The Cult of the Meaningless Coincidence | James Clement van Pelt

In contemplating the mysteries of telepathy, remote viewing, past lives, out-of-body and postmortem experiences, and the like, what seems equally mysterious is the unaccountable lack of official interest in the investigation of such anomalous phenomena—“anomalous” because they cannot be accounted for by the prevailing model of reality. If there is any chance that the generally accepted model of reality— the regnant paradigm— is radically incomplete, or considerably distorted, or centered in the wrong spot (once again); or that the mortal veil may be permeable to some degree; or that there may be more to each of us than a brain doomed to rot inside its skull when one of its critical processes fails; or that we are not alone in a cosmic sense, or even in the ultimate sense— if there is any chance that any such hypothesis can be validated or falsified by empirical research beyond reasonable challenge, then what other research topic could promise a more potentially fruitful outcome? As Feynmann put it, “The thing that doesn’t fit is… the most interesting.”

What keeps such phenomena— especially those that challenge the causal closure of physical reality and the limits of physical mortality— from being universally deemed among the most important research topics in the world can be accounted for in the way belief systems compete for predominance in the cultural ecology. When a religion is maximally successful, it becomes essentially transparent: “just the way things are”. Its unacknowledged presuppositions filter out beliefs that could challenge it, resulting in precisely the situation encountered in the contemporary attitude toward the study of anomalous phenomena.

Using an extension of meme theory, this presentation discloses the filters that work to keep science safely distant from the frontier where experiential anomalies pose their mysteries, and reveals how they operate to suppress challenges to the “transparent faith” that establishes and safe- guards the regnant paradigm. At first they seem beyond challenge—“just the way things are”—even insignificant. Yet they define the legitimate boundaries of science in the modern era and keep us confined there, forbidden to delve into the most magnificent mysteries. By examining the effects and challenging the validity of these filters, the way to that which is “the most interesting” opens before us.

Bio: James Clement van Pelt co-founded Yale’s Initiative in Religion, Science & Technology, coordinating its Working Group in Religious and Spiritual Perspectives on Bioethics for Yale’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, the Synchro Project studying the experience of meaningful coincidence (synchronicity) and five international conferences at Yale engaging leading Western scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, and religious studies scholars. He has authored, coauthored, and contributed to numerous articles and books, including Venceremos Brigade (Simon & Schuster), Different Cultures, One World (Rozenberg) and Seeking Home in a Strange Land (in press). His academic interests center on the anthropology of consciousness, theologies of technology, social revolution theory, and consciousness studies, with special interest in the metaphysics of experience and the teleology of technology.

Recorded at the Society for Scientific Exploration conference at Yale University, 2017

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Published on December 21, 2018