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'Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred' -- book review

31 Days of Halloween

‘Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred’ — book review

Jeffrey J. Kripal is right that science should take the paranormal seriously, but for the wrong reasons.

Welcome to another installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be sharing various pieces of underappreciated scary books, comics, movies, and television to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.

Jeffrey J. Kripal is the J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University, as well as a member of the Esalen Institute’s Center for Theory and Research, devoted to fostering “social change and realization of the human potential.” He started his career in the academic study of religion researching Hinduism, but came under fire for reported factual inaccuracies. This led Kripal to shift his attention to mystical eroticism, Gnosticism, and finally, the paranormal.

Kripal astutely observes that the paranormal is the result of religion without faith and science without reason (9). In essence, the paranormal blends religious thought with the vocabulary of science. It is the art of expressing impossible ideas in a manner which sounds plausible.

That observation comes from Kripal’s 2010 book Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (University of Chicago Press), which both inaugurated his career shift as a scholar of ghosts, UFOs, and psychics, and continues to spark controversy among his academic colleagues. As an academic with two degrees in religious studies and an interest in both the paranormal and popular culture, I thought it was worth revisiting Authors of the Impossible,10 years after its publication, to see why Kripal’s book (and his work in general) remains so provocative.

Jeffrey J. Kripal

Jeffrey J. Kripal

Kripal opens Authors with a critique of the perceived reticence with which the academy has approached the idea of the paranormal, though he notes this wasn’t always the case, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He’s especially critical of the failure of his own field, religious studies. Why should the supernatural beliefs of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists be worthy of academic study while those of parapsychologists and ufologists be discarded as worthless?

Back in 1992, historian of science Ronald Numbers made a similar plea when he observed that many of his colleagues had no issue taking the ideas of long dead alchemists and astrologers seriously, but balked at his suggestion that contemporary Young Earth creationists were worthy of the same academic scrutiny.

Kripal sees this as intellectual snobbery, a refusal by those in positions of authority to take the claims of ordinary people seriously. The fact that paranormal belief permeates popular culture shows the need for its academic consideration, Kripal maintains. He further notes, wryly, that paranormal thinking can be regularly found in popular works of “science fiction, superhero comic books, fantasy, and especially film,” meaning even “if elite intellectuals and orthodox religious leaders don’t buy this stuff, almost everyone else does, literally” (31).

Kripal claims he’s not advocating that scholars of religion (or any other field) need to legitimize paranormal claims, though. “I do not ‘believe’ all the tales I will tell you in the pages that follow,” he writes, “Indeed, as a professional scholar of religion, I consider it my job not to believe, and I take that professional commitment very seriously” (26).

Nevertheless, Kripal repeatedly insists that paranormal events do actually happen, effectively straddling what he describes as the border between “the sciences (the study of objective reality)” and “the humanities (the study of subjective reality)” (23). As a result, Kripal thinks that all existing paradigms of understanding are inadequate, as reliance on “materialist methodologies, faith commitments, objectivist scientisms, and absolute cultural relativisms,” all make it so that “we cannot know” what is really going on (26).

How then does one effectively investigate the paranormal? Kripal’s proposed hermeneutical approach is to recognize that “paranormal phenomena possess mythical dimensions,” and thus constitute a “space and time where and when the physical world becomes a text to be read out and interpreted” (26).

Great. What does that mean? As far as I understand it, Kripal is proposing a model of the world where reality functions like it does in the 2006 movie Stranger than Fiction, in which mild-mannered IRS agent Harold Crick (Will Farrell) experiences increasingly strange (paranormal?) events, ultimately discovering he’s a character in a tragic novel. Crick turns not to a scientist or a priest to help him navigate this semiotic reality, but to a professor of comparative literature (Dustin Hoffman), who uses his extensive knowledge in the field to advise Crick in figuring out who’s authoring his “story.”

Kripal doesn’t reference the film, but he does cite the thematically similar The Truman Show (1998) and The Matrix (1999), as well as the science fiction of Phillip K. Dick, as examples of the worldview he’s proposing. And like Hoffman’s academic, Kripal’s aim is to discover who’s authoring our reality, which leads him to examine the work of four prominent paranormal writers: parapsychologist Frederic Myers, ufologist Jacques Vallee, French sociologist Bertrand Méheust, and the father of paranormal conjecture, Charles Fort.

Turn of the century failed novelist Charles Fort, perhaps the most important of Kripal’s four examples, spent much of his life combing through old newspapers and jotting down every unexplained occurrence he came across. Strange lights in the sky, sightings of unidentified animals, psychic phenomena, and – his trademark – showers of fish and frogs that fell like rain.

Over the course of what Kripal characterizes as “four really weird books,” Fort developed a myriad of explanations for “the damned [by which] I mean the excluded” phenomena he documented (98 & 107). These included floating islands in the sky, an extra-dimensional Super-Sargasso Sea where objects (and people) disappear to, the ability of certain people to “teleport” (a word Fort coined), and the possibility that humankind is actually the “property” of some higher inhuman intelligence – an idea so chilling that Kripal can find no other adequate response than a single expletive (130).

Like all of Fort’s biographers, Kripal is forced to acknowledge he didn’t seem to take any of his conjectures very seriously (122). Like Kripal, Fort was however profoundly skeptical of humankind’s ability to understand the true nature of reality – be it via science or religion –  so that any idea about how the world might work is just as valid as any other (106). Despite having seemingly not cared about the distinction between fact and fiction, another sentiment Kripal echoes (98 & 34), Fort amassed an impressive number of followers in his lifetime and after, and his influence on popular culture is profound.

Kripal’s ultimate goal isn’t to get his readers to buy into the admittedly outré worldview(s) of Charles Fort or any of the other paranormal pundits he profiles, though. Rather, like a self-help guru, Kripal concludes Authors with the hope that by studying the paranormal, humanity might “wake up” and come to the collective realization that we too can be the authors of our own reality (252 & 269-70).

'Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred' -- book review

Reflecting on Authors of the Impossible in the year of its 10th anniversary, it’s easy for me to affirm Kripal’s thesis that academics, now more than ever, need to take paranormal claims seriously. We’ve seen a dramatic rise in paranormal thinking in the last four years, sometimes leading to paranoid conspiracy theories.

But as a committed materialist, I don’t really need Kripal’s gnostic hermeneutics to make sense of such ideas. Kripal repeatedly accuses scientists of circular thinking, but nothing strikes me as more circular than trying to understand the belief in paranormal phenomena via a methodology which is itself an exercise in metaphysics.

The simple truths of the matter is that we have no good reason to maintain that paranormal events actually transpire, but we do know that a great many people believe they do, and that they act on those beliefs. That in itself is enough to make the phenomena worth studying.

Still, there is much value to be gleaned from Kripal’s close reading of the four paranormal writers he examines. For scholars interested in giving paranormal belief its due, that reason alone is sufficient to ensure that Authors of the Impossible will remain an important yet controversial foray into the academic study of the so-called unexplained.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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