King Richard
The Season for Ghosts

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.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Great to see posting again Robert!
Wonder how many scientists have had odd experiences which they keep to themselves?

Very interesting post as always and great indeed to see you posting again. Recently got into a twitter spat with a Dawkins follower on a not dissimilar theme. Was dismissed as a believer in woo.

Wow, great to see you back, Robert! The pieces you posted are terrific, in fact the ELLE piece is one of the BEST testimonies of it's kind I've ever read, and I've read a lot. Kudos to you! But you have always been a super investigator as you proved in you great book, which I still recommend to others, and reread often. Your work is impeccable. Re: The Elle piece;
I wish she Lisa Chase had said whether or not her husband Peter's dog was dead....( the medium saw him with the dog) I know this is picky, but I lost my beloved animal companion 4 months ago, he was my only family, and I'd give everything to know he survives somewhere, and I might be reunited with him. I've searched every book and one, (except total
new agey unbelievable goofy places) mention animals. Keep up the great work!

Sorry, second comment...I just reread the ELLE piece, and realized that the dog HAD died! Sorry I missed it, and commented on it. So glad I reread it.
So they are 'there' ( wherever 'there' is!)

Okay folks - synchronicity, everyday psi, call it what you will, but this takes the cake. Let me explain:

I initially came across the Ross Douthat article on Sunday night. It was one of many, many Facebook posts I receive from various groups I belong to, most of which I ignore. Too many of them are boring, New Age woo, or rehashes of things I've read about time and again. This one caught my attention, and after a perfunctory review, I bookmarked it for further reading.

Yesterday afternoon (Monday, October 12th), I spent several hours poring over the full article, its embedded links, and checking on Douthat's online presence to get a feel for his credibility and intent.
I found that he has a Wikipedia page, so that clinched the credibility argument right then and there. :D

Later that night, without bothering to check and see if Robert had recently posted anything on his blog, I emailed him to check on the progress of the SPR wiki project, and to whine about his online publishing absence.
Knowing that he is quite busy, and not wanting to be a pest, I hadn't emailed him for about four months. Honestly, I hadn't thought much about Parnormalia for quite a while, as I assumed it was a dead end until further notice.
It also occurred to me to send him a link to this very article, but I declined to do so, as I figured he had given up blog posting until after the SPR project was formally released.

Imagine my surprise when I open today's email to find that Robert had already decided to put up a fresh blog post after a nine month absence, on the very day I was thinking about it, and the subject was the same, exact article I would have wanted him to post about.
Again, as much as I love Robert's writing, I don't spend my days thinking about his blog, or emailing him for that matter. The impulse was random.

I can't prove my case, and the uncanniness of it all is likely lost on everyone but me. But that's pretty much how the paranormal and spiritual works in everyday life, isn't it?

Thank you for this post and the interesting places it led. The coin part of Lisa's story reminded me of an event which took place this summer.

As my husband and I approached our 20th wedding anniversary in July, my husband was driving to work mulling over what he wanted to get me. He could not come up with a satisfactory idea, so he put it out as a plea to the universe - asking directly for a plan. (He is a scientist and an engineer, I should mention, lest anyone think this was an irrational request of the universe :-)

When he got to work, he opened his car door and looked down and there was a bright, shiny nickel which seemed to call out to him, "Pick me up!" He held it in his hand and noted the date: 2015. Then, as he crossed the parking lot, he saw a dirty old penny. He picked it up, but without his glasses could not read the date - but had a feeling....Sure enough, he got into his office, cleaned it up and - yep - 1995, the year of our marriage. And yes, receiving those coins taped to a card telling the story was the perfect gift.

However, it was not until some time later that another aspect of this clever gift occurred to me. He and I were taking a walk, and I was mulling over what could be the significance of the amount of money he had found, repeating aloud,"Six cents, six cents...." and it occurred to me: sixth sense! I had to apologize to the forces that it took us a few weeks to grasp that wonderful pun.

Welcome back Robert

The voice of sanity has returned!

You might want to make a correction. You refer to Peter Kaplan as a former NYT editor, but according to the Douthat article, he was an editor for the New York Observer. There is a big difference. Just thought you would like to know, as I know you like to be accurate.

Hey folks, thanks for the anecdotes, comments and kind words. Wasn't sure if there'd still be anyone out there after all this time. :)

Kestrel, thanks for pointing out the error - now fixed. In too much of a rush, as usual.

Glad to see this blog make a return, though I don't think we should be calling pseudoskeptics rationalists.

They are materialist cultists/fundamentalists b/c no matter the philosophical argument or contrary evidence they will never abandon their fanaticism.

To SPatel- Loved your comment. My husband has made the exact same observation about skeptics being fundamentalists. We believe a true scientist would have an open mind - along with the ability to admit that we just don't know. And as you probably know, physics is offering all sorts of fascinating theories about what might be going on "out there."

Jolly good to see you back in here, our Robert, and on top form, as always. The place was getting to feel a bit damp and mildewed without you. But I must take issue with your opening premise. Since when has thinking been established as a precursor to talking?

That aside, I feel the same way as Sage with regard to discarnate pets. But if we are nothing but vibrational energy how can we recognise our pets - or each other for that matter - on 'the other side' if we/they have no physical form? So much of our relationship with our pets is visual and tactile. When, like Sage, I say that I so hope to see my old animal friends again I mean exactly that: I want to *see* them again.

Ps. 'Gently chided'?? I hit you up the side of the head with a ruddy great paddle! ;)

"experienced a series of startling coincidences in the three months following. Convinced he was trying to reach her, she contacted a medium, "

Another piece of synchronicity.. I've just come here and found this immediately after mentioning on another blog the fact I've had a "series of startling coincidences" which lead to the conviction a certain deceased person was trying to communicate. (In fact two seemingly seperate such sagas).. I didn't go seekign a medium at the time, but I did have it in mind when last night I made only my second ever visit to the spiritualist church. Now would be the dead's chance to speak out, refer to one of these incidents and confirm the reality of it all. Of course no such thing happened. The lady on stage even came to me..but was a complete dud.

The odd thing is even though I classed the medium as a flagrant cold reader and therefore not real, the failure of the dear departed to manifest through her seemed to dull my convictions about the nature of my own experiences.

"... the failure of the dear departed to manifest through her seemed to dull my convictions about the nature of my own experiences." - Lawrence

I hear you Lawrence. About three years ago I went through a phase where manifestations of paranormal evidence were stunning, via synchronous 'coincidences' and several mediums, then they tapered off and currently seem to have ground to a halt.
I've been told these things come in waves, but I also believe we needn't get too obsessed with centering our spiritual life and growth around paranormal experiences. However 'realer than real' other states of Being may be, this life is also quite real and has a purpose too.

There's nothing inherently wrong with recognizing the paranormal. Denial of it is a woefully unhealthy component of out materialist culture that needs to be boldly addressed. But keep in mind that it's called "para-normal" for a reason.
The deepest spirituality and evidence of a higher state of Being can be found in our compassionate interactions with everyday life. Transcendent experiences can motivate us, but the depth and beauty of the Transcendent is best (and most easily) found in the people and world around us, right in front of our eyes. That is ultimately where I believe our focus is meant to be.

Daggum it. Spirits and poltergeists can be so much fun! :D

Rabbitdawg ...Wise advice..but I have something very specific in mind when I say it dulled the impact of past experiences. It wasn't just a case of "well why can't I top it up with another one?!" but rather it brings into question - just a little - my past interpretation of events as "signs".

I wish I could tell you the whole long saga in a comments section, but it would take up a few pages with added illustrations! The one sentence summary is that over 3 years, seemingly reaching a crescendo in May, a series of sychroncitous events tying in at least 3 people, all seemed to scream out that the world around us was being manipulated by a particular deceased friend called Matt to make his presence known. It even culminated - via the coincidence of someone else's words - in a seeming direct written communication. Again I wish I could tell you the whole tale here - I sent it to the SPR at the time.

Now up to date, here's where it ties in with the dull visit to the Spiritualist church on Sunday. I went for another friends curiosity, and having been once before expected nothing but generic statements, and that's what we got. However that "what if" part of your mind obviously figured if there is survival and communication through mediums is possible, the obvious candidate for contact would be the late Matteo, to give him his full name. If any of the motifs and events in the existing saga got a mention on Sunday I would know for sure the medium was real...and so was communication. But as I say I wasn't expecting it Here's the interesting bit.....

About 3 days before going, when I finally agreed with the friend to go, I recieved on an unrelated website a completely random unexplained message from a faceless, photoless stranger. There was no background, nor follow up, nor response when I replied. The faceless stranger was called Matt and he simply wrote "Enjoy the show". That was it.

Now whoever he was I imagine he was just amusing himself being random to strangers, or mistook me for someone else or whatever. I did not conclude the dead had opened up an internet account. Nontheless its the kind of thing so remiscent of existing experiences, and so apt to the moment, it was impossible not to see it as eerie as far as coincidences go, and therefore that the hand of the deceased was behind it telling me to expect something when I went on Sunday. But of course in the event there was bugger all for me or from him or that even impressed me generally.

So then I have to say that mysterious message was not from him, and - however lightly - my instinct to interpret it as a sign or message was very much mistaken. In quality and type its not really distinguishable from all those previous incidents that form part of the saga of communication events I refer to. Therefore can I remain confident that my interpretation of those was ever correct in the first place?

The length of my reply here is not indicative of the depth of my doubt, don't worry. I'm just a wordy sod.

I should now quickly add that I wrote all that without first reading the Elle article quoted by Rob. Now I have read it, with its very similar type of "signs and messages" followed by a seemingly successful reading from a medium, it kind of counteracts everything I just said it!

@ Lawrence B.
When trying to understand possible signs and messages, I often find myself caught in the trap of not being sure if I'm being pragmatically discerning - desperately trying not to be a credulous fool, or simply suffering from what Dr. Piero Calvi-Parisetti calls "morning after scepticism".

No one wants to be stupid, but when I survey the religious, political and scientific worlds around me, I have no doubt that humanity is simply not the sharpest intellectual tool in the shed that it thinks it is. It's as if, at the end of the day, nobody really knows what they're talking about.

Sometimes we simply have to capitulate to the mystery of life. Just as death is the exclamation point that gives life urgency, the drive to overcome our ignorance, while finding purpose and meaning is what keeps us going.
If we ever got to the point where we had all the answers to our questions, we'd be totally screwed.

Just one additional comment on the article in Robert's original post....

There are two things I can't quite reconcile. The mediums's explanation of the process of her experiences - she doesn't see or hear dead people but tunes into some higher frequency and gets brief impressions and physical sensations etc etc - with the example of her work in the form of hte transcript of the phone reading. The former surely does not describe the latter. The reading appears to all intents and purposes to be direct full sentence coherent conversation, not a flash of this and a twinge here or there.

Surely the example belies the explanation?

Rabbitdawg writes;"If we ever got to the point where we had all the answers to our questions, we'd be totally screwed."

Oddly enough, the very same thought occurred to me earlier today while reading another blog. If we really knew for sure that the afterlife was/is a definite then, I believe, that would have a profoundly detrimental effect on our mental health in this dimension of experience.

That aside, "No one wants to be stupid." ? What we want and what we are are two entirely different things. I know I'm not stupid and I don't much care how others perceive me. But the one thing I never want to do is deceive myself. Is that what you meant by your fear of stupidity?

But the one thing I never want to do is deceive myself. Is that what you meant by your fear of stupidity? - Julie Baxter

Absolutely! "Stupid" is a description I reserve for myself. When observing the same leaps of perception in other people, I prefer to use terms like "credulous", "gullible", or when I'm feeling really charitable, "prone to confirmation bias".

Unless they get obnoxious and piss me off... :D

The comments to this entry are closed.