It was like any other seance. People linked hands around a table and assumed a relaxed, open state of mind. . The spiritual medium called out to the spirit world and beckoned a spirit named Philip to come and answer their questions. And sure enough. the table rose off the ground and the group’s questions were answered by way of loud knocks on the table – one knock for no, two for yes.
It all went exactly like the seances you have seen in the movies and on TV. But it was different in two important ways :
- this seance was done by ordinary people with no particular talent for spiritual matters as part of a rigorous scientific experiment conducted by Doctor George Owens in 1973, and
- they made Philip up. He was entirely fictional. Before the experiment began, they had. as a group, come up with his name, his era, and his tragic biography as a man with a frigid and unloving wife who fell in love with a gypsy girl, only to have his wife discover their affair and have the gypsy burned at the stake as a witch. This drove poor Philip to commit suicide.
No such person ever existed. He was no more real than Sherlock Holmes. And yet, all the phenomena associated with contact with the dead via seance occurred. The participants swore there was no trickery or stagecraft involved. Observers found no evidence of fraud and many of them went away with their fundamental beliefs badly shaken.
It was called the Philip Experiment, and it rocked people’s foundations.
Seems like the sort of thing you would have heard of before, doesn’t it? Seems kind of important. But alas, this research was doomed to disappear for three reasons, presented here in ascending order of outrage : \
- The research was Canadian, and people don’t listen to us. Especially Americans.
- The forces of pseudo-rationality and false skepticism would want the research discredited then buried in a deep deep hole. and
- they didn’t document anything
That’s right. All we know about how these experiments went down is from eyewitness accounts. Scientifically speaking, they didn’t do a damned thing. ARGH.
Now in their defense, the experiment took place over a long period of time and involved a group of people who would become very good friends meeting once a week for years.
I can understand how that would promote a relaxed, party-like atmosphere that is largely incompatible with such things as careful observation and precise documentation.
But still. ARGH. Write shit down, people! Listen to this man!
Now as a few of you may know, my approach to this kind of phenomenon is what I call the phenomenological approach. That means that I view these things from a point of view that does not demand that such simplistic valuations as “true” or “false”. Rather, it simply studies them as phenomena – things which occurred on some level.
And that is one of the fundamental tenets of my brand of parapsychological inquiry : that however we explain these phenomena to ourselves, they happened. These are not in any sense unreal experiences. If they were not real, we would never have heard of them.
Why? Because unreal things can’t possibly have any effect on real things.
If these events were not real, then there is no logical way in which they could have any effect on the real world. Something caused these phenomena. Something objectively real. Something you can point to and say “That did it. ”
Whether or not they took place outside people’s heads or inside them is another matter.
So something causes this group of people to believe in the events they described. Whatever your explanation, the mere fact that this happens – that people come to believe they had experiences which defy rational explanation – is fascinating in and of itself.
From the psychological angle, what I find most interesting is how the behaviour of the Philip entity – which, again, was entirely fictional – changed over time. It became bolder, more rambunctious, more eager to show off what it knew or could do.
Now, Owen’s theory was that human beings can develop things like telekinesis if the conditions are right, and that therefore everything Philip did was a manifestation of the collective unconscious of the group.
The same sort of thing has been used to explain the results of the Ouija board.
And to me, that is the most interesting thing. Even if we suppose that all of the unusual phenomena had some kind of rational explanation – people were doing things to cause them unconsciously, say – the fact that a group of people who know one another well can merge their unconscious minds into this sort of gestalt is mind-blowing.
It calls into question our very idea of what it means to be ourselves. We live in a very individualist age and we tend to think of ourselves as separate islands in the same river.
But drain the river, and you can see that we all spring from the same riverbed.
As individualists, we live in fear of anything that threatens our sense of individual autonomy and identity. This brings us freedom – and isolation.
But what if we could access this collective subconscious at will? Bring it out of the realm of mysticism. poetry, and religion, and into the light of science and the everyday?
Imagine if everyone learned how to access it at the same time they were learning their ABCs and 123s. It could become a spiritual Internet, where people can connect with one another in a way that defies isolation and instead brings people closer to the sense of oneness that is key to transcendental religions worthwhile?
I think the first step towards that goal would be to gently deconstruct the idea of absolute individuality just enough to let in the idea of “separate but still part of a whole” into the public mind. The idea that there is more to human life than individual atoms of humanity passing one another in the night.
And opening ourselves up to the notion that there is a level of closeness – of humanity – beyond our personal circles of friends, family, and colleagues.
That there is a thread connecting every human being to every other human being on Planet Earth, and none of us are ever truly all alone in the world.
You just have to open up and let people in.
Take it from me…. someone on that same path myself.
It’s worth it.
I will talk to you nice people again tomorrow.