“Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge” – Abraham Joshua Heschel
Some days I wake up on the wrong side of the bed (or the sidewalk, depending on the quality and character of the previous evening) and consider the possibility that my hobby of rifling through the unmentionables in the drawers of historical strange phenomena is ultimately an exercise in spinning fanciful yarns, seductively supplemented by the authority of literature written slightly closer in time to the purported events. Then, I remember Mark Twain’s advice to Rudyard Kipling – “Young man, when you are about to write anything, first make sure of the facts; then you can distort them as you please.”
Yet, facts are funny things, today’s fantasy bleeding into tomorrow’s fundamentalism. For every Tom, Dick, and Yeshua wandering aimlessly about the Holy Land annoying Romans and Pharisees, there is a Christ. For every Icarus who crashes and burns, there is a Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier who floats, and a Wilbur Wright who soars despite Lord Kelvin’s protestations that “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible”. Human consciousness resents being told what is impossible, and what has made our species so enormously successful is our ability to imagine, and translate the fictions of our intellect into action. When we transform fantasy into instrumentality, perhaps we recapitulate creation, or evolution, if that’s how you roll. The first fish to flop on the beach wasn’t looking for job opportunities, rather imagining that there were more things in heaven and earth than were encapsulated in his aquatic philosophy.
What does this have to do with the hypothetical price of tea in mythical China? Over the past few months, various articles from luminaries in ufology (as well as other subsets of the anomaly-curious) have bemoaned the fact that many aficionados of the strange are out there hypothesizing, fantasizing, and speculating about UFOs, ghosts, sasquatches, and other curious subjects without spending time on the ground talking to witnesses, testing soil samples, and examining the evidence (for example, see the recent UFO research: Is there such a thing?), or alternatively are conducting “research” so colored by their belief in various species of mythology, and willingness to believe anything they read on the internet that their conclusions often have a dreamlike quality. The elusive grail of achieving respectable status in strange research is oft held to be that dangerous unicorn “objectivity”, which can serve as a code word for either rationalism or empiricism. The hallmark of both approaches is doubt, either a doubt derived from reason or a doubt derived from the senses, independent of what witnesses may say. Let’s face it, in the grand scheme of the search for knowledge, the last recourse is to the testimony of others. The objectivity required by both skeptics and “serious” researchers into the strange is unfortunately (or perhaps inevitably) rooted in belief.
The social reformer and spiritualist Robert Dale Owen, considering various bizarre phenomena he observed, concisely identified this problem when he said, “For, if we assume any other principle, all received rules of evidence must be set at naught; nay, our very lives would be made up of uncertainty and conjecture. We might begin to doubt the most common events of daily occurrence and perhaps, at last, to dream, with Berkeley, that the external world exists only in our sensations. Indeed, if the senses of an entire community of men were to concur in imposing on them unreal sights and sounds appearing to all the same, who would there be to declare it a delusion, and what means would remain to prove it such? Nor is it irrational to trust the evidence of our senses in cases so marvellous that we may reject hearsay testimony of an ordinary character when brought to prove them. ‘I must see that to believe it’, is often the expression of no unreasonable scruple. La Place puts the case, that we should not trust the testimony of a person who would allege that, having thrown a hundred dice into the air, they all fell with the same side up; while if we saw the thing happen, and carefully inspected the dice, one after the other, we should cease to doubt the fact. He says, ‘After such an examination we should no longer hesitate to admit it, notwithstanding its extreme improbability; and no one would be tempted, by way of explaining it, to resort to the hypothesis of an illusion caused by an infraction of the laws of vision. Hence we may conclude that the probability of the constancy of natural laws is, for us, greater than the probability that the event referred to should not occur’” (Owen, 1860, p75-76).
This is of course difficult with phenomena that are not reproducible on demand, hence anomalistic, thus Owen points out the central problem when it comes to examining strange phenomena, weird history, and their ilk, that is, humans tend to only truly believe in either their own rationality or their own senses. Say I tell you I saw a ghost. Maybe you’re fond of me, and do not immediately call a mental health professional, yet you did not see the ghost, and begin rational calculations as to what may have resulted in my mistaken perception that a ghost was present. This is as true for the serious researcher as it is for the great unwashed that the researcher imagines everyone else to be. Ultimately, we are talking about a belief in either reason or sensation as the foundation for knowledge.
Philosophers call this rational or empirical fideism, by which they mean that faith in either your own reason or senses is basic to knowability. While orthodox skepticism leans heavily towards the rational fideism end of the scale, empiricist fideism no less requires a similar level of faith. Philosopher Joseph Glanvill (1636-1680), a central proponent of rational fideism, suggested that we have faith in reason because we assume God is truthful. Now you don’t need an attachment with any particular deity or deities to go along with this (unless you believe in some sort of Great Deceiver, and then you’ve got your explanation right there). Let’s just call it “Nature” to spare any heartache. We assume the veracity of Nature, that is, we do not assume inherent design with the express purpose of deceiving us. Thus, we can trust in our reason or our senses to convey accurate and truthful information, although we cannot expressly trust anyone else’s reason or senses. In fact, our reason tells us we must mistrust them in others, since we cannot expose the consciousness behind them, and particularly when we can’t roll the dice ourselves. Objectivity really is an egotistical little exercise.
Therefore, I get a little testy when I see students of the strange evaluating fellow travelers under the criteria of objectivity, or concerted accumulation of “facts”, when knowledge itself is so intertwined with faith. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz, increasingly disconcerted by mechanistic means of understanding cultures, organizations, and historical settings recommended “thick description” of phenomena involving humans, that is, he proposed that human behavior is incomprehensible without context that makes it meaningful to an outsider as well. This rescued anthropology from increasing objectification of culture and promoted a resurgence in field research, but it did so with the caveat that enactment within the cultural context is where knowledge about humans derives from. In a sense, he reintroduced wonder – the awe and vertigo of experiencing as an insider what one has only previously apprehended as an outsider.
A few hundred years of practical science tells us to doubt the unnatural as impossible. Two hundred thousand years of human history tell us that we live in a universe where the boundary between the implausible, improbable, and impossible is rather fluid. A modern rationalist can armor themselves up with illusory moderation and faith-based objectivity, tilt at windmills, and conclude that they have slayed a giant when they indulge in the skeptical assignation of ignorance, misperception, or madness. They replace the context of odd phenomena with the context they know, the fantastic with the familiar.
The anomalist stares into the strange and senses the mystery, asking not what, but why? The skeptic, with a faith in only individual reason or sensory experience (masquerading as objectivity) desires to encapsulate it in a currently validated paradigm or a Rube Goldberg-esque extension thereof. Just as a professional magician can explain how easily he deceives us, and thus may comfortably conclude that all magic is deception, the rational fideist can recognize the limitations of human reason, the empirical fideist the shortcomings of the human senses, and conclude that all mystery springs from such barren sources without ever experiencing the wonder it takes to envision stepping beyond the current boundaries of consciousness, conceptualizing a non-Aristotelian logic, or allowing for the possibility that natural law and physical law are not synonymous. But we can’t lay this solely at the feet of skepticism, which in fairness has a clearly delineated ontology regarding what it maintains can exist, (whether any given skeptic is aware of this or not) as the never-ending quest of the majority of anomalists for “respectability” in the eyes of others who are searching for knowledge drives a kind of anomalistic beer-goggling, a need to see simplicity and attractiveness of data where it may not exist or to laud potentially inapplicable research methodologies as the optimum paradigms for inquiry. Are we really in search of the less mysterious mystery? As Neil Armstrong said, “Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand”.
Owen, Robert Dale, 1801-1877. Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1860.