Below is a great and quick summary by Dr. Roger Luckhurst, Professor of Modern Literature at the University of London regarding Victorian attitudes toward anomalous experiences that were commonplace during Victorian England. A future entry on this blog will also cover parallel trends in America at the time.
19th century is routinely thought about as the era of secularisation, a period
when the disciplines and institutions of modern science were founded and
cultural authority shifted from traditional authority of religion to
explanation through the scientific exposition of natural laws. The sociologist
Max Weber spoke about this process as the disenchantment of the world.
The emblematic figure in this narrative is
Charles Darwin, the anxious amateur biologist who held off publishing his
theory of evolution by natural selection for years for fear of the religious
and social disturbance it might produce. Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) did indeed result in a crisis of
faith for many in the 1860s, before his ideas became embedded in British
intellectual life in the last decades of the century.
While we might still accept the broad brush strokes of this
story, the Victorian period is also of course a period of deep and sustained
religious revival. There was an evangelical revival in the Christian church but
also a host of dissenting, heterodox and millenarian cults. It was a golden age
of belief in supernatural forces and energies, ghost stories, weird
transmissions and spooky phenomena. For a long time historians ignored these
beliefs as embarrassing errors or eccentricities, signs of the perturbations
produced by the speed of cultural change.
When Einstein famously wrote of “spooky action at a distance,” he picked an odd way of describing things. The word “spooky”, with origins tying to spectres, ghosts, and other strangeness, is not one you see every day and certainly not one you see coming from renowned scientists. Yet, seemingly, Einstein’s use is an appropriate one because the nature of reality that he was attempting to refute is genuinely vague and uncanny. Contrary to Einstein’s hopes, concerns about nature acting “spooky” have been repeatedly proved wrong. We now know that nature and all things in it are indeed spooky and much more akin to these immaterial ghosts that you may have believed in as a child than to the solid and scientific certainty in which you steadfastly anchored your worldview as an adult.
There is simply no doubt that we are living an illusion. Science and the unbending logic of mathematics and philosophy have clearly, and repeatedly, shown that the world as we believe we know it simply does not exist. If that wasn’t bad enough, the person who we think we are really doesn’t exist either!
Let me explain.
For us to know anything about what we think in the world around us, conventional wisdom holds that we learn it largely through our senses. What could be wrong with that? It seems pretty self-evident. However, since Descartes, philosophers have shown that there are real difficulties with that position because there are so many instances where we cannot trust our senses. This could be as simple as Kanizsa-type optical illusions, the fact that when we are dreaming we actually think we are awake and sensing, the way that our brain actively makes up for blind spots in our field of vision, etc. In other words, our senses cannot be fully trusted.
To make matters worse, even if we could trust our senses, they really aren’t all that effective for more complex tasks. They are ideal for identifying threats against ourselves on a sub-Saharan savanna but not so much for thinking about and sensing “reality.” For example, we only sense less than 1% of the visual and auditory spectrum. In addition, we are incapable of experiencing so much of the electromagnetic spectrum to the point that we are surrounded by birds, fish, shrimp, and countless other animals who have senses much more refined than us. They see, hear, and feel things that we cannot. If we did encounter those experiences, it stands to reason that our notion of reality would be different.
It gets worse, and weirder! So much of our daily existence is based on what philosophers call “secondary qualities.” These include such key human experiences as seeing color, hearing music or any sound, taste, smell, the sensation of hot or cold, etc. As you know, those things don’t exist out in nature. The color of the sunset or the taste of the apple are not scientifically real. What actually exists are wave formations that make up the color and chemical compounds that make up the apple. Our minds create all of these secondary qualities from those stimuli. So, no, rainbows are not real – they exist only in your mind. The same with the taste of coffee or the smell of a rose. Chemicals are everywhere but characteristics (bitter, sour, sweet) are not. They are our perceptions.
Now even weirder! The great philosopher Immanuel Kant (and so many others) pointed out that not only do secondary qualities not exist “out there” in reality but nor do they in space, time, or causation. That would be an interesting tid-bit from the history of philosophy if had not been proven to be true by contemporary physicists. Let that sink in for a minute. Time, space, and causation do not exist in genuine reality. Things are indeed getting spooky!
But wait – there’s more! The very nature by which we talk about things (using language and metaphor) also impacts how we think of and experience them. While subject, objects, predicates, and adjectives all make sense in grammar – how are we to know that they are part of the real world? In fact, we have strong evidence that our language contributesmuch to what we call the real world. If this discussion was in Sanskrit or among medieval Westerners, it would not be the same discussion.
It gets weirder!! We haven’t even started looking at your “self” yet. For example, would the fact that 90% of the cell life in “your” body actually belongs to the microbes in your gut surprise you? In other words, well over 90% of what you think is materially you is not you at all but rather a complex microbiome that has taken up residence in your large intestine.
What about the rest of my cells – those are certainly me? Not necessarily. The cells you had yesterday or back when you were a child are pretty much all gone. Maybe 1% of the cells you had as a child are still in you. This is the Ship of Theseus problem. If an object has had all of it parts replaced over time – is it still the same object? If so, what makes it the same?
To be honest, I could go on at book length outlining the reasons why we simply don’t have solid knowledge on who we are or what the world is. This has been pretty much a “given” in Philosophy since the 1700s and science since the very late 1800s. Things are not what they seem yet we lumber about thinking that the world as we perceive it is the actual real world. This, in philosophical terminology, is called “naive materialism” or “simple realism” and has been discredited so many times that one would think none of us would buy into it. However, for a bunch of sociological and other reasons it is the operating framework that most of us use in our daily lives.
What is the bottom line? Our senses are not enough when it comes to understanding the world around us or the nature of ourselves. Our brains are good at identifying and consuming high energy foods, scanning for potential mates, and protecting ourselves and our families from obvious and imminent physical threats. These are ideal traits for primal survival and reproduction – they just aren’t so good in terms of understanding the nature of reality or the self. By using the tools of philosophy, mathematics, or quantum physics we see that things are not at all as they seem.
Since I use “noumenon” and “phenomenon” a lot on this blog and since it is key to understanding contemporary thought as well as possible explanations for the paranormal, here is a quick summary I wrote some time ago to better explain.
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.
“For the time being, let me simply state again my basic contention: the modern, global belief in flying saucers and their occupants is identical to an earlier belief in the fairy-faith. The entities described as the pilots of the craft are indistinguishable from the elves, sylphs, and lutins of the Middle Ages.”
When I used to teach philosophy and religious studies (an endowed chair, no less), we would spend a week or so on Blade Runner, consciousness and philosophical anthropology (what does it mean to be human?).
In the movie, Blade Runner, the lead character of Decker (played by Harrison Ford) has the job of tracking down and killing escaped murderous robots, known as replicants. They look like us, act like us, and seem to have desires just like us. In fact, these new models are barely indistinguishable from humans at all. They can only be identified through a special test, instruments, and series of questions. The first few generations of replicants could be found out after a few test questions but the latest replicants, those that Decker now is assigned to kill, are a bit different. Here he is learning about the replicants from their creator (Dr. Tyrell) as Tyrell’s assistant, Rachael, walks close-by around the office they are all occupying during their conversation:
It seems as though modern cognitive science has caught up with 18th century German Idealism. Professor Donald Hoffman shows how our view of “external” reality is deeply flawed and based on pragmatism and evolutionary needs as opposed to seeing what is real. Instead, we focus and perceive, what is useful. Perceptions do not provide “truth,” they provide that which is beneficial.
or not, the story of the annual Royal Society dinner in the year 1900 is now
famous. At that summer gathering of the most respected and confident scientists
of the turn of the century, the esteemed Lord Kelvin stated that science had
pretty much solved all that we needed to know. Since Isaac Newton, we had
devised a scientific worldview that did a great job explaining our
surroundings. Astronomy, medicine, biology, and physics were all advancing and
taking us out of the world of superstition. The genius of science and
rationalism was well on the way to creating technologies that would reduce our
physical suffering and move us into the contemporary era. Things were good
and the confidence was well deserved. Alas, all was not completely settled in
this dinner speech. Lord Kelvin conceded that there were still just two little
clouds of uncertainty remaining. Trifles, really.
We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded.
The ultra-respectable, but the condemned, anyway. But they’ll march.”
This blog is a plain language and accessible review of some of the truly revolutionary ideas currently being recognized by academics and public intellectuals that help to explain generally overlooked or unstudied human experiences. We give understandable context to an array of “edge” topics like anomalous religious experiences, consciousness, chaos and ritual magic, UFO abduction claims, DMT visions, and the like. These events, generally not seriously studied and, at times, even ridiculed in the past one hundred years, can no longer simply be brushed aside. We seek to treat the experiences with respect while also starting to build a worldview that fits these types of incidents while remaining true to sound intellectual standards and a slimmed-down vocabulary taken from the history of philosophy. In short, there is solid evidence that weird things happen, we seek to build them into a worldview that doesn’t ignore science and reason while simultaneously doesn’t succumb to popular unquestioned assumptions about the nature of our universe. We pursue a metaphysics and epistemology of high strangeness.
The blog is loaded with intriguing anecdotes, scientific findings, and weird (but verified) stories that cause us to reconsider what is real. It borrows heavily from Jeff Kripal, Diana Walsh Pasulka, Jacques Valle, Charles Fort, Dean Radin, Gordon White, Graham Hancock, and Russel Targ.