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.