“Puzzle solving is the normal or everyday activity of scientists, and consists of problems which are believed, in advance, to have a solution, if only enough ingenuity and effort is brought to bear, using the paradigm as a guide” – Thomas Kuhn
So you’re a skeptic. The good news is that admitting you have an addiction is reportedly the first step to recovery. You are addicted to the pernicious temptations of absolute doubt and moral superiority, unwilling to entertain the possibility that the universe is a strange place in which the odd and inexplicable sometimes manifest themselves, and try as we might, we may not be able to encapsulate the entirety of existence or the human experience within the confines of a preciously conceived science that most scientists themselves would not willingly adhere to. Luckily, your choice is not between nihilism and belief, although you like to frame the argument that way. That’s okay. You’ve been intoxicated on abject doubt for a long time. We (scientists as well as the common man) wish to solve the enduring puzzle of what it means to be human and orthodox skeptics imagine that all the men of science are atheist physicalists, as contrasted with the unwashed masses that believe all manner of silliness from religion to UFO’s, when in fact your average scientist is no less likely to manifest a faith outside their discipline in a “Praise the Lord, but pass the ammunition” way that only those mired in foxholes and actively applying consciousness to exploring mysteries can simultaneously hold.
The current kerfuffle in the skeptic community seems to be whether they should be bothering with such “soft targets” as strange phenomena, when there are more relevant areas of inquiry that are far more worthy of their impressive intellects, such as the prevention of war, the assessment of medical treatments, or stopping the human race from ushering in its own extinction by destroying the environment. These are noble goals. Have at it. But those who insist the proper role of the skeptic is to counteract the superstitions of the greater part of humanity, argue they do so out of tolerance and empathy – a concern that belief in that which does not fit into their paradigm is the result of ignorance or intellectual inferiority. Their corrective action is to take several thousand years of written human history and dismiss it as pure fantasy. Try as you might to promulgate the idea that cryptids, ghosts, extraterrestrials, and all manner of preternatural things lurking at the periphery of our knowledge are fanciful delusions, whether phenomenal or noumenal, we unfortunately keep seeing things, experiencing things, and recording them across time and culture. This “New Enlightenment” is a movement in which all can eventually be solved when the appropriate minds are put on the job, and the flotsam and jetsam that most of humanity has always believed can be submerged as a mentally deficient curiosity. If you’re confident in that and need a counter-example, just check the divorce statistics.
Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, specifically addressed the relationship of anomalies to scientific inquiry, suggesting, “An anomaly arises when a puzzle, considered as important or essential in some way, cannot be solved. The anomaly cannot be written off as just an ill-conceived research project; it continues to assert itself as a thorn in the side of the practicing scientists. The anomaly is a novelty that cannot be written off, and which cannot be solved”. The skeptic maintains that the unsolvable puzzle is unsolvable because it is irrelevant. The anomalist, on the other hand, asks why the problem is unsolvable. Empathy is not lauding your education in a particular epistemology as evidence of your intellectual prowess and unwillingness to be taken in by idiots, charlatans, and hoaxsters, rather it is the ultimate act of hubris. The bounds of our knowledge continuously expand, but it is the arrogance of every generation that tells us we have hit upon the keys to the universe.
Far be it from me to suggest that we cannot mock the anomalistic, the bizarre, and the inexplicable. I certainly do this myself, but with the idea that one must be able to find humor in an object of study, or you are not truly capable of thinking about it, and predicated on the understanding that fact and meaning do not always follow parallel trajectories. I know that being a skeptic has given a sense of gravitas to your musings on forbidden subjects, and that any kind of acceptance of its addictive qualities is hard to stomach. It makes you feel good, right? And you can sweep all those pesky reports of things that go bump in the night under the carpet because they make you uncomfortable and threaten your ego, but as Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering”. Meetings are at 7 PM on Tuesdays if you want to start on the road to recovery.
Thank you kindly.
When I read this piece, I grinned, got the popcorn ready, and checked a few skeptic blogs. After smacking my forehead numerous times I returned here to say “Bravo EsoterX!”
My advice to skeptics is to think deeply about Maimonides admonition: “Teach thy tongue to say ‘I do not know’, and thou shalt progress.” But I fear they are quite content to remain in their ditch. In AA terms, they haven’t hit rock bottom.
Another observation has to do with those who misconstrue your use of humor. Anomalistic phenomena generate anxiety and I would point out that humor is a mature defense mechanism. I can’t help but notice that skeptics tend to employ pathological, immature, and neurotic defenses. Disclosure: ethnopsychiatry is one of my specialties in anthropology and I am a Freudian. Of course, skeptics will incorrectly argue that psychodynamic theory is not falsifiable and therefore isn’t really science. My rejoinder is that this position assumes there is only one true science in the same way that some argue there is only one true religion.
Finally, one of the 12-steps for recovering skeptics might be coming to grips with Kant’s proposition in The Critique of Judgment that the identification of a fact is basically an aesthetic act.
I find that a degree of skepticism should be applied to the study of Ufology. Do we blindly accept the story of an alien abduction or visitation without physical evidence? That would be just silly. It is important to note the EsoterX articles are not taking the position of believer or skeptic. It is an anthropological study of what these stories mean to us culturally.Skeptics who simply say “I don’t believe in UFO’s” are often not qualifying those statements with supporting evidence. That is no better than a Ufologist presenting testimonials of alien visitation and abduction as fact. There is an uneducated lunatic fringe on either side of the debate. A skeptic for skepticism’s sake is like watching monkey trying to solve calculus proofs. Eventually the monkey gets frustrated and starts throwing it’s own feces at you :).
Bravo, sir. A fine example of true non-dogmatic thinking. When can you be a guest on Radio Misterioso again?
Would love to come back anytime.