Showing posts with label Sociology of the Paranormal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sociology of the Paranormal. Show all posts

21.11.13

SCIENCE AND SCIENTISM

John Cowburn. Scientism: A Word We Need. Mosaic Press, Preston, Victoria, Australia. 2013

Scientism is the belief that only scientific knowledge is valid. Thus, it is thought that everything that is true can, at least in principle, be proved by scientific means.

John Cowburn argues that scientism has become too prevalent among scientists and is applied to fields of study where it is not logically applicable. This tendency to try to submit everything to scientific analysis in the attempt to provide a complete system of explanation seems to have been stimulated by discoveries in physics aided by the devising of new mathematical techniques.

It needs to be recognised, though, that there are theoretical physicists and practical physicists. The theorists construct mathematical models which suggest that there are unknown forces or subatomic particles waiting to be discovered, and suitable experiments are devised by practical physicists to test their ideas. These scientists are well aware, of course, that failure to confirm a theory can be caused by faulty equipment or inaccurate measurements as well as invalid theories.

Of course, even those who think that science could, in theory, eventually explain everything are aware that this is not possible in practice. I suspect that what Cowburn is getting at is the tendency of some scientists not to make sufficient distinctions between facts and values.

Early in the twentieth century an increasing number of philosophers wanted their subject to be associated with mathematics and science, rather than the arts. For example, Bertrand Russell had the ambition to solve philosophical problems in the same way that scientific problems, such as those of physics, were solved.

In the 1920s some philosophers in Vienna formed a group which eventually became known as the Vienna Circle. The form of philosophy which they agreed on was called Logical Positivism. This was based on the verifiability principle, according to which all propositions are analytic (usually meaning that they can be shown to be tautologies), or synthetic, which need to be empirically verifiable. Those which could not be empirically verified were said to be meaningless.

Belief in Logical Positivism was eventually somewhat weakened by philosophers who pointed out that the verification principle was not analytic and was not empirically verifiable, and thus was itself meaningless.

A major theme in this book is discussion of free will, presenting arguments to refute those who insist that it is a delusion and that all our actions are matters of cause and effect, over which we have no real control. Obviously, this is an important subject, for if we have no free will we cannot rationally be held to be responsible for our actions. This would mean that a person could not help committing a crime, and if he was caught the authorities would have no choice but to impose the appropriate punishment. Without free will, life would surely be just a meaningless charade, and we would, in effect, be merely robots.

One strong argument in favour of the reality of free will I could not find in this book is that we usually think of free will as being associated with effort. If people achieve success in any field by overcoming great difficulties we say that they have will power.

In his discussion on the Vienna Circle, Cowburn notes that Ludwig Wittgenstein was in Vienna at the time it was formed, but he was not a member, and refers to Wittgenstein's insistence to Cambridge students that philosophers are tempted to "ask and answer questions in the way that science does", quoting from a book by Ray Monk (Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, Jonathan Cape, London, 1990). In this book, Monk also notes that Wittgenstein denied the necessity to have reasons for religious belief.

As Cowburn is a Jesuit, I expected his chapter on religion would be the most interesting, but I was disappointed that he seems to devote too much space to describing some of the more unorthodox versions of Christianity and secular alternatives to religion. Unsurprisingly, though, he praises fellow Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose reinterpretations of Catholic doctrine caused much controversy, but eventually helped to persuade many that science and religion were not incompatible.

Other subjects dealt with in this fairly short book, which appears, judging by its style, to be based on a series of lecture notes, include psychology, criminal justice and eugenics. I expect that some readers will feel inclined to explore some of the subjects discussed in greater depth. -- John Harney


6.11.13

WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD…

J.H. Brennan, Whisperers: The Secret History of the Spirit World, Duckworth Overlook. 2013.

J.H. Brennan is a well-known elder statesman of the more New Agey end of popular occultism. He comes over as a nice guy and writes in an engaging, accessible style, which is always a plus in these rushed days when a book must seize the imagination within seconds or never be read at all.

However... The great unwritten rule governing the writing of controversial books – or books about controversial subjects, for example the influence of spirits as here – is that no matter how transcendent your topic, when you introduce hard facts make sure they’re right.

As far as this reviewer is concerned, this book’s descent began with a niggle. When describing academia’s general distaste for, and avoidance of, the whole topic of spirits, Brennan says: ‘Some scientists are not so sure’ then immediately cites Carl Jung, presumably as an example of ‘scientists’. Minor point, one might say, but it proved to herald much more serious lapses.

Off we go into the usual suspects, beginning with the dark realms of Nazi occultism, with the description of Heinrich Himmler’s obsession with rituals in crypts and ancient Germanic gods and spirits. All right, arguably, but only up to a point, when things become both muddled and sloppy.

Martin Bormann is described as having been ‘Deputy Fuhrer’ in 1936. Actually he was Personal Secretary to Rudolf Hess, who was Hitler’s Deputy. That makes a huge difference in Bormann’s status and influence. And as a glaring howler in the early pages of the book, naturally it makes one wonder at the general level of research that is to follow.

Then the sloppiness gets serious. Back to Himmler, his active belief in spirits and his role in bringing about the monstrous Final Solution. Brennan asks: ‘Had millions died because one silly man believed he could talk to ghosts?’ (The ‘silly’ is probably intended to be ironic, but in the context of the Holocaust it seems a tad bathetic – not to mention really rather distasteful.)

In any case, though we are clearly intended to believe the answer is ‘yes’ - confirming the book’s overall thesis that much of history has been influenced by a belief in spirits - the real answer is ‘oh come on – certainly not!’

Although Himmler was indeed the monster who put the Final Solution into practice, efficiently despatching six million humans, he was not responsible for its conception. The idea was discussed and largely authorised by the Wannsee Conference of January 1942, which was not even chaired by Himmler. And it acted under the authority not of Himmler but of Herman Goering - who could hardly be described as rarely anything but his own man.

Brennan then says: ‘I discovered spirit advice was not confined to Germany’… We note that from Himmler we now extrapolate an entire country’s belief in spirits.

Now we seriously begin to flounder in the morass of confusion that underpins this book. Is it about a belief in spirits or does it argue for the reality of spirits? We should know from the outset, as this is a rather basic question. For example, after looking briefly at reports of various elemental forms – such as fairies and angels - Brennan says: ‘Nor is any of this an academic exercise. As spirits changed their form of manifestation down the centuries, one thing remained constant: the flow of reports that claimed humans could and did communicate with these Whisperers’. On the one hand there’s a statement of fact – ‘As spirits changed…’ but on the other yet more ‘reports’ and ‘claims’.
Then when the author focuses on the druggy and dramatic world of shamanism he starts with several reports by sceptics, which might be a generous and even-handed gesture, but in fact hardly gets the chapter off to a promising beginning. The result of all this sneering from Christian missionaries and other European bigots across the globe is that we lurch further in with a sense that we’re just wasting our time. Actually, sad to say, to a significant extent, we are. The particular shamanic practices we are introduced to are, on the whole, all too easily ascribed to smoke and mirrors. Yet a genuinely intriguing case could be made for at least some shamanic traditions. 
 

Narby's vast experience of shamanism along the Amazon
in the late twentieth century led him to theorise that
the recurrent vision of twin-headed snakes who bestow
highly accurate knowledge could represent
the double helix of DNA.

Though we learn about various rituals and a little about the theories of the likes of Mircea Eliade, one searches in vain for the work of Swiss anthropologist Jeremy Narby, whose insights into shamanic visions have seriously elevated such studies beyond mere adventurers’ novelties. His vast experience of shamanism along the Amazon in the late twentieth century led him to theorise that the recurrent vision of twin-headed snakes who bestow highly accurate knowledge could represent the double helix of DNA. In other words, do shamans communicate with their own DNA? Now, although obviously very controversial, that is worth reading. But of Narby there is not a sign. This is particularly puzzling as he is cited as co-author – with Francis Huxley – of Shamans Through Time (2001), in the Bibliography.

Neither is there any mention of the presence of big pharma cosying up to shamans of the Amazon to steal their spirit-led knowledge of herbal medicine. That in itself might suggest a potent source of knowledge, indicating that their magic is underpinned by something real, something other than mere drug-induced hallucinations and drumming.

Instead we are treated to page upon page about the theories of Julian Jaynes, the late American academic who argued that ancient humans weren’t actually conscious. (He seems to have confused not being conscious with not having a concept of consciousness, which is rather different. But even there, maybe the ancients simply thought consciousness was such a given that it wasn’t worth committed musings about it to tomb walls or papyri.)

According to the author, Jaynes’ elaborate theories included the idea that many collapses of great civilisations came about because the gods withdrew from humanity – but again we are left totally flummoxed as to whether he really believed this or it was simply a theory. Based on Jaynes, Brennan tells us that the peoples of ancient South America abandoned their cities and went to live in the jungle because of a great spiritual cataclysm. Nothing to do with plagues, famine, war, natural catastrophe – or a mixture of any or all of them - then?

True researchers will blanch at the words: ‘Jaynes cast about for confirmation [of his theories] and discovered… three tablets… that completely endorsed his conclusion’. Casting about for confirmation of one’s pet theories, no matter what they are, is usually highly likely to come up with something that can be beaten into shape as evidence. That doesn’t make it true. After introducing us to Jaynes’ theories, Brennan now presents one as fact, describing a time ‘when the gods began to withdraw’…

Then when we enter detailed discussion of the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt and the life of Moses, fantasy masquerades as fact on a grand scale. Never mind that there is not a shred of archaeological evidence for the Israelites being slaves in Egypt. What we have here is, seemingly, a total belief in the Old Testament as – well – gospel.

As a former Mormon missionary this reviewer, however, was particularly horrified by a very short chapter entitled ‘An American Experience’ about the alleged spirit communication of New York State farm boy Joseph Smith that led to the formation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) in the early nineteenth century.

Basically Brennan tells the story that Mormon missionaries present to those interested in joining their cult – the absolute, sanitised, never-mind-the-facts party line. Sadly, apart from one or two slightly cynical asides, this little chapter omits anything that might be remotely objective. We are not told, for example, that although true believing Mormons claim Smith was visited in a vision by God and Jesus and then by an angel called Moroni – something that might conceivably be newsworthy in rural New York – the lad omitted to mention any kind of vision at all for some years. Then suddenly he described what is now known as his First Vision. Except that he kept muddling it up, giving nine different versions – complete with different casts of deities and spirits and different messages.

And as for the witnesses to the golden plates that became the Book of Mormon, which get a disproportionate amount of page-space here, if the author had even bothered to Google this story he would have seen that in fact no one ever actually saw the plates. Despite signed affidavits to the contrary, all the alleged witnesses were allowed to do was touch something square and apparently metallic through a bit of sacking. In any case, an angel took the plates back, so no one could – or can – see them anyway. Quite.

Yes, a belief that Joseph Smith encountered spirits - well, including God himself - has had a measurable impact on history. After all, Mormons are alone among cults in that they essentially have their own American state. That is supreme testimony to the power of belief, and-to-hell-with-the-facts. And the same, of course, is arguably true of all religion and much of hardcore politics, too.

It’s really not good enough to claim, as Brennan often does when threatened with defeat by facts, that the book is about a belief in spirits rather than actual spirits. You still need to get your framework straight or you will lose those of your readers who genuinely respect history.

This book also deals with topics such as Joan of Arc, John Dee and Nostradamus. Sadly, however, although naively charming, all too often it succeeds in presenting myth and legend as your actual history.

With some proper research and a much sharper focus, this could have been a great, if not actually Magonian then certainly Fortean, book. After all, it concerns the possibility of things of the spirit – the purely intangible - impacting on the sharp-edged reality of actual lives lived. Just think of Blair and Bush praying before invading Iraq, for instance… - Lynn Picknett


11.8.13

PROPHECY FAILS

Timothy Jenkins. Of Flying Saucers and Social Scientists: A Re-reading of 'When Prophecy Fails'. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

This book is a re-examination of When Prophecy Fails, setting in the background of theosophical and Adventist religion. The study concerns a group set up in Chicago in 1954 by ‘Marion Keech’ (Dorothy Martin, 1900-1992), who relayed messages from Sananda, a space brother who later revealed he was the then current identity of Jesus Christ. The group recruited from, among other sources, a college metaphysical group set up by ‘Dr Armstrong’ (Charles Laugheed), a former medical missionary then on the staff of Michigan State College at Lansing. LINK

Jenkins argues that it was Laughead who introduced an Adventist, millennialist theme to the basic metaphysical and spiritualist dynamic of the group.

Of particular interest is Jenkins’ argument that the presence of a significant number of ‘participant observers’ (up to five at one time) in a group with only about a dozen core members significantly affected the group dynamics, and also suggests that Laughead’s dismissal from his college post may have been a key event in the radicalisation of the group. Jenkins also analyses the role of language within the three main participants, the group, the investigators and the press, and suggests that the language of science itself may be influenced by a Christian, and in particular, evangelical world view.

This, to be honest, is a very academic and specialist work, and is clearly aimed at students, in particular those undertaking a third year course in religious studies at Cambridge (p.viii).
 
The story of When Prophecy Fails is part of a much wider story of American metaphysical movements, and their involvement with a whole range of figures from the radical right, and it is to be hoped that someone will undertake a much more detailed and wide ranging study of those involved. – Peter Rogerson.


11.6.13

THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY

Carl Watkins. The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead. Bodley Head, 2013.

Carl Watkins takes us on a truly haunting journey, through the realms of the dead as envisaged by the people of England over the last 650 years, from the fifteenth century to the end of the First World War. In the beginning was the traditional Christian world-view of Last Judgment, the Resurrection of the Dead, still envisaged in the middle of the nineteenth century in John Martin’s The Great Day of His Wrath. Watkins traces the transformations from this world-view through biographies, ghost stories, graveyards and memorials, drawing material from the south west and north east of England.
 
In the medieval world the dead walk among the living, and not just as vaporous apparitions, but as flesh and bones, if not blood, like Hollywood zombies. They spread plague and disaster around with them. The dead who did not walk the earth were in Purgatory, from whence prayers and penance could ease their passage. The Reformation did away with Purgatory, and in theory at any rate with ghosts; Puritans argued that these were either delusions of the imagination or demons in disguise. The dead were either in Heaven or Hell, hopefully the former. To grieve for them too much was sinful, for it was challenging God’s providence, and in any case your dead were likely to be the ones in bliss, it was the other fellow’s who were roasting down below.
 
The English Civil War and its radical sects opened up fears of atheism, so people like Joseph Granvil collected tales of ghosts and witches, such as that of the Drummer of Tedworth [right] to challenge them. It marks the coming of modernity and the reliance on evidence rather than faith. By the nineteenth century, the new spirit of rationalism was exorcizing the old ghosts. The radical William Lovett contrasted the mid-Victorian world of the steam engine and the Mechanics Institute with the ghost and goblin haunted Cornwall of his youth. The accent was on progress, though some like Lovett’s fellow radical Samuel Bamford deplored their passing before the new world of the factory chimney and the steam-hammer.
 
Watkins argues that what was banished from the country lanes was to resurface in the drawing room in the form of spiritualism and table turning. Spiritualism offered a new, rational empirical faith for the Gradgrind age of the holy fact, offering new comforts for the many whose loved ones were taken away by ‘consumption’ and the other merry diseases of Merry England. It reached its peak in the shattering grief of the First World War. The vision of an afterlife in which there were astral cigarettes and whisky was however perhaps something of a comedown from the beatific vision.
 
The disposal of the dead was a matter of concern, especially among those who took the idea of bodily resurrection literally, and there was much unease about cremation. Even into the twentieth and twenty first century these ideas persist. The book ends with the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, in which the innumerable dead and lost of the Great War were symbolically buried. In 2011 a woman had the body of a five-times great uncle who had been hung for the killing of his ex-girlfriend and dissected, reburied in his family parish church. In our own secular age, outside the period covered by this book, there is growing unease about human remains being housed in museums, parents are greatly distressed if hospitals keep any of their children’s tissues, more and more there are shrines to the victims of crime and accident and we still tell ghost stories. This book will be of great interest to folklorists and anyone interested in social and cultural history. -- Peter Rogerson.
 

3.3.13

QUITE EXTRAORDINARY

Peter Lamont. Extraordinary Beliefs: A Historical Approach to a Psychological Problem. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
 
In this interesting book Peter Lamont, historian, psychologist, sceptical psychical researcher and one time professional magician examines the rhetoric used by both promoters and critiques of paranormal phenomena over the last two hundred years. He traces these developments across mesmerism, spiritualism, psychical research and 'scientific' parapsychology. He examines how the same experiences are framed differently by believers and sceptics, how each side manoeuvres for influence and the role of expert. He argues against simplistic sceptical notions that only certain kinds of subaltern people - the foolish, the ill- educated, women, non-whites, the working class - believe in extraordinary experiences, arguing that they are based on people’s actual experiences or the interpretation of the same.
 
He shows how these arguments remain fairly constant over the period, the same claims for and against ESP today echo those on mesmerism. By providing specific examples, he shows how each side interprets these experiences. Believers will often rely on the power of personal testimony; argue that failure on one occasion does not negate the possibility of “genuine” phenomena on others, that even being found out in fraud on some occasions does not mean it is present in all. Sceptics counter by arguing that human perception is fallible, that ordinary explanations should often be preferred over extra-ordinary ones, that fraud is always possible.
 
Often the battle over expertise revolves around the rival claims of scientists and magicians, those both sides will use the authority of both if they can. Lamont is particularly interest in the role of magicians, and the extent to which “true” psychic claims mirror the activities of professional “mind-readers”. He is clearly an expert on stage magic and the coverage of this topic is especially thorough.
Though these two are often seen as quite separate, and thanks to people like Houdini and Randi (who for some reason is not mentioned here) often seen as opposed, in reality the boundaries between the two were very porous; Lamont specifies the Piddington’s, Frederick Marion and Joseph Dunninger.
 
Dunninger is an interesting case; through much of his career his repute was of a psychic busting sceptic in the Houdini tradition, though one who was almost ambiguous as to his own “powers”. In his old age however he was promoted as a “genuine” psychic by Dr Berthold Eric Schwarz and was featured as such in some of the latter’s articles in Flying Saucer Review. Another modern equivalent that comes to mind was Kreskin who maintained a similar ambiguous position.
 
Another group of ambiguous performers are those like Darren Brown who aver that they neither use psychic powers nor trickery, but who use extraordinary normal abilities or psychological manipulation. Their sometimes rather convoluted explanations are often themselves misdirection. Of course this must be true of most magical tricks; if magicians reveal “how they are done” but can bet that either that explanation is misdirection itself, or the way it used to be done years ago. Magicians’ ethics do not allow for the revealing of trade secrets. For that reason Lamont does not tell us how the mind reading trick in the introduction was accomplished.
 
This raises an interesting point that Lamont does not cover, it is clearly in the interest of magicians to exaggerate the special skills, techniques training or even equipment in order to perform tricks adequately. Thus it appears even more improbable to psychical researchers that someone untrained (particularly, in their view, children, the working class, country folk, etc.) could fool them. The conditions are not of course the same; the vast majority of people who watch professional magicians know full well that they are watching tricks and are trying to work out how it is done. In the case of psychical phenomena we usually have people who predisposed not to think of trickery, much more confused and chaotic viewing conditions, pressure of group think etc.
 
Similarly sceptics, particularly magicians can come up with quite implausible and over complicated “normal” explanations. Lamont gives a good example from the early days of Rhine. A man and woman sit in adjacent rooms, she looks at the targets, and he writes down his guesses and shouts out when it is time for next guess. A loud fan is supposed to drown out any unconscious whispering. A magician came up with a complex explanation of how they could have cheated using a code. Lamont points out that this was quite unnecessary, for the woman who made the guesses also marked them, and nobody was supervising them! They could have just made the whole thing up (and for all I know spent the time having wild sex; a couple getting together was not all that easy in a strict religious university and here was manna from heaven courtesy of the naïve Dr Rhine).
 
In the final portion of the book Lamont looks at the rise of CSICOP and the formal ‘Skeptics’ movement, as an example of the construction of a new social category, one might almost say a new neo-tribe.
 
Though Lamont early on states that he does not believe in the paranormal, towards the end of the book he argues that the polarised division between believers and sceptics masks much more nuanced shades of opinion. He also notes that both believers and sceptics actually believe in things, it’s just that they believe in different things.
 
Lamont’s role as a historian of psychology does I think lead to something of an overlooking of social factors in both the promotion and rejection of unconventional beliefs; for example both believers and sceptics often adopt the role of moral crusaders, against materialism on one side and against irrationalism on the other, both have sought to defend various kinds of élite interests.
 
This should not detract from the value of this book to the historian of psychology, magic or psychical research and the lay enthusiast alike. – Peter Rogerson.
 

2.1.13

THINKING ABOUT THOUGHT-READING

Barry H. Wiley. The Thought Reader Craze: Victorian Science at the Enchanted Boundary. McFarland, 2012.

If Roger Clarke’s book reviewed below covered a broad sweep, this account covers a narrower field in more depth. Wiley’s study covers roughly the period from about 1870 to 1914, the latter part of the “social” 19th century (1815-1914). This was the age in which science came of age and began to professionalise, a period of astounding discoveries and inventions, the period in which a recognisably modern world came into being.
 
This was a world that seemed divided between new “materialist” science and traditional religion; for many people these were unpalatable choices, so there was a search for a third way in which the empiricism of modern science, rather than traditional religious doctrine, would provide evidence for the non- material nature of mind, and. hopefully, human survival of bodily death. New discoveries of various forms of radiation opened up the possibility of mental telegraphy, telephony or later radio.
 
One of the first scientists to investigate these new fields was the chemist William Crookes, who straggled the divide between the independently wealthy gentleman amateur and the new professional. He is a presence through much of Wiley’s book, and in particular Wiley looks at two sets of his experiments with mediums. The first of these was with the notorious D. D. Home, who seems to have been in some ways a forerunner of generations of camp entertainers. Home never actually did anything as crude as charge fees for his performances, he got invited to posh people’s houses, where, Wiley notes, as an honoured guest he was unlikely to questioned or inspected too closely. Home’s main performance with Crookes, was the playing of an accordion held by one hand inside a sort of cage. He also seemed to change the weight of items on a rather complicated looking balance. Wiley notes that Crookes was so busy making sure Home couldn’t press down on the thing, he never checked whether he could produce the effect by lifting it, for example by having a bit of resin or glue on his fingers.
 
Home performed some of his feats in “lit” rooms, but Wiley points out that didn’t mean what a modern readership used to electric light thinks it means, it usually meant lit by a couple of candles and a blazing coal fire, the shadows of which perhaps simply added to the illusions.
 
Crookes went on to study young ladies such as Florence Cook, and Annie Eva Fay. It is the latter that Wiley concentrates on. She was married to a guy suspected of being a con artist, but that didn’t raise warning signals, rather Eva, as she was known, was thought of as is poor innocent, hard done by little wifie. Eva’s performances involved connecting her to an electrical apparatus that was supposed to sound an alarm if she broke the circuit, whereupon the watchers left the room for the one next door, with a curtain over the open connecting door. Through this “mysterious” hands produced a variety of goodies in best theatrical manner, the circuit remained unbroken. Wow! It must be the spirits. Wiley suggests that Eva simply beguiled or seduced Crookes’ chief assistant and instrument maker into aiding her, perhaps because he was sick of Crookes treating him like the hired help.
 
Wiley also shows how the self-importance of these people led to their downfall. Cromwell Varley, the man who constructed the electrical circuit originally to test Florrie Cook never actually tested it to see whether anyone could walk around connected to it without breaking the circuit, he knew they couldn’t. When a researcher tested this for the first time in the 1960s, hey presto they could. Crookes simply accepted Varley’s assurances, because he was the expert, wasn’t he?


For other intellectuals the sort of things that Crookes’ young ladies got up to were far too common. They were to get a let out via a new craze. This was mind reading, an entertainment craze started by such professionals such as J. Randell Brown, Washington Irving Bishop and not least Charlie Garner. Garner was the son of a butcher’s clerk, which was not exactly the right social status for acceptance among the elite, so Charlie became Stuart Charles Francis Cumberland, the son of a landowner. These people were among the grand celebrities of their time, and Bishop at least behaved just like some many celebrities today with an endless track of marriages and divorces. However celebrities today who complain that their behaviour leads them to being pestered by the gutter press should be thankful that they did not share Bishop’s probable fate, having his brain removed while alive in a cataplexic trance!
 
These showmen generally operated by being led around by someone while blindfolded, either directly by hand or via a rope or wire. They generally worked by using muscle reading, though one suspects codes and confederates were also used.
 
Of course the intellectuals and scientists would not have been all that impressed if they were just dealing with these showmen, but the game caught on and soon “people like us” were playing them. One such family was that of the Reverend Andrew Creery the minister at the Hartington Street Unitarian Chapel in Buxton. His teenage daughters, who fell into the classic category of bored bright kids, had found a way of working this game without any physical contact. Creery lectured on this locally, and got in touch with one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research, Professor William Barrett. Barrett being a scientist knew that these well brought up girls couldn’t fool him, they were only female, in any case minister’s daughters were Middle Class, and therefore couldn’t possibly cheat. So the Creery sisters games were taken up by Edmund Gurney as “proof” that telepathy existed, and therefore evidence to back up his massive collection of middle class ghost stories.
 
They also allowed the SPR to go down to lower rent, mainly in the form of Douglas Blackburn and George Arthur Smith two Brighton young men on the make. Blackburn was a yellow journalist who lived just this side of the libel laws and had set out to expose Smith’s vaudeville act, but rather decided to turn poacher and collaborate with him. They took in Ed Gurney completely, and Smith became the latters “private secretary”, which was his entrance into the world of the respectable. Blackburn was to decamp to South Africa after the libel lawyers finally got him.
 
The Creery sisters were detected using a code not long after their story had appeared in Gurney’s “Phantasm’s the Living”, though Barrett would never accept that he had been fooled, and by girlies at that!
 
In 1908 Blackburn confessed that he and Smith had used a code, Smith denied this, and as he had been Gurney’s private secretary and had investigated a Brighton haunted house producing what might be the classic Victorian ghost story, the SPR went on the overdrive to defend him. This row was still going on in the 1950s and 1960s, not least because the SPR had become a sort of ancestor cult in which criticism of its great founders was akin to heresy, the sort of thing that only cads like Eric Dingwall and Trevor Hall went in for.
 
The era concluded with the debate between the magician David Devant and the psychical researcher Sir Oliver Lodge, at one point Lodge claiming that Devant must have genuine psychic powers thus foreshadowing Arthur Conan Doyle’s similar claims about Harry Houdini.
 
Unlike many largely sceptical writers on these topics Wiley clearly knows his stuff and is open minded enough to consider that something like real telepathy may exist on a once in a blue moon hunch, having had (or remembers having) one of his own. There are copious notes, appendixes and bibliography. -- Peter Rogerson
 

11.11.12

MUTANTS AND MYSTICS

Jeffrey J. Kripal, Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal, University of Chigaco Press, 2011.

Mutants and Mystics is a fascinating and stimulating book, and an important one. It's one of the most authentically Fortean works I've read a long time, as well as being perfectly in tune with the spirit of  Magonia, since its addresses head-on the relationship between culture and the paranormal (defined in its widest sense to include everything from psi to UFOs and alien encounters).

Jeffrey Kripal is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University, Texas, and since his youth an avid comic book reader and collector, two sides of his life that come together beautifully in Mutants and Mystics. He is the author of an exhaustive study of the pioneering Esalen Institute, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (2008) and Authors of the Impossible (2010), on paranormal and mystical experiences and their relationship to brain function. Mutants and Mystics is a follow-on from both. Its main inspiration was Kripal's realisation, during his seven-year research into Esalen, of the parallels between that foundation, set up in 1962 to study and develop human potential, and Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters in The X-Men comics, the first issue of which appeared less than a year after Esalen's founding. This gave Kripal the idea of applying the 'model of the fantastic' he developed in Authors of the Impossible to science fiction and superhero writers and artists. 

Mutants and Mystics tells two intertwined stories. One traces the development of superhero comics in order to explain how the genre developed from cardboard characters and simplistic storylines, which made at best superficial attempts to explain a hero's superpowers, into today's sophisticated graphic novels which employ themes and ideas explicitly drawn from occult and gnostic mystical traditions, as in the works of Grant Morrison (The Invisibles, Batman) and Alan Moore (Promethea). Kripal approaches the subject in the same way as he does comparative religion and mystical literature (which he defines as the study of “how human beings come to realize that they are gods in disguise. Or superhumans”). This leads him to discern a set of “story lines about the metamorphosis of the human form that are deeply indebted to the history of the religious imagination but have now taken on new scientific or parascientific forms in order to give shape to innumerable works of pulp fiction, superhero comics, and metaphysical film.” (As he points out, in one of his many wonderfully incisive observations, the original superhero – a human gifted with special powers who takes on non-human forces for the greater good of his community – was the shaman.)
 
The second story is the parallel development of key concepts in the paranormal, the two having evolved in a seemingly symbiotic relationship: SF authors and comic book writers/artists draw on the literature on the paranormal for their subject matter, but fantasy literature also often prefigures trends in paranormal phenomena. The paranormal shapes the fiction, and somehow is in turn shaped by it. (Or “The truth needs the trick, the fact the fantasy", as Kripal puts it.) 
 
Kripal identifies a 'Super-Story' – 'a modern living mythology' - that underlies and shapes not only SF and superhero literature but also contemporary American popular culture, in particular beliefs concerning alien contact and humankind's place in the cosmic scheme of things, a story made up of seven mythical themes or 'mythemes', to each of which he devotes a chapter. 
 
Mutants and Mystics is very specifically about American culture, as the Super-Story is grounded in American history and experience, although drawing on wider history and “universal structures of the human religious imagination.” It would be interesting to expand his study to other Western countries (and Japan, which has its own idiosyncratic superhero and fantasy subculture). For example, I was struck by how many of Kripals core mythemes, which developed over the course of several decades in American fiction, can be found pretty much fully formed in the seminal late 1950s British science fiction TV serial Quatermass and the Pit.
 

Many of Kripals core mythemes, which developed over the course
of several decades in American fiction, can be found pretty much
fully formed in the seminal late 1950s British science fiction
TV serial Quatermass and the Pit.
 
In each chapter Kripal discusses the key writers of both SF/fantasy literature and paranormal nonfiction whose work has contributed to the mytheme”s development. One of the seminal figures is, naturally, Charles Fort, whose books heavily influenced the pulp magazines of the 1920s, 30s and '40s, which in turn influenced post-war superhero comics and anticipated the contactee and UFO literature of the 1950s. John Keel is also discussed in some detail, as a “modern Gnostic ... who knows that the world is basically illusory, a sinister sham set up by a stupid deity, who is messing with us.”

Kripal shows how American SF and fantasy fiction owes less to science than it does to nineteenth-century esoteric traditions – themselves, of course, developments of earlier occult systems – in particular Theosophy and Rosicrucianism (meaning the modern version as taught by organisations such as AMORC), “modern mystical movements based largely on conscious fictions that nevertheless emphasize the real existence of' 'secret knowledge' and latent 'powers'.” For example, AMORC founder H. Spencer Lewis's 1931 Lemuria: The Lost Continent of the Pacific, which claims that a community of Lemurians survives beneath California”s Mount Shasta, anticipated key elements of later SF and UFO lore, including the ability of the Lemurians, who emerge from their underground base in silver airships, to stop car engines at a distance.

Kripal also points out that the first explicit claim of extraterrestrial intervention in human evolution is found in Madame Blavatsky's writings, in which advanced spiritual beings from Venus helped breed the Atlantean 'root race' from the Lemurian. In this way Theosophy exerted a great influence not only on pulp SF (“In short, before there was science fiction, there was Theosophy”) but also the contactee literature of the 1950s and 1960s.

The link between the occult and the supposedly science-driven superhero genre is demonstrated graphically (no pun intended) in the genesis of the very first superhero, Superman, whose debut in 1938 created the whole new subculture and industry. Superman's creators, Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster, essentially transposed an earlier, unsuccessful and explicitly occult character into a more scientific setting. This was Dr Mystic: The Occult Detective, who flew astrally through the spirit world battling supernatural entities that threatened our material world. “Put simply, Superman is a crashed Alien from the Occult” – or Krypton, which, as Kripal points out, is the Greek equivalent of the Latin occultus.

 

But what makes Mutants and Mystics really special (and controversial) is that Kripal doesn't – as many would – use the interplay of fiction and real-world claims to argue that the occult and paranormal are themselves merely forms of fantasy or wish-fulfilment projections. He has a much more open mind than that. His study of mysticism and his personal experiences have convinced him of the reality of the paranormal, of the “impossible fact” that the powers that feature in superhero and science fiction are well documented in folklore, religion and psychical research - “the sci-fi and superhero fantasies reflect, refract, and exaggerate these real-world paranormal capacities”. His acceptance of the paranormal is by no means uncritical, though; he positions himself as “neither a denying debunker nor a true believer,” describing these as two “equally silly options.”

The common ground between fantasy literature and real-world paranormal experience is the imagination. Kripal invokes pioneering British psychical researcher Frederick Myers' concept of the 'imaginal' - the key role that the imagination plays in allowing access to a "different order of Mind” that enables psychic abilities to manifest. And it is in the form of fantasy fiction, especially comic books which involve both storytelling and visual art, that the imagination is given its “freest and boldest reign". So, for Kripal, it's hardly surprising that the fiction should help manifest and shape the paranormal.

The strange symbiotic relationship between fantasy fiction and the paranormal isn't simply based on the transfer of concepts and themes from one to the other. Many of the writers and artists who create the fiction had paranormal experiences, often directly connected with their work. Some were prone to such experiences before they embarked on their career, while others seem to have had their experiences triggered by the very process of creating fantasy – and with many it is hard to tell which came first. Some of these experiences, most obviously Philip K. Dick's, are well known, but others discussed in this book, such as those of Alvin Schwartz, writer of Superman and Batman in the 1940s and early '50s, are less so, and make for remarkable reading.

 
Ray Palmer, a pulp fiction gnostic
who created an entire occult world in the mirror of pulp fiction and his own paranormal experiences.

A figure who brings together the strands of Kripal's Super-Story probably more than any other – playing a central role in bringing it from the pages of pulp fiction to those of paranormal literature - is Ray Palmer, editor of the SF magazine Amazing Stories (among others), a keen student of esoteric teachings such as Theosophy, and, of course, a central player in the dissemination of early flying saucer lore, for example through his collaborations with Kenneth Arnold and founding of Flying Saucers magazine. From his youth, Palmer had paranormal and mystical experiences that fed into his SF and UFO writing, and which eventually led him to conclude that a “super Intelligence beyond normal comprehension” manipulates reality. Kripal calls Palmer a “pulp fiction gnostic” who “created an entire occult world in the mirror of pulp fiction and his own paranormal experiences.”

The X-Men, naturally, gets a lengthy treatment, not only as the inspiration for the book but also because it gives one of the clearest demonstrations of the relationship between the comic book subculture and popular culture at large. The X-men mutants debuted in 1963, but the comic was one of Marvel's less successful products until a revival in 1975 proved much more popular. The reason, as others before Kripal have suggested, is that the counterculture revolution of the “60s and early “70s had made the X-Men concept more relevant and accessible to a general audience: the counterculture caused mainstream American popular culture itself to mutate to the point where it could embrace the X-Men. (As Kripal points out, the first hippies in 1966 San Francisco also called themselves “mutants”.)

This expresses one of Kripal”s core mythemes, that of Mutation, in which superpowers (in fiction) and paranormal abilities (in reality) are linked to human evolution. Although mutation has emerged as one of the major themes in recent comic book fiction, it was there, in embryonic form, from the very beginning – even Superman, while a crashed alien, was also originally billed as “Man of Tomorrow”. In fiction, the mytheme derived from the science of Darwinian theory and genetics, but also, again, drew on concepts from the occult and psychical research traditions. The notion of evolutionary progress is central to, for example, Theosophy, and Myers considered that the psychic faculties he investigated prefigured humankind's future evolution. The mutant myth”s precursors are also to be found in the works of Fort and pulp SF of the 1940s and 1950s, in which a staple concept was paranormal powers as a feature of the next stage of human evolution.

Exploring the potential of psychedelic, mystical and paranormal experiences in the context of humankind's evolution was also one of the major motivations behind the founding of the Esalen Institute. But for Kripal nothing “came closer to a true X-scenario” than the US government”s secret Cold War paranormal research programmes of the 1970s, most famously the remote viewing projects carried out by the CIA and Pentagon. The X-Men's Professor Xavier is “basically a remote viewer with added superpsychokinetic gifts” and the machine Cerebro “a fantastic magnification of what was actually being attempted with government-sponsored human machines in the remote-viewing programs.” These programmes (which also involved Esalen) coincided precisely with the X-Men”s 1975 revival.

For Kripal, paranormal events are essentially participatory, in the sense that they require the experiencer”s active engagement, not simple passive observation. As such, he argues, not only are paranormal events real but they reveal the way the world really works. This is his sixth mytheme, “Realization” - the insight that “we are all figments of our own imagination, that we are caught in a story (or stories) that we did not write and that we may not even like.” In one of his favourite phrases, "we are being written".

Kripal defines what is for him the heart of the problem: “Committed as Western culture is to a metaphysically naïve vision defined by materialism (matter is all that exists) and contextualism (no human experience can transcend the limitations of place and time, of ethnic, racial, and religious background, of personal history, and so on), we are essentially chained down to a worldview that does not seriously question itself, that by definition cannot question itself.” The result is that “you can't think yourself out of the story you are caught in with the rules and elements of the very story in which you are caught.” But paranormal experiences – especially those involving high strangeness - violate materialism and contextualism, exposing the rules as false and so showing us a way out of the story.

In this way Realization matures into the last of Kripal's mythemes, Authorization: the understanding that “we can become our own authors, we can recognize that we are pulling our own strings, that the angels and aliens, gods and demons are us.” “If Realization involves the act of reading the paranormal writing us, Authorization involves the act of writing the paranormal writing us.”

Kripal illustrates this by the truly remarkable experiences of Conan the Barbarian artist Barry Windsor-Smith and Philip K. Dick (whose communion with the super-intelligence 'Valis' is by far the better known). Not only were the two sets of experiences eerily similar – both involving a sense of information being 'beamed' into their consciousness from an external source, triggering a series of mystical experiences - but they also took place within months of each other, Windsor-Smith's in June 1973 and Dick's in March 1974.

The insights that Dick and Windsor-Smith gained from their experiences have much in common. One is the sense that human beings function simultaneously on two “cosmological planes,” although most of us are only aware of one. On the higher plane we have a “nonlocal, nontemporal consciousness” which is where mystical and paranormal faculties operate. Kripal links this to the basic characteristic of the superhero, an apparently ordinary individual with a secret life lived by his super-empowered alter ago.

Kripal declares Striebers writings as “thoroughly and completely gnostic” and considers them to be part of Western esoteric and metaphysical, not UFO, literature

Kripal”s final chapter is devoted to the 'visitor corpus' of Whitley Strieber, since “there is probably no author more illustrative of our mythemes and the experiential paranormal currents that they fictionalize within American popular culture.” Kripal has corresponded and conversed with Strieber for many years, Strieber disclosing certain things to him that haven”t appeared in his books (making Mutants and Mystics of interest for that reason alone). For example, Strieber volunteered in discussion that “he is absolutely certain that his visitor experiences appeared the way they did because of the sci-fi movies that he watched as a kid and a young adult” – which certainly backs up the main thesis of Mutants and Mystics. I was particularly interested by Strieber”s acknowledging to Kripal that the childhood experiences described in The Secret School may have been retrospective products of his abductions and subsequent hypnosis rather than genuine memories.

Kripal declares Striebers writings as “thoroughly and completely gnostic” and considers them to be part of Western esoteric and metaphysical, not UFO, literature, pointing out that – a point routinely ignored even by many of his champions - Streiber himself has never said that his abductors were extraterrestrial.

Kripal believes that the Super-Story that is developing gives a vision that – unlike dogmatic religions and spirit-denying science – is capable of handling “the full cosmic potential” of humankind. And for that reason, science fiction and superhero comics not only have value, but can actually teach us something. As can paranormal events and experiences.

It”s a bold, important, exciting proposition, for which Kripal sets out his argument cogently and, for me, persuasively. That isn't to say that I necessarily go along with all of his conclusions - at least not yet. The range and depth of his study and the potential importance of the message he draws from it deserve mature consideration and discussion rather than blanket acceptance. I”m particularly unsure about his conviction that the intentions of Strieber's visitors, whatever they are, are essentially benign and ultimately positive. (It clashes with the note of caution about our dealings with the paranormal expressed earlier in the book, for example in his discussion of Keel's theories.) But at the very least Kripal has provided a new perspective on some very complex issues, if not a key to understanding them.

Mutants and Mystics is a masterly contribution to the study of the paranormal (as well as the history of comic book fiction). It is rich, profound and thought-provoking – as well as entertaining - and is written with clarity, insight and wit. It”s also attractively designed, illustrated throughout with classic cover art. It deserves to be a Fortean – and Magonian - classic. -- Clive Prince
 

10.3.12

SUPERNATURAL AMERICA

Lawrence R. Samuel. Supernatural America: A Cultural History. Praeger, 2011.

In this lively book. Samuel, the founder of a “consultancy to Fortune 500 companies”. traces how the paranormal has been reflected in the pages of the press and other media since the beginning of the twentieth century. We can see from this how media which once reported the work of respected workers in the field such as J. B. Rhine have gone considerably downmarket in recent years. Samuel takes a fairly neutral line between the sceptics and the believers, one suspects that his head is with the former and his heart with the latter.

As a conclusion he argues that belief in the supernatural is likely hard-wired into the brain, its how humans are, a by-product of our pattern making abilities. He suggests that parapsychologists (and by implication other anomalists) are making a mistake by trying to treat the subject through the mechanisms of science, and trying to ‘prove’ that ESP are whatever exists, rather, ‘the supernatural’ exists as a kind of a shadow of science, a sort of raw protean proto religious experience.

While Samuel is to be congratulated for mining a previously unexamined mine of material, the newspapers and periodicals (I assume) indexed on online data bases, this is one of the causes of the problems which afflict this book.

The trouble is that it is not, despite the title, a cultural history of  'the supernatural' in America. How could one write that without reference at all to the 19th century, the rise of Spiritualism (not Spiritism as Samuel keeps calling it, that was something else altogether, a French spiritualist religion now mainly centred on Brazil), the growth of New Thought, the impact of Theosophy, the role of the folklore of the many different communities that make up the US population.

Even in the narrower confines of ‘supernatural’ in 20th century popular culture there are major gaps. There is no mention of Fate magazine, the main conduit of paranormal experiences and beliefs to the mass market for years, the role of supermarket magazines like Saga, and ‘newspapers’ like The National Enquirer in the popularisation of the paranormal. There is little or no coverage of popular topics such as near death experiences, hypnotic age regressions, the popular cult of angels etc., the popularity of figures such as Carlos Castaneda, books like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, neo-Paganism, Wicca and women’s spirituality and so on. There is very little coverage of ufology

There are also a number of grammatical errors ('suspect' for 'suspicious' for example) and howlers - Queen Elizabeth I confused with Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, as being born at Glamis.

Of course, it might be argued with considerable justification that a genuinely comprehensive history of the paranormal in America would take many large tomes, so perhaps we should be content that this is an interesting account of changing attitudes as reflected, mainly, in a sample of the high brow and middle brow press.

26.11.11

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE PARANORMAL

Tony Jinks. An Introduction to the Psychology of Paranormal Belief and Experience. McFarland, 2011

In this intriguing book, Tony Jinks, a lecturer on neuroscience at the University of Western Sydney, uses a wide definition of the paranormal, encompassing all the various topics covered by Magonia, and takes a detailed examination of the range of psychological explanations, both mainstream and exotic used to "explain" such experiences.

His introductory chapters discuss what is meant by the paranormal and the history of parapsychology. Here he points out some of the problems associated with the use of terms like "ESP" etc., most notably their often circular definition and lack of basis in mainstream science. He neatly sums up some of the many controversies in this field. However this does not mean that he is a die-hard skeptic, anything but as can be seen when he examines the various psychological theories in turn, broadly following a path of increasing complexity and heterodoxy.

These theories range from the simplest kind, such as those use to explain popular superstitions, through to theories of illusion, errors of judging probability, and the various studies which seek to correlate these with various personality types. Here he makes a number of very valid points, for example the automatic assumption among mainstream psychologists that not only do these things not happen, but that those who experience them must have some sort of syndrome or other. Another very valid point is that many of the terms used by psychologists to explain such experiences such as 'boundary deficiency', 'fantasy prone personality' or 'transliminality' (which strike me as possibly just different labels for the same thing, a tendency to confuse imagination with perception), can be every bit as circular as terms such as ESP.

He finds more convincing those explanations involving distinct neurological processes ranging from hypnogogic and hypnopompic hallucinations, highway hypnosis, sleep paralysis etc., through to temporal lobe epilepsy. Perhaps, though he underplays just how radical misperception can be in certain circumstances. In this set of discussions perhaps one noted omission is the role of false awakening, which may account for a number of dramatic paranormal experiences.
Having discussed the role of temporal lobe epilepsy, Jinks then goes into more exotic territory with a discussion of the (alleged) roles of electromagnetic fields, tectonic strain etc., and the work of Michael Persinger. I am not sure that these theories can rightfully be called psychological, perhaps 'environmental' theories would be a better description, though one might settle on psycho-enviromental as a decription. Though clearly intrigued by Persinger's ideas, Jinks correctly points out that they have come under fire from believers and sceptics alike though often for opposite reasons. He notes that attempts to replicate Persinger's findings by a Swedish team failed, and that it is not clear that some of the strange experiences undergone by those using Persinger's famous helmet are not simply the result of expectation and suggestion, The same may well also be true of alleged correlations between electromagnetic field anomalies and 'haunted' spots.

If these ideas are based at least to some extent on mainstream psychological theories, the next set are based on more controversial theories - the psychodynamic theories of Freud, Jung etc. In this section there is an extensive discussion of Alvin Lawson's birth trauma hypothesis, though Jinks concedes that this is controversial to say the least. In particular mainstream psychology denies that it is neurologically possible for memories of birth to survive multiple changes in the brain.

Jinks also discusses the theories, particularly those associated with UFO abductions, constructed by Hilary Evans, D. Scott Rogo and the younger Jerome Clark and Loren Coleman. These centre around such experiences being dramas which illuminate personal crises, and Jinks shows how they can be applied to the 'Kelly Cahill' abduction case. While intriguing, the theories of the latter two especially, involve mysterious paranormal processes, in Rogo's case the mysterious 'Phenomenon' which may or may not be a synonym for God. Such ideas are unlikely to appeal to mainstream psychology, or mainstream science in general. The same is probably true of speculative theories involving quantum mechanics.

While the coverage of psychological theories is wide, it is not exhaustive, and there could have been some discussion of theories involving family dynamics, and those which invoke social processes rather than individual pathology. Perhaps they could be covered in second edition, which might also correct the only other criticism I have, the fact that not all the references in the text are included in the bibliography.

But these should not detract from this very interesting study, one which makes a welcome exception from the usual partisan polemics by believers and sceptics, and which attempts a genuinely opened minded approach. We need more studies like this. -- Peter Rogerson


7.9.11

FRENCH PSYCHICS AND METAPSYCHICS

Sofie Lachapelle. Investigating the Supernatural: from Spirtism and Occultism to Psychical Research and Metapsychics in France 1853-1931. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

Sofie Lachapelle here reviews the successive waves of interest in matters psychical in France, from what were essentially religious outlooks to the at least quasi-scientific. Unlike the rather free and easy development of spiritualism on Britain, French spiritism was organised on highly authoritarian lines by its founder, a maths teacher Denizard H. L. Revail, who adopted the name Allan Kardec because it sounded Celtic.

Revail/Kardec had total control of the movement, vetting every lecture and every article in its journal to make sure it followed the party line. Much of spiritism in Kardec's time was concerned with the philosophy dictated by the spirits rather than scientific investigation of phenomena. Another group which showed an interest in paranormal phenomena were occultists, such as the followers of Alphonse Louis Constant who took the name Eliphas Levi, thinking it a Hebrew version of his given names.

Lachapelle shows how whereas Spiritists saw these phenomena as due to the actions of discarnate spirits, occultists saw them more as evidence of preternatural human powers which had been known to the ancients. Among those who had been members of the Spiritist movement was the astronomer and science populariser Camille Flammarion who was to move away from Spiritism towards what in Britain was called psychical research. To the modern eye he was perhaps more of a folklorist collecting anecdotes, which when supplied by the right sort of 'honourable' people (something Lachapelle sees as connected to 19th French notions of honour) he believed implicitly.

It was Flammarion who introduce the notorious Eusapia Palladino to France. The author shows that towards the end of the 19th century there was a growing interest in paranormal experiences among those who would be seen as the pioneers of psychology. Here she devotes particular attention to Theodore Flournoy and his work with the medium 'Helene Smith' as well as researches into somnambulism and other "pathologies of the supernatural". She then tracks the development of more 'scientific' psychical research, in particular the role of the physician Charles Richet. Richet also worked with Palladino as well as other mediums.

One of these whose influence was to span the journey from pre-Great War psychical research to the even more quasi-scientific 'metapsychics' of the interwar period was Marthe Beraud alias Eva Carriere who became well known for the production of ectoplasm. Though there are some illustrations in this book there are none of Marthe/Eva's materialisations, perhaps because the laughter that would be induced by their ludicrously fraudulent nature would be inappropriate for an academic work.

The portrait that she paints of French 'metapsychics' and the grandly titled Insitute Metapsychics International is sadly familiar. It was racked by poisonous ideological and personality disputes, allegations and counter allegations, not helped by the fact the finance came from a convinced Spiritist. The IMI was conceived as a sort of European Union of psychical research, and fell into the sort of disputes that seem to plague the latter body, not least the suspicion that the aim was to create a French dominated superstate of psychical research. Plans to set up a permanent conference centre in Geneva proved fruitless, and the internationalist vision of the IMI was to swallowed up by the rising nationalisms of the decade.

Meanwhile in the science stakes the IMI and its obsession with mediums and ectoplasm was outflanked by the new model scientific parapsychology of J. B. Rhine in the United States, part of the general drift of the leading edge of scientific research in general from Europe to the USA.

Lachapelle has done well in producing a detailed and sympathetic history, avoiding the rather hagiographic character of some histories of British psychical research on the one hand and the sneering disdain of a Ruth Brandon on the other. -- Peter Rogerson.

14.4.11

WILD TALENTS

Pamela Rae Heath. Mind-Matter Interaction: Review of Historical Reports, Theory and Research. McFarland, 2011.

David Gordon White. Sinister Yogis. University of Chicago Press, 2011

Many cultures have traditions of religious or occult virtuosi who possess extraordinary wild talents. These are to at least some degree the subjects of these two books.

Pamela Ray Heath's book is a revised and expanded version of the author's book The PK Zone first published in 2002. In it she undertakes both literature searches on both accounts of spontaneous cases and research studies on various aspects of what she terms mind-matter interaction, along with her own interviews with various 'psychics'.

It is the first section of this book which contains accounts from the biographies of, and travellers tales about, religious virtuosi and wonder workers which includes these extraordinary wild talents which include levitation, bilocation, luminosity, spontaneous human combustion, matter duplication, indedia (living without food), matter transformation, apportation/teleportation, imperviousness to pain, the handling of fire and the like.

These are among the wild talents claimed by the yogis discussed by David G White. These are yogis very different from the kalisthenic meditators known in the west, closer to wonder workers such as Sai Baba, and certainly not always the sort of people whose claimed talents would be of the sort altogether suitable for a village church hall. Not least because other talents that they specialised in was the ability not only to duplicate their bodies as in bilocation, but to penetrate the whole cosmos, alter the size and shape of their bodies, as in western traditions of magicians/witches changing their bodies to those of animals.

They are clearly wild trickster figures who blur all sorts of boundaries not just of the self and others but between "real" and "unreal", religion and entertainment etc.

As I have argued several times before the modern psychics and wonder workers from the age of psychical research are also trickster figures. The earlier literature of psychical research still contains significant echoes of these old talents, along with new ones such as table turning, the production of ectoplasm, of direct voice or electronic voice recordings, psychic photographs etc. They too inhabit the debatable land between dream and reality, truth and fiction, and zones where religion science and show business meet.

In the realm of modern parapsychology these talents seem to have faded down to the claimed ability to influence random number generators and other powers only detectable through esoteric statistical analysis.

Clearly the world views in which these magico-religious traditions were very different from the world view of modern science, where most of these talents are viewed as very improbable to say the least, and some such as bilocation, teleportation and matter duplication, would appear to be as near to 'impossible' as one is going to get. It goes without saying that claims of their existence are unlikely to impress the more sceptically minded, not least because no one ever produces the sort of evidence which would be persuasive to most mainstream scientists.

This presents a problem for those like Dr Heath who are seeking to use such accounts as scientific evidence, for what she interprets in quasi-Cartesian terms as 'mind-matter' interactions. Interpretations by Indian philosophers tend to be much more complex and subtle, though in some ways (such as the belief that sight involves sending out rays from the eyes) even more removed from modern science.

Sceptics will also point out that while Dr Heath has clearly done a great amount of reading and brought to light some snippets of odd material, her granting of popular paperbacks and the like with the same status as academic studies and her willingness to take at face value the tales told by popular entertainment writers such as Vincent Gaddis and Martin Caidin suggests both a lack of critical faculty and a lack of knowledge of the wider Fortean field and its many debates.

Indeed from the point of view of modern science they do not seem to be any explanations, including popular paranormal ones, which could make any sense of these talents, certainly not half understood appeals to quantum physics.

This does not necessarily force critics back to the notorious cultural source hypothesis, as we might still argue that some of these traditions have been based on powerful subjective experiences in altered states of consciousness, and point to anomalies and lacuna of perception and memory.

Of course there is a realm where most, if not all, of these wild talents, including the claimed Yogic ability to occupy many bodies at once, and that is the virtual realm of cyberspace. Those living their lives in cyberspace may therefore be the true Yogis of modern times. -- Peter Rogerson


MAGONIA RECOMMENDS