Other People’s Craziness

In a Facebook group dedicated to Julian Jaynes, I was talking to a lady who is an academic and a poet. She happened to mention that she is also a ‘Manbo’, something like a vodou practitioner. She made the admission that she sees and hears spirits, but she qualified it by saying that her rational mind knew it wasn’t real. I found that qualification odd, as if she were worried about maintaining her respectability. She made clear that these experiences weren’t make-believe, as they felt real to her, as real as anything else, and yet one side of her personality couldn’t quite take them as real. So, two different realities existed inside her and she seemed split between them.

None of this is particularly strange in a group like that. Many voice-hearers, for obvious reasons, are attracted to Jaynes’ view on voice-hearing. Jaynes took such experiences seriously and, to a large degree, took the experiences on their own terms. Jaynes offered a rational or rationalizing narrative for why it is ‘normal’ to hear voices. The desire to be normal is powerful social force. Having a theory helps someone like this lady to compartmentalize the two aspects of her being and not feel overwhelmed. If she didn’t qualify her experience, she would be considered crazy by many others and maybe in her own mind. Her academic career might even be threatened. So, the demand of conformity is serious with real consequences.

That isn’t what interested me, though. Our conversation happened in a post about the experience of falling under a trance while driving, such that one ends up where one was going without remember how one got there. It’s a common experience and a key example Jaynes uses about how the human mind functions. I mentioned that many people have experiences of alien contact and UFO abduction while driving, often alone at night on some dark stretch of road. And I added that, according to Jacques Vallee and John Keel, many of these experiences match the descriptions of fairy abductions in folklore and the accounts of shamanic initiations. Her response surprised me, in her being critical.

Vallee also had two sides, on the one hand an analytical type who worked as an astronomer and a computer scientist and on the other a disreputable UFO researcher. He came at the UFO field from a scientific approach, but like Jaynes he felt compelled to take people at their word in accepting that their experience was real to them. He even came to believe there was something to these experiences. It started with a time he was working in an observatory and, after recording anomalous data of something in the sky that wasn’t supposed to be there, the director of the observatory erased the tapes out of fear that if it got out to the press it would draw negative attention to the institution. That is what originally piqued his curiosity and started him down the road of UFO research. But he also came across many cases where entire groups of people, including military, saw the same UFOs in the sky and their movements accorded with no known technology or physics.

That forced him to consider the possibility that people were seeing something that was on some level real, whatever it was. He went so far as to speculate about consciousness being much stranger than science could presently explain, that there really is more to the universe or at an angle to our universe. In this line of thought, he spoke of the phenomena as, “partly associated with a form of non-human consciousness that manipulates space and time.” Sure, to most people, that is crazy talk, though no more crazy than interacting with the spirit world. But the lady I was speaking with immediately dismissed this as going too far. Her anomalous experiences were fine, as long as she pretended that they were pretend or something, thus proving she wasn’t bat-shit loony. Someone else’s anomalous experience, however, was not to be taken seriously. It’s the common perception that only other people’s religion is mythology.

That amused me to no end. And I said that it amused me. She then blocked me. That amused me as well. I’m feeling amused. I was more willing to take her experiences as being valid in a way she was unwilling to do for others. It’s not that I had any skin in the game, as I’ve never talked to spirits nor been abducted by aliens. But I give people the benefit of the doubt that there experiences are real to them. I’m a radical skeptic and extreme agnostic. I take the world as it comes and sometimes the world is strange. No need to rationalize it. And if that strangeness is proof of insanity and disrepute, there are worse fates.