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.

3 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!

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