Psychic Powers Part II

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  • Communication with the dead
  • Psychometry
  • Levitation
  • Teleportation

Yesterday I went into the conceptual structure of what might be termed the more prosaic psi abilities, and although I did stray into the area of anecdotal evidence and the assertion that they exist, I was more focussed on what they amount to. I do believe they exist, of course, but what I’m saying here should, I hope, not depend on a commitment to their reality. This is more about the idea of psi than their existence.

Some of the ones I’m left with amount to what are called siddhis in Yoga, that is, supernatural abilities, and are considerably more radical than the ones I’ve mentioned before. They’re more “showy”, sometimes literally in the sense that they might be faked as part of a stage show and would impress an audience. Yogis warn people against using them (which simply suggests they believe they exist) because of their showiness and because they “are powers in the worldly estate”, i.e. the temptation exists to use them for one’s own material gain, which if you believe in reincarnation for example is hazardous. Buddhists believe that if a human is reincarnated as a deity, the chances are they will succumb to the temptation to use their powers for selfish ends and end up in Hell in their next incarnation. A similar attitude exists among Christians, who often see these powers as real, but as dangerous for the person using them as they’re Satanic in origin. Other Christians see them as abilities humans would have had if sin hadn’t entered the world.

Communication with the dead is a controversial topic. For instance, dreaming of people who have passed away could be understood this way, and happen involuntarily. If it is as it appears to be, it seems to rely on consciousness and identity both surviving death, and therefore on the existence of a soul as an entity with a substance which exists in the same sense that a physical body exists but of different essence. However, it’s also conceivable that information is being obtained in another way. Anyone who’s seen ‘Black Mirror’ will be aware of the idea that a dead person can be simulated convincingly from their online behaviour, but that this will run the risk of eventually becoming unbearably creepy, and in our own interactions with each other we do build up sophisticated models of how our loved ones behave and who they are. If we are communicating with mere simulacra, the question arises of one’s own integrity and authenticity in one’s own life, in that if one wishes to live on in such a manner, for it to be an accurate copy of oneself one will need to conduct onself honestly towards others.

I would actually broaden the concept of communing with the dead here to a wider set of phenomena also including apparent past life memories and hauntings, and would further suggest that these are not all the same thing, some being much more amenable to naturalistic explanations than others. In what I’m reluctantly forced to call “ghost hunting” in the absence of a more dignified and Latinate-sounding term, a distinction may be made between genuine hauntings by spirits and something more akin to traces of events being played back by “stone tape”, as it came to be known. I find the latter more convincing than the former, and although a process whereby that could take place is hard to identify, I have discussed this in the post on the Chronovisor. It’s a well-established fact that traces of incidents are left in inanimate objects in various ways, such as exposure to daylight or heating, which can be “played back”, and there are very clear traces of events left in the form of such things as footprints and fossils.

The Tanakh is quite clearly opposed to the idea of communicating with the dead although it also seems quite inconsistent as it has practically nothing to say about what, if anything, follows death. The so-called “Witch Of Endor” incident is the only reference I’m aware of the dead communicating with the living, where it’s specifically stated that Samuel speaks to Saul from beyond the grave. The story is recounted in 1 Samuel 28, and there’s no suggestion that the medium is being deceitful. Elsewhere it says that the dead are conscious of nothing at all, or know nothing, in Ecclesiastes 9:5. Hence this appears to be inconsistent. What I understand to be the standard Christian view, and to some extent probably also the Jewish one, is that when people die, they cease to be conscious until the Day of Judgement, at which point they are brought back to life in a living body. Consequently in a Jewish or Christian setting the idea of communicating with the dead is right out, but in the case of Christianity the emphasis on Satan as a personification of evil means that demons or the Devil are likely to be seen as a likely source of apparent information from the dead, and that it’s a case of deception and impersonation for manipulative purposes.

Outside the Judæo-Christian context, and for once it seems justified to talk of a joint tradition while noting the rather more negative connotations in Christianity, there is ancestor-worship and the elevation of status of elders into that of deities. It makes sense to suppose that the perceived increasing wisdom of the old will continue to increase after death until they have a superhuman status. However, there’s also the attitude that the dead who do communicate with us have unfinished business on this plane of existence which it would be best to resolve. Since I’m not particularly well acquainted with Spiritism or Spiritualism, I feel I’m venturing onto unfamiliar territory here and would actively welcome someone’s input on this. Spiritism differs from Spiritualism in that the former asserts that reincarnation occurs but the latter is agnostic on the issue. They believe that spirits of the dead maintain their identity and continue to influence the physical world, in other words telekinesis. Some scientists took Spiritism seriously and it could be said to have been founded by scientists in the first place, notably Emmanuel Swedenborg. Everyone in the Spiritist Universe is gradually making progress towards moral perfection, and nobody is ever reincarnated into a lower form of life. Spiritism is also theistic or deistic (I’m not sure which), and is associated with the Brazilian/Afrikan religion Umbanda.

Spiritualism, unlike Spiritism, initially had no sacred texts, and had a strong liberal strand, in which many of the people involved in it supported votes for women, the rights of indigenous peoples and the abolition of slavery. It was much-criticised in the late nineteenth century due to a large number of mediums being accused of fraud, but it occurs to me that there is a tide away from belief in spirits towards a more materialistic belief system, perhaps in more ways than one. I honestly don’t know how sincere mediums were at the time, but I don’t really see any reason to suppose that the majority weren’t acting in good faith whether or not they were actually able to do what they claimed. I could compare it to complementary medicine. Whether or not it’s efficaceous, the majority of practitioners either believe that it is or that it’s of benefit to their clients. Why would the same not be true of Spiritualism?

Spirits of the dead are said to be inclined to communicate with those who are still alive, and to be evolving spiritually. The movement was also associated with the Quakers in the nineteenth century, although judging by the Quakers here in England I know today there must surely have been a drastic divergence in beliefs, because I can’t imagine any of them entertaining such a world view. The “Indian spirit guide” can be seen as an abiding awareness of the genocide practiced against the Native Americans and perhaps a recognition of the unearned mercy some of them might show post mortem. Although there is something of a loose system around Spiritualism, people completely outside any such tradition often claim to be in contact with the dead, and in fact that would include me, as I believe I at least meet an accurate representation of my father-in-law and one of my grandfathers in my dreams. However, I’m not convinced that identity survives death. I think perhaps individual experiences move around and enter the minds of others, and because they are always first person experiences they are labelled as happening to the person reporting them by their consciousness. However, I’m not going to say flat-out that it’s impossible to communicate with the spirits of the dead. I’m not sure what I think about EVP either, although I experimented with it as a teenager.

EVP is “Electronic Voice Phenomenon”, which is the perception of voices in static. It was said to have provided the inspiration for the Chronovisor, although in that case the voices were interpreted as coming from the past rather than being spirits. In a way, EVP is rather like divination such as reading tea leaves, where some kind of arbitrary, pseudo-random process is used as the basis for extracting apparent information, which may in fact be pareidolia. Static on TV has been suggested for the same purpose, and it’s even been said that the digitalisation of media is part of a conspiracy to close off a potential channel of communication with the spirit world, although this sounds seriously paranoid to me, but perhaps almost nostalgically so. In 1959, a Swedish film producer made recordings of bird song. When he played them back, he claimed to have heard the voices of his dead parents. I don’t know the details of this incident, but there is sometimes “print-through” on tape recordings, where a previous recording made on the same tape can still be faintly heard. Actually that isn’t print-through apparently, but it does happen (print through is where nearby tape on a reel induces faint audio patterns in the currently played portion of tape). Also, it’s interesting that once again the more spiritualistic interpretation is made of the phenomenon, that it was the current spirits of his parents he heard rather than a relic of the past when they were still alive. I don’t know how to choose between these alternatives. Is it time travel or paranormal? Both are very marginalised views. I don’t remember how I got the idea to do this. It would’ve been in about 1981 and it followed on from listening to things like numbers stations, over the horizon radar, jamming and Morse signals a couple of years previously. It doesn’t seem to have been learned from anyone else’s experiments with it. I found that I got vivid visual images in my imagination and could hear music after a few minutes of listening to white noise. In 1985, the book ‘The Ghost of 29 Megacycles’ was published, claiming that a particular frequency was particularly liable to this.

An interesting experiment conducted in 1972 involved the invention of a fictional ghost and a gradually induced séance atmosphere, and as this was increased, participants began to experience a sense of presence. I’m afraid that’s all I know about that.

Psychometry, a word which I think is correct but which I’m attempting to recall from reading it once about four decades back, seems to refer to the idea that a personal object in someone’s presence becomes charged with their energy and personality, as if it’s been magnetised. I was vividly aware of this idea when I visited a herb garrett in Bermondsey, where a surgeon’s saw for removing legs was on display. It had been used on numerous occasions to remove limbs which would otherwise have guaranteed the patient’s death, without anæsthetic of course. Although my rational mind said one thing, it was almost impossible to believe in the heat of the moment that that saw had not been imprinted with the immense quantity of agony it must’ve caused. However, on making this observation to a friend who was also there, he suggested the opposite. This tool had saved hundreds of people’s lives. This is the kind of thinking involved in the idea of fetishism in the religious sense, or perhaps for some in the sexual sense. More specifically, relics of saints and the cross carry a similar idea. In the realm of mediums and readers, as I might call them, the idea is that you can hold a personal effect and psychically reconstruct a person’s life and identity from the psychological impression you receive from it. Once again, like a chronovisor, it’s based on the idea that there are natural recording properties in objects which have been in close proximity to certain events or perhaps just generally, and to me at least this idea has immense emotional appeal. I know I’m not alone in the idea that I wanted to save every written note my mother left me as a child because destroying it would be like killing her. This has an obsessive-compulsive element but is probably quite common and needn’t be medicalised. In the late nineteenth century some people believed that psychometry would prove to be as important a branch of science as the study of electricity. It’s just hard to believe that the physical world really is as indifferent as it apparently is, and although disbelief in this is fine and probably correct, the emotional element is important, and we are emotional beings living in an emotional world. Few people would consider the possessions of a loved one to be completely insignificant, and if they were to dispose of them all after their death the chances are that they would be motivated by grief and not wishing to be reminded of their loss rather than lack of sentiment. This is also where the urge to hoard originates. As with several other alleged psionic abilities, mediums have been enlisted to use psychometry to investigate crimes and missing persons. The presence of DNA on such items means that today a similar kind of significance can actually be rigorously pursued with a high degree of confidence.

I’ve been into teleportation previously on this blog, so I’ll only cover it briefly here. There are a number of supposèd incidents of teleportation recorded, notably one which is said to have occurred between Manila in the Philippines and Mexico City in 1593. A soldier guarding the governor’s palace in Manila felt dizzy and faint, and leant against a wall, closing his eyes. When he opened them a few seconds later, he found himself in Mexico City. He was aware of the recent assassination of the governor of the Philippines before the news was able to reach the city, was jailed for desertion and then released when it turned out several months later that this assassination had indeed occurred. This is of course said to be a tall tale. Another incident involved a nun referred to as the Lady In Blue, whose real name was María de Jesús de Ágreda, who was said to teleport regularly from her abbey in Spain to the land of the Jumanos in present day Texas and New Mexico, between 1620 and 1623. When visited by missionaries in 1629, the Jumanos were said to have been very eager to be baptised because of her proselytism. There are a number of other examples, and Qephitzat Ha-Derekh is the Hebrew name for the phenomenon. Most teleportation today would be considered to be a science fiction device like the transporters in ‘Star Trek’, and teleportation is a bit different from the other examples of psionic powers because scientists have succeeded in relocating the information of a microscopic object’s quantum state without using any kind of physical signalling mechanism or moving the object itself. However, teleportation of the Qephitzat Ha-Derekh kind is another matter entirely, and a common question asked about teleportation is of whether it amounts to death followed by the creation of a clone in another place with intact memories or is a genuine method of transportation.

Finally, there is levitation, famously promoted by the Natural Law Party in the 1992 General Election here and also elsewhere in the world. I could dilate on the political party, which is associated with George Harrison and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and has actually won some elections, but will confine myself to making the observation that levitation in the context of the NLP is considered a Siddhi in the Yoga tradition and the party itself was the target of considerable outrage from my ex at the time. Levitation is another example of something which is practically achievable without paranormal involvement in some situations, as with superconducting magnets and high-intensity sound waves. It’s also said to occur by some Hindus and Christians, in the latter case sometimes but not always being seen as demonic. Levitation is practiced as a trick in some situations, where it seems to involve certain kinds of muscle control enabling someone to “plank” from beside a hand-held staff placed on the ground.

To conclude, then, this has been an attempt to survey psionic abilities, some of which haven’t even been mentioned. Although I have my own beliefs, I’m more attempting to describe what they are than advocating for their possibility or impossibility. I was hoping also to investigate philosophically the intelligibility of the claim that there can be supernatural explanations for phenomena, but unfortunately I’ve run out of time so it’ll have to wait.

The Baader Meinhof Effect

Or is it Bader Mindhop? Imagine a disabled RAF pilot who, rather than applying himself to getting back in a plane, overcomes his disability through Yogic mental training and spiritual discipline, ultimately achieving Qephitzat ha-Derekh, and acquiring the ability to teleport using his mind alone. Were he then able to train others in this siddhi, maybe the War would’ve been brought to an end much sooner. The Bader Mindhop, as it is known, or was to me as a child, was what I imagined Baader Meinhof to be when they began to make themselves known in the early ’70s. They are, coincidentally perhaps, also known as the RAF – the Red Army Faction. Perhaps their ability to teleport psychically would’ve been used to gather intelligence and undertake sabotage and robbery, but the question there is, does one retain one’s siddhis if one becomes morally corrupt? Would that even have been moral corruption or were they heeding a higher ethical call than most?

I think I was probably influenced by ‘The Tomorrow People’ in this opinion. In case you don’t know, ‘The Tomorrow People’ was an ITV children’s series broadcast from 1973 to 1979 and later remade in I think the ’90s. I didn’t watch much of it as we were a decidedly BBC household, but we did read a novelisation in English class around ’79. I get the feeling it was indirectly trying to rip ‘Doctor Who’ off, although it doesn’t actually seem that similar, but it may have been more so back in the day. In the series, Homo superior is beginning to evolve in the form of adolescents who find themselves able to perform the 3 T’s of telekinesis, telepathy and teleportation, also known as “jaunting” after the Alfred Bester novel ‘The Stars My Destination’. It would be very flattering to a teenager of the time to be able to think of themselves as special in that way, and apart from anything else it’s in keeping with the focus on New Age ideas prevalent in youth culture at the time. It also places it in that line leading from Olaf Stapledon via Arthur C Clarke to David Bowie, which I’ve mentioned before on here.

Hence the question forming in my mind right now is this: if one is able to achieve some kind of higher plane of spiritual existence, would that all collapse if one abused any power one had, or are the two somehow compatible in a way we mere human-basics fail to understand? Alternatively, are siddhis actually inevitably associated with spiritual enlightenment or is that a version of the just world fallacy? Qephitzat ha-Derekh, the ability of a rabbi to travel without moving, seems only to occur on a need-to-do basis. One can only achieve it if it accords with the Divine Will. But is this really true? I can easily see that if someone was required for a ritual, or unable to reach home before the sunset that begins the Sabbath, they might find themselves miraculously in the divinely-required location, perhaps having travelled a great distance in less than the expected period of time. The aforementioned Arthur C Clarke once brought up the possibility that if Ha-Shem could be everywhere at once, rather than having to obey the apparent laws of physics and the ultimate speed limit imposed by the velocity of light, maybe we too could avail ourselves of that power, since in Clarketech “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

During the Cold War, the CIA and KGB both tried to investigate and develop psionic powers but were also said to be unable to do so. Whereas this could just be put down to the plausible likelihood that they don’t exist, another possibility emerges. Maybe they couldn’t do it because they were not acting out of a purehearted motive. Maybe to one who has morally compromised too far, ignored one’s conscience rather more than most, the very laws of physics are different and one has no choice but to abide by a naturalistic view of the Cosmos because that’s how it is for one. That said, if this line of thought is pursued too far I suspect it will lead to victim-blaming.

There are a number of lists of siddhis. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika seems to mention ten, including things like ahimsa and samadhi, and many of them seem to be virtues rather than psychic powers. A number of other sources agree on a list of eight, including laghima, prapti, prakamya, anima, vasitva, mahima and vasitva (I’m not transliterating these strictly because it would make typing too difficult) plus kama-avasayitva or garima. These are respectively, and this is my interpretation, levitation, teleportation, the ability to have whatever one desires, miniaturisation, the ability to control people, enlargement and the ability to control forces of nature, plus overcoming desires or the ability to become infinitely heavy. These sound completely unbelievable on the whole, and we’re warned that they are only powers in a worldly way, and elsewhere there’s the tradition that these should not be used as parlour tricks. The link between virtues and more material siddhis seems to indicate that the ability, for example, to be completely non-violent is as great an achievement as teleportation, and I can believe that. However, the implication is also that both are attainable. I suppose the way I see these, if I do entertain the more startling ones, is that they’re like the ability to lift a heavy weight off one’s child in extremis, and they certainly aren’t the intended destination, if there even is such a thing, of practicing Yoga.

Quite a few years ago, I considered studying the Qabbalah, and it seemed that the first stage was following the Torah perfectly. Since this is a pretty tall order and the fact that it was portrayed as the first step made me wonder what the point of the rest of the Tree of Life even was. I am aware that a distinction is often made between what is divinely required of us and what is virtuous, but if it operates to that extent it just seems like a distraction from doing the right thing.

Oddly, all of this is really a preamble to what I was actually planning to say here. The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, or “Effect” as I called it above, is something I’ve experienced in the past few days. After I wrote Orange I found myself noticing orange the colour and orange the fruit everywhere. This does not of course mean that the Law Of Attraction is bringing me oranges. It means I’m experiencing the Baader-Meinhof Effect. This is a cognitive bias where after noticing something once, one starts to perceive it everywhere, laying one open to the conclusion that its frequency of occurrence has increased. According to Wikipedia, this was made famous by a man in 1994 hearing about the Baader Meinhof Gang for the first time, then coincidentally found it mentioned elsewhere shortly after. I can remember when our first child was on the way, Sarada and I both began to notice that there seemed to be pregnancy everywhere. However, clearly our child was not the first baby ever to be born in history. In the twenty-first (Christian) century, the Baader Meinhof Phenomenon was renamed the “frequency illusion”, possibly because not many people know what the Baader Meinhof Group was any more, although even in 1994 they were probably quite obscure. It’s considered to be a combination of confirmation and selective attention biasses. It’s suggested here that the BME is useful for creative writing as it leads one to focus on confirmatory experiences and pick up little bits of info which can be woven into a story. Presumably this means I could currently benefit from writing a story about oranges, but Jeanette Winterson already kinda did that.

But who were the Baader-Meinhof Group?

Well, back in the day there used to be rather a lot of paramilitary organisations who were sufficiently frustrated by the political process that they decided the only solution was to engage in violent action against the established social order, an idea I’m generally in sympathy with except for the violence, and one of these was the Rote Armee Fraktion. In the late 1960s, the establishment had committed the error of giving baby boomers a higher education in large numbers, and the result was that a lot of middle class people became aware of the flaws in the system and decided to act against it. Ulrike Meinhof started out as a pacifist and an activist in the nuclear disarmament movement. Her pacifism was criticised by the Socialist Students’ League. This was in 1964. In ’68, she left her husband and job and met up with Andreas Baader, who had helped set fire to a department store in Frankfurt-am-Rhein as a protest against the public’s indifference to the genocide in Vietnam, and unlike the other members of the RAF hadn’t been to university. Thus was the Baader-Meinhof Group formed. They were largely seen as a terrorist group, at least outside Germany.

Within West Germany they had popular support among the younger generation. Part of their belief system was that the people who were now in positions of power in the Federal Republic, which tended to be seen as the successor state to the Third Reich as opposed to the DDR, had also been working a couple of decades earlier in the Nazi state, and were therefore seen as culpable. Consequently, all the kidnaps, robberies and the like were seen as justified by a large fraction of the German population and many of them said they’d help hide gang members. This situation is considerably different to other Western countries with similar groups at the time. After a considerable police operation, the first generation of the RAF were arrested and brought to trial. One of their judges was, unsurprisingly, an ex-Nazi party member. The RAF itself was anti-imperialist and saw itself as in solidarity with the people of the South.

That, then, is the actual Baader Meinhof group, which didn’t wish to go by that name and after Baader’s and Meinhof’s arrests probably shouldn’t’ve been called that anyway. They were, so far as I can tell, well-educated middle class individuals on the whole, though not entirely, who were fighting on behalf of a cause without actually being directly oppressed, and therefore questions regarding the justification of their violence seem justifiable to me. But in any case, this post isn’t about them but the effect named after them.

In statistics there’s a division between sensitive and specific tests. Sensitive tests are likely to detect when something is so, but will also sometimes falsely report that it is when it isn’t. Specific ones do the opposite: they are unlikely to report something is there when it isn’t but may miss it when it is. I have a tendency to be specific rather than sensitive in my thought, which is part of what makes my thinking style depressive and means I often miss opportunities because I can’t perceive them. However, this also means I’m relatively safe from imagining something is there when it isn’t, and you may wish to consider the fact that I’m theist in that setting. It means I’m unlikely to develop paranoia, which is supposed to be called something else nowadays.

Now imagine someone is diagnosable as paranoid or schizophrenic. If they experience the BME, if it’s about the wrong thing, that may feed their delusion, or they may feel it’s significant and become fixated on it. Almost everyone’s brain does it, but for some people the fact that their brain does it, interacting with their learned experience or the tendencies they already have in their thought, can make it problematic. It can also be problematic in the context of continuing professional development. If you’re a professional and you go on a course, when you come back off it you may be more likely to see the things you learnt about when they aren’t really there. You might also be careful to guard against that and end up missing it when it is there.

It’s also a problem in legal testimony. For instance, someone can become convinced that a suspect is innocent or guilty and develop the appropriate confirmation bias, and that could be a detective, barrister, juror or witness.

Finally, it illustrates how the brain is substantially a filter. Before I wrote ‘Orange’, I’m sure I encountered just as much orangeness and oranges as I’ve noticed since I published it. Today I noticed the flag of the Dutch Royal Family and realised that Dutch soccer strip was also orange. But what am I not noticing now which I will in a few months’ time when, say, a rope swing or lollipop suddenly becomes significant to me? It seems right now very hard to believe that I was encountering so many orangenesses without noticing them up until a few days ago, but obviously I was. I believe the brain is a filter in other ways too, but this has really brought home to me how startling and overwhelming sensory impressions and experiences could be if one allows it. I do know I make too many associations though.