“She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist” – Jean-Paul Sartre
When you are as deeply concerned with strange phenomena as I am, it’s hard to get up in the morning feeling normal. It helps if you drink. The chasm between physical reality and our conscious perception thereof opens up with your morning coffee, and as you peruse the newspaper headlines and social media feeds, one has the same unsettling sense that no doubt prompted humorist Dorthy Parker to greet the doorbell each time it rang with the phrase, “What fresh hell can this be?” Let’s face it, if you express anything more than a passing interest in UFO’s, Bigfoot, ghosts, monsters, or the various and sundry anomalies of the universe, you are generally regarded by your peers with trepidation, and a charitable concern for your mental health.
Now this may be “inside baseball”, but a curious development has emerged in the world of anomalistics, which we can understand to include those who experience and those who investigate, as well as those self-identified skeptics that nonetheless wade into the muddled marsh of Forteana. Strange phenomena have been decentralized as an object of study, in favor of a psychologization of those who express an interest (either to believe, understand, or debunk).
Thus, we spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the pathological delusions of true believers, the cognitive dissonance of skeptics, and the fear of commitment of those who straddle the line. The focus has shifted from a simple ontological statement that while our valuation of science has an impressive track record of achievement, the universe nonetheless keeps serving up oddities that throw a wrench in our metaphysical project of comprehending the significance of human existence and grasping at the nature of reality.
Therefore, instead of debate, we more often see diagnosis. This is as foolhardy as it is unproductive. The unadulterated truth that is being largely sidelined is that the existence of an anomaly is prerequisite to scientific discovery, and the facts that don’t fit are what usher in the paradigmatic shifts that revolutionize our understanding of the universe.
Physicist, historian, and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, who coined the term “paradigm shift” in his seminal 1962 work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, offered the anomaly as that which impels our extension of knowledge, observing, “Normal science does not aim at novelties of fact or theory and, when successful, finds none. New and unsuspected phenomena are, however, repeatedly uncovered by scientific research, and radical new theories have again and again been invented by scientists. History even suggests that the scientific enterprise has developed a uniquely powerful technique for producing surprises of this sort. If this characteristic of science is to be reconciled with what has already been said, then research under a paradigm must be a particularly effective way of inducing paradigm change. This is what fundamental novelties of fact and theory do. Produced inadvertently by a game played under one set of rules, their assimilation requires the elaboration of another set”.
When the debate is consistently framed in terms of delusion vs. fundamentalism, we have ceased to engage in intellectual inquiry, and turned towards a denigration of the mental faculties of our theoretical opponents (whose interest in our precious anomalistic phenomena truly makes them our colleagues, regardless of those ontological and epistemological presuppositions they bring to the table). This is far from crying, “Can’t we all just get along”? Some people are just jerks. It simply reiterates the importance of classical ontological debates of the realists (universals exist, as do particulars) and the nominalists (only particulars exist). Universal truth has this pesky habit of shuffling out just past the boundary of our intellect, the minute we conclude we have understood something.
In the absence of incontestable and enduring physical proof, anomalistics has found its various objects of inquiry ghettoized in the world of “the pseudo-”, and understood to be an examination of cultural constructs, human misperceptions, and an expression of metaphysical yearning, turning the experience of the strange into a function of humans gone wild. Us Homo sapiens do after all demonstrate an acute capacity to get wacky.
When it comes to Forteana (and those who argue that no such animal exists), a far more productive approach is to step back from the incessant demands for “proof”, the psychoanalysis of both believers and skeptics, and turn to the question of validation, which says we may never know the ultimate object itself, thus we most fruitfully approach knowledge by confronting interpretations and arbitrating between them as we look for points of agreement, even when agreement is an impossibility, or as Paul Ricoeur said, “The logic of validation allows us to move between the two limits of dogmatism and skepticism”.
Maybe the next time frogs inexplicably fall from the sky, the answer is not to call the Weekly World News, hand out the psychoactive medication, decry skeptics for their stalwart rejection of that which cannot happen, or talk about the delusional predispositions of those whose assert with supreme confidence that a “frog rain” was extant. Validation is neither acceptance nor rejection, rather it is an open and honest arbitration of possible interpretations. Such discourse is shockingly rare. At least maybe we can validate their parking.