We are time-travellers, and we have stepped into the caves at Altamira. There we find someone painting animals on the ceiling. We ask him, “What are you doing?”
He turns and makes a puzzled frown, he doesn’t understand our question. Or rather he does, but wonders why we are so stupid as to ask. “Life, of course!” he says.
Art is only art because we have made a word for it. I’m told that the ancient Egyptians had no word for it, yet they covered their world of ritual with sculptures and paintings. Imagine, then, what it must have been like to walk down a walled avenue of gods, goddesses, kings, queens, dancing girls, captives, sphinxes, armies, musicians, hunters, birds, and so on, and not to have had any dividing line in your mind between yourself and them, not to have had a separate concept of them from anything else in your life.
I’m also told that most royal tombs in Egypt were broken into and robbed soon after they were sealed. No amount of secret locations, false entrances, curses (not that such exist outside tales of terror), or charges of sacrilege seem to have deterred this. I should like to know whether archaeology has unearthed any evidence of widespread fencing of stolen goods, or home ingot-making in ancient Egyptian urban society.
I don’t wish to denigrate ‘the scientific method’ – it is a very robust way of looking at things – but the following came up in conversation the other day with someone who was veering towards the shoal of regarding it as being as infallible as the dicta of Mother Church. We do not see reality, we see phenomena. Everything that comes to us is filtered through human perception. We see the laws of nature and science not because that’s how they are, but because that’s who we are. The phenomena we see are related to reality, but not in a fixed manner, not in a fixed or reliably measureable relationship.
Imagine me passing through a point in time. Or rather, the same point repeatedly under different circumstances.
- I look out of my kitchen window and I see a bird.
- I look out of my kitchen window and I see a bird; a little later I realise I was mistaken and had seen an effect made by a patch of fence-post and a fluttering leaf.
- I look out of my kitchen window and I see a bird; it is actually an effect made by a patch of fence-post and a fluttering leaf, but I never realise that.
- I have a psychological condition which involves sometimes suffering from delusions; I look out of my kitchen window and I see a bird.
In each case the phenomenon is exactly the same. My friend, his faith in the scientific method unshaken, pointed out that independent repetition of the cycle of experiment and observation smooths out extraneous results and establishes fact. That is indeed a tribute to the robustness of the scientific method. But what it establishes is only ‘fact’ to the novice, the acolyte; to the adept it establishes probability – or rather, predictability – which is a different animal altogether.
What it fails to eliminate is the anomaly. Anomalies are inconvenient. To the scientific acolyte, they are negligible and should be ignored. To Charles Fort, that one-man thorn in the side of the white coats, they are ‘the damned’, the things which the high priests of science declare anathema and ignore.
The power that has said to all these things that they are damned, is Dogmatic Science.
But they’ll march.
The little harlots will caper, and freaks will distract attention, and the clowns will break the rhythm of the whole with their buffooneries – but the solidity of the procession as a whole: the impressiveness of things that pass and pass and pass, and keep on and keep on and keep on coming.
The irresistibleness of things that neither threaten nor jeer nor defy, but arrange themselves in mass-formations that pass and pass and keep on passing.
I don’t hold up the Fortean approach as a counter to the scientific method, just a raised finger of admonishment, a caution, a whisper into the ear of the scientist “Remember thou art mortal.”
Incidentally, at least two of the bullet-pointed occurrences have happened to me. I can’t swear to the other two.
Fort, Charles. The Book of the Damned. Cosimo Classics, 2004.