3 is always plausible for extreme videos like this. Explanation #2 may sound like woo-woo talk but there is a parallel case study: the famous 2002 study of Tibetan meditators who were able to regulate their body heat through conscious meditation, verified with a control in 2013. This is clearly the result of some kind of conscious activity, regardless of any energies claimed to be involved.

This trio of possible explanations can also be used for other targets of scientific skepticism, like ESP.

So, let's apply this to your question. Here is one of the claims you gave.

In the video a lady testifies about her experience of body shaking and trembling allegedly as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit acting upon her.

"Holy Spirit" is not regarded as an obscure physical phenomenon like "chi energy" which is produced by bodily action. The "Holy Spirit" is supposed to be an essentially otherworldly agent who intervenes in this world at will.

This rules out explanation #1, because we are not describing a physical phenomenon, and for the other two explanations things become a bit sordid. To claim that the "Holy Spirit" is produced by our mental activities is the famous God-denying reversal of the 19th century Hegelians (especially Feuerbach), which is a non-answer because God could easily choose to produce such mental phenomena. Meanwhile, even if we add "mass hysteria" alongside fraud/hoax/trick as possible alternative explanations, we do not get to a rejection either, since we cannot ascertain for ourselves whether mass hysteria, fraud, etc. might not be the will of God.

Basically, I think the phrase "Holy Spirit" claims a different kind of agency than "chi energy" which makes your question unscientific. There might be a different claim you could make that would create a scientifically answerable question, but I don't think "is this supernatural" is such a claim.

  • I think you are forgetting a 4th possible explanation: that Chi energy is an energy from the soul or spirit of a person, a vital force (assuming mind-body dualism is true), which would be a metaphysical claim comparable to the claims involving the "Holy Spirit". With this interpretation the Chi energy is as otherworldy as the Holy Spirit. Now, if we can show through evidence that the concept of Chi energy is an attempt to describe a physical phenomenon, why can't we do the same with the Holy Spirit? – Spirit Realm Investigator Jul 16 '20 at 19:18
  • I'm talking here about claims that can be scientifically tested, not the explanation that is most philosophically true, the one that appeals best to our soul/intuition, etc. What you're describing isn't a 4th option, it's a metaphysical explanation that is compatible with any of the 3 options for material explanation that I gave. – Avery Jul 16 '20 at 19:54
  • What I'm trying to say is that in order to get those three scientifically testable hypotheses you have to redefine the concept of Chi energy. If you use the original definition, you have to include the concept of vital force which assumes the existence of a vital realm beyond the physical. That's a metaphysical claim, just like claiming the existence of the Holy Spirit is, if we use its original definition. However, if you are willing to redefine Chi energy in order to derive testable hypotheses, why can't we do the same with the Holy Spirit? – Spirit Realm Investigator Jul 16 '20 at 20:59
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    I think the key difference between Chi and Holy Spirit questions is control: The key claims for Chi are all about the subject having conscious control of things we wouldn't normally expect to control; we don't need to know the mechanism of that control to design tests of whether they have it. The Holy Spirit, though, is explicitly an external force, and the claims are generally of subjects not having control of things they normally would have; that's much trickier to test, because we need to somehow distinguish conscious choice, unconscious choice, and forced action. – IMSoP Jul 18 '20 at 9:54
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    "if you are willing to redefine Chi energy in order to derive testable hypotheses" We shouldn't be willing to redefine the terms in the claim to make them testable. That leads to tackling strawmen. The Shaolin monk question will never get a good answer, because "chi energy" is not defined in a way that can be tested. – Oddthinking Jul 18 '20 at 19:28

The "correct way to ask" -

Well, from what I gathered from the question, it seemed to me that the question was being phrased in a way that severely limited possibilities to the following options -

  1. The participants intentionally and willfully faked their reactions.

  2. Supernatural.

If it was a more open-ended question along the lines of "other than faking (if you don't want all the answers to be down that rabbit hole), what are possible explanations" then it wouldn't get as much push-back.

The most obvious and documented explanation, which is excluded by the framing of the question would be hysterical/psycho-somatic reactions, which has been especially documented in history when there is a strong religious factor in the setting.

(Witches, demonic possession in older times, claims of ritualized Satanic-based child abuse of children in school or preschools that was a fad in the US in the early 1990s are some examples of debunked supernatural or spectacular claims where the victims/afflicted weren't necessarily trying to intentionally deceive)

  • I don't understand why you say the question wording limits the answers to those two only options. There is a claim made by people, namely "these manifestations are supernaturally caused" and the question is about challenging that claim. In order to challenge that claim, it suffices to show that the phenomenon has scientifically understood natural explanations. So yeah, one option is to show that some people willfully fake it, but another option is to show that perhaps there is a subsystem in the brain that gets activated in certain circumstances, etc. (I don't know, I'm just speculating). – Spirit Realm Investigator Aug 5 '20 at 21:39
  • "The most obvious and documented explanation, which is excluded by the framing of the question would be hysterical/psycho-somatic reactions, which has been especially documented in history when there is a strong religious factor in the setting." By all means feel free to post an answer elaborating more on this. Or if you want, post an answer on psychology.SE – Spirit Realm Investigator Aug 5 '20 at 21:41
  • "Moreover, even children are experiencing this (like here, here, here, here), very old people (like here, here) and even prison inmates, which makes me doubt they are actors." - which sets up the dichotomy. And quoting them saying they think they are feeling something supernatural also doesn't tell us anything relevant. I may believe that aliens are controlling my mind. That's not proof that it is so. The question is not open-ended. You seem to be clearly trying to make a particular case and narrow the possibilities in a way that suits the desired answer you wish to see. – PoloHoleSet Aug 11 '20 at 13:30
  • OK, I think I see now where you are coming from. No, it's not a dichotomy. Actually you have 3 options: 1) people are intentionally faking it, 2) people are sincere but they are misinterpreting a completely natural phenomenon, and 3) people are sincere AND the phenomenon is supernatural. When I refer to examples of children, elderly and prison inmates experiencing this stuff, it is to show that option 1 cannot be the explanation for ALL cases (certainly there are people who fake it, but it is not reasonable to claim that ALL fake it). However, we still have options 2 and 3. – Spirit Realm Investigator Aug 11 '20 at 14:18
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - I get that, but the way the question is framed makes it seem like the goal is not an open-ended inquiry. By pointing out the people making claims and saying "they seem sincere" and then challenging, it seems, how it can NOT be supernatural, given their sincerity, it seems limiting. I'm suggesting why it would seem different than how you perceived it. I'm suggesting a more "open" perspective in framing as a way to get it re-opened, possibly. I'm not trying to argue the validity of the premise, itself, actually. – PoloHoleSet Aug 11 '20 at 22:10
  • I don't know. I guess Skeptics.SE is just not the best fit for challenging supernatural claims. Feel free to post an answer on Pyschology.SE instead, I have a bounty on that question right now, so if you post a good answer I can award you the bounty. You mentioned there is a documented explanation for these manifestations. It would be great if you expand more on that on Psychology.SE. – Spirit Realm Investigator Aug 12 '20 at 0:45
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - You're right about that, I think. The modus operandi for a claim on that stack would be something where there is going to be hard data or a falsifiable hypothesis, whereas the supernatural claim is often more about something where there is a gap in those areas. – PoloHoleSet Aug 12 '20 at 15:39

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