Saturday, August 27, 2011

Gilligan's Island vs. The X-Files

Two of my favorite television shows -- and I'm a Baby Boomer, so that means two of my favorite things -- are Gilligan's Island and The X-Files. I always emulated Gilligan's Professor; he was the actual leader on the island, and he made being smart look great. But he had a problem: he often confused science with closed-mindedness. In episode 3, for instance, when Gilligan claims to have been attacked by a monster in the supply hut, the Skipper assumes there's voodoo afoot, but the Professor will have none of it. "All this talk about voodoo and witchcraft is ridiculous," he tells Gilligan. "Whatever you saw last night, there is a simple, logical explanation for it." Now what's illogical about voodoo and witchcraft as explanations? Proving the universal negative is the most difficult of arguments, and science has done nothing like prove that voodoo and witchcraft don't exist. The Professor could more accurately have said that there's a much more likely explanation for it, or he could have proposed his preference for a natural explanation. But if voodoo exists -- and again, there's no proof that it doesn't -- then there's nothing illogical about claiming that its effects also exist.

One of the many reasons I love The X-Files is that it corrects this common mistake. Over the course of the first few seasons, Scully slowly changes from skeptic to believer, and while she consistently demands that Mulder accept a "scientific explanation" for the strange goings-on that they investigate, that phrase changes over the years from meaning "explanation that doesn't involve anything that Mulder believes in and Scully doesn't" to "explanation that can be verified and measured." If Scully sees a little gray man running around an abandoned government warehouse, maybe what she sees is really there, and maybe it isn't. If it's really there, maybe it's an alien, and maybe it isn't. If it's an alien, maybe it has DNA, and maybe it doesn't. But if it's really there and it's really an alien and it really has DNA, then that DNA can be analyzed and compared with human DNA and the history of extraterrestrial genetic shenanigans can start to unfold.

Plutarch (OK, that's the last place you thought I'd go with this introduction) lived at a time that had no prejudice against supernatural explanations for phenomena. To someone like the Professor, that fact probably suggests that Plutarch always jumped immediately to the pre-scientific, supernatural, superstitious explanation for anything he didn't understand. But in my readings this year from his Parallel Lives, I've found Plutarch much more like a mature Scully-Mulder team, entertaining various theories for strange events and deferring judgment when he doesn't have enough evidence to decide one way or another.

In the story of Lucullus, Plutarch reports without criticism that the goddess Proserpine appeared to a town clerk to deliver a message of encouragement. But in the story of Cimon, when Plutarch writes about the repeated apparitions of the ghost of a man murdered in a public bath, he is careful to add the caveat "so our fathers have told us." He also says, "Even to this day those who live in the neighbourhood believe that they sometimes see spectres and hear alarming sounds," implying doubt about the accuracy of their beliefs. In his story of Lysander, Plutarch tells of a meteorite that fell on the Chersonese (the long western peninsula in the European portion of modern Turkey); he doesn't assign the event to the wrath of the gods as we might expect from an ancient writer, but passes on the explanation of Anaxagoras that the stars are like stones that sometimes become dislodged from "the circular motion by which they were originally withheld from falling." (If Anaxagoras could travel in time to our era, he might might draw some amusement from our belief that asteroids and centrifugal force are modern discoveries.)

Concerning the timing of one attack from the barbarians, Plutarch remains undecided. The timing is due, he says, to "whatever it be which interferes to prevent the enjoyment of prosperity ever becoming pure and sincere . . . , whether fortune or divine displeasure, or the necessity of the nature of things." Blind god, just god, no god. Yep. That pretty much covers the possibilities. He also hedges his bets on the explanation for the "extraordinary rains [that] pretty generally fall after great battles." Again, supernatural and natural each offer options. It could be, he says, that a god wants to wash the polluted earth, and it could be that heavy evaporation rising from the decaying bodies changes the air. (We should add that it could be that heavy rain doesn't follow great battles as often as Plutarch thought.) Even a given person's choice in a particular situation is open to divine influence in Plutarch's mind. Lucullus, he says may have decided not to blockade the retreating army of Mithridates (1) because he wanted his senior officer to have the chance to claim victory or (2) because he hated the general that sent him the intelligence or (3) because divine fortune simply decided that Mithridates had not met his time yet.

In the story of Caius Marius, Plutarch tells of a wonder without offering any explanation. For several nights, he says, people in the towns of Ameria and Tuder saw "flaming darts and shields" in the skies, now bobbing in place, now seeming to strike against each other, and finally disappearing to the west. In the spirit of Plutarch's open-mindedness, I want to explore some of the possibilities for this tale. First, it's conceivable that Plutarch lied and had never heard any reports about lights in the sky. Even if he faithfully handed down what he had heard, though, the reports he received may have been false. Then again, supposing the reports were true, the witnesses may have only imagined that they saw something. Moving on and supposing that they saw something actually present in the night sky, the objects could either have had natural sources or have been signs from a supernatural source. Finally, in the spirit of Fox Mulder's passion, supposing the lights came from natural, physical objects, the people of Ameria and Tuder might have seen maneuvers of extraterrestrial spaceships. (I'm sure the ufologists know of this passage in Plutarch.)

I don't rule any of these explanations out. I simply find some more likely than others. It seems more probable, for instance, that the original reporters lied than that Plutarch did, history giving us no reason to think Plutarch a liar and every reason to believe that less famous people often stretch the truth to gain notoriety. Supposing that the townfolk saw something real, it seems more probable that the objects were natural objects than supernatural, since my personal experience involves many more sightings of rocks than of ghosts. And supposing that what they saw was natural, it seems more probable that they misunderstood or exaggerated the movements of meteors or the aurora borealis than that they witnessed a battle between Martian factions.

It's hard for humans to stay unbiased. Mulder, of course, starts out just as prejudiced as the Professor in his own way; he always first assumes the explanation that the Professor (or the young Scully) would most readily dismiss. So I wouldn't call Mulder's passion for spacemen open-mindedness; Mulder's belief only goes so far. By the last scene of the very last episode of The X-Files, it's Scully who has taken the lead and begins to help Mulder change his slogan from "I want to believe" to "I believe."

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