Connectedness to the world beyond our five senses

My friend Sondra and I had a lengthy discussion about altered states of consciousness and whether the physical world as it is presently understood is all that there is to be known. We have both had experiences that seem to defy theories that we misinterpreted coincidental events or that we selectively remembered events that confirmed a theory.

She has recently had apparent success using sigils — a method of creating a symbol to influence a specific outcome. However, as both of us are skeptics, the lack of a causal understanding has us frustrated — although not so much frustration as to stop using what seems to work, especially when it does no harm.

She spoke of the theory that the symbols themselves were being "charged" with something (I almost wrote "energy" but that's not what I'm talking about). The concept is that if we can observe a symbol (a word, for instance) and that can cause a thought to form in our minds, there is a transfer of something from the symbol to ourself. If that's true, then can it be possible to charge a symbol with something that can later be received? Can it be used to communicate on some level different from language?

I felt it might be that a sigil is a representation of the start of an action that we forget how we complete. I made an analogy of pounding in a nail: starting with a nail protruding from a board, you would (1) desire for the nail to be pounded in, (2) get a hammer and pound in the nail, and (3) observe the nail pounded in. Now consider the experience if you forgot that you did #2: you would have observed a protruding nail that you wanted pounded in, and then you would note that it was indeed pounded in. What if a sigil is a way to express a desire, and we simply forget how we accomplished it, leading to an outcome that we wanted in the first place?

We also talked about out-of-body experiences, or at least extending our influence and connection to the world beyond the confines of our bodies. A long time ago I had tinkered with out-of-body experiences. One time I felt that I could locate the presence of non-physical beings in space — hundreds of them everywhere; in another, I heard a cacophony of voices. In both cases, though, it scared me — I very much did not want to reach a point where I couldn't avoid "seeing presences" or "hearing voices" so I turned away from those techniques.

So what if that was a valid, real perception? — a sensory device that I had not needed to use and that I psychologically blocked. What if that could help explain facets of our existence that have yet been unexplained? What if we have deliberately blinded ourselves to avoid seeing something that is complex and confusing; powerful and enriching? The cells in my body are connected in complicated ways, so why not a connection to all life to a similar degree? Why not a connection to the universe in its entirety?

It's certainly an exciting prospect … [unless, of course, it's demonstrably an illusion; then it would kind of suck.]

But then I don't want to dive right into the world of pseudoscience. A serendipitous e-mail gave me a hint, though. It was a link to a TED Talk by a neuroanatomist named Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor titled My stroke of insight. In it, she outlined her own experience of having a stroke and how it affected her brain — an expert in brain anatomy who got the chance to experience what she often explains to others.

The lecture is moving and engaging, but what I took away from it was a reminder to rely on science in my own exploration. One of the key parts of validly using reason and logic to come to conclusions is to start from a point that has already been established — "A" then "B" then "C". One of the pitfalls in exploring topics that are "out there" is to claim that it is an entirely new frontier and to start from a point that it is not grounded in established knowledge. Doing so invalidates any conclusions attained, so not only is it a false path, it's genuinely a waste of time.

So it's one thing to explore and play, but to draw conclusions — like mine and Sondra's analytical brains desperately want to do — requires that we start at a point of known, physical reality.  Maybe this left-brain, right-brain stuff is a starting point.  I guess I'd better get reading.

A lecture on the dangers of pseudoarchaeology at the MAG

Ali and I headed to The Memorial Art Gallery (500 University Ave., near Goodman St.) to see the archaeology lecture. Dr. Garrett Fagan was there to talk about The Dangers of Pseudoarchaeology.

To start with, archaeology is the analysis of physical remains, paying special attention to the context of those remains — their geographic location, location relative to other items and within the strata of the region, any documented historical context, and so on. Further, he stated that there is an assumption among archaeologists that other archaeologists are interested in the best explanation for things.

Pseudoarchaeology — "armchair archaeology" if you will — is performed by people who are not interested in the best explanation at all. Rather, the goal is to attain sensational results — and as such, truth that inconveniently gets in the way of that goal is ignored, denied, or derided as being part of a conspiratorial establishment. It abuses select methods of archaeology for the purpose of lending credence to itself. So, for instance, it may take a small piece of data and fabricate a vast conclusion from it. Or it may rely on outdated models — cherry-picking debunked theories to support a hypothesis.

The thought then is, "so what?: legitimate archaeology will debunk their findings". Well it's not so hard when some guy shows up on TV with a wrench and claims it's the bone of a metal dinosaur. But when it's someone who's published a dozen books under the "archaeology" category, it's quite another.

And therein lies the cornerstone for the "dangers" that Dr. Fagan outlined. The pseudoarchaeologist makes their conclusions first then finds data to fit that — specifically, they skip the peer-review process that is designed to strengthen legitimate theories and diminish illegitimate ones. Relatedly, they will deride critics and celebrate supporters; whereas a true archaeologist will celebrate the respectability of criticism or support and deride inferiority. Frequently the pseudoarchaeologist will leverage nationalism and other unrelated reasons affect objective investigation.

But worst of all is that these pseudoarchaeologists don't do any real archaeology but they are supported under false pretenses to establish dig-sites which are no more respectable than (and just as destructive as) looters.

The key — in my mind — is that the average person is not an expert in archaeology (and in point of fact, is seldom an expert in any more than one field). As such, they rely on indicators of expertise to make a decision: advanced degrees, validation from others, longevity of their claimed expertise, etc. Unfortunately, all of these can be forged and the non-expert is left wondering what to do.

I guess for most, it's to remain vigilant. Look for telltale signs — sweeping conclusions, derision of all critics and celebration of all supporters, and a strong influence of motivations external to the work-at-hand.

I also left the lecture with a sense of familiarity for the kind of person that makes a pseudoarchaeologist. It's the same traits that make up the pseudoscientist and the fraudulent leader. In all these cases, the perpetrator of fraud creates an environment of power and prestige by convincing people that established knowledge is simply a conspiracy against wonders-untold that is otherwise claimed untrue.

For the pseudoarchaeologist, it may be that ancient civilizations were far more advanced than we are — despite established knowledge that they used tools and techniques that we have built upon to become more advanced than they. For the pseudoscientist, it is almost exclusively an attack on good old Thermodynamics Law #2: that you can't get more energy out of something than you put in — perpetual motion machines, and miraculous energy machines constitute the bulk of their exploration. And for the fraudulent leader, it is a claim that vast improvements can come from their method of leadership which history has consistently shown to be a path to a civilization's destruction.

And I agree with Dr. Fagan's comment that these people are not evil, just misguided. They are often deluded by the same thing that tricks others: the fundamental belief that great rewards exist to be claimed; and the refusal to accept that sometimes the greatness of a reward is distorted to be larger than it actually is when observed from afar.