“Because philosophy arises from awe, a philosopher is bound in his way to be a lover of myths and poetic fables. Poets and philosophers are alike in being big with wonder” – Thomas Aquinas
Unavoidably, my seven year old son shares my fascination with monsters. Having been raised on Scooby-Doo as a philosophical model for Forteana, he has a strict hierarchy of those discarnate entities which may or may not exist. In his worldview, vampires and zombies are clearly fictitious, archetypes designed to frighten, but without sufficient phenomenal existence to merit much concern. Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, on the other hand, are significant entities worthy of being taken seriously. His reasoning is simple. He has physical evidence of their existence in the form of holiday gifts and fiduciary investments in his piggy bank, whereas the full range of other critters that go bump in the night have not manifested themselves in any tangible way, and thus require only a minor measure of awareness in case they are ever encountered, an event considered highly unlikely. I find this to be sound reasoning out of the mouths of babes, as they say. Polite little guy that he is, he nonetheless appreciates a little father-son bonding over any one of the many paranormally-oriented TV shows. We have intense discussions over the likes of Monster and Mysteries in America and Ancient Aliens. I evaluate the monster of the week for potential as my next research project, and he measures their relative capabilities against a cornucopia of video game antagonists. Apparently very few preternatural monstrosities pose any real danger to Sonic the Hedgehog or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It makes an anomalistically-inclined father proud that his son is so fearless as to be able to make cool, quantitative evaluations as to the relative danger of the supernatural. We happily consume ghost hunters, Bigfoot trackers, and bizarre phenomena together, evaluating merits by our respective criteria.
In retrospect, given the odd clarity of your average 2nd Grader, I should have expected no less, but I was surprised when my son declared that he was decidedly unimpressed by the likes of Alaskan Monsters or Mountain Monsters, and felt we should no longer include them in our repertoire. While I have my own philosophical reasons for undervaluing those particular shows, it seemed prudent to delve into the reasoning of someone who hadn’t read the same books as me. With a little probing, I determined that he had a sound logic. The young lad pointed out that despite the fact that they had a wide variety of cameras, guns, and traps, they nonetheless never seemed to get a picture of anything, catch anything, or otherwise secure physical evidence of any kind, yet every episode they would explore a new area, run about at night, and declare they’d found something that implied the existence of whatever critter they hunted was a reality. Of course, I’m paraphrasing, but it is a point well taken. The current trend in the entertainment industry, as it relates to strange phenomena, is to milk expectation. After all, what is scarier – the monster that is seen in all its glory, or the monster that is implied, yet elusive?
Ever since the Blair Witch Project, and the rise of reality television, producers have realized that fear is distinctly related to ambiguity. Shaky cameras, infrared displays, and odd and garbled sounds (which prevent absolutely nobody from providing succinct subtitles) are far more scary than indisputable evidence. As usual, Hollywood has figured out our psychology, long before academic psychologists. This makes sense, as Hollywood has “skin in the game” that the average tenured professor need not concern himself with. Some of the most popular modern television shows (think, Lost), have intricate plots that involve hidden realities that are only substantively revealed in the series finale. We live now in a culture of doubt, and doubt brooks no surety, no decisive conclusion, no transcendent understanding.
Like many social critics, I could blame the internet. Certainly, unfiltered exposure to multitudinous viewpoints ranging from sober to psychotic that the internet affords, and our ever increasing access to this body of ethnographic data have created an information-saturated environment, where one can find support for any hypothesis, no matter how obscure or bizarre, is a reflection of change in human consciousness, but I suspect it is a symptom rather than a cause. The Information Age began before the invention of the computer, rather first appeared with mass reproduction of books i.e. the printing press. Once information could be reproduced and widely distributed, it rapidly became apparent that all those big brained dudes were not necessarily in agreement. Once this was established, it ushered in in the Age of Doubt. Doubt in institutions. Doubt in philosophy. Doubt in religion. How can one believe anything, when the accepted luminaries of the age can’t agree. Is it any wonder that scientific empiricism arose as a significant epistemology coincident with the rise of the printing press?
Humanity has evolved into Homo skepticus. We doubt everything. We doubt our senses, our perceptions, and the functions of our own brain. We acknowledge cultural relativism, and in doing so also explain away the strange, the miraculous, and the otherwise inexplicable as functions of an unrepentant doubt that acknowledges a barren physicalism as the only explanatory framework for an existence we cannot comprehend. We have been lied to, and thus we are comfortable lying to ourselves. Nothing is as it seems. Empirical evidence and mythology blend together until we find ourselves unwilling to consider revelation outside our ideology, philosophy, or faith. Truth becomes inextricably enmeshed in “truths”, in a funhouse hall of mirrors, where we tacitly acknowledge the distortion, but ignore that we are overtly amused by the warping of our reality.
There are believers and there are skeptics. In between, there is only the anarchistic vertigo of the bemused and the unsure, which stems not from a lack of commitment, but from a recognition that the universe is not always as it seems, that conventional wisdom sometimes changes abruptly, and that a lack of familiarity with the ergot of an age is not the same thing as ignorance or perceptual inadequacy. Belief is belief, unadulterated and assured of its own validity, but skepticism (the hallmark of the Age of Doubt) is nihilism, convinced only that belief is false in all its forms.
Somewhere in the gaps between skepticism and belief is the idea that the universe is a vast and complex phenomena that has implications for both the physical world and the world of consciousness, that the Cartesian ability to believe that we are something more than biological machines has significance for consciousness and existence. Our inherent doubt is driven by information. We have unprecedented access to speculation on the nature of the universe, and this has led us to throw up our hands, and regard all information as questionable, all expertise as motivated, and all philosophy as arid intellectualism.
What is my rant in service of? It is a plea to the curious. It asks those who are interested in the elements of existence that pose a question, to refrain from judgement, and instead accept only the possibility that the real and unreal fall along a continuum. If you are convinced of an explanation, be suspicious of the conviction, or to paraphrase Robert Anton Wilson, “the only thing convictions ever made are convicts”. The intellect doubts, but this should never prevent the experience of wonder, since wonder is what makes us human. That’s why I’ll keep watching Mountain Monsters or any of the variety of shows that never find what they’re looking for, and do so unapologetically. The joy is in the mystery, for as astronaut Neil Armstrong said, “Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand”.