“If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair” – C.S. Lewis
I can neither confirm nor deny I once saw a Bigfoot print in the wild. In my misspent youth, I idled away six summer weeks running whitewater on Central Quebec’s 298 kilometer Mistassini River in birch bark canoes. I don’t recommend this activity if you like to be dry, warm, or well-rested. The convenience of simply having to strip bark off the nearest birch tree to repair the inevitable damage to your mode of transport is far outweighed by the fact that you have to be extremely careful about what you collide with and how you react when you broadside a rock (pro tip: jump downstream, the canoe might just roll over the top). Nonetheless, plastic canoes are for chumps, since you can just bounce them down the rocks in the rapids without overly concerning yourself with the damage. And if you get into a tight spot with a metal canoe, you pretty much need a blowtorch to salvage it. We managed to only irretrievably destroy two of seven canoes. Whenever I feel the puzzling urge to get back to nature, I usually come to the conclusion that nature hates me and was happy to get rid of me in the first place (this has also been typical of my romantic entanglements, so I’m sensing a pattern). We portaged and tracked to the height of land, and then ran the rapids downriver, only twice running into another living soul in a month and a half (two intrepid kayakers and two Cree out fishing). About midway through the trip, after a hard day of dodging rocks, we pulled up to scout out a potential campsite. And that is when I had my sole personal encounter with the anomalous.
A good portion of the lightly-inhabited forest region around the Mistassini River sports a thick ground-cover of spongy light grey-green caribou moss. Very comfortable to sleep on when you can ferret out the rocks underneath. As we pushed through the underbrush looking for some open space to pitch tents, the veteran woodsman I was with stopped short, scratched his head, and pointed at the ground in front of us. Now, while I’ve spent my share of time in the wilderness and at one time could reasonably identify common animal tracks, although I wouldn’t necessarily rely on my skills, say if dinner depended on it, what we were looking at was a clearly outlined, five-toed human-like footprint, over a foot and a half long, deeply impressed into the caribou moss to the dirt beneath. One well-defined footprint. No trail of footprints led to or from the spot in any direction, simply unbroken moss ground-covering. Nearby vegetation was wholly undisturbed. It was as if some gigantic humanoid had snapped into existence, stood on one foot, wondered what the hell just happened, and promptly snapped back out of existence. Needless to say, we jumped back into our canoes and looked for a less creepy campsite further upriver.
Given my adulthood predilection for the anomalous, I’ve found myself considering the philosophical implications of this incident over the years, particularly as I started to both widely and deeply examine the literature of anomalistics. At the time, my notion of strange phenomena was when a girl actually spoke to me, so you’ll have to pardon my lack of investigation. I had a tent to set up, socks to dry out, bannock to throw in a hole, and bulgar chili to put on the fire. My concerns were much more immediate. Stalking a vanishing, trail-less, one-footed Sasquatch through the caribou moss wasn’t high on my priority list. It’s still not high on my priority list, but mostly as I’m opposed to being eaten in a dark forest. What can I say? We grow. Upon reflection, I’ve wondered if the personal and all too common experience of something relatively insignificant, yet ridiculously inexplicable inculcates a particularly nuanced philosophical perspective on the potential for weirdness in the world, that is, a comfortable willingness to accept the epistemological impossibility of discovering “truth”, and a level of suspicion towards those who steadfastly maintain such a unicorn exists, or rather is easily discernible.
Turns out I don’t have to reinvent the wheel, which suits me just fine, as happy hour approaches and several big-brained philosophers of epistemology have laid out the problem very nicely. While Sextus Empiricus, Agrippa the Skeptic, Karl Popper, and Jakob Fries all considered the idea that proving “truth” even in logic and mathematics was so dependent on a mental “bootstrapping” that quickly becomes self-referential as proof is demanded, it was rationalist philosopher Hans Albert (born 1921) that popularized the central problem with truth and proof when he proposed the “Münchhausen trilemma” (named for the infamous Baron Münchhausen who was once fabulously said to have pulled himself out of the mud through the efficient mechanism of lifting himself by his own hair).
The shorthand version of Münchhausen’s trilemma is that whenever you ask the question of “How do I know what is true?” your only logical recourse is to three equally unsatisfying possibilities: (1) circular argument (theory and proof support each other); (2) regressive argument (proofs demand further proofs ad infinitum; and (3) axiomatic argument (reliance on an accepted precept). Each perspective has it’s epistemological adherents, but none can claim the crown of universal truth, since (a) the proposition that when theory and proof are mutually supportive simply suggests a certain coherence to reality, (b) reliance on bedrock axioms pretty much equates with saying, “I know what I know”, and (c) nobody likes to think about the infinite regress of proofs, as that way lays madness, or at the very least, tenure, heaven forbid, although in practice, if you’re just looking to get things done, falling back on the circular argument may be sufficient, while the regressive argument has the bonus of keeping one gainfully employed. All three of these brave ideological soldiers are routinely marched into the field when faced with an anomaly. If I simply know that ghosts do not exist, you cannot have seen a ghost. If I take a picture of what I think might be a ghost or record disembodied voices, but my theory about what the shady specter is isn’t clearly supported by my evidence, the explanation remains incoherent. If it seems like I have proof of a ghost, the regressive arguer can declare that the proof is inevitably inconclusive, and that further proofs are necessary to determine the truth of the matter. After all, if I see something, it does not establish its existence. Can’t rule out toxic mold spores.
Natural scientists, when faced with anomalous phenomena are frequently wont to fall back on the circular, regressive, and axiomatic arguments. They’re busy people. They have stuff to do. This is all the more puzzling since it is the foundational epistemology of natural science itself that suggests an answer. The fourth alternative, of special interest to honest inquiry into strange phenomena is Fallibilism. Fallibilists (which methodologically speaking, although not ideologically, includes most natural scientists worth their salt) maintain that we cannot ultimately prove universal truth, but the most we can achieve is to prove any given theory false, or at least unnecessary. Significant progress in human knowledge has always been made by those who regard what others consider axiomatic, practical, or self-evident to be unproven. And conclusive proof can only ever be offered up in the negative. Throughout history, rains of fish have fallen from the sky. The fallibilist can prove that it wasn’t a waterspout, whirlwind, or litterbug aliens. What the good fallibilist will scrupulously refrain from saying is that fish didn’t fall from the sky. One can only prove what something is not, never what it is, and pretense towards an affirmative truth is simply a shortcut to avoid the question entirely.
Thus it would seem that a regressive fallibilism offers the best epistemological hope for a philosophy of anomalistics, that is, each proof requires a further proof on into infinity, but each is simply a refutation of a conjecture, rather than the affirmation of a reality that skepticism self-satisfyingly holds it to be. Learn to embrace the inconclusive, as that may be all there is. As science fiction writer Samuel Delaney said, “Endings to be useful must be inconclusive.”