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Preview of ‘Mummies around the World’ now available

Mummies_around_the_World

A Google Books preview of my mummy encyclopedia is now available. At least from my end — and I know these previews tend to shift and alter sometimes — it shows the full table of contents (two of them, actually, one alphabetical and the other topically organized), the full preface and introduction, portions of the master timeline of mummies throughout history, and a few snippets of the book’s A-Z entries. For those of you who have been following my updates about this project over the past couple of years, here’s a glimpse of the final result.

The book is scheduled for publication on November 30. You can order it from the publisher or from all of the usual retail suspects (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.). You’ll probably also find it in a library near you. And remember, you can view a full list of the book’s contributors with brief bios here.

Rebranding Giordano Bruno: How the new ‘Cosmos’ spins the history of religion and science

The updated/remade version of the classic Carl Sagan series Cosmos has been drawing lots of attention in the past few weeks, both positive and negative, and one of the areas that has come under the most scrutiny is the show’s inaccurate portrayal of Giordano Bruno, the sixteenth-century philosopher, occultist, mystic, and proto-scientist whose life and death (he was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600) have been exalted to legendary status in the Western cultural narrative of the war between religion and science. (This is despite the fact that the man’s name and memory have remained relatively obscure in mainstream popular awareness.)

Bruno held and taught a heliocentric view of the universe whose scope exceeded even Galileo’s attempt to build on the Copernican model, and the story that is commonly told today — including by the new Cosmos — is that he was a martyr for science in an age of benighted and militant ignorance, when religious authorities waged a merciless campaign against freedom of thought.

Many observers have weighed in on the problems with this approach to Bruno in the past few weeks. The chatter has been extensive enough that it has even drawn a response from one of the series’ co-writers.

One entry in the conversation that I find to be especially astute and important comes from the pen/word processor of Daily Beast writer and editor David Sessions, who argues that the Cosmos portrayal underscores our tendency to rewrite the past to conform to currently fashionable biases, ideologies, and cultural narratives — in this case, the very narrative of the “war between religion and science” itself, with religion framed as the villain and science as the hero:

Bruno, according to Cosmos, wandered around Europe, arguing passionately but fruitlessly for his new explanation of the universe, only to be mocked, impoverished, and eventually imprisoned and executed. Catholic authorities are depicted as cartoon ghouls, and introduced with sinister theme music. [Host Neil Degrasse] Tyson explains that the church’s modus operandi was to “investigate and torment anyone who voiced views that differed from theirs.”

What Cosmos doesn’t mention is that Bruno’s conflict with the Catholic Church was theological, not scientific, even if it did involve his wild — and occasionally correct — guesses about the universe. As Discover magazine’s Corey Powell pointed out, the philosophers of the 16th century weren’t anything like scientists in the modern sense. Bruno, for instance, was a “pandeist,” which is the belief that God had transformed himself into all matter and ceased to exist as a distinct entity in himself. He believed in all sort of magic and spirits, and extrapolated those views far beyond his ideas about the infinity of the universe. In contrast to contemporaries who drew more modest conclusions from their similar ideas, Bruno agitated for an elaborate counter-theology, and was (unlike the poor, humble outcast portrayed in Cosmos) supported by powerful royal benefactors. The church didn’t even have a position on whether the Earth orbited the sun, and didn’t bring it up at Bruno’s trial. While the early-modern religious persecution certainly can’t be denied, Bruno was killed because he flamboyantly denied basic tenets of the Catholic faith, not because religious authorities were out to suppress all “freedom of thought.”

Cosmos’ treatment of Bruno as a “martyr for science” is just a small example of a kind of cultural myth we tell ourselves about the development of modern society, one that’s almost completely divorced from the messy reality. It’s a story of an upward march from ignorance and darkness, where bold, rebel intellectuals like Bruno faced down the tyrannical dogma of religion and eventually gave us secularism, democracy, and prosperity. Iconoclastic individuals are our heroes, and big, bad institutions — monarchies, patriarchies, churches — are the villains. In the process, our fascinating, convoluted history gets flattened into a kind of secular Bible story to remind us why individual freedom and “separation of church and state” are the most important things for us to believe in.

The real path to our modern selves is much more complicated — so complicated that academic historians still endlessly debate how it happened.

. . . [T]hat Cosmos added an unnecessary and skewed version of Bruno — especially one skewed in this particular way — is a good miniature lesson about our tendency to turn the past into propaganda for our preferred view of the present. There are cultural, religious, and even political reasons that the story of scientific progress and political enlightenment are [sic] so attractive, and filter down even into our children’s entertainment. It allows us to see ourselves as the apex of history, the culmination of an inevitable, upward surge of improvement. It reassures us that our political values are righteous, and reminds us who the enemies are. The messy, complex, non-linear movement of actual history, by contrast, is unsettling, humbling — even terrifying.

MORE: “How ‘Cosmos’ Bungles the History of Religion and Science

For more on the subtle history of the relationship between religion and science, and also the whitewashed/propagandistic mainstream secular narrative about it, I recommend David Metcalfe’s Teeming Brain column De Umbris Idearum, whose title is in fact drawn from the work of Giordano Bruno. See especially “Humility and Silence: Where True Science and True Spirituality Meet” and “Science, Philosophy, Theology: If the Mirrors We Make Are Monstrous, So Too Are We.”

Apocalyptic America: Our psychic lens of doom and gloom

Earth-Asteroid

Stefany Anna Goldberg recently offered some interesting reflections on the reality and nature of America’s enduring obsession with the idea and sense of an impending apocalypse. She rightly points out that, culturally speaking, the roots of this tendency extend all the way down to a positively genetic level:

America is a nation rooted in Apocalypse. The very foundation of the nation is tied to the End Times. Apocalypse is in America’s DNA. When the Puritans stepped out into the bitter wilds of New England they brought with them the forecast of annihilation. These exiles came to America not to delight in religious freedom but to ring in the last of days.

. . . In the mid-19th century, William Miller’s obscure Millennialist movement became a national campaign. His prophecy that Christ would return to Earth around 1843 or 1844 came to be known as the Great Disappointment. Some of Miller’s followers went to live with the Shakers (who didn’t need to wait for the new Millennium as they believed it had already come) and the rest formed an entirely new religion and called themselves Adventists. David Berg told us the End would come in 1973 and Pat Robertson guaranteed that 1982 would bring “a judgment on the world”. Reverend Bill Maupin from Tuscon, Arizona preached of a rapture that would happen on June 28, 1981. 50 Arizonians gathered at Maupin’s house to be “spirited aloft like helium balloons.”

There is one thing that unites all of these Apocalyptic Americans. They do not see America as a place to create a new civilization. They see America as a place to settle into a wilderness of the soul.

FULL STORY: “Apocalypse Now

In another recent reflection on the same subject, religion scholar Ira Chernus describes the psychic toll this apocalyptic obsession may be taking on us, especially in its brand new historical-cultural guise, which, hailing from the dawn of the nuclear age in the mid-twentieth century, looks not to an impending clearing away of corruption that will be followed by a new and purified way of life (as in the traditional mythic/religious view) but to the end of all possible futures via the total extinction of life on earth:

Wherever we Americans look, the threat of apocalypse stares back at us. Two clouds of genuine doom still darken our world: nuclear extermination and environmental extinction. If they got the urgent action they deserve, they would be at the top of our political priority list.

But they have a hard time holding our attention, crowded out as they are by a host of new perils also labeled “apocalyptic”: mounting federal debt, the government’s plan to take away our guns, corporate control of the Internet, the Comcast-Time Warner mergerocalypse, Beijing’s pollution airpocalypse, the American snowpocalypse, not to speak of earthquakes and plagues. The list of topics, thrown at us with abandon from the political right, left, and center, just keeps growing.

Then there’s the world of arts and entertainment where selling the apocalypse turns out to be a rewarding enterprise.

. . . Why does American culture use the A-word so promiscuously? Perhaps we’ve been living so long under a cloud of doom that every danger now readily takes on the same lethal hue.

Psychiatrist Robert Lifton predicted such a state years ago when he suggested that the nuclear age had put us all in the grips of what he called “psychic numbing” or “death in life” . . . . Lifton’s research showed that the link between death and life had become, as he put it, a “broken connection.”

As a result, he speculated, our minds stop trying to find the vitalizing images necessary for any healthy life. Every effort to form new mental images only conjures up more fear that the chain of life itself is coming to a dead end. Ultimately, we are left with nothing but “apathy, withdrawal, depression, despair.”

If that’s the deepest psychic lens through which we see the world, however unconsciously, it’s easy to understand why anything and everything can look like more evidence that The End is at hand. No wonder we have a generation of American youth and young adults who take a world filled with apocalyptic images for granted.

. . . [S]uch a single-minded focus on danger and doom subtly reinforces the message of our era of apocalypses everywhere: abandon all hope, ye who live here and now.

FULL STORY: “Apocalypses Everywhere

For those of you who, like me, live right in the midst of this circumstance both psychologically and geographically, I suggest bearing the above observations in mind as you surf the waves of apocalyptic sentiment that continue to cascade across America — including the ones here at this blog.

Image courtesy of manostphoto / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – September 6, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To introduce today’s offering of necessary and recommended reading, here’s a description of a trend in academia that represents one of the most ironic of all ironies (as described by the excerpt), and also one of the most welcome and revealing developments of the present age:

It’s odd how many academic disciplines grew out of the study of trance or ecstatic states. . . . Psychology, neurology, sociology and anthropology all began, in the late 19th century, with the study of ecstatic, charismatic, or trance states. They all found naturalistic interpretations for such states. And they were usually pejorative explanations. The academic distinguished himself from the ecstatic individual or crowd by remaining outside the trance, dispassionately analysing it, classifying it. The academic is masculine, European, conscious, rational, self-controlled. The ecstatic individual or group is feminine, unconscious, irrational, uncontrolled, weak-willed, hysterical, childish, primitive, degenerate.

I’d go as far as to say modern academia is founded on the rejection of the supernatural, including the rejection of revelation-through-trance. It’s the foundational principle of so many of its departments — not just the social sciences, but also economics, history, even literary criticism. Academia is a machine for disenchantment.

. . . [V]ery slowly, there are signs that a [William] Jamesian spirit is returning to academia, and the cross-disciplinary study of ‘unusual’ or ‘altered’ states of consciousness is making a come-back. . . . [Various academic and scientific disciplines are] exploring the value of unconscious or altered conscious states, of involuntary experiences like trances and ecstasies. The researchers in the field are by no means committed to belief in some metaphysical ‘beyond’, or God, but they do tend to think that altered or unusual states are not always simply pathological — they can sometimes be positive and life-enhancing.

. . . Academics and non-academics working on this field need to summon up the spirit of William James to take it forward, by cultivating the Jamesian virtues of open-mindedness, interdisciplinarity, humility, sympathetic scepticism, empathy and respect for people’s experience, and above all, a willingness to be thought foolish.

— Jules Evans, “The New Science of Religious Experiences,” Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, September 6, 2013

* * *

The Future of History (Foreign Affairs)
Francis Fukayama famously announced “the end of history” in 1989, after which all kinds of stunning new history swiftly transpired. Now — or rather, in January 2012, which is when this piece appeared — he’s wondering about a different kind of ending. In this piece (whose full text, alas, resides behind a paywall), he is inspired by the global financial crisis to ask whether liberal democracy, “the default ideology around much of the world today,” can survive the death of the middle class. Thanks go out to David Pecotic for the link.

The sad realisation that you’ve stopped reading books (Daily Life)
“Somewhere between the invention of Facebook, Game of Thrones entering a third season and the 356th Gif ‘listicle’ on Buzzfeed about signs you’re almost 30, I stopped reading books. . . . [I]ncreasingly, it seems the dizzying superabundance of readable and watchable and eminently digestible stuff on the internet is proving a powerful opponent..”

Traveling without seeing (The New York Times)
“I’m half a world from home [in Shanghai], in a city I’ve never explored, with fresh sights and sounds around every corner. And what am I doing? I’m watching exactly the kind of television program I might watch in my Manhattan apartment. . . . [We have an] unprecedented ability to tote around and dwell in a snugly tailored reality of our own creation, a monochromatic gallery of our own curation.”

The Protestant Work Ethic Is Real (Pacific Standard)
Max Weber’s classic early-twentieth-century sociological/economic treatise The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism — which argued that Calvinist insecurity about one’s eternal destiny was the ironic and primary psychological and societal force that created modern capitalism — has always made sense to me personally, even though in recent years it has been fashionable to claim that Weber’s idea was mostly fanciful. Now here’s some news about several recent studies that indicate he really was onto something.

TED talks now routinely censoring scientists who share ideas on consciousness (Natural News)
The tone of this opinion piece is too wildly polemical for my taste (as is the author’s bizarre non sequitur of a tangent about racism), but the subject, the thesis, the supporting evidence, and the writer’s reasoning and conclusion are quite significant: “To really understand the desperation behind TED’s censorship and attempted suppression of ideas from people like [Graham] Hancock and [Rupert] Sheldrake, you first have to understand why the idea of consciousness is so incredibly dangerous to the mythology of modern-day science.” Read this in tandem with the item directly below.

Science vs. Pseudoscience (The Huffington Post)
Read this in tandem with the item directly above. It’s written by computational scientist, emeritus professor of mathematics, and former NASA researcher Dave Pruett, and it explores the epic pro-materialist/anti-consciousness bias of what we call mainstream science, using the Sheldrake and Hancock TED controversy as a starting point: “Sheldrake’s and Graham’s offense: proposing the unorthodox view that consciousness is nonlocal. . . . Nonlocality is now mainstream in physics. Psi phenomena strongly suggest that consciousness is also both nonlocal and collective. Were mainstream science able to relax its rigid orthodoxy, rigorous scientific investigations could help to confirm or refute this hypothesis, to shed light on the numinous qualities of the cosmos, and to probe the full potential of the human being.”

I Dream of Genius (Joseph Epstein for Commentary Magazine)
An excellent, concise history of the very idea of “genius,” including a look at its previous meaning in the form of the Socratic daimon and the Roman genius spirit and the way this was fatefully altered in Western cultural history: “The dividing line for our understanding of genius was the 18th century. In an emerging secular age, Descartes and Voltaire removed the tutelary-angel aspect from the conception. . . . Men were no longer thought to have genius but to be geniuses. . . . Genius, meanwhile, remains the least understood of all kinds of intelligence. The explanation for the existence of geniuses and accounting for their extraordinary powers have thus far eluded all attempts at scientific study. . . . I find it pleasing that science cannot account for genius. I do not myself believe in miracles, but I do have a strong taste for mysteries, and the presence, usually at lengthy intervals, of geniuses is among the great ones.”

Slash on His New Horror Film, Nothing Left to Fear (The Huffington Post)
Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash has co-produced and written the score for a new horror film. Here he talks about the film and his lifelong relationship to the genre, with references to H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Night of the Living Dead, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits. He also comes off as quite reflective and well-spoken. Okay, mind officially blown.

Aleister Crowley and esoteric art open window to the sacred (The Sydney Morning Herald)
“[Crowley’s] landscapes and trance paintings were created as part of his occult practices and influenced by symbolism and expressionism, says curator Robert Buratti. . . . Buratti says esoteric art is usually part of a personal spiritual practice, often of a ritual or magical nature. ‘It fundamentally asks the artist to delve into their own existence, and the artwork functions like a diary of that ordeal or a prompt to delve even further,’ he says. He says esoteric artists such as [Rosaleen] Norton and James Gleeson, the father of Australian Surrealism, use techniques like meditative trance to find a deeper truth.”

Ancient pharaohs, temporal lobe epilepsy, and the birth of monotheism

Did the religious visions and experiences associated with temporal lobe epilepsy, suffered across generations by a pivotally important royal family in ancient Egypt, give birth to monotheism? This newly advanced theory, which adds a possible new dimension to the longstanding and widely accepted belief that monotheism was founded by the pharaoh Akhenaten, a.k.a. Amenhotep IV (the father of Tutankhamun), sounds like something of a stretch. But that doesn’t make it any less interesting.

Tutankamun’s mysterious death as a teenager may finally have been explained. And the condition that cut short his life may also have triggered the earliest monotheistic religion, suggests a new review of his family history … [A]ll of these theories [about Tutankamun’s death] have missed one vital point, says Hutan Ashrafian, a surgeon with an interest in medical history at Imperial College London. Tutankhamun died young with a feminised physique, and so did his immediate predecessors … “It’s significant that two [of the five related pharaohs] had stories of religious visions associated with them,” says Ashrafian. People with a form of epilepsy in which seizures begin in the brain’s temporal lobe are known to experience hallucinations and religious visions, particularly after exposure to sunlight. It’s likely that the family of pharaohs had a heritable form of temporal lobe epilepsy, he says. This diagnosis would also account for the feminine features.

… Tuthmosis IV had a religious experience in the middle of a sunny day, recorded in the Dream Stele — an inscription near the Great Sphinx in Giza. But his visions were nothing compared with those experienced by Akhenaten. They encouraged Akhenaten to raise the status of a minor deity called the “sun-disk”, or Aten, into a supreme god — abandoning the ancient Egyptian polytheistic traditions to start what is thought to be the earliest recorded monotheistic religion. If Ashrafian’s theory is correct, Akhenaten’s religious experiment and Tutankhamun’s premature death may both have been a consequence of a medical condition. “People with temporal lobe epilepsy who are exposed to sunlight get the same sort of stimulation to the mind and religious zeal,” says Ashrafian.

“It’s a fascinating and plausible explanation,” says Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. However, the theory is almost impossible to prove, he adds, given that there is no definitive genetic test for epilepsy.

— Jessica Hamzelou, “Tutankamun’s death and the birth of monotheism,” New Scientist, September 5, 2012

(Story via The Daily Grail)

Note that Ashrafian lays out his theory in full in the September 2012 issue of Epilepsy & Behavior, in an article titled “Familial epilepsy in the pharaohs of ancient Egypt’s eighteenth dynasty.”

Image: Painting of the Aten from Amarna, Public Domain {{PD-US-no notice}} via Wikimedia Commons

Recommended Reading 22

This week’s recommended reading includes: a report on the real-world rise of nightmarish SF-type threats from widely deployed nanobots; a satirical exposure of the essence of bipolar political demonization; a story from National Geographic on the way ancient Rome’s obsession with borders and wall-building was directly implicated in the empire’s fall; information about a new book exploring advertising’s insidious impact on our unconscious selves; a rather riveting examination of Alcoholics Anonymous and its still-unexplained effectiveness at treating addictions; and some sage words from Dr. Rupert Sheldrake about the dogmas that currently have a semi-stranglehold on science.

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Recommended Reading 9

This week’s recommended articles, essays, and blog posts cover: various possible modes of doom that await us (or that are facing us right now), including climate change, economic collapse, and some other usual suspects; the hijacking of global culture by money and its possibly psychopathic servants; the historical role of alchemy in giving birth to our modern-day economic system driven by credit-based currency; a philosophy professor who has taken it on himself to publicize the anti-technological cultural critique of Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber, since in many ways these critiques may be pointedly on-target; an essay from no less authoritative a source than MIT Tech Review explaining why Facebook is not the new Google but the new AOL, and why it may collapse and bring down much of the rest of the Web with it; a 2008 report from The Wall Street Journal about one rather shocking way (in my opinion, at least) that American megachurches have begun to exploit corporate marketing tactics; and excellent essays (plus a video) about the life, thought, and work of Philip K. Dick, Whitley Strieber, and Ray Bradbury.

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The end of Sears, the end of industry, and the end of the former American Dream

A recent article about the imminent collapse of Sears (see below) brings out the mythic resonances of America’s current economic and sociocultural crises with gripping clarity, and also with more than a dose of poignancy. Read it and, if not weep, then at least feel properly braced and saddened, and not only at the colossal mess the whole situation currently embodies but at the future-less dream that Sears represented for several generations of people. Although the overt thrust of the article is to point out that the company’s troubles are self-inflicted, since the company failed to change with the times and meet the demands of the new business model that arose with Wal-Mart etc., the underlying point is clear: that the so-called American Dream, as conceived in terms of open access to middle-class material prosperity and upward mobility, is not just on the rocks but is, perhaps, exhaling its last breath.

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Recommended Reading 7

This week’s collection of recommended articles, essays, blog posts, and (as always) an interesting video or two, covers economic collapse and cultural dystopia; the question of monetary vs. human values; the ubiquity of disinformation in America and the accompanying need for true education of the deeply humanizing sort; the ongoing debate over climate change and its apocalyptic implications (including the apocalyptic implications of one possible means of dealing with it); the possibility of an Armageddon-level solar storm; the ongoing attempt to use the Internet for mass mental and social control, along with advice about protecting your privacy online; the clash between, on the one hand, neurological reductionism and scientism, and, on the other, more expansive ways of understanding science, consciousness, human life, and the universe; the rise of a generation of parentally-dominated college students in America (and its implications for art, psychology, and culture); religious controversies, both current and historical; the practice of eating corpses for medicine; the prospects for artistic achievement in the 21st century; the question of Lovecraft’s paranormal beliefs; Stanley Krippner’s career as a parapsychological researcher respected by both skeptics and believers alike; and a capsule summary of current UFO evidence.

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Recommend Reading 5

This week’s recommended reading includes articles and essays about: collapse and global crisis; the manipulation of economics and politics by wealthy elites; the mysteries of consciousness; current hot-button topics in religion and spirituality; fruitful ways of regarding paranormal phenomena; and the value of working consciously to live a real human life in the midst of our current culture of frenetic speed and digital interconnectedness. Read the rest of this entry