Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Toward a Green Future, Part Three: The Barbarism of Reflection

One of the least helpful habits of modern thinking is the common but really rather weird insistence that if something doesn’t belong all the way to one side of a distinction, it must go all the way to the other side. Think about the way that the popular imagination flattens out the futures open to industrial society into a forced choice between progress and catastrophe, or the way that American political rhetoric can’t get past the notion that the United States must be either the best nation on earth or the worst:  in both these cases and many more like them, a broad and fluid continuum of actual possibilities has been replaced by an imaginary opposition between two equally imaginary extremes.
The discussion of the different kinds of thinking in last week’s Archdruid Report post brushed up against another subject that attracts this sort of obsessive binary thinking, because it touched on the limitations of the human mind. Modern industrial culture has a hard time dealing with limits of any lind, but the limitations that most reliably give it hiccups are the ones hardwired into the ramshackle combination of neurology and mentality we use to think with. How often, dear reader, have you heard someone claim that there are no limits to the power of human thought—or, alternatively, that human thought can be dismissed as blind stumbling through some set of biologically preprogrammed routines?

A more balanced and less binary approach allows human intelligence to be seen as a remarkable but  fragile capacity, recently acquired in the evolutionary history of our species, and still full of bugs that the remorseless beta testing of natural selection hasn’t yet had time to find and fix. The three kinds of thinking I discussed in last week’s post—figuration, abstraction, and reflection—are at different stages in that Darwinian process, and a good many of the challenges of being human unfold from the complex interactions of older and more reliable kinds of thinking with newer and less reliable ones.

Figuration is the oldest kind of thinking, as well as the most basic. Students of animal behavior have shown conclusively that animals assemble the fragmentary data received by their senses into a coherent world in much the same way that human beings do, and assemble their figurations into sequences that allow them to make predictions and plan their actions. Abstraction seems to have come into the picture with spoken language; the process by which a set of similar figurations (this poodle, that beagle, the  spaniel over there) get assigned to a common category with a verbal label, “dog,” is a core example of abstract thinking as well as the foundation for all further abstraction.

It’s interesting to note, though, that figuration doesn’t seem to produce its most distinctive human product, narrative, until the basic verbal tools of abstraction show up to help it out. In the same way, abstraction doesn’t seem to get to work crafting theories about the cosmos until reflection comes into play. That seems to happen historically about the same time that writing becomes common, though it’s an open question whether one of these causes the other or whether both emerge from deeper sources.  While human beings in all societies and ages are capable of reflection, the habit of sustained reflection on the figurations and abstractions handed down from the past seems to be limited to complex societies in which literacy isn’t restricted to a small religious or political elite.

An earlier post in this sequence talked about what happens next, though I used a different terminology there—specifically, the terms introduced by Oswald Spengler in his exploration of the cycles of human history. The same historical phenomena, though, lend themselves at least as well to understanding in terms of the modes of thinking I’ve discussed here, and I want to go back over the cycle here, with a close eye on the way that figuration, abstraction, and reflection shape the historical process.

Complex literate societies aren’t born complex and literate, even if history has given them the raw materials to reach that status in time.  They normally take shape in the smoking ruins of some dead civilization, and their first centuries are devoted to the hard work of clearning away the intellectual and material wreckage left behind. Over time, barbarian warlords and warbands settle down and become the seeds of a nascent feudalism, religious institutions take shape, myths and epics are told and retold:  all these are tasks of the figurative stage of thinking, in which telling stories that organize the world of human experience into meaningful shapes is the most important task, and no one worries too much about whether the stories are consistent with each other or make any kind of logical sense.

It’s after the hard work of the figurative stage has been accomplished, and the cosmos has been given an order that fits comfortably within the religious sensibility and cultural habits of the age, that people have the leisure to take a second look at the political institutions, the religious practices, and the stories that explain their world to them, and start to wonder whether they actually make sense. That isn’t a fast process, and it usually takes some centuries either to create a set of logical tools or to adapt one from some older civilization so that the work can be done. The inevitable result is that the figurations of traditional culture are weighed in the new balances of rational abstraction and found wanting.

Thus the thinkers of the newborn age of reason examine the Bible, the poems of Homer, or whatever other collection of mythic narratives has been handed down to them from the figurative stage, and discover that it doesn’t make a good textbook of geology, morality, or whatever other subject comes first in the rationalist agenda of the time. Now of course nobody in the figurative period thought that their sacred text was anything of the kind, but the collective shift from figuration to abstraction involves a shift in the meaning of basic concepts such as truth. To a figurative thinker, a narrative is true because it works—it makes the world make intuitive sense and fosters human values in hard times; to an abstractive thinker, a theory is true because it’s consistent with some set of rules that have been developed to sort out true claims from false ones.

That’s not necessarily as obvious an improvement as it seems at first glance. To begin with, of course, it’s by no means certain that knowing the truth about the universe is a good thing in terms of any other human value; for all we know, H.P. Lovecraft may have been quite correct to suggest that if we actually understood the nature of the cosmos in which we live, we would all imitate the hapless Arthur Jermyn, douse ourselves with oil, and reach for the matches. Still, there’s another difficulty with rationalism: it leads people to believe that abstract concepts are more real than the figurations and raw sensations on which they’re based, and that belief doesn’t happen to be true.

Abstract concepts are simply mental models that more or less sum up certain characteristics of certain figurations in the universe of our experience. They aren’t the objective realities they seek to explain. The laws of nature so eagerly pursued by scientists, for example, are generalizations that explain how certain quantifiable measurements are likely to change when something happens in a certain context, and that’s all they are. It seems to be an inevitable habit of rationalists, though, to lose track of this crucial point, and convince themselves that their abstractions are more real than the raw sensory data on which they’re based—that the abstractions are the truth, in fact, behind the world of appearances we experience around us. It’s wholly reasonable to suppose that there is a reality behind the world of appearances, to be sure,but the problem comes in with the assumption that a favored set of abstract concepts is that reality, rather than merely a second- or thirdhand reflection of it in the less than flawless mirror of the human mind.

The laws of nature make a good example of this mistake in practice. To begin with, of course, the entire concept of “laws of nature” is a medieval Christian religious metaphor with the serial numbers filed off, ultimately derived from the notion of God as a feudal monarch promulgating laws for all his subjects to follow. We don’t actually know that nature has laws in any meaningful sense of the word—she could simply have habits or tendencies—but the concept of natural law is hardwired into the structure of contemporary science and forms a core presupposition that few ever think to question.

Treated purely as a heuristic, a mental tool that fosters exploration, the concept of natural law has proven to be very valuable. The difficulty creeps in when natural laws are treated, not as useful summaries of regularities in the world of experience, but as the realities of which the world of experience is a confused and imprecise reflection. It’s this latter sort of thinking that drives the insistence, very common in some branches of science, that a repeatedly observed and documented phenomenon can’t possibly have taken place, because the existing body of theory provides no known mechanism capable of causing it. The ongoing squabbles over acupuncture are one example out of many:  Western medical scientists don’t yet have an explanation for how it functions, and for this reason many physicians dismiss the reams of experimental evidence and centuries of clinical experience supporting acupuncture and insist that it can’t possibly work.

That’s the kind of difficulty that lands rationalists in the trap discussed in last week’s post, and turns ages of reason into ages of unreason: eras in which all collective action is based on some set of universally accepted, mutually supporting, logically arranged beliefs about the cosmos that somehow fail to make room for the most crucial issues of the time. It’s among history’s richer ironies that the beliefs central to ages of unreason so consistently end up clustering around a civil religion—that is, a figurative narrative that’s no more subject to logical analysis than the theist religions it replaced, and which is treated as self-evidently rational and true precisely because it can’t stand up to any sort of rational test, but which provides a foundation for collective thought and action that can’t be supplied in any other way—and that it’s usually the core beliefs of the civil religion that turn out to be the Achilles’ heel of the entire system.

All of the abstract conceptions of classical Roman culture thus came to cluster around the civil religion of the Empire, a narrative that defined the cosmos in terms of a benevolent despot’s transformation of primal chaos into a well-ordered community of hierarchically ranked powers. Jove’s role in the cosmos, the Emperor’s role in the community, the father’s role in the family, reason’s role in the individual—all these mirrored one another, and provided the core narrative around which all the cultural achievements of classical society assembled themselves. The difficulty, of course, was that in crucial ways, the cosmos refused to behave according to the model, and the failure of the model cast everything else into confusion. In the same way, the abstract conceptions of contemporary industrial culture have become  dependent on the civil religion of progress, and are at least as vulnerable to the spreading failure of that secular faith to deal with a world in which progress is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

It’s here that reflection, the third mode of thinking discussed in last week’s post, takes over the historical process. Reflection, thinking about thinking, is the most recent of the modes and the least thoroughly debugged. During most phases of the historical cycle, it plays only a modest part, because its vagaries are held in check either by traditional religious figurations or by rational abstractions. Many religious traditions, in fact, teach their followers to practice reflection using formal meditation exercises; most rationalist traditions do the same thing in a somewhat less formalized way; both are wise to do so, since reflection limited by some set of firmly accepted beliefs is an extraordinarily powerful way of educating and maturing the mind and personality.

The trouble with reflection is that thinking about thinking, without the limits just named, quickly shows up the sharp limitations on the human mind mentioned earlier in this essay. It takes only a modest amount of  sustained reflection to demonstrate that it’s not actually possible to be sure of anything, and that way lies nihilism, the conviction that nothing means anything at all. Abstractions subjected to sustained reflection promptly dissolve into an assortment of unrelated figurations; figurations subjected to the same process dissolve just as promptly into an assortment of unrelated sense data, given what unity they apparently possess by nothing more solid than the habits of the human nervous system and the individual mind. Jean-Paul Sartre’s fiction expressed the resulting dilemma memorably: given that it’s impossible to be certain of anything, how can you find a reason to do anything at all?

It’s not a minor point, nor one restricted to twentieth-century French intellectuals. Shatter the shared figurations and abstractions that provide a complex literate society with its basis for collective thought and action, and you’re left with a society in fragments, where biological drives and idiosyncratic personal agendas are the only motives left, and communication between divergent subcultures becomes impossible because there aren’t enough common meanings left to make that an option. The plunge into nihilism becomes almost impossible to avoid once abstraction runs into trouble on a collective scale, furthermore, because reflection is the automatic response to the failure of a society’s abstract representations of the cosmos.  As it becomes painfully clear that the beliefs of the civil religion central to a society’s age of reason no longer correspond to the world of everyday experience, the obvious next step is to reflect on what went wrong and why, and away you go.

It’s probably necessary here to return to the first point raised in this week’s essay, and remind my readers that the fact that human thinking has certain predictable bugs in the programming, and tends to go haywire in certain standard ways, does not make human thinking useless or evil. We aren’t gods, disembodied bubbles of pure intellect, or anything else other than what we are: organic, biological, animal beings with a remarkable but not unlimited capacity for representing the universe around us in symbolic form and doing interesting things with the resulting symbols. Being what we are, we tend to run up against certain repetitive problems when we try to use our thinking to do things for which evolution did little to prepare it. It’s only the bizarre collective egotism of contemporary industrial culture that convinces so many people that we ought to be exempt from limits to our intelligence—a notion just as mistaken and unproductive as the claim that we’re exempt from limits in any other way.

Fortunately, there are also reliable patches for some of the more familiar bugs. It so happens, for example, that there’s one consistently effective way to short-circuit the plunge into nihilism and the psychological and social chaos that results from it. There may be more than one, but so far as I know, there’s only one that has a track record behind it, and it’s the same one that provides the core around which societies come together in the first place: the raw figurative narratives of religion. What Spengler called the Second Religiosity—the renewal of religion in the aftermath of an age of reason—thus emerges in every civilization’s late history as the answer to nihilism; what drives it is the failure of rationalism either to deal with the multiplying crises of a society in decline or to provide some alternative to the infinite regress of reflection run amok.

Religion can accomplish this because it has an answer to the nihilist’s claim that it’s impossible to prove the truth of any statement whatsoever. That answer is faith: the recognition, discussed in a previous post in this sequence, that some choices have to be made on the basis of values rather than facts, because the facts can’t be known for certain but a choice must be made anyway—and choosing not to choose is still a choice. Nihilism becomes self-canceling, after all, once reflection goes far enough to show that a belief in nihilism is just as arbitrary and unprovable as any other belief; that being the case, the figurations of a religious tradition are no more absurd than anything else, and provide a more reliable and proven basis for commitment and action than any other option.

The Second Religiosity may or may not involve a return to the beliefs central to the older age of faith. In recent millennia, far more often than not, it hasn’t been. As the Roman world came apart and the civil religion and abstract philosophies of the Roman world failed to provide any effective resistance to the corrosive skepticism and nihilism of the age, it wasn’t the old cults of the Roman gods who became the nucleus of a new religious vision, but new faiths imported from the Middle East, of which Christianity and Islam turned out to be the most enduring. Similarly, the implosion of Han dynasty China led not to a renewal of the traditional Chinese religion, but to the explosive spread of Buddhism and of the newly invented religious Taoism of Zhang Daoling and his successors. On the other side of the balance is the role played by Shinto, the oldest surviving stratum of Japanese religion, as a source of cultural stability all through Japan’s chaotic medieval era. 

It’s still an open question whether the religious forms that will be central to the Second Religiosity of industrial civilization’s twilight years will be drawn from the existing religious mainstream of today’s Western societies, or whether they’re more likely to come either from the bumper crop of religious imports currently in circulation or from a even larger range of new religious movements contending for places in today’s spiritual marketplace. History strongly suggests, though, that whatever tradition or traditions break free from the pack to become the common currency of thought in the postrationalist West will have two significant factors in common with the core religious movements of equivalent stages in previous historical cycles. The first is the capacity to make the transition from the religious sensibility of the previous age of faith to the emerging religious sensibility of the time; the second is a willingness to abandon the institutional support of the existing order of society and stand apart from the economic benefits as well as the values of a dying civilization. Next week’s post will offer some personal reflections on how that might play out.


BeaverPuppet said...

As someone who spent some years lost in relativism and nihilism, I can especially relate to this post. Since I've come back to objectivism and accepted a set of beliefs/truths about the world and how to act in it, even without a rational proof of all those beliefs/truths, it has made a big difference in my life. I'm much happier and can actually function. I'm probably conflating some of the points you made with other ideas, but this is what I took from it. Great post again!

KL Cooke said...

Not exactly on topic, but this article in today's NYT tells us something.

The gist of it is that given the obvious evidence and implications of of man-made global climate change, the only solution is further investment in nuclear power, even with all the inherent dangers, because that's the only way we can keep the party going.

That the party has to wind down, doesn't seem to be allowed into the equation.

Justin Wade said...

Taking a swipe at medical science with acupuncture.
I compiled a small sample list of medical anomalies sometime earlier this summer in a similar vein. You may enjoy.

Thus the thinkers of the newborn age of reason examine the Bible, the poems of Homer, or whatever other collection of mythic narratives has been handed down to them from the figurative stage, and discover that it doesn’t make a good textbook of geology, morality, or whatever other subject comes first in the rationalist agenda of the time. Now of course nobody in the figurative period thought that their sacred text was anything of the kind, but the collective shift from figuration to abstraction involves a shift in the meaning of basic concepts such as truth. To a figurative thinker, a narrative is true because it works—it makes the world make intuitive sense and fosters human values in hard times; to an abstractive thinker, a theory is true because it’s consistent with some set of rules that have been developed to sort out true claims from false ones.

I've long thought that dark ages are periods of time when no one is interested in writing autobiographies, not because they are less prone to self-absorption, but simply because it doesn't occur to them to do such a thing. To a figurative culture, the Homeric legends or Greek Gods are all the history and social theory that there is to think about. From within that body, one can learn all they need to know about human nature and how things work through allegory and metaphorical stories. To an abstractive culture, the story of history is told in terms of precise and specific events and people, so as to be able to derive abstract theories about how it all works.

Small criticism - I think the narrative about plunging into Nihilism as a consequence of reflective/reflexive thinking is a moral judgment masquerading as objective analysis. If I read you correctly, you are representing and building upon Spengler's model, so this is more a criticism of Spengler. A reading of history from this framing is no doubt possible, but only in so far as the recorded history reflects that same moral framework.

Good post!

k-dog said...

Human thought abhors a vacuum and it is a natural human reaction to find answers even if they are nonsense. If nonsense makes one more comfortable than the pit of nihilism nonsense is embraced no matter how bizarre it is as long as it provides an appropriate emotional fix.

To primitive man knowing which animals were going to be at the watering hole at any given time was rather important and not knowing or being unsure if meat or meat eaters were going to be there was no doubt stressful. Not knowing meant staying away until satisfying answers could be found. We all want answers and are uncomfortable in the absence of them. It makes natural sense that competition for a new religiosity will emerge in the twilight years of industrial civilization. Old answers not being found to be satisfactory must inspire the search for something new. The vacuum must be filled.

I think this might even explain the current state of apathetic fog that holds most people in the grips of a current zeitgeist of paralyzing torpor. The general public stays away from the watering hole not sure of what is really going on. Perhaps a similar phenomena might explain the phony war between September 1939 to April 1940 when very little of military importance happened between Britain and Germany even though war had already been declared. Perhaps we are experiencing a phony war now in our understanding of climate change. Industrial societies are faced with undeniable evidence of climate change but little action is currently being taken. Climate change does not seem to be high on the agenda of most people. Nobody knows what to do and seems not wanting to grab a particular point of view for fear that the truth science be too unpleasant.

The symbols we choose with which to abstract reality are not always the ones which fit best. Often the symbols we choose are the ones which produce the most comfort. Add social considerations and the social behavior of crowds and groups and things can move pretty far away from any semblance of reality. Privately when we are alone or with a small group of like minds we can be rational but take away comfort and add a social blather of conflicting extremist views and things can get quite bizarre. We struggle to pick sides and social considerations become the guide.

Part of the answer to keep from going mad is to cultivate a tolerance of conflicting points of view in others and more importantly in ourselves. Treading water in a sea of nihilism but keeping our heads above water. To some religion provides a rock below the surface on which to stand and thus keep the head dry. In the absence of a rock one must learn to tread water very well. Being comfortable with being able to constantly look for answers and knowing that comfortable answers one already has may have to be discarded may be the best way to get to the water hole and come back alive and with a meal.

Joel Caris said...

Boy oh boy, this series of posts is really starting to come together beautifully for me. As with last week's post, this one really sparked for me. Got me thinking.

Reading it, I couldn't help but wonder if the local food movement holds some of the energy of the Second Religiosity. I sometimes feel this in myself. Local food and farming is extremely important to me, has changed my life, and has spiritual elements in the way it helps me connect to the earth and the various ecosystems around me. But I also see other people connecting with food in ways that strike me as spiritual, perhaps religious.

Far and away, the most popular blog post I ever wrote was about raw milk. Looking back at it, I dare say it's a declaration of faith as much as anything. The post isn't really about milk--it's about community, about care, about connection and wisdom, knowledge, familiarity. And others have responded strongly to the narrative.

For those who are familiar with the raw milk movement, it has a strongly religious flavor. Some of this is very literal, in that you'll find many of the people who search out raw milk have strong Christian beliefs and do so partly out of these beliefs. I can't say I fully understand the connection as I simply don't have much of an understanding of Christianity or familiarity with its texts, but it seems to get back to an ideal of purity and tradition. But even aside from those who are literally religious, there are many others who seek out and support raw milk with something of a religious fervor. They believe it's better. They believe it's healthier. And it's rooted in something far more than a desire to drink good milk--which, really, is not that big of a deal if you look at it in isolation. It seems to be rooted in a rejection of a good deal of modern society and a faith in and embrace of something more traditional, more pure . . . something that makes more sense. And I use that term very deliberately.

I'm just starting to mull this idea, so I don't know that I can yet fully defend my theory here (if it even proves defensible.) But the way in which supporters of raw milk talk about and defend it seems rooted in figuration. The descriptors are often rooted in sense sensations. Direct connection to animals, nature, and other humans also regularly factors in.

I see this most clearly with raw milk, but it permeates the entire local food movement, in my experience. Local, whole foods are figuration--coherent and unadulterated products of the earth. Processed, industrial food is an abstraction, a terrifying mishmash of reductionist ingredients that come together to create a human-made artifact. This is the language and thought process of the local food movement.

I'm not sure here. I may just be trying to shoehorn something I think about a lot into the frame work of thinking you've outlined here. But I really do feel like the local food movement is at least partly a response to abstraction and a movement back toward figuration. And it does have a religious feel to me in many ways. If I'm at all correct, this could be one explanation for why it's been so successful in recent times, as it would be swimming with the historical currents rather than fighting them, or being lost in a side eddy.

John Michael Greer said...

Beaver, nah, that's exactly the point -- or one of the points -- of this post. Glad to hear you found your way back to sanity.

KL, sure, we ought to sink billions of dollars into a technology that has never been economically viable without gargantuan government subsidies, build up tons of waste that will remain lethal for a quarter million years with no thought about what to do with it, so that we can keep on living a set of wretchedly one-dimensional lifestyles that make us so miserable that drugs to treat anxiety and depression are among the most commonly prescribed medicines in America today. What a brilliant idea!

Justin, I'll certainly look at your list and see if it has anything that's not in mine! Your comments on Homer are of course quite correct -- and the same thing can be said of the Bible, or whatever other collection of narratives happens to be central to a figurative culture. As for nihilism, though, there I disagree; I don't see how you're getting a value judgment out of a recognition of a recurring historical reality. The concept is Vico's, by the way, not Spengler's.

K-dog, good! I'll be discussing several of your points in upcoming posts.

John Michael Greer said...

Joel, that's a fascinating question, and one I'll have to research. It's not uncommon for new religious sensibilities to take surprising forms and spin off various patterns of behavior not obviously linked to religion at all, so it's by no means impossible.

Ursachi Alexandru said...

I have friends, young people like me, that continue to believe in the superiority of rationalism and so on. I have talked to them about many subjects discussed here on this blog, and I've been mostly dismissed as a negativist. That's one of the core reasons why I stopped associating myself with any "rationalist movement", besides that: a) they fail to attract but a minor audience and b) I'm not personally involved in any scientific field, and that's the selectivity of appliyng "rationalism" to anything but the subjcts that don't fit a certain agenda.

john john said...

I have thought for some time now that the unseen blowback from globalization is our cultue's exposure to animist tribal societies that have survived into the 21st century. The younger generation's affair with tattooing being a shallow reflection of this. I would like to think that stories in the vein of Daniel Quinn's Ishmael trilogy might inspire the next religious sensibility. My personal grounding in this way of thinking and being in the world comes from my involvement in the bioregional movement, inspired by the work of Peter Burg (Planet Drum Foundation) and David Haenke (Ozark Area Community Congress).
Which led to my developing practice of Deep Wilderness Connection in the lineage of Stalking Wolf, Tom Brown and Jon Young.

Loving this adventure of the mind, thanks JMG.

Mansoor H. Khan said...

I often tell my friends that "faith" will become a survival advantage in the coming collapse.

I am a practicing muslim and perhaps the biggest contradiction my 21st century mind must overcome (with respect to Islamic teachings) is the quranic/biblical story of the creation vs. evolution. I now think of this contradiction as a divine "test" for believers.

It is clear that quran directs believing men (and women) to reflect on the order in nature and come to know the creator but it also is clear that man cannot think through everything and that this life is a test. Thus, revealed knowledge is given a higher status than human experience.

Mansoor H. Khan

Odin's Raven said...

Here's an article about what some of your predecessors as "organic, biological, animal beings with a remarkable but not unlimited capacity for representing the universe around us in symbolic form and doing interesting things with the resulting symbols" got up to in your general area of America.

How Native Americans Mapped Their Religion

Perhaps your successors may do something similar, maybe even under a new sensibility adding Green to their palette!

Yupped said...

I've attempted to become a believer in a few different religions in my time (including Progress), and in each case I went through something like the thought progression you've been discussing. Not exactly the same, but close enough to make a point: understanding the religion's main beliefs (figuration perhaps), getting the bigger picture of how it all fits together (abstraction maybe) and then a period of reflection, the main conclusion of which was that didn't really believe in the central tenets of these religions.

But I didn't completely descend into a "nothing matters" phase. I kept what worked - mostly simple values and practices, things that don't take a lot of mental wrangling to work with: sitting quietly, being in nature, attempting to treat myself and others more kindly, practicing acceptance of life's ups and downs, enjoying physical life in the moment, gratitude.

These are values, I suppose, and do take conscious commitment to practice. But they are very simple as well, and don't require a lot of theory. For example, you either decide you want to be happily engaged in daily life or not. You don't need a religious theory to support you in your choice. And then you have to follow-through and make it a habit.

So, I guess what I am saying is what has stayed with me after a few religions blew through town were the simple things that were less dependent on structured thought. Maybe simplicity will characterize the religions of the future, at least until the theologians show up to layer on the complexity?

ChemEng said...

Last night — probably about the time that you were publishing this post — I was participating in a Bible class. The topic was the Book of Exodus. In addition to the biblical text itself we had been provided with a text book that explained the context and historical background of the books of the Hebrew bible.

I was probably not the first person to find that Exodus is a real page-turner; it’s all there: baby Moses in the bulrushes, Pharaoh’s daughter, the burning bush, making bricks without straw, plagues (rivers of blood, frogs, boils, slaughter of firstborn sons, and so on). I became so engrossed that I inadvertently covered the material for the next two weeks also. As for the explanatory text? I forgot that I even had it.

With regard to the two elements of your “second religiosity” I would add a third: the ability to explain and define the world with powerful stories and drama.

Steve Murgaski said...

Thanks. That was stimulating.

Scientists: They seem much less obsessed with a search for "laws" than they were a hundred years ago. Probabilities get used to describe the behavior of things at the quantum scale. The people studying climate change are definitely aware that they have no hard and fast rules to go by. Einstein said he studied physics because he wanted to know the mind of God, but I think there's a growing acceptance that if there is a theory which explains and predicts everything perfectly then it's probably beyond us.

Acupuncture: I hold pharmaceutical companies responsible for a lot of what gets studied, and doesn't get studied, in medicine. There's a culture, but there are also vested interests that work to maintain the culture.

Evolution: thinking of it as a process that "works out bugs" is too teleological for my tastes. Conditions change constantly; there's no bug-free 'final product' that we're ascending towards.

γαῖα-ναύτης said...

Thanks for a wonderful series of posts, I find myself rowing in the thinking of thinking waters striving to reach the shore of belief, could you please briefly clarify if this individualism seeded by Ayn Rand among others is a form of a moral dissolution though reflection that would end ultimately in nihilism. Thanks.

James said...

Technological consumerism will be replaced by religious consumerism. Pick and choose, the release of dopamine and serotonin is just a matter of thinking the “right” thing. The sweet treacle of fantasy guards against the subversive, scientific approach to reasoning, where a feeling of “life force” is superior to an intellectual understanding of the full gamut of scientific inquiry. How can anyone that has not studied deeply and widely form any judgment as to what is real or unreal? To find real, those of religious bent must first go upstairs and exercise the newly expanded cerebral cortex. Unfortunately many are quite comfortable with preformed, predigested narratives that “make sense” of reality in a manner most suited to the part of the brain responsible for giving neurological candy.

Zach said...

John Michael,

Fantastic stuff again. This is all fodder for a new book, I hope?

Partly inspired by this discussion, I recently finished listening through the audio lecture series The Platonic Tradition: Understanding Plato's Impact Through the Ages by Dr. Peter Kreeft. With that in mind, I'm going to take a stab at translating a few points into "Platonic."

It seems to be an inevitable habit of rationalists, though, to lose track of this crucial point, and convince themselves that their abstractions are more real than the raw sensory data on which they’re based—that the abstractions are the truth, in fact, behind the world of appearances we experience around us. It’s wholly reasonable to suppose that there is a reality behind the world of appearances, to be sure,but the problem comes in with the assumption that a favored set of abstract concepts is that reality, rather than merely a second- or thirdhand reflection of it in the less than flawless mirror of the human mind.

So, the error is not in perceiving that there is Form, but to confuse the image of the Form (the mind's participation in the Form) with the Form itself?

The error then, that the nihilist makes is to perceive the rationalist's error and conclude that therefore, there is no Form, but all is merely sense perception and appetite.

It so happens, for example, that there’s one consistently effective way to short-circuit the plunge into nihilism and the psychological and social chaos that results from it... the raw figurative narratives of religion.

Nihilism becomes self-canceling, after all, once reflection goes far enough to show that a belief in nihilism is just as arbitrary and unprovable as any other belief; that being the case, the figurations of a religious tradition are no more absurd than anything else, and provide a more reliable and proven basis for commitment and action than any other option.


My takeaway: therefore, don't bother trying to refute nihilism - it's self-refuting anyway. Simply note that fact, and in response - tell stories. Tell your story. Tell The Story, the sacred story that shapes the world and takes its shape from beyond the world (back to the Forms and the Good here).

And then... let those who have ears to hear, hear.


Avery said...

What a fantastic post. This is really my life philosophy summed up right here -- although I would have put it a little differently: the most important thing about "reflective" thinking is that you recognize where the symbols you have inherited, or tried to invent, fall short of paving the way to goodness. Joining a community (religious or otherwise) that helps teach you the right path comes afterwards.

On the subject of paganism in hard times, if I may be permitted to plug my similar interests, I just finished editing a book on the subject of Japanese images of the Golden Age. It's only in the past 10 years that Japan scholars have started to realize that the standard historiography of Kokugaku and syncretism doesn't tell the full story. For those curious about the staying power of Shinto in Japanese society, now is an exciting time to start learning.

Goldmund said...

Like Joel, I have also observed how the organic, local food movement has attracted people on all sides of the political spectrum, from the left-leaning radicals who restarted the various cooperatives in the 1970s (cooperatives that were first established by the labor movement in the early 20th century) to traditional conservative Christians like the Amish and Mennonite communities today (my brother, a born-again, conservative Christian who votes Republican, is very enthusiastic about food coops, CSAs and local, organic farms.) There seems to be a growing backlash against the industrial system which is poisoning our food and water and uprooting communities, and people who are disturbed by this are coming together under the banner of local, organic, "slow" food. I see both a practical and religious dimension to this.

onething said...

In the case where literacy is indeed confined to a small subset, won't those in the subset begin to engage in reflection? And will that leak into their culture at large? I'm thinking about the ancient Hebrews, whose early scriptures were probably originally oral and then written by the scribes and priests.
Regarding theories of the cosmos not appearing until the stage of reflection, wouldn't you say that Genesis is a theory of the cosmos? Or perhaps just a primitive proto theory?
I'm having some difficulty here because I have examined the Old Testament in terms of morality and found it wanting. What the ancients may or may not have thought of it I don't know, but it has been accepted these many centuries as exactly that, and in my opinion this has been a kind of disaster for western civilization. Am I being silly? Does it not matter? Am I wrong to think I have a handle on the difference between good and evil and that it's important? Am I wrong to be dismayed when I see evil taught as good because of ancient scriptures?

As to the second religiosity, it seems to me just as unlikely for it to be one main religion in the US as it is for us to remain one united country. Naturally, it is more likely in the west for a new age type sensibility to emerge, whereas where I live, the people are very strongly Christian. I sure would like to help them with a profound reformation, but to my dismay I have discovered that a couple of the most repugnant (to my understanding of the nature of good) bits of theology (the narrative) are held quite dear by people. It's easier to dislodge something about which they might already be feeling some discomfort.

I'm particularly interested in how the coming inconveniences might rock the Christian faith because I'd like to help it go in a new direction.

onething said...


For me, at least, you are reading too much into it. My interest in things like raw milk have to do with abstractions! Like nutrition. I care a lot about the treatment of animals as well, and I'm content that it is all of a piece - when we mistreat or misfeed animals it comes home to roost in our own poorer health.

In my opinion the Christians are of a breed who recognize that they should be able to live without intense interference and their religion gives them a belief system that helps them resist and compare to the legalistic and monopolistic form of capitalism we currently have. I don't think it is about ideals of purity and tradition.

Where I live, though, the farmer's market seems to be a hub around which much positive community interaction is happening, and increasingly so. In fact, we are going year round, due to the 7th Day Adventists, who live in an old school house, continuing to have people come over on market day through the winter, and it finally turning into a formal continuation of the farmer's market. Everyone is constantly helping one another. The 7th Day husband mentioned to me that he is going to have to buy some firewood for the woodstove in the room where we meet, and I said that isn't fair, you do enough already, let me call some people who heat with wood (one of which is me) and we'll bring you firewood. 7th Day guy has tremendously helped the other main vendor understand how to improve his soil and use high tunnels to extend the growing season. There are a lot of nonmonetary trades going on, which is how I'm getting started with some chicks. Most of the vendors value their love and friendship higher than competition for money.

William Church said...

Brother John, my compliments on another thought provoking essay. Nicely done.

One thing that kept creeping into my mind as I read it is this: I do not know whether the authors of our prominent religious texts meant them as reliable works of history/geology/etc (as you note) but the elites of these religions have certainly used them as such. How long? I do not know. I'm not a historian myself.

But would you agree that science systematically stripped religion of its ability to do so? This is a major change it seems to me. Has there been a time when you could actually point to what previously had been thought the work of providence and say "No, this is a natural process!" And then be able to explain this process and provide proof (of some level of certainty) as to the accuracy of your claim?

Granted, such circumstances would eventually give way if your assumptions of our future pan out. Even anything resembling it would eventually render science a legend of the past in many disciplines and subjects. But that would take quite a while.

For the time being it seems to me that any religion or religious sensibility that could hope to inspire a new generation would have to have a good working relationship with science. That leaves a lot of space to operate in. As a scientist like me who lives in that space has ample experience with. But it would also seem to place real limits on how a religion could interact with the world.


John Michael Greer said...

Ursachi, it's a popular subculture, and extremely dogmatic. I don't associate with the rationalists either, though in my case I have an even better excuse. ;-)

John John, that's an interesting point. I'm by no means a fan of Quinn's fiction, but if it helps people think their way out of the current blind alley, all the better.

Mansoor, maybe so, and of course a lot of people are already making that choice, sacrificing their intellects on the altar of whatever religion appeals to them. I'm by no means sure it's a good idea, but it's a popular one.

Raven, the guy quoted is only, what? Forty years or so behind the times? Vine Deloria Jr. covered all of that in God is Red, which was published in 1973.

Yupped, religions simplify as societies do, so you're probably right: a lot of abstraction will go whistling down the wind as faiths return to simple, emotionally compelling figurations.

ChemEng, granted -- I thought I'd more or less covered that by talking about narrative as the core of figurative consciousness, but you're probably right that it should be made explicit.

Steve, by all means find a metaphor you like better, then. Since no computer program is ever bug-free -- it just reaches a point where further changes would be too expensive and the remaining bugs can be worked around -- I figured that the metaphor I used made a decent comparison to the way that evolutionary lineages adapt over time.

Gaianaut, curiously enough, we're going to talk about Ayn Rand in a bit, and the really very odd way that one of the most violent anti-Christians of the 20th century has become a cult figure among today's supposedly Christian Right. Stay tuned!

James, did you read the bit in my post where I talked about the way that some people try to flatten out the complexities of human thought into some kind of simplistic determinism? Your comment is a great example of what I was talking about.

Zach, of course -- the working title is After Progress: Religion and Reason in the Twilight of the Industrial Age. As for nihilism, exactly -- you can't refute it on its own ground; what you can do is go onto the proper ground of figuration, which is narrative, and start telling stories.

Avery, fascinating! I've had some exposure to Japanese occultism, but not in this kind of detail; good to see it getting into print in a language I can read.

John Michael Greer said...

Goldmund, I've noticed the same crossover effect with alternative medicine -- conservative Christians and hippie longhairs are finding common ground there as well. Give it a few decades, and it'll be interesting to see what fusions emerge from it.

Onething, societies in which literacy is confined to a minority of priests don't produce what I've called ages of reason -- the kind of period we witnessed in the West from the 18th century onward, classical civilization from the 5th century BCE onward, and so on, in which traditional religious narratives are first reinterpreted and then rejected, and the barbarism of reflection follows as soon as enough civil religions have risen and imploded. That doesn't mean that individuals don't engage in reflection -- as I commented earlier, it's a universal human capacity; it means that the social consequences of runaway reflection don't play a historical role.

As for redefining Christianity, well, you may have an interesting time there. Christianity, like all religions, is in a constant state of subtle redefinition; the people who like to sing "Give Me That Old Time Religion" are by and large practicing a faith that nobody would have recognized as Christianity a mere five centuries ago, and let's not even talk about the gap that separates it from whatever the first generations of Christians in the Roman world were and weren't doing. That said, coming in from outside and trying to get a religion to change to fit your preferences is not usually a productive approach!

Bro. Will, actually, that happens in one way or another whenever a literate society gets far enough into abstraction to challenge the traditional figurations of its faith. Ancient Greek rationalist authors savaged the traditions of ancient Greek religion in the fields that interested them -- mostly ethics, rather than science, but the effect was much the same. The Second Religiosity that emerged after the Greek age of reason thus had a good working relationship with philosophy, by and large. Thus you're probably right that the Second Religiosity of our society will focus on faiths that don't claim that their sacred texts reveal the truth about geology, paleontology, or what have you -- but since it's completely unnecessary to interpret sacred texts in that way, this shouldn't be too big of a problem.

John Michael Greer said...

Myriad (offlist), I can't edit comments posted here, so have no way to detach your offlist note from your intended comment. Please repost the comment the way you want it to appear here, and I'll put it through pronto. Many thanks!

Lucretia Heart said...

FESTIVAL SEEDS-- Part 1 of 2:

I'm not sure what form the next spiritual 'direction with momentum' society is going to take, but I think we can see hints of it already all over the place-- especially in the "tribal revival" or "transformational" festivals. Its becoming its own subculture or counterculture, despite the seeming chaos of it, and its growing very quickly, becoming a phenomenon unto itself over the last 20 years or so...

In a nutshell, these festivals are a mixture of the big pagan outdoor festivals, massive visionary art displays, bonfire rites, renn faires, and rave dance parties. Although not all have bonfires (not smart during fire season in a forest!) and not all have electronica music (Faerieworlds, for example, specializes in Celtic inspired music, much of it acoustic) there are similarities and commonalities to these gatherings.

Creative expression, imagination, free "play" like most adults haven't done since childhood is one big part of it. Lots of costumes, masks, dressing up (or taking it all off!) make-up, and body art is found in all festivals. Art is ubiquitous-- every festival without exception is a feast for the eyes, both day and night. Music and dance is the energy thrumming through the crowds, especially at night. Finally, an absolute veneration for nature, and for the sacred feminine and the Earth underlies everything-- though expressed very individualistically. The people drawn to these festivals are very diverse, yet there are common threads between them.

More here in a TEDX talk in Vancouver, B.C.--

And another article written about this topic with lots and lots of links to investigate more--

The music can be many kinds, much of it worldbeat or trance dance-- as often in other languages as English, even in the U.S. More and more, we're seeing acts like these:

Omnia (from Britain) - who look like a mix of hippie/goth/tribal and play all traditional instruments, including a hurdy-gurdy, and their protest song regarding the modern world:

An early favorite was Faun (from Germany) -- this song is in German, but its about the foolishness of a man's failed attempts at the healing arts, which are the province of women:

Or Kila (from Ireland) who are phenomenal at germinating ecstatic music - (hit play on video):

Forgive me for all the links. I find it almost impossible to explain the broad and complex concept of these festivals without a lot of help! I've been attending events of this kind for the last 15 years or so myself. The festivals are gaining such popularity that they're outgrowing their venues at a brisk clip and being forced to pour out into many versions of the original (think Burning Man as the largest and most obvious example of this.)

Lucretia Heart said...

FESTIVAL SEEDS-- Part 2 of 2:

There's an energy to some of the music that touches something deeper and pulls your spirit to the surface. I'm in my 40s, and these days its difficult to be MOVED anymore to a place of release, whether of grief or joy. Yet these gatherings pull me out of my walled defenses and help me live. If I sound like a convert-? Well, guilty as charged! I love the festivals, I admit it.

Although the big light shows and electronic music require a lot of energy, obviously, acoustic music, even archaic forms of it, are being revived and are becoming ever more popular. (I never even SAW a hurdy-gurdy until well into my 30s, and now they're popping up everywhere!) Buskers and individual musicians roam around the festivals and faires and it wouldn't be impossible to carry on even without all the electricity.

Another odd thing about these festivals is how nearly everyone who attends them also holds massive agreement that the biosphere is in deep trouble, and there is great grief and anger about this-- yet the act of holding the festival is almost in defiance of the idea of giving up. Few know what to do exactly instead, but most want to create and to experience the creations of others on the human side of things, as well as celebrate life and the beauty and bounty of our world. Veneration and gratitude are the dominant emotions, even in the face of all the world's issues.

Once you try going to a festival, its difficult to imagine facing mundane, cowan, muggle, norm [insert your own phrase here] life again without knowing you have the breaks these festivals offer. Its a communal spiritual experience that's FUN, and nurtures in a way that you just can't find out in the world otherwise these days. I can't help thinking there's a deep NEED these festivals are providing that somehow ties in to the changes we're facing and the dearths that are built in to our modern lives as they stand now. My suspicion is that the seeds of the future spirituality you suggest may possibly be found in here somewhere... or that it will germinate into something at a later date once its had time to take root and sprout for the sunshine.

I'm eager to compare what you believe may begin to manifest with what I suspect may well already be emerging an a very primitive and embryonic level. There seems to be something more to the festivals than a countercultural "fad" that will soon fade. Only time will tell of course, but my intuition says the undercurrents are stirring...

ganv said...

Beautifully tied together. After starting with Nietsche quite a while back, you are able to tie back in the essential role of nonrational rejection of nihlism in building any human community after a collapse.

I have walked the road of accepting a religious tradition because a choice had to be made about how to live even when a rational foundation for that choice was not available. Your insight is true. But embracing a religious tradition because you choose it without evidence is different than believing in a religion as the authoritative source of truth. In the era where we understand a lot about how bio-physio-chemical processes limit the capabilities of the human mind, it is not really possible to go back to many religious conceptions of who humans are. In my opinion, it will be a religion that fully embraces scientific rationalism and understands its limits that will follow after the religion of progress. In our age, the word religion often conveys faith in supernatural causal effects in the physical world (faith healing, prophetic foreknowledge, divine physical blessing or punishment for certain actions) even though measurements consistently can't find any evidence for these things. I suspect that kind of religion will not be effective in guiding people past nihlism and societal collapse. Of course many will try to latch back onto the traditional religions in tough times, but it seems hard to imagine how a religion with doctrines that conflict with clear measurements is going to come out dominant.

oneotaBill said...

Hi, John Michael
The post triggered some reflection in me, though without coming close to nihilism or other disintegration. In particular, as a retired physicist and active organic farmer (grazier, more precisely), it reminded me of the dubious directions of modern "elementary particle" or "fundamental" physics.

I suspect most physicists do have an absolute belief in the existence of physical laws, which, in my opinion, are just useful abstractions-idealizations-from experience--thus requiring endless search to refine them to eliminate failures. Didn't someone say last week, "Abstractions are always leaky?"

In particular, string theory and multiverse theory seem to me to be rationality gone berserk, led on by belief in the absolute truth, or potential absolute truth, of mathematical descriptions of nature in spite of what mathematicians know as limits to mathematics. "The priests of a rather unpopular religion (physicists)," which, truly, I say without animus.

Ironically, recognizing the lasting effects of intense immersion in a culture, such as occurs to many of us in graduate school, I once joked, somewhat meanly, that a mathematical education does irreversible brain damage by teaching the participant to look only at the soundness of his or her reasoning, not the truth of his (her) axioms.

Physicists, similarly, rarely, in my experience (I am trying to avoid excessive generalization), doubt the existence of physical laws, if only they could get the equations right. Built into the culture. Of course, what would you do if you didn't believe that? Not physics, presumably.

Like an earlier writer this week, I find raising animals and grass and watching not only our cattle, but the deer and hawks and eagles and turkey vultures and geese and so on and appreciating their relationships with each other and us is one of the more spiritual contexts of my 69 years of life.

John Michael Greer said...

Lucretia, fascinating. I've attended a couple of festivals of that sort, as attendee and speaker, and didn't have anything like the same reaction you did -- if anything, they made me think of Marie Antoinette and her courtiers playing at being shepherds and shepherdesses while France stumbled toward revolution around them. Still, I'm entirely willing to be wrong; it may be that since I have Asperger's syndrome, I'm not neurologically equipped to tap into what's going on at these events.

Ganv, I suspect you're right, if only because the same thing has happened in the Second Religiosity of previous civilizations. As I mentioned to William Church above, the criticisms leveled at ancient Greek religion by Greek philosophers focused on the ethical dimension -- that was the focus of much of the Greek age of reason, after all -- and so it was probably inevitable that the new religion that rose to prominence in the classical Second Religiosity was one that adopted most of the ethical vision of the classical moralists. In the same way, it's by no means difficult for a religion to embrace the scientific view of the material universe, while pointing out that the scientific method isn't qualified to assess claims about aspects of human experience that don't relate to quantifiable measurements of matter.

Bill, I'm glad to hear that string theory seems as nonsensical to a trained specialist in the field as it does to me! Once physicists get to the point that theories do not produce experimentally testable hypotheses, as far as I can tell, they've passed outside the boundaries of science and are engaged in amateur theology.

Moshe Braner said...

JMG: I've waited for this week's posting to continue the discussion of science and reality. Now you wrote:

"rationalism [...] leads people to believe that abstract concepts are more real than the figurations and raw sensations on which they’re based, and that belief doesn’t happen to be true."

- The quoted statement, like the one I questioned last week, skips over the third rail: the Real World. One can believe that neither the abstractions nor the figurations are the Real World, both are some impression of it, a way to make sense of it. What's special about the scientific approach (unlike some other systems of abstraction) is that it attempts to answer questions about the behavior of the real world in ways that can be tested experimentally. IMO the biggest discovery in science is the apparent fact the the Real World behaves in predictable ways.

"Abstract concepts [...] aren’t the objective realities they seek to explain. The laws of nature so eagerly pursued by scientists, for example, are generalizations that explain how certain quantifiable measurements are likely to change when something happens in a certain context, and that’s all they are."

- I don't think most scientists would disagree on that, except that in practice this kind of predictability has proven enormously useful, thus saying "that's all" seems inappropriate. As you later said: "Treated purely as a heuristic, a mental tool that fosters exploration, the concept of natural law has proven to be very valuable."

But you also said:

"It’s wholly reasonable to suppose that there is a reality behind the world of appearances, to be sure, but the problem comes in with the assumption that a favored set of abstract concepts is that reality, rather than merely a second- or thirdhand reflection of it in the less than flawless mirror of the human mind."

- Again I don't think most scientists would disagree. For one thing, they have seen old "laws of Nature" revised, and expect more of that to happen in the future.

"The difficulty creeps in when natural laws are treated [...] as the realities of which the world of experience is a confused and imprecise reflection."

- It's not the "laws" that are treated as reality, it's that any proposed new laws are subjected to experimental verification that attempts to reduce confusion and imprecision.

"It’s this latter sort of thinking that drives the insistence, very common in some branches of science, that a repeatedly observed and documented phenomenon can’t possibly have taken place, because the existing body of theory provides no known mechanism capable of causing it."

- Although individual scientists may poo-pooh certain phenomenal claims, it is not fair to claim that the scientific approach as a whole does that. E.g., in the 19th century the observation of what we now call radioactivity did not fit into any then-existing theories, but with enough repeatable evidence it was looked at and eventually got incorporated into the scientific model of the Real World. Some other reported phenomena have not, but that's because they do not have experimentally verifiable consequences. E.g., scientists can accept that many people have religious experiences, it is "true" that they have the experiences, but that does not prove that, e.g., god(s) exist. Only that our brains are wired in such a way that make hallucinations about gods likely. Scientists can accept that people who are close to death but recover tend to tell stories of seeing a great light or whatever, but that has no bearing on the existence of an afterlife. And so on.

To be sure, SOME scientific theorizing goes too far from reality into abstract mental constructs. I'm currently reading "the trouble with physics" and it's rather disturbing.

John Kaay said...

Hi John,
Found a typo : limits of any lind,
Wonder if we had evolved with 3 or 4 hands, would we be so susceptible to binary thinking?
I love your essays. Always something to think about, even (especially) when I disagree.
John Michael Kaay

Greg Belvedere said...

In regards to nature possibly having something closer to habits as opposed to laws and scientists dismissing repeatedly observed phenomenon, I'm curious if you are familiar with the work of evolutionary biologist Rupert Sheldrake. His most recent book explores what he sees as dogmas in the scientific community that are holding back further exploration. He makes many points about the nature of scientific research that resemble ones you have made here, so I think you might at the very least find it worth checking out of the library.

Though I feel confident you will disagree with him on one point regarding the possibility of new forms of energy. Still, his approach to this seems practical: having a prize for a working above unity device. If someone creates one, great. If not, it would let most of us move on and put that idea on the shelf (where I think it probably belongs).

I have read some of his books where he discusses his research into telepathy. I find his telephone telepathy experiments particularly convincing. I have not read A New Science of Life, but I know the theory of morphic resonance that he outlines there draws at least partially on the idea that nature might have something closer to habits than laws.

A TEDx talk he gave recently sparked some controversy when some extreme materialists tried to have his talk removed from the site.

Also, I really enjoy this series. The timing for me personally is great. I just became a father and I'm glad I now have the word/concept figuration in my vocabulary.

Phil Harris said...

You wrote: "if anything, they made me think of Marie Antoinette and her courtiers playing at being shepherds and shepherdesses while France stumbled toward revolution around them."
Wasn't that called at the time "nostalgie de la boue"?

Still, like you say, you and I could be wrong.


onething said...


I am not sure I would agree that I would be coming in from outside. After all, I was raised in it and spent much of my life there. I evolved into what I am through it, because of it. And because of that evolution, I am no longer an acceptable member, but I could consider myself a follower of the teachings of Jesus, the greatest of which is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. At this time I belong to a church of one; I am the theologian and the congregation.

I'm not sure why you don't care for the Daniel Quinn books, but one thing they are very useful for is reverence and respect for nature, understanding out true place in it, and the idea of limits - that no species has the right to use unfair tactics to wipe out other species for their own convenience.

Mark Rice said...

This discussion of modes of thought such as abstraction reminded me of lectures by the Catholic Mystic Anthony de Mello. He talked about how concepts chop up reality. De Mello saw spirituality as means to get beyond words and concepts.

De Mello was censured by Ratzinger back when Ratzinger was "God's Rottweiler" for the Catholic Church. This raises a question. Is the spritual practace of getting beyond words and concepts a sort of reflection? You wrote about the need for reflection to be "limited by some set of firmly accepeted beliefs". The question:

"Does God need a rottweiler?

I can see how someone can have a fear of beliefs that diverge away from some sort of established orthodoxy. The Authoritarian cure may be worse than the disease though.

Liquid Paradigm said...

Without any sort of (at least official) diagnosis, I have the same take on those sorts of festivals as JMG. Well, chances are my own take is much more unkind, so I'll leave it at that. I could be wrong (but I don't think so). Plus, today's been very trying, so there are other filters at work; I may be nicer, if no less approving, in the morning. ;)

Just a correction to the interpretation of the Egil Saga: that is not the lesson of the myth. Egil Skallagrimsson, a warrior/poet and master of the runes, and a man, heals the young girl whose condition had been made much worse by the inexpert fumbling of the runes by a local village boy. It has naught to do with the gender roles of the time. Or so I have been advised by the Asatruar I know.

Cherokee Organics said...


Quote: "popular imagination flattens out the futures open to industrial society into a forced choice between progress and catastrophe".

I've been suspecting recently that one view reinforces the opposing view. For example, it is sort of implicit in both of those views that if you don't support industrial society then you may be pushing it towards catastrophe. Such thinking is weird because, failure without catastrophe is always an option (one example of a possible outcome)!

You quite rightly pointed out that people talking about catastrophe rarely stop saving towards retirement. As an interesting side note, I was quite taken aback about people’s viewpoints on their 401K balances a few months ago. They also still keep on forming relationships, loving, having kids etc. etc. - clearly all signs displaying thoughts and actions about the future.

Actually, I'm slightly wary now as I have had a few examples in the past year or two of backlash: "Well, we don't all have enough money to have the land to produce our own food." I certainly wasn't gloating at the time either. The weird thing is that I'm fairly certain that those people were probably much wealthier in paper assets than I am - by a big margin. Disturbing.

Quote: "It’s this latter sort of thinking that drives the insistence, very common in some branches of science, that a repeatedly observed and documented phenomenon can’t possibly have taken place"

Ahh, the moons have aligned. I had a prime example of this point in an Internet discussion which eventually degenerated into name calling (not by me). It is in the comments section of an article (at the bottom):

Discussion re Honey locust in the comments section

Somehow, I felt as though I was getting there in the discussion and then understanding and dialogue would just slip away. I use such discussions as a barometer and I reckon the weather doesn't look good! I'd be interested in any advice or criticism you or the other readers here have (my writing not the other parties, thanks people) in relation to that discussion as it is a good opportunity to learn?

It is telling that as science pursues the diminishing returns of research, the usage of models to simplify the real world increases.

Quote: "It takes only a modest amount of sustained reflection to demonstrate that it’s not actually possible to be sure of anything, and that way lies nihilism, the conviction that nothing means anything at all."

It isn't actually possible to be sure of anything, but I've always felt that you just have to do your best and live with uncertainty. Living here gets this point drummed home repeatedly. Everyone, and I mean literally everyone, says to me: "Aren't you worried about the bushfire risk?" It doesn't even matter if they have visited here or not. They fail to understand that most of the continent has a massive bushfire risk and more people die on the roads every single year, than in the last 100 years of bushfires. In 2003 a bushfire worked its way right into Canberra which is the capital city of the nation. How would that look in Washington DC? There's a great time lapse map on the Wikipedia page:

2003 Canberra bushfires

I can only reduce my risk through various actions, acknowledge the risk, have contingencies and most importantly have faith in those actions. Such things as bushfires are recurring events in the landscape.

However, one of the great benefits of living in this location is that as it is cut off from most of Industrial societies services and infrastructure, I can experience an appreciation and sense of wonder at the sheer complexity and fragility of the entire system. It is quite eye-opening.



Cherokee Organics said...


There is a lot of grist for the mill this week.

Quote: "As it becomes painfully clear that the beliefs of the civil religion central to a society’s age of reason no longer correspond to the world of everyday experience, the obvious next step is to reflect on what went wrong and why, and away you go."

That is an interesting point. One tool used in decisions for deciding on whether to put time and energy into infrastructure here is the post mortem. It is useful to reflect on what went wrong and why and how it could have been better. However, the utilitarian nature of existence here means that there are hard limits on time and energy spent on this activity. Basically, it can't be indulged in.

There is also an acceptance here in this process which we describe as unknown, unknowns, and isn't this where faith springs from?

Dunno. It is complex.

Breaking wombat news...

Last night, the smaller of the two wombats here was spotted with an even smaller baby wombat trailing around behind her. Very sweet.

It is kind of weird having Easter in autumn when everything is upside down! Hehe!



S P said...

In America most of us know, even if at a subconscious level, that this thing just isn't going to work out in the end.

The responses, as you said, come in two forms: the first is a reactionary patriotism and accompanying expression that America is the greatest country on the planet and the singular force for positive change. Although more common on the right and amongst conservative, rural, and white Americans, it pretty much includes everybody. People believed this very much in the 80s, 90s, and 00s, and only recent events have led to a questioning.

The second response is a sort of apocalyptic vision of collapse, accompanied by a sense of not knowing who is responsible, which then leads to theories of some sort of who is. This response naturally follows from the first...because surely giants don't just fall! Somebody, anybody, is responsible!

As you've said, both these responses are roadblocks to action.

However, if one assumes that we are headed downhill, then action surely must be limited to the individual and local. The trick is to find a few things that are under your control, and cultivate those and ignore all of the rest. This is not easy, because there is immense social and legal pressure to remain on board the ship and participate fully.

To give just one example: you can't even fill up gas without being bombarded with advertisements and pop music. In America, you are constantly reminded, at every turn, that you are part of a grand experiment which must work. There mere act of turning on the television, or going for a drive through town, the culture of America is in your face, almost to the point of being an assault.

For a country that supposedly values individualism, we sure don't know how to leave people alone.

John Michael Greer said...

Moshe, I note that you finessed the specific example I quoted -- the widespread dismissal of acupuncture purely on the grounds that current theory has no room for it. I'd encourage you to look into that before making the easy assumption that such things only involve a scientist here or there. More broadly, yes, we could go around and around indefinitely about the epistemological status of modern science; you keep on insisting that science has privileged access to this thing called "the real world," while I point out that nobody has direct access to anything but sensation and the figurative, abstractive, and reflective superstructures built atop it, and that the ding an sich that lies beyond that is something we can only infer, but can't access in any more direct fashion. Repeating over and over again "But what about the Real World(tm)?", as you've done, simply ignores the issues I've tried to raise -- which is utterly typical in discussions of this kind, and helps explain why they so rarely go anywhere useful.

John, heck of a good question. As for typos, yes, I do make them from time to time.

Greg, congratulations! Yes, I've read most of Sheldrake's work; it fascinates me that nobody in the broader scientific community will deal with the fact that he offers replicable experimental evidence for his hypotheses.

Phil, indeed it was.

Onething, well, then by all means. As for Daniel Quinn, I simply don't find his writing interesting or enjoyable to read; de gustibus non disputandum, etc.

Iuval Clejan said...

As a fan of abstraction and reflection, and a renegade physicist, I find it frustrating that many young people seem to be unable to engage in abstraction and reflection. Maybe a symptom of the decline. But at any stage of a civilization, most people, even if literate, do not engage in much abstraction or reflection. Perhaps only during the stages of decline do the intellectuals fall into nihilism and stop engaging in abstraction and reflection. It's funny when the masses who naturally are into figuration, end up reading books that promote nihilism, thus affirming their tendencies.

The concept of truth is one that can be subject to abstraction and reflection through category theory. It can be modeled as 3 mappings: one in the world to be modeled (which could be the "real" world), another in the higher level world and a third between them. Some maps are better than others, but what is better depends on the context. A simple example of this is geographical maps, some optimizing for angles, others for distances, others for connectivity (e.g. street maps). It is a mystery why some maps are so good, e.g. the Maxwell Equations. I happen to believe that at its core, the universe is about maps and mapping.

roland said...

@JMG and Moshe
is it possible that Moshe actually defends empiricism whereas JMG attacks rationalism?

Moshe Braner said...

Re: the widespread dismissal of acupuncture, there is a lot of skepticism (on my own part too, I'll admit), but there is also a lot of experimental evidence (which is independent of having a "scientific explanation" for it). And there are scientific groups seriously investigating it, including some with support from the NIH (USA National Institutes of Health). So it's not completely ignored by science.

I am not familiar with Sheldrake's claims and perhaps I should look into them, but many similar claims have been debunked, not on the basis of lack of theory to explain them, but by doing more careful (e.g., double blind) experiments.

Chris G said...

To me, upon my reading of your work up to this point, which is not exhaustive, but perhaps satisfactory to come to certain conclusions about the direction of action I should take (nevertheless, I *enjoy* the reading regardless; but I was seeking certain answers, which for now, I think I've found), it boils down to this:
1) the future will take hard work;
2) re-acquiring lost knowledge in the realm of non-industrial economy;
3) preserving useful scientific and technical knowledge.
4) Folks need to start making the stories of what they feel the new religion will be. You're laying it out there in abstract terms, but it won't really be abstract. It'll be another kind of mindscape.

The meta-religion you're taking on, or a prolegomena of a Second Religiosity, is a truly fascinating subject, for an abstract type, which readers here are. But, doing this, we can't do the other part, which is growing the new religiosity.

It is so complicated to predict because it will certainly change over time, as the masses become conscious of what's happening, react, then react to reactions, and react again to that...

Factors: it's going to be painful. Humanity will look absurd, not just like French existentialists absurd, but in-real-life absurd. It will whiplash back and forth many times in varieties of ways (socialist vs oligarchical, police state/martial vs democratic/festival, escapist vs nihilistic vs spiritual/religious, conflicts between new religions, conflicts between feudal-style corporate lordship organizations... these don't really have an historical parallel that I can think of, because history can never really be as volatile (with such wide swings) as it can in an age fired up on energetic drugs and steroids - and they will still be around and in use, even though declining.

I guess what I'm driving at is what do you hope to see coming out of the religious revival? What is driving the abstract mind in this analysis?

Enrique said...

@ BeaverPuppet:

I hope by “objectivism” you don’t mean the pseudo-conservative nonsense being peddled by Ayn Rand and her acolytes. To extend a metaphor from the discussion thread for last weeks post, if there is anyone who deserves the title “High Priestess of Mordor”, it would be Rand.

Stephen Heyer said...

John Michael Greer: “ Yes, I've read most of Sheldrake's work; it fascinates me that nobody in the broader scientific community will deal with the fact that he offers replicable experimental evidence for his hypotheses.”

Yes John & Greg, this totally blows me away. As a fanatical believer in the Scientific Method (goes with my Aspergers) it shatters me to realize that perhaps a majority of scientists, at the kindest, just don’t get it.

I mean, the skeptics (at least that is what they call themselves) have been whining for over a century that nowhere in the attempted studies of the whole ESP, Spiritual, Out of Body, NDF thing was even one Gold Standard Laboratory Test ever produced and duplicated. Therefore, of course, the whole thing has to be a hoax on a gullible population.

Oh! And any scientist, doctor or academic (except of course card carrying skeptics) who even looks at the evidence has to be hounded out of his job because, well, because.

Well, now we have several, perhaps the easiest to replicate is well documented in “The Sense Of Being Stared At: And Other Aspects of the Extended Mind” by Rupert Sheldrake.

It is also the one you would most expect evolution to come up with, if such a thing is possible. This is one factor that impresses even my most materialist friends

Incidentally, when I was young I could do two little tricks, both versions of “The Sense Of Being Stared At” and do them to at least Gold Standard Laboratory Test standards so people who can produce the goods at that level of reliability cannot be rare. These days I’m out of practice and can only do one reasonably reliably,

Stephen Heyer

Enrique said...

Speaking of recent discoveries about pre-historic humans, check out this story from Siberia, where genetic testing on the remains of a young boy who lived 24,000 years ago near Lake Baikal shows close genetic ties to both modern Europeans and Native Americans.

This reminds me of the Borean Hypothesis, which suggests that the major language families of Europe, India, East Asia and the Native Americans all came from a common, northern source. It also reminds me of certain Traditionalist scholars like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Julius Evola. Evola in particular believed that the Indo-European, East Asian and Native American peoples originally came from a lost civilization in the Arctic he called Hyperborea after the ancient Greek name for the far north. Spengler also speculated in some of his later writings that the Indo-European and East Asian peoples came from a common source in Central Asia. Maybe they were on to something after all.

LarasDad said...

Chris, re honey locust discussion.

fwiw, I believe this one sentence in your 1st comment, "That is a cheap rhetorical trick.", is what DeepGreenGreenie took umbrage over. And once someone has their back up, well that's why the discourse degenerated into fade-away.

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

I read an account of hand drilling a well (in old Australia) by turning a hand push bar to a drill. It took days or weeks. Does anyone know what this method of water well drilling was called?

Enrique said...

Speaking of the “Barbarism of Reflection”, check out the latest judicial atrocity and example of political correctness gone mad to come of the British legal system.

This is what happens when you put a bunch of ivory tower intellectuals and left-wing activists who are totally out of touch with reality in charge of a nation’s legal system. Oswald Spengler once held up the British legal system as an example of a superbly adapted legal system based on practical experience and wisdom. As this case (and many others) shows, that is clearly no longer the case. Things have declined quite a lot in Europe since Spengler’s time, especially on a moral, cultural and spiritual level.

At some point, I think we will see a return to a more traditional model of justice, with strict accountability and harsh punishments for those who break the rules and social mores, and a lot less tolerance for excuses and deviant behavior. We will also see the return of things like capital punishment, labor camps, flogging and heavy fines since in a post-peak world, no society will able to afford to lock large numbers of people up in prisons without having them contribute to their upkeep and the social costs of allowing repeat offenders to get out of prison to re-offend over and over will be too high to bear, especially in a world where most people will be living on the edge of survival.

There was a reason why crimes like theft and sexual misconduct were punished so harshly, frequently by death, back in the old days. Thievery could very well deprive someone of the resources they needed to survive, thereby condemning them to death. Sexual assault could ruin a girl’s chance of marriage if she was no longer a virgin, thereby condemning her to extreme hardship, even starvation. Imagine the fate of Saleh’s victims if they were girls in his native country. So why should we tolerate such misconduct here in the West because of someone’s lofty load of manure about “tolerance” and “diversity” and criminals being “victims of society” or a misguided sense of compassion for hardened criminals, sex perverts, welfare cheats and other anti-social deviants who choose to live their lives by preying on others?

I think the present system of criminal injustice (I will NOT call the present system a criminal “justice” system) will prove to be yet another artifact of the cheap energy meta-bubble. We did a lot of unwise, even stupid things, because we had a lot of resources to waste. This allowed a lot of really bad ideas, in the legal system, academia, popular culture and elsewhere, to become entrenched. As those resources are heedlessly squandered away, those ideas and institutions will be jettisoned because we can no longer afford them and their social consequences. Those societies that cannot adapt and continue to persist in the follies of the present will not survive.

This is one reason why I expect the EU to collapse under the weight of its own stupidity and folly and why I think a Muslim takeover of Europe within the next century is the most likely scenario. A society that embraces the values of the liberal-left is simply not fit to survive, and will destroy itself in fairly short order, especially once the resources that made the present social order possible diminish and go away. One cannot build a viable society based on the values of nihilism, relativism, hedonistic individualism and the utopian fantasies of post-modern liberalism. Since nature abhors a vacuum, as what is left of European civilization undermines and destroys itself, another culture will take its place. In the case of Europe, that probably means Islam, although another possibility might be a continuation of the Orthodox revival currently underway in the former Soviet Union followed by a new Reconquista coming out of Eastern Europe and Mother Russia.

Frank Chapeau said...

"If only he had joined a mainstream religion, like Oprahism or Voodoo." -Prof. Farnsworth

Shame we won't live long enough to verify these speculative musings. I don't comment much but I do find your work provocative and intellectually stimulating. I also admire your stamina and focus. Kudos.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi LarasDad,

Thanks for the feedback.

Yeah, that bit was poorly done on my part. Not a good way to begin a dialogue.



Judith said...

As it turned out science also is a religious faith. It seems to me that the post-modern technological culture discovering this has fragmented and like poor Humpty Dumpy cannot be pieced together again. Individuals seek and find "tools" if you wish that work for them, that make some sense in a pattern language, that at least generate an order of things-even like persons coming of age in abusing families find that at least there is a family and not mere brutal nature hostile and indifferent to their personal existence. However for our time, the transition from one myth of man to a new myth of man seems to be driven by ideology from above. This is like the German Princes choosing Luther or Henry VIII creating the Church of England. My concern is that in a welter of propaganda and lies from above the new faith becomes one even less well adapted for man than the old. Jung interestingly enough writing about the European psyche suggested that turning to the East would not work as the Western mind was not built off the symbols of the Eastern mind. In this post-Christian world of ours, with a radically denatured human being, I understand the rise of Neo-Panganism can be of great psychological help but as a culture embraced by hundreds of millions I cannot fathom it occurring. Instead I see the rise of Techno-idoloatry and the hope of a Singularity. Hoew this benefits human life I do not see.

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, when a religion has to be defended with that sort of authoritarian zeal, something has gone very wrong. For that matter, most religions across most of human history haven't worried particularly about what opinions people had about complex theological problems; that's purely an obsession of the last two or three millennia of prophetic faiths.

Liquid, okay, so I'm not alone.

Cherokee, exactly -- at the heart of the whole progress-apocalypse dialectic is the insistence that if we don't keep progressing (along exactly the same lines we're following at present), something awful will happen. People who recognize that the direction progress is going leads nowhere any sane human being would want to go, but can't step outside the belief system in any other way, start longing for catastrophe as the only alternative they can think of. Useful? No, but it's an easy trap to fall into. Glad to hear about the wombats! And delighted that this is the kind of blog where a phrase like "Breaking wombat news!" makes perfect sense... ;-)

S P, true indeed. That's another good reason to chuck your TV into the nearest available dumpster!

Iuval, Toynbee's theory about creative minorities is unpopular these days but no less valid for that. The number of people in any society who think original thoughts is fairly small; most people have other things to do, such as planting crops or what have you. It's the creative minority that passes through the stages I've outlined, and the rest of the population follows its lead -- insisting that they're being original thinkers, to be sure, when they're rehashing sound bites from the internet.

Moshe, you're changing the subject. Why is acupuncture rejected by many scientists? What is the reasoning behind that rejection? Pay attention to that and you'll find that in most cases, it's because current theory provides no mechanism for it -- which is the point I've tried to make, and you've tried to evade. As for Sheldrake, please read what you've just written and then look up the phrase "guilt by association." Here's my challenge for you: read a couple of his books, including one that contains some of his replicable experiments, and then do at least one of his experiments yourself. You don't have to tell anyone, so you won't get into any professional trouble for doing it; just do the experiment and see what results you get. I double dog dare you!

Chris, good. My reasons for talking about the Second Religiosity are, first, it's likely to be a major force in the intellectual and cultural setting in a future many younger readers of this blog will live to see, and second, it has at least the potential to become a vehicle for the preservation of science and cultural traditions into the future, and I'd like to get the current bearers of those traditions thinking about religion as a potential ally in harsh times. Also, of course, as the leader of a small and eccentric religious organization, it's a subject of interest to me, and I write about the things that I find interesting!

Stephen, bingo. In point of fact, it's precisely those effects that repeatedly pass experimental tests that come in for the most vicious denunciation and the most absolute rejection. Are you at all familiar with John McClenon's book Deviant Science? He takes the sociological theory of deviance, applies it to the way that most scientists demonize parapsychology, and shows that it makes an embarrassingly good deal of sense of the phenomena.

John Michael Greer said...

Enrique, yes, I saw that! A useful reminder that prehistory was a very busy time when a lot of things happened. As for Evola, though, he borrowed Hyperborea from the Theosophists, like every other occult author of his time; for a soi-disant Traditionalist, he incorporated a huge amount of early 20th century pop culture into his allegedly ancient wisdom -- and of course that was also standard practice, then and now.

By the way, I'm not sure if you're aware that my post-peak oil blog/novel, Star's Reach, takes place in a future in which the Arabs rule western and central Europe, while Russia, Norway, and a few other eastern and northern European nations remain independent. It seemed like a logical scenario.

Frank, that's always the problem about discussions of the future!

Judith, I'm sure we'll see any number of technocults, with the geek-Rapture fantasy of the Singularity baying at the head of the pack. Still, like other civil religions, they're vulnerable to sudden collapse through disproof. Attempts may also be made to manufacture religions for political ends, but this isn't a propitious stage of the historical cycle for such projects -- the late Roman cult of Sol Invictus didn't exactly edge out the competition, for example! My guess, rather, is that the new religious forms that will guide post-American society for the next couple of millennia already exist in the form of a minority religion or two, and will rise to prominence over the next century or so.

Clarence said...

'breaking wombat news' and a double dog dare in the same comments section!? reading the adr is always time well spent for me.;) about 'thinking about thinking', i've known for some time that the real world often does not make sense. that hasn't stopped me from planning and doing even if what i do will not affect the present or the future of anyone but me. seems i may be immune to nihilism.


Seb Ze Frog said...

Moshe et al:

I so happen to have my own "restricted section" in my personal library... I know the feeling of wanting to read about something without anyone knowing. Sometimes even buying the stuff on the internet feels shamefull.

After bumping on Sheldrake's name several times in a row, I just decided to look him up, and oh marvel, he is one who exposes himself for free on the internet !

His papers can be found here:

I haven't read them yet, and have no horse in your double dog dare game with John Michael. Yet, I thought it might prove a little bit on topic.

Besides, this allows me for some (arguably bad taste) self-ironic double entendre that I can't resist.

With my best
Sebzefrog at

Phil Harris said...

RE: acupuncture
I googled ‘acupuncture abstract’ and obtained a wealth of clinical reports and reviews, including ‘mainstream’ medical science reporting that takes acupuncture seriously.

A Medscape Clinical Review in 2005 for example cites an earlier 1997 NIH Consensus Panel review that took a positive view of acupuncture and encouraged studies of promising but under-researched applications.

All medical science is fraught with uncertainty and controversy dealing as it does with multiple confounders, known and unknown, and even with the most scrupulous and legitimate study design usually needs to be hedged with caveats. This applies even to treatments that appear to have a formidable stack of past benefits. And the caveats do not mean the treatment is not efficacious!

I know personally, however, that in some persons frequent recourse to acupuncture delivered by highly qualified Chinese doctors over two decades, though it supplied likely benefits, could not alter the age-related progression of hypertension, related kidney dysfunction, and parallel cardiac artery disease, combining eventually to give Heart Failure. Other factors militated to enhance disease progress, but one downside, in my view, of acupuncture was to provide a rationale for avoiding ‘conventional’ investigation over the two decades as the early symptoms continued to get worse, heading for their catastrophic denouement and later dependency on very intensive medical support, which, all sounds very normal; acupuncture or no acupuncture.

Phil H

Ursachi Alexandru said...

Well, Mr. JMG, being a Druid is a pretty straightforward excuse. :) When talking to my rationalist friends about subjects like peak oil, the rise and fall of civilizations and the role of religion, I mostly tend to cite Tom Murphy's blog since he's a scientist and "science" is what I expect them to take seriously. Even so, not even Tom Murphy could escape their "negativist" label. ;) Now imagine me quoting an Archdruid's blog.... (well, I did introduce one friend outside that circle to this blog, and he found it very interesting)

There are so many comments here and I do my best to take part in the collective discusssion, but for now, I will adress Enrique's comment: I won't disagree with the fact that the EU is going in a bad direction. The total failiure of the EU's approach towards Ukraine looks like just another nail in the coffin. And I recognize the fact that right-wing populism is on the rise, coupled happily with xenophobia and anti-immigration. But I will remind you that not all of us who - rightfully - do not agree with the current state of affairs are willing to adopt the oversimplified and self-richeous far-right renaissance that you and others like you are promoting, as a "solution" to our current mess. If you are from Spain, remember your country's imperialist past before being angered at the prospect of it being taken over by some foreign nation.

And I don't know if JMG's fictional future Europe will prove to be an accurate prediction of the future - I certainly hope not - but I would like to see more vigilance on his part towards xenophobic and scaremongerning attitudes such as yours.

AlanfromBigEasy said...

I have chosen to live in New Orleans for a variety of reasons, but the most important is the intense creativity here. Barely a third of a million people manage to make a recognizable mark on the world.

After 21 years here, my analysis is that this bizarrely creative place is driven by the lack of social pressure to conform. This allows everyone to be as much, or as minimally, creative as they chose to be, it also allows for a fundamental comity to develop.

Although we are best known for the two and a half weeks of Mardi Gras, there is a festival of one type or another every weekend but three during the year. Music is simply part of life here. The tension of conformity is absent.

Visitors can see, and appreciate, the surface expressions of our reality. But one has to be open and take time - and personal relationships - to begin to grasp the social forces at work in New Orleans.

Bill Pulliam said...

Hmmm, so does your title suggest that the more reflective a man is, the longer his beard grows? Perhaps the better for stroking while pondering? Yes, folks, I know that is not the actual etymology of the word, no need to correct me, just a little pun...

On a personal note, I find that reflection provides me peace, and a sense of release from questing after The Truth. Unlike many who are interested in "alternative" religions, I do not feel an almost desperate drive to dig through every tome claiming to profess ancient wisdom or arcane knowledge in the fear that if I do not I might miss the One Key to the Grand Revelation about the Absolute Truth of the Universe, its Purpose, and Our Place In It. I find I can take ideas and theories and philosophies and revelations as they come, appreciate them or not as they are, much like perusing an art gallery. There is no one Best and Most True painting, photograph, or sculpture. Why should there be one Best and Most True philosophy? Or one Worst and Most False either?

Yeah, but that's just my 12th House talking again...

Luckymortal said...

First, Thank you so much for the work you do with this blog. I have read every post and purchased some of your books for a long time, but rarely feel I have much to add.

Perhaps I can be useful now, as a member of a sizable demographic you seem to overlook.

I am one of the Atheists who share your "Gaiaist" religious "sensibility." There are many of us Atheists who reject the Science-ism prophesy of salvation through "Techno Jesus." And without abstract gods, our biome is our subject of worship, the universe our "god" and our mother earth being the most personal manifestation of it.


Today, I disagree with one of the priors of your discussion here, that Nihilism is a bad thing.

And I'm not sure I'd accept that it, without the superimposed abstractions of a pre-existing religious sensibility, is responsible for negative impacts on individuals or a society. I don't think it is at all.

What really is at fault is the same misguided religious abstraction that insists that Man deserves to be more than nature has made him, finally freed from the moral and ethical restrictions of religion. A truly "Nihilistic" perspective does not try to "build palaces in the sky" through the abstractions of paper wealth, or "notches in the belt" of a Don Juan."

Those who "wallow in despair" in "Nihilism" are actually stuck seeking the bizarre values of their religious and cultural sensibilities.

And in fact, to seek abstract "meaning in life" is to assume that life itself has no intrinsic value.

So, there is another way to "short circuit" Nihilism: don't. Build on it.

The model for this is found in Buddhism, certain Daoist writers, and Epicureanism, as just a few examples.

Once you toss out these bizarre religious abstractions the most simple of all figurations remains:

Stuff that feels good is good. Stuff that feels bad is bad.
And this sort of basic life has intrinsic value.

This refocuses the tools of human intellect to a new pragmatic end:

To seek personal gratification as well and "skillfully" as possible.

Quickly one realizes that destroying the social fabric around you, as today's "faithful" folk often do, is not a skillful way to seek happiness for yourself of your family. Nor is living in a world devoid of biodiversity, not to mention forests, healthy food, clean air or water to drink. Or love. Or friendship.

What we need is not better religious narratives.

What we need is to continue to cut through the religious abstractions that are causing us to "build palaces in the sky" at the expense of our happiness in the real world.

And we need better cultural tools for seeking that real world happiness.

Herr Doktor said...

Dear Mr Geer,

many thanks for this string of posts, but specially for this one.
As of now I'm struggling with a case of nihilistic confusion and I have found your words greatly helpful in order to find a way out of it. Or to put it into another way: the most important step in solving a problem is defining it, and you are truly a master defining the weak spots of today's Western society and individuals.
On another level, any suggestions on how to buy your harder to get / out of print books (e.g. A World Full Of Gods) in the good old Europe?

Luckymortal said...

Apologies, but I wanted to add that where I nearly always feel ostracized for being an "Atheist" in Judeo-Christian circles, I have always felt welcomed in pagan ones. In fact, my refusal to "believe" coupled with an elevation of the mundane is ALWAYS affirmed as just another flavor of "Paganism."

And so I feel no dissonance in identifying first as an Atheist, but also as a Pagan.

Moshe Braner said...

JMG: "you're changing the subject. Why is acupuncture rejected by many scientists? What is the reasoning behind that rejection? Pay attention to that and you'll find that in most cases, it's because current theory provides no mechanism for it -- which is the point I've tried to make, and you've tried to evade."

- I didn't evade it, I explicitly said that a lack of know mechanism is a good reason to be cautious about such reports, but that if substantiated scientists eventually get around to working on the new phenomena. That happened with readioactivity in the 19th century, and with acupuncture currently. I agree that taking acupuncture seriously took a little longer than it should have, but I think it was a matter of an East vs. West cultural divide.

"As for Sheldrake, ... read a couple of his books, including one that contains some of his replicable experiments, and then do at least one of his experiments yourself."

- I don't have the time and inclination, but you'd think that, a decade after he did the original "telephone telepathy" experiments, somebody else would have replicated them, in a well-designed way? I havn't found any report of such. If it's only Sheldrake's claims, then they're no stronger with me than, e.g., Rossi's claims about his cold fusion device. Having multiple researchers replicate the studies is important exactly because individual humans, scientists included, are prone to biases, errors, egos and ulterior motives.

John Michael Greer said...

Clarence, it doesn't affect everyone, to be sure -- but when it becomes widespread enough that it filters out into the collective imagination, troubles follow.

Phil, did the patient accept the changes to his or her lifestyle that have to be made in order for acupuncture -- or any other health care modality, including modern scientific medicine -- to have more than a palliative effect on a major chronic illness of the kind you've outlined? That's very often the issue in cases like that -- no matter what kind of medicine you're using, it can't overcome the day to day impact of unhealthy behaviors.

Ursachi, the fact that I put a comment through doesn't mean that I necessarily agree with the poster!

Bill, as I mentioned when the concept of reflection first came up, it can produce wisdom when it's well handled, and one definition of wisdom is the recognition that while every truth is partial, you still have to manage to get up in the morning and take care of the day's tasks.

Luckymortal, what you're proposing isn't nihilism; you've made a set of specific claims about what the world is like, and indicated that you consider them to be true. (On the off chance you're interested, what you've proposed is a fairly standard hedonistic materialism -- which is not a dismissal, simply a useful label for that category of philosophy.) Nihilism is the conviction that no statement is true, that (for example) the worldview and the claims based on it that you've presented are no more meaningful or true than the ravings of a psychotic or random words generated by a computer.

Herr Doktor, last I heard from the publisher of A World Full of Gods, it's in print again and can be ordered directly from the publisher at this web site.

Moshe, okay, good -- you've admitted that you consider it reasonable to dismiss evidence because it doesn't fit currently accepted theories, which was the point at which you originally quibbled. You might be interested to know that there have been reams of scientific studies of acupuncture, like the ones you mentioned in your last comment, ever since acupuncture got noticed by Western scientists in the early 1970s; the studies reliably end up saying "Yes, it works, but we have no idea how" -- and most scientists just go on claiming that it can't work because the mechanism isn't known.

As for Sheldrake, many of his experiments have been replicated many times over. Have those replications been published in, say, Nature, the periodical that originally labeled Sheldrake's book "a candidate for burning"? Of course not, for obvious reasons. The peer review process is, among other things, a very effective way of keeping orthodoxies glued in place.

Read up sometime on the way that continental drift was stonewalled in American geology for half a century: papers presenting evidence favorable to continental drift theory couldn't get published in any of the peer reviewed journals, which were controlled by opponents of the theory, and opponents of the theory then pointed to the lack of peer reviewed articles supporting continental drift to reinforce their claim that continental drift was unscientific poppycock. A very neatly circular process, driven by the same factor: nobody had yet figured out a mechanism for continental drift, therefore it couldn't happen.

Lucretia Heart said...

Ah--- the hedonism of throwing a party while Rome burns can come off a mite self-centered! I can completely see what you're saying here. Festivals are, by nature, the very essence of frivolity!

But here's the thing: we live in a world where we're not encouraged to venerate the female, the earth, or our own spiritual selves-- I don't mean following rules in order to be moral, I mean reaching out to embrace the divine directly. These festivals all actively encourage that mode of operation, at least within the safe space of the festival. But that aspect of accepting more into your life can begin to change how one approaches many other aspects of human existence for a great many participants.

I see the festivals as a sort of inoculation against numbness and surrender. Given what we're facing, throwing a party that can help remind you of why its worth bothering in the first place can be a very good thing. Ennui, let alone despair, can be mighty forces to confront as I'm sure you've noticed! Changing "Too hard, why bother?" into "Heck yeah, let's do it!" requires something pretty powerful these days. Logic alone rarely motivates people. The festivals cater to the non-rational side of human nature pretty effectively.

Aside from that, however, are the values that get shared at the festivals, and over the last five years especially (since the beginning of "the Great Recession") I'm noticing a more serious underlying attitude and some actual consensus on several issues. As of yet, things are still very chaotic and juvenile for sure, but it wouldn't at all surprise me if perhaps some people are inspired and invigorated to take things further. Every festival has its own schtick. Some are more spiritually oriented than others. Workshops are taking on more mature subjects and communities are beginning to develop slowly but surely. There's some potential there much further down the road.

That more and more people are being drawn towards these types of events may be indicative of other growing trends in the population that may, eventually, find other avenues of expression. If some form of this continues in a modified way as fuel to travel and energy becomes ever more expensive, maybe that's when we'll see something truly interesting begin to happen.

I grew up with a sister who has Asperger's and the person I've been friends with the longest (since age 12) also has it, so I understand what you're saying. My friend has attended a number of events that she may have enjoyed sometimes but often found utterly mystifying in many ways, so there could be something to that.

Moshe Braner said...

JMG: so it took 50 years for continental drift to "drift" into the scientific mainstream. So what? That's much faster than a "geological" speed. And it took less than that for acupuncture. You usually take the long view, why not here? The inherent conservatism of the scientific establishment is sometimes frustrating, but does lead to solid science in the long run.

Regarding evidence for unexplained phenomena, I think we'll just end up disagreeing, but it may be useful to keep in mind the Bayesian POV that somebody here mentioned a couple of weeks back. Any observation can be explained in many ways, and thus is not by itself a "proof" of anything. It does add "evidence" for or against something. The subjective probability that one assigns to various possibilities depends not just on that new evidence, but also on prior evidence and prior beliefs.

Sorry for the typos in my previous comment, haste makes paste, there are probably typos in this one too - they're always invisible until I hit the "publish" button, must be another unexplained phenomenon!

Nano said...

I say we start singing with Crickets.

if we must worship something higher than ourselves, lets give the biosphere some much needed love. We can all guise it under whatever myths and symbols we want. Surely we can play along ;)

Lucretia Heart said...

To Liquid Paradigm:

Faun's interpretation of the original myth took the story into the gender role direction. My paraphrased quickie translation didn't include that. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

Nano said...


and read the review


but did you want to believe? I know I did.

Justin G said...

It certainly is amusing watching a member of the cult of rational materialism grasp at straws to defend against information that doesn't quite fit currently accepted theories.

I think it comes down to whether a person is more comfortable with an unanswered question or an unsatisfactory answer. For example, read any number of explanations for near-death experiences, and you will reliably encounter the same few well-worn explanations, hypoxia, hypercarbia, endogenous DMT release, etc. The problem with all of these is that they can and have been replicated in laboratory conditions, and yet never seem to produce anything close to the experiences described by those who've had an NDE. In spite of this, backer will always insist that "they must be true," because they are the only explanations that fit neatly into current dogma.

I guess it's more my personality to play around the edges and seek the anomalies or the phenomena that don't currently have good explanations, a la Charles Fort (who made a career of collecting and documenting such anomalies).

It seems that Occam's razor has, in many circles, been redefined as "That explanation which least challenges existing dogma is the most likely to be true, regardless of what Procrustean manipulation must be employed to make it fit."

For another example of the above, the question of what instigates collapse of the wave function in quantum mechanics could very easily be solved by positing the fundamental existence of consciousness as something other than the byproduct of neuro-chemical reactions (brain as a receiver/tuner of consciousness rather than originator), yet this rather simple idea is dismissed as impossible, with many physicists instead supporting the idea that every time a wave function collapses, a new universe is created.

That is hilarious to me, since that has even less chance of being verified objectively than the existence of fundamental consciousness. Not only that, it is claimed to be supported by Occam's Razor. To me, "entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity" would argue against the creation of infinite universes!

Phil Harris said...

Re re-acupuncture

You wrote “Phil, did the patient accept the changes to his or her lifestyle that have to be made in order for acupuncture -- or any other health care modality, including modern scientific medicine -- to have more than a palliative effect on a major chronic illness of the kind you've outlined? …”

Well … I couldn’t agree more with you that is exactly what was and is needed. The evidence is sufficiently striking, even if there is no individual guarantee and we can only indicate provisional directions.

The patient example I have most knowledge of and others in the same group, continued of course to live their completely normal lives, just with an extra layer of denial. And denial is pretty normal whatever one’s belief system.

But ‘acupuncture’ came to represent for these persons what I think was a false dichotomy. Medically I cannot say whether two of the other middle-aged persons in the group would have lived a lot longer if they had taken more rational avoiding action, covering all the bases, but I wish they had. And refusal of conventional cancer therapy in one case, on principle, almost certainly was not a clever idea.

Because acupuncture, among other modalities, happily seemed to drive a coach-and-four through conventional reasoning, its ‘ancient wisdom’ came to be seen as a short cut to special knowledge of the universe. That is to some truer reality – access perhaps to a science of miracles: the Ancient that was to inhabit the New Age.

The whole western mindset reaction then was to make an ideological and personal leap to join up with ‘superior understanding' beyond the material. Ouch.

very best

Greg Belvedere said...

Thanks JMG. Yes I find it fascinating as well.

Cherokee Organics said...


hehe! My job is now done. hehe! We’ve nicknamed the baby wombat, mini me (a dodgy but amusing film reference).

Hi Matthew,

The tool is called a hand auger. Check out the photos:

Hand auger photos

I use the one in the second photo (blue with the sharp teeth). For some reason it is shown upside down in the photo, but given it is Down Under here...

It will dig a 250mm diameter hole (there are smaller and larger ones) with clean soil walls and it is designed to compact the soil in the bucket and then bring it back up thus cleaning the hole at the same time. It is a really clever device and can dig down to about 1m (3ft).

Years back I read that on a course people were unaware how to go about digging a hole (to plant a fruit tree, of course). True story. I've sometimes thought that it may be a good idea to do an article and video on basic hand tools and their usage as people rely way too much on powered equipment these days.

Basic methods with hand tools, are harder work and slower than powered equipment, but the upside is that they cause significantly less damage to the surrounding environment. Plus, if you've ever been on a jack hammer all day, you'll know that they are no laughing matter either.



Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,
Do you mean Deviant Science: The Case of Parapsychology by James McClenon (Feb 1985)?

No, but it looks interesting.

A lot of books I want to read but not necessarily add to my “After the Lights Go Out Library" are now available for a few dollars, downloaded instantly to my Kindle. Wonderful, science fiction technology: I’ll use and enjoy it as long as I can!

Anyway, it seems this one isn’t. I’ll try ordering it from my library and see if they can get me a copy on loan or try to pick up a second hand one.

Stephen Heyer

Justin Wade said...

@JMG @Luckymortal
what you're proposing isn't nihilism; you've made a set of specific claims about what the world is like, and indicated that you consider them to be true. (On the off chance you're interested, what you've proposed is a fairly standard hedonistic materialism -- which is not a dismissal, simply a useful label for that category of philosophy.) Nihilism is the conviction that no statement is true, that (for example) the worldview and the claims based on it that you've presented are no more meaningful or true than the ravings of a psychotic or random words generated by a computer.

I apologize for jumping into the conversation if there is any offense taken, I am never sure about these discussion board social protocols, I have my own neurological issues. :)

I was interested in the direction it is taking.

At this point, JMG, your discreption of nihilism is almost absurdly self-refuting. "Nihilism is the conviction that no statement is true." A conviction is a statement that is true. If the truth is that no statement is truth, then how can this statement be true or false? The equivalent is a philosophical cliche/conundrum like, "This statement is false."

My assumption when something appears to be able to boiled down to this level of simplicity is that the boiled down statement is very badly missing some essential point. Its what got me into politics during the Bush Administration WMD Iraq war, then later into the peak oil scene. A bunch of other paths too, but in all cases the same thing I found to be true, when I investigated truths that sounded too simplistic, I found them to be untruths in various measures.

However, JMG, with all due respect: I don't believe the quibbling over this matters at all to your central points in this post and I understand the general point you are trying to convey. Being hopeless results in despair, which is a painful but necessary part of the process in losing all hope. One who is without hope and who is also not in despair is generally working their asses off, no matter how terrible or good it looks in present circumstances.

My take on that is that hope is the cruelest gifts you can give someone asking for help. It doesn't follow, of course, that being mean or cruel is anything other than a less cruel gift to give them. Nor does it follow that you are obliged to offer help that you cannot afford to give. I guess that is my pseudo-defense of Nihilism.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

Everyone has a tendency to be less skeptical of things that agree with their abstractions of the world and more skeptical of things that contradict them. I can't imagine going through daily life without being that way to a certain extent. If a stranger tells me they have a pet cat, I'll have no reason to disbelieve them, even though it's possible they could be lying or delusional. However if they tell me they have a pet wolverine, I'll be pretty skeptical. There needs to be some sort of balance. We can't take all figurations equally seriously, yet being dogmatic over abstractions runs into all sorts of problems too.

It's possible to have skepticism without dogmatism, despite the fact that so many so-called skeptics are as dogmatic as they get. I am constantly amazed at how often I hear people accuse others of confirmation bias and selective use of facts/statistics while doing the exact same thing themselves in a pretty blatant way. I guess that shows a lack of reflection. The term that I've used most often is simply "pay attention", although that's vague enough that it can be used to mean lots of different things. I just notice that by simply paying attention, I notice lots of things that don't fit into the abstractions that I have read or been taught, many of which have had practical value in my life.


Ozark Chinquapin said...

part 2

What I'll have to reflect on more is the discussion of nihilism. I haven't found for myself that reflection leads to nihilism at all, although I can see from what you're saying how it could, and nihilism does seem to be on the rise at this time. Personally, I wonder if nihilism is an antireligion of sorts to the fundamentalist theist and civil religions that claim to know the one and only absolute truth. I always argue against there being "one true way" when that sort of dogmatism comes up, whether philosophically or in such practical matters as gardening technique, and I sometimes have people misinterpret me as being nihilistic, as if the only two options are that there is only one right path/method or else that no paths/methods are better than any others and thus it's all meaningless. Any practical example shows otherwise, there are many paths up a mountain for sure but that doesn't mean that all paths lead there, some dead-end and others lead off cliffs.

Nihilism has really never made any sense to me, I've had depressive times for sure where I felt pretty hopeless about a lot of things, but underlying that all has always been a sense of value, that there is meaning, some things are right and some things are wrong (and many things somewhere in between), even if I don't fully comprehend it all. Yes, it's true in the philosophical sense that we can never be absolutely sure of anything, but going from there to nihilism just strikes me as completely ungrounded thinking. Would anyone who is starving claim that food is of no value?

There is something else relevant to reflection that I have experienced and haven't heard discussed much, probably because it involves realizing that our minds are not unlimited. I've noticed how much the context of what is around me determines what my mind comes up with. I've found it very helpful for myself to do a simple relaxation/reflection exercise, I don't call it meditation because it's not like any meditation system I've seen or read about, I've tried some of them but none have helped nearly as much as what I just came up with, which is hard to describe in words, but makes me feel a lot more balanced, and then if I want to I can reflect on something much more clearly. I tend to be more of a nonverbal thinker so it's often a question of what patterns and images come up, and how well I can translate them into useful things. Anyway, I've noticed that reflecting on the same thing while in different places, often very different sorts of thoughts pop up. If I'm out in nature, the sense of underlying meaning and connection to everything is more apparent, while the more artificial the environment I'm in, the more that sense seems farther away, still there but more disconnected, and my emotions about the same subjects and thoughts are more negative. I wonder how much of the nihilism and depression that's so rampant is simply due to the circumstances of modern life.

KL Cooke said...

"...the people who like to sing "Give Me That Old Time Religion" are by and large practicing a faith that nobody would have recognized as Christianity a mere five centuries ago..."

Kinda brings this to mind.

KL Cooke said...

"Omnia (from Britain) - who look like a mix of hippie/goth/tribal and play all traditional instruments, including a hurdy-gurdy, and their protest song regarding the modern world:"

Great video--very high production values. How many energy slaves did it take to make it?

sunseekernv said...

@Moshe, re: continental drift.

A good book is Naomi Oreskes The Rejection of Continental Drift.
Not only were proponents blackballed unfairly (and she provides clear evidence that was the case), the reasons included those of conflicting personal values.

One of her main theses is that American geology at the time rejected the grand theorizing a la Wegner (especially from a sudden inspiration) then seeking out evidence to support it, because their favored method was to gather all the facts, then meekly suggest a hypotheses after long labor (which long labor somehow earned respect, regardless of the validity/effectiveness of the underlying ideas).

Another theses is that the scientists who personally opposed Wegner believed they were being objective, but before the widespread use of instrument data, people could and would dismiss evidence of fossil/rock descriptions they disagreed with, merely by deeming it "too subjective". (I.e. they used a subjective value judgement, but called it "science" meaning objective truth).

The notion that people "held out for the truth" and would only be convinced by instrument ("real") data (the gravity surveys, sonar mapping of mid-ocean ridge, …) which they deemed "truly objective" is a bit of a post-facto excuse. The issue with instrument data is, of course, who decides how objective the design/calibration/operation/data reduction/... of any given instrument is? It still has an element of subjectivity, which if we're being intellectually honest, must be acknowledged/dealt with.

Most scientists have NOT thought deeply about this issue of apparent observer independence, or the faith implicit in science (that empirical approaches will/always give the truth). (apropos "how can we be truly sure of anything?"). One needs a bit of humility and spaciousness to honestly deal with this, otherwise one paints oneself into a corner, like a Dawkins or a Ratzinger. The complaint I have is those sorts then claim some legal/moral right of censorship/censureship to force their dogma on others.

I have no/less issue with people who say "I'm not sure now, I would like more evidence", than with people who say "your evidence is garbage because you don't have all the answers".

My heartburn with the "no mechanism" argument is that historically it seems to just be an excuse to dismiss evidence that's too disconcerting to deal with - if one is really a practitioner of the scientific method (as opposed to a sciencism-ist), why do such violence with the evidence?

A related concept from experimental psychology - illusory superiority.
John Cleese's summary

I don't think it's typically really stupidity per-say, it's as Dunning and Krueger's paper's title says: Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.
The concept of "the fool being cocksure, while the wise are full of doubt" has been around for a long time. I suppose it's nice to have some quantifiable experimental evidence. Seeing one's blind spots is of course so hard.

Yes, Smolin's (The Trouble with Physics - is a great book, though you're right, it is disturbing. Reminds me of a line about the making of laws and sausage… .

KL Cooke said...

"Last night, the smaller of the two wombats here was spotted with an even smaller baby wombat trailing around behind her. Very sweet."

You gotta show us a picture of that.

Ursachi Alexandru said...

Oh, ok, I understand. I do not know about mass Muslim invasions, but the rise of neo-fascism in Europe is a real threat, right now. And I might just live to see it go into overdrive once peak oil starts to bite hard. So my, ehm... intolerant attitude is more than warranted.

Myriad said...

It appears that I need to re-examine Sheldrake (I haven't read any of his more recent books).

In an exchange of sorts, I request that others read Susan Blackmore's essay "The Elusive Open Mind." It's about the personal experiences of a careful researcher who, believing in the "psi" hypothesis (partly on the basis of previous personal experiences, and partly due to numerous positive results reported in previous studies), sets out to confirm and expand those findings. Reading it a quarter century ago (yikes!) definitely helped shape my own thinking about both the limitations and the often-overlooked importance of subjective experience; an application, it seems to me in retrospect, of what JMG calls the Law of the Planes. (More details of the experiences Blackmore summarizes in the essay are spelled out in her book In Search of the Light.)

Also, I think it's worth mentioning that there are a number of skeptic societies who offer prizes ranging from a few thousand to a million dollars to anyone who can demonstrate (e.g.) the sense of being stared at, in a well-controlled test. There are various ways to dismiss any significance of these prizes being un-won so far (e.g. assert without evidence that such tests are rigged to fail). But especially if the skeptics are wrong, there's potential benefit for everyone if people who perform the self-tests JMG suggested above, and get good results, go ahead and submit a claim.

sunseekernv said...

@Justin G re: quantum wavefunction collapse
Are you familiar with Whitehead's process philosophy, where he posits just what you're proposing with his "actual occasions"?

A recent synthesis of this, plus some other work is in a book by Dr. Eric Weiss The Long Trajectory: The Metaphysics of Reincarnation and Life after Death.

You (and others) might also be interesting in Henry Stapp's popular works:
Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer (2011)
Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics (2009)
Henry also has some papers at:
One of them is a rather technical discussion of "many worlds" and its flaws.

Hawkesbury River said...

Hello JMG. Hello fellow Archdruid Report readers. I am a long time reader, but this is the first time that I have added a comment.
About 20 years ago the book Voltaire's Bastards was published. I think it is an important book, it certainly had an impact on me.It is quite a long book (585 pages).
What struck me as I read this post is that it seems to describe the same thing as a 500 odd page book in one (long but readable) sentence.
"It’s among history’s richer ironies that the beliefs central to ages of unreason so consistently end up clustering around a civil religion—that is, a figurative narrative that’s no more subject to logical analysis than the theist religions it replaced, and which is treated as self-evidently rational and true precisely because it can’t stand up to any sort of rational test, but which provides a foundation for collective thought and action that can’t be supplied in any other way—and that it’s usually the core beliefs of the civil religion that turn out to be the Achilles’ heel of the entire system."
Voltaire's Bastards is subtitled "The Dictatorship of Reason in the West". I think that the words progress and reason could be interchangeable in this case.
Once again, things that have been on my mind for a long time have been clicked together by this blog.
Thank You

Chris Travers said...

If human intelligence were merely buggy, then we could expect that the progress of evolution would eventually fix the problem. I personally think that the problem is deeper, and more fundamental, than this.

We, humans, know everything we know about the universe based on what we perceive with our senses. We make observations. We try to predict based on those observations. We may develop narratives from those that become scientific theories if testing confirms that they seem to work. The key phrase though is "seem to" because we cannot know whether the map is, in fact, an actual representation of the territory or just something which, within certain limits, models its behavior relatively well. This gap is fundamental and it means that not only does data not imply theory but that data can't imply theory.

I don't think that realization necessarily leads to nihilism but it does lead to the downfall of the modern myth of progress and it does create a void which something must fill. One thing that can fill it is a return to culture, and a renewed sense of cultural and intellectual humility.

streamfortyseven said...

I predict the religion of the 22nd Century, after the Neo-Nazis, Wahhabi Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and others have finished slaughtering each other, will be somewhat akin to Bokononism:


Along the same lines, I predict that Matti Pitkanen's Topological Geometrodynamics will replace most of modern theoretical physics:

"Defending intuition

What is frustrating that the field equations of TGD are so incredibly non-linear that intuitive approach based on wild guesses and genuine thinking as opposed to blind application of calculational rules is the only working approach. I know quite well that for many colleagues intuitive thinking is the deadliest sin of all deadly sins. For them the ideal of theoretical physicist is a brainless monkey who has got the Rules. Certainly intuitive approach allows only to develop conjectures, which hopefully can be proven right or wrong and intuition can lead to wrong path unless it is accompanied by a critical attitude...."

Chris Travers said...

JMG: you wrote: "Ancient Greek rationalist authors savaged the traditions of ancient Greek religion in the fields that interested them -- mostly ethics, rather than science, but the effect was much the same."

Actually the most interesting of these that comes to mind is Herodotus speaking disparagingly of Megacles' return to Athens by hiring the Thracian girl to play Athena and then playing the role of Athena's charioteer. He totally glosses over the religious nature of the role and the way that religion is being used by Megacles here and calls it (in every translation I have read) "silly." Yet strangely for all his disdain, Herodotus is a treasure for all the pieces of Greek and Persian religion he discusses.

Mansoor, agreed that religious vs scientific models is a key challenge of the modern age. I don't know what you mean by "higher" and so this isn't to nitpick so much as just offer a different perspective. I do think you are right that being able to approach religion in a productive way is going to be a survival trait.

The way I see it is that religious models and scientific models serve different purposes. We build airplanes based on the theories of Euler and Newton. But how do we live, form and maintain social bonds? How do we live up to human potential? Scientific models have not been very helpful there. But these are the tangible bonds that hold society together, and which the modern state tries to replace with abstractions.

From my perspective my religious cosmogony and the scientific origins of the universe are different models which serve different purposes. The former provides a necessary context for understanding life, while the latter provides a useful context for understanding geology. To the extent that understanding the human condition is a higher level of knowledge than understanding rocks, I would agree with you. But I learned growing up in the American West not to stand under rocks, lest they fall....

John Roth said...

Apropos of denialism is science: on lucid dreaming research. The original researcher is still not welcome back in normal scientific circles.

onething said...

Someone mentioned that there have not been gold standard studies to confirm psi and suchlike phenomena. I don't believe that is true. In fact there have been many, but it doesn't matter how many.


I certainly hope that the Orthodox Church never engages in any sort of reconquista. That is not her way. If it comes to it, though, I do expect any encroachment of Islam to stop at the borders of the Orthodox countries. I'm not sure about Europe, but in America people would have to have a profound change in spiritual preferences to accept the Orthodox church.

Ozark makes a good point. Skepticism isn't bad at all, in fact it's healthy. Without skepticism you'd be gullible. It's the dogmatism that pretends to be true skepticism that is a problem.


I'm pretty sure those skeptics offering the prizes have no intention whatsoever of giving out the prize.
Here is a good critique of Susan Blackmore:

John Michael Greer said...

Lucretia, I hope you're right -- but again, I'm probably not the right person to assess that claim.

Moshe, okay, now we're getting somewhere. You've now admitted that in science as currently practiced, due to what you've termed "the inherent conservatism of the scientific establishment," an overwhelming body of evidence can be ignored for many decades because it conflicts with current theory, and you've claimed that it's normal scientific practice to use prior beliefs to assign a subjective probability to evidence. That is to say, you've agreed with the point I made in last week's post about the way an age of reason becomes an age of unreason: the culture of rationalism becomes so enamored of its own theories, and so unwilling to revisit them, that crucial issues can pass completely unnoticed for a very long time. I rest my case.

If I may return to a point you've tried to finesse, by the way, it won't work to claim that acupuncture has been included by current scientific opinion just because studies are being done. As I pointed out earlier, studies have been being done continuously since the early 1970s; the results have by and large been positive; but the great majority of scientists continue to insist that it's quackery, because no causal mechanism is yet known. It's a source of some amusement to me that a century ago, when logic was still taught in American schools, any bright ten-year-old could have explained the fallacy involved in the claim "The cause isn't known, therefore the effect doesn't happen" -- though you'd probably have to wait for them to stop giggling at such an obvious howler.

Nano, outside my house right now, the wind is singing. It's a cold song, but I find it well worth the listening!

Justin, nicely summarized. In the Age of Unreason, the first task of the scientist is to find some way to force the data to fit the theory, and ad hoc hypotheses are a very common bit of hardware used in that never-ending task.

Phil, oh, granted. People use alternative health care for a wide range of reasons, many of them very dubious -- though of course people use mainstream health care with the same varying motives. Nor is acupuncture, or any other form of alternative health care, a panacea -- like every healing modality, it does some things well and some things poorly, and has to be integrated into a healthy lifestyle as well as recognition that human beings get old and die no matter what medical system they use!

Greg, you're right that I disagree with Sheldrake about the possibility of extracting energy from morphogenetic fields -- to my mind he's confounding the planes, and mixing up information with energy. Still, dissensus is the key; if he thinks he can generate energy, well, by all means let him try.

Cherokee, I wonder if it'll grow up to be an International Wombat of Mystery...

Stephen, that's the one! Thanks for catching the mistake.

Justin, the fact that nihilism is logically self-refuting doesn't make it unpopular. Maybe we run in very different circles, but the claim that nothing actually means anything or matters, that nobody can actually know anything about the world, and $%#@ it, who cares anyway? -- that's fairly common these days, and tends to be equally common in the corresponding phase of every civilization. As for hope and despair, I think you've confused the concept of hope with the facile optimism of the privileged -- but then I wrote a post about that a while back, and would refer you to that if you're interested.

John Michael Greer said...

Ozark, reflection doesn't have to lead to nihilism, as your thoughtful reflection in this comment shows clearly enough. It tends to do so under certain historical circumstances, and those may well have a great deal to do -- as you've suggested -- with the ordinary details of daily life in a falling civilization.

KL, too funny. I suspect these days more people know the pagan version of that song than the original!

Ursachi, no argument there -- and a resurgence of fascism is at least as likely here in the US, not least because so many people over here have no idea what fascism actually is, and use the word -- as George Orwell pointed out a long time ago -- as a label for "something not desirable." I'll be talking about that in a series of upcoming posts.

Myriad, it's a fascinating article, with some very solid points and some very revealing ones. In particular, it's telling that the question she thinks she was asking about OBEs isn't the question she was actually asking. She thought she was asking "Does anything actually leave the body in an OBE?" What she was actually asking is "Can I find a way to explain OBEs that doesn't require anything to leave the body?"

It's not a small difference. To answer the first question, she would have had to practice science -- that is, to come up with a hypothesis (such as "nothing actually leaves the body in an OBE) and then try to disprove it via experiment. To answer the second one, she had to practice rhetoric -- that is, to come up with a set of arguments to make her preferred interpretation of OBEs seem more plausible than the alternatives. The only problem with the latter is that it avoids the risk of experimental disconfirmation, and so doesn't actually tell you anything about the world -- just about the arguing skills of the rhetorician.

Hawkesbury, thanks for the suggestion. It's not a book I've read -- I may have to fix that.

Chris, evolution isn't a fast process, and a million years can be barely enough time for it to get going with a relatively long-lived species like ours. As for a return to culture, though, no argument there -- and that's a common feature of the Second Religiosity, for that matter.

Stream, hmm. Well, we'll see.

Chris, good! I'll have some things to say down the road a bit about the need for different models in different departments of human life.

John, that's one of the classic ways an age of unreason defends its cherished theories against the facts.

Cherokee Organics said...


hehe! Too funny! hehe!

Did you know that wombats have the largest brain to body ratio of all of the marsupials? They are really quite clever and have the body of an armed battle tank with a hard plate over their rear end. In their burrows which they enlarge as they see fit, they can squash a marauding fox against the ceiling.

They can destroy most fencing if they so choose to.

They wait out both the rain and fires in their burrows only to appear when conditions are truly optimal. Like the kangaroo, they are a real survivor in harsh and variable conditions.

Hi Clarence,

hehe! Glad you enjoyed the words. The wildlife here brings a lot of joy to my heart. I feed them and they come.

Hi KL Cooke,

Wombats are a law unto themselves here. Apart from humans and their vehicles they suffer no predators. Unfortunately, they only appear late at night, so cameras are a tricky business. There is a YouTube video I put up on the web with big daddy wombat happily crashing through some mint. I reckon he may be the father of the young one? Wombat sex is complex and noisy.

Actually most of the wildlife here makes blood curdling sounds. Koalas sound like Razorback the wild boar is coming to kill you... They may look fluffy and cute, but their personalities are a bit unpleasant.



Chris Travers said...

JMG, you wrote, "Chris, evolution isn't a fast process, and a million years can be barely enough time for it to get going with a relatively long-lived species like ours. As for a return to culture, though, no argument there -- and that's a common feature of the Second Religiosity, for that matter."

Evolution sometimes is much faster than others, but I remain unconvinced that the basic problems regarding how we can perceive our universe, understand it, and communicate that understanding to others can be solved by evolution. I think there are fundamental limitations which no amount of evolution can solve.

Interestingly some of these limitations are best explored in the area of computer science. For example there is the so-called CAP Theorem which addresses robustness of distributed systems. The upshot of the theory is that if you want to be able to operate where no piece of your structure can go down and take down your system, you must be able to operate with different nodes having access to different information. When you combine this with the problems of indirect observation, I just don't see what sort of bugs we have that evolution can fix.

Jeff said...

Isn't druidism a form of pantheism (everything is divine)?

ed boyle said...

I read mostly nonfiction and my wife reads novels. I say to her "did you knwow that they did such and such in the 19th century" and she replies yes she found that out in old novels, life was different back then.

Religious stories, fables, fairy tales are "concrete abstractions" like astrological archetypes. An archetype represents all such people and then you get the point of the story as the truth of daily experience hits you in the gut. This is an emotional / moral generalization from a story which you can relate to from personal experience.

We have heroes and antiheroes in real life and in film and TV series and novels nowadays from Hitler to Kennedy, Nixon to Harry Potter, maybe dead drug addicted pop-stars (Britney's failure vs. Madonna's success or Michael Jackson as object lesson). This gives us short hand to discuss how one should and should not behave or bad things will happen to us or how if we behave well we are rewarded, (Life story of Clinton, Obama, etc.) These are like modern fairy tales that direct our lives. In personal life we might talk in the family of an alcoholic uncle who had great promise as a youth or similar. These are family fairy tales.

This gets built up into archetypes such as Loki/ Odysseus for clever. A story with a personality in it concretizes behavioral norms and consequences. Moral laws such as "don't lie, steal,etc." mean little unless you see Nixon, Stalin, Clinton, Hitler, Janis Joplin,etc. stretched out in their embarassing or horrific detail before you.

Abstract scientific theories of reality are another thing altogether and without appropriate technology or wealth and free time for abtract thinking fairly meaningless in everyday life. Galileo, Newton, Einstein have no moral behavioral sides that anyone cares to discuss. This is more like common sense level of don't jump off a cliff if you want to live longer and otherwise just argument. If two primitives or small children argue whether the sun is central or the earth this has no consequnces in daily life, anymore than for a zebra.

Only a culture with global reach can practically attain any higher truth in this sense and apply it. But then the moral elment might get lost as we apply more of our attetnion to technological and scientific progress than to universal moral principles. When science and technology gets going someone always wins out against someone else, accumulating wealth. Progress through science is just a moral tale, redistribution of wealth and civilization as a whole. When I say I have found a basic truth which is fascination (Einstein) then the cynic must ask who will profit from this, what is thhe point? Scinetific truth has no absolute value as such.

Juhana said...

@JMG: Been very busy lately with activities outside cyberspace, but have to comment this post briefly.

I can relate with both first commenter of this post, Beaver, and Mansoor. I was also immersed in deep nihilism for a long time, after finding out how hollow and empty contemporary Western cultural memes truly are.

My contempt was especially reserved for those fake "revolutionary" trends raging through intelligentsia of the current West: liberalism, deconstructivism and all associated empty and tired lies of the New Left.

What that pre-packaged ideology actually does is to take contemporary mainstream trends to their logical exterme; open-mindness on steroids has actually more to do with other totalitarian ideologies than with freedom. Like Hannah Arendt said it, colour of wrappings changes but contents do not.

If you want to be truly revolutionary in contemporary West you have to be ultra-conservative. That road does not work either in real life, but oh boy it offers ACTUAL counter-cultural existence to be paleo-conservative.

After I trashed nihilism I was tempted by most rigid forms of my ancestral belief. If the other guy is blatantly wrong, the other dude must be right, eh?

After reading this blog and couple of your books I changed from this "binary"-mode of thinking to some untreated path, that opens in front of me right now. Where it leads, who knows, but light above that road has different shade in it than before. Thanks.

41fa48c8-550a-11e3-b48c-000bcdcb2996 said...

(Seeker of Truth)

JMG, you have misunderstood Moshe's points about "prior evidence" and "subjective probabilities", which were prefaced by the "Bayesian POV" reference and an indirect reference to a commenter a week or so ago who referred you to Edwin Jaynes' work: "Probability Theory: The Logic of Science"

"Prior" and "subjective probability" are technical terms in Bayesian analysis that do not necessarily equate with their common English meanings.

"Prior evidence" need not be "chronologically prior", it has nothing to do with "when" but rather with what form the evidence takes.

"Subjective probability" has nothing (necessarily) to do with opinions, but rather it depends on the conditioning information. To clarify this, Jaynes introduces what he calls "The Robot" into which information is fed. Most people will understand that a robot (at least with current technology) does not have opinions, feelings, prejudices or whatever. Nevertheless by simply applying Bayes' theorem the robot will evaluate "subjective probabilities" that are conditional on the information fed into it. Because the term "subjective" is so readily and pervasively misunderstood, Jaynes phased it out but some schools of Bayesian analysis do still use this term, which causes endless confusion.

41fa48c8-550a-11e3-b48c-000bcdcb2996 said...


...continuing from earlier comment

Bayesian analysis is simply a mathematical formalisation of the process of learning from experience, a process that human and animal brains engage in feverishly in order to stay alive for any length of time. A child that cannot apply Bayesian analysis efficiently will not survive life's ordinary hurdles unless permanently and constantly restrained by someone who can.

Bayesian analysis is just the repeated use of the basic notion of conditional probability, so the theory of learning is just the theory of probability. Hence the 1st part of Jaynes' book title. The second part of the title reflects the observation that whereas mathematicians can make absolute statements about truth (binary logic), scientists can only ever speak of probabilities. So the theory of scientific reasoning is the particular branch of mathematics that deals with probability theory.

Taking account of prior information when analysing any given data is essential for science to make any progress at all. Failing to do so would entail attempting to reboot the entirety of science every day, or every minute …or … you get the point. Science and mathematics represent an accumulation of knowledge. Or at least they are supposed to.

This leads to a difficult and tangled subject which is addressed comprehensively by Jaynes: as you know there is never any guarantee that knowledge will always advance. It can and does sometimes regress. The history of statistical analysis from about 1920 to about 1960 represents an astonishing example of such a regression (pun not intended but, oh well, there it is).

During that period, Bayesian analysis was set aside and replaced (especially in the life sciences) by a tangled ad-hoc mess of statistical methods that are sometimes (nowadays) called classical but are also called "frequentist". Jaynes calls them "orthodox" but that is perhaps a little out of date nowadays (it depends on the discipline).

A key aspect of these non-Bayesian methods is precisely that they have nowhere to put the prior information. They analyse each new dataset as though it is the sum of all knowledge, thus ignoring almost all of the sum of all knowledge.

This attempt to do "science without memory" leads to phenomena like medical studies that that produce contradictory findings about the benefits of this-or-that foodstuff over a period of decades. As each new study comes out it is treated as though, merely by being recent, its findings somehow negate the previous studies. This is why the public gets fed-up (oops another pun) with scientific advice about diet.

In practice, even scientists trained in these methods usually manage (using common sense) to incorporate some memory into their analyses. So medical research progresses, but much more slowly than it might and with a huge waste of data that was obtained at prodigious expense. Fortunately there has been a strong resurgence of Bayesian analysis in the life sciences but there is a long way to go … basically the problem is that life scientists are taught how to generate data but they are not taught how to think.

Jaynes was a formidable mathematical physicist and he has a tendency to write as though all his readers are similarly competent. Nevertheless the early chapters in his book are hopefully more accessible and are also available for free:

Here is a huge selection of some of his other work

Moshe Braner said...

JMG: I shouldn't continue this "debate" since we're not going to agree on some things, and I'm just being set up as the "straw man" for you to make some points. I don't mind, since you make interesting points. But I have not "admitted" as much as you claim.

I forget who said that "scientific revolutions proceed one funeral at a time". Individual scientists have always resisted loss of their favorite theories, so 50 years for a major theoretical shift is not slow. It was not faster back before this age of unreason.

As for something like acupuncture, one can relate to it in other ways, outside of science, but to the extent that science is to dabble in it, it will be a slow process until a "mechanism" is found. Note that that does not mean that it will be tailored to fit the current theories. More likely, if that happens, it would lead to new theory. But that theory would not be a scientific theory unless it makes experimental predictions.

For an analogy, let's take electricity and magnetism (E&M). The theories devised in the 19th century did not explain them in terms of, say, Newtonian theories of gravity. We do not, even now, "know what E&M are" - such a knowing is impossible, has no meaning. To say that, e.g., the electrostatic force between charges decreases with the distance squared, does not say anything about what a "charge" really is and why it exerts a force. What has proven possible is an investigation into how things behave, to the point that we can design and build, e.g., a working radio.

Somebody above said that data do not dictate the theory. I agree, but theory does predict some of the data. And eventually gets replaced with refined theory that predicts more of the data. That approach does not equate any given theory with reality itself.

Another comment above said that we are limited to our sensory input when it comes to learning about the real world. That is not quite true. Experiments we set up can translate things we cannot directly sense into results that we can. E.g., we cannot sense the earth's magnetic field (although some animals can), but we can build a compass. Similarly, we cannot directly sense quantum mechanical happenings, which apply to individual subatomic particles. But by trial and error we've found out how to, e.g., build that radio using transistors - devices designed using quantum theory.

(continued in another comment)

Moshe Braner said...

(continued, since Blogger refused the full length as a single comment)

To repeat something from my first comment in this thread, the predictability of the behavior of natural phenomena is the biggest scientific discovery. That is not saying that we know all of nature's laws, or ever will. You said nature does not have laws, only habits, I think we'll agree to disagree on that. At most, some of the laws (e.g. quantum physics) appear to be statistical, that's a "gap" that a lot of people try to put their "god" into, but translated into macroscopic settings those statistical laws are quite deterministic. And BTW the laws of thermodynamics (which preceded quantum machanics) are already describing statistical aggregates, and thus are the least likely to be broken. So much for a long list of purported new energy sources.

When I claim that "psi" phenomena are illusory, what I am saying is that they have not been shown to lead to predictable phenomena that can be "used". "The plural of anecdotes is not data", and the subjective experience of people, even millions of them, does not lead to practical applications. If it was possible to go there, somebody would have paid for it - and there would have been a LOT of money offered. E.g., rumors are that the US military has paid some "psychics" to attempt to do things such as find the location of a nuclear bomb that was accidentally lost in the ocean. If such hirings were successful, we'd have a whole psi department in the federal government now, and Wal-Mart would be selling millions of psychophones for $27.99 a piece. (Minor examples of the hiring of some psychics, or the selling of trinkets such as "magnetic bracelets" that only "work" for believers, do not count.)

So my attitude is, if it has no practical impact on my life, then it's useless for me to ask whether it is "true". Obviously somebody who has psi experiences (which I don't) has a different perspective. And their behavior impacts me. But that impact on me is the same as if they're just hallucinating. I do get that the manipulation of ones own hallucinations, or of others', does seem to many people as a useful activity. It will certainly impact me practically when they burn us rationalists at the stake, or if they refuse as a society to do what needs to be done (e.g., stop wrecking the climate) since we're going to be "saved" by some psychic miracle instead.

The captcha is amazingly psychic: "copemb". I'll try to :-)

Greg Belvedere said...

JMG, I don't he is looking for new forms of energy himself. He is just suggesting that we should give all the people who claim to have so-called above unity devices a shot to prove, or more likely disprove, their claims. I agree, let them try, but I wont' hold my breath.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, no, I didn't! My knowledge concerning wombats is not much better than Ogden Nash's.

Chris, nah, you're conflating two points. Of course there are flaws in the human capacity to understand the world that evolution can't fix -- like everything else, the evolution of intelligence is subject to the law of diminishing returns, and the evolutionary process usually results in "good enough" rather than optimal solutions, anyway. My suggestion is that there are some flaws in the way human minds work that might well weed themselves out of the gene pool over time, and the tendency of reflection to trigger a plunge into nihilism might just be one of them.

Jeff, ask three Druids, get five answers. You might visit the FAQ page of the Druid order I head for more details.

Ed, true enough -- one of the reasons that colorful narratives play such an important role in nonliterate cultures is precisely that they communicate so well on multiple levels.

Juhana, you're welcome, and I'm glad to hear it.

41fa (seeker), thanks for the clarification. I haven't studied Bayesian theory at all -- the statistics I studied in college were in standard courses in statistics and experimental design, and seem to have been pretty much the "orthodox statistics" Jaynes talked about.

Moshe, stoutly answered! Still, I'll refrain from a point-for-point response, since as I think you've also noticed, we're basically talking past each other at this point. I'll simply note that there are a lot more people putting off constructive action about the climate because they expect a scientific miracle to save us all -- the words "I'm sure they'll think of something" may come to mind here -- than there are reposing the same hope in psi. What's sauce for the psychic goose is sauce for the scientific gander!

Greg, I'm perfectly willing to admit that I'm wrong about zero point energy, just as soon as somebody hands me a working model that I can test, in my own basement workshop, where I can control for the possibility of fraud. The lack of a known causal mechanism doesn't bother me; what bothers me is the repeated failure to offer up meaningful evidence that the thing will work at all.

SLClaire said...

JMG, this phrase from your comment to Chris answered a question I'd wanted to ask you.

"My suggestion is that there are some flaws in the way human minds work that might well weed themselves out of the gene pool over time, and the tendency of reflection to trigger a plunge into nihilism might just be one of them."

The question came up because I recall an earlier comment by you in a previous week that widespread literacy is on your list of things you want to save (if I'm remembering correctly). Since the plunge into nihilism appears to require widespread literacy according to the cyclical model you've been describing, I was wondering if all literate civilizations were doomed to take this plunge. In turn, then, I was wondering if widespread literacy is really a benefit - the question I wanted to ask. But if evolution could weed out the plunge into nihilism, that answers the question well enough. And perhaps this sort of discussion, and the actions that we take from it, can be part of how that evolution occurs. I like that idea; it would be something valuable to leave to those who come after me.

41fa48c8-550a-11e3-b48c-000bcdcb2996 said...

(seeker of truth)


(apologies if you got multiple copies of this)

Moshe said "a lack of known mechanism is a good reason to be cautious about such reports"

and you converted that into "you consider it reasonable to dismiss evidence".

It's fortunate that you are a determined opponent of binary thinking because otherwise I would have to accuse you of it!

Accepting a claim and being cautious about it are not opposites. Being cautious and being dismissive are not synonymous.

Scientists are always cautious about new reported phenomena. Not because caution is fun (it really isn't) but because most such reports turn out to be false. Not complicated. Scientific caution is the result of a huge amount of experience over several centuries in which science has been practiced in its current form.

The results of scientists abandoning caution are as predictable as they are embarrassing. Do I need to say "cold fusion"?

Before continuing I should point out that it is dangerous to make generalizations about "scientists" (as we have both done) because science encompasses a variety of tribes and there are huge (I mean, truly enormous) cultural gulfs separating them. Physicists simply do not think along similar lines to biologists, in general. Evolutionary biologists are an exception: they seem to use mathematics as a primary descriptive mode, so their style seems familiar to a physicist.

You claim that acupuncture is rejected due to a lack of known mechanism. But many drugs are used with little understanding of their mode of action. Indeed designing drugs with a known mode of action was such a novelty that it had to be given a specific name: "Rational Drug Design". Drugs were, until recently, discovered mainly by feeding more-or-less random chemicals to unfortunate laboratory animals. The important thing was not how they worked but that they had strong observable effects.

As for interactions between drugs, even less is known about the mechanisms there, yet interactions are reported, studied and incorporated into prescription advice.

I'm just pointing out that in medical science, mechanistic explanation is often still completely beyond current knowledge but this doesn't prevent experimental work and clinical application of new treatments.

Regarding your college course in stats. The truth is that most such courses are somewhere between bad and abysmal, and many biologists who are forced to take them absolutely hate statistics from then on. It's not entirely unrelated that terrible data analysis, ranging from merely incorrect-but-innocently-so through to apathetic fudging all the way to outright determined fraud are all too common and getting more so … the quality of published research is in steep decline … but that's another topic…

Tom Bannister said...

Possibly an insight into the recognition of the age of unreason plus the new religious sensibility.


D.M. said...

Forgive me if someone has said this before in this postings, but, the map/model is not the territory/reality.

As far a reflection goes, my own personal experiences with it have lead to a plunge into nihilism, but, I used it as a springboard to shatter all of my previous beliefs and reconstruct new ones that line up with my experience of the world. And then continuing to use this process to continually change my belief structure so as to always line up with my experience of the world. This process reminds of one described by a philosopher who's name I cannot remember, he spoke of a cycle of belief that people normally go through in forming and discarding a belief and the ways in which it can be disrupted.

Janet D said...

@Juhana....I disagree that "If you want to be truly revolutionary in contemporary West you have to be ultra-conservative." There are many ultra-conservatives in the U.S. today, and they are not revolutionary (although they like to think they are). They spew soundbites and jargon and have knee-jerk reactions (just like their counterparts on the left do)'s all old hat and nothing truly revolutionary will come of it, because there in not much revolutionary in the source.

If you want to be truly revolutionary, in the contemporary West or elsewhere, you have to someone who is capable of truly educated thought and communication, who understands the various ideologies but is not controlled by them, who is able to see the likely long-term effects of various choices/policies, and who is not automatically punitive toward those who disagree and follow other paths.

Someone, as an example, like JMG, who starts a blog and a couple of years later has thousands of people turning up every week to digest more.

If you look at history, the true revolutionaries were the ones who brought new thought into an era that was ready for a new sensibility.

You and I are in complete agreement, however, on the "untreated path" that is open before us...I've had the same experiece in coming here. So...may you find peace on the path.

John Michael Greer said...

SLClaire, exactly! Widespread literacy is quite recent as a social mutation in human cultures, and it has a lot of bugs to be worked out.

Seeker41fa, now please go read the denunciations of acupuncture by self-described rationalist skeptics, which is what I was referring to in the first place, and tell me that they can be adequately described as the exercise of ordinary caution. For that matter, read the book by Naomi Oreskes cited by an earlier commenter, and consider whether ordinary caution was involved in the systematic blackballing of studies and scholars who strayed outside the party line in that case.

As for my stats classes, the funny thing there was that the first was taught, pretty much under protest, by one of the department's few phenomenologists; he spent all quarter feeding us the usual statistical party line, and then on the last day of class sat us down and explained to us exactly how little you actually prove by statistical means, and how easy it was to manufacture bogus significance from a data set. It probably didn't help that massive academic fraud was basically business as usual in that department when I was there -- there were guys over in the computer science department who would take your data and, for a $50 bill or so, run as many tests as it took to find something that was significant to the .05 level; the experimenters then rewrote their papers to claim that whatever turned out to be significant was what they were trying to find, so they had something to publish. Quite a bit of random noise ended up in peer review journals that way -- a detail which certainly shaped my attitude toward statistics, as well as toward science as actually practiced.

Tom, interesting. Thanks for the link.

DM, Korzybski is always worth quoting.

sunseekernv said...

@Myriad - thanks for the Blackmore essay (and pointer to her site).

re: why isn't psi proven/more proven/obvious…

Charles Tart (of Altered States of Consciousness(1969) fame, more recently Waking Up(1986) and The End of Materialism(2009)) has done some studies long ago when at UC Davis on fear of psi and pk, which turn out to be quite common, even in parapsychologists.

A most excellent summary talk is:

More of his papers on this and other subjects in the list at:

Mansoor H. Khan said...

Chris Travers said on my earlier comment:

"I don't know what you mean by "higher" and so this isn't to nitpick so much as just offer a different perspective. "

Chris, by "higher" I mean from someone who has more knowledge and wisdom and experience.

Islam teaches believers that the rules and laws of Sharia (Islamic law) may or may not make "sense" to us based on our individual experiences.

And while a whole lot of Sharia will make practical sense based on human experience but still a whole lot is beyond human capacity to "think though the wisdom of".

That is, only the creator fully knows the wisdom of every rule or law in Islam.

Because only he has infinite wisdom and knowledge and experience (per the Quran, Allah not only knows the present, the past and future but quran says Allah know the "fourth".

The "fourth" are things that can happen but won't happen because Allah has not willed them.

But yes the evidence of biological evolution on earth is a "huge" test and I sometimes ask: Why would he want to confuse that like that?

Mansoor H. Khan

Chris Travers said...

JMG, regarding the tendency to fall into nihilism by thinking about thinking, I am not sure this is actually a problem as long as one also understands that attempts at understanding do not tolerate a void.

I am reminded of the way the Hopi introduce their children to the religious community at the age of between 6 and 9. This is a rather violent initiation which includes ritual beatings, but it also includes showing the children that, on a literal level, everything they have been taught religiously is false.

The result is that effectively, the Hopi move their children from blind faith, to a nihilistic phase where practice builds understanding, and some anthropologists have drawn comparisons to other rites of passage elsewhere which seem to have a similar lesson not to believe, as a precursor to understanding.

Nihilism is fine as a phase, and in fact many traditional peoples *push it as a phase.* It's just not healthy to cling to that phase.

Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks for the poem. It was well spoken. You'll soon know more about wombats than most people do anyway! hehe!

Actually, there is surprisingly little known about the creatures as they are shy, elusive and retiring types.

Interestingly for this week’s discussion too (about scientists capturing the last word on science for their own purposes), the majority of information about wombats comes about by a bloke who wrote a book on the subject. I'm sorry I can't recall his name, but will try to track down a reference to the book. He learned about wombats by climbing down into their burrows to observe them first hand and had been doing so since he was a child on a farm. A gutsy effort.

Hi HalFiore,

Thanks and very informative. Much appreciated.



Marlow Charles said...

Thanks, once again, for another very thought provoking essay.

I am strongly reminded of Tolstoys ' A Confession'.

Nihilism is a constant threat to my thinking. A 'occupational hazard' of sorts, I guess. Some of us seem to have a strong drive towards this thinking on thinking.

41fa48c8-550a-11e3-b48c-000bcdcb2996 said...

(seeker of truth)


I was perhaps too indirect in my paragraphs about medical research routinely proceeding without knowing any causal mechanisms. My point there was that lack of causal mechanism may have been the reason stated for rejecting acupuncture but it cannot have been the real reason. My guess (and that's all it is) is that the East-West discomfort issue mentioned by Moshe may have been important.

You will have to forgive me for not launching an investigation into the history there, since I have already spent time I can ill-afford on the Sheldrake issues over the last few days, looking at some of his papers and his online experiments. The problem is that a proper investigation takes serious time. In the case of Sheldrake I've spent enough time to be sure that I don't want to spend any more time and I think there is roughly zero chance of anything interesting being discovered. In doing that I have taken into account that his theories, if they could be made to stand up, would be the greatest scientific advance of all time. So you have to try to evaluate the product of
"likelihood of success" with "importance of result". In this case, second factor is extremely high but the first factor is more-than-commensurately low, leading to an overall estimate of roughly zero. Every individual scientist has to make a calculation like that before committing time to a project. You can't proceed with work when you yourself don't expect for a moment that it will produce anything.

In the case of acupuncture, I think the story is probably a good deal more interesting from a scientific standpoint but I suspect the most interesting work may have already been done.

As for the scientific fraud issue, I wish I could say I am surprised … this is what happens when editors insist on the 0.05 p-value nonsense. However you will be pleased to know that things have advanced considerably. Nowadays, every biologist has access to software on their own PC and they can spend all day running hundreds of different tests until they find one that agrees with their own view of the data. So at least they find an indirect way of telling you what they actually think the data means, as long as you realize that the statistical analysis is fraudulent in the sense that they don't tell you about all the tests that didn't give them their preferred answer.

41fa48c8-550a-11e3-b48c-000bcdcb2996 said...

(seeker of truth)

Here is my all-too-brief look into the Sheldrake ideas. I first encountered his theories many years ago and found them to be embarrassing in the same way that it is embarrassing when someone lies to your face, i.e. you are embarrassed for them, yet they somehow are untroubled by their own conduct.

The reason is the same reason that zero-point-energy devices are embarrassing if you have a background in physics. Modern physics, especially quantum mechanics and field theory, employs a range of terminology that sounds interesting and, well, downright freaky in some cases. This terminology presents the same temptation to the pseudo-scientist that an open vault does to a bank robber. Why not just lift some of the goods and use them for purposes it was never intended for? This is what Sheldrake and the zero-point-artists and a whole army of other pseudo-scientists do. What are the chances that this is the way a revolution in science will occur? That you can take theoretical concepts that have a precise technical meaning in field theory or quantum mechanics and just splatter them all over the place with a healthy dose of wish-fulfillment and seriously expect that the resulting nonsense will actually work? Sheldrake tries to apply field theory to biology in a trivial way instead of facing up to the true complexities of biology, which are profound.

41fa48c8-550a-11e3-b48c-000bcdcb2996 said...

(seeker of truth)

... continued ...

So much for the theory. Now lets forget the theory and look at the experiments on the "Sense of Being Stared At". Everyone knows the feeling, and it seems obvious that it is one of the many survival mechanisms we evolved. Ogg the cave man needed to know if a cougar was looking at him, so his brain evolved the ability to integrate all his sensory inputs at a subconscious level. When the integrated signal gets strong enough it breaks through to the conscious level and we get the sense of being stared at.

This feeling occurs in situations where we are not expecting to be watched and we are not aware (consciously) of having seen or heard the watcher or any sign of them. I don't know about you but my sense of being stared at is pretty accurate, I would guess 80% accurate.

But Sheldrake claims that even once you eliminate all sensory input, there still remains a capacity to detect being watched, which he attributes to his field theories. So he has done numerous experiments and gives a web-based protocol.

The problem is that

(1) unlike the real sense of being stared at, the experimental subjects are EXPECTING to be watched. In fact, ALL they are doing is trying to detect any sign of the watcher or any pattern in their behaviour. So unlike in the real situation where the feeling takes you by surprise, these subjects are straining all their senses to detect the watcher.

(2) it is extremely difficult to eliminate all sensory inputs for the experimental subject and yet still claim that the watcher *is* using their sense of sight to "stare" at the subject.

(3) Sheldrake's internet experiments attempt to eliminate visual cues by using blindfolds, and when this is done he claims that the success rate is 53% versus 50% for chance alone.

So after eliminating only one sensory input, the success rate is already low. As mentioned above I would guess that the usual success rate of the sense-of-being-stared-at in real situations where you are not expecting it is maybe 80%.

41fa48c8-550a-11e3-b48c-000bcdcb2996 said...

(seeker of truth)

... continued again ...

In other words, evolution has done good job of getting us to process faint sensory inputs to detect surveillance, but when you start to remove those inputs, the success rate falls. If it is at 53% with blindfolds, how close will it get to 50% when more serious attempts are made to eliminate sensory inputs? The closer the result gets to 50%, the larger the number of trials you need to have any hope of separating the hypotheses that (a) "the true rate is 50%" vs (b) "the true rate is 50% plus a tiny bit"

Others have attempted such experiments and they concluded there was no signal, just noise.

However, we don't need to rely on a few academics with piddling budgets to settle the issue. Instead consider two groups with essentially unlimited budgets who would each desperately like to get hold of technology exploiting Sheldrake's phenomena if it could actually be shown to work: Wall St on the one hand and the US military on the other.

Hedge funds will do anything, anything at all, to get an edge. And for them, a 3% edge (or even a 1% edge) would be a serious gold mine. Traders are actually a rather superstitious bunch and I've heard serious, well known figures mention astrology as a trading tool. I know some who claim to use astrology for trading purposes. Some use numerology. They will in fact use anything at all if they think it will give them an edge. Astrology provides patterns and they attempt to line those pattern up with market patterns. But Sheldrake's ideas would give them a much more powerful edge: insight into what other traders are doing. This is always extremely sought-after information and traders would kill to have an edge like that. But I've never heard even a whisper about Sheldrake's ideas from traders.

The US military, it hardly needs to be spelled out, wouldn't hesitate to use Sheldrake's theories if they actually worked. They are a little less superstitious than traders, to be fair, but if something can be shown to work they will use it. For them, the expense of setting up trials to do accurate measurements of a very weak effect would be chickenfeed. They already have an army (literally) of experimental subjects available, which is the main expense of these studies anyway. But again, in decades of Sheldrake's self-promotion there has never even been a whisper of interest from those who would be most able to apply these ideas.

Instead of asking myself if I should put more time into thinking about this, I instead ask myself why I've already put any time into it. Well, I've clarified a few things for my own purposes, I suppose, so that will have to do.

Ursachi Alexandru said...

I'm looking forward to reading them, I've learned quite a few things about your country from this blog. The examples that first come to my mind for Europe are Hungary's Jobbik and Greece's Golden Dawn which are both overtly nationalistic and have an agressive agenda towards minorities and immigrants, and they've both had a big rise in support during the last few years. And of course there are other right-wing and euroskeptic parties all across the continent, and next year's EU parliamentary elections might bring more surprizes. Romania, for now, doesn't have a coherent far-right political entity, but our disfunctional political environment doesn't make me feel optimistic.

Kris Ballard said...

I had fallen behind on reading your blog, but managed to read your last two articles by using my Android Phone. Everyone thought I was quite studious when they saw me reading your articles on my phone. I like that you mentioned H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft is definitely an under-rated thinker! I keep hearing about Oswald Spengler, but must confess that I haven't studied his writings. It is good to think about religious/spiritual matters as we enter the Advent Season. From some of the things that you mention in your articles, I assume that you are familiar with the science renegade: Rupert Sheldrake. According to Sheldrake, scientists can't even be honest when it comes to recording the speed of light. I know that you are unable to write about everything at the same time. However, I would like your thoughts about the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

John Michael Greer said...

Chris, that makes sense -- the Hopi are using disillusionment as a tool, in the context of a coherent system of thought and practice. It's when there's no coherent system left that it's easy to get stuck there.

Cherokee, most of the science that interests me is obtained by some equivalent of crawling down a wombat burrow, so that doesn't surprise me at all!

Marlow, now that's a complimentary comparison. Thank you!

41fa Seeker, you may well be right about there being an additional motive behind the rejection of acupuncture, and I'd like to suggest one possibility. It so happens that there's very nearly a 1.0 correlation between the health care modalities that the current "skeptical" community considers scientific and valid, and the health care modalities that make money for the mainstream American health care industry. Equally, there's nearly a 1.0 correlation between those health care modalities that do not make money for the mainstream American health care industry, and those which today's so-called skeptics denounce as pseudoscientific poppycock. As I'm sure you're aware, this would not be the first time that the scientific process has been prostituted to serve as a marketing venue for an influential industry (cough, cough, nuclear power, cough, cough).

The interesting thing about the brush with scientific fraud I mentioned is that when I returned to college to finish my degree almost a decade later, at a different university in a different field, my work study job put me in the middle of an even larger and more lucrative piece of fraudulent research. This one wasn't a matter of cherrypicking statistics -- it was a series of "double blind" experiments in which the grad students assessing the data knew exactly what they were supposed to find, and were expected to find it. The research team had been doing this for years; they were highly skilled at bringing in grant money, so the university thought they walked on water, and nobody asked inconvenient questions.

I've had plenty of conversations with other people who were undergrads and grad students involved in some of the more fraud-prone fields of science, such as health sciences and psychology, and almost everyone has similar stories. As I tried to point out in an earlier post, it's a major problem.

Ursachi, I'm in the process of chasing down good histories of the rise of fascism in Europe between the wars, and already noting some very uncomfortable parallels to the present...

Kris, as you'll notice if you read the comments, yes, Sheldrake's getting quite a bit of discussion here! As for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, I don't have anything particular to say on the subject; there are only so many hours in a day, and my research time has to go to other things.

Marcello said...

"Ursachi, I'm in the process of chasing down good histories of the rise of fascism in Europe between the wars, and already noting some very uncomfortable parallels to the present..."

Main difference is that there is no bolscevik bogeyman that would make the èlite throw itself at the first bilge rat running on an anti-commie ticket. But ultimately as things get worse and worse people will demand scapegoats and simple solutions to bring back the good times, so there are openings for all the sort of rabble rousers.

Phil Harris said...

I am thinking of your experience watching 3rd rate so-called science a few decades back. You had every reason to take a dim view thereafter. I have not personally come across actual corruption, but the fact it exists does undermine work of higher quality.

Like gerrymandering or stuffing a Supreme Court with a particular persuasion undermines democracy, so bent procedure undermines scientific enquiry, but still two cheers for democracy and for science and the maths of probability?

I am just reading though a salutary story "Whole" by TC Campbell who saw his work in nutritional science, which suggested a basis for prevention of most chronic disease in USA, not just ignored but actually suffocated by the modern US ‘scientific juggernaut'. He leaves out some matters I think important, but he has a point. Like that joke (did somebody quote it this week?) when the fish were asked what the water was like: "What the hell is water?"


Stephen Heyer said...

41fa48c8-550a-11e3-b48c-000bcdcb2996: “But Sheldrake claims that even once you eliminate all sensory input, there still remains a capacity to detect being watched.

Actually, this is where I disagree with your argument and to some extent with Sheldrake. Knocking out a major sensory pathway, say, vision is very probably going to disrupt any other sensory or sensory-like systems.

These systems are designed to work together, something which I understand there is scientific evidence for. Long tradition says that the best results for this kind of thing is muted sensory input (a quiet place, subdued lighting).

Given this major disruption it’s surprising that Sheldrake gets positive results at all!

Oh! Something else that is long tradition, some people can block Psychic phenomenon, or even block it some times and not others. I just cannot think of a group more likely to do that than the current mob of radical materialists who call themselves skeptics, so any test they are associated with is going to have to be really robust to show any positive output.

If I seem a little bit definite about some of this stuff, well, I’m an ex radical materialist who had the misfortune to grow up in a family seething with Psychic abilities. Worse, I had them myself, despite frantic efforts to find rational, conventional scientific explanations. Worse yet, two of my little specialties (both versions of the sense of being stared at) I could pull off again and again in rapid succession back in the days when I had wasted endless hours honing the ability.

One I can still do with reasonable but not great repeatability.

As to why I don’t get back into practice and collect one of the prizes, well, there are several reasons:
A deep feeling that gaining wealth or fame from this sort of thing is wrong.
A suspicion that it would be very hard to get any test to work with all those “skeptics” standing around desperately believing that it just has to fail.
A fear of what would happen to anyone who demonstrated accurate, repeatable Psychic ability. Hey! I’ve always wanted to visit Area 53, it’s just that I want to be able to leave afterwards.

You see, I’ve been following Remote Viewing since declassification of the Stargate Project.

I came to the conclusion that not only would some governments follow up anything that seemed to work, but that the Stargate Project with it’s near non-existent protocols (sit in this kitchen chair at this table and think of a Russian nuclear base) was actually a control natural for a possibly still ongoing project using protocols drawing on the past century’s experience in this sort of thing. Further, that there were probably a number of ESP based intelligence projects running in various countries right now, the successful results of half a century’s development.

The surprising thing is that the Stargate Project did produce positive results, just not reliable enough to wager men’s lives on in battle.

Stephen Heyer

onething said...

Mansoor Khan,

I'm interested to know what it is that troubles you about biological evolution vis a vis your faith?

Enrique said...

John Michael,

Your response to one of my earlier comments raised a question. Since Evola was heavily influenced by Blavatsky and you have pointed out that many of Blavatsky’s writings, including “The Secret Doctrine” were legonomisms, I have to wonder how much of Evola’s work was also written in the form of legonomisms as well, particularly “Revolt Against the Modern World”. The use of legonomisms seems to have been a common practice among occultists of that era, so it would not surprise me in the least. I would appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

Juhana said...

@Enrique: Your comment was very good! As brother from North I support you to undermine leftist/liberal agenda in grassroots community level as much as you can, without any shame. I come myself from blue-collar community flooded with immigrants in 90's, and when totally predictable problems between cultural memes broke out, hypocritical advice from "ivory tower intellectuals" living themselves in neighborhoods with zero level of humanitarian immigration was ridiculous and self-righteous in the worst possible way. They practically poured mystical essence of "white guilt" into our necks, like our native working class community next to Russian border should hold some existential shame about past sins of West European colonialism. That response to set of problems that were basically practical and without any great zeal was absurd beyond pale, and totally counterproductive. It just made matters worse. I myself have many immigrant friends from our boxing gym (fifteen years of training and still going), but I despise and loath their "political defenders", left-wing liberals, beyond any measurable amount.

Nowadays practically whole old hood of mine supports brand of right-wing populism in my country...including me. Leftist intellectuals are all too ready to sacrifice native working class population in the altar of globalist ideology, and there is no need to have love lost between us and them. Support from Finland to your cause in Spain!

John Michael Greer said...

Marcello, granted, but bogeymen are a dime a dozen; it's hardly difficult to find, recruit, or manufacture them as needed, especially in a country like the US where people on all sides of the political spectrum like to go hunting for scapegoats to blame for their troubles.

Phil, that's one of the promising things about the approaching end of the age of reason. Once people stop using science as a justification for the civil religion of progress, and start thinking of it again as one toolkit out of many, very well suited to some questions and very poorly suited to others, it'll be possible to do with it what was done with logic in the late Classical world: sort through the good, the bad, and the ugly, figure out what it can do and what it can't, and make it available as a set of mental tools for the civilizations of the future.

Enrique, that's a fascinating question, to which I don't know the answer. I've read Evola, of course, but the only things of his I've studied carefully are the essays he did on magic for the UR Group, which are erudite but not very impressive in their practical dimension. What I recall from Rivolta contro il mondo moderno was mostly the way he projected Otto Weininger's then-trendy pop psychology (not to mention a good deal of Bachofen) onto the sort of imaginary past that was so much in vogue at that time. It's an interesting thought that there might be a coherent legominism behind it; if repeated close readings cause reliable transformations in consciousness, you might be right.

steve pearson said...

@seeker,Stephen Heyer,et al, For a very funny movie on the U.S. army & " para normal" research, watch "Men Who Stare At Goats"

Cherokee Organics said...


I'm starting to think that specialisation and capture are an end game of sorts. It is quite successful as a short term strategy, but in the long run it alienates large chunks of the population. The funny thing is that that process of alienation undermines the resource and support base within the community for that profession. For if we cannot understand what they do and the profession takes on an air of superiority, then in any downturn, why would we support them? It is a self-defeating pattern of behaviour.

Professions that practice those strategies become to some extent: "too cool for school"! By the way, school in that context is the rest of the community which has to support that profession either directly or indirectly.

Phew, that was a mouthful.

Hi Moshe,

I've got no beef with you, but I made it to the end of your last post and noticed something interesting.

Quote:" It will certainly impact me practically when they burn us rationalists at the stake, or if they refuse as a society to do what needs to be done (e.g., stop wrecking the climate) since we're going to be "saved" by some psychic miracle instead."

What a strange sentiment to write.

Firstly, it would be interesting for you to reflect upon the question, why do you think that "they" will burn rationalists (you note yourself amongst them) at the stake? There is an implicit assumption in your quote that you are somehow removed, separate from and perhaps above, the rest of humanity and I'm unsure why you believe that?

Secondly, it is fascinating that you write that somehow "they" refuse as a society to do what needs to be done. I'm left wondering who you mean by "they"? Again there is that separation that has worked its way into your thinking as if you are somehow removed from the problem that you feel strongly about.

As a suggestion, "they" is actually us - all of us. There is no way to abdicate your responsibility to the future.

I sometimes can't understand how scientists can research climate change, make some pretty scary pronouncements and then clamour for more funding for further research. I hope you see the irony in that situation?

As I said, I have no beef with you, or scientists for that matter. It is just that this kind of thinking is all over the community and it is not good.

Hi Juhana,

I'm glad to hear that you are ditching the whole left - right sort of thinking and forging your own path. Be careful what you wish for, the right will happily use you as easily as the left will.



Ursachi Alexandru said...

Marcello, I agree with JMG that scapegoats are fairly easy to find. Just look at immigrants. I come from a country with a sizeable diaspora (over 2 million people) spread across Western and Southern Europe, and you'll hear a lot of rethoric about how millions of Romanians will steal everybody's jobs - ignoring the fact that the majority of them do petty jobs that the natives don't want, get paid less, and also how many Romanian students contribute to the budget of Western universities.

JMG, don't forget to add the Romanian "Legion of The Arhchangel Michael" and "The Iron Guard" to that reading list! I'm reading Mircea Eliade's memoirs - he had a big contribution to the study of religions by the way (I haven't read his works on the subject yet) - and his description of pre-WW2 Romania fortunately doesn't have a strong parallel today, but I wouldn't count on this not changing.

Mansoor H. Khan said...

Onething said:

"I'm interested to know what it is that troubles you about biological evolution vis a vis your faith?"

I interpret the quranic/biblical story of creation (Adam and Eve etc) literally.

How do you reconcile the quranic/biblical story of creation and human origin and biological evolution theory (man from monkey etc)of human existence as scientists and most moderns believe today?

Phil Harris said...

Some interesting exchanges of info are going on among us commentariat.

It is good to know that Charles Tart is still alive. (Ouch … I just checked he is only 4 years older than me).

Charles’ essay on fear of paranormal reminds me that our rational persona (not a bad part of our self to inhabit, btw) can be spooked just as much by explicit highly accurate experiment backed with impeccable mathematical logic. Dean Radin when giving us a Noddy’s Guide to quantum theory says of the concept of Bell’s inequality: “You’ll know you’ve got it when your gut suddenly drops, like the feeling of freefall when a roller-coaster plunges off that first steep rise. Until you get it viscerally,”the most profound discovery” description seems like overkill. Afterwards, “profound” isn’t strong enough.” Dean Radin Entangled Minds p230.

Phil Harris said...

I take your sincerity very seriously.

Of ‘science’, quote : “… sort through the good, the bad, and the ugly, figure out what it can do and what it can't, and make it available as a set of mental tools for the civilizations of the future.”

I can’t make my mind up about that proposition – at first blush it seems ‘mission impossible’. Our brains are exceedingly good at working with very big interacting data sets when in direct contact with the ‘real world’, given enough sensory input (bandwidth) and life-training (see below). But when we need to deal with our abstractions as data sets; for example, sampled data relevant to climate history, we need to invent super-computers to model the data and to apply sensitivity tests to the models by running appropriate historical records, even those of 10s millions years before our species existed. That these models can represent something like the real shape of climate history is itself astonishing, but a tribute to our ability to discern abstractions (maps?) that actually are useful mental tools for describing the world (territory).

I have a little story that seems to me explanatory. Back in the days when India had larger forests, big predators, usually after injury, occasionally took to preying on villagers who were farming up to the forest fringes. Colonel Jim Corbett, who was born in one such area, and had skill and a good hunting rifle, made a point where he could of ridding villagers of the danger. (He became incidentally a thoughtful conservationist).He has a tale of stalking a tiger. He needed ‘global appraisal’ informed by alertness to the signs of life in the forest where many other life-forms were alert to both his and the tiger’s presence. On one occasion at a crucial moment he became aware that he was not stalking the tiger; the tiger was stalking him and figuring ambush points.

My contention is that we are ‘hard-wired’ to see meaning in the slightest thing: and to make error of course. It takes a bit of sorting out.

Phil H

Myriad said...

Regarding Blackmore and OBE's, please keep in mind that the essay only gives a brief summary of that portion of her research. And she would not (and as far as I know did not) claim to have proven that nothing leaves the body in an OBE, but rather, that her alternative cognitive model of how OBE's might be generated made certain predictions about the phenomenon that turned out to be correct when tested.

I see your point about rhetoric. Theories and models are explanations, and as such, they do overlap rhetoric's domain. But I find your argument to Blackmore's presumed motive (the implication that she set out specifically to show nothing leaves the body to preserve orthodoxy, instead of setting out to seek the best explanation for all of the qualities of the observed phenomena including the apparent invisibility and intangibility of the experienced OB viewpoint and the results of previous tests by others) saddening.

Note that if the thing that leaves the body in an OBE is invisible, it means that one very significant test, attempting to see something leaving the body, has already repeatedly failed to falsify the hypothesis that nothing leaves the body. (Indeed, if that were not the case, then the whole question would be about as mysterious as whether or not anything enters the body when we eat.) As long as the hypothesis remains unfalsified, that process of investigation cannot end; there is always another kind of camera or sensor or hidden-information test to try (and always more outs if those tests also fail to falsify the hypothesis: the thing that leaves the body is immaterial, non-electromagnetic, lacks inertia, is non-relativistic, leaves incomplete memories, is mischievous and averse to being studied, doesn't view the material world but a coextensive simulacrum on a spiritual plane...).

But in the meantime, there's nothing unscientific about proposing and testing alternative models that are, either by intention or by logical implication, consistent with the so-far-unfalsified hypothesis. There is no requirement to complete poorly-defined (detect a "something" having no known physical properties or limitations) and possibly endless tasks before looking elsewhere for insight.

Myriad said...


I'm pretty sure that the skeptics offering the prizes have no expectation of giving out the prize, at this point. But as far as I can tell, the actual offers are genuine. The popular dismissals (e.g. that they don't actually have the money, or that they can decide arbitrarily not to award the prize even if someone succeeds in a challenge) don't hold water. For example, the challenge I'm most familiar with, the JREF Million Dollar Challenge (MDC), is entered into as a legally binding contract, with the claimant and the JREF both agreeing in advance to every detail of how the test will be conducted, how the results will be determined, and how the prize money will be paid.

(Even if it turns out that you passed the challenge by trickery, you'd still get paid. Not only that, but you'd likely then make millions more as stage magicians lined up to outbid one another for your trick. The reason for that is there's nothing in the contract that says how you accomplish the test, because language like "you must use real paranormal ability" would be unenforceable anyhow. Of course, the JREF will want to design the test to try to rule out trickery, so that in theory, only someone with paranormal ability could accomplish it.)

There was a time, decades ago, when instead of being on deposit in a publicly verifiable escrow account as it has been for many years now, the MDC prize money consisted of pledges to the JREF, to be collected in the event the challenge was won. I was one of those early pledgers because I saw great value in the challenge.

The value, as I saw it then, was that it allows the claimants to decide what will be tested, and how. So if there's, for instance, a skilled psychokinetic out there, she doesn't have to try to go to a researcher, and likely be told something like "there's no funding for testing PK these days, can you do remote viewing instead?" and then end up averaged in with nineteen other test subjects in the remote viewing study. It seemed a more efficient way of finding objectively verifiable paranormal talents if they were out there to be found.

Regrettably, since then, as skeptic and pro-paranormal positions have further polarized, the rhetoric around the MDC has become less about inquiry and more about "debunking" and PR. This is obvious and it depresses me. However, the challenge itself hasn't changed, and as far as I can tell it can be won by someone who can actually do, under controlled conditions, a paranormal feat they claim to be able to do.

Thank you for that critique of Blackmore. Yes, the conclusiveness of Blackmore's NDE work is greatly exaggerated by dogmatic skeptics, which I'm pretty sure doesn't please Blackmore either. Apart from that, I have my own disagreements with some of Blackmore's reasoning on NDEs. On the other hand, anyone who talks about quantum energy patterns is making it up, and any time two sides are arguing about what an adherent of some religion or spiritual system does or doesn't "take literally" they're both wrong. A complete critique of both sides of that critique would have to be the length of a book.

Myriad said...

Though Tuesday prolixity is (at the very least) badly timed here, one more comment.

The possibility has been mentioned in various comments that the presence of people with skeptical attitudes or of scientific controls inhibits psychic phenomena. Skeptics think that's an arbitrary and convenient excuse, while experiencers of psychic phenomena think it's logical, unsurprising, and consistent with experience that it would work that way.

Except on rare occasions neither side seems able to convince the other, but might we at least be able to comprehend why others think as they do? Might we even accept that such thinking on either side is not necessarily disordered or dishonest, and charitably refrain from leaping to the conclusion that it is?

At this point I'm pretty sure that a world with psychic phenomena and psychic inhibition effects is indistinguishable from one with no psychic phenomena and with various subjective cognitive phenomena occurring instead. I don't know, though, whether that escapes a needless binary or merely reiterates it.

Tiago said...

I suppose you describe very well the thought process running around in my head for almost my whole existence, and I can relate to this in an extreme fashion. The nihilism, the endless doubts, no ground...

While I can appreciate the solution and agree with it it is quite difficult to have faith bootstrapped from a rational perspective. I would like to have faith, but I cannot reason myself into it.

Even if I see an attraction in a certain "world view" (or religion if you prefer), doubt and excessive skepticism always make the path less obvious...

Excessive reflection and scepticism (is that it?) is a big source of unhappiness.

Oh well... (apologies for the personal rambling, but this one struck a very profound chord)

John Roth said...

@JMG, others. There's currently a lot of soul-searching going on in psychology about research practices, and a number of formerly high-flying researchers have crashed and burned. There's also a movement afoot to publish expected results and analysis methodology in advance of doing the experiments, and then publish the raw data. And just today a massive, 36 research center replication study of 13 major results got announced. Result: 10 - 2 -1.

On another topic, the "integrated sensory data explains everything" "explanation" is simply armwaving in service of dismissing phenomena that don't fit the explainer's preconceptions of what's possible and what isn't. It doesn't explain anything unless you can actually reproducibly catch the brain in the act of doing the integration. It has been done, but it is remarkably hard.

Of course, the reverse is also true: if you insist on a mechanism, then either explanation needs a real, demonstrated mechanism.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, that's an intriguing idea. I've been exploring the role the privatization of public goods plays in the collapse of societies -- it's a very common theme -- and the privatization of particular bodies of knowledge and skill via professional capture is in its own way a good example of that. Many thanks!

Ursachi, thanks for the reminder! I'm planning on incorporating the whole of the fascist experience into my analysis, rather than (as so many people do) fixating on the atypical example of Nazi Germany, and so yes, the Romanian fascist organizations deserve close attention.

Phil, well, once again I'm relying on historical parallels. Logic is as counterintuitive as science is; it emerged in ancient Greece under a set of very distinctive, even idiosyncratic social and cultural conditions; and yet it was picked up enthusiastically by a bevy of cultures extending from Ireland to Tibet, and became part of the standard educational system, because it allows some common human mental malfunctions to be patched. I see the scientific method as having the same sort of potential.

Myriad, I think you've missed my point -- though admittedly I gave it in very compressed form! If Blackmore had been practicing science, the first thing she would have done after coming up with her hypothesis -- "nothing leaves the body in an OBE" -- is to think up as many ways as possible to falsify that hypothesis through experimental testing. The second thing would have been to start running the experiments, or at least to publish the proposed experiments so that they could be done and the data compiled. I'm with Karl Popper here: falsifiability is the essence of the scientific method, the thing that sets it aside from other ways of knowing about nature.

The abandonment of falsifiability is to my mind the principal vice of the contemporary skeptic movement. I recall an article by Carl Sagan from the 1970s, I think it was, in which he argued that OBEs were a sort of reliving of the birth experience -- rising up a tunnel into light, etc. It's an interesting hypothesis, but he didn't present it as a hypothesis; he used rhetorical means to argue that it was the most likely explanation, i.e., the one that would allow OBEs to be pigeonholed in the structure of accepted theory. If he'd wanted to offer it as a hypothesis, he would have needed to propose at least one falsifiable test of his claim -- which wouldn't be hard: find people who were born by Caesarian section who had OBEs and see if their experience differs from OBEs experienced by those born normally.

Lacking a falsifiable test, Blackmore's supposition is rhetoric, not science -- as is Sagan's, and as is most of what's being offered these days by scientific "skeptics" to explain things that don't fit existing paradigms.

I don't think, for what it's worth, that you're wrong -- or simply restating a binary -- to suggest that a world full of psychic powers is indistinguishable from a world lacking them, but full of subjective experiences that seem to mimic them. You and I do, after all, live in the same world. The question I'd raise is, given that it's not possible to choose between these worlds on the basis of the evidence, what convinces you that one is right and one is wrong?

Tiago, I wish there was an easy answer to that quandary? Still, like most of the real challenges we face as human beings, it has to be lived through, not solved in an intellectual sense.

Marcello said...

"Marcello, I agree with JMG that scapegoats are fairly easy to find."

What I was referring to is that in the aftermath of WW1 and in the 30's the powers that be (generals, industrialists,landowners,clergymen etc.) were ecstatic at the idea of throwing themselves at characters they would have normally held in contempt, and for good reasons.
Now the incentive is not there, which does not mean that those people will be militant antifascists this time around but genuine fascists will probably have to sweat it this time around and won't have power simply handed to them on a silver platter. So it will take a bit longer.

Robert Mathiesen said...

I met and had a long discussion with Susan Blackmore back in the 1990s, before she had given up on her research in parapsychology, and long before she gave up on academic life in the UK (these were two separate things for her).

For whatever it may be worth, she impressed me as sincere, honest and open-minded, well aware of all the pitfalls and temptations that beset anyone is her field, and alive to the possibility of conscious (and also unconscious) scientific fraud. At that time she still badly wanted to find evidence that would let her validate the strange experiences that she herself had had. But she knew that this meant she had to be on guard against self-deception and wishful thinking as a researcher: the quest for validation always gets in the way of the quest for scientific knowledge.

And after 30 years of very hard, conscientious work she found nothing she could use. She was weary, and in the end she walked away from the whole field. She wrote eloquently about this in her essay, "Why I gave up parapsychology." (See

If such a sympathetic and honest researcher found nothing, there are serious problems with any attempt to frame parapsychology as a scientific field. That does *not* mean, in and of itself, that there is nothing there. It only means that whatever might be there cannot be framed in terms of any "natural laws" -- to use a somewhat old-fashioned term.

Matt Heins said...

To rudely butt into Man so or and onething's conversation:

Mansoor, I think I have an answer for you that I actually first arrived at as a child. You see, I was raised Lutheran but also given a secular education. As a dinosaur and mammoth loving child though, I learned all about evolution before my religious education was serious enough for me to understand that some folks took the Adam and Eve story literally.

The solution I came up with then was as follows:

The books of the Religions of the Book are as revealed to people, humans, us. It's God's words, sure, but it was an actual person who wrote them down, actual people who copied and translated them, actual people who read them and discussed them.

So, the question is, what the heck are people 1300, 2000, or 3000+ years ago going to do with the full story of the history of the planet and life and evolution when the scientific method that will allow proper investigation into all that is centuries or millienia away? They wouldn't believe it for a second. They wouldn't even know how to BEGIN to asses how to decide whether to believe it or not! Sure, God could've revealed the whole truth to everybody just as they were back then, but then what of Free Will?

So God has the same problem as some sort of speculative pre-andiluvian civilization survivor explaining maize to primitive tribespeople: how to pass on some essential lessons to folks so ignorant of so much without blowing their minds?

A good solution is to create an allegory, a myth, a symbolic story, that will make sense to the primitives , but also convey sub textual messages that will still hold water when/if those primitives ever wise up.

To put it another way: If Helena Blatavsky can create a legominism, why can't God Almighty? ;)

onething said...

Mansoor Khan,

I am not sure why you interpret the scriptures literally. Although I have only read a sentence or two of the Koranic account, it becomes perplexing to interpret the Biblical account literally, and so far as I know, traditionally, the church has not done so. I am not even sure whether you mean really literally, or just somewhat literally.

If God created the entire universe in 7 24-hour days, and you begin to imagine it, well, it just doesn't make any kind of sense. Did he fly around or just stay in one place and shout? Did he spend eons figuring out in his head the entire biosphere, with its millions of lifeforms and trillions of bits of information to set up all the genetics of each species and how they would behave as well as the way that all the elements, the respiration of trees and the tides and so on would all work together, without any trial, and then just set it up so quickly? Why would an eternal being be in such a hurry?

If I were God it would give me great entertainment pleasure to watch things unfold. Why assume that for creation he would be in a hurry, and then afterwards prefer a slow pace?

In my opinion, God works from within anyway, not as an outside tinkerer.

I see nothing nonliteral about describing creation the way the Bible does. I think it does a pretty good job. You start with a chaos and organize it from the level of the stars and planets, then our sun and moon, then watery life, and so on.

It's true the Bible says God made man out of dirt or clay, like a potter. Adam means red earth, and it may even mean blood. But perhaps we read too much into it if we think we have the right to decide that God was acting like a potter. Even if an ape genome has some historical links with ours, are we not all made of earth and do we not all return to earth? Does not all our food come from the earth and our bodies are formed in the womb from the food our mothers eat?

The question of evolution that matters to me is whether this universe has a mind and consciousness as the causative factor, versus the insistence of many that life and life forms are capable or organizing themselves due to chemistry, which actually negates life and soul.

But let us say that I am right and nothing of this universe exists without a cause of a different order, and that consciousness is the fundamental reality, a consciousness which infuses everything - as you know the physical universe and all within it is very, very, VERY complex, so what is wrong with saying in the beginning God created the universe, and it was in a chaos but he organized the chaos, and brought forth light? How is this not literally true?

Enrique said...

John Michael,

I look forward to reading your analysis of fascism. I remember you once characterized fascism as a form of “totalitarian centrism”, a view which has much to commend it. Historical fascist movements such the Italian Fascist Party, German National Socialism, the Spanish Falangist movement and the Argentine Peronistas combined elements from the Left as much as the Right in their party platforms. And many fascist parties actually did grow out of the revolutionary Left. Mussolini was a prominent socialist politician before the Great War, and the full name of the Nazi Party, the National Socialist German Workers Party, speaks volumes about its origins on the radical left.

Moreover, fascism historically appealed to ordinary middle and working class people who felt abandoned by the establishment and felt that their grievances were being ignored. Doubtless this has been a major factor in the rise of the far right of today as well. I recently read that some political polls are showing the Golden Dawn in Greece in first or second place right now as far as popular support goes, and that many of the recent “converts” are disillusioned leftists from Syriza or PASOK.

It’s long past time that someone performed an intellectually honest analysis of fascism and the far right, instead of simply repeating the same old tropes and partisan propaganda from the Left. If there is anyone qualified to do such a thing, it would be you.


Your new book looks absolutely fascinating. I will definitely be ordering a copy and look forward to reading it.

onething said...


The skeptic Randi is the main one I was thinking of when I said there was no intention of ever giving out the prize. What I read was quite a while ago, but he certainly seemed an insincere goal post mover to some who had interactions with him.

After reading the critique of Susan Blackmore's book, I find it hard to believe that she was sincere and hoped to find evidence in favor of something spiritual. Her bias is all over the place; she seems to think and react as a skeptic rationalist materialist every time. If she did have some hope, she felt it necessary to enter the ring with both hands tied behind her back.

As to having a hard time performing psychically in a hostile environment, I guess I am in the "of course" camp! There is a puzzling way in which skeptics seem to insist that if psychic phenomena are real, then they are to behave just like other physical phenomena, when obviously it is of a different sort. I wonder how many women could have an orgasm if they were being filmed and critiqued? It seems highly likely we are dealing with another dimension and we seem to function rather poorly in it. It's hit or miss. Some people are better at it than others. There's nothing bizarre about that. Since we are dealing with a realm that has a lot to do with thought and emotion, why would unfriendly thoughts and emotions not inhibit? The fact that most people have just the occasional psychic experience certainly indicates we don't have a strong handle on the thing.
There's something else as well. No matter how much you trust the person next to you, when it comes to psychic/spiritual experiences, you simply have to experience it for yourself, subjectively, for it to have much impact.

Enrique said...

Juhana, thank you for your support. Greetings to my brothers in the North. If people will go back and read my comments, they will find that my quarrel is not with Islam itself. Like you, I too have immigrant friends, including a few who are Muslim. I have far more respect for a pious Muslim such as Mansoor Khan, or even the Salafis and Wahhabis then I do for a bunch of politically correct liberals and leftists. The trouble with multiculturalism is that when you have two or more cultural ecologies that are alien to one another and don’t get along for reasons of history and values living in the same space you are setting yourself up for a conflict. The tendency of the Left to ignore the inevitable problems that result and persecute those Europeans who dare to complain or object is only making the problem worse.

Eventually, the result will be war, since the two sides are so far apart and will be competing for increasingly scarce resources as the Long Descent continues. This is neither good nor evil, it’s simply human nature rooted in our biology and the laws of ecology. If it comes down to a conflict between those of my kind and a bunch of interlopers, I will stand with those of my kind against the interlopers.

Like you, I am seeing a growing number of people who are flocking to the populist right, in spite of the political persecutions and fear mongering from the establishment. Perhaps this is one reason why the Left is so filled with desperation and fear. They know the game is almost up, and whether the right wing populists or the Jihadists win, they will lose and their utopian fantasies will be shown to be nothing but pipe dreams that had no chance of working in the real world. Nikolai Berdyaev wrote about the cult of globalization nearly a century ago and described it as a latter day Tower of Babel. He argued that this Tower of Babel shall fall just like the first, and I think we can see it starting to crumble before our very eyes.

My quarrel is with the leftists and liberals who are undermining European civilization from within in the pursuit of an extremist agenda. I find it very curious that people like Ursachi accuse me of being an extremist, when it is the Left that has been pursuing a destructive, extremist agenda that is destroying the nations of the West from the inside out, while using issues like immigration, political correctness and multiculturalism as political battering rams in the pursuit of that agenda. My political views are actually more those of a paleo-conservative or a traditionalist than of the far right.

(Contd. below)

Enrique said...

(Contd. from previous posting)

As for Ursachi, you seem to be saying that just because some Europeans, including some Spanish people, did some things in the past that are now seen as bad, that we should acquiesce in the conquest and destruction of our own civilization, cultures and nations? I really have a hard time understanding the logic of this. As for the growing popularity of the far right, you should ask yourself why this is the case. Could it be the failed policies of the left and the liberal establishment, which are reducing so many Europeans to a state of desperation and causing them to be fearful of the future? And why is it that the only answer of the liberals and the leftists to the failure of their policies is more of the same? Perhaps we should try some new policies that don’t continue the mistakes of the present and recent past. Or maybe we should go back to those policies and principles that worked for centuries prior to the rise of the Left.

One of my professors pointed out that one of the tragedies of the late Weimar era in Germany was that because the country had gone so far down hill and because the political system was so dysfunctional by the late 1920’s, the only real choice that the Germans had by then was either the Nazis or the Communists, both of which were equally bad. I think in the not-so-distant future, the peoples of Europe will face a similar choice between the far right and the Jihadists, and I think that many on the Left will end up siding with the neo-Fascists because it will be the lesser of two evils. We are already seeing this in countries like Greece, where the Golden Dawn is now polling in first or second place according to some news agencies, and many of the recent “converts” are disillusioned leftists who defected from Syriza or PASOK.

sunseekernv said...

re: psi real or not

A very interesting take is George Hansen's The Trickster and the Paranormal.

One can get a good taste by reading the preview at Amazon.

His take is that it's real, but irrational and tied into the trickster archetype, because it breaks the rules. (and is thus marginalized, especially in a "modern", "rational", bureaucratic society).

Hah - I see one of the reviewers is non other than Charles Tart.

Myriad said...


I thought I did understand your point about Blackmore, and addressed it. I won't try to rephrase that response here, lest we find we've then both talked past each other twice.

And in any event, this is far more important: "The question I'd raise is, given that it's not possible to choose between these worlds on the basis of the evidence, what convinces you that one is right and one is wrong?"

I'm convinced that neither is right or wrong. (We can talk about parsimony, or relative convenience for different specific purposes, but a lot of that comes down to taste.)

In one, you can't build a free energy machine because the laws of thermodynamics are inviolate. In the other, you can't build a free energy machine because humankind isn't ready for such power. (But if you lose your place between the two world models, you might erroneously think you can build a free energy machine.)

And by the way, I noticed too late that my earlier statement that the two worlds are indistinguishable was ambiguous. I didn't mean only that our present state of knowledge is insufficient, but that I think it will never be possible to distinguish them.

That implies that it's not possible to falsify the nothing-leaves-the-body hypothesis, the something-leaves-the-body hypothesis, or a great many others.

John Michael Greer said...

Marcello, that's certainly possible -- though much depends on what happens as the industrial world's fingernail grip on hallucinatory prosperity begins to slip in a big way.

Robert, I think she hit on something very important when she suggested that there was something essential wrong with the basic definitions of psi. Contemporary science normally falls flat on its backside when it tries to deal with consciousness, and I suspect that's the issue here.

Enrique, thanks for the vote of confidence! Fascism's a complex phenomenon, and understanding it isn't helped by the insistence on the part of the left that it's purely a phenomenon of the right. It's precisely in societies that are radically polarized between extremist stances on both ends, leaving the center to demagogues, that fascism is most likely to flourish -- thus the pervasive tendency of fascist regimes to borrow the most popular ideas from left and right alike (thus the conflation of nationalism and socialism in the name of a certain very famous party...)

Sunseeker, I'll take a look at it. Thanks for the suggestion.

Myriad, fair enough. As I see it, though, there's a significant difference between the two beliefs -- not a difference of fact, but one of emphasis and (if you will) educational theory. In many martial arts, for example, the idea of an intangible life energy (ki, qi, prana, or what have you) is a central instructional concept; students are taught to pay close attention to the life force, and to practice exercises that increase individual sensitivity to it. It may well be that those exercises actually increase sensitivity to subtle cues that have nothing to do with an intangible life force, but the exercises have a definite effect.

In t'ai chi, for example, learning to listen to your partner's qi is crucial to being able to use the art in combat; you may well be sensing nonverbal cues, or what have you, but the skills you develop by doing the practices enable a skilled practitioner to anticipate, forestall, and generally mess with an opponent in some impressive ways. An expert practitioner can put you on the floor without ever touching you -- not by energy beams, but by triggering startle reflexes and other neurological reactions at exactly the wrong moments. It's impressive to watch and, if you've ever had it done to you (as I have), rather spooky to experience.

By and large, the martial arts that are effective ways of learning these skills have the life force concept at or near the core of their philosophies. By and large, those martial arts that don't focus on the life force concept aren't very good at teaching this sort of thing. Thus the concept of qi has a definite value whether or not a life force can ever be measured on a meter; attending to the world using the concept of qi as a frame makes it much easier to sort out the things you need to grasp in order to develop the combat skills I've described. That same principle applies to many other "superstitious" concepts: whatever the ontological status of the thing they describe, they focus human attention in ways that have definite pedagogical results, and from one perspective, this is the only justification they need.

John Michael Greer said...

Two more general comments...

First of all, I'd like to thank everyone who's made a donation to the tip jar! It's greatly appreciated. For some reason, though, the PayPal system isn't working right when people try to set up automatic monthly (or what have you) donations; we just get failure messages, and haven't been able to get anything from PayPal about fixing them. If you've tried to set up a regular payment, in other words, we greatly appreciate it, but it isn't working.

Second, I've had to delete a bunch of comments lately due to profanity. Every time without fail I get a little lax about deleting comments due to profanity, I get a rush of swear words. So it's back to zero tolerance. If you've made a recent comment and it didn't go through, or you make one in the future that never shows up, profanity is probably the reason why.

Somewhatstunned said...

JMG said (in rsponse to Myriad):
In many martial arts, ... the idea of ... ki, qi, prana, or what have you ... is a central instructional concept; students are taught to ... to practice exercises that increase individual sensitivity to it. It may well be that those exercises actually increase sensitivity to subtle cues that have nothing to do with an intangible life force, but the exercises have a definite effect.

I was intending to stay well out of this week's barney but I simply must add that that was exactly my interpetation on my (admittedly modest) experience of a heavily ki-based martial art - "nothing to do with ... but has a definite effect" - and is also valuable. I could of course be wrong in my take. No big deal if I am because really, I see no value whatsoever in my arguing in this particular venue about things which could (and have) take whole books ...

(ducks back into hole).

PS. I like the no swearing policy

steve pearson said...

@Uraschi Alexandru
If you haven't already read it, I would recommend Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy as an extremely interesting fictional account of the rise of fascism in pre & early WWII Romania. I can't remember the name of the fascist leader. Was it Nicolai Alexandru? Head of the Iron Guard, yes? Along with the Division Azul, the Romanians were supposedly the foreign troops the Germans respected the most.
I would imagine one reason the right had more universal appeal in the 30s was that it also offered health & other social benefits.

Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks. In life, I have found it best suits me to give as well as to receive. I appreciate your feedback.

Unfortunately, I am observing such matters unfold around me. It has been an interesting couple of weeks. Collapse appears to me to be driven by millions of individual decisions of people pursuing their self interest. Professions are no different. I try to be very old school, so perhaps have a different perspective to my peers, who themselves seem somehow shamed by my activities.



Phil Harris said...

Oh well its Wednesday...
I see your reply to Robert M re Blackmore and OBE, but you had written " ... the first thing she would have done after coming up with her hypothesis -- "nothing leaves the body in an OBE" -- is to think up as many ways as possible to falsify that hypothesis through experimental testing.

Though I have attempted some experimental science, I would like the opinion of more expert practitioners with much more flair than me, but IMHO it is exceedingly difficult to falsify a negative proposition by experiment.

I can remember having to stand by my data, over decades, in support of my hypothesis that there was an absence of an important quarantine disease in sources of very important samples I was testing. My whole career was focussed on my attempts to falsify my hypothesis - I got quite paranoid about my methodology partly because I was the most likely source for contaminating my tests.

Phil H

Ursachi Alexandru said...

Enrique, I don't know if my comment will get through (it's almost time for JMG's next blog post) but here's my short answer:

I do not agree with the current system, but I also consider that I deserve more than a choice between two evils. I am not sympathetic to the "liberal-left" agenda that you are probably using as a label for my own views, except for when it comes to universal uman rights, and tere is a lot to talk about there. And finally, if things will go so bad as to bring Europe back to were it was before WW2, like you said about having to choose between two extremes, I'm more than willing to consider emigrating to a less-risky part of the world before something like that happens.

Oh, and give my regards to the Catalonian independence movement! ;)

Myriad said...

I completely agree. I've even used the same example, qi in martial arts, as an analogy when explaining on skeptic forums why I practice a religion and defend a middle ground accepting the value of various spiritual and mystical world views.

The spooky experience of being dropped without touch sounds much like the also spooky experience of being "spirit slain" by a faith healer. I've never experienced either myself, but there are accounts of skeptics participating in revival meetings on a lark and being quite surprised. (Unfortunately, that doesn't mean all those diabetics at the revival get healed.)

However, I've also seen claims (and videos) of qi masters knocking over dozens of opponents in a few seconds from across the room. That appears to work only if the targets are in a very accepting frame of mind.

At that point, I admit, the skeptical side of my world view takes over; such performances strike me as a cartoonish parody of the valuable methods you were talking about. Much as if an astronomer suggested exploring the stars by landing a rover on the surface of the celestial sphere. Or, if I may, much like you seem to react to Harry Potter-ish depictions of magic.

You can call that mistaking the map for the territory; overloading the model; seeing every problem as a nail; literalism; dogmatism; or fundamentalism. I see those all as forms of the same thing, and it's a problem for all world views and a cause of much of the conflict between them. It can be a judge thinking he can use astrology as a lie detector, Christians going to war against what (or whom) God hates, rationalist statesmen who think they can design utopias, or cosmologists habitually positing that the universe is a giant version of whatever system they're most trained in. (A mathematical object, for classical physicists and Pythagoreans; a random event, for quantum physicists; the active mind of God, for many theologians; a computer simulation, for an increasing number of scientists...) The consequences range from amusing to tragic.

Ah, well. If the imminent future entails a housecleaning of all such abstractions, their shortcomings will become (for a time) moot. Still, a more balanced synthesis arising later seems too much to hope for.

John Michael Greer said...

Stunned, I've trained with people who cover the spectrum from "qi is as real as a rock" to "qi is a metaphor," and they all seem to be doing the same things. The "real as a rock" contingent do tend to put more time into qigong and related practices, though, and so often get better results!

Cherokee, I'd encourage you to pay close attention to the shamefaced attitude of your peers. I see a lot of it, too, and my guess is that what it means is that they know that they should be doing what you are, but don't have the guts. (As for your offlist comment, many thanks and I'll consider it.)

Phil, granted, it's challenging. Still, doing good science is always challenging.

Myriad, the guys who claim to be able to knock people down with qi across a room are dismissed as goofballs in the internal-arts circles where I had my training. (I tried to find a link to a very funny article, titled "Water Boxing," about a martial artist who attended one of those seminars, went to the back of the room, got a glass of water, announced to the sifu that he was going to walk up to the front of the room and throw the water in the sifu's face unless the sifu knocked him down with qi en route. The sifu ended up very wet.) One of the advantages of the internal martial arts that's not shared with many other forms of "spooky" training is that if you claim some remarkable ability, sooner or later you're going to have to demonstrate it against a live and unsympathetic opponent, right out there in front of everybody, and there's rarely any question about who ended up landing hard on his backside and who didn't.

Juhana said...

@Chris: I am not demonizing persons who believe in leftist agenda; in democracy everyone has right to make choice according to his/her own judgment, and I am okay with that. There is a lot, lot more in any person than his/her political agenda. But when talking about politics, not about persons involved, you have to choose the side that protects your own people and your local hood the best way possible. All kind of fashionable "being above those things" is reserved solely for people who can afford to insulate themselves with money from consequences of political mistakes, or who choose to live as journeymen/hobos outside their own community, rejecting his/her own people for some personal agenda. Some call this path individualism, I call it selfishness.

So I actually know a lot of leftist-liberal persons, I just don't speak politics with them at all but concentrate to their other qualities I like more. I do not see them as enemies, but nice persons whose political belief system happens to cause misery among my own, if it is applied to real world. So when clumsy political machinery starts to groan and decisions are made, then it is each for his own people. Afterwards we can be friends again.

No grey areas there. Only and truly only in the West that particular trait in person is seen as an virtue, not as vice, abandoning your own kin... So I dislike political belief system, not the believers. I grew up in communal housing area, I believe people call them "projects" in the USA, and when talking about protecting your own kin there are NO grey areas for kids living in the projects.

@Enrique: Keep up the good work and keep comments flowing, you have gathered quite a enthusiastic following here, I have been marketing :).

AlanfromBigEasy said...

On the existence of Jesus, I find Papias to be the clearest evidence. He collected first person accounts of the Apostles and second person accounts of Christ in five volumes.

His work is now lost, but it was referenced several times.

Given the time frame and extensive writings, Papias was clearly collecting words from actual people (the Apostles), who in turn were talking about a single historical personality that they knew personally.

wall0159 said...

Just saw this cartoon and thought of this discussion

ed boyle said...

the problem with initiation is you can't go back once you've started on the path. Just going to church and reading a relgious text is a social/moral thing with little effect on "deeper experience" however and after a while disappointing to any seious practitioner which is why so many do "church hopping" and give up after some time.

Few people can get into the inititation thing however, you are right. Most christians think it is all of the devil, others fear secretive crazy sect leaders.

Spiritual experience is hard to define and control when experienced outside of initiatory rites. It is mistaken for signs of insanity perhaps by the individuals experiencing the phenomenon or by their friends and relatives.

I recall reading of Theresa of Avila and she had deep spiritual experience. She wrote to her brother, an average devout spanish catholic, who discussed with her how his spiritual energy from intensive prayer stimulated his sexuality somewhat and asked her advice against this problem. Apparently it was normal before the competition from the reformation forced a crackdown (inquisition) on independent spirituality fro normal people to be very devote and sit on the roadside in trance. I think of the madness of Don Quixote directed towards an imaginary beloved.

Sexuality and spirituality have a strong connection and are suppressed by politics in times of crisis as distracting to the political and social order.

"This book traces the shadowy tradition of “holy madness/crazy wisdom” from the Holy Fools of early Christianity, through the great adepts of India and Tibet, up to the controversial gurus of today. In our day, when even the Dalai Lama has warned Western seekers to choose their teachers carefully, Feuerstein provides an intelligent and cautionary guidebook to the guru-disciple relationship, plus a comprehensive analysis of the principles of authentic spirituality."

Lucretia Heart said...

Hey JMG, no reply necessary to this. Just a follow up on my earlier 2 comments to this post.

An example of what I mean by the festivals perhaps spawning something more has already happened in Britaian:

"The New Age Gypsies" started out as basically people traveling from festival to festival during the summer. They all dressed up and drove vans and went by caravan, dressing up in costumes the whole time, etc. 20 years later, many are still doing it, and they use cell phones and lap tops same as most people do-- yet they've dropped the gas engines completely. They actually build and use vardos that are pulled by horses. They've drastically down-sized their energy usage and "gone voluntarily into poverty."

That was sort of what I was trying to get at in my comments. Its not the festivals themselves I see as a new spirituality. I didn't mean to create that impression. I meant that they might inspire people to take a radical turn in their lives to living a very different way.

My husband and I go to a couple festivals each summer as our one "treat"-- but we live in a small townhouse and have (as I've mentioned in other comments) a community that gardens and raises chickens and preserves food and shares other resources together. We've changed our lives.

So---! Yeah, just wanted to give you the heads up about a couple of intriguing trends I've noticed.

Meanwhile, October and November were remarkable here in the Pacific Northwest as we had lots of extra sunshine. This last week, we had 9 inches of snow in central Willamette valley, its in the 20s by day and teens to single digits at night! Very freaky.