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The Legitimately Weird

Second in a series on the search for meaning in a world that doesn't want to bother with it.

by Everett Wilson
October 16, 2004

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I am not well-informed in the physical sciences, yet I instantly identified with these words from Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything (p 167): "Matters in physics have now reached such a pitch that, as Paul Davies noted in Nature, it is 'almost impossible for the non-scientist to discriminate between the legitimately weird and the outright crackpot.'"

Those who nibble around the edges of epistemology (the study of knowledge) and ontology (the study of existence as such) recognize how Davies's insight applies outside the hard sciences. If you wonder who these nibblers are, here are some examples: clergy, behavioral scientists, classroom teachers, philosophers, and parents who have ever been asked where God goes to the bathroom. We proceed with tentative agreements on what we think we know, and then cope, or not, with phenomena and ideas that do not conform to accepted wisdom.

The fewer the points of conformity, the more we feel confronted by the legitimately weird or the outright crackpot. I am using Davies's metaphors to distinguish between that which is possible though strange - the legitimately weird - and that which is both impossible and strange - the outright crackpot.

We have these labels; now we have to figure out where to attach them. For there is a third category infinitely larger than both: the unknown. It has three sub-categories, the contents of which we do not know because, of course, they are unknown. These are: the as-yet undiscovered, the undiscoverable, and the fantastic but yet unstated. All of these categories may be empty. We infer that they are not, because they conform to previous experience.

  • We have kept discovering facts about the universe that we previously believed were undiscoverable; we suppose there are more to come. If we cease to discover, we won't know whether we have discovered everything, whether what remains is undiscoverable, or whether we belong in a "slower group" intellectually than our predecessors.
  • We have kept discrediting fantastic theories after they were stated; we assume we have not heard the last of them, but perhaps we have. Fantastic theories are not the same as fantastic tales. The tales are told on their own terms, while the theories are offered as explanations of the unfantastic (or "real" if I can get away with saying that). They are discredited when they are found to be impossible.

Not unusual, not unexpected, not "outside the box," all bases on which the term "impossible" is popularly imposed, but the truly impossible: that which never was, is not, and never shall be.

As you may suppose, the standard for discerning the truly impossible is very high. The only standard I believe to be safe is this: The truly impossible is a flat-out contradiction of one or more truths that would  be verified as true at any time, under any conditions, at any place. Such truths, measured against the universe, are not many. But if they are true according to this standard, then their contradiction is false, therefore impossible.

In this series of essays I am aiming at the absolute secularist - or the person who thinks he is - one to whom faith is not a path to knowledge. I am setting the bar as high for him (usually him, sometimes her) as he sets for people of faith. I am suggesting that he cannot declare anything impossible apart from verifiable truth as stated above. If he declares it anyway, he is stating a personal wish, not a defensible position.

Weirdness is not a basis for impossibility. Weirdness is merely a judgment on something that is strange to you. To be open to truth in all its breadth, we must be open to the legitimately weird.

All Installments of this Series:
1. The Possible Possibility, 10/2/2004
2. The Legitimately Weird, 10/16/2004
3. Nature and Supernature, 11/29/2004
4. Designer Jeans, Designer God, 1/6/2005
5. What Mathematical Certainty?, 2/2/2005
6. Credible, Not Verifiable, 2/28/2005
7. The God of Ultimate Meaning, 2/28/2005
8. Dialogue with a Postmodern Nephew, 5/11/2005 
9. Why the Bible?, 5/21/2005
10. Why Jesus?, 6/4/2005

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