by Jim Caryl
SCIENCE is about falsifiability, an attempt to understand the world around us, and our place in it, to the point where the best sense prevails.
Usually, it is a case of the often-quoted Occam’s Razor, where, all things being equal, it is often the simplest explanation that is true. The point is to arrive at a reasoned explanation of the phenomenon, such as a ghost sighting, without resorting to fiction. It seems ludicrous to me that some people would rather accept an immeasurable “force” or “entity”, for which there is no shred of physical evidence, or requirement, when we are possessed of a human brain, the most sophisticated biochemical computer on the planet, which is more than capable of rendering highly vivid imagery, smells and sounds, none of which need actually exist in he external environment.
As much as possible, science aims to be rational, consistent, and predictive. The supernatural can be none of these things. Knowledge of them does not enable prediction of their occurrence, i.e. beyond coincidence; the observations are inconsistent, being highly biased upon the subjection of the observer; and they are by definition irrational. I also hasten to add that they are, by and large, immensely uninventive, almost uniquely anthropomorphic and require a degree of self-stupefaction that would never be entertained in other areas of people’s lives.
Believer’s belief supersedes any form of evidential support or logical rationalisation; such evidence is simply irrelevant. What I find objectionable is when believers hold they have rational grounds for their belief; the best thing we can do is to inform them that they are wrong in this. This does not mean to say that they are wrong, per se, faith is faith after all, but to attempt to legitimise their belief by logic and methodology is to pit their belief directly against rational and secular thinking, with which it cannot compete.
I personally find the supernatural intellectually unstimulating, unfulfilling and unenlightening, and that’s my personal opinion. It does not explain the world in any real sense, but merely describes it using the common, usually unimaginative and anthropomorphic pseudo-intellectual constructs of society. It does not contribute a usable, practical body of knowledge for the development of modern society, and in history, has been responsible for some of the worse atrocities (the witch-trials for one) perpetuated by the ignorant. Where proponents of the supernatural would have you “open your eyes” to the possibility of things that can’t be explained, I simply hear the message “just accept it and go home”. All they’re saying is please don’t investigate as we don’t want to lose the mystery. It’s really just a question of intellectual dishonesty; if knowledge must be specifically avoided in order to keep a belief intact, then it’s probably not a belief worth having, it is a belief that in fact promotes ignorance.
There is a misconception among believers of the supernatural, that their beliefs about the world, which are their personal opinions, are somehow equivocal to empirically tested and verifiable fact. This misconception is indicative of a chasm that exists between the superstitiously indoctrinated and rational logical people, which will always be hard to bridge.
It is accepted, within social anthropology and developmental psychology circles, that one facet of infant survival is to simply accept received knowledge, without questioning it, i.e. gullibility. There is sometimes no time, or to too great a danger/cost, for trial and error. However, at some point we are all supposed to start questioning received knowledge, however old it may be, and irrespective of the number of people reiterating it. We should develop a healthy scepticism, and this, we hope, prevents us from burying our incredulity.
Childhood faerie tales are often used an a medium to impart a moral dimension to a young child’s development, without burdening them with large texts, or complicated theory, which would more apt for an adult. However, it is ever the case that we cling to these childhood beliefs because it makes the world seem a little more magical, a little more mysterious, life a little more interesting, and keeps us rooted in a time that, for most, was innocent and safe.
I like the idea of magic as much, and perhaps more, than most. I am an avid reader of fantasy, and quite regularly suspend my sceptical machinery and my incredulity when devouring such fiction. What is most important to remember however is that it is still just that, fiction.
Some people watch the same film over and over again, blissfully unaware that the feelings they get from this film can be gotten from many other films, so long as they would seek them out. The same is true of books. I’ve been guilty of it myself, sticking to the same author, or re-reading favourite books. However, I have always found new authors and new stories that not only impart the same emotional well being I find in my old favourites, but actually improve upon and add dimensions to what I thought I liked.
The same is true with our knowledge of the Earth, or nature and of the supernatural. There is simply no need to cling on to the supernatural. By dismissing it, we might feel that we have lost something mysterious about the world. I can’t deny that science isn’t always replete with the most fanciful writing, but this does not mean to say you cannot come by knowledge that is both rapturous, articulately communicated and inspires a new and greater dimension to your appreciation of nature. All that is required is for you to release the hand of that which is familiar, untie yourself from your Mother’s apron strings and take a little leap into a world of which 99% of people are unfamiliar.
I still appreciate folklore and tradition, it is a unique Human trait and one that I respect, in its correct historical context, but I’d hate for it to stand in the way of our progress and development as a society. I may have lost faeries, demons, angels and all the other uniformly anthropomorphised inventions, but I instead gained insights into the nature of atoms and the extent of the universe. I learnt something about the nature of light and about ubiquity theory, power laws in nature, critical cascades and catastrophe mathematics.
I chose to learn more about the exquisite diversity of the flora and fauna, past and present, of creatures so strange and unusual that they outstrip any flights of faerie fancy the Human mind might have invented; try opening a bacteriology or mycology text and prepare yourself for organisms and their behaviours that vastly outstrip the inventive capacity of even the most inventive of writers. The evolutionary processes that have resulted in such organisms, and the cellular molecular machinery we all employ, defy the inventiveness of any of the greatest engineers Humanity has ever seen.
With this knowledge I find myself in a position where the supernatural is utterly irrelevant as a means to explain apparently inexplicable phenomena, and I feel no loss as a result; I can always suspend my skeptical proclivities for the sake of a good fiction novel. Belief in the supernatural can be a bit of fun, but none the less, it is often used by the wilfully ignorant or intellectually lazy to describe something about which they know very little, and is a poor attempt to have some control and understanding of the world. The fact is, the rational approach to understanding is so much more terrifying, stimulating, awe inspiring, and unimaginable, that I am always sorry that some people choose to remain so bound and blinkered against such wonderful discovery.