21 January 2011

Things we can't explain

An event in the life of philosopher and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, as presented at Futility Closet:
On July 21, 1759, Emanuel Swedenborg attended a dinner party after returning to Gothenburg from England. He went out for a short interval and returned pale and agitated. He told the party that a fire had broken out in Stockholm, 250 miles away, and that it was spreading quickly. He said it had already destroyed the house of one of his friends, whom he named, and that his own house was in danger. Two hours later he exclaimed, “Thank God! The fire is extinguished the third door from my house.”

The following morning the governor questioned Swedenborg, who provided a description of the fire, including how it had begun and ended, and word spread throughout the city. Two days later a messenger arrived from Stockholm bearing letters that confirmed Swedenborg’s account, and a royal courier brought news reporting the extent of the fire, the houses it had damaged and destroyed, and the time it was put out. All confirmed Swedenborg’s description.

“What can be brought forward against the authenticity of this occurrence?” wrote Immanuel Kant, who elsewhere criticized Swedenborg’s mysticism. “My friend who wrote this to me, has not only examined the circumstances of this extraordinary case at Stockholm, but also, about two months ago, at Gottenburg, where he is acquainted with the most respectable houses, and where he could obtain the most authentic and complete information, as the greatest part of the inhabitants, who are still alive, were witnesses to the memorable occurrence.”
Posted because a similar, possibly "paranormal" event occurred in my family.  In the 1960s my grandfather was admitted to a hospital after a severe automobile accident.  His children (my mother, aunts, and uncles) gathered at the bedside.  Several days later my uncle Paul arrived.  He had been driving from Minnesota to Seattle and was in the middle of nowhere when he heard his father's voice saying "Paul, come home.  I need you."  He knew it wasn't "real," but it was so compelling an experience that he turned his car around and drove back to Minnesota.   I suppose one can come up with a number of more prosaic explanations involving long-distance phone calls, but there was no apparent reason for him to dissemble about something like this.  I prefer to believe that such things are possible, and beyond the limits of our current understanding.  What kind of rational explanation can one offer for the Swedenborg incident?


  1. The rational explanation is 200+ years of hindsight and story-retelling. The original story may have been an interesting and possible coincidence, which was amplified over 200 years into a ridiculously impossible scenario.

  2. Mark's point is a good one. To add three more:

    1. A general problem with these sorts of "psychic" or spiritual phenomenon is their apparent rarity. If it were a real phenomenon, one would expect it to have occurred often enough that at least one event would have been documented in a convincing way (i.e., not merely through heresay and oral-history style accounts). In fact, if nature permitted such phenomenona at all, what reason could there be for their being so rare that most of us have no experience of them? What could plausibly be so remarkable about your grandfather or uncle or that accident, for instance, that this happened to them but not to the astronomical numbers of similar people and events?

    2. Speaking of those astronomical numbers of events, there is the sampling bias issue. Because so many events are happening to so many people all the time, it's inevitable that spectacular coincidences occur. The vast vast majority where coincidences do not occur don't stick in anyone's memory, and are not told as stories; only the tiny tiny minority that are coincidental in some way get that treatment. This effect is mathematically sufficient to explain the lopsided ratio of normal:abnormal I remarked on in point 1 above, and is more parsimonious an explanation than something involving spirits or psychic abilities for which we have no convincing evidence or plausible mechanisms.

    3. This is a less rigorous point, but in my experience, the acquaintances I've had who report such spooky phenomena as personal experiences just happen to also be the acquaintances I already considered to be the least hard-nosed, skeptical, and logical. It's been well documented how susceptible both perception and memory are to bias, so I find it very likely that these folks unconsciously bent the truth somewhat to favor a more startling explanation for an experience that felt startling to them.

  3. Unfortunately, Mark's rationale isn't true. The story is well–attested in its current form from contemporary sources. That doesn't mean it wasn't myth–making on the part of Swedenborg's inner circle, however.

  4. Dr. Elizabeth Loftus has done extensive work in memory which would speak to Mark and le_sacre's skepticism.

    It is not only possible but likely (given the tendency toward confirmation bias amongst paranormal believers) to attribute paranormal forces to everyday occurrences.

    Not to downplay your example, but of all possibilities is it not more likely that your uncle remembered his vague feeling of unease as something more specific ("a voice") when returning to find your grandfather in distress?

    Loftus' body of work would suggest that every time your uncle thought back on what compelled him to return, the association would be reinforced - over time, he may have effectively "rewritten" the memory into something he'd swear by.

  5. Z, I can downplay my example myself, by postulating that my uncle phoned his home town long-distance from a hotel in Montana to talk with a secret girl friend who told him of the accident, and after returning he made up this story to keep the girl friend unknown to the family.

    I just prefer the more mystical possibility...

  6. This concept of "preferring to believe" is very alien to me, and also, frankly, strikes me as dangerous. Seems like it's devaluing truth. And lots of people end up making pretty terrible decisions based on what they choose to believe instead of basing their decisions on evidence-based beliefs.

    I'm kind of stodgy that way. :-)

  7. Actually, I had an incident something like that myself. I was lying in bed prior to getting up on a day when I didn't have to work and was in a kind of dreamy state when I became aware of this presence... I don't know how else to describe it. There was a woman (I'm male) sitting on the side of my bed talking to me. I could see her quite clearly, I could feel the warmth and pressure of her body against my own, I could her weight on the mattress, and I could "hear" her talking, except that I could not understand a single word of what she said, but I could understand the jist of what she said. And I could kind of see her. But, when I opened my eyes, I was completely alone.

    I had never seen this woman before, but I did meet her in real life several months later; she was a clerk in a toy store where I stopped to get some change. I have not seen her since.


  8. DaBris, your experience sounds very much like a hypnagogic hallucination; it's almost like an episode of sleep paralysis, tho as you describe it without the paralysis and shortness of breath.

    Eventually I hope to write some blog posts on that subject.

  9. People are often eager to ignore and ridicule the existence of that which cannot be proven.

    Myself included.

    But as soon as I actually experience something that gives me, even a glimpse, into phenomena outside the realm of common human understanding: I certainly do not ignore it.

    My first serious relationship resulted in the strongest "6th sense" occurrence I have ever felt in my life. I was rather emotionally invested in this person, and
    after months of a fairly common relationship, she went to a party one night. It was not the first time she went and did something with friends and I had absolutely no reason to suspect anything out of the ordinary. And I didn't "suspect" as much as I KNEW something terrible was happening.
    I suddenly went crazy in my own apartment. Like a high powered anxiety attack when absolutely nothing else in my life could have brought it on. I knew it was over before I even saw her again. She did everything she could to hide it for weeks as our relationship deteriorated. I finally found out that she had slept with someone that SAME night I was freaking out on the other side of town; While I had never actually suspected infidelity... just nondescript "loss."

    Seeing the above comments, many of you will easily dismiss this story, which is understandable, because I will never effectively describe the emotions I felt. All I can say is they were wildly out of place and as vivid as if I was witnessing the act myself.

  10. I grew up with the utterly clear dreams - true reflections of our waking world, with events minor and otherwise I did not know of, these dreams would repeat themselves sometimes daily for years. All have come true some within days some within years. As a child it terrified me to no end yet I told no one for many years. We are I have come to believe part and parcel of a much larger fabric more varied and wide than we have yet dreamed. It is one of the few beliefs I believe that has helped kept me sane in this modern world.

  11. I'm going to keep this in the air, as part of whether or not there is a 6th sense. We need mysteries as a whole because without them, life would be pretty dull.

    I guess that's why I like reading these kinds of things.

  12. I was driving in the UK between Birmingham and London when I clearly heard my Father shouting for help. I was so freaked out that I turned off at the next exit and headed home.
    Dad was fine, and had been sitting quietly at home reading all morning.'

    Spooky, or what ?

  13. Swedenborg probably hired someone to set a fire on that night.

    My favorite unexplained phenomenon is gravity. Seriously. We've lived in its presence for the entirety on humanity, and we've come up with equations to describe its effects, but we still lack a concrete understanding of what actually makes 2 separate objects pull on each other from a distance. It seems mundane because we're so accustomed to it, but it's an unexplained phenomenon of force-at-a-distance that is every bit as strange as a wizard levitating objects with a wand.

  14. What's so mysterious about gravity? Objects are attracted to one another because they are following the shortest path in spacetime, which is curved by mass.

    You might be helped by this wikipedia link, in particular: "In general relativity, gravity is not a force but is instead a curved spacetime geometry where the source of curvature is the stress-energy tensor (representing matter, for instance)."

    There are certainly mysteries in physics, but throwing up your hands and saying "F---in' Gravity -- how does it work?" isn't the way to go about finding them...

    To the original post, it is certainly a fascinating account due to the number of witnesses, but I'm with le_sacre, Sherlock, and William of Occam: there are too many mundane possibilities to accept something which would require so many unbelievable things to be true.


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