Monday, August 1, 2011

Musings of a Credulous Skeptic by Kirsten Dalley

Call me a credulous skeptic. This may sound like an oxymoron, but I think it’s a pretty good description of my beliefs regarding the supernatural and the paranormal. I am open to believing, I want to believe, but my deep investment in the predictable order of things in the universe (i.e. nature), the idea that there are rules in place that govern everything from the path of planets to the economy, prevents me from doing so with the full force of my intellect and emotions.

That said, I have personally had many experiences that many would label as “supernatural” (that is, outside of or above the natural order of things)—everything from seeing the ghost of my dead cat to experiencing precognitive dreams and visions. But because my paradigm cannot or will not accommodate these kinds of things, I experience something that psychologists would call “cognitive dissonance.” In short, two (seemingly?) contradictory truths exist simultaneously and are forever at odds within me, with no resolution anywhere in sight. But I believe I am far from unique in this: most modern, Western individualistic people—if they were honest with themselves—would probably admit to being in the same boat.

The ancient Greeks assumed that matter and spirit were equally real. However, spirit always took precedence: matter was unclean, spirit was pure; matter was ephemeral, spirit was immortal. And so on. But what about us modern materialists, who seem to value only what we can see, taste, hear, and touch? Where does the supernatural fit into our world view? How can we assimilate such “impossible” experiences as hauntings, ESP, and poltergeists into a greater culture that creates little or no space for them, and which worships science while it spurns faith-based assumptions?

Since I’ve had the opportunity to work on Exposed, Uncovered and Declassified: Ghosts, Spirits and Hauntings, I’ve really had to reconsider this stance and think about just how sustainable it is. Those who call themselves “enlightened” and unburdened by superstitions or dogma would probably contend that a.) there is no God, b.) there is no such thing as ghosts, and c.) we don’t go anywhere when we die. In other words, matter is all there is. Spirits, ghosts, souls—all of these are simply ideas, remnants of cultures long extinct and obsolete, the provenance of the primitive, the credulous, the weak, the fearful, those who long for easy explanations and pat answers to life’s existential crises. But—and here is the kicker—those of us who deny such “superstitions” would, if we were honest, readily admit that we have been wakened in a cold sweat by a banging shutter, a cold draft, or a creaking floorboard, or seen or sensed a dark presence in our room that could not be there. Who among us has not felt those chilly fingers of fear trail down our spine? You don’t need to tell me—just admit it privately to yourself. And of course this begs the question: If you don’t believe in these things, why are you afraid? If you must see ghosts, it is much better to believe in them!

Unfortunately, when discomfiting or distressing beliefs and experiences are suppressed and relegated to the trash heaps of our unwanted thoughts, experiences, and impulses—they acquire more power, not less. In short, they become taboo. Taboo thoughts and beliefs once thought to be forever banished or discarded will continue to reassert themselves until they are properly dealt with. As Jung said, an inner truth that is not acknowledged appears outside oneself as fate—or something to that effect. So perhaps we are all fated to have these kinds of distressing experiences unless and until we are able to assimilate them as a culture in a way that makes sense and—hopefully—comforts.

In science, there is no place for faith or miracles, because these things cannot be measured, predicted, or, perhaps most importantly, controlled. So legitimizing our paranormal experiences will take a great deal of courage and willingness to let go of our desire to control and manipulate nature and matter. It will involve a leap of faith into uncharted territory, a decision to let go of those little rafts of smug rationality and then set ourselves adrift in an uncharted sea of dreams, desires, and nightmares. We’ll need to open ourselves up to the Shadow.

Assuming that we believe, as the Greeks did, in the realm of Spirit, and that matter is not all there is, where, then, is that point of intersection between nature and the supernatural? And what is the mechanism by which one affects the other? As Joshua Warren writes in his essay,

Newtonian physics stresses that action is necessary for reaction. Yet when we look for the source of the movement [of our arm]—thought itself—we cannot locate it. It appears there is a reaction without an action. This seems to indicate that thought, however we define it, is actually a force of physical power. If we know the body is much more than just matter, we must accept that our thoughts are connected to the energy body, as well. [italics mine]

I cannot help but think here how the biblical God created the universe—brought matter into being—merely by speaking. Whether you take this narrative as myth or a literal recounting of events (personally I believe it is poetry, not literal reportage), it certainly makes one think about the power of intention and words and how they can affect the world around us (i.e. matter). I believe this idea will be at the heart of all future inquiry into the paranormal.

So back to my dead cat. Was it my deep longing to see her again that enabled me to see her ghostly form in the form of a projection? Or was it that longing and intention that somehow enabled her actual apparition to manifest here back on earth? These are the questions that, along with those creaking floorboards and ghostly presences, keep me up at night. Perhaps all you credulous skeptics out there need to reconsider the implications of your beliefs. If we really are only bodies, and if everything—our thoughts, emotions, values, even the way we experience reality—is merely the result of electrons and chemicals moving about in the universe, there is no room for souls, gods, or goddesses (unless you are Charlie Sheen), and certainly no room for ghosts. But ask yourself if you really believe that the next time those icy fingers of fear make their way down your spine. It’s only a matter of time!

Kirsten Dalley has functioned in various editorial capacities at New Page Books since 2004. She is coauthor of The Nightmare Encyclopedia, along with Jeff Belanger. She graduated from Columbia University with a BA in comparative literature, which has proven to be of use in both her career and her leisure pursuits (reading fiction and riding sportbikes).

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