The following originally appeared on The New and Ancient Story.
In the latest issue of Scientific American, Michael Shermer describes an amazing and beautiful synchronicity that happened the day of his wedding, just this summer. I hope you read the article, but to summarize, an old non-functioning radio that had belonged to his bride’s beloved grandfather mysteriously started playing a love song as the ceremony was about to commence, only to go silent again the next day.
The miracle I refer to is not the event itself, but rather the fact that it is recounted in the pages of a top science magazine by Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and a long-time upholder of scientific orthodoxy. His humility and courage in publicly revealing an experience that has, in his words, shaken his core beliefs is exemplary. That this revelation seems to contradict his aggressively argued position of many years makes it little short of miraculous.
Let me be clear what I mean by scientific orthodoxy. It consists of three beliefs: (1) that the dominant institutions of science, and the consensus of scientists, offer a description of reality that is basically correct; (2) that the implicit metaphysical assumptions underpinning the Scientific Method are true, and (3) that the Scientific Method should enjoy a privileged status among all ways to knowledge; that it is the royal road to truth.
The event that Michael Shermer describes would, to most people, indicate that belief #1 above is faulty: that science offers nowhere near a complete description of reality. One might easily conclude that people can communicate from beyond the grave by influencing electronics, or that in moments of heightened emotion meaningful coincidences occur that reflect a layer of causality that is normally invisible to us. But I would like to focus on another element of Shermer’s piece.
As Shermer is abundantly aware, the stunning synchronicity he experienced on his wedding proves nothing about the nature of reality. He says that if anyone else had reported this event to him, he would have explained it away as a random electrical anomaly that, because of its timing, took on emotional significance. By the Law of Large numbers, he says, one would expect occasional coincidences like this, which, because they are preferentially remembered and reported, seem more common than they are. One might easily say, as some of the commenters did, that it was nothing more than perhaps some wires expanding on what might have been a hot, humid day, completing a circuit.
Only this and nothing more.
But as Michael Shermer perceptively notes, the existence of such explanations is irrelevant to the feeling quality of the experience. It “rocked me back on my heels,” he said; it brought him and his bride into a state of awe and gratitude. In the moment, his bride, also a firm nonbeliever in anything supernatural, knew, “My grandfather is here with us. I am not alone.”
How did she know it, and why was he rocked back on his heels? It wasn’t because they, in the moment, reevaluated a data set and, in light of a single piece of evidence, came to a rational decision to change their beliefs. They were following another way of knowing, one that is quite different from the evidentiary reasoning and hypothesis testing of the Scientific Method. In that moment, they knew something. That kind of knowing is inherently subjective, impossible to translate into objective evidence, because it depends on the totality of the circumstances surrounding it.
Revealingly, Shermer says the experience has shaken his skepticism to the core. But as one of the commenters observed, skepticism isn’t a belief system, it is a process of, as skeptic.com puts it, “employing or calling for statements of fact to prove or disprove claims.” Is it, though? Critics of self-described skeptics point out that what they accept as evidence encodes their own hidden biases as well as their faith in the integrity of the institutions of knowledge production, and that they unwittingly practice the same credulity and closed-mindedness of which they accuse their targets. But these criticisms do not reach to the heart of skepticism: they say, merely, that skeptics practice it imperfectly. When Shermer says his skepticism has been shaken to the core, perhaps he doesn’t mean that his doubts about the usual targets of self-described skeptics – supernatural and paranormal claims – have been shaken. Perhaps what was shaken is his faith in the primacy of a way of knowing: the one that underlies skepticism and the Scientific Method.
It wasn’t a testable hypothesis proven through replicable experiments that rocked Michael Shermer’s world. It was an experience, immediate, subjective, and unreproducible by any normal means.
Certainly, Michael Shermer would not discard scientific reasoning in light of his experience. Nor would I. The challenge is to hold different paths to knowledge alongside each other, to stand in paradox, until one day, perhaps, a hidden unity is revealed. Some of the commenters on line, admonishing the author via various mechanistic explanations, seemed not to understand that the significance of the experience had nothing to do with the absence of a physical mechanism to explain the radio turning on. It was the synchronicity of the event, the timing, the circumstances.
One might think it marvelous if any physical explanation (per accepted physics) could be eliminated, proving that consciousness after death, or perhaps telekinesis, exists after all. One might think it marvelous to expand the realm of known forces and the entities that can wield them. But for me, there is a possibility far more marvelous, beyond a mere extension of the existing catalog of physical phenomena. It is that the causal mechanism – whether a departed spirit or a heat-and-humidity-induced completion of a circuit – is merely the means through which a deeper truth becomes manifest: that the universe, and the events of our lives, possess intelligence, consciousness, purpose. We are not the sole repositories of these qualities, surveying an alien universe of force and mass. We are at home in the universe.
Note that I am not proclaiming here a divinity external to matter that is the source of this aforesaid intelligence, purpose, etc. The usual critique of Cartesian dualism would then apply: if spirit interacts with matter, it isn’t external to matter; it is, rather, an extension of physics that leaves its key metaphysical assumptions intact. I am saying, rather, that these qualities are inherent in the world. Shermer doesn’t say out loud that his experience causes him to doubt that the universe is an impersonal jumble of generic particles governed by mathematical laws, in which there is no meaning except what we project and no intelligence except what we impose, nor does his experience “prove” anything to the contrary; however, his account bears unto the reader a quality of awe, that comes primarily from the experience itself, and only secondarily, if at all, from any reconsideration of physics it might inspire. Properly, he relegates the implications for scientific inquiry to the last paragraph: “We need to keep an open mind,” is basically what he says.
That this spontaneous and numinous experience happened to one of the world’s most prominent debunkers of such experiences may, like the dot of yin in the fullness of yang, portend a fundamental transition. Perhaps it signals the unraveling of the epistemologic hegemony of science, not to be soon replaced with another knowledge system that merely extends its explanatory devices, but leading, rather, to a time of unknowing, a time of paradox and contradiction. As Shermer concludes, “We should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious.”