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Do you believe in the paranormal?

Eclipse_Christopher_Colombus

Christopher Columbus fills the New World natives with fear and awe by predicting a lunar eclipse in 1504.

Over at Thomas Ligotti Online, someone has created a discussion thread that asks whether people believe in the paranormal. This has spawned an interesting conversation. It has also prodded me to reflect on the very terms of the question, as it my wont.

If we’re talking about belief in the paranormal, then what are the standards for normal relative to which we judge anything in theory or reality to be “para” that? If we’re talking about belief in the supernatural (which is just the older name for what was rebranded as paranormal a century or so ago), then what are the standards for natural relative to which we judge anything to be “super” that?

Once we’ve isolated and identified those standards, then it’s necessary to inquire about their source. Where do our standards for “normal” and “natural” come from? Are these standards defensible? What philosophical assumptions do they embody and proceed from? Are those assumptions themselves defensible? Our entire current framework for talking and thinking about these things flows from the great revolution in consciousness that was the birth and cultural triumph of material science in the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries. Certain types of knowledge and experience were isolated from the totality of experience making up the human sensorium (both inner and outer), and were elevated and lionized as being exclusively accurate and allowable, while other types of knowledge and experience were disallowed and disavowed. What was — and is — the warrant for that? And in what forms might those disallowed and disavowed aspects of the totality of human experience return to confront us from time to time?

My own long-developing view is that reality as a whole is far more varied and strange than anyone, working within any paradigm or worldview whether old or new, has ever been able to conceive or is intrinsically capable of conceiving. We effectively create the paranormal / supernatural when we create a sacred canopy (to borrow Peter Berger’s famous metaphor) of cosmic meaning for ourselves both individually and collectively, to serve as an orienting framework for our experience of existence. Whenever rents in the canopy’s fabric are made by encounters with aspects of reality that we have not incorporated into this collective cosmos, we’re confronted by things for which we have no name and no context. We cannot readily handle them, process them, integrate them within our framework of meaning. These literal anomalies (things for which we have no name or category) inherently appear threatening, horrifying, and often fascinating all at once. Then we start to have conversations and arguments about what they might mean or whether they even really exist.

Obviously, by definition, such an anomalous occurrence might well be something as relatively mundane as a cross-cultural encounter. The arrival of Columbus in the New World was a paranormal event for the people who already lived there. A paranormal event doesn’t have to mean seeing a ghost, suffering a paranormal abduction, experiencing spirit possession, witnessing a feat of levitation, encountering the Mothman, experiencing supernatural healing (or wounding), receiving knowledge telepathically, or anything else of the classically paranormal sort. But it may well mean such things. My own more-than-suspicion is that the likes of Robert Anton Wilson, Charles Fort, and John Keel were right about the basic nature of things and our fundamental relationship to it all qua our combined biological, psychological, spiritual, and ontological status as human beings. There are more things in heaven and earth, as it were.

(It appears that the full introduction to my paranormal encyclopedia is readable through Google Books preview. The last part of it, where I summarize a new paradigm regarding the paranormal that has emerged out of religious studies, anthropology, and related fields in the past few years, pretty much states my own position in more detail and different terms than what I’ve written here.)

RELATED READING:

Image:  L’éclipse de lune de Christophe Colomb. by Camille Flammarion (Astronomie Populaire 1879, p231 fig. 86) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Teeming Links – June 20, 2014

FireHead

Pandemic plague? Nuclear holocaust? Lethal asteroid strike? No worries: in case of planetary disaster, plans are afoot to use the moon as off-planet storage for the religious, cultural, and even genetic trappings of humanity.

Meanwhile, back here on earth, philosopher Mary Midgely (currently 94 years old) warns of impending catastrophe in a culture of scientism where philosophical problems are reduced to physical science and human beings to neurons.

Tonia Lombrozo, UC Berkeley psychology professor and writer on neuroscience and philosophy, considers the effects of neuroscientific determinism on beliefs about free will.

In his new book The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning, theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser argues 1) that science is fundamentally limited, and 2) that this is not at all a depressing or defeatist recognition: “Not all questions have answers. To hope that science will answer all questions is to want to shrink the human spirit, clip its wings, rob it from its multifaceted existence. . . . [T]o see science for what it is makes it more beautiful and powerful, not less. It aligns science with the rest of the human creative output, impressive, multifaceted, and imperfect as we are.”

Astrophysicist Adam Frank finds Gleiser’s perspective invigorating: “[Gleiser] has found a roadmap for making all science our science. There is no need to root scientific endeavor in some imagined perfect cosmic perspective or demand that, at root, it provide a full-and-comprehensive account for all being. Science is all the more astonishing, all the more remarking [sic], for simply illuminating our being.”)

Scott Adams (yes, the creator of Dilbert) observes that the Internet is no longer a technology but a psychology experiment.

Paul Waldman reflects on the Orwellian underside of our “glorious and ghastly” digital transition from mass media to micro-niche media:

Whether you’re spewing out your anger or bestowing a smiley-faced blessing on an article or video that brightened your day, the media industry wants and needs to know. Every editor tracks how many likes and tweets each piece of journalism produces, hoping all those atomized individuals will signal their approval or their displeasure and pass it along. As the price for our re-individualization, we’ve laid ourselves bare. The National Security Administration knows whom you’ve called, and maybe what websites you’ve visited. Google knows what you’ve searched for and tailors the ads you see to products it knows you’re interested in. Facebook holds on to every photo you’ve posted and thought you’ve shared; the company can now track where your cursor hovers when you lazily peruse that ex-girlfriend’s page. You can express your consternation about the latest revelation of domestic spying, right after you show the world a picture of your children. We’ve built our own personal panopticons from the inside out, clicking ‘I accept’ again and again, and we didn’t need a tyrannical government’s help to do it.

Jill Lepore identifies what’s wrong with the reigning gospel of “disruptive innovation”: it’s not some universal societal law but simply “competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.”

Arthur Krystal writes in defense of (the idea of) a literary canon: “The canon may be unfair and its proponents self-serving, but the fact that there is no set-in-stone syllabus or sacred inventory of Great Books does not mean there are no great books. This is something that seems to have gotten lost in the canon brawl — i.e., the distinction between a list of Great Books and the idea that some books are far better than others.”

Tim Parks observes that novels themselves are changing under the pressure of a culture of perpetual distraction that saps the “the very special energies required for tackling a substantial work of fiction.”

Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf highlights 100-plus pieces of the best journalistic and nonfiction writing from 2013.

Michael Hughes offers a concise and nifty account of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its enduring influence on occult, esoteric, spiritual, and popular culture.

BBC News Magazine writer Jon Kelly traces the lasting allure of the flying saucer.

Atlantic writer Megan Garber recounts the story of Kenneth Arnold, the man who introduced the world to flying saucers.

Visions of my comics-saturated childhood: remember the truly awesome UFO Flying Saucer comics from Gold Key? (And remember their truly awesome covers?)

UFO_Flying_Saucer_Gold_Key_1

Thelemic visions, magickal texts, and the tedium of transgression: Erik Davis interviews Gary Lachman about his new biography of Aleister Crowley.

Gnosticism, Lovecraft, and the labyrinth of biblical interpretation: Erik Davis interviews Robert M. Price about his new book Preaching Deconstruction.

 

“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

‘Mummies around the World’ now available for preorder

Mummies_around_the_World

I’m pleased to announce that my mummy encyclopedia is now available for preorder from the publisher, and also from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and elsewhere. The scheduled publication date is November 30.

From the official publisher’s description:

Perfect for school and public libraries, this is the only reference book to combine pop culture with science to uncover the mystery behind mummies and the mummification phenomena.

Mortality and death have always fascinated humankind. Civilizations from all over the world have practiced mummification as a means of preserving life after death — a ritual which captures the imagination of scientists, artists, and laypeople alike. This comprehensive encyclopedia focuses on all aspects of mummies: their ancient and modern history; their scientific study; their occurrence around the world; the religious and cultural beliefs surrounding them; and their roles in literary and cinematic entertainment.

Author and horror guru Matt Cardin brings together 130 original articles written by an international roster of leading scientists and scholars to examine the art, science, and religious rituals of mummification throughout history. Through a combination of factual articles and topical essays, this book reviews cultural beliefs about death; the afterlife; and the interment, entombment, and cremation of human corpses in places like Egypt, Europe, Asia, and Central and South America. Additionally, the book covers the phenomenon of natural mummification, where environmental conditions result in the spontaneous preservation of human and animal remains.

Here’s an excerpt (slightly condensed) from my introduction to the book: Read the rest of this entry

Life guidance from Edward O. Wilson: ‘Search until you find a passion and go all out to excel in its expression’

Edward_O_Wilson

Edward O. Wilson, 2003

Edward O. Wilson is of course most famous as the seminal thinker, author, scientist, and figure in the field of sociobiology, which he defined in his 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis as the “systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior.” Although there are many valid criticisms to be made, and that have been made, of the scientific reductionism that is built into sociobiology, this doesn’t mean Wilson isn’t a fascinating and inspiring figure in his own way, and these qualities come out beautifully in a recent interview that he gave to the Harvard Gazette.

The conversation ends on a high note as Wilson reflects on his lifelong excitement over the field of biology and offers some piercingly excellent advice — framed in terms of science but applicable on a wider basis — for students and young people in search of a life calling:

Q: What is most exciting about your field right now?

A: I haven’t changed since I was a 17-year-old entering the University of Alabama. I’m still basically a boy who’s excited by what’s going on. We are on a little-known planet. We have knowledge of two million species, but for the vast majority we know only the name and a little bit of the anatomy. We don’t know anything at all about their biology. There is conservatively at least eight million species in all, and it’s probably much more than that because of the bacteria and archaea and microorganisms we’re just beginning to explore. The number of species remaining to be discovered could easily go into the tens of millions.

. . . Q: What lessons can a young student starting out today, looking at your career and thinking, “I want to make an impact like that” — what lessons can he or she extract from your life?

A: It almost sounds trite, you hear it so often, but you don’t see enough of it in college-age students, and that is to acquire a passion. You probably already have one, but if you haven’t got one, search until you find a passion and go all out to excel in its expression. With reference to biology and science, do the opposite of the military dictum and march away from the sound of guns. Don’t get too enamored by what’s happening right at this moment and science heroes doing great things currently. Learn from them, but think further down the line: Move to an area where you can be a pioneer.

MORE: “For E. O. Wilson, Wonders Never Cease

 

Photo by Jim Harrison (PLoS) [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Teeming Links – April 18, 2014

FireHead

Washington, DC as a corrupt inferno of reality distortion (WARNING: Reading this may make you profoundly ill): “The resulting offspring of this confluence of industry, politics, and pop-culture has produced a wide range of hybrid permutations of all three partners: the celebrity operative (Carville-Matalin, Stephanopoulos), the cable news partisanship industry (Fox, MSNBC), the Hollywood revisionist/fictional political thriller (West Wing, Game Change, House of Cards), and the reality challenged political self-promotions industry (any consultant living in DC) — all of which has in the ensuing decades created a political atmosphere in DC having very little to do with the real business of governing, and more about massaging reality to fit whatever narrative serves your brand best.”

Wall Street as dystopian nightmare: “Imagine you’re a scientist in some sci-fi alternate universe, and you’ve been charged with creating a boot camp that will reliably turn normal but ambitious people into broken sociopaths more or less willing to do anything.”

How Goldman Sachs (and others) blew up the economy and profited from our misery: “The cumulative impact of this fusion of technology, greed, and moral blindness, duplicated from one end of Wall Street to the other, was global economic meltdown.”

The secret spiritual history of calculus: “Integral calculus originated in a 17th-century debate that was as religious as it was scientific. . . . For the Jesuits, the purpose of mathematics was to construct the world as a fixed and eternally unchanging place, in which order and hierarchy could never be challenged. . . . For Cavalieri and his fellow indivisiblists, it was the exact reverse.”

The (not so) secret magical history of science: “In reality, science owes its origins to beliefs that the high priests of modern science such as Richard Dawkins would regard as even more irrational than Christianity.”

The historical birth and continued vitality of the Illuminati conspiracy theory: “In popular culture and old-time religion, satire and nationalist politics, the Illuminati conspiracy still resonates with its warning that the light of reason has its shadows, and even the most enlightened democracy can be manipulated by hidden hands.”

It turns out George Romero was more prophetic than even he knew when he set Dawn of the Dead in a shopping mall. As reported by the BBC, it’s the end of an era as the entire phenomenon of American shopping malls is dying: “Born in the 1950s, these temples of commerce were symbols of the US consumer culture — but many are now dying out. . . . Soon enough, and just as no one knows how to make use of Ancient Egyptian temples today, shopping malls will become the stuff of archaeology and folklore.”

So what might replace indoor shopping malls? Well, isn’t it obvious? Say hello to outdoor mega-shopping villages based on the Disney model, where shoppers are called “guests” and the whole experience is carefully controlled, right down to the faux quaint architecture and village-like layout. Says one leading developer, “We’re in the entertainment business. You step on the property in the morning, it’s got to be perfect.”

Lessons from Stephen King and Valley of the Dolls: A college student named Matthew Kahn is reading 94 bestselling books from the past century (1913-2013) and blogging about what he’s learning re: the evolving nature and status of popular fiction and its audience.

A brief history of “Choose Your Own Adventure” (and oh, did I love those books when I was in junior high): “Nearly 35 years after its debut, ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ remains a publishing landmark.”

 

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To Cleanse the Doors of Conception: Psychic Dreams, Scientific Monsters, and Transcendent Realities

Dream researcher, Teeming Brain friend, and future Teeming Brain contributor Ryan Hurd — who has spoken about dreams, consciousness, sleep paralysis, and related matters at Stanford, Yale, UC Berkeley, the Rhine Center, and elsewhere — recently shared an account of an apparently precognitive dream that he personally experienced. As I was reading through it, in addition to finding his description of what happened to be rather fascinating, I found that a number of thoughts and recognitions were crowding forward from the peripheries of my awareness to announce the wider implications of such experiences. All of them have to do with the question of what’s really involved in and portended by exactly the philosophical effect Ryan identifies in connection with anomalous experiences in general, namely, a cracking of the “dam” of assumptions that lead most of us to explain away the significance of such anomalies for our worldview, or even to screen out a conscious acceptance and/or awareness of such things altogether. When this kind of breach in one’s personal cosmos is effected, the resulting flood of formerly rejected realities has the capacity to recast everything in ways that can be experienced as horrific, salvific, or even both at once. Read the rest of this entry

Anomalies, Materialism, and the Liberating Death of Ufology

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

Humility and Silence: Where True Science and True Spirituality Meet

It is said that we live in an age of light, but it would be truer to say that we are living in an age of twilight; here and there a luminous ray pierces through the mists of darkness, but does not light to full clearness either our reason or our hearts. Men are not of one mind, scientists dispute, and where there is discord truth is not yet apprehended.

– From The Cloud Upon the Sanctuary, by Karl von Eckhartshausen

What is it about the pursuit of truth that leads to so many conflicts? Eckhartshausen was writing in the late 18th century, and yet his statement reads no less true after 300-some years of “progress.”

An opinionated conflict rages today as it did during the Enlightenment — highlighted in many public disputes, provoked by writers such as Richard Dawkins — over trivial matters that have already been settled and problems that have already been overcome by leading thinkers across the history of intellectual endeavor. Yet, at heart, anyone who honestly applies to a study of existence, including even Dawkins himself, cannot help being seduced beyond conflict by the beauty of life.

Jerry L. Martin, former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, posted a quote from Richard Dawkins on his Facebook page that draws out this truth:

There’s poetry in the real world. Science is the poetry of reality.

To this Martin added a simple, appended question:

Is he right?

And I have to respond: certainly. Science is one of the most direct, beautiful, and complete means of accessing the glory of existence, a raw and unequaled poetry! However, this assertion comes with the caveat that it only true when viewed through a proper interpretation. Read the rest of this entry

Recommended Reading 28

This week: posthumously offered words of warning and encouragement to an America in decline from Ernest Callenbach, author of the 1975 classic Ecotopia; insightful meditations on the intrinsic value of the humanities and their inherent resistance to being explained (as in, explained away) by quantitative scientific methodologies and approaches; a 1908 essay by a French author celebrating the philosophical value of “the scientific-marvelous novel,” i.e., science fiction; a penetrating essay by Adam Curtis on a classic 1990s BBC television series about ghosts and what it reveals about the real residing place of phantoms and specters in our modern mass media culture; and an essay by clinical psychologist and paranormal researcher James Carpenter on his fascinating theory about the fundamental and a priori place of what’s commonly called “psi” in the basic workings of human consciousness and perception. Read the rest of this entry

Recommended Reading 27

This week’s recommended reading covers Morris Berman’s diagnosis of, and prognosis for, the waning of our modern age of capitalism; the end of economic growth due to peak oil; a call from Jaron Lanier to recognize the wizard’s trick of delusion that we’re all pulling on ourselves with technology; a reflection on the soul tragedy of a culture of 24/7 digital connectedness; a report on the nefarious collusion of corporate funding in scientific research and reporting; a cool article by John Keel on the birth of flying saucers as a cultural phenomenon; an interview with the creator of a new multimedia project based on lucid dreaming and stretching the boundaries of conventional storytelling; a consideration of the enduring mainstream impact of occult/esoteric/”New Age” ideas on American culture and society; and words about Swedenborg and visionary mysticism and spirituality from Gary Lachman and Mitch Horowitz. Read the rest of this entry