“One person with a belief is equal to ninety-nine who have only interests” – John Stuart Mill
Listening closely to the skeptics, scientists, and rationalist luminaries of our modernist milieu when they deign to turn their attention to strange phenomena, folklore, and religion, one is left with the distinct impression that the primary activity of the unwashed masses of humanity is running to and fro looking for something upon which to focus our heartfelt convictions. We are at root a curious little branch of the hominid tree that by rationalist standards has a lot more credentes than sapien in our Homo genus. This is why, by their account, we are eagerly looking for gods and monsters, watchful for miracles, and susceptible to hoaxes, delusions, and misinterpretations. Per many mainstream psychologists and sociologists, the UFO enthusiast is prone to and wants to believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life. The ghost chaser is a walking case of Freudian thanatos (the death instinct) desperately seeking proof of life after death to ease mental tensions about their own mortality. Bigfoot hunters? I don’t know about them. Maybe they have a fur fetish or were raised on Harry and the Hendersons?
At any rate, those who encounter the bizarre, the anomalistic, the various and sundry things inexplicable in our prevailing physicalist paradigm, and the wallflowers of reality that have not been invited to dance and are uncomfortably getting drunk on spiked punch in the corner, are often described as “believers” who could not have interpreted their experience otherwise, as their poor, inadequate cognitive frames predispose them to understand those things outside the normal realm of human experience under the auspices of a specific, and obviously inaccurate rubric. Don’t get me wrong. People with unshakeable faith in a strictly inarguable and singular belief system are exceedingly annoying as well. Just try talking to a die-hard Yankees fan or advocates of “hot yoga”.
When you spend as much time as I do sifting through historical tales of encounters with the unknown, you rapidly come to the conclusion that the “true believer” is more often than not, a straw man. Accounts of strange phenomena are far more likely to be tinged with doubt and pure reluctance, even regret, to provide a description of the experience. Rather than belief, we frequently see embarrassment, disquiet, and a tacit recognition that what occurred is entirely incommensurable with what a person previously believed. Skeptics leap on this, and decry those who steadfastly maintain they’ve stepped into the domain of the preternatural as suffering from cognitive dissonance that explains their illusions, when in fact they are really making the teleological assumption that the experience results from the brain gone wild, rather than ever admit the possibility that (a) most people are pretty reasonable about most things, most of the time, and (b) that we must be absolutely positive that something didn’t happen to reason backwards from cognitive impairment to hallucinatory experience.
There is a self-selection process involved, since I’m less likely to report sighting Jesus on Toast if it costs me my friends, my job, my community, or the respect of my peers, thus to confidently declare whatever anomalistic aberration has floated into my awareness, it must be so vivid and so contrary to my individual frame of reference that it indeed results in severe cognitive dissonance. I must be personally convinced that the world doesn’t work the way I thought it did. An archetypal instance of this can be found in a classic and much beloved Fortean tale of an 18th Century professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Konigsberg who found himself terribly disturbed when he could not bring his personal ghost encounter into concert with his dearly held philosophical precepts.
The odd tale was told by a certain Count Falkeshiem to a notable English author named Sir Nathaniel William Wraxall (1751-1831). While very little information seems to be available on the Count, his association with Wraxall allows us to place the event somewhere in the late 18th or early 19th Century. If anybody reads German, Lithuanian, or Polish and wants to go digging through the student records of the Prussian University of Konigsberg (which has been around since about 1544) it might be an interesting exercise. Unfortunately I have a mortgage, child, and hence day job. Plus, the Baltic States are historically known for an abundance of werewolves, and I like to play the odds when possible.
Now Count Falkesheim was a precocious student of philosophy at the University of Konigsberg, and the 18th Century was considered the “Konigsberg Century” of the Enlightenment, boasting notable students and faculty such as Johann Georg Hamann, writer Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel the Elder, Friedrich Bessel, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, biologist Karl Ernst von Baer, mathematician Carl Gustav Jacobi, physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, and philosophical powerhouse Immanuel Kant, laying the foundation for the later Weimar Classicism and German Romanticism movements. In short, you couldn’t swing a bat without hitting somebody who would later be considered an intellectual giant. I’m not advocating this as an empirical test of the value of your educational institution, rather pointing out that the big brains were thick on the ground.
Falkesheim was a reasonably cultured fellow (or needed a few credits to cover core requirements) and opted to take a class in ethics and moral philosophy from an unnamed Konigsberg Professor of Moral Philosophy, an ecclesiastic considered a wise, sober, and learned devotee of rationalist philosophy. During a lecture on the nature of the spirit as detached from matter, the immortality of the soul, and doctrines of future existence as they related to moral questions, Falkesheim noted that the professor’s usual detached manner was disquieted. In fact, he observed, in discussing these subjects, the esteemed scholar seemed downright embarrassed. Falkesheim resolved, at an opportune moment outside of class, to ask the professor if he had indeed been troubled, or if it was merely a misperception of his emotional state. To Falkesheim’s surprise the professor wholeheartedly admitted to his perturbation, and related its curious origin.
“The hesitation which you noticed,” answered he, “resulted from the conflict that takes place within me, when I am attempting to convey my ideas on a subject where my understanding is at variance with the testimony of my senses. I am equally, from reason and reflection, disposed to consider with incredulity and contempt the existence of apparitions. But an appearance, which I have witnessed with my own eyes, as far as they, or any of the perceptions can be confided in, and which has ever received a sort of subsequent confirmation, from other circumstances connected with the original facts, leave me in that state of skepticism and suspense which pervaded my discourse. I will communicate to you its cause. Having been brought up to the profession of the church, I was presented by Frederic William the First, late king of Prussia, to a small benefice, situated in the interior of the country, at a considerable distance south of Konigsberg. I repaired thither in order to take possession of my living, and found a neat parsonage-house, where I passed the night in the bedchamber which had been occupied by my predecessor. It was in the longest days of summer; and on the following morning, which was Sunday, while lying awake, the curtains of the bed being undrawn, and it being broad daylight, I beheld the figure of a man, habited in a sort of loose gown, standing at a reading desk, on which lay a large book, the leaves of which he appeared to turn over at intervals: on each side of him stood a little boy, in whose faces he looked earnestly from time to time, and as he looked he seemed always to heave a deep sigh. His countenance, pale and disconsolate, indicated some distress of mind. I had the most perfect view of these objects, but being impressed with too much terror and apprehension to rise or to address myself to the appearances before me, I remained for some minutes a breathless and silent spectator, without uttering a word or altering my position. At length the man closed the book, and then taking the two children, one in each hand, he led them slowly across the room; my eyes eagerly followed him till the three figures gradually disappeared, or were lost behind an iron stove which stood at the farthest corner of the apartment (Day, 1848, p44-45).
This rather stunning admission intrigued Falkesheim, who solicited even more of the story from the Professor of Moral Philosophy. The Professor was no intellectual slouch, and though he had been frozen in terror at the time of the phantom spectacle, he determined to investigate it, but did so by inquiring into the occupants that preceded him in his quarters, so as not to unduly influence any tale he might be told.
However deeply and awfully I was affected by the sight which I had witnessed, and however incapable I was of explaining it to my own satisfaction, yet I recovered sufficiently the possession of my mind to get up, and having hastily dressed myself I left the house. The sun was long risen, and directing my steps to the church, I found that it was open; but the sexton had quitted it, and on entering the chancel, my mind and imagination were so strongly impressed by the scene which had recently passed, that I endeavoured to dissipate the recollection by considering the objects around me. In almost all Lutheran churches of the Prussian dominions, it is the custom to hang up against the walls, or some part of the building, the portraits of the successive pastors or clergymen, who have held the living. A number of these paintings, rudely performed, were suspended in one of the aisles. But I had no sooner fixed my eyes on the last in the range, which was the portrait of my immediate predecessor, than they became riveted to the object; as I instantly recognized the same face which I had beheld in my bedchamber, though not clouded by the same deep impression of melancholy and distress (Jarvis, 1823, p45-46).
Even though the Professor had already recognized his immediate predecessor as the central figure in his apparition, he did not approach the Sexton with direct inquiries regarding what might have precipitated such a vision. Instead he discussed all the men who preceded him in his post, and after a lengthy discourse in the local history, the Sexton got around to the man the Professor had just replaced. The Sexton sung the praises of the man as amiable, learned, and benevolent, loved by all the parishioners, but rumored to have succumbed to a lingering illness and ultimately “died of a broken heart”. The Professor, armed with this titillating bit of information, started to sink his teeth into the case, questioning the Sexton further.
My curiosity being still more warmly excited by the mention of this circumstance, I eagerly pressed him to disclose to me all he knew or had heard on the subject. “Nothing respecting it,’ answered he, “is absolutely known, but scandal has propagated a story of his having formed a criminal connection with a young woman of the neighbourhood, by whom it was even asserted he had two sons. As conﬁrmation of the report, I know that there certainly were two children who have been seen at the parsonage, boys of about four or ﬁve years old; but they suddenly disappeared, sometime before the decease of their supposed father; though to what place they are sent, or what is become of them, we are wholly ignorant. It is equally certain, that the surmises and unfavourable opinions formed respecting this mysterious business, which must necessarily have reached him, precipitated, if they did not produce the disorder of which our late pastor died; but he is gone to his account, and we are bound to think charitably of the departed” (Timbs, 1825, p131).
The Professor was perturbed by this, but a man of obvious rationality and judgement, decided that he should not allow himself to be bothered by phantoms, no matter how suspicious the circumstance of their appearance coincided with the tragic history of his predecessor, thus resolving to continue his occupancy of his quarters. He experienced no further appearances of the apparitions, and had settled into a comfortable routine. Until winter arrived. The professor related the end of the tale, the circumstances which then forced him to quit his lodgings and resign his position in dismay.
When the approach of winter rendered it necessary to light fires through the house, I ordered the iron stove which stood in the room, and behind which the figure which I had beheld, together with the two boys, seemed to disappear, to be heated for the purpose of warming the apartment. Some difficulty was experienced in making the attempt, the stove not only smoking intolerably, but emitting an offensive smell. Having, therefore, sent for a blacksmith to inspect and repair it, he discovered in the inside, at the farthest extremity, the bones of two small human bodies, corresponding perfectly in size as well as in other respects with the description given me by the sexton, of the two boys who had been seen at the parsonage (Ennemoser, 1823, p341).
Here we see, the Professor of Moral Philosophy, an eminently rational and curious individual, repairing himself to the University of Konigsberg to escape that which his senses assured him was fact, but with which he could find no interpretation within his philosophy, a fact which he largely kept to himself, but nonetheless inadvertently emerged as emotional disturbance observed by an attentive student when discussing matters of the spirit. When we land so far outside our paradigms that we discover our representation of the world is at best incomplete, and at worst entirely illusory, how can we be anything but cognitively dissonant. Whenever you encounter an individual who can confidently assert that they are in touch with “fact” and you are a victim of “belief”, be suspicious. They’re probably trying to sell you something. Folks who report strange things usually lead astonishingly normal lives, and simply have the audacity to point out that their experience of the world is not always in line with the smugly, self-confident ontologies that act as intellectual currency in the modern world. Few working people believe that the universe is a sane and rational place, where order and rationality prevail. Frankly, as observed by American cartoonist Jules Feiffer, “Getting out of bed in the morning is an act of false confidence”.
Day, Clarence S. Remarkable Apparitions And Ghost Stories, Or Authentic Histories of Communications (real Or Imaginary) With the Unseen World. New York: Wilson and company, 1848.
Ennemoser, Joseph, 1787-1854. The History of Magic. London: H.G. Bohn, 1854.
Jarvis, T. M.. Accredited Ghost Stories. London: J. Andrews, 1823.
Timbs, John, 1801-1875. Signs Before Death, And Authenticated Apparitions: In One Hundred Narratives. London: W. Simpkin and R. Marshall, 1825.
Interesting, as always, and written with the dry wit that is your trademark. The whole world is crazy, so if you’re crazy, you’re normal.
The character, Wonko the Sane, in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish by Douglas Adams has this to say about the matter:
“I’m a scientist and I know what constitutes proof. But the reason I call myself by my childhood name is to remind myself that a scientist must also be absolutely like a child. If he sees a thing, he must say that he sees it, whether it was what he thought he was going to see or not. See first, think later, then test. But always see first. Otherwise you will only see what you were expecting. Most scientists forget that.”
Alas, most degrees in the sciences do not require coursework in philosophy. My background in philosophy is modest at best, but I’ve often found myself in the rather uncomfortable position of attempting to provide surreptitious remedial instruction in ontology and epistemology to colleagues who have great difficulty grasping the relevance of these topics. The poor quality of many articles in leading peer-reviewed scientific journals makes me think that we need to overhaul the curricula in the sciences.
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