From the archives: Bird droppings

Michael Prescott - Wed, 06/09/2017 - 8:56pm

Here's a post from 2009, which refers back to John Edward's old show, Crossing Over, which even then was off the air. Although the specific content is dated, the basic point remains valid: any evidence, no matter how good, can be rationalized away.

I've updated the link to my essay on Edward. The original link to SkepticReport still works.

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Today I happened to look at an essay about medium John Edward that I posted on my Web site back in 2003. I found it interesting on two levels. First, I seem to have been a lot snarkier back then! Second, I was much less convinced of the reality of mediumship than I am now.

The other thing I noticed was that in '03 it was still necessary to explain what a "blog site" is.

The reason I reread this old essay was that I remembered a particularly weak skeptical argument used to debunk one of Edward's more impressive televised "hits." The argument was made in an article called "Birds of a Feather" that appeared on the Web site SkepticReport in 2002.

Here is the relevant part of the transcript, as reproduced by SkepticReport:

John: Why is Niagara Falls significant?

Lady 1: We was just there.

John: You were just at Niagara Falls, ok.

Lady 1: Me and my daughter.

John: Did you find a feather there?

Lady 1: Yes, and my daughter…

John: Did you tell your daughter that was from daddy?

Lady 1: Yes.

John: Ok, this is a validation that he was there for you, ok? ‘Cause he’s showing me the feather. Lucky for you that’s my mother’s symbol when she communicates with me. I find feathers. So it was a very easy symbol for me to get. But I need to validate for you that is was definitely, definitely him there for her.

Lady 1: Thank you.

So Edward told the woman that he was getting "Niagara Falls," and in fact the woman had just been there. He then asked if she had found a feather there, and the woman said yes. He then asked if she'd told her daughter that the feather was "from daddy" (deceased). The woman confirmed this, too.

Sounds pretty good to me. But SkepticReport will have none of it. Here is their explanation:

But what of the feather? Isn’t that a fantastic piece of evidence?

Not really. According to the 35th Annual Niagara Falls Christmas Bird Count on Saturday, December 29th, 2001, a total of 101 species of birds were found, and a total of 49,744 birds in Niagara Falls, NY.

There are also quite a few photos on the web from Niagara Falls with birds in them:

[Links to bird photos are given.]

Tons of birds on these ones.

I think we can safely say that it would not be uncommon to find a feather at Niagara Falls.

OK, then: What about Niagara Falls itself?

What does John Edward actually say about Niagara Falls? “Did you tell your daughter that the feather she found at Niagara Falls was from her Daddy?”

No. Previously in the reading, we have learned that Catherine has lost her husband. First, John Edward asks: “Why is Niagara Falls significant?” He doesn’t say anything about the nature of the significance. He asks Catherine!

From there, she tells John Edward that she was there with her daughter. Since birds are commonplace there, it would be likely if the daughter found a feather – it is fun for kids to find feathers.

Immediately after, Catherine – tearfully – begins to tell John Edward that “her daughter” – and then John Edward breaks in and asks about the father.

It takes three steps, and after each, John Edward asks a crucial question. It doesn’t take a genius to see what is happening here.

According to this argument, Edward's references to a) Niagara Falls, b) finding a feather there, and c) the mom telling the daughter that the feather was a gift from her departed father were all lucky guesses or obvious logical inferences. Money quote: "Since birds are commonplace there, it would be likely if the daughter found a feather – it is fun for kids to find feathers."

Now, really. I mean, come on. (Hey, I just found some of my missing snark.)

I have no doubt that there are many birds at Niagara Falls, and it was hardly necessary for SkepticReport to cite bird counts and bird photos to establish this uncontroversial point. (I'd guess that these citations were added to make the article look more "scientific.")

As a matter of fact, there are lots of birds everywhere, except maybe Death Valley. I've lived in several different parts of the country, in widely differing climate zones, and have never found any shortage of birds, even in urban areas.

Even so, I have rarely noticed any feathers on the ground, and to the best of my recollection I have never seen a kid pick up a feather. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but it's not the sort of thing you see every day. ("Hey, look, there's another kid picking up a feather. Third time today.")

Moreover, I have never heard anyone tell a child that a feather was a gift from a deceased parent, or anything of the kind. Actually, I don't think I've ever heard been part of a conversation about picking up bird feathers in any context.

The whole "explanation" is an obvious example of rationalizing after the fact. If Edward had said that the woman's husband was run over by a dump truck in Newark, maybe SkepticReport would cite statistics and photos proving that there are many dump trucks in Newark. When you think of Newark, aren't dump trucks the first thing that come to mind? And since people sometimes get run over by dump trucks, it was easy for Edward to guess that the husband had died this way. Why, when you think about it, it's just common sense!

SkepticReport also points out a minor and debatable discrepancy between the show's transcript and the way it's written up in Edward's book Crossing Over. Here's how part of the exchange is described in the book:

“Did you find a feather there?” I asked her.

“Yes, and…” Catherine was crying.

“Did your tell your daughter that was from Daddy?”

“Yes.” She buried her face in her hands.

SkepticReport makes much of the fact that Catherine's words "Yes, and my daughter ..." were shortened to "Yes, and ..." in the book. Is this significant?

I don't think so. First, I saw a rerun of this episode of Crossing Over after reading the SkepticReport article, so I was paying close attention. If my memory is correct, there was crosstalk at this point, and Edward, talking very fast as usual, actually said, "Did you tell your daughter ..." at the very same moment when Catherine was saying, "... and my daughter." In other words, he was not reacting to her statement, but talking over it and partly drowning it out.

Second, and more important, the mere fact that Catherine said "and my daughter" would not lead most people to infer that Catherine told her daughter that the feather "was from Daddy." There are countless ways the statement "and my daughter" could have concluded.

It's probably silly to spend this much time on a trivial and foolish debunking exercise from seven years ago. The SkepticReport article, however, does illustrate an important point: No matter what kind of hits are obtained, no matter how specific they are or how unlikely or how meaningful to the sitter, they can still be rationalized away by a determined doubter.

Categories: Fortean

The drunk at the bar

Michael Prescott - Sun, 27/08/2017 - 11:04pm

Not too long ago I wrote a post about how the Internet may be subtly changing our brain function and creating anxiety in the process. Recently, however, it occurred to me that there’s another, much more obvious factor at work in producing the edginess and unease that characterize modern society – an unease that makes little sense when you consider the unprecedented safety, affluence, and comfort that most people in developed nations enjoy.

When the Internet made its debut, it was hailed as a revolutionary communications technology that would allow us to get in touch with people from all parts of the world and to be exposed to all points of view, thus leading to greater international understanding. This was a wonderfully idealistic way of looking at things, and like so many idealistic dreams, it has foundered on the sharp rocks of reality. While undoubtedly the Internet has fostered some degree of global understanding, it has probably done more to introduce us to points of view that we would be better off not encountering. The egalitarian nature of the Internet, where anybody’s comment counts as much as anyone else’s, has led to a peculiar situation in which all too often we find ourselves hemmed in by idiocy.

Think of it as the “drunk in the bar” syndrome. Everyone is familiar with the movie trope of a drunken bar patron spouting off a bunch of nonsense while the guy on the barstool next to him listens uncomfortably. In real life, nobody takes the drunk at the bar seriously, for two reasons. First, since we are up close and personal with him, we can see that he is just an inebriated slosh whose slurred ramblings can be safely disregarded. Second, we encounter him in a social context, surrounded by other bar patrons who are presumably better grounded than the drunk and able to see him for what he is. Our own skepticism is thus reinforced by the healthy skepticism of those around us.

But on the Internet, everything is different. The crank, the loon, the angry drunk, the mentally disturbed loner is not always immediately identifiable as such. He can seem pretty rational. All we have to go on is his typewritten words and his avatar. We are seeing only what he wants us to see. We aren’t seeing the whole person. We aren’t reading body language. We aren’t hearing tone of voice. One set of typewritten words is very much like another. As long as the errors of grammar, spelling, punctuation are not too egregious, we are inclined to assume that whoever produced them is a basically reasonable person – by which we mean, of course, a person like us.

In addition, we read this Internet comments alone. Though there may be other participants in the online discussion, they are distant from us. We don’t have the advantage of a crowd of essentially rational bystanders who are able to instantly back up our own intuitive assessment. Each other person is at just as much of a loss as we are, and each one is dealing with the drunk at the bar in isolation.

None of this would matter if there weren’t so damn many drunks at the bar. One of the unsettling things about the Internet is that it has exposed just how many disturbed people there are. They were probably always out there, but in the pre-Internet age, we rarely noticed them. Most of them were never very social; their letters to the editor were probably not printed; their tirades against the TV news or the Illuminati probably went unheard. They existed apart from the rest of society, largely unknown, without a voice.

The Internet has given them their voice. That may be good for them, but it’s not so good for the rest of us.

It’s not so good, in part, because encounters with these people on a daily basis can become extremely trying. Dealing with craziness is hard. Just ask any psychiatrist. The rate of burnout in those parts of the medical profession that deal primarily with the mentally ill is extremely high. Not only is it frustrating, even exasperating, to try to handle crazy people, but it can also be mentally and emotionally destabilizing. The well-known “gaslighting” phenomenon comes to mind. If enough people try to convince you that your perceptions are wrong and your grasp of reality is shaky, you may start to believe them. Paradoxically, the crazy people can make you question your own sanity. Trained professionals at least have some idea of how to deal with this problem. The ordinary layman does not.

But there’s a larger reason why it’s not so good to give the drunk at the bar a megaphone. As more extreme and bizarre ideas flood our intellectual space, they tend to crowd out more sane and rational positions. In economics, there’s a rule called Gresham’s Law, which holds that bad money drives out good. On the Internet, it seems that bad ideas drive out the good ones, at least in many cases.

The exponents of crazy theories are not restricted by logic, facts, moderation, common sense, or consideration of other people’s feelings. They are not restricted by anything. This makes them annoying, but it can also make them effective. They simply shout down any objection, sweeping aside factual criticisms with wild inventions, and deflecting logical objections with personal attacks. Internet arguers are much like the people in Yeats’ famous poem “The Second Coming.” 

The best lack all conviction, while the worst    Are full of passionate intensity.

The unrestrained, ruthless proponents of nutty ideas have a built-in advantage over anyone pleading for sanity. Sanity is boring. Sanity speaks with a quiet voice. Sanity is polite, self-effacing, willing to admit to self-doubt, open to criticism, and aware that its judgments may be wrong. In online debate, all of this comes across as weakness, while the ranting bluster of the drunk at the bar comes across – at least to many people – as strength. And so the crazy positions gain adherents, while the sane positions, humdrum and uninspiring as they are, slowly retreat.

The foregoing is not, of course, an original observation. It’s just something I probably should have included in my earlier discussion of Internet. The sheer power of this new technology to shape our culture and our national discussions is actually rather frightening and very poorly understood.

By the way, I don’t exempt myself entirely from the above criticism. I’m sure I’ve had my own “drunk at the bar” moments, both here and on social media. The very nature of posting opinions online seems to encourage shoot-from-the-hip punditry, which can often backfire. Blogs and social media mean that none of our thoughts, no matter how fleeting, need to go unexpressed. But many thoughts are probably better off unexpressed. And unfortunately, those with the self-restraint to stay quiet are probably the more reasonable and rational ones, while those who pop off at any opportunity are the more excitable and crazy ones. This is another way in which they dominate the conversation and seize more territory in our intellectual space.

I don’t see a way out of this situation. Barring some massive solar flare that wipes out electromagnetic communications for the next generation, the Internet is here to stay. And truly, I wouldn’t want to be without it. But there are times when I almost wish that it would go away.

Or at least that the drunk at the bar would finally shut up.

Categories: Fortean

Cutting remarks

Michael Prescott - Sun, 13/08/2017 - 7:18pm

As a follow-up to my last post, I thought I'd take a look at one of the authentic letters of Paul, the one he sent to the Galatians. Unlike the Gospels and Acts, which were written decades after the events described, Paul's letters were written in the heat of the moment and give a more realistic sense of what was happening "on the ground."

What's clear, above all, from this and other letters is that Paul's missionary activities proceeded in an atmosphere of intense personal controversy, and that his opponents were emissaries of the Jerusalem church – representatives of the core group of apostles who actually knew Jesus in the flesh and had a very different idea of Jesus' teaching than did Paul. Since their authority could hardly be questioned, Paul was naturally put on the defensive and had to fight a constant rearguard battle to prevent his own converts from being swayed to the "Jewish Christian" version of the faith.

In Galatians, after a few boilerplate introductory remarks, he immediately jumps into the fray. (All quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. My analysis is largely dependent on S.G.F. Brandon's The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church., pp 136—139.)

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! (1:6,7)

Pretty strong stuff right out of the gate. He is saying that his opponents – who, as it will become clear, represent the Jerusalem apostles – should be placed under a curse. Clearly he has learned that his converts in Galatia, who previously were faithful to his own idiosyncratic interpretation of Christianity, are now changing their minds and aligning themselves with the Jerusalem party. Since he is not in Galatia, he can defend himself only with a strongly worded letter. Very strongly worded, as we'll see.

Knowing that his standing as an apostle is inherently insecure, since he never actually knew Jesus, he takes the bull by the horns and boldly proclaims that what appears to be a defect in his position is actually an asset.

The gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ ... But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me [or "in me"], so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. (1:11 – 17)

In other words, he had no need of human contact with Jesus or those who'd known him, because he had direct supernatural contact with the risen Christ. In this way he tries to put himself on an at least equal (if not superior) footing with his opponents.

He goes on to say that after three years he finally went to Jerusalem to visit Peter for just two weeks but saw no one else except James — that is, Jesus' brother, who had assumed control of the movement after Jesus' death. (As Brandon points out, the fact that leadership of the early Jewish Christian movement was handled in dynastic fashion is yet another indication that Jesus was regarded as king in a political sense. After James was martyred, leadership passed to yet another relative, a cousin named Simon.)

Fourteen years later, Paul says, he went to Jerusalem again, apparently summoned there to answer for his unorthodox teachings. Though he does his best to whitewash his account and put the outcome in a favorable light, it is clear that the encounter was acrimonious in the extreme. His defensiveness and excitement are raised to a fever pitch, to the point that he becomes incoherent, leaving his thoughts unfinished and fragmented.

But because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us – we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you. And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality) – those leaders contributed nothing to me. (2:4-6)

Note also his defensiveness in downplaying the status of the leaders of the Jerusalem church, insisting that their leadership position was a matter of indifference to him and to God. Clearly, however, this was not the case; after all, he had meekly consented to travel to Jerusalem and defend himself before James and the others, thus implicitly acknowledging their authority.

In any event, he claims that they worked out an amicable agreement, but this dubious assertion is immediately undercut by the next event in his timeline:

But when Cephas [= Peter] it came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. (2:11 – 12)

If we unpack this, we can see that whatever arrangement Paul arrived at with the Jerusalem church didn't last long. Paul and Peter were immediately at odds; James had sent word that Paul's policy of open admission of Gentiles was unacceptable; and even Barnabas – Paul's faithful companion in missionary work – ended up siding with "the circumcision faction," as Paul calls it. Of course, the issues involved ranged beyond circumcision. The disagreement was over whether or not one had to be an observant Jew in order to follow Jesus. Paul insisted that simple faith in Jesus was enough, and there was no need to be circumcised or to obey Jewish rituals, observe Jewish holidays, and follow the Law as laid down in Deuteronomy. The Jerusalem church, on the other hand, saw their movement as a subset of Judaism and, as such, required full commitment to Jewish practices, including circumcision, observance of rituals and holidays, and obedience to the Mosaic Law.

After some paragraphs arguing in favor of justification by faith, as opposed to following the Law, Paul returns to the sense of personal betrayal he feels from his own converts.

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? ... Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Do you experience so much for nothing? ... For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse. (3:1-10)

Since Jews "rely on the works of the law," evidently they are "under a curse." Remember that he is talking, ultimately, about James and Peter and the other Jerusalem apostles.

Paul resumes making various not entirely lucid arguments against the Law, but quickly comes back to his converts' backsliding: 

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years. I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted. (4:8 – 11)

Evidently Paul believes that pagans are enslaved by "beggarly elemental spirits," presumably demonic beings masquerading as the pantheon of polytheistic deities. There may also be an element of Gnosticism here, since the Gnostics held that the world was in the grip of low-level supernatural forces called the archons (a term Paul himself uses elsewhere, though in an ambiguous sense). Rather shockingly, he equates pagan belief to Jewish belief, saying that if the converts follow Jewish practices by "observing special days" and obeying the Law, they will again be enslaved by demons. No wonder he says that the emissaries from the Jerusalem church should be cursed – in his view, they are tempting the souls he has saved into an unholy communion with devils. The depth and intensity of the conflict splitting the early Christian movement is obvious.

Nor does he grant the Jewish Christian apostles even the dignity of a benevolent motive. He claims they are driven by petty self-interest:

They make much of you, but for no good purpose; they want to exclude you, so that you may make much of them. (4:16)

And he suggests that they are cowards fearful of persecution:

It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh to try to compel you to be circumcised – only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. (6:12)

The idea here is that the Jerusalem faction wishes to avoid conflict with other Jews by downplaying the crucifixion (which was a "stumbling block" to Jewish acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah) and by requiring all converts to be circumcised, thus negating any criticism that they are selling out to the Gentiles.

Paul's opinion, in short, is that the emissaries of the Jerusalem church – and no doubt the apostles in Jerusalem themselves – are seeking only to build themselves up, protect themselves from the criticism of their fellow Jews, and play it safe. They are phonies and cowards, he thinks. Worse still, they are demonic tempters who are accursed, and who compromise the souls that Paul has saved, leading them to perdition. 

These are the people who actually walked and talked with Jesus, including Jesus' own brother. The fact that Paul could dismiss them in such harshly derogatory terms shows how fully he had divorced himself from the roots of the Christian movement in Judea. But we aren't done yet. 

After still more angry arguments against the Law, Paul reaches the climax of his sputtering rage.

Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace ... Whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty.… I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves! (5:2 – 12)

Yes, you read that right. Paul, who would later be canonized as a saint, actually suggests that the emissaries from Jerusalem ought to "castrate themselves." The sense of his remark is something like this: if those damned Jews are so enamored of circumcision, why don't they just chop off their penises entirely?

If this is what he wrote in a letter, we can only imagine how he must have carried on in face-to-face encounters with his enemies. I wonder how many Sunday school teachers have informed their students that St. Paul once told Peter and James to cut off their genitals.

In a last rhetorical flourish, Paul equates the Jerusalem faction to those who would scorn God himself:

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. (6:7)

Other authentic letters of Paul recapitulate the attitudes seen here.  In 2 Corinthians 11:13 – 15, he fulminates against those he has identified sarcastically as "super-apostles," saying,

For such boasters are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his ministers also disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness. Their end will match their deeds.

In other words, his enemies, the Jerusalem party of Peter and James, are Satan's minions.

There can be no doubt that the early history of the Christian church was marked by savage infighting and vicious schisms, as is true of many religious movements. The version of Christianity that has come down to us was written by the winners in these battles – and the winners were decidedly not "the circumcision faction," as evidenced by the fact that circumcision (along with other distinctively Jewish practices) is not required of Christians today.

Categories: Fortean

Jesus as man and myth

Michael Prescott - Wed, 09/08/2017 - 12:13am

Lately I’ve been reading books of New Testament scholarship, something I haven’t done in quite a while. I plowed through two books by renegade scholar Hyam Maccoby, Jesus the Pharisee and The Mythmaker. I also read S.G.F. Brandon’s Jesus and the Zealots and am halfway through his Fall of Jerusalem. Since both of these writers are out of the mainstream, I tried to obtain some balance by reading Jesus the Jew, by Geza Vermes.

I find this whole subject very interesting, and I’ve come to certain tentative conclusions about it. But before I go on, I should point out that Jesus, as a historical figure, is someone who can be interpreted in almost any imaginable way. People tend to see in Jesus what they want to see. Marxists see him as a proto-Marxist, ecologists see him as a proto-ecologist, feminists see him as a proto-feminist, and college professors see him as a hip dude who enjoyed rapping with his disciples in the best tradition of student-friendly academics. It’s unlikely that any of these interpretations is correct.

To get closer to the historical reality, we need to look at the context in which Jesus operated. Judea in his day was under enemy occupation. Haunted by memories of past greatness as an independent theocratic kingdom, Judea had been crushed under the Roman boot. The Romans appointed the high priests who carried out the Temple sacrifices in Jerusalem, the central cultic practice of Judaism at the time. The Romans imposed high taxes collected by the hated “publicans,” who were free to use any form of extortion and violence to wring as much money as possible from their victims. The fact that Rome was a pagan state with a deified emperor only heightened Jewish resentment. The Jews had always regarded themselves as the special people of the one and only God, Yahweh; to be subordinated to a ruthless imperial power that celebrated a mere mortal as a deity and required taxes in tribute to him was intolerable.

As a result, revolutionary movements thrived throughout the first century A.D., leading up to the disastrous revolt of AD 66 – 70, when the population of Judea tried to overthrow their Roman masters, only to be decisively defeated. In the aftermath, the Jerusalem Temple was profaned and destroyed, thousands of Jews were crucified, and many more were forcibly deported, scattered throughout the Empire so that they could no longer band together and cause trouble. Now that Temple sacrifice was no longer possible, the religion itself had to be reinvented; it became a movement based on intensive study of the Torah under the guidance of learned rabbis, in which animal sacrifice no longer played a role.

Prior to all this, numerous would-be messiahs sprang up in Judea, promising deliverance from the hated Romans. The word “messiah” is Hebrew for “anointed,” and because the anointment was the key feature of the coronation of Jewish kings, the term became synonymous with “king.” Naturally, anyone who declared himself the Messiah – i.e., the King of the Jews – was setting himself in direct opposition to Caesar, and was therefore seen by the Romans as guilty of sedition. Some of these self-proclaimed messiahs tried to organize military action against the Romans, while others depended on a divine miracle that they expected momentarily. Whatever the specifics of their program, they were invariably hunted down by Roman authorities, to be killed or (rarely) driven into exile.

Besides declaring himself the rightful King of the Jewish people, a Messiah might also demonstrate his bona fides through prophecy and miracles. Though the Messiah was understood to be a mortal man, he was seen as having been specially appointed by God with a divine mission, so it was not surprising that he might possess unusual powers of healing, exorcism, and prophecy. The Jewish historian Josephus, a turncoat who ended up as a client of the Roman emperor Vespasian, despised these rebels as “wonder-workers” – charlatans, magicians – who got ordinary people all worked up over nothing and helped bring about Judea’s humiliating defeat in A.D. 70.

These would-be messiahs did not operate in a vacuum, of course. Rumblings of discontent were increasingly widespread throughout Judea, especially – it would seem – in Galilee, where they took the form of clandestine popular resistance. The Zealots, whom Josephus denigrated as “bandits,” were the best known revolutionary party. Fiercely nationalistic, the Zealots recruited followers who aimed at the overthrow of Rome, while harassing and murdering Jews who were seen as collaborationists with the regime. In some cases, Zealots committed public assassinations at crowded festivals, using small daggers concealed in their clothing. For this reason, the Romans came to know them as sicarii, or “dagger-men.”

In short, the situation in Judea was a hotbed of unrest that periodically flared up into open rebellion, only to be ruthlessly stamped out by Roman troops.

Where does Jesus fit into this picture? Both Maccoby and Brandon argue that he probably matched the general pattern of other messianic pretenders of the period. Most likely, he gained popularity by assuring people that the end of Roman rule was at hand, that a new day was soon to dawn, and that Israel would be restored to its former glory, with the hereditary Throne of David once again occupied by one of God’s chosen kings. His immediate inspiration appears to have been John the Baptizer, who preached the message that the Kingdom of God was at hand and that the Jewish people should repent – that is, should purify themselves so as to be worthy of God’s favor. Though the expression “Kingdom of God” has been much debated, it probably referred to an earthly kingdom, a theocracy along the lines of the semi-legendary kingdom of David and Solomon. The concern of John – and almost certainly of Jesus also – was not individual salvation in an afterlife, but the salvation of the holy Davidic kingdom on earth. John apparently did not claim to be the Messiah himself, but only the prophet announcing the imminent appearance of the Messiah. It is possible that Jesus’ ministry began the same way, but that at some later point he became convinced that he actually was the Messiah. Or perhaps he never did believe this, and the role of Messiah was assigned to him only by his more ardent followers. (A certain reluctance on the part of Jesus to accept Messiah-hood is indicated by a story of how the people wished to crown him King but he refused, and also by his repeated requests for secrecy on the part of his inner circle.)

After some time preaching in Galilee (a center of revolutionary activity, where anti-Roman agitators could count on local support), Jesus and his core disciples risked entering the more dangerous territory of Jerusalem, where the Romans, in conjunction with their collaborators among the Jewish priesthood, maintained much firmer control. Maccoby believes they arrived in the autumn for the Feast of Tabernacles, while Brandon is content to accept the biblical version that they arrived in the spring, just prior to the Passover. In any event, Jerusalem was apparently meant to be the scene of Jesus’ ultimate triumph. Here, in the heart of Judea, where stood the Temple itself, Jesus hoped to help bring about the miraculous overthrow of the Romans and the restoration of the Davidic kingdom.

His attack on the money-changers in the Temple courtyard appears to have been a key step in his campaign to purify the Temple and set the stage for divine intervention. Brandon argues convincingly that Jesus did far more than simply overturn a few tables, an action that would have been quickly stopped by the Temple police; instead, Jesus probably entered the Temple with a large group of followers and incited a melee that the police were unable to control. He may have intended to actually seize control of the Temple and use it as his base of operations. Seizure of the Temple would have greatly magnified his status and electrified the population of Jerusalem, who would remember that the successful revolt of the Maccabees against the Seleucid Empire climaxed with the rededication of the Temple. In any event, the dramatic effort apparently failed, and Jesus and his supporters were driven out of the Temple and into the hills, where they hid from the authorities. By this point, both the Temple priesthood and the Roman governor would have been committed to the arrest and execution of Jesus and his inner circle.

Maccoby and Brandon differ on exactly what happened next. Maccoby believes that Jesus intended to bring about divine intervention in a night of intensive prayer on the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem, in fulfillment of biblical prophecy. This is Maccoby’s interpretation of the famous Agony of Gethsemane account in the Gospels, where Jesus is pictured as praying so intensely that sweat drips from his forehead like blood. Brandon thinks that Jesus and his followers were simply hiding and trying to regroup, perhaps in preparation for leaving the area altogether and retreating into the desert. In any case, they were discovered by Roman troops. The Gospel accounts indicate, in a muted fashion, that the apostles attempted to put up resistance. How much of a struggle ensued is impossible to say, but, in the end, Jesus was arrested, while apparently most or all of his close followers managed to escape.

Neither Maccoby nor Brandon gives any credence to the famous story of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. It was certainly not the custom of Roman governors to conduct public trials; such a practice would have only invited mob violence. Nor was it their practice to give the crowd an opportunity to vote on the release of a particular prisoner during a religious festival. Nor is there any reason to believe that Pilate ever had the least interest in Jesus’ psychology, theology, or even his basic guilt or innocence. By all other accounts, Pilate was an extremely ruthless procurator with little or no regard for the lives of his Jewish subjects. Most likely, he condemned Jesus to death without so much as a hearing. Jesus was just one more nuisance the governor had to deal with in his busy schedule, and the execution of yet another rebellious Jew would not have cost him a moment’s thought.

One detail of the Pilate story that may well be correct, however, is that the titulus (inscription) on Jesus’ cross read “King of the Jews.” This was almost certainly the crime of which he was convicted and for which he was executed. Again, styling oneself as king was tantamount to declaring direct opposition to Caesar, and was therefore a capital offense.

What we get from all this is a rather different picture of Jesus than the one promoted in the Gospels, which were written decades after the events and were aimed at a predominantly Gentile (non-Jewish) audience. The Gospels take great pains to downplay any political activity on Jesus’ part and to exculpate the Romans as much as possible for his execution, even making Pilate a conflicted and sympathetic figure. Instead they lay all the blame on the Jews, going so far as to have the Jewish crowd improbably assembled for Jesus’ public trial declare that they willingly take his blood on themselves and their children – a passage that has been used ever since to justify anti-Semitic pogroms. The polemical approach taken by the Gospels reflects their Sitz im Leben (situation in life), i.e., their historical context. By the time they were written, the Christian church had broken with the Jewish community, and relations between Christians and Jews were extremely hostile. Christianity had become an almost exclusively Gentile movement, and it would have been impolitic to lay any emphasis on the role of Rome in crucifying the Savior of mankind. It would have been equally impolitic to present Jesus as a Jewish revolutionary seeking to overthrow the Roman empire, when the Christians were eager to discourage the political persecution of their movement.

The question naturally arises, though, that if Jesus’ historical career was that of a would-be Messiah with mixed political and religious motives, who came up against the Roman state and was executed for sedition, then how did he come to be seen as the hero of a predominantly Gentile movement, celebrated as an apolitical pacifist whose purposes were far larger than the restoration of the kingdom of David?

Both Maccoby and Brandon agree that two key historical developments were responsible. First, there was the destruction of the Temple and the humiliating defeat of the Jewish people in A.D. 70, which seems to put an end to the Jerusalem church and what might be called the “Jewish Christian wing” of the movement. Second, there was the teaching of St. Paul.

Paul apparently began as a devout Jew, raised in a Hellenistic environment (reportedly the city of Tarsus), but while near Damascus, he experienced a mystical revelation in which the figure of Jesus appeared to him. This revelation changed his life and ultimately changed the entire direction of Christianity. Paul became convinced that he had been appointed to carry the message of Jesus – as he understood it through direct revelation – to the Gentiles. In his letters, which were written decades before the Gospels and represent the earliest extant Christian documents, he boasts that his knowledge did not come from knowing Jesus in the flesh or from talking with people who had known him, but rather from mystical communion with the resurrected Christ. Although Paul made efforts to tailor his brand of Christianity to Jewish Christian traditions when possible, his overall approach represented a radical departure. In his mind, Jesus was not the Messiah in the traditional Jewish sense – a mortal man appointed to restore the Israelite kingdom – but the incarnation of God himself, an aspect of God that preexisted his earthly life and may have preexisted the universe as such. The purpose of this God-man was to ensure the salvation of individual souls, much in the way that the Hellenistic mystery religions apparently promised personal immortality to those who underwent their initiation ceremony. (I say “apparently” because the details of the mystery religions’ ceremonies were kept secret and can only be inferred. But it seems likely from occasional remarks that have been preserved, for instance in the writings of Plutarch and Apuleius, that personal immortality was the focus of these rites.)

Paul, with his combined background of Jewish and Hellenistic influences and his unique personal genius, created a new and powerful religious synthesis. His work did not go unnoticed by the Jerusalem church. Though the Book of Acts, written decades later, does its best to whitewash any conflict between Paul and the core group of apostles in Jerusalem, who were led by Jesus’ own brother James, the letters written by Paul at the time make it clear that the two sides were often at odds. Paul was called to Jerusalem more than once to justify his unorthodox teaching; he often found rival apostles – presumably of the Jewish Christian type – preaching against his ideas and trying to win over his converts; and he was ultimately arrested and sent to Rome, where he may have met his death, as a result of a Jewish Christian plot hatched in Jerusalem. It seems clear, then, that Paul’s brand of Christianity met with intense resistance from the people who had actually known Jesus in real life and who were not impressed by Paul’s claims to have communed with Jesus beyond the grave. In one of his letters, Paul goes out of his way to say that he is not insane, presumably to counter an accusation being made by his enemies in the Jewish Christian movement. In another letter, he famously says he is “not ashamed of the gospel,” an odd circumlocution suggesting that his version of the gospel had a certain notoriety that he was seeking to overcome.

Furthermore, it appears that the efforts of the Jerusalem church were pretty successful in the short run. Brandon argues that the desultory condition of Paul’s letters, some of which exist only in pieced-together form, indicates that Paul fell out of favor for some considerable period of time. Ultimately, of course, his teachings did win out. The explanation, according to both Brandon and Maccoby, was that the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the consequent destruction of the Jerusalem church left the field open for the Pauline sect to proselytize with minimal opposition. And since Pauline theology was far more congenial to Gentiles than the original Jewish Christian story, it gradually won out. When the Gospels and Acts came to be written (by Pauline Christians), the Jewish Christian origins of the movement were, to a large extent, suppressed.

In other words, what we have today is Pauline Christianity, which bears little resemblance to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, a Galilean apocalyptic preacher and revolutionary whose interests lay in the restoration of the Throne of David.

This leaves us with one other obvious question – namely, does this historical interpretation, if it is correct, invalidate Christianity as a religion?

If the historical Jesus did not teach the things that we are told he taught, if he did not see himself as the incarnation of God or the Savior of mankind, if he was not interested in reaching out to the Gentiles (as even some of the Gospel stories indicate), if he was in fact just one of many failed messianic candidates in a period of political unrest in ancient Judea … if he was, in short, not very much different from such dimly remembered figures as Theudas or Bar-Kochba (two other self-appointed messiahs who came to a bad end) … then is there any reason to regard the religion centered on him as meaningful or important?

I think there probably is. In fact, I think there may be more reason to take Christianity seriously when viewed in this light. Though Paul may have been libeled as insane by his rivals, he seems to have had an experience best described by the term “cosmic consciousness.” In one or more episodes of mystical transport, he seems to gotten in touch with some kind of higher power – whether we think of it as his own higher self, or God, or discarnate spirits, or the specific discarnate spirit of Jesus himself, or some other supranormal reality. And in this mode of transcendent insight, Paul experienced a kind of instantaneous and dizzying “data dump” that crowded his brain and haunted his thoughts for the rest of his life. His letters, read in this light, show us – not the careful logical reasoning of a trained rabbinical scholar – but the excited thought processes of someone whose understanding outstrips his language, someone who jumps from one big idea to another without filling in the necessary gaps, someone who thinks in terms of vast patterns and cosmic imagery rather than legalistic or casuistic details. In other words, we see the writings of someone whose entire life was reshaped and targeted in a new direction as the result of an overwhelming mystical revelation. Though he did his best to graft this revelatory material onto Judaism and the teachings of the Jerusalem church, he was only incidentally indebted to those sources. He was presenting something new, something that exploded the existing paradigm and offered an exciting new fusion of Judaism, Hellenism, Gnosticism, and personal mystical insight.

Seen in this way, Pauline Christianity becomes an exciting window into the higher reaches of transcendental revelation, and is arguably more interesting and more relevant to the modern world than the religious-political efforts of the historical Jesus. Paul himself seems to have felt this way, inasmuch as he showed little interest in the actual life of Jesus on earth, making few references to it in his letters. The historical Jesus did not interest him. His interest lay in the direct revelation(s) he had received.

It’s ironic to consider that what Albert Schweitzer called “the quest of the historical Jesus” – the massive, longtime, ongoing effort of New Testament scholars to determine the actual facts of Jesus of Nazareth’s life – may end in the realization that the historical Jesus is of no great importance, and that what really matters is the eternal spiritual reality accessed by a man who never knew Jesus in the flesh.

Categories: Fortean

The French objection

Michael Prescott - Wed, 26/07/2017 - 6:08pm

Conservative writer David French recently penned an article for the National Review website called “Post-Christian America: Gullible, Intolerant, and Superstitious.” I thought it was worth commenting on.

French begins by criticizing the view held by many secular humanists that if Christianity is defeated, society will become more rational. He writes:

Many of the best-educated and least-religious people I knew weren’t all that reasonable. They held to downright irrational views about reality. I remember an elite-educated secular friend in Philadelphia who scoffed at my wife’s Christian faith; this friend was also convinced that her child had an “indigo aura” that imbued him with special gifts. I recall conversations with Harvard Law School classmates who laughed at the New Testament but thought reincarnation was “cool.” And how can I forget the strange sight of Harvard students walking in and out of the neighborhood witchcraft store?

He goes on to cite a New York Times story reporting that “America’s less religious citizens are far more likely to believe in things such as ghosts and UFOs than people who attend church.” The Times writer locates the motive for such beliefs in “the pursuit of meaning. The less religious participants [in a series of studies] were, we found, the less they perceived their lives as meaningful. This lack of meaning was associated with a desire to find meaning, which in turn was associated with belief in U.F.O.s and alien visitors.”

French ads that “post-Christian Europeans have their own tendencies to believe in elves, trolls, and mental telepathy.”

After some musings on the deleterious consequences for national politics and civil discourse, French concludes:

Human beings are hard-wired to search for meaning and purpose. As we conduct that search, will our nation and culture continue to value and respect the faith that grants hope of redemption, patience through present suffering, and a means to discern between good and evil? Or will it continue to shun the way, the truth, and the life in favor of a grab-bag of ghosts, UFOs, and wishful thoughts? The choice isn’t between reason and religion. It’s all too often between religion and superstition. Post-Christian America will be a less rational place.

There’s a lot to unpack here.

First, French is not wrong to say that people – or at least very many people – have an innate need to find meaning in life. While there do seem to be individuals who never give a thought about any higher purpose and just go through life from day to day, they are probably an exception to the general rule.

Second, it seems pretty clear (as French suggests) that some people have merely taken the Christian hope of a Savior descending from on high to redeem our beleaguered planet, and have reimagined it as benevolent ETs descending in spaceships, like Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, to rescue us from ourselves. 

Third, it’s true that Christianity has developed a complex and erudite theology that can serve as a comprehensive explanation of good and evil, happiness and suffering, and the ultimate purpose of human life. Meanwhile, popular alternatives do not offer anything nearly as intellectually nourishing or sophisticated.

That said, some of French’s other views stand on less solid ground.

For one thing, he seems to assume that people could find what they want and need in Christianity, but that they perversely turn away from it and seek less satisfying alternatives. What’s more likely is that they have tried Christianity, or at least looked into it, and found that it simply does not satisfy them. It’s not that they’re searching for meaning because they’ve given up Christianity; it’s that they gave up Christianity because it didn’t answer their quest.

Undoubtedly, people who open themselves up to non-mainstream spiritual options are at risk of accepting dubious or outright silly ideas. But this is simply the price paid for exploring unfamiliar terrain.

More important, it’s an error – in fact, a logical fallacy – to lump together all unorthodox beliefs as equally baseless. “Elves” and “mental telepathy” do not occupy the same position on the spectrum of empirical evidence and scientific research. As far as I know, there's no evidence or research regarding elves, while there is more than a century of evidence of and research into mental telepathy, including such robust and massive studies as the ganzfeld and autoganzfeld experiments. Even such an outspoken Skeptic as Richard Wiseman has stated:

I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing is proven, but [this] begs the question: do we need higher standards of evidence when we study the paranormal? I think we do.

Wiseman later clarified that he didn’t mean to single out remote viewing but was speaking about psi in general: “It is a slight misquote, because I was using the term in the more general sense of ESP – that is, I was not talking about remote viewing per se, but rather Ganzfeld, etc as well. I think that they do meet the usual standards for a normal claim, but are not convincing enough for an extraordinary claim.”

Nobody could say that by the standards of any other area of science, the existence of elves has been proven.

Or take French’s conjunction of indigo children and reincarnation. The notion of indigo children is trendy in certain New Age circles, but I don’t think it’s supported by any hard evidence. On the other hand, reincarnation is supported by surprisingly powerful evidence, mainly in the form of the spontaneous recollections of past lives by young children. Thousands of such cases have been identified and documented worldwide, some of them extremely striking.

While the current spirituality movement undeniably lacks the intellectual heft of Christianity, with its legacy of world-class thinkers like St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, it is still in its early days. It’s arguable that we’re experiencing a paradigm shift from traditional religion to a new, more empirically grounded spiritual outlook that will require new philosophical insights and explications. Transition periods are always uncomfortable and messy, but in the long run, they can result in progress.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that, for all the admirable theological complexities of Christianity, the religion is ultimately founded on stories like this:

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”

“Yes, he does,” he replied.

When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”

“From others,” Peter answered.

“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”

(Matthew 17:24—27)

French tells us that the choice is “between religion and superstition.” It may be more correct to say the choice is between age-old superstitions codified as respectable theologies on the one hand, and, on the other, challenging new approaches based on present-day observation, experience, and research. 

Categories: Fortean

The Internet vs. the Zeitgeist

Michael Prescott - Thu, 20/07/2017 - 1:14am

Many years ago I read an odd little book called The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, by Leonard Shlain. It’s one of those desperately magisterial tomes like Julian Jaynes’ Origin of Consciousness — an overview by a nonspecialist attempting to assimilate a raft of information from disparate disciplines into a new overarching theory — and like Jaynes’ book, it’s worth reading even if most of its conclusions are probably wrong.

Shlain’s theory is that the advent of widespread literacy, especially in alphabetic languages, brings about changes in brain function, shifting the dominant hemisphere from right to left. He believed that the right hemisphere is associated with “female”traits while the left is associated with “male” traits; thus, the switch from one hemisphere to the other precipitated societal changes that worked to the disadvantage of women. In the original period of alphabetic literacy, the old goddess religion, matriarchal and pacific, was suppressed and replaced by new god-centered, patriarchal, militaristic faiths. In the much later period after the invention of the printing press, when literacy was rapidly extended to much of the population instead of being limited to an elite, there were further reactions against women, including the witch-burning manias that flared up unpredictably around Europe. Finally, Slain speculates that the rise of movies, television, and the Internet — all of which place more of an emphasis on visual information — will cause a shift back toward equality of the sexes and a more peaceful world.

I am skeptical of the gender assignments given to the two sides of the brain, and even more skeptical when Shlain extends his thesis to the cells of the eye, distinguishing between “male” cones and “female” rods. I am also skeptical that the goddess religion, as he describes it, even existed; while fertility statuettes with exaggerated female features turn up in many prehistoric sites, it’s a bit of a stretch to infer a matriarchal society, much less a time of Edenic peace. We don’t even know if these female figures were goddesses or simply charms, perhaps used to ensure a favorable pregnancy.

Though Shlain’s thesis is far from proven, one aspect of it has stuck with me – the idea that changes in communication technology can rewire the brain, with destabilizing societal effects.

Which brings us to what’s going on today.

Throughout much of the developed world, and certainly in the United States, we see intensifying polarization between increasingly extremist and uncompromising ends of the political spectrum. On a daily basis we’re treated to public displays of hysteria – wild outrage expressed by both left and right, though for different reasons. No area of life is off-limits. Escapist movies about comic-book superheroes give rise to charges of racism and sexism. Twitter and Facebook have become ideological battlegrounds. Restaurants offering ethnic foods are flashpoints for controversies about “cultural appropriation” (as if all culture is not appropriated from somewhere). Sports shows and teams are boycotted for political reasons. Everything is a hot button issue.

Many explanations for this new intensity in our political life have been advanced. It is said that the middle class is being “squeezed”; yet statistics indicate that while both middle-class and lower-income shares of the population have shrunk over the past 35 years, the percentages of Americans defined as upper-middle class and rich have grown – suggesting the middle class is contracting mainly because some of its members are migrating to a higher tax bracket.

Source: Urban Institute study

Or it’s said that middle-class affluence simply has less to offer us than it once did. But this seems to be a case of looking at the past through rose-colored glasses. Recently, in doing research for a time travel novella that takes place in 1972, I was intrigued to discover how much lower the standard of living was for middle-class people in that era. Houses, for example, were significantly smaller and had fewer amenities, while many ubiquitous modern-day items would have been considered science-fiction. A computer you carry in your pocket, which connects you to databases throughout the world and incidentally serves as a videophone? Household robots that vacuum or mop your floor? Wall-size flatscreen TVs with hundreds of channels, many commercial free and uncensored, in high definition? Self-driving cars, prosthetic limbs almost indistinguishable from the real things, medical treatments using genetic engineering to target specific cells, an orbiting telescope that sees to the ends of the universe …?

No matter how you look at it, our opportunities for leisure, recreation, and discovery are greater than ever. And the average middle-class American today lives like a sci-fi character in a '70s TV show  

It is also claimed that people are frustrated by unchanging social problems such as race and gender discrimination; but again, this claim doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. There is far less discrimination in the developed world today than in any previous generation. As an example, a newspaper article I came across from 1972 reported casually that the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks had just voted to reaffirm their policy of not admitting blacks as members, a policy that was only rescinded in 1976 under intense legal pressure. The same newspaper regularly published the names of divorced couples in what I took to be a sign of the social stigma attached to divorce. (Mary Tyler Moore's groundbreaking sitcom of that era was originally intended to depict her as a divorcée,  but the network balked at anything so controversial.) Interracial relationships were illegal in many states and virtually unheard of anywhere. Gays had to remain closeted or face ostracism and abuse, including physical attacks. And on and on. No matter how you look at it, society has grown much more open and tolerant. A black president, a serious female presidential candidate, gay marriage – all would have been completely unrealistic 40 years ago.

Crime is down, too. Way down. Parts of New York City that were virtual no-go zones four decades ago are thriving now. Remember the scene in 1973's Live and Let Die when James Bond nearly gets killed in Harlem? That's right - in 1973, Harlem was too dangerous for James Bond

And let’s not forget that in 1972 draftees were being sent to fight and die in Vietnam. The casualties that the US accepted in that unpopular war were far higher than US losses in any recent conflict (58,209 American deaths in Vietnam vs. 4,497 in Iraq and 2,356 in Afghanistan), yet the war dragged on for years, and those who opposed it were labeled traitors.

America of forty years ago often seemed to be spiraling into chaos, with assassinations, urban riots, war, Watergate, the energy crisis, sky-high homicide rates, skyjackings, rampant prejudice and closed-mindedness, cult movements, apocalyptic predictions of the End Times, and TV fodder consisting almost exclusively of mind-numbing pap ("the glass teat," Harlan Ellison called it) ... and if we think our present conditions are worse, we are only fooling ourselves. 

But if the external circumstances – the economic, social, political, and cultural climate – have not worsened, and have in fact improved by any objective standard, then why are people becoming so upset about everything, to the point where it can reasonably be argued that we’re experiencing a “cold Civil War”?

People often point to cable TV and the Internet, both of which feed news consumers a steady diet of inflammatory stories while encouraging people to confine themselves to channels or websites that reflect their own biases; as a result, people become trapped in an echo chamber or bubble that reinforces and amplifies their opinions. This is clearly true. But I’m not sure it’s the whole truth, and this leads us back to Leonard Shlain and The Alphabet Versus the Goddess.

It’s at least arguable that the advent of the Internet poses as big a social and psychological challenge as the advent of literacy did for previous societies. I’m not sure anyone yet understands how the brain is affected and changed by the constant processing of online information – not only when one is sitting at a computer, but when one is using a smartphone or any web-connected device. It may not be too far-fetched to think that literacy altered brain function by making the left brain more dominant. Is it possible that the Internet is altering brain function in some new way?

What if the intuitive process of clicking on links and following one link to the next while chasing down snippets of information tends to activate the intuitive faculties of the brain, popularly supposed to reside in the right hemisphere? Perhaps this very process, endlessly and obsessively repeated, has the effect of deemphasizing or inhibiting those qualities associated with the left hemisphere — notably logical reasoning, goal-setting, and objectivity. There is a widely publicized claim that Internet usage correlates with a decline in attention span; though this study may be junk science, it’s hard to deny that the rapidity and convenience of the Internet can make it intolerably frustrating to plow through the pages of a book in search of information. There may be other, more subtle changes in neurological/psychological functioning that are not yet understood or even recognized. Could the surge in diagnoses of attention deficit disorder, autism, and Asperger’s syndrome be related to widespread neurological reprogramming?

Let’s suppose so. Even if most of us aren’t affected that profoundly, we may still feel as if things are somehow getting out of control. The changes in our mental processing may bring on the same kind of anxiety, confusion, mania, and hysteria (think of the witch burnings) that Shlain sees as the historical result of rapid advances in literacy.

In other words, it’s just possible that we are undergoing a massive transition from one mode of consciousness (developed as a result of general alphabetic literacy) to a new mode of consciousness (currently developing in response to the new technology of the Internet). And because we experience this change as something alien, we look for a cause outside ourselves, even though actually it is the inner workings of our mental mechanism that are directly responsible. Feeling confused and lost, we latch on to any convenient bogeyman to explain our chronic insecurity. We don’t hunt witches, but we do harass anyone who thinks differently than we do. Alt-right types mock and insult their critics and spread vicious memes. “Social justice warriors” define anyone who disagrees with them as racist, misogynistic, fascist, etc. The problem is always Someone Else.

By getting wired up to an endless supply of digital information, we may be rewiring our own brains – and experiencing all the unintended side effects that go along with a neurological remodeling job. The trickle of information from books and magazines that we perused in our spare time has become a spurting garden hose of facts, opinions, memes, urban legends, “fake news,” lies, distortions, slanders, and insults, illustrated with vivid images and sounds, 24 hours a day. And our beleaguered brains are melting under the strain.

Again, this is only a speculative hypothesis. It may be all wrong. It’s almost certainly at least partly wrong. But it just might be partly right. It could help to make sense of the rapid and baffling descent into hyper-partisanship, political polarization, and escalating demands for safe spaces and trigger warnings (on the left) and border walls and authoritarian crackdowns (on the right). In an era of relative peace and prosperity, when the West faces no true existential threat remotely comparable to the Axis powers of World War II or the USSR of the Cold War, it is truly strange that we find ourselves coming apart at the seams. We live in what should be seen as a Golden Age, yet we’re obsessed with apocalyptic visions and paranoid fantasies.

Instead of scanning the cultural and political trends of the modern world to understand our anxieties, perhaps we need only direct our attention to the softly glowing screen in front of our face.

Categories: Fortean

Dream a little dream

Michael Prescott - Sun, 09/07/2017 - 6:10pm

Here’s some big news: our own longtime commenter Bruce Siegel has written a book – and it’s a good one!

The book is Dreaming the Future: How Our Dreams Prove Psychic Ability is Real, and Why It Matters, and it recounts Bruce's longtime experiment in precognitive dreaming. (The printed book is available now, and a Kindle edition will be out on July 15.) 

Bruce begins by explaining that until he was in his mid-forties he was a knee-jerk skeptic, though not of the militant variety. He simply dismissed all talk of the paranormal as irritating nonsense. But in the early 1990s, his worldview started to change. He writes:

I found myself becoming interested in certain ideas, experiences, and phenomena I had long dismissed, even ridiculed.

For one thing, I began to pay attention to the fact that some of my dreams seemed to correlate with later events in ways that were difficult to explain .…

But despite my newfound openness, I wasn’t blind to the laws of probability. I reasoned that given a large number of dreams and the potential for matching them with an even larger pool of waking events, striking similarities were bound to occur from time to time.

Inspired by J.W. Dunne’s famous 1927 book An Experiment with Time, Bruce decided to document his dreams and see how well they matched up with future events. Ultimately he logged 241 dreams. Remarkably enough, approximately one in four of them came true – “usually within hours.” Some came true almost immediately after waking. This success rate is far above random chance, especially considering the decidedly out-of-the-ordinary subject matter in many of these dreams.

A large part of the book concerns the methods Bruce used to remember his dreams and record them in detail, and the ways in which he improved his methodology. For example, he found that a dream, in order to be worth recording, had to involve something specific and unusual. A dream about eating breakfast had no value in his experiment, because he ate breakfast every day. Recurrent dreams were not helpful, because it could be assumed that, if he dreamed of the same thing over and over, eventually it would have to correlate with something in real life, if only by chance. He also developed precise criteria for distinguishing among dreams of no precognitive value, dreams that might or might not have had precognitive value, and dreams that were definite hits. He explains how he tabulated the statistical results, and how the results might vary if different criteria were applied.

Though Bruce describes a number of his dreams and the real-life observations that correlated with them, he recognizes that the reader is not likely to be completely convinced by someone else’s experience. That’s why the main focus of the book is to encourage us to carry out the experiment for ourselves. He provides a great deal of useful advice on how to get started.

The book inspired me to begin my own experiment. So far, I can’t claim results as good as one in four. I would say I’ve had one likely hit, one "maybe," and the rest have been duds. But I haven’t been doing it for very long, and I’m not yet skilled at remembering my dreams.

Besides the important contribution Dreaming the Future makes to the literature on precognitive dreaming, the book also offers Bruce’s reflections on the wider meaning of it all. In a chapter titled “The Real Subject Here is Consciousness,” informed in part by his study of near-death experiences and related phenomena, he suggests that

time and consciousness are inseparable. Time, in this view, is actually a dimension of reality created by consciousness within itself, so that we might explore certain kinds of experience.

And the same is true for what we call “space.”

Time and space, in other words, are props devised by Mind for much the same reason that storytellers and game designers devise the rules and frameworks that characterize their creations: to spawn worlds within which epic adventures can unfold .…

[I]n recalling these deeper truths, in discovering that we are more than we think we are, we find reason to trust that the difficulties we face in this life aren’t the whole story.

The book closes with an extensive list of resources for further study and several appendices fleshing out the dreams covered in the main text. Full disclosure: my name crops up a couple of times in the book, once in connection with a precognitive dream described in Chapter 9, which was validated by a comment Bruce read on this blog.

Beyond all the other admirable qualities of Dreaming the Future, the book consistently addresses open-minded skeptics in a friendly, non-confrontational way. Unlike some pro-paranormal writers who stigmatize all skeptics or simply ignore them, Bruce wants to reach out and gently persuade people to open up to the possibility of precognition and try it for themselves. He takes care to consider alternative explanations for the hits he describes, and although he's personally convinced of the validity of his findings, he understands that the whole idea of foreseeing future events may strike some reasonable people as impossible or absurd.

His basic attitude is: see for yourself. He believes there's nothing special about his own precognitive abilities, and that similar results can be obtained by anyone who tries.

I liked this book a lot, both for its content and its tone. I highly recommend Dreaming the Future.

Categories: Fortean

Bruce Siegel's 'Dreaming the Future'

Paranormalia - Fri, 07/07/2017 - 7:17am
Regular readers know Bruce Siegel, who’s often commented here and in other forums. He guest posted here a few years back, about how he shifted from being a militant skeptic to a belief in psi and afterlife. Now he’s written a book about precognitive...

www.paranormalia.com
Categories: Fortean

Guest post: Why Skeptics will never accept the existence of psi

Michael Prescott - Fri, 16/06/2017 - 6:18am

Matt Rouge offers a thoughtful guest post on psi and dogmatic (capital-s) Skepticism. Take it away, Matt!

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(Eric Newhill, who is a frequent commenter here and an actuary and analyst at a large insurance firm, was kind enough to review this post for accuracy on statistical matters. Also, Michael always provides significant guidance on my guest posts. Much thanks to you both!

I had been thinking about writing this post for awhile, and I begin to fight my standard inertia bit more when I saw this article on Slate, dated May 17, 2017: "Daryl Bem Proved ESP Is Real. Which means science is broken."

Then, in the comments on this blog, Leo MacDonald referred to a related post on NEUROLOGICAblog: "Follow Up on Bem’s Psi Research."

We’ll be talking about these in a moment, but first my thesis:

Skeptics will never be compelled to accept the existence of psi because laboratory research involves difficult statistics that can be argued about ad infinitum, and exceptional individual cases of psi can be dismissed as “anecdotes” one by one.

Let’s look at both of these issues in turn.

Psi laboratory research

Here’s the money quote in the Slate article: “Bem had shown that even a smart and rigorous scientist could cart himself to crazyland, just by following the rules of the road.” Yes, folks, you’re cray cray if you believe in psi.

For the most part, researching psi under laboratory conditions means testing a lot of people and seeing if an effect is produced that cannot be explained by chance. One classic experiment is to have people guess which of four symbols is the target. The success rate across a reasonably large sample size should be 25%. If it is much higher than that, then one can in theory call it evidence of psi. One series of lab experiments that many believe showed evidence of psi is the ganzfeld experiments (Wikipedia is extremely biased against psi, but this will give you an intro to the facts at hand).

Skeptics can attack the design and conditions of such experiments, and they do so regularly, but there is a deeper issue at hand: there’s always the chance that the results of the psi experiment are due to, well, chance.

In a wide variety of fields, research is performed with the aim of achieving a p-value of .05. That means that there is a 5% chance (p = .05 = 5%) that the positive result achieved is due to chance. Experimental results within this predetermined p-value are often called “statistically significant.” Whether it’s medical research or the social sciences, p ≤ .05 is typically considered pretty good.

So, just do your psi lab research, get p ≤ .05, and you’ve proved psi, right? The world is changed forever, right?! Of course not. Because p = .05 is actually pretty lousy. It means there is a 1 in 20 chance that the experiment is, in effect, meaningless. I personally would not change my belief system based upon such a paltry stat, and I wouldn’t expect anyone else to do so, either.

But that’s fine, since we can get that p-value even lower, right? Eventually they’ll have to believe! Well, yes and no. One typically gets the p-value lower by increasing the sample size. The nature of statistics is such that, say, cutting that p-value in half can’t be done with double the sample size; the relationship is not linear, and for very small values of p, extremely large samples are needed.

Thus, getting p = .0001 (1 in 10,000 chance of being due to chance) would require a monumental sample size for one’s psi experiment, and even then Skeptics could more or less correctly say, “I’m not going to change my worldview based on this evidence when there is still a 1 in 10,000 chance that it’s nothing at all. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and that still isn’t extraordinary enough!”

So, we just have to give up, right? Not so fast! There’s a thing called meta-analysis, in which we get that sample size and p-value to where we want them by combining lots of different but related experiments. Sometimes you will read about a meta-analysis of psi experiments that claim very small p-values indeed, and someone may say something along the lines of, “The odds of this meta-analysis result being due to chance are over 3 trillion to 1!”

That’s great, but here’s the rub: meta-analysis is quite complicated. Different experiments using different methodologies need to be combined, and how that should be done is to some extent a matter of opinion and judgment. The calculations themselves require expert knowledge—this is far from Statistics 101 material—and the experts themselves can disagree on both the methods used and the meaning of the results. And that’s exactly what happens. The pro-psi statistician argues with the anti-psi statistician, and only a tiny fraction of the population on either side is qualified to assess what they are saying. It ends up a lot like the climate change argument: “Trust our smart guys. They’re really smart and there are a lot of them and those who disagree ought to be ashamed of themselves.” When you hear laboratory research on psi has been “debunked,” that’s typically what has happened: some credentialed person has gone over the numbers and declared them unconvincing. Or some media Skeptic has declared the methods and conditions of the experiment unacceptable. Either or both.

Thus, to recap, any given psi experiment is not enough to sway opinion, and trying to combine multiple experiments leads to arguments over recondite statistics. There simply is no way around it.

Going back to the Slate article, Daryl Bem performed a variety of experiments under rigorous conditions and came up with what appeared to be statistically significant results. Instead of merely saying that he was wrong (which of course they do), scientists and other members of the cognoscenti have pointed out that, yeah, the kind of statistical reasoning that has held sway in many fields for over a century is actually pretty lame. Hence the subtitle of the article: “Which means science is broken.”

Hearing this kind of thing is gratifying to an extent, as we proponents of psi have been pointing out the double standard for a long time: “How can you call things like psychology and sociology science when the designs of their experiments are a joke compared to what parapsychology has going on now, and they’re often satisfied with p = .10 or worse?” Cognitive dissonance can take quite a long time to resolve itself, but it seems that Skeptics and members of the scientific elite will not be moving forward by recognizing psi (duh) but instead by trashing the social sciences. For example, here’s an LA Times article from 2012: "Why psychology isn’t science." And now the reaction to Bem.

Psi laboratory research: my take

When I discussed the article on Bem with Michael, he said:

I read it. Mixed feelings. On one hand, it would be easy to dismiss the whole thing as an example of knee-jerk skepticism that would rather reject established scientific methods than accept any evidence for the paranormal.

But on the other hand, they may have a legitimate point in saying that these methods are faulty, not only when practiced by parapsychologists but by conventional scientists, as well. I suspect there is a lot of bad science out there, and that statistical analysis can be badly flawed.

I think this is exactly correct. I’m glad to see some consistency finally being applied, and the reality is that it’s difficult to prove things like drug efficacy, human behavioral traits, the existence of social trends, and psi effects using statistics.

Eric Newhill had this to say:

The effects in any single experiment are just statistical probabilities. Usually the stat significance is not that strong. Skeptics like to bring up the file drawer effect (studies that showed no stat significance are filed away, not published, not talked about, etc.).

Your comments on meta-analysis are spot on ... very complicated to do it right. Much opportunity for disagreement even among experts and, IMO, should only be done when the different experiments are using the same design (though at least small differences can always be found and raised as confounds).

Eric brings up a good point about the so-called file drawer effect. With respect to a given meta-analysis, Skeptics will claim that the pro-psi side is hiding negative results that would otherwise weaken the effect of the meta-analysis. One response to this is to ask whether the number of negative experiments required to cause such a reversion to a theoretical mean could even have been performed. The pro-psi side will say that hundreds of such experiments would be required, and thus the meta-analysis is correct. And on and on the arguments go.

Eric also raised this interesting point:

One last thing, and is usually passed over by even the best researchers. I have read some of the details of some of these experiments. The p-value for the cohort may be a little significant (or not), but there are often individuals that score very very high, well beyond chance. Whereas there are usually not individuals in the cohort that score very very low. This is meaningful in itself. I have always thought that a series of experimental replications should be run, and the individuals in each cohort scoring the highest should be put together into a super cohort and tested. Basically, take the most talented people, those showing unique psi abilities, and focus on them only. This should demonstrate psi well beyond chance and should produce results that raise the eyebrows of many Skeptics.

Right, some of the individual results are mind-blowing, but these become invisible within the larger statistical picture of the experiment.

Personally, I have read a decent amount about psi laboratory research, and I think the experiments, in the aggregate, do provide substantial evidence that psi exists. Yet I most likely would not be convinced by that evidence alone. Rather, it dovetails nicely with exceptional individual cases of psi and my own experience of psi. Nothing in the laboratory research contradicts this other evidence but is congruent with it. It is quite similar to how various sources of information on the Afterlife (NDEs, ADCs, channelings) match up very well.

Exceptional individual cases of psi

This is much less complicated to talk about. In his original comment on this blog referring to the NEUROLOGICAblog, Leo MacDonald said:

I personally believe the stronger cases comes from the so-called anecdotal claims.

Michael, in the conversation cited above, said:

But the really convincing cases are the prodigies who score incredible remote viewing hits or have an obvious, dramatic telepathic link—like the famous ESP experiments carried out by Upton Sinclair and his wife. These cases don't rely on statistical analysis, with its inherent danger of data mining.

And in the comments of the NEUROLOGICAblog post, Ian Wardell (who also comments on this blog), said:


I’m not really interested in such [laboratory] research though. I’m more interested in the spontaneous cases of psi.

Indeed. These cases are compelling. They really leave no escape.

We talk about exceptional cases of psi on this blog all the time. They involve the transmission of information that simply could not have been obtained except through psi, as well as the manipulation of matter itself. When reading the reports, one is left with two choices: believe that psi has been proven, or believe that highly intelligent, observant, and respectable researchers were fooled (as by stage magic) or were themselves simply lying. To provide two examples we discussed here before, Eusapia Palladino and D.D. Home produced or mediated extreme physical phenomena in adequate lighting conditions right in front of the eyes of researchers. These phenomena cannot conceivably be dismissed as “tricks”; the observers could not possibly have been fooled. Either what they say happened actually happened, or they were lying.

But that’s OK, the Skeptics have the classic strategy of deny, deny, deny. It doesn’t matter who saw or heard what. Their approach to psi is the approach they use on any paranormal phenomenon: deny. A séance that produced amazing information? Cold and/or hot reading and/or lucky guesses. Deny. An NDE that produced veridical information? Explain it away. Deny. Physical phenomena captured as photographs or video? Faked! Deny.

It’s really that simple. They think they can “divide and conquer” by simply denying each and every paranormal report in the history of planet Earth. Each of these is merely an “anecdote,” and the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”! They think that such an epistemological stance is self-evident instead of self-serving. They are untroubled by the double standard in which scientists who work in the materialist paradigm are capable of “observations” of individual cases, while those who are outside this paradigm are only capable of “anecdotes.” They find it reasonable to posit that people throughout history and in every location of the globe have reported psi phenomena of a consistent nature, yet they have all been mistaken. (I personally find it maddening that they dismiss this vast evidence from history yet remain incurious as to what caused such consistent mistakenness. Nothing to see here folks, move along …)

On rare occasions, a major Skeptic will have an experience that changes his or her thinking on the paranormal. Such happened to Michael Shermer. For his whole life, he was able to dismiss and denigrate the whole world’s paranormal experiences, but once something amazing happened to him, well, that’s totally different! And of course, the reaction of every “believer” to this conversion is smh

Exceptional individual cases of psi: my take

What I find interesting is that Skeptics will say that they have never experienced psi or anything paranormal in their entire lives, nor do they know anyone who has had such an experience. This is the furthest thing from my own world.

My guess is that, when most Skeptics imagine a psychic reading, they see a flaky if not creepy psychic sitting in a dimly lit den of fraud, receiving money with greedy fingers, then proceeding to cold- and hot-read the victim and pump him or her full of generalities, superfluities, and, of course, lies and false hope.

In contrast, I am a psychic with many psychic friends. I’ve given readings and gotten more than a few big hits. I’ve received readings and have witnessed more than a few big hits. To us, it’s nothing unusual, odd, or spooky. We trade psychic advice on virtually a daily basis, in fact. No special setting or mood is required; in fact, I give and receive most readings over Facebook these days. Further, I make no money off of psi at all (I give readings for free on a frequent basis, actually). About half of my psychic friends do charge for readings or other psi abilities, but they do a lot of pro bono as well, and absolutely no one is getting rich from these services. I can also observe that my psychic friends are extremely normal and down-to-earth, and none of them fits the stereotype of the New Age flake (OK, we mostly don’t fit that stereotype!). I can assert without equivocation that I have never heard a friend refer to doing anything psychic in a fraudulent or less than sincere way.

In short, psi works for us consistently and on certain occasions amazingly. What incentive would we have to make it a part of our lives if it didn’t? I’m not naïve: Skeptics could certainly cite a range of potential psychological and sociological causes for such experiences. Those outside of our world are free to observe and judge for themselves. But my point is that psi isn’t just about the extreme and the strange. It can be an ordinary and consistently present part of one’s life.

Further, as the comments on Michael’s recent and excellent posts on Leslie Flint demonstrate, we who believe don’t believe everything (pace the Skeptics who enjoy portraying as credulous idiots. Crazy, too.). Yet, on the whole, I find reports of exceptional individual cases of psi to jibe with my own experience, and I think they are strong evidence for psi.

In conclusion

Based on my reading of psi laboratory research and exceptional cases of psi, as well as my own experience, I am 100% certain that psi is real and materialism is completely disproved and an obsolete worldview. Skeptics, however, will never be convinced.

If I am correct, that puts the unstoppable force of the truth of psi against the immovable object of the Skeptics’ belief system. What will be the end result of such an interaction?

I am going to go with a prediction that I have heard elsewhere and found convincing: Individual people and society as a whole will be convinced of the existence of the paranormal once someone is using it to make money. I don’t mean for readings but in the form of a process, product, or service that consistently works and that people want. At that point, the Skeptics will be forced to move, since money talks, and you-know-what walks. My guess is that 100 years will not pass without this happening, and it will probably happen much sooner than that.

 

Categories: Fortean

Summerland, Dreamland, Disneyland

Michael Prescott - Mon, 12/06/2017 - 4:42pm

If we look at channeled descriptions of the afterlife, we observe a fair amount of consistency, but also notable omissions and anomalies. Even in the most detailed narratives, we get no clear sense of what people do all day. We are told about their pleasant lives spent relaxing in a garden, or attending a symphony, or visiting with friends in a parlor, but there is little indication of a daily routine. Occupations seem to be limited to caring for new arrivals in hospitals or sanatoriums, and engaging in creative or scientific work; but in neither case do we learn nearly as much as we would like. We are told of wonderful new inventions and artistic creations dreamed up by scientists and artists on the other side – scientists and artists who are apparently eager to share their work with the living – yet we are seldom privy to the details. Shakespeare may be writing his most glorious poetry in the afterlife, but no communicator sees fit to quote it for us. Edison may have come up with fascinating new inventions, but they remain unknown to us on earth. There are exceptions – the occasional medium who claims to receive symphonic compositions by the great masters, or someone who obtains a patent on an invention that came to him in a dream – but these are rare.

For the most part, our afterlife communicators seem unable to describe what they do to pass the time. They also seem curiously unable to describe their own homes. We are told that the houses can be quite large, yet the only rooms that are described, for the most part, are sitting rooms in which company can be entertained. What about all the other rooms? Is there a kitchen? Doubtful, since we are told that only the greenest of the new arrivals still feels the need to eat. A bathroom? Presumably not, since the astral body has no digestive system. A bedroom? Unlikely, since sleep is unnecessary and there is no nighttime. But what, then, are all those other rooms in those large houses? What purpose do they serve? What's in them?

Such omissions are explained by believers as resulting from difficulties in communication. But it seems odd that all the varied communications received throughout more than a century should suffer from the same difficulties. And it is especially odd that communications that are impressively detailed, even verbose, still fall short when it comes to describing major facets of the next life.

In considering this, it may be good to remember that almost all communicators who exhibit any intellectual advancement remark on this next phase of existence as, in some sense, an illusion. Perhaps the most notable example is the allegedly channeled F.W.H. Myers, speaking through Geraldine Cummins, who referred to the next plane as "the plane of Illusion," "Illusion-land," "Shadow Land," and "the Lotus Flower paradise."*

The lotus flower, it should be remembered, was said to be eaten by addicts who were transported into a blissful fantasy. Dictionary.com defines the term "lotus eater" as:

1. Classical Mythology. a member of a people whom Odysseus found existing in a state of languorous forgetfulness induced by their eating of the fruit of the legendary lotus; one of the lotophagi.   2. a person who leads a life of dreamy, indolent ease, indifferent to the busy world; daydreamer.

Myers, a classical scholar with a deep interest in Greek mythology, would have known both meanings.

Most often, this plane of "dreamy, indolent ease" and "languorous forgetfulness" is called Summerland, a term suggestive of an endless summer, which in turn suggests the long, lazy, timeless days of childhood. A common theme of the more advanced communicators is that Summerland is a fantasy or illusion created by the common subconscious memories, expectations, and desires of its inhabitants. Myers: "In Illusion-land you do not consciously create your surroundings through an act of thought. Your emotional desires, your deeper mind manufacture these without your being aware of the process."

Summerland is, in other words, a kind of shared dream. Now, a dream has a certain internal logic, yet there are typically omissions and even absurdities. Dreams involve sequential events but no clear sense of time. In a dream, we may engage in familiar activity repeatedly, even obsessively. We may find ourselves dreaming of the same behavior or situation over and over again. Dreams feel real and meaningful, but if, upon awakening, we try to retrieve the details, they often prove elusive or  nonsensical or trivial. Insights glimpsed in dreams, which seem extraordinarily important in the moment, are almost always exposed as trite when we recover them in our waking state.

All of this is arguably relevant to Summerland, as described by communicators. It has its own logic, but also its omissions; remember those mysterious extra rooms in people's houses, which are said to exist, but which are never described. Or remember the vagueness with which people address the question of their daily routine. The people of Summerland, and of lower astral planes, are said to engage in certain kinds of repetitive activity: on the lower levels, alcoholics continue to seek liquor, while the argumentative and violent continue to quarrel and fight; in Summerland, gardeners enjoy their gardens, artists paint their pictures, scientists work in their laboratories. Great insights are claimed, yet for the most part, the insights that come through the communications are disappointing and often dissolve into vague abstractions. Here's an example, again from the channeled Myers via Cummins:

Our surroundings are of a metaetheric character … It contains atoms of the very finest kind. They pass through your coarse matter. They belong to another state altogether …

Actually, though I call them atoms, they would appear to you to be of a fluid character …

This world beyond death … consists of electrons differing only in their fineness or increased vibratory quality from those known to earthly scientists. These very subtle units are extremely plastic and, therefore, can be molded by mind and will.

As physics goes, this is pretty thin soup.

What we see, I think, is that our communicators are very much like our dream selves. They are sure they have marvelous insights, but for the most part these don't hold up very well in the light of day. They talk blithely about all the wonderful things they do, but their actual activities seem confined to a few habitual behaviors learned on earth. They inhabit beautiful homes, but can't describe them. They hear beautiful music and exalted poetry, but can't convey it. Their scientists work in vague laboratories doing vague things – much as the average person today knows, in a general way, that scientists are smart people in lab coats who are surrounded by test tubes and cyclotrons and who come up with new discoveries of some sort.

It is, perhaps, rather childish. This fact leads skeptics, understandably enough, to dismiss the whole thing as patent silliness. But there's another way to look at it.

Dreamland – the country of sleep – is the playground of the subconscious. If hypnosis has taught us anything, it is that the subconscious is tractable and compliant. It believes what it is told. It has limited critical faculties. It is childlike and trusting.

Summerland, to the extent that it is a shared dream or a kind of mass self-hypnosis, reflects the same qualities. It seems simplistic because the subconscious mind is itself simplistic. It resists critical analysis because the subconscious mind falters in the face of critical analysis. It is persistent, because the subconscious mind sincerely believes whatever it is told and takes at face value whatever it is shown. 

The most fluent mediums and automatic writers enter into a trance in order to make contact with communicators. It is said that they must match the communicators' "vibration." It is not clear exactly what "vibration" means in this context, but one possible implication is that the communicators themselves are in a kind of trance state, at least while they are communicating, and maybe even when they are not. The people of Summerland, we are told, do not need to sleep. Is this because they are asleep already? The dreamer, typically, does not know that he dreams. The dream, for him, is reality, vivid and immediate. It persists in a sequential but curiously timeless fashion, seeming complete and logical despite its lacunae and contradictions. 

Summerland may be a world of sleepwalkers. A fantasy world, created by the combined intelligence of the subconscious minds of its inhabitants, minds that are imaginative but limited, more sensual than intellectual, trusting and not critical. A world created for rest and recuperation, for amusement and recreation, for exploration and learning – a kind of Disneyland of the Spirit. Just as Disneyland has its sub-theme parks  – Adventureland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, etc. – so Summerland has its own geography, its various communities organized around different belief systems. There appears to be a Christianland, complete with pearly gates and choirs of angels; Englishland, a bucolic countryside with thatched roof cottages; Ozland, an Emerald City of gleaming skyscrapers; and many more. And there are lower planes – what we might call Suicideland, where despairing souls linger in a self-imposed purgatory; and Warriorland, where ignorant armies clash by night; and Boozeland, where the search for hedonistic thrills continues pointlessly and insensibly.

Among spiritualists, it is generally understood that the lower planes are illusions experienced by people in a state of something like self-hypnosis or unhealthy self-absorption. But the same may be true of our friends in Summerland, as Myers and other advanced communicators have actually said. The full implications of their statement have perhaps not been appreciated.

In short, we sometimes wonder why communicators cannot convey trenchant details, stunning insights, and dizzying creative triumphs. We chalk it up to a bad connection, a translation error, a glitch. But maybe the explanation is simpler. Maybe, as far as Summerland is concerned, there is simply nothing more to convey.

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*All Myers-communicator quotes are taken from Chris Carter's Science and the Afterlife Experience, which in turn quotes Geraldine Cummins' books Beyond Human Personality and The Road to Immortality.

Categories: Fortean

Stranger things

Michael Prescott - Mon, 05/06/2017 - 12:37am

In the comments section of my recent post "A Close Shavian," Steve Hume recommended a turn-of-the-century investigation by magician and debunker David P. Abbott, who found himself at least somewhat at a loss to explain a direct-voice medium of his acquaintance. Happily, Abbott's book on the subject is sold by Amazon. The book is The History of a Strange Case, published by the Open Court Publishing Company in 1908.

Although available in book form, the piece is actually a monograph, originally printed in the magazine The Open Court in May and June 1908. It runs 50 pages and includes a postscript by Paul Carus, editor of Open Court. From Carus's remarks, it's pretty clear that Open Court was firmly devoted to debunking all spiritualist claims. Abbott himself, a confirmed skeptic, had used his deep knowledge of magic and mentalist tricks to debunk many mediums. But this case left him unsettled.

In 1906, Abbott received a letter from Mr. E.A. Parsons, later determined to be a well-known figure in the world of magic operating under the pseudonym Henry Hardin. The letter concerned a Mrs. Elizabeth Blake, described as "an elderly lady in a little town in Ohio" who offered her services as a medium. Despite his wide-ranging knowledge of magicians and the tools of their trade, Parsons was unable to determine how Mrs. Blake had fooled him – if indeed she was not the genuine article.

Mrs. Blake, Parsons recounted, "is the wife of an humble farmer and resides in an obscure country village [the town of Bradrick]. She has resided there all of her life and has reared a large family of children. She has never been over twenty miles from her home and has but little education. She is, however, very intelligent. She gave her sittings for a long time free of charge, and later began charging ten cents. She now charges one dollar, but does not insist on anything."

Her technique was unusual. She had the apparent ability to produce voices inside a sealed container. "She can use a glass lamp chimney or any closed receptacle … and I have heard the voices just as plainly coming out of the sound hole of a guitar that lay upon the table." But her usual mode of communication involved a special trumpet, or horn, that had been constructed for her. It was made of two metal cones attached at the large ends, with saucer-shaped pieces at the small ends.

"The trumpet is empty and can be examined by anyone," Parsons wrote. "The sitter takes one end of this trumpet and places it to his ear, while the lady does the same with the other end, placing it to her ear. At once the sitter plainly hears voices in the trumpet. These purport to be the voices of the spirits of his dead friends and relatives. They reply to any questions which he speaks out loud.… Now this is done in broad daylight, anywhere, even out-of-doors. I investigated this phenomenon seven hours altogether, giving it every possible test, but could obtain no clue to it.… The information which I received from the whispers was correct in every case. I had never seen the lady before, nor had I been in Ohio previously."

Abbott, intrigued, wrote to Mrs. Blake and invited her to visit him. In reply he received a letter from her physician, identified in Abbott's article only as Dr. X—. The doctor told Abbott that his patient had suffered an accident that left her crippled, making it impossible for her to travel. Abbott struck up a correspondence with Dr. X—, who was himself a believer in Mrs. Blake's mediumistic talents. In one sitting, the doctor, speaking to his purported father, asked about the time when the father took him off to college.

"When we walked towards the buildings, what was said to me by some of the students?"

"They yelled 'rat' at you."

"Spell that word," I requested, as I desired no misunderstanding.

"R-a-t," spelled the voice.

This was correct. As a young man, the doctor had attended a military school, where it was a tradition to shout "Rat!" at new arrivals.

Still more interested, Abbott decided to investigate in person. Discovering that Prof. James H. Hyslop,  Secretary of the American Society for Psychical Research, was also interested, he arranged to meet Hyslop in Ohio. Abbott also arranged, at the last minute, to have his cousin, George W. Clawson, accompany him. He thought it advisable to bring someone totally unknown to Dr. X— and to Mrs. Blake. Clawson traveled under an assumed name.

Abbott and Clawson had their first meeting with Mrs. Blake before Hyslop had arrived. Dr. X— swore that he had never mentioned Abbott's name to his patient, and that she knew of him and Clawson only as two friends from New York. The séance took place in daylight, and although Mrs. Abbott said that her recent illness had deprived her of power and she could "get nothing satisfactory any more," whispery voices did come through the trumpet. Much of the whispering was unintelligible, but there were a few meaningful exchanges. Abbott writes:

Mr. Clawson now took the trumpet. I may remark that although Mr. Clawson's parents, and also a little son who was never named, were dead, his whole heart was set on obtaining a communication from his daughter Georgia, who had recently died ... . This daughter had been very affectionate, and had always called her mother by the pet names of "Muz" and "Muzzie." She also generally called her father "Daddie" in a playful way. She had recently graduated from a school of dramatic art, and while there had become affianced to a young gentleman whose Christian name is "Archimedes." He is usually called "Ark" for short. Mr. Clawson had these facts in mind, intending to use them as a matter of identification.

A voice now addressed Mr. Clawson, saying, "I am your brother."

"Who else is there? Any of my relatives?" asked Mr. Clawson.

"Your mother is here," responded the voice.

"Who else is there?"

"Your baby."

"Let the baby speak and give its name," requested Mr. Clawson.

This was followed by many indistinct words that could not be understood. Finally a name was pronounced that Mr. Clawson understood to be "Edna." He had no child of that name; but in what followed, although his lips addressed the name "Edna," his whole mine addressed his daughter, "Georgia."

"Edna, if you are my daughter, tell me what was your pet name for me?" he asked.

"I called you Daddie," the voice replied.

"What was your pet name for your mother?"

"I called her Muz, and sometimes Muzzie," responded the voice.

As for Abbott, he received what could have been the name Grandma Daily, which was correct, but he wasn't absolutely sure he'd heard it right. He also heard the names Harvey, Dave, and then Dave Harvey, as well as the initials J.A., and possibly the name Asa. All of these names bore some connection to him, but the communications were so faint and indistinct that he couldn't be certain of what he was hearing. Overall, the sitting was intriguing but unsatisfactory.

When Hyslop arrived, the investigators returned to Mrs. Blake's cottage, this time holding a nighttime séance in the dark. Now the phenomena were considerably better.

We sat a very long time, and it seemed that nothing was to occur. Finally a blue light floated over the table between us, and another appeared near the floor close to where Mr. Clawson and Mr. Blake [the medium's husband] were sitting. The trumpet on the table was also lifted up over my head and dropped to the floor by my side.

Finally, the deep-toned voice of a man spoke. It appeared to be about a foot above and behind Mrs. Blake's head. The voice was melodious, soft, low in pitch, and very distinct. This is the voice that is claimed to be that of her dead son, Abe [serving as a control or spirit guide].

The voice said that the medium was too weak to provide good manifestations that evening. Nevertheless, the sitters continued to wait.

In a short time we heard a man's voice of a different tone entirely, which Dr. X— recognized as the voice of his grandfather. These voices were open,– that is, they were in no trumpet and were vocal. The tone of this last voice was that of a very old man, and the conversation was commonplace. Soon a much more robust and powerful man's voice spoke, and said: "James, we will give way to the others."…

I now took the trumpet. That the reader may fully understand what is to follow, I shall state a few facts. My Grandmother Daily, in the latter part of her life, resided in the country in Andrew County, Missouri. There my mother grew up. My grandmother died thirteen years ago. My mother's maiden name was "Sarah Frances Daly." She was always known to all as "Fannie Daily," and where she now resides is known to everyone as "Fannie Abbott." Even Mr. Clawson did not then know her correct Christian name.... She always called my sister "Adie" [short for Ada], and myself "Davey." This was many years ago.

A voice in the trumpet now addressed me, claiming to be that of my grandmother, Mrs. Dailey. [She conveyed her love to Abbott and to his mother and father.]

"You want me to tell my mother and my father that you talked to me?" I repeated, hardly knowing what to say.

"Yes, Davey, and tell Adie, too," replied the voice very plainly.… "Tell Adie, too," the voice again repeated. It certainly seemed incredible that this voice could manifest such intimate knowledge of my family's names, one thousand miles away. I thereupon decided to further test this knowledge.

"Grandma, what relation is Adie to me?" I quickly asked.

"Why, sister Adie, Davie. Tell sister Adie. You know what I mean – tell sister Adie."…

"Grandma, now if this is really you talking to me, you know my mother's first name. Tell it to me," I said.

"Sarah," answered the voice, quick as a flash. It was so quickly answered that the name "Sarah" had not entered my own consciousness at the instant.…

"What do you say it is?" I again asked.

"Sarah," again the voice plainly responded. 

[After this, a voice claiming to be that of Abbott's uncle David Patterson came through, calling himself Uncle Dave.]

One remarkable feature of the voice which claimed to be that of my Uncle David, was that it resembled his voice when alive, to an extent sufficient to call to my mind the mental picture of his appearance; and for an instant to give me that inner feeling of his presence that hearing a well-known voice always produces in one. I said nothing of this at the time. I may say that during all of our sittings, no other voice bore any resemblance to the voice of the person to whom it claimed to belong, so far as I was able to detect.

The next day there was another séance at the Blake house. Again Grandma Daily purportedly came through, this time communicating with Mr. Clawson.

"What is the name of Dave's mother?" now asked Mr. Clawson.

"Sarah," answered the voice.

"Yes, but she has another name. What is her other name?" asked Mr. Clawson.

"Daily."

"That is not what I mean. Give me her other name," continued Mr. Clawson.

"Abbott," answered the voice.

"That is not what I mean. She has another name. What do I call her when I speak to her? I call her by some other name. What do I call her?" insisted Mr. Clawson.

"Aunt Fannie. Don't you think I know my own daughter's name, George?" plainly spoke the voice, so that I could understand the words outside [i.e., without pressing an ear to the trumpet].

"I know you do, Grandma, but I wanted to ask you for the sake of proving your identity," continued Mr. Clawson.

"I want Davey to tell his mother and his father that he talked to me, that I am all right, and I don't want him to forget it. Davey, I want you to be good and pray, and meet me over here," continued the voice, speaking plainly so that I could hear outside.

When I used to visit my dear old grandmother many years ago, upon parting with me she would invariably shed tears, and say, "Davey, be good and pray, and meet me in heaven."…

With the exception of the words "over here" in place of the word "heaven," these last words spoken by the voice were the identical words which my grandmother spoke to me the last time I ever heard her voice.

Mrs. Blake switched to her other ear, saying that her arm was tired. She could evidently produce the voices regardless of which side of her head  was pressed to the trumpet. At this point, Abbott decided to let it be known that the name Edna, used in the previous séance for Mr. Clawson's daughter, was not correct. Shortly after, a whispered voice told Mr. Clawson, "Daddie, I am here."

"Who are you?" asked Mr. Clawson.

"Georgia," replied the voice.

"Georgia? Georgia, is this really you?" asked Mr. Clawson, with intense emotion and earnestness.

"Yes, Daddie. Didn't you think I knew my own name?" asked the voice.…

 "Georgia, what is the name of your sweetheart to whom you were engaged?" now asked Mr. Clawson. [The first reply could not be understood, so Mr. Clawson asked her to spell the name.]

"A-r-c, Ark," responded the voice, spelling out the letters and then pronouncing the name.

"Give me his full name, Georgia," requested Mr. Clawson.

"Archimedes," now responded the voice.

"Will you spell the name for me?"

[This was done, and the spelling was correct. Mr. Clawson asked where Ark was now.]

"He is in New York." This, Mr. Clawson afterwords informed me, was correct.…

Mr. Clawson was sufficiently overcome by the conversation that he had to leave the room. After ward, he was heard to remark, "I feel just as I did the day we buried her; and I have surely talked to my dead daughter this day."

That afternoon the group escorted Mrs. Blake into town where, Abbott tells us, "we conducted the most successful experiment of the end of our entire visit." Mr. Clawson asked Georgia for her middle name, which was correctly given as Chastine, which the voice spelled out correctly. He asked, "Where did you board when you went to school in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts?"

"With Aunt Burgess," responded the voice.

"Tell me the name of your schoolmate friend," Mr. Clawson asked.

"Nellie Biggs," instantly responded the voice.

"With what friend did you go to school in Kansas City?" asked Mr. Clawson.

"Mary," responded the voice. [All of those answers were correct. The voice was then asked for  the name of her mother's mother.]

"Grandma Marcus is here," responded the voice. I will say that Mrs. Marquis had died but recently, and that her grandchildren always pronounced her name is if spelled "Marcus."...

The loudest voice addressed another visitor, who is identified only as "the governor of a state, who happened to be present," but whose name Abbott was not at liberty to give. This voice 

first spoke apparently in Mrs. Blake's lap, just as I was placing the trumpet to my ear. The voice was very deep-toned, and reverberated over the large room so loudly that Prof. Hyslop, who had stepped out, our friend's stenographer, and others entered and stood around the walls listening.

Abbott then heard from somebody purporting to be his grandmother, who sent this message to Abbott's still-living father: "Tell him that I am all right, and tell him not to be a 'doubting Thomas'."

"Grandma, that I may convince him that it was really you talk to me, tell me his name."

"George Alexander Abbott," spoke the voice, instantly and distinctly, so that all could hear.…  [This was correct.]

The admonition against being a doubting Thomas was repeated. Dr. X— said, "That is the first time I ever heard that expression used in any of Mrs. Blake's sittings." Abbott notes that both he and his eldest sister clearly remembered their grandmother saying to her father, "Oh, George, don't be a 'doubting Thomas'!" He says they heard this expression many times, but at the time of the sitting it had passed from his memory.

After a few more communications, none of them very significant, the séance ended. This also was the end of Abbott's experiments with Mrs. Blake, although Hyslop stayed on for further sittings. Afterward, Dr. X— contacted Abbott to describe an experiment that he had conducted on his own. He  obtained eight identical boxes and packed in each one a different article that had belonged to his late father. The boxes were then mixed and stacked, and his bookkeeper was asked to draw a box at random while the doctor's back was turned. "The object was to select a box the contents of which the doctor would not himself know." The doctor carried the box with him in his coat pocket when he went to the séance. Abbott tells us:

During this time the doctor requested his wife to ask the voice [of the doctor's father] what was in the former's pocket.…

"I am very anxious to have you do this so that I can report it to Prof. Heslop, and if you say so I will take the lid off the box to enable you to see better," spoke the Doctor.

"That is not necessary. I can see the contents as well with the lid on as with it off," responded the voice.

"Well, what is in it?" asked the Doctor.

"My pass I used to travel with," replied the voice. The Doctor's father used to have several annual passes. Some of them he never used, but one he used almost exclusively. Upon examining the box it was found to contain this pass.

Abbott was clearly unsettled  by the entire experience, and he does not claim to be able to explain it completely. He does, however, advance certain theories or hypotheses, to which he attaches varying degrees of certainty. How convincing these are is a debatable.

He is quite certain that Mrs. Blake produced the voices herself. He writes:

I am satisfied that the whispered words originate in her throat, and that the vocal voices are produced lower down in the chest. These sounds I believe are conducted from the throat through an abnormal Eustachian canal, to a point close to the tympanic membrane. The office of this membrane is to transmit sound waves; so that once they are there, the sound waves are easily transferred into the outer or auditory canal. How these sounds can be guided into either ear at will, and how the nostrils can prevent their exit, I can only surmise.

In other words, he believes that "these voices came out of the lady's ears." I am no expert in medical science or anatomy, but this strikes me as exceedingly unlikely, especially when we consider that some of the voices were loud enough to be heard from some distance away. Remember that the voice that addressed the unnamed governor in broad daylight, in an office in town (far from Mrs. Blake's home), was said to be loud enough to be heard from an adjacent room. It is not at all clear to me how a voice produced deep in the chest and somehow channeled through the eustachian tube and out through the ear could possibly be that loud, even assuming it is possible to channel vocalizations through the ears in the first place. To be honest, I find this entire theory patently absurd.

Nevertheless, Abbott pronounces himself content with it. It leaves him, however, with the problem of explaining how Mrs. Blake knew so much about him and Mr. Clawson, especially since the latter was traveling incognito. He admits that he has no definite explanation, but suggests that Mrs. Blake might be part of a network of mediums who exchanged information about their clients. Abbott could have been known to the mediumistic community in his capacity as a debunker. Mr. Clawson had visited mediums on prior occasions.

Of course, this assumes that Mrs. Blake, who lived in an isolated village and had little or no known contact with the wider world (she herself said she had never traveled more than two and a half miles from home in her lifetime), was able to obtain such information. It also assumes that the information gathered by such a network was extraordinarily detailed and precise, and that it could be conveyed to her very quickly — presumably between the first and second séances, both held on the same day (since she could not have known Clawson would be there until the first séance, and she gave him good evidence at the second séance). When we consider that Clawson did not give his real name at first, though on a subsequent day he incautiously revealed it, the puzzle of how Mrs. Blake could possibly obtain any information about him only deepens. 

Here are some excerpts of Abbott's hypotheses, which he himself does not seem to be very confident in:

That the name "Brother Eddy" was a guess is quite improbable, but of course could be possible; while it would have been a possibility for the name "Grandma Daily" to have been secured in advance.…

In regard to the pet names, "Muz," "Muzzie," and "Daddie," given Mr. Clawson at the first sitting, only the possibility of a misinterpretation of sounds can be suggested. The names given me, "Dave Harvey," "Asa," and my own name, belong to those that could have been secured in advance.…

[At the second sitting] I secured the names "Sarah" and "Ada," together with the correct relationship of the latter. There was no misinterpretation of sounds. These names belong to those that it would have been possible to have secured in advance, but at the time I was so thoroughly convinced that such was not the case, that I was greatly startled.…

"The names "Lizzie" or "Lissie," and "Aunt Fannie," given Mr. Clawson at this sitting, are among those that could have been secured in advance. As to the names "Georgia" and "Archimedes," with the latter's correct location at the time, together with the correct spelling of his name, I can offer nothing satisfactory; for I do not think there was any misinterpretation of sounds.…  My grandmother's parting request may be a phrase generally used by the voices….

This last point refers to the words "Be good and pray, and meet me over here," which were almost identical to an expression Abbott's grandmother always used when they parted, and indeed used the very last time he saw her. To chalk this up as a "stock phrase" (Abbott's term) used by cheating mentalists strikes me as pretty desperate.

[In the afternoon sitting on the second day] the names "Chastine," "Aunt Burgess," "Nellie Biggs," "Mary," "Grandma Marcus," my father's correct name, and also my wife's first name, were given. In addition to this was the name "Dody," the request from my father "Not to be a 'doubting Thomas'" and the statement that my wife's mother is alive. Some of these things Mr. Clawson did not know, and a number of them I did not know. We must, however, consider as a possibility that [Mr. Clawson] might have imparted certain information to Mrs. Blake during his fifteen-minute ride [to the office in town]. He assured me that he did not, and he is certainly sincere in his statement.… In case he did so, the matter evidently passed from his memory very quickly, for he was positive that such was not the case.

In other words, the sitting can be explained only if Clawson acted like a complete idiot, blurting out reams of personal information, and then immediately forgot everything he had said, even though it all came up in the séance a short time later. 

Abbott concludes that he cannot assert that any fraud was used, at least concerning the information provided, and that he can only suggest possibilities. "I must still leave the case to a certain extent shrouded in mystery."

The book's short postscript is less open to the idea of mystery. Paul Carus tells us that the Blake case  is "not so extraordinary as to preclude probabilities which would reduce the mysterious facts to mere stultificaions without even throwing any suspicion upon the honesty of the main actors concerned." In other words, he feels the whole thing is pretty easy to explain, even though the actual investigator and confirmed skeptic, David Abbott, doesn't agree.

Carus concludes with an airy wave of the hand: "…it would not be difficult to point out several explanations which are possible and would dispel the faintest shadow of mystery." Sadly, he does not enlighten us as to what those simple explanations might be.

Categories: Fortean

In like Flint

Michael Prescott - Tue, 30/05/2017 - 4:55pm

As part of my continuing series on the controversial direct-voice medium Leslie Flint, I have a few excerpts from a 1980 book called Love after Death, by Victoria Stevenson. To be honest, I don't find this material very interesting or evidential, but for purposes of thoroughness, I've decided to include it.

After losing her husband Bob, Victoria spent a good deal of time trying to make contact with him via mediums, electronic voice phenomena, and other means. In 1972 she had her first of two sittings with Leslie Flint. She notes:

He is so much sought after by people from all over the world that I had to make the appointment months in advance .…

Seven of us gathered in his sitting-room, settled on easy chairs and settees, and one couple even sat on the floor at Mr. Flint's feet with their tape-recorders .… [I wonder if they were Betty Greene and George Woods? - MP]

The lights were turned out and we all sat in complete darkness. Mr. Flint gave the date of the sitting and introduced himself, saying that no medium could guarantee results. We might, he said, sit there for an hour with nothing happening. There was nothing one could do about it. The important thing was to be natural .…

"The voices vary," he went on. "Sometimes they're loud, distinct, clear, with a personality and characteristics. At other times they don't sound a scrap like the person they are. It's one of those things! One doesn't know what the answers will be .… But even if you don't recognize the voice let it realize you respond. It's not so much the sound of the voice but what it says that really is important, I think."

He went on to say he didn't go into trances. "It would be very unusual if I do. I'm quite normal, and if I think it necessary to talk to the voices I will, but I prefer to keep out of the picture."…

If anyone for any reason, he told us, was not satisfied with the sitting he didn't want a fee.

The sitters talked among themselves in darkness until Mickey, Flint's spirit control, started speaking. When he got to Victoria, he told her that her husband was there.

"He knew you were coming this afternoon," Micky [sic] said, "and … I don't know what he means by … changing your route … but he says you weren't quite sure whether that was the right way."[Ellipses in original.]

"You are quite right," I said. Mr. Flint's flat is in a part of London I didn't know well.

"And you couldn't quite make up your mind and he had to lead you because he didn't want you to get lost!" 

Since many first-time visitors to Flint might have had trouble finding his place, this comment is not necessarily very evidential.

Rather curiously, Mickey then turned his attention to another sitter, asking, "Are you Bobby?" She was not. "That's funny. Someone here is talking about Bobby. Is there someone here called Bobby?" Victoria's husband was Bob, so she identified "Bobby" as a message for her.

What's odd about this, if we assume that genuine communication was going on, is that Mickey was just talking to the husband a moment earlier, and yet now he seems to be hearing from a different person altogether – "someone here is talking about Bobby." Bobby is a pretty common name, and it's hard to resist the conclusion that Mickey was simply fishing in the expectation that one of the seven sitters would know somebody with that name or a similar name. It's possible, however, that someone else in the crowd of communicators was talking about the husband (we are told that a whole bunch of family members showed up on the other side). 

In any event, Bob himself was next to speak. Victoria tells us:

It didn't sound like Bob's voice – and I told him so. He sounded so grand.

"That's because I'm having to speak through this confounded box!" he said.

He spoke about voices that Victoria had recorded on tape – which might sound evidential, except that she and the other sitters had been talking about these voices before Mickey showed up. (The fact that she freely discussed these personal details in front of the medium does not speak well for her understanding of the protocols necessary to guard against fraud.)

She adds, "He talked of our home and put personal questions." But unfortunately we get no details, so it's impossible to know if Bob said anything specific or merely offered generalities that Victoria, who was clearly eager for contact, seized upon.

Then quite suddenly a voice called across:

"Doris! Doris!"

This is my first name, the one my family always called me by.

"This is Mother!" It was a light, bright, feminine voice. I recognized it at once as Mother's.

Well, she "recognized it" after it had been identified to her. The fact that the name Doris was used may or may not be significant, depending on how much Flint knew of his guests, and what name she used when making the appointment. 

She concludes, "It was a marvelous sitting and afterwards people crowded around me and congratulated me .…"

A year later, in 1973, she had a second sitting with Flint. Mickey came through as usual, asking one of the sitters, "Did you come with that lady, Vic? ... Are you with Vicky?… It's one of the names people call you, but it's not the name commonly used."

This seemed to me remarkable evidence: my Christian names are Doris Victoria, the first used by my family, and the second I use as my pen-name. I replied:

"Quite right, Micky [sic]. How did you know?"

"Because your Mum's telling me."

Again, it's unclear how much Flint knew about his guests. A year had passed, long enough that a fraudulent medium would have had time to find out that his sitter in 1972 used a pen name.

 Then, "Victoria!" came over the air, very faintly.

"Victoria!" A soft feminine voice whispered this a second time. "I'm not sure whether you can hear what I'm saying. Can you hear me? It's Mother."

"But – you never called me by my second name before!"

"I know." The voice was audible, but faint. "But I thought today I would, because it's not usual for you to use that name .…"

This doesn't make much sense to me. If anything, it seems counter-evidential. Assuming that the mother normally referred to her daughter as Doris, then calling her by the other name would seem like a "character error," as we say in the writing trade.

Victoria goes on to say that the voice did not sound "quite like" her mother's voice. The mother blamed "this box, I suppose. I don't understand much about it. All I know is that I could come and speak through – this box business – and I hope you can hear what I'm saying!"

She added that Bob was with her, as was Charles. Victoria didn't know anybody named Charles. Another very common name. Another fishing expedition?

Mickey assured her that "there was a Charles on your father's side of the family." There's no indication that Victoria ever confirmed this. Mickey then gave Victoria's married name, and a little later, a lady, "pushing herself in," introduced herself as Nell. Victoria tells us, "I'd recently lost a dear friend of that name." But she doesn't say whether the Nell communicator was specifically addressing her, or whether the name was simply thrown out there for any sitter to pick up on. Nor does she indicate that Nell said anything evidential about her passing, her relationship with Victoria, etc.

After this, Bob came through again.

He mentioned music and I asked him if it helped when we played it at home.

"That's what I mean. I try my utmost to draw near to you, and I must say I find music's a great help."

Without a transcript, it's impossible to be sure, but it sounds like Bob made a very general statement about music, which Victoria interpreted in a specific way – music that she played at home – an interpretation that Bob picked up on by saying that the music helped him to draw closer.

Following some other business with Mickey, the name Doris was again offered by a voice identifying itself as Bob. He said he was "so amused at Mother calling you Victoria," explaining that her mom "thought it would be interesting to let her know [she] hadn't forgotten [Victoria's] second name."

This doesn't help to clarify the character error. It sounds to me as if using the name Victoria was a mistake from which the "communicators" were still trying to recover.

At the end of the chapter, Victoria betrays her lack of knowledge of direct-voice mediumship in general, saying that for a long time she had no idea why the sittings were held in darkness or what the term "box" meant.

It was not until this book was about to be published that I put the question to Mr. Flint, who told me that Physical Mediums work in darkness as power and energy are drawn from the body of the medium and exude, as ectoplasm, a living substance which forms the artificial voice box.

It's hard to understand how somebody could attend two séances with Leslie Flint and even write a book about it without knowing these rather elemental facts.

Overall, as you can tell, I'm not impressed with this author or with these accounts. But there really isn't much to go on. Everything we've been told could probably be accounted for in terms of cold reading, warm reading (generalized statements that apply to most people), and hot reading (research into a sitter's background). The voices apparently did not sound much, if anything, like their living counterparts, and nothing that sounds particularly evidential was communicated. Victoria was obviously eager to be convinced and accepted whatever she was told (though she does say that she continued her quest, seeking still more proof), and she doesn't seem to have taken any precautions to protect her personal information. 

I don't think we can conclude much from this narrative, but there it is. The investigation continues! 

 

Categories: Fortean

Radio Rennessence ends

Rennessence - Wed, 21/10/2009 - 11:44am
Radio Rennessence is closing down for business. The three interviewers Philip Coppens, Corjan de Raaf and Andrew Gough can no longer combine the podcasting station with their many other individual engagements. It is with a sad heart that they have therefore chosen to stop publishing audio interviews. The site will remain online. The RSS News Service will also continue as it has for the last three years.
Categories: Fortean

Video clip of City of Secrets

Rennessence - Wed, 14/10/2009 - 2:44pm
Researcher & singer-songwriter Corjan de Raaf has published the video clip for his single "City of Secrets (the Grail in you)". The song was inspired by Patrice Chaplin's bestseller "City of Secrets" and deals with her relationship with the keeper of the Grail Josep Tarres.
Categories: Fortean

Saunière drawings discovered

Rennessence - Wed, 14/10/2009 - 2:41pm
Researcher Ben Hammott has published some original drawings by Abbé Saunière, whose life and dealings are at the heart of the Mystery of Rennes-le-Château. The drawings were discovered inside the priests Atlas. They tell us a lot about Saunières fascination with the French royal line and as such confirm the suspicions he was a legitimist, in favour of making France a monarchy again.
Categories: Fortean

Andrew Gough's Arcadia 2.0

Rennessence - Sun, 27/09/2009 - 5:08pm
Andrew Gough's Arcadia website has been fully re-styled by artist Mark Foster who applied a radical and very colorful new design. As an opening gift, Andrew Gough is offering a full chapter by author Patrice Chaplin from her book 'The Door', sequel to 'City of Secrets'.
Categories: Fortean

Masters of Deception

Rennessence - Sun, 27/09/2009 - 10:02am
Guy Patton's Rennes-le-Château book 'Web of Gold' was already a good book. Now available as 'Masters of Deception', the completely overhauled book is probably one of the best available today. It can be considered as the missing part three of the 'Holy Blood, Holy Grail' & 'Messianic Legacy' trilogy that never appeared.
Categories: Fortean

All Rise: The Rise now available in the bookstores

Rennessence - Sun, 27/09/2009 - 9:57am
Isaac Ben Jacob's book the Rise (co-authored by Sarah Fishberg) was controversial long before it hit the stores. The book takes a completely different approach on the Mystery of Rennes-le-Château and comes to some remarkable conclusions, meticulously analyzing the historical context of the time. You can now see what the fuzz is all about for yourself as the book is now available from the online booksellers.
Categories: Fortean

Henry Lincoln recounts

Rennessence - Sun, 27/09/2009 - 9:46am
In his latest Blog, "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" gives us a bit more insight in the events that happened around the filming of his famous BBC Chronicle Documentaries. The writer also comments on recent developments in the village of Rennes-le-Château and the moving of Saunière's tomb.
Categories: Fortean

Remains of synagogue found where Jesus may have preached, in Mary Magdalene's hometown

Rennessence - Fri, 11/09/2009 - 7:06pm
JERUSALEM — The remains of a 2,000-year-old synagogue where Jesus may have preached were found on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, archaeologists said on Friday. The synagogue, one of the oldest ever found, was unearthed at Migdal, which Christians believe to be the birthplace of Mary Magdalene, a leading follower of Jesus.
Categories: Fortean