- Communication with the dead
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.