On the Other Side of Empiricism: Why Wendigos Might Be Real And Why We Should Want That to be True
“I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am” — René Descartes
“No, but yeah, but no, but yeah…” — Vicky Pollard, Little Britain
During both my undergraduate and graduate degrees, my minor was in philosophy. Not only was the history of thought fascinating to me, but the rules of engagement and the numerous ways thinkers cheated them really opened up new possibilities of interacting with the world. However, it also made me cynical towards logic in general.
I recall coming out of grad school with this understanding that as long as someone wanted a belief, idea, or proposition to so strongly be true, they would find a way to manipulate the rules of engagement — i.e. formal logic — to make their arguments sound and valid. During my time in college, I had seen such a variation of exclusive arguments provided with sound and valid formations that I no longer could rely on the work of philosophy to derive even the outer edges of objective truth.
Over the years since, I have tamed some of my stronger cynicism towards philosophy and recognized it as being about the search instead of the answer. However, there is one segment of philosophy that I’ve never been able to shake the full brunt of my cynicism towards: rationalism (Descartes) / empiricism (Bacon).
The Enlightenment seemed to be aimed toward some utopian ideal of the perfection of human rationality and their ability to ascertain Reality through sensory information. It not only failed to incorporate ever-present human foibles and the complexities of the body, emotions, and life outside the mind into its systems, but it sent the West into a navel-gazing spiral towards a totalizing individualism which is playing itself out in some truly vile ways here in America currently. It doesn’t matter if you are modernist, post-modernist, or post-post-modernist, the poles of the Enlightenment are holding your tent up.
This, however, is not meant as a diatribe against the Age of Reason or its future-reaching tentacles, but as a background for something I have been thinking about lately. (Also, it gives you the axe on which I am going to be consistently grinding.) The ideals of the Enlightenment are Western in formation and in action. The two most significant Western empires since the Enlightenment came into existence are Great Britain and the United States of America. Depending on what aspects you use to delineate what is considered “the West,” Russia, and its extensive empire, could be included as well. Each has left a significant colonial presence throughout the modern world.
Along with that colonial presence is a whole complex system of coerced values, assimilation, and rebellion against foreign culture, ideas and values. However, generally-speaking, the colonial stain upon the world is one that seeks to instill a Western (read: Enlightened) metaphysics onto what can be considered “real.”
The question I have been contemplating lately is: what then does it mean to de-colonize reality? What would be the consequences of such an endeavor?
I came upon this question by thinking about UFOs, hauntings, cryptids, and the like, as one does. Throughout history there have been hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of reports of unexplained phenomena. The thought entered my head: “even if 99.9% of those reports were false, all it would take to flip an empirically-driven metaphysic upon its head is one true report and the statistical chances of all these people lying or having flawed perceptions is getting smaller with every year.”
Then I began to consider the cultures and religious beliefs of specific people groups and how their beliefs were portrayed through the meat grinder of empirical analysis. Most of the time, there is a presupposition of disbelief in non-material reality because the religious and spiritual cannot be beheld by the senses and, on top of this, are not “rational” within a materialist understanding of the world.
I have been reading about Algonquian tribes and their belief in wendigos (or witikos, or windagos, or so on) and the Hmong nightmare deaths of the late 1970s and 80s which the Hmong believe to be a malign spirit called dab tsuam. The Algonquian tribes and Hmong peoples believe in the metaphysical reality of these entities. They are not mere mythos, but entities to be feared. As I’ve sought out research on these entities, I have found that many of the books and articles are often written from a place of condescension, i.e. applying our superior empirical systems of thought onto these belief systems. Often the beliefs of these cultures are treated as curios or as a quaint system of thought. Within the realm of colonialism, at least in British imperial control (my field of study), this is how power was coerced upon peoples whom they sought to control. It’s a type of gaslighting.
There is a lot of talk about de-colonizing history, theology, human structures, etc. in this day and age and it is a worthy and needed discussion. However, we need to be careful in how we frame the work and thought around these questions. Enlightenment thinking runs deep and is entrenched within society, culture, belief, how our governments are set up, and, even, how we worship within our religious traditions. To fully de-colonize, we need to assess the very philosophical foundations which were brought through colonialism. Those of us that hail from the lands of the colonizer need to reassess how we interact with others. If this work is successful, then we need to be prepared for what a newly enchanted world free from materialist presuppositions might mean. It should be both exciting and terrifying.
Now, listen, I am not saying that empiricism and the Enlightenment are of Satan and should be banished to Hell. What I am saying is that we need to hold human systems loosely. They are tools for the search, but the second they become the veritable means to delineate all that is real and true, they have become a totalizing force that blinds us and ultimately demeans those peoples whose philosophical assumptions are other than ours. Plus, your disbelief in wendigos won’t save you from their cannibalistic appetite on those dark, lonely New Mexico roads.
Empiricism and rationality can be helpful if used properly, but they should not be the sum of all history.