“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced” – Soren Kierkegaard
If we measure things by the column inches devoted to such considerations, anomalists, forteans, and assorted investigators of strange phenomena are nigh well obsessed with the fact that science is not taking the curious elements of the universe that tend to go bump in the night seriously. Many the earnest, open-minded truth-seeker bemoans the fact that the leading scholarly scientific journals stay away from anything that smacks of the preternatural, that gangs of logical positivists are slicking back their hair, rolling up their sleeves and skeptically strong-arming Wikipedia in a theoretical West Side Story, and that “borderland” phenomena are relegated to, at best, vacuum sealed cabinets of curiosities or wacky news websites, and at worst, the lunatic asylum. A monstrously conceived, monolithic bogeyman called “Science” is imagined to guard the gates of reality and ruthlessly devour any oddities that dare attempt to enter. Such a strange world is neatly divided into skeptics, believers, people who just aren’t interested, and folks who just find the whole god damn thing amusing and couldn’t care less what’s real and what’s not, or whether such a distinction is at all relevant (you know who you are, and I’ll see you at the bar later). My plea, dear anomalists (and the anomaly-curious) is for a declaration of independence. It’s not like King George was a terrible human being. He was just trying to hold an empire together. The American colonials were living in an adjacent reality, where the integrity of the greater sphere of expanding British prosperity was largely irrelevant. Science is wonderful. Science is fundamentally about predicting what nature will do and usefully applying that knowledge e.g. making sure your toaster actually toasts. Science is at its best when it can break down and reintegrate, understand the pieces and then fit them back into novel reformations. The truth nestles in the disassembly (the electricity, the heating elements, the timer), while the beauty emerges in the reconstruction (the butter-slathered delicacy of toasted bread). Invaluable empirical knowledge lays in the knowing and description of an object in isolation, but that knowledge is invariably bounded by a linguistic prison, or if non-verbal and impressionistic, ensnared in metaphor, which some linguists and cognitive scientists have argued is the fundamental building block of consciousness. Philosophers have long argued about the difference between the real and the ideal, ultimately splitting the difference in the nebulous concept of “the natural”. But what of the anomalous, those elements of human experience that creep in from the margins, neither wholly real, nor wholly figurative? What of the ghosts and monsters, the prophets and the psychics, the mysteries and magic? The realm of the anomaly is the kingdom of where what should not happen, insists on happening, where the reassembly of the constituent components of the universe offers little insight, as by definition, that which is anomalous in unnatural. No componential analysis, no amount of experimentation can slip the linguistic bonds when the essential point of contention between anomalistics and science is not the observable facts rather the structure of our understanding. The scientific method provides the necessary tools to describe reality. What can such a noble pursuit offer in the elucidation of the unreal and thus scientifically incomprehensible? In short, my humble plea is that those of us who search for philosophical specters step away from the science. Recognition will always be fleeting, since the goals of the anomalist and the goals of the scientist are incommensurable, and when aspersions are cast in either direction, the target is always missed, since we’re not even shooting at the same target.
There is no rat race between anomalists and scientists. The scientist rigorously looks to apply the most basic linguistic descriptor he/she can to form a utilitarian model. The anomalist (the person who wishes to admit the possibility of a different kind of reality) starts by questioning the very premise of the linguistic containment of the natural. There is no bone of contention. One can accept the facticity of aspects of reality without affirming the validity of the structure, and it is in the interpretation of the structure that anomalistics finds its rightful home. Polish-American scholar Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski (1879-1950) was decidedly unhappy with the constraints of Aristotelian logic, and argued the human knowledge was related to the particular form of the human nervous system and the development of human language, suggesting that these biological constraints prevented direct access to what we like to refer to as reality. What we conceive is a “filtered” reality. In his mind, nothing actually “is” anything, rather only “seems to be in this case”. Korzybski elaborated an entire field he called General Semantics based on this notion, and believe me, if you ever have insomnia, pick up a copy of Korzybski’s Science and Sanity, and I guarantee it will knock you out in under fifty pages. Nonetheless, ponderous as he was, the man had some excellent points, in particular coining the popular modern trope, “the map is not the territory” (a favorite among the post-modern philosophical set). The important distinction for our purposes that Korzybski emphasized was that the relation between our thoughts and our world was a structural one, and that small tweaks in said structure result in vastly different conceptions of reality.
If words are not things, or maps are not the actual territory, then, obviously, the only possible link between the objective world and the linguistic world is found in structure and structure alone. The only usefulness of a map or language depends on the similarity of structure between the empirical world and the map-languages. If the structure is not similar, then the speaker or traveler is led astray, which in serious human life-problems, must become always eminently harmful. If the structures are similar, then the empirical world becomes ‘rational’ to a potentially rational being, which means no more than that verbal, or map-predicated characteristics, which follow up the linguistic or map-structure, are applicable to the empirical world” (Korzybski, 1933, p61).
Thus, I often find the pleas for scientific acceptance to be a puzzling aspect of those who choose to dwell in the world of anomalistics. Certainly, there is a much deserved element of “I told you so” that emerges when science declares that some aspect of existence is a lot weirder than we originally thought, but take no solace and no pleasure in acceptance by the scientific community. Their parsimony and objectivity is important within the “natural” vs. “unnatural” structure that has made science both so useful, and so constraining. This is not your world. You can look for truth, and you can look for beauty, and you can find them in science or anomalistics. Or, you can step outside the structure and look for meaning. If you find yourself exploring the world of strange phenomena, mysticism, and the unexplained, stop looking for the approval of science. That’s not their job. Besides, Groucho Marx put it best, when he withdrew from the Friars Club of Beverly Hills. “Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member”.
Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity. Lancaster, PA: Science Press Printing Co., 1933.
It is common knowledge that it is when people are down that they are kicked. The same seems to apply to civilizations or cultures. When they are in decline they experience terrible weather, earthquakes, plagues, invasions by barbarians, and, surprisingly, a higher frequency of anomalies – in other words, the unnatural, inexplicable, and unpredictable. At the bottom, normal rationality becomes a minority viewpoint. For the optimist (myself included) we look forward to further progress in science beyond today’s professional blindness to where scientific instruments will be measuring psychic energies and transmitting messages to and from higher planes of existence. Anomalistics as a field will have shrunk substantially by then and many of the ancient myths, legends, and beliefs will be more accurately understood.
Above comment reminds me of Bertrand Russell’s description of the philosopher’s plight: as soon as his work is recognised, it is recategorised with the sciences. Philosophy is doomed in this way. Does anomalistics suffer similarly? At any rate, it is interesting precisely because majority consensus places it off limits. This is a wonderful article. Gimme some Korzybski…