The thesis of this essay is that it is wise to be superstitious. To put it differently, I will argue that my readers should be superstitious — or that they should embrace the superstitious nature they already have (for most of us have it), rather than try to disown superstition. I will argue at some length that (1) we do not understand ourselves or the world we are living in; (2) the scientists actually know nothing; and (3) anything is possible, or nothing is impossible. Superstitious people, through the apparently silly things they do, are affirming these truths — truths that will seem so shockingly obvious to you by the time you reach the end of this essay, you will wonder how you could ever have believed otherwise. Superstition is a way of affirming human finitude. Today it constitutes a form of reaction; a rejection of modern humanistic madness.
But before I can argue for these ambitious claims, I must clearly explain just what I mean by superstition. Let’s begin with the sort of thing your mind immediately goes to when I use this word: ghosts, foretelling the future (divination or precognition), astrology, mind reading, magic, witchcraft, not walking under ladders, not doing anything important or risky on Friday the 13th, knocking on wood, etc. Needless to say, this is hardly a complete list — and I have said nothing about superstitions specific to non-Western cultures. Only a little thought is required to see that there are different categories into which each of these could be slotted. Some are beliefs (e.g., ghosts), some are practices or actions (knocking wood), and some are beliefs and practices (e.g., the belief in witches, versus the practice of witchcraft). However, I am not at all interested in creating some kind of taxonomy of superstition.
There are a few things we can say about these examples right off the bat. First, can we defend belief in ghosts? Absolutely. There are countless sightings documented by reliable witnesses, with some phenomena seen by several reliable witnesses at once. Ghosts make my list as fact, though we don’t really know exactly what a “ghost” is, do we? Similarly, precognition and mind reading are phenomena for which there is abundant evidence. This is true generally for everything that gets categorized as “ESP” or “psychic phenomena.” That there is gobs of evidence for these strange powers is basically an open secret that almost nobody wants to talk about (I’ll touch on the reasons a little later). Astrology? Ditto. What about divination, such as tea leaf reading or scrying with a crystal ball? This is probably also fact, but only when these tools are in the hands of genuine psychics.
The above remarks are by no means a “defense of superstition,” however. In fact, the reader will doubtless immediately see that what I have really argued is that these phenomena are facts supported by evidence — and therefore not “superstitions” after all. I am much more interested in certain practices that seem to be entirely at odds with reason, and to be completely unsupported by evidence. These include the aforementioned avoidance of walking under ladders, fear of Friday the 13th, and knocking on wood. To these we can add avoiding black cats that might cross one’s path, avoiding breaking mirrors, crossing one’s fingers for luck, throwing salt over the shoulder, and not opening umbrellas indoors — and I’m sure my readers could add many more like these. It is these sorts of superstitions in particular that I wish to defend as wise (though when I am done, the door will be left wide open for the other sorts of “superstitions” as well). Please note this very deliberate choice of words: I am characterizing superstition as “wise” but not as “rational,” for reasons that will emerge soon enough.
Let’s now pay some attention, if only briefly, to the word “superstition,” as it is an odd one. The word is Latin, superstitiō. It derives from the verb superstāre, which means “to stand over, or upon” or “to survive.” The –tiō suffix functions to turn the verb into a noun, so that superstitiō could literally be said to mean “the standing over, or standing upon” or “the surviving” (or “survival,” perhaps). Scholars do not agree on how to interpret this. Lewis and Short of A Latin Dictionary conjecture that superstitiō means “a standing still over or by a thing; hence, amazement, wonder, dread, esp. of the divine or supernatural.” In other words, the superstitious are “standing over” (regarding?) something in awe. It’s also been suggested that the “standing over” refers to the excessive religious enthusiasm often exhibited by the superstitious. Or perhaps superstitiō could refer to the survival of antiquated religious views or practices.
Though there is no general agreement about the literal meaning of superstitiō, it is clear how the Romans used the term. They used it to refer to men and women who were particularly credulous about such things as prophecies and, especially, it connoted an excessive fear of the gods, which the Romans disparaged as slavish. The Latin superstitiō is identical in meaning to the Greek deisidaimonia (δεισιδαιμονία). This term originally had a positive connotation, meaning “scrupulousness in religious matters,” but that later changed. Theophrastus in the sixteenth entry of his Characters defined deisidaimonia as “cowardice in regard to the divine,” and went on to speak of the superstitious man as obsessed with portents and dreams, and with warding off evil through purifications and other ritual acts. I will argue, to the contrary, that fear of the gods is a mark of wisdom (though it is always possible to take things to extremes: the wife of a friend of a friend of mine insists on sprinkling everything with holy water, especially the family cars, and she does not even have the good excuse of being Catholic).
To raise an obvious objection, hasn’t science refuted superstition? No, it has not. I will argue this point in the next section, by discussing two devastating objections to the modern scientific worldview, one from David Hume and the other from Martin Heidegger. The combined force of these objections will demonstrate that while science “works” (within a highly delimited context), the claims it makes about itself are fundamentally false. And if those claims are false, a whole new world opens up to us — a world filled, potentially, with wonderful things, but also with dangerous ones.
2. Scientists are Blind as Moles
The modern scientific attitude toward superstition is that it is “irrational.” Superstitions, we are told, violate the “laws of nature,” thus the things they affirm are impossible. Scientists have the authority to determine this because science has established what is real and what is not. If there is something that cannot be studied or verified by science, then it does not exist. This, in sum, is the attitude of modern scientists, and of those laypeople who have been educated in science — or think that they have been. However, every single one of the foregoing claims is demonstrably false.
Let’s start with the claim that superstitions “violate the laws of nature.” This claim was, in effect, refuted by Hume in the eighteenth century — see his Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), or the simplified version most people read, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Hume argued that all claims about “matters of fact” are merely probable and never certain, no matter how much evidence has been presented for them. “Matters of fact” means the same thing as “empirical claims,” or claims based upon experience. These can be small-scale claims, or large. “Lassie is a collie” is an empirical claim, and so is “all dogs are warm blooded.”
Now, it seems to be the business of science to make lawlike generalizations about the natural world, based upon observation and experiment. But the very idea of “laws of nature” is a metaphor, drawn from the social realm, in which legislators make laws that citizens are bound to obey. The disanalogy, however, is significant: Citizens may actually break the laws, and risk punishment, whereas natural objects may never disobey the laws of nature. For example, if released from the tree, there is no question that the apple must fall to earth (unless the tree and its apples have been shot into outer space and are therefore weightless, which doesn’t happen every day). The apple must, in other words, “obey” the “law of gravity.”
But Hume pointed out that such natural “laws” are merely observed regularities. We think that things must fall because we have seen it happen over and over again. Then we get arrogant and infer that since things have fallen to earth every time in the past, we know that they will behave that way in the future — even though we have not been to the future, and any claims about the future are therefore empirically baseless. We also infer that all dogs are warm blooded, even though we have not met all the dogs — the dogs that are now, were, or will be. Nevertheless, we are confident that the next dog we meet must be warm blooded.
At the root of this human tendency to infer “laws of nature” is therefore the conviction that we can predict the future. Even though no one can see into the future, we are confident that the future is going to resemble the past. If we ask people why they believe this, they will say something like, “Well, every time in the past that I expected apples would fall tomorrow, it turned out the next day that they did.” But Hume stated the obvious: This means they are basing the claim that the future will resemble the past purely upon past experience: “I know the future will resemble the past, because in the past the future resembled the past.” There is no reason, however, that things must continue on in the same way. Past experience tells us only about the past and guarantees nothing about the future. So, when scientists and laymen claim something like “x causes y and must always,” they are asserting something they cannot possibly know.
This means, effectively, that there are no such things as “laws of nature” at all. And if there are no such things, then how can one claim that superstitions “violate” them? If you think about it, this really is an extraordinarily arrogant claim, for it also presupposes that scientists have discovered all the “laws”; i.e., that science is complete. Essentially, a person making this claim is saying, “This doesn’t fit with what I already know, therefore it’s impossible.” Hume argued against the possibility of religious miracles (e.g., the virgin birth) through similar reasoning: If a miracle is defined as an exception to the laws of nature, then given that we don’t know all the laws (and since the very idea of “laws of nature” is problematic), nothing can count as a “miracle.” Some of what have been labeled miracles might very well have occurred, but it makes no sense to conceptualize them as contrary to nature. They may, in fact, be natural phenomena which we simply do not yet understand.
Hume’s arguments frequently scandalize people. They find it absurd that Hume, in effect, believes that anything is possible, and that the future may differ radically from the past. But history — including the history of science — is filled with examples of frustrated expectations; examples of people who said “that’s impossible!” and were then left with egg all over their faces. Black swan egg, to be exact. Until the 1600s (when Dutch explorers reached Australia), we believed that the generalization “no swans are black” was absolutely true. Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb has popularized the expression “black swan event” to refer to a major occurrence that completely defies expectations, especially those of so-called “experts.” Taleb’s position is essentially Humean: all attempts to formulate “laws” that define how things “must” behave are hubris. Whom the gods would destroy they first give PhDs, then “data,” and, deadliest of all, “models.”
Hume would be horrified, however, at my use of his ideas to defend superstition, since one of his stated aims was precisely to combat “superstition and enthusiasm” (especially in the practice of religion), which he saw as a threat to happiness and social stability. But his ideas nevertheless give unintended comfort to superstitious people everywhere, for they expose the fraudulence of all attempts to claim that superstition traffics in “the impossible.” Ultimately, the limits on our knowledge mean that, so far as we know, all things are possible, and nothing is impossible. Anyone who says otherwise is a pretentious gasbag who deserves seven years of bad luck.
Now that Hume has helped us to dispose of the claim that superstition “violates the laws of nature,” we must turn to the following claims, stated earlier: Science establishes what is real and what is not; if there is something that cannot be studied or verified by science, then it does not exist. Again, these are claims frequently made on behalf of science, though there are careful scientists who would not make them. Nevertheless, those men usually proceed as if these claims were true. In this matter, our witness for the prosecution will be Heidegger.
Heidegger’s critique is specifically directed at modern physics. This does not mean that other sciences are off the hook, for in the modern world physics serves as a paradigm science against which the others are judged, and usually judged lacking. Physics, after all, claims to be an “exact science.” But Heidegger counters that this exactness is possible precisely because physics chooses to understand the world in terms that are simple, narrow, and artificial. Physics reduces nature essentially to the interactions of qualitatively identical “units of mass” (the physical equivalent of the “geometrical point”), exchanging positions that are qualitatively identical, via motions that are qualitatively identical, through points of time that are qualitatively identical. The exactness of modern science is therefore possible precisely because it chooses to see the world in an exact way: in a way that is governed by certain presuppositions that make exactitude possible, and that simultaneously factor out whatever does not lend itself to exact measurement. As Alan Watts might put it, physics achieves its exactitude by ignoring all that is “wiggly” or “squishy” about the world.
When called out on this, physicists may frankly admit that their science simply cannot deal with aspects of reality that it cannot measure. The drift of modern thinking, however, has been to actively denigrate whatever cannot be measured, and to denigrate whatever studies the cannot-be-measured. The extreme form of this modern scientific outlook is reached when it comes to be assumed that, for all intents and purposes, the unmeasurable simply does not exist. A good example of this tendency would be certain forms of “radical behaviorism,” which deny the existence of impossible-to-measure internal mental states. Here we can see a very clear modern manifestation of what Heideggerean philosophy calls “the metaphysics of presence,” and what the rest of us might call radical humanistic horse manure: Man is the measure of all things.
To be, so we moderns think, is to be measurable by human beings; whatever isn’t measurable can be safely ignored and may not even exist. The irony here is that the “objective” approach of modern physics, which insists that measurement is the key to objectivity, is obviously deeply subjective. After all, what Heidegger has really said is that physics achieves its exactitude by means of projecting a certain understanding of “nature” onto nature, one that (conveniently) makes exactitude possible. Physics, in short, can measure exactly only because it has chosen to see some aspects of what is, and not others.
However, science has at the ready a powerful response to this Heideggerean critique. The physicist will say that there is ample evidence that to be is to be measurable, and it consists in the extraordinary success of modern science. When the world is approached in terms of the presuppositions of modern physics, a great wealth of facts is revealed to us and we are able to accomplish new things: We can accurately predict phenomena, identify causal connections that seem to remain constant over time, and manipulate the environment to produce results that affect our lives (for better or worse). At least, this is what the physicist will assert. This really is a powerful response, because modern science does indeed seem to work.
But Heidegger would never deny this. While we can easily see that there is something fundamentally “subjective” about how science achieves its results by projecting its presuppositions upon nature, Heidegger never actually dismisses science as “subjective.” He never declares, for example, that the truth of science is merely “relative” or that its results are somehow false or invalid. No, Heidegger believes that modern science does deliver truths and does deliver results. However, it delivers these only within, we might say, a certain “bandwidth” — one that is set by its presuppositions. Modern science produces certain results, and not others. The results it does produce are judged desirable, and to be the only results that matter, according to a whole other set of presuppositions, those that define the modern conception of the good and of “value.”
The modus operandi of modern science is thus to understand natural objects entirely in terms of a narrow set of properties — properties they do indeed seem to present to us, but only when we choose to see them in a certain way. Then, once the desired results are produced, scientists declare that all there is to natural objects is that narrow set of properties, all else being discountable as unimportant, epiphenomenal, or not even “truly real.” But all of it rests on a non sequitur: From the fact that certain expected or desired results are produced by acting on our presuppositions about nature, it does not follow that nature is exhausted by those presuppositions. The modern scientific approach thus amounts to a kind of procrustean bed: Nature is pared down or stretched to fit the assumptions of the scientist.
Thus, science does not determine what is real and what is not. It accepts as real only what its own methodology can verify. Scientists who have fallen into this kind of “scientism” (and the laypeople who think they are “pro-science”) are like nearsighted folks who have decided to simply deny the existence of everything they can’t get clearly into focus. Or, to paraphrase what D. H. Lawrence says of Walt Whitman, they drive an automobile with a very fierce headlight, along the track of a fixed idea, through the darkness of this world. And they see everything that way. Just as a motorist does in the night.
To accept this worldview is to become oblivious to all that which it cannot illuminate — all that lies in the darkness, outside the light. We will deal with some dramatic instances of such obliviousness in the next section.
3. Of Sailing Ships and Starships
The story goes that when Captain Cook’s ship Endeavour reached the coast of Australia in 1770, the natives, who had never encountered anything on the scale of Cook’s ship, were unable to “see” it. This tale has been repeated by a number of authors, and reached a wide audience in the 2004 documentary What the Bleep Do We Know? Various versions of the story exist, some substituting Magellan or Columbus for Cook, which has not helped its credibility. However, the story is based on fact.
It originates with Joseph Banks, a botanist on board Cook’s ship. Banks wrote in his journal,
The ship passed within a quarter of a mile of [the natives] and yet they scarce lifted their eyes from their employment; I was almost inclined to think that attentive to their business and deafened by the noise of the surf they neither saw nor heard her go past them. Not one was once observed to stop and look towards the ship; they pursued their way in all appearance entirely unmoved by the neighborhood of so remarkable an object as a ship must necessarily be to people who have never seen one.
When the explorers attempted to reach shore in their much smaller longboats, however, the natives immediately noticed them and reacted with hostility: “as soon as we approached the rocks two of the men came down upon them, each armed with a lance.” I am told that other explorers have given similar accounts of strange, native disinterest — but I have not looked into it.
This story has been vigorously “debunked” in recent years by skeptical types, largely because of the following claim made in What the Bleep Do We Know?: “[the natives’] highly filtered perceptions couldn’t register what was happening, and they literally failed to ‘see’ the ship.” This is an example of the sort of hyperbole one often finds in documentaries, and skeptics have been right to pounce. Of course the natives didn’t “literally” fail to see the ship! (We are living in an age when literally no one seems to know what “literally” means.) The natives must have seen something — but they had no context, no background, and dare I say no “conceptual scheme” (to use a hackneyed phrase) that they could draw upon to know what the bleep this thing was.
But why did they respond by behaving as if they did not see the ship at all? Needless to say, it must have seemed extraordinarily unusual to them. Why the apparent lack of interest? We can shed some light on this matter by considering a much more recent case, and one that occurred not in some exotic locale but in New York’s Hudson Valley. We will see, as a result, that this sort of strange behavior is definitely not confined to primitives.
Beginning in December 1982, residents of the Hudson Valley area began seeing strange objects in the sky, most often at night. Some were incredibly large, flashing unusual lights, and many were V-shaped, like a boomerang. These sightings continued on a regular basis for several years. In the end, thousands of people saw the objects, and sometimes there were many witnesses to a single sighting. The UFOs were usually silent, though they were occasionally said to emit a low hum. Often, they appeared to hover at a very low altitude and came close to witnesses.
Their bright spotlights made it difficult to discern the actual structure of the objects. However, some witnesses reported seeing a massive, solid structure behind the lights, black or dark in color. The objects stopped traffic along the Taconic Parkway, with many individuals pulling their cars over and climbing out to get a better look. Some of these drivers flashed their headlights at the UFOs, which flashed their spotlights in response. Witnesses reported that some of the objects seemed to be as large as football fields. They were capable, starting from a completely stationary hover, of zooming off at remarkable speeds — unlike any aircraft possessed by any nation on Earth.
Many of the witnesses made police reports. The police initially laughed about these amongst themselves, dismissing the witnesses as cranks — until they experienced sightings of their own. Fully a dozen officers of a single local police department reported such experiences. The UFOs’ flight patterns could actually be mapped simply by noting the times and locations of reports, many of which were made in a single evening. Photographs were taken, but — predictably — they did not come out or were blurry, showing nothing really distinct. Local airports claimed they saw nothing on radar.
In 1984, several security guards at Westchester County’s Indian Point nuclear power plant reported that they saw a UFO hovering only about 300 feet above the reactor. They told authorities that the object was larger than a football field. These objects also sometimes exhibited the bizarre “red ball phenomenon” seen in other UFO cases, in other parts of the world. In July 1984, the chief of one local fire department was standing outdoors with a police officer when both men saw a “row of lights in a circular pattern.” The Fire Chief went on record commenting, “I would say it was something man-made except that two of the red lights dropped down from the group and went in a different direction behind the mountains. One came back and the other didn’t.”
It can’t be emphasized enough that these UFOs were regularly sighted over the course of several years, by thousands of credible witnesses. This is the sort of event that one would expect might “change everything” — an epochal event, like finding the black monolith on the Moon in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And yet, aside from some local coverage, there was no national news coverage of these incidents at all. Further, not a single government agency investigated — not even the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or the Air Force. No press conferences were called. None of the photographs was analyzed. Many witnesses reported what they had seen, not just to the local police but to the FAA and other government agencies. But absolutely nothing was done — aside from some official occasionally reassuring a witness that all they had seen was “swamp gas,” or some other implausible explanation.
The witnesses, including all the policemen and government employees, knew that they had seen something that could not be explained in terms of anything with which they were familiar. They knew, if only dimly, that if what they had seen was real, then what we think we know about this world was, at best, incomplete. At worst, it was totally wrong. Whatever these things were — extraterrestrial starships; the conveyances of a strange, hitherto unknown earthly race; interdimensional time travelers; giant organisms of an unknown species — this sort of large-scale contact with them was of incalculable significance. And yet everyone involved simply went back to business, as if nothing had ever happened. Just as the natives on the coast of Australia, faced with their own huge, unidentified and quite possibly terrifying object, simply turned back to their work and carried on as if they had seen nothing.
The Hudson Valley sightings were the last UFO phenomena to be investigated by the astrophysicist J. Allen Hynek. Hynek, who died in 1986, had been a UFO investigator with the Air Force’s Project Bluebook. He had begun that work as a skeptic, actively trying to debunk the phenomenon, then he became convinced that UFOs were real, though a real mystery. Hynek was astonished by the complete inaction of the authorities in the Hudson Valley cases, especially the military and the FAA, since the gigantic “boomerangs” clearly constituted a serious hazard.
In “The Roots of Complacency,” an essay written shortly before his death, Hynek attributed this inaction to a certain form of apathy. He referred to it as a “malady . . . a virulent virus of apathy and indifference to duty, [which] could immobilize cities and a whole country.” He writes, further, “In the story of the Boomerang, the FAA, the media, scientists, politicians, the military . . . all may momentarily touch upon the mystery, but suddenly it appeared that apathy saps further energy to incentive, and in its stead is . . . a hotbed of inertia . . . a great desire to do nothing, fobbing it all off in the guise of a handy solution, like ‘planes in formation.’”
Hynek’s explanation for this is a psychological one, and in substance it is quite similar to my earlier speculations on the reactions of the native Australians to Cook’s ship. Hynek writes:
[The] human mind has definite limits for acceptance and accountability. In the history of science this syndrome has been seen many times and in many ages. For instance, how often has it occurred that totally revolutionary ideas, so novel at first as to be utterly neglected or discarded [are met with] a form of apathy and total indifference. As a homely analogy, one might say that such a totally novel idea “overheats the mental human circuits” and the fuse blows (or the circuit-breaker cuts out) as a protective device for the mind. . . . Thus, when mankind is presented with a totally bizarre, shocking, traumatic event ([such as] the Boomerang?), a mental circuit cuts out. [Could] it be that a collective amnesia or apathy can come into play? If so, might it be possible that collectively people can react traumatically, as to the Westchester Boomerang, [with a] a collective amnesia, whether they are policemen, media people, the FAA, etc.? [When] the breaking point of the collective mind occurs, it must openly disregard patent evidence of the senses: it can no longer encompass them within their normal borders.
Now, we don’t know what UFOs are. I’ve already made this point, but it bears repeating, for too many people think that belief in UFOs means the same thing as belief in extraterrestrial visitation. The truth, however, is that we have absolutely no real evidence what these things are. They fall outside our abilities to explain anything; they fall outside the dominant “paradigm” (I’ve put this word in quotes because it has become a cliché, and I hate it; but I can’t find a better one). So, we behave as if they do not exist — even when we have seen them with our own eyes. The same thing happens with experiences of psychic phenomena. We are confronted with a profound mystery that seems to challenge much that we know — but it creates too much cognitive dissonance, so we tuck it away in the recesses of our minds, then live our lives as if it never happened. Sort of like a liberal who, despite being mugged repeatedly by Democratic voters, remains an incorrigible egalitarian. Indeed, Hynek has described a phenomenon many of us have already encountered in the realm of political differences. It is just much more widespread than that.
My own belief is that most people, at least a few times in their lives, experience phenomena that defy explanation according to any of our modern sciences or ideologies; UFOs are just one example of this. When I was teaching, I found that one surefire way to get a lively discussion going was to ask my students if they or anyone they knew had had any encounters with the paranormal. There were always a few students who, with a good deal of red-faced hesitancy, would describe bizarre synchronicities, striking premonitions, ghostly visitations, and, yes, encounters with UFOs. They had these experiences, remembered them, but then in a certain way they also accepted that these “could not have happened.” Crushed under the weight of the dominant modern worldview, they practiced a kind of “doublethink,” and seldom told anyone about what they had experienced.
4. The Mystery of Meaning, and the Wisdom of Superstition
So, what have these stories of apathy and blindness taught us? It is that we shouldn’t be too hard on the scientists Heidegger criticizes: It seems that most of us (possibly all) can accept the existence only of that which is understandable in light of what we have decided is truth. Anything that falls outside these parameters is literally what is meant by “the uncanny.” Old English cann means “knowledge,” from cunnan meaning “to know, to be familiar with” and also “to know how to.” (Compare German kennen and können.) The “canny” is what is known or familiar, and what we have a handle on. (A “canny” person is a “knowing” person whose knowing makes them particularly capable: They know how to.) The uncanny is thus not just the unknown or unfamiliar, but something that resists our efforts to get a handle on it; to manipulate it or make it intelligible. The uncanny is thus disconcerting and unsettling. It challenges our power and threatens to overturn our sense that we “have a handle on things,” or have things under our control.
UFOs are uncanny. Initially, we react to them with wonder, but then a kind of apathy sets in because our minds have been imprinted by the modern scientific worldview, which simply has no room for UFOs. They don’t correspond to any known anything, and they do things that modern science claims are impossible (such as their super-rapid acceleration from a stationary position). And yet, in another sense, the reports of UFO witnesses are fully in line with the scientific worldview, since they almost always contain interpretations that draw upon technology, the scientific product with which laypeople are most familiar. Note that UFOs are almost always assumed to be “machines” of some kind. Specifically, they are assumed to be manned “vehicles.”
Everyone thinks that this interpretation is “obvious” — which ought to make us deeply suspicious. Suppose, instead, that witnesses are seeing something so strange that their minds must interpret it as something more or less familiar. And suppose that this interpretation factors out elements that the modern mind simply has no idea how to process (such as, just to let my imagination run wild for a moment, Cthulhu-like batwings and tentacles). Jacques Vallée and other authors have suggested that perhaps what is being witnessed as gigantic flying ships, or as aliens bent on abduction, are the same things seen by our ancestors and recorded in folklore: elves, fairies, wild hunts, dragons, demons, etc.
But we traditionalists and neo-pagans should be wary about jumping to the conclusion that UFOs and “aliens” are just misinterpreted elves, fairies, and so on, for it may very well have been that such creatures from folklore were simply the available cultural means by which our ancestors interpreted what are now interpreted as mysterious flying machines and extraterrestrials. Perhaps no one at any time has perceived these objects as they really are. Perhaps they are so strange that all interpretation is misinterpretation. But then again, maybe they really are elves, fairies, etc., and modern people simply can’t see them as such. This is a genuine possibility, and I do incline toward it simply out of respect for the greater wisdom of my ancestors.
Now that we have, I hope, been confronted vividly with the extent to which our minds are limited by accepted paradigms — and how limiting, specifically, is the modern scientific worldview — we are left with an obvious conclusion: There must be vast realms of existence about which we and our accepted authorities have absolutely nothing to say. Within those realms may still dwell all that which science is alleged to have banished as myth and “superstition.” In short, the door is now wide open.
An old Scandinavian legend from Christian times tells how when the gods ceased being worshipped in Northern Europe, the dwarfs hired a ferryman to take them across the river one night and away from the land of men. On reaching the other side, the ferryman was informed that the dwarfs “were leaving the country for ever in consequence of the unbelief of the people.” But perhaps the dwarfs (and the gods) never left, and we moderns can simply no longer see them, or we see them as something else.
I cannot resist discussing a further Heideggerean point implied by all the foregoing: We imagine that meaning (theories, interpretations, “conceptual schemes,” “paradigms,” etc.) is something we create and that we have control over. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The examples I have discussed in this essay all illustrate the fact that we are in thrall to meaning; we don’t possess it, it possesses us. It’s said to be something “subjective”; i.e., it is in us. Actually, we are in it. I am totally immersed in it, in a world of meaning I did not create. We are like the proverbial fish that doesn’t realize it’s in water. We see everything in terms of the answers we have accepted and the stories our society tells. But we seldom see that we see this way.
There are historical shifts in meaning, of course. But we don’t really control those, either. Some paradigms seem to get worn out, like old clothes that no longer fit. Someone may come along who, for some reason, is unable to shove anomalies into his subconscious mind. A new way of seeing things is on the horizon, and he gives voice to it. Old ways of seeing ourselves and the world get supplanted by new ones. But it’s not fully clear why these shifts in meaning take place. We are seldom sure how we came to view the world the way that we do. We tell facile stories about this, but it is unclear exactly how certain forms of meaning come to seize us. When they do, however, we are in their power.
Why, for example, were the minds of untold billions of people captivated by Christianity — with consequences both glorious and horrific — when a small child can easily expose the fact that the religion makes no sense? Why do so many people now believe in the myth of human equality, when it is contradicted by literally everything we know about human beings, and would have been rejected by our ancestors as childish absurdity? Why are men now so possessed by this absurdity that they are quite willing to torture and kill anyone who isn’t? Why are so many people so beholden to the modern, scientific-technological paradigm when it is so clearly myopic, so nihilistic, and so prone to uglifying the world and reducing it to rubble?
We just don’t know. We are in thrall to the meanings of our time and place, with everything they cannot make meaningful rendered an impenetrable mystery. But even meaning itself — where it comes from and how it comes and goes — is utterly mysterious. We know far, far less than we think we do, and we do not know why we think what we think. We are surrounded by mystery — precisely because we are finite, we are limited. The wise recognize our human finitude. The foolish, especially the moderns, deny it and wind up flying too close to the Sun and then plunging to Earth.
I believe that the affirmation of human finitude is the central feature of pre-modern “belief systems”; i.e., it is the essential difference between them and the spirit of modern “humanism,” which seeks to remove all limits on us, or denies their very existence. And the affirmation of human finitude is what is going on in the superstitions I discussed in the first section. When I assure myself that things will probably go according to plan but then knock wood or cross my fingers, what am I saying? I am saying, “Oh gods, oh Fates, I know that ultimately it’s up to you, and that my powers are sorely limited. I know that everything could go wrong and trip me up. So don’t interpret my confidence as arrogance.”
Deliberately planning something important for Friday the 13th is challenging the gods — like naming a ship Titanic and declaring it “unsinkable.” That’s just crying out for punishment. And so are you if you scoff at that superstitious innkeeper who warns you not to go near the castle. Note how many horror stories feature the motif of the arrogant, “enlightened” man or woman who fails to heed such warnings and suffers a terrible fate (or eventually achieves true enlightenment). The horror genre is a powerful educational tool. It thrills us so much because we need to face the uncanny now and then and feel the fear. It reminds us of who we really are.
When I was a child, I would sometimes deliberately do things like walk under ladders. And once I deliberately broke a mirror. My mother would say something to the effect of, “Now you’re just asking for it!” She was right; hers was the wise stance. When we avoid walking under ladders, breaking mirrors, or crossing paths with black cats, we are affirming that we do not know, and hoping the powers-that-be will notice our humility and leave us alone. When my mother was a child in Georgia in the 1930s, she knew a little black girl who was called Louiza McCrae, but whose full name was Li’l Louiza Li’l Bit Baltimore Temptation Touch Me Not Oh God Let Her Alone McCrae. Note the plea to the divine embedded in the name.
As mentioned earlier, the Romans understood “superstition” to mean an excessive fear of the gods, and they regarded it as slavish. But I disagree. What is such a fear, except a keen recognition of the fact that we are not in control; that we are in the grip of forces we absolutely do not understand? To feel such fear, to be superstitious, is wise. It is especially wise for us moderns to be excessive in this fear, given all the abominable things we have done, and continue to do. It is as if we are begging for divine annihilation. Better to cultivate fear of the gods now, before it is too late — because we are not safe: Science and the modern world have lied to us. We don’t know what is out there. Chances are some of it is bigger than us, and may not like us at all.
* * *
Like all journals of dissident ideas, Counter-Currents depends on the support of readers like you. Help us compete with the censors of the Left and the violent accelerationists of the Right with a donation today. (The easiest way to help is with an e-check donation. All you need is your checkbook.)
For other ways to donate, click here.
 Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2010).
 Heidegger develops the ideas discussed here in a number of essays and lectures, but see especially his essay “The Age of the World Picture” in Martin Heidegger, Off the Beaten Track, trans. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
 Except when, absurdly, they have labelled the story “racist” and “colonialist.” It has also been suggested that the reason for the natives’ apparent apathy was that they were “living on the edge of survival” and thus far too busy to take note of Cook’s ship! This is absurd, for they were fishing in an ocean teeming with wildlife, in a climate so temperate they could go around naked. Natives of tropical climes are, in fact, famous for their leisure. For one such silly argument, see: https://www.northcoastjournal.com/humboldt/myth-of-the-invisible-ships/Content?oid=2129921
 This quote, and all my information on the Hudson Valley UFO sightings, comes from Leslie Kean’s UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2011). This is by far the most impressive and credible book I have ever read on the UFO phenomenon, for it presents only the most well-authenticated reports, made (as the title implies) by individuals with a high degree of credibility, who would have every incentive not to talk about their experiences, for fear of professional damage. I highly recommend this book to anyone who, like myself, has taken only a cursory and somewhat skeptical interest in UFOs. It is quite eye-opening, and even disturbing. I am not citing page numbers because I own the Kindle edition.
 http://www.ufoevidence.org/documents/doc685.htm I should note that Leslie Kean in UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record also deals extensively with Hynek’s remarks in her chapter on the Hudson Valley sightings. She quotes from the same essay by Hynek.
 Some ellipses in original.
 H. A. Guerber, Myths of the Norsemen (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1992), 243 (first published: George G. Harrap & Company, London, 1909).
Enjoyed this article?
Be the first to leave a tip in the jar!
Remembering P. R. Stephensen
Remembering Martin Heidegger: September 26, 1889–May 26, 1976
Marx vs. Rousseau
The Worst Week Yet: September 3-9, 2023
Metapolitics in Germany, Part 2: An Exclusive Interview with Frank Kraemer of Stahlgewitter
Harry Richardson and Frank Salter’s Anglophobia: The Unrecognised Hatred
Nietzsche and the Psychology of the Left, Part Two
Nietzsche and the Psychology of the Left, Part One