Science at the Edge of All Light

Paranormal investigation has always squared off against the dogma that knowledge is restricted to matters of the material alone, that the spiritual should be left in a corner under the assertion that faith is of what cannot be known. But should the spiritual be left in the corner? Or should there even be walls at all?

Oscar Wilde said, “Religions die when they are proved to be true. Science is the record of dead religions.”

For the last two weeks, my philosophy of religion class at Colorado State University, under the direction of Dr. Idris Hamid, has been studying the interconnectedness of religion and science as we try to define this thing called ‘religion’ and our western interpretation of those elements that make it up.  As we took stabs in the dark to define this largely unquestioned belief system, we realized quickly that many common perceptions were actually misconceptions leading to deeper issues still, misconceptions that have guided us into a stubborn kind of ignorance, particularly in terms of the spiritual and from that, the paranormal in general.

For too long the paranormal has been so widely regarded as impractical science, a pseudoscience, at its most criticized, just a bunch of teenagers and middle aged people scaring each other in the dark. No one takes the work seriously. Scientists consider the field fruitless. Skeptics feel that there either is no afterlife or there cannot  be knowledge of such.  And much of the public feel simply that ghosts are not real.

I’ve said time and again that we are at an exciting moment of possibility for the field of spiritual investigation. Knowledge is up (and as an unfortunate but necessary side effect, so is ignorance). Thanks directly to shows like Ghost Hunters, the supernatural is a fad. It’s “in.” People enjoy getting their scares and equally the questions such possibility poses.

But despite popularity being up, the field is not being taken seriously, even seems hopeless to a good many amateur investigators. Here’s why:

Supernatural and preternatural investigation is a faith-based pseudoscience. I say that it’s faith-based because those in the field believe in what they’re chasing, they feel very strongly that what they follow is really out there and they are searching for evidence. It’s important to define pseudoscience, as the word carries two separate and significant denotations. The first definition I’ll use is the one I prefer, and is more accurate, where the pseudoscience is a “methodology claimed to be scientific that does not adhere to appropriate scientific methodology.” Indeed, paranormal investigation does not follow the classical scientific method in that investigations cannot be completed in a laboratory setting. Discussion about adaptation of methodology in non-laboratory settings is extensive and arguable, but isn’t the direction of this blog at the moment.

But what equally needs addressed is the second denotation of the pseudoscience, where it’s suggested that pseudoscience is an “activity resembling science that is based on fallacious assumptions.” By this definition, calling paranormal investigation a pseudoscience is acting on an ignorant assumption that belief in the supernatural or preternatural is false. A bold assertion (albeit common). The careful scientist should be open minded, which isn’t to say non-skeptical, but only that propositions should not be discarded until they are proven one way or the other, and that requires investigation.

Yet paranormal investigation continues to be ruled out from the very start, in exactly the same way that religious belief carries the dogma that the afterlife and the divine must necessarily be forever unknown.

The misconception goes back to the roots of Traditional Christianity, who’s primary concern above all else was human salvation. The means; faith. But there has grown this split, a divide between knowledge and faith, that the two must be different. This divide has grown more and more solid past the Enlightenment (the 18th century movement that pushed forward-moving science and fact-based thinking aptly called the “Age of Reason”). The age brought with it the Industrial Revolution as we knew it, this mechanical love-fest that only gets sleeker with every passing year. Thin laptops, microchips so small they become nearly invisible.

This divide-sparking movement has come as a point of discussion often with me, particularly with my friend Kelly, who served too often my counterpoint as an engineer to my English major, the rational to my abstract. She often brought me back down to earth after outright attacking modern science for its disregard of the supernatural, when really what had me bothered was the misconception that came with the movement that produced this science.

Faith is not of the unknown, but is instead only another point on a spectrum of belief.

If we were to illustrate this spectrum it would look something like a range that starts at Acknowledgement (or acceptance), followed by Faith (a strong belief inside), followed by Awareness (in which the subject is more indicative and suggestive toward fact), followed by Knowledge (sufficiently justified true belief with evidential support), which is followed still with Certainty (the knowledge of knowledge; you cannot have certainty about something that is false).

Traditional Christianity has had just as much play in the construction of the misconception, in that it is a framework for salvation as a function of faith. And so, if one loses their faith, they are damned. In the search for knowledge, the searcher must be prepared to throw out their hypothesis, to accept that they may be wrong. So if you begin your search for God, for the afterlife, for any sign of the abstract behind the world that we know, your process and your proper intentions could lead to doubt, and following that doubt; damnation. So, traditional Christianity laid a framework that said that seeking matters of faith is heretical.

With the progress of knowledge in the last three hundred years moving forward like an advancing army, we’ve been conditioned to look at knowledge as explicitly scientific, and faith as something that cannot be known, and so the searcher, the one thirsting for knowledge, walks away from the spiritual.

Faith makes no distinction between matters spiritual and matters material. Most systems began with principles one assumed were true but did not know. You begin with faith each time you construct a new hypothesis. It’s faith that motivates every scientist on every project that starts with a theory.

It’s a misconception that religion is stuck at the faith stage, that no matter how one tries, (should they try) they cannot move past simple faith. But it’s a simple epistemological point that faith is only a point on a spectrum of belief, where one can not assume impossibility of knowledge merely because of the subject matter.

We live with a dogma that knowledge is restricted to the material and faith to the spiritual.

It’s not.


I’ve never been of the mind that those with strong religious backgrounds should be excluded from the search for the paranormal. I believe that what we are doing as we push into the shadows should be open to the religious and not offensive. I’ve seen no need for that. Many investigators I respect very much come from strong religious backgrounds. There’s room. Our exploration into those things spiritual is not damnable.

Before traditional Christianity, Gnosticism understood the mission of Jesus as one of salvation, that Jesus saved us by dying on the cross. The Gnostics said that salvation then is a function of knowledge, not faith, and in turn damnation is a function of ignorance.

The binary nature of early understanding is that we have all things good against evil. and they lined up as salvation, spirit, faith, and knowledge against damnation, matter, the body, doubt, and ignorance. Modern post-enlightenment thinking sees this as backwards. Religion has caused problems, they say, and gets in the way of knowledge. So they flip spirit and body. Now, the spirit has become a realm of doubt, whereas on the other hand, we can gain knowledge in terms of matter, and further human good through technology. We’ve adapted to this new mindset that the good of the human being cannot have doubt, ignorance, or faith relating to our forward thinking, whether that be economic, political, or scientific.

The solution here is to reverse the modern reconstruction of the binary and look at the entire situation from neutral perspective, as people open to knowledge and spirituality alike.

Yet even after my argument, my call for the world to open its eyes and minds, I worry about this information. I worry about this perspective. It’s good fodder for a novel, really, and I may copy down the ideas here and consider them for future stories of whatever length. It’s terrifying really, to think about we knowledge-thirsty mortality-fearing human beings tearing into a world we know nothing about with the gusto and cocksureness we approach most matters of the material.

Exciting as it may be to probe the dark corners, to realize what may exist beyond the stars and shadows, I wonder if it might be best to leave it with we select few, with our cultish excitement and resolve, a faith built on deep rooted romance and past experience, rather than the idealist, with a lust for things of a darker abstraction, if at all.

I’m afraid that we humans are too corrupt to tear into the world of the gods and so I’m left to wonder if maybe the contentment in leaving matters of the spiritual at the point of faith isn’t maybe for the best.

It’s a decision that might become very serious sooner than we think. It all depends on our collective mindset and how open we are to change.

Copyright 2010 karl Pfeiffer


One thought on “Science at the Edge of All Light

  1. Chris says:

    “So, traditional Christianity laid a framework that said that seeking matters of faith is heretical.”

    So what do you mean by traditional Christianity? As a point of order, if it’s what I’m thinking of, which is the canon that formed early on in the Acts and refined over the next few hundred years before Nicea, I’m not sure that’s actually the case. Certainly that’s the perception from the second great awakening onwards, where a lot of American Christianity has devolved to accepting this divide of seperate majesteria between faith and knowledge. But have you read much of what Paul had to say about reason and faith and the interplay between them or some of the Christian theologians like Augustine?

    On the larger topic, I think if one is to seek the truth, wherever it may lead, then yes there could be a lot of pain and suffering to be uncovered. Truth isn’t always pleasant, and a lot of people will react negatively to it as their belief systems become unraveled by the truth. If atheism is True, then the entire moral universe human societies have constructed over the past millenia is undone (atheism cannot philosophically ground moral oughtness as it has been understood), and perhaps that would plunge us into a new dark age. If theism is true, and it becomes obvious, then that necessarily means a particular brand of theism, and perhaps also another dark age as those who have believed lies react. Either way, I think, the pursuit of truth is dangerous. Either way, I think, the pursuit of truth is necessary. If there is a just God, then justice will win in the end. If there is no God, or if there is an unjust God, then does human life really matter?

    As an aside, paranormal investigation is somewhat interesting to me, as it may one day provide a source of independent verification of one or more religions if the evidence for a spiritual realm matches one or more religions’ description of the spiritual realm. Of course it wouldn’t be like putting things into a test tube since one would hypothetically be dealing with intelligent (after?)life in many cases. The closest modern scientific analogue one could expect to compare it to would be in the study of cultures and/or archaeology, and not in a “hard” science like meteorology.

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