Originally posted to 13.7 Cosmos & Culture on 1/25/2016


Nearly everyone has had weird experiences, things that happen in life that seem to defy any sort of rational explanation.

It could be strange sightings, events that apparently challenge the laws of nature, that evoke the supernatural, or feelings of being possessed by some kind of universal awe, that elicit a connectedness with something grander, timeless.

What are these events — and what are they trying to tell us, if anything?

For a rationalist, the usual response is one of dismissal, based on the law of large numbers: When there are billions of people experiencing billions of different events every day, chances are that some will encounter events that are so rare that they are deemed, on the surface, as unexplainable. Tanya Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford and an expert on what could be called the experience of the sacred, has written extensively on the subject in The New York Times as an op-ed contributor, in books for the general public, and in more academic settings. When she was a graduate student in England, she had one such experience that left her wondering. She was on a train, going to interview with a group of people that practiced a form of powerful magic, when she felt strange:

"I was reading a book by a man they called an 'adept' — someone they regarded as deeply knowledgeable and powerful... And as I strained to imagine what the author thought it would be like to be that vehicle, I began to feel power in my veins — to really feel it, not to imagine it. I grew hot. I became completely alert, more awake than I usually am, and I felt so alive. It seemed that power coursed through me like water through a chute. I wanted to sing. And then wisps of smoke came out of my backpack, in which I had tossed my bicycle lights. One of them was melting."

She writes of the experience:

"I walked off that train with a new respect for why people believed in magic, not a new understanding of reality. Sometimes people have remarkable experiences, and then tuck them away as events they can't explain."

Luhrmann mentions how Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and a notable rationalist, had one such experience that defied any sense of logic and left him stunned. I know Michael and can attest to his rock-solid convictions. A few weeks before his wedding, his German bride-to-be shipped many of her belongings to their home in California. Among them was an old radio that belonged to her dear grandfather, the closest father figure she had growing up. The transistor radio had been broken for years and Shermer's attempts to fix it failed. They tucked it into a drawer in their bedroom and forgot about it. On their wedding day, they were surprised to hear music coming from upstairs. After searching for possible sources, they were amazed to see that it was the transistor radio, as if it had come back to life on its own. "My grandfather is here with us," Shermer's wife Jennifer said, tearfully. "I'm not alone." The radio stopped playing the next day, as mysteriously as it had started.

I also have had one such experience (actually more than one), that I relate in detail in my recent book The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected, under the chapter heading "The Witch of Copacabana." Here is a brief summary:

When I was growing up in Rio, my parents loved hosting dinner parties. My father, a dentist, had welcomed to his practice many of the Portuguese immigrants that flooded Brazil after the Carnation Revolution of 1974. One day, he invited the former Minister of Justice (a sort of attorney general) and other friends to dinner. He offered the minister a whisky. After taking a sip, the minister gave my father a perplexed look. "Izaac, this is tea, not whisky." My father's mouth dropped. He ran to the closet where he stored his liquor and confirmed that the open whisky bottle had been filled with tea. The same with every open bottle with amber-colored liquid. My father ran to the kitchen to find our cook Maria, a small black lady in her 50s with pitch-dark beady eyes. We knew she was a high priestess of the Macumba, a widespread religious practice mixing elements of African black magic and fetishism with Catholicism. Maria confessed immediately, as if what she had done had been obvious. My father was furious, and fired her on the spot. Maria looked him in the eye and cursed the house: "Something bad will happen to this house." I was horrified. Maria tried to comfort me. "Don't worry, boy, you have 'corpo fechado' (closed body), and nothing will harm you."

My father, a superstitious man, took his precautions, filling his pockets with garlic and the house with branches of rue, a plant that many in Brazil believe is a sort of chlorophyllous evil barometer that shrivels when harm is near. A month passed and nothing happened. We went back to our routines and hired a new cook. One day, as I was studying for an exam, I felt a compulsion to go to the dining room. Our rococo-style dining table was flanked on both ends by furniture containing fine crystal. Behind my father's seat at the head of the table was a closet with glass doors and three glass shelves, where my parents stored beautiful wineglasses made of Bohemian crystal. At the opposite end of the table was a brass beverage trolley, with a top glass shelf covered with crystal bottles filled with port, sherry and liqueurs of all colors, each labeled with a small silver necklace.

I was standing by the dining table in a strange sort of daze when something, maybe a subtle noise, made me turn toward the closet. At that very moment, the top shelf broke in half, and all the heavy glasses came crashing down onto the second shelf, which in turn collapsed onto the first shelf in a horrifying waterfall of shattering crystal. Dozens of priceless antique glasses were instantly destroyed. I hardly had time to blink, when another cracking noise made me turn toward the trolley at the other end of the table. In a flash, the top shelf collapsed, taking all the crystal bottles to the floor with it. The noise was deafening. Shards of glass flew everywhere. I was paralyzed. The new cook came running from the kitchen and crossed herself. She packed her things and vanished that same night, never to be seen again.

Shaking uncontrollably, I phoned my father at his office. "It's the curse, dad. She did it! Everything crashed, right in front of me. The closet and the trolley, practically at the same time!"

I spent a long time trying to come up with a reasonable explanation: a supersonic boom; an earthquake; maybe I was in a hypnotic trance and did it myself. Nothing added up though. To have both events in almost synchrony was deeply perplexing. And it involved drinking, as it should. This is a mysterious event that remains unexplained.

People react differently when faced with such situations. Some feel it as convincing evidence of the supernatural and embrace a religion (a conversion event) or a mystical practice. Others, perhaps in fear for what such event may represent to their worldview, vigorously push it aside as an odd coincidence. Or they honestly think of such stories as some of life's bizarre twists, without any opening to otherworldly dimensions.

In my case, I remain agnostic. Being a scientist, I'm well-aware that nature tends to follow precise rules, some of which we have managed to understand and to describe. However, I'm also well-aware of our limitations, of the fact that we are surrounded by mystery and by what we don't understand.

Science's purpose is to crack open some of these mysteries, and it does so magnificently. But science can't crack them all. And that's okay. A bit of the unexplained is good, as it keeps us a little unsettled. We must keep an open mind as we peel layer after layer of reality, prepared to be surprised at every step — and humbled by what we can't know.