Thursday, May 6, 2010

Charles Fort: A Man Ahead of his Fortean Times

Fortean Times is a classic British magazine about the paranormal and other odd ephemera.

Founded in 1973 to provide "...news, reviews and research on strange phenomena and experiences, curiosities, prodigies and portents," Fortean Times is based on the work of the little-known but fascinating philosopher Charles Fort, who lived from 1874 to 1932.

Fort spent a good part of his brief time on earth researching scientific literature in the New York Public Library and the British Museum Library.

Charles Fort did not leave a huge body of written work, but what he did write packed quite a punch. He annoyed big people, but also found a few fast friends in the world of publishing--friends who respected the uniqueness of his mind, his wit, and his vision. His most famous works, The Book of the Damned (1919), New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931), and Wild Talents (1932), all concern themselves with what Fort felt was a serious flaw in scientific explanations of what constitutes 'reality'.

Fort argued that science, when rigorously examined, looks a lot more like a belief system than a methodology, and that its conclusions can only stand if anomalous data and experiences are systematically excluded, suppressed, or explained away. Fort blasted the reductionism embraced by mainstream science and its tendency to isolate, separate, and objectify phenomena. He saw science as a force that actually distorts understanding by denigrating mystery in an effort to maintain control.

Fort thought that everything in the known world was in a constant state of flux, always becoming one thing or another, and that the interconnectedness of all things was an obvious given. Like Lovelock (only earlier), he speculated that the universe itself might be more akin to a living organism than to a infinite expanse of inert matter.

Fort was one of the first to wonder publicly whether UFO phenomena might well be craft from outer space, and to this day Fortean Times is one of the first and most willing to publish new UFO findings, theories, and sightings.

Fortean Times has a weird, tabloid sort of vibe that earns it derision by logically minded persons and scientists, but this absurdist quality is grounded in a carefully constructed and always entertaining philosophy that goes back nearly a century. The mocking tone is part of the point.

Fort was notoriously critical even of his own theories, contradicting the oft-made charge that ufologists and lovers of weirdness are unthinking zealots in the process constructing a new religion. Although sometimes this charge rings true, it is by no means true across the board, and the kneejerk need by science to make it true often feels like defensiveness... perhaps because it is.

Fort famously said of science, UFO speculations, and his own work that:

"I conceive of nothing, in religion, science or philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while."

That's a perspective that, true or false, leaves room for the creative expansion of the human mind and heart.

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