Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Taking leave of our senses

When our nation and world are in deep crisis, it's especially worth remembering that our senses, the information they provide and the thoughts based on that information do not tell us everything about reality. No matter how bad things are or we fear they will be, there are finer and deeper realities. In some of them, there is no crisis, no problem.

We can have entrée into other worlds, which our ordinary senses block out. Some of them are psychic or "astral," with no particular spiritual importance, but they demonstrate that phenomena exist that cannot be understood through the official present worldview of scientific materialism -- what the late Dr. Arthur Ellison, who was twice president of the Society for Psychical Research, called "naïve realism."


Paranormal experiences (including telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, apparitions, out-of-body experiences, and much else) are a fact. They happen to people, and not just to eccentrics or professed psychics. The evidence is overwhelming to the point that denying it can be done only by rejecting solid evidence. If you're not yet convinced, spend some time reviewing the sites linked to in the blogroll (Man and the Unknown is a good starting place) or read a few good books on parapsychology.

Arthur Ellison was the kind of psychical researcher that skeptics hate: there was no way to accuse him of being easily duped. His background was in a "hard science," electrical engineering. He headed the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at City University, London, wrote electrical engineering textbooks and learned papers. He was dubious about many claims of Spiritualists -- not that he doubted the reality of the phenomena they produced, but he didn't believe most of their messages were from spirits of the deceased in the "Great Beyond."


Yet Ellison, a scientist to the core, spent 50 years studying paranormal phenomena. He went to countless séances, observed experiments in which people altered physical reality through purely mental means (psychokinesis), and observed "impossible" events. He was one of the three SPR investigators of the Scole Experiment (see here and here).

Ellison had previously been, I believe, a lukewarm believer in survival of death. Perhaps what he saw at Scole firsthand clinched it for him. A parenthetical note: He died only a week or two before the first SPR annual conference I attended six or seven years ago. At the conference opening, the session leader -- I seem to remember it was David Fontana -- spoke an informal eulogy. Instead of ending it with the usual deep-sense-of-loss and will-be-sorely-missed platitudes, he concluded: "If anyone receives what they believe is a message from Arthur, please let the Society know."

Ellison wrote:
Many people think that science is the business of describing the physical world 'out there' with ever increasing accuracy. That scientists are, with the aid of various tools such as microscopes and telescopes, together with all the paraphernalia of the modern scientific laboratory, achieving ever greater accuracy in their pictures of the physical world.

This view of science is completely, utterly and fundamentally wrong! In fact science is instead merely the process by which we build mental models to represent our experiences.
If experiences appear to be representations or derivations from a solid world external to the experiencer, which is what most people perceive most of the time, then science's "mental models" will reflect that. And the models will have no room for experiences of a different sort, the kind we call paranormal.

Yet people (and by no means only "believers") do keep having experiences in which they perceive or know things that they could not have acquired through the normal senses. The choices are to ignore them, brand the experiencers as mentally off base, or study them. Psychical research, writes Ellison, "is much more exacting than many other scientific subjects. It forces one to examine the very basis of one's views about consciousness and the universe."


James Hillman is a psychologist, though not a parapsychologist. (He is also that rare bird, a psychologist who writes elegantly and un-academically.) But he too believes that many of our difficulties arise from the refusal to allow into consciousness the awareness of non-material phenomena.

I've been reading his book The Soul's Code: In Search of Character and Calling. Hillman has been much influenced by C.G. Jung -- I wouldn't demean Hillman by calling him a "disciple" -- and his work has been dedicated to turning psychology back to its transcendent element. He believes scientific reductionism has impoverished us mentally and spiritually. We need to pay attention to the invisible as much as the visible.

"In the kindgom (or is it a mall?) of the West, consciousness has lifted the transcendent ever higher and farther away from actual life," Hillman writes. "The bridgeable chasm has become a cosmic void."


In prior ages, almost every human society took seriously unseen presences -- gods, angelic beings, spirits of place, ancestors who had passed out of the body. The seen was an extension of the unseen, the known of the unknown. Today, thanks not only to science but to the arts of commercial promotion, the pleasures and objects of the senses are what call to us. We are mesmerized by things. (Ideas, including religious and political ones, also come to revolve around things: burqas, flags, carbon dioxide, products.)

"Once invisibility has been removed from backing all the things we live among ... all our accumulated 'goods' have become mere 'stuff,' deaf and dumb and dead consumables," Hillman says.


The Soul's Code seems to me a frustrating book, alternately revelatory and exasperating -- sometimes in the same sentence. Like his inspirer Jung, who in my view went haywire with meaningless notions like "sychronicity" (a cause that isn't a cause) and eventually saw everything, including flying saucers, as archetypes, Hillman tends to reify metaphors.

In this book, his theme is the daimon, a kind of guiding spirit who urges the individual to follow his or her path chosen before birth. He includes silly descriptions of celebrities' lives as examples of people who succeeded because their daimon made them succeed. What about people whose lives end in failure? I guess there are a number of underachieving daimons, or daimons whose own daimons are asleep at the switch. He writes about the daimon almost as though he's describing an elf that sits on your shoulder and boxes your ears when you stray from your life's path.


But Hillman has an important larger vision. He wants us to rediscover that the visible derives its meaning from the invisible.

"When the invisible forsakes the actual world -- as it deserts Job, leaving him plagued with every sort of physical disaster -- then the visible world no longer sustains life, because life is no longer invisibly backed," he writes. "Then the world tears you apart."

One dimension of the invisible is Spirit. It is there, ours to rise to, when the world tears us apart.



Anonymous said...

I like the concept of synchronicity. Did you read Jung's anecdote about the scarab? That sort of thing happens to me all the time, and it's evidence (to me) that I'm in a state of flow rather than resistance. If, at certain times that are subjectively felt to be transformational, more meaningful coincidences happen than at other times, why not call it synchronicity?

Rick Darby said...


Yes, I have read the story about Jung and the scarab.

I believe meaningful coincidences happen. But to describe them as examples of an "acausal connecting principle" doesn't tell us anything about their nature. In the phenomenal world, there is always a cause. If events "arise together," something makes them do so. A cause, in other words.

It seems significant that every time synchronicity is referenced in connection with Jungian psychology, it is in almost exactly the same words, and often with that scarab anecdote. This suggests people just like the mysterious notion of synchronicity but don't understand it, so they use a boilerplate description. If synchronicity — the term, not the kind of event it purports to represent — has any meaning, then different people would explain it in different ways.

I give Jung much credit for helping to bring a transpersonal element into depth psychology and helping to rescue it from Freud's repression model. I was in Jungian analysis for a while at the training institute in San Francisco and found it an enriching experience, but it didn't do much to alleviate the depression, anger, and general craziness I was exhibiting at the time.

Ilíon said...

Not all spirits are benign, or honest.

Rick Darby said...


I have no doubt that you are correct. Only the most gullible imagine that all spirits are who they say they are, or have benevolent motives.

Also, "spirit communications" are usually — perhaps always — influenced by the medium's belief system, vocabulary, and psychic ability. A person should never act or choose solely based on what a spirit tells them.

Ilíon said...

A Ghost Story (I'm using 'ghost' in the sense of 'spooky;' there is no ghost involved)

Ilíon said...

... though, there may well be a spirit involved.