Impossibility by John D. Barrow

barrowjd-impossibilityThe subtitle of this book is what really attracted me to it: “The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits”. As a philosopher, I’m fascinated by the idea that there are not only things we don’t know, but things we can’t know. Some scientists are searching for a theory of everything – a set of equations that will account for everything in the Universe. I don’t believe such a thing is possible for us, because it’s not possible for, say, a goldfish. Mankind is just another branch on the evotionary tree, subject to much the same limitations of perception and cognition. I read this book as an attempt to get some additional clarity on this issue.

The content of the book is diverse and deep, covering many areas, from language to mathematics to cosmology, and more. There’s a great deal packed into 250 pages. The most memorable section, for me personally, was a discussion on how complexity occurs on a particular fractal level of the Universe (terrestrial life), not at the extremes of the very large (stars and galaxies) or the very small (atoms and sub-atomic particles). The human brain is the most complex structure in the known Universe, and this gives us reason to speculate that the very function of the Universe could be to bring about the likes of us. We tend to assume that size equals importance, and the images from the Hubble Space Telescope certainly make us feel very unimportant. But what if complexity equals importance?

The book also contains a fascinating discussion on how the speed of light restricts us from ever getting a complete view of the Universe. When we look into deep space, we see it as it was billions of years ago, not as it is today, because it takes so long for light to reach us. And we can’t see the more distant parts of space at all, because the light emitted by very distant stars hasn’t yet had time to reach Earth at all. This puts us in a fishbowl of sorts and it causes us to make assumptions about what is beyond our knowledge. Since we are able to identify inflexible laws of nature in the part of the Universe that we can see, we assume that these laws apply across the entire Universe. But we simply don’t know, and furthermore, we can’t know.

Some of the content of the book was beyond me, particularly the more mathematical parts. Also, some of the content struck me as irrelevant to anything of practical value, such as a section on time travel paradoxes. If anything, this illustrated the importance of philosophy alongside science. It’s very easy to think of time as something physically real, but the only place that time exists, in the sense of a recording of events, is inside brains. Hence, no time travel paradoxes are possible, because there is no time. There is only an ever-changing now. Any discussion of time travel involves a misperception of time as a literal thing making a literal recording of the cosmos as it moves. This material in the book was a waste of time – no pun intended. The book culminated in a discussion of hidden problems in the voting process, which was a bit flat for an ending.

Overall, I felt this was an important book for me to read. The author has a very rational mind and a broad range of knowledge.

The Conscious Universe by Dean Radin

radind-consciousuniverseThis is the first book written by the senior scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences. It was first published in the USA in 1997, but did not have a UK publication until 2009, where it bore the title The Noetic Universe (some UK readers, having already sourced Radin’s earlier work, mistook this for a new book). Both the US and UK editions, stylistically, contain huge marketing blunders. The US edition features an illustration of a levitating spoon, which, let’s face it, is not the sort of image that conveys legitimate psychic research. Meanwhile, the UK edition has a bewildering title and is styled like a Dan Brown novel – because psychic dabblers and Dan Brown fans constitute the same audience, apparently.

But that is where the criticisms end, because, quite frankly, this book is phenomenal. It is a painstakingly detailed critique of psychic research across the twentieth century. It’s a little harder to read than the book’s follow-up, Entangled Minds, but that’s only because the sheer attention to detail in the facts and figures makes the reading experience a little dry at times. Perseverance is well worth it.

The usual attitude of the armchair sceptic is that there is no evidence for psychic phenomena. Unfortunately, the person who says this has, more often than not, never looked for evidence. This is exactly the sort of book that is essential reading for a genuinely objective sceptic who wishes to become better informed. No serious sceptic could maintain a scornful attitude towards parapsychology, after digesting this volume.

The reality is that psychic phenomena are real, but subtle and hard to replicate. Radin’s main argument is through the technique of meta-analysis – by combining the results of all available psychic experiments, the failures and the victories (as well as taking into account the problem of selective reporting), to achieve an overall odds-against-chance figure.

After making a credible case for the existence of “psi,” Radin concludes the book with some philosophical discussion about the nature of reality. What do experiences of extrasensory perception and psychokinesis teach us about how the universe works? This section, for me, was the most rewarding. My own past interest in doing personal psi experiments stemmed from a philosophical conviction that the universe is non-dual – which is exactly the sort of model that Radin identifies as necessary for explaining how psi phenomena can be real.

Radin seems to care passionately about influencing his peers in the scientific community. I applaud him for daring to stand alone, in a poorly funded field that is often ridiculed. I feel that this is an extremely important book, ahead of its time. If you read one volume on psychic phenomena ever, make it this one.

Psyber Magick by Peter J. Carroll

carrollpj-psybermagickThis modern grimoire is written as a series of single-page chapters, each with an accompanying commentary page. Some chapters are so short that they consist of one paragraph and an illustration. There are only about 150 pages in total. But don’t be put off by the book’s brevity; it is more than made up for by a complete absence of hand-holding. The author goes straight to the point, without apology to any newcomers in magical thinking – and Chaos Magic in particular. In other words, this is not the book to read if it’s your first foray into the occult. You will likely be confused and disappointed. As for me, I was happy to be able to sink my intellectual teeth into something of substance without wading through reams of introductory material.

The author is skilled at communicating deep insights in a highly confined space, often with humour. The illustrations are not simply meaningless additions to the text; often a striking image can imprint an idea on the mind for more effectively than words. Sometimes Carroll would communicate something that I would instantly understand, while I could also see that it was something many others would find irrational. But while I often felt like an “insider”, it’s equally true that parts of this book baffled me. Maybe that means aspects of Carroll’s philosophy are weak, or maybe it means there’s something I’m not seeing yet. Hard to tell.

Carroll makes some striking cosmological claims, which he attempts to back up with equations pertaining to his own theory of three-dimensional time, i.e. time has three dimensions, just like space. I can’t quite wrap my head around what 3D time “looks” like. He comes very close to claiming that this theoretical framework gives him a theory of everything – the holy grail of science. Carroll does not believe that the universe originated with a singularity, nor will it end with one. The universe has always existed; it is finite but unbounded. In other words, it has no edge, in a similar sense to how one can travel around the world without ever reaching the “edge” of the world. Of course, the world has no edge, and we realised that once we transcended the flat-earth model. Similarly, our notions about an edge of the universe will be dispelled once we transcend the current view of the universe. Fascinating, mind-bending, unothodox stuff. True? Well, given my personal interest parapsychology, I’m not the sort of person who sides with a prevailing scientific orthodoxy on strength of numbers, but I do detect what appears to be a serious flaw in Carroll’s model. If the universe has no edge, but doubles back upon itself, why do we see blackness in space? Wouldn’t the light of all the stars reflect infinitely, causing us to see a fully lit night sky with no gaps. Imagine yourself standing in a dark featureless room that is mirrored on all sides, including the floor and ceiling, then you light a candle. All the darkness would be banished. Similarly, space would not be black if the universe has no edge. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how it appears to me. Stephen Hawking, in A Brief History of Time used a similar argument against the view that the universe extends infinitely in all directions.

The most memorable idea in the book, for me personally, was the notion of multiple selfs – not in the sense of everything being one consciousness, but the view that our personality is just role we play, an accumulation of habits that now come naturally. Given that personality is fluid and changeable, why settle for just one? Why not play many roles? To an extent, we all do this already. For example, there are probably some people you are willing to say cusswords in the presence of, and others you won’t. We tailor our personalities to suit our audiences. So why go for half measures? Why not really exploit this ability and create multiple selfs – a sort of consciously governed Dissociative Identity Disorder? Carroll has the quirk of constantly referring to himself as “ourselfs” throughout the book.

The beauty of Carroll’s writings is that they give the reader theoretical ideas to play with. They allow you to examine the universe (and oneself) in ways not often noticed. Unfortunately though, in comparison to Carroll’s first work, Liber Null & Psychonaut, I would not consider Psyber Magick essential reading. I’ve now read four Chaos Magic works, and the ground is definitely thinning at this point. I fear I may have mined Chaoist philosophy to the point where it has little more of substance to offer. Still, worth a look.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

palahniukc-fightclubThe protagonist of this story, who remains unnamed throughout, is a white-collar worker who is totally dissatisfied with his life – not just his job, but his whole way of life, which is also our way of life. Having your own appartment, owning lots of meaningless stuff, being a worker drone in a soulless system. This is apparently “success.” Something is seriously wrong, and he feels it. He is desperately unhappy. As a way of making life more tolerable, he attends various group therapy meetings: testicular cancer, alcoholism, etc. Even though he has nothing wrong with him, these meetings centre him emotionally somehow.

Then our hero comes across a man called Tyler Durden, and his life is changed forever. In a parking lot, Tyler bizarrely asks him to hit him, then Tyler hits him back. This moment flowers into a painful initiation. Together they form Fight Club, a secret gathering where men come to fight each other in pairs. And it’s not even about fighting to win. It’s about release – unleashing all of the repressed garbage that “normal” life forces on you, and finally feeling alive again. Everybody benefits, winners and loser. And Fight Club’s popularity begins to soar, with clubs sprouting up in towns and cities all over America.

The problem starts when Fight Club evolves into something else: something Tyler calls Project Mayhem. The agenda becomes, not so much personal catharsis, but planning to destroy the system that stole your soul in the first place.

This novel definitely touches something deep in the psyche. I could never imagine something like Fight Club taking off in real life, but I know the feeling of being a worker drone, of experiencing life as drained of all vitality, of feeling that I’m bound and shackled in an allegedly normal existence that is actually sick. I’ve known what it’s like to repress myself, and to unleash myself. But there are safer ways than Fight Club; I couldn’t ever imagine myself going for that.

As for Project Mayhem, I think the reader is expected to ask himself whether he wishes to see civilisation as we know it destroyed and reborn. My own viewpoint is that there is actually nothing wrong with life as it is – even if it is screwed up. It’s the responsibilty of every individual to struggle against an essentially predatory world – just like it is in the animal kingdom. We have no basic human right of utopia, and no right to expect it. Adapt and survive.

The tragedy in the story is that a bunch of men who step outside of the system end up becoming what the protagonist calls “space-monkeys” – blind followers of a messianic leader, Tyler Durden.

Readers will no doubt be familiar with the excellent movie based on this novel. I last watched it about a year ago, and from what I can remember it’s a very faithful adaptation, so much so that reading the book almost felt like watching the movie. The book’s ending, however, differs somewhat, and is, in my opinion, superior.

It’s great to read a book that is sharp and gritty, but with a philosophical thread woven through its pages. It also contains some highly quotable lines:

“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”

“The things you used to own, now they own you.”

“You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”

“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

Highly recommended.

Liber Kaos by Peter J. Carroll

carrollpj-liberkaosAnd so, my quest to understand magical theory continues with another volume on Chaos Magic. I gained a great deal of insight and clarity from Carroll’s prior book, Liber Null & Psychonaut. The present work under review, published five years later, has turned out to be not so valuable.

We begin with heady material on quantum theory from a magical perspective. The majority of this was beyond me, but what I could understand struck me as far too theoretical to place any real confidence in – the idea that magic, which has its roots in the transcendent, can be reduced to a few equations. I don’t buy it. Carroll also makes the startling claim that there was no singularity at the beginning of the universe. He states that no matter when you exist in time, the universe always gives the appearance of being fifteen billion years old. This claim is in stark opposition to what we appear to observe about the motions of galaxies, and what we know of gravitation. The problem, Carroll maintains, is that we are approaching the issue from a classical perspective. There may be something to what Carroll is saying, but I confess I am not up to the task of debating the ins and outs of quantum theory.

Next we have some material on aeonics. Carroll claims that all philosophical worldviews fit one of three basic paradigms: materialistic, magical, and transcendental. The ebb and flow of these paradigms throughout history is reduced to a line graph that shows a definite cyclic pattern, as the world moves through aeons called shamanic, religious, rationalist and pandemon – the latter being the one that is allegedly emerging. It’s all very interesting, but unconvincing. There was plenty of rationality going round in the days of the ancient Greek philosophers, and there has been plenty of religion in the two and a half millennia since. There’s no doubt that Carroll has done a lot of homework, but his “psychohistory model” of aeonics appears fanciful at best. The decline and growth of our various worldviews is a product of consciousness, and consciousness will not be turned into a deterministic line graph that we have no control over. We are not automatic machines.

When Carroll turns to practical magic, that’s when the book takes a shift in a much more positive direction. He introduces a delightful phrase, “sleight of mind,” and explains it at length – as the key to effective magic. In my own experience with psionics, I can affirm that success requires a mind that is distracted from the task you wish to perform. You have to play a little mental trick with yourself to, for instance, accomplish a successful act of psychokinesis.

Terms like “psychic censor” and “sleight of mind” are useful in understanding the inner workings of magic, but a good portion of the book is also concerned with building new a system of magic, full of pointless new terms – as if the world needs yet another. Magic is divided into eight categories (seemingly for no other reason than the Chaos symbol has eight arrows). These are: octarine (pure magic), black (death magic), blue (wealth magic), green (love magic), yellow (ego magic), purple or silver (sex magic), orange (thinking magic), red (war magic). My question is: why? All these categories are arbitrary and artificial. It’s fine to break magic down like this for the purpose of talking about particular applications of magic in the practical sphere. But there is no benefit whatsoever to memorising this jargon as some kind of fundamentally meaningful system. Magic comes from that fuzzy non-dual transcendence from which everything springs. It isn’t truly eightfold in any sense outside of the author’s personal subjective preferences.

Evocation, divination, enchantment, invocation, illumination, sorcery, shamanic magic, ritual magic, astral magic, high magic. In my opinion, there’s a lot of pointless vocabulary being held up as important. And if that’s not enough, we have to contend with “sorcery invocation,” “shamanic enchantment,” “ritual evocation,” and a plethora of other allegedly meaningful combinations.

The book closes with some appendices that are mostly concerned with the administration of the organisation, the Illuminates of Thanateros (also known as The Pact). The material was of no value to me other than to reinforce the pointlessness of such semi-secretive groups.

I had high hopes for this book. Sadly, I have to report that I was able to extract only a few morsels of usable insight.

Condensed Chaos by Phil Hine

hinep-condensedchaosEver since I achieved some success in experimenting with psychokinesis a few years ago, I’ve been faced with the reaity of what may be called “magic,” and I’ve been highly motivated to learn what I can about it. This ongoing quest has been both mind-expanding and frustrating, as magical theories tend to be littered with all kinds of unprovable abstractions.

The Chaos Magic approach is somewhat unique in that it supports using beliefs as methods rather than relying upon them as objective truths. For instance, when attempting particular magical endeavours, it may be suitable to view the universe as having an astral plane populated by actual entities that can be compelled to do your bidding. This may not be true, but it could be a useful method of producing a desired effect. Another belief is that all minds are interconnected as a single Mind, allowing subtle communication and influence to occur between individuals. The truth behind appearances is a very slippery thing to get hold of. “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” is the slogan of Chaoist. This is mirrored in our conventional science, too. The dualistic Newtonian view of the universe worked fine until, in the early 20th century, our experiments forced us to to develop a quantum theory that blew our assumptions about the nature of reality to bits. Nevertheless, the Newtonian perspective can still be employed successfully as a usable model of reality for the vast majority of our everyday experiences.

Hine has done a great deal more dabbling into ritual magic than I have, so I can’t really comment on the effectiveness of his approaches. I found the material on the creation of sigils fascinating. The book’s brevity is deceiving, as it is crammed with information, and requires slow, careful reading to digest. Something of a treasure trove. Much of the magical theory concerns the transformation of the self, and the information is often given with a dose of humour. I like Hine’s presentation of magic a lot. He comes across as a genuine person, rather than someone who projects himself as a grand poo-bah of the occult.

This is one of those weird books that is hard to review, because I’m not sure what I got out of it, but I know I got something important. It’s hard to crystallise that benefit as one single thing, because the structure of the book is diverse; I got a bit of this and bit of that. In particular, I gained a deeper rational appreciation that the world is magical, as opposed to viewing magic as something completely otherworldly. When I read a magical text, I’m not looking for a whole new belief system to swallow. I’m ploughing through information that is unusual and cryptic, looking for insights that will make me go “Ah-ha!” adding greater depth and rationality to my own personal take on magic. Condensed Chaos provided that. A worthy addition to any occultist’s library.

The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot

talbotm-holographicuniverseThere is good reason to believe that the universe is, in some sense, holographic. Put another way: solidity isn’t quite so solid. Science has a lot to say in defence of this counter-intuitive idea. Atoms are mostly empty space, which is what allows vast portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, such as X rays and radio waves, to pass right through solid matter, including our bodies. Inside the atom, electrons are bouncing all over the universe with no regard for the speed of light restriction. There is a universe of localised objects which is held together by a deeper and more fundamental universe that is non-local. We may say the universe is “holographic” as a means of useful analogy. A holographic photograph has no actual three-dimensional solidity, but it gives the appearance that it does – as does the universe.

Talbot’s book begins by reiterating some deep and complicated scientific ideas by Karl Pribram and David Bohm. He suggests that the term “holographic” is more than mere analogy. Holograms have the curious property that if you cut them in half, you don’t end up with half the picture in each segment; you get two copies of the whole picture. The universe, it is claimed, is also like this. Each part contains the whole. Personally, I find more value in the simpler model that the universe is a non-dual unity; each part appears to contain the whole because there aren’t any parts. I rather like Bohm’s terms for the two sides of reality: the implicate and explicate order.

Once Talbot establishes his theoretical model of the universe, his interest is in showing how it can provide a rational basis for explaining paranormal phenomena. This is the very same insight that struck me some years ago, when I got to grips with non-dualism. I proceeded to experiment with psychokinesis, and managed to get some small but mind-blowing reults. PK was, however, something very slippery and hard to replicate on demand – which strikes me as the key reason why paranormal phenomena have never yet been integrated into science.

In the last two thirds of the book, Talbot tackles dreams, healing, stigmata, psychokinesis, the aura, clairvoyance, precognition, reincarnation, out of body experiences, near death experiences, etc. This is where the book started to fall apart for me. Although I have had direct experience of a psychic “ability,” there is no doubt that charlatans abound. Talbot provides a catalogue of paranormal experiences, some of which beggar belief. To his credit, he is conscientious about quoting his sources, but some of those sources seem more than a little dubious to me.

For instance, it is claimed that some stigmatics have nail-like growths protruding from their hands, mimicking the wounds of Christ. In Talbot’s view, this is due to the mind’s ability to change the body through intention. The Christian’s powerful identification with Christ through a lifetime of meditation eventually manifests in his own body. The problem is: if such stigmata are real, why isn’t the medical world standing back in awe? Why hasn’t it revolutionised our ideas about mind and body? This isn’t some highly subjective piece of evidence for PK or ESP. The stigmata is present and observable; it won’t wanish like a ghost when you shine a light on it. Since the phenomenon hasnt been subjected to scientific scrutiny, I have to question the reliability of the source. Talbot, however, doesn’t.

Similarly, he talks about Sathya Sai Baba in a positive light. Sai Baba was a very popular Indian guru, surrounded by countless devotees. He claimed to be able to manifest objects out of thin air. I have a hard time taking such claims seriously. The warning signs of fakery are all there: a love for public adoration, the projection of a larger-than-life image, and a refusal to subject your “powers” to scientific enquiry. It beggars belief how Talbot can simply accept this man’s claims without question. Talbot himself claims to have had profound experiences of his own in childhood: poltergeist manifestations and objects materialising out of thin air. All I can say about that is: I wish I had experienced it, because I’m unable to believe it otherwise.

I really wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. But when Sai Baba and the stigmatics came up, I lost all confidence in Talbot’s ability to separate truth from nonsense in the arena of the paranormal. If all the things that Talbot catalogues are true, then there is no good reason why James Randi’s Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge has remained without a winner for decades. For a far more rational and level-headed examination of paranormal phenomena, read the works of Dean Radin.