The Small Picture

In conversations with occultists in the past I’ve been accused of not looking at the big picture because I would frequently get caught up in the minor details of a supernatural ability or phenomenon. How does a disembodied entity “see” me when the photons bouncing off me are passing right through it? Why can I never get coherent messages via automatic writing in languages I don’t speak when the pencil is supposedly under another’s control? Why can’t psychics ever just name the people they’re talking to you about in lieu of describing them physically?

It’s been disturbing to me how few people I’ve encountered who found these questions pertinent.

The truth is, I am a big picture person. But you have to test the big picture with the small.

I never read the book nor cared much to, but the movie Sphere had a moment that perfectly illustrates the power of the small picture. If you’re bothered by having a movie from 1998 spoiled for you, now’s the time to stop reading.

The military discovers what appears to be a spaceship abandoned at the bottom of the ocean. It’s covered by centuries of coral growth, so it’s assumed that the ship is of alien origin because no human invention of the 17th century could possibly have been so advanced.

The people involved in this endeavor have been operating single-mindedly for weeks under this assumption until a team finally manages to explore its insides, and someone makes a discovery. Within one of the corridors is a container labeled on top with the words: “TRASH/BASURA”

A trash can — an object so commonplace and insignificant — has instantly transformed everything around it. The big picture is demolished by a minor, easily-neglected detail, forcing everyone to start almost from scratch. Now we’re dealing with a time machine.

I’m not saying that they were wrong in having a working assumption, but you can see that they would have been radically misled if they hadn’t investigated the mystery further. To form an accurate picture, an understanding spanning multiple levels was needed.

There’s a reason they say that the devil is in the details. The lurking minutiae that can potentially collapse a supernatural claim are very easily concealed behind abstraction and handwaving (often intentionally). The New Age section of your local bookstore is filled with shaky, sloppily constructed ideas that in their avoidance of the small picture have seduced millions, including me in years past. But when you start to inspect these ideas more closely, the cracks and holes in their foundations jump into view. As Bertrand Russel said, “Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise.”

No false claim can be entirely internally consistent; it’s just too much for a human brain to maintain. Only a claim backed by reality can hope to eventually have an answer to every niggling question. Thus, a rigorous attention to detail gives you an immediate advantage in evaluating a supernatural claim about the world, because a genuine claim is innately better able to hold up to scrutiny than a false claim. You just have to do the scrutinizing.

The big picture is unquestionably important, but a big picture that’s on the verge of falling apart — no matter how pretty a picture it is — is of little use in the end. Only after delving deeply into the particulars do you find out whether the claim as a whole is really worth your time. This is where claims that are fraudulent, delusional, or just poorly researched are made or broken.

The small picture without the big picture lacks context and meaning. The big picture without the small is tenuous and superficial.

It’s best to devote time to both before letting a new idea influence your view of the cosmos.

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