I slightly revised this second part of the WACCO list discussion to try and provide more
clarity, but the arguments have not been changed (though I added one paragraph to develop a thought more.) This post argues against the adequacy of scientific standards for
knowledge as such.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Thanks for the kind words
despite our frequent disagreements on this topic. To carry our discussion farther I want to focus on your
“To sum up, my main point is
that all scientists know that phenomena that are reported outside of science
(no measurements, no reproducibility, no way to study them) are not provable or
disprovable. And even though scientists may get carried away and claim the
ability to prove universals, mostly they know that isn’t right and they soon
back off. This uncertainty that annoys you mostly doesn’t exist. What we do
have are extremely likely negative explanations. But those are not certainty.”
What I have been getting
from previous posts is NOT this paragraph, which I think is a very reasonable
one for a person who has not had a spiritual experience (no matter how defined)
and who regards science as the only source of knowledge. The message I have
been reading is that such and such does NOT exist. If the final paragraph captured the tenor of the discussion,
I would not be getting involved even though I do not agree with it
entirely. Let me give a perhaps
overly long response to this paragraph but with a very different spin on it.
I am as perplexed as anyone
that some phenomena happen when they are not tested and seem not to when they
are. I think that realm is smaller
than you do – Dean Radin has some very interesting findings in this area – but it certainly exists. That is I and others say that such and
such happened, but when an experiment is tried, it does not. I therefore do not put these events in
the category of truth in a strong scientific sense. Does that remove them from truth in every sense?
To take a very mundane example, not in the anecdotal sense,
and while anecdotes are prone to being misunderstood by the person having them,
so also are scientific observations as my previous examples from Alfred Wegner and J. Harlan Bretz illustrate. The facts never speak
for themselves but require an interpretive framework. In retrospect what seems obvious may have long been staring
earlier generations in the face and been missed because they interpreted it
using very different assumptions about reality.
It is repeatability and
controllability that enables scientists to weed out lots of bad theories. This
quality distinguishes scientific knowledge from anecdotal knowledge. The assumption that I question is that
not only are these good methods for discovering error, which is true, but that
anything not amenable to these methods does not exist. This does not follow.
The difference between
scientific knowledge and knowledge based on anecdotes is that the former is
amenable to scientific examination, has been subjected to it, and has, so far,
survived the examination. As physicist
John Ziman puts it, scientific knowledge is
“reliable knowledge.” But anecdotal knowledge
involves most of what we know that gets us through life. It is less reliable but nonetheless
essential to us.
You might respond that if we
wanted we could subject any anecdotal knowledge claim to scientific
examination. Some would pass, and
so be regarded as true, provisionally, whereas that which could not be tested
would not be regarded as knowledge.
That would be true for much of it, but not all. Consider intentions.
Human beings have develop a
very reliable way of grasping the subjective intentions of others, human and
often animal, even though they have never ‘seen’ an intention, never measured
one in a mathematical sense. Often
we can predict intentional behavior, but with nothing like certainty. Our friends and loved ones still
surprise us, sometimes pleasantly, sometimes unpleasantly. But how do we know
that so and so is good natured, prickly, honest, or flighty? Anecdotally. Yet do we know our friends and loved ones? Do we have true knowledge about
them? I would say yes.
So claims to having
spiritual experiences are anecdotes: untestable accounts that cannot be
I wish to make one basic
empirical observation with which I hope you will agree. There is no very interesting
correlation in any direction between people who report spiritual experiences
and their ability to manage day to day life successfully, make important
discoveries in science, do sophisticated mathematics, or be loving and moral
people. Nor is there such a
correlation between these issues and those who do not. So there are no external behavioral or
otherwise measureable factors that enable us to distinguish the two
So I have had certain
experiences you have not. I cannot
argue that you should believe in the phenomena I have experienced. To do so would be unreasonable. But I argue it is equally unreasonable
for you to say my experiences were misunderstandings or fantasies or evidence
of mental breakdown or laziness when you can point to no independent evidence
this is so beyond the fact that you and others you know have not had them and
the model of reality you use cannot explain them. If we have learned anything this past century, it is that models
of reality, even scientific ones, can change drastically and we have no reason
to believe the current stage of having two models irreducible to one another,
as we do in physics, is the last word.
I take the testimony of
‘sacred scriptures’ with as much confidence as you do. That is, very little if any. I
take the testimony of my own eyes a good deal more confidently than you do, and
it would be very weird if I didn’t.
Finally, if such phenomena
exist, as I have reason to believe they do, they are extremely unlikely to be
subject to scientific standards of examination because some involve the
presence of other and possibly superior intelligences that may not be confined
to time and space as we are in our normal lives. The problem of devising a double blind experiment gets
insurmountable. It rests on
assumptions about reality which are contradicted if such phenomena exist.
The visibility of other
phenomena that I have seen but that do not necessarily rely on such
intelligence, such as auras, seems to me to fall along a bell shaped
curve. That is, I have met people
who see them far more easily than me – including one woman student of mine who
graduated summa cum laude in mathematics and economics and wrote the best paper
of the year in my department at a good liberal arts school back east –
Government – while she was at it.
She told me she had seen this stuff since childhood and had learned to
“keep my mouth shut.”
I have frequently met people
who I could teach to see some of these things, but, like me, they had not seen
them until taught. This includes
at least one physicist. And I have
met people who, try as they may, could not see them. Perhaps it is sort of like color blindness. Of course light waves can be measured
even by people who cannot distinguish colors, but that simply brings us to my
earlier point about radiation existing before we could measure it. That we cannot measure something does
not mean we will not be able to in the future. Scientists rightly used that argument for criticizing the
“God of the gaps” claim but the logic works both ways.
Further, it is obvious to
anyone who has studied either the history of science or the history of ideas
that many insights have been available for centuries and not been picked up on because
they did not fit in with the received model of reality. Gravity, for example. Aristotle saw something trying to get
to the ground rather than being pilled to the ground. Even sights such as that are theory impregnated. When one model changes to another, the
previously ignored or explained away insights are immediately accepted. It’s messy – but where is the document
that says life has to be neat and tidy?
This does not mean stuff
that does not accord with traditional models of reality cannot be studied rationally. But the means of study should leave
open the nature of their reality, and then see what can be learned from
comparative cross cultural studies and the like. For example, there is David Hufford’s The Terror That
Comes in the Night. This study is a wonderful example of
how nightmares can be subjected to disciplined study while taking no side at
all as to what it really is. (It
is not simply a bad dream.)
I think as a culture we have
gotten confused by the following line of reasoning: What is real = what is true = what is scientifically
defensible. Therefore what is real
is what is scientifically defensible.
Therefore the only true knowledge is scientific knowledge.
There are things around us
that are real but not true or false as we usually use those words. Is
Beethoven’s music true or false?
It can be true or false that Beethoven wrote it, but that is not what I
am getting at. Do those categories
make any sense when we experience Beethoven’s music? It is true that we have a certain experience and that it is
real. But is what we experience
true or false? Is the meaning in
Beethoven’s choral part of his 9th Symphony the meaning in
Schiller’s poem? Certainly not,
for the piece is beloved by people who speak no German. But the meanings fit.
The experience is real but
it takes us to something that cannot be adequately encapsulated in words. It is an arrangement of sound waves
that most of us find beautiful, meaningful, in a nonverbal sense, and can add
immeasureably to the importance and quality of life. But it cannot be reduced to sound waves because sound waves
do not encompass the experience of meaning. Meaning can not be deduced from the physical attributes, the
meaning cannot be put into words or subjected to logical analysis, yet thousands
and perhaps millions of people have derived meaning from Beethoven for hundreds
This is a prosaic example of
a point that I think covers a wide realm of human experience.
An added part from the
original post: We are taught in this society that subjectivity is more like the imaginary and arbitrary than like the real.
I suggest that the experience of music indicates there is much more to
the issue. Further, I think our
standard definition of ‘real’ carries with it a philosophical bias that real is
something that things have in so far as they are things, objects. That is, reality is inert to minds and
without intrinsic meaning of its own.
When we look at human beings through those filtering lenses we can get
knowledge of them that fits that definition of reality. But we miss an enormous amount of
knowledge about them. The best
example is our loved ones. A
police report is a standard objective account of a person as an object to be
identified and located. But a
police report of a loved one does not even scratch the surface of what they are
Back to the original…
Given this extraordinarily
widespread human experience of meaning in the world independent of the stance
we take towards it, and the lack of any evidence that people like Newton or
Leibniz or Bohm were inferior in their critical faculties to people like Hobbes
or D’Holbach or Sam Harris, assigning reality only to what can survive
scientific investigation through experiment, measurement, and prediction seems
A skeptic would leave the
question open and, it seems to me, only get involved when someone uses
nonscientifically derived arguments to try and impose his or her beliefs on
others as “objectively true” or true for those who have never had the
experiences that lead someone to regard it as true to the best of their
judgment. i.e. the “Christian”
right is fair game, and with them I wish you good hunting!