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A shot in the dark

I haven’t really had what you would call a serious brush with the paranormal – no messages from the beyond or even premonitions of impending danger that most people seem to have experienced at least once in their lives. My collision with the unexplained is not your garden variety spooky encounter but it is rather perplexing, mainly because no-one has been able to explain it to my satisfaction. Maybe someone out there can offer me one I haven’t heard before, and that will go someway towareds clearing up this mystery.

I was sitting at my computer early one morning when I heard a god-awfully loud CRACK behind me. A good approximation is the sound of slapping a thong (or flip-flop for my US and UK readers) or sandal very hard on a tile floor. More like a THWACK! This was loud enough to make me jump in my seat and get my heart-rate going a little. Now, I live alone in a small flat with one large main open living area, and the sound was in this lounge/dining/kitchen area. No-one else was in the flat and nothing was out of the ordinary. It sounded a lot like a very loud electrical discharge so I checked all the outlets and appliances but nothing was amiss. The TV was on, but it didn’t skip a beat. Simply put, there was no trace of anything that could explain such a loud retort.

Some explanations that have been offered were large insects or small lizards (I live in Queensland) or mice running across faulty connections. But there was no evidence of a short or anything like that. Another is that moisture inside old TVs can build up a static charge with accumulated dust and deliver a loud crack, and this seems the most likely, but I still can’t believe it would be so loud. I mean, this was really loud.

Suffice to say that most of the explanations so far have been unsatisfactory, not because I want to hold out for a paranormal explanation, but simply because they don’t fit the facts of my experience. Some have even suggested I could have been mistaken about the volume of the sound and its location. Of course, I can only stand by my conviction that everything seemed to me exactly as I describe it.

My niece has had similar experiences with identical lack of obvious sources. Once she heard the same loud crack when entering a completely empty house for the very first time.

I am in logical limbo here. Please rescue me.

Belief is a powerful engine. It can drive people to failure or success, sadness or happiness, depression or ecstasy. It can even make people ignore facts and reality, like taking spiritual texts literally, forcing one to abandon reason, science and common sense.

In my youth I believed in lots of things: UFOs, ghosts, communication with the dead, and many other paranormalities. I can’t remember why I believed in these phenomena; the universe seemed more dramatic somehow. I think I believed largely because most everybody else seemed to believe in them. It was generally accepted that these phenomena, in one form or another, were real.

Now? These days, it’s not so much that I reject them, it’s more that I have less a need to believe in paranormalia. For a start, I don’t trust my perceptions enough to give me an uncensored, unfiltered view of reality. Numerous are the ways in which we mortals deceive ourselves. “A man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest. Li la li, li la li li li la li …” I am less interested in believing in something, but seeing what is in front of my eyes, clearly.

I am trying to improve this instrument of cognition, mainly through meditation, mindfulness and being present, without filters, to what is real. For the moment I am happy to simply be, and leave these alternate realities alone.

However, my paranormal agnosticism doesn’t preclude speculating and investigating metaphysical possibilities. My book is a cautious expedition into the unknown, with a guide rope firmly tethered to the real world of facts and physics.

It all depends how much one invests in one’s theories or beliefs. The Dalai Lama has said that if science found Buddhism wrong, Buddhism would have to change. There is a lesson there for all of us.

My first book is now on sale (official website should be up the end of next week)

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1906834032/thegospeoftho-20

and I am a very happy and proud first-time author. I haven’t yet held a printed edition in my hand, and dare say that will only add to my giddy pride.

It may appear strange that a self-confessed skeptic is writing a book on a scientific approach to astrology. But the wiggle room that is allowed in circumscepticism makes this the perfect subject for examination. Science says the book is closed on astrology. I say, not quite.

The opening to my media release reads:

“Astrology does not work. This may come as a surprise to the thousands of practising astrologers throughout the world. But traditional astrology has not fared well under the scrutiny of science. Indeed, according to premier astrology researcher Rudolph Smit, astrology has been tested in more than 600 scientific studies.”

Rudolph Smit’s site is the most comprehensive site on the subject, and I thoroughly recommend it for those who are interested in the tendentious relationship between science and astrology.

http://www.rudolfhsmit.nl/hpage.htm

Basically the conclusion Mr Smit, himself a practicing astrologer for many years, arrives at is that:

“Today, for the first time in twenty centuries, we can say with some certainty that no, the heavens do not reflect our destiny.”

“The case against astrology is that it is untrue. It has not contributed to human knowledge, it claims the prestige of science without the methods of science, it has failed hundreds of tests, it does not deliver benefits beyond those produced by non-astrological factors (hidden persuaders), and users do not usefully agree on basics such as which zodiac to use or even on what a given birth chart indicates. No hint of these problems will be found in astrology books, which is why some scientists see astrologers as misguided or even fraudulent. In fact astrologers are mostly nice people who genuinely wish to help others.”

So why does astrology work?

For most people, astrology works if it provides meaning. It does not need to be true, and, according to Smit, attacking it would be like attacking a religious faith. Faith needs no facts: it is all a matter of belief. And many beliefs seem to thrive on contrary facts. Smit says:

“In practical terms a warm and sympathetic astrologer provides low-cost non-threatening therapy that is otherwise hard to come by. You get emotional comfort, spiritual support, and interesting ideas to stimulate self-examination. … In a dehumanised society an astrologer provides personal support at a very low price. Where else can you get this sort of thing these days?”

And further, quoting historian and social critic Theodore Roszak from his book Why Astrology Endures (Briggs, San Francisco 1980): “For a growing number of people, the rich imagery of these old traditions has become a more inspirational way of talking [about ourselves] … than conventional psychiatry. The astrological universe is, after all, the universe of Greco-Roman myth, of Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake. It has poetry and philosophy built into it.”

In short, it has enough ancient mysticism and promise of self-knowledge to attract a wide audience who believe it can supply them with answers. And generally, people cannot be shaken from their cherished beliefs, so I try not to expend too much energy in trying to do so. But that is not the same as trying to make a good case for or against something, and I think “Planetary Types: the Science of Celestial Influence” does that very job.

So, on the subject of whether or not the scientific book is closed on astrology, my media release continues:

“… astrology has been tested in more than 600 scientific studies. All have failed. With one exception.

“Michel Gauquelin tested hundreds of thousands of subjects in numerous experiments to prove that the planets influence character, but his results are disputed by scientists, despite the sheer mass of evidence.

“Author and researcher Tony Cartledge has re-awakened the debate over planetary influence, and is approaching the Gauquelin findings from a new and exciting angle.”

Hard-core skeptics believe they have demolished all Gauquelin’s findings. That may be so, but my book introduces new elements into the mix, that make testing for planetary influence and planetary types much easier, and much less prone to debate. Any results from the testing I propose in the book will leave little doubt as to whether there can be such a thing as a science of celestial influence.

Rebunking

With the recent anniversary of the moon landing, the moon landing hoax has resurfaced, like one of those birds that graze on the backs of elephants or other large mammals, feeding on the parasites and grubs. It is still astonishing to me that it has such a dedicated band of followers, despite having been debunked many times over.

I overheard someone say that they need to keep an open mind on the subject, to which I replied, “No, you don’t.” You need to investigate further. After reading all the claims of the conspiracy theorists, you need to click a little further down the Google page and see where each of the claims have been answered by science. It seems many paranormalists can only see as far as the Google link that supports what they want to believe.

Favourites fantasies are persistent, even in the face of real facts to the contrary. It is part of the fabric of our personality that preferred beliefs have precedence over reality.

T S Eliot said “Humankind cannot stand very much reality.” It seems they must invent elaborate conspiracies to make life interesting.

Naked reality, unadorned by our filters and beliefs, is endlessly fascinating, and the only worthwhile journey undertaking is to find your way back there everyday.

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

You may or may not recognise this quote and its author. One of the interesting things about it, is that it could easily be the fruits of the mind of an atheist, an enlightened Christian, a scientist, or a devoted mystic, or in fact, anyone who simply has a thirst for the truth, unadorned by the filters of a conditioned mind.

It is, of course, a quote from the Buddha. I am currently immersed in Buddhist thoght and practice and I find that its central tenets agree perfectly with the circumsceptic creed: “don’t simply accept the opinions of others: go see for yourelf.”

Skeptics need a good PR expert. The popular media tends not to portray them at all fairly, especially when the story is angled towards the believers — whether light-heartedly or seriously. I think there is this general public perception that skeptics want to take all the fun and mystery out of life, and just leave us with boring facts. Totally untrue and unwarranted of course, but then, public perception rarely involves the truth.

When someone like Oprah or Larry King does a show on any paranormal subject, the token skeptic is treated in a rather off-hand manner, (sometimes with barely-disguised derision) and given about one tenth the air-time that the paranormalist gets. Debunking just doesn’t make good television. Which is a shame; the truth should be made more digestible than fantasy.

A good case in point is Richard Dawkins, and his brilliant books and TV documentaries on belief in God and New Age philosophies and practice. With regard to religion, I find myself agreeing with almost everything he says — after all, most of his attacks are on fundamentalism, which is not very spiritual at all. The trouble is, he suffers from an image problem. He is not the warmest of hosts, and comes off a little too academic and, well, nerdy.

Mr Dawkins is in sharp contrast to messrs. Savage and Heinemann from the Mythbustsers (and not forgetting Tory, Grant and the delectable Kari), who are more than happy to throw their scientific hats into the paranormal or alt.lifestyle ring. They are quirky, funny and a joy to watch.

Two entirely different approaches to dispelling fantasy with facts — opposite ends of the spectrum, one might say — yet neither is really heralding any fundamental change in the public perception of applied critical thinking.

So the answer to the question in the header is very simple: skepticism is not cool because ‘what might be’ is always more interesting than ‘what is.’

And to make skepticism ‘cooler’ and therefore the more desirable option, there is a solution, that is just as simple.

“What is’ needs to adopted as the more useful, and valuable, spiritual choice. Not a logical, or even responsible choice, but a spiritual one.

How this might be attempted will be the subject of future posts.

http://planetarytypes.wordpress.com/

The title of my first book, due out by Bardic Press in a week or two, is rather ambitious to say the least, coming as it does, from a very skeptical approach.

I wrote it around 2001 and only revisited it just over a year ago, when my editor and publisher Andrew heard about the MS and asked to read it. The rest is history, or soon will be, as the release date approaches.

I’d like to share this small excerpt with you from the opening of Chapter 12 of ‘Planetary Types: The Science of Celestial Influence.

“Since I first began my study of types and the possibility of establishing a science of celestial influence, my outlook on life, science and any laws governing human behaviour and mechanics has undergone its own evolution. I spent many years following the ideas of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, and though I am no longer a card-carrying Fourth Way student, its influence on my life and my understanding of how the world works is undeniable. Though it is quite a complex system of esoteric knowledge, I have distilled its most valuable nuggets down into a few simple useful guidelines that help me navigate life’s mysteries. I am also strongly influenced by Buddhism, which exhorts us to look at the world directly and innocently, in order to see it as it really is. As a result, I tend to look at the world more simply, and try to be honest and realistic about the way things are.

My critical faculties have also grown over the years, and I actually find myself more of a sceptic now than when I began this work. I rely less on what I would like to believe and more on what is likely, and what is possible. That is why I am under no illusions as to the difficulties of establishing any new Science of Celestial Influence. If it is to have strong foundations I have to be as meticulous and ruthless in laying its groundwork as I have been with the critical examination of traditional astrology.”

The outcome of the book relies heavily on experimental outcomes, as it encourages the reader to undertake their own tests to try and determine whether the planets influence character and physiology. (When I originally did my own tests I found it difficult to enlist the aid of those who could conduct the tests with the strict protocols and methods necessary, so the book is actually a way of furthering the research.)

The book is an experiment in itself, as I see it. It tries to navigate a course between the two extremes of spring-loaded skepticism and rejection of paranormal phenomena, and blind belief. It is not strictly evangelical about one outcome or the other, but simply asks the question: ‘wouldn’t it be interesting if …?’ I think that is a more inclusive approach to metaphysical phenomena, and a far more fruitful one.

The book can be summed up by this snippet from a quote by Johannes Kepler from the chapter on the history of the planetary types. It illustrates one of the hallmarks of circumscepticism: that if you examine paranormalities critically and clear away a lot of the embroidery and nonsense, “… perhaps a good little grain, yes, a pearly or golden corn could be scraped for and found by an industrious hen.”

I believe there are more than a few pearly grains in this book. I hope you enjoy them.