In the other discussion we started today, Rick reminded me of something I've been meaning to bring up in this forum: the use of the term "New Age."
My family calls me New Age because I believe in reincarnation and claim to have communicated with dead relatives. They aren't complimenting me. I've also seen the term New Age used in our forum discussions always with disdain. Yet the sort of books ASCS members read might in some cases be found in "New Age" sections of bookstores.
"New Age" seems to be a blanket category for everything spiritually nontraditional (if tradition is defined in WASPish terms). I'm sure many would browse the ASCS materials and call us New Age--but if asked to define New Age wouldn't be able to.
What is New Age?
Beatnik, Hippy, New Ager, ... what are we today?. These are cultural movements, that to one degree or another, emphasized personal growth. They were counter-culture because mainstream culture generally does not teach personal growth. It teaches progress through conformation.
I consider myself a card carrying New Ager in the sense that being 73 now, I experienced an evolution in seeking beginning for me with beatniks. I missed the hippy generation because of the Air Force, but every time I tried to learn more about things nonphysical, I ended up with some New Age group. It just irritates real scientists when I ask questions.
There is no such thing as the New Agers organization. It is more a cultural artifact evolved around personal improvement. The ASCS represents some focus on personal improvement, but it is mostly focused on people learning to be good citizens of a greater reality. Our common ground is acceptance of our immortality and an aspect of reality in which our personality continues. In a real sense, New Agers are not typically interested in survival.
That according to Tom.
PS: The idea of airy fairy new ager is at least partially the fault of science. Had we more guidance based on good science, rather than the it is impossible and therefore cannot be pablum we got from the likes of Sagan, we would have developed better critical thinking skills. As it was, we were ... still are a ship without a rudder.
It's an exercise in frustration to try to devise an explicit meaning for the term New Age. It's like what Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart wrote in a legal opinion, that he couldn't define pornography but he knew it when he saw it. Most of us recognize New Age ideas and behavior.
Donna, with all respect to your family, there is nothing New Age about belief in reincarnation or spirit communication. Hindus and Buddhists, not to mention Western psychical researchers, have gone on about such phenomena long prior to the advent of New Age culture. New Age is more a matter of style than subject matter.
The basic New Age outlook can be described as a mixture of Eastern religious and American Indian lore, plus all manner of esoteric healing techniques, steeped in positive thinking, ritual, and "magick." Its world is populated by angels, dolphins, crystals, spirit guides, Light Workers, archetypes, vibrations, miracles, wise children, totem animals, and goddesses, all wrapped up the the pure light of Unconditional Commerce.
It appears that the New Age movement, having received so much scorn in mainstream media and among technophiles, has retreated inside a psychological tunnel network. Sheltered from outside opinion, it has selectively adopted psychical feel-good techniques. Reality testing? What's that? To kick sand in the faces of its rationalist foes, it has accepted the motto of the Church Father Tertullian, Certum est, quia impossibile (it is certain because it is impossible).
Slogans such as "thoughts are things" and "you cannot afford the luxury of a single negative thought" testify to a deeply held belief among New Agers that reality is created by the individual mind. (You're depressed? Nobody can make you depressed except yourself. You've been diagnosed with cancer? Oh, wow, that can bring you down, but here's a wonderful chance to get in touch with your thoughts and self-image that have caused rogue cells to go bonkers.)
It is unlikely that those who study the paranormal scientifically and those who follow the New Age path can reach a meeting of minds. A temperamental difference leaves them on opposite sides of the Grand Canyon, even if they are ostensibly talking about the same anomalies. Rationalists by nature want evidence in addition to anecdote or assumption.
Confronted, for instance, with the assurance from a New Age healer that she has restored numerous sufferers to health through visualization, a case-hardened psychical researcher would ask questions such as these: What were the criteria for considering the patient healed? Were there patients who were not healed? How large was the whole sample? What percentage of patients with the affliction in question normally experience spontaneous remission?
Understand, I do not claim that New Agers are frauds -- most are sincere. I do not say they are necessarily wrong, even if they are not shy about using their beliefs to gain followers and make money. But in general (and there are no doubt individual exceptions), their logical discipline could use an upgrade.
Rick, you have the New Age about right. There is a little more to it, however.
The New Age is all of what you said, New Ager selling to New Agers, no discernment, belief in anything not mainstream. But there is a reason for all of that fuzzy thinking: No trusted scientists to help them understand.
Thinking in terms of fundamental characteristics, New Agers are almost always seeking to improve themselves. Their distrust in mainstream science comes from a belief that the mainstream is a matter of capitalist merchants seeing customers as walking pocketbooks, and not being shy about lying about their product to get that money. There are many variations of that relationship and they all cause individuals who have sense enough to ask questions to develop a distrust of authority (Beatnik), Government (Hippy) and science (New Ager).
I lived through these cultural movements and find myself now in what I refer to as the paranormalist community. The distinction between New Ager and paranormalist is mostly the phenomena. Most paranormalists I know are closet New Agers, but they go beyond seeking to develop their potential (New Ager) to seeking to understand their spiritual nature based on belief in survival.
Paranormalists have the same problem with science, though. Here I am probably at odds with your point of view. I have stated on a number of occasions that hands down the most disruptive influence for the paranormalist community is science. Unfortunately, I include parapsychology in that complaint.
Tom, would you amplify that last paragraph?
The common factor for what I think of as the paranormal community is acceptance of psi and survival related phenomena. The community includes parapsychology, ghost hunters, mediums, spiritualists and ITC practitioners. (Of course, NDE, OBE and reincarnation is included, but people studying them are pretty self-sufficient.)
Understanding survival phenomena depends on understanding psi research, but the reverse is not necessarily true. That means ITC practitioners, for instance, depend on psi research to help understand ITC, but psi researchers can easily dismiss ITC as imaginary. (Many apparently do)
We have been culturally taught to look to scientists for help understanding these phenomena, but in our case, the science mostly does not exist. First, there is an academic-layperson partition that has effectively prevented collaboration between those who want to study these phenomena in a scientific way and those who are able to produce the phenomena.
Some of the preferred methodology of science are probably not applicable to the study of things paranormal. Since the peer-review process is a secret, I have to assume there are no independent reviewers sufficiently knowledgeable about the subject to offer informed advice. The result is more a cultural scientific standard than an actual consideration of how to study trans-etheric phenomena.
The parapsychological community of interest includes anomalous psychology and super-psi advocates with usually just a passing nod to survival. At the same time, parapsychologists, and especially as represented by parapsychological organizations, present themselves as studying all things paranormal with an open mind.
At least some parapsychologists are not actually qualified researchers, and since members of their "peer group" are usually no better qualified, some very damaging supposedly scientific research reports are published by organizations we look to for help.
The incessant search for proof intended to please reductionist mainstream science, rather than exploration of processes and development of actionable hypotheses that might help us better understand how to work with these phenomena, has left us with years of little progress and gradual contraction of our community.
As a director of an ITC organization, I have attempted to work with parapsychologists on a number of occasions, even funding some research. After fifteen years of trying, I am left with the conclusion that the academic-layperson partition allows retired professors to use the rest of the community as a plaything. A lot of damage, little benefit.
Tom, I do agree with you. I knowingly oversimplified the contrast between the New Age mentality and the scientific one to make a point without turning a comment into an essay. But scientism has its problems too, especially in psi research.
Parapsychology -- I don't like the term, and prefer the old-fashioned "psychical research," but it's unavoidable now -- has largely been institutionalized, mainly in academia. The great generation of psychical researchers, roughly from the late 19th century to the first three decades of the 20th, mostly came from other specialties. They were amateurs in the best sense, explorers for the love of it, not to make a living by it.
Most parapsychologists now are careerists, who tread carefully to remain at least semi-respectable among their academic peers. That entails a strong preference for studying measurable, statistically friendly phenomena. With a few admirable exceptions such as Gary Schwartz, and you and Lisa, they simply drill ever deeper into the mechanisms of long-since-proven aspects of psi such as telepathy, remote viewing, and PK. Innovation is not high on their list of goals, and may even be dangerous.
As you say, there has emerged a damaging split between the professionals who gather statistics and write papers, and the people with paranormal talents. The pro parapsychologists also shrink from spontaneous phenomena, which earlier generations of psychical researchers did investigate in the spirit of science.
It's sad what happened to the once leading-edge organization, the Society for Psychical Research. It has been "captured" by Northampton University's paranormal studies department. Have you seen the program for this year's conference? The old generation (some of whom were still in attendance when I attended my first SPR conference in the '90s), who asked the Big Picture questions, are gone. Now the presentations, to judge from their titles, center on relatively trifling technicalities.
I'm afraid it's pretty much back to pioneering individuals and psychically gifted people to press forward into poorly understood transpersonal realms.
Great discussion, Rick and Tom. We're seeing the same triviality at conferences in the academic history field, with specialization, while useful, making it hard to find someone looking at the big picture. I think some have to look through the microscope and some have to look the the telescope and some have to synthesize their findings before you can answer the big questions. But ultimately, that's what the scopes should exist to do.
What do you think it will take to reshape the current trends?
To be sure, much of the research conducted under the title of parapsychology is important. I count Jim Carpenter's First Sight Theory amongst the most important compilations of psi research. It would not have been possible without all of the tedious psi function studies that came before. Carpenter is president of the Parapsychological Association.
I also count Ruper Sheldrake's Hypothesis of Formative Causation amongst the more important contributions to paranormalist understanding.
Donna, I think the most useful change for reshaping the trend is to change the review model. As it is today, peer review is just a means by which the academics good ol' boy community can make like real scientists. Again, certainty there are a few very good scientists but most are retired professors playing scientist.
Unless the observer is well-trained in the field, the only way to tell which is which is to have a transparent peer-review process so that observers can know that research is done according to best practices and the researcher, or at least a member of the team, is actually qualified to do the work.
A second change I would propose is a best practices review panel that would publicly examine whether or not the best methodology was applied, if the work met ethical standards and if the report structure was appropriate for the research question. Such a review should be a requirement for funding.
Rick, there is an interesting situation begun by the Society for Scientific Exploration, funded by the Parapsychological Association and now reported by the SPR. A retired philosophy professor conducted research on a physical medium. Phenomena occurred within the protocol, but two articles that are really character assassination of the research subject were published in the supposedly peer-reviewed SSE journal, and a third in the SPR Paranormal Review.
It is noteworthy that the SPR was instrumental in a similar character assassination of Madame Blavatsky in 1885. The SPR later apologized, but even today, there are people who only know of the original accusations. Now the SPR is doing the same thing with the physical medium I mentioned. Hearsay and innuendo rather than science and honesty.
Yes, it would appear the SPR is in the wrong hands. But then, so is the SSE and I am not at all sure about the PA.
Can scientific research prove the truth of New Age ideas? Does the absence of scientific data render them unworthy of consideration (recognizing, of course, that the beliefs labeled "New Age" are many, varied, often conflicting, and certainly not all true--as is the case in the sciences)?
I find myself seeing the image of the Venn diagrams they showed us at the first of every math class in public school, with two intersecting circles--the small spot of intersection being where the two circles agreed. There is a place where New Age and science intersect, is there not? In the hypothesis that we have a spirit that transcends and survives the body's death.
I think this subset of New Agers very much value the work of science, when scientists recognize that their fields have limits in explaining some things. And this subset of scientists--many of them parapsychologists--see a value in the beliefs of this spirit-minded subset of New Agers, whose beliefs give them what they most seek: peace, love, and happiness--things very hard for science to draw universal conclusions about.
The ASCS seems to operate in that subset, from what I've seen--where science-friendly feel-good faith and faith-friendly show-me science intersect. I see a value in that, because I believe the science that ignores the power of faith will never get it right. And the faith that ignores the value of science will render itself foolish.
Donna, you say, "There is a place where New Age and science intersect, is there not? In the hypothesis that we have a spirit that transcends and survives the body's death."
Well it is certainly true that there is a small wodge in the Venn diagram where New Age and science intersect. The trouble is that the overlap is about subject matter, but the two camps' approach to that subject matter is radically different.
New Agers argue their case in terms of personal, subjective experience. I would be the last to suggest that this invalidates what they claim, but for anyone who doesn't share those subjective experiences, it tends not to be convincing.
Much New Age writing and products (crystals, consciousness-lifting music recordings, etc.) fall into the general category of healing. Occasionally some of this can be tested, but mainly on a rather primitive level, such as the effect of prayer or mental healing on plants. When you get around to experiments on people it's amazing how quickly you're in deep water.
All kinds of variables and confounding factors rear up to cast a reasonable doubt on scientific studies of psychic or spiritual healing. There is placebo effect. There is the Hawthorne effect. (The latter refers to a well-attested tendency for people to be more satisfied and perform better ["be healed," perhaps] simply because someone is paying attention to them, allegedly to alter environmental conditions for their benefit.)
Many paranormal phenomena -- the most important ones, in my view -- are widespread but spontaneous. You cannot command them to happen. They give careerist parapsychologists an upset stomach. Mention apparitions to the average academic dweeb parapsychologist and he will probably react as if he has seen a ghost (even though he doesn't believe in ghosts, or thinks they're irrelevant to "serious" research).
The brilliant SPR pioneers did the best work ever concerning spontaneous cases in their monumental studies, The Census of Hallucinations and Phantasms of the Living. Of course they couldn't photograph apparitions, or talk them into stepping into the laboratory. But they carefully interviewed thousands of percipients and witnesses who had been told of the apparitions very soon afterward. The SPR researchers were thoroughly working in the spirit of science (and in fact rejected many of the claims they investigated).
It could never happen in today's world. The two essential criteria for scientific probing today, including in parapsychology, are (1) you can get a grant for it and (2) your institutional employer approves it and you are not putting your job or reputation at risk. Imagine a grant application for doing detective work on thousands of visionary phenomena experienced by ordinary people, not "subjects." Actually I can't imagine it.
I must take issue with your claim that scientists agree "that we have a spirit that transcends and survives the body's death." Very few of our materialistic scientists would maintain any such thing. That includes a lot of parapsychologists. To the "respectable" scientist, anything transcendent is embarrassing. If you push them to take a stand they get fidgety and mumble something to the effect of "well, conceivably, but we can't ever know and it's a waste of time trying to learn anything about it."
I do, however, second your statement, "I believe the science that ignores the power of faith will never get it right. And the faith that ignores the value of science will render itself foolish." Personally I wouldn't use the word faith -- when I hear that term the schoolboy joke that faith is believing something you know isn't true leaps into my brain pan -- but I can't at the moment (1:59 am) think of a single word that includes the idea of openness to a transpersonal or spiritual realm.
We included this report in the 2/2003 Media Watch for the NSAC Summit magazine:
"Scholars Assemble Evidence of Life After Death. The International Association for Near-Death Studies publication Vital Signs (No. 2, 2002) reported on the Fourth Esalen conference on Survival of Bodily Death in Carmel California. Researchers from the fields of psychiatry, anthropology, psychology and psychics concluded that three areas of research provided strong evidence for survival. Near Death Experiences (NDE) was at the top of the list. Reasons sited were, accurate observations of medical operating procedures made by clinically dead patients, reported encounters with deceased persons even though the experiencer did not know the person was dead and accurate reports of blind experiencers.
"Reincarnation was sited as a strong proof for survival based on examples such as children accurately accounting previous lives. On occasion, these children have birthmarks that correspond with lethal wounds they reportedly experienced in a previous life. Native American tribes in British Columbia report the apparent evidence that Souls may sometimes reincarnate in more than one body at the same time. According to Religious scholar Christopher Bache, the Soul may be, “ … less an individual entity corresponding to a single person and ‘more like a node in a collective field of Soul energy.’ We become strongly aware of our underlying membership in this collective field when we leave our physical bodies at death and have profound experiences of ‘merging with the light’ during near-death experiences.”
"Mediumship was also noted as strong proof of survival because of the veridical messages often delivered by mediums. However, there was the usual caveat about the possibility that mediumistic messages might be contaminated by psychic contact. The possibility of psychic contamination of messages posses a strong challenge for researcher as they seek methods to experimentally prove the reliability of mediumship as a proof of survival."
Of the three, NDE, reincarnation and mediumship, only mediumship can be induced. However, mediumship is rejected for proof of survival because of the possibility the information may have been acquired psychically.
The new Parapsychological Association handbook (out sometime this year) includes a section on Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP). That is also an induced phenomena very similar to mental mediumship. Until that handbook, EVP has been mostly ignored, even rejected as delusion by parapsychology.
I describe EVP as a lab rat for the study of other forms of phenomena. The influence of intentionality is indirectly studied by studying healing intention. In the same way, such phenomena as psychokinesis and possibly apports can be indirectly studied by studying EVP.
Physical mediumship can be used to study such phenomena as apports psychokinesis and precipitation.
The phenomena are able to be studied in the lab but that will not happen until scientists get over looking for proof and start looking for how these phenomena occur. (They have the same problem with psi.)
New Agers ... many of us look to science for help understanding these phenomena. The problem is that the scientists can't suspend judgement long enough to discover the metaphysics.
I come late to the conversation but I am compelled to add my very personal opinion to it, because I must confess, I am a New Ager. I championed the causes of the New Age Movement. I lived in California where the movement really took root and spread. It emerged at a time of national self-questioning that resulted in a new awareness movement - a new search for our authentic self. We were hungry for peace. Starving. And we saw it on the horizon. In my opinion there are three names that epitomize the era.
Terry Cole-Whittaker - I was among the fifty-member congregation that discovered her when she spoke at The La Jolla Women’s center in 1977. An ordained minister of the Ernest Holmes United Church of Religious Science, she took the word Sin and changed into Positive Change. She preached the “follow your bliss, you-can-have-it-all principles of prosperity.” Her favorite saying from a preacher she called Reverend Ike, was “The best thing I can do for the poor, is not become one of them.” As the church expanded I volunteered as a Sunday school teacher and joined the choir. Every week the whole congregation joined hands and sang “Let There Be Peace On Earth” with gusto, believing every word. I did not change my name to Star, or Sunshine, or Joy (but I have to admit that I now use it as my Starbuck’s name) Under her leadership the church grew, drawing numbers into the thousands.
Werner Erhard - The pioneer of the human-potential seminars. EST short for Erhard Seminars Training, also Latin for "It is," Yes, I took the training and I “got it.” It really did alter my perspective, raise my consciousness and “change my life without changing the circumstances around me.” The man is a genius. I saw countless friends and relatives take responsibly for what they had created in their lives, quit being victims of circumstance, and take positive steps to create the life they really wanted to live.
Marilyn Ferguson - The New York Times called her book, The Aquarian Conspiracy "the Bible of the New Age.” In my mind, no discussion about the New Age is complete without acknowledging the influence of her work. She recognized the first glimmers of what she called "the movement that has no name" -- a loose, enthusiastic network of innovators from almost every discipline, united by their apparent desire to create real and lasting change in society and its institutions. Conspiracy - to breath together - we were certain that we stood on the cusp of a new paradyne, which would usher in a New Age. We began talking eagerly about a coming “paradigm shift” that would take place with the dawning of the New Age of Aquarius. We were loopey on hope. My copy of The Aquarian Conspiracy has a handwritten dedication by Marilyn Ferguson, "Our Past Is Not Our Potential.” I'm still hoping she was right!