There Exists the Unknown

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…”

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3 Responses to “There Exists the Unknown”

  1. I can see why you would be skeptical of the Skeptical Enquirer, and how pseudoskepticism spawns from marketable media like that. However, this topic is one of the reasons I’m surprised we have the same personality type, because I am quite the stubborn skeptic in these matters.

    For me, the fact that paranormal experiences occur in humans all over the world, even in groups, just seems so…HUMAN. It’s something we are prone to do and love to do, if at the very least, subconsciously.

    I definitely could get a paranormal story out of almost anyone I know, and I myself have my own ghost story to tell. But even while I experienced it, it only strengthened my siding with symptoms caused by brain chemistry. I woke up experiencing sleep paralysis and felt a presence in the room. So that’s how it works!

    That also reminds me of your comment about people not perceiving themselves as being insane at the time of their experiences: does this EVER happen? I haven’t read it, but I believe that philosophical tidbit is addressed in the novel Catch 22, where fighter pilots can be dismissed from service if they are classified as insane. But if they claim insanity for the means of leaving the service, that’s a very sane and rational decision, so the army doctor declines their request. I don’t think anyone ever feels genuinely insane, but I admit not looking into any psychological data for that comment.

    I appreciate you taking skepticism to a meta-level, but to me it’s like people arguing over whether math is real or not. I always encourage people to continue asking “Why?”, but there’s a tipping point for me where practicality takes rule, and I don’t like the idea of refuting empirical evidence or even theoretical logic for the sake of leaving doors open. The thought process should be a process of refinement, not playing darts.

  2. Oooh I like my avatar on this board. Also your blog logo really reminds me of General Electric’s, or Motorola’s. Something corporate in any case. No offense.

    You missed the word “be” in the phrase “Consider that even if an entire field of alleged paranormal events can discounted”

  3. If you’re referring to the WordPress logo, it’s hardly unique to my blog.

    As I said, I think that one must simply review the data to properly discuss this issue and consider examples. This essay is weak at convincing anyone of my position without these examples, but I hope I’ve conveyed that I am not simply adding up the number of people who claim to have felt weird in a haunted house. I am not merely being skeptical of skepticism here, I am concluding positively based on what I’ve heard and read.

    A stubborn skeptic with no conditions under which he/she could be convinced is a pseudoskeptic. The fulfillment of those conditions is contingent on whatever reality happens to be, it’s unrelated to personality. I am still unlikely to believe any *particular* instance.

    I do stand by my insanity comment. If I were to look up from the computer right now, in my perfectly lucid, undrugged state and see something ridiculous that someone later attributed to insanity or hallucination, I would slander them. There is not a shred of evidence that (nor any reason why) such episodes occur, save that they are needed as a comfortable explanation. Of course, this is not to say that what I saw cannot be a neurological phenomenon. But it is one needing a much more acute explanation, and probably an external source.

    As a side note, these states of mind are not always symmetrical. People may not realize they are dreaming while dreaming, but they do know they are not dreaming when awake.

    I empathize with your “doors” comment. I have no desire to leave doors open, but I will not close them simply because I am bothered by the draft.

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