Plain Speaking

When the president of the United States utters words too vulgar to print here, I think of the old They Might Be Giants’ song “Your Racist Friend.” The song is all about the indefensibleness of racism. We knew that back in the 1980s. What has made it acceptable now, in the highest office in the land? The fact that Trump is a racist was known to most of us well before he was “elected.” And, of course, the Republicans stand beside him. I feel sorry for the GOP, I really do. Those who simply wanted a fiscally conservative leader (wrongheaded in my view, but understandable) decided to go with a man who would want to revisit 1776, if he knew the meaning of the date, to ensure that this would always be white-man’s land. Hear this Republicans—by standing by Trump now you’re declaring, “He’s only saying what I’m thinking.” There’s no way to defend what he’s said about Africa, along with several nations elsewhere.

As we watch this bizarre space opera of an administration do its best pratfalls we don’t even have to go back all the way to the 1770s to wonder what went wrong. Bill Clinton was impeached for having an extramarital affair in the 1990s. Less than 30 years later we have a misogynistic, racist bully who’s on his third wife running this country like a casino. And the “Party of Lincoln” laps it up. They refuse to censure anything this bumbling excuse for a leader does. They’d be embarrassed, of course, but they haven’t considered, and refuse to consider, the consequences. I’m wondering what the musical 2016 will be like, but I have a guess.

As the Russia probe gets closer, the GOP tries to shut it down. That’s how we handle facts we don’t like now. Who would’ve thought that three decades on we’d be saying “mere adultery” was grounds for impeachment? Perhaps there were good people on both sides of that affair too. Science has demonstrated that “race” is a fiction, a human construct. But science no longer matters. Anything we disagree with we call “fake news” and FOX will be there to slurp it up and spew it wide. As Friday unfolded after 45’s statement about the status of an entire continent, his verbal incontinence still dribbling, his party rushed to defend “what he really meant.” What he really meant, he said. And what he said, if you don’t denounce him, is what you’re thinking too.

Yes, Virginia, There Are Ghosts

Universities find themselves in a strange position vis-à-vis the supernatural. I suspect that many institutions of higher education are slightly embarrassed at the fact that universities began primarily as training grounds for clergy. We’ve moved away from all that superstition and now believe that only science leads to knowledge. That’s why I find the University of Virginia’s magazine article on ghosts so refreshing. We all know better than to expect a straight answer from academics faced with the awkward question of belief, but the campus magazine invited six department representatives to a discourse on ghosts. The article, which can be accessed online, asked Art History, Anthropology, Religious Studies, Literature, Neurology, and Archaeology faculty about ghosts. At least they were willing to talk about the subject.

Edgar Allan Poe's room at the University of Virginia

Edgar Allan Poe’s room at the University of Virginia

Even in this world where skeptical ridicule is an accepted part of academic practice, we can’t quite let go of the idea of ghosts. They are among the most ancient of beliefs, and even despite the proliferation of apps that let you add specters for any occasion of selfie or digital shot, people still see them often enough to make academics wonder what is going on. Since science only studies that which can be measured, we suppose ghosts lie outside that realm. Those who’ve popularized “scientific” approaches to ghost hunting on television don’t bring their scientific credentials to the discussion. Anyone can be taught to use technology. (Well, not anyone—I sometimes still find my computer at complete odds with me. Technically, however, it is just an inert piece of matter.) From time to time serious scientists have turned their attention to ghosts. Results have been inconclusive.

As the leaves are beginning to fall, and the temperature follows suit, we know that many months of long nights lie ahead. Trees without leaves and air without warmth tempt our minds to believe that perhaps the microscope can’t reveal all that exists in this world. Halloween, after all, has become a major spending holiday and that assures its veracity. Driving through town, it is clear that it is quite an investment for some. Down in Charlottesville they are hunched over their desks, writing lecture notes and grading papers. As the wind blows that empty branch against your window on a overcast evening, however, it won’t matter what department you call home. There will be ghosts about tonight.

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?

Are You Fey?

SeeingFairies‘Tis is the time of year that one might make inquiry into elves and the wee folk without being thought too strange. Santa has his cadre of mythic diminutive helpers and even the shepherds have their angels. The two, it seems, are not unrelated. Marjorie T. Johnson’s Seeing Fairies is, in many respects, a charming book. Compiled by the author during a lifetime of corresponding with people who claim to have seen fairies, elves, pixies, sprites, brownies, gnomes, and even angels, the stories—as parsimonious as any sermon—do create an aura of mystery. It is clear that Johnson believed (the book is posthumous) sincerely in the unseen world. As the preface makes clear, she was influenced by Theosophy, and the majority of the material dates from the 1950s and earlier. There is an almost childlike credulousness to the accounts, with Johnson not questioning psychic dreams or astral projection, placing them side-by-side with eyewitness accounts. This is a good example of what an editor might have done for the book.

Many people assume a doctorate in the humanities is a soft thing—pliable in a way that the hard sciences are not. The point of advanced study, however, is to ingrain habits of critical thinking. Nothing is taken at face value. For those of us who study folklore’s first cousin, religion, the task is often to set aside belief in the light of evidence. What can we know about the unknowable? Of course, psychologists and sociologists and anthropologists are now supposed to be better equipped to answer religious questions. Religion, after all, is something people think and do, and what can we really learn from studying it per se? We need an interpretative device—an hermeneutic filter (or pneumatic hammer)—to guide us toward the reality of the thing. And yet science itself is based on observation. Accounting for what our senses reveal about the world around us.

Some people, it is clear, find the world around them filled with wee people. Recently a major road construction was halted in Iceland out of fear of disturbing the elfin habitat. And Icelanders are some of the most literate people on the planet. Johnson’s accounts (some clearly hard to swallow) range across the earth, but center in the British Isles and Celtic lands. Perhaps the light is somewhat different there. Perhaps nearing the North Pole things really do change. What becomes clear from Seeing Fairies is that some highly credible and educated people see, from time to time, what they allow their eyes to see. Believing is, after all, seeing. Johnson ends her book with a chapter on angels, beings she clearly views in continuity with fairies. The difference is that the monotheistic religions allow for, and perhaps even demand, angels. When they become travel-sized, however, the only evidence is that of those with very keen eyesight.

Global Warning

“Sticks and stones,” the childhood wisdom goes, “may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” We were taught that little mantra as a response to being teased by bullies. But words can and do hurt. They can even be lethal. Although I’ve come to realize that specific words are inherently neither good nor bad, I’m still a little shy around some of them. The website known, euphemistically, as “IFL Science!” contains an f-bomb that sometimes makes me wary—what’s wrong with just regularly loving science? In any case, perhaps this adverbial use of the most versatile swear word is intended to make the website a bit of racy fun. The posts are often very good. So it was that I recently read a story about “Friends of Science.” This group, it seems, is paying good money to convince the scientifically illiterate that global warming is natural, caused by the sun and not emissions, and so we should just chill. IFL Science! points out that the group, however, receives money from petroleum companies. Sticks and stones.

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On my way to work this week, I noticed how many of the ads in ebullient, affluent Midtown Manhattan reflect dark shows and movies. It’s summertime, when we expect bright colors and sunny weather. Has it, perhaps, been too sunny? The best selling non-fiction book over the past few weeks has been on economic inequality and how it will lead to a good, old-fashioned primate crash. Going ape-crap on the bullies. Our species doesn’t tolerate radical unfairness for long. Those who suck money from under the ground may not fracking care about the rest of us, but they sure pull in the big money. Big enough to buy the truth. Our emissions, they seem to say, don’t stink. And that weird weather you’ve been noticing for the past decade or so? That’s normal. Words will never harm me.

Global warming is a reality.

Oligarchy comes in many forms, the most insidious of which is the benign overlord. The implied subtext is “if I am smart enough to make all this money, I must surely be smart enough to decide what’s best for everyone.” Call it the gold standard of hypocrisy. In an increasingly secular society where the rewards of heaven devolve to what we can grab on earth, this might even be called a kind of theology. We all know that public policy and federal laws can be purchased, if we call it lobbying. Or election fund donations. The truth it seems, is up for sale. Call it Friends of Science—the name says it all. And if we’re tempted to add our own epithets, it might pay to ask what harm can words really do?

Witches in History

History of WitchcraftIn a rationalistic society, the concept of witches has no place. If only we knew what witches were. Sadly fascinated by the unfortunate—evil would be the more appropriate word—victimization of women in the late Middle Ages as partners of the Devil, I read Jeffrey B. Russell and Brooks Alexander’s time-honored study, A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans. With its bold pentagram on the cover, I’d been afraid to take this on the bus, and so it sat in my reading pile until I figured out a way of keeping the cover from view while I perused the contents. The authors wisely spend the introduction with definitions. We define our world through lenses. For the most part, people today use the lens of science, as if that were the only way to view the universe. Still, even with that polished glass in hand, we have a difficult time knowing what “witch” is supposed to designate. Russell and Alexander suggest that it changes over time.

No doubt, witches still exist. The recognition of Wicca as an authentic religion (for tax purposes, the only true measure of a religion’s bona fides) demonstrates that. The problem is that Wicca is not in any sense a direct continuation of the witch hysteria that swept Europe, and parts of New England, centuries ago. As A History of Witchcraft demonstrates, this was a religion practiced by no one, but imagined, and feared, by many. Particularly men. Particularly religious men who had problems with women harboring hidden powers. It was a full-blown and horrible fantasy that led to many thousands dying for a religion that didn’t even exist. Modern witchcraft began in the 1930s and has become a nature religion that sees itself connected to that past, but which really only touches at the very edges.

Witchcraft was a way of looking at the world that saw all things as intimately connected. Russell and Alexander point out the similarity to chaos theory with its butterfly effect. We do see effects at a distance. Science tries to make them less spooky. Those who practiced witchcraft in ancient times, before the Middle Ages could even be dreamed, tried to bring such forces under human control. If some anthropologists are to be believed, some may have succeeded. This idea pulls at our darkest fears. Can we accept a world where we are manipulated by others in unseen ways? It happens every day. Not by spells or incantations, but by forces far more powerful than that. You don’t need to be a witch to see it. You only need to open your eyes.

Do You Mind?

TheScienceDelusionSeems a lot of people are deluded these days. I know I am. Still, every great once in a while I read a book that helps me cope with the morass of everyday life in a way so profound that I feel elated. At least until I get to work. One of those books I cannot commend highly enough. Curtis White’s The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers is epiphanic. Not your typical (generally faith-based) objection to the New Atheist phenomenon, White asks more fundamental, and indeed, logical, questions. And he’s incredibly fun to read. Starting with the conundrum that often goes unspoken, White demonstrates that even the scientists among the New Atheists ascribe to immaterial value judgments without thinking through the implications. Having jettisoned religion, philosophy—the whole of the humanities, in general, as pointless, non-empirical window-dressing, even the greatest lights still claim their tenets. As White illustrates, stars cannot be beautiful without a concept of beauty. Beauty cannot be quantified, and is therefore beyond the empirical method. One could say it’s in the eye of the beholder, but science is uncomfortable with metaphors as well.

Materialism, often in league with politics and power-mongers, fails to account for much of human experience. The real danger, as White demonstrates, is when society simply accepts it because it comes from a white lab-coat. White, along with most of non-materialists, is not anti-science. Science clearly describes, in a pretty close approximation, the physical world we know. At least in the New Atheist camp, however, it doesn’t stop there. The take-no-survivors attitude causes problems because it is hoisted on its own petard of logic. The mind that is attempting to puzzle out science is immaterial. Mind does not equal brain. The cause and the result are easily confused. Flush with neuroscience’s success of describing the brain, we assume that science can also explain things as inexplicable as the nature of light, quantum mechanics, black holes, or the Tea Party.

White is not shy of talking about the elephant in the room. Consciousness is not a material phenomenon. If you are reading this, you know what I’m talking about. We are self-aware creatures. So seem to be some other primates, cetaceans, and corvids. If our minds could be quantified a lot of psychologist’s couches would be empty. Chemicals may affect the working of our brains and influence the performance of our minds, but when they wear off, it is still yourself staring back from the mirror the morning after. Those of us who spend our lives pursuing the humanities generally don’t try to take over science. It is very good at what it does. The world as we experience it—even the use of the word “experience” itself—is, however, more than physical. Even the New Atheists dream, and hope, and love. No matter what they may say, there is an inherent beauty in that.