“I believe there is no source of deception in the investigation of nature which can compare with a fixed belief that certain kinds of phenomena are impossible” – William James
Great leaps forward in human knowledge seem to cluster around the two favorite pastimes of man: (1) war, and (2) accumulating stuff. We’re usually either trying to find more efficient ways to kill people or build a better mousetrap, in both cases, ultimately with the intention of kicking back and basking in the glory and riches that accrue to us while the unwashed masses toil in the fields or haul bricks up the ziggurat. Natural scientists like to talk about knowledge for knowledge’s sake, “pure” research, and the advancement of our understanding of the universe as prime movers, all the while scrambling tooth and nail for tenure, grant money, publications, patents, and T.V. appearances, meanwhile taking vicarious credit for the practical applications that engineers come up with as they play around with the real world implications of the scientists’ theoretical work and try to make really big explosions or grow tails. This isn’t the worst thing in the world. We’ve gotten a lot of cool stuff out of it. There’s also no denying that science still can solve countless problems for us. I’m not a “science-hater”. In fact, I love me some science. I turn double-blind clinical trials into a drinking game. The problem is you never know when to take a shot, so you just end up really drunk. Good times.
Unfortunately, if you have an inquiring mind and a few tasty beverages in you, one starts to ask existential questions. Why are we here? Is there something more? Is the nail in my brand new tire some sort of cosmic joke? And, more importantly, can natural science eventually solve these questions? Since the Enlightenment and the advent of the scientist-celebrity, those naturalistically minded folks have been dipping their toes in these waters a la “Theories of Everything” in a reductionist orgy intended to assure us that with the correct epistemology, the universe is our oyster. Thus, the question of how we differentiate the natural from the supernatural becomes essentially irrelevant, as only the natural is of consequence, and in fact is held to be the only thing that exists. We more commonly call this “positivism” i.e. the notion that knowledge is solely based on understanding natural phenomena, their properties, and their relations. This has proven to be an intractable philosophical position that has a real hard time when it comes to accounting for things like consciousness, morality, free will, God, and more importantly, purposes and universals.
Slow down cowpoke. Don’t shave your head and join an ashram just yet. You’ve no doubt heard many a scientist decry all manner of theories and investigations of strange phenomena as “pseudo-science”, and often the abstractions with which aficionados of the weird (I’m looking at you Ancient Aliens “theorists”, but don’t worry you’re not alone) are precisely that. When inquiry into anomalies of the natural world descend into abstract metaphysics such as the fundamental presumption that aliens (a) exist, (b) are intermittently visiting us, and (c) have been here and screwing with us and attribute pretty much everything to them, they lose touch with the world we live in. When self-described demonologists perform exorcisms, they are abstracting from a very narrow ontology and looking for real world impacts. But neither should we let science off the hook. When science pokes its nose into the supernatural, it invariably engages in pseudometaphysics, an area where it has shown itself to be remarkably inadequate.
This doesn’t suggest that everybody who ever chased a ghost is a closet metaphysician. We live down here in the muck with all its imperfection, change, and messy physicality. The main problem is you need universals to enjoy the particulars. Abstract metaphysics constructs vast imaginary worlds where anything and everything is possible. Abstract naturalism as applied to everything human ignores that fact that what most folks are looking for is something to guide them on the way to live that suggests there is some meaning to it all. Either end of the spectrum leads to abject skepticism, when in fact we need both metaphysics and naturalism. We need to know how to live as well as why.
This is why everybody has an opinion on strange phenomena (even if the opinion is that they don’t care). Phenomena are “strange” precisely because they are anomalistic in a natural universe, and inexplicable in a physicalist accounting. If one adopts the naturalist ontology, these aberrations are purely error in our sensory perception, measurement, or an incomplete understanding, because it cannot be examined properly using their epistemology, and the skeletal ontology that underlies their belief is unexamined. This is to say, the naturalist adopts a pseudo-metaphysical position, cannot answer metaphysical questions, and therefore assumes that those things that dance around the edges of metaphysics are the hobgoblins of small minds.
Humans may not be the center of the universe, but we are the center of our own universe, thus meaning (the province of metaphysics) and knowledge (the province of science) are inextricable as all is subject to our consciousness. Meaning has real world consequences and meaning derives from ontological (metaphysical) positions. If you are an earnest inquirer into the bizarre phenomena of this world or worse, are looking for practical applications of “occult phenomena”, and are accused of “pseudoscience”, consider the source. Are they engaging in pseudometaphysics to justify their interpretation of your subject?
Sadly, as with most human endeavors, the forward march of knowledge is often driven by economics. Your Clovis point spear was much more efficient at killing mammoth, so you had more meat to share. Big archaic human on campus. Voyages of discovery are generally about grabbing more land and getting new stuff. Whenever somebody figures out how to make an actual profit off the resources spread throughout our solar system, you can bet we will be a multi-planet species in the blink of an eye. We obviously haven’t advanced much beyond that Stone Age ethos.
Back in 1905, the philosopher F.C.S. Schiller wisely observed, “the ‘occult’ can never become scientifically established until it becomes a commercial success”. Now, this seems awfully cynical, but then again, consider the 140 million dollar yearly acupuncture industry. Now, it may just be an elaborate placebo effect (as maintained by many respectable scientists who have nonetheless been cranking out studies on acupuncture over the past few decades, no doubt adding to their lengthy lists of publications, and assuring that plum tenure position), but once the insurance companies start paying for something, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is real, just that we as a culture assign serious meaning to it. Those guys never met a dollar they could bear to part with. So you psychics get out there and win the lottery. Dowsers better start reliably finding us buried treasure. Remote viewers need to show the defense-contractors what they’ve got. That way, when they accuse you of pseudoscience, you can mock them as pseudo-metaphysicians, and laugh all the way to the bank.