“The border between the Real and the Unreal is not fixed, but just marks the last place where rival gangs of shamans fought each other to a standstill” – Robert Anton Wilson
I think a lot about methodology in anomalistics. I also have a fondness for scotch. My suspicion is that these two facts are related. Nonetheless, I will commit the mortal sin in supernatural fandom of suggesting that perhaps the skeptics have a point. Don’t get too excited, as my feeling is that the pointiness typically resides at the top of their heads, anatomically supported by their pencil-necks and the sheer force of their imagined intellectual superiority to the unwashed masses. In a limited sense, accusations that ufologists, cryptozoologists, phantasmologists and their ilk are engaged in “pseudoscience” has philosophical merit. Anomalistics is an “un-science”, but if you buy me a drink and press me on the issue, my inclination is to say that the common antagonism between devotees of strange phenomena and avowed skeptics demanding empirical evidence framed in a kind of pseudo-rationalism (that is to say, an adherence to a framework of logic that predicates what is regarded as acceptable evidence), is rooted in a shared category error.
Anomalistics in all its incarnations, more often than not, strives for the respectability science affords. It’s hard to get a grant to study Bigfoot or chase sea monsters from the National Science Foundation when your resume is peppered with words like folklore, occult, or esoterica. Scholars need a home, and prefer dinners that do not involve Ramen noodles, just like every other working man. Borrowing the cachet of established fields means you may just be able to afford that tasty burrito for lunch. Try searching for “shaman” jobs on monster.com. Its slim pickings. And mostly metaphorical. You can’t blame a guy for trying to find his niche and support a particular fetish. And you can’t blame scientists for zealously guarding the boundaries of their disciplines from crazy-eyed interlopers. They spent a lot of money on graduate school and had to take a lot of crap from the guild before they were offered admittance.
Unfortunately, when I’m sober (as rarely as I can manage), the thought occurs to me that the bone of contention between anomalists and skeptics is not ontological (involving the decision about what can or does exist), but is really epistemological (concerned with how we can know what exists), and the aspersions that are cast from both parties indulge in musings about what philosopher and phenomenologist Gilbert Ryle first termed a “ghost in the machine” or what we more conventionally refer to as a “category-mistake”. One of Ryle’s category-mistakes (he was primarily concerned with the philosophy of mind) is the notion of consciousness, which most scientists will now begrudgingly admit into the discussion as acceptable fodder for a dissertation, but only insofar as one adheres to a flavor of Cartesian Dualism. Ryle was particularly concerned that our common understanding of “mind” and mental states is false, being irreducible to a material (read biological) level in terms of practical analysis. Trust him. He’s a philosopher. According to Ryle, and he’s quite reasonable about the whole thing, a mind is not conscious, rather a mind is a demonstrably physical thing (your squishy brain and neural networks) and the entire notion of “consciousness” is a catch-as-catch-can description of a collective set of observable behaviors and unobservable dispositions.
Examination of the various subfields of anomalistics is illuminating. Many ufologists think that bigfoot hunters have a screw loose. Many bigfoot hunters think ghost chasers need their heads examined. And just as many ghost chasers think ufologists are a bunch of crackpot head cases. This is, in the words of Mr. Lobo of Project Archivist, just like saying you “don’t believe in Frosted Flakes, because you eat Cocoa Puffs”. And this sociological phenomenon manifests the two biggest obstacles to a robust anomalistics – (1) a desperate and ultimately fruitless scramble for scientific respectability, and (2) a massive, unrecognized category error.
To be clear, a category error is an error in which things belonging to a particular category are presented as if they belong to a different category. The human race has been experiencing and documenting events that occur in bald-faced violation of presumed natural law for millennia. In the common parlance, weird shit happens. And it happens a lot. Seemingly in defiance of any physicalist paradigm. Personally, I think that’s out of spite, but I got up on the wrong side of the bed. If something does not fit into the currently accepted physicalist paradigm and its demands for empirical evidence, science understandably rejects it. Unfortunately, the anomaly (by virtue of being an anomaly) is an eruption of crossing categorical boundaries with words, because there would otherwise be no suitable word. And when those categorical boundaries are crossed, the accusations of pseudoscience let fly, in their own right confusing a collective description of a suite of observable, but perhaps irreproducible events with a naturalist declaration of phenomena extant in the world.
In short, those of us odd folks who are interested in strange phenomena would be well served in a cessation of the attempts to achieve scientific respectability. Are we truly interested in those things that can be slotted nicely into the constraints of the current state of natural law, or are we interested in who put all this weirdness here? Classification and categorization is the equivalent of mental shorthand. Anomalistics concerns itself with the gaps and liminal regions of those categorizations, where experience and evidence clash. Attempts to sound “sciency”, implementations of dubious “technologies”, and even efforts to grasp onto the latest spooky proclamations of quantum physicists as validations of the fact that humans can and do have anomalistic experiences are exercises in the same category errors that scientists engage in when they deride the physical impossibility, the lack of tangible evidence, or the mental faculties of anomalistic experience. As the computer in Wargames concluded, the only way to win is not to play the game. But we are impatient creatures. We want to know that what we experience has meaning, and this is the source of our anxiety. As Franz Kafka said, “All human errors are impatience, a premature breaking off of methodical procedure, an apparent fencing-in of what is apparently at issue”.