What is real, anyhow? Erik Davis on visionary experiences and the high weirdness of the seventies counterculture
Last night I digitally stumbled across this:
It’s Erik Davis’s senior thesis, written as he was pursuing his Ph.D. in religious studies at Rice University, and submitted just last fall. You’ll recall that I mentioned Erik’s study of this same high weirdness last year (and that he and I, and also Maja D’Aoust, had a good conversation about daemonic creativity and related matters a few years ago). Now here’s this, the scholarly fruit of his several years of research and writing, and it promises to be a fantastic — in several senses — read.
For me, at least, it’s also laden with mild synchronistic significance. I’m presently teaching an introduction to world religions course using Comparing Religions by Jeffrey J. Kripal as the main textbook, so I’m spending a lot of time immersed in Jeff’s thoughtworld, and also helping undergraduate college students to understand it. In the past two weeks I have had a couple of email communications with Jeff in connection with the crucial networking assistance that he provided in the early stages of Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics as I was attempting to locate suitable contributors for the book. And then just last night as I was staring at my laptop screen and realizing with pleasure that I had accidentally found Erik’s thesis on the UFOs, synchronicities, psychedelic visions, alien voices, and other crazy anomalistic weirdnesses that characterized the seventies counterculture, I scanned down the cover page and had another surprise when I saw Jeffrey J. Kripal listed as a member of his thesis committee. It’s not a synchronicity in the same league as, say, Jung’s seminal encounter with the scarabaeid beetle, but it was enough to give me a start and a chuckle.
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In my recent post about Jeff Kripal’s article “Visions of the Impossible,” I mentioned that biologist and hardcore skeptical materialist Jerry Coyne published a scathing response to Jeff’s argument soon after it appeared. For those who would like to keep up with the conversation, here’s the heart of Coyne’s response (which, in its full version, shows him offering several direct responses to several long passages that he quotes from Jeff’s piece):
For some reason the Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly publication that details doings (and available jobs) in American academia, has shown a penchant for bashing science and promoting anti-materialist views. . . . I’m not sure why that is, but I suspect it has something to do with supporting the humanities against the dreaded incursion of science — the bogus disease of “scientism.”
That’s certainly the case with a big new article in the Chronicle, “Visions of the impossible: how ‘fantastic’ stories unlock the nature of consciousness,” by Jeffrey J. Kripal, a professor of religious studies at Rice University in Texas. Given his position, it’s not surprising that Kripal’s piece is an argument about Why There is Something Out There Beyond Science. And although the piece is long, I can summarize its thesis in two sentences (these are my words, not Kripal’s):
“People have had weird experiences, like dreaming in great detail about something happening before it actually does; and because these events can’t be explained by science, the most likely explanation is that they are messages from some non-material realm beyond our ken. If you combine that with science’s complete failure to understand consciousness, we must conclude that naturalism is not sufficient to understand the universe, and that our brains are receiving some sort of ‘transhuman signals.'”
That sounds bizarre, especially for a distinguished periodical, but anti-naturalism seems to be replacing postmodernism as the latest way to bash science in academia.
. . . But our brain is not anything like a radio. The information processed in that organ comes not from a transhuman ether replete with other people’s thoughts, but from signals sent from one neuron to another, ultimately deriving from the effect of our physical environment on our senses. If you cut your optic nerves, you go blind; if you cut the auditory nerves, you become deaf. Without such sensory inputs, whose mechanisms we understand well, we simply don’t get information from the spooky channels promoted by Kripal.
When science manages to find reliable evidence for that kind of clairvoyance, I’ll begin to pay attention. Until then, the idea of our brain as a supernatural radio seems like a kind of twentieth-century alchemy—the resort of those whose will to believe outstrips their respect for the facts.
Full article: “Science Is Being Bashed by Academic Who Should Know Better“
(An aside: Is it just me, or in his second paragraph above does Coyne effectively insult and dismiss the entire field of religious studies and all of the people who work in it?)
Jeff responded five days later in a second piece for the Chronicle, where he met Coyne’s criticisms head-on with words like these: Read the rest of this entry
Religion scholar Jeffrey Kripal is one of the most lucid and brilliant voices in the current cultural conversation about the relationship between science and the paranormal, and about the rehabilitation of the latter as an important concept and category after a century of scorn, derision, and dismissal by the gatekeepers of mainstream cultural and intellectual respectability. (And yes, we’ve referenced his work many times here at The Teeming Brain.)
Recently, The Chronicle Review, from The Chronicle of Higher Education, published a superb essay by him that has become a lightning rod for both passionate attack and equally passionate defense. It has even brought a strong response — a scornful one, of course — from no less a defender of scientistic orthodoxy than Jerry Coyne. I’ll say more about these things in another post later this week, but for now here’s a representative excerpt that makes two things abundantly clear: first, why this essay serves as a wonderful condensation of and/or introduction to Jeff’s essential 2010 book Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred and its semi-sequel, 2011’s Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal; and second, why it’s so significant that something like this would be published in a venue like The Chronicle Review. The intellectual orthodoxy of the day is clearly undergoing a radical transformation when a respected religion scholar at a respected university (Jeff currently holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University) can say things like this in a publication like that:
Because we’ve invested our energy, time, and money in particle physics, we are finding out all sorts of impossible things. But we will not invest those resources in the study of anomalous states of cognition and consciousness, and so we continue to work with the most banal models of mind — materialist and mechanistic ones. While it is true that some brain research has gone beyond assuming that “mind equals brain” and that the psyche works like, or is, a computer, we are still afraid of the likelihood that we are every bit as bizarre as the quantum world, and that we possess fantastic capacities that we have allowed ourselves to imagine only in science fiction, fantasy literature, and comic books.
. . . In the rules of this materialist game, the scholar of religion can never take seriously what makes an experience or expression religious, since that would involve some truly fantastic vision of human nature and destiny, some transhuman divinization, some mental telegraphy, dreamlike soul, clairvoyant seer, or cosmic consciousness. All of that is taken off the table, in principle, as inappropriate to the academic project. And then we are told that there is nothing “religious” about religion, which, of course, is true, since we have just discounted all of that other stuff.
Our present flatland models have rendered human nature something like the protagonist Scott Carey in the film The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). With every passing decade, human nature gets tinier and tinier and less and less significant. In a few more years, maybe we’ll just blip out of existence (like poor Scott at the end of the film), reduced to nothing more than cognitive modules, replicating DNA, quantum-sensitive microtubules in the synapses of the brain, or whatever. We are constantly reminded of the “death of the subject” and told repeatedly that we are basically walking corpses with computers on top — in effect, technological zombies, moist robots, meat puppets. We are in the ridiculous situation of having conscious intellectuals tell us that consciousness does not really exist as such, that there is nothing to it except cognitive grids, software loops, and warm brain matter. If this were not so patently absurd and depressing, it would be funny.
. . . We now have two models of the brain and its relationship to mind, an Aristotelian one and a Platonic one, both of which fit the neuroscientific data well enough: the reigning production model (mind equals brain), and the much older but now suppressed transmission or filter model (mind is experienced through or mediated, shaped, reduced, or translated by brain but exists in its own right “outside” the skull cavity).
. . . There are . . . countless . . . clues in the history of religions that rule the radio theory in, and that suggest, though hardly prove, that the human brain may function as a super-evolved neurological radio or television and, in rare but revealing moments when the channel suddenly “switches,” as an imperfect receiver of some transhuman signal that simply does not play by the rules as we know them.
Although it relies on an imperfect technological metaphor, the beauty of the radio or transmission model is that it is symmetrical, intellectually generous, and — above all — capable of demonstrating what we actually see in the historical data, when we really look.
MORE: “Visions of the Impossible“
Image courtesy of Dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I would be interested to hear how many Teeming Brain readers find aspects of their own beliefs and experiences described by this extremely interesting article at Pacific Standard, and/or how many of you have observed the trend it identifies playing out in the lives of people you know. That trend, by the way, is “a fundamental shift in how we approach the paranormal,” as both science and traditional Judeo-Christian religiosity fail to fulfill deep human longings, resulting in the rise and increasing prevalence in America (and elsewhere) of a paranormal-themed religious syncretism that amounts to “a new religious worldview.”
[E]verywhere you look in the United States today, the supernatural is more culturally important, more acceptable, and just. . . more than it’s ever been before. Paranormal-themed media of all types have surged, in fiction obviously, but also in non-fiction too, where the past few years have brought us everything from The Most Terrifying Places in America to Psychic Tia to The Monster Project. Then there are the Bigfoot hunts, the ghost hunting tool reviews, the UFO spotting iPhone apps — we can’t get enough of this stuff.
This should come as no surprise. Despite our reputation as a science-minded superpower, America has always had a predilection for the unseen. It has ebbed and flowed with us for as long as this nation has existed, in the form of the 18th-century pilgrim mystics, the domesticated poltergeists that knocked on command in the 19th, and even in the academically inclined parapsychologists of the 20th. Whether you believe in these ideas or not is almost immaterial: the paranormal is an inescapable ingredient in the American identity that has shaped and been shaped by our society for centuries.
Perhaps that makes it all the more meaningful that today’s supernatural surge is not just another cycle of the same old thing, but a fundamental shift in how we approach the paranormal. It’s democratic, laden with jargon, and endlessly customizable — in short, it’s the DIY American techno-religion of the 21st century.
. . . [According to Tok Thompson, a folklorist at the University of Southern California,] “Even though it’s done great things for the iPads, I don’t think science has done very well at answering the big questions like, What happens when I die? In fact, science has absolutely nothing to say about that right now, and people want to know.”
. . . “A certain kind of American is no long going to the Bible for his or her worldview, they’re going to science,” says Jeffrey Kripal, a religion scholar at Rice University who has studied the interaction between pop culture and the paranormal. But, he adds, “they’re then linking that science up with these various spiritual currents, which have been in America for at least a century and a half, and they’re basically building a new religious worldview.”
Full article: “The Church of the Paranormal“
Image courtesy of hyena reality / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
The link between creativity and the paranormal or supernatural is an old and enduring one, beginning with ancient ideas about the muse, daemon, and genius, which connected the inner world of artists and poets to the realm of the divine. For a detailed laying-out of this point, see especially chapters one and two of my A Course in Demonic Creativity: A Writer’s Guide to the Inner Genius.
This link has received an increasing amount of very prominent attention in the past couple of years. Jeffrey Kripal, for instance, has written (in his book Mutants, Mystics, and Superheroes) about the bizarre synchronicities and paranormal perturbations that have long attended the work of comic book writers and artists, some of whose fictional envisionings have had a disturbing tendency to manifest in real life.
In a more formally scientific vein, clinical psychologist and parapsychologist James C. Carpenter devotes an entire chapter of his new and paradigm-defining book First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life to exploring the connection between psi and creativity. He writes, “The human act of creation, the production of some extraordinary poem or symphony or play or scientific theory, seems as mysterious and awesome as the furtive flashes of preknowing or distant seeing that we term psi. Human in their expression, both seem somehow extrahuman in their source. Logical consciousness can marvel at them and study them, but it cannot produce them at will.” He then demonstrates with an abundance of experimental evidence and astute theoretical interpretation that psi and creativity “emerge from similar preconscious processes and are expressed by the same principles of operation.” (Look for a full review of Dr. Carpenter’s amazing book to appear here in the near future, and also at the New York Journal of Books, where I may be coming online as a reviewer.)
Then there’s the case of Robert Anton Wilson, who not only experienced the link between creativity and paranormality in his own life (as I explore in considerable depth in my essay about his, Aleister Crowley’s, and Timothy Leary’s interlinked engagement with a “higher intelligence,” available in the October 2012 issue of the journal Paranthropology) but had very compelling things to say about it. The main source of this material remains, of course, his many books, and particularly the original Cosmic Trigger, which is an extended account of the way his life was upended and taken over for several years by daimonic and paranormal weirdnesses that appeared directly related to his creative philosophical and philosophical creative endeavors. But when you comb through his various other materials, including his articles, essays, and interviews, you end up frequently running into additional statements and one-off comments that he made about the very same subject.
A current case in point — current because I stumbled across it just this morning — is found in an interview he gave to UFO writer Sean Casteel in 1998. Wilson’s observation that “the writing process does have a spooky side,” and that it seems worthwhile to preserve and honor this recognition in the words and concepts we use to think and talk about it, as opposed to inadvertently dismissing the mystery with knee-jerk references to “the unconscious mind,” could serve as the seed for a lifetime’s meditation on, and fruitful practice of, authorial creativity as a primary path to realizing one’s destiny.
ROBERT ANTON WILSON: I’ll tell you, the movie [Wag the Dog] seems to be a combination of what happened in the novel [American Hero, on which the movie was loosely based], in which George Bush started a war to goose up his popularity without any sexual scandals to motivate him, and the sexual scandals of the Clinton administration, which came after the book was written. So it is another example of the astonishing way in which writers, using their imagination, take something that happened already and embroider on it and describe something that is going to happen later also. Writers often write about things they don’t know and only later they find out they were doing that. When I first wrote that Beethoven was a member of the Illuminati, that was a joke. Then I read a biography of Beethoven that made it seem extremely likely.
SEAN CASTEEL: But when you have cases like that of synchronicity between a novel or a movie and real events, is that something they can in any way do consciously or deliberately?
RAW: No, you’ve just got to, as William Faulkner said, “trust the demon.” That means trust whatever it is that drives you to create fiction, to write creatively — trust it and see what comes out. It is always astonishing when you find out that the demon knows more than you know. Norman Mailer calls it the “navigator in the unconscious.” You don’t have to call it a demon. Faulkner just liked to be Gothic.
SC: They taught us the same thing in a fiction class at college. The best stuff just kind of wells up from the unconscious of its own will.
RAW: That is the modern jargon for it. I actually prefer Faulkner’s poetic language, because the writing process does have a spooky side, which psychological models seem to ignore. But everybody uses the metaphors that work for them.
— Sean Casteel, “Robert Anton Wilson Q and A,” Conspiracy Journal, 1998
Image by frankenstoen [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
On November 4, The Telegraph reported that the field of ufology, at least as it’s viewed and practiced in Britain, may be dead or dying:
For decades, they have been scanning the skies for signs of alien activity. But having failed to establish any evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life, Britain’s UFO watchers are reaching the conclusion that the truth might not be out there after all. Enthusiasts admit that a continued failure to provide proof and a decline in the number of “flying saucer” sightings suggests that aliens do not exist after all and could mean the end of “Ufology” — the study of UFOs — within the next decade.
— Jasper Copping, “UFO enthusiasts admit the truth may not be out there after all,” The Telegraph, November 4, 2012
This assessment comes from several expert sources, including Britain’s well-regarded Association for the Study of Anomalous Phenomena, which has scheduled a meeting to discuss the issue:
Dozens of groups interested in the flying saucers and other unidentified craft have already closed because of lack of interest and next week one of the country’s foremost organisations involved in UFO research is holding a conference to discuss whether the subject has any future. Dave Wood, chairman of the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (Assap), said the meeting had been called to address the crisis in the subject and see if UFOs were a thing of the past. “It is certainly a possibility that in ten years time, it will be a dead subject,” he added. “We look at these things on the balance of probabilities and this area of study has been ongoing for many decades. The lack of compelling evidence beyond the pure anecdotal suggests that on the balance of probabilities that nothing is out there. I think that any UFO researcher would tell you that 98 per cent of sightings that happen are very easily explainable. One of the conclusions to draw from that is that perhaps there isn’t anything there. The days of compelling eyewitness sightings seem to be over.” He said that far from leading to an increase in UFO sightings and research, the advent of the internet had coincided with a decline … The issue is to be debated at a summit at the University of Worcester on November 17 and the conclusions reported in the next edition of the association’s journal, Anomaly.
These developments are in turn linked to the recent closing of the UK’s official investigations into UFO phenomena:
The summit follows the emergence earlier this year of the news that the Ministry of Defence was no longer investigating UFO sightings after ruling there is “no evidence” they pose a threat to the UK. David Clark, a Sheffield Hallam University academic and the UFO adviser to the National Archives, said: “The subject is dead in that no one is seeing anything evidential.”
Obviously, this is all quite interesting. But more than that, it’s highly significant, and not just for people who are directly interested in UFOs. Despite the fact that the Telegraph article perpetuates the perennial rhetorical and philosophical foolishness of dividing the UFO-interested community into “believers” and “skeptics” (and also uses the word “enthusiasts” to maddening effect), it’s a very valuable piece of work, because it points to a deeply meaningful cultural moment for the study of anomalous phenomena, and also, more broadly, for our collective understanding of the relative meanings and statuses of anomalies, paranormal events, and material science. Read the rest of this entry
Over at Silver Screen Saucers, the always-interesting Website about Hollywood’s long-running engagement with UFOs, you’ll find a very long and totally absorbing essay by author and illustrator Mike Clelland about “a deep dark hole of synchro-weirdness” that opened up for him when he rewatched the 1974 television movie The Stranger Within, which he first saw as a child.
Clelland begins by noting that
Something extremely strange is interwoven into the UFO phenomenon. There are weird coincidences and synchronicities that seem to merge with the overall topic in ways that defy any easy explanation. This includes a kind of predictive manifestation in our pop culture. If you dig just a little bit you’ll find that movies, radio drama, literature and (especially) comic books all have a way of anticipating the plot points of the unfolding UFO drama.
Then he goes on to examine the multiply entangled weirdnesses of the movie’s resonances with the djinn motif of I Dream of Jeannie (since both the movie and the series featured Barbara Eden in the lead role), the basis of The Stranger Within in a short story written two decades earlier by Richard Matheson, Matheson’s own synchronistic nest of ingoing and outgoing creative and philosophical influences, the role and reality of hypnosis and channeling in alien abduction research, the birth and evolution of the human/alien hybrid meme, its thematic links to Egyptian and Christian religion and mythology, and his own personal experience of “missing time” after witnessing an aerial light flash when he was 12 years old in 1974 — the very same year, again, that The Stranger Within aired on ABC.
Especially fascinating in the midst of this thoroughly fascinating long-form exercise in creative synchronistic reflection are Clelland’s musings on the implications of these matters for the experience of creativity:
Richard Matheson’s output over the last 62 years has been astounding. The consistency and breadth leaves me dumbfounded. His first short story was published in 1950 and for the next decade he really cranked ‘em out. The short story Trespass (the basis for the movie) emerged during that creative frenzy. Like his other early stories, it was printed in a pulp sci-fi magazine.
I am convinced that there is a very real power in the creative process, and when abandoning (or disciplining) oneself to this kind of artistic inspiration, something mysterious can unfold. The artist can somehow tap into deeper truths. The work-a-day routine of sitting in front of a typewriter (or canvas, or 2-ply Bristol) can be seen as a ritual act, very much like the forgotten alchemist who sits before his candle. Matheson must have been on fire during those early years, and something weirdly predictive seems to have been manifested in this tight little story.
These ideas have been explored magnificently by Jeffrey Kripal in his book Mutants and Monsters [sic] and by Christopher Knowles on his blog The Secret Sun. Both these authors have examined the strange emergence of mythology in the tawdry pages of super hero comics and low-brow magazines.
— “The Stranger Within: Foreshadowing, Unexplainable Pregnancies, Hybrid Children and the Creative Process,” Silver Screen Saucers, October 11, 2012
Note that Clelland has also made a longer version of the same essay available as a freely downloadable PDF (via Scribd).
Image courtesy of Victor Habbick / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Is it just me, or is there a large-scale, culture-wide meta-pattern taking shape when it comes to the status of philosophical ideas of the “Big Question” variety? Are questions about the nature of personal and cosmic reality, and even of ontology itself, going mainstream and joining the more standard issues of politics and economics as matters of widespread, above-board focus and discussion? And are these somehow linked to a growing fascination — or obsession — with the morbid and macabre? And is this all leading to a simultaneously wonderful and disturbing sense of universal disorientation? Consider the following:
In recent years the John Templeton Foundation has made news multiple times with its high-profile funding of research into religious and philosophical questions and issues. Most prominently, they awarded a $4.4 million grant to Florida State University philosopher Alfred Mele to study the question of whether humans have free will and a $5 million grant to University of California-Riverside philosopher John Martin Fischer to conduct “research on aspects of immortality, including near-death experiences and the impact of belief in an afterlife on human behavior.” Obviously, these things run directly counter to the mainstream intellectual and scientific culture/climate where such issues and even the questions behind them have come to be viewed as suspect, worthless, and/or meaningless.
Now The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the ongoing efforts of the Templeton Foundation are starting to shift the intellectual playing field itself:
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