“I have an existential map.  It has ‘You are here’ written all over it” – Stephen Wright

Lesson One: The world is a strange place

People believe some strange stuff.  When those people live on the other side of the hill, we call it culture.  Love your Moon Goddess.  Totally hot and dig her take on human sexuality.  When they are our next door neighbors we call them deluded or ignorant (mostly because the primary human pastime is feeling superior to ones peer-comparison group).  Globalization has increasingly brought the folks on the other side of the hill to our neighborhood, and that is a perplexing situation for most of us.  I mean, your God doesn’t look like my god.  And he hates pork.  Or wants you to wear a funny hat.  Or doesn’t believe in transubstantiation.  That’s just crazy talk.  Yet, when you get right down to it, about six billion of the seven billion of us delightfully complicated monkeys roaming the planet today figure the odds are in favor of some celestial critter, pantheon, or preternatural force out there with an eye on things.  Now, just because six billion people believe something doesn’t make it reality, but what it primarily seems to do is make a billion people out there feel intellectually superior.

Periodically, we see wonderfully ambiguous censuses conducted outlining all manner of strange beliefs that seem to occur in what skeptics regard as staggering percentages.  For example, the perennial Chapman University survey on paranormal beliefs that has recently been making the rounds, which seems to indicate that (“Oh my god, even Americans”) surprisingly large numbers of our fellow creatures out there believe in things like ancient advanced civilizations, ghosts, ancient astronauts, current extraterrestrial visitations, psychic powers, prediction of the future, orange marmalade is a food, and sasquatch and all those sort of things that get grouped under the rubric of “the paranormal”.  I don’t care to argue for or against religious experience.  There are far too many whiskey gods I would need to offer obeisance to just to be safe, but it seems to me that that the absolute delight with which the intellectual luminaries like to point out the perceived shortcomings of others is the hallmark of how the self-described logicians, advocates of sanity, scientistic fanboys, and “public” protectors against the “pseudo-“ relate to humanity.  Deconstructing Ancient Aliens, decrying the ludicrous claims of ghost hunters, finding the flaws in countless conspiracy theories is not an exercise worthy of these folks who seem to otherwise have keen analytical minds.  Do people have something to sell?  Of course they do.  So do you.  Either to yourself or others.  This is not how we expand human knowledge, or how we dedicate ourselves to the existential experiment of what it means to be human and exist for a bright shining moment filled with all these ideas about the universe.

I have no solutions.  Sorry.  Can’t even lead myself out of the wilderness.  Of course, what I can offer are the dubious consolations of philosophy.  Here we are, you and me, aestheticians of the strange, wondering what to do with ourselves, bombarded with information about what is unlikely, what is improbable, and what just cannot be.  We don’t sit here and agree with every bombastic statement that comes out of the mouths of Graham Hancock or Von Daniken.  Or most of them frankly.  We recognize the silly entertainment orientation of ghost hunting television.  Really not spending our days assuming an ancient super-civilization taught all those primitive folks how to build pyramids.  Pyramids are cool.  You don’t need much secret knowledge or complicated theological excuse to build one.  Just good financing.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, but this is where our skeptic saviors just need to shut the hell up.  Human knowledge is the voyage of the Ship of Theseus.  For millennia, we have had the questioners and the debunkers.  The tension between them drives us forward.  One asks “how can this be?” and other asks “how can we live in a universe where such a thing could be?” Roman essayist Plutarch (46-120 A.D.) most notably posed the question of whether a ship that had been restored by replacing every single wooden part remained the same ship.  We tend to consider modern knowledge as refinement of a solid foundation, but the truth is we are at sea, awash in anomalies, rebuilding our ship as we go.  Philosopher Otto Neurath observed, “We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.”  Yet, we are admonished by our skeptic friends who relish the presumed illusions of the masses as a validation of their insightfulness, to regard the ship we sail as identical to the one we left port with.

My questions often come down to, when one’s head is filled with the recognition that the bizarre and inexplicable have always seemed to co-exist with a rather mundane, functional reality, how is one to get up in the morning, make coffee, keep the bosses happy, and still plumb the depths of what it means to be us, an oddly conscious creature dwelling in a universe that on alternating days seems meant especially for us or especially for the amusement of someone else?  If anyone presumes to tell you they have the solution, ask them how much their book costs or what their yearly church tithes are.

We grasp our way forward.  The anomaly tells us we missed an essential element.  It seems we’ve collectively forgotten Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s admonishment that “We know accurately only when we know little, with knowledge doubt increases”.  We should be in a permanent state of doubt about our universe, but today’s socialization of the world of information has placed us in a permanent state of doubt about the sanity and intelligence of our fellow man, in the service of our own egos.  The problem with ego?  Well, good old Sigmund Freud said it best.  “The ego is not master in its own house”.