I do a lot of Web reading these days on my iPhone, an ideal way to fill otherwise wasted moments on trains and buses, standing in line in supermarkets, etc. So I thought it was more than time to give Paranormalia a facelift and make it responsive to smaller screens.

Easier said than done. Eight years ago there didn’t seem much to choose between Wordpress and Typepad. So I chose Typepad. Now Wordpress rules the world, and Typepad… is still Typepad. Wordpress users can choose from scores, possibly hundreds of themes designed to be responsive; Typepad has two. Unless you pay extra, as I’ve had to, in order to get a handful to choose from. Grrr.

None are what I’d have chosen, and I did think seriously for a while about migrating to Wordpress. In the end, I found one that just about works. (It’s only a blog, let’s not get too precious.) It’s still not working as intended on phones, but I think I know what the issue is, so hopefully that will happen soon. A work in progress.

Reborn as Twins

Here’s an intriguing case of the reincarnation type reported in an Indian national news site.

It concerns two 15 year old cousins who lived next to each other, and who accidentally drowned while playing near a pond in 2010. Recently, two twin boys aged five turned up on the doorstep of the two families claiming to be the cousins reborn. The families now accept this, as the twins recognised family members and accurately answered questions about the cousins’ past life. One of the fathers says the twin claiming to be his son reborn remembers ‘everything’, for instance that he’d kept his brown wallet inside a trunk in his room, which turned out still to be there. The boys also took them to the place where the cousins had died.

These are skimpy details, such as you’d expect to find in a short news report, and easy to dismiss if you disbelieve this sort of thing. But the report has a lot in common with cases documented by Ian Stevenson and other researchers, as can quickly be seen from this collection of brief case studies I compiled for the Psi Encyclopedia: the quick rebirth after accidental death, the compulsion to contact the families of the previous life, the families’ belief in the truth of the claim, based on numerous accurate details too small and intimate to be known by strangers. (There's another, general article on the topic by Professor Jim Tucker.)

It’s exactly the sort of case that researchers might usefully follow up, in which case there’s reason to think it would develop into the kind of richly evidenced narrative that characterises Stevenson’s country case study collections. A downside is that the contact has already been made, when ideally that event would be closely observed by some disinterested third party. But that rarely occurs, and at least this case has the merit of having developed in recent days – many (most?) of Stevenson’s cases were months or years old by the time he was able to investigate them. It occurs to me to wonder how much of this sort of work, if any, continues to be carried out in India and other countries where such cases surface.

The really striking feature here is the double rebirth, by people closely connected in the previous life. There are two connected cases in Stevenson’s Turkish collection, a husband and wife who were murdered in the same crime, but these seem to have been reborn into different circumstances (Ismail Altinkilic and Cevriye Bayri). Here, by contrast, we have cousins who were also close friends, reborn as twins.

A more tantalising parallel is with the case of the Pollock twins, one of two dramatic 1950s cases that helped fuel a fascination with reincarnation in the West, along with the Bridey Murphy hypnotic regression case. This is a well-known story, but the details are worth restating. Briefly, in May 1957 John and Florence Pollock lost their two daughters Joanna, 11, and Jacqueline, 6, who were run over in the street by a car driven by a suicidal woman. In October 1958, Florence Pollock gave birth to twin girls. John immediately noticed a birthmark on the face of the younger twin, a thin white line running down her forehead, that corresponded closely to a scar on the face of the younger of the dead girls that had been caused by a fall at age two. The older twin had a birthmark – a brown patch resembling a thumbprint – in precisely the same place where the older of the dead girls had had an identical birthmark. Since the twins were found to be monozygotic (from one single egg cell, and therefore genetically identical), this sort of physical difference was not to be expected.

Four months after the birth the family moved away. When the twins were aged three their parents brought them back to the town for a visit. According to John Pollock, they appeared familiar with the streets and with the location of landmarks such as the school and a playground, before these came into view. When, later, the twins were given dolls that had belonged to the dead girls, one accurately recalled the names that their previous owners had given them.

There were also sinister reminders of the tragedy itself. On one occasion the girls appeared terrified by the sight of a car that, although stationary, appeared to be coming towards them, screaming, ‘The car! The car! It’s coming at us.’ In another incident, their mother came upon one of them cradling the other’s head in her hands and saying, ‘The blood’s coming out of your eyes. That’s where the car hit you.’ At age five, the memories abruptly disappeared. The children were in their teens when they learned about the full circumstances from their parents, and know as little about the truth as anyone else.

The outstanding – and somewhat unnerving – feature of the Pollock case is that it appears to have been premeditated – in a literal sense. John Pollock, a Catholic, had developed a belief in reincarnation that naturally brought him into conflict with his priests. He became obsessive about this and started praying for God to send him a sign if reincarnation was true. After the tragedy occurred, Pollock first felt that it was God’s judgement on him for praying for proof of reincarnation, but became convinced nevertheless that this would be the sign, and that the girls would be reborn to him and his wife. Florence’s pregnancy naturally reinforced this belief, which he clung to, even though the odds against twins were 80 to 1, and doctors could find only one heartbeat and set of limbs.

I first read about this case in a sceptical book on past life memories by the British historian Ian Wilson, Mind Out of Time. I recall at the time (some thirty years ago) finding the story absurd, and John Pollock’s behaviour an appalling example of New Age gullibility. Later, I supposed that this jaundiced view had been encouraged by Wilson, but when I went back to check quite recently I wasn’t so sure. He points out, as he could hardly avoid doing, that all the information comes from Pollock himself, and as a fervent believer in reincarnation – someone who passionately wants it to be true – he’s hardly a credible witness. Yet I sense that Wilson is nevertheless quite impressed by it – his main target in the book are memories elicited by hypnotic regression.

The case clearly can't be held up as evidence. Despite its obvious similarities with the body of research – rebirth shortly after tragic death, curiously coincidental birthmarks, phobias related to the manner of death, familiarity with locations known to the previous personality, the quick fading of memories – its grossly histrionic features make it an outlier. But that's what makes it so striking. The chief thought I’m left with – a shocking one, if we're to accept this as a true account – is the extent to which obsessive thoughts might translate into real events in our world, and at what terrible costs for the people involved.

Patience Worth and the Problem of Bias

As editor of the Psi Encyclopedia, I’ve been taken to task for an article there about Patience Worth, authored by philosopher Stephen Braude from a chapter in his book Immortal Remains. Braude ends by echoing an earlier commentator’s conclusion that,

it is…safer to credit “Patience Worth” to the unconscious and to classify her, officially, as Mrs. Curran’s “secondary self”.

The complaints seem to be twofold: that this conjecture is unwarranted, and that the encyclopedia is imitating Wikipedia by giving a platform to sceptics.

I gave a short answer in the comments thread in Michael Prescott’s blog where this was aired, pointing out that the encyclopedia has (unusually) two articles in on this subject; the other is by Michael Tymn, who it’s fair to say would not endorse Braude’s view, although his piece is more straightforwardly factual. I also mentioned that I didn’t myself necessarily agree with Braude’ conclusion, and indeed had thought of writing a sort of rebuttal. That would take a lot of work, more than I have time for – so this isn’t it! But here are some general thoughts.

First, the question of bias. The Psi Encyclopedia aims to give a window onto psi research as it actually is, not the garbled version offered by sceptics (as in Wikipedia). But there’s always been lively debate within the field itself, notably about the reality or otherwise of postmortem survival. Spiritualists who helped found the Society for Psychical Research quickly bailed out – they couldn’t accept that the evidence might not seem conclusive to everyone – and over the years, some have continued to criticise the SPR and individual researchers for continuing to argue against it.

I believe the encyclopedia should reflect those internal debates. It doesn’t need to make the case one way or another, it should just describe the evidence and the arguments. That’s what I ask contributors to do, to try to make their pieces factual and objective, and reflect the spectrum of opinions.

That said, I don’t think it’s useful to exclude altogether articles that argue a case. On the contrary, it’s of benefit to readers to see psi research in action. It’s surely to the advantage of the field – if not an absolute necessity - to show that it takes a tough-minded approach and is prepared to properly interrogate the evidence – not least to help combat the untruth that psi-advocates are religiously-inspired ‘believers’.

So I envisage eventually a separate section containing articles that take different positions. If Braude’s Patience Worth piece seems an anomaly it’s only because the first of these, and is not properly marked off from the rest of the material. Once that’s been done more effectively than at present, I think there’ll be less confusion about what the encyclopedia stands for, or concerns that it’s promoting a particular (and controversial) point of view with regard to postmortem survival.

It’s worth also making the point that Braude doesn’t play down the extraordinary talent that shines through the Patience Worth character – on the contrary, like most of us who are familiar with the case he’s in awe of her genius. Nor does he understate the challenges (as a psi denier would): that Curran had previously shown none of the characteristics, in terms of creative and intellectual powers, feats of memory, knowledge of literature or arcane areas of linguistic and historical research; that the character didn’t develop over time, but emerged fully formed; the extensive use of obsolete and archaic locutions, some never used in the US; and the extraordinary feats of composition, in terms of speed, consistency and memory. He concedes that the literary facility has no parallel in history.

But Braude disagrees – against Walter Prince (who investigated the case), and others since – that that the scale of this achievement, being far beyond anything of the kind previously achieved, therefore could not have originated in Curran. This might be the first and only instance of a rare talent, he suggests. He chips away at the assertion that her real interest lay in music, arguing persuasively that there’s a lack of real evidence for this, and the music thing might actually have been imposed on her by her mother. He finds intriguing similarities between Curran’s history and the life profile of exceptionally intelligent and gifted people. Altogether, he builds a picture of a young girl whose creative urges were stunted by her family’s expectations, and who unconsciously found an outlet for her repressed abilities through mediumship, an acceptable female role.

The fact that savants have been capable of extraordinary feats of memory and creativity suggests that something of the order of a Patience Worth is within human capabilities (however rare). Inevitably, he finds support in the case of Helene Smith, where the semblance of discarnate communication seemed decisively overturned in favour of Smith’s imagination, and to other cases of creativity in mediumship.

By contrast, Braude finds little of value in the survivalist case, not least because no evidence has ever been turned up of a person who lived that fits the meagre details that Patience Worth supplied. He also suggests that this case goes far beyond the norm in mediumship in being ‘the first and only documented case of literary and mnemonic abilities at such a high level of creativity and fluency, and the first and only recorded case of mediumistic communication with virtually no ‘noise in the channel’ (and for nearly twenty-five years at that)’. In its robustness and multi-dimensionality, he concludes ‘Patience’s personality more closely resembles those of well-developed alter identities’ in cases of disassociation identity disorder (DID).

I found all this intriguing and well-argued, if somewhat speculative. I’ve never really thought that Patience Worth was good evidence of discarnate survival in the conventional sense, like the best drop-in cases, for instance – there are too many puzzles for the matter to be clear.

But that cuts both ways. Once the effect of Braude’s lawyerly pleading has faded somewhat, I’m still left with the stubborn, if perhaps subjective sense of something occurring that really can’t be accommodated within orthodox ideas about the mind. How could Curran’s ‘unconscious’ conceivably have acquired the easy familiarity with copious amounts of seventeenth century archaisms so obscure they had to be hunted down, and the facility to deploy them, by cryptomnesia or any other mysterious process? It’s one thing for a savant to demonstrate astounding feats of arithmetical calculation, something quite else to display an extensive knowledge of past terrestrial facts. Yes, the fact that Patience could write just as effectively in nineteenth-century English undermines the impression that she was a former denizen of the seventeenth, as sceptics point out. But that only amplifies the mystery – it doesn’t explain it.

What really strikes me about Patience Worth is her strongly didactic intent. Her casual utterances, poetry and aphorisms in particular seem intended to show up the shabbiness of human behaviour at every turn – if you’re not familiar with them, check out the examples in both Tymn's and Braude's articles in the encyclopedia, and Amos Oliver Doyle’s excellent website.

There’s something unearthly in her utter sense of security and rightness, as if she’s come from a different moral universe to give us struggling mortals lessons in wisdom. In that sense, she might be seen in the context of spiritual teachings, like Jane Robert’s Seth, White Eagle and the rest – that are no more ‘evidential’ in a scientific sense, but are sufficiently outstanding to have had a powerful impact on millions of people. Hers is a quick wit that radiates humour, never airy-fairy or boringly pious, but tough-minded and down-to-earth.

If we argue that a startlingly accomplished level of creativity can emerge in full flow from the unconscious of a person who has never hitherto shown the slightest sign of it, aren’t we obliged to develop similar arguments to account for the high moral seriousness shown by Patience Worth? Were these inclinations, too, repressed in Pearl Curran in some way? Is there evidence for this in DID?

Still, I’m not sure how useful it is to try to reach a conclusion here. Inevitably, those who doubt postmortem survival will describe Patience Worth in terms of DID; those who believe it occurs will see it as evidence of that. To the thinking, secular mind it’s of course ‘safer’ to see the case as one of unconscious confabulation, in the narrow sense of avoiding new realms of mystery and speculation. But surely few who are truly familiar with it would agree that that’s ‘officially’ decided.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think I’m satisfied with the view of Patience Worth as an event in Pearl Curran’s psyche. But neither do I necessarily think of her as a ‘spirit’, a discarnate individual in human terms. Over the years I’ve abandoned the temptation to be literal about survival, or to project assumptions shaped by terrestrial existence into a posthumous state. ‘Patience Worth’ might be a composite creation, perhaps based around a previous existence as a seventeenth century farm girl, but drawing on other lives as well, even the incarnation of Curran herself.

When she insists her origins don’t matter – and tosses crumbs of information she hopes will satisfy our cravings – we might take her at her word. She’s not necessarily being evasive. In her world, the notion of individuality has been left far behind – like a suit of clothes it’s adopted in order to communicate meaningfully in ours, as Jane Robert’s Seth too said he’d done, taking on the guise of a previous existence (although not the most recent, a rather ‘colourless’ individual called Frank Withers that he preferred to forget).

In this line of thinking we’re not dealing here with a duality of humans and spirits in their different realms, but rather the creative power of consciousness, which transcends boundaries and, in different ways, can emerge on both sides and intermingle. If creativity continues beyond what we call death, in myriad and powerful forms, then to express it in partnership with the living, when the opportunity offers, seems like a cool thing to do.

Psi Encyclopedia Open for Business

As some readers will know already, the Psi Encyclopedia is now online!

The address is http://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/

It can also be reached by www.psi-encyclopedia.org



Michael Prescott kindly introduced it here

In response to some early comments on his blog, I’ve discussed the question of bias, and the extent to which sceptical material is, or should be, included in articles. I expect there’ll be some changes in response to feedback, at some point.

The Season for Ghosts

By chance, back in September, I found myself watching the second Republican presidential candidates’ debate, and had nightmares for a week, so Halloween came early for me. But now here it is for real, and I’m on the lookout for ghost stories in the media.

Simon (X-Factor) Cowell is milking an alleged ghost sighting during filming in a house in France. Enough said.

A piece of more or less serious reporting is found in the New York Times, which says:

Ghosts, or at least belief in them, have been around for centuries but they have now found a particularly strong following in highly secular modern countries like Norway, places that are otherwise in the vanguard of what was once seen as Europe’s inexorable, science-led march away from superstition and religion.

The article describes a haunting in the southern coastal town of Moss, in a travel agency, rather prosaically. The staff experienced inexplicable computer breakdowns, strange smells and noises that experts couldn’t trace the causes of. They also suffered constant headaches. The problems vanished when a clairvoyant came in to do some ‘cleansing’, so they inclined towards a supernatural explanation.

Some take a sternly rationalist approach. A humanist sceptic interviewed for the article insists that the interest in ghosts is caused by ‘charlatans playing on people’s fears’. Others came up with other rational sounding explanations. Moss apparently is quite a centre for ghosts, so perhaps there’s some collective suggestibility going on.

Elsewhere, Ben Radford speaks out for sceptics, and is also on hand to explain to puzzled journalists why people believe in ghosts.

Some claim to see a revival of interest in ghosts among fiction writers. The Guardian thinks vampires and the gory horror genre generally are in decline, and that the good old ghost story is back.

Just such a tale is described elsewhere, about a Chicago ghost called ‘Resurrection Mary’. A young man met a beautiful young woman at a dance, and after spending the evening with her offered to drive her home. She gave the address and they set off. But on the way she asked for a detour, and when they reached the local cemetery she got out and vanished. When he inquired at her home the next day, her mother said she’d been killed in a hit-and-run accident five years earlier and been buried in Resurrection Cemetery.

The Chester Chronicle lists a number of hotels that boast of being haunted, presumably because it attracts custom. Example: the Schooner Hotel, Northumberland, a 17th century coaching inn is ‘not for the faint-hearted. The Poltergeist Society has named it the Most Haunted Hotel in Great Britain twice, so don’t expect to get much sleep. There have been more than 3,000 reported spooky sightings over the last few years alone and over 60 individual spirits identified at the property.’


All this sort of thing makes titillating reading, and doesn’t amount to much. If I believe in ghosts, it’s certainly not because of location hauntings, which apart from the sheer number of alleged sightings have little to recommend them from an evidential point of view. We’ve included a few mentions of alleged haunts in the Psi Encyclopedia, but really only because they’re of interest to so many people that it might seem surprising if they were omitted.

I suppose it’s potentially interesting if visitors to a hotel, say, casually mention having seen an individual wearing nineteenth century dress, and want to know if a film is being made nearby, and similar statements are made by other guests on other occasions, which does happen, but these cases are hard to document to a convincing degree. And it’s easy to mock the earnest ghost-hunter, staking out a seventeenth-century house with piles of complicated gadgetry: fun to do, but is there is a single case of this kind that significantly advances our certainty about ghosts?

It’s when the fixed location is absent – a class generally termed ‘apparition’ in the research literature – that you start to find genuinely interestingly veridical elements. Perhaps the most important is the ‘crisis coincidence’ of the sighting occurring at the exact moment when the individual is in the process of dying somewhere else. But there are others: the apparition that is seen by two or more people simultaneously, the apparition that is identified in a photograph, and – a class I find particularly interesting, since it implies the possibility of generating evidence experimentally – the apparition that is deliberately projected by one person attempting to appear to another at a distance (of which there are a few well-documented examples).

Of course it’s possible, and perhaps even likely, that some of the hauntings that get brought out of the cupboard at Halloween actually do encompass convincing evidence of this nature. In which case, the problem has more to do with the lack of research and documentation, or of channels by which these might become known.

All this said, there is one haunting in the literature which by any standards is extraordinary, the so-called Cheltenham Ghost of the 1880s, described in an early issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. The main witness, Rosina Despard, first saw it when she was nineteen:

I had gone up to my room, but was not yet in bed, when I heard someone at the door, and went to it, thinking it might be my mother. On opening the door, I saw no one; but on going a few steps along the passage, I saw the figure of a tall lady, dressed in black, standing at the head of the stairs. After a few moments she descended the stairs, and I followed for a short distance, feeling curious what it could be. I had only a small piece of candle, and it suddenly burnt itself out; and being unable to see more, I went back to my room. The figure was that of a tall lady, dressed in black of a soft woollen material, judging from the slight sound in moving. The face was hidden in a handkerchief held in the right hand. This is all I noticed then; but on further occasions, when I was able to observe her more closely, I saw the upper part of the left side of the forehead, and a little of the hair above. Her left hand was nearly hidden by her sleeve and a fold of her dress. As she held it down a portion of a widow's cuff was visible on both wrists, so that the whole impression was that of a lady in widow's weeds. There was no cap on the head but a general effect of blackness suggests a bonnet, with long veil or a hood.

Despard was far from being the only witness. This is indeed something of an anomaly, an apparition that was seen and heard repeatedly by a number of people, and with a clarity and frequency that’s not easily explained away. So it could be dismissed as an ‘outlier’. I’ve attached the full report here, and if you want something stronger to celebrate Halloween with, it’s worth a look.

Download Cheltenham ghost jspr

A Journalist Returns

A few people have gently chided me for my absence, which I too regret, but can’t do much about. We’ve talked a lot here about the problems facing psi research, and there comes a time when it’s more important to do something that just talk. Which unfortunately doesn’t leave much time for thinking – the essential precursor to talking. But I appreciate being reminded to get back into the groove, as we old hippies say.

Regular readers will like to know that the Psi Encyclopedia is a going concern, and with luck will be in business within two or three months, once the glitches have been ironed out. At this early stage there are about a hundred articles contributed by thirty writers, totalling around 350,000 words. It could be four times that within two or three years, and if we keep the momentum up, perhaps as many as 800 entries eventually, including book reviews and short profiles. The balance isn’t as good as I’d like, with not enough on experimental parapsychology. But some well-known people in the field have agreed to contribute, so this should even out quite quickly.

Owing to an oversight, the website briefly escaped into the wild a few weeks back, and there were frequent sightings on Google. I heard from one source that it came up unexpectedly in a search on a psi topic, second only to Wikipedia, and occupied the next three places as well. My own tests weren’t as successful, so the search terms he used must have been pretty specific. But I still found it heartening.

In the meantime, I browse forums to pass the time on bus journeys, and have been pleased to see links to some quite sensible articles in the mainstream(ish) media. And so to the real subject of this post, which is not me but Peter Kaplan, the former New York Observer editor, who died two years ago. In a recent piece in Elle his widow Lisa Chase describes experienced a series of startling coincidences in the three months following. Convinced he was trying to reach her, she contacted a medium, Lisa Kay. There followed an immediate telephone reading that produced a number of specific items of information:

LK: He's talking about a ball. He says, 'Find the signed ball in the bag and give it to David.'

While Peter was in the hospital, a good friend, knowing he loved the Yankees and particularly Joe Torre, their longtime manager, got Torre to sign a baseball—a talisman. But the day I brought it in, Peter shook his head. "I can't," he said. "Put it away." I didn't know why it upset him, but I put the ball in his closet, in a canvas bag that I'd packed with his clothes and toiletries to bring to the hospital.

LK: He's showing me blood. Did he die of a blood clot? Something about blood. I'm seeing the word 'genetic.' She said it in an almost staccato fashion: Ge-net-ic.

LC: He died of a blood cancer. And his doctors told us it was probably related to the lymphoma his father died from…

LK: 'I'm a lucky guoy. I got the better end of the deal.'

What was amazing about this was the way Lisa pronounced it: "guoy," not "guy." It was precisely the way Peter said it, with an exaggerated Brooklyn accent. He'd use that expression when we were making up after a fight: I'm a lucky guoy…to have you.

Some of the details could not have been learned in a quick Google search, Chase points out.

She goes on to talk to the Windbridge Institute’s Julie Beischel, the mediumship researcher. She also persuades the medium to meet her, to find out more about what she does. This sort of stuff interests me, because I’m always curious about what mediums actually hear and see when they get contacts:

"First," she said, "I don't talk to dead people. I don't see dead people. I hate that." It drives her nuts. "Spirits are energy—energy can't be destroyed, just read the quantum physicists. Max Planck. They're just on a higher vibrational frequency, and I have to tune in to that."

What did she do to prepare? "I meditate. I quiet my mind. I connect to my heart, set an intention to read. I make sure I'm well hydrated. I leave my problems at the door, making myself completely available to be a receiver." What happens when the signs, or "hits," as she calls them, start to come? "Sometimes it's a little movie. Sometimes a picture. A symbol. Sometimes it's just one sign—a smell." Or a sharp, fleeting pain in her head if, say, the deceased had a brain tumor.

It’s not (or shouldn’t be) remarkable to see personal testimony like this written up in a glossy women’s magazine. But it’s unusual to see the thoughtful musings the article prompted in an essay by a New York Times writer, Ross Douthat, who clearly didn’t mind kicking up the usual angry gibbering from rationalist readers in the comments thread. Douthat suggests that the idea of secularism can be reinterpreted to mean that we can embrace numinous experiences as real – in other words, without treating them as strictly psychological events – and continue to be considered ‘secularist’ just as long as we don’t use them to get into institutional religious activity.

Under secularism, in other words, most people who see a ghost or have a vision or otherwise step into the supernatural are still likely to believe in the essential reality of their encounter with the otherworldly or transcendent; they’re just schooled to isolate the experience, to embrace it as an interesting (and often hopeful) mystery without letting it call them to the larger conversion of life that most religious traditions claim that the capital-S Supernatural asks of us in return.

What secularism really teaches people, in this interpretation, isn’t that spiritual realities don’t exist or that spiritual experiences are unreal. It just privatizes the spiritual, in a kind of theological/sociological extension of church-state separation, and discourages people from organizing either intellectual systems (those are for scientists) or communities of purpose (that’s what politics is for) around their sense, or direct experience, that Something More exists.

This interpretation – which I think is clearly part of the truth of our time — has interesting implications for the future of religion in the West. One of the big religious questions going forward is whether the large swathe of people who have drifted from traditional faith but remain dissatisfied (for excellent reasons!) with strict neo-Darwinian materialism constitute a major market for religious entrepreneurs. Is there a version of theologically-liberal Christianity that could actually bring these drifters back to church and keep them in the pews? Is there some new synthesis –pantheist, deist, syncretistic — that could seem plausible and nourishing and intellectually satisfying enough to plan an actual new religion in “spiritual, but not religious” territory? Is there enough residual Christian orthodoxy knocking around in the West’s cultural subconscious to make a revival or Great Awakening not only possible but likely? Etc.

This isn’t new thinking - a lot of people are quite consciously in this space - but it’s interesting to see it voiced in the mainstream media. We don’t have to treat science as the ultimate arbiter when it comes to the reality or otherwise of psi phenomena, since this is subject to competing interpretations. 'Secularist' doesn’t equate with 'materialist', and it’s fine to disagree with physicalist science. What matters is that we don’t rock the boat by using psi experiences as a reason to return to orthodox religiosity, or construct a new quasi-religious ideology that demands allegiance. A plea for pluralism, in other words.

What militant rationalists hate about this – and they’re right to be anxious – is that it chips away at the old materialist faith. That’s the role for which institutions like the CSI (CSICOP) were created, to badger editors into rejecting articles that take psi claims seriously. The message is: Don’t you realise what a laughing stock you’re turning your publication into? We’ve seen how devastating that can be in freezing out serious debate about psychic experiences.

But if, when these editors die, and, being natural communicators, strive to communicate the astounding fact of their continued survival, it’s natural that their living peers should show at least a little curiosity and interest, and not give a damn what anyone else thinks.

The more people like Douthat are willing to stick their heads above the parapet, the less power the sceptics’ ridicule will have.

King Richard

Robert here, still too busy with the new encyclopedia to write for the blog, alas, but looking forward to getting back in touch as soon as my new duties permit.

In the meantime I’ve heard from Henry ‘Rabbitdawg’ Brand, who has an interesting tale to tell, and in fact just the kind of thing that should interest Paranormalia readers. Thanks, Dawg.   

This is something I tripped across on an NPR radio show called Snap Judgement. It involved the discovery of the remains of King Richard III in a parking lot in 2012. Being a bit of an Anglophile, I already knew the basic story, but was completely unaware of the strongly documented paranormal aspect of the case. I've seen nothing about it on any of my trusted paranormal blogs or websites. Ironically, the only sources of information I've found for the paranormal side of the story are in the mainstream media. By mainstream, I mean 'respected' media, not the Daily Mail or other tabloids where you would expect to find these sort of things.

Here's a brief overview of the details:

Philippa Langley became obsessed with Richard III in 1992 after she fell ill, and gave up a successful career in advertising. During her recovery, she decided to write a film about him. The more research she did, the more she began to believe the House of Tudor had conducted a massive smear campaign on the good king's name. Too many facts didn't add up, logically or intuitively.

As a side note, I thought of Michael Prescott and his theories questioning the authenticity of Shakespeare's play's, when I read that many members of The Richard III Society believe they have evidence of the Tudor dynasty recruiting Shakespeare (or his surrogate) to write a disparaging play about him. Apparently, dirty political tricks and disinformation isn't anything unique to our era.

But here's the kicker, from a Guardian article:

In 2004, as part of her research, Langley visited Leicester, where it was rumoured the king was buried on the site of the old Greyfriars monastery. Her trip proved fruitless, but then as she was about to leave, she noticed a car park with a private barrier across it and felt "an overwhelming urge" to go inside.

"In the second parking bay, I just felt I was walking on his grave," Langley says calmly in the hotel pub where we meet. "I can't explain it."

A year later, she went back to test her hunch (no pun intended) and the feeling returned. This time, someone had hand-painted the letter "R" over the parking bay to mark it as reserved. For Langley, it was a cosmic sign that "I needed to get on with it".

  Of course, the rest is history (groan). Using private funding, the body was found within four hours of digging in the exact place where she said it would be, and this was documented by a television crew. Many of her intuitions about Richard III have been reasonably verified by respected archeologists, although some are still hotly debated.

I'm sure you know how that feels.   What I really like about this is that the more I dig into the story, the more intriguing and convincing it becomes.

The only skeptical response I can find is that Philippa Langley didn't adequately document her hunch beforehand. Still, this critique doesn't explain how she knew exactly where to find the remains, and I seriously doubt she wanted to go around lobbying archeologists and a city council with stories about a "feeling".  This is just an summary of what happened, but the mainstream sourced information I've found online makes a much better case for the paranormal effect than I possibly can. Here are a few links to pursue, for anyone who's interested.     

The Snap Judgement episode.

This podcast is only about fourteen minutes long, but it's informative and compellingly crafted. Brits like Robert might get a little kick out of hearing the story from an American point of view. Definitely worth a listen.

The Guardian article.

A Macleans Magazine interview.

A lame skeptical response:

Or you can Google it yourself. Information is everywhere, except on the more credible paranormal blogs and websites. Go figure.

Henry Brand

Skeptical Investigations

Paranormalia readers will enjoy the Skeptical About Skeptics website, which has just launched. There’s a lot of background about the various luminaries in the skeptic movement, along with critical articles that have been written about them and their doings over the years.

The most heavily featured seems to be Michael Shermer, with ten articles (compared with six about Richard Wiseman and eight about James Randi). I thought that interesting, especially having recently read the article in Scientific American, in which he describes his own encounter with the paranormal (definitely worth a read if you haven’t seen it).

This is actually not a brand new site, it’s a revamped version of Rupert Sheldrake’s Skeptical Investigations, which was around for quite a while. (The old link now connects to the new site.) The new editor is Cathi Carol, who I have been in touch with since the brouhaha over the attack on Rupert’s Wikipedia page last year. She doesn’t seem to get a credit on the site, so let’s hear it for her here! This is an attractively presented and readable production.

Well done, Rupert and Cathi!

 Glimpsing Heaven

I 'll be posting here soon, but in the meantime here’s Henry Brand, aka our own Rabbitdawg, with a review of a new book on NDE-type experiences. Thanks, Dawg!

I don't know if you're familiar with an influential Black Power poet from the early 1970's named Gil Scott-Heron, but he was famous during his day for his poem/song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Today, it would be considered soft Jazz rap, and I kinda like it, but Scott-Heron's point is what's pertinent to this review. The gist of his message is, when social paradigms are changed, they are changed from within. The gatekeepers are ultimately ignored.

I firmly believe that a revolution in the  public's perception of spirituality and the paranormal (among other things) is happening right before our eyes (the SPR Wiki project is one of the cogs in that social change machine). Responsible, professional journalism will be the driving force that will make it happen. Books and websites by scientists are good, but it takes talented writing to bring the message home.

All of this is my roundabout way of bringing your attention to yet another at-first-I-was-a-sceptic-but-now-that-I-have-researched-the-topic-I-am-a-believer book by a pedigreed journalist that I have only just started to read.

Here's the kicker - it's published by National Geographic. And it's paranormal friendly. Admittedly, National Geographic isn't a prestigious peer reviewed organ like Nature, JAMA, or the British Medical Journal, but it does command a great degree of intellectual respect in certain quarters, and it normally tends to have a materialist verve.   The book, Glimpsing Heaven, has a standard cover showing doors opening into the sky (why do they keep doing that?), and the title sounds like so many other books, but author Judy Bachrach is no slouch, as you can see by her creds at the Amazon link. Even though I have only made it past the first chapter, I am hooked.  

She avoids the term near-death experience as much as possible because she considers it inaccurate. The experiencers were actually temporarily dead. Rather, she uses phrases like death experiencers or death travelers. For those of us comfortable with the NDE phrase, this can be a little jarring at first, but I get her point.

The real difference here is how well she drills down with her research interviews.
For example, we're all familiar with the now deceased Pam Reynolds story. Ms. Bachrach takes it deeper. She interviews family and friends and walks away with a richer picture. Did you know that Pam Reynolds suffered a stroke shortly after her stand-down surgery was completed? She recovered nicely. Her psychic and healing abilities were legendary among those close to her, but she never wanted to make it publicly known. This ability was both humorous in hindsight, yet tragic in other ways.    Her daughters remember teenagehood as an affectionate nightmare because they always had to tell the truth, Mom knew what they were thinking anyway. If they tried to sneak out of the house at night, Reynolds would wake up and catch them. They were frequently embarrassed when their Mother would spontaneously embrace a stranger in public, whisper something in the stranger's ear, and then both of them would start crying. Empathy on steroids.  

On the other hand, Pam Reynolds didn't venture far from home unless she had to. She was distressed by the darkness of the thoughts she could read going through the minds of so many passers-by. She wasn't clinically depressed, in fact she was usually cheerful, but she was also fragile. Forever changed by what she called her transcendent encounter with The Knowing.  

Then there was the time when one of her daughters friends lost her purse, Pam inexplicably "knew" it could be found in another girls hall closet underneath some coats. Or the time Pam visited a teenage boy in a hospital while he was in a coma and whispered "I don't know about you, but I want to call the pizza dude and get some slices, because I hate the food here". The boy woke up, smiled and recovered.

This link is to the US Amazon site, where there are significantly more reviews. The UK version isn't available for Kindle yet, and the book only has one three star review. (The reviewer is bitchin' because Ms. Bachrach failed to talk about Muslims, and didn't attempt to offer solutions to current world problems. sigh )

It may take another generation, maybe two, but I doubt it will take much longer for the general public to become more comfortable and outspoken about their paranormal and spiritual experiences, Dawkins and Randi be damned. Journalists, at least successful ones are in touch with the beat of the street. I like to compare the information explosion happening right now with the internet and e-publishing with the invention of the printing press. It might getting off to a shaky start, but as folks discover that they aren't alone, they will seek out more information and the company of like-minded others to share their experiences and thoughts with, and change will happen. I bet the farm on it.

Okay, I don't own a farm, But if I did, I would. :)

Henry Brand  

ISHAR and Open Sciences

I mentioned these two projects in a recent post. A crowd funding appeal is now underway for ISHAR, the Integrative Studies Historical Archive and Repository, and although still ‘under construction, the Open Sciences web portal has quite a lot of stuff to poke around in.

According to its website, also still under construction, ISHAR is a project created by the mind/body community to provide a ‘world-collection of cultural and scientific knowledge, research and discussion with an emphasis on integrative medicine and consciousness studies, including all notable subjects therein’.

The project is led by Deepak Chopra, and has support from the likes of author Bernardo Kastrup, parapsychologists Dean Radin and Marilyn Schlitz, various scientists, medical directors, healers, etc. I spoke a while ago with Rome Viharo, an experienced web media professional who is closely involved in building the website. He says that as well as providing a comprehensive database of scientific research, the plan is to run themed discussions on different areas on a quarterly basis.

ISHAR’s appeal is asking for a $20 donation (or however much folks can afford.) I think this project is going to get traction and I urge readers to donate.

Rupert Sheldrake’s Open Sciences is also worth watching (although as far as I know it has not asked for donations). Rupert describes it as ‘a portal for open-minded scientific research, listing open-minded scientists, linking to relevant web sites, books and journals, containing a selection of videos and essays, and with a series of blogs on open questions in the sciences.’

I sense a more directly confrontational approach, and on a wider front, than ISHAR. The mission statement begins:

We believe that the sciences are being constricted by dogmatism, and in particular by a subservience to the philosophy of materialism, the doctrine that matter is the only reality and that the mind is nothing but the physical activity of the brain. We believe that the sciences would be more scientific if they were free to investigate the natural world in an un-dogmatic spirit, following the scientific methods of data collecting, hypothesis testing and critical discussion.

The site has also published a detailed Manifesto for a Post-Materialist Science, an outcome of the summit of scientists that took place at the University of Arizona in February. Sample extract:

... the nearly absolute dominance of materialism in the academic world has seriously constricted the sciences and hampered the development of the scientific study of mind and spirituality. Faith in this ideology, as an exclusive explanatory framework for reality, has compelled scientists to neglect the subjective dimension of human experience. This has led to a severely distorted and impoverished understanding of ourselves and our place in nature.

Both projects are scheduled for launch in October, at which time I expect there will be a fair bit of publicity. The SPR’s Encyclopedia continues to make good progress, and hopefully will appear next spring or summer.