The belief that no one has a justified belief in any spiritual phenomenon is irrational
Okay, this has been bugging me for a while, so I'm officially challenging anyone who holds to the position that no one has a justified belief in any spiritual phenomenon to put forth a rational justification for that position. To start off, we'll need some working definitions. I propose that we use these definition, but am open to revisions:
Justified belief - an opinion, supported by valid logical, inductive, and epistemological reasoning, that a certain proposition is true
Spiritual - that which exists, does not consist of any form of matter or energy currently recognized by the physics community, and has been observed by specific individuals either directly or indirectly
Note that spiritual does NOT mean supernatural... supernatural would imply that the phenomenon doesn't need to follow natural laws, but a spiritual phenomenon that's an inherent part of the universe, and is a normal everyday occurrence that we just don't typically recognize, would be a natural phenomenon. I offer 3 specific examples of phenomenon which some people would consider to satisfy these criteria, but I make no claim as to whether or not any of these actually do:
Chi/ki/qi - Many martial arts disciplines and alternative medicine practices claim that there's a kind of "spiritual energy" that's present in each of us and in the world around us.
Ghosts - Some people think that it's possible for a person's spirit/soul to linger around their place of death after said death has occurred.
Reincarnation - Some people think that a person's spirit/soul incarnates in multiple physical bodies over the course of history.
Also, let me just point out that I am not claiming and would not claim that it's irrational to not believe that any spiritual phenomena exist. I also am not claiming and would not claim that it's irrational to not believe that anyone has a justified belief that a spiritual phenomenon exists. It would be a false dichotomy to assume that you have to either believe that something is true or believe that it is false. So, saying the burden of proof is on those claiming that spiritual phenomena exist, while certainly valid as a justification for not believing that any spiritual phenomenon exists, is not sufficient justification for believing that no one has a justified belief that a spiritual phenomenon exists.
I think it's fair to say that in order for a person to have a justified belief in a phenomenon, that phenomenon would have to actually exist, so if someone had a justified belief that a specific spiritual phenomenon did not exist, that would be sufficient grounds to rationally believe that no one has a justified belief in that specific spiritual phenomenon, but would not be sufficient grounds to rationally believe that no one had a justified belief in any spiritual phenomenon. However, it's rather difficult to demonstrate the non-existence of a phenomenon which doesn't consist of any form of matter or energy currently recognized by the physics community. So, how do people justify the belief that no one has a justified belief in a spiritual phenomenon? Here are some common arguments I'm aware of:
1) There have been plenty of people who've made public claims of spiritual abilities, and have been revealed as frauds.
2) If a spiritual phenomenon really existed, and if people were aware of it, then someone would have claimed the $1 million prize from the James Randi challenge by now.
3) If a spiritual phenomenon really existed, and if people were aware of it, then it would have been demonstrated experimentally and recognized by the physics community by now.
4) In all my years of life, I've never seen anyone who had a justified belief in a spiritual phenomenon, therefore I have a justified confidence that there probably exists no such person.
And here are my counter-arguments for each:
1) There certainly have been plenty of cases where people used slight of hand and other tricks to pretend to have a spiritual ability, and a number of these people have been exposed as the frauds they are. This is an excellent justification for why people shouldn't readily believe claims about spiritual abilities, but it's not sufficient to justify the belief that no one has a genuine spiritual ability. Assume that 99% of the people that make money from allegedly using spiritual abilities as a service for customers are frauds... have enough skeptical investigations been done to be able to use induction to be confident that if the remaining 1% were genuine that it's statistically impossible that a member of that 1% was not investigated? Of course, it would be an unreasonable burden to randomly investigate every such person, so for purposes of debunking professionals' spiritual claims, I would recommend targeting their credentials rather than the individual practitioners. For example, if a skeptic organization or a consumer organization were interested in debunking, say, acupuncturists, the way I would recommend going about it would be to check their credentials, and debunk 2-3 practitioners from each acupuncture school, thereby discrediting the schools and the accreditations they provide. Of course, all of this only deals with people who profit from claims of spiritual abilities, and does nothing to demonstrate that no one has a spiritual ability that they don't advertise or make a living off of.
2) There are many issues that someone considering attempting James Randi's challenge (and actually qualified to pass it) would have to weigh. Of course, before they could even get to that point, they would first have to know that the challenge exists... and I managed to go through the vast majority of my life without ever hearing about it, so I'm sure there are plenty of people that don't even know it exists. But, once that's out of the way, the next major issue is whether or not the person in question considers it worth becoming famous for. The JREF does not allow anonymous applicants, and it reserves the right to record and publish any demonstration an applicant performs. An extension of the fame issue is the issue of everyone knowing that they have a rare skill. There's probably not going to be any agreement about how much, if at all, that would be a problem... but I'm pretty sure there are religions out there that advocate killing witches, and power-hungry people that would wonder how they could profit from a rare commodity. Finally, the question has to be asked, how would it change the way people think? Maybe there are people out there that would like to share the information but worry that if word got out that James Randi's challenge had been passed, cases of people fraudulently claiming to have supernatural abilities to prey on those who lack critical thinking skills would vastly increase. Furthermore, the JREF doesn't accept any application that they believe would put the applicant at a risk of injury, which would rule out many martial arts demonstrations. So, there are a number of other explanations for why a person might choose not to claim the JREF's prize besides the obvious one that they might not have an ability worth demonstrating.
1, 2, & 3) Just because a person might not have the skill to reliably demonstrate a spiritual ability doesn't imply that that person doesn't have a justified belief in a spiritual phenomenon. If they were to witness someone else performing a spiritual ability, or if they were to witness some spiritual phenomenon which was not an ability performed by a person, and if they could verify that no fraud or deception was being employed to trick them, then they would have a justified belief in a spiritual phenomenon, but would not have the ability to demonstrate that phenomenon.
3) One of the greatest strengths of the scientific community in general is the requisite for repeatability. If one scientist does bad research, other scientists can review it and perform their own experiments. This is important, because it makes the findings more reliable over time. If an event occurs only very rarely and unpredictably, however, it's not repeatable, and can't be accepted by the scientific community. In this way, false positives are avoided, but some things may be real which are not yet accepted. Also, try a quick though experiment. Take the discovery of subatomic particles as an example. There was a certain point in time at which a physicist discovered that subatomic particles exist. Prior to that point in time, the physics community had not demonstrated experimentally and recognized the existence of subatomic particles. Now, this thought experiment is not quite enough to demonstrate that the reasoning in argument #3 is invalid, because it's not a parallel situation... in the case of the subatomic particles, we can presume that no one had knowledge of them before the physicist who made the discovery. The belief that I'm asserting to be irrational is not that no spiritual phenomenon exists (for which this counter-argument would be sufficient)... it's that no one has a justified belief in any spiritual phenomenon, which is a weaker belief, so I'm making a bolder claim by asserting that it's irrational. That is to say, it's possible for a phenomenon to exist and be entirely unknown, but it's not possible for a phenomenon to not exist and be known. So, this thought experiment only rules out why spiritual phenomena not being discovered scientifically is not sufficient, but doesn't address the issue of why a layman might happen across justification without it being adopted by the scientific community. Some obvious possible reasons include: if the evidence the layman observes is not repeatable, if the observation is internal, apathy, and concern for what technologies might be developed as a result.
4) This argument bugs me the most, because it doesn't have much to do with the issue in question, and is just a case of bad induction. There are 2 quantities to consider here. First, what percentage of the earth's population have you observed, and second, on average what is the likelihood that for any person you have observed, you would have successfully recognized the quality in question (in this case, a justified belief in a spiritual phenomenon) upon such observation. Multiply those two quantities together, and you have a justified level of confidence, expressed as a percentage, that no one on earth has the quality in question. In this case, the probability of recognizing someone with a justified belief in an area that most people don't ask total strangers about would be quite low, and the earth's population is quite large, so even if you've observed 1 million people, the percentage of the earth's population observed is still very small. Multiplying two very small percentages together yields a much smaller percentage than either operand, so this line of reasoning fails.