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.)
- This I Believe: An uber-agnostic on religion, psychology, consciousness, the paranormal, and the meaning of life
- The bias of scientific materialism and the reality of paranormal experience
- Liminality, Synchronicity, and the Walls of Everyday Reality
Image: L’éclipse de lune de Christophe Colomb. by Camille Flammarion (Astronomie Populaire 1879, p231 fig. 86) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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, 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.
Photo by Jim Harrison (PLoS) [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
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
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
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