Ghosts for Atheists
Ross Douthat has a great take on the knockout ghost story in Elle magazine (about which I blogged here). He writes that despite the growing irreligion of our culture in this secular age, many people who are otherwise unreligious still believe in the paranormal, because it jibes with their experience. These things cannot be rationalized away. I mean, they can be, and often are, but if something like this happens to you, you know instantly how insufficient are the usual rationalist strategies to explain that what happened to you really didn’t happen. Douthat writes:
My suspicion is that eventually someone will figure out a new or refashioned or revivalist message that resonates with the fallen-away but still spiritually-inclined; man is a religious animal, nature abhors a vacuum, people want community and common purpose, and above all people keep having metaphysical experiences and it’s only human to want to make sense out of them and not just compartmentalize them away from the remainder of your life.
But what you see in the Elle piece is that in the absence of strong institutions and theological systems dedicated to the Mysteries, human beings and human society can still make sense of these experiences through informal networks, private channels, personalized interpreters. And to the extent that these informal networks succeed in satisfying the human hunger for interpretation, understanding and reassurance — as they seem to have partially satisfied Peter Kaplan’s widow — then secularism might be more resilient, more capable of dealing effectively with the incorrigibility of the spiritual impulse, than its more arid and strictly materialist manifestations might suggest.
A few years back, I wrote a column about a fascinating book by a religious studies scholar. From that column:
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. Kripal doesn’t propose a clear alternative, though he does propose that in some way, human consciousness helps create reality through its interaction with the material world, much as we have learned from quantum physics the fantastical lesson that a conscious observer helps determine physical outcomes at the quantum level. He doesn’t believe UFOs are hallucinations or creatures from outer space, for example, but theorizes that UFOs are a a real phenomenon that is, in some dimly understood way, a result of human consciousness interacting with the universe.
If this sounds impossibly New Age, well, it kind of is. But this is precisely where Kripal wants to take the reader by the collar and say, “Not so fast!” The kind of characters we dismiss as kooks may in fact be kooky — but their very distance from the mainstream may help them to see things as they are more clearly, or at least to ask questions that are important, but embarrassing to the right-minded. This is why he turns to a handful of outsider figures, both historical and contemporary, in his search for forgotten insights. One of them, the 20th century American eccentric Charles Fort, described as “damned” information and phenomena discarded by dominant intellectual paradigms. Fort was a legendary curator of the damned, and though he entertained some thoroughly crackpot notions, Kripal values him for paying attention to things respectable intellectuals ignored.
It wasn’t always this way. In the 19th century, Kripal shows, leading scientists and thinkers turned their powers to investigating and analyzing what we now call the paranormal. At some point, however, a dogmatic materialism suppressed genuinely scientific curiosity about these strange phenomena. This is partly, Kripal says, because the paranormal typically cannot be reproduced in laboratory settings. But can we really afford to say that nothing that can be measured or reproduced scientifically can be said to exist? This, according to Kripal, is to succumb to an unreasonable rationalism.
In the end, “Authors of the Impossible” is not a book about “The X Files” and spiritualist ooga-booga, but one about epistemology. How do we know what we know? How do we know that we are refusing to ask the right questions because we are afraid of the answers? Have we set up our modes of inquiry such that we cannot possibly penetrate these mysteries?
Read that whole column here. If memory serves, Kripal is also hard on religious people who deny paranormal events and manifestations if these phenomena do not strictly line up with dogma.
At a recent dinner, a well-respected, highly intellectual Catholic priest who had been confronted by a possessed woman recounted the incident. He was sitting next to me, and I could see his right hand shaking on his lap as he told the story. For those who have seen and heard and been part of such encounters, no convincing is necessary. You may not know exactly what you are dealing with, but the fact that you are dealing with something beyond mere rationality is not in doubt. Sometimes, it takes more faith to believe a thing did not happen than to believe it did.