An Ode to Skepticism: Elder Gods of the Gaps
Could you measure the tidal flow of Sydney's harbour mouth in your kitchen sink? With the right (expensive) equipment, you could potentially measure the Moon's impact on gravity influencing a tiny rise in your water and then blow those numbers up to an estimated volume of the harbour that evening and subtract the difference between your high and low estimates.
Sound fucking horrible, right? Welcome to psi research.
What you should actually do is have a team at the harbour mouth with some far cheaper equipment. It is an in field experiment. The tide happens to a harbour, not a sink. And anyone wishing to criticise your results will say so.”
Boy howdy, has Paranormal Twitter ™ been fun these past few days. Ever since the release of Jeremy Corbell and George Knapp’s Hunt for the Skinwalker (which, of this writing, I have yet to see), some lukewarm flame wars have been igniting online, pitting those who see studies at the ranch as a significant step forward for anomalistics against those who think the entire thing is hogwash and, of course, unscientific. These predictable battle lines represent the usual factions: The Fundamentalist Skeptics versus The True Believers. Even though I typically strive for a more detached, mercenary approach, I even waded into the fray a little myself before realizing both sides were committing Tweet War Crimes left and right.
WE NEED SKEPTICISM
Before proceeding, a brief word on skepticism. While many disagree —including the authors of the inevitable rebuttals inspired by this post—I firmly consider myself a skeptic. Skepticism is an important thing, particularly in studies of the unexplained. Love the UFO, psi, and cryptozoology communities though I do, bad ideas, incorrect assumptions, gullibility, and leaps of faith far outweigh rational thought among their ranks (it’s part of the reason I primarily consider myself a Fortean, more likely to remain agnostic towards many of these ideas). Of all the stories that have come across my desk and inbox in the past few years, I would be hard pressed to name ones I would bet my life on as being relayed 100% clearly, truthfully, or accurately. If The True Believers are the Devoutly Religious of anomalistic studies, I identify as that free spirit who says, “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.” I do my best to reject dogma, yet am certain that something genuinely amazing and, for lack of a better word, “paranormal” is woven into our reality. I just don’t think the Church of Ufology or any of its associates have a real grasp on it.
FUN FACT: TRUE BELIEVERS AND FUNDAMENTAL SKEPTICS SHARE THE SAME SKELETAL STRUCTURE
To that end, I appreciate skepticism, and it serves an invaluable purpose in our society. There are actually quite a few I like: Michio Kaku, the gold standard of open-minded skeptics; Jack Brewer over at The UFO Trail; one of the groomsmen in my wedding; some quarters of the pelicanist branch of Ufology; hell, even the folks I’ve traded blows with over social media. Anyone with their head on straight. Like white blood cells, they are important to the Immune System of Reason.
But, like white blood cells, they sometimes go rogue. We’re not talking about skeptics; we’re talking about Fundamentalist Skeptics, those so convinced they are correct about the fundamental nature of reality, no mystery too old or profound could ever shake the fact that their viewpoint is correct.
I’ve been searching for the skeptical version of “man-splaining”—there’s got to be something clever, right? “Randi-splaining?” “Skeptic-splaining?” “Well, you see, there’s this phenomenon you might not have heard of called sleep paralysis, where you mind is awake but your body isn’t, and that can be accompanied by hallucinations…” In the meantime, you’re five steps ahead and ready to posit—not argue, but posit—that perhaps they’re conflating a vector for the paranormal with a cause for the paranormal. But no, “I’m subscribed to Skeptical Inquirer….” I’ve long said that the only paranormal hill I will die on is psi research. There is no shortage of evidence suggesting that “mind” does not equal “brain,” that consciousness is not an epiphenomena of neurology, that things like telepathy and precognition have some basis in reality. It’s up to you to familiarize yourself with it—in the meantime, I respect you enough to not “psi-splain” it to you.
Anomalists are more open to this bleeding edge of research, all of which points to the impending implosion of the current Physicalist/Materialist paradigm. While Fundamentalist Skeptics still bang on the broken head of Materialism’s drum, the smartest people that I know are discussing Idealism, Animism, cocreation, Jungian archetypes, etc. Instead of outright rejecting the work of respectable researchers like Rupert Sheldrake, Pim van Lommel, Ian Stevenson, Dean Radin, and Daryl Bem, intellectually honest individuals will seek to interrogate and, if necessary, integrate them into their view of reality. “It can’t be, therefore it isn’t,” say the Fundamentalist Skeptics, who seem wholly incapable of placing controversial data points in a mental “interesting if true” basket.
We’re not asking you to believe this stuff. We’re asking you to entertain it, and at least admit that—even if entirely explainable—perniciously weird things happen.
Contrast an intellectually honest, open-minded approach with this Amazon review of my UFOs: Reframing the Debate essay from a notable skeptic:
The author takes much of [psychic abilities] as if real and cites some studies to confirm some claims. I haven't dug into said studies but have been at this game far too long, reviewed other studies, to see that abilities like ESP, remote viewing and the like are nonsense.
Well, at least he was honest in his review about not having read the studies before completely denouncing them as “nonsense.” It’s not as if I hand-selected researchers (literally the ones listed above) as evidence for my claims for readers to follow-up on for themselves.
It’s an old and tired trope, but it’s tired ‘cause it’s true: “Absence of evidence does not equate evidence of absence.”
It only takes one black swan to disprove the notion all swans are white. I get that you’ve been to a hundred ponds where dozens of eyewitnesses claimed they saw a black swan, and you saw nothing. But if you don’t check every pond, you’re going to miss the possibility of seeing that one black swan, which in turn would cast new light on all those old sightings.
(As a rebuttal to this line of thinking, the review author writes a few sentences later, “Why study say, the possibility the Sun goes around the Earth just in case? No, there's just no proof of that but proof of the other way around and we act accordingly. ” He apparently doesn’t see the irony; a Geocentric model, complete with what was perceived as “evidence,” was the prevailing astronomical paradigm for over 1,500 years, while Heliocentrism was the radical, laughable theory, long seen as bereft of evidence before eventually proven correct. Obviously Materialism—only a paradigm in the West and only for a few hundred years, at best—has been established far too long to ever be overturned.) #sarcasm
I have no desire for this to devolve into a personal defense or rant against that review. In fact, I actually appreciate many of the views held by this particular skeptic (and have said as much on social media).
What I am most concerned about is the weaponization of philosophical principles by Fundamentalist Skeptics against anomalous studies.
GOD OF THE GAPS
Allow me to clarify this point, using an excerpt from my second book, The Brimstone Deceit:
Science is quick to trot out the adage of Occam’s Razor: that,“among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” Such incisive logic has been used to argue against a host of Fortean phenomena, with justifiably powerful efficacy.
What no one wants to speak of is the fact that Occam was William of Ockham, an English Franciscan friar who applied this logic to spirituality. Put bluntly, the progenitor of the scientifically lauded principle of Occam’s Razor lived his entire life in the service of unseen supernatural forces.
To illustrate this concept, ask yourself which scenario holds the fewest assumptions: that a group of rural Kentuckians experienced something indescribable during the 1955 Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter, as they claimed; or, that the witnesses got so high on moonshine they started mistaking owls for little green humanoids assaulting their cabin and pulling their hair? Though Fundamentalist Skeptics claim the latter is more likely, it is actually the theory that multiplies factors unnecessarily (though, to lay some blame at the feet of Ufology, it is equally problematic to claim “something indescribable” means “extraterrestrials”).
YUP. LOOKS LIKE EVERY OWL I'VE EVER SEEN.
Another commonly cited fallacy inspired this overlong blog post: the “God of the Gaps.” Wikipedia—which I never cite in my books, but I will readily utilize for a blog post—describes the concept:
"God of the gaps" is a term used to describe observations of theological perspectives in which gaps in scientific knowledge are taken to be evidence or proof of God's existence. The "gaps" usage was made by Christian theologians not to discredit theism but rather to point out the fallacy of relying on teleological arguments for God's existence. Some use the phrase as a criticism of theological positions, to mean that God is used as a spurious explanation for anything not currently explained by science.
The last sentence is the one I am most interested in. I largely agree with this interpretation—after all, many of those gaps have gotten significantly smaller. We now know that life does not spontaneously generate from nothing, that thunder isn’t Thor’s hammer, that the Earth is a sphere, that the universe is always in motion. These gaps have all been filled.
(It should be noted, however, that scientific study has barely begun to traverse the largest of these gulfs: the origin of life, the nature of time, ball lightning, and, of course, that bugbear of science: consciousness.) This being said, Fundamentalist Skeptics weaponize the “God of the Gaps” principle as well. When employed in this manner, there is a tacit assumption among many that Materialism will fill in these gaps.
While Materialism has an admittedly strong track record, this is a logical fallacy in and of itself. It invokes “promissory materialism,” a term coined by science philosopher Karl Popper. This principle “involves issuing undated promissory notes for future discoveries,” said Sheldrake, citing Popper. “Promissory materialism is a faith.”
In truth, the God of the Gaps concept says much more about prevailing paradigms of belief than it does the gaps themselves. In a Church-dominated culture, God and the paranormal were unjustly used to fill in these gaps. In today’s society, Materialism steps in, but seems immune to similar criticism in scientific discussion. This is where the ardent Materialist argues that their philosophy has given us airplanes, artificial knees, and television. It’s compelling, but Materialism hasn’t given these life-changing advances to us. Science has.
THE PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
Science is absolutely the best tool we have for understanding our shared external reality. It has brought us unparalleled technological revolution, saved lives, connected our planet, and dismissed harmful superstition. It sifts through the nonsense. It describes a great many truths. At the same time, it does not describe a great many things. It fails to account for personal experience. That’s okay—it shouldn't. It is not designed to describe such things.
This does not mean, however, that personal experience is not important or objectively real. Take, for example, a significant percentage of the mental health conditions reported in the DSM; they are largely anecdotal, relying upon the personal experience of sufferers. Granted, there may be accompanying neurological data to suggest anomalous brain activity, but the result of that activity (e.g. “I hear voices,” or “I think I am the reincarnation of Alexander the Great”) is wholly dependent upon the individual’s testimony.
Similarly, consider how you feel toward your loved ones. I may observe you displaying affection, but you may be feigning those gestures. Do I therefore have a right to tell you that you do not love them? Absolutely not. You know it to be fundamentally true, but you have no way of proving that to me. Some Fundamentalist Skeptics may point to neurological activity, to the dump of certain chemicals like dopamine into your body in the presence those individuals—but again, this is poor proof, because eating chocolate can manifest many of these same physiological effects.
(For the inevitable counter that anomalous phenomena yield no accompanying evidence, I will see your dopamine and raise you Sasquatch footprints with dermal ridges and midtarsal breaks; radiation burns on UFO witnesses; and apports, indoor water and rock falls in psychic activity.)
I have no right to tell you that you do not feel love for those closest to you. You know you do. It is equally disrespectful to ardently contend every paranormal witness is delusional, mistaken, or lying. These are often intensely personal experiences, and the scientific method is not designed to measure them.
Attempting to do so is akin to weighing a stone with a ruler.
The scientific method best describes regular events following predictable patterns, replicable in a controlled setting. Yet even phenomena of regularity, like Gordon White’s tidal bay, cannot be studied in a laboratory. We must go to the field.
At least the tide is predictable. In our current paradigm, singular or exceptionally rare events—“novelty,” as Terence McKenna would describe them—simply fall through the cracks of scientific study. From McKenna’s February 1992 lecture at the Esalen Institute:
For example Science, to do its work—I mean, modern science, post-Newton—depends on probability theory, but probability theory has a built-in assumption that has never been thoroughly looked at, and that is the assumption of what Newton called “pure duration.” Meaning that Science, if you describe a scientific procedure to someone, they don't ask whether you did it on a Wednesday or a Saturday. Science seeks to be time independent, and in order to do that it has to make the assumption that time is invariant. There's no “this is just a first try” with Occam's Razor.
In fact, in our own lives, what we experience is endless variation. In other words, it may be that the hydrogen bond when it breaks always breaks the same way, but love affairs, investment strategies, political campaigns, the building of empires, these things are always characterized by a kind of uniqueness, and Science, by invading these domains with probabilistic conceptions, gives us the science of statistics, polling, and hands to us mythical entities like the citizen or the average white male or… I mean, these are just absurd abstractions that are generated by a particular kind of world view that is not really examining its first premise.
The paranormal, literally by definition, is irregular. Imagine researchers at Skinwalker Ranch: tasked with studying a “tide” that not only has to be observed outside of controlled conditions, but exhibits no fixed schedule and—by all appearances—may be under the control of an intelligence capable of undermining any attempt to have itself studied. It is almost a cliché, but imagine an ant colony trying to comprehend what a human visitor is, or present physical evidence of your existence; even if the Humanologists brought their skeptical ant brethren to where your foot left a giant crater in the ground, you—were you so inclined, being omnipotent and possessed of far superior technology—could easily brush away your tracks. It would require minimal effort. Certainly this is a violation of Occam’s Razor. However, assuming one location is merely more prone to novel, seemingly anomalous events—even if explainable by traditional Materialism—in itself begins to multiply coincidence. One reaches a critical mass where, when faced with accounts of giant wolves, strange lights, poltergeist activity, livestock mutilations, etc., it is more parsimonious to assume some outside force is at play.
From what I gather, this is what really has the Fundamentalist Skeptics in a froth about Corbell and Knapp’s documentary, and I totally understand. None of the Skinwalker Ranch studies were, in the Materialist sense, scientific. They were observational. They were personal experiences of novel events.
For the time being, anomalists need to stop seeking scientific approval. By the very nature of what they study—the novel, the personal—anomalists will never satisfy Fundamentalist Skeptics. The two factions will remain at loggerheads.
At least, that is, until the Materialist paradigm breathes its last gasp in the face of emerging consciousness research, a fate I cannot help but see as inevitable. What we see among the Materialist rank-and-file seems to me quite analogous to those who pushed back against the cigarette/cancer connection, or climate change—we have a stubborn group of “consciousness deniers.”
(I’ve no doubt this blog post, should it gain any attention, will ruffle feathers in all the predictable quarters. I’ll read the rebuttals from consciousness deniers but am unlikely to respond. I can tolerate measured disagreements willing to rationally and respectfully concede a little ground, but I have little use for rigid Defenders of the Faith. I seem to recall some old, folksy wisdom about wrestling with a pig… How does the rest of that witticism go?)
Honestly—to me, at least—21st century Western culture feels a great deal like pre-enlightenment Europe. In those dark days, the tide of evidence slowly overcame the dominant paradigm and revealed countless misunderstood truths about reality. Over time, the darkened, inaccurate specter of superstition eventually caught up with indisputable scientific fact.
Today, we wait as well. Materialism has a lot of catching up to do.
Joshua Cutchin - Venn Diagram