“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination” – John Lennon
Deep in the heart of darkest Forteana, you inevitably stumble across a subspecies of philosopher I like to call “Defenders of Reason”, sporting the elegant and seductive plumage of reasonability and repeatability in a performance designed to signal reproductive availability to like-minded mates. To these stalwart knights of skepticism, UFO’s, ghosts, Bigfoot, and all manner of folklore and paranormal phenomena are not just an intellectual black-hole from which no illumination regarding the human condition can escape, they are actual dragons to be slain. In the same breath they will decry what they regard as obvious hokum of little social or scientific import, but not so subtly fall back on the time-honored trope of maintaining that while most adults are not susceptible to such magical thinking, “what about the children?”, posturing that they are humanists, simply concerned with our welfare. Conspiracy theorists, alien abductees, ghost hunters, and psychics are gently patted on the head and told they have a “belief system”, that anecdotes don’t equal evidence, and as concisely summarized by philosopher Stephen Law in an interview about his latest book Believing Bullshit: How not to get sucked into an intellectual black hole, “Every last anomaly can be explained away”. The foundation of this bold assertion? The confidence that there are a set of beliefs that are genuinely reasonable and a set of beliefs that are unequivocally unreasonable. Some things exist and some things don’t exist, the savvy philosopher can easily discern the one from the other, and anyone who attempts to engage such things without entirely disentangling significant complexes of emic (internally consistent systems of cultural thought) and etic (what is observable by a cultural outsider) phenomena, is merely attempting “pseudo-profundity”. This conveniently sidesteps the fact that one of the central, and unresolved debates of ontological philosophy, ever since philosophy emerged as a paying gig, has been the question of the existence of physical entities vs. non-physical entities, giving primacy to physical evidence as the sole arbiter of reason.
Now, the question of whether non-physical entities can exist is as appropriate to anomalistics as corned beef is to cabbage, that is, it pairs very nicely, but stinks to high heaven. One can hardly peruse the vast literature of strange phenomena without noting that the preternatural has an annoying tendency to scoff at the constraints of pure physicalism, often behaving as if the laws of the physical universe are helpful suggestions rather than hard and fast rules, that is, it refuses to behave reasonably, thus in a world anchored to reason as determinative of existence, it is accorded no right to exist. While philosophers can generally agree that abstract properties which cannot be located in space and time such as numbers, mathematical functions, or colors have some sort of meaningful existence, they tend to equivocate on whether observing the apparent reality of non-physical properties (which is generously self-serving of them since if they didn’t they would be out of a job) is the same thing as allowing for the existence of non-physical objects. This of course, arrays the physicalist who maintains that reality is a single physical substance against the idealist who maintains that reality is incorporeal and experiential. Tucked into a fold of idealism is the more popular dualism which, desirous of sounding more reasonable, points out that it is particularly problematic to suggest that the mind and body are identical. The dominance of the physicalist paradigm in the past century or two has a lot to do with the fact that its application has demonstrated we can blow things up in a really big way. It’s tough, and perhaps ill-advised, to argue with folks who have just shown you that when you put enough of them on a problem, they can level your city, rain death from orbit, cut down on defrosting time, or get your car 100 miles to a gallon.
Succumbing to demands for incontrovertible physical evidence of anomalous phenomena is like refusing to be a Chicago Cubs fan purely because they haven’t won the World Series since 1908. We like them not because they are a good baseball team, but because they are a baseball team despite seemingly insurmountable odds. Were ghosts ever “proven” to exist, they would immediately be subsumed under physicalism and held up as a poster child for the validation of a monistic conception of reality. Because our myths and monsters refuse to behave like responsible physical objects, the fact that folks continue to perceive them is held up as a shining example of the failure of human reason and an unearned triumph for physicalism. I can’t tell you whether there is any value to aligning your chakras, talking to your spirit dolphin, or poring over electronic voice phenomena for indications that ghosts really hate us, but given the fact that countless philosophers and scientists continue to struggle over the nature of reality, it seems disturbingly disingenuous to declare the possibility of non-physical existence, and thus the vast majority of anomalistic phenomena as deluded fantasy. I make an effort never to be as trite as to respond to a debatable point by quoting Hamlet’s quip, “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”, but I might proffer the suggestion that if you think your perspective has cornered the market on reality, you’re either a god or a goofball.