It Cannot Be Explained Logically
People generally find it hard to accept concepts and things they've never before considered or seen. Many of the objects and machines that today are everyday necessities were once regarded as frauds or dreams. How could it have been regarded except as wild imagination or magic to speak of flying through the air or speeding across the landscape borne by a machine? Did it not once sound absurd to suggest that one could travel under the sea without getting wet, or speak to friends in distant cities throughout the world from one's home, or see events happening in far places at the very moment of their occurrence? And finally, was it not a simple reversion to ancient mythology to contemplate flying through space to the moon, other planets, and even further?
Not only were they not believed, but many of today's scientific miracles were opposed and disdained during their experimental phases. In 1868, newspapers ran editorials claiming that telephones were pure trickery, designed to delude and fleece the public. For five years after the Wright brothers' successful airplane flight, Scientific American steadfastly refused to print a report of or comment on it. In fact, Simon Newcomb of the Smithsonian proved mathematically that the flight of a heavier-than-air machine was impossible. The famous eighteenth-century French scientist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier stated that meteorites did not exist. He said, "It is impossible for stones to fall from the sky because there are no rocks in the sky." Prior to 1914 the French army command staff decided that airplanes might be useful for military observation but for no other military purpose whatsoever. When the phonograph was first tested at the Paris Academy of Science, the permanent secretary suddenly grasped the demonstrator by the throat, shouting that the sound was the demonstrator practicing ventriloquism, but of course the record continued to play.
Even the atomic theory remained only a convenient theory until August 1945, when it proved itself to be indisputable fact. There are other imaginative suppositions and themes that science has yet to accept but that in recent decades have achieved a measure of respectability and become the objects of experimental study. Some of these are telepathy, teleportation, telekinesis, precognition, transmigration, foresight, and the existence of a psyche (Greek for "soul"). The notion of the existence of a psyche, which implies that the brain has a spiritual component separate from its physicality, is still as mysterious as it was in the Middle Ages. Could this separate entity be an intelligence that can survive death and sometimes even separate from the body during life? There are increasing indications that the psyche is not simply a behavioristic pattern within one's intelligence but something more, perhaps possessing motive and mobile force.
With the new methods of research and experimentation currently available, this mystery, along with the other arcane mysteries of the world and the universe, is now the subject of scientific investigation. The lines separating the paranormal from the accepted sciences are beginning to fade, and the two in some cases are beginning to blend. What we thought was the ultimate in fantasy may be another fact. As J. B. Haldane observed, "We are living at a time when history is holding its breath and the present is detaching itself from the past like an iceberg that has broken away from its moorings."
To be human is to be constantly surrounded by wonderment. How do birds fly? Are ghosts real? Can animals and people communicate? Was King Arthur a real person or a myth? Why did Amelia Earhart disappear? Did history really happen the way we think it did? Where did the world come from? Where is it going? We mortals are a curious bunch - those who want to explore the mysteries that are everywhere. In the short span of time we've been on this planet, we've struggled to unravel the great secrets of the cosmos. We've built pyramids, gone to the moon, plumbed the depths of the sea and - more recently - conquered cyberspace in our unyielding quest for knowledge.
For all of our grand achievements, however, the universe remains a mysterious and forboding place. We still wonder who we are, where we came from and where we're going. Are we alone in the universe? Is another Ice Age on the way? Did black kings once rule the vine-shrouded jungles of Central America? There are many mysteries that both trouble and intrigue us, the extinction of the dinosaurs, the origin of the great Egyptian pyramids, the existence of ESP.
Questions like these continue to haunt our dreams, even as we head into the new millennium. It is unlikely we will ever know all the answers - yet, we keep searching for clues. We look to the stars, dig up ancient tombs, resurrect the bones of long-dead beasts. "Our universe is a sorry little affair unless it has in it something for every age to investigate," the philosopher Seneca once remarked. "Nature does not reveal her mysteries once and for all."
We mortals should be grateful. We need mysteries to keep our lives in balance, to keep alive the fear and wonder. Without mysteries, life would be boring. Who'd want to live in a world without Bigfoot and Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle? One thing all mysteries have in common is that there is no ready answer. Often there are many answers but none on which even the majority of authorities agrees. Although truth is often impossible to discover, the search is fascinating.
Millions of American schoolchildren have been taught that in 1492, when Columbus set sail, nearly everyone in Europe believed that the world was flat. Everybody knows that this is true . . . except that it isn't. It takes about fifteen minutes of research in a decently stocked library to find out that the ancient Greeks knew the actual shape of the Earth by the fourth century B.C.E., that this information was preserved in Europe through the Dark Ages in the writings of late classical encyclopedists such as Martianus Capella, and that all through the Middle Ages, the spherical nature of the Earth was a basic axiom of cosmology known to everyone with a basic education.
As for 1492, the standard textbook of astronomy studied throughout Western Europe by Columbus' contemporaries - John of Sacrobosco's On the Sphere - starts out with a set of sound, logical proofs showing that the Earth is a sphere, that it is infinitesimally small compared to the universe as a whole, and that the sun, moon, and planets are almost unimaginably far away in terms of earthly distances. People laughed at Columbus, not because they thought the world was flat, but because they thought the distance from Western Europe due west to the coasts of Asia was too far away to reach in a fifteenth-century sailing ship . . . and they were right. It's just that neither they nor Columbus nor anyone else knew that there were two undiscovered continents in the way.
Henry Ford said, "History is the bunk commonly believed." Every culture recreates the past in the image of its dreams, its fears, its fantasies, and its myths. Nowadays, especially, we force history through the filter of our belief in progress, the ruling mythology of the modern age. We convince ourselves that we are smarter and better informed than our ancestors for no other reason than the fact that we live after them.
Around 1899, a group of scientists boasted that every worthwhile invention and discovery had already been made. The new century, they proclaimed, would be a rather dreary time because science had reached a kind of dead-end. "Scientists will no longer be in demand," they predicted. What a difference a century can make! During the past 25 years we've learned more about the Earth and the cosmos than all the preceding years of recorded history. Yet, the more we learn, the more we realize how little we actually know about our strange universe and the great mysteries within.
Nature and its laws are undeniable. From the healing power of prayer to researchers probing human senses for which we have yet to find names, the unexplained defies our current comprehension of nature and are thus often relegated to the outskirts of mainstream science. Things that transcend our current understanding of our world. "Truth is stranger than fiction," Mark Twain once quipped, "because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities - truth isn't." As was often the case with Twain, this smart-aleck remark was the camouflage that concealed a provocative insight: manytimes in history the truth has turned out to be a radical departure from what everyone "knew" to be true.
Perhaps that is why important new truths are so often uncovered by fringe figures and outsiders. The location of the city of Troy, long consigned by scholars with smug certainty to the realm of myth, was identified by Heinrich Schliemann, a banker for whom archaeology was a hobby, in the 1870s. The theory of continental drift and plate tectonics, a foundation of our understanding of the planet we live on, was devised by Alfred Wegener, a weatherman whose workwas ridiculed for decades by serious geologists.
The search for truth demands rational guidelines. The scientific method has been mankind's greatest engine of discovery and progress since the Middle Ages, and to say that science is incapable of explaining is not to condemn its processes, but simply to understand that they work in fits and starts rather than by an orderly timetable. "Progress occurs only after new empirical evidence becomes so overwhelming that the established orthodoxy just collapses under its weight," reflects Princeton professor Robert Jahn. For two decades Jahn has headed up the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory, whose goal is to bring scientific measurement and analysis to reports of paranormal phenomena such as extrasensory perception (ESP), psychokinesis and remote viewing.
But until you reach that point, the old order hangs on and defends itself and fights with every tool at its disposal. For years, we've been finding data that conventional science is not equipped to deal with. So the response from the mainstream scientific community has been to ignore this information whenever possible, and to attack it when it's not possible to ignore it.
Cornell University professor Daryl Bern, another scientist exploring ESP, agrees with Jahn. "There is no other area in psychology, probably anywhere in science, in which a textbook writer would include research done in the 1940s as his most recent data," he says. "Yet that is regarded as acceptable when it comes to psi" - the name academics use for anomalous methods of communication - "because this field is deliberately marginalized."
Not every idea can be taken seriously enough to warrant rigorous scientific investigation - the search for the yeti, ancient folktales of "undead" vampires - that are a sort of greatest-hits collection of popular notions of the paranormal and occult. It's fascinating to watch fashions in these realms change as inexorably as styles in clothes or entertainment. Our ancestors in the 17th century feared witches and curses; our Victorian forebears were spooked by seances and ghosts; today thousands of people around the planet are obsessed with UFOs and alien abductions. Even the most unlikely beliefs about strange phenomena are based in experiential claims.
On its most immediate and obvious level, the paradox in evidence - where extraordinarily fantastic claim collides with manifestly unsatisfactory prosaic explanation - underscores the futility of the believer/debunker conflict that has raged for centuries. We do know that human beings are sometimes mistaken about what they think they are seeing.
This is in no sense an unreasonable position on its face. Its only problem is its inadequacy, its presumption that any and all anomalous testimony is based on error, at least when it does not come from deceit or delusion. The folklorist David J. Hufford, turning the phrase "traditions of belief" on its head, complained that this sort of approach is based in "traditions of disbelief": the complacent conviction that some things just aren't possible, and therefore that the ordinary care with which scientists and academics address mainstream questions is unnecessary when they turn to fringe claims. Or put another way, any old guess will do.
That leaves those claiming the experiences left to feel foolish, frustrated, or furious, and finally (surely the real point) to keep their mouths shut. Never mind the witness's foolish insistence on his or her good sense and powers of observation. The traditional skeptical theory - that witnesses were in the grip of popular superstitions that affected their sense of reality - does not hold up for the simple reason that what witnesses report about what legends and folklore tell us do not match.
Though this sort of testimony raises questions for which there are no immediate answers, it does tell us something we need to know, which is that phenomena that absolutely do not exist in this world can yet be vividly experienced. That understanding relieves us of the responsibility of conjuring up "explanations" that do not explain, and it also warns us to be cautious when we consider comparably extraordinary testimony - say, of visiting extraterrestrial aliens - and we are less certain that the anomalous entities in question are not present in the world. It enforces a healthy skepticism that addresses equally what we know and what we do not know. It does not push us into unsustainable claims of certainty when in truth, as all of human history testifies, this world is full of unfathomable surprises and vexing ambiguities.
Cases most baffling, however, leave strange traces, thereby indicating that whatever they are, some strange things, they are also here. Very rarely is there an instance in which independent evidence can be brought to bear on an extraordinary claim. Such instances are rare because, for one thing, circumstances do not often collude to render a real scientific investigation possible. Scientific resources are seldom employed to study evidence in cases of anomalies, for various reasons, only one of which is that anomalies are not respectable and scientists sensitive to their reputations prefer to give them wide berth. But a larger, or at least equally important, reason is that physical phenomena hardly ever accompany anomalous experiences. Worse, the content of the latter makes such huge demands on acceptance and (yes) common sense that no sane person will demand a reinvention of the world on no more than testimony, even manifestly sincere and otherwise puzzling testimony, about something that every instinct says cannot be. There are, experience anomalies, and then there are, much less often, anomalous events. The two, however, are not always discrete entities.
Writing of the conviction with which some people believe in the Loch Ness Monster, political commentator George F. Will (who does not count himself among the convinced) nonetheless lamented that we live in an age in which "a willingness to construe other persons' beliefs as products of neuroses is widely considered a sign of bravery and learning" and warned that "the world has much to lose from an atrophied capacity for wonder and surprise."
Those who seek a middle path between credulity and cynicism are perhaps best guided by a maxim attributed to Confucius: "To say you know when you know, and to say you do not when you do not, that is knowledge." Guide yourself by the injunction never to say no when we should say we don't know.
You learn to take a lot of what you hear and see with a grain of salt, but you also realize that a lot of what you hear and see cannot be explained logically. Government cover-ups, Bigfoot, crop circles, alien intruders: If it's out there - and it is, brother, it is better to know about it.
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