Monthly Archives: March 2011

Applied Metaphysics

from The Temple – Vol. 2, Issue 1, January 1898

Possibility & the Placebo Effect, or Respecting the Mercurial Messenger

“Will you turn to ridicule the experience I have acquired with so much dilligence?”

– from Paracelsus’ Credo

Discussing the use of conjuring and sleight of hand in the ritual context of healing with John Harrigan from Foolish People and Weaponized, and the musician Thomas Jude Barclay Morrison, provided an opportunity to work through some fragments of thought that have been bouncing through my brain recently.  I’ve been reading Arthur Versluis’ upcoming work, Mystic State: Politics, Gnosis and Emergent Culture, along side SUNY’s latest reprinting of Christopher Mckintosh’s Rose Cross in the Age of Reason, and Jake Stratton-Kent’s wonderful Geosophia from Scarlet Imprint, and pondering the place of Mystery in the development of culture. It’s something that is all to often passed over in a world immersed in the marvels of μηχανή (mekhane), a word which has both the meaning of machine and trickery, from the root word magh which means to be able, or to have power.

“”Everything that occurs in conformity with nature, but of whose cause we are unaware, provokes astonishment; as does everything, that when it occurs in a manner contrary to nature, is produced by technique (tekhne) in the interest of mankind.

For in many cases, nature produces effects that are contrary to our interests, for nature always acts in the same way, and simply, whereas what is useful to us often changes.

Therefore, when an effect contrary to nature must be produced, we are at a loss because of the difficulty of producing such an effect; and the cooperation of tekhne is required. This is why we call the part of tekhne intended to help us in such difficulties “trickery” (mekhane). For the situation is, as the poet Antiphon says, “Through tekhne, we master the things in which we are vanquished by nature.”

– from Problemata mechanica (2nd Century BCE) quoted in The Veil of Isis, by Pierre Hadot

The discussion with John and Thomas touched on the ethics of using the placebo effect in terms of healing. Thomas pointed to how some Western medical practitioners have debated the validity of handing someone a sugar pill in order to facilitate healing knowing that for certain conditions the placebo effect would be just as likely as standard medicine to bring about a cure.  Since this wouldn’t be effective if the person knew they were being handed a sugar pill it would entail having to lie to the patient in order for it to work.

In the current medical mindset the linear development of a disease is seen as inevitable. It would be contrary to this linear development to cure the disease, thereby requiring the use of ‘trickery’ or some mechanical means, such as drug therapy or surgery, to bring about healing.  This mindset engenders the necessity of thinking of something like the placebo effect as a lie; what doesn’t have a basis in the technical exists outside of the assumed truth and therefore is false.  Traditionally, however, the disease itself was seen as the deviancy, and healing it was seen as a return to the natural order of life and health, in this context the mystery of the placebo effect is seen as a natural occurrence, nature returning to it’s proper state.

To facilitate this process ritual, herbal remedies, meditations, prayers and a whole host of centering practices were put to use. A person subjected to a disease was seen as having moved out of alignment with the natural order and therefore needed to be returned. There is a certain respect that this way of thinking has for the greater Mystery of life lacking in current Western medical practice.

As the magician and illusionist Jeff McBride points out, sleight of hand can be used to break a person out of their habitual patterns and bring them to a place where there is possibility for something more. In a ritual context this can then be directed to return the person to a more holistic position in regards to life. This is what the shamanic use of sleight of hand is for, to distract and unmoor the ‘evil’ spirits (those patterns that have caused a misalignment in a person’s life) and allow an opening where the traditional healer can bring in new patterns.

We have to remember that spirit in the traditional sense is thought of as the motivating life force connected to the whole, the soul being that point of connection between the individual and the spirit of the whole.  An evil spirit is then a false motivator and not a superstitious bogeyman as the hard line rationalists would like to deem it.

Paracelsus, and most traditional healers, distinguish between diseases caused by physical maladies and those that are caused by spiritual misalignment. Knowing the difference was key to being an effective healer. So long as Western medicine sees all things in line with a wholly mechanistic and fundamental materialist perspective there is no chance for full healing to take place.

This is not to call on the supernatural, nothing exists over or under what is, this is to point out that the philosophy and direction of Western medicine, and science, is deeply flawed. Like an unfaithful spouse Western medicine shrinks from Mystery and gives no credence to anything that isn’t predicated by technical power or scientific proof, even if the results prove the treatment as in the case of the placebo effect.

“”If a man rules over other living species, if he delves unremittingly and without respect into the venerable earth, if he has created shelters for himself, and cities with their own laws, it is thanks to all kinds of mekhane.”

– from the chapter In Search of Mechanics in the collection The Greek Pursuit of Knowledge

There is no point in arguing terminology, as some would, and re-framing traditional ideas in a psychological or scientistic framework. We are living in a world created through manipulation, and suffering the pains of having stepped outside of the natural order through the power of our artifice.  A very basic respect for life has been abandoned in order to prove our potency over the natural world.  With this act of hubris we will be judged when, having stretched the malleable prima materia to it’s maximum extent, it will snap back on us and we will be left to face the fact that our power is merely an illusion. Nothing lies outside the bounds of the natural world, and no amount of mechanical savvy can overcome this fact.

Re-framing traditional ideas is merely an attempt to fit a much simpler, and basic, relationship with nature into an artificially constructed paradigm. The key is that the traditional ideas were based on a relationship, or as Arthur Versluis points out in Mystic State, on the gnostic marriage of the visible and the invisible, the Divine Union of spirit and matter.  A marriage based on violence and power plays is either miserable or ends in divorce, it takes mutual respect and love for a relationship to be fulfilling.

The struggle between proponents of the Mystery and of technique stretches back into prehistory. It can be seen in the split between the mathēmatikoi  ( Μαθηματικοι – “learners”) and the akousmatikoi (Ακουσματικοι -“listeners”), in the Pythagorean school. As Christopher Mckintosh shows in The Rose Cross and the Age of Reason, it can also be seen more recently in the Enlightenment era, during the 17th and 18th centuries,  in the struggle between the mystical Rosicrucian and scientific Illuminati philosophies that fought for prevalence within Freemasonry.

Versluis explores the question of what would have happened if the mystical side won, or at least was given more prevalence in the cultural development of Western civilization.  There are intimations of the possibilities, but those who develop a relationship with gnosis often leave very little material to trace their passage.

Jake Stratton-Kent’s work in Geosophia is an attempt to reconnect with the ancient traditions of law giving and healing that are rooted in Goetic theurgy. The place of the seership in law giving has been lost in the Western world, although it is as much a part of Greco-Roman philosophy and our Judeao-Christian heritage, as it is at the heart of the traditional cultural models that are drawn on in the development of Neo-Paganism.

What we have lost is a respect for possibilities, for potential, and for that Mysterium Magnum which lies at the heart of existence. Mercurial messengers arise in our culture to remind us of the fluidity of life, but we relegate their revelations to rationalizations such as the placebo effect or fraud.  Respect not given willingly is renewed with being overthrown, the adversary we disdain is often the one that conquers us. When the day comes that, as a culture, we reach out in humility and seek to align ourselves with the natural order we will find that for all our failed manipulations there was always another path we could have walked.  If that day does not come of our own volition humility will be taught through trial and hardship, our heads finally bowed in respect, or broken in defeat.

Testimony of the Symbols

“…in a light of awakening she gave us her testimony of the symbols.”

Testimony of the Symbols, by Seance & the Sidereal Stone

Manipulated Banjo & Tin Whistle

Paranormal America – Curiosities in Religion & Culture

“As psychical research evolved into parapsychology, the
emphasis shifted from the descriptive phenomenology of concrete psi experience to the promise of decisive proof furnished by controlled experiment. Thereby, the nature and meaning of “nature” was itself transmuted.No longer appreciated as immediate felt and sensed quality,nature was reduced to the category of sheer abstract quantity. The new assumption was that only the experts could understand nature and properly interpret its signs and (mathematical) formulae. Furthermore, only those adepts capable of producing effects on demand would be of interest to researchers. Psi was thus removed from its native (public) habitat of everyday life and, like some rare specimen of exotic fauna, confined to the tightly controlled environment of private zoos, the exclusive property of an élite cohort of scientific experts and psychic celebrities.”

– Joseph M. Felser, Philosophical Sensitives and Sensitive Philosophers: Gazing into the Future of Parapsychology

Dogmatism dots the line when it comes to investigating the unseen dimensions of life. Skeptics and believers both muddy already murky water when they force their hand on hypotheses that support preconceptions rather than open the door for honest inquiry.

For nearly a century psychologists argued over the existence of lucid dreaming, when it was always in their ability to simply try the recommended techniques (which are relatively simple) for achieving that state. Even today lucid dreaming is considered a “possibility” rather than a straight fact despite the prevalence of evidence as well as testimony of a multitude of practioners. The concept of lucid dreaming complicated the behaviorist paradigm that provided the basis for much of the 20th centuries economic and industrial philosophies, so it was inconvenient and brushed aside.

On the opposite end we find enthusiasts that use base line phenomenon, such as lucid dreaming, to provide evidence for unverifiable (and often incredibly fantastic) metaphysical and cosmological theories. When the debate over anomalous phenomenon only bounces between these two sides it becomes as ridiculous as the faith vs. reason debates when posed by fundamentalist or creationist groups and radical atheists.

As Professor Joseph M. Felser points out in his article Philosophical Sensitives and Sensitive Philosophers: Gazing into the Future of Parapsychology, the original methodology of groups such as the Society for Psychical Research was more in terms of sociological or anthropological investigations. Collecting data, including subjective experiences, was the basis for understanding the anomalous phenomenon and allowed for the investigations to meet the phenomenon where it was active.

This approach allows some ability to avoid the pitfalls of theorizing a meaning before relating to the experience itself. When anomaly research is justified on the basis of industrial application and results, it’s impossible to honestly investigate the phenomenon.

Chicago anomaly investigator Howard Heim ran a popular ‘Ghost Tour’ in order to privately fund his research. This allowed him the freedom to approach his investigations without expecting cash compensation. When faced with a situation where the anomaly was nothing more than a glass of vodka and a vivid imagination he was given an opportunity to better understand what constitutes potential explanations for reported experiences, something to rule out next time. When there’s money in question, such as with the Stanford PSI experiments, too many of these kinds of disappointments shut down research.

The power of the anomalous is not in it’s profitability,  but rather it’s ability to lead to realization. Joseph Feltzer points to the fact that in the past philosophers such as Socrates (and Peter Kingsley would add Parmenides, Empedocles, and Pythagoras) were the ones whose interactions with what is presently called the paranormal lead to the creation of Western civilization. Mystery is the matrix of creation, it verifies our cultural myths, imports meaning and movement to time, and provides the ground for communion with the interplay of life and death.

“The fear of ridicule and the anxious silence that grows out of that fear, insidiously spreading itself like a metastasizing cancer, are potent obstacles to a genuinely rational inquiry. In theory, science should welcome anomalies as the harbingers of new discoveries. The scientific intelligence should derive joy from being surprised by new and hitherto unexplained phenomena. After all, isn’t that what science is all about?”

– Joseph M. Felser, Outsiders, Anomalies, and the Future of “Forbidden Science”

Fortunately a few intrepid sociologists have taken it upon themselves to brave the ridicule and present a collection of baseline data that brings an interesting angle to the field of anomaly research. In Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture, Christopher Bader (Baylor Univ.), F. Carson Mencken (Baylor Univ.), and Joseph Baker (East Tennessee State Univ.) have used the data from the Baylor Religion Survey, and relevant field work, to provide a demographic profile of paranormal beliefs in the United States.

This is not a book that addresses anomalies or outre phenomenon in themselves, rather it is an in depth look at the statistical demographics for paranormal belief and it’s relation to race, gender, social class, and religious beliefs. The areas covered are limited to the popular understanding of UFO’s, ghosts, professional psychics, and cryptozoology, each explained through specific field work that the authors undertook.

The strength of Paranormal America lies in it’s ability to avoid joining the debate on either extreme. Reporting the field work in a straightforward manner, the book allows for the statistics to stay in the foreground.

Belief in UFO's by Gender - Statistics from Paranormal America

For all sides with an interest  this presents a valuable picture of factors attending belief in, and claims of experiences with, anomalous phenomenon. For parapsychologists and researchers this data is a useful tool for understanding the sociological factors that surround the phenomenon. This broad spectrum of data is the first of its kind, and represents the most in depth statistical analysis of paranormal beliefs and experiences in the United States.

Belief in UFO's by Race -from Paranormal America

Using the language of economy and marketing the book approaches the paranormal from a purely demographic perspective. The book focuses on statistical averages, even in conducting the field work itself. For instance, rather than immerse themselves in the culture of former military intelligence assets, professional remote viewers, or scientists who have participated in psi research, the authors go to a Texas psychic fair and immerse themselves in commercial clairvoyance and astrology.  This middle road serves the book well in it’s purpose, providing a good picture of the U.S. paranormal market, and leaves deeper investigation to the numbers themselves.

Their field work with Pentecostal and Holiness congregations provide excellent alternatives to the focus on secular phenomenon. The relationship between paranormal beliefs and religious beliefs forms a main component of the book’s analysis.   A historical approach may disspell some of the authors conclusions, but the statistical data brings  attention back to the original methods of phenomenal investigation and that gives a great value to the work.

Adding a deeper qualitative element to each of the categories the book covers, and getting into the correspondences from the other areas of the Baylor Religion Survey will be the work of subsequent investigators.  As it stands Paranormal America provides a good base line for future research.

Note: Thanks to New York University Press for providing a copy of Paranormal America for research and review.

Yesterday’s Impossibilities – Tomorrow’s Proven Facts: How to Achieve Clairvoyance & Occult Powers

wwaWilliam Walker Atkinson is a fascinating persona in the history of American esoteric ephemera and parapsychology. Ass0ciated with the Yogi Publication Society and Advanced Thought Publishing in the early 20th Century, he wrote a surprising array of work under various pseudonyms on the more occult aspects of the New Thought movement. Along with Atkinson’s numerous identities, the Yogi Publication Society also put out works by A.E. Waite, Jacob Boehme, Frater Achad, Paschal Beverly Randolph and Charles Gottfried Leland (the author of Aradia – The Gospel of Witches).

Atkinson had a penchant for the more occult oriented objectives of the positive thinking movement, specializing in telepathy, clairvoyance and similarly outer phenomenon. Yet his focus on bringing this information to the public lead to  a number of popular self help and success titles aimed at a wider audience. He was an active popularizer of the “power of positive thinking” technique recently reveiled via Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. Anyone delving into his oeuvre, however, will find that the thin trickle of truth that may dance around in Byrne’s revival is nothing compared to the extensive ocean of accessible practical mysticism that Atkinson included in his works. It is interesting to see material from Atkinson which varies very little from later advances in practical psychicism developed by groups like the Standford Research Institute during their contracted work with the U.S. intelligence community.

Atkinson’s approach has always held a sense of sincerity that his progeny find sorely lacking. Where their work often comes off with the faint scent of confidence trickery, the genuine flicker of a gnosemic flame shines through the heavy handed marketing that accompanies his extensive output. His business savvy is a charming accessory to explorations of the deeper aspects of consciousness, rather than the uncomfortable accoutrement we find in today’s pop culture pedantry.

Such an inspired touch comes from a wider range of reference. Forget about a book on successful business craft being dull when the author has a head full of clairvoyance, spiritualism, psychometry and American Rosicrucianism. He also had the good sense to actually come into contact with those active in the hidden side of his interests, such as members of the Golden Dawn, as well as more orthodox proponents of heterodox ideologies such as Tantra and Christian mysticism.

The Yogi Publication Society ran it’s mail order operations from a number of different locations in Chicago. One of Atkinson’s most effective publishing techniques was to use different company names to approach different audiences and topics. For a number of years his publishing ventures shared the address of fellow New Thought publisher Sydney Flowers’ Psychic Research Company. 3855 Vincennes Ave., Chicago, where the Psychic Research, Co. was headquartered is now a mix of decaying factory buildings and new condominiums. The area’s confused and crumbling facade holds a history that is much more potent than mere appearance would suggest. In this is mirrors Atkinson’s own work.

An  interesting aspect of the complex web of authenticity and advertising excess that he created is his interplay with the Society for Psychical Research. The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research is one of Atkinson’s favorite sources to scientifically explain the occult psychism that is the main focus of his writing.

This penchant can be demonstrated in a brief excerpt from his book, Telepathy – It’s Theory, Facts and Proof:

“So far as the subject of modern Telepathy is concerned we may as well assume that Telepathy had its birth into modern scientific thought at the time of the formation of the English Society for Psychical Research in 1882. One of the stated objects of the said Society was to conduct an examination into the nature and extent of any influence which may be exerted by one mind upon another apart from any generally recognized mode of perception. While the latter years of the Society’s existence has been devoted principally to an investigation of the phenomena of clairvoyance, spirit return, trance mediumship, etc. its first decade was almost entirely devoted to the investigation of telepathy, thought transference, and similar phenomena. The early experiments of the Society have been fully reported and these reports which comprise several volumes have given the world a record of psychic phenomena of the greatest value to science.

The celebrated Sidgwick experiments conducted under the auspices of the Society for Psychical Research in 1889 and 1890 excited great interest in scientific circles. and placed the subject of Telepathy upon a basis which science could not afford to refuse to perceive. And the result has been that many careful scientists have freely acknowledged that ‘there may be something to it,‘ some going so far as to openly advocate Telepathy as an established scientific fact, although there are many scientists who still adhere to the opinion that Telepathy remains to be proven scientifically, while some of the ultra conservatives go so far as to insist that Telepathy is scientifically impossible, this latter opinion being calculated to cause a smile to one who remembers how many ‘scientifically impossible‘ things have afterward been proven to be not only scientifically possible. or probable. but also actually existent. It is either a very bold man. or else a foolish one. who in these days can positively assert that anything is scientifically impossible. In this connection one is reminded of the learned body of scientists who sitting in conference solemnly decided that it was scientifically impossible for a vessel to cross the ocean by the power of steam. While the decision was being recorded on the minutes the word was received that a steamship had actually made the voyage across the ocean and was that moment entering the harbor. One also recalls the story of the eminent English scientist who had for a lifetime positively disputed the possibility of certain facts and who in his old age when asked to witness the actual demonstration of the disputed fact refused to look into the microscope for the purpose and left the room angrily shaking his head and saying ‘It is impossible!’ Yesterday’s impossibilities are often tomorrow’s proven facts.

Atkinson’s references to his scientific contemporaries run as  strange counter points to reviews in the same journals which he quotes from. While he was glowing in his citations of the SPR, they were often less enthusiastic about a number of books put out under his authorship, calling into question the veracity of his claims.

Considering Atkinson’s use of pseudonyms, ghost written personas, and created characters, we find a perfect example of George Hansen’s theory of the ‘trickster and the paranormal.”  On one side Atkinson is using the veracity of the SPR’s journal to back his practical advice on psychic development, along with what can honestly be said to be a fully engaged understanding of his subject matter. At the same time, Atkinson dissolves that veracity through his pseudonymous publishing efforts that slip past the critical analysis of the SPR, and the romantic associations he uses to promote his work.

To dismissing him outright doesn’t do justice to the riches that can be found in his bibliography. Few have extended such an open invitation to exploring the vigorous realm of practical psychism, and none have been as steady focused in providing simple, every day advice on developing the fine art of advanced mentalism. Rather than abandon him as a curiosity of the past, I personally prefer to join him in exploring ‘yesterday’s impossibilities,’ in search of ‘tomorrow’s proven facts.’

Red Wheel/Weiser has put out a reprint of Atkinson’s Clairvoyance & Occult Powers, with a great introduction to Atkinson by Clint Walsh of Wonderella Press. Reading the review copy inspired this brief animated ode to Atkinson and the grandeur of mail order esotericism:

Written by a Master of Occult Science you are given a full and complete explanation, in plain, simple, easily understood language for the development and manifestation of Occult Powers…

Including –
Premonition & Impressions
Clairvoyant Psychometry
Clairvoyant Crystal-Gazing
Distant Clairvoyance
Past Clairvoyance
Future Clairvoyance
Clairvoyant Development
Astral-Body Traveling
Astral-Plane Phenomena
Psychic Influence – Personal & Distant
Psychic Attraction
Psychic Healing
Thought Transference and other
Psychic Phenomena!”

The Eyeless Owl presents –

How to Achieve Clairvoyance & Occult Powers,

for William Walker Atkinson,

Pseudonymous Pioneer of Advanced Thought.

Note: Special thanks to Red Wheel/Weiser for providing a review copy of Clint Marsh’s reprint of Atkinson’s Clairvoyance & Occult Powers.