I’m delighted—and daunted!—for this chance at engaging the rich discussions of this forum. Nothing I say in this short space can be adequate to their depth and range. All I can hope is to maybe highlight some of their more implicit provocations. So in what follows I will not explicitly address any of the texts or forum-responses, but hope to touch on all of them indirectly. I begin with an ethnographic tale.

It concerns Fatma, the grandmother of a friend named Khaled, whose extended family I had gotten to know during fieldwork in Egypt. Fatma died early on in my fieldwork; by then she was blind and bedridden, and spoke very little. But between her weary sighs I often heard her utter something about “Our Lady Mary.” And for some reason I could not fully discern then, she always seemed associated with the figure of Mary the mother of Jesus. Sometime after her passing Khaled’s mother mentioned that Fatma always did the Coptic fast of St. Mary, which intrigued me, as the family had always been quite religiously Muslim. When I asked about this, she told an interesting story.

When Khaled’s mother was very young, her father—Fatma’s husband—fell gravely ill, and it seemed he would not survive. At the time the family lived in a Coptic neighborhood in Cairo, and Fatma vowed that if he lived she would undertake the fast of St. Mary. He recovered, but she forgot to fast, whereupon she had a dream of St. Mary silently and angrily dismantling their large bronze marital bed, despite Fatma’s pleas to stop, to explain. Deeply disturbed, she remembered her vow, and so began to fast, whereupon she had another dream of St. Mary putting the bed back together. But she continued to fast even after her husband passed, twenty-five years before she did. In the process, she became a respected neighborhood figure for Muslims and Copts alike, with both often relying on her counsel. Khaled’s aunt A’isha, who was much older than his mother, told a similar story, but more deeply involved Fatma’s mostly Coptic neighbors. Thus A’isha recalled Fawwaz, a neighbor who had become like another sibling to Fatma’s children; he would always remind Fatma of the upcoming fast, and they would fast together. After recounting to me the deepening importance of the figure of Mary to Fatma, of the loyalties and friendships forged through the fast, A’isha stood and announced that this was why, after Fatma died, she too began to undertake the fast of St. Mary. I was stunned, having known A’isha for decades by then, but never that she did this fast.

All the texts and discussions of this forum concern, in one way or another, authoritative relations between traditions—occult, psychoanalytic, Islamic, scientific. I tell this story of Fatma because it helps highlight what the texts and forum discussions collectively show: that the felt bonds of authority within and between traditions cannot be construed through their styles of reasoning alone, and neither can they be easily explained by the asymmetries of power between them. Authority necessarily takes more complex forms.

Thus, in Fatma’s case authority was not about shared styles of reasoning but the obligations fashioned through a form of embodied friendship, rooted in a recognition of the bodily vulnerability that enables fasting to be such a widely practiced disciplinary form. For Fatma, the appearance of St. Mary in her dreams was both a confrontation and an invitation, an ongoing allure and a source of anxiety, that ushered into ever deepening bonds of loyalty and friendship. In other words, authority works through, and is always a working-through of, living relationships.

This leads to another insight this forum demonstrates: how deeply the ethical is suffused with the enigmatic. In Fatma’s case, the figure of St. Mary served as an enigmatic signifier—especially through her silence despite Fatma’s repeated pleas to clarify her angry actions. The practices Fatma developed around St. Mary were part of a process of learning to live with her enigmatic presence. As Talal Asad notes in his remarks on tradition, “signs-in-use are inseparable from the way we live them.” So we might further explore how we come to live with enigma.


Philosopher and practicing psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear begins his Tanner Lectures by highlighting the fundamental logical error Aristotle makes at the very start of his Nicomachean Ethics. From the premise that each of the various activities that make up life in the polis aim toward a fundamental good, Aristotle draws the invalid inference of an overall fundamental Good to which all such activities aim. Modern commentators, Lear notes, have strained to understand how Aristotle, the presumed founder of formal logic, could have committed such a seemingly egregious error. But between accepting that Aristotle just made a massive logical mistake or trying to wrest his words into some semblance of logical coherence, Lear proposes a third path. Following those thinkers who see no real difference between our concepts and the ways we live them, Lear sees Aristotle as inaugurating a new concept—“the Good”—into the lives of his audience, thereby changing how they live their lives with concepts. Because the new concept is neither implied by nor entailed in the existing concepts from which it is purportedly drawn, it is necessarily enigmatic—and this is crucial to its success. But also crucial is that his audience was already disposed to considering what was good in the context of their lives as a whole, and would have certainly been tantalized by the prospect of an ultimate good that potentially redefines all other goods in their lives.

Notably, Aristotle does not straightforwardly define “the Good” for his audience at the start of his lectures; rather, he slowly fills out what it ought to be by connecting it with, and thereby changing, existing concepts—such as happiness. He thereby insinuates the new concept into their lives, and not only enhances its allure, but also opens up possible anxiety: that the good life and happiness they had been living was actually profoundly incomplete in ways they had not yet discerned. Lear shows how Aristotle never finally settles “the Good” for his audience, placing it just outside their full and permanent grasp, so it always retains some of its enigma and affective density. As a result, his audience comes to be disposed differently; the new concept comes to permeate their lives, so they are unable to remain indifferent to the changes it inaugurates. Similarly, Fatma could not remain indifferent to her dreams of St. Mary, their enigmatic allure eventually permeating even the lives around her.

Now what Aristotle does with the Good, Freud also does with the Unconscious. We can see how, in works like his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, the notion of “unconscious” is gradually transformed for his audience from a simple, in-principle temporary, state of unawareness to “the Unconscious”—a separate, structured, cunning mind-like entity, of whose incessant activity we are almost necessarily, permanently, unaware. And while the Unconscious is responsible for the many familiar unhappinesses that plague our lives, Freud allows the possibility of achieving some mastery over it. But that promise remains always just over the horizon, so the Unconscious retains its enigmatic status. The enigmatic strength of Freud’s inaugural concepts is shown not only in how they are widely accepted, but even how they are dismissed—rarely with indifference, but with fervor, or a scoff.

If today we find ourselves stuck on Aristotle’s logic unlike past generations, this is not because we are more logically astute than they were. It is because we are not disposed to consider, in quite the same way they were, what is good in the context of our lives as a whole. And if today Freud’s Unconscious retains its enigmatic allure, we might ask what continues to dispose us to it despite its aporias. But we might also ask about growing temptations to draw together the Aristotelian Good with the Freudian Unconscious, that each might somehow complete what the other omits from the Soul. For this drawing together is happening both within Islam and psychoanalysis, and cannot be easily explained by power asymmetries between traditions. But more, what happens when two enigmatic signifiers are drawn together? What becomes possible when you pair impossibilities? What we ask of the soul we might ask of science too.


My recent research into science and secularity has helped me see how the contemporary sciences continually draw us into deeper enigmatic entanglements.

Thus, because the modern sciences almost never acquire their knowledge passively, but through active intervention, they continually generate unanticipated effects that exceed their grasp. So the sciences, in their very quest for knowledge, produce a persistent margin of mystery that tends to draw us in. Along with this, several discoveries have pushed us to reconsider the forms legitimate scientific knowledge might take. Take, for example, Lawrence M. Principe’s successful replications of medieval European alchemical experiments, which have upended previous rejections of alchemy as simple pseudo-science. Or the work of Tu Youyou, awarded the Nobel Prize in 2015 for a treatment for malaria, which she derived from a 1600-year old Chinese medical/alchemical text. Longstanding anomalous findings, such as Göbekli Tepe and the Antikythera Mechanism, have also helped revise our understandings of the depth and ingenuity of past knowledge. These revised understandings help expand a realm of what might be called uncanny science, where the cutting-edge of possible futures and past knowledges once dismissed or forgotten increasingly show unlikely affinities and unexpected resonances. These resonances usher in a tenacious sense of reality difficult to either deny or accept.

Perhaps the most interesting, or disturbing, instances of this difficulty of reality occur when uncanny science gets housed within covert, black-budget, government projects. Consider just one recent example.

On December 16, 2017, in what seemed like a coordinated media release, the front pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other major news outlets revealed that the US Department of Defense (DoD) had recently poured millions of dollars into a black-budget intelligence and research program that studied military encounters with UFOs. What was intriguing about the articles was not just that the government had been actively studying the UFO phenomenon—which it had officially denied and denigrated for nearly a half-century. It was also that they included DoD jet-fighter gun-camera video footage of these objects exhibiting odd energy signatures and anomalous aerial performances, along with corresponding fighter-pilots’ eye-witness testimonies confirming their encounters with seemingly incomprehensible technologies. Even more intriguing was that, according to the NYT, secure facilities had been built to store strange materials allegedly obtained from UFOs, and that there were ongoing studies of the physiological effects on military personnel who had had UFO encounters. It was later divulged by someone associated with the study that the military had been increasingly encountering UFOs on both coasts of the United States, but also in the Middle East.

The DoD claims the study has since ended, its funding cut. But former head of the study Luis Elizondo maintains that it continues, albeit under different leadership, as he no longer works for the DoD. In subsequent interviews Elizondo was often asked what the study concluded about where the UFOs might be from. In each case, Elizondo would deflect the thesis of an extraterrestrial origin, often repeating that they could be from outer-space, or inner-space, and that we did not know. Eventually he was asked what he meant by inner-space; his response, which I quote in part, is astonishing. Notably, he treads carefully, and perhaps in keeping with the skills of his former counter-intelligence credentials, imparts to us what DoD researchers were willing to seriously consider, without allowing us to make any definitive conclusions. Here is what he says:

“…. But let’s look at another paradigm here: the present is nothing more than an infinitesimally small point in space-time. Probably measured in plane-time, in which elements of the future become elements of the past, right? And everything that we do as human beings is experienced in that infinitesimally small moment of space-time; by the way, it’s not static, it’s moving.

“…. If you were to look at that moment in space-time, and you were to go ahead and magnify that, you’d find something very, very interesting…. Parts of the future and parts of the past are kind of lying over each other, and we’re now seeing this in the quantum world. In quantum mechanics, we now know, for example, that an electron around an atom is not necessarily truly orbiting an atom. In fact, they call it an electron cloud, because scientists believe that the electron is actually going through the fabric of space-time and is actually ebbing out of existence and reappearing at an infinitely fast rate. And so, therefore, that electron is everywhere and nowhere all at the same time.

“So, if we experience everything through this tiny little optic, everything we’ve built, everything we’ve learned, every emotion, love, fear, hate, every experience as a human being is through this tiny little moment of space-time as we’re moving forward. What if there were other species or even humans, where their understanding of the present, that optic, that spark, is maybe a little bit bigger? Maybe that optic is a little bit wider. Rather than being a point, maybe it’s a range. Maybe the understanding of the present isn’t a point, but it’s a range, and maybe there’s elements of the future and the past that are experienced as the present, and, therefore, what we perceive as linear space-time maybe others don’t. In fact, maybe these are things that have lived here forever, before us. Maybe, we share the space with them. So to say that things are from outer space or inner space—there’s a lot of different options, a lot of variables. So we can speculate all day long where these things are from, but until we have more data, we have no idea….” (Emphasis in italics mine)

Do not Elizondo’s words recall some of what this forum has discussed? A species of beings that have always lived with (and even before) humans, that inhabit and perceive the spaces of a non-linear “other-time,” and who therefore come from an “elsewhen”? Could these be what the DoD has been encountering?

Such a prospect, however alluring, is certainly crossed with discomfort, in lips pursed into skeptical smiles or even disdainful scoffs. But then is not such dismissal a sign of enigmatic strength? Perhaps. UFOs have powerfully stoked the imagination for decades, and Jinn have done so for millennia; but we seem content to keep them in that realm as we trace their social impacts. To do otherwise would elicit strong anxiety. Elizondo, on the other hand, too closely invokes a sense of the real we typically must suspend to conduct our research and maintain its legitimacy.

How, though, should we account for the uncanny resonances his words set up? Or: how does a discussion on UFOs end up like one on Jinn? Are both just expressions of imagination? But how does imagination produce radar returns, gun-camera footage, materials found neither in nature nor known science, and multiple, corresponding eye-witness reports? But then is it enough to say UFOs are as real as rocks? That does not come close to covering the strangeness and complexity of UFO encounters. But what if these resonances point to something else—a phenomenon more complex than what our notions of Jinn and UFOs, or categories of “reality” and “imagination,” can explain? Where would that leave us? That is, what becomes possible when two enigmas, two impossibilities, are drawn together? These are the kinds of questions the forum “Science and the soul” provokes us to consider.

Thanks to Alireza Doostdar, Cameron Hu, Mona Oraby and Olivia Whitener for their helpful comments on previous drafts.