Archive for October, 2008

There Exists the Unknown

Posted in Faith and Science on October 27, 2008 by RWZero

Beyond Scoffing and Making Wiggly Motions with One’s Fingers

It was several years ago when I first wandered into the Merrill Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy. The older woman behind the desk, the gatekeeper of the collection, peered up at me from behind her glasses. She had given a presentation to our Science Fiction and Fantasy class just days before. She was a guru steeped in the genre. She was married to a science fiction writer, and she spoke with a stutter.

I slid my form requesting Neil Gaiman’s Sandman across the table and strolled over to the magazine rack. There I saw many strange magazines that I had never seen on the shelf at any supermarket—one in particular caught my eye. The others sported a flashy cover depicting mystical and fantastic scenes of fiction, but this one looked scientific. It was the Skeptical Inquirer. Its tag line was “The Magazine for Science and Reason.” The day I opened that magazine, the smells of scientism and the Myth of Progress wafting through the still library air, my life changed.

* * *

The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, which publishes that magazine, had some valuable things to say. Such things do not necessarily constitute the bulk of what they have to say, but they are certainly there. The Skeptical Enquirer is affiliated with the Centre for Inquiry, or CFI (formerly CSICOP), a wolf pack of skeptics that perform investigations into allegations of paranormal events. The existence of such a group makes sense to me—there are people who want to know whether anything strange is, indeed, going on. As I became more familiar with their essence, however, I began to wonder if this ostensibly noble quest was soundly motivated.

One of the buzz words found frequently in such rhetoric is “pseudoscience,” a pejorative term applicable to anything not verified or accepted by the scientific community. A great deal of practices elicit this term from the CFI, including almost all claims inexplicable under the current state of scientific knowledge. They are quite convinced that all claims of paranormal or hocus pocus events are the result of hallucinations, malfunctioning brains, and hoaxing. This is certainly one possibility. But is it true?

Talk to people you know. See how many of them have first, second or third hand accounts of unexplained events that could be classified as supernatural. Most of them have at least one story, though they themselves may not have come into contact with it. Research the eyewitness stories of people you’ve never met, and ask yourself what the explanations are. I am a naturally skeptical person, even in the context of my beliefs: I would be convinced of the occurrence of paranormal events neither based on the abundance of stories alone, nor by any need to validate my faith in a higher power through such accounts (save, perhaps, a few theologically essential ones). But I believe, based on the evidence available to me, that strange and unexplained events happen all over the world—I believe that only by ignoring them or disallowing a priori their very possibility, can someone attempt to deny it. [1]

The first swath of evidence is accounts available in one’s circle of friends and acquaintances, or if you have seen something yourself, personal experience. Any anecdotes I could write here would instantly find themselves two degrees removed as you read them, and would be potentially worthless. But you must ask yourself how these people could have come to believe that these things happened. If you must conclude that they are hoaxing or remembering incorrectly, ask yourself how powerful that explanation is given the situation.

The second source of evidence is also powerful—events publicly attested to by one or more witnesses, documented, and sometimes having received loathsome scientific explanations that have no explanatory power. The only way to comfortably dismiss these events would be to claim they did not happen; occasionally this is not possible.

A standard objection is that a large number of purported supernatural events are either hoaxed, or a result of disinformation due to people’s willingness to believe. But I am not speaking of, for instance, Roswell New Mexico. If you research that, I believe you will conclude that nothing extraordinary occurred. The impetus for hoaxes is crystal clear—fame and even fortune rewards the best of them. What we must remember, however, is that hoaxes and disinformation are guaranteed to exist alongside any sensational reality, and we see this in daily life. What we also must remember, is that there are events more difficult to dismiss or explain.

Consider such an event as the Miracle of the Sun at Fátima, Portugal. To have nearly 100,000 people from across the general population witness an extraordinary phenomenon, and to suggest that an ordinary atmospheric event could have been responsible, is well beyond the bounds of reasonable inquiry.

Consider the available (and monolithic) body of evidence on UFO and “alien” encounters. As an aside, I do not believe there are actually aliens sneaking around, but I believe that there is a phenomenon, whatever its root, that is real, and cannot be explained in known scientific terms—even when allowances are made for hysteria, hoaxes, drugs, and USAF black projects. [2]

Consider the strange events that don’t even have a purported or assumed explanation, such as those Reader’s Digest stories about people who can’t get to sleep one night because they keep thinking about their son-in-law, feeling something isn’t right, eventually driving 2 hours to their house to find them unconscious and in need of an ambulance.

Consider that even if an entire field of alleged paranormal events can be discounted, there are countless other categories: immense, tangled granny knots of attestations that will not come undone with a few attributions to LSD. Consider that many such events are not bound to people, but to places and events, and are experienced by people of widely varying backgrounds and beliefs, having only one thing in common—their experience.

I myself I have been close to such events in a Christian context. Though many of these have been subtle and less sensational, I have trusted the people involved more so than any others who give such accounts. I have no doubt that the described events took place, and that even if some could be explained away, in no cases would it be the only reasonable conclusion.

I have no loyalty to my conclusion that such events have occurred and do occur, and this conclusion is not bound to any particular event or account that I have found convincing. As for the Skeptical Inquirer, it calls itself the magazine for science and reason—but reason does not imply exclusive acceptance of events that can be explained. It implies accepting what one finds from evidence. These events by definition cannot be replicated, and mere scoffing is not sufficient grounds for a strong negative conclusion.

An honest analysis of these people’s attitudes will lead to a much more obvious conclusion. Many of us truly do fear the unknown, and breathe a sigh of relief at any attempts to explain it in terms of the familiar. There will always be a market for pseudoskepticism, even when the explanations default to hallucinations, mass or otherwise. A hallucination is a convenient method of dismissal, but how many of them have you had while feeling otherwise sane? And what reason could there be to believe that “mass hallucination” even exists, save that many people saw a frightening sight that needs explanation? [3]

Allow yourself, at the very least, to be amused when you read something to the effect of:

“Some scientists have suggested that witnesses may have simply seen the landlord in a Hallowe’en costume, although this would not explain why he was able to walk through walls, or [most any of the unusual parts of the story].” It is better to contend that an event did not occur, than to provide an explanation that addresses none of the extraordinary claims.

One might ask how such a conclusion fits with my Christian beliefs, if many of these phenomena seem not to corroborate them directly. Personally, I accept the existence of a reality beyond the tangible world that we experience daily. I am not surprised to hear reports consistent with this. However, it does not make sense that all these events, even if they are legitimate, could be a result of their respective alleged causes. A simple belief in reincarnation, for instance, provides no explanation for the existence of souls, why they take vacations before returning to different bodies, and who decides which bodies they return to. Near death experiences yield widely varying results, all of which cannot be reconciled in a particular guess at the truth. Rejection of the alleged cause does not necessitate rejection of the phenomenon.

There can be only one reality, and any attempt to explain it must be congruous. A belief in “something more” cannot stand alone, but must be accompanied by reason, and perhaps even parsimony.


[1] This essay does not mean that I will believe your alien abduction story, or any other strange things you may have to say.

[2] Although I do believe that black projects may have strong explanatory power in a variety of cases, in many of these incidents it would disturb me no less if that were the true explanation. The very idea that the (presumably U.S.) government possesses the technology to create, for instance, the infamous black triangle sightings—and does so—is unsettling to me.

[3] I suggest that if people regularly experience an unexplained event, it will be given a scientific name, diagnosed solely by the symptoms that “the sufferer of this syndrome falsely believes they are experiencing the following…”


Literal Reflections in Stained Glass

Posted in Humour etc. on October 12, 2008 by RWZero

Don’t feel like writing a real post today.

Last night there was a huge game of capture the flag, organized by a group called Newmindspace, as described here.

Note the disclaimer in red. Although I’ve read hundreds of rules, regulations and injury disclaimers in my life, I specifically paused last night before heading out and thought “Weird… the idea of being injured while playing capture the flag.”

While on the other team’s side, one must avoid the other team. I have always enjoyed sports and games involving running or catching people, as this is what I do best. About 2 hours into the game last night, I ran southbound on what I believe was York. I was running parallel to the first floor of a bank, and made a dodge to the left behind a row of pillars to avoid one of the other team. As I perceived he was going to make a quick jaunt in this direction to intercept me, I accelerated quickly and then looked up. In the fraction of a second that I surveyed the path ahead, I saw a revolving door, and an open floor area. It did not register fast enough that I was looking at the inside of the bank–or that I was not already inside the bank–because this protruding glass enclosure was spotless. No reflections, no smudges.

My head shot backwards. The sounds disappeared and the scene blurred. I realized what I’d done as I bled all over their property.

The ambulance carted me over to St. Mike’s. When I looked in the mirror as I washed up, I wished I’d brought my point and shoot camera. I probably could’ve sold myself for a position as an extra in a horror film.

Although I started to feel sick to my stomach and slightly woozy, I had already told the paramedic that this wasn’t the case, so I languished in the waiting room for hours. [The nurse didn’t seem too concerned when I got up and told her. She said I’d be admitted soon.] A drunk 18 year old who’d been hurt at the Leafs game repeatedly asked me if I had weed, papers, or a pipe as the hours went by. I told him I’d never done weed, but he didn’t believe me, and continued to harass me.

When they finally put me in a room, I was in the unattended for a few more hours, until I finally fell asleep in an awkward position.

If you ever need to go to the hospital, do not downplay your symptoms. You’ll wait a long time. Something may also go undiagnosed. After hours of feeling a bit sick, I vomited out the door of the cab on the way home. The doctor had seemed unconcerned about a concussion when I told him I hadn’t blacked out, but I’m not sure about that.

Nothing noble or adventurous behind the scar. Not even a good story. Third injury in the last couple years with permanent repercussions for doing something benign. Maybe l should take more risks, if there’s such poor return on blue chip investments.

I crawled out of bed and crossed off “Capture the Flag” on my month’s to-do list, listed under “For Fun.”