Reality Under Oath


Reality Under Oath

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PARANORMAL NARRATIVE: What does it mean to state the fact of a paranormal experience when so many rational people don’t believe that such phenomena exist? The reader might have to call it subjective nonfiction if there are no verifiable external facts to support the description. In such cases can the description even ring true as probable or possible? Only to the writer. In order to exist in nature would the experience have to be reproducible in the way of all scientific experiments? Probably. But the nature of paranormal phenomena is that it’s not reproducible, even when captured on film or recordings, it tends not to be repeatable. Does this mean that the paranormal data, i.e. the descriptions, are false?

I’ve had several real paranormal experiences. The one that stands out as vividly irrefutable is the apparition of the black dog in the Catskill mountains between Eagle and Haynes peaks. I stopped for lunch in the col between the climbs in a clearing. I spotted a log I could sit on and just as I thought of approaching, a black dog appeared, trotting towards that log. My mind told me it couldn’t be a black dog in the wilderness; if it was it was some kind of mutt. More logically it was a coyote but I had never seen black coyotes in the Catskills. Nor did it move like any dog I’d ever seen; it floated. What was it? The dog arrived at the log and slunk down behind it; not a sound was made at any time by it or me. I was numb with fear and wonder. How could I go to the log now? Would I be attacked? I knew the dog could not have left the log because there was no sound--not a leaf crinkle--no disturbance; besides I would have seen it. I went to the log, looked over, and nothing was there.

Clearly the dog didn’t exist, but the apparition did. I was not hallucinating. I would swear before a firing squad on the reality of that sighting. Subsequently I associated it with the legend of the dog, Vite, that jumped off Kaaterskill Falls and died at the accidental behest of its master. You can find the article here: “A Faithful Dog’s Epitaph” New York Times: September 1, 1901.

PARANORMAL ANOMALIES: Last night I watched the Syfy show Paranormal Witness as I always do on Wednesday nights during the new seasons. I’m curious about witnesses’ stated claims of alleged hauntings: Is it possible for filing cabinet drawers to open and close spontaneously as the accountant at the Capitol Theatre, Salt Lake City Utah, said they did? Doors in the basement of that building slammed shut on hydraulic hinges; door handles jiggled, smoke from a fire permeated a room, the elevator moved up and down floors, apparitions were seen--all when no one was in the building except for the security guard--and these events were witnessed by two police officers and other employees of the theater. History showed that there was a fire and a firefighter was trapped and died in the room that smelled of smoke where the door handle shook. Coincidence? Details of hauntings seem to have many items in common, like the unspoken agreed upon images of extraterrestrial beings; there are cold spots, mists, whispers, knocks, scratches, and feelings of surveillance. What can research prove about such claims? I wrote last month about the black dog I saw in the mountains, the dog that didn’t exist except as an apparition, and I concluded that my description of it was, at best, subjectively real. In order to elevate the paranormal descriptions of claimants to objective accuracy, I believe they would need to be witnessed by more than one credible person, such as police officers, and collected evidence would need to be verified. Even then, all we could say about it was that it was anomalous. The rest is a ghost story.

ANIMAL RESEMBLANCE: I watch shows about animals everyday: The Haunted, I shouldn’t Be Alive, Fatal Attractions, and a variety of shows on Animal Planet and The Discovery Channel. These shows interest me because of the cognitive power of animals; for example: horses in a barn whinny and buck in their stalls before an “apparition” appears to humans; a dog runs for help when his master falls off the cliff of a canyon wall and breaks her pelvis; dolphins seem to keep company and guard a shipwreck survivor. How much of this is anthropomorphized versus the real intention of the animal. I don’t question the intention of the dog Taz in Trapped In The Canyon (ISBA: 2010) when his owner said: “I’m hurt, I need help. Can you go get help?” and Taz ran about 15 miles back to the parking lot where rescuers were grouping but had no idea where to go. Taz led the lead rescuer on a 3-wheeler to his owner’s precise location. This was a whole new level of communication, according to Taz’ owner; now he was taking care of her instead of the other way around. How does that happen? Clearly animals are smarter than science has yet proved.

We know for example, that a border collie has the I.Q. of a 3-year old with a vocabulary of at east 1022 words: Objects in over 838 tests were correctly identified with their labels. We know that humans can have emotional relationships with animals. Man falls in love with a polar bear who subsequently eats him. Owner killed by beloved pet hyena. Woman fatally bitten by pet black mamba. These animals were anthropomorphized by insane owners. Ultimately, no matter how much we love a wild animal, the animal is still wild and unpredictable and not “in love.” Scientists reared wild foxes in order to breed in domesticity and breed out wildness; this process took five years, proved genetically successful, and ruled out emotional causality as a factor in domestication of wild animals. So the man who loves monitor lizards will never see that love reciprocated, no matter how long he deludes himself into believing that their attention is affection; rather it is predatory. In rare cases a dog might zoomorphisize a human when it thinks its master wants a bone. 

These rabbit trails lead to writing under oath: Representations of animals should never include human characteristics. Photographs or stories in nonfiction should depict animals doing what they do, not what we think they might be doing. We know when an animal story rings true, for example, if we know that, logically, an animal could act as claimed. Cats don’t urinate spitefully (even if it is a Siamese); they might miss the litter box because the litter hurts their feet, but never as an act of retribution, as many cat owners believe. A bison doesn’t really enjoy riding in a convertible... so why does it “behave” when its whacky owner takes it for a ride?  

Here’s what fascinates me most of all: In the movie The Elephant In The Living Room a man keeps a pair of lions, Lucy and Lacey; they get lose and chase cars on the highway, so the police order him to lock them up securely. He locks them in a rickety horse trailer where they mate and produce 4 cubs. The man falls in love with these animals, especially the male, and I don’t know whether he evolved into the part or the part evolved into him, but he looks exactly like a lion. How does this type of correspondence occur? Is he attracted to lions because he physically and emotionally identifies with them, or does he grow into the resemblance because he identifies with lions? It’s a cliche that people look like their mates, their pets, and they do, but how does this happen?

According to Existentialism: individuals cannot understand their own being ontologically, because this requires knowing objectively what is. In other words, objectively, I can’t know myself (okay) or even that I exist. Objectively, I know that others exist, and they know I exist, so that shoots that argument. Ayn Rand called Kierkegaard a “dirty hippie.”  She rejected the existentialists because they pretended that objective reality, all we can know with any certainty, didn’t exist except subjectively, ever-changing from one mind to another.

Kierkegaard's claim that subjectivity is truth was not a declaration as to what 'Truth' in an absolute sense might be. He argued that such a claim clearly identified that his interest regarding human existence was not upon any objective what, but rather it was upon how the individual made sense of and related to entities. Existential subjectivity, sometimes referred to as inwardness, focusses upon the way that the individual believes, rather than the object of the belief.

This thinking is akin to philosophical pragmatism in which truth changes depending upon who’s doing the perceiving. Or, consider the pragmatic maxim: Charles Sanders Peirce developed the idea that inquiry depends on real doubt, not mere verbal or hyperbolic doubt, and said, in order to understand a conception in a fruitful way, "Consider the practical effects of the objects of your conception. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object"

It equates any conception of an object to a conception of that object's effects to a general extent of the effects' conceivable implications for informed practice. It is the heart of his pragmatism as a method of experimentational mental reflection arriving at conceptions in terms of conceivable confirmatory and disconfirmatory circumstances that constitutes truth. This is weird considering that truth and accuracy can’t then exist unless the perceiver, experimenter, practitioner comes up with the uses and effects of an object, of which only those perceived of in the practitioner’s mind can even exist. Theory and practice are one; they cannot be separated.

Heidegger went to great length to argue that the subjectivity of the individual did not refer to an arbitrariness. He too shifted the traditional Western emphasis of conceptualizing truth as the correspondence between statement and fact, and promoted instead the Greek term aletheia to represent truth. This term refers to the uncovering of hidden things, taking them out of their concealment, and therefore he argued that one's subjectivity could be in truth through how one related to entities. Subjective understanding is conceived through how one finds oneself in relation to what one relates to. I don’t see how one needs to uncover anything to understand what constitutes objective truth.

Our minds were endowed by birth with the ability to reason and that is how we understand objects in the world, their meanings, uses, and properties. These objects are our objective reality whose reality does not depend upon our perceiving of them to exist exactly as they are, any more than our beings, as objective reality, depend upon another being’s subjective interpretation of beings.

METAPHORICAL HYPERTEXT: If words were a kind of hypertext for nonfiction then certain descriptions would turn into the physical object via their context: writing. If the words were mixed up or wrong, the image produced would be wrong. In HyperText the web browser is the vehicle that translates the code into the image.

The code is called HTML (HyperText). It seems like a kind of magic that by depositing the code into the browser it suddenly becomes a visible, recognizable object, or even a song. The tags (key words surrounded by brackets) don’t appear when you view your page through a browser, but their enhancements do as they were interpreted and embedded. They become the objects of that code. It’s as if you fed a set of words into a copier and the machine produced the 3-D object you described. (Such machines really do exist.)

The text, code, tag is clickable--a hyperlink--that brings you to the next page. What’s beautiful about it is that it’s hyper; i.e. it’s not linear, so that you can move anywhere, whenever you want on the web--hence the code has no particular order other than to represent exactly what it is. Markup or formatting is what changes the tone of the text inside the tags, like the word ‘shout’ might designate an angry person.

Here’s a quick recipe: 

  1. 1.HTML documents are simply a text file made up of descriptive elements.

  2. 2.These elements are defined using designator tags.

  3. 3.HTML tags tell your browser which elements to present and how to present them.

  4. 4.Where the element appears is determined by the order in which the tags appear.

  5. 5.HTML consists of about 100 tags.

  6. 6.The browser reads the file and translates the text into a visible form, rendering the page as the author intended.

If you want to write your own HTML you must use tags correctly to create your vision of the whole web page and each of its elements. If you’ve used the tags correctly, the browser will render your exact concept and all its details.

The simplest tags simply apply formatting to chosen text, like this: <b>These words will be bold</b>, and these will not. The text within the <b> tags will be bolded by virtue of the enwrapped tags when viewed through an ordinary web browser.

Strings of tags are incomprehensible, as codes will be, but imagine how words look that we don’t understand, or raw material, or parts before they’re jumbled into a new thing. Recipes, directions, stenography, calculus--threads of all kinds that lead to, embed, comprise a thing--these are specific shortcuts, models, symbols that make up the universe from the subatomic particle to black matter. Tweak one fleck of a set of instructions and you’ve got something other than what you intended: not the accurate fruition of the code, but a fiction.

SELECTIVELY TRUE: A phenomenon in statistics called “regression to the mean” shows that tests of replicability decline in effect until they reach their mean standard. The implication is not that certain effects will be proven untrue by repeat experiments but that whatever their initial effects depict will inevitably be reduced until the replications decline to their steady statistic, i.e. their mean. The arithmetic mean is achieved by adding all the values and dividing that number by the number of values. A reliable statistic is one that would be produced by chance less than five per cent of the time. Jonathan Schooler, University of Washington, discovered that when study participants were asked to describe their memories of a face they were less likely to remember it when shown it again later than the participants who simply looked at it. Each experiment consistently showed that transcribing memory was less effective than looking. It was a remarkable finding that seemed to defy everything we know and promote about memory from teaching kids how to study for a test to making lists: write it down. Schooler called the weird result “verbal overshadowing.” We know, for example, that eyewitness testimony is wildly unreliable for this reason.

When Schooler put his memory experiment to the test of replicability he found that the effect of verbal overshadowing declined with repeated experiments, that what seemed certain was losing its certainty. The discrepancy between writing and looking was losing its wide variability. Parapsychologists who study ESP and the paranormal know all too well about declining effects. Where one study showed remarkable powers of extrasensory perception, repeated studies diminished the effect. In order to arrive at popping statistics one had to stop with the number of experiments before the decline point, but that wasn’t science, that was illusion.

What does regression do to the nonfiction description of an object? Do we just believe what we want to believe? Have faith as Christian mystics would say? Are we so desperate to live with illusions? It’s fun, right? More fun to believe that the apparition I saw was real rather than a hallucination. More advantageous to believe that the guy in a hoodie the eyewitness saw setting fire to a building was not my son. Certain statistics do ring true but not with the wide margin of variation the first few experiments demonstrated. It is a human cognitive flaw that certain results are biased by subjectivity called “selective reporting”: if scientists know what they want they can unconsciously build those results into the data. Three different experiments conducted at three different but identical labs will produce different results not because of lab protocol but because of the scientist doing the data analysis and reporting.

That’s the difference between what I call subjective nonfiction and nonfiction. In the former the writer is reporting “the truth as I see it” with that disclaimer, which includes any descriptions from memory without notes. A real nonfiction description is one that can be replicated. Stay tuned for future depositions on description and replication.

You can read more about Jonathan Schooler at The New Yorker. “The Truth Wears Off: Is there something wrong with the scientific method?” by Jonah Lehrer: DECEMBER 13, 2010.


Copyright 2012, Kathryn Kurtz, ©. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.