27 October 2009

Strange phenomena*

An article in this morning's Irish Times caught my eye, and has continued to trickle through my mind as I try to disentangle my thinking about it.

In a nutshell: a clairvoyant has been predicting appearances by the virgin Mary, crowds have flocked to Knock as a result, and a bishop is asking that people stay away in the interests of authenticity.

As an atheist, I should perhaps know better than to try and make dispassionate, objective sense of a clash between religion and superstition ... but I find myself drawn along winding philosophical avenues into a philosophical labyrinth from which there is no return.

Yesterday I heard that “a large illustrated book publisher is looking for high-quality images of the unusual and the unknown”. The publisher concerned has simply tagged the request "phenomena"; a picture agency seeking to fulfill the request compiled a set of examples which broadly come under the heading "paranormal phenomena" – which is reasonable in the context, but set me thinking that the once firmly scientific word "phenomena" probably now means, to most ears, exactly that.

But all "phenomena" are not equal. One of my neighbours (who describes himself as “an uncompromising atheist – but an uncompromisingly protestant one”) supports the bishop's call with the observation that “apparitions may be real or they may be nonsense, but they shouldn't be confused with phenomena”.

Today, Dirk Dusharme points out to me by email (in connection with an entirely separate subject) that belief is belief and one cannot argue with that: one can only agree or disagree.

(Scientists, of course, have beliefs just like anyone else ... and so do atheists: they are just different beliefs.)

  • *Kate Bush, "Stange phenomena" on The kick inside. 1979: EMI Records.


Ray Girvan said...

On "phenomena", I rather like the Fortean viewpoint: that "phenomena" are intrinsically interesting whether objectively real or not. If real, cool: if not, the psychological/social factors contributing to the belief in the reality, equally a subject for analysis.

The distinction between "apparations" / "phenomena" / whatever sounds to me entirely political. The church tends not to be keen on any suggestion of continuity between experiences of belief, and experiences in other contexts.

Dr. C said...

Belief is a devilish thing. The fact of the matter is that one either does or doesn't, as you say. But this begs the question of how, exactly does one come to believe? If one can simply "desire" to believe something (fairies, Lucifer, Martians, etc.) then this makes such believe entirely invalid. Because, to simply desire something (like chocolate or a good malt) should not be able to deconstruct your world view. In any case, it makes it rather shaky. The alternative, to believe nothing, a la Voltaire, is also not very appealing. But then, what is one to do? In addition, something like a religion (or al Qaeda, for that matter) demands that you believe lock, stock and barrel (interesting term, that, since I hate guns). This was particularly difficult for intellectual Catholics in the 50's-60's who found it very hard to accept something like the "Virgin Birth" or the Assumption. The amount of anguish that this created in the body politic was amazing, or amusing, depending on your bent.

Geoff Powell said...

I had her on toast this morning and thought of putting her on Ebay but by then she was covered in marmalade!