The Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens

Notorious atheist Christopher Hitchens has written this short volume, subtitled “Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice” as a critique of the enigmatic Catholic nun that everyone knows so well – or do they? My opinion of Mother Teresa, prior to reading this book, was stereotypically positive, informed only by the TV news. I don’t like Christianity, but regardless of one’s religion (or lack thereof), it is possible to live a life of selfless devotion to others. Few of us choose that path, but if anyone shines brightly in this regard, it’s got to be Mother Teresa, right?

Wrong. Hitchens shows how Mother Teresa’s fame began with a documentary made about her Calcutta orphanage – the director insisting that he had captured the first ever miracle on camera. This miracle was the strange quality of the light within the building, which the director believed could not be explained naturally. The media ran with this, giving birth to a legend. The cameraman, who attributed the “miracle” to the quality of the new Kodak film, had no impact.

Hitchens, with painstaking research, unearths records of people who have visited Mother Teresa’s “House for the Dying.” We find a woman who, instead of attempting to improve the lives of “the poorest of the poor”, is interested first and foremost in the advancement of a religious view that makes a virtue out of suffering. While millions of dollars in donations lie dormant in accounts, she insists on maintaining strictly ascetic living conditions, not only for the nuns of her order, but for all her patients. Dying men are not allowed a simple comfort like watching TV or receiving visitors. People languish in pain without freely available painkillers. There was a particularly horrific case of a fifteen-year-old whose life could have been saved if he had been taken to hospital to receive proper medical care, but this was not permitted. “They would all want it,” was the excuse.

Meanwhile Mother Teresa is immune to criticism from a media that fails to inquire deeply enough. Her actions are judged by her reputation, rather than her reputation being judged by her actions. Instead of being a compassionate person, she is motivated first and foremost by the advancement of her religious order.

It’s hard to argue against Hitchens’ dark depiction. From now on, when I think of the word “humanitarian,” it won’t be Mother Teresa’s face that comes to mind.

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The Essential Jung by Carl G. Jung (edited by Anthony Storr)

jungcg-essentialjungCarl Jung, who is known for an approach to psychology known as psychoanalysis, was a very prolific writer. It would be nearly impossible for the interested reader to collect every volume he wrote, so Anthony Storr has put together this 400-page compendium of excerpts in an attempt to give the reader a comprehensive overview of Jung’s concepts. Some of these are: the idea of the unconscious, archetypes, and dream analysis.

I won’t kid you; I found this a difficult book, so difficult that my reading time spanned several years. Many of Jung’s ideas seem wildly abstract and speculative. However, there is definitely something interesting here, at least in part.

Jung coined the term “unconscious,” recognising that our minds contain information that we are not always aware of. This is undoubtedly true from experience. He also uses the term “collective unconscious.” This is sometimes misunderstood as a unified consciousness (in a mystical, metaphysical sense), but what Jung really meant was that our minds contain inherited information from the past – such as our natural fear of fierce animals. The common childhood fear of monsters may have its roots in our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ very real conflicts with wild beasts. This fear is collective in the sense that we all inherited it. Jung intended nothing spiritual or paranormal by the term “collective unconscious.”

Related to the collective unconscious is the idea of “archetypes” – recurring images in dreams that can be spotted across a multiplicity of cultures, hinting again at the notion of a collective inheritance. Jung named certain archetypes as anima, animus and the shadow. I found a lot of this material confusing, because I can find very little correspondence in my own experience. I do like the idea of the shadow, as a way of identifying the unsavoury aspects of our personality that we try to repress because they’re socially unacceptable. I can relate to that. But it’s important to realise that the shadow is not a thing, not an entity – just an idea, a way of representing an aspect of human experience in language. In man’s more primal prehistory, he probably wouldn’t have had a shadow, because he would have been more at one with his natural instincts, without the pressure of civilisation’s often unnatural ideals on his head.

Jung puts a lot of stock on dream interpretation – in therapy, using dreams as signposts to the root of a personality problem. From personal experience, I would say this can sometimes be the case, but more often than not my dreams are full of playful nonsense. How does a therapist avoid placing massive significance in an aspect of a dream that might be completely random?

Jung is essentially a mythologist of the psyche, in the way that ancient man was a mythologist about the material world – inventing a pantheon of gods and goddesses behind the forces of nature. Some of the words invented by Jung (such as unconscious, introvert, extravert) are still in common use today, which is a testament to his insight. Although this is a useful book, for me personally it was one that I had to laboriously dig through to find the nuggets of gold.

The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels

pagelse-originofsatanMy first inkling that there was something wrong with our typical ideas about Satan came as a result of reading the Bible in its entirely. Until one does that, one is usually blind to the fact that Satan is hardly in the Old Testament at all. And when he is mentioned (primarily in the Book fof Job), he doesn’t seem to be the same guy that Christians are familiar with. He’s not the head of a kingdom of fallen angels in opposition to God. Instead, he’s keeping company with the regular angels. And he doesn’t step out of line. When God gives him instructions, he carries them out to the letter. The only “satanic” thing about him is the fact that he has a dirty job; he’s a sort of prosecutor. When God boasts about how much Job loves him, Satan is inclined to be sceptical, claiming that Job is only playing nice because God plays nice. “Take away the benefits and Job will curse you,” says Satan. And so the trials of Job begin.

The Christian depiction of Satan as the powerful “anti-God” is not shared by mainstream Judaism and never was. It was the exclusive view of a few minor sects, such as the Essenes and the one that would blossom into what we now call Christianity. Pagels chief concern is to examine the effects of this rebranding of Satan. The subtitle of the book is “How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans and Heretics.” The Satan of Christianity represents all that is evil. So the moral dramas of our lives now take on a cosmic significance, as battles between God and Satan. The dangerous side of this is when we come to view the wider arena of the world in the same terms. When we view our enemies as allied with Satan and ourselves as allied with God, we are provided with immediate justification for killing others in the name of God. And that is, of course, the tragedy what has happened in history.

It could have been a much shorter work, except the author painstakingly sets the historical scene – assuming that the reader knows little to nothing of the Biblical period. If the reader is expecting a book all about Satan, he may be disappointed. It’s more of a general history book with a particular emphasis. My only disappointment was that I had been hoping Pagels would shed more light on the influence of Zoroastrianism upon Judaism, as it looks very much as if the modern depiction of Satan originated with the Zoroastrian belief in the struggle between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu.

This book is a non-sensationalist scholarly work that provides a massive challege to Christian theology.

Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human by K.W. Jeter

jeterkw-bladerunner2The 1982 film Blade Runner was based on an earlier novel by Philip K. Dick entitled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. That novel is much quirkier and more upbeat than the dystopian movie adaptation by Ridley Scott. The plot is also significantly different, if I remember correctly. My first question, then, on approaching this written sequel, is whether it is a sequel to the book or the film. The answer is the latter. Jeter’s book captures the dark tone of the movie and makes direct reference to characters and scenes from it.

The story is set in a future Los Angeles, where the sky is abuzz with flying cars set against a backdrop of neon. And the city is even more polluted than it is at present. Signs advertising off-world colonies seduce people into leaving the planet behind for good. Central to the story is the Tyrell Corporation, responsible for creating synthetic humans, called replicants, as a source of off-world labour and entertainment. Sometimes replicants try to sneak away and get to Earth. And that’s where blade runners come in. A blade runner is a police officer tasked with hunting down and killing replicants – only they don’t say “kill”, they say “retire.”

Rick Deckard, our main protagonist, is (or was) a blade runner. The movie concluded with this lovestricken cop running away from his job, and the city, with Rachael Tyrell, the replicant “niece” of the murdered Eldon Tyrell, head of the Tyrell Corporation. The book picks up the story of couple of months later, with Deckard living in a cabin in the woods with Rachael. The authorities locate Deckard, tear him away from Rachael, and ferry him back to the city for one more job. Apparently, there is a sixth replicant, in addition to the five that Deckard retired in the movie. If Deckard ever wants to see Rachael again, it’s his job to track down and terminate this loose end. Only, in a complicated twist, he’s going to have the whole LAPD out to get him at the same time.

Many characters from the movie make an appearance, even some we thought were dead. Resurrecting them is done relatively convincingly. I don’t want to spoil anything here. The book is let down somewhat by the story itself. It’s just not interesting enough. At times I couldn’t tell what was coming next, not because the story was unpredictable in a good way, but because I couldn’t make head or tale of some of the characters’ motivations. Some of the resurrected characters don’t even advance the plot; they’re just there as morbid background curiosities. Fans will probably want to know whether the book develops the matter of whether Deckard is a replicant himself? Yes, it does, but we’re still left with uncertainties.

Ultimately, if you loved the movie and you just want to immerse yourself in the same atmosphere a second time, you may appreciate this. Jeter writes with more artistry than is common in fiction these days, but sometimes it comes off as more confusing than descriptive. Ultimately, I just didn’t find the story interesting enough. In the end, we have fisticuffs mirroring the Deckard-Batty showdown in the movie (a tiresome trend in sequels) and mistaken identity shenanigans (which is rather predictable in a story about clones). The Edge of Human is the first volume in a trilogy, so maybe the plot improves. But I’m not sure I’m willing to invest the time.

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.