Of Knowing and Not Knowing: Elvis, Haldane, and Excessive Self-Confidence

Everywhere and in all times people have reported sightings of apparitions and ghosts, hants and inexplicable happenings. These are dismissed by neurologists as results of glitches in neural functioning, by psychiatrists as manifestations of schizophrenia or of heightened suggestibility, by physicists as consequent to curious refractions of light. But the explanations are usually asserted instead of substantiated. I wonder.

My impression is that a great many people have had experiences that do not fit the scientific world view, but do not speak of them for fear of being thought mad. A few are not so reticent. JBS Haldane, the noted geneticist, once “went into his home and saw himself sitting in his own chair smoking his favorite pipe. ‘Irregular’ was his word for the phenomenon, ‘indigestion’ his explanation. He walked across the room and sat down on his own image.”* “Indigestion” of course makes not the slightest sense.

Examples abound, quietly. A woman of my acquaintance, perfectly sane, recounts having watched a window in a room at night open by itself. My father told me of driving one night with a friend in hill country, whereupon a large truck appeared suddenly over a crest, soundless, lights blazing, too close to avoid. They drove through it without effect. “Did you see what I saw?” asked my father of his friend. “Yes,” replied the friend, shaken. They did not, he said, tell anyone.

Now, I can offer the usual explanations. These people all suffered from temporary insanity, there is no proof that they weren’t actually making up the stories, their memories were playing tricks (whatever that means), or they were dreaming and thought they were awake—all of which seem convenient evasions.

Many people have told me of having had premonitions, as for example that someone was going to die under certain circumstances, after which it happened. Others tell of having felt a sudden, terrible fear, as though something immensely evil were nearby. Most have experienced what we call déjà vu. The plausible reason is always ready to hand: chemical imbalances, the effect of stress, fragmentary memories of similar events, what have you.

Is that really what is happening? Maybe. But saying so doesn’t make it so. My father was a hard-headed mathematician, not given to the occult.

Note that the sciences are incapable of recognizing such phenomena. For the sake of discussion, let us suppose that some unscientific event actually occurred—say, that the shade of Elvis in fact appeared in my living room one night, sang Blue Moon Over Kentucky, and then vanished. Would science, or any scientist, be able to know it?

I could tell a physicist that I had seen Elvis, of course. He would assume that I was joking, lying, or deluded. I could report that the neighbors had heard Blue Moon, but the physicist would say that I had played the song on my stereo. I might show him video that I had shot of the appearance, but he would say that I had hired an Elvis impersonator, or that I had faked the footage with video-editing software.

In sum, even though it had really happened, he could never know that it had.

The difficulty is that the sciences can apprehend only the repeatable. If I could summon Elvis at will, again and again in an instrumented laboratory, physicists would eventually have to concede that something was happening, whatever it might be. While scientists defend their paradigms as fiercely as Marxists or Moslems, they can, after sufficient demonstration, be swayed by evidence. But without repeatability, they see no evidence.

Not uncommonly, those in the sciences say that they “do not accept supernatural explanations.” One might observe that the world remains the same, no matter what they accept. I might choose not to accept the existence of gravity, but could nonetheless fall over a cliff.

Yet those who do not accept the supernatural never say just what they mean by “supernatural.” By “nature,” do we not simply mean, “that which is”? If for example genuine premonitions exist (which I do not know), how can they be supernatural, as distinct from poorly understood?

I think that by supernatural scientists mean “not deducible from physics.” But of course a great many things are not so deducible—thought, consciousness, free will if any, sorrow, beauty. Scientists do not accept things which seem to have no physical cause, and of course as scientists should not accept them. If a comet were suddenly to change course, it would hardly be useful if an astronomer said that it just happened, or that a herd of invisible unicorns had pushed it from its path.. He, properly, would want to find a gravitational influence.

Trouble comes when the sciences overstep their bounds. It is one thing to study physical phenomena, another to say that only physical phenomena exist. Here science blurs into ideology, an ideology being a systematic and emotionally held way of misunderstanding the world. A science is open and descriptive, an ideology closed and prescriptive. A scientist says, in principle at least, “Give me the facts and I will endeavor to derive a theory that describes them.” The ideologist says, “I have the theory, and nothing that does not fit it can be a fact.” Having chosen his rut, he never sees beyond it. This has not been the way of the greats of science, but of the middle ranks, adequate to swell a progress or work in a laboratory.

In the limitless confidence of this physics-is-all ideology there is a phenomenal arrogance. Perhaps we overestimate ourselves. As temporary phenomena ourselves in a strange universe we don’t really understand, here for reasons we do not know, waiting to go somewhere or nowhere as may be, we might display a more becoming humility.

Long ago in a computer lab that I frequented late at night, a white mouse lived. It had escaped from the biology people. As I labored over a keypunch, the wee beastie scurried about behind the line-printer. It seemed to know where to find water, where the fragments of potato chips lay, and where it could sleep warmly.

I reflected that it probably thought it understood its world, which consisted of power supplies, magnetic-core memory, address buses, and the arcana of assembly-language programming. I’d estimate that humanity just about knows where the potato chips are.

*JBS: The Life and Work of J.B.S. Haldane, by Ronald Clark, p.111

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