The former bass player for the band Weezer tweeted this a couple of weeks ago.
MikeyWelsh71 Mikey Welsh
dreamt i died in chicago next weekend (heart attack in my sleep). need to write my will today.
He shortly thereafter sent a correction to say the weekend after that.

He then went to Chicago on schedule. And died in his sleep, just as he had dreamed. For true!

The only premonitory dreams I’ve ever had were completely banal, e.g., “Why does this place seem so familiar? Wait a minute, I dreamed about being here.” Anyway, what do you think this sort of thing tells us about time and reality? Does the future in some sense exist already? If you’re a religious person, it’s easier to make sense of this sort of thing. How do you explain it in a purely material way?

This past spring, I wrote a review column about a fascinating book about the paranormal written by Jeffrey J. Kripal, a Rice University religious studies professor. Of things like hauntings, premonitory dreams, and suchlike, Kripal argues that this stuff really does happen, but we dismiss it because it doesn’t suit what we prefer to believe:

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.”

What I found so interesting about the book were the questions Kripal raises about mysterious phenomena, and whether or not we are more interested in imposing models of reality onto the world rather than trying to learn about the world as it is, and adjust our models in light of the data:

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? We don’t need to toss out the rational and to embrace the irrational, he argues, but we do need more balance in our approach to these things. Writes Kripal, “Why continue to tolerate a kind of armchair skepticism that has everything to do with scientistic propaganda and nothing at all to do with honest, rigorously open-minded collection, classification, and theory building, that is, with real science and real humanistic inquiry? True enough, anomalies may be just anomalies — meaningless glitches in the statistical field of possibility. But anomalies may also be the signals of the impossible, that is, signs of the end of one paradigm and the beginning of another.”

All this brings to mind one of the most popular posts ever on my old Crunchy Con blog — a reflection on linguist Daniel Everett’s fascinating memoir of  three decades deep in the Amazon, “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes.” I can’t find that post — after Beliefnet was bought a year or so ago, they redid the site, and search is a monster. But I did find a subsequent post that references the heart of that earlier one, and speaks to the question of epistemology raised here. Read on — but don’t follow the links, because they don’t work:

As longtime readers know, I’m fascinated by the problems of perception, and our limitations as embodied creatures. One of the most popular posts on my old Crunchy Con blog was this one, in which I wrote about the American linguist and missionary Daniel Everett who, in his book, wrote about a bizarre incident in the Amazon jungle where he was living at the time. The native people were deeply agitated, claiming that they were watching some sort of malevolent jungle deity dancing on a sandbar on the other side of the river. The whole tribe saw it. Everett and his daughter saw nothing. Though he later lost his faith and is now an atheist, Everett is still haunted by that experience. As he wrote in his book “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes”:

What had I just witnessed? Over the more than two decades since that summer morning, I have tried to come to grips with the significance of how two cultures, my European-based culture and the Pirahas culture, could see reality so differently. I could never have proved to the Pirahas that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me that there was anything, much less a spirit, on it.

As a scientist, objectivity is one of my most deeply held values. If we could just try harder, I once thought, surely we could each see the world as others see it and learn to respect one another’s views more readily. But as I learned from the Pirahas, our expectations, our culture, and our experiences can render even perceptions of the environment nearly incommensurable cross-culturally.

I encourage you to take a look at that entire post, and the comments thread, which really was one of the better ones we have here. Everett even added to it. See, this is why I find the work of Wade Davis so important, even though I strongly disagree with him about the nature of Haitian religion. Davis insists — correctly, I think — that we in the West do not have a monopoly on seeing truth, and that we have a lot to learn from premodern cultures whose way of seeing the world we think we’ve transcended. Davis is not a pure relativist; as he writes in “The Wayfinders,” if you have a broken leg, you want to see a physician, not a shaman. His main point, though, is that we ought to be humble enough to learn from these peoples, and to be open to the possibility that they might see some aspects of reality more clearly than we disenchanted moderns do. What I find most challenging about all this is the idea, raised most vividly in Everett’s anecdote, that our psychological and cultural conditioning could dramatically affect our ability to perceive the world as it is. That certain truths about the nature of reality itself only disclose themselves to those who are prepared to receive them.

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