The Liminal and the Burden of Proof
Photo by Lucas Ludwig on Unsplash
One of the questions we seem to get asked the most at Liminal Earth is some variation or another on, “but do you guys actually believe the stories people submit to the Map?”
That’s the ultimate question, no? There’s the rub– if these things are “real,” then we would expect them to behave in certain ways that correlate with what we call “reality.” Or, if they’re not “real,” we might assume that since they don’t generally correlate with shared experience, they’re purely psychological or imaginary tricks of the mind. Neither of these approaches completely satisfies, of course. They happen with such frequency that it’s almost delusional to claim the paranormal is 100% fake, but we can so rarely recreate the experiences, and so many can indeed be chalked up to tricks of the mind, that it’s also delusional to claim 100% veracity for every liminal event. That said, if even ONE of the paranormal experiences submitted to Liminal Earth is “real,” what does that tell us about the nature of experience?
Much of the problem stems from the conflict between one’s subjective definition of “reality.” Someone who doesn’t allow for ANY paranormal events (like UFO-skeptic Philip Klass, for instance, or James Randi) will create a reality-system filled with nothing more than coincidence and rigid materialism. They can create the most mundane explanation for even the strangest experience.
On the other hand, those who sincerely believe that the liminal has a place in human experience can create such an event from, quite literally, thin air (like the famous “Philip” experiment in which a group of researchers “created” a ghost). People from Group A will almost never be convinced that those in Group B are correct, and vice-versa. Once you’ve already decided what something is, it’s more likely to be affected by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which states that “The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known;” in other words, the observation affects the results.
That said, humans have been attempting to obtain objective proof of these subjective encounters since we first started hearing weird bumps in the night. Let’s look at ghost investigations as an example. What are some ways that people have investigated spiritual-type events, and is it possible to utilize any of these investigatory procedures as any kind of “test” of veracity?
The quest for proof is a rather recent invention; pre-”civilization” cultures didn’t so much require proof of something that already fit their world-view. It's very possible that the earliest method of what we might think of as “paranormal investigation,” before even the use of psychedelics, was through dreams. Certain cultures make less of a distinction between dreams and the waking world, and the appearance of one’s ancestor in a dream was taken to mean that one’s ancestor was LITERALLY communicating with you from beyond the grave. Of course, this is an almost completely subjective experience– it’s your dream, and you can’t well pop it out of your head for others to experience in the same manner you have. Translating dream encounters to objective experience simply can’t happen.
Of course, once humans began using psychotropics and ritual, archetypal spiritual experience, it became a rather different story. Most group experiences involving psychedelics employed shared experience of the spirit world. But, again, the individuals involved didn’t need “proof”– they knew from experience and cultural transmission that they were encountering what they considered real events.
Moving through history, the duty of communicating with the dead fell upon the shoulders of various priestesses, mystics, and magicians. This shift, from shared experience to individual experience, may have resulted from the agricultural need for specialization– when we began growing crops and building cities, each person had an individual role to play. Some people were farmers, some people ran shops, some people governed and some people communicated with the spirits. Still, though, you didn’t require “proof”– you took it for granted that they were doing what they said they were. If someone told you that they spoke with a ghost, they spoke with a ghost, simple as that.
However, since the experience was no longer shared, it became easier for people to deceive. And, since being a holy person was often a cushy job and a good way to make money, people started being deceptive. And, since only certain people were officially allowed to communicate with the dead, these social classes began to ostracize those who claimed such an ability who weren’t authorized to do so (witches! witches!). Thus began the long, slow spiral towards the Modern Era’s approach to spirituality.
The so-called European “Age of Enlightenment” saw a general disillusionment with spirituality, and the exposure of the often deceptive practices of spiritual practitioners. The idea of something subjectively real went out the window with the bathwater as materialism entered the public discourse and the scientific method took the stage. Now any experience, shared or no, that had subjective qualities, required some kind of objective proof, solid data, to determine whether it was real or imagined. And, if this proof could be proven false, then your entire experience was, ergo, also false.
The Spiritualist movement, of course, took up the rallying cry, and began trying to apply the scientific method to spiritual encounters via mediums, channelers and Ouija boards. Unfortunately, it was so beset by charlatans that, once again, the baby was tossed out with the spooky bathwater. Nonetheless, investigators began using the scientific method and even modern technological equipment to search for proof of ghosts.
Most modern Ghost Hunters use a wide array of instruments to investigate spooks. Simply seeing a ghost isn’t enough, even in a group. There has to be hard data to back up the subjective evidence, and modern equipment, in theory, can provide this data. But, there’s a catch: the data collected during ghost-hunting relies solely on anomalous equipment reaction. A temperature gauge, for instance, indicates a ghost when it begins reading anomalous temperatures. An EMF field appears where it shouldn’t; the “proof” is anomalous. An “orb” appears on camera where it shouldn’t. This evidence is predicated on data that appears to contradict the way that the equipment typically functions. Taken philosophically, we could say that the equipment itself is recording its own subjective experience.
Of course, many modern paranormal investigators also rely on psychics, Ouija boards, Tarot, etc. This does require that one already accepts the value of these methods if one wishes to accept the veracity of their findings. Using Tarot to investigate ghosts means accepting that Tarot “works.”
Photo by Josh Marshall on Unsplash
So what does this all mean? To us, it indicates that since we’ve long abandoned our societal concept of shared experience, we must also reconsider our dedication to “solid proof.” Even our technology records the subjective; the only way to provide proof of the paranormal is to foist it upon the person asking for it, and since these events can so rarely be recreated, that’s a near impossibility.
In other words, testing whether something is real or imagined can only really work for the experiencer. Just as with Heisenberg, if someone experiences something spooky and decides, after further investigation, that they imagined it, then their conclusion alters the whole experience, and it indeed becomes imagined. If someone determines they’ve had a valid paranormal experience, then that decision affects the experience and it becomes paranormal.
We look for proof for various reasons. Sometimes it’s because we need our worldview confirmed. Sometimes it’s because we’d like to be famous. Sometimes it’s so our peers won’t think we’re insane. Whatever the reason, the underlying need for confirmation really only applies to the person who has the experience. Once again, we know everything when we know ourselves.
So do we “believe” the stories? Ultimately, it doesn't matter. What matters is whether the person having the experience valued this experience, and whether it impacted that person's worldview. This is one of the coolest things about the stories on the map: if you’d like some proof that it’s “real,” you’ll have to come out and try to experience it for yourself.
Carlos Castaneda was a terrible person. He was appropriative, abusive, misogynistic, and a nasty cult leader. That said, one of the passages in his third Don Juan book, The Journey to Ixtlan, describes the understanding that “proof” is subjective, albeit in his peculiar jargon. We reproduce it here in full to conclude this essay, as it remains one of the best explications of the pointlessness of the burden of proof when the liminality is involved.
In this passage, “Carlos” and his (almost certainly fictional) teacher, Don Juan, are in the desert, when they see something unusual on the ground.
“There!” he said in a whisper and pointed to an object on the ground. I strained my eyes to see. There was something on the ground, perhaps twenty feet away. It was light brown and as I looked at it, it shivered. I focused all my attention on it. The object was almost round and seemed to be curled; in fact, it looked like a curled-up dog.“What is it?” I whispered to don Juan. “I don't know,” he whispered back as he peered at the object. “What does it look like to you?” I told him that it seemed to be a dog. “Too large for a dog,” he said matter-of-factly. I took a couple of steps towards it, but don Juan stopped me gently. I stared at it again. It was definitely some animal that was either asleep or dead. I could almost see its head; its ears protruded like the ears of a wolf. By then I was definitely sure that it was a curled-up animal. I thought that it could have been a brown calf. I whispered that to don Juan. He answered that it was too compact to be a calf, besides its ears were pointed.The animal shivered again and then I noticed that it was alive. I could actually see that it was breathing, yet it did not seem to breathe rhythmically. The breaths that it took were more like irregular shivers. I had a sudden realization at that moment.“It's an animal that is dying,” I whispered to don Juan.
“You're right,” he whispered back. “But what kind of an animal?”
I could not make out its specific features. Don Juan took a couple of cautious steps towards it. I followed him. It was quite dark by then and we had to take two more steps in order to keep the animal in view.“Watch out,” don Juan whispered in my ear. “If it is a dying animal it may leap on us with its last strength.”
The animal, whatever it was, seemed to be on its last legs; its breathing was irregular, its body shook spasmodically, but it did not change its curled-up position. At a given moment, however, a tremendous spasm actually lifted the animal off the ground. I heard an inhuman shriek and the animal stretched its legs; its claws were more than frightening, they were nauseating. The animal tumbled on its side after stretching its legs and then rolled on its back.I heard a formidable growl and don Juan's voice shouting, “Run for your life!” And that was exactly what I did. I scrambled towards the top of the hill with unbelievable speed and agility.
When I was halfway to the top I looked back and saw don Juan standing in the same place. He signaled me to come down. I ran down the hill.
“What happened?” I asked, completely out of breath. “I think the animal is dead,” he said. We advanced cautiously towards the animal. It was sprawled on its back. As I came closer to it I nearly yelled with fright. I realized that it was not quite dead yet. Its body was still trembling. Its legs, which were sticking up in the air, shook wildly. The animal was definitely in its last gasps.I walked in front of don Juan. A new jolt moved the animal's body and I could see its head. I turned to don Juan, horrified. Judging by its body the animal was obviously a mammal, yet it had a beak, like a bird.I stared at it in complete and absolute horror. My mind refused to believe it. I was dumbfounded. I could not even articulate a word. Never in my whole existence had I witnessed anything of that nature. Something inconceivable was there in front of my very eyes. I wanted don Juan to explain that incredible animal but I could only mumble to him.
He was staring at me. I glanced at him and glanced at the animal, and then something in me arranged the world and I knew at once what the animal was. I walked over to it and picked it up. It was a large branch of a bush. It had been burnt, and possibly the wind had blown some burnt debris which got caught in the dry branch and thus gave the appearance of a large bulging round animal. The colour of the burnt debris made it look light brown in contrast with the green vegetation.I laughed at my idiocy and excitedly explained to don Juan that the wind blowing through it had made it look like a live animal. I thought he would be pleased with the way I had resolved the mystery, but he turned around and began walking to the top of the hill. I followed him. He crawled inside the depression that looked like a cave. It was not a hole but a shallow dent in the sandstone.Don Juan took some small branches and used them to scoop up the dirt that had accumulated in the bottom of the depression.“We have to get rid of the ticks,” he said.
He signaled me to sit down and told me to make myself comfortable because we were going to spend the night there.I began to talk about the branch, but he hushed me up. “What you've done is no triumph,” he said. “You've wasted a beautiful power, a power that blew life into that dry twig.”
He said that a real triumph would have been for me to let go and follow the power until the world had ceased to exist. He did not seem to be angry with me or disappointed with my performance. He repeatedly stated that this was only the beginning, that it took time to handle power. He patted me on the shoulder and joked that earlier that day I was the person who knew what was real and what was not.I felt embarrassed. I began to apologize for my tendency of always being so sure of my ways. “It doesn't matter,” he said.“That branch was a real animal and it was alive at the moment the power touched it. Since what kept it alive was power, the trick was, like in dreaming, to sustain the sight of it. See what I mean?”