Super Reality

Super NaturalReality is not often, if ever, what it appears to be. As creatures that evolved to survive in this particular environment, we have passed along and received the skills that make this possible. One of those skills is filtering. We filter out most of the stimuli that surround us daily (and nightly), and that with only five senses. We don’t experience reality as it is. It is with this in mind that I read The Super Natural by Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey Kripal. Perhaps unlike many who will read this book, my attraction was based on Jeffrey Kripal’s involvement. In anticipation, late last year I read Whitley Strieber’s Communion, but I have great respect for Jeffrey Kripal’s work, and consider anything he writes well worth the reading. This book, then, is a strange hybrid between the experiencer and the open-minded analyst who brings the toolbox of religious studies to what most academics dismiss as “the paranormal.”

This is one of those books that will distort perceptions of reality. That’s not because Strieber and Kripal simply accept each other’s versions of events or conclusions. They don’t. Both are free to disagree with one another. Kripal, as a recognized academic, brings something rare to the table. He is willing to listen to people who have experienced what standard approaches wipe away as “merely anecdotal.” Ask yourself: what do we have to say that isn’t anecdotal? We don’t experience all of reality, and the filters we use go both ways—what we perceive is filtered, and what we share with others is filtered. As much as a materialist may hate to admit it, she or he still has feelings. And our senses, keep in mind, can be fooled. We’ve all seen mirages or thought we heard something that nobody said. Our brains evolved with lots of false positives. Who are we to judge that someone else’s anecdote is impossible? That’s what super nature can do to you.

It is also refreshing to see that, although the day when a physicist’s name as a household word may have passed (excluding Sheldon Cooper, of course), those who remain recognizable from the past—Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Erwin Schrödinger—were not strict materialists. As The Super Natural points out, these foundational figures of quantum physics all turned to mysticism of some sort or another to help them come to grips with what the empirical evidence was showing. I do wonder how we’ve come, since then, to have so many brilliant people who have lost a sense of wonder about the anomalies that exist in everyday experience. Who hasn’t felt a shiver of pleasure at a particularly poignant coincidence or glitch in the matrix? Maybe most of us will never have as many uncanny experiences as Whitley Strieber, but we might be losing something valuable if we don’t at least listen to what he, and others like him, have to say.

AP Physics

AP Physics. Few words strike terror into high school students like these initials and scientific surname. As a student I didn’t really comprehend AP, and never took any Advanced Placement courses, but I enjoyed physics. It was by far my favorite science class. Even as a Fundamentalist, I saw that here was the explanation for the entire universe, as we knew it. Laws deduced by people far smarter than I could even dream of being could explain everything. But then Heisenberg. And Schrödinger. And quantum mechanics. I remember being taught that nothing was smaller than an atom. (Primarily school teachers in the early ‘60s can easily be forgiven the generality.) Still, on my own I read about protons and neutrons and electrons with wonder. When physics and chemistry brought these to the level of reality, it was like we really understood that each atom was like a solar system and boy didn’t it look intelligently designed! But then we looked closer. Quarks, in a Life-Saver array of juicy flavors, string theory, and the God particle itself, the Higgs boson, coyly showed their elusive faces and physics got weirder and weirder.

Edinburgh does physics (and God) proud

Edinburgh does physics (and God) proud

When my daughter told me about AP Physics recently, I was reacquainted with this world where apparently conscious beings have their choice about reality. The observer bends the results of the quantum experiment. And yes, particles can be two places simultaneously. When a friend pointed me to an article on Quantum Reality in The Waking Times, I was ready to throw open the doors of perception and celebrate life in a universe so strange that the very concept of reality itself is up for grabs. Some physicists now believe the entire physical universe is constructed of energy and that it flashes into and out of existence at a staggering speed that makes me feel a little perpetual-motion sick. Reality is, literally, what we make it.

I have to admit just a little bit of pride on the part of having chosen to study religion here. The more we learn about the quantum world, the more religious it becomes. There will be hard-core reductionists who dispute this, I know. Those who’ve spent any time among the mystics, however, will know what I mean. Back beyond the singularity the laws of physics are so stretched and protracted that even Stephen Hawking can’t sort them all out. And we find ourselves daily living in a world that we help create, on a sub-atomic level. Reality may not be what it seems. I learned this in high school physics. Now that my brain has ossified into patterns that don’t admit much of calculus or accounting any more, I’m beginning to realize that physics is suggesting that reality may be consciously constructed after all. Only this time we’re the gods. And that’s a really weird concept.

The Power of Magic

Open-minded academics are somewhat hard to find much of the time. This stands to reason when jobs are already rare and having a reputation for thinking outside the box frequently equals thinking outside the academy. I am always pleased, therefore, to find unconventional works by credentialed authors. I just finished reading Sabina Magliocco”s Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America. Magliocco takes head on the dilemma that non-empirically verified experiences sometimes do happen. Of course, Paganism accepts that as a matter of course, and Magliocco notes that many Pagans hold advanced degrees in the sciences and some even have university posts. Experiences have a way of defying the rules. Most of us have had a bizarre coincidence or uncanny occurrence or two transpire in our lives. We are trained, via our scientific worldview, to shake our heads and try to dismiss it. Magliocco pauses to wonder if we’re perhaps being too hasty.

Sabina Magliocco is an anthropologist with a legitimate doctorate and a university post. Witching Culture is largely an analytical study of Paganism, but it also allows for the possibility that experiential knowledge might complement academic knowledge. This remains a debated issue among specialists: who can really know a phenomenon objectively? Many argue that empirical data reveal the truth of the matter, but truth remains a slippery concept. At the opposite debating table sit the smaller coterie that argue that you can’t study magic until you’ve experienced it firsthand. The debate does not divide along even lines and this is reflected in society at large. We accept the utility of science, but many still pray for divine intervention. Specialists in religion fear to take sides—after all, jobs are hard to find and increasingly harder to keep.

Fully aware that the modern Pagan movement is a revival movement following the hiatus of Christendom in Europe, Magliocco nevertheless admits to being a practitioner. Fascinating her readers with first-hand accounts of mystical experiences, she draws back to try to analyze what has just happened. And she tells us so. Years ago, as part of a seminary assignment, I attended an Al-Anon meeting as an observer. I am, however, the adult child of an alcoholic and when the circle came around to me I confessed to being both an observer and a person seeking healing. It was a difficult place to be, so I respect what Sabina Magliocco is offering us here. Anthropologists increasingly doubt the possibility of pure objectivity, and even physicist Werner Heisenberg realized that to observe is to be part of the experiment. And so are we all.