The Paranormal & 'Authors of the Impossible'

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I am writing this in the same bedroom in my parents' south Louisiana house where, on a summer day in 1994, I heard intense rap-rap-rapping on the windowpanes, only hours after we had buried my grandfather. That incident began a series of paranormal events in this house witnessed by three of us, a strange drama that concluded with a visit by an exorcist and a Cajun psychic, who identified the noisy spirit as my grandfather's ghost, who couldn't move on until my father (his son) forgave a great wrong he committed against his son in his final years. They brought peace to my father's house, but not to another family member, who was involved in the dirty deeds, and was tormented by subsequent poltergeisty happenings at her house, and eventually moved away.

A couple of weeks after I witnessed the initial events, I was back home in Washington, DC, having dinner with an intellectually distinguished Catholic priest of my acquaintance. I told him the amazing story, and confessed that I couldn't make sense of what I'd seen in orthodox Catholic theology. Well, no, he said, you really can't -- but these things happen all the same. He then told of a spectral encounter he had while staying in a Scottish castle. What this priest experienced, and what I experienced, wasn't supposed to happen according to the faith we professed -- and yet neither of us could deny the reality of what we had seen and heard. Other fellow Christians I know, finding nothing in their theological tradition to account for these events, deny they happened.

I have shared my story over the years with secular materialist friends, who, if they are being charitable, assume that my family and I were suffering from some sort of grief-induced hallucination. The one thing they aren't prepared to believe is that something strange and meaningful happened in our house after my grandfather died with things unresolved between him and my father. 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."

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? 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."

You don't have to follow Jeffrey Kripal to the far edges of the paranormal -- I certainly don't -- to agree that he's onto something. The truth, it seems, really is out there, and it may be stranger than we can imagine today. The damned stuff is rapping at our bedroom windows, and one way or another, it won't be ignored.

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