by Michael E. Tymn via e-mail|
New York Times bestselling author Michael Prescott was a hard-core rationalist until he had an “odd experience” in 1997. “The entire plot, as well as the characters, theme, and setting of a novel just came to me in the time it took me to type out the synopsis,” Prescott, author of Comes the Dark, Stealing Faces, The Shadow Hunter, Last Breath, Next Victim, and In Dark Places, explained in an e-mail to me. “This had never happened to me before and hasn’t happened since, and the synopsis came to me at a time when I desperately needed inspiration.”
At his Web site (michaelprescott.com), he offers a number of well-written and extremely interesting essays dealing with the paranormal, including one titled, “Why I’m Not a Skeptic.” In that essay, which will appear in the January issue of the Journal of Religion and Psychical Research, Prescott provides a very thorough and intriguing analysis of the mindset of the skeptic, pointing out early on that the term “skeptic” is misleading. “Far from being a state of habitual open-mindedness, today’s skepticism is characterized by resistance to any new ideas or new evidence, and unwillingness to critically examine its own biases,” the 44-year-old Prescott writes, going on to say that the underlying philosophy is rationalism.
In another essay, “Shrugging Off Ayn Rand,” Prescott tells how he was influenced during his early years by the books of Rand. “I had absorbed her philosophy, Objectivism. I believed it, I advocated it, and I tried to live by it.” However, while practicing Objectivism, which he defines as a system of reason, egoism, individualism, and capitalism, he was unable to find contentment or happiness. He found himself being judgmental, stubborn, and self-righteous.
A graduate of Wesleyan University, where he majored in film studies, Prescott divides his time between homes in the Arizona desert and the New Jersey shore. He is now working on another novel. Curious as to his earlier rationalistic mindset and his change in worldview, I put some questions to Prescott:
Can you tell me a little bit more about that inspiration back in 1997?
“Usually it takes me months to develop a plot. This one came to me as fast as I could type. The experience was as close to ‘automatic writing’ as I’ve come. I felt like I was taking dictation – but from whom, or from where? Saying that it came from my subconscious did not really answer the question, but merely dressed it up in pseudoscientific language. The experience made me realize that there was more going on in this world than my narrow outlook had allowed for. For a while I thought it might have something to do with the distinction between the right and left hemispheres of the brain – that maybe the right hemisphere had put the story together and then conveyed it to the left hemisphere, allowing me to become conscious of it. So I read books on the brain, and this led to the question of the mind's relationship to the brain, which opened up paranormal and eventually spiritual issues. I started reading a wide variety of books on esoteric topics, and my worldview gradually changed (and is still changing).”
Were you comfortable with your rationalistic worldview, simply, as Jung put it, “marching toward nothingness”?
“I’ve always had a bit of a preoccupation with death, so I do understand the feeling of ‘marching toward nothingness.’ What bothered me was a) personal extinction, and b) the idea that everything one has learned and accomplished will be swallowed up by extinction as well, so what’s the point? The specter of meaninglessness was perhaps more important to me than the idea of annihilation, per se. If we are fated to live our brief lives and then perish, leaving nothing behind except memories in the minds of a few friends and family members who will also perish, in a world that will eventually turn to ashes in an extinguished cosmos, then what is it all for? That was the thought that nagged at me.”
Can you look back to the time when your materialistic worldview was threatened and explain why evidence of the paranormal and spiritual was perceived as a threat when it should have given you hope?
“Basically, I wanted to have certainty. I wanted to have answers that were incontestably right. The worldview of reductionistic materialism seemed to supply those answers. The system appeared to be internally consistent, scientifically valid, and ‘modern.’ By adopting it, I gained the assurance of certainty and the comfort of having ready-made answers to most of the big questions. I also garnered the ego gratification of feeling that I was in the vanguard of human knowledge, while the ignorant people around me were stuck in the superstition and mysticism of the Dark Ages. Furthermore, I had the additional pleasure of believing that there was no God, no higher being than myself – a notion that appealed to my narcissistic side. And what teenager or young adult doesn’t have a narcissistic side? To believe in something higher than myself would have been to accept limits, and I did not want limits.”
So it was basically an ego problem?
“Definitely. I think the normal course of human development is to begin to exhibit a sense of self around age two, then to develop this sense of self into a strong ego by the teenage years. For this reason, the typical teen believes that the world revolves around him and that every personal problem is a cosmic crisis. As we advance into adulthood, we usually begin to shed this narcissism and to see that there are things more important than ourselves. Some people don’t make this transition; they are perpetual adolescents, still self-absorbed and grandiose at the ages of 50 or 70. Most people make the transition to a greater or lesser extent. Religion plays a big role here; the common theme of religions from around the world is to put the ego in its place. This is one reason why arrested adolescents are often so hostile to religion.”
Now that you’ve “shrugged off” Ayn Rand, do you have any favorite authors who have contributed to your current worldview? Can you summarize that worldview?
“There really aren't any fiction writers I read for their worldview. Generally I read suspense fiction, and what I look for is good writing, a strong plot, and well-drawn characters. I don't have to agree with the author's philosophy. Many of the authors I read are probably more skeptical than I am now. One exception is Michael Crichton, who made it clear in his memoir Travels that he accepts the validity of the paranormal. Travels concludes with a great essay on open-mindedness in science that Crichton wanted to deliver to a society of skeptics, but they wouldn't invite him to give the talk! To the extent that I have a coherent worldview of my own, I'm essentially a dualist. I think there's a clear division between the world of facts and the realm of values. It's just not possible to derive values from facts by logical reasoning – this is the old "is-ought" problem, and it's never been solved. People like Ayn Rand come along and say they've solved it, but their arguments are always circular. Logic can tell us how things are, but not what we should do about it. I see a similar dualistic split between matter and spirit, science and religion, order and information, purpose and meaning. Maybe there is some ultimate unity that harmonizes all these things, but I don't see it. My other main premise is that life is a training ground. The parapsychologist Charles Tart compares it to boot camp. Boot camp isn't necessarily fun, but you come out of it stronger than when you went in. It's cliché but true: we learn by suffering. Of course, a training program would be pointless unless we eventually graduate. If life is limited to physical existence, then it's very hard to see how we derive any ultimate benefit from the lessons we've learned.”
How does your current worldview influence your writing?
“My characters, or some of them, are more religious or spiritual than they used to be. It's funny, when you think about it, that people in thrillers are often shown being scared and desperate, but they almost never pray or express any religious feelings. That's not very realistic. The other change is that I've lightened up the books a little. It's not all gloom and terror. I try to put in more brightness, more humor, more loving relationships. But there aren't many overt changes. I don't want to preach. My books are escapism. They're meant to be fun.”
What are you working on now?
“I've been playing around with an idea that would make more use of my interest in spirituality versus skepticism; it's about someone investigating a miracle, who gets drawn into a life-and-death situation. But it's at an early stage. A lot of ideas go nowhere. It would be much easier if the whole story just came to me out of the blue – but that experience seems to have been a one-shot deal!”