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Levitation, as a paranormal phenomenon, has been reported more than once. For instance, it is not totally uncommon to hear about reports of levitation among exorcists (e.g., see these sources).

Is it possible to have a justified belief in levitation without scientific evidence for levitation? What does it mean to have "scientific evidence" for levitation in the first place, and is it possible for someone to have a justified belief in levitation without this specific type of evidence?

In other words, are there non-scientific ways to have a justified belief in levitation?

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    "Scientific evidence" is a repeatable observation/experiment in controlled circumstances, belief in magnetic levitation is scientifically justified, for example. Whether a belief is justified depends on the standard of justification, but settled beliefs typically require inquiry that examines facial evidence before it can serve to justify. Eyewitness reports of (supernatural) levitation typically amount to misinterpretation, hallucination or tricks, so they do not pass the muster. But one can theoretically imagine those that might.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 20 at 4:38
  • There can certainly be data which justifies a certain belief for the observer, but which other people would justifiably believe was obtained in error or falsified. You know things about yourself and your own observations which others can only guess, and many observations are not of a type which permits duplication. It doesn't need to be paranormal. It doesn't even need to be especially unlikely if it's the sort of thing that people are likely to lie about.
    – g s
    Commented May 20 at 7:16
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    (Consider e.g. a defendant accused of a crime who really was at home alone in bed at the time of the crime. The defendant has all the evidence he needs to conclude that he was at home in bed at the time of the crime, but there's likely nothing he can do to transmit that evidence to the jury.)
    – g s
    Commented May 20 at 7:25
  • Same question can be asked about any sort of 'paranormal phenomenon' with anecdotal evidence. Why have you chosen to single out levitation, as opposed to ghosts or witchcraft or 'remote viewing' or 'alien abductions', etc. - all of which have ample anecdotal evidence?
    – Vector
    Commented May 20 at 18:22
  • @Vector Seeing a physical chair levitate in front of you during an exorcism is harder to explain away than seeing visions or seeing strange objects in the sky, so I thought it to be a more convenient example. In addition, it's closely related to my recent question here.
    – Mark
    Commented May 20 at 20:17

6 Answers 6

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You ask:

Is it possible to have a justified belief in levitation without scientific evidence for levitation?

Philosophically, yes. This is because what constitutes "justification" is a philosophical matter, so a person can commit themselves to forms of justification that are non-scientific. Let's consider the stronger case Christianity presents in the notion of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Your question then presents as, are Christians justified in believing that Jesus rose from the dead?

Now, under contemporary science, it would be hard to find a justification or evidence that human beings transcend death. Everything from medicine to biology to thermodynamics stands against such events from occurring. Yet, this means that rejecting the belief is a function of a belief (and understanding) of medicine, biology, and thermodynamics. Such beliefs are part of a particularly physical and natural worldview. If a person has no knowledge of these preliminary beliefs, then their justification isn't beholden to comporting with logical implications of the preliminary beliefs. Thus, justification can be viewed relative to the justifier.

Thus, one can justify levitation with metaphysical presuppositions that are non-scientific. In fact, any such justification would have to be non-scientific. Also note, justification needn't be absolutely rational, because human beings are in no sense absolutely rational, but rather tend towards instrumental (SEP) or bounded rationality (SEP). Thus, the philosopher has many species of justification to account for.

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This might be one of the easiest supernatural claims to demonstrate (if it were possible), because pretty much all you need to do is confirm that (1) someone is in the air, (2) they aren't attached to anything, and (3) they don't have any physical device that could explain levitation. #3 would actually be a pretty noteworthy claim all by itself.

Scientific documentation

If levitation can be reliably reproduced, it should be relatively trivial to scientifically document this, to a point that belief is justified for the general public (which hasn't happened).

Just off the top of my head, reliable documentation of this would entail:

  • A reasonable sample size

  • A controlled setting (e.g. make sure there aren't any wires hanging from anywhere)

  • Set up, observed and documented by reputable and unbiased* scientists

    * As unbiased as possible. In this case, one might look for scientists without an existing belief that levitation is a thing, or those who demonstrate skepticism and critical evaluation with respect to the claim (which should also be reflected in their reports of the events).

  • Reliable documentation in various forms (video evidence, written reports, other measurements, etc.)

  • Possibly a scientific control in the form of e.g. well-trained illusionists intentionally faking levitation to try to trick the observers (which the observers should then identify as fake)

  • Results that can and have been reproduced by others

Personal justified belief

A simple observation of levitation could conceivably justify belief in levitation, but that explanation would be competing with trickery, illusion, hallucination and false memory. To make levitation more likely than any of those, one could consider the elements mentioned above:

  • Did you see this happen multiple independent times?
  • Are you in a setting where they could've conceivably been connected to a wire or something?
  • Do you know how these things could be faked and what you should look out for to identify that?
  • Do you understand enough about illusion, hallucination and false memory to be confident in saying it's none of that?
  • Did other people also see it, and how closely do they corroborate your account? This also relates to false memories, because one person's account could subconsciously influence someone else's account.

Justified belief without a formal scientific process

One may also be able to justify belief by simply having levitation that's independently filmed by many unrelated and reputable people, and which can't reasonably be explained by trickery or illusion.

But if you don't have a controlled setting, set up and observed by people who know what they're doing, it's harder to eliminate those alternative explanations.

What is the actual explanation for this?

Let's say you've got yourself a justified belief in levitation. (Crucially, we haven't gotten to this point yet.)

To attribute this to demons (possession) or psychic powers or whatever else would require additional evidence. If someone is able to levitate at will (and this is confirmed as actual levitation), some form of psychic powers might be the most reasonable explanation. A claim of demons would be positing an entirely difficult realm, which would come with a whole lot of implications for how this would affect observed reality, and may come with other things we'd expect to see elsewhere - it's conceivable that one could make a case for that using other evidence, but it certainly doesn't follow too closely from just levitation.

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  • The fact that levitation would be massively profitable should rule it out as having occurred. Except that demons probably don't much care about money... (damn)
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 21 at 10:45
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As with all forms of theory choice, one can simply compare theories and their virtues with respect to levitation and make a decision.

If levitation is real, you would surely expect reports of levitation. But if levitation is not real, there is nothing that says you won’t expect reports of levitation. Reports of many things that haven’t actually happened have occurred throughout history. So in this sense, both possibilities (levitation or no levitation) offer an explanation for the reports.

But the world is a complex conglomerate of different kinds of events. One must look at other pieces of evidence. And when one does that, it becomes clear that the non existence of levitation conforms more to the rest of our background knowledge than the existence of it. For starter’s, everything we know about humans and biology suggests that this is physically impossible. One cannot simply ignore this background knowledge.

So given that levitation clearly contradicts everything else we know about humans and biology, it would only make sense to believe it if one can directly demonstrate it. If not, it seems more reasonable to believe that it never happened.

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    I would add what we know about physics in addition to what we know about biology. There is a lot we don't know and don't fully understand about the human brain, so discovering new "superpowers" of the brain wouldn't be that unexpected. Compare with the discovery of the Placebo effect, for instance. But levitation would defy the laws of physics in addition to those of biology.
    – Stef
    Commented May 21 at 10:16
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Yes, there are many ways to justify a belief. Wikipedia helpfully lists 12 of them under the title of "Theories of justification". To let me pick a few...

  • Reliabilism – A belief is justified if it is the result of a reliable process.
  • Fallibilism – Claims can be accepted even though they cannot be conclusively proven or justified.
  • Internalism – The believer must be able to justify a belief through internal knowledge (internalism) (as opposed to Externalism, which is closer to science)

(cursive remark by me.)

To spin your particular example further: if I, personally, were to witness repeatable levitation myself, and if I had good ways to inspect all circumstances of it (i.e., not just a magic trick in a TV show), and if I were to find no way to attack the phenomenon myself while believing that I am in principle capable to judge physical effects and such mostly reliably; if the levitation happened to my own body, or the levitating person would take me on a ride, superman-style; if I could rule out that I myself was under the influence of some drug or altered state of mind... if I had no other explanation for my experience, then I would very likely firmly believe in levitation; the fact that I'm otherwise at a 6.9 on the spectrum more often than not notwithstanding.

All of this would hardly make it scientific, it would still be my personal belief, and if I told my peers I would be the target of much ridicule.

To return to the real, object world right now: no. I have not witnessed it in many decades, nor ever saw a believable report (probably the least important reason). I can think of no mechanism to allow it. I know a lot of mechanisms that make it impossible. I know meta-reasons like "if it were possible, someone would have figured it out by now and would visibly use and abuse it for all kinds of commercial or war-like reasons". So, no, there is, right now, as far as I can tell, no levitation, and no justified belief in it.

N.B. it is important to keep in mind that "justified belief" is not the same as justified true belief, a.k.a. knowledge. Being perfectly able to believe something that is not objectively true (whatever that means!) is verily a significant part of what the term "belief" means. People firmly believe things they want to be true on a daily basis, and come up with justifications all the time; it's clearly a built-in feature of our brain to not only be capable to do this, but to use this as a coping mechanism for all kinds of otherwise individually un(re)solvable problems.

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  • Right, any really useful new technology or technique gets used for military purposes right away, because survival is necessary to achieve any other goals. You can't hide even a stealth bomber forever.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 21 at 10:39
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    @ScottRowe, war and love, the two big drivers of evolution... ;)
    – AnoE
    Commented May 21 at 12:35
  • The issue with "justified true belief" is we can't definitively know what is and isn't true. We can only have justified or unjustified beliefs about that. You're criticising "justified belief" in that poor justifications would qualify, but I would strongly disagree - this would render the term somewhat meaningless. I guess the caveat here is that a third-party can evaluate the beliefs of others, based on what they themselves believe to be "true", and thereby determine whether those people have "knowledge", but that technically just compares whether someone else's belief matches your belief.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented May 21 at 18:49
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Are there non-scientific ways to have a justified belief in levitation?

Yes. This way is referred to in general terms as Faith.

In particular, see Faith beyond (orthodox) theism :

Can there be faith of the same general kind as found in theistic religious faith yet without adherence to any theistic tradition? Those who agree with F. R. Tennant that ‘faith is an outcome of the inborn propensity to self-conservation and self-betterment which is a part of human nature, and is no more a miraculously superadded endowment than is sensation or understanding’ (1943 [1989, 111]) will consider that this must be a possibility. Tennant himself suggests that ‘much of the belief which underlies knowledge’—and he has scientific knowledge in mind—‘is the outcome of faith which ventures beyond the apprehension and treatment of data to supposition, imagination and creation of ideal objects, and justifies its audacity and irrationality (in accounting them to be also real) by practical actualization (1943 [1989, 100]).

(emphasis mine)

Witnessing levitation can be certainly be included in practical actualization and justifies its [faith's] audacity and irrationality.

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Good question. Personally, I do believe in levitation without "scientific evidence". The problem is what exactly constitutes as "scientific evidence"? Well, scientific evidence is information that is indicated or come about using the scientific method (theories, experiments, etc.).

Levitation is not something that can be tested using the scientific method. You can't summon a demon and make it possess a person except for by unscientific means (religious, occultist, satanic etc.). Therefore, it cannot be scientifically proven nor disproven.

Because my means for belief in levitation (and exorcism for that matter) is religion, I would believe in levitation with or without "scientific evidence" even with limited evidence. In other words, my justification is religion, not science. So yes, there are many justifications for belief in levitation and exorcism separate from science.

These include tradition or cultural beliefs which have been around for thousands of years and personal experiences like the reports you mentioned are another example.

In short, yes, there are many justifications alternative to science for belief in levitation and exorcisms.

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  • "Levitation is not something that can be tested using the scientific method. You can't summon a demon and make it possess a person except for by unscientific means (religious, occultist, satanic etc.). Therefore, it cannot be scientifically proven nor disproven." If anyone can summon a demon and make it posses a person with ANY MEANS AT ALL, it can be scientifically examined. That's just how science works. The issue is not with science, but with nobody being able to do that when the camera is on, not even those wicked satanists. Probably they care too much for privacy of their victims.
    – tkruse
    Commented May 23 at 15:07
  • @tkruse - If anyone can summon a demon and make it posses a person with ANY MEANS AT ALL, . If it's not done by scientific means, how do you know it's a demon?
    – Vector
    Commented May 23 at 15:49
  • It does not matter what it is to science, science is there only to observe that something is there, ANYTHING. After that comes the theories like demons, fairies, aliens, smurfs, dead ancestors, unborn descendants, Elvis Presley, whatever
    – tkruse
    Commented May 23 at 18:30
  • All of science started that way, with measuring something yet unknown, like moving stars, moving metal, moving ships, moving earth, and later came explanations like planets, magnetism, tectonic plates, ocean currents. Science is based in unbiased pure observation.
    – tkruse
    Commented May 23 at 18:35

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