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Dealing With Things We Can’t Explain

I’ve written before [1] 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 [2] 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?


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?  [3]:

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 [4], 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?

130 Comments (Open | Close)

130 Comments To "Dealing With Things We Can’t Explain"

#1 Comment By Jane On November 14, 2013 @ 8:32 pm

I guess it is, but yikes.

#2 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 14, 2013 @ 9:08 pm

To me, I explained, the most interesting question about extraterrestrial life is theological and anthropological: Are they fallen? Do they need a saviour?

Mark Twain answered that in An Excerpt from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven. “The number of worlds he has saved is like unto the gates of Heaven, none can count them.”

#3 Comment By Bernie On November 14, 2013 @ 9:37 pm

Roland, thanks for the response. I can readily accept that you were educated by the Jesuits, as was I. We look at things a little differently – something that would undoubtedly please the Jesuits! 🙂

God bless!

#4 Comment By Roland de Chanson On November 14, 2013 @ 10:45 pm

Indeed, Bernie. Back then they were great guys. Think. Believe. I have nothing but fond memories of most of them.

#5 Comment By Roland de Chanson On November 14, 2013 @ 10:48 pm

Oops, I hit “send” to quickly.

God bless you, too.

#6 Comment By Another Matt On November 14, 2013 @ 11:11 pm

But what about consciousness itself? There is as yet not only no material explanation for consciousness, but no theoretical model for how a material explanation could be possible.

But that’s just the problem. The problem as I see it is that it’s very likely that the nature of consciousness is something different from what people assume it must be, and so there can’t actually be an explanation for consciousness-according-to-that-assumption. Replace “consciousness” with “life”:

“But what about life itself? There is as yet not only no material explanation for life, but no theoretical model for how a material explanation could be possible.” This was a respectable statement in the 19th century, but it was wrong. We had élan vital to distinguish living matter from non-living matter. Your statement about consciousness may be found to be wrong eventually (but it is not the kind of statement that could be found to be true because it hinges on evidence).

An extremely useful introductory exercise on consciousness is to spend a few hours figuring out what you think about [5].

#7 Comment By The Wet One On November 14, 2013 @ 11:12 pm

Roland de Chanson,

I simply must salute your extraordinary armamentarium of English words. That was the most erudite thing I’ve read all year. Which I realize doesn’t speak well of what I read, but all the same, I must applaud your vast armamentarium of words.

If I’m not mistaken, you also smithed my favourite of all phrases “mephitic effluxions of a diseased mind.”

Incredible! I hope one day I’m half the internet commentator you are.

Truly and utterly amazing! Strangely, not supernatural though. Hmmm… 😉

#8 Comment By The Wet One On November 14, 2013 @ 11:13 pm

And evidently my diction is a bit lacking. Throwing around “armamentarium” twice in such a short comment is simply trying too damned hard and speaks very loudly to my lack of same.

So it goes.

#9 Comment By Church Lady On November 14, 2013 @ 11:13 pm

The Orthodox Church teaches that such beings do exist and do deceive and can even provide us with thoughts/images (= logismoi) that are not generated from “inside” us but which we can naively believe are from us.

I suppose that’s true, but then again, these same deceiving subtle beings could be behind the entire Bible and all of Christianity, misleading people into believing in that. Where exactly does this end? Demons could be hiding in all those scientific instruments also, giving scientists false readings that tell them the world is billions of years old, when it’s really only a few thousand years old.

I think one needs to have the intelligence to recognize a circular argument when one sees it, and reject it on that basis.

#10 Comment By Church Lady On November 14, 2013 @ 11:23 pm

With regards to reincarnation. The phenomena is entirely subjective, but I find it suspicious how many people claim to have been Caesar or Cleopatra, but no one owns up to being Aztec sacrifice guy.

While that may be true of your garden variety self-proclaimed whatever, it’s not actually true at all of the work of Weiss, Newton, Stevenson, and others. In their experience of inducing past-life memories in a therapeutic setting, they have almost never come across anyone remembering a “famous” past life. Almost all of them remember very mundane, ordinary, and non-interesting lives, often ending badly, or young, as is usually the case historically.

I remember one exception to this that was interesting. One subject described a series of rather mundane lives in third world countries, an African woman living in a small village say. Then she described a life living in the United States, in which she tried very hard to “be somebody”, sacrificing herself to achievement and notoriety. It was actually one of her most miserable past lives. With some prodding, she was actually able to remember who she was, and it was James Buchanan, the 15th President of the United States, generally regarded as the very worst of all the American Presidents. Which sort of goes to show some integrity, in that if someone wanted to make up some glorious past life as a US President, why pick James Buchannan? I mean, why not Lincoln or Jefferson? Again, it just goes to show that genuine past life research may not be conclusive, but it’s not easily dismissed either.

#11 Comment By TomB On November 14, 2013 @ 11:58 pm

It seems to me that before we go about accepting the truth of all the various reports of ghosts and apparitions and precognitions and etc., we ought to first have a very very firm understanding of how the brain works.

Yet we still don’t even really understand sleep, much less dreams.

And, speaking of dreams, isn’t it funny that no one seems to notice how uncanny their resemblance can be, in both nature and form, to so many of the reports of paranormal phenomena?

Because of our brains we can’t even trust our own eyes. (Having one lens only, they can only actually see things upside down, with our brain unconsciously but completely reversing that reality a full 180 degrees for us.)

Ought to be an object lesson in the limit of trust we place in what we think our senses are telling us.

#12 Comment By LaurelhurstLiberal On November 15, 2013 @ 12:07 am

Hi Rod, if you’re really interested in this, you should read the SF novel “The Mote in God’s Eye,” by Niven and Pournelle. It’s a bit dated but still the best alien contact story ever written. One of the major characters is a chaplain-linguist priest, who is both responsible for communication with the aliens and determining if they have souls. There are some fascinating discussions of alien religion in that book!

#13 Comment By Mont D. Law On November 15, 2013 @ 12:56 am

(I’d also think that the biggest shocker by far of any alien encounter, is the possibility that we find out that life on earth, or even human life, is the result of some form of panspermia, meaning some kind of alien involvement in our evolution, even from its inception. And this could even be confirmed through DNA analysis. That would really mess with Genesis.}

Language is a virus from outer space.


#14 Comment By Jane On November 15, 2013 @ 3:33 am

Actually, Christianity taught the world how to love. I learned a lot from it growing up.

Sincere thank you to Christianity!

#15 Comment By AnotherBeliever On November 15, 2013 @ 5:53 am

I’ve a suspicion that sometimes I’ve had premonitions of the future. Sometimes in dreams, sometimes in emotions about people I’m close to. I don’t know if undermines worldview by any means. Maybe time doesn’t act quite the way we think, or maybe there’s something to Jung’s ideas. Either possibility might also explain ghosts, though I’ve never seen one. I don’t know, and that’s okay.

#16 Comment By Thomisina On November 15, 2013 @ 6:47 am

When most people walk about the paranormal, they confuse the experience with the explanation.

We have many, many experiences in this 21st century that could not be readily explained by 19th century concepts and might very likely be classified as “paranormal” by our predecessors.

When we hear ghost stories, Near death experiences, reincarnation, alien abduction, etc, and offer explanations of “mass hypnosis,” or “swamp gases,” etc. we are simply trying to fit them into our conceptual understandings that have been successfully developed over the centuries (i.e.: science and rationality). Unfortunately, in many cases the experiences just don’t fit. Meaning, our framework is not capable of incorporating the experiences (yet!).

But to use non-rational explanations instead and frameworks (myths) that can hardly be tested seems most foolish.

For example, by implanting a neurally chip with a radio frequency in a primates brain followed by some amount of training, the primate is able to communicate with a computer which can cause any number of things to happen. Hence, action at a distance (spoon bending) and telepathy even.

When I give people this example they almost always say, “but that isn’t the same!” But what they really mean is that we can explain it rationally so it isn’t paranormal. To which the only response is that in a limited sense telepathy and spoon bending have been explained without the use of myths.

#17 Comment By Floridan On November 15, 2013 @ 10:17 am

Over the past several millennia, our ignorance of the world around us and far beyond has yielded to ongoing scientific inquiry. The understanding we have of subjects such as medicine, astrophysics and electronics, for examples, while hardly complete have been developed to a point that would have seemed beyond comprehension just a couple centuries ago. And yet, our understanding of the paranormal (or miracles, if you prefer) has not advanced much, if at all, past that of a medieval monk.

I suppose there are two answer to this: 1) the subject is, by its very nature inexplicable, or 2) there is nothing real there. While my own experience makes me lean toward the second explanation, the Jury is still out. However, I think that given the pace at which advances are being made in our understanding of how the mind works, we will probably have more answers to this quandary, and for many, within their lifetime.

#18 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On November 15, 2013 @ 10:37 am

Re: is the possibility that we find out that life on earth, or even human life, is the result of some form of panspermia, meaning some kind of alien involvement in our evolution, even from its inception. And this could even be confirmed through DNA analysis. That would really mess with Genesis

Church Lady,

That simply raises the question of where the alien ‘seed’ species came from. You can’t dodge the question of human origins by moving it back one step.

#19 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On November 15, 2013 @ 10:40 am

Re: The premise is that a Jesuit discovers another world of beings who apparently live in a state of perfect morality but who have no knowledge of God.

You should really read the book, Rod. It’s rather short.

I’ll add that while the book is pretty ambiguous in terms of where it comes down on religious questions (without spoiling it, religious debates are the central theme of the book), it decidedly does *not* come down in favour of atheism/naturalism.

#20 Comment By Another Matt On November 15, 2013 @ 11:22 am

Spoon bending is a conjurors’ trick. There are some excellent youtube videos of James Randi showing how e.g. Uri Geller performed his tricks. His $1,000,000 challenge is one of the best things in the world. One of my heroes.

If someone were to actually win the $1,000,000 challenge, I’d have to rethink a lot of things.

#21 Comment By Another Matt On November 15, 2013 @ 11:27 am

MH, I’m with you — nothing like what Erin described ever happens around me, either, much less to me. I actually dreamt about those beads last night. It was a History Channel kind of documentary with a dramatization, except not only did they turn gold and brittle — they grew in size as well, until they were the size of inflatable exercise balls. Then a bearded ex-priest tried to use one of the beads as an exercise ball not knowing they were brittle, and it imploded, leaving him on the floor. Maybe it was a sign? 🙂

#22 Comment By Erin Manning On November 15, 2013 @ 4:55 pm

Another Matt, I *love* your dream! The bearded ex-priest might have been Fr. Corapi, now known as “The Black Sheepdog.” (I’m not kidding, sadly–anyone who prays should pray for that poor deluded soul.) But seriously–funny dream! 🙂

#23 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On November 15, 2013 @ 7:12 pm

Another Matt, if it’s a sign, it must mean under construction.

#24 Comment By Doc Solomon On November 15, 2013 @ 8:42 pm

@Erin Manning
To the secular materialist like myself, it sounds like you rubbed the electroplated metal coating off of your rosary. It happens.

We may encounter things we don’t understand, but that doesn’t mean nobody understands it. You may not know much about material science, but you can find someone who does.

If I were you, I’d get those beads tested, if nothing just to find out what they’re made of.

It may not be as emotionally fulfilling as a supernatural explanation, but there really are rational explanations for these things.

As far as Rod’s question goes, I’d second someone winning the James Randi Prize. I’m confident that the Randi Foundation’s methodology is sufficiently rigorous to weed out frauds & fakes. Scientists & magicians make fantastic partners.

#25 Comment By Patrick Moore On November 15, 2013 @ 9:24 pm

This is one subject for which it is absolutely essential to have an adequate cosmology and anthropology, particularly given such remarks as this (taken from a review of the book):

“This passionately written book argues for the central place of previously marginalized authors who have made serious attempts to theorize paranormal phenomena outside conventional scientific and religious frameworks. Kripal … contends that claims of the supernatural* should be the subject of “open-minded collection, classification, and theory building” (253). Participation in the *“sacred”* is one of the central elements that supports religious activity and in any case is a fundamental element in the structure of human consciousness, and so, Kripal concludes, confronting such experiences should be at the *center of religious studies,* both privately and in research universities.”

It is perfectly true that modern and conventional points of reference are unable to accommodate such “paranormal” phenomena, and that even orthodox (lower case) religious leaders seem often not to understand them. But traditional teaching worldwide states that, beside the determining soul and the animated body which, as a unity, make up the individual as such, there is also, especially in man, the “breath” that is also light and that creates and enlightens — being and consciousness belonging solely to God and to others only by participation.

“Sacred” — “to make holy” — refers to spirit and is thus transcendent to any “paranormal” phenomena as well as to any “normal” phenomena. It is this transcendent character that rigorously distinguishes between the individual order and the angelic and, ultimately, the divine — the angels are projections of divine qualities into creation, so to speak, and they are essences, not individuals.

It’s in the Fathers, not to mention Aquinas. The danger is particularly great today of confusing spirit with this intermediate or “subtle” order, since it is principally in this that the devil acts. The current fascincation with the paranormal is a sign both of our hunger for something transcendent and our ignorance of what it really is.

Since you have recently mentioned Guénon, the definitive response to this confusion of subtle with the spiritual is his book “The Spiritist Fallacy” which has been reprinted in a new translation by Sophia Perennis. Of course, Guénon’s entire corpus, and even his life, was aimed at re-establishing consciousness of the spirit.

#26 Comment By Andrea On November 15, 2013 @ 10:26 pm

Judging by the comments on the pastlives forum, most of the people were claiming to have lived pretty ordinary lives. I didn’t see multiple claims to be Queen Elizabeth I or the Tsar of Russia. The consensus seemed to be that it is normal for very small children to remember and mention certain things that might be past lives and then to completely forget about them as they grew older. Some older people claimed to have remembered something, probably through some sort of past life regression, but it was often jumbled and might have been a mixture of several past lives, or so they said. They might remember buildings where they had worked or family members who had died violently or have some skill that they ought not to have had. Some of the claims that kids were 9/11 victims reincarnated were rather eerie, since the children were very young and had no opportunity to learn some of the details they were casually mentioning to their parents and the parents swore they had never watched the news or violent movies.

#27 Comment By Erin Manning On November 16, 2013 @ 1:54 am

Doc Solomon, I would agree if the rosary simply happened to have turned up one day a different color than I remembered it (especially if I’d been carrying it loose in a purse or coat pocket). I’m not the sort to look for supernatural explanations all over the place.

But as I mentioned in my account, I watched the change taking place, as did others. There was no “rubbing” of the chain at all, nor did little silver flecks of electroplate come off on anything. I was simply holding the rosary in one place, and the gold color sort of “flushed” over the whole chain (just the chain, by the way; the beads stayed green and the metal center piece and metal crucifix remained silver colored), in about twenty minutes’ time. Had I been the only person to see it, I might have doubted my own eyes, but I was not the only witness to that event.

#28 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On November 16, 2013 @ 7:59 am

I had forgotten about the Randi Foundation Prize. So I’ll third that and say someone winning it would cause me to reevaluate my worldview.

However, I’d put the probability of this happening as significantly lower than a specific player winning one of those enormous Powerball jackpots.

#29 Comment By Another Matt On November 16, 2013 @ 1:20 pm

My favorite thing about the Randi Foundation Prize is that all of the participants agree on the protocols beforehand, so not only are the tests rigorous from an investigative standpoint, but they are also anthropologically charitable.

#30 Comment By Southern Orthodox On November 17, 2013 @ 10:41 pm

If Rod or anyone else is interested in the Orthodox Christian perspective on these questions, I observe once again that it’s thoroughly addressed by Fr. Seraphim Rose in his book “The Soul after Death.”