Fun with Spontaneous Combustion

FlameSteven Novella has a nice post up on spontaneous human combustion.

This is an area of crankery that I’ve never paid much attention to, but I’ll probably add it to the list next time I teach my pseudoscience and denialism class.

The wick effect seems like very plausible (if gruesome) mechanism for explaining what actually happens. (A good Skeptoid episode on the topic.)

This also ties into some of my arguments for physicalism.

One Larry Arnold has written a book in which he apparently argues that because there’s no physical explanation for spontaneous combustion, we should think that there’s a hitherto unknown particle (which he calls a “pyrotron”) that accounts for the phenomenon.

Now, this is obviously crazy, but why is it crazy? Two main reasons:

1) It’s far more likely that there is some not-yet-understood higher-level complex mechanism at work, than that our well-established theories of fundamental physics need an overhaul. Postulating mini-black holes isn’t a reasonable way of accounting for my lost car keys.

2) Physics is tightly interconnected, and you don’t just get to postulate particles that make people burst into flames without also being committed to effects in many other contexts that we surely would have noticed.

And these same considerations speak against positions that claim we need something extra, beyond physics, to account for the mind.


One response to “Fun with Spontaneous Combustion

  1. Cool. Very similar to my blog post on “Consciousness and Fire”. I didn’t know about this. Honest.
    (PS, I’m almost certain I know Clark Kent’s identity; spilling the beans would leave no room for future adventures!)

    John Kubie

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