Things I Might Be Certain About

Posted on November 20, 2010


There was a time when I believed in UFOs, out of body experiences, ESP, ghosts, reincarnation, auras, and pretty much anything else covered by that all-purpose phrase, “There are some things we just can’t explain.” In truth, there are many things we can’t explain, including gravity’s ability to bend space, Sylvester Stallone’s ability to make the exact same movie six times, and chocolate-covered grasshoppers. There are also things we can’t disprove. For example, it’s possible to prove there’s a giant starfish named Gordon that eats boats in the Bermuda Triangle, but it’s impossible to prove there isn’t. In the case of ESP and other psychic abilities, the argument has even been made that the very act of looking for scientific evidence prevents the phenomena from taking place at all. In other words, if you try to test a person’s powers of remote viewing, she won’t have it. If you’re watching a man attempt to levitate, he won’t fly.

The combination of these ideas — the claims that there are weird things happening, the nearly total lack of evidence, and our inability to disprove them — is a recipe for a set of beliefs that has no limitations or rules. Anything is possible. And one final ingredient seals the deal: These things are fun to imagine. Wouldn’t it be great if we could read minds? If we discovered intelligent beings on other worlds? If we could learn how to become invisible, walk through walls, move at the speed of light? Wouldn’t it change everything if we could know for sure that life continues after death?

Still, over the years I’ve done a lot of reading, listening, and thinking about these issues. And they all have serious problems.

ESP, or Extra-Sensory Perception. I don’t have psychic powers. If I have two pockets in my pants and one of them contains a quarter, it will always take me two tries to find it. If I come to an intersection requiring me to turn either left or right, I will always go the wrong way. And if I try to fake myself out by going right even though I think I should go left, it will turn out that I should have gone left.

I’ve tried developing my psychic powers, because the experts say that everyone has these abilities, but that it’s like any other skill: we have to work at it. Why? I don’t have to work at hearing. When I’m reading a book and someone in the next room is watching television and the Swiffer commercial comes on for the one hundredth time in a thirty-minute show, I always hear it. I don’t have to try. In fact, I’m trying not to hear it, and I can’t do it. When I close the freezer door without first taking my head out of the way, smashing myself in the temple, I feel the cold and the pain without any effort at all. So why would I have to work at these other mental gifts?

Of course, just because I don’t have psychic powers doesn’t mean nobody does. But where’s the evidence, and how do we assess it? The most common test involves a set of cards with five different symbols. The person tries to guess which symbol is on each card and then is scored out of twenty-five guesses. Getting up to seven correct is attributed to chance, while anything more than seven is deemed to be a sign of extraordinary power. But what kind of hit-or-miss extra sense is that, and in what area of life would it be useful? If you blindfolded me, sat me behind the wheel of a car, and had me drive through twenty-five traffic lights, would you be pleased if I guessed correctly eight times? How about if it were your car?

Ghosts. If a ghost is the energy released after the death of the body, why would it need a face, or hair, or even a shape? And why would it need clothing? The ghost of George Washington has appeared countless times. During the Civil War he arrived at Gettysburg riding a white horse, directing Union forces with an upraised sword. But Washington died at home, in bed. Where did the horse come from, and the sword? If Washington’s ghost was created by the energy of his soul leaving his body at death, and if that energy somehow included his clothing, shouldn’t the ghost have been wearing a nightshirt?

Out-of-Body Experiences. These are similar to the ghost concept. The idea is that your conscious mind can leave the physical body and travel around, float up above your bed while you’re having a lung transplant, wander off and snoop on people while they’re doing private things. I once bought a book on how to do this. I practiced. Believe me, if this one worked, I would have some great stories to tell you.

Reincarnation. According to countless reports, just before you die the events of your life play themselves out like a movie. This doesn’t seem so weird, but how would reincarnation handle it? Before the movie started, we’d have to sit through half a dozen previews of future lives, followed by two or three commercials about our past existences, now available on DVD and Blu-Ray for a limited time. As the number of our past lives kept increasing, so too would the number of commercials. Death would be delayed more and more with each life, just as World Series games now run four and a half hours because of all the paid advertisements that have to be shown between innings. It would take longer and longer to die, and as the dying part of your life got prolonged, so would the movie you’d have to watch. This would create a logjam and eventually cause the universe to be stuck forever in a gridlock of time. Add to this the possibility that after a life spent sitting at red lights, enduring endless school concerts and soccer games, and listening to voice-mail messages advising that you should “continue to hold,” you could still end up coming back as a giant boat-eating starfish named Gordon, and nobody would ever know.

UFOs. I was sure about them, but what do we really have? Most alien spacecraft are spotted at night, and are recognized by their lights. This should be the first clue. Vehicles traveling through interstellar space would have no need for lights. If they wanted us to see them, they would land, get out, send us a few telepathic thought waves, and sign some autographs. If they didn’t want us to see them, they would turn off their lights.

And where are the pictures? Everyone in the world is now walking around with cell phones and video cameras capable of recording everything that happens, including every time someone falls into a lake or a dog runs into a sliding glass door. Yet there’s still no credible image of an alien spacecraft. That should also tell us something. All we have are blurry, shaky flashes of light and a lot of stories about people being snatched from their beds and poked with stainless steel chopsticks.

Creatures capable of traveling the distances required to reach us would have to be so advanced that their technology would be beyond our ability to envision. I have to conclude that our descriptions of them, their vehicles, and their equipment — along with so many of these other silly ideas — are clearly the product of our limited imaginations.

By the way, when is Rocky VII coming out?