“It is then that ceasing to take the natural, the spiritual view of the world and its waywardness, he takes the temperamental view, and in the gloom of his mood gropes for a hopeless reversion to innocence through individual renunciation of society instead of pressing forward to the social redemption which the very ecstasy of error must help effect” – W.D. Howell on Tolstoy
Every scientist, theologian, and armchair philosopher has one underlying goal. To understand the human condition. Any natural scientist who tells you he’s solely interested in apprehending the physical mechanics of the universe is pulling a bait and switch. At the heart of every human inquiry is an attempt to understand our place in the universe. We are after all an irretrievably arrogant bunch of hominids. It’s a little known after-effect of the erect posture. We got a relatively straight backbone, and consequently made it all about us. Even the simplest questions about the basic building blocks of the universe are embedded in the self-referential inquiry of “what have they done for me lately?” The elusive “pure” knowledge, the unadulterated facts so ballyhooed by skeptics, remain a function of the question of what we are, what our purpose is, and what role we play in existence. Obviously I can’t offer a conclusive answer, as that would require a level of arrogant certitude that can only be found while dancing along the edge of alcohol poisoning or working as a professional skeptic blogger, and largely precluded by my adherence to Robert Anton Wilson’s notion that “the only thing convictions make are convicts”, but I take solace in the fact that absent revelation, I can still make myself annoying. Everyone has to have a hobby.
Yet, I had a rare moment of self-reflection. I avoid these as I would not mere lepers. The first thing I determined is I really need a haircut, followed by the more existential question of why I’m relatively obsessed with strange phenomena. Maybe it’s something I ate? That is, of course, not a satisfying explanation, although I’m a little suspicious about the expiration dates of the stuff in my refrigerator. I get distracted, and consider grocery stores a black hole of indulgence to be approached with trepidation and no small amount of fear. But I digress. Although, digression is the highest form of self-flattery. See what it’s like to live in my head? No fun at all. There be dragons there. A curiosity about the preternatural seems to stem from a certain comfort with the unknown, a willingness to entertain and give play to those liminal things that lurk at the periphery of our vision and hide in our closets, without seeking absolute confirmation or disconfirmation, for as psychologist William James said, “Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?”
In the rarified atmosphere of the ongoing debates about the existence of UFO’s, Bigfoot, ghosts, sea monsters, psychic powers, capricious gods, and whether “auto-tune” is an instrument, a fractious cacophony amplified by social media to which we are now all subjects, we are required to put forth our ideas with an inadequately founded confidence, just to rise above the noise. Similarly, when an individual’s background, foibles, and earnest beliefs are easily discernible in their internet presence and profiles, it is all too easy to be dismissive of ideas based solely on their source, although a reasonably questioning mind can generally distinguish the wheat from the chaff, or at least reserve judgement. Nonetheless, this electronic interplay has led to a continuous dissection of minutia by believer and skeptic alike, looking for discontinuity and upon finding it, declaring victory. Belief is arrayed against rationality. Experience is arrayed against logic. Science is arrayed against culture. And facts are arrayed against meaning. And there is no joy in any of it. The believer feels themselves to be oppressed by the weight of intellectual authority, and the skeptic feels besieged by ideology (or inanity). It’s a war regarding the sacrilization of ideas, a fruitless grasping at hierophany that adores the idols that manifest, only when they can be set against the profane. Emile Durkheim observed, “By definition, sacred beings are separated beings. That which characterizes them is that there is a break of continuity between them and the profane beings”. And only by seeking this break can believer and skeptic alike claim an ontological certitude, which can never actually be derived epistemologically. William Burroughs put it more succinctly when he said, “The mark of a basic shit is that he has to be right”.
Human inquiry is not just vacuous collection of causes and correlations, rather the activity is the organization of correlations in a meaningful way, that is to say knowledge representation. When it comes to the logic of knowledge representation one can proceed from either the “closed-world assumption” or “open-world assumption”. The closed-world assumption presumes that a statement which is true is known to be true, and that what is not currently known to be true is false. Not particularly mind-bending. The open-world assumption suggests that the “truth value” of a statement may be true irrespective of whether or not it is known to be true, that is to say the truth value of a given statement or fact indicates only a relation to the proposition of truth. The idea that something is unknown does not necessarily diminish its truth value, whereas “disproof” requires a closed-world assumption.
Now, you can believe in flying, purple Unicorns or that Kevin Federline is a stunningly talented artist in the comfort of your own mind. That is your prerogative. We don’t need evidence, nor are we required to share your belief, and it is probably not very important to you that we do. When public debate emerges surrounding an area of interest, such as the cantankerous missives spit between the anomalisticaly-inclined and the skeptic community when it comes to long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night or mutilate cattle, we have delved into the realm of knowledge representation, at which point our choice of logical world view deeply affects us, and is source of all sorts of peccadilloes like confirmation biases. This is neither an argument for absolute relativism or strict epistemological adherence to whatever methodology floats your goat. It is simply the recognition that “truth” and “truth value” are not the same logical entity.
The open-world assumption allows for the “ecstasy of error”, that is the error that spawns truth, or as William Ellery Channing once said, “Error is discipline through which we advance”. Always be willing to be wrong, but never assume that truth will invariably be found in a closed world of fixed laws. Except if a UFO irradiates your lawn or aliens artificially inseminate your sister. In that case, their ought to be a law.