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THE RHAMPHORHYNCHUS QUESTION

from Chris Wayan's journal, 1996/11/12


I bike down to San Francisco's new Main Library. As I'm biking home at dusk, my basket full of books, a weird word from childhood pops up. Rhamphorhynchus. Know it's some kind of dinosaur--I had a lot of little plastic dinos when I was five or six. But I can't recall what it is exactly, or what the roots mean. Greek, with all those crazy "H"s, but what? Gotta be the only dino in the 4H club! Maybe the only word with four! And why does it recur obsessively, like a chuffing train-rhythm all the way home? "RHAM pho RHYN chus, RHAM pho RHYN chus, RHAM pho RHYN chus, RHAM pho RHYN chus." Echoes in my brain like a sticky pop song.

Like it's trying to hammer a message into my thick skull.

That evening, I read Will Shetterley's fantasy novel, Nevernever. Its narrator is a runaway boy who lives in a city near the border between two universes. The book is his journal. Funny, wry little adventures at first--he writes of his awkward first dates. Messy, trial and error, sorting out his feelings... but then, on a solo trip into the Nevernever, the uncertain borderland between worlds, our boy spots a dragonlike creature. He looks it up later in a wildlife guide and finds it's a primitive pterosaur called a...

Aw, you peeked.

Well, I wanted to know what it was... so the universe answered! God's a reference librarian.

That's one answer. Probably doesn't satisfy some of you out there. Including, as it happens, me.

You see, it FELT like that nagging Rhamphorynchus question popped idly into my head. Why? I didn't care about some obscure dinosaur name. But there it was and it wouldn't let go. In fact its appearance was SO arbitrary it felt pure as a lab test.

Maybe we're projecting human causality onto such coincidences. Never mind logic--I FEEL like I asked the question about this silly word BECAUSE the book answered it--a book as yet unread! As if I stumbled into an acausal loop--the sort of thing you'd expect from a positron or something, but not a cyclist, not even in San Francisco. We're rather large particles for such quantum effects. But there it is.

I honestly don't know quite why I'm including this little non-dream fable between a whole pile of more spectacular psychic dreams. Maybe just to warn you how trivial and, well, unnoticeable a lot of psychic hits can be. Scientific debunkers claim we project our wishful thinking onto coincidences and call it psychic... while pop psychologists generally say we only see ahead to things that matter to us. They disagree whether ESP is real, but they DO agree on this: psychic stuff is emotional stuff. Need-based. Charged.

But the Purple Cow Theorem applies here:

I've never seen a purple cow
I never hope to see one
But I can tell you, anyhow
I'd rather see than be one.
That is, I don't give a damn about Rhamphorhynchi (if that's the proper plural)--they're just purple cows to me. Absolute indifference? One can't achieve absolute zero or absolute vacuum either, but you can get pretty close--meaningfully close! The sheer pointlessness of my rhamphorhynchus flash approaches laboratory purity--its only meaning to me is its triviality.

Both schools, the scientific skeptics and the New Agers share a belief that ESP (whether real or delusional) is linked to wishes and desires; but that belief fails to explain this abrupt, firm and pointless eruption of an obscure, unpronounceable word I was about to read after decades.

And how many more rhamphorhynchi do we miss? The only reason I caught this was the sheer rarity and ridiculousness of the word--one I haven't seen or heard since childhood. Any other word or image, and you could explain it away as coincidence--LOTS of words and phrases get stuck in LOTS of heads... and one in a million will naturally encounter the very thing they were chanting about.

But just how far can you push that argument? How rare, how silly, how laboratory-pure, does a premonition have to be, to disprove this near-universal belief that ESP is either wishful thinking, or real but wish-based?

I wonder if opinions on ESP are so intractable and irreconcilable NOT due to profound differences in worldview, but the opposite: because both sides' theories share an assumption--an unproven assumption. One I now seriously doubt.



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