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IN PURSUIT OF REALITY

a philosophical essay by:

Bill Birdsall e-mail: Thinkenstein@yahoo.com

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Each individual perceives reality in a way that is subjective, and there is much difference of opinion between individuals as to which, if any, interpretation is correct. Culture is one influence which helps shape individual concepts of reality. Just as there are differences of opinion between individuals, there are also differences of opinion between cultures. Political and religious wars sometimes result.

My own sense of reality is subjective, and undoubtedly flawed by all the errors of thinking that tend to befall human beings. I feel, however, that behind all the subjective realities there is actually an objective reality; truth, were it to be known. This feeling is based on our success in manipulating the physical world; doing things like sending men to the moon. If the underlying science was very faulty, the probability of such things happening would be very low.

To approach truth, critical thinking is not a tool to be lightly thrown away. Feelings and intuition undoubtedly have their value in getting through life, but I am uncomfortable delivering myself to faith in belief systems so long as I find reasons to doubt them.

Over the years, I have investigated various occult subjects. Information, and the means by which it is stored and transmitted is an important element of my analysis of them, especially slippery fields of "spirit" that are difficult to test otherwise. ( * See: <a href="doc/page2.html"> The Nature of Information. )

Vehicles for memory, the localized storage of information, are composed of matter in the solid state. Liquids and gasses don’t work, because their molecules move randomly, and are incapable of holding patterns. A message in alphabet soup is lost when stirred. The ingredients may still be there, but their organized structure, their relationship is not. Light and radio waves can be used to transmit information, but they are not useful for localized memory storage because they travel, and take the information they carry with them.

Just because some ideas are old, that does not necessarily mean that they are correct. Sometimes nature is falsely perceived, and the false perceptions are passed along through respected channels of culture, such as religion. If belief in an incorrect system is not fatal to its users, the system can still have good longevity, especially if there are no appropriate tools for examining the subject critically, from a different perspective.

Perhaps, one never knows everything about anything, but I would still like to share some of the skeptical thoughts I have concerning various subjects I have encountered in some people’s belief systems. There is no best order in which to approach them that comes to mind, so I will mention them randomly.

AURAS:

Some people claim to see colored "energy" fields, auras, which surround every individual. What is the evidence that supports such beliefs? I am a painter, with good sensitivity to color. If auras are normal colors of light, and they are usually described in terms of normal colors, any normal eye should be able to see them. What I see is not an energy field.

Thousands of years ago, long before the microscopic anatomy of the eye was known, Far Eastern cultures were talking about auras. I believe the first persons to perceive auras were actually misperceiving a phenomenon called persistence of vision.

Persistence of vision can be experienced by anyone by looking at a bright light bulb at night, and then closing one’s eyes. A ghost image, glowing against the normal black background of the closed eyes, will be seen. With the eyes open, staring at a black piece of paper, the same glow will be seen. Against a background of white paper, the ghost image seems darker, due to contrast. When the eyes are moved, the ghost image will follow eye movement. Staring at colored lights will produce ghost images in complementary colors.

When a "seer" studies an aura, he usually goes into a trance, which is to say he stares fixedly at the subject, much as one stares fixedly at the light bulb, to create a ghost image. Then, he allows his eyes to travel over the contours of the subject, dragging the ghost image along, creating the effect of a mysterious aura around the object. The ghost image is a fantasy of the eye and brain of the viewer, not a real energy field around the subject.

If an aura is truly an energy field which emits light, and not a phantom caused by reflected light, it should be visible to a seer in a room with total darkness. I have a simple test for those claiming to be able to see auras in such a dark room. Let them count one’s fingers that are held up enough times to eliminate the possibility of chance success. For example, the probability of naming the correct number of fingers held up on one try would be one out of ten (or one out of eleven if zero is used). To successfully pick the number ten out of ten times would be sufficient to convince me. I once proposed this test to a visiting "seer", who refused to be tested. I believe the person was a charlatan. Unfortunately, charlatans abound.

 

KIRLIAN _PHOTOGRAPHY:

Kirlian photograph images look like "auras". Kirlian photography is sometimes used as evidence of energy fields emanated by spirit-like bodies within physical bodies. Kirlian photographs of live leaves show stronger aura-like images than do those of dead leaves. There are images of partial leaves that show ghost images which include the removed sections, taken by some as evidence that a leaf’s spirit body remains intact, independent of physical intactness.

Related to this subject is, I think, a glowing, aura-like static electricity phenomenon called Saint Elmo’s fire, sometimes seen around the tips of spars on sailing ships. In kirlian photography, the object to be photographed is placed between two statically charged plates. Live material contains more water than does dead, dry material, and would be expected to conduct electricity better, and create a stronger electrical field. The "aura" image would, therefore, be more pronounced. We see an electrical field in the photographs, one created by the process itself, not by a spirit body.

In explaining the images of partial leaves with auras of restored sections, spirit photographs in the early days of regular photography come to mind. Many of them, simple double exposures, would fool few people today. I suspect a hoax from the man in charge of making these kirlian photographs. He probably makes a partial exposure of a whole leaf, removes a section without moving the remaining part, and then completes the exposure. The end result of such "darkroom magic" would be kirlian photographs of ghost auras. Would the missing sections also show whole-leaf auras? How many times could a leaf be divided and still show whole-leaf auras for each tiny piece? Such a progression seems very improbable, and suggests a charlatan in the picture. Charlatans abound.

Kirlian photographs of the hands of "healers" in resting and healing modes also show some variations in strength of the fields. Perhaps, when they concentrate on healing, whether or not they actually do heal, the concentration makes the hands sweat more, and the surface of the skin conducts electricity better. The image would then not be one of some healing field, but rather the same kind of static charge field produced in the other photographs.

 

REINCARNATION:

I am skeptical of the evidence for spirit bodies and souls. Reincarnation, the concept of their migration from one body to another, raises some questions.

Think in terms of information, and the brain, which is the solid-state vehicle for the information composing a person’s memory of his lifetime. Memory needs a solid-state vehicle; liquids and gasses don’t work. Any disruption of brain structure, such as accident trauma can wreak havoc on the neural relationships, and the information they contain. Much worse, I imagine, would be the transformations of death; decomposition into something soupy. Liquids and gasses are too disorganized to retain memory. I think it very unlikely that some spirit body, more ethereal than a gas, would be any better.

In many cases of accidents with brain trauma, people suffer from amnesia. If spirit bodies, necessary for the transmission of past life memories in reincarnation, can retain memory while the body dies and decomposes, they should be able to retain memory when the brain suffers trauma, and the body lives. In effect, with the spirit’s memory as back-up for the brain’s memory, there should never be any loss of memory from brain trauma, yet there is. Is there a spirit which survives death and can retain memory, or is there not? The absence of memory after brain trauma seems to indicate there is not.

Imagine, also, the memory of a past life being transcribed to a new being conceived of egg and sperm. At that point, the new being does not even have a brain with neurons that can create neuron relationships. Complex information needs a complex vehicle. An adult brain is needed to house adult memories.

 

SPIRITUALISM:

Some people feel that spirits of the dead exist and can be contacted by the living. Around 1848, two sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, began to hold seances in which people sat around a table and the sisters acted as mediums between the visitors and spirits of the dead. Visitors asked questions, and the spirits answered with knocking sounds; one for yes, two for no, etc. There was money to be made in giving seances, connecting people with their ancestors, so this was like lighting a prairie fire. Soon, everyone was holding seances.

Later, the Fox sisters confessed that they were frauds. They had trick toe joints that they could make knocking sounds with under the table. By that time, though, the concept they had started, seances to contact the dead, was too popular to eliminate by their confession. The prairie fire could not be put out. There were too many charlatans making money, and too many people eager to believe.

The magician, Houdini, exposed many fraudulent mediums in his exploration of the subject. Sometimes, it takes a magician to catch one. By the time Houdini took to the field, spirit mediums were using all sorts of elaborate tricks to create special spirit effects, such as spirit writing and strange noises.

Just as the Fox sisters got people believing in contacting spirits of the dead, Bridey Murphey was the first person to supposedly be regressed through hypnosis to a past life. She eventually confessed to being a fraud, but by then other charlatans had caught onto her act, and tapped into a gullible public. Today, there are still people who believe that hypnotic regression to past lives is possible.

 

ASTRAL_PROJECTION:

Some people believe that we have several bodies, other than our visible one. One of those less-than-gaseous bodies is supposedly the astral body, and is capable of leaving the physical body under certain circumstances (very closely resembling sleep) to travel and experience things. I, myself, have read a book on the subject, followed the directions for inducing astral projections, and experienced something similar.

I think, however, that such experiences are really misunderstood lucid dreams. Lucid dreaming, a subject explored by sleep labs in recent years uses very similar induction techniques, and can get identical results. Lucid dreams are dreams in which one has something like waking state consciousness within dreams. The experience is convincingly real, yet is really just a creation of the sleeping brain.

In astral projection, one supposedly goes places in the astral body and sees things. The mechanism of astral vision needs better explaining in order to satisfy me. It doesn’t integrate well with the science of optics and the eye-brain relationship that biologists describe.

For one thing, to focus light and make a focused image one needs a lens, something with a density different from the surrounding medium, air. The normal eye’s lens is denser than air. Even if an astral body is transparent, distortions caused by an astral eye lens floating in the air would make the lens visible to an observer. I, for one, have never seen such spots of distortion floating in my environment, indicating he presence of an astral body nearby.

What would be the shape of a less-dense-than-air astral lens capable of vision in air? Certainly, it could not be the same shape as the denser-than-air lens belonging to the physical body. I see no explanation in the well-understood science of optics that would allow such a less-dense-than-air lens to function as needed. This is some indication that astral vision is not dealing with real light. Any visual image without its origin in real light probably has its origin in imagination, something that the dreaming mind deals with all the time. Also, if the astral eye lens was not the same shape as the physical eye lens, is there any reason why the rest of an astral body would be the same shape as the rest of the physical body?

Furthermore, the electro-chemical mechanisms by which neurons conduct signals from the eye to the brain are well understood. Without such neural pathways, signals never reach the brain. The traveling astral eye has no such neural pathway to the sleeping brain. A silver cord has been described by supposed astral travelers, connecting the back of the astral head to the forehead of the sleeping body; however, if astral bodies and astral silver cords are visible only to astral eyes, then astral vision does not use normal light. If we are talking normal light, then normal eyes should also be able to see the silver cords belonging to astral bodies. As far as I know, that has never been reported by people who are awake.

Furthermore, the cones in the anatomical structure of the eye needed for normal color vision are pigmented. The need for similar pigmentation in order to have color vision with astral eyes would also cause them to be visible to awake observers, and they are not. The whole concept of astral vision does not seem very realistic.

 

ASTROLOGY:

Thousands of years ago, when astrology was being invented, people did not know that the universe was like a chaotic explosion of shrapnel, and that many stars are millions of light years away. Many of the stars we see today no longer even exist.

By what means can stars influence our lives over such long distances? By gravity, light, or perhaps radio waves? Most people are born indoors, under roofs, which effectively block light. The objects around us exert a much stronger gravitational influence on us than do the stars. Anything similar to radio waves which do not interact with the roofs over our heads, therefore becoming modified and unpredictable when they reach us, would probably pass right through us, also, having no effect. The means by which stars might exert the influence on us that astrology claims is not evident.

For those who take the accuracy of astrological readings as evidence of their validity, James Randi (a magician who, like Houdini, has worked to expose trickery and misunderstanding in mystical fields) once did an interesting experiment. Prior to visiting a group of students, the students were asked for their birth dates and places of birth so that astrological charts could be done, and interpretations by an astrologer made. On the day of his visit they were asked to rate their readings for accuracy on a scale of one to five, with five being highly accurate. All students rated their readings with fours and fives. Then they were asked to pass their readings around, and it was found that all the readings were identical!

That showed that, not only are people more similar than they might think, but also that people tend to interpret vague, suggestive statements in ways that favor what they want to believe. Certainly, as far as the readings went, if one size fits all, you can say that none is a custom fit.

In Discover Magazine, (February, 1997), Steve Allen makes a good point about the establishment of astrology as a valid scientific discipline. He states, "But that’s precisely the point. Such a thing has never been established. There are three separate systems of astrology known to historians -- the Egyptian, the Chinese, and, I think, the Persian, and all of them are mutually exclusive. That, of course means that if any one of them is essentially right, the other two are wrong. The more reasonable approach is to assume that all of them are wrong until conclusive evidence for their validity has been offered."

 

URI_GELLER__(mentalist):

James Randi exposed Uri Geller, an Israeli psychic who could supposedly bend spoons and other metal objects with only the power of his mind. It turned out that before the tests, Uri, or his assistants, secretly prepared the spoons to break by flexing them enough times to be at the point of breaking; creating what is known as metal fatigue in the objects. Charlatans abound, some internationally famous.

 

PETER _POPOFF__(evangelist):

Randi also exposed the evangelical preacher, Peter Popoff, who was raking in about five million dollars a year for his ministry. Popoff was using modern technology, video cameras and mini-radio receivers, to get information previously gleaned from prayer cards passed out before the meeting by his wife, who was outside in their van with the transmitter. It made him seem like he had a hot line to God. Another charlatan.

 

In conclusion, there are many pitfalls in the ways we believe. We tend to believe things that offer us hope. We tend to believe in exciting ideas. We tend to believe what we want to believe; what we want to be true. We tend to believe in things that offer us more control of our lives, that give us a sense of order in chaos. Sometimes, we believe in illusions.

Sometimes we are lucky, judging by results, and objective reality coincides with what we imagine to be true. Often, we are not. Critical analysis is a tool that can, perhaps, be useful in distinguishing between subjective realities and the objective reality that is the goal of truth seeking.