Academia, Relativism, and the “Supernatural”: What is True, What is Real, and What is Reasonable?
by Elizabeth Lowry
Abstract: [page 88] Considering other people’s esoteric or “supernatural” experiences in a professional capacity can be challenging because, as academics, we are expected to reject such discourses. But while “critical thinking” presupposes a strictly rationalist and positivist standpoint, the act of thinking critically may sometimes require a more relativistic perspective on what is generally accepted as being true and real. Acknowledging the social and political dangers of accepting an overly relativistic view of “truth” and “reality,” this paper explores the plusses and pitfalls of relativism with regard to truth claims associated with the supernatural.
Keywords: esoteric, rational, reason, relativism, truth-claims
In academia, addressing areas of study affiliated with experiences commonly known as supernatural, paranormal, or esoteric often results in epistemological complications. Considering other people’s purported “anomalous” experiences in a professional capacity can be challenging because, as academics, we are expected to reject the “supernatural,” which is typically associated with primitivism, ignorance, and superstition. Scholars who do consider discourses of the supernatural, paranormal, or esoteric are expected to declare their skepticism with respect to the veracity of such claims. Above all, we understand that we are to avoid appearing overly credulous or insufficiently “critical.” But while “critical thinking” presupposes a strictly rationalist and positivist standpoint, the act of thinking critically may sometimes require a more relativistic perspective on what is generally accepted as being true and real.
Acknowledging the social and political dangers of accepting an overly relativistic view of “truth” and “reality,” this paper explores the plusses and pitfalls of relativism with regard to truth claims associated with the supernatural or paranormal. Using nineteenth-[page 89] century “psychical research” as an example of the value of not succumbing to a rigidly materialist mindset when determining what can be accepted as true, this study considers the difference between the scientific relativism that nineteenth-century philosopher and psychologist William James referred to as “radical empiricism” and the kinds of truth claims that—in our current political climate—are commonly referred to as “alternative facts”—especially with regard to the dismissal of empirical proof in service of an ideological agenda. Finally, it argues that we need to consider new ways of defining the term “critical thinking,” emphasizing a focus on how and when to distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable models of relativism.
Natural Science and Empirical Proof
The supernatural, paranormal, and occult have long been considered inappropriate areas of academic study. The rejection of such esoteric discourses can be traced back to the Enlightenment era, when a cultural elite called for a pronounced separation of science from mysticism or “magic.” Western esotericist Wouter Hanegraaff claims that, from a historical perspective, studies of esotericism or “hidden knowledge” have been rejected by the academy because knowledge believed to be influenced by religion or magic was considered to be unreliable or an “illegitimate” way of knowing (153). This split between material empirical science and mysticism became all the more pronounced in the nineteenth century. If an unusual (or “anomalous”) incident, event, or experience could not be explained by natural science, then the possibility of its existence would simply not be acknowledged. Moreover, any phenomenon that could not be determined to be “real” or “true” by means of the scientific method was deemed an area of study that scholars feared could sully their reputations.
Jeffrey Kripal argues that scholars with “ghostly sensibilities . . . are continuously ridiculed as naïve and self-serving, as if real scholarship can only proceed by denying the reality of what it claims to study” (16). That is, scholars who do study elements of the paranormal or supernatural are expected to unequivocally announce their skepticism—the assumption being that if an [page 90] academic believes in the possibility of the paranormal, his or her work is not to be trusted. Unfortunately, the expectation that scholars will declare themselves to be skeptics means that they may feel compelled to restrict their own areas of study.
“Is it True?”
A popular textbook for undergraduates in the United States, How to Talk about Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age, addresses the problem of “bogus science” and “outlandish claims” such as creationism, alien abductions, ghosts, and psychic readings (Schick and Vaughn vii). The authors, Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn, consider critical thinking in academic settings, responsibly promoting skepticism over “superstition.” In the introduction to this textbook, Schick and Vaughn argue that questions such as “Is it real?” and “Is it true?” are essential when one is confronted with knowledge claims. The authors emphasize that they teach “principles of critical thinking that enable you to evaluate any claim for yourself . . . . Often in the realm of the weird, such principles themselves are precisely what’s at issue. Arguments about weird things are frequently about how people know and if people know—the main concerns of the branch of philosophy called epistemology” (x). Here, “knowledge” is defined strictly as that which is empirically “true.” Anything that cannot be supported by the principles of natural science must be impossible and therefore not worth dignifying with attention.
Schick and Vaughn’s stance with respect to empirical knowledge and the scientific method suggests that “hard science” is unfailingly reliable—a vehicle for definitive and absolute “truth.” However, physics—particularly quantum physics—has complicated this notion. In his book Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics, Jim Al-Khalili suggests that determining what is “true” or “real” can be contested even from the perspective of physical science. An example of this arises in the paradox of Schrödinger’s Cat. Physicist Erwin Schrödinger describes a “thought experiment” that involves locking a cat in a box with poison, arguing that, according to the laws of physics, there is a point of “superposition” at which the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. That is (if one were not distressed enough by the notion of enclosing a cat in a poisoned box), [page 91] according to Schrödinger, there is a point at which an entity can apparently be two opposites at once before it is established as either/or (Al-Khalili 179). Schick and Vaughn do not specifically mention Schrödinger’s cat, but they do express concern about quantum physics, which has “caused some people to speculate that reality is subjective, that we as observers create the universe ourselves—that the universe is a product of our imagination” (9). Schick and Vaughn suggest that, in academic settings, we simply should not allow the idea that reality is subjective to flourish. We should focus on “universal” or “general” truths that can be scientifically proven—situations, events, and phenomena that everyone accepts to be real.
Specifically, Schick and Vaughn’s textbook teaches students how to apply the principles of critical thinking with respect to “other” (or “othered”) knowledge claims, such as those regarding psychic abilities, the possible existence of UFOs, and astrology (x). While the heuristics presented in this book are insightful, logically sound, and no doubt useful, the authors’ rhetorical approach reveals some of the limitations of empirical knowledge. As esotericist Richard Smoley puts it, a cultural shift toward a strictly empirical or rationalist approach “has had a way, witting or unwitting, of pushing itself forward as the only legitimate approach to the study of a subject. And soon the entire topic is reduced to a kind of Flatland, where only one kind of knowing has any authority” (n.p.). With this comparison to Flatland, Edward Abbott’s 1884 satirical novel about social hierarchy in Victorian England, Smoley suggests that academia is like this: hegemonic and restrictive, forcing everyone’s experience of the world to fit within unnecessarily rigid—and entirely unnatural—paradigms. While it is understandable that a relativist perspective on reality is unsettling and sometimes even dangerous, there are times at which we must understand situations—particularly the writing of historical subjects describing supernatural experiences—in more relativistic ways.
Spiritualism and the Value of Psychical Research
Given that studies relating to the paranormal have often been omitted from the historical record, material on nineteenth century [page 92] Spiritualism—a religion based on the belief that the living could communicate with the dead—remained understudied until the late twentieth century. The growth of Spiritualism in the nineteenth century provoked public controversy about the possibility of communicating with the spirit world. Psychic mediums claimed to talk to dead people, and their detractors insisted that, since this was physically impossible, the mediums were liars and crooks. The controversy over whether or not communicating with spirits was possible led to “psychical research,” a field of study wherein professors observed mediums (more commonly known as “psychics”), collected data, and tried to ascertain how various anomalous phenomena associated with alleged spirit communication were produced.
Numerous scholars of nineteenth-century Spiritualism and the history of science have argued that the field of psychology as we know it today would not exist without its unpopular pseudoscientific predecessor “psychical research.” Andreas Sommer argues that the idea that psychology had such origins has long been a source of embarrassment to orthodox science. Sommer asserts that nineteenth-century psychologists therefore worked hard to “expel psychical research from the agenda of scientific psychology” (23). Academic historiography has attempted to submerge psychology’s dubious heritage because the reputation of real, “normal,” or sanctioned science depends on separating its principles from those of less orthodox science.
What is Truth?
When discussing the issue of veracity with respect to claims of “supernatural” or paranormal experience, psychologist Susan Adler draws on William James’s 1902 Varieties of Religious Experience to point out that reality is often subjective in that we cannot determine what is “real” or “not real” for someone else—only for ourselves (73). As Adler puts it, “A pragmatist philosopher, such as William James would say these concepts are real but they do not exist” (14). That is, James’s willingness to suspend disbelief and to adopt a sympathetic stance when interviewing and studying people who claimed to be psychic mediums meant that he was able to gain unique insight into the human psyche. James’s less orthodox [page 93] approaches toward scientific research caused him to question not only the veracity of purported psychic experiences, but also why people believed themselves to be having such experiences. Asking why people believed themselves to be having paranormal experiences rather than dismissing their claims as fraudulent allowed James to consider Spiritualism from a more intellectually productive perspective. By acknowledging that people who claimed to be psychic really believed themselves to be communicating with supernatural entities, James was able to account for how they experienced ostensive supernatural phenomena, and he was eventually able to build sophisticated theories of the unconscious mind that became invaluable to subsequent studies in psychology, psychotherapy, and psychiatry (Alvarado 140).
Fixating on whether or not our research subjects are actually telling the “truth” with respect to the transcendent (or otherwise supernatural) incidents that they describe can become an obstacle to cultivating the kind of interpretive work necessary to intellectual growth. Referencing Gillian Bennett’s sociological study of women and supernatural folklore, Marlene Tromp asserts that “the kind of straightforward linear narrative that we might associate with truth-telling in other instances merely terminates conversation about the delicate insubstantial matters related to the world of spirits, and indeed straightforward speech indicates a disbelief in the supernatural” (7). Many researchers would prefer not to “terminate” conversation about their subject matter so prematurely. If scholars, (especially social scientists) fail to examine the kinds of circular narratives that characterize “supernatural” discourse, then it is likely that they will miss out on “epistemological engagement and a way to rethink the normative” (Tromp 8). Rethinking the normative is crucial to the development of new ideas. If we limit ourselves to accepting only one way of knowing, we may have trouble understanding the world from a more nuanced and multidimensional perspective. For example, when historians or historiographers study the social or political impact of certain belief systems (such as Spiritualism), whether or not a person’s claim to supernatural experience is “real” or “true” is irrelevant—what matters for social science is to be able to understand how such beliefs affected the cultural landscape. [page 94]
William James advocated a methodological approach called “radical empiricism” that could account for conflicting truths—the subjective and objective. More specifically, although James emphasized the importance of empiricism, he felt that it would be irresponsible to jettison more subjective interpretations of truth in the service of upholding nineteenth-century scientific orthodoxy. In this manner, James and others were able to draw a distinction between authenticity and truth—that is, acknowledging and accepting that there were different kinds of truth at work in the world—universal or generalized truths and localized truths. In order to understand an event or situation, both truths had to be accounted for and considered in tandem—neither one could be dismissed. While objective truth can be proved by consensus or scientific methods, there is also a subjective truth that is authentic on the grounds that it is “true” in some contexts, at some times, for some people. If we immediately reject knowledge claims that cannot be scientifically supported, we run the risk of not only restricting our intellectual growth but also (as Adler argues) our emotional growth. Adler suggests that our potential for healing from trauma, the possibility for self-actualization, and the cultivation of self-awareness rely on the formulation of deeply personal “truths” that must be considered contextually. Hence, it may be counterproductive (if not impossible) to insist on universal truths or realities when addressing other people’s claims to transcendent, esoteric, supernatural, paranormal, or otherwise anomalous experience.
In We Have Never Been Modern, Bruno Latour describes our insistent perception that we inhabit two different mindsets that are constantly in conflict. One is “Nature,” which is associated with mythology, mysticism, and relativism. The other is “Society,” which is associated with science, objectivity, and materialism. Radical empiricism asks us to take what James called the “Tertium Quid” or “third way”—but our current political climate asks us to choose either “Nature” or “Society.” When it comes to intellectual pursuits, we privilege “Society” over “Nature”—but, Latour argues, human endeavors do not necessarily happen to fall on one side of the spectrum or the other: “Everything happens in the middle, everything passes between the two, everything happens by way of mediation, translation, and networks, but this space does [page 95] not exist, it has no place” (806). That is, although Nature and Society are constantly in cooperation, we refuse to acknowledge that middle space on the spectrum—we prefer to consider Nature and Society as being polarized. We have tried so hard to keep Nature and Society separate (and thus “pure”) that we have foreclosed the possibility of a middle position. Refusing to binarize the terms of discussion forces us to consider ideas that may challenge our perspectives. The “middle spaces” on the spectrum are where our understanding of complex, subjective experience can be considered in relationship to larger, more universal truths.
What is Reasonable?
On one hand, scholars such as Susan Adler and William James say that reality can be subjective and that we cannot determine what is true for someone else. However, on the other hand, scholars such as Schick and Vaughn reject the notion of truth as being relative, arguing that it is irresponsible to accept that truth is malleable because we cannot engage in rational thought without “objective truth.” Schick and Vaughn’s concern with truth claims is well taken—particularly in a “post-fact” social and political climate during which it has apparently become acceptable for politicians and various media outlets to deliberately feed the public with falsehoods. As Schick and Vaughn put it, “A democratic society depends on the ability of its members to make rational choices. But rational choices must be based on rational beliefs. If we can’t tell the difference between reasonable and unreasonable claims, we become susceptible to the claims of charlatans, scoundrels, and mountebanks” (13). Although the term “honest politician” has long been considered an oxymoron, in the past, politicians and the press have at least operated within a similar reality by acknowledging the same science—and by being able to agree on what is and what is not scientific fact. Historically, the mainstream media has also been expected to hold politicians accountable to the public by ensuring that said politicians are capable of making reasonable truth claims and of being able to think and act rationally. That is, being reasonable is typically associated with being rational. Reason is subjective and localized, whereas the rational is more universally [page 96] associated with logic. We expect a reasonable person to also be rational.
Irrational beliefs in conspiracy theories and a refusal to acknowledge scientific fact have led to a spate of unreasonable truth claims. For example, insisting that climate change is a hoax is imminently harmful in that it inhibits the implementation of policies that could mean a healthier and more peaceful future. In such contexts, Schick and Vaughn are justifiably disturbed by the implication that “when enough people believe that something is true it becomes true for everyone” (12). But the sort of relativism that Schick and Vaughn condemn is quite different from that which William James advocates. James broke new ground in psychology by accepting that there might be “other” ways to define truth within specific contexts. In James’s model of “radical empiricism,” objective truth was accepted in conjunction with conflicting personal truths. Therefore, radical empiricism promoted a relativism that encompassed many ways of knowing without discarding information that did not fit existing paradigms of knowledge.
Schick and Vaughn’s criticism of relativism is that (in contrast to James’s model) accepting contextual and local truths can become an excuse to dismiss more general and universal truths. Rather than embracing the notion of taking multiple perspectives into account, one truth claim is simply used to replace another. The idea that there isn’t really such a thing as objective truth has become increasingly problematic given that in the current political climate, relativism has been used as a rhetorical tool to ask people not to broaden their minds, but to choose what to believe and to devalue all else. Hence, we have seen the rise of the concept of “alternative facts,” the undermining of the press, the undermining of scientific expertise, and the rise of heavily politicized ideologies that attempt to convince people that spiritual beliefs and personal truths should privileged over universal truths.
There are times at which we need to accept empirical fact as being the “truth,” but there are also times at which we need to entertain the possibility that a conflicting personal truth may be worth considering in tandem with empiricism—and that objectivity should not be jettisoned in favor of subjectivity or vice versa. [page 97] Essentially, we need to distinguish between different models of relativism and what they are good for—placing an emphasis on the fact that a strong relativist model should mean not discarding anomalous information but including it. Relativism should not dispense entirely with scientific fact, nor should it totally dismiss personal experience. The problem is that it is not always easy to tell when we should suspend disbelief and when we should not. Perhaps one of the most pressing issues facing academia today might be trying to recognize which contexts call for rational thought and empirical proof, and which contexts call for more abstract and relativistic perspectives. Being able to tell the difference between the two is essential to intellectual growth. “Critical thinking” therefore means having a healthy sense of this difference rather than simply adopting a default position of skepticism.
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MLA citation (print):
Lowry, Elizabeth. "Academia, Relativism, and the 'Supernatural': What is True, What is Real, and What is Reasonable?." Supernatural Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, 2017, pp. 88-98.