Psychics Anonymous

New York is a city that is fascinated with itself. To me it’s kind of like rooting for a professional sports team. The members of the team come from all over the place. As Jerry Seinfeld once said, “You’re rooting for the jerseys,” or something to that effect. So it was that I found a piece in News Watch so interesting. “New York City: Psychic Capital of the World?” the headline ran. New York has to be first in this too? I’ve noticed on my daily walks through Midtown Manhattan that many psychics hang out the shingle proffering their wares. In my half decade of commuting into the city, I’ve only ever seen one person take up such an offer by pushing through the door. Nevertheless, I have been impressed by the sheer number of psychics that advertise in New York.

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I’m not one to rule out psi without giving it a fair hearing. Much knowledge is lost, I fear, by the ridicule factor. How many times have you thought about someone for the first time in years and then they called you? We all experience significant coincidences from time to time. Princeton and Duke Universities even set up, once upon a time, laboratories to test such things. What really interests me here, though, is that those who advertise are doing it as a business venture. Something of value changes hands for a chance at some insider knowledge. For legal purposes the psychics have to declare their wares for entertainment only—they go where no empirical evidence dares follow. Lawyers live for such ambiguity. Even so, some of the most influential people in the world of politics have relied on psychics. Some police departments do as well, very quietly.

News Watch says that psychic consultation is the closest some New Yorkers get to spiritual. If so, I’m glad they exist in such profusion. Our world has many shortages: fresh water, adequate food, and, for the tastes of some, fossil fuels. Perhaps the most dangerous shortage of all is the recognition that we are spiritual beings. Call it emotion, call it irrationality, call it feeling—our non-physical selves are what we care most deeply about. When we greet someone after an illness or surgery, we don’t ask “How do you think,” but rather “How do you feel?” We can give it many names, but the existence of our psyches is what keeps us sane and healthy. New York City is just like anywhere else, in that regard. It is a very human city.

Seeing Things

SchwebelWe have to learn to see the world. Traditionally religion and science both had roles to play, but as science grew better at explaining physical causes, many consigned religion to mere superstition. In such a paradigmatic world, Lisa J. Schwebel’s Apparitions, Healings, and Weeping Madonnas is something of an anomaly. Schwebel begins by noting that the Catholic Church has long accepted the reality of psi. As the branch of Christianity with the strongest commitment to furthering science, this itself might seem unusual. We are taught to see the world in a binary way: either this or that, not both. Books such as this challenge that convention, asking us to look at a world that doesn’t always conform to expectations. Parapsychology has made inroads from superstition to science because of testable hypotheses and statistically significant results. What it might mean is up for grabs.

Some claim that Catholicism is credulous. Actually, as Schwebel adequately demonstrates, criteria for declaring even spectacular events as miracles are amazingly high. Merely paranormal events seem common in comparison. In many ways, this is a disorienting book: the supernatural is assumed to exist, but miracles are treated as less common than the everyday supernatural. Those of us raised in a rationalist scholarly world might find the acceptance of that which we’ve learned is impossible just a bit unexpected. No doubt, visions of Mary are reported. Crowds often visit trees or highway underpasses where pareidolia impresses an image on the faithful. Schwebel, however, is discussing visions of another sort, and finds that they may involve the power of suggestion rather than the miraculous.

Faith healing, on the other hand, is something for which empirical evidence exists. Doctors still disagree about whether prayer speeds healing, but there have been many instances of unexpected healings that have occurred, apparently in relation to a person noted for bringing wellness about. Causality, of course, can’t be proven, but many people find themselves believing in a spiritual world after such an encounter. Perhaps that is what is so intriguing about books like this; they make readers uncomfortable in a world that is purely material. Finding a credentialed author who actually believes and has evidence to back her up is a rarity. Challenging conventions is part of the territory in most religions. Schwebel is simply straightforward about it.

Material to Ponder

EndOfMaterialismFrom my youngest days I remember wanting to be a scientist. This desire was tempered with a real fear of Hell and wish to please. In my career, it seems, the latter won out. Well, mostly. I never planned on being an editor, but it was clear that I missed the hard-core science courses and would always lack scientific credibility. You see, I believed what scientists said, and that included science teachers in high school. To this day I still believe in the back of my mind that you can’t really see atoms with a microscope. One of my teachers had said it was impossible, and although electron microscopes were still a long way off, it was clear that atoms were just too small. The force of materialism first hit me in ninth grade physics. If what I was hearing was true, then if you had enough information, you could figure out the whole universe. But what of Hell?

I read Charles T. Tart’s The End of Materialism because of my need for reassurance. Materialism leaves me cold. To find a scientist who feels the same way is a bonus. Not all authorities agree that we’re just excited atoms that can be seen. Tart is willing to consider the spiritual as part of what the evidence reveals. He explores it in the context of psi rather than in the doomed attempt to test religions empirically, but he does make a case for more to this universe than Horatio’s philosophy ever dared dream. And some of that more is decidedly not physical. It’s what we know from our experience of the world. We don’t only reason, we also feel. I have to wonder if reason is really the friend of materialism after all.

You can’t walk across Manhattan without seeing an ambulance most days. Often they’re called out to collect some unfortunate homeless person who collapses from our collective neglect. If we are only matter, then why do we bother to assist those in distress? It’s just a little electricity and some chemicals in a biological organ, right? Consciousness is only an illusion, after all. Unless, of course, the person suffering is a prominent scientist. Then we should all make way for the ambulance lest we lose an asset of great value. Materialism is insidious in its take-no-captives mentality. Feel what you will, there’s nothing more to life than physical stuff. You can make a good living believing that. Why is it that I’m suddenly thinking of Hell again?

Thinking about the Universe

Conscious Universe Notwithstanding appearances, I have been reading. Despite the determination, disruptions to my commuting schedule always throw me off a bit. Having recently read The Holographic Universe, I decided to follow it up with The Conscious Universe. Subtitled The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena, Dean Radin’s book is one of those that you don’t want other commuters examining too closely, although, however, they probably should. Radin is a fully credentialed scientist who has a rare trait: a willingness to follow where the evidence leads. Respectful of traditional scientific method and even mainstream science writing, Radin demonstrates in this book just how risky it is to go against the trends that are like deeply rutted wagon tracks over a sun-baked prairie. Science progresses by examining the evidence, but today science is, in some senses, over-reacting to the refusal of religious thought to, well, give up the spirit. Religion persists and rationalists can’t understand why. Investigating “spooky effects at a distance” is not entirely welcome in such a climate.

Radin, however, approaches psi with scientific rigor. Laboratory experiments, as he thoroughly demonstrates, have revealed with greater evidence than many readily accepted theories, that there is something behind psi. In fact, the government and private industry have invested, and continue to invest, in it. And in our more unguarded moments, most people will generally admit that sometimes coincidences are a little too odd, or that you might, from time to time, really be able to send a thought to someone else. The laboratory results, as Radin clearly shows, are simply dismissed as aberrations because they don’t fit into preconceived (frequently materialistic) worldviews. It is far easier to laugh than to sort out how all of this might actually work.

There is no triumphalism in this. It is simply the willingness to ask honest questions. Quantum mechanics, as physicists know, are not always as mechanistic as they seem. Even Einstein was willing to keep an open mind concerning the larger picture. The universe we envision today is not the same as that which Einstein knew. It isn’t easy to summarize what Radin is addressing in his book, but if I were to try I would say something like this: consciousness is essential. I know materialists dismiss essence, but I believe the evidence goes against them here. Consciousness is an integral part of the universe, and we can’t even define it yet so that all parties agree. If we don’t know what it is, how can we possibly know what it might not be able to do? Radin does what seems to be the only logical response in such a situation: he keeps an open mind.

Sacred Gaze

SenseofBeingStaredAt Rupert Sheldrake raises the ire of some of his fellow scientists. Science has increasingly allied itself with a strict kind of materialism, although, as Sheldrake repeatedly points out, evidence for such absolute materialism is lacking. This is not to challenge science, but simply to note that we may not yet have all of the data. The Sense of Being Stared At considers possible scientific explanations for unconventional situations we all experience from time to time. Who hasn’t felt eyes on them and turned around to find somebody looking? A number of other “impossible” scenarios also find their way into this intriguing book. Sheldrake suggests that such phenomena can start to be explained scientifically if we allow that the mind is not the same thing as the brain. Sure beats a Christmas party with B. F. Skinner, where every present is inevitable.

Materialism feels threatened when spooky action at a distance occurs. As Sheldrake points out, however, we are willing enough to accept it if an invisible “field,” one that we can’t even feel, is posited. Take magnetism, for example. Few people doubt that magnetism is a real force. We’ve never actually seen it, but its effects are clearly visible. Taking this as a starting point, Sheldrake suggests that various psi phenomena involve such fields. The scientific studies that have been undertaken on many of these “spooky” scenarios show statistically that chance may be safely ruled out. And, if the experience of many ordinary people counts for anything, even our pets and other animals may possess minds.

Ironically, the mind (with its taint of being associated with religious concepts such as the soul) is one of the most contentious phenomena in science. Many materialists deny its existence, suggesting it is merely some epiphenomenon of our brains’ electro-chemical processes. Yet these scientists still, one presumes, insist on being treated with respect and being paid for their work, although these mere trifles are just odds and sods clinging to the edges of a materialistic abyss. To me, work like that of Rupert Sheldrake is crucial for an honest assessment of the evidence. Maybe not everyone accepts that dogs know when their “owners” are coming home, and maybe Sheldrake’s morphic fields have yet to be confirmed, be it is clear, when all the evidence is considered, these phenomena do actually happen on occasion. Instead of simply dismissing something because it shouldn’t be, or can’t be, according to materialism, why do we find accepting the evidence so frightening? Is it perhaps the fear of being watched?

Buy Their Fruits

A lot of things get thrust at you in Midtown Manhattan. Many of them are religious. As I was out on my lunch break, a Buddhist monk walked up to me on Second Avenue. He thrust out a pretty token that looked like those skinny cards that used to come in with Sugar Daddies. I get a lot of things held out at me, and since I can imagine how dispiriting it must be to have people ignore you all day long, I have taught myself to take their chit as a matter of reflex. The monk looked pleased. We were outside 815, the headquarters of the Episcopal Church in the United States. I reached out my hand and he said “Buddha peace.” That was nicer than most of what I’d heard from the people who worked inside the church to which I’d dedicated years of my life. Without a beat my Buddhist friend continued, “temple donation.” I had to wave him off with a smile. Religions, no matter how placid, are out to earn a buck.

In the neighborhood of my office lurks a psychic named Sharon. I wouldn’t know Sharon if I ran into her, but I suppose the reverse wouldn’t be true. Actually, I have no way of knowing if she’s really psychic or not. She has guys. These guys hang out on the four corners of my block and hand out fliers for Sharon’s psychic readings. The guys with the leaflets aren’t psychic, I take it, because a walk around the block, on which I recognize each and every one of them, always lands me back in the office with a pocket full of psi. I see that Sharon is a third generation psychic and that she is adept at foreseeing negative energy. I would advise her not to walk past 815. If I bring in my slips of paper I get five dollars off a reading. I don’t know how much Sharon charges, but I do know that I don’t need anyone to foresee negativity in my life. I’ve got a hard enough time dealing with it when I don’t see it. And I save five bucks each time.

I sometimes wonder, as I walk past 815 Second Avenue, if anyone in there knows how badly one of their faithful was hurt by priests and bishops who had the blessing of the church. No one from the central office ever consoled or tried to comfort a person whose career had just been lifted off the rails and flung off the cliff by the machinations of some of their own. Even now those who go in and out the doors as I stand there have no idea what was done to a lonely guy on the street. In the name of the church. I think of the hollow sound of coin ringing in the coffers. I think of Judas trying to return his thirty pieces of silver. I think of money lenders’ tables being overturned. I think of Buddha peace. One hand holds out a medallion for me. The other is palm up, waiting for a return on the sacred investment.

you shall know them

you shall know them