The Skeptic

You see something that you cannot explain, yet you are too eager to grasp the quickest explanation that you can...

Three days after my arrival in Zurich, the concierge of my hotel told me of a philosophical debate that was to be held in the hotel's convention hall the following evening, and that the speakers would be debating in English. The debate concerned the nature of belief and the unexplained - a rather vague description, no doubt designed to generate curiosity. I had more than enough time to do all that I wished to do in Zurich, so I decided to watch.

The event was well attended. Many of them seemed a little odd - perhaps unsurprising given the nature of the topic. Three men were sitting on the dais, preparing themselves for the exchange to come. The moderator of the debate was an entirely unremarkable person, but the two opponents were a particularly curious sight. Doctor Cornelius Philpot, a professor of parapsychology and lay preacher, was rather short, extremely rotund, and sported grey side whiskers that reached out from each side of his face like the wings of a flustered bird. As he spoke, the fingers of his hands were constantly pointing at each other, and trembling in response to his words. His eyes were spread far apart, and seemed to roll about independently - if he had a glass eye, it was impossible to tell which one, and I was glad I didn't have to talk to him face to face. From time to time he would startle those sitting in the front row by suddenly surrendering to a series of sneezes that sounded like pistol shots. Then he would produce a large paisley kerchief, grandly apply it to his face, stuff it back in his pocket, blink and look about to reclaim his composure.

His opponent was thin, well over six feet, and dressed in a black suit with an old-fashioned but well tailored black frock coat. His head was completely shaven, but he had patterned scars on his cheeks in the fashion of a Soudanese tribesman - I spied a top hat resting on the chair beside the lectern, and tried to imagine how bizarre it must look when he had it on his head. He fastened his collar with some type of silver brooch, and wore small, green tinted steel-rimmed spectacles. He had an ebony walking-cane with which he would occasionally strike the floor to emphasize a point, and it was mounted at the top with some elaborate device which I could not make out from where I was sitting. He seemed to take no interest in asserting his educational qualifications, if he had any, and was introduced simply as Antoine de Loupe.

The two men shook hands, both wearing patronising, indulgent smiles. Then in a strong, extravagant manner, the moderator announced,

"Ladies and gentlemen, the motion that we are to debate this evening is that... There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in the philosophy of the unimaginative man!"

He briefly specified the rules, then bowed, and surrendered the floor to Doctor Philpot.

"Ladies and gentlemen," drawled the doctor, "I see before me a gathering of intelligent minds, civilised citizens of the most discerning and modern kind, and I feel confident that you will agree with the motion. Let me begin by telling you a story, my friends, relating to a legend you are no doubt familiar with, that of the ghost ship, The Flying Dutchman. Three years ago, I took passage from Southampton to Brest on a small steamer. Half way across the channel, we encountered a strange yellow cloud, which soon enveloped our ship. The air was balmy and still, so we wandered the deck to marvel at the yellow fog. Then, off the starboard bow, WE SAW IT! A large, red sailing ship, whose masts had been torn down, floating high on the yellow cloud, not three miles distant. We called to the first mate, who took his binoculars to look over the vessel. I saw his face go pale as he spotted men moving back and forth along the deck, waving madly in our direction, beseeching us to rescue them, but he did nothing more than watch. The ship sailed slowly on a parallel course to us, but then suddenly turned upside down! It continued for perhaps half an hour, and then it righted itself, and slowly sailed over the yellow horizon. The crew said nothing for the remainder of our voyage, and I, too, prayed until we made Brest. But, I was there! I wasn't told about it by somebody else! No indeed! Now, my friends, it is all too easy for a tale to grow in the telling, and so lose credibility. We all know this, and so if a story has some spectral nature to it to begin with, it is even more likely to be disbelieved. Let me tell you of two friends of mine who once stayed in an inn near the Cornish coast. It had been blowing strong winds most of the night, but just as the day was dawning, the wind died away. It was then that they heard the proclamation of Satan, outside their window. Yes, my friends, the Devil himself. I know these men, I have known them my whole life - they are brave and truthful, yet their faith was always weak. But the Devil called to them, and now they know!"

The doctor continued in a similar manner, relating anecdotes of the supernatural with increasingly dubious provenance and credibility. It seemed he had knowledge of a vast number and variety of these stories, which obviously demonstrated a voracious enthusiasm in accumulating them. But the accounts were characterised almost entirely of description, with very little time given to analysis or compelling argument against the possibility of rational explanation. Then the doctor's time elapsed, and it was the turn of de Loupe. He quickly leapt up and strode over to the lectern like a giraffe.

"Aah, Cornelius... thank you so much for your ambitious words. But I feel strongly that I must oppose the motion upon which you have expounded, because, ladies and gentlemen, I want to live in a world that is free of superstition. Because that is what you are talking about, Cornelius. Superstition, belief in causation beyond the laws of nature. You see something that you cannot explain, yet you are too eager to grasp the quickest explanation that you can, which makes no recourse to the scientific method. Now, I would never presume to deny that there are things that cannot be easily explained. But can we not just admit that these things simply aren't explicable in terms we understand in the here and now, without then concluding that these things are caused by ghosts, or bogey men, or necromancers, or any number of horrific monsters wrought from the uncontrolled and base fears of a non-thinking mind? Are not men too ready to look for the outré, when a common sense examination carried out in good faith will so often explain the riddle? And if no natural explanation can be found, why then of necessity is a supernatural one made to fill the gap? I for one have always found that I am more likely to trust and respect the man who is prepared to say that he doesn't have all the answers. Now, imagination is surely a wonderful thing. The motion paraphrases Shakespeare, who was blessed with so much imagination that he gave us some of the greatest literature we have. But imagination should not be used to explain the world. Imagination is the source of art, science is the describer of reality. Let me take the first example of which you spoke, which it turns out, is a very unfortunate one for your argument. There is a phenomenon that is well known in scientific circles, called the Fata Morgana. Although it is too complicated to explain in tonight's forum, I can assure you that ghost ships are now generally regarded as illusions created by optical and meteorological phenomena which have been easily replicated in laboratories. As to your colleagues who were scared witless on the moor, did the Devil offer compelling temptation, as he did to Saint Anthony? Did he command them to commit sin, to commit evil upon mankind? Did he try to drag them to the eternal fires of hell with his peremptory words? Or did they merely hear some grotesque and blood-curdling cry, which could have come from some bird or animal unknown to zoology? Let us wait until we have more information before we point the finger at Lucifer!"

There seemed to be much more common sense in what de Loupe was saying. Yet I began to feel that he was arguing his case from some motive beyond the desire to uphold reason. There seemed to be something urgent in his tone and bearing. He spoke with a French accent, and it occurred to me that Loupe was the French word for magnifying glass. It was obviously an appropriate name for an advocate of science, but the affectation seemed forced.

The arguments between the two men were volleyed back and forth throughout the evening. As each man spoke, nods of approval and positive monosyllables came from the majority of the crowd, as if their opinions were being swayed back and forth like a field of wheat in the wind. Eventually we heard summarising statements from both, and the debate was finished. The men shook hands, again with patronising looks. Votes were then taken, and it turned out that the doctor had prevailed, but only by the narrowest of margins. Most of the audience filed out of the hall, but quite a number gathered round the doctor, to be further entertained by his stories. I watched de Loupe as he left the hall alone.

The evening was still at a moderate hour, so I made my way to the brasserie of the hotel for a light supper. As I sat there, I reflected on what I had heard. I must admit that when the subject of seances was discussed I couldn't help imagining the opportunity of talking to my late wife. But as de Loupe might have said, surely my belief would grow from a yearning need rather than any logical conclusion from concrete evidence. Then, as they had so often, my thoughts turned to the memories of my long marriage, and the question of where I stood regarding the debate was forgotten. The hour grew late, and eventually I went up to my room.

I was woken in the middle of the night by some feeling I could not explain. At first I thought it was the residue of some bad dream, but the feeling seemed to increase as I became more awake - some primal instinct warning of the presence of something predatory, something angry. I tried to remind myself of the things I had heard earlier in the evening, of not yielding to my fears. But I looked over at the crack under my door, and as I watched the shadows it seemed as if there was something in the corridor, something large, moving very slowly and silently. The shadow reached my door, and stopped. I dared not move. After a minute or so, I began to hear rapid sniffing noises at the bottom of the door, as one might hear from a dog. Then silence... Then more sniffing. What did it want? Would it remain at my door all night? How long could I remain utterly immobile, desperately trying to keep even my breath as imperceptible as possible, while my heart was punching inside me? But the thing stopped its scrutiny, and began to move slowly away, as if it had not found what it was looking for. I waited for as long as I could, then I ran to gulp down a glass of water, and study my pale and frightened face in the mirror, as if to reassure myself of reality. Then I secured the lock on my door, and braced it with a chair.

The next morning I came downstairs for my breakfast to find the hotel lobby seething with policemen, officials and hotel staff, rushing about in crisis. I was soon approached by two policemen and questioned about my movements throughout the previous evening. I told them everything I could, although I thought it better not to say anything to them about my experience with the thing on the other side of my door - surely such a strange account would only hinder their inquiries. But whatever had happened, they didn't seem to harbour any suspicions of me, and as my passport was being kept by the hotel I was soon allowed to get out of their way and go searching for some breakfast.

I returned from my sightseeing in the evening, and by that time things had calmed down, so I collared one of the porters to ask what had happened. He told me that Doctor Philpot had been found murdered, in a manner that police had decided was too horrific to disclose. The maid who had discovered the doctor was in a state of shocked hysteria, and the rumour going around was that the body had been torn to pieces. The police had found nothing so far, although they had spoken to a tramp in the last stages of inebriation who had mumbled something about a man turning into a wolf in the alley behind the hotel. They wanted to talk to de Loupe, but he had disappeared, and left a fake forwarding address.

December, 2011

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