A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT
Encounters with inexplicable phenomena, whether at first hand or by report, have all too often distorted the vision of the investigators who frequently become amateur prophets of bizarre cosmologies or withdraw into a hysterical defence of puritanical scientific rationalism. Even at a more open-minded level it is all too easy to slip into nonsensical jargon, using such terms such as ‘energy’, ‘vibrations’, ‘earth magic’ or ‘worm holes in the space-time continuum’, which merely serve to conceal our ignorance of the nature of the phenomena.
In order to preserve open-mindedness it is most useful to have a balanced view of the nature of ‘reality’, in which unorthodox events, the ‘supernatural’ or ‘paranormal’ etc., are accorded a place, but not necessarily a dominant one. Such a view would go a long way to abolish mutually exclusive categories such as ‘natural’ v ‘supernatural’, ‘matter’ v ‘consciousness’ or ‘spirit’, ‘science’ v ‘religion’ which have been the leitmotif of European dualism since the Reformation.
Armed with such a view an enquirer ought to be better prepared to design experiments to investigate the phenomena, and better prepared to deal with both the rival claims and the over-reactions of religious and scientific fanatics.
The Elusiveness of the Paranormal
The most obvious feature of all psychic phenomena and the aspect which unites them on the unorthodox periphery of science is the variability and unpredictability of their manifestation. Factors which influence the subjective state of mind of a medium or psychic individual or of the witnesses are, or seem to be, the most significant sources of variation in any experiment. It is this element of subjectivity which in large measure sets the whole field apart from the physical and biological sciences and which points to the importance of understanding psychological and sociological principles of perception and well-established theories of personality.
The sensational characteristics of psychic phenomena, their apparent contradiction of the ‘orthodox’ laws of physics etc., repels consideration by traditional dualistic scientists. Unless the problem of subjectivity is properly understood then psychic phenomena will remain sporadic and unreproducable and therefore ‘unscientific’. However, any lessons learned by understanding the nature of subjective influences on objective phenomena will almost certainly have a great impact on modern physicists who, after a hundred years, are still unable to integrate the role of subjectivity into their theoretical framework in spite of their realisation of the impact of the ‘subjective observer’ in both relativity theory and quantum theory.
The purest case of subjectivity orientation is that of solipsism. The viewpoint of a solipsist with regard to his environment is roughly as follows: “An object exists only for as long as I am observing it. When I do not observe it, I am no longer aware of its existence, nor can I prove that it does exist, therefore I shall assume that it no longer exists”. Whilst this viewpoint is logically self-consistent by insisting upon the subjectivity of all observations, it operates on a number of aesthetically unappealing and impractical assumptions.
These assumptions are, that the observer has no memories which relate a contemporary observation to any previous ones, and that the observer has no interest in processing his or her sense data so as to formulate any abstract generalisations such as laws of Nature or laws of God. In other words the solipsist is completely impotent and has no wish to impose any order on, nor extract any order from raw sensation.
The solipsist lives in a universe in which every event is a surprise. Nothing is learned and nothing can be taken for granted. If perpetuated for too long this view-point would become excruciatingly painful to maintain. However, even the possibility of such a philosophical position casts doubt on the substantiality of any observed object, since it is regarded as existing only so long as its observer wishes it to exist.
This state of affairs bears an important resemblance to the insubstantiality of those psievents which occur only if the observer is receptive to them, that is so long as he or she subjectively ‘permits’ their existence or ‘believes’ in them.
The Impossibility of Objectivity
It is not too great a step to take from the solipsist position to the realisation that generalisations or patterns abstracted from sense data also have a very strong subjective component. Generalisations about sense data do not represent legitimate proofs of the objectivity of the phenomena they refer to. The idea of an independent cause for a subjective sensation is itself a subjective concept! What is remarkable is both the logical consistency of this viewpoint and how rarely this assumption is acted upon.
Hence the Laws of Nature and the Laws of God ought to be regarded as subjectively created patterns used as models to measure and assess the value of observations of ‘reality’. As such they are subject to change by authoritative theoreticians, whether they be prophets, priests, philosophers, scientists, artists or magicians.
The content of observations is also controlled by these frameworks of laws since they act like filters in the mind of any observer, screening out those events which do not accord with the laws by relegating them to the status of a pseudo-science or pseudo-religion or suppressing them entirely. Thus a successful law of the Universe is like a self-fulfilling prophecy – it brings about the very observations which confirm the law, in a ‘positive feedback loop’.
One should not conclude from this that the laws of the Universe are created by each individual for their own exclusive use, rather they are the outcome of a cultural heritage, which no one person has the capacity to verify personally, following the path by which it was created. The Laws of the Universe formulated by a culture have to be learned, not experienced in their totality. They may be altered by persons with the prescribed cultural authority, provided the authority does not lose its influence, i.e. break its own charismatic spell, by proposing too drastic a change. Even absolute rulers must take account of the customs and usages of the land if they wish to survive.
SUBJECTIVITY AND THE PARANORMAL
SEANCES AND THE PARANORMAL
Thus from a subjectivist point of view what is regarded as ‘real’ is subject to cultural approval vested in appropriate authorities, prophets, priests, scientists magicians, artists etc. Paranormal events represent a ‘reality’ which deviates from the hard core of the approved reality.
The development and maintenance of the dominant reality may usefully be compared with the conditions required to maintain the deviant reality of a seance.
The members of a seance represent a sub-culture or counter-culture which insists on, or at least encourages, the reality of certain events which are proscribed by the dominant culture. When such a sub-culture is able to shut out the influences of the outside world in a given space and time then its ‘private’ reality begins to manifest itself.
In Jungian terms the ‘collective unconscious’ of the seance becomes detached from the ‘collective unconscious’ of the remainder of mankind. In order to achieve this detachment it is essential for the group to first exclude sceptics until their own power and self confidence has been sufficiently enhanced by the positive feedback of anticipated experiences to risk allowing the doubter to attempt to interfere with their convictions.
It should be remembered that whilst sceptics are excluded it is impossible for an outsider to establish whether the events reportedly occurring in the seance are ‘real’, a ‘hoax’, or a ‘delusion’ manufactured by the converted. There is in this situation no difference between any of these labels. From the subjectivist point of view there can be no distinction between reality, hoax and delusion. What is ‘real’ for any human culture, including our own, could be logicially regarded as no more than a most elaborate hoax conjured up on a scale grand enough to convince a great many people.
By way of confirmation of this view of the nature of a seance Iris M. Owen and Margaret H. Sparrow (New Horizons 1(3) p.6, Jan. 1974) report an experiment on The Generation of Paranormal Physical Phenomena in connection with an “Imaginary Communicator” .
In this experiment the personal profile of the fictitious personality of a communicator spirit is created by a seance group, none of whom is a known medium. The personality of the spirit is then expected to perform raps on a table in response to questions and to answer according to the group’s expectations of this personality.
All of these expectations were fulfilled, with one exception: the answer to one question was decidedly the opposite of what had been anticipated. It may be that one or more members of the group unconsciously wished for this alternative answer rather than the agreed answer.
Batchelor and Brookes-Smith (various private publications) have also performed many experimental seances, without known mediums, which created prearranged paranormal events such as raps, table lifting and messages. Interestingly they emphasise the role of humour in achieving the desired result, sometimes with spectacular success.
It is interesting to note that the type of paranormal event expected in a seance or other psychic manifestation depends upon the dominant culture background against which the event is realised. Thus the Philippine psychic surgeons, who claimed to perform materially visible and bloody surgery with their bare hands, were responding to the local image of western medicine and capitalising on the curative mystique it has with simple folk. In England psychic healers are not expected to perform surgery, ritual or otherwise, to achieve an equivalent result.
Subjectivity and Established Reality
The foregoing remarks illustrate the application of a subjective point of view to deviant realities such as those maintained in a seance. I have also indicated the wider application of this view to a dominant reality. An established and orthodox reality is no less subjective at its source than any of its competing heresies. Its distinguishing feature is its acceptance and successful communication by the cultural elite of that society.
A change or paradigm shift in the world view of a dominant culture operates very like the development of a seance or subculture until it becomes recognised as a respectable body of belief with recognised authorities. Indeed a research group, performing a crucial or speculative experiment, behaves very much like a seance group with their extreme caution, secrecy and hesitance until more confidence in the result is forthcoming. Historical accounts of the development of innovative conceptualisations show this very clearly. Freud’s extreme caution is an excellent recent example as is that of Copernicus in an earlier period.
The experimental seances described earlier are however insufficient to demonstrate the wider claim of the application of subjectivity ro the dominant reality. What is needed is an experiment which is effectively like an open seance, in which a hitherto paranormal event is created before a large audience which is not entirely convinced of the possibility, nor entirely opposed.
AN EXPERIMENT WITH REALITY
For some years past I have worked in close collaboration with Ian Channell (a former social sciences lecturer at the University of New South Wales) on planning and implementing an experiment which would test our contentions of the subjective nature of established reality. Mr. Channell has led rather an unusual career since 1969 when he was appointed official university Wizard by the then Vice Chancellor, Sir Philip Baxter and the Student Union. Since then he has legitimately acquired a variety of titles including “Cosmologer” of Melbourne University Union, “Living Work of Art” at the National Gallery of Victoria and Robert MacDougall Art Gallery in Christchurch, “ArchWizard of Canterbury”, and, obviously without ecclesiastical legitimation, “Prophet of Christchurch”.
As previously stated, the basic form of the experiment is to create an heretical event (scientific heresy) before a large audience as a kind of public seance. The Wizard’s principal skills in developing such an event are his spell-binding oratorical performances and, less obviously, his long-term, patient and unpaid assistance with the legitimate aims of established institutions.
In order to generate the necessary audience interest and humorous scepticism the event selected ought to appeal to the popular imagination. It is also most useful to integrate the event with various myths derived from the dominant reality system, both to minimise rejection, and to focus together those elements of the dominant culture which lean favourably towards the event. The experiment supports the established reality along a train of development until it is strong enough to come to an unorthodox conclusion. In this respect it differs from most “alternative realities” by avoiding the energy wasted in total opposition to orthodox reality.
The experiment was first formulated by the Wizard at Melbourne University in 1970 and was originally planned for 1974. Carefully detaching himself from from all economic, legal and moral dependence upon established institutions as Ian Channell, he was now known only as a fictional character, “The Wizard”.
With suitable and essential media coverage he planned to leave his New Zealand base in Christchurch and sail to Antipodes Island some 250 miles south-east of New Zealand, and the only point of land “Antipodean” to the English Channel.
Once there, communications systems would be established to broadcast the event around the world. Then at the hour of his 42nd birthday, amidst a small crowd of witnesses (and after several hours of music and oratory giving his reasons why he was making the attempt) he would attempt to rise into the air (whence the need for levity) and vanish, subsequently reappearing and splashing down on the opposite side of the Earth at a point fifty miles south of the Isle of Wight where a fleet of small craft would be waiting to pick him up.
The mood in which this experiment was to be conducted was in accord with the recommendations of Batcheldor and Brookes-Smith, for joviality and relaxation within an atmosphere of pleasurable expectancy; a non-dualistic synthesis of levity and levitation.
The content of the experimental development integrates a number of British myths and imaginative tales. The journey to a distant island with the possibility of vanishing invokes Lewis Caroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. It also has parallels with the disappearance of the keepers of the Flannen Light (see Mitchell’s Flying Saucer Vision)and Dante’s ascension from the earthly paradise. The ideas of levity, levitation and vanishing have the advantage of discouraging moral or other serious overtones which might appear with other paranormal events. Intellectual interest in ecstatic flight has increased with the recent interest in the therapeutic application of shamanistic powers and practices.
As a parapsychology experiment even a partial result such as levitation would be of interest. The more spectacular result of appearing on the opposite face of the earth involves a considerably enlarged audience and provides a better test of the thesis that reality is fulfilled cultural expectation which can be moulded by respected authorities.
In the event none of this took place in 1974. The Wizard was able to obtain only limited interest or media coverage in his proposed ascension from Antipodes Island, which was anyway rather remote for media coverage, especially television, which would have been the ideal means to generate the necessary atmosphere. By this time his performances in Cathedral Square had made him the most talked about individual in the country but in spite of his reputation as a quick witted humorist and his clean personal record, he was not trusted enough by leading cultural authorities. Transport to the island could not be found.
At the English Channel end I was able to organise several boats from Portsmouth but logistical problems and uncertain weather conditions made everything immensely difficult.
What did happen in its place was a sudden explosion of interest and controversy surrounding the Wizard quite a different areas of activity. The interest has continued unabated ever since.
It is still possible to carry out this experiment even in a modified form. The Wizard has considered making the attempt at any cosmologically significant site in the world, to which he is invited, provided he is given sufficient cooperative news coverage and resources to make the journey.
If this experiment were to prove successful then it would demonstrate the ultimately subjective nature of all reality, even orthodox scientific reality, by producing a major shift in reality i.e. the realization of levitation and teleportation, following a large scale mass-media seance. Instead of confining itself to a sub-culture or private reality, use is made of the dominant culture (the world’s news services) thereby avoiding much of the fear-based secrecy of a traditional seance.
Even if this “thought experiment” failed to fulfil expectations there would still be much to be learned by studying the cultural repercussions of the attempt which should have considerable impact on reality as maintained and communicated in our present civilization.
Dr. Derek Banks
First published by The Wizard’s Cosmological Research and Development Centre, Christchurch New Zealand 1981)