Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Robert McLuhan’s book strikes me as an unusual one in an overcrowded field. He neither sides with the debunkers who call themselves sceptics, nor with the ‘believers in the paranormal’, but has returned to the source material, avoiding the trivial thinking and specious arguments that arise from a vague knowledge of secondary and tertiary material (vulnerable to the simplifications, accretions and amplifications that create urban myths, etc).

He clearly states his approach to both sides of the argument as similar to what RAW called “What the Thinker Thinks, the Prover Proves”. He suggests that just as we find an “irrational gravity” among the enthusiasts (drawn to prefer the more far-out explanations) we also find a “rational gravity” that forces people to dismiss, or play-down, unexplained experiences (even of their own), which threaten their world-view.

He seems to want a closer and more respectful look at the evidence for Psi – when we use that to mean telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psychokinesis. As these four models can often prove sufficient to explain most of the evidence presented, he steers clear of the issues of reincarnation, afterlives, ghosts, NDEs, etc. He doesn’t avoid those subjects, at all, at all, but does set aside the need to address those kind of explanations in detail, because of the added complications of discussing cultural and religious interpretations.

As an ex-magician, without a God, most of my friends think of me as quite a hard-line sceptic. Perhaps my attitude to ritual Magick, for instance, also betrays a resistance to areas that I might find disturbing (the pull of rational gravity) and have chosen not to investigate.

Perhaps I occasionally overstate my case, when arguing, but I have little problem with the idea of Telepathy - some kind of group or tribal mind, a jungle sense (Sheldrake’s ‘Sense of Being Looked At’), or fields of knowledge people can draw on (the Akashic Records, for instance).

I have relatively little problem with Clairvoyance – having friends who seem to pick up atmospheres in particular places, who have great insight into others, or have odd perceptions when handling objects of significance (psychometry). These still seem like mysterious but uncontentious aspects of sensitivity, creativity, imagination, the arts, etc.

I have to admit I have a slightly bigger problem with Precognition, beyond anticipation of the near future, which could fall into that ‘jungle sense’ realm, again. I haven’t shut the door on meaningful ‘glimpses of the future’. What we call "Time" still seems pretty odd, to me, though.

And I have a big problem with Psychokinesis (the movement or transformation of material objects by the mind alone), although perhaps at a trivial level it relates to people who can’t wear watches (they stop), street lights that go out when certain people pass them, The Pauli Effect, and so on. I consider the source material of Men Who Stare At Goats a comedy of bureaucracy, but that doesn’t mean I deny the possibility of hexing people to death, etc. That simply takes us into a much more complex realm of culture, belief systems, placebo effects, self-fulfilling prophecies, psychic self-defence, etc.

So I recommend this book for an intelligent overview - whether you consider yourself a believer (second-hand), or someone who has themselves experienced something inexplicable, or a sceptic or 'rationalist'. It offers material for genuine intelligent discussion, and attempts to tease out the testable from the morass of other material that clutters up occult and paranormal discussions.

Early on he mentions such stories as 'rocks that fall from the sky' reported by ordinary folk for centuries, and dismissed by sceptics and scientists because 'there are no rocks in the sky'. No-one can make such occasional and unpredictable events happen on demand, so they can easily be dismissed. Most psi events seem hard to reproduce in controlled environments, except in a statistical sense (over the interpretation of which bitter arguments still rage on) but that doesn't eliminate the possibility of something odd happening that could reward further study.

Blogs for follow-up:

Randi's Prize - the blog of the book
Paranormalia - another Robert McLuhan blog

Oh, and just to revert to my magician head for a moment.
McLuhan seems under the illusion that people couldn't use conjuring methods (say, to create poltergeist phenomena) because that needs elaborate set-ups, and has to be done far away from the audience (page 76) which only goes to show he hasn't really gone to source material for that, otherwise he would know that improvisational close-up magic has a long history - and a huge resource of techniques. Just as improvised comedy doesn't know where it may end up, but can still create good jokes, some opportunistic magicians do open-ended magic with a variety of possible outcomes (Multiple Outs, in the trade). Geller has more than one way to bend a fork!
And as to magicians having to admit they are baffled by some of the medium's performances, which somehow proves that psychic phenomena really occur, again I beg to differ. Magicians love to feel fooled (see Penn & Teller's current tv show in the UK) but that doesn't mean they have to 'admit' that some psychic event really happened, just because they can't figure it out. Bullsh*t!

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