And so they set forth toward the region which they had vowed to conquer, a band of gallant knights, all bedight in massy armor and bravely bearing lances and swords, all seated on steeds which were both swift and sure. But as soon as the first had crossed the border of that region his weapons became like rotten wood, the joints of his armor began to gape widely, and his proud steed altered to a sorry jade, which stumbled at every pebble in the way. And thus fared it with every knight as he crossed, for lo, it was an enchanted boundary” – Walter PrinceAnomalistics is in desperate need of a philosophy that really ties the room together. Call it “anomalism”, or “anomaloofness”, or El Philisophico Anomalistico if you’re not into the whole brevity thing. Maybe you’re into strange phenomena, maybe you’re not, but make no mistake, those strange phenomena abide, regardless of whether you feel they have any significance in your life. There’s no reason for everybody to be out there scanning the skies for unidentified flying objects, chasing ghosts, or waiting breathlessly for the next unexplained fish fall. Frankly, some of us would rather just go bowling, but should you choose to cast a curious eye at the unexplained and unabashed weirdness of the world, you inevitably run up against professionalized modern skepticism, and should you ever have been foolhardy enough to talk about your passion for the preternatural in mixed company, you know of that which I speak.
Personally, I haven’t spent enough time poking myself in the eye with a sharp stick lately, so I decided, in the interest of expanding my epistemological horizons, to watch a recent presentation from Goethe University Frankfurt’s SkepCon 2015 conference called “A Skeptic’s Guide to Ghost Hunting”. The presenter, a well-known and well-respected “skeptic paranormal researcher” named Hayley Stevens (http://hayleyisaghost.co.uk) was well-informed, eminently logical, and absolutely charming, making numerous salient points including the entertainment industry’s common, dubious usage of technology in the name of scientific method in the same manner that spiritualists once used Ouija boards and planchettes; that the interpretation of bizarre experience is often passed through a cultural filter; and that the nature of folklore transmission has fundamentally changed in the Information Age, not to mention a highly informative discussion about the technical issues surrounding audio, digital and video recording. Unfortunately, and this is absolutely no reflection on Ms. Stevens, I found myself inexplicably and viscerally appalled until I sat down and began musing on what could possibly bother me so much about a perspective with which I agreed or was willing to concede on so many reasonable points. A few drinks later, I realized that open-minded inquiry into strange phenomena does not so much array the scientist/skeptic against the true believer (although the skeptic tends to encapsulate their target in a “belief system”, and thus defines the debate), as it pits the rationalist against the empiricist.
Skeptics would no doubt be horrified at my framing of the tension in this way, but that is due to the fact that they sagaciously approve of psychologist Erich Fromm’s observation that “many an inmate of an insane asylum is convinced that everybody else is crazy, except himself; Many a severe neurotic believes that his compulsive rituals or his hysterical outbursts are normal reactions to somewhat abnormal circumstances”, without recognizing that it applies to themselves as well as the folks that they disparage. Before we tackle the philosophical side of the argument, allow me to point out a well-documented sociological phenomenon of particular salience. Countless times, I’ve heard “public” skeptics preface a presentation on the malleability of human perception, the existence of various strange phenomena, or hoaxing, with the phrase, “I used to believe in…”. Presumably, the implication is they grew older and wiser, and their former immersion in belief and emergence from said belief is held up as a philosophical credential. On the other hand, anthropologists have been studying religions and ideologies for quite some time and commonly note that there is a distinct “apostate” effect – that is, the most vociferous and unwavering critic of a constellation of beliefs is the individual who once committed to those beliefs, but then left the fold. This has been seen time and again, when converts leave new religions (which the skeptic would refer to as “cults”). There is a rebound in which the system of beliefs that was once regarded as so reasonable is depicted as exaggeratedly insane, evil and destructive. I don’t want to suggest that a lot of skepticism is motivated by early disappointments doled out by Santa, the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny. No, actually, I do want to say that, because I’m kind of a jerk, and I feel it’s only fair, as the average skeptic will describe those who experience strange phenomena and have the gall to talk about it, in terms borrowed from psychopathology. Of course, there are plenty of crazies out there, just as there are no shortage of fundamentalist skeptics (not sure those categories are actually antipodal), but most folks are ontological “satisficers” – that is, they have an answer, right or wrong, that explains life, the universe, and everything adequately for their needs, independent of how anyone else feels about their ideology, and are otherwise unconcerned. In modern parlance, this is called being well-adjusted and happy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Some of my best friends are well-adjusted and happy. Yet, there are also those of us that seek out weirdness, that note the disjunction between realities, and question why such a thing should exist. Skeptic and believer alike share a sense of wonder at the variety of human experience, ultimately differing on an age old epistemological debate surrounding the theory of knowledge, that is, whether our primary source of truth is reason (rationalism) or sensory experience (empiricism).
Now, given that skeptics quite routinely demand empirical evidence when faced with strange phenomena and that empiricism is the basis for scientific method, this argument might seem counter-intuitive, but the root of the difference between rationalism and empiricism is that rationalism posits that reality is logical, and thus one additional entity exists that is denied by a strict empiricist – that is, innate knowledge. If reality has an inherently logical structure, then truth can be deduced independent of sensory experience. Simply put, when faced with a ghost, the rationalist can deduce that the existence of ghosts is illogical, thus ghosts cannot exist, and alternate explanations must be explored. The empiricist on the other hand validates the fact that there was a sensory experience, and asks what knowledge can be derived from it, without the a priori assumption that those events that defy logic (a logic highly reliant on the ambiguously understood concepts of space, time, and causality) are categorically false. This can lead the empiricist and rationalist to identical conclusions, but there is something particularly insidious about the ontological principle that we can innately recognize the truth of a proposition independent of conscious experience. In other circumstances we would call that knowledge by revelation. The skeptical battle cry that strange phenomena invariably “defy logic” represents just such an a priori assumption that through reason alone we are capable of apprehending the truth of the matter, and demonstrations of how one can mimic an experience then ensue. Aristotelian logic is a valuable survival shortcut for us grubby little human beings, but it must base itself on an initial proposition, that is, create the structure and boundaries from which it then reasons away anything structurally unsound.
Yet the world continues to be an undeniably strange place, and one can choose to ignore the strangeness or plumb its depths, but constrained by a strict rationalism, the primacy of a particular species of logic, and the precept that we can innately “know” and recognize what is reasonable and unreasonable, we are refusing a chance to step over an enchanted boundary and explore other modes of existence, other ways of understanding consciousness. Big assumptions (the universe is logically structured) lead to minute conclusions (a given instance of the illogical is also impossible). Certainly, the metaphysical basis for one’s inclination towards empiricism can vary widely, but rationalism springs from a single source – the arid metaphysic of pure logic. Still, innumerable people have found themselves crossing the enchanted boundary and experiencing an “otherness” that spits in the eye of the rational intellect, that serves no logic but its own.
In 1930, Dr. Walter Franklin Prince, then the Executive Research Officer for the Boston Society for Psychic Research, presciently remarked on how scientific empiricism, elsewhere so useful, was twisted through skepticism based on rationalism, declining to intellectually engage that which it regarded as fundamentally illogical. “Thus begins a tale which still continues. For the knightly band is made up of sundry learned and professional men, the region which they set forth to harry is that of psychical research, and verily, it seems to have an enchanted boundary, for it happens to them when they cross it even as has been said. In other fields they are prudently silent until they have acquired special knowledge, but they venture into this with none. Elsewhere they test their facts before they declare them, but here they pick up and employ random statements without discretion. Elsewhere they use a fair semblance of logic, but here their logic becomes wondrous weird. Elsewhere they generally succeed in preserving the standard scientific stolidity, but here they frequently manifest and confess a submission to emotions ill befitting those who sprang from the head of Brahma. Elsewhere they observe the knightly etiquette of the lists, but in this field think it no shame to decline the fair encounter, and, from the safe shelter of the barrier, to jeer about the presumptive quality of their opponents’ brains” (Prince, 1930, p19). If there is any grain of wisdom in Aldous Huxley’s proposition that the experience of the mysterium tremendum is a function of man’s recognition of the incompatibility of his ego with infinity, then it is dangerous to rely too heavily on an idealized ego imagined to be capable of apprehending reality through unadulterated logic and a firm belief in ideal forms. As the cowboy Stranger remarked at the end of the Big Lebowski, “I guess that’s the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself”.
Prince, Walter Franklin, 1863-1934. The Enchanted Boundary: Being a Survey of Negative Reactions to Claims of Psychic Phenomena, 1820-1930. Boston, Mass.: Boston Society for Psychic Research, 1930.