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Never Mess With Necromancy

A total, hardcore, lollapalooza of a Dreher-bait interview with cultural historian and ossuary expert Paul Koudounaris [1], who has studied the way particular cultures interact, or interacted, with the dead. Excerpt:

How did the mummies in the Palermo catacombs end up with such nice outfits?

For centuries people would pay to have their relatives mummified and put on display. And every November 2 you would dress your mummies in a new set of clothing. It was just a traditional family obligation. Eventually this stopped. Those catacombs are basically the finest fashion history museum in the world — what they’re wearing now is whatever they had on when their relatives stopped bringing them new clothes.

Generally this happened arond the Enlightenment. It shows how drastically our conception of dealing with the dead changed at that point. If you consider Psycho, the one thing that makes Norman Bates absolutely unfit to be a member of human society is that he has his mother mummified and dresses her in clothes. That what marked him as a lunatic. But back in 1700 in Sicily that would have marked him as the paradigm of a loving son. At that point death was not a boundary, it was just a transition and the dead still had a role to play.

There’s freaky ghost stuff all up in the interview, along with this warning from Koudounaris:

One of the dangers of necromancy is you don’t really know who’s on the other side or what they’re going to give you in return.

So, there you are. It all reminds me of one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read, Authors Of The Impossible [2], by Rice University religious studies professor Jeffrey Kripal. I wrote about it for Real Clear Religion [3]. Excerpt:

change_me

Kripal’s personal viewpoint on all this is slippery. He says he neither believes nor disbelieves —  not because he’s trying to avoid taking a position, but because of his theory about what the mind and human personality are. This requires some unpacking. In Kripal’s view, the mind and consciousness are far more complex than science and religion think, which renders our various interpretive models inadequate to explain reality. Kripal doesn’t propose a clear alternative, though he does propose that in some way, human consciousness helps create reality through its interaction with the material world, much as we have learned from quantum physics the fantastical lesson that a conscious observer helps determine physical outcomes at the quantum level. He doesn’t believe UFOs are hallucinations or creatures from outer space, for example, but theorizes that UFOs are a a real phenomenon that is, in some dimly understood way, a result of human consciousness interacting with the universe.

If this sounds impossibly New Age, well, it kind of is. But this is precisely where Kripal wants to take the reader by the collar and say, “Not so fast!” The kind of characters we dismiss as kooks may in fact be kooky — but their very distance from the mainstream may help them to see things as they are more clearly, or at least to ask questions that are important, but embarrassing to the right-minded. This is why he turns to a handful of outsider figures, both historical and contemporary, in his search for forgotten insights. One of them, the 20th century American eccentric Charles Fort, described as “damned” information and phenomena discarded by dominant intellectual paradigms. Fort was a legendary curator of the damned, and though he entertained some thoroughly crackpot notions, Kripal values him for paying attention to things respectable intellectuals ignored.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 19th century, Kripal shows, leading scientists and thinkers turned their powers to investigating and analyzing what we now call the paranormal. At some point, however, a dogmatic materialism suppressed genuinely scientific curiosity about these strange phenomena. This is partly, Kripal says, because the paranormal typically cannot be reproduced in laboratory settings. But can we really afford to say that nothing that can be measured or reproduced scientifically can be said to exist? This, according to Kripal, is to succumb to an unreasonable rationalism.

In the end, “Authors of the Impossible” is not a book about “The X Files” and spiritualist ooga-booga, but one about epistemology. How do we know what we know? How do we know that we are refusing to ask the right questions because we are afraid of the answers? Have we set up our modes of inquiry such that we cannot possibly penetrate these mysteries? We don’t need to toss out the rational and to embrace the irrational, he argues, but we do need more balance in our approach to these things. Writes Kripal, “Why continue to tolerate a kind of armchair skepticism that has everything to do with scientistic propaganda and nothing at all to do with honest, rigorously open-minded collection, classification, and theory building, that is, with real science and real humanistic inquiry? True enough, anomalies may be just anomalies — meaningless glitches in the statistical field of possibility. But anomalies may also be the signals of the impossible, that is, signs of the end of one paradigm and the beginning of another.”

Above, a 14-minute documentary outlining the themes of Kripal’s book [2].

(Via The Browser [4].)

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Never Mess With Necromancy"

#1 Comment By Carlo On December 17, 2012 @ 8:45 am

A young French philospher of the 1930’s who died in the concentration camps, Benjamin Fondane, argued that radical scientism is really based on an act of the will, namely hatred for transcendence understood in the broader sense: everything that empirical reason cannot analyze and dominate. As such, it is basically an expression of fear, terror of what we cannot master.

This becomes absolutely clear if one visits certain “atheist” websites. Once I came across a forum where people where making fun of miracles at Lourdes because some people started walking but it never happened that an amputated leg grew back.
Just to jerk their chain I pointed out that even if amputated legs had grown back they would never believe it anyway, because they could always find an excuse to justify their a priori decision about what can be real or not. They all went crazy, so I brought up the famous Calanda episode (where the leg did grow back, with literally hunderds of witnessed) and… they all went crazy again, because admitting just the POSSIBILITY of something like that was a form of blasphemy against their whole perception of selves.

#2 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On December 17, 2012 @ 8:47 am

Kripal doesn’t propose a clear alternative, though he does propose that in some way, human consciousness helps create reality through its interaction with the material world, much as we have learned from quantum physics the fantastical lesson that a conscious observer helps determine physical outcomes at the quantum level.

He’s saying something I both disagree and agree with.

I disagree that Quantum Mechanics says that consciousness causes wave function collapse. That’s an interpretation of the theory and outside of science.

I agree that ultimately humans can’t remove the human mind from the things we observe. So from our point of view man appears to be the measure of all things. This creates the appearance that we create reality through our observations, but that might not in fact be the case. Since humans were not always around and the universe appeared to do fine without us, I’d lay strong odds it isn’t the case.

How do we know that we are refusing to ask the right questions because we are afraid of the answers?

I would say that Modernity has come to the conclusion that asking questions which appear to have no objective answers isn’t the most productive use of everyone’s time. It might be entertaining and sell books, but you can’t structure societies around big unanswerable questions.

#3 Comment By Turmarion On December 17, 2012 @ 8:48 am

I’ve read some of Kripal’s stuff and listened to some podcast interviews with him. He’s always interesting and thought-provoking. I’ve never really had anything of the level of weirdness of your experience or those in the clip, but I’ve known quite a few perfectly normal, trustworthy people who have. Therefore, I think there’s something to Kripal’s thesis.

#4 Comment By Tyro On December 17, 2012 @ 9:52 am

Whenever I hear people complain about “scientism”, they always seem to be annoyed that the data and studies show something that they don’t particularly want to accept, and they don’t like the fact that they can no longer argue a point that research has shown isn’t a viable explanation. Some people don’t like the idea that the “entrance fee” to make your case involves evidence, models, reproducibility of results, and get resentful that they can’t participate when they can’t/don’t want to provide these things when defending their pre-existing beliefs.

That said, weirdly, one compelling explanation for UFO phenomena was actually given by Fr. Seraphim Rose in “Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future”, where he connected the UFO visitation experiences with demons, pointing out the parallels between the modern UFO visitation accounts and medieval stories about people who had demonic encounters– ie, the interactions were confusing and odd, did not provide anything tangible or “new” information (why do UFO visitations never give humanity any usable technology?), and generally just lead people astray seeking after something that never seems to “pay off.” Whether you “believe” in the existence of demons or argue from a more rationalist standpoint (as Carl Sagan does in “The Demon Haunted World”) that these are just psychological manifestations, the parallels in the phenomena are the same, and the lack of replicability and ability to provide evidence that would be expected of any other “real” incident seems to preclude any physical explanation.

#5 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 17, 2012 @ 10:09 am

My answer to both critics and practitioners of scientism is simply, what science can tell us is real, although always subject to revision based on new data, and more precise analysis, but science can tell us little about what, if anything, lies outside the scope of science. To say the absence of data is proof of non-existence is silly. To claim certain knowledge of a realm that cannot be examined scientifically is equally foolish. For that, we all walk by faith, not by sight, and my faith is as blind as yours.

#6 Comment By Bryan On December 17, 2012 @ 10:10 am

Dude–I just spent probably an hour or more on Amazon browsing books on “New Age”stuff (for lack of a better term) including works on reincarnation by Ian Stevenson and some other prominent authors on the topic of transmigration of souls.

I am always interested in comparative religion but as a rule I look to highly traditional/orthodox stuff. It even crossed my mind, as I came across a reference to quantum mechanics in a review on some Edgar Cayce book, how unusual it seemed for me to be allowing myself to delve into the “dark side” this once. I always avoid anything that attempts to mix spheres (Gerald Schroeder being the lone exception and even he is an Orthodox Jew).

Now I come to one of my favorite blogs and see this! The timing is wild, especially considering the topic. It obliges me to ask, if I may, exactly what prompted you to write on this topic at this time, Mr. Dreher?

#7 Comment By Carlo On December 17, 2012 @ 10:49 am

“but you can’t structure societies around big unanswerable questions.”

Unfortunately you have to answer them anyway in order to live together. The only difference is that you will answer them tacitly and thus more irrationally.

#8 Comment By Charles Cosimano On December 17, 2012 @ 11:46 am

The problem with necromancy is not the illusory dangers that fundamentalists like to make up and no one other than them takes very seriously, but rather that the dead are, well, dead. And dead people tend to be very boring and not very good dinner guests.

Other than at election time, they are not a lot of use.

#9 Comment By grendel On December 17, 2012 @ 12:29 pm

“If you consider Psycho, the one thing that makes Norman Bates absolutely unfit to be a member of human society is that he has his mother mummified and dresses her in clothes.”

No, actually, for me it was that he KILLED his mother, then mummified her and dressed her in clothes, and then spent 20 years arguing with her about potential girlfriends. For me it was the killing thing that made Norman absolutely unfit to be a member of human society. Without the the killing thing, the everything else would have just rendered him seriously weird, but not a complete social pariah.

#10 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On December 17, 2012 @ 1:19 pm

Carlo said:

Unfortunately you have to answer them anyway in order to live together. The only difference is that you will answer them tacitly and thus more irrationally.

The problem with explicit answers to big questions is that you can’t get a single answer, so societies seem to chose one arbitrarily. That doesn’t seem all that rational to me either and inevitably there will be people who don’t tow the line. So what do you do with them?

I vote for sweeping as many problems under the rug as possible, winging it, and hoping for the best.

#11 Comment By JohnE_o On December 17, 2012 @ 4:06 pm

Carlo, Calanda might not be all that:

[5]

#12 Comment By Carlo On December 17, 2012 @ 4:25 pm

MH:

“The problem with explicit answers to big questions is that you can’t get a single answer, so societies seem to chose one arbitrarily.”

That’s the current prevalent opinion, but I disagree. In fact, on many things our culture has a single very prevalent answer, even if it is too shallow to even formulate it explicitly.

#13 Comment By Carlo On December 17, 2012 @ 5:22 pm

JohnE_o

thanks for proving my point:

As I was saying, I don’t care much whether the miracle was true or not (altough I did read the skeptoid piece a long time ago and found it extremely contrived), and whether people choose to believe it r nto..

My point was the fact that those people were CERTAIN that it did not happen, which I find ridiculous. Or, to be more precise, I find it revealing of a deep seated fear/hatred of transcendence.

#14 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On December 17, 2012 @ 5:25 pm

In fact, on many things our culture has a single very prevalent answer, even if it is too shallow to even formulate it explicitly.

That moving green pieces of paper around will lead to happiness?

#15 Comment By Carlo On December 17, 2012 @ 6:16 pm

MH:

do you really want a list? I dunno, what about

That all human beings for some reason have equal “rights”

That science is the highest form of rationality

That what people do with consensually and without physical harm is OK and should never be outlawed

That relativism will reduce the danger of violence and wars of religion

That a modern society can be run on purely rational principles

That it is impossible to come to firm conclusions about most metaphysical questions

That freedom is the possibility of doing as we wish

and so on and so forth…

#16 Comment By JonF On December 17, 2012 @ 6:33 pm

Re: Since humans were not always around and the universe appeared to do fine without us, I’d lay strong odds it isn’t the case.

But that just points to the possibility that consciousness must be involved in physical processes in some form of other ,even if it isn’t physical consciousness. The early 18th century philosopher Berkley (who knew nothing of quantum mechanics, but gave us “Esse est percipi aut percipere”*) posited that God played this role in the absence of human minds. Another possibility is that consciousness is inherent in all matter, at some very relict level, and only becomes strongly noticeable at certain levels of integrated complexity (somewhat analogous to the fact that gravitation exists for all matter, no matter how little mass a body has; but it is only significant for truly massive bodies).

* To be is to be perceived, or to perceive

#17 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On December 17, 2012 @ 6:55 pm

I may have had a paranormal experience because I’m having deja vu about Carlo and John E’s Calanda exchange.

#18 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On December 18, 2012 @ 8:43 am

JonF, God as the ultimate observer to sustain consciousness causes collapse is certainly possible. But I would bet against it for reasons other than atheism.

Humans have has a tendency to put ourselves at the center of things (e.g. geocentrism, creationism, rare Earth). Each time we’ve been disappointed as our ability to discern the nature of reality improved. Consciousness is yet another area where humans would like to remain central to the drama of creation. But this seems like yet another form of anthropocentrism and given the track record we’re likely to be disappointed.

I often quote Protagoras that “man is the measure of all things”, but I don’t mean that we are ultimately the measure of all things. Only pragmatically that humans at the present time are the ones doing the observation and telling other humans. So we can’t take ourselves out of what we observe.

Carlo said:

That it is impossible to come to firm conclusions about most metaphysical questions.

That was quite a list, but I’ll pick metaphysics since that’s sort of on topic for a thread on the paranormal. People have been working on metaphysical questions for thousands of years, and without an emerging consensus. So the odds don’t look good for this one.

So Modernity is really the triumph of Sextus Empiricus over the other ancient philosophers.