Friday, August 16, 2013

Should the occult abandon the natural sciences?


Here is an excerpt from an upcoming book about the 'Folklore of the Supernatural'

 Many take the occult very seriously and regard it as a real threat to the fabric of society. Perhaps remnants of the reason-driven war on the occult arts during the renaissance or the rumor-panic of Satan in our neighborhoods in the 1980s, the occult is a very feared enterprise. Moreover, academia has trouble finding a category in which to place the subject. The natural sciences back away slowly at any mention of the word. The psychologists smirk and identify a dozen neuroses that could explain any and all of the mystery of supernatural processes. The psychiatrists simply get giddy. Only the anthropologists and folklorists will explore the occult in situ and on its own terms. But even then, the subject is a complicated matter. As Folklorist Gillian Bennett remarks,

The main trouble for folklorists is that we have got ourselves into not one, but no less than three vicious circles. Firstly no one will take the subject because it is disreputable, and it remains disreputable because no one will tackle it. Secondly, because no one does any research into present day supernatural beliefs, occult traditions are generally represented by old legends about fairies, bogeys, and grey ladies. Furthermore, because published collections of supernatural folklore are thus stuck forever in a time-warp, folklorists are rightly wary of printing the modern beliefs they do not come across for fear of offending their informants by appearing to put deeply felt beliefs on a par with chain-rattling skeletons and other such absurdities. Thirdly, because no one will talk about their experiences of the supernatural there is no evidence for it and because there is no evidence for it no one talks about their experiences of it.  (1987 pp13 Gillian Bennett. Traditions of Belief: Women, Folklore, and the Supernatural Today. London. Pelican Books.)

As Gillian has correctly surmised, the occult is in an academic conundrum. Ironically, much of these questions of validity and reputability have been grossly perpetuated by occultists themselves. Since antiquity, the occult processes has been intertwined with advances in science. For example, as astronomy and chemistry became more advanced, their occult counterparts in alchemy and astrology lost favor and in turn, lost validity. But its been the occultists themselves that have continued to try and make their arts a natural science. For the most part, the scientific community has been content to leave well enough alone. It s been practitioners of the occult that have continued to be concerned with science. It’s no coincidence that famous magus Aleister Crowley named his particular form of ceremonial magic: Scientific Illuminism.
Perhaps it’s time to leave the never-ending subdivisions and cul-de-sacs of the natural science community and venture into the small towns and country of the social sciences. The occult can be right at home without being concerned with the natural sciences. And that’s not to say that the supernatural cannot be endowed with a robust philosophy or even dip its foot into quantum theory and other like-minded scientific theories. It’s just time for a change. Throughout this book, we will be venturing into these uncharted and unexpected places. We’re creating a trail that will be followed by any and all who want a fresh approach to occult study. Instead of focusing on what can be empirically proven, we will show why its unnecessary to validate in this matter. Instead of trying to prove the logic and rationalism of the supernatural, we will embrace a metaphysics based on experiential happenings. Instead of trying to convince the academic community of the occult’s relevance, we will let anomalous entities be their own informants and inquire into how these creatures re-present themselves continuously. And in so doing, we will re-discover what it means to be an occultist in the modern world. Like the black hole in the center of a galaxy or the spider at the center of its web, we will explore the series of connections and correspondences that make this world and showcase its place in the center of a truly intricate and delicate network of the numinous.   

In ‘Religion, Philosophy, and Psychical Research’, Charles Dunbar Broad introduced a theory for God’s existence that had anthropological connotations. In essence, it stated:

1)      People cross-culturally have reported experiences in which it was seemed to them that they experienced God.
2)      If people cross-culturally have reported experiences in which it seemed to them that they experienced God, then people cross-culturally have seemed to experience God.
3)      People cross-culturally have seemed to experience God.
4)      If people cross-culturally have seemed to experience God, then there is experiential evidence that God exists.
5)      There is experiential evidence that God exists.

This theory is remarkable cogent and fits well into anthropological discourse. It is especially good for occult studies. In fact, if we replace the word God for Old Hag, or Demon, or Extraterrestrial, we have a workable theory of occult experience. And the fact that it accentuates ‘cross-cultural’ experience gives it multiple avenues for social scientific research. It at once gives credence to narratives of the supernatural while it simultaneously suggests that this sort of phenomenon is experiential and found in a multitude of cultural scenarios.
What makes this form of occult study particularly exciting is that it asks us to question what is real based upon what we can empirically verify. And that’s the rub isn’t it? It’s also the main criticism of Broad’s theory. If people are seeming to experience God or the Occult, then there must be some way to test these experiences. In true Popperian fashion, we must find way s to falsify or verify the experience in the same way sensory input can be falsified or verified. If we subject the experience to ‘checking’, then what people seem to experience is not evidence of the reality presented.
Perhaps an elegant way to resolve this conundrum is through the ‘inferences’. We can accept the validity of occult experience by inferring their non-causal properties while carefully recording the causal properties and sensory data that accompany the event. 

We should probably explicate exactly what we mean by folklore of the occult and supernatural. Typically lore is transmitted verbally and passed on from person to person via stories.  Telling stories is the perfect conduit to disseminate folklore – especially of the supernatural variety. They provide a suspense that can’t be matched by reading the account or watching it on television or at the movies. The face to face interaction requires a personal exchange. It’s much easier to relay ‘how something seemed’ by being able to tell it how it happened. And we all love a good story. Whether it be a ghost story, UFO experience, or banishing ritual, supernatural stories are the best stories. And we’ll be exploring these various forms of folk belief throughout this book.
The supernatural is also, more often than not, believed narratives. There is something about believing the unbelievable that is attractive to both the storyteller and his audience. Perhaps due to the exotic nature of supernatural belief, we want to include these experiences into our worldview. Anybody who has claimed to be a UFO abductee or seen a ghostly visitor will swear absolutely and without reservation that what they experienced was real. Most have no doubt as to the ontological relevancy of these entities. The “I have seen it with my own eyes” is a popular catchphrase for this type of contemporary legend.

As well as believability, these narratives also hold structural similarities that make them especially easy to group together. There are motifs, and morphology that capture what I call likeminded essences in the narratives. Moreover, not only are these various contemporary legends similar but they also echo traditional supernatural assault traditions of the past. In the stories of fairies, angels, changeling, gnomes and other creatures of the past are the prototypes of modern myths and monsters. It’s no surprise that the modern UFO movement is so full of religious imagery. These re-presentations of the numinous follow society and take on new meaning as times change. But even though their faces may change or the narratives many show variations in plot or action, the terror that is evoked surpasses time and space.    

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