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Dealing With Things We Can’t Explain

I’ve written before about Rice University religion professor Jeffrey Kripal’s book Authors Of The Impossible, a book that talks about paranormal events and phenomena. In my review, I briefly related the bizarre ghost story that happened to our family after my grandfather died in 1994. And then:

I have shared my story over the years with secular materialist friends, who, if they are being charitable, assume that my family and I were suffering from some sort of grief-induced hallucination. The one thing they aren’t prepared to believe is that something strange and meaningful happened in our house after my grandfather died with things unresolved between him and my father. Things like this cannot happen in the secular materialist model of reality. Therefore, we must be lying — either to them, or to ourselves.

And yet, countless people — of all faiths, and of no faith at all — have paranormal experiences, and know they are not crazy. “Just how long can we go on like this until we admit that there is real data, and that we haven’t the slightest idea where to put it?” asks Jeffrey Kripal, head of Rice University’s religious studies department. Kripal poses the question in his provocative new book “Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred,” in which he contends that both orthodox religion and orthodox science foolishly deny things like ghosts, UFOs, telepathy and suchlike because manifestations of the paranormal may violate both religious dogma and what Max Weber (quoted by Kripal) calls “the iron cage of modern rationalism, order, and routinization.”

Kripal’s personal viewpoint on all this is slippery. He says he neither believes nor disbelieves — not because he’s trying to avoid taking a position, but because of his theory about what the mind and human personality are. This requires some unpacking. In Kripal’s view, the mind and consciousness are far more complex than science and religion think, which renders our various interpretive models inadequate to explain reality.

This morning, on the way to his class, my son the space geek asked me if I thought there was any such thing as extraterrestrial intelligent life. I told him I didn’t know. I don’t rule it out, but I’m skeptical. To me, I explained, the most interesting question about extraterrestrial life is theological and anthropological: Are they fallen? Do they need a saviour?

We then talked about the Kripal book, and how people of all kinds — religious and non-religious — draw hard lines around certain phenomena that they are not prepared to admit into their worldview, because if the thing is true, everything they think they know is called into question. I brought up Steven Pinker and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s interview in Salon from a few years ago. They are both atheists. Excerpt:

I know neither of you believes in paranormal experiences like telepathy or clairvoyant dreams or contact with the dead. But hypothetically, suppose even one of these experiences were proven beyond a doubt to be real. Would the materialist position on the mind-brain question collapse in a single stroke?

PINKER: Yeah.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, if there was no other explanation. We’d need to have such clear evidence. I have to tell you, I’ve had some uncanny experiences. Once, in fact, I had a very strange experience where I seemed to be getting information from a dead person. I racked my brain trying to figure out how this could be happening. I did come up with an explanation for how I could reason this away. But it was a very powerful experience. If it could truly be demonstrated that there was more to a human being than the physical body, this would have tremendous implications.

Many stories of the paranormal turn on anecdotal, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. They fall outside the realm of what scientists can study because they are not repeatable. That raises the question, does science have certain limits to its explanatory power? Might there be other parts of reality that are beyond what science can tell us?

PINKER: It’s theoretically possible. But if these are once-in-a-lifetime events, one has the simpler explanation that they’re coincidences. Or fraud.

GOLDSTEIN: Or wishful thinking.

I feel reasonably certain that there is nothing that either Pinker, a cognitive psychologist, or Goldstein, a philosopher, could experience that they couldn’t rationalize away to reconcile it to their materialist worldview. I’m not saying that to rag on them. It’s human nature. I told my son that the only think I can imagine that would dislodge me from Christianity is the authenticated discovery of the bones of Jesus of Nazareth. And even then I would suspect a first-century hoax. We should all be aware of how we dismiss certain inexplicable phenomena because they pose too great a challenge to our belief systems.

I was thinking just now that this would be a fun thread on this blog: Which paranormal phenomenon do you suspect might be true, but dismiss because it’s too far off the grid, so to speak? Mine is reincarnation. I can’t say I believe in reincarnation, because it too strongly violates my Christian theology. But what do you do with stories like this? :

For his shocked parents, these nightly scenes were traumatic.

For experts, they were baffling.

As the nightmares became more terrifying, the child started screaming the name of the ‘little man’ who couldn’t get out of the plane. It was James – like his own name. He also talked in his dreams of ‘Jack Larsen’, ‘Natoma’ and ‘Corsair’.

James Leininger’s father, Bruce, was flummoxed. In a desperate attempt to find an answer to his son’s troubled nights, he embarked on an obsessive three-year research project, armed only with the outbursts and names his son had been shouting in his disturbed sleep.

What he discovered astonished and perplexed him, and drove him to an extraordinary conclusion.

A lifelong Christian, it was not the answer he had sought for his son’s behaviour. But he came to believe James was the reincarnation of a World War II fighter pilot; a man who had been shot down in his plane and struggled to escape as it caught fire; a hero.

The idea seems so preposterous as to be unbelievable. Yet in their new book, Soul Survivor: The Reincarnation Of A World War II Fighter Pilot, Bruce and his wife, Andrea, lay out some compelling evidence.

The little boy knew incredible details, and lots of them, that he couldn’t possibly have known naturally. How do you explain that? You could say, “Those parents are making this up,” or, “Well, this story appears in the Daily Mail, so what do you expect?” But that’s avoiding the question. There are many stories like this one. One is in the documentary Unmistaken Child, about the search for the reincarnation of a Tibetan lama. I watched it when it was on Netflix because I was bored one night, and I’m interested in religion. It was more than a little unnerving, because if the filmmakers can be trusted, there were things they saw and recorded that cannot be explained by any framework, scientific or Christian, that I recognize.

To be sure, I immediately dismiss 99 percent of stories about past-life memories as wishful thinking. (It’s funny how few people who say they have past lives lived as mere peasants.) But there are a few accounts that are simply too bizarre to be rationalized away. And I don’t know what to do with them.

Along these lines, what’s the thorn in your worldview’s side?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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