Thursday, October 31, 2013

Unimpressive Hauntings

I used to read Cracked back in the 1980's when it was pretty much a ripoff of Mad magazine. These days, though, is a web-only publication with some pretty amusing articles. Today, for Halloween, I thought I would share this list of unimpressive hauntings. While these look like potentially paranormal events, their scope leaves a lot to be desired - especially compared to media representations of ghosts.

Movies have kind of spoiled us when it comes to ghosts. Nowadays we won't take any spirit seriously unless it's pulling little girls into television sets or pulling terrified women down staircases. But real hauntings never play out that way.

It makes sense, when you think about it. Most dead folks had to be painfully normal, boring people whose ghosts certainly may want to give this haunting thing the old college try but, bless their hearts, just don't have the imagination for it.

In the article you can read about the ghost who throws fruit roll-ups, another that moves butter dishes, and so forth. None of them would make very compelling films, but that's pretty much the point. Ghosts aren't actually that powerful in the physical realm - if they were, they would be a lot easier to detect with regular measuring instruments. So maybe, just maybe, it's in fact the unimpressive hauntings that are the most genuine.

Happy Halloween, everybody!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Witches Versus Thelemites

It's no big secret that in some parts of the United States practitioners of Wicca and witchcraft don't get along with Thelemites. This isn't true everywhere, and is actually kind of sad because in many cases OTO bodies have been very successful when they have been able to integrate themselves into the local Pagan scene in addition to attracting ceremonial magicians. As this article demonstrates, it's not just here in the States that witchcraft and Thelema find themselves at odds. In the article, with its title seemly ripped from the headlines of 1987, British "white witch" Kevin Carlyon warned people to steer clear of cult groups and wasted no time singling out OTO.

Mr Carlyon said the authorities should monitor some groups, including the controversial O.T.O., because of the alleged sex rituals held during some meetings. “I constantly tell people that nothing in witchcraft involves taking your clothes off,” he said. The European headquarters of O.T.O., which stands for Ordo Templi Orientis (Order of the Temple of the East), is just a street away from Kevin’s home in St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex.

Now here are some facts. First off, OTO does not in fact hold "sex rituals" during meetings. Second, the article focuses on "youngsters" avoiding cults but completely fails to mention that only adults of "full age" - 18 in the US and UK - can join the Order in the first place. Finally, if what Carlyon's worried about is people taking their clothes off, it's in Wicca where you will find the practice of "skyclad" ritual nudity, not in OTO. Of course, in an apparent effort to smear the Order Carlyon ignores all of that. It's pretty clear from his comments what his "white witches" think of Thelema.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"Occult Shed" Somehow Newsworthy

Police in Lakewood, Colorado were recently called to a vacant home being readied for sale when bones and a handful of "occult items" were found in a disused shed. The items suggest that the shed may have been used for some sort of ritual work long ago, but in terms of what most practicing occultists keep in their homes the find was pretty underwhelming. Since a few of the bones looked as if they might be human, cadaver dogs were called in to search the property for additional human remains but found nothing. The police operation is probably why it made the news at all, because otherwise there's not much to it - as you can see from the photo.

Animal skulls, chains, bones from a goat and possibly other animals, a skull mask with a black hood, candles and a machete were among the items that were found in the home's backyard shed. Police say that some of the bones, including a partial skull, are suspected of being human and have been sent to an out-of-state lab to determine whether any DNA evidence can be found. Up to 20 bones were found and investigators even brought in search dogs trained to find decomposing bodies.

Neighbor Carlos Fraire said the discovery was very eerie. "It's weird that it's this time of year, right around Halloween," Fraire told 9News. According to a report by Westword, neighbors described the woman who lived there as a Christian and the items in the shed are suspected of having belonged to her now-deceased husband, who reportedly left the country in 1998. For the last 15 years, his wife apparently either hadn't known the items were there or left them completely alone because when they were discovered most were covered in thick dust.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Graphing Consciousness?

The emerging science of consciousness studies has profound implications for the study of magical and mystical experiences. The tool that we would need to measure states of consciousness in an empirical manner hinges upon being able to define what consciousness is in the first place, and a new study from UCLA suggests a possible methodology for constructing such a device by modeling information flow across multiple brain regions.

Lead study author Martin Monti, an assistant professor of psychology and neurosurgery at UCLA, and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study how the flow of information in the brains of 12 healthy volunteers changed as they lost consciousness under anesthesia with propofol. The participants ranged in age from 18 to 31 and were evenly divided between men and women.

The psychologists analyzed the “network properties” of the subjects’ brains using a branch of mathematics known as graph theory, which is often used to study air-traffic patterns, information on the Internet and social groups, among other topics. “It turns out that when we lose consciousness, the communication among areas of the brain becomes extremely inefficient, as if suddenly each area of the brain became very distant from every other, making it difficult for information to travel from one place to another,” Monti said.

The finding shows that consciousness does not “live” in a particular place in our brain but rather “arises from the mode in which billions of neurons communicate with one another,” he said.

The connectivity matrix above from the study show results for waking (W), sedation (S), loss of consciousness (LOC), and recovery (R). The two axes of the graphs represent particular brain regions. The correlation strength represents the degree of communication and thus the level of information flow both between and within those regions.

Subjectively, enlightened or awakened states of consciousness seem to possess the property of coherence, a combination of consistency and self-reference. If this study is accurate, it implies that this subjective feeling could be a direct result of heightened information flow between multiple areas. If the relationship between the two is strong enough, it might even mean that the level of overall information flow in the brain could act as a stand-in for the "level" of consciousness itself - and that would really be something.

Friday, October 18, 2013

But Freemasons!

In a bizarre end to the United States government shutdown yesterday, a House stenographer took to the podium and berated members of Congress during the vote on the resolution to re-open the government. Apparently she has a problem with Freemasons, many of whom were involved in the founding of the country. She was eventually escorted out of the room and taken to a nearby hospital for evaluation.

As members cast their votes Wednesday evening on legislation to end the 16-day government shutdown, Reidy was seen calmly ascending the rostrum before unleashing a verbal tirade at members of Congress.

She was heard shouting “the House is divided,” according to one congressional source. After about 30 seconds, Reidy was pulled off the rostrum by two people from the House chamber security staff.

“He will not be mocked,” the woman said, according to an audio recording of the incident posted online by Public Radio International reporter Todd Zwillich. “This is not one nation under God. It never was.”

“The greatest deception here is this is not one nation under god! It never was. Had it been, it would not have been! The Constitution would not have been written by Freemasons!” she added.

You know, the funny thing is that for the most part her statements are precisely correct. The House of Representatives was clearly divided during the vote. "One nation under God" was not even part of the original Pledge of Allegiance and was added in the 1950's, along with "In God We Trust" on US currency. And the main reason that we enjoy religious freedom in the United States is likely the result of the influence of Freemasonry on the Founding Fathers.

In fact, to me the only confusing part of this is that she says it like those are bad things.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Yetis are Real

It's official - the yeti, mythical monster of the Himalayas, is a real animal. It's just not an ape or any other sort of large primate. According to a recent analysis of genetic samples, the yeti is apparently a species of bear that may be a cross between polar and brown bears. Reinhold Messner published My Quest for the Yeti back in 2000, in which he concluded the idea that the yeti was some kind of ape was based on a misunderstanding of the Tibetan language by westerners. In fact, when shown pictures of Himalayan bears, locals immediately identified them as yetis. And now the DNA evidence has caught up and confirmed Messner's hypothesis.

Oxford geneticist Bryan Sykes performed DNA testing on 27 suspected yeti samples that had been sent to him from around the world, and got a big hit, reports PhysOrg. Two brownish hair samples found in opposite ends of the Himalayas were a perfect match with the DNA of an ancient polar bear species that lived 40,000 to 120,000 years ago, the Telegraph reports. His conclusion? That yeti is a cross between a polar bear and brown bear—and "may still be there."

One of the "yeti" hair samples is 40 years old and came from a hunter in India's western Himalayas; the second was found in a Bhutan bamboo forest 30 years later, so "we know one of these was walking around 10 years ago," Sykes says. In the former case, the hunter who shot the animal described being unusually frightened by it, Sykes says. "If its behavior is different from normal bears, which is what eyewitnesses report, then I think that may well be the source of the mystery," he tells the BBC, adding the species may be "more aggressive, more dangerous."

Looking at the mythologized yeti in the picture above next to the Himalayan brown bear standing, it's easy to see how eyewitness accounts of the latter could produce an image of the former. This is especially true if the bear feels threatened; it will remain upright and extend its "arms" to look even bigger and scarier. And cross-breeding with polar bears could explain the lighter coat that is sometimes reported in yeti sightings. While it would have been fascinating to identify a new large primate, a new subspecies of bear would be just as legitimate a discovery.

UPDATE: Slate has an article up today that argues there's "no such thing" as a yeti on the grounds that the DNA is more likely to have come from regular Himalayan brown bears rather than a new subspecies of them. But that's the point I'm making here - as Messner argued quite convincingly and the DNA evidence supports, yetis are indeed bears. That doesn't mean yetis don't exist; on the contrary, it means that they're real animals.

Monday, October 14, 2013

More on Mythic Jesus

In my last article on the mythic versus historical Jesus, a commenter recommended that I look into the works of Richard Carrier, one of the foremost proponents of the "mythic Jesus" hypothesis. Lately an article by independent researcher Joseph Atwill has been making the rounds on the Internet, putting forth the argument made in his 2005 book Caesar's Messiah that Christianity was the result of a Roman "psyop" intended to pacify the Jews of Palestine. This argument sounds dubious, and even though Atwill's book has been out for years it has only recently attracted a lot of attention. So who's going to show up to convincingly debunk the whole thing? Why, none other than Richard Carrier himself, who characterizes Atwill as a "crank myther" and goes on to demolish his entire thesis. Read the whole article, it's that good.

Atwill is best known as the author of Caesar’s Messiah (subtitle: “The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus,” Roman meaning the Roman imperial family…yeah). In this Atwill argues “Jesus [is] the invention of a Roman emperor” and that the entire (?) New Testament was written by “the first-century historian Flavius Josephus” who left clues to his scheme by littering secret hidden coded “parallels” in his book The Jewish War. Atwill claims to prove “the Romans directed the writing of both” the JW and the NT, in order “to offer a vision of a ‘peaceful Messiah’ who would serve as an alternative to the revolutionary leaders who were rocking first-century Israel and threatening Rome,” and also (apparently) as a laughing joke on the Jews (Atwill variously admits or denies he argues the latter, but it became clear in our correspondence, which I will reproduce below…it’s weird because making fun of the Jews kind of contradicts the supposedly serious aim of persuading the Jews, yet Atwill seems to want the imperial goal to have simultaneously been both).

Notice his theory entails a massive and weirdly erudite conspiracy of truly bizarre scope and pedigree, to achieve a truly Quixotic aim that hardly makes sense coming from any half-intelligent elite of the era (even after adjusting for the Flynn effect), all to posit that the entire Christian religion was created by the Romans (and then immediately opposed by it?), who somehow got hundreds of Jews (?) to abandon their religion and join a cult that simply appeared suddenly without explanation on the Palestinian (?) book market without endorsement. I honestly shouldn’t have to explain why this is absurd. But I’ll hit some highlights. Then I’ll reveal the reasons why I think Atwill is a total crank, and his work should be ignored, indeed everywhere warned against as among the worst of mythicism, not representative of any serious argument that Jesus didn’t exist. And that’s coming from me, someone who believes Jesus didn’t exist.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Rituals and Bad Luck

Skepticism can sometimes get in the way of genuine scientific inquiry. The headline of this recent article is quite misleading, in that it implies that ritual actions can alleviate bad luck. In fact, the study found nothing of the sort because that question was not even asked - instead, it found that ritual actions alleviated peoples' concerns rather than actually affecting their luck.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, explained that people believe that negative outcomes are especially likely after a jinx.If someone says, "No one I know will ever get into a car accident," for example, it often feels that a car accident is likely to occur. But people's elevated concerns after tempting fate can be eliminated if they engage in a ritual to undo that bad luck.

The researchers, from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, discovered that actions which involve exerting force away from one's body are the most effective at undoing a jinx.Study author Jane Risen said: "Our findings suggest that not all actions to undo a jinx are equally effective."

"Instead, we find that avoidant actions that exert force away from one's representation of self are especially effective for reducing the anticipated negative consequences following a jinx."Engaging in an avoidant action seems to create the sense that the bad luck is being pushed away."

This is all fine and good as a psychological experiment goes, and the idea of incorporating "pushing-away" type gestures into magical rituals may be a nice piece of "sleight-of-mind" for undoing bad luck. However, what's so disappointing about this experiment is that all it needed was one more phase in which the subjects, say, engaged in a game of chance or something similar that would test whether or not the ritual action truly affected their luck.

Since this would have been so easy, why wasn't it done? It seems that it never occurred to the researchers that there was any possibility that luck could be influenced by a ritual. Instead, they confined their study to the subjects' beliefs rather than trying to measure any macrocosmic effect.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Really Fake African Witches

Most of the time people who are accused of witchcraft in Africa aren't magical practitioners at all, but rather individuals who are simply disliked in their community. In such situations witchcraft accusations become a convenient excuse to drive out or even murder these people, whose only real crime is not getting along with their neighbors. In this case from Zimbabwe, though, the level of phoniness is greater still. Two women arrested for witchcraft revealed to the judge that they were actresses hired to play the role of witches to drum up publicity for a local religious leader.

The two women accused of engaging in practices associated with witchcraft yesterday revealed their true identity as Elmet Mbewe and Christine Nyamupandu from Landas Business Centre in Chihota when they appeared before a Mbare magistrate for routine remand.

They also attempted to disassociate themselves from witchcraft, saying they were hired by a "prophet" from Harare's Budiriro suburb, Alfred Mupfumbati (30), as a publicity stunt to earn him more followers.

When they were caught while naked with paraphernalia associated with witchcraft at a house in Harare's Budiriro suburb on September 10 -- the two women gave their names to the police as Maria Moyo (30) and Chipo Chakaja (26) and said they were from Gokwe.

In Africa "prophets" who claim to do battle with witches can clean up on donations from followers, so I imagine this constitutes Mupfumbati's motive for hiring the women. What I am now wondering is how widespread this sort of thing might be. If those reporting flying in baskets or performing other unbelievable-sounding feats are simply performers, such accounts would have no relevance to the evaluation of real African magical techniques. Rather, they simply would be based on repeating stories from folklore as if they were true and leaving it at that.

Religious leaders who engage in this sort of deception are enriching themselves at the expense of their communities, and paying actresses to run around claiming to be witches only feeds hysteria that can claim lives. If Africa ever wants to get a handle on dealing with witch persecutions Mupfumbati and people like him need to knock these sorts of stunts off, the sooner the better.