30.7.14

"WHAT ARE THE CHANCES...?"

David Hand. The Improbability Principle: Why Incredibly Unlikely Things Keep Happening Bantam Press, 2014.

The other week something rather spooky happened. I was re-reading William Poundstone’s Big Secrets, a book published in the US in 1983 and the UK in 1985. One of the secrets discussed was how mentalists like (the then famous Kreskin) did their tricks. On page 206 there is this little excerpt:
 
Take the following hypothetical exchange:
Kreskin: "Does the date September 11 mean anything special to anyone...?”.
 
September 11!? Do the shivers go down your spine at this? It’s amazing, spooky, that at random Poundstone chooses a date which now means so much to so many?
 
Well perhaps not according to mathematician David Hand, who argues that very improbable events happen all the time, not least because our understanding of statistics is weak and we forget the impact of very large numbers. Improbable events of the sort that fill the little spaces down the margins in Fortean Times: you someone loses a ring out on a boat and ten years later it is found in a fish caught by their father in law; you pick up a book left on a train by a stranger and it is the one your partner loved as a child and lost when they moved house twenty years ago. You get the sort of thing. (From my own experience: you are sent a small cutting from a local newspaper with an item that a relative thinks may be of some interest to you, and on the reverse is a report of the coroner’s court verdict on the suicide of someone you knew well twenty years earlier! - JR)
 
Hand sees several factors at work; the law of large numbers, such an astronomical number of events are occurring in the world that some are bound to lead to very unlikely situations, such as being hit by lightning many times over, or getting three successive holes in one; misunderstanding the correct estimate of probabilities (this one, which involves the difference between ‘normal’ and ‘Cauchy’ distributions is very technical but it apparently means that something that is beyond astronomically unlikely on the former, has odds of less than 100 to 1!
 
Another error is to assume that things are unconnected and occur at random, when the reverse is the case. He points to the tragic case of a mother who was found guilty of murdering her two children, because a paediatrician (with no real knowledge of statistics) had estimated the chance of two children dying of cot death were 73 million or more to one against, but that assumed that one child dying of cot death did not increase the risk for a second, and that turned out to be wrong.
 
Another principle is that of ‘close enough’, the two events are not really all that close, and if one goes wide enough then all sorts of things are bound to occur. A case I remember from psychical research was of a woman who had a dream about a (real or imaginary) wartime film in which a British agent, played by Leslie Howard, was murdered by a German. This became a ‘precognition’ of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan (who, of course, was once an actor, and his assailant was rumoured to have neo-Nazi sympathies).

So Hand would argue that whatever date chosen, sooner or later something significant would have happened on that date. Furthermore on any given date things of great significance happen. Plug in any random date in Wikipedia and see what happened on that date.
 
The random date I had thought of was April 27, nothing much came to mind, but is filled with ‘significant’ events, and going down the list we see that on this date in 1878 was born the English athlete John Rimmer (died 1962). Someday, somewhere something truly momentous and earth shaking will occur on April 27 (or March 16, Oct 8, June 19 or any other date you care to choose) – Peter Rogerson.


20.7.14

WITCH AND STATE

P. G. Maxwell-Stuart. The British Witch: A Biography. Amberley, 2014.

In recent years much of the history of witchcraft has concerned itself with what is often called micro-history, studies of specific outbreaks and individual cases, often used to illuminate specific periods, places or themes, such as the dynamics of inter family or inter community relations. Others have examined very specific ideas or theories, or taken close readings of particular documents. Often such studies have involved close analysis of archival sources.
 
Maxwell-Stuart’s takes a quite different tack, that of traditional broad sweep narrative history, across England and Scotland from the thirteenth century to the repeal of the Witchcraft Acts in 1735. Looked at in this broad sweep we can see how witchcraft in many ways reflected the changing nature of the state and law. By and large prior to the Tudor period, witchcraft was only of concern when it involved or was aimed at members of the elite. Rulers of that period were too busy protecting their own backs against their relatives and close circle to bother much about disputes among villagers, unless, as in the Peasants Revolt, these threaten the hegemony of the ruling elite. This changed with the rise of the settled Tudor state, which now sought to control all aspects of life, particularly religion, right down to the village.
 
As the state consolidated, witchcraft became more serious, for it was seen as treason against God, allying yourself with the dissident forces in the heavenly state, and treason against God and his heavenly state is treason against the King and his earthly state. The folk demons and petty supernatural became political dissidents.
 
It is surely not a coincidence that the main period of witchcraft trials, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the centuries of religious disputes and state building in both England-Wales and Scotland, during which the state sought to control the extent and form of religious worship. Can one think of this as a form of ‘domestication’ of the people, and of their incorporation into a uniform body politic?
 
By 1735 another more or less settled state, the Whig one party state, felt secure enough to withdraw from the private sphere and village disputes and to concern itself almost exclusively with the property rights of the ruling class.
 
The witchcraft that dominated much of this period consisted of a series of beliefs, encounters with non-authorised ‘other powers’, in Scotland often envisaged as the traditional fairyland, the claims to possess ‘wild talents’ and to use these in non-authorised forms, and as language about which local disputes can be talked about. It was an organic world, where everything had agency and little or nothing happened by chance. If things went wrong someone must be to blame, either you, because you have offended God, or someone else. In that we have not changed as much as we may think we have. Such ideas may have helped regulate conduct: treat your neighbours badly and they might resort to witchcraft, express envy and spite and you might be accused of being a witch.
 
I should, of course, point out that these are my own reflections on reading this book, and not Maxwell-Stuart’s own opinions, for this book is essentially a narrative and not an analysis, though I think one might get the impression that this author is perhaps the writer on this topic, who is after Montague Summers - a long way after - perhaps most willing to grant some sort of actual reality to witchcraft as a paranormal reality.
 
He is at pains to point out that the rise of the ‘mechanical philosophy’ was the direct cause of the elite’s growing loss of believe in witchcraft, but there must be connections; the change in world view that allowed the development of a scientific method for example. Throughout the Rstoration period people like Glanville and More argued passionately for continued belief in the existence of witches as a defence against materialism,but it was a losing battle.
 
I don’t think that it is a coincidence that there were no more executions for witchcraft after the Hanoverian succession, because by definition the nature of witchcraft had changed. The equation that treason against God equals treason against the King was now meaningless. In less than sixty years one king had been beheaded, another brought back on sufferance to avoid further civil war, a third thrown out by the new ruling class, and now a petty German princeling had been plucked out of obscurity to become their puppet king. Opposition to belief in witchcraft became part of the official ideology of the Whig State; it was the believers in witchcraft who might be Tories, Catholics, Jacobites or just stirrers of local disputes, who became the new dissidents. Witchcraft had receded back to folk magic. The ideology of the Whig State will become the exemplar for the more general European enlightenment.

Maxwell-Stuart concludes that the attempt by that ideology to “cajole, drag, educate or mock” everyone into agreement with it had failed and that “as far as the silent majority was concerned, capitulation to the domineering forces was merely apparent”. The same of course is said by racists, sexists, homophobes, UKIPers, Le Pennites and bar room bores of all descriptions. No one in their right mind would pretend that the liberal/social democratic scientific enlightenment is perfect, it is just that a look around the world shows that everything else on offer is immeasurably worse
 
While this book is a narrative history that doesn’t spring too many surprises, you may be surprised to learn that witches in Scotland were not burned alive at the stake, they were garrotted and their bodies burnt, so that tale of the demented woman warming her hands at the fire that burned her is just a folk myth. – Peter Rogerson.


18.7.14

A WOMAN CLAD IN WHITE

Marcus LiBrizzi and Dennis Boyd (editors). The Nelly Butler Hauntings: A Documentary History. Library of Early Maine Literature, University of Maine at Machias, 2010.

This is where we came in. Reading the story of the Butler hauntings in William Oliver Steven’s Strange Guests (Allen and Unwin, 1949) back in 1968 was one of my steps on the road to the “new ufology”. I wrote about it in my first ever article in the long forgotten DIGAP Review and in my article Sun Maiden, in MUFOB back in 1971
 
In this book LiBrizzi and Boyd reproduce Abraham Cummings original book Immortality Proved by the Testimony of Sense in which is Considered the Doctrine of Spirits and the Existence of a Particular Spirit, first published in 1826 and republished in 1859. To this they add and introduction and notes.
 
The story concerns three New England families, the Hoopers, the Butlers and the Blaisdels. At some point in 1795/6 George Goodwin Butler (1771-1826) married Eleanor (Nellie) Hooper (b1776) and on 13 June 1797 she died along with her new born baby. Just one of those sad things that were routine in the days before antibiotics.
 
However by the end of 1799 something odd was happening in the home of Abner Blaisdel, another farmer and veteran of the Revolutionary War. His 15 year old daughter Lydia was lying ill with some sort of fever, and strange noises and rappings began to be heard in the cellar. By Christmas they were hearing a voice, claiming to be the late Nelly Hooper Butler and demanding that Lydia marry her widower George. At the turn of the year (probably celebrated as the turn of the century), Lydia and her father made a long walk to George Butler’s home, apparently accompanied by Nellie in the form of a luminous spectre. After a lot of to and froing George and Lydia were married on the evening of 28 May 1800, only for the ghostly Eleanor to kindly tell Lydia that she is going to follow in her own footsteps and die in childbirth.
 
After some absence, the spectre returned in August, this time with old time religion on her mind. It seems to be at this period that spooky Nelly began to really appear, addressing large crowds on religious topics, being seen outside the cellar. On the night of 8-9 August more than thirty people were ranked up in the cellar while the spectre passed back and forth among them several times. Then on the night of the 13/14 August it walked a mile, along with a group of 48 people. The ghost interfered in several people’s lives, seeming to act in an arbitrary fashion. One of its last demands was for “her” baby to be exhumed and buried closer to her.
 
In March 1801 as “promised” by the spectre, Lydia died in childbirth, as did her child. Soon after her death George put all her possessions on a boat, set it on fire and sent it out to sea. This act enraged Abner Blaisdel. The feud between the two men would, years later, divide the church of which both were members.
 
The thing had a kind of provisional existence, some people saw nothing, others just a luminous mass and still others “a personal form”, sometimes dressed as in life, at other times in a winding sheet and sometimes with the child in her arms. The same for hearing, some heard distinct words, others just a mumble and others nothing at all. It was insubstantial; George Butler put his hand on it and found it would go through it. Otherwise it was a very strange ghost, one that announced its presence by appointment.
 
Reading these stories, as back in 1968, it is impossible not to assume that if all of this had taken place in Roman Catholic cultural context it would have been interpreted as a Marian apparition, and when seen with the baby as an apparition of Virgin and Child. The strange message “I am not to be trifled with” repeated three times over and then “peace” three times over, or the luminescence which lit up the surroundings and Cummings' own alleged encounter several years after Lydia’s death with a globe that became a woman the size of a child and then grew to be fully grown “her head…the representation of the sun” all seem to have their parallels in religious visions.
 
Local people seem to have divided into three camps, those who thought that the spectre was indeed the returned Nellie Butler, those who thought it was a demon in disguise, perhaps conjured up by Lydia to ensnare George Butler, and those who thought the whole thing a very human imposture.
 
For the modern audience the story has some problems, one is that Cummings is the only real source, and he was writing more than twenty years after the events, most of which he had not personally experienced. As far as we know there are no contemporaneous primary sources, nothing in the secular or religious press, no use of the story in political quips. To add to problems Cummings own work is divided up into six letters, a set of depositions and eye-witness testimony from opponents (i.e. those who thought the whole thing demonic) and proponents, missing (and it is a pity that the editors did not remedy this) the placing of all the accounts in a clear chronological order.
 
However, despite that caveat, this book is a must for anyone interested in Fortean and Paranormal topics.
 
What to make of all this. I suspect that we would need to know a lot more about the people involved, their religion, politics, cultural background and resources before we could start to make anything but provisional assessments. Here are just some ideas
 
The connection between the spectre and the BVM is closer than is obvious at first thought; they are products of similar backgrounds in which traditional society is being challenged by secularist forces. In 1800 the new country of the USA was passing through the first (and perhaps the worst) of its culture wars. It is presidential election year and the country has become divided into the “conservative” Federalists and “liberal” Democrat=Republicans, led respectively by President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson. Tom Paine and the illuminati threat were standard parts of Federalist propaganda against the “atheist” (actually Deist) Jefferson, often portrayed as a local version of Robespierre. Cummings is clearly on the side of the Federalists.
 
In 1826, when the book is published, the situation is rather similar, another Adams is in the White House, the nominally Democrat-Republican but quasi-Federalist John Quincy Adams, and he is being challenged by another radical, “impious” outsider Andrew Jackson, whom much of New England pretty well despised and hated. This presumably meant that it was still apposite to publish, now that Butler’s death had made that possible.
 
So Nelly is being used as a cultural conservator, like the BVM, she defends traditional values, she performs that role, but she is also the interfering earth mother. She is more down to earth than any heavenly host. She really does not belong in the deep habitat, she manifests primarily in a cellar, a liminal zone, neither fully part of, nor outside the habitable realm of the home. It also is the underground, chthonic realm of the earth spirits, a kind of artificial cave.
 
Nellie herself is clearly outside the settled realm of Christian angels and demons, she is an ambivalent trickster figure, healer and destroyer, guardian of life and death. Her interfering nature, petulance and arbitrary nature, suggest she is something far older than Christianity, perhaps she is meant to be the Queen of Elfame, or perhaps a first American fertility goddess.
 
Lydia is clearly seen in a similar “wild “light. It is significant that George, after giving her the conventional Christian funeral, sends her grave goods out to sea on a burning boat in a Viking like ceremony. It would be interesting to know if this was a practice of the local First Americans, one of whom, perhaps an ancestor, was buried in the Butler plot. That this is some sort of pagan ceremony seems far more likely that the assumed explanation that it was some sort of exorcism.
 
We will probably never know what it was about the life and death of the real Nellie Butler, that drove her so deep into the local imagination and gave rise to these extraordinary visionary experiences and their strange archaic themes, to the point they almost, but not quiet, created a new religion. Other visions were to do that in the years to come. -- Peter Rogerson

15.7.14

CLASS REACTION

Robert E. Bartholomew with Bob Rickard. Mass Hysteria in Schools: A Worldwide History Since 1566. McFarland, 2014.

It’s not impossible that an episode of mass-hysteria might have sparked a major Middle-Eastern conflict. Fortunately that didn’t happen, but for a while it was definitely possible. In 1983 schoolgirls at a Palestinian school in the Israeli-occupied West Bank began to complain of headaches and blurred vision. They said their symptoms began when they started to smell a sulphurous odour which leaked into their classrooms. The school was evacuated.

A few days later the same symptoms were reported in girls’ schools in neighbouring towns. Soon the schools were flooded with paramedics, concerned parents and journalists eager to interview victims of the ‘poison gas’ which was immediately claimed as the culprit. In the heated political atmosphere this soon became evidence of Jewish extremists, or even Israeli state attacks.

In the following days the initial spark for the panic was traced to a blocked latrine at the original school which was spreading the foul odour. None of the children in that or the subsequent cases were found to have suffered from any form of poisoning, and the Israeli officials investigating the case pronounced it as an outbreak of psychosomatic ‘mass-hysteria’

This diagnosis was vigorously challenged by the Palestinian authorities, and the UN was petitioned, asking them to stop the “genocide” which was deemed to be happening. Fortunately a thorough investigation by independent scientists helped to calm the situation, which had been exacerbated by local press reports of ‘toxic gasses’ and the tense political atmosphere of the region where attacks from one side or the other were a constant fear.

Bartholomew and Rickard trace the records for such hysterical outbreaks in schools back to 1566 when children at a Catholic orphanage in Amsterdam began to have strange seizures where their limbs would be paralysed, or would lash out at random; some would suddenly start meowing like cats. A century later at an orphanage in Hoorn, north of Amsterdam, the children started barking like dogs. At this time, of course witchcraft beliefs were still current, and these outbursts were put down to possession by demons, rather than being provoked by the cruel conditions and enclosed environment of the orphanages.

Throughout the nineteenth century such outbreaks spread in many schools across Europe, seemingly as a way of allowing children to break free of the strict and repetitive educational system of the time. Bartholomew and Rickard find a similar pattern of behaviour more recently in the strict Islamic girls’ colleges of Malaysia, where the pupils are subjected to a very tightly controlled educational environment, with little opportunity for recreation and socialising. Outbreaks of hysteria, fainting, paralysis etc., seem to be ways in which the students, forbidden from directly criticising the system, can pressure the school and civic authorities to ameliorate some of its worst features. The hysteria is blamed on the jinns which are widely believed in locally, rather than the girls themselves.

In all these examples, and similar outbreaks in East Africa - where schools have been disrupted by uncontrollable laughter outbreaks - Fiji, and Latin America, the problem is traced to the pressures, educational, sexual and religious, of mostly adolescent girls.

However, these types of outbreaks are not restricted to authoritarian educational systems. Even in the more relaxed environment of modern European and US schools such outbreaks continue. A number of mass hysteria events in American schools in the 1950s and 1960s seem to be traceable to the racial and sexual tensions of the era; including such phenomena as a mass outbreak of phantom pregnancies in one school, even amongst girls who were virgins at the time!

Elsewhere these mass phenomena can largely be put down to panics spread socially through the wider community - fears about the environment and ‘chemicals’ in food seem to have lead to children collapsing from the alleged effects of drinking ‘contaminated’ Coca-Cola in Belgium, or suffering from post-7/11 trauma in the US. The book also touches on the ‘Satanic Panic’ which spread through the US and Europe in the 1980s which was promoted by a variety of social concerns.

Other triggers for these outbreaks seem to be simply the strain and tension of being involved in pressurised situations such as sports events, competitions and ceremonies.

Some of these cases are of particular interest in that they seem to demonstrate a text-book example of the way authorities should not respond to such events. A case which may be familiar to some British readers took place in Kirkby-in-Ashfield in Nottinghamshire in 1980. Here at a town carnival, over 200 children involved in a marching bands completion collapsed in just two hours and were taken to local hospitals.


How 'The Sun' treated the Kirkby-in-Ashfield event
 
It was a hot July day, many of the children were dressed in elaborate costumes. They had been rehearsing for the event for weeks beforehand, there was a great deal of local rivalry, and on the morning many of the children were already tense and nervous, and many had been waiting nervously for hours for the event to start. When some fainted it became and epidemic across the field where the competition was taking place. Soon the area began filling with police, paramedics and ambulances.

The general chaos was inflamed by contradictory announcements about food poisoning and gas-leaks. Later, chemical spraying and fumes from a local factory were blamed. In the days following the children all recovered with no lasting effects from their ordeal, but by now the belief that some specific agent was behind the outbreak had taken hold in the wider community, and reassurances that the incident was due to panic rather than poisoning were not accepted. The phrase ‘mass hysteria’ was seen as an insult and a suggestion of mental incapacity. Even today some local people are still convinced that the real culprits are being ‘covered up’.

Of course, once you get into the fields of ‘cover-ups’ it is impossible to disprove them, because any investigation which claims that there is no cover-up itself becomes part of the cover-up. A realisation which has wider implications than school panics.

This is a fascinating, very readable and well-researched book, which has a great deal to tell us about the dangerous consequences ‘vision and belief’ can have when they are not examined from a broad perspective, even to the extent of almost triggering a war! -- John Rimmer


11.7.14

A GAME OF TWO HALVES

Marie D Jones and Larry Flaxman. Viral Mythology. New Page Books, 2014.

Mythology is a much larger part of our world than many of us generally think. As readers of this site are almost certainly aware, myths from the distant past still reverberate through our world today, although most of the population, at least in the post-industrial West, are unaware of such influence and the extent to which it shapes our present, and the degree to which various myths are currently being produced and shaped. The general meaning of mythology is that of a tale, which may or may not contain elements of truth, that resonates and shapes lives, something larger than a mere story.

Viral Mythology covers pretty much every way of communicating that there was in the past, from the spoken and written word to patterns engraved in stone and looking at architecture, and how it can hold information carried from antiquity. Firstly the authors examine the nature and meaning of information and how it is spread. Then they look at the various media and how data is passed on from one generation to the next. There is then coverage of many examples of strange artefacts, buildings and the like, and how they either conveyed knowledge from the past, or, in the case of some of those looked at later, how data will be carried into the future.
 
The problem is that this seems to be two or three books in one. The first four chapters are scholarly, a mite muddled in presentation but still backed up by study and education. One certainly feels that one is learning something useful in these sections, albeit crammed together. Some of the separate sections, which are self-contained essays, are printed in fonts that are hard on the eye, although I suspect that this decision is down to the publisher rather than the authors.
 
It is when Chapter Five looms into view that we have some issues to deal with. From here on in, the subject matter switches to strangeness, and not in a particularly comprehensive way, either. The section covering the Georgia Guidestones is illuminating, covering old material and introducing information that, to me at least, was fresh. The problem is that this was the last time that original data was uncovered. From Freemasonry to Rosslyn Chapel to UFOs, the same old clichés were covered too briefly and one was left unsure as to how covering popular “fortean” subjects related to the first half of the book.

It has to be said that this book tries to be too many things at once. It covers the transmission of information from the past at the beginning only to morph into a volume about the unexplained, and quite a simplistic one at that. There is little obvious connection between the two and one cannot shake the feeling that the second part was tacked on in order to increase sales. One also cannot shake that trying to cover the conveyance of “truth” is too vague and needs more definition. Also, telling how this “truth” was transmitted seems to get lost in the mix as the book progresses. This cuts to the heart of what readership this tome is aimed at. I must admit that I am at a loss as to the target audience, as changing pace part of the way through throws any potential reader off course. All in all, a confused offering. – Trevor Pyne.


8.7.14

FATAL DISTRACTION

Nick Redfern. Close Encounters of the Fatal Kind: Suspicious Deaths, Mysterious Murders, and Bizarre Disappearances in UFO History. New Page Books, 2014

The first chapter deals with the beginnings of what came to be termed ufology, involving Kenneth Arnold's adventures in Tacoma, Washington, in 1947. The allegedly mysterious deaths involved in this episode were, of course, Brown and Davidson, of Army Intelligence who had been sent to investigate the reports of strange flying objects, and whose aircraft crashed on the return journey when an engine caught fire. There were also two press men who died soon after these incidents, but no evidence is presented that there was anything mysterious about them.

There are many strange details in this story, which will be familiar to most UFO enthusiasts, but many of them are not taken too seriously because of the lack of independent witnesses, which is typical of most of the more sensational UFO incidents.

Much space is devoted to a favourite theme of sensationalist UFO literature which asserts that certain prominent Americans (nearly always Americans) were killed because they knew too much about UFOs.

A classic example of this is the death of US secretary of defense James Forrestal in 1949, who died as a result of falling from a high window of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, Maryland, where he was being treated for a mental breakdown. The official view is that he committed suicide, but the opinion of conspiracy theorists is, as you might expect, that he was murdered because it was feared that his mental state might have led him to reveal what he knew about UFOs.

Redfern introduces various details which seem to support the idea that Forrestal was murdered, including an incident described as "absolutely ripe with Men in Black style overtones". The story is that Forrestal was visited by his friend Ferdinand Ebertstadt, who was concerned about his mental condition. Forrestal told him that his house was bugged and that he was under surveillance by "shadowy forces".

One notable feature of conspiracy theories is that seemingly isolated incidents are not independent but are believed to be connected in various ways. For example, after describing the Cash-Landrum encounter, in December 1980, which allegedly consisted of helicopters escorting a mysterious flying object emitting radiation which injured Betty Cash, Redfern notes that this coincided with the events in Rendlesham Forest, which were said to have involved the landing of a UFO, and that the same mysterious object might have been involved. However, there were apparently no independent witnesses to the Cash-Landrum incident, and the description of the Rendlesham Forest incidents relies heavily on the reports of unreliable witnesses and even more unreliable ufologists.

There are plenty of other unlikely stories to entertain readers, including American presidents Kennedy and Nixon taking friends to view the bodies of dead aliens at US Air Force bases. Of course, all ufologists know that President Kennedy was assassinated because he had decided to reveal to the world what he knew about UFOs, or at least that's what they like to believe.

Some of our readers might be interested in the seemingly unfeasibly large number of ufologists who have died on 24 June, the date of Kenneth Arnold's sighting of a formation of pelicans, sorry, UFOs. I will leave it to the statisticians among you to comment on the possibility of this being due to chance.

There is plenty to discuss and argue about in this book, whether you believe it or not. Read it and have fun. -- John Harney


6.7.14

THE PLURALITY OF WORLDS

Mary-Jane Rubenstein. Worlds Without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse. Columbia University Press, 2014.

Richard J. Evans. Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History. Little Brown, 2014.

David Waltham. Lucky Planet: Why the Earth is Exceptional and What That Means for Life in the Universe. Icon Books, 2014.

These three books examine in very different ways the question of the 'plurality of worlds' and the uniqeness, or otherwise, of Earth's place in the universe.

Mary-Jane Rubenstein is a professor of religion, with a deep interest in science and philosophy and in her book she traces the history of ideas about the multiverse. She shows that these have much deeper roots than we normally suppose, starting with Greek speculations about other kosmoi, self-contained worlds, perhaps separated by special voids, perhaps having no special relationship one to another. These ideas were revived in modern forms by figures such as Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno. These speculations intrigued and troubled the theological imagination in perhaps equal measure.

She takes us through the various supposed hierarchies of multiverse, from the regions of our own “megaverse” beyond the observation horizon; through to separate bubble universes crystallising out of “inflation space”, the alternate worlds of the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, along with separate 'brane' worlds floating in a higher dimensional space, cyclic universes, universes being born through black holes, all the way up to Max Tegmark’s multiverses of separate mathematical systems. This is usually presented, as in here, as the “ultimate” multiverse, but there seems no reason, having gone this far, one should not assume that “mathematical” multiverses are just one set in a much larger ensemble of multiverses based on quite different principles.

Such theories have often been regarded as pure metaphysical speculation, but one of them, devised by Laura Mersini-Houghton, does predict that the pre universe state will leave traces on the cosmic background radiation, which does indeed appear to have been found. This theory involves, in a very oversimplified way, a pre-geometrical cosmic 'bath' or 'sea', in which forces of attraction and repulsion vie, and from which universes bubble up. If attraction wins, the universe collapses back into the sea, if repulsion, it can inflate into a proper universe. Though this universe (or is it actually itself a multiverse) is now separate from this “underlying reality” and has lost most of the information about it, quantum entanglement means there is some sort of faint ghostly connection between the various bubbles and the “ocean”.

The attraction of ideas about the multiverse for science is that it can be used to explain why the universe has the precise conditions that it does, without involving a designer, (which in turn leads to endless regress, what designed the designer and so on). The implications are rather deeper than is often thought. The universe of the designer, such as the Abrahamic God is essentially a manufactured article, a thing; the universe born out of the pre-cosmic sea is something more analogous to an organism.

Of course we still have to account for the origin of the pre-cosmic ocean and the physics which sustains it. Presumably that along with physics, mathematics, information etc. has assembled upwards from something much simpler.

One issue which is not entirely resolved by the various theories is whether the various megaverses generated by the multiverse are infinite, and even if they are, does that infinity incorporate all possibilities or just some. The former case suggests that they will encompass all possible histories, including the various alternate histories which intrigue historians and are the subject of Richard J Evans’ book.

Evans is not here writing his own alternate history, rather he is writing a critical history of speculations about alternate histories. Most of these tend to argue that history is an accident, change one thing and you change another. Evans notes that many of them are essentially wishful thinking style histories and the largest number seem to be essentially reactionary ones, where the world somehow does not enter what are perceived to be the complexities of the modern world; or otherwise dystopias which come about if your friends don’t win. Evans argues that many of the scenarios invented by counter factual historians are, to say the least, implausible, that people and events being what there are there are limitations.

There is not going to be an alternate world in which Cardinal Richard Dawkins becomes Pope. There may be a world where a person with that name becomes Pope, but that person would not be in any sense the same person as the one we know as Richard Dawkins, because he must have had an entirely different history going back generations. As it progresses history winnows out possible alternate worlds. Which takes one back to Rubenstein’s discussion of the difference between limited and unlimited infinities?

Following in the footsteps of Brownlee and Ward’s Rare Earth David Waltham pours cold water on the belief that earth-like biospheres are abundant in the galaxy and that if we only sit at a radio telescope long enough we will detect the broadcasts of ET-TV. On the contrary Waltham argues that the earth is the lucky exception, perhaps the only place in the entire visible universe that good luck and the right moon allowed complex life to develop and sustain itself. While there will be other rich biospheres, these will lie well beyond the observation horizon. Waltham argues that the earth had an exceptionally lucky geological and climatological history, and that there were numerous occasions when things could have gone badly wrong leading to global extinction.

The arguments I suspect need specialist knowledge to comment on in detail, and perhaps life is a good deal more diverse and adaptable that Waltham gives it credit for. However the possibility that we living breathing human beings and out fellow social mammals are the only source of consciousness and value in the cosmos, and the enormous implications of that need to be taken very seriously indeed. – Peter Rogerson.


3.7.14

THINKING ABOUT THINKING

Hans Thomas Hakl. Eranos: An Alternative Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century, Equinox, 2013.

"Not all that many people are aware that, over a period of seventy years, men and women enjoying a high academic reputation met regularly at Ascona on Lake Maggiore in order to give scholarly lectures to a relatively small audience about their latest insights in the fields of religion, philosophy, history, art, and science… Their concern was… to locate such knowledge within a universal spiritual stream reaching from antiquity to the present day, from East to West and from North to South, stimulating all humanity."

So Hans Thomas Hakl sums up the Eranos conferences and the contrast between their significance and relative obscurity – an obscurity that the first, German edition of this book, which came out in 2001, did much to alleviate, as it stimulated the publication of more information about Eranos. Consequently this translation (by Christopher McIntosh of Exeter University’s Centre for the Study of Esotericism) is a revision of the original, incorporating much of that new information.

Eranos is – or was until recently - a kind of intellectual equivalent of the Bilderberg Group, annually bringing select academics, philosophers and scientists from across the world together to trade ideas and network, while shunning publicity. The gatherings were important for the development and dissemination of some key ideas, as well as for the careers of figures such as C.G. Jung and Mircea Eliade, and yet are almost complete ignored in scholarly reference works. The big difference to the Bilderbergers is that Eranos did publish its lectures in a series of yearbooks, although that’s virtually all it placed in the public domain. Everything else about the group’s organisation and history is in its private archives – to which Hakl, editor of the esoteric magazine Gnostika, has, since the first edition, been given access, along with unpublished correspondence between participants and interviews with speakers and other key figures.

The list of ‘Eranians’ is impressive, apart from Jung and Eliade including, among many others, Gershom Scholem, Karl Kerényi, Louis Massignon, Joseph Campbell, and the man who largely introduced Zen Buddhism to the west, D.T. Suzuki.

Hakl gives a straightforward historical account as an introduction to Eranos. Since they can be found in the yearbooks, he isn’t concerned with the lectures themselves. He does, however, give portraits of the major speakers and their key ideas and work.

Hakl sets the origins of Eranos in the context of the upsurge of interest in Eastern and esoteric thought as part of the ‘almost desperate search for meaning’ in Germany and Austria that followed the First World War. Hakl laments the lack of research into this ‘tidal wave of esotericism’ that swept the German-speaking lands, which could ‘contribute much to an understanding of the deeper causes of the lamentable National Socialist era.’

OLGA FROBE
The creator of Eranos – privately called the ‘Great Mother’ by Eranians - was Olga Fröbe, née Kapteyn (1881-1962), a spiritual seeker much influenced by Theosophy. She was born in London of Dutch parents, raised in Switzerland, lived in Germany during her short marriage, and inherited her father’s estate on the shore of Lake Maggiore in Switzerland in 1927. The following year she had a conference hall built, but didn’t seem to know what to do with it, until Jung – she was a patient of his – suggested that it be used a ‘meeting place between East and West.’ After a false start - the first three meetings, from 1930 to 1932, were very much under the control of the Anglo-American New Age gurus Alice and Foster Bailey – Jung persuaded Fröbe to turn them into academic gatherings, creating the Eranos meetings proper from 1933. They became her life’s work and purpose.

The group took its name from a Greek word for a banquet or festive meal (although the meals themselves don’t appear to have been particularly festive - Jung smuggled in food to eat at night, as "Fröbe’s gastronomy was not exactly renowned").

From a simple forum bringing together Eastern and Western forms of spirituality, ‘the scope widened to include not only subjects such as psychology, art history, music, and natural science but also “hermetic” and “esoteric” themes’ in pursuit of ‘the spiritual transformation of humanity.’

Jung, who spoke every year until 1951 (when he chose Eranos to unveil his ‘scientifically hazardous’ concept of synchronicity), was a major guiding force during that formative phase, and was also instrumental in arranging finance, chiefly from wealthy American patrons, after Fröbe exhausted her inheritance. Eranos also brought Jung’s ideas to the attention of a broader scholarly audience and to a wider public, especially in the English-speaking world. As a result Jung has been accused of using Eranos as his mouthpiece. However, Hakl shows from correspondence that Jung was keen that his ideas and views shouldn’t overshadow proceedings, and that he was far from being a dominant influence over Fröbe; she herself wrote that ‘one could more accurately call it a struggle than a relationship.’

It becomes apparent that the important part of Eranos wasn’t the lectures themselves, but what went on behind the scenes – particularly at the speakers’ meals, taken appropriately at a round table, which Jung called the ‘real Eranos’ - as the participants discussed their work and ideas. Indeed, the audience (which until the 1990s was firmly forbidden from asking questions) appears largely irrelevant; Hakl tells us virtually nothing about those who attended the conferences, summing them up as ‘mainly hard-working but modestly paid psychologists, writers, and artists.’

Hakl distinguishes three phases in Eranos’ history. The first lasted until the end of the Second World War, and was characterised by the search for balance between East and West, during which ‘Fröbe was the one who pushed the esoteric agenda, whereas Jung attempted to restrain her.’

The second phase began after the War, when the biologist Adolf Portmann became more influential in Eranos’ organisation. (Fröbe anointed him as her successor, and he duly became President of the Eranos Foundation, created in her will, after her death in 1962.) Hakl places Eranos’ heyday in the late 1940s and ’50s. During this time ‘esotericism, gnosis, and the mysteries receded into the background and man as a biological and cultural being became the central focus.’ The first post-war meeting included a scientist, Ernst Schrödinger, for the first time.

The third phase, which began in the late 1970s, was marked by tension between speakers of a polytheist and monotheist persuasion, ‘polytheist’ here defined in terms of archetypal psychology rather than religion – gods as ‘metaphors for modes of experience and living,’ which, Hakl argues, comes more naturally to human beings than ‘the narrowness of monotheism.’

In the late 1980s, under its then president Rudolf Ritsema, Eranos turned in a less academic, more New Age, direction while also breaking down the barriers between speakers and audience (who were finally allowed to ask questions). Those who maintained the traditional spirit of the conferences formed the breakaway Amici di Eranos. Since then things have fragmented even further. However, as Hakl shows in the penultimate chapter, Eranos served as a ‘prototype’ for many other associations and conferences that continue its original ethos, such as the Esalen Institute in the USA and the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism, of which Hakl and McIntosh are prominent members.

Eranos has, of course, had its critics. The two main charges levelled at it are that it was irrationalist and, more seriously, that it leaned toward fascistic modes of thought. The two are connected, since according to some – particularly Marxist – philosophers and historians, the former inevitably leads to the latter.

Hakl devotes considerable space to the allegations that Eranos not only gave undue prominence in the 1930s to speakers sympathetic to the Nazis and Italian Fascists, but also that Eranos itself embodied ‘authoritarian and fascistic currents of thought,’ an accusation levelled at Fröbe and Jung personally. It’s actually surprising that Hakl has to go into this in quite such length, as the facts clearly exonerate Eranos along with its leaders while, as Hakl shows, attacks on Eranos as fascistic are ideologically motivated and often poorly researched. (One of the fascinating titbits to emerge from this discussion is that during the Second World War Jung was an agent – code number ‘888’ - of the OSS, working under its Swiss-based spymaster Allen Dulles.)

For Hakl, the importance of Eranos is that it brought together two approaches; some speakers emphasised the scholarly or scientific approach, others the inner experience, and from this emerged a ‘third way’ that combined the two, through Eranos’s "readiness to extend scientific enquiry beyond the boundaries set by reason and into areas where myth, imagination, and religious experience play their roles." Ultimately, as well as serving as an introduction to Eranos and its work, the book is an argument for the validity and relevance of such an approach when it is under more pressure from the strict materialist-rationalist camp than at any time since the Victorian era.

Given the subject, Eranos couldn’t be other than a fascinating read, and Hakl, with his in-depth knowledge and understanding of the varied subjects that the conferences explored in their long history, is the ideal person not only to write Eranos’ story but also to put it in context and explain its relevance. Even so, he admits that, even given its length – over 400 pages of eye-strainingly small print – the book "cannot be described as even a moderately comprehensive history of Eranos." It’s a good place to start, though. -- Clive Prince 


MAGONIA RECOMMENDS