Earlier this month, I accompanied my husband to Florida for an art event in which he was participating. We shared an Airbnb property (“vintage Spanish revival with pool”) with six other street painters. One morning, one of the artists and I were the last two left in the house. We got to talking at the breakfast table. I described a pair of short stories I had been working on: a ghost story about conjoined twin sisters born in Victorian England, and a science fiction tale about a physics professor who invents a device to talk to the dead.
She said the subject matter appealed to her, and we shared that we both had an interest in the paranormal. We never knew this about each other, despite having been acquainted for over 10 years. I think there is a stigma associated with curiosity about phenomena that aren’t conclusively supported or explained by science, such as aliens, angels, energy healing, near-death experiences, and reincarnation. This stigma tends to keep us quiet, especially in the presence of vociferous proponents of “rational thought.”
A skeptic is someone who questions the legitimacy or genuineness of something alleged to be factual. Some skeptics automatically reject claims that do not fit their worldview or that challenge the status quo. The Skeptics Society tries to distance itself from these “cynics” and “grumpy curmudgeons.” The organization’s mission is to investigate the paranormal by “continuously and vigorously” applying the scientific method to it. “We must see compelling evidence before we believe,” the group says.
While this approach sounds reasonable, it makes a major assumption: that science can prove the truth or falsehood of everything. What if certain aspects of reality can’t be measured by the instruments of science? Albert Einstein said, “One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike.” In other words, science is too rudimentary to account for all of reality. Interestingly, there are non-paranormal occurrences and circumstances that science can’t explain satisfactorily, including ones we consider basic scientific principles, such as gravity, magnetism, and time.
Furthermore, does “compelling evidence” have to be scientific in nature—arising from a double-blind experiment conducted in a laboratory setting? Do personal experience and observation have no value? Is a mountain of anecdotal reports not persuasive? Why can’t we study and scrutinize phenomena ourselves, and then use our intuition to assess their validity? Such an approach would probably sound like sacrilege to a skeptic. But to quote Einstein again, “The only real valuable thing is intuition.”
I understand the appeal of science. Its systematic organization of knowledge imposes a sense of order on a world that can often seem chaotic. Its testable explanations make the universe seem predictable—and predictability is comforting. I also recognize the role of science in facilitating technological advances that improve our lives. Moreover, scientific insights and discoveries are often completely fascinating. But I am not willing to limit my inquiries about life to what science alone is capable of proving.
Fiction is a socially acceptable outlet in this regard. It lets us play with the acceptance of things that can’t be verified. What if there is an afterlife, and we can communicate with those who have passed on? What if aliens are visiting us? What if angels intervene on our behalf? What if we come back to earth in different forms, lifetime after lifetime? We can explore these “what ifs” in stories.
And then maybe the stories will open our minds, little by little, to the potential reality of the paranormal.