A Word to the Skeptical Reader

An excerpt from The Daisy Sutra, Conversations with my Dog



Conversations with a dog? I would be the last to deny that there is much in this little book to stretch the credulity of the skeptic.

What is a skeptic? The word comes from the Greek skopos, watcher (ironically, it is related to the word horoscope, a map produced by watching the sky). Originally, it referred to a school of philosophers who believed that absolute knowledge was impossible, but that observation was more reliable than human reason.

With the decline in religious belief, the persistence of the eighteenth-century faith in reason, and the concomitant modern aversion to the so-called irrational, the word has come to have a slightly different connotation that no longer conveys the old mistrust of reason. In any event, I use the word “skeptic” in its modern sense as almost synonymous with “rational materialist”: one who believes that only that which can be perceived with the five senses, only that which mainstream science can observe, measure, and make predictions about, is real.

If you have read this far–indeed, if you have picked up this book at all–you may be a member of that perennially endangered species, the open-minded skeptic: a skeptic in the original sense of one who doubts but is willing to examine the evidence. A skeptic in this sense may say “I don’t believe this” but will not therefore conclude “so it’s not worth investigating.”

My more skeptical friends who have read this book in manuscript may have praised its “sensitivity,” but on the question of animal communication, most have maintained a polite but eloquent silence. I don’t blame them. A scientist’s daughter, I was a skeptic until well into my thirties.

But things started happening that made cracks in the rational materialist belief system I was raised in, and the light those cracks let in made life a little more interesting. I started seeing connections I hadn’t noticed before and at a certain point they began adding up, began tipping the balance in favor of a universe that was more than mere physical matter, more than a series of improbable accidents: a universe with meaning and intelligence.

I think I almost made a conscious decision to live “as if”: as if the universe had meaning and purpose, as if synchronicity was not just a fancy name for coincidence, as if there was a hidden design that included everything and everyone, even though I couldn’t always see it. I started to have faith: not in God, necessarily, but in what I can only describe as the power of faith itself–the power of faith to heal and to enlighten, to improve the quality of life, maybe even to explain it. And indeed, I found that life lived with faith, even if it was just faith-in-the-power-of-faith, went better.

I felt more connected to the other lives around me, to the Earth, to the universe. I became less depressed, more loving. I started having more fun. And this in turn suggested something about the nature of the universe. It seemed a confirmation that I was somehow on the right track, that the universe had a kind of internal consistency and unity that was both reasonable and aesthetically pleasing. My working theory of a meaningful universe had that quality of elegance and simplicity that tells the mathematician the proof is right. It was a sort of experiment in belief, and looking back, I feel it’s been a success.

In Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs, Caroline Knapp gives animal communication short shrift. A thorough researcher, she does consult a couple of animal psychics, and does not doubt their sincerity, but “interspecies telepathic communication” is not her cup of tea. She acknowledges that her dog Lucille has an uncanny ability to sense her needs, wants, and feelings, but she insists that she can’t know what is going on inside her dog’s mind–a kind of reverse speciesism I find quite remarkable. The truth, she admits, is that she really prefers not to know, that she wants her dog to remain mysterious. This is the hidden romanticism of the rational materialist position. Having ruled out a priori the mystery of interspecies communication, these modern-day skeptics retain a kind of nostalgia for mystery but prefer not to examine it too closely.

Knapp’s aversion to animal communication, her need for her dog to remain a mystery, reminds me of the discomfort my father, Warren Weaver, felt back in the 1930s and 40s when J. B. Rhine, the pioneering researcher in extrasensory perception, started piling up statistical evidence for ESP. Dad said the whole subject made him so nervous he didn’t like to think about it, but he knew that wasn’t the right attitude. In spite of his nervousness, he was later instrumental in getting funding for Rhine’s Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University. Dad was a skeptic in the classical sense. Not many scientists have that kind of integrity.

This discomfort with phenomena like animal communication, ESP, and so on, that seem to undermine the logical foundations of science, masks a deep fear. For what if these things were real? Then where would we be? We would be in a universe where everything is connected, everything has a purpose, and everything is alive. That is scary, because there’s no place to hide. No ivory tower of scientific immunity; no separation between human observer and experimental subject.

The history of science has seen one long series of blows to the human ego. Copernicus maintained that our Earth is not the center of the universe; Darwin found that we share a common ancestor with the apes; Freud’s work on the unconscious implied that we are not even the masters of our own minds. A growing body of evidence suggests that we may not be the only intelligent beings in the universe. If animal communication is real, then we are not even the only intelligent beings on our own planet. All of these ideas have initially been rejected as absurd. We need to remember that the mere fact that an idea is threatening to the mind does not prove it invalid.

The idea that the universe has design and consciousness is not inherently any less probable than the idea that it is random. The clinging to coincidence and accident as the sole explanation for phenomena that suggest a connecting link (however mysterious) seems just as irrational, if not more so, than the acceptance of the possibility of connections we do not yet understand.

Whatever the explanation of these mysteries–and as my father’s daughter I am confident we are making progress and will track them down in the end, we humans need to remember that we are connected to the animals. We need to know that communication with them is not only possible but natural, and not only natural but essential. Our separation from the rest of nature, our arrogant assumption that we are somehow in charge, is laying waste the planet and may well lead to our own extinction unless we can allow ourselves to rediscover this connection, and to start listening.