“I respectfully decline the invitation to join your hallucination” – Scott Adams
So, I hear you were abducted by aliens, faeries, or monsters, you poor thing. It’s certainly too late to chastise you for wandering alone in the dark woods far from civilization, despite all the folklore alerting you to the consequences. Now you’re left with missing time, radiation burns, and an unmentionable soreness. Unfortunately for you, you were alone at the time, the sole witness to a mind-boggling intrusion of unreality. True believers and fellow abductees will accept the veracity of your claims, the believer because they have unshakeable faith that the aliens are among us and the recovering abductee because your experience equates with their own. Since the physical evidence is ambiguous (your symptoms could easily be explained by an unfortunate accident involving a defective microwave, a misplaced broom, and a bottle of Jack Daniels), nobody else can attest to the objective reality of your encounter, and eyewitness testimony has repeatedly been demonstrated to be unreliable even with mundane occurrences, your sanity will forever be in doubt with the vast majority of humanity that choose to enclose their strange phenomena within the confines of a religious theology, worship the strict gods of logical positivism, or those who maintain the impossible stance of skepticism (the anomalistic version of agnosticism i.e. patiently waiting for verification of the unverifiable as if that’s some sort of enlightened intellectual position rather than pure laziness and fear of commitment). A single observer is philosophically easy to dismiss as mad or mistaken. Much to the dismay of those who steadfastly wish to abrogate all aberrations in the fabric of the universe, anomalistic phenomena are often seen by multiple witnesses, from a single partner verifying claims of the extraordinary to crowds of thousands attesting to the factuality of miraculous events. The mental gymnastics required to relegate inexplicable things witnessed by the mob suppose equally anomalistic phenomena, but assume the pretense of social psychology to couch such beliefs in the guise of scientism, readily accepting the reality of poorly defined mechanisms such as mental contagion and collective hallucination, as long as they don’t have to admit that reality is far weirder than we think or that we have always rubbed shoulders with monsters.
A crowd of some 70,000 perfectly reasonable folks simultaneously witnessed the sun violate all cosmic law at Fatima, Portugal. Dancing plagues sent thousands of peasants reeling uncontrollably about 15th Century Europe. Observers from multiple vantage points often remark on the same visitation by unidentified flying objects. Over the course of decades, the same monsters are seen in the same geographical locations over and over again. Frogs, fish, and all manner of odd objects rain down repeatedly on urban areas from a clear blue sky again and again throughout history. You don’t have to look too hard in the literature for miracles and oddities seen by the multitudes. Even the rationalist clean-up squad inevitably has a difficult time with the notion that each and every one of the folks who claim to have witnessed something strange in common, each with a distinct little glob of grey matter locked in their skull, is insane or ignorant. In order to effectively dismiss strange phenomena experienced by multiple observers, we find it easier to believe that our species can share identical hallucinations. Consider the twists of logic that make this possible. Two people tell me they are absolutely convinced they experienced something that defies common understanding of reality. Their descriptions are identical or complimentary. But I know that they are wrong. Thus, my assumption is that they have somehow shared a detailed noumenal experience. Two brains, two sets of sensory organs, and two individual and separate creatures have somehow managed to slip into a shared unreality. We are so interested in maintaining the rational integrity of a universe that we admittedly lack a full understanding of, that we are willing to accept the possibility of telepathy or that those electrical impulses we call thoughts can go viral, despite the fact that we would reject such suppositions out of hand if they were presented independently. This is the essence of collective hallucination, that is the idea that the strange phenomena we experience have no reality, but when witnessed by many, those strange phenomena result from a far stranger phenomena of shared thought and perception. The seriousness with which concepts like mental contagion and collective hallucination are rolled out to explain multiple witnesses of anomalies is staggering, since it would be equally reasonable to hypothesize that ghost weasels were whispering the details into the ears of each individual, ensuring that all descriptions were complementary. I call my weasel “Frank”. Charles Hoy Fort, far from being a mere cataloger of the odd, had a deep theoretical concern for how the human race went about explaining away the unexplainable, and pointed out that you could never convince someone who maintained that solitary experience resulted from madness, and group experience resulted from collective hallucination.
Collective hallucination is another of the dismissal-labels by which conventionalists shirk thinking. Here is another illustration of the lack of standards, in phenomenal existence, by which to judge anything. One man’s story, if not to the liking of conventionalists, is not accepted, because it is not supported: and then testimony by more than one is not accepted, if undesirable, because that is collective hallucination. In this kind of jurisprudence, there is no hope for any kind of testimony against the beliefs in which conventional scientists agree. Among their amusing disregards is that of overlooking that, quite as truly may their own agreements be collective delusions (Fort, 1941, p154-155).
If there is one truth to the individual ego, it is that our own personal belief system is more important than anyone else’s. Our own individuality is assured, but all others are in doubt. Our own free will is unlimited, but others are subject to forces beyond their control. This is why we have laws, rules, and social norms. Not for me, but for you. I can control myself. It’s the rest of you that I worry about. This is why I harp on skepticism, since in essence, it says “I believe only my own perceptions, and until I see what you see, I assume you are mistaken or deluded.” Many occultists have keyed in to this fundamental illogic, and pointed out that the rejection of free will that is the ultimate conclusion of the pernicious psycho-physiology that keeps creeping back into the discussion about human consciousness is a rejection of the free will of others, rather than a rejection of your own free will. Pretty self-serving, wouldn’t you say?
As all know, the great majority of our learned “Didymi” reject the idea of free-will. Now this question is a problem that has occupied the minds of thinkers for ages; every school of thought having taken it up in turn and left it as far from solution as ever. And yet, placed as it is in the foremost ranks of philosophical quandaries, the modern “psycho-physiologists” claim in the coolest and most bumptious way to have cut the Gordian knot forever. For them the feeling of personal free agency is an error, an illusion, “the collective hallucination of mankind.” This conviction starts from the principle that no mental activity is possible without a brain, and that there can be no brain without a body. As the latter is, moreover, subject to the general laws of a material world where all is based on necessity, and where there is no spontaneity, our modern psycho-physiologist has nolens volens to repudiate any self-spontaneity in human action (Blatavatsky, 1910, p8-9).
Do multiple people misinterpret stimuli? Certainly, and no one doubts the possibility that two or more people can misunderstand a common experience. “It may often happen that several persons misinterpret the same phenomenon in the same manner, exemplifying what is called ‘collective delusion.’ But neither science nor the common experience of life has produced any undoubted cases analogous to what, in this department, has been designated ‘collective hallucination,’ that is, the observation and identical description by several persons of an appearance having no basis in reality” (Johnson, 1887, p67-68).
And we are willing to extend our hypothetical hallucinations even beyond our own species, for when the dog barks at nothing before we see the ghost, or the cat reacts as if there is a malign predator in the room, or the horses shy away from the haunted wood, we are absurdly more willing to believe that our thoughts and emotions have precipitated analogous hallucinations in other creatures than we are to accept the possibility that reality is fluid, and populated by stranger things that we have encapsulated in our philosophy.
Let us here consider a certain anti-spiritual hypothesis whereby it is sought to explain away collective appearances—those which are seen by more than one person at the same time—by a theory of collective hallucination—i.e. that one of the percipients imagines the figure, recalling some former mental impression, and then this vision is instantly and unconsciously communicated to the others by a kind of mental infection, and thus the others present imagine they see it also. This idea, we would point out, makes a tenfold greater demand upon one’s belief than the simple and scriptural doctrine of the survival of the Spiritual Body which it seeks to destroy. But surely it meets its debacle and suffers a complete reductio ad absurdum—even if the latent image idea were not completely discredited as previously shown—when applied to these cases of perception by men and animals at the same time, for then we should be asked to believe that a man can instantly cause the mental picture before his vision to be visualised also by the dog or horse, as the case may be (Tweedale, 1909, p131).
Rejecting the reality of a shared experience of anomalies based on the equally unsupported notion that we may somehow transfer very precise hallucinations between distinct individuals is like denying the existence of god, but waffling on the existence of angels. It requires the unnecessary addition of a causal element rooted in things we have already decided are impossible. In short, there is a con game involved when you deny the existence of UFO’s, but remain confident that human consciousness can be shared, or that madness can be caught like the common cold. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those folks that believe in the general goodness, common sense, and integrity of mankind. On the contrary, I imagine if you dropped most people in a bowl of clue, they would probably float, but substituting one groundless and unsupportable hypothesis for another is neither productive, nor honest
But supposing the evidential point established, and that it is now not the mere existence, but the nature and limits, of telepathy which we are seeking to determine, we shall need to scrutinize our narratives in a somewhat different way. We shall have to consider not only whether there is overwhelming probability that any given case is telepathic, but also whether there is sufficient probability to oblige us to keep that explanation in view, and to refrain from using the case in support of other theories. Thus (to make my meaning clearer by an analogy) if it were our business to prove the existence of volcanic islets, we should not be entitled to base that proof on such doubtful instances as the much-debated islets of St. Paul. But, the existence of volcanic islets once established, we must not hastily exclude this dubious case from our category, or we may find that we are committing ourselves to a far more questionable theory that of a lost Atlantis. Now the cases cited by Mr. Gurney as probably mere subjective hallucinations shared by several persons are assuredly not cases from which any argument for the operation of distant agency could be drawn. But if such agency be once admitted as a vera causa, it seems to me to be safer to ascribe these cases to its untraced and, so to say, casual operation, than to support by them a theory of collective hallucination which may easily be and in other hands has been pushed to a point at which it comes into real collision with ordinary experience, and needlessly confuses the canons of testimony (Gurney, 1886, p283).
Can large groups of people share in a common insanity? Scholars have long wrestled with this question, and there is no doubt that we influence the thoughts and action of those around us. It would be foolhardy to suggest that the forces of enculturation, peer pressure, groupthink, shared symbolism, and even our mere communicative ability do not exert powerful forces in our perception of the world around us. We can convince ourselves of many things, but the essence of an anomalistic experience is not analogous to dreams, nightmares, or opinions. What makes an experience anomalous is precisely the fact that it is “experienced” perceptually and cognitively as outside the realm of normal human existence. Gustave Le Bon, one of the fathers of propaganda, believed that critical abilities and sensory accuracy could be subsumed in a crowd, but never proposed the means by which this could take place. He was simply confident that facts were manipulable and the crowd was only as smart as the lowest common denominator. This of course was spoken like a true European aristocrat that believed the unwashed masses were capable of great monstrosity if not reined in by their betters (which unsurprisingly is also reflected in the attitude of the self-proclaimed skeptic community that condescendingly wants to save us from our poor deluded selves).
It is not necessary that a crowd should be numerous for the faculty of seeing what is taking place before its eyes to be destroyed and for the real facts to be replaced by hallucinations unrelated to them. As soon as a few individuals are gathered together they constitute a crowd, and, though they should be distinguished men of learning, they assume all the characteristics of crowds with regard to matters outside their speciality. The faculty of observation and the critical spirit possessed by each of them individually at once disappears (Le Bon, 1910, p48-49).
Yet, when multiple observers concur on a strange occurrence, rumblings of shared delusion, mass hysteria, and collective hallucination invariably are arrogantly forwarded, although we have no more evidence that such psychological or sociological phenomena exist that we do of Bigfoot, sea monsters, or Men in Black. If such a thing as “collective hallucination” is the optimum explanation for millennia of unexplained weirdness, why has it gone eternally unstudied by serious students of the human sciences, as an understanding of such a fundamental element of human social psychology would seem to be of paramount importance, since if I can hallucinate what you are hallucinating, it calls into doubt every perception every human has ever had about anything. Maybe I’m not the moron most of the women I’ve ever dated have concluded that I am! It was simply a shared hallucination. There. I feel better now. An ordered universe is a comfortable universe. Unfortunately, the universe is not willing to make things easy for us, and insists on routinely clobbering us with anomalous data. We can choose to perceive the strangeness or explain it away, but to assume superiority because we exchange the inexplicability of someone else’s (or many other’s) perception for the incomprehensibility of an equally incoherent interpretation is the pinnacle of egocentricity and arrogance. Perhaps, my only point is a plea for modesty. As Aldous Huxley said, “There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception”.
Blavatsky, H. P. 1831-1891. Studies In Occultism: a Series of Reprints From the Writings of H. P. Blavatsky. Point Loma ed. Point Loma, Calif.: Aryan Theosophical P., 1910.
Fort, Charles, 1874-1932. Lo! New York: Ace Books, 1941.
Gurney, Edmund, 1847-1888. Phantasms of the Living. [1st ed.] London: Rooms of the Society for psychical research; Trübner and co., 1886.
Johnson, Franklin, 1836-1916. The New Psychic Studies In Their Relation to Christian Thought. New York [etc.]: Funk & Wagnalls, 1887.
Le Bon, Gustave, 1841-1931. The Crowd. London: T. F. Unwin, 1910.
Tweedale, Charles L. Man’s Survival After Death: Or, The Other Side of Life In the Light of Scripture, Human Experience, And Modern Research. New York: E.P. Dutton & company, 1909.