'Tis the season for natural disasters. Once-in-a century stuff. Much of Southern England is under water; hurricane-force winds have battered the coast. London has been spared so far. Even so, I may ask Santa to bring me some waders on his next visit - or perhaps a small inflatable boat.
Recently I got a phone call from Eric, a retired mining engineer in Yorkshire who also happens to be psychic. He’s been getting apocalyptic visions of disasters that humans are storing up for themselves by their irresponsible behaviour. A chatty fellow. He said he was 75 years of age and wanted to tell me a story - an hour later he was still going strong.
His spirit visitors are worried about plans to frack in the north of England. They showed Eric a vision of an abyss opening up under Manchester and half the city falling in. Eric thinks it’s up to him to warn the appropriate authorities. But will they listen? He described some of the conversations he’d been having.
Eric: City council? Eric here. Put me through to chief engineer.
Receptionist: What’s it about?
Eric: It’s about fracking. It’s a bloody disaster.
Receptionist: Well he’s very busy.
Eric: Never mind about that. Put me through.
Chief engineer: Hello, what’s this about?
Eric. It’s about fracking.
Chief Engineer: Well I’m very busy.
Eric: Is it true city council’s given permission to oil company to frack under Manchester?
Chief Engineer: Aye, what about it?
Eric: What about it? It’s a bloody disaster. Don’t ask me how I know, but if this goes ahead, a great big hole will open up under city, and thousands of lives will be lost.
Chief Engineer: How do you know?
Eric: Never mind that. Question is, what are you going to do about it?
Engineer: I don’t know. (Hangs up).
Eric then decides to approach the Anglican Church and goes to the local church offices.
Eric: I want to speak to head man.
Receptionist: What about?
Receptionist: Well he’s very busy.
Eric: Never mind about that. (Church official passes by). Here, are you head man? I want a word with you.
Official: How can I help?
Eric: It’s about fracking.
Official: Well I’m very–
Eric: City council’s gone and given permission to an oil company to drill under Manchester. Don’t ask me how I know, but if it goes ahead, a great big hole will open up under city, and thousands of lives will be lost. (Elaborates)
Official: Good heavens! That’s a scandal.
Eric: Yer what? A scandal? Look, if a man sleeps with a woman who in’t his wife, and it gets onto front page of newspaper, that’s a scandal. This is a bloody disaster!
I think even Eric realises he’s wasting his time. He drives his wife mad with his visions, he says, and none of his seven children will listen. (‘Oh Grandad, not this again!’). But it’s a real worry to him because what he sees is so realistic. For him, this future is going to happen unless action is taken to stop it.
Ominously, he added that ‘if you folks down there in London think you’re all right you’ve got another think coming’. The spirits think that ‘London is dying’, apparently, and Eric had quite a lot to say about the inadequacy of the flood defences. In fact expert opinion holds that, here at least, they’re quite robust, but I sensed there was no point arguing; he just wanted to talk to someone who would take him seriously. Which I do – up to a point. If one accepts the idea of individual consciousness surviving death, and being able to communicate with the living, then one is bound to have some interest in what it has to say.
But it’s surely wrong to take this sort of thing at face value. It doesn’t need supernatural intervention to suspect that using toxic chemicals to fracture the rock underneath a large population centre might not be a great idea. We can figure it out ourselves – as many people have. Despite the prosperity it can bring fracking is controversial almost everywhere.
Spirit ‘prophecy’ is one of the most dismal aspects of psychic activity. Take Edgar Cayce, whose readings were widely admired for their diagnostic accuracy but not so much for their apocalyptic warnings. They predicted, among other things, that parts of California would slide into the sea, and that earthquakes would flatten Manhattan and cause the Great Lakes to empty into the Mississippi, as well as wiping out Japan. One could argue these things could still happen - and on a geological time scale probably will - but that hardly counts as prophecy.
Psychics and astrologers make confident predictions about these things, but is there a single one with a successful track record? Not like Nostradamus, with gibberish that can be made to mean anything, but clear and intelligible statements about major events in the near future. Sure, for every natural disaster there’s someone in the world who can claim to have predicted it, but only in the sense that at least one out of ten tipsters will successfully identify the winner of the 2.30 at Newbury. As they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day.
Still, I believe Eric about his prophetic visions, and calling him a nutter doesn’t get to the bottom of the mystery. So what goes on?
One might say there’s nothing psychic going on at all. It’s simply one means – admittedly an exotic one – by which the mind brings buried anxieties to the surface, serving the same function as a dream or nightmare. There’s certainly something to be anxious about here, particularly for someone who has spent much of his professional life underground. The long term consequences of fracking are still unclear, and a lot could go wrong.
If the dead really do survive physical death, with all their memories, they might indeed be playing a part here, just not in the way that they think. Perhaps they’re sensitive to collective human insecurity on matters such as genetically modified crops, floods, earthquakes, fracking, etc. If what mediumistic communicators say is true, that their reality is so much more subjective than ours, then perhaps they amplify these fears and project visible actualisations of them, without realising what they are doing. In turn they scare the bejeezus out of people like Eric who are psychically in tune with them, and who they use to try to sound the alarm.
Swedenborg might be relevant here. He was very insistent that one shouldn’t pay any attention to what ‘spirits’ believe, because they’re so wrapped up in illusion they really haven’t a clue. One certainly senses that with Cayce, whose later readings validated all sorts of obviously terrestrial myths and imaginings – Atlantis, mermaids, unicorns and so on.
My point is, there’s a serious problem here for those of us who would like to see a more mature consideration of psi. We can’t detach the idea of it being genuine in a scientific sense from the social implications that follow from that. Secularism has created a very necessary protective boundary against superstition. We tinker with it at our peril.
So do we really want ‘spirits’ interfering in our world? It’s hard to imagine a functional human society in the machine age allowing itself to be directed from the outside in anything but a purely abstract, moral sense. The living can accept, and perhaps even appreciate, advice to cooperate, and be wise and moderate in all their dealings – it’s what they would tell themselves. But when it comes to the details they absolutely have to rely on their own judgement.