Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
The Impact of Science
A Late Disciple of Lucretius
Colin Bennett on the eternally surprising Charles Fort.
The Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus (c.99-55BC) was among the founders of modern scientific methodology. It may therefore to appear odd to name Charles Fort (1874-1932) as a disciple of Lucretius because Fort dedicated his entire life to opposing the scientific method. But like Lucretius, Fort pointed out the frequently underrated and misunderstood role of the imagination in the production of almost all major systems of philosophy. The overlap between the systems of thinking of Fort and Lucretius might be illustrated by two quotations. In his De Rerum Natura (‘On the Nature of Things’) Lucretius describes the appearance of ‘new truth’:
No fact is so obvious that it does not at first produce wonder,
Nor so wonderful that it does not eventually yield to belief.
And here from Charles Fort’s Book of the Damned is a similar thought: “I conceive of nothing, in religion, science, or philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while.” In other words, the truth is always a kind of unstable locus between transient systems of complex cultural advertisements. In this sense, both Lucretius and Fort were rather ‘postmodern’, seeing science as a culture – and the one thing science hates most of all is being seen as a culture amongst cultures. With the last bits of 19th century science broken down as scrap and heading for the cultural disposal furnace, and scientists talking about time machines, aliens, teleportation and anti-gravity, we surely understand what both Fort and Lucretius meant by belief being the ‘proper thing to wear’ for a time. To accuse scientists of having the instinct of advertisers and salesmen means of course a ferocious counterattack. Lucretius committed suicide in 55BC after having his books called “insane”, and Fort died in 1932 thinking himself a failed writer.
When Fort died, he left behind countless shoe-boxes full of over 40,000 notes of accounts of utterly fantastic events, culled from scientific journals, scholarly publications and newspapers. The many anomalies which he found formed the substance of four books, which depicted a disturbing vision of ‘reality’ as being far less stable than was ever thought. For over twenty years he collected observations of torpedo and disc-shaped smoke-trailing objects in the skies throughout the 19th century, and of strange cattle-injuries which looked more like extracted bio-samples than sadistic viciousness. As well as his renowned records of countless inexplicable rains of fish, blood and frogs (which continue still), he compiled accounts of unidentified flying objects, mass panics, sightings of strange animals, winged beings, unaccountable explosions, and mysterious appearances and disappearances. He also dug out stories of both worms and stones falling from the skies of the world, together with sulphur, salt, coke, ashes, charcoal, various species of grain, combustible resinous substances and much material which quite defied analysis.
According to Fort, science blatantly ignored such deviant events out of a tragic need to over-simplify. He accused science of being rather like a “watchman looking at half a dozen lanterns where a street’s been torn up.” This watchman, because of his chosen role and his closely-defined system of reference, does not see: “gas lights and kerosene lamps and electric lights in the neighbourhood: matches flaring, fires in stores, bonfires, house afire somewhere; lights of automobiles, illuminated signs.”
In his never-ending researches, Fort discovered reports of falls all over the world of resin, amber, India-rubber, various waxes and oils, butter, grease, woolly substances; material loosely identified in reports as nitric acid, turpentine, carbonate of soda; all appear to have fallen from the sky at various times, and some from quite fixed points in space. It was almost as if the very heart of the 19th century trade routes descended from the heavens on occasion, for no reason, and from nowhere in particular. And in considerable quantities: tons of dead fish, millions of crabs, eels, shellfish, minnows, all fell, as if “the bottom of a super-geographical pond had dropped out.” In most cases, he was able to record the expert scientific reactions to such events, and found there, in the face of this wonderfully unpredictable and theatrical display of amazing impossibilities, a mundane and singular note which combined laughter, ridicule and denial. To account for the scientists’ dismissive reaction to these anomalies, he formed the idea of paradigm shifts (which he called ‘era intelligence’), some forty years before Thomas Kuhn expressed similar ideas in his influential work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Now, seventy years after his death, Fort is just beginning to be acknowledged as an important influence on media theory, the study of anomalistics, and the sociology of information transfer, not to mention the implicit politics of these areas, a theme well expressed by his comment: “If a monster from somewhere else should arrive upon the land of this earth, and perhaps being out of adaptation, should die upon land, it would not be seen.” Such, in Fort’s view, is the way the ‘jealous god’ of ‘materialistic science’ guards its view of things.
Just one of Fort’s achievements was that he culled enough material to rejuvenate totally the concept of ‘mystery.’ In the course of the 19th century, this word had gradually fallen from being associated with religious and spiritual truths to describing the unravelling of detective-tales, the solving of elaborate mechanical puzzles, and in the hands of the great Holmes of Baker Street, finally coming to mean something which, no matter how complicated, could be ‘solved’ properly, therefore explained, and put into a closed system of reference, rather like a newly-conquered country. This was the classical 19th century deterministic position, and Charles Fort was to challenge this view, almost exactly at the same time as Niels Bohr and others were doing likewise in particle physics. But whilst quantum theory relates to the microcosmic world, in that we still use Newton’s laws to build bridges over rivers, Fort’s view relates to the macrocosmic in that he found endless anomalistic contradictions, not in the abstractions of electricity and magnetism, time and space, but in everyday experience. Fort’s celebrated ‘mysteries’ emerge not from the inaccessible interiors of the atomic nucleus, the remoteness of interstellar space, or abstruse mathematics which few understand, but in the full light of noon on a thronged high street, from crowded rooms, from reports of ship’s captains, baffled farmers, puzzled housewives, and scared families; he shows policemen and citizens often reduced to baffled and rather frightened silence, theologians offering instant interpretations, and scientists offering celebrated Heath-Robinson explanations, these being often great creaking intellectual contraptions, frequently far more fantastic than the things they would have explained: “the methods of science in maintaining its system are as outrageous as the attempts of the damned to break in.”
“…the notion of things dropping in upon this earth, from externality, is as unsettling and as unwelcome to science as – tin horns blowing in upon a musician’s relatively symmetric composition – flies alighting upon a painter’s attempted harmony, and tracking colours into one another – suffragists getting up and making a political speech at a prayer meeting.”
De Quincy noted that the word ‘objective’ was “almost unintelligible in 1821,” but the modern tendency is to assume that through ‘objective’ thinking, it might be possible to separate completely Fact from Fiction. Charles Fort simply did not believe that such a thing was possible. For him, all thinking is mythological, inescapably built of fantasystructures of varying degrees of ‘solidity’. In this worldmodel, a picture of Atlas bearing the globe of the Earth on his shoulders is as true a picture of ‘causation’ as any creaking and anomaly-strewn apparatus of gravity mixed with electromagnetics, mixed with orbit wobbles, mixed with quantum jumps and gravity waves. His outrageous sense of humour might well have had him saying that the Atlas cosmos was also a damned sight more interesting, had glamour, mystery, and elegance, and certainly far greater class than any Gravity Wave, or Big Bang. In this, he parodied science as Villon and Rabelais parodied medieval Latinism, and Chaucer parodied the fat monks of his day.
By relating the many falls of strange material to the differing spectrum of human reaction to them, he found that the degree of ‘exclusivity’ (by that he meant the degree to which the significance of the strange is ‘vanished’ or ‘managed’ or ‘controlled’ in the more modern socialpsychological sense), varied directly according to the power of any vested interest of the observing group; he sees ‘wonder’ itself become, therefore, a managed ‘commodity,’ as much as any other ‘consumer’ supply. In this he shows that his ideas were very near to those about our own consumer/entertainment society, shows how all our thinking is pregnant with ‘advertising’ of myriad forms, all advertising of course being essentially mythological in substance and form:
“The fall of sulphur from the sky has been especially repulsive to the modern orthodoxy – largely because of its associations with the superstitions or principles of the preceding orthodoxy – stories of devils: sulphurous exhalations. The power of the exclusionists lies in that in their stand are combined both modern and archaic systematists. Falls of sandstone and limestone are repulsive to both theologians and scientists. Sandstone and limestone suggest other worlds upon which occur processes like geological processes; but limestone, as a fossiliferous substance, is of course, especially of the unchosen.”
Thus in a Fortean world ‘objectivity’ is revealed as the myth of intellectuality itself, producing its own highly specialised fables, which become cell-like, worker-bee warriors in an imagination war. That we project ourselves into our knowledge systems, which in turn become mirrors of our ever evolving selves, shows that Fort saw well before Barthes, ‘certainties,’ ‘accuracies,’ ‘facts,’ and ‘rational truths,’ as being projections of modern, updated mythologies. If we see this now, at the time Fort was writing, there was little or no thinking about science being as metaphysical-mythological as any other system of philosophical organisation. But science in Fort’s time, as now, had one characteristic quite differentiating it from all other human activity: least of all does it brook any kind of resisting counter culture. Seeing purely intellectual constructions as highly wrought consumer products in the early part of the century was very much in advance of its time, and it also made sure that Fort in his own lifetime, was what he called himself – a “rejected writer.” This was a great loss, since, certainly, he was the first to predict such conclusions as the following, made by the Head of Research at BT Laboratories, Dr Peter Cochrane. Though this was made in the context of AI, it is relevant to Fort, in that it shows the gradual emergence of a modern view of mind which is anything but Aristotelian:
“True machine intelligence is most likely to emerge from noisy and highly non-linear entities rather than today’s deterministic systems. The very essence of biological minds is their variability, uncertainty, fuzzy processing and memory decay with time. In short, we are much more random than we first appear.” (Daily Telegraph ‘Connected’ magazine 1996)
One of the many examples Fort gives in support of his idea of ‘era intelligence’ is the optical astronomy of the 19th century. He was of the opinion that optical astronomy died in the late 19th century because these ‘scientists’ really belonged to the sepia images of Lytton Strachey, rather than the ‘new men’ with very different accents and life styles who studied grease-smeared diagrams of wellthumbed parts manuals. In Fort’s view, if there is a new style in town, it will beat ‘fact’ hands down in any Darwinian competition; not that ‘fact’ will be dead; it will merely transform itself, hop to another branch, change its plumage, and even ask glamour for aid. In this sense, the Fortean view of 19th century optical astronomy is not that what it ‘revealed’ about nature was true or false, good, bad or even indifferent, but that it became like all ‘objective’ systems, a kind of intellectual rhino-horn: almost completely redundant, certainly beautiful and awe-inspiring, but a loser in that ideological gameevolution in which control of the imagination is social and political control.
Fort points out frequently that the 20th Century in particular always had a problem with imagination. This mysterious human faculty somehow refuses to be safely corralled, distanced, conveniently half-castrated and hung on a wall as a set of pretty colours. As if in fear of the mysterious and little understood forces of imagination, all societies in their own way practice different kinds of fantasylimitation in order to try and maintain socio-psychological stability. In Fort’s view, these limiting controls frequently take the form of explanations, these being in our own time increasingly ‘scientific’ in nature. Such explanations form those great institutionalised systems of belief by means of which we control our causal relations, evaluate our moral lives and define our separate philosophies. We tend to equate these systems with a kind of solidity, some permanent worth, and we like to think that they enshrine some objective ‘factual’ truths about ourselves and our lives.
But in a Fortean world, ‘facts’ hardly exist. Fort replaces all facts with a sliding scale of strong fictions and weak fictions. The differentiating between fact and fiction in the libraries and reference rooms in which he practically lived annoyed him, and in Wild Talents he refers to “the yarns of Dickens and Euclid.” Instead of ‘facts’ as structural elements of consciousness, he prefers what might be termed a scale of experience along which an almost convincing permanence and ‘solidity’ varies according to the character of cultural change and the growth and decay of group interests, feelings, and relations. Within the terms of this scale, the simple question of the ‘real’ versus the ‘unreal’ pales before the much more vital question of exhaustion within a kind of economy of belief. Such belief, in Fortean terms, has to be sustained continuously in order for it to be and remain valid belief at all. This can only be achieved by practising a skillful game of not seeing as well as seeing. Historically, the energies and resources for such profound ‘solidities’ as 19th century optical astronomy, become shot through with anomalies; the stage fronts wear thin, and optical astronomy in turn joins the fascinating architectonics of the dead matter of Ptolemaic machinery, mediaeval heavens and hells, or the inadequacies of prequantum physics, before the next season of cultural games begins. Thus his card indexes, his ‘imps in boxes’, represented to Fort much more than a mere catalogue of things science laughed at and rejected out of hand. These things were not ‘untrue,’ ‘unreal,’ so much as they were (and still are), parts of rejected design solutions, half-realised, undernourished systems-doodles, like the UFO, or even the ghost figure with its head under its arm. Moreover, these bits and pieces of half-forms, of mental driftwood, have a dynamic relationship with the development of ideological systems. Putting together various and often hilarious, professorial encounters with strange substances (especially mushroomlike growths), Fort depicts scenes in which it looks as if the substances are finding the professors, and not vice versa. Like the UFO, the substances seem to change their form in a kind of guessing game, particularly with the astute academic mind, which demands categorisations, definitions, and what it calls ‘concrete evidence,’ although when given such, Fort shows it being frequently denied as such in order to fit preset criteria.
To him, these endlessly generated bastardised spirals of ill conceived, half-digested and wasteful almost-stories were more accurate as maps of live, active, and endlessly creating consciousness than the over-simplified models of scientific inputs and outputs. They represented a ‘reality’ which is not objective in that they involve the mind constantly losing, yet constantly rediscovering, often painfully, a vital dialogue with nature, through a relationship which involves play, evasion, active deception, mimicking, acting, and trying things out.
As far as Fort is concerned, that unstable relationship is the really binding ‘mystery’ behind these ever-changing ‘mysteries’, before which science almost squirms with panic and embarrassment, desperately trying to snap-shot the process for just one fleeting out-of-focus picture. From the Fortean point of view, such a camera (being one of those ‘clocks’ and ‘measuring-rods’ Einstein used demonstratively in his arguments to give Eddington’s idea of ‘pointer readings’ as descriptions of experience) itself consists equally of waste, fantasy, dead ends, decayed illusory certainties, tempting accuracies, structures from other lives, half-glimpses of future almost-lives, as both consciousness, experience, technological product, and measuring systems themselves move sideways, backwards, and up and down at the same time. The camera itself is hence deep historical background in which ‘fact’ and ‘fiction,’ technology, action and intent, merge into complete symbiosis in Fort’s view of mind. This mind-stuff Fort pictures as rather like “A super-sea of Sargasso,” being full of “derelicts, rubbish, old cargoes from inter-planetary wrecks,” and “things from the time of the Alexanders, Caesars, and Napoleons of Mars, or Jupiter, or Neptune.” To point out that such a level of highly wrought imaginative complexity may work with inefficiency, a certain level of anarchy, positively evil motivations, and even downright charlatanism, to often play a part in deciding what is ‘real,’ was to strike a blow against the materialistic science of Fort’s day in its grossly over-simplified view of human mentality. That what we so glibly call ‘the higher reasoning’ may have to work its way through “Things raised by this Earth’s cyclones: horses and barns and elephants and flies, and dodos, pterodactyls and moas; leaves from modern trees and leaves from the carboniferous era, accumulations of centuries, cyclones of Egypt, Greece, and Assyria,” and may have to use these things somehow as vital elements of complex reasoning, can at the moment be hardly considered by AI programmers, because at the present time, it is impossible to create even fuzzy, or neural paradigms for such disparate levels of mental entropy.
In any case, there would be no prizes for the programmer who created something which wastes as much time and plays as many doubtful tricks as does the human brain and the changing levels of its never ending story-machine, both conscious and unconscious. Were AI ever to approach even a reasonable approximation to human intelligence, the industrialists who inevitably finance such projects would be very disappointed. In Fortean terms, such a level of AI would want to play, take time off, smash things, tell tall stories, indulge in libellous prattle, fail completely, or say to itself, as Oscar Wilde said, that “nothing is of the slightest importance.” Far worse than all of these things put together, such a mind might even withdraw its labour indefinitely. As human intelligence approaches anything like an approximation to ‘reality’ (and to Fort ‘reality’ was always an approximation) it approached trouble: “Every science is a mutilated octopus. If its tentacles were not clipped to stumps, it would feel its way into disturbing contacts.”
Such a world model which recognises only degrees of tragicomic fictions rather than ‘objectivities’ is disturbing to most folks of sober mien and rational disposition. Both science and philosophy sometimes reflect that human view which would valiantly wish nature into being a completely serious, coherent, well-directed, fair-playing entity with a clearly definable direction and purpose, both moral and practical. The idea of play and even active deception as being essential components in the relationship between mind and nature is still more or less ruled out as being philosophically absurd. Rational methodologies, being essentially locked into paradigms of work, worth and conscious studied application, have difficulty in analysing the psychological function of a complete waste of time, and as yet (with possibly the exception of Henri Bergson’s essay Le Rire, and some rather loose and hesitant chapters of Koestler), there is no psychology of laughter, nor a psychology which sees deviance and fantasy as being anything but positively pathological. In this, it seems that wonder, play, and laughter are always political dynamite in that not only are they inaccessible to science, they signify freedom, whereas the serious and the mundane offer only psychological enslavement in terms of mass guilt. In Samuel Beckett’s play, Endgame, a character describes visiting a friend in a mental home. He takes his friend to a window and shows him the herring fleet coming in from the sea at sunset. The patient then turns from the window. All he had seen were ashes. In a sense both Beckett and Fort here are talking about guilt so deep that even if their particular versions of Plato’s cave-walls were to melt away, they see humanity as re-inventing them as controls, rather than truths.
Fort regarded science as a kind of emerging dialectical Newspeak of his time. He wanted to stand up to its dogmatic Puritanism, which even before the Great War was emerging as a kind of brainwashing intellectual totalitarianism, with the ‘scientifically correct’ explanation automatically identified as the politically correct explanation. Fort regarded such things as the modern equivalent of the forced religious ‘confessions’ of the past, but he also took good care to temper his own antiscientific anti-Puritanism with good humour:
“If a red-hot stove should drop from a cloud into Broadway, someone would find that at the time of the occurrence, a moving van had passed, and that the moving men had tired of the stove, or something – that it had not been really red-hot, but had been rouged instead of blacked, by some absent-minded housekeeper. Compared with some of the scientific explanations that we have encountered, there’s considerable restraint, I think, in that one.”
Lucretius would have loved him.
© Colin Bennett 2002
Colin Bennett has written a book on Charles Fort called Politics of the Imagination, published by Head Press, Manchester.
• Charles Fort’s The Book of the Damned, Wild Talents, New Lands and Lo! have all been recently republished by John Brown, publishers of Fortean Studies and Fortean Times.