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Richard Smoley's Blog

The Categories and the Paranormal

As is well-known, Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century pointed out a problem with our knowledge of the world that has never been resolved. He showed that we perceive the world through what he called categories: basic structures of experience that organize, but also limit, our apprehension of reality. They obscure our perception of what Kant called the Ding an sich—the thing in itself, which, he held, was ultimately unknowable.

Some of the categories that Kant named were unity, plurality, negation, and causality. You don’t have to look long at his list to see how fundamental they are—try, for example, to imagine a universe in which there is no such thing as plurality.

These limitations in our interpretive structures are matched by those of the senses.

We have discovered that there are colors we cannot see and sounds we cannot hear. Your dog lives in an olfactory universe that you could never imagine.

Although we have been able to extend the human sensorium with instruments and apparatus—such as those of science—there is no reason to believe that these give us any kind of complete idea of what is ultimately “out there” beyond our ordinary perception. Indeed recent discoveries of dark matter and dark energy, which may constitute nearly all of the mass of the physical universe even though we know of them only in the most indirect way, suggest the opposite. Quite possibly there is matter that is so “dark” that it does not impinge upon us at all and never will.

So we have this schema:

The self  The categories  Our perceptions  │ The Ding an sich

It is possible, no doubt likely, that we will never cognitively reach this Ding an sich. Nor would it be easy to tell when and whether we did. You can look at a table in your room in the ordinary way, or you could consider it as a congeries of atomic and subatomic particles. Which is closer to the truth?

Up to a point this fact creates no great problem. Anything that is completely unknowable and inaccessible to us is beyond our concern. Here one thinks of the multiverses that it is becoming more and more fashionable in science to posit—universes that differ from our own in ways so fundamental that we can have no access to them. No doubt there are universes in which 1 + 1 = 3, but they are irrevocably closed to us.

There is a problem nonetheless. Our usual categories of knowing, as well as the senses as conventionally understood, do not seem to enable us to apprehend the world fully even in terms of our own experience. This is the most likely explanation of phenomena that we consider paranormal. They (let us suppose) actually exist as Dinge an sich, and they do impinge upon our awareness, but they make no sense in terms of customary structures of thinking. For that matter, our physical senses may not be particularly well-equipped to deal with them either. Hence we encounter them, but because they do not fit into our conventional categories, our first, and usual, response is to deny their existence. Another is to say that they are merely imaginary—but that raises the even more perplexing question of just what just the imaginary is.

In such cases the Ding an sich fits so poorly into the categories that it seems to bypass or abolish them for a short time. The paranormal consists precisely of what is not supposed to occur. Dead people do not suddenly materialize in your bedroom. You do not see flying disks in the sky that appear and vanish instantaneously. When they do, they overturn our customary structures of knowledge. When the ordinary cognitive apparatus—along with its preconceptions—reasserts itself, its easiest recourse is to deny or forget that any such thing occurred.

One would assume that if these ordinary cognitive categories were transgressed, it would cause fear and disorientation. And this is precisely what occurs with many paranormal experiences. Seeing a ghost is proverbially frightening. In the same way, many people who report UFO encounters find the event deeply troubling, even if they have suffered no harm or have not even had any direct contact with the object. There is more I want to say on this subject, but I will leave it for another post.
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