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My father, now dead, a mathematician without the slightest leaning toward the esoteric, once told me of driving by night with a friend through the hill country of North Carolina. Suddenly a large truck, lights blazing, came over a crest, passed through their car without a sound, and disappeared in the night. My father said that after a moment he asked, “Did you see what I saw?” The friend answered “Yes.” They said no more about it, to each other or anyone else. They would have been thought mad.

Over the years I have talked to various people, apparently sane, who have had unexplainable experiences. Some of these had dreamed of the death of someone who shortly thereafter died in the circumstances of the dream. Others were more similar to my father’s experience. Several remembered a sudden and terrible sense of the presence of something evil — this latter now called a “panic attack,” which explains nothing. Those involved seldom wanted to talk of such things in a scientific age for fear of being ridiculed.

But, one might reasonably ask, what could science, or scientists, know of these things? They can be neither proved nor disproved, nor repeated for study. And of course a number of equally improvable exploitations are ready to hand: the narrator is lying, or suffered a momentary imbalance of this or that neurotransmitter in his brain, or transitory dementia, or the delayed result of the ingestion of hallucinogen, and anyway the whole idea is so silly that we needn’t talk about it. Geez, it’s the kind of thing they believed in the Dark Ages.


But maybe not. JBS Haldane, the noted biologist, reported that he once “went into his home and saw himself sitting in his own chair smoking his favorite pipe.” ‘Irregular’ was his characterization, and he attributed the event to “indigestion.” This of course was ridiculous. He reported that he sat on himself and either he or the apparition disappeared and life went on. (JBS: The Life and Work of J.B.S. Haldane, by Ronald Clark, p.111) The event predictably was ignored, including by Haldane, as being too far outside of the expected.

In religious societies, such events, real or imagined, were easily explained. Apollo did it, or Yahweh, or angels perhaps, or poltergeists. Nature was thought to be in the hands of sentient beings more or less like humans. It was reasonable to think that they might throw lightning bolts or do all manner of unnatural things. Now we know, or think we do, that nothing can happen except in obedience to the laws of physics. This means that if something does, we will dismiss it.

The second paradox is that of morality. It is clear that a physical system, the only kind we believe to exist, cannot be either moral or immoral. A fire does not burn up a kindergarten full of children from malignity. It burns as it has to. And since we are physical systems as much as the fire is, we are no more moral or immoral than it is.

Evolutionary psychologists argue persuasively that no absolute moral standards exist. They have to insist on this as otherwise there would be something outside of physics and that would upset the whole apple cart.

And so they point to the relative nature of morality. In one decade, short skirts are thought immoral, in another perfectly acceptable; in the Old Testament, stoning adulterers to death was not just moral but a duty; today, no. Bombing cities is immoral when Germans do it to England, but moral when England does it to Germany. In many cultures, horrific torture has been normal, in others a cause for revulsion. What we call morality is only a set of evolutionary adaptations to facilitate the passing on of our genes (as indeed short skirts might).

The problem here is that evolutionary psychologists, decent people, do not believe what they profess. If I stoned a homosexual to death, as at times in the past has been thought proper, they would be horrified. I could reply, “Why? Your moral objection is merely a prejudice local to this time and place and has no absolute validity. In evolutionary terms the resources consumed by gays would be better spent on having children and passing our society’s genes.”

Here it is worth noting that evolution is a subset of physics. How is it not? DNA follows the laws of chemistry — that is, physics. Mutations caused by cosmic rays or anything else comport with physics. Nothing that occurs within or without an organism undergoing natural selection contravenes physics — as if it did, we would be back to the paranormal.

Finally, there is the question of death. This is very carefully ignored in the sciences. Biology treats death as merely the cessation of certain reactions. But biologists also die. Do we really believe that nothing comes after death? How do we know? If we admit that we do not know, then there is the possibility of all manner of things in heaven and earth beyond our ken and of uncertain effect on our world. Scientists will pooh-pooh this (all the way to the grave ….)

Perhaps existence is not the simple wind-up clock we tell ourselves it is.

(Republished from Fred on Everything by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Morality, Supernatural 
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  1. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    It’s less than obvious what the moral paradox really is here. People are ultrasocial mammals, and have evolved so as to maximize inclusive genetic fitness in the context of increasingly complex human societies. Empathy, shame, moral intuitions, and related mental adaptations arose to serve that end. No need to get all mysterious and otherworldly about it.

    • Replies: @Dwright
    , @pyrrhus
  2. Dwright says:

    Thansk for explaining that so succinctly, no need to look into this further.

  3. hang on the phone here now. not quite so fast. plenty of mystery here. what happens to us after being alive for a sufficiently long time, is that we learn to take this whole incomprehensible mystery called life, for granted. giving it a name does not solve the mystery. calling empathy, shame, and moral intuitions physics does not end the mystery. who legislated that a proton shall have zero mass anyway?

    • Replies: @David
  4. proton? or some other crazy sub atomic particle? the one that is entangled with another one light years away? anyway. you see my point.

  5. David says:

    A proton has a mass of about 1.67 x 10^-24 grams.

    In this piece, Fred resembles a tractor without an attachment. Or he resembles a seed that’s sprouted in permanent darkness. Or he resembles a bee flying from one painted flower to another, making no gains. If he were able to engage a bit of curious and intelligent society around him, his philosophic musings would easily have taken him beyond the planes and foothills of human understanding.

  6. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    must be sad to have such a mechanistic view of the human species. no adventure, no mystery, just get out of bed to find food to keep alive and someone to pass one’s genes along to.

    • Replies: @rod1963
  7. KevinV says:

    Fred is quite right. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but something unexplainable also happened to me once. Here is how I explained it to friends the day it happened:

    Last night I had an unusually vivid dream, the type that happen infrequently, that seem so real that the few times I’ve had them I’ve had to spend time in the morning re-adjusting to reality. In this dream, I was divorced from my wife of 16 years and was responding to a British girl’s question about what had gone wrong with my marriage. While I was badly explaining the painful experience, Ambassador Robert Smith (not his real name), who in real life I had worked with in Europe, walked on a sidewalk behind the girl, across a street.

    I awoke profoundly shaken and moved by this strikingly powerful dream.

    Today, at around 11am, in the cafeteria of the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, two things of note happened:

    1) My wife informed me of her intention to leave me, to return to California; and

    2) Ambassador Robert Smith, currently posted in Europe, walked in the corridor behind her.

    I’m not an especially mystical person, but this was unreal to the point where all I can say is that I somehow had a premonition.

    • Replies: @Stan D Mute
  8. bossel says:

    Finally, there is the question of death. This is very carefully ignored in the sciences.

    Actually, you’re only showing your own ignorance here. I suggest looking up thanatology.

    • Replies: @rod1963
  9. Stealth says:

    My sister and a friend of hers have always claimed to have had that same experience of pulling out in front of a semi and having it go right through the car as if it were intangible.

    • Replies: @Jim
  10. Science and philosophy almost never get along. I think those who disagree have never seriously participated in either realm.

  11. @KevinV

    In some ways, I think you are fortunate in that your vision or premonition happened to you, alone, in your sleep. It would be (is) harder to deal with an unexplainable event occurring to you and a companion both, where you confirm with one another it did happen, as with Fred’s father’s example. Either you had a shared psychosis lasting but a moment, or the world is *much* stranger than we think it is. And then you’re into probabilities. How likely is it that two people shared the same hallucination at the exact same moment and that those two people were accompanying one another when it happened? And if you cannot accept that, then accepting the world is *not* what we’ve been taught and normally observe, how do you put this knowledge aside and get on with the business of reality as we normally observe it?

    If you’ve had some unexplainable experience, unexplainable because it contravenes the known laws of physics and bounds of human abilities, you feel a bit like the protagonist in Heinlein’s “They” (Unz has this story on his site). Nobody would believe you except someone who was a nutjob. So you have to bury it and do your best to forget it ever happened.

    • Replies: @Stubborn in Germany
  12. Dave37 says:

    There is some super weird stuff that happens to people, personally I hope science never explains it as it would probably kill it or try to turn it into a weapon to kill something else. Good reason for wondering about what we think is real though.

  13. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Interesting, as always. Thanks.

    Spent much of my life working in science and technology. And saw myself as a rock-ribbed Realist/Rationalist for most of that. But I like to think I have an open mind…

    If you follow what many consider ‘fringe’ research you’ll find lots of what looks like solid work that flies in the face of established physics. Names like Stapp, Puthoff, Vallee and Sheldrake come to mind. Enough to convince me that there is more going on than the current Canon comprehends. I’ve been following the brain/mind debate between the Reductionists and whatever the opposite camp call themselves (Emergentists?) for maybe 10 years now. Fascinating stuff, no matter who’s right (heh, heh). And central to questions of physics, evolution, morality, etc. I think. The Society for Scientific Exploration does a pretty good job of straddling the rigor vs. open mind divide, for those interested.

    Not many personal experiences, but I’ll share a couple to stir the pot. I had a martial arts teacher that could apparently change his mass (or at least an instrument reading) by ‘flowing energy’. I didn’t see it, but others did. This was on an NBS certified scale at a national lab. With what little I know of physics, I pointed out that this was impossible and there was a Nobel Prize in it for whoever figured it out. The others in the class looked at me like I was nuts. Fun.

    For myself, I’ve had some experiences that I would class as paranormal. Most of these amount to what is termed precognition I guess. They’re pretty sparse, but seem to be increasing in frequency as the years go by. I started thinking of it as ‘remembering the future’ because that’s what it feels like; not prediction. I was gratified to learn that this is a very common phenomenon and I wasn’t (necessarily) completely barking mad. I should point out it is usually completely banal information that is no use whatsoever in Vegas or Wall Street, which is why I’m not rich…


  14. pyrrhus says:

    One day in the early ’70s, I was driving south on I-5 in Seattle and had just passed the Boeing complex and airfield when two cars collided a few hundred yards in front of me. A multi-car accident was rapidly developing, with me as one of the multitude, when suddenly time seemingly came to a virtual stop. I was able to navigate my way around the accident as all the vehicles were frozen, and when I reached a clear spot, reality resumed its normal speed. When I got back to our place in the Ravenna district, I told everyone about these rather astounding events, including my future wife, and then we went out for beer and pizza and forgot about it.
    Decades later, I read Gladwell’s “Blink”, which has a number of similar accounts.

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  15. @Stan D Mute

    So you have to bury it and do your best to forget it ever happened.

    I agree. Having also (once) experienced an inexplicable and seemingly impossible event (which I won’t detail here), I came to the same conclusion. It was unexpected, never happened again, and I can see no lessons to draw from it. Except possibly admitting that there may be some realm of “alternate reality” (for want of a better term) that can intersect with ours. But it’s not replicable and does not lend itself to scientific investigation.

    And I am leery of book authors that monetize such one-off events into fanciful narratives crafted to enrich them (not talking about Fred here, just so there is no misunderstanding).

  16. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I had a similar experience, but with a passenger in the car. We were on a business trip driving on the interstate highway in Syracuse, New York in a p.o.s. rental Mazda Protege behind a truck when a steel I-beam flew off the bed of the truck towards our car. I can only describe the event as time seemingly stopped with the I-beam suspended in mid-air. I just simply steered around that I-beam with our Mazda Protege (to my passenger, the Protege appeared to handle like a Ferrari) and time resumed normally. My passenger turned to me and said, “How the f**k did you do that? We were dead!” I responded, “Driver’s Ed” and we rode in silence until we got back to our hotel. It’s been over 20 years and it’s just not something I talk about since people would just think you are a liar.

    • Replies: @pyrrhus
  17. Jim says:

    I wouldn’t rely on that happening.

  18. pyrrhus says:

    We experienced something that is inexplicable in our secular societal narrative, but it happened never the less. In my case, I have had several other inexplicable experiences….”there are more things in Heaven and Earth”…….

  19. Flower says:

    Something similar happened to my aunt. She was in the Philly airport getting ready to board her flight to come see us when she read her horoscope which said, “Beware of planes today.” She immediately left the airport and went home. And you know what, that plane crashed! Right into her house. Took out half the neighborhood. Terrible thing really.

  20. Flemur says:

    “Do we really believe that nothing comes after death?”
    “How do we know?”
    No evidence.

    “Amongst many savage tribes, especially such as are known to practice totemism, it is customary for lads at puberty to undergo certain initiatory rites, of which one of the commonest is a pretence of killing the lad and bringing him to life again. Such rites become intelligible if we suppose that their substance consists in extracting the youth’s soul in order to transfer it to his totem. For the extraction of his soul would naturally be supposed to kill the youth or at least to throw him into a death-like trance, which the savage hardly distinguishes from death. His recovery would then be attributed either to the gradual recovery of his system from the violent shock which it had received, or, more probably, to the infusion into him of fresh life drawn from the totem. Thus the essence of these initiatory rites, so far as they consist in a simulation of death and resurrection, would be an exchange of life or souls between the man and his totem. The primitive belief in the possibility of such an exchange of souls comes clearly out in a story of a Basque hunter who affirmed that he had been killed by a bear, but that the bear had, after killing him, breathed its own soul into him, so that the bear’s body was now dead, but he himself was a bear, being animated by the bear’s soul.” — Golden Bough, “The External Soul in Folk-Custom.”

  21. The data that science has excluded – or “damned”, in the terminology of Charles Fort.

  22. rod1963 says:

    Ohh lots of brainiacs love that sort of certainty, it makes them feel special and powerful, sort of like the Pope but far more arrogant and certain.

    Oh yeah it also saps the life out of the buggers and they don’t tend to procreate very well, it doesn’t help many of them aren’t very likable chaps either.

  23. rod1963 says:

    Oh you mean that group of self-appointed secular clerics that try to take the place of priests, elders and ministers. Forget about it.

    They can’t tell you anything about death or what if anything comes after.

  24. Lot says:

    My anecdote is that I have never had any sort of supernatural experience of any sort. Nor a panic attack.

    The closest I’ve come was on high doses of LSD or magic mushrooms. Even then, as I was “seeing” all sorts of fun visual effects, and feeling “presences” of nature sprites, and a part of my brain felt compelled to think they are real, in the back of my mind I was fully aware that they were not real. This was a lot of fun by the way.

  25. Hunsdon says:

    Pyrrhus at 20 beat me to it. There really are more things on Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in all our philosophies. There are things we can’t explain using our paradigm, a few of those things have happened to me.

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