On Other Ways of Knowing

One who claims that he’s achieved some level of ESP faces an interesting dilemma. He must now convince the rest of the world that he has a legitimate new stream of data being fed to his consciousness, a wholly subjective experience which the rest of the world has no access to and no frame of reference for.

If he could only flip a switch in our brains that activates that stream we’d all have an immediate change of heart. Instantly ESP would be validated and we’d wonder how humanity had been so blind to it all this time. Because he can’t do this, a psychic will often argue that he can only hope to spur people down the path to their own awakening. Neophytes cannot possibly understand these strange new cognitive faculties until they already have them, thus the psychic cannot be expected to prove that he possesses an alternative way of knowing the world. The only proof that we, the uninitiated, will accept is hopelessly bound to criteria borne out of our naivety. Justification for the experience is inextricably embedded within the experience itself, so an attempt to judge the experience before actually having it would be misguided and futile.

Arguments like this one always intrigued me. They lead to an important philosophical question: do we put so much faith in our collective empirical understanding of the world merely because we all happen to have similar perceptual and cognitive faculties?

Imagine a group of individuals who each have access to a unique channel of sensory data: one has only eyes, one has only ears, one has only touch, etc. Would it be so simple for these people (assuming they could even communicate) to justify their impressions of the world to each other? Or a group with unique cognitive strengths: one is a savant in math, one is a savant in music, one is a savant in art, etc. Each would be constantly frustrated by the others’ inability to share in a conception of the world which, to himself, is utterly self-evident.

My alchemist friend Polymathicus often says (paraphrased) that the work of science only does half of the job. In any given experiment there is strict and extensive preparation done on the object being studied. What is neglected is the strict and extensive preparation of the subject doing the studying. I don’t wish to put words in his mouth (and he may correct me), but I believe his point is that revelations in knowledge cannot come to a person not already tuned to perceive them. The breadth and sophistication of one’s worldview must grow in parallel with the volume of new information he gathers, or else that information is largely wasted on him. The paths of subject and object must be synchronous; as one effects development in the object, the object effects development in him.

I wouldn’t personally suggest that science is unaware of this need for the holism of subject and object, as Thomas Kuhn famously made a similar argument, but it’s a wise observation.

Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay

This friend directed me to David Lindsay’s alchemy-disguised-as-bad-science-fiction novel A Voyage to Arcturus. In it the main character travels across an alien landscape and with each individual he meets his body is given a new organ — a new perceptual or cognitive faculty — matching that of the giver, usually in place of the organ he previously received. The effects these organs have on him are profound. With each he isn’t merely given access to new sensations; he is literally given a new worldview. Things that once made perfect sense to him become absurd; absurdities come to make perfect sense. Conclusions about the world that were once rock solid are found to be flimsy and hollow in the face of new impressions. And with every metamorphosis, his previous self could never have been convinced of his new revelations because he didn’t yet have access to their justification. Each organ reveals the ultimate truth that shatters all truths that came before — that is until the next organ takes hold.

As Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Could we be so intent on exploring every millimeter of the universe through a single set of common lenses that we’re neglecting the vast perceptual frontiers spoken of by prophets and mystics over the centuries? Could there exist a sense so alien to common human experience that we couldn’t possibly conceive of it or identify it until we possessed it ourselves?

Whether something can exist and whether something does exist are two very different discussions. Though I have no reason to doubt that such senses could exist, I’m unconvinced that there are humans endowed with them.

The first source of my doubts is the fact that there’s no known physical mechanism by which we might receive this mysterious sensory data. For vision we have eyes, for hearing we have ears, for taste we have tongues. What is the organ or organs that facilitate ESP? And what sort of stimulus is such an organ being triggered by? What is it pulling out of the ether and how does the ether interact with flesh?

If there are people who are capable of ESP and people who aren’t, then there must be brains out there with different structures than other brains — or at least brains that are doing something that other brains aren’t. But even psi researchers haven’t been able to pinpoint such activity. They’ve retreated to the spookiness of the quantum realm citing things like particle entanglement in their arguments for ESP, which is a red flag for a belief that’s on its way out. The nice thing about genuine, life-affecting phenomena is that you don’t have to dig quite so deeply to find a single bit of solid evidence for them. They tend to make their presence a little more apparent, which is what allows us to notice them in our daily lives in the first place. As a rule, things that are hidden from the most specialized of scientists will probably also be hidden from the average Joe.

Since there’s still a lot we don’t know about the brain and since only a tiny fraction of all the brains in the entire world have ever been directly observed, this is only a secondary criticism. My main criticism of appeals to other ways of knowing could fill a post all its own, so I’ll leave it for the future.

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