A Revolutionary Way of Explaining Paranormal and Anomalous Events

This is a review of Dr. Jeff Kripal’s book Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago, 2010). Dr. Kripal holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University.

When a distinguished endowed chair with impeccable academic lineage and credentials publishes a book on interpreting paranormal experiences, how can anyone at least not be a bit intrigued? On the face of it, what we have in this gem of a book is a learned review of four “authors of the impossible.” That is, four writers who delved into experiences that many of us would simply dismiss as impossible, or, to cite the well-known philosopher of scientific materialism, E. Scrooge, anecdotal experiences that may simply be excused as having come from “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, [or] a fragment of an underdone potato.” Underneath the review of these authors, what Dr. Kripal seems to be doing as elegantly as possible, is nothing less than exploring a new 21st-century metaphysics that can actually account for events on the fringes of our experience. If that sounds complicated or difficult to grasp, it really isn’t.

Without spending too much time summarizing the book, here are the basics. The four authors of the impossible are an interesting bunch. They are Frederic Myers (1843-1901) who was a Cambridge-educated classicist, philologist, poet, and founder of the Society for Psychical Research; the American author, cataloger, and researcher Charles Fort (1874-1932); the contemporary French computer scientist and astronomer, Dr. Jacques Vallée; and Dr. Bertrand Méheust, a retired professor of Philosophy and Sociology. The bulk of the text maps out how these authors approached what I term “anomalous phenomena,” or better yet, what William James called “wild facts.” These experiences range from UFO sightings, the mass visions at Fatima, and other events typically called “paranormal.” Each of these writers’ visits and addresses such odd phenomena in ways that require something a bit more complex than the simplistic “it did happen, or it didn’t happen” worldview – and that is where Dr. Kripal truly shines. So, I’m not going to walk through the book or even spend much time on the four authors he explores other than to say it is exceedingly rare to find a book with such depth that is easy to understand, witty, accomplished, and yet humble in approach.

Now onto the beginnings of a possible metaphysics of the paranormal.

First, let’s get the easy part out of the way and perhaps save you some time. This is by no means a critique of your world view, but if you are of the position that there are no realms of human experience that transcend current scientific and materialist models or cannot be explained away as simple anecdotes then you won’t like this article. That is fine; no one has to agree with everything on the Internet. There are plenty of articles and polemics by Richard Dawkins et al. that will support the comfort of your position. This however, isn’t one of them. Said much better than I ever could, Dr. Kripal writes of these paranormal experiences, “I will suggest no adequate explanation for this impossible possibility. The simple truth is that I do not have one. Nor, I suspect, do you, or anyone else for that matter, other than, of course, the professional debunker, whose ideological denials boil down to the claim that such things never happened or, if they did, that they are just “anecdotes” unworthy of our serious attention and careful thought. Such mock rationalisms, such defense mechanisms, such cowardly refusals to think before the abyss will win nothing here but my own mocking laughter. Each of us, after all, is just such an irreducible, unrepeatable, unquantifiable Anecdote.”

Also, by way of boundary setting, what we are discussing here are the reported varieties of experiences of people, not the objective validity of the events as they describe them. This is an important point, so let me explain. Let’s say that I am out hiking by myself and come upon a mysterious event. Maybe it is a religious apparition (I see an image of a holy person I revere), or perhaps it is a flying saucer, or maybe a glimpse of Bigfoot here in the Pacific Northwest mountains. There are three components to the event: there is the personal experience (I just saw something), there is my translation or narrative of the experience (I think it was Bigfoot), and there are the testable scientific facts of the event (tracks, hair clippings, reports of escaped primates from a nearby zoo, etc.). What we will be talking about now are only the first two components of the event – the experience and the translation of the experience – not the objective, testable pieces. This is the story of human experience and understanding, not an analysis of how impossible it would be for large primates to go undetected in the well-trodden Cascade Mountains. In philosophical language and borrowing from phenomenologists, we will be bracketing the experience, not judging its validity or truth. We will be doing what William James did in his Varieties of Religious Experience, which is, clinically describing what sane and genuinely sincere people expressed about what they experienced. Here the lines between psychology and philosophy blur.

Dr. Kripal looks at the reports of such paranormal experiences in a seasoned manner with an eye toward understanding their meaning. Let’s take a UFO abduction report by someone who is reasonably sane and not seeking profit or publicity from their story. We can choose to immediately discount their story – and due to the amount of fraud and other idiosyncrasies in this field – that might be the best approach. But since we are grappling with thousands of stories across multiple cultures, it gets difficult to just excuse offhandedly any single person’s story. This is not to say that what they report (metallic saucers, grey men with slits for eyes) actually objectively happened – but it is to say that in many cases, something happened to these people. Some are genuinely sincere in their assertions that something strange happened to them. If we have the courage and humilitas to suspend judgment for a while, we can do the work of comparing their experiences to others and finding commonalities and differences. As Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell explained, if we objectively look at stories spread across generations and geographical locations, we begin to see some things they have in common. These could be archetypes (e.g., The Trickster, The Fool) or entire story arcs (the Hero’s journey). When understanding a culture’s myths, should not be jumping to the “Did it really happen?” question immediately out of the gate. That is how we fall into the trap of fundamentalism, be it religious or scientific. The real question to address is more difficult and less binary, “What does it mean?”

But we have a very compelling challenge in front of us. If one person experiences something anomalous, (again, a “wild fact”) then we can perhaps generally write it off as a head-scratcher, but when thousands of people across different cultures, demographics, and time periods experience something similar, then we should properly ask how this can be the case? Again, I am not ruling out fraud and copycat reports. In fact, I think it’s wise to assume that a majority of reports that make it to your “News of the Weird” newsfeed are of such character. Fraud in this area is pervasive. But we also have peer-reviewed studies, significant government spending, academically-qualified reports of high strangeness where small but statistically significant aberrations have people reporting them repeatedly. We also have solid research from leading academics at the University of Virginia and Duke University that has withstood academic critique (but not sniping nor the turning of blind eyes). We also have the work of hundreds of scientists in the 19th and 20th centuries who painstakingly documented wild facts and submitted these for review. The work of these men and women has conveniently moved out of academic discourse as a Hobbesian view of “the real” (and, I would suggest, its associated ethics) has heightened.

The challenge is this. Even if 1% of all claims of UFOs, ghost sightings, religious apparitions, ESP studies, and all manner of such events are found to be unexplainable (let’s say the other 99%, as an extreme, are fraudulent or based on psychosis) then we have a profound metaphysical problem. Again, I am not saying that these phenomena, as explained by the experiencers, happens exactly as they report it. I am saying that the fact that something happened to them is an enigma and is unexplained. But that something did indeed happen. That is what makes these experiences anomalous.

As it happens, anomalous events that we cannot refute have a special status in the history of discovery and in philosophical and scientific revolutions. For Thomas Kuhn, writing the early 1960s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, an anomaly arises when a puzzle, considered as important or essential in some way, cannot be solved. The anomaly cannot be written off as just an ill-conceived research project; it continues to assert itself as a thorn in the side of the practicing scientists. The anomaly is a novelty that cannot be solved or written off. This is precisely what is taking place with multitudes of reported experiences by everyday people. So, our current situation, regardless of how much we have sought to stamp out superstition since the time of Newton, is that we have countless numbers of people throughout the world who are claiming a myriad of decidedly non-scientific experiences. We have anomalies, bugs in the system, a glitch in the matrix for which conventional philosophy and science do not have a schema for explaining.

And herein lies the brilliance and genius of Dr. Kripal’s book.

As a scholar of religion and an academic descendent of Eliade, I can only imagine that the notion of “the holy” must be one that is frequently near the center of Dr. Kripal’s thought. Today we throw around the word “holy” (from greeting cards to banter from Gotham superhero sidekicks), but I suspect we have lost sight of the treatment of the phrase as they used it in theology during the last century. Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) defined the holy as a nouminous experience that is mysterious (mysterium) that is at once terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans). It is something absolutely other and overwhelming. The experience of the holy is not a soft yoga mat or a spa-like moment of inner peace and herbal tea. In fact, in many instances, it is quite the opposite. It is something overwhelming where we do not, nor cannot, have the language to explain. It unseats us. It is likely not enjoyable. In our secularized and dis-enchanted culture, we don’t leave much room for the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Maybe we got a little close during the recent solar eclipse, but that turned largely into an exercise in ensuring we had the right glasses and how astronomy was such a predictive science.

In disenchanting the world, maybe we have given up parts of our human experience, such as the notion of the holy.

But maybe not. Maybe this nouminous experience comes out in different ways. Perhaps as humans, we have types of experiences that don’t fit into our language, into our mold. We still like to describe these experiences, though, both to ourselves and to each other with our language and our stories.  So, we grab onto the hooks that are most readily available. I find it no accident that UFO sightings accelerated during the Cold War and the age of the rocket. Our past experiences, our language, and culture can influence our translation of the event. It is no accident that images of Jesus (as opposed to, say, Shiva) do not show on the burned toast images of rural Arkansas kitchens. If you are concerned right now (in this age of fundamentalism) that we are slipping religion in the back door, then take Rudolf Otto and his lavish Latin phrases out of it. You can still say that there is a part of the human experience that simply does not make sense; that there are events, feelings, synchronicities, and happenings that can’t plug into our worldview. If that is the case, we are at least close to saying the same thing.

It is from this nouminous world that experiences we term “paranormal” arise.

From the standpoint of the history of philosophy, this all makes sense and isn’t much of a story. Beginning mostly with Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), we have reasoned that there is a world “out there” that somehow is imperfectly understood by my perceptions. I can’t know the real world (the noumena, as Kant called it) because it comes through the filters or categories of my perception. So, we see a representation of the world, not the world itself. Dr. Kripal seems to be adding another layer to this. While Kant wrote that the categories of perception impact our understanding of the world, Dr. Kripal adds (completely consistent with 20th-century philosophy of language) that our personal story or narrative, as well as our social narrative, also impacts what we deem to be real inside our own heads.

Let’s unpack this a bit. My senses are filtered and my mind creates an image as to what I believe to be real; However, there is also a more complex force that influences my interpretation of experiences. That is the culture and language in which I lived growing up. When sailing near Haiti, Christopher Columbus reported that his men saw mermaids on his travels. That sounds outrageous to us. However, we can fit his experience into our conventional narrative. We know there exist what we call manatees who are vaguely human-like and cradle their young. Our most reliable present narrative dictates these are manatees, not mermaids. But note that we aren’t questioning the sailors’ experience of seeing mermaids, we have just developed a more precise interpretation of that experience. We can say the same of many paranormal experiences, from UFOs to apparitions. Something happened, but depending on your time in history, your upbringing, or your language; it could either be Shiva or Jesus who appears in your burnt toast. Your profoundly unsettling experience last night (which I do not doubt you had) you described as an alien abduction, but it is possible if not likely, that throughout history the same root experience could have been understood as other things, such as incubi, succubae, demons, saints, etc. We layer on an interpretation of the event in the same way that we layer on our lives to Jungian archetypes.

So, in his book, Jeffrey gets us started on the path of a more sophisticated understanding of these “impossible” events. He does not (and we likely cannot) conclude on these events, but it seems as though the answer is out there, Neo, we just need to know where to look. A good place to start, based on the present book, would be somewhere close to Kant, Rank, and Jung with a good serving of metaphysics and philosophy of language thrown in.