Consider a spectrum of belief. On one end you have those who fervently believe in their particular brand of God, and on the other you have those who believe just as fervently that there is no supernatural deity. The theists, of course, far outnumber the atheists, but as of late, the non-believers have been taking the fight to the righteous. In recent years, atheist scholars, buoyed by a general public with a favorable view of science and the scientific method, have published a number of pointed screeds aimed at swaying logically-thinking individuals toward the non-belief end of the spectrum. At it's most benign, the strong convictions of, and battles between, these diametrically opposed world views amount to little more than interesting, if not terribly fruitful, philosophical theater. The more sinister manifestations of absolute faith or reason are well documented throughout history and need not be recounted here.
In the space between are a multitude of people who do not share the certainty of either end of the belief spectrum. Too many things in their own life experience, observation and consideration simply don't fit within a world view dominated by pure faith or pure reason. They've seen, all too often, the havoc that surety can wreak. And they are turned off by the lack of nuance, imagination and freedom of thought displayed by the passionate proselytizers of undiluted faith and reason. Though this classically liberal position is nothing new, outside of academia we are currently somewhat devoid of an easily accessible, universal cultural language through which we can think, question and discuss alternative concepts of the divine. For some, this makes the space between a kind of no man's land. Many tweeners describe themselves as spiritual without being religious (a distinction, by the way, that reaches back to at least the middle of the nineteenth century and the birth of modern science). They practice, if they practice anything at all, what my friend and historian of religions, Jeffrey J. Kripal, calls, “the religion of no religion”. I've heard Jeff refer to what I'm calling "the space between" as "the tertium quid" -- the third thing.
Now consider the paranormal. What are we to make of it? If it's possible to see the future, travel outside one's body, or move objects with the mind, what does this tell us about our understanding of consciousness? To me, the most interesting implication of these anomalous events is that the mind is not local, at least not entirely. Consciousness, it would seem, exists outside our heads and is filtered by the brain, similar to the way a TV tuner filters television signals. This is known as the filter thesis. If there is any truth to the filter thesis -- and I think there is -- and consciousness does not reside in the brain, then many things become possible, not the least of which is the survival of bodily death.
Generally speaking, for rational, scientifically-minded individuals, the paranormal is merely an easily dismissed sham. They posit that there must be an ordinary explanation for even the most extraordinary events. On the other end of the spectrum, the religious tend to view the paranormal as, simply put, the work of the devil, dark evidence that there are some things that we mere mortals should not know about the divine realm. And for the most part, the majority of people along the entire spectrum of belief tend to think of the paranormal as a curious diversion, the stuff of movies, comic books, and kooks -- fun, but not a subject to be taken seriously.
When I read Jeff Kripal’s forthcoming book, Authors of the Impossible, a scholarly history of the paranormal, I was overwhelmed by the weight of historical evidence for these strange phenomena. I was surprised at the number of serious scholars throughout history who have conducted psychical research and reached the same conclusion: something is going on here. I was also astonished by the implications of these phenomena for understanding our consciousness. If any of the hundreds of paranormal events that can't be simply explained away are genuine -- it only takes one white crow to prove that not all crows are black -- what does this say about who we are and who we might become? Finally, I was relieved that today there is a small number of reputable, serious people, from both the sciences and the humanities, studying the paranormal or supernormal.
Many people are, understandably, simply not comfortable in the space between, in a state of not knowing. They need the comforting assurance and guidance of pure faith or reason. But the more I read, think and understand about this subject, the more I'm struck by how little we actually know about our own being. We are, really, still in the infancy of our awareness, and in the understanding of our own existence. One thing I do know is that when one is freed from the stifling dogmas of both religion and science, when one employs both faith and reason, coupled with honest openness, and when one considers honestly, thoughtfully, and rigorously, the multitude of ideas and possibilities suggested by supernormal events, the space between, the third thing, becomes one of great richness, complexity and beauty.