Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Evidence of the Mother’s Breast

There will be a few changes here in the ‘Box, in the weeks and months ahead, the kinds of changes you can easily negotiate in a comfortable shoe, as we move forward to some more directly spiritual concerns, and away from so much talk about provability. But I think the foundation laid with evidence here has been useful. We don’t expect science to show ‘everything’ but a world with a spiritual basis has always been evidential, and we ought to expect experiments to show a little of the fact. They do. We’ve discussed how dismissivism and exclusivism can keep this evidence off your radar, and that has interesting effects — I find many spiritual people arguing that the evidence doesn’t matter, on the assumption that all the evidence is against spirituality. But it’s not. That’s all propaganda; be careful! Dig!

Science can be very straight-laced, and there is a limit to what it can do when it’s in that mood. Of course the wonderful sets of letters between geniuses like, say, Milton Erickson (of whom much more in following weeks) and Gregory Bateson, show what real educated scientific minds who are able to flow with inspiration can achieve. But the school of science that consists in running tests is very important too! And although experiments in spirituality face innumerable design problems, they do get results.

Of the many things I could choose, I’d like to draw the interested reader’s attention to a personal favourite, Benor’s Spiritual Healing: Professional Supplement, which digs freely into the studies on its subject with great and conspicuous objectivity, grading papers in terms of their usefulness and unsparingly pointing up any that show bad method even if they show good result. (Not leaving out well-designed studies with spiritually unwelcome outcomes either.)

What do we find? We find more good, randomised, controlled studies have been done of spiritual healing than of almost any other ‘complementary’ therapy (bar hypnosis and psychoneuroimmunology). Of the 191 studies surveyed, there are 124 significant successes. In 83, significance is p<.01. We find replications have already happened — and this book is 9 years old. We find placebo is completely ruled out, since effects have been shown on animals, plants, bacteria, yeasts, and enzymes. We find results on everything from muscle strain to myopia to AIDS.

When we look at the subject of spiritual healing being discussed in the general media, though, somehow this body of evidence usually isn’t addressed. I encourage the interested reader to feel, think, and act in tune with personal intuition and vision on this issue — follow those feelings thoughts and actions where they lead. There are some awfully indignant-sounding people out there trying to get you to follow something else (namely their rather leaden personal visions) and they will tell you that whatever it is you are doing, they own the evidence about it, and there isn’t any. They will often use insulting language in the process, but the fact is they don’t own anything. They just feel a strong psychological need to convince you they do.

Here’s a rather blatant example. One modality for which Benor logs quite a few studies is Therapeutic Touch, a system which (despite its name) works on an energy-healing basis and may be contactless. A quick flick through Benor shows interesting TT results on immune system, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, cancer, and very significant studies on things like mental state. Enough, certainly, to show a method worth exploring and studying further.

Now have a look at the

Wikipedia page for Therapeutic Touch.

A different experience! The introductory paragraph states what TT is supposed to do, but does not state there is any evidence to back the claims. It does bring up one highly publicised TT-negative study, which I’ll discuss in a moment, and adds the opinion of two prominent media pseudoskeptics that the energy involved in the treatment is nothing more than ‘imagination’.

The article then goes on to claim that nurses established TT as part of a deliberate wider movement “away from the scientific method”. It offers absolutely no description of the ideas or techniques, immediately passing to its largest section titled “Scientific Investigations”. Here we find the same negative and “skeptic”-driven study mentioned in the introduction, plus an abortive, predictably also negative, James Randi investigation. One positive study is then adduced — summed up in one line with three following lines of criticism on its methods. The section ends with an ambiguous note on reviews that recommend “further study” whilst maintaining the “impossibility” of the method.

This very impossibility, of course, is only being maintained by what I’d have to call a coverup — read about Becker’s (some replicated I think) experiments, for example, and the difficulties he faced in getting them accepted, which difficulties continue. The experiments showed conclusively that a human energy field, and the associated idea of vitalism, far from being stupid or impossible, is simply the fact of life. It just happens to be one that materialism continues to find very unpalatable.

What a jarring wiki page it is then. Some of its authors, as revealed on the discussion page, have no doubt that TT is simple “mumbo-jumbo hogwash”, and opine that “calling it something that sounds all clinical (“therapeutic”) doesn’t make it less ridiculous”, although others point out the bias too, and more politely, and rightly consider the page a failure. (As John Michael Greer recently asked on his excellent blog, what is it with atheists and schoolyard insults?)

But then there’s that famous big negative study used on the page and given flagship prominence in the introduction. Famously, it turns out to have been done by a 9-year-old girl (!), Emily Rosa, begun as a science fair project at school, then assisted by some famous pseudoskeptics, who somehow managed to get it published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association. Although TT-positive studies are copiously criticised on the wiki page, this TT-negative one is presented as watertight. (Of course Benor points up flaws in it, pp. 151-2, and gives several ways in which this study, which did not even test for healing, badly needs improvement.)

One big reason for the Rosa study’s influence is perhaps its discussion of other TT evidence. It cites 74 TT studies, 23 of which it says were “clearly unsupportive”. But the remaining 51 are never discussed! In fact there’s no discussion of any positive findings on TT whatever, and the curt summary that “no well-designed study demonstrates any health benefit from TT” is not only obviously ludicrously false, but more importantly, never supported. And I think it was really these statements that were swallowed uncritically by the medical community, in the interests of their own psychological comfort — the placebo effect at work. The only conclusion is that ‘objectivity’ for JAMA means one-sided dismissivist exclusivism. But the paper’s publication got a lot of publicity. It was good press.

I have a lovely image — the young Emily Rosa is awarded James Randi’s “Skeptic of the Year” prize, and beams as a blow is struck for the truth. This is the way religions spread stories. Mommy, a registered nurse, had actually been campaigning against TT for 10 years. That’s as long as Emily had been alive. She drank enmity to TT from her mother’s breast. It’s very good motivation, that.

Maybe one of my readers knows how to edit wiki pages; I can’t say I do. But even if this article were corrected to show honestly and objectively the reality of Therapeutic Touch and the evidence surrounding it, that would be only one leaf in a forest. (TT is probably not much used now anyhow, I suspect. I know little of it myself, which is why I happened to be on that wiki page. Who knows what could have happened with it? Spiritual methods tend to require multiple generations to bear real fruit and/or bud off.)

It’s the desperation to condemn, to hide, which is characteristic of dismissive exclusivism, and which is driven by psychological needs ironically not dissimilar from those which led to the incarceration of Galileo, that we see in full effect here. Extreme vigilance is called for on wikipedia and elsewhere in webland, as everyone knows, but the blatancy of what’s said on that page is quite significant as a barometer of fear, and of the definite splitting of the culture into subcultures that are beginning to lack any language for real mutual communication. Where will this end? We shall see it develop.

It’s important to keep up with evidence of this kind, and I will, and I’ll pass on anything I think is interesting. But we now need to move on, and start to go deeper into what is really there. Many interesting things are afoot.


Ch(r)i(st)

I don’t think it’s in his books, but Glenn Morris liked to entertain people back in the day with a cute idea about the conversion of St Paul. He reckoned Saul (as he had been then) must have had some contact with Christians, whom he spent time persecuting, and they must have got some ch’i into him, which then took its time working through his system. By the moment of that famed encounter on the road near Damascus, the energy had transformed him — so he experienced a kundalini event with attached vision that sent his life (and ultimately the world) in an unexpected direction.

If so, it was a clever move on behalf of whoever put the energy into the man. But is it even possible? Did these early Christians know about ch’i? Did they know how to gather and transmit it?

There are of course huge numbers of words like ch’i, words which mean spiritual power, but literally ‘breath’, in all civilizations and periods. “Breath” is the literal meaning of the word ch’i, just as it is the literal meaning of the word prana in India. Not everyone realises that ‘spirit’ is another such word — “respiration” comes from the same root, as indeed does “inspiration”.

Once you start looking for such words, they can spring up in the unlikeliest of places. Psyche was a word in Greek long before it was one in English, a word meaning something like “soul”; not all will know its derivation from psukho, “blow”. It is thus another breath-spirit word. Many have called the psyche the ‘breath-soul’. (Meaning ‘ch’i soul’.)

Analysis of Homer shows that, for Greece in his era, there were at least two soul-substances, psyche being one. A good case can be made for the idea that the other, thumos, was also considered a form of breath (see Onians 2011.) The difference between them was that thumos always remained with the body, whilst the psyche could leave it in OBE and survive it in death — the system is thus very much a recap of the Taoist xing and ming for example.

The deeper you delve into thumos, the more interesting it gets for the modern ch’i kung practitioner. The “extraordinary knowing” we noticed earlier was well known to Homer and seen as the result of gods ‘breathing thoughts’ into you; “I have breath” could mean “I have wisdom” (see Onians, p. 59), and thumos itself was the source of poetic inspiration and the means of visual imagination. Love was the ‘breath of Aphrodite’ according to Euripides, and Perseus’ OBE to Hyperborea was driven by ‘breaths of a bold heart’ according to Pindar. Beauty ‘breathes around’ goddesses, or is breathed from their eyes.

The later pneuma of the Stoics was a more scientific approach to similar concepts… and that brings us more or less up to the time of Jesus. Among the Greek terms used in his time for the same stuff is dynamis, and there’s an interesting moment that (as with all details of Jesus’s actual practices) appears to best unedited effect in Mark (5:25-34 in this case). This is that story of the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years, and merely touched Jesus’s clothing to find herself fully healed. Jesus thereupon realises that ‘power [dynamis] had gone out of him.” As John Hull points out in Hellenistic Magic and the Synoptic Tradition (1974), this indicates that there is an impersonal power with Jesus which is doing the work, and he knows it. It seems to flow ‘like electricity’ as Hull says, and it is this flow he notices — very clear from the gospel itself.

A reading of Palmer’s Qigong Fever will come up with many modern equivalents to this biblical moment. Whether with chi’i kung, or with whatever Jesus was practicing, as Conner says in Jesus the Sorcerer (2006):

Power is… available to those who master the techniques required to access it. Techniques can be taught…

Quite simply, from these and other new testament mentions (there’s some very interesting stuff in Acts, I seem to recall) it is clear that ch’i was known to Jesus and that he worked with it in a way not dissimilar from other workers of the period. If his ch’i was really so strong, and it rather looks that way, there’s no reason at all why Glenn’s idea should not be true, since he clearly must have been teaching people to use the dynamis for themselves.

It’s also rather interesting to consider how the messianic, sectarian and apocalyptic synthesis of Christianity grew from an environment of ch’i-based miracle-working in that period, just as the messianic, sectarian and apocalyptic synthesis of Falun Gong, say, grew from a modern Chinese version of a similar environment. These are not the only two examples of that phenomenon, of which we have not seen the last. As Glenn says, ‘constants should not surprise’. Just like the human mindstate system that powers visionary or healing experiences, the power involved itself crosses cultural ‘divides’. There is a huge amount of variation in human spiritual training, but there is a huge amount shared between systems too, which sometimes allows us to relate some very disparate people and periods togather.


Contra Plantinga

Exclusivism remains rather puzzling. Alvin Plantinga’s version of it particularly so — he’s an extremely well-respected philosopher whose theory of ‘warranted and properly basic Christian belief’ amounts to “I believe it, I can’t help it, and I can’t change it, so it’s true rational knowledge.”

When challenged by the fact that other spiritualities exist, an exclusivist Christian can in Plantinga’s idea simply go into his closet, mull everything over, and find this “an occasion for a renewed and more powerful working of the belief-producing processes”, resulting in the same beliefs being held (see his defence of the exclusivist belief). He decries the use of evidence, preferring a belief-producing ‘black box process’ in which cogitation occurs and conclusions are drawn, but what we call evidence plays no part — supposedly.

Indeed, as I mentioned last time, recent religious epistemology has rejected evidence as a basis for anything much, and Plantinga’s defence is simply an institutionalisation of that rejection. A great example is that of his putative “14 year old theist”, who (having been raised Christian but never really having thought about the subject) “believes in Christianity reasonably but without evidence.” The fact that, if you are raised Christian, you have all sorts of evidence beamed at you from the word go, such as the word of your superiors and of your holy book, seems to him not to count as actual evidence.

This kind of ‘belief’, where does it spring from? The idea that someone is culturally indoctrinated to believe their way is the only true one, and this can in turn become a ‘properly basic belief’ (meaning one that need never be justified) and thus unquestionable, unassailable? It is really based on the cultural strategies of exclusivism which Christianity has always adopted, and on accepting them without reflection, with black-box belief-producing processes to back them up.

So let’s construct an argument against exclusivism:

1. Most spiritual experiences are non-Christian.

Erm. Actually that’s it. Nothing more is needed.

All Plantinga can do about this is use words which do not really face that truth — followers of other spiritual paths “display what looks like real spirituality”, he says, but by his black box process he re-examines the grounds for his own beliefs and comes up with the idea that this display really is just an appearance. What Plantinga appears to be saying is that religious experience supports his belief and no-one else’s, which is bunk. But then, as I mentioned in a previous post, exclusivism is engineered specifically in order to reject evidence, and make a “simplified worldview that can be resorted to by ‘faith’ in all circumstances”. (Since I know some readers are eager to get away from the philosophical angles, I’ll save more analysis for another time.)

More widely, the very influential Wayne Proudfoot has a lot of useful ideas on analysis of religious experience, but seems to believe too that all religious experience is fundamentally shaped by previous cultural conceptions. (So a Pentecostal Christian does indeed experience the divine genuinely, but through a set of lenses fashioned by Pentecostalism.) I think many are now actually in the position of believing you can’t have an experience you were not culturally geared to have, just like Plantinga’s 14-year-old theist is geared.

The problem is that the evidence is clean contrary to this idea. Take three examples:

1. A woman with no comparable life events experiences a vision of a great serpent deity whilst making love. (See Wade, Transcendent Sex, 2004, p 43.)

2. Glenn Morris, meditating, sees a vision of what he incredulously assumes is a ‘Hindu temple whore’ of some kind. He doesn’t realise until later that it was Shiva. (See Morris, Path Notes of an American Ninja Master, 1993, p. 32.)

3. Paul, on the road to Damascus, meets with a vision of Jesus, to whose followers he has until this point been opposed, and begins his tireless work for Christianity.

In none of these cases do we see anything like the fulfillment of cultural expectation. These experiences confound, reverse, or evade such expectation altogether. I could name a hundred others — indeed Transcendent Sex for example is a book filled with unexpected experiences (at the time most of the experiencers had their experience, they did not believe sex had anything to do with spirit, one of the basic assumptions in our culture.). Unexpected experiences give the lie to the idea that cultural expectation is what frames spiritual experience, but there are trans-cultural elements of spiritual experience, as well as elements which seem to go against cultural programming, and there seems a great academic refusal to look at those.

From Plantinga’s point of view, only the third of those previous three examples can be true. If someone is converted the other direction — away from Christianity, for example, by a spiritual experience, well, that has to be false. There is a huge logical hole here: If someone has an experience which means they ‘can’t help having a Christian belief’ that means Christianity is exclusively true, whereas if someone has an experience which means they ‘can’t help having a non-Christian belief’, Christianity remains exclusively true, anyway to Plantinga! That means there has never been a true revelation apart from the Christian one, and there is only one real religion, and no evidence can change these facts. That’s quite a lot of weight to place on one’s personal revelations! Logically, in fact, Plantinga’s process would justify any belief at all. (He adds that, in his opinion, holding these views is in no way oppressive of others, even though, should those others have experienced what they take to be their very soul, or their god, etc., he must maintain the falsehood of that experience and thus the falsehood of what matters most to human beings, on behalf of a religion that has very often found this to be sufficient excuse to perpetrate persecutions.)

This ‘black box process’ of Plantinga’s that does the job for him is very thin in the end. No matter what happens in the world out there, he can retreat to his closet, later to emerge and announce: “Guys, it’s ok, my process shows me that I was alright after all. I don’t need to question further. Oh and by the way, that means that most of the other closeted spiritual processes in the world are false. I know, I know, that seems weird, but there’s no other conclusion to be reached on the not-evidence. These non-Christians may have just as many spiritual experiences as we do, but theirs are false and ours are true. Hope that’s cleared it all up for you! Of course, more evidence will be bound to pour in. But that’s ok, I can just retreat to my closet again. I have no control over the results of what happens in there, since people cannot control their beliefs in my opinion, and what happens in there overrules everything else and is separate from everything else. So basically we should be fine.”

Don’t you think there’s something wrong there? :) These ‘black-box belief-producing processes’ are being asked to do rather a lot! For anyone looking psychologically, Plantinga’s claim to believing ‘just because’ is baloney — he believes on certain kinds of evidence, namely the evidence of his black box process, which actually takes in huge amounts of cultural belief; and he refuses to admit other things (evidence) into that process; that process is certainly a form of reasoning, yet in Plantinga’s opinion produces a belief out of any conscious control of his own; that process is supposedly “non-evidential” yet provides ‘grounds’, that is, evidence by another name, for his belief.

Psychologically this sounds very much like a form of self-hypnosis. It may well have genuine spiritual elements of course, but the constant repetition of belief-formulas builds up an inner image which the personality finds ‘unquestionable’. Not an unusual way to run a soul in a Protestant culture, where quotation of scripture by the bucketload can substitute for evidence anyway (and therefore is really being said to constitute it); certainly a way of running the soul which must cut that soul off from the experiences of some other souls, though, since it cannot acknowledge them as real.

Very few recorded spiritual experiences that I can recollect, of any type at all that operates aside from the linguistic and self-defining ego of the person having them, preach an exclusivist message. Perhaps someone can prompt me here with at least one counter-instance? I recall for example the sightings officially designated as being of the ‘Blessed Virgin Mary’, some 230 of which are acknolwedged by the Catholic Church between 1928 and 1975 alone. Surveys of these find precious little exclusivist in them. Many such visions overlap with pagan beliefs, dedicating themselves to healing springs and trees and appearing on the sites of ancient temples. One survey finds half the visions surveyed not even identifying themselves — when they do, rarely do they say ‘Mary’. Certainly the idea that all other religions are false seems to play no part in their discourse. (See Harpur, pp. 97-100.)

Nonetheless, if some such vision were to be what Plantinga was relying on to justify his exclusivism, that I could understand. (Not agree with necessarily! Only understand.) But he himself describes a much more prosaic process, one which really amounts to considered reflection — to execute the Plantinga black-box process, one need do nothing more than “think the matter over”, “imaginatively recreate and rehearse” it, and “become more aware of just what is involved”. A lot of what he calls ‘religious experience’ in fact is simple self-talk. There is no room in his ideas for an experience that could shake him to his foundations. Any assumption that all religious belief begins, or should begin, with black-box processes equivalent to his would be gravely mistaken; actually spiritual transformation is a much more interesting phenomenon than that!

Consider again: Phillip St Romain’s useful Kundalini Energy and Christian Spirituality. At the time when his experiences began, St Romain didn’t recognize them as ‘kundalini’, but as he lays out the experiences one can check them off the standard kundalini list: appearance of colours, openings at chakra points, lights, mandalas, changing self-concept with some resultant cognitive confusions, automated bodily movements/”asanas”, strong energy sensations, continuous endocrinal changes, you name it. Since the whole process started as a result of Christian prayer, and was continuously sustained by Christian prayer throughout, St Romain has thought of it as a Christian process (and even gives a Thomist interpretation) but is sensible enough to realize that it’s also cross-cultural, and get help from a few yogis.

His was a process which was not culturally expected, for sure; one which, albeit mediated through the cultural expectations of the person having it, had obvious biological and energetic aspects which trascended his intepretative filters and revealed a big measure of universality (unsurprisingly, since human biology is cross-cultural). Plantinga’s culturally-mediated ‘black-box process’, on the other hand, must logically lead him to consider the kundalini process in St Romain to be ‘real’, but the exact same process in someone else to be ‘false’! To put it mildly, such a viewpoint strains reason to, and I think past, its limit.

We are talking about real experience here. Real spiritual experience on a transformative level is certainly different from culture to culture and tradition to tradition, and many people believe ‘theirs is best’ of course! But it also has important commonalities, and crucially, when criticism and ‘best’ claims occur, they do so on points of the experiences or doctrines, which must therefore be admitted as evidence. But the position taken by Plantinga is that the experiences of soulful or celestial truth in other religions are falsehoods, not with reference to the evidence of their own content (whose importance he does not admit), but only on the evidence of his own personal cognitive processes (!); and that his experiences or tradition are ‘best’, not for any evidential reason, but for no evidential reason (yet reasonably). Frankly, bizarre is the only word for such a position.

Next time: could St Paul’s conversion actually have been a result of the ch’i of followers of Christ? (Yes you read that right ^_^)


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