How does science explain a numinous presence?


The film, “Rosewater,” is based on the memoir of Iranian-born journalist Maziar Bahari, who was held in solitary confinement for almost four months following the controversial 2009 elections. I haven’t read his book, but was intrigued that he was visited in his cell by his dead father (who had also been jailed for his politics, under the Shah), as well as his late sister Maryam, who was jailed under the revolutionary government in the 1980s.

Such a presence is not so uncommon, given the right circumstances. It appears when someone is in an extreme or unusual environment, such as mountaineering, shipwreck, natural disaster, mine accident, terrorist attack, space exploration, or the extreme isolation and loneliness experienced in solitary confinement. Sensory deprivation and profound boredom, as experienced by scientists at the South Pole, can also trigger the third man. Widows and widowers can sense the presence of their late spouse and even carry on conversations.

The timing of “Rosewater” is perfect, because I just finished reading John Geiger’s 2009 book, “The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible,” which is full of great stories and partial explanations running the range of mystical to psychological to biochemical. The phenomenon is named after explorer Ernest Shackleton’s account of his experience when trekking with a companion in Antarctica under dire circumstances. Comparing notes later, they both had experienced a shadowy presence following them through the worst part of their journey.

It’s fascinating that the appearance of the third man — who is always benevolent and encouraging, sometimes even giving detailed survival instructions to the person — is not an indicator that the person is cracking up; quite the contrary. It’s a sign of a healthy psyche, albeit one attached to a person in a life-threatening situation. It’s also a beautiful reminder that the world is full of mystery and wonder.

The theories and explanations that people put forth tend to align with their worldview at the time of their experience. Guardian angels and divine saviors of earlier times have given way in these days to psychological coping mechanisms, electromagnetic waves, and other organic, brain-centered causes. Now that neuroscience is making such strides, researchers can stimulate a part of the brain with electrodes and produce the third man right there in the lab.

What a letdown. So it’s down to brain chemistry, electromagnetics and psychological susceptibility after all. How dull. Thanks a lot, science.

Luckily, these explanations don’t entirely destroy the numinous qualities of the third man. There are questions still unanswered, such as why is “the presence” beneficent and helpful, when other sorts of hallucinations are destructive? Why do some people see and experience the third man and not others? And how to account for the third man in the presence of multiple people, as with Shackleton and his companion?

The question in my mind is this: why does science insist on explaining everything, every phenomenon, as a physical, biochemical process, in the organic body of humans? As though our brain is a movie projector, creating the world that we see and experience. The story seems to be that there is no other agency but ours. Everything out there is filtered through our brain. Really? There has to be more to it than that.

There’s an interesting parallel between the explorers in Antarctica, the mountaineers, the solo sailors, all driven by the same sense of adventure and curiosity as neuroscientists who study the phenomenon in the lab. We are driven to know this world, inside and out, even if that means torturing her secrets out of her.

Geiger concludes his book with the observation that having a biological explanation does not preclude a metaphysical one. Answering the question, “how?” does not explain “why?” The third man experience may point to a capacity within all of us to tap into a collective unconscious for guidance when needed. This capacity lies mostly dormant, emerging in modern people only when in life-threatening circumstances. I will explore this capacity in future posts.

“The Third Man is an instrument of hope, a hope achieved by a recognition that is fundamental to human nature. The belief – the understanding – that we are not alone.” ~ John Geiger, from “The Third Man Factor”

It’s clear that science has taught us much and is our uniquely human way of exploring questions and extending our curiosity into the world around us. I just wonder whether a sense of awe and reverence wouldn’t be out of place. I’m sure many scientists have that already.

In our haste to know things definitively, we mistake knowledge for possession. Control diminishes our capacity for wonder. Dry facts replace the poetics of mystery. This does not seem to be doing us much good.

I wonder if part of our task going forward to a more balanced way of living in this world, to taking our place as one in a community of Life, is to learn some restraint and humility. There are some things so vast and precious, so mysterious, that we overstep into sacred territory, beyond our understanding, when we try to measure and know and control it all.

My own anthropocentric bias shows here. Nature can protect herself, right? If, indeed, she even needs protection from the likes of our science and us. We haven’t the capacity to imagine the sheer numbers of phenomena that we cannot know — now or fifty years from now — with our science.

5 thoughts on “How does science explain a numinous presence?

  1. Pingback: Opening the door to ancestors and guides, humble and extreme | Thriving on the Threshold

  2. Thanks for stopping by and for your comment. I took a stroll through your blog – fascinating stuff. I always enjoy finding people who are on the same wavelength. Keep writing!

  3. I realise this is an old article, however I wanted to add a point which I haven’t seen put forward yet however I am sure others have thoroughly thought this out too.

    An explanation to what the third man is. Not in scientific terms but within the terms of logic, is that the Third Man is one’s own soul.

    This explains why some people see the presence and others do not, it also explains Shackleton’s experience. All three of those men were in the exact same mental and physical state in their trip over the mountains. They all reported that there was a fourth man with them, most people assume that this “third man” was the same “third man” for the whole party.

    In the case of a cave diver who lost the guide rope, this also holds firm, her soul had left her body for the period of mortal fear. The feeling she described is similar to meditation terms a sense of warmth and love. Seems to be a similar description to how experienced monks describe advanced states of meditation. It is not to say that it isn’t much much more profoundly powerful.

    The points which doctors and psychologists bring to describe this, do not fully explain it, but they do explain that people will explain the presence with whatever person or being they believe would give them an unwavering deep sense of love and calmness which they describe. Very few people (including Harry Potter himself) would assume that it is in fact themselves leading themselves on. Who else loves you more than you love yourself? Religious people may question this, but for all these people the genuine fear of death and the loss of one’s self at the extreme end of survival proves the fact.

    One’s own soul does not have physical limitations and so it makes sense that one’s own soul would be leading one on rather than following as they always seem to be. There must surely be a duty of one’s own soul to save one’s body if it is possible. In the case of being rescued and the presence leaving, it makes complete sense that it is one’s own soul. In the case of the realisation of rescue, one’s own soul would return to one’s self and your full compliment of faculties would return.

    The explanation as to why in some situations all people do not report the sensation while other people do, could be because of variation in the registration our threat to life indicators in the brains of different people (neuroscience will have words for that). This would explain why it is unlikely to get a whole bus load of people reporting the experience (though it’s possible if they are kept at the life threatening level for a sustained period of time but I doubt anyone would genuinely wish for that) it is however much more likely that if a large group experienced it over a short period of time, nobody survived and therefore nobody told the story.

    From a logical perspective I cannot see a better answer than this, it’s pretty well established that a “soul” exists, since every language has a word for it and we don’t often make up words for stuff that we have no knowledge of. This doesn’t explain that we know what it is, but it does please both scientific proponents and religious views. Science in the respect that science cannot explain it at this point in time, but it does not mean that one day it may be able to explain it, and religion in the respect that if we have a soul, where did the soul come from?

    It is interesting to think that the accounts of the “third man” which we have are in fact only the people who survived. There must be many more “third man” experiences that we will never know about.

    • Thank you for this fascinating rumination on the “third man.” For some reason, I’m just now seeing it. (I guess my soul decided it was time!)

Leave a Reply