Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Super Natural: A Book Review

The Super Natural by Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey J. Kripal
For my 80th Christmas on this planet, I treated myself to a weird hardback book by two experienced explorers of strange phenomena that lie outside of what these days passes for science. Whitley Strieber is the author of Communion in which he describes his personal contact with "non-human beings" -- contact that continues in some form to this day. Jeff Kripal is the author of several scholarly and popular books on comparative religion with an emphasis on the particular experiences which gave rise to various religious beliefs and to alleged insights into the nature of reality.

This book features each of the specialists taking turns writing a chapter, so the book reads as a dialog between an experimenter (Whitney) and a theoretician (Jeff). But this simple distinction is blurred by the fact that Whitney theorizes about the meaning of his experiences and Jeff adds experiences of his own and of his colleagues to his theories of how to deal reasonably with unreasonable experiences. This taking turns works: each man respects the other's expertise but the two do not always agree.

A further feature of this book is the fact that after he published Communion, Whitley received hundreds of thousands (!) of letters from people all over the world that had had similar bizarre experiences many of which could be classified as some sort of non-human contact -- a valuable data base for those scholars of any persuasion interested in the study of unusual human experiences. Judging from the volume of Strieber's correspondence, experiences of this sort do not appear to be rare. But for obvious reasons, people rarely talk out loud about them. Would you?

Whitley attempts to describe his experiences without injecting his own interpretations, but admits that maintaining his objectivity is difficult because these events are characterized by ambiguity and by strong emotions -- primarily fear. Kripal takes the long view, arguing that emotionally powerful, ambiguous experiences of this sort have been happening to people thoughout all of recorded history. And that some of these "non-human contacts" -- Moses with the Burning Bush, Mohammed with the angel Gabriel, for example -- have led directly to the birth of new world religions that attracted billions of followers.

So, Jeff argues, such experiences are not unimportant for human history, but we are not required to see them in the same light as did their original participants. Neither are we required, Jeff adds, to view them thru the fundamentalist goggles of atheistic materialism. Let's be real scientists here, ladies and gentlemen, he urges. Let's try to set aside contemporary prejudices and work open-mindedly to discover what these strange not-so-rare experiences are trying to tell us about the nature of human (and non-human) reality.

As Whitley succinctly puts it: "We don't know what they are because we don't know what we are."

Jeff's tentative model for understanding such experiences is that each of us is part of a Larger Mind -- the "Human as Two" in Kripal's words -- part Human and part Divine. Divine and Human? Two ill-defined words like the words Classical and Quantum, which taken together make four important concepts that humans need to learn to use correctly (we haven't yet) if we hope to better understand the mental and physical reality of which we are made.

Can the notion of being part of a Larger Mind help us to understand such unusual phenomena as mathematical prodigies, lucky hunches, numinous coincidences, voices in the head, crisis telepathy, magical links between lovers, veridical visions, "the fickle finger of Fate", scientific, musical, artistic and poetic inspiration, plus the mysterious Zeitgeist itself -- that inexorable spirit of the times that seems to carry all before it like a flood -- perhaps even making sense of the unexpected election of President Donald Trump?

Strieber's way of acquiring knowledge by direct personal experience, rather than through books or teachers, fits into a religious category called Gnosticism which has a long tradition.

Jeff Kripal & Nick Herbert, Esalen Lodge, July 2010. photo: August O'Connor
Reading Kripal's description of ancient Gnosticism in The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained, I was inspired (by Big Mind?) to add my own two centavos. Jeff's text forms its scholarly core, classical human Nick (and his divine quantum Muse) provide the title and the admonition. Let the following verse express one mindful collaborative response to this challenging and unusual book:

by Jeff Kripal & Nick Herbert

The ancient Gnostics
Did not know what we know:
They did not have 

Modern cosmology
Quantum physics
Evolutionary biology.


In space-time habitation
Quantum mind alive in primate body
Our priestly task is clear:

Listen like a sly physician
To demons, aliens, angels,
Gods, efreets and witches.

By the light of wildest intuition
Expose our wise men's trinity of theories
As hidden Holy Spirit, bitches!

As hidden Holy Spirit.

Image by Todd Stock, aka Dr Paradise

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Gilliam Does Quantum Reality: Part One

Harold Gilliam (1918 - 2016)
Harold Gilliam died this month (Dec 2016) at age 98. He was an eloquent writer on environmental issues and a popular columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Intending perhaps to explore the inner environment of the physical world, Gilliam attended a weekend workshop at Esalen Institute in the summer of 1985 given by myself and my friend and physics colleague Heinz Pagels, To commemorate Gilliam's death and the death of Pagels who died a few years later, I am reprinting a few week apart the two Sunday Chronicle columns that Gilliam wrote about his experience with us in Big Sur. Part Two is here. Fasten your seat belts for "Gilliam Does Quantum Reality: Part One"

Harold Gilliam SF Chronicle Aug 18, 1985

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific -- and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise --
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
 -- John Keats

In the last 10 years physicists have learned
more about the universe than in previous
centuries -- they have seen a new picture of reality
requiring a conversion of our imaginations.
 -- Heinz Pagels

Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory
has not understood it.
  -- Niels Bohr

Driving down the Big Sur coast to Esalen the other day, looking for some clues to the new picture of reality, I saw on roadside buildings, along several miles of Highway 1, big hand-lettered signs: THANK YOU, FIREFIGHTERS.

The reason for the expression of gratitude soon became evident.. The steep hillsides to the left of the road were charred for miles where the Rat Creek fire had raced down the slopes on a hot dry wind from the east, burning nearly everything in its path.

Esalen, on the ocean side of the highway, barely escaped. The burned hills behind us were screened by Esalen's trees, and we faced the ocean, but occasionally we caught the odor of the scorched earth of the Santa Lucia, and that pungent reminder of another reality became a symbol of the ambiguities in the amazing world of the quanta.

The weekend workshop had a formidable title: "Bell's Theorem and the Nature of Reality." Our leaders were Bay Area physicist Nick Herbert, author of the new book Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics and Heinz Pagels, executive director of the New York Academy of Sciences, author of The Cosmic Code: Quantum Physics as the Language of Nature and Perfect Symmetry: the Search for the Beginning of Time.

With titles like these, we were expecting some tall talk, and we got it, interspersed with good-natured banter between the two physicists who were each convinced that on certain points the other was dead wrong.

In the mellowed-out ambience of Esalen, the 17 workshop participants sprawled on the carpeted living-room floor of the Big House, a former seaside residence, and contemplated the invisible microcosm of the quanta, which seems to turn our common-sense view of the world upside down, or maybe inside out.

The future results of such a revolutionary shift in viewpoint are unpredictable, but the phenomenon has happened before in world history. Nick Herbert reminded us the new view of the universe developed by Isaac Newton overturned the hierarchical medieval world view and pictured a world governed by law -- forming a philosophical basis for a society of laws rather than arbitrary leadership.

The Declaration of Independence: ("We hold these truths to be self-evident ---") cited natural law as the basis for democratic government. In the same way, quantum theory, we were told, seems likely to revolutionize our Newtonian-based views of the world -- and maybe also our technology, our economics, our politics, our entire culture.

Newton had described a clockwork universe ticking along in orderly, predictable fashion -- a gigantic machine governed by such laws as gravitation. "Quantum theory," Herbert told us in the Big House at Esalen, "has smashed Newton's clockwork."

What has replaced Newton's clockwork is a picture of reality that can't be grasped by conventional thinking. Listening to Herbert's description of some very weird interpretations of the quantum world, I began to feel that the theories must have come out of a bottle. Actually they came out of a microscope -- or rather out of certain complicated contraptions such as the cyclotron and the bevatron at the University of California at Berkeley, that serve as supermicroscopes peering into the curious world of the atom.

Quanta are simply particles that are atom-sized or smaller; quantum theory describes these particles and their attributes -- more or less. No one has ever seen an atom, of course, but scientists can detect what the atoms are doing and can smash them together to find out what they're made of. As the supermicroscopes improve, they keep finding smaller and smaller particles, like a series of Chinese boxes.

Physicists examining the workings of atoms were badly shaken up when the particles they found seemed to violate Newton's laws that had been accepted for 300 years as descriptions of how the world works.
Quantum Reality image by Todd Stock aka Dr Paradise
"One of the best kept secrets of science," Herbert told us, "is that physicists have lost their grip on reality." He proceeded to list eight different and partly conflicting versions of how physicists look at quantum reality, most of them utterly preposterous to the non-physicist. Consider these, for example:

# The Copenhagen interpretation was originated by the late Niels Bohr and his colleagues at the Copenhagen Institute. Outlandish as it seems, it is now the view of most mainstream theoretical physicists, Herbert explained. The world we see around us is real, but that world is made up of particles that are not real -- at least not as real as what we see.

As if statements like that were not mystifying enough, Herbert went on to point out that some Copenhagen physicists go further and say that even the world we see around us is not real until we observe it.

Sitting there on the floor of the Esalen living room, trying to adjust the big pillows to be more comfortable, I recalled the old riddle as to whether the tree that falls in the forest makes any sound if there's no one there to hear it. These Copenhagen theorists would say: "No, the tree makes no sound because it isn't really there. Nothing is there until somebody observes it."

In other words, reality is created by the observer. Is the reality of the universe a mirror of one's own mind?

A sobering notion, I reflected. Whatever it means. It could mean that we are not simply cogs in Newton's mechanical universe, but that we somehow participate in ongoing Creation. "Observer-created reality" implies that we have something to say about how the world is put together. Maybe.

"The universe," Sir James Jeans wrote as he contemplated quantum theory, "begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine."

Before I could absorb that one, Herbert was listing a further interpretation.

# Reality is an undivided wholeness. We are all part of the universal being. This viewpoint was expressed by Berkeley physicist Fritjof Capra a few years ago in The Tao of Physics, the book that first aroused popular interest in the interpretation of quantum theory. Capra found certain correlations between this quantum view of reality and the teachings of oriental mystics.

The book created flurries of excitement among mental telepathy enthusiasts, who maintained that physics had now proved the existence of what they had believed all along -- that a transcendental unity behind surface appearances included the interconnectedness of human minds with one another and perhaps with a universal mind.

Actually physics proved no such thing. Capra was simply calling attention to some interesting parallels between quantum theory and the intuitions of the mystics.

# The next quantum reality Herbert described for us was the most outrageous of all. It was the "many worlds" interpretation: In this view reality consists of a steadily increasing number of parallel universes.

Science fiction writers have fun with this one. In one universe you are sailing to Alpha Centauri in a space ship. Simultaneously, in another universe you are having chicken dinner with Henry VIII.

Or you toss a coin and it comes up heads, but in another universe on the same toss the same coin comes up tails. Everything that can happen does happen -- someplace, in some other universe.

I protested silently. It makes no sense, it's not logical. But at that moment Herbert started talking about quantum logic, which is totally different from traditional logic. Under the new logic, apparently, parallel universes make sense.

By this time I had been able to rearrange the pillows in a relatively comfortable position, and as I closed my eyes for a moment to contemplate quantum logic, the voices in the room began to merge with the soporific roar of the surf below, and my mind drifted off.

Instead of a quantum physicist talking to us, it was a fellow in a long robe. He was saying that although we can see the sun rising in the east and setting in the west on its daily trip around the Earth, we are suffering from an illusion. Things don't happen that way at all: the Earth is actually revolving around the sun.

What a preposterous notion, I thought. How could anybody believe in such nonsense? The man, who said his name was Copernicus, was obviously out of his mind.

Before I could tell him so, he was gone, and there was physicist Herbert at a blackboard showing us how Bell's Theorem worked. It turned out to be wilder than anything we had heard so far. And if you want to know what all this has to do with the price of a Big Mac or the national deficit or your latest telephone bill, join us here next Sunday.
The Big House: Esalen Institute

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Los Gatos Apple Store

Apple Store, Los Gatos, California


[Nick's Apple iPad device is misbehaving.

Boulder Creek's nearest Apple shop's
in Los Gatos --- a mere seven miles
from the Apple Vatican in Cupertino.]

Enter our sacred Los Gatos sanctuary
Perform the secret Sign of Steve
Shamelessly admit your helplessness
Before the White Lord's LCDs.

Humbly approach our Apple altars
Resist the urge to bend your knees
Of all mankind's mighty marvels
None were quite so fair as these.

Let awe not blind you to your mission
In our technologic paradise
Be mindful of your many sins
And the sins of Your Device.

Soon an Apple-ordained Genius
Will come and hear your full confession
Will lay hands on your bad Device
And calmly banish all transgression.

Devoutly make a good Act of Contrition
Make the Sign of Steve before you go
Gratefully settle your rightful Penance
Using ApplePayment cyber dough.

Go in peace and sin no more
Bless you as you leave our store
Bless friends and kindred far and near
Bless happy fault that brought you here.

Apple ostiarius instructs two fresh penitents

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Big Question

What does Woman want?
Why everything of course:

To square the circle
To trisect the angle
To unify the Quantum Field
To find love in one magic kiss.

To achieve world peace
To equitably nurse every life form
To insure all sentient beings
Awake into Infinite Bliss.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

No Animal

Doctor Jabir: Thanksgiving 2016

No animal badgers its mate
No animal rats on its friends
No animal sponges on its fellow man.

No animal joins that rat race
Crawling to its job in stinking metal box.

No animal works to outfox life
Worming every possible drop of joy
From the lucky fact of sex.

No animal wolfs down 
Drugs and high technology
To weasel its way out of the contract
Life long ago signed with Mister Death.

Without house insurance
Each animal raises young
In its burrow.
Without car insurance
Each animal takes life
As it comes.
Without health insurance
Each animal faces death
Like a man.