This Epic Chant

I am one that becomes two

I am two that becomes four

I am four that becomes eight

After all this I am one.

At 2011’s Breaking Convention, a bi-annual conference on psychedelic philosophy, professor of Hispanic Studies, William Rowlandson, related how towards the end of his life, Argentinian writer and mystic Jorge Luis Borges, said, ‘I think of the world as a riddle. And the one beautiful thing about it is that it cannot be solved – but of course – I think the world needs riddles.’ The Dogon of Mali, West Africa, have gifted the world with a much needed riddle, one which has fascinated me for a long time and may never be solved. In this post I offer a summary of the story together with some personal observations and speculations.

Although enigmatically hinted at by Voltaire in 1752, the possibility of a companion star for Sirius was first raised in Europe by German astronomer, Friedrich Bessel in 1844. Later known by the unimaginative title, ‘Sirius B’, the companion star was first observed through a telescope by New England astronomer Alvan Graham Clark in 1862 and defined as a white dwarf in 1920 by Walter Sydney Adams of the Mount Wilson observatory in California. Sirius was thus already known as a binary system in 1931, when French anthropologists Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen embarked on their Dakar-Djibouti expedition, beginning an ethnographical study of the Dogon which was to last for 25 years.

Griaule’s discussions with Dogon elder Ogotemmêli led to the publication of Dieu d’Eau (1948) and later Le Renard Pâle (1956), but what was particularly surprising about their article, A Sudanese Sirius System, published in 1950, was the astronomical knowledge which the Dogon were alleged to possess about Sirius and its plural companions. The story was taken up in the 1960s by an American scholar and now long-term U.K. resident, Robert Temple, who in 1976 first published the The Sirius Mystery. He argued that the Dogon knew of not one but two Sirius companion stars, as well as their orbital periods. The most astounding suggestion in his book was that the teachers of this knowledge were visiting aliens from the Sirius star system. The book went on to became a classic of the ancient spacemen genre.

The more militantly aroused proponents of academic orthodoxy, assuming the aliens idea to be ridiculous, vigorously protested that only seething brains of madmen could conceive the notion of an African tribe acquiring advanced astronomical knowledge without the aid of a modern telescope. Seizing upon the Dogon mystery with their astute reasoning skills, they set about transmuting it into the utterly mundane. The most obvious explanation was that the Dogon had received information from outsiders. Astronomer and populariser of science Carl Sagan proposed that Catholic missionaries had been responsible and corresponded with Temple in the early 1980s. Israeli astronomer Noah Broasch, in his book Sirius Matters, identified a French astronomical expedition to West Africa in 1893 as the likely source. The general consensus voiced by sceptics like Sagan and Robert Todd Carroll et al. was that the Sirius connection had either been introduced by foreigners, or else misinterpreted or invented by Griaule.

It might seem eccentric to begin an outline of the scholarship surrounding the Sirius Mystery with the man who found positive evidence for ancient aliens in South America, but even he found no evidence for the Dogon-Sirius story. The late lamented Philip Coppens, wrote an article entitled Dogon Shame, in which he found Temple’s evidence tainted by flawed scholarship and an association with the Council of Nine, a group of psychics, which included Yuri Geller, who claimed to channel other worldly intelligences. Having cast doubt on Temple’s findings and citing some damning evidence against the Dakar-Djibouti study, Coppens concluded that ‘it is highly likely that Griaule contaminated [Dogon] knowledge with his own’ and that ‘With this, the Dogon mystery comes crashing down’.

Coppens principally drew this conclusion from the most devastating evidence against the Dogon mystery, widely regarded to have delivered a coup de grâce to the whole affair and settled it for good – the work of Dutch anthropologist Walter E.A. van Beek. Having studied the Dogon through the 1980s, van Beek’s article, The Dogon Restudied, which appeared in the April 1991 edition of Current Anthropology, reported that Griaule and Dietelen’s findings were impossible to replicate in the field. He found no creation myth, almost none of the symbolism, and nothing whatsoever – not a trace – about Sirius. At a stroke, van Beek appeared to demolish 25 years of research by his predecessors.

In its ‘cultural explanation’, writes van Beek, French anthropology had tended to emphasise symbolism and ideology, which had led Griaule as an active agent, to find what he was looking for. ‘His primary goal was never just to understand Dogon behaviour but to prove a point about African thought….to show that African cultures…enshrined philosophies equal to the best found in classical Greece or India.’  Though not quite fabrication, van Beek found the work to be the ‘product of bicultural interaction … between a strong-willed researcher, a colonial situation, an intelligent and creative body of informants, and a culture with a courtesy bias and a strong tendency to incorporate foreign elements.’ Pressed to name things, Griaule’s informants had sometimes concocted information that had not existed before. Griaule faithfully compiled and interpreted this data, unaware that his informants were often, and in a way that was typically Dogon, just having fun with their language. The myths were never really coherent story lines but a cobbled together commentary on signs, symbols and drawings. ‘Without a story there is no myth’, writes van Beek, and what we are left with is ‘…the imprint of a European view of African culture while at the same time testifying to the creativity of the African experience.’

Naturally, there was a reaction to van Beek’s published article from surviving members of Griaule’s team. Germaine Dieterlen, perhaps appealing to van Beek as a gentleman and from a position of some authority, merely asked van Beek not to publish. Griaule’s daughter, Geneviève Calame-Griaule, who had compiled the Dictionnaire Dogon came to her father’s defence. She rejected van Beek’s damning assertion that Griaule had gone to Africa with preconceived intentions about discovering an African philosophy. She questioned van Beek’s research methods, emphasised that Griaule’s area of study had been literature – never astronomy as van Beek claimed – and insisted that her father had first learned about Sirius from Ogotemmêli. In her article she curtly explains that van Beek’s “restudy” ‘contains so many misreadings that it is impossible to correct them in limited space’ and that it would take a whole article to respond point by point.

Another more detailed rebuttal to van Beek’s restudy was made by anthropologist Luc de Heusch. He argued that myth does not always appear as continuous text but, consistent with metaphysical tradition, as implicit fragments for the initiate to bring into synthesis. The ‘perennial tradition’, discernible within ancient philosophy, can be conceptualised as the ineffable ground of all being towards which the full weight of ancient thought and indeed the whole purposive momentum of civilisation was ‘in illo tempore’ directed. Following in this enduring tradition, which celebrated and commemorated archetypal structures and processes, Pythagoreans and Platonists of the classical era, and scholars of the Renaissance, explored universal relationships, the infinite and abstract within the finite and physically concrete, and demonstrated their occult knowledge by drawing together the implicit with the explicit, the hidden with the manifest into an expression of Unity. If de Heusch is accurate in his perception of van Beek’s ‘rigid conception of myth’, one can anticipate the latter’s failure to tune into any of these traces of symbolic resonance. Were remnants of Dogon ‘Deep Knowledge’ to coincide with the principles of a perennial tradition and prove less than mundane, one might expect van Beek either to misinterpret or fail to notice them.

Van Beek demonstrates his superficial reading of myth in his association of the Dogon deity Nommo, with Jesus Christ. He writes:

‘…the concept of atonement (by Nommo), the crucifixion (of Nommo), the eight people saved in the ark are just the beginning. The story of the redeeming sacrifice of Nommo is even closer to the bible: Nommo is sacrificed standing upright, arms outstretched, tied to a tree (with horizontal branches) with iron: during his suffering he thirsts and is offered a cup of water, which he spits out.’

Nommo is the Dogon fish-man god that Robert Temple believed to be an amphibian spaceman from a water world who had traveled across interstellar space, presumably in some sort of fish tank spaceship – sorry Robert. Griaule and Dieterlen found Nommo at the heart of the creation myth which van Beek found no trace of. Nommo was reborn as a pair of mixed twins, which raises a biblical connection that van Beek overlooks, the association between twin-ness and thunder. Dogon culture may not be as ‘anomalous’ as van Beek claims. The thunder-twin theme occurs in many other parts of the world, in other African cultures, notably in Nigeria, amongst the Aymara Indians of Peru, and is mentioned in the Gospel of Mark (3:17), which refers to twins James and John as ‘sons of thunder’. I suspect that the twin/thunder concept is far beyond the purview of your average Protestant missionary, that it touches upon perennial bedrock and connects to something extremely ancient and far from mundane, as James Rendel Harris explored in Boanerges.

Van Beek’s expertise lies in the field of ecological anthropology and his obvious weakness in comparative mythology, easily identified by De Heusch, is evinced in his cursory treatment of the Nommo story. De Heusch explains that the picture is rather more complex than van Beek will allow, having both similarities and dissimilarities to Christianity. He points out that the universe born out of a primordial victim owes as much to the Brahmanic model. Nommo’s blood, unlike Christ’s, ‘floods a gestating universe’, and gives rise to the creation of the Earth. Where van Beek sees Nommo’s thirsting like Christ while pinned to a tree as telling evidence of cultural borrowing, it is arguably an integral part of the narrative rather than an incongruous embellishment. On drinking, Nommo vomits up a water snake, the word for which is the antonym of Nommo’s twin, before becoming a water spirit. Annihilation of the flesh, transformation and reintegration narratives speak to the saturated archetypes preserved within myths and their associations with shamanic initiation rituals. Such themes are found in the story of Krishna, also pinned to a tree in redeeming sacrifice, in the Osirian tradition of ancient Egypt where the dismembered Osiris is the precursor to the ascended Horus, and in parallel myths all over the world.

Presupposing that every detail of Christianity is original means that when confronted with what seem at first sight to be biblical fragments in a remote African culture, the simplest and most mundane explanation can appear as the most likely (Occam’s Razor), even if it entails conveniently placed missionaries. Any deviation from this presupposition is liable to court controversy and trigger a response from western dogmas of religion and science, the former simply rejecting it out of hand and the latter maintaining that any potentially world-view changing perspective, in this case one that accommodates Christian elements in pre-Christian African myths, requires a scientific or multidisciplinary approach and certainly much more than textual evidence alone. Open to interpretation and therefore vulnerable to misinterpretation, myths by themselves are often considered very far from constituting proof of anything much at all.

Had he, however, more appreciation for a comparative mythology that factored in recurrent Christian motifs from around the world, van Beek might have been more cautious in his assumptions about ‘myth as bricolage’, interpreted simply as cultural borrowing by the Dogon. These assumptions may be coloured by antecedents within anthropology, a discipline which looks back to 19th century evolutionist beginnings pursued by armchair academics who relied on the reports of missionaries and explorers. Viewed through an evolutionist lens, anthropology regarded non-white indigenous cultures as less evolved than Indo-European ones. Systems of thought considered to be built upon an unstable foundation of superstition were held as more likely to co-opt, seemingly at random, cultural fragments from foreigners into their own cultural practices. In the 20th century, anthropology transitioned into a more relativist approach, recognising the value of field work, which led to empirical studies and a firmer recognition of the common humanity shared by developed societies and so-called ‘primitive’ ones. Whether Griaule and Dieterlen’s work is viewed cynically as an initial and therefore less developed relativism within anthropology, or less charitably, as by van Beek, as the result of a ‘colonial situation’, what can be drawn from both Griaule and van Beek’s studies are vantage points from within a specific discipline at particular points in a chronological process of development. Shaped by its own evolution, its norms of discourse, jargon, frames of reference, and methodology, this process also provides the context for alleged missionaries which keep van Beek within the accepted boundaries of these established discursive practices.

Unable to find a single Dogon informant with any knowledge of the myths described by his predecessors, van Beek states ‘… a secret not shared is not cultural’ implying that if there is no trace of the myth in the wider culture then the myth simply ceases to exist in any socially viable manner. The idea that culture and intellectual traditions can not be mutually exclusive would seem as flawed as the notion that to speak of the latter is to venture into conspiracy theories about secret societies. To my mind, this arises from the same bizarre paranoia as the organised religion which sought to eradicate ancient knowledge in the first place. The Hermetic tradition, for example, which serves as the foundation stone of Western esoteric thought and finds expression within ancient myth, migrated from Alexandria into Eastern Europe, and from Greece into the Arab world and is no more a conspiracy than modern anthropology. If myths can function exclusively as science, or as ‘proto-science’, as Claude Lévy-Strauss maintained, then they can also, just as is the case with modern science, take the form of specialist knowledge possessed by an educated elite.

Noah Broasch, – a Dogon mystery sceptic – writes this about Sirius B in Sirius Matters:

‘The gravitational redshift expected at the surface of a white dwarf whose mass is M and its radius is R (Trimble and Greenstein 1972)

K = 0.635M ∕M☉(R  ∕ R ☉)ˉ¹ km sˉ¹

or as a fractional wavelength shift (Phillips) 1994) :

∆λ ∕ λ ≈ 74 [M ∕M☉] ⁴ ∕ ³ [ GM☉ ∕ R☉c²]’

All such technical language is ‘mumbo jumbo’ to the uninitiated. Just as our distant ancestors would no doubt be mystified by contemporary modes of thought and methods of notation, it is just as likely that modern civilisation is uninitiated into the ways of the ancients. Modern astronomy, for example, dryly informs us that alpha Librae has two companions and lies on the ecliptic. In contrast, Homer, who personifies the star as Helen, ‘white-armed’ daughter of Zeus, plots out the mirrored terrestrial and celestial dramas uniting earth and sky. The bardic element of ancient astronomy nested human story within its celestial counterpart, imbuing the senses with epic narrative. Obviously, modern astronomy does not attempt to inspire us with verse. Although many people today are unaware of what the ecliptic is, the lack of inculcation of astronomy into popular culture does not preclude its existence as a body of knowledge. Therefore, I would also argue that van Beek’s dismissal of the existence of myth, based on the ignorance of the average Dogon man in the street, fails to acknowledge the potential for the cosmological aspects of myth to function as a proto-scientific body of knowledge.

Much more interesting than ‘the product of a bicultural interaction’ and the co-created confection proposed by van Beek, the parallel motifs and universal themes expressed in the epic narratives and poetic metaphors of myth in some of the world’s oldest traditions are simply brushed aside and we are asked to accept that Griaule, as his daughter Geneviève suggested ironically, had the ‘imagination of Hesiod’.

The ancient Greeks, ancient Egyptians, and in all likelihood the Dogon too, given their interest in the number eight, shared a cosmological outlook originating in a core set of eight principles – The Ogdoad – which manifest both mimetically and mnemonically – mimetically in that they commemorate natural causalities – and mnemonically in that they absorb into the intuitive, emotional and intellectual faculties, rather than being confined exclusively to logical, left brain cognition. Architect and sacred geometry lecturer Randall Carlson defines this outlook as:

reveal[ing] fundamental processes of creativity on a vast scale and range of phenomenon, from the geometry of atomic and molecular organization, through the forms and patterns of biological systems, to the scale of the cosmos itself and the very structure of Space and Time.’

The power of saturated meaning to extend beyond language into the metaphysical is rather challenging to frame within contemporary modes of thought and conditions of language. Robert Lawlor, in his book on sacred geometry, explains:

‘The archetypal is concerned with universal processes or dynamic patterns which can be considered independently of any structure or material form. Modern thought has difficult access to the concept of the archetypal because European languages require that verbs or action words be associated with nouns. We therefore have no linguistic forms with which to image a process or activity that has no material carrier.’ 

This lack of linguistic form is important to bear in mind when considering the sceptical reaction to Laird Scranton’s study of the Dogon. Scranton makes the case for a comprehensive Dogon cosmology that is consistent with the perennial tradition. Although the direction of Scranton’s thinking seems logical and congruent, his unorthodox comparisons between the ancient Egyptian and Dogon languages brought him into the firing line of the sceptical community. Mark Newbrook, a British sceptic and PhD in Linguistics, wrote a review (link?) of Scranton’s book, The Science of the Dogon. He gives an account of a telephone conversation he had with the author in which, as far as Newbrook was concerned, Scranton’s inability to produce ‘cognate sets’ and ‘phonology’ made his arguments ‘impossibly weak‘, and concludes that the only sensible course of action for him is to ‘recant’.

Scranton has argued, not unreasonably, that it is not particularly useful to limit the assessment of a study of comparative mythology to linguistics, and like van Beek, it would seem that Newbrook also fails to take the implications of this comparative mythology fully into account. Because of the extreme antiquity involved, it is in my judgement, virtually impossible to definitively prove a linguistic relationship between the Dogon language and ancient Egyptian. Whatever the relative merits of Scranton’s linguistic method, employing the methodology of historical linguistics – concerned with relationships between languages, such as sisterhood, parenthood or ‘protolanguage’, and with the processes of language change – can only be an inadequate way of approaching the universal concepts Scranton is describing. Newbrook may have applied what he considered the most appropriate discipline in debunking Scranton, but why should criticism of a study of comparative mythology, solely from an historical linguistics perspective, be any more valid than say, criticism of a study on free market economics from an exclusively horticultural perspective – or something equally Pythonesque? The serious point here is that just as cognate sets and phonology do not contribute to an appreciation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or the geometry of Chartres cathedral, neither are they of any use in exploring the archetypal. In other words, diverse correspondences of meaning conveyed mimetically or mnemonically are not limited to spoken or written forms of language and therefore lie entirely outside the scope of prevailing discourses within historical linguistics.

Sceptical reaction to Scranton does not, it would seem, stem only from perceived linguistic flaws but also from a clash of world views, specifically Scranton’s dangerous proximity to Afrocentrism, the notion that ancient Africa and its vast diaspora of culture was ignored and written out of history by white European scholars in the 19th century. Certain academics and skeptics vigorously oppose this idea, partly because it implies that scientific method lacked objectivity and was tainted by an ethnocentric or racist perspective, and also because of the threat to academic consensus from the demand for a radical revision of history. Afrocentrism is castigated as bad scholarship, as ‘pseudohistorical’ wishful thinking that arose in the United States as part of a resurgent ethnic pride alongside the civil rights movement. Prominent Afrocentric scholars include Molefi Asante and Martin Bernal, whose book Black Athena, provoked heavy criticism and a subsequent book – Black Athena Writes Back – in which he responds to his critics. Another essential perspective on the subject of Afrocentrism comes from a protégé of Marcel Griaule, Cheikh Anta Diopas, in his book, The African Origin of Civilisation. Myth or Reality. If nothing else, these scholars at least highlight the abiding western Weltanschauung and the tumultuous reaction whenever its dominant discourses are challenged. One only has to look at Diop’s wikipedia page to see just how fraught the topic is. It is tempting to question the plausibility of whether the Ancient Egyptians, who imported coca leaves from South America and traded extensively with Africa, had never fully explored the very land mass beneath their feet in 3,000 years of civilisation, specifically the land to the west, simply because it was too arid. This argument is undermined by anthropologists Fred Wendorf and Romuald Schild, who have discovered a wealth of archaeological evidence that 10,000 years ago, before the inception of Dynastic Egypt, the African Sahara was fertile and populated. Further discoveries push ancient Egyptian connections with the African interior much further to the west. In 2007, for example, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs were discovered on a high rock, deep in the desert, some 600km west of the Nile at Gebel Uwainat. Investigations by Robert Bauval and Thomas Brophy at Nabta Playa, located 100km west of the Nile, have demonstrated a precise astronomy built into this megalithic site, which predates Dynastic Egypt yet incorporates many of the precessional and stellar alignments found in ancient Egyptian architecture. There are also significant links between ancient Egypt and West Africa found in funeral and burial customs, methods of embalming, beliefs about the afterlife and the nature of the soul. Finally, we have the confident assertion of the venerable Herodotus, who stated that only cultures influenced by Egypt circumcised their male infants on the 8th day of life, as do the Dogon of West Africa.

Anomalous astronomical knowledge is not limited to the Dogon. The Virgo Cluster, for example, was not known to consist of galaxies until the 1920s as they cannot be discerned as such without a powerful telescope. So it would seem astoundingly synchronous that the fertility, grain and harvest deities of the ancients – Virgo, Isis, Demeter and Ceres – are all associated with this one fertile area of sky and that the wheat sheaf she is holding above her is located precisely at the position of this galaxy cluster, as if she is seeding the heavens. And if this is not remarkable enough, the goddess representing the fecundating principle of the universe is also helpfully pointing directly into the centre of the cluster. But any suggestion that this was known without the aid of a telescope would seem as unlikely as the Dogon knowing about the orbital period of Sirius B. Whatever the truth about Dogon knowledge of Sirius, its significance for the ancients lay in an understanding of its special relationship with our solar system, based on a precise observational astronomy. The seasonal reappearance of our close (8.6 l.y.) neighbour and brightest star in the sky may have coincided with the inundation of the Nile but this is not the only reason it was selected to mark calendrical cycles. Sirius is also perfect for measurement of the sidereal year, a crucial fact which can only be arrived at by meticulous observation over many centuries. Because the Egyptians did not adjust their civil calendar as we do to account for a leap year, (doing so would have been inconsistent with cosmic order or ‘maat’), the civil calendar of 365 days slipped backwards by a quarter of a day each year against the solar year. New Years Day of the civil calendar therefore coincided with the heliacal rising of Sirius once every 1,460 years, (365 ÷ 0.25), a major event, which heralded the beginning of a new calendrical age. The Sothic cycle functioned as a kind of slow hand measure of time, marked by jubilee festivals at incremental points, and the full completion of a cycle was commemorated as the ‘Lord of Jubilees’, the return of the phoenix to Heliopolis. It is unfortunate that in denying the significance of the Sothic cycle, many Egyptologists do not recognise the valuable insight it provides into ancient cosmology, and with that, ancient Egyptian history as well. I think it is fair to say that because it is central to the concept of maat, commemoration of the Sothic cycle is likely to be at least as old as Dynastic Egypt and certainly predates proselytising Protestant missionaries by a considerable margin.

Griaule and Dieterlen’s representation of an ancient African philosophy, cosmology, and of Christian motifs in preChristian Africa, pose existential challenges to the orthodox position of academia, which is anti-Afrocentric. Similarly, Scranton relies heavily on the translations of Egyptologist Wallis Budge, considered out-dated, yet which lean towards a distinctly African and therefore discredited linguistic interpretation. Griaule, Dieterlen and Scranton, raise questions about the development of a cultural language lying at the root of human history and human identity. In doing so they threaten or exceed discursive boundaries. Such an undertaking always poses a risk of personal attack because, as Michel Foucault wrote, it is ‘by definition, to be mad, to be beyond comprehension and therefore reason.’ But perhaps a more progressive attitude towards the outer frontiers of accepted thought is preferable, which conceptualises these limits as the locus for new understanding to be thoroughly explored rather than policed, and resists whatever sclerotic dogmas accumulate there. That this quest for new knowledge, for free enquiry unencumbered by dogma, should naturally be accessible to all is not an open-door policy for the wacky and the woo, but for certain kind of attitude. It can be defined as the rigorous discernment which distinguishes between ‘powdered-wigged’ protection of status quo and the so-called lunatic fringe. It is an attitude which cuts through cant, observes the ease with which reasoned enquiry or new ideas emerging from constructive civil discourse can be disrupted with a simple, targeted barrage of disinformation or ad hominem attack. Such tactics, though helpfully transparent, should be throughly exposed when they arise from a language of competing, circumscribed discourses, and their customary polarised positions, phony bones of contention and binary thinking. If this attitude seems tinged with recalcitrant zeal, it is because ultimately it recognises the limitations of written and spoken language, which unlike mathematical, geometrical or geo-harmonic relationships, are subject to change and have a tendency to obstruct the mimetic and mnemonic sensitivities to universal consciousness to which ancient minds were attuned.

Van Beek’s work on the Dogon and Newbrook’s critique of Scranton appear to be flawed by a superficial reading of myth. Perhaps this is simply the result of academic objectivity, ill disposed towards the kind of subjective investment which profound insight into myth demands. It may also be that the scholarship of mythic thought, valuable though much of it is, has never entirely shaken off its evolutionist yoke, meaning that however much light is shed upon myth, there is a lingering tendency to cast modern minds above it: Not illogical but ‘pre-logical’, not unscientific but ‘pre’ or ‘proto-scientific’, and not primitive but ‘traditional’. Such language is indicative of an underlying Darwinian perspective which has shaped the twinned studies of myth and anthropology. According to philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend, ‘The apparent primitivism of many myths is just the reflection of the primitive astronomical, biological, etc, knowledge of their collectors and translators’. Positing the ancient mind as the more sophisticated in the realm of the esoteric or transcendent, is virtually non-existent in mainstream circles and what scholarship there is – Schwaller de Lubicz for instance – is studiously ignored.

When a culture is ignorant of its roots, it is set adrift, disconnected from the humanising influences of its ancestral past. The results of this are all around us as global systems of government, fuelled by empty, soulless, destructive ideologies fail to serve the greater good, promote selfishness as the highest virtue, and sow widespread dysfunction and instability.

What better time than now to ask ourselves the most fundamental questions again, the ones we faced in the primeval swamp when human reason and sense of wonder first discerned order in the stars? Who are we and where did we come from? What is mind and consciousness? What happens when we die? With passion, emotion, intuitive intellect and an openness towards the ineffable, our ancestors asked these questions extremely seriously and for a very long time. They launched their minds, their academes and diverse ritual theatres towards a deeper understanding of reality, delving into the mysteries of existence in search of its essence. The inherent spiritual dimension of that is of course taboo to modern ears, but myth and the perennial tradition which inspired it, have endured for a reason, not as curious relics of primitive thought, but as a practical philosophy of insight and transformation. Failing to recognise that this body of knowledge exists let alone what it means and why it matters, represents, in my view, a psychic schism, a kind of tragic collective amnesia. By listening to the universal, sacred melodies, the epic chants from the distant past, and by remembering the value of mystery, the human personality can begin again to integrate with its higher self.

P.S. It has been almost a year since my last post. Too few posts for this blog. This has to do with the whole life-work-balance dilemma thing. The blog definitely falls into the life category for me. One post a year is not enough though. The direction of each post also takes a while to formulate. I had no idea that this post was going to be on the Dogon. I’m currently interested in the mysteries of Isis, Eleusis, etc…We’ll see where that leads.

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Apoplectic Dyspeptic Sceptics

I had been working on a post about Paul LaViolette’s Genesis of the Cosmos and other esoteric material when I received this ‘pingback’ from a sceptic with whom I had exchanged some comments on Youtube. Using my blog polemically or as some kind of bully pulpit from which to berate those with opposing views has never been my intention. I only wish to record the direction of my thinking for my own reference and any interest to others would seem purely incidental. Being drawn into an adversarial back and forth with this gentleman is of no interest to me and would almost certainly be futile. His fanaticism eructs off the page with an invective extreme enough to strike the casual reader as amusing, perhaps even crudely compelling. The ‘paranoid style’, a term coined by historian Richard Hofstadter, is invariably meticulously footnoted (or hyperlinked), has an obsession with facts, evidence, and a certain pedantic flavour that purports in distinctive stentorian tones to be scrupulously scientific and scholarly. In the battle between good and evil, which is ‘the paranoid’s archetypal model of the world struggle’, he sees himself ‘manning the barricades of civilisation’, doggedly entrenched on his tiny island of sanity in a ‘sad, sad world’ where hordes of dangerous ignoramuses are duped by socialism, astrology, or a Jew who rose from the dead. In the war against ‘evil’ – a curiously religious word for a sceptic – there is no room for compromise or even civil argument. Protesting loudly that discourtesy is the norm in the knockabout arena of rigorous debate, the paranoid style makes itself all the more transparent. The discourse grows ever shriller and more ill-mannered, until by degrees it degenerates into the desperate and the ridiculous.

The beleaguered position of the modern sceptic should, in view of the centuries of spiritual abuse meted out by organised religion, be regarded with a modicum of charity. But when professedly rational sceptics label cranks as evil rather than harmless, when they defend the persecution not only of pseudoscientists but of Galileo himself, it would seem we have come full circle, entirely validating Richard Kammann’s warning that ‘The inquirers have indeed become the Inquisitors.’ Promoting a conservative mental attitude to revolutionary ideas is fine when based on sound reasoning, but when consensus opinion is taken on ‘faith’, a word surely anathema to genuine scepticism, this conservative attitude becomes groundlessly dogmatic and imperious. Advocating for ridicule as a critical part of the process to ‘get closer to the truth about the world‘ suggests either a paranoid lack of confidence in debate and peer review or an authoritarian desire to shut people up. Either way, such hysterical recourse to mockery is not particularly edifying; nor was holding my nose while wading through this blogger’s troll-like effluvia of insult and bluster, to filter out the few points worthy of a response. On publishing his Principia, no one ‘laughed at Newton’ for being a crank. But if today, some virginal loner sat in a darkened room, poring over alchemical texts and tomes on the occult before publishing a revolutionary mathematical proof, he would doubtless be contaminated by these associations and not taken seriously at all, or declared ‘evil’ by this blogger. If it was ‘only right and proper’ to laugh at Galileo, at what point should all this amusement have abated? When he was formally ordered to recant? When he was put under house arrest? How exactly would all this righteous guffawing advance science and help bring us closer to the truth, instead of simply being one of the irrational ways that all orthodoxy protects itself?

Ideology will often resort to its pat phrases of unimpeachable truths – ‘If she floats, she’s a witch! – a circumscribed set of hard-wired thought circuitry, as R.A. Wilson might have put it. The assertion that ‘if it ain’t falsifiable it probably isn’t true’ strikes me as a semantic cul-de-sac. To state categorically that nothing exists outside of the strictly measurable strikes me as foolhardy, especially in view of the vast, implicit oceans of uncertainty within current models of quantum physics and let alone the fact that the laws of physics remain open. The hysterical idea that any dalliance with the unmeasurable somehow opens the door to pink unicorns, orbiting teapots and spaghetti monsters underestimates the most basic powers of discernment. The gentleman’s overheated bravado typically precludes the mysterious, hidden aspects of cosmological physics, sub-quantum states and their subtle relationship with the creation of matter. Sceptics have little of value to say about the nature of consciousness, how mind is able to act within matter, a substantive problem that cannot simply be brushed aside. They also fail to distinguish between religious dogma and the ancient origins of spirituality. Heaping everything together on a pompous pyre of self-righteous condemnation, they have helped not only to fossilise the polarisation of religion and science but to reinforce an impasse which has arguably plagued civilisation for centuries. Certainly, my blogging friend is in safe company. As Stephen Hawking said, ‘Mysticism is a cop-out. If you find theoretical physics and mathematics too hard, you turn to mysticism.’ Never mind that Heisenberg, Bohr and Oppenheimer were all at the top of their game when they turned to the East, Hawking clearly lays out the position of mainstream science today.

Outside of the academic consensus stand the ranks of ‘cranks’. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for his ideas about the presence of spirit in matter. Since then, similar arguments put forward by the likes of Rupert Sheldrake and Fritjof Capra, have been subjected to excessive ridicule not by the church but by the sceptics, who describe these individuals not as misguided buffoons, or even conniving charlatans but – and I kid you not – as actual, bona fide evil doers. Check out this quaint little edit by my sceptic friend as he sensitively contemplates the nature of heresy:

‘Those who promote what is commonly considered pseudoscience and claim a conspiracy is conspiring against them, while ignoring all evidence contrary to their preferred pseudoscience, are evil. (Edit as of 11/12/12: True in a limited sense; their beliefs are certainly “evil”; whether they are evil themselves is a matter of semantics.)’

That a professed sceptic should have dusted off this hoary old question some four hundred years after the ecclesiastical councils pondered it – hating the sin not the sinner, the thought not the thinker, etc – speaks for itself with perverse irony. At least sceptics have the good sense to leave Satan out of it, but it should come as no surprise, given this use of language, to find similarities between scepticism and other hardline, reductionist ideologies. Leaving aside the social and cultural biases that shape them, I think there are two major corollaries from this kind of thinking.

Firstly, outside of the perceived boundaries of a comprehensive and coherent thought system, nothing is deemed to exist except its diametrical opposite. There is no room for nuance or synthesis. Outside of Christian dogma lay the devil and all his works. Outside of free market fundamentalism we find the inexorable march of socialism towards Stalinist dystopia. Scepticism, which reduces all thought to its rational aspect, sees nothing beyond that but a dangerously irrational world of orbiting teapots and spaghetti monsters.

The other most conspicuous aspect of hard-wired, intransigent thought systems, is their consistent attitude towards heretical thought. Although burning at the stake has been replaced with ridicule and ostracism, we find our sceptical friend declaring ‘Cranks deserve to be persecuted’ on his blog, obligingly demonstrating for us just how little the dynamics of hardline ideologies ever change. Astrophysicist Thomas Brophy has observed that, ‘The inertia of paradigmatic belief structures is tremendous, and the reactions to outside evidence in favor of paradigmatic change are severe.’ I therefore think it is quite plausible that Brophy’s acute and succinct analysis could give an interesting perspective to current events in Bosnia, but my thoughts on this will be posted later. (I cannot take my sceptic friend’s blustering comments on Bosnia, or indeed anything else given these observations, particularly seriously. His remark about ‘prior probability’ could in fact lend credence to a Bosnian pyramid given the weight of evidence from ‘Old Europe’. He denies that the Bosnian pyramid is aligned to the cardinal points and yet the picture on his webpage clearly shows it is.) Unless the implicit mechanics and biases within current modes of thought are objectively assessed, we are prone to labour away within what R.A. Wilson called a ‘reality tunnel’, filtering out or ignoring information that comes from beyond its narrowly delineated limits. It is vital to cultivate an open mind, one that is wary of parameterised structures of thought, fiercely independent, thoroughly discerning, free from any of the settling traces of complacency.

(Edit. 5th March 2014: Challenging the consensus trance, especially of someone like my ping-back friend, who is convinced that Kennedy was shot by a lone gunman, is admittedly a wicked pleasure of mine. The Bosnian pyramid therefore fit the bill nicely because it seemed to be a kick in the guts to mainstream academia. Having now heard the opinion of esteemed geologist Robert Schock, and having seen this documentary on youtube and also having heard the views of megalithomaniac Hugh Newman and others, I am now revising that position. It was fun while it lasted. Interestingly, Schoch does recognise the Carpathian sphinx as an artificial geological feature and there is a wonderful documentary on it here)

(Edit. 13th December 2014: Paul LaViolette writes in the December/January 2014 issue of Nexus magazine (Vol.22, No.1) that ‘…between 2010 and 2012 eight different teams of scientists from five different countries came to Bosnia to conduct measurements of energy waves coming from a number of the megalithic structures at Visoko…’ These teams, using ‘expensive measuring equipment’, collected consistent data of electromagnetic energy beams issuing vertically from the peaks of both the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon at Visoko. These energy beams were accompanied by ultrasonic wave beams of similar frequency. LaViolette speculates that these beams could be evidence of an advanced technology from deep antiquity, about 30,000 years old, and therefore completely unacceptable to academic institutions. Interesting. This story is still unfolding. Perhaps I should reserve judgement after all.)

If Laird Scranton and Paul LaViolette are indeed ‘cranks’ then I greatly look forward to arriving at this conclusion on my blog. Scranton at the very least attests to the deep antiquity of Dogon culture, one which modern scepticism has been at great pains to dismiss as a ‘cargo cult’, an idea so demeaning and insulting, one can only be suspicious of cultural bias. I look forward to analysing the official debunking of Scranton by Mark Newbrook in due course.

LaViolette’s contention in Genesis of the Cosmos is that everything productive and generative, whether a human body, washing machine, or weather system, draws from its environment in some way. This idea of open systems, he argues, which pervade all of existence, goes a long way to explaining cosmological functions as well. This is the basis of his book which uses the relatively young discipline of systems theory as its model. Again, I hope to look at this in greater detail going forward.

I had intended to draw a veil over the Gauquelin affair but having been asked where the academic fraud had been committed I am willing to risk tedium here in providing some references should my previous post have lacked any clarity.

It was astronomer Dennis Rawlins, CSICOP co-founder, who had first exposed the fraud here and was excommunicated for his objections. He published a scathing attack in which he unequivocally stated:

‘For all intents and purposes, the Mars Effect now stands as established scientific fact. It may not yet be a satisfactorily EXPLAINED scientific fact; but the cold, hard, scientific evidence can lead reasonable people to only a single conclusion: that the Mars Effect exists, just as Michel Gauquelin originally said it did. The existence of the Mars Effect scientifically verifies the most fundamental principle of astrology: that there is a connection between a person’s character and the planetary positions at the time and location of birth.’

Historian of Science, Patrick Curry, subsequently published a report which appeared in the Zetetic Scholar (no.9, 1982, p.49)

‘Their [CSICOP’s] work could now best function as a model and a warning of how not to conduct such an investigation.’

He concludes:

‘…it seems to me that this situation must call into question any further (unrefereed at least) CSICOP involvement in research on the Mars Effect and possibly other paranormal areas.’

Psychology professor Richard Kammann, a committed member of CSICOP, investigated the matter for almost a year and when he realised Rawlins had been right he quit the Committee in disgust. He sent a report to a fellow defector, Marcello Truzzi, who had left the Committee on recognising its predilection for debunking over genuine scientific investigation. Kammann’s report is pretty damning stuff, accusing CSICOP of suppressing evidence and stonewalling critics. When an article of Kammann’s was rejected by the Skeptical Inquirer it appeared in the Zetetic Scholar (no.10. See above link). He sums up the affair as:

‘…a case study in which a small group of a antipseudo-science skeptics fall back on a remarkable line of illogic and defensiveness when confronted by intractable data suggesting that the position of Mars in the sky when one is born has an effect on the likelihood of becoming a sports champion.’

He goes on to denounce the ‘demonstrably false statistical arguments’, and concludes that SCICOP had

‘…descended into protecting orthodoxy and its own reputation as a goal more important than finding the truth. The inquirers have indeed become the Inquisitors that some feared they might.’ (Emphasis added)

Although he doesn’t explicitly accuse SCICOP of academic fraud the implication is clear enough. Scientific method is fine until it produces an unfavourable result. The Skeptical Inquirer remained unusually silent and never responded to these damning indictments. For CSICOP, the ends having by then justified the means, consensus reality having been preserved, or rather dishonestly fudged, it is now left to impartial readers to make up their minds. I’m all for exposing the Peter Popoffs of this world but when the organisation responsible for doing so has this kind of disgraceful record it is ‘only right and proper’ to be suspicious.

And one final point. The blogger’s unfortunate confusion of vibration with self-abuse is best disabused with an investigation of cymatics and its relationship to astrology. I hope this relieves him of his awkward affliction.

…Time for me to pop off now too. Cheerio until next time..

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Cosmos in Mind

Laird Scranton

Laird Scranton’s contribution to our understanding of the advanced scientific knowledge of the Ancient Egyptians is, in my opinion, as significant as Champollion’s decipherment of the phonetic values of Egyptian hieroglyphs via the Rosetta Stone, or Schwaller de Lubicz’s masterful rediscovery of Egyptian spiritual philosophy in the architecture of the Temple of Luxor. As well as revealing linguistic and symbolic correlations between Ancient Egypt and cultures as far afield as the Dogon of West Africa and the Na-khi of Tibet, the revelatory nature of Scranton’s work not only has profound implications for our view of the evolution of science and the nature of spirituality, it proposes nothing less than a radical reevaluation of human history.

In his book ‘The Science of the Dogon’, Scranton describes how scientific principles were deified and mythologized by the Egyptians. Neith, goddess of creation was conceived as weaving matter on a loom with a shuttle. She is expressed hieroglyphically in various ways. The glyphs which make up her name denote the weaving of matter by the function in which strings come together. This is expressed in the glyph below, referenced from page cxl of Wallis Budge’s An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary.

In Brian Greene’s ‘The Elegant Universe’ (1999), string theory is eloquently elucidated for a mass readership. A bestseller, it narrowly denied him a Pulitzer Prize in 2000. In 2003 a documentary based on the book was awarded an Emmy. On page 292 of the book one finds this expression of the same function.

Here are some other Egyptian names of Neith (‘The Science of the Dogon’, 2006):

Scranton shows how examples of string intersections (see below) also appear in the Egyptian names of Neith (shown above).

‘The Matter Myth’ by Davies and Gribben, 2007

Scranton argues that linguistically the correspondences between these diagrams of string intersections and Egyptian hieroglyphs can not be dismissed as coincidences because the symbols coincide with the same explicit meanings in a logically developed sequence. The hieroglyphs are single words of a language that defines the stages in the creation of matter, the coalescence of basic principles, spirit’s descent into form, from Zero Point Field and string theory through quantum particles, atoms, elements and beyond to humanity’s place in creation relative to the Earth, solar system, galaxy and greater consciousness of the universe.

The symbol associated with the goddess of creation is also represented by the Vesica Piscis. Like a fish out of primordial water, hands placed together in prayer, or the opening of the birth canal, it is the feminine creative aspect that is being expressed, but the symbol is pre-Christian and so ancient that when it appears in a book on string theory it is presented as if newly discovered, like a symbol of human amnesia.

As microcosms of spiritual consciousness, symbols are powerful and enduring. According to Dr. Carmen Boulter, autostereograms, those 2-d computer-generated patterns popular in the 1990s that reveal a 3-d picture when viewed in a certain way, are illustrative of the revelatory power of Egyptian hieroglyphs, guiding the open-hearted initiate into the macrocosm, towards the transcendent other and to dimensions outside of physical reality. The Egyptians had no word for God, not because they considered the utterance to be blasphemous but because it is simply impossible to articulate the indefinable, abstract nature of the infinite. It is only when the infinite, represented by the number one, bifurcates, becomes dual and the abstract condenses into form that we have the possibility for language. One meaning behind the saturated symbolism of the cross is the intersection of spirit with matter and the dual nature of man. Christ thus represents archetypal man and like Pharaoh is a manifestation of cosmic order. The Egyptian concept of cosmos in man was passed via the Hermetica into the philosophy of early Christianity. The Hermetic tradition provided Christianity with its founding principles. Yet when the Council of Nicaea laid down the dogma in the 4th century this philosophy was rejected, divine light strictly limited to shining on a select few and everyone else condemned to centuries of guilt, separation and torment. However the idea of human and universal mind as microcosm and macrocosm is very ancient indeed and represents a unified view of the universe that today’s scientists are only just beginning to understand. When Erwin Schrodinger said, “…in truth there is only one mind,” or when Fred Allan Wolf said, “Universe is mind”, I would venture that neither of these physicists were engaging in idle chit-chat.

Scientifically, the dual nature of man can be understood from a quantum perspective, where the holy trinity of matter, space and time begin to…well…sort of smudge apart. At the quantum level matter appears either as a particle or wave, its state dependent on consciousness itself. We normally only perceive particles while the non-physical aspect of reality, which we know to exist thanks to Schrödinger et al, is filtered out. Dennis McKenna said that consciousness is a function of order just as gravity is a function of mass. The human brain is the most ordered thing in the known universe. Each neuron consists of microtubules 25 nanometers across. Where the brain functions at the quantum level the usual laws of physics do not apply. This should provoke a discussion – an open discussion that is – about the quantum non-locality potential of mind, which would not only throw light on out-of-body and mystical experiences, but on our cultural legacy from antiquity. Eliade refers to this as the ‘ecstatic experience’ which was, “…a ‘primary phenomenon’ because [there is] no reason whatever for regarding it as the result of a particular historical moment, that is, as produced by a certain form of civilization. Rather we would consider it fundamental in the human condition, and hence known to the whole of archaic humanity; what changed and was modified with the different forms of culture and religion was the interpretation and evaluation of the ecstatic experience.” (1972, p.504)

What was once held in common by cultures of archaic humanity should be considered part of our heritage and I would argue our birthright. Yet it has been suppressed, eradicated, forgotten, distorted, or otherwise preserved by Eastern traditions, or kept alive in the West like a secret, eternal flame by obscure occult organizations like the Order of the Golden Dawn.

Are we capable of conceiving insights into the nature of reality as accessible not only to cerebral intelligence but to innate, elevated or ecstatic states of consciousness? Such an experience tunes the mind to the deep structure of matter and its spiritual essence, to a cosmic frequency, to a language beyond language, a multi-dimensional fabric, that is resonant, numerical, geometrical, and fractal. Terrence McKenna (Dennis’s Brother) proposed that chemically induced ecstatic experiences early in the development of homo sapiens “acted as catalysts in the development of imagination, fueling the creation of internal stratagems and hopes that may well have synergised the emergence of language and religion.” (1992, p.24) Certainly the dissociative effects of substances like DMT, psilocybin or mescaline seem entirely consistent with the effects of ancient shamanic initiation rites, with what Mercea Eliade referred to as ‘deliverance from the illusions of the flesh’ and ‘the ‘profane’ human condition’. Eliade however rejected the role of entheogens in the ecstatic experience as ‘a vulgar substitute for “pure” trance’. He did however make the link between shamanic trance and the emergence of poetry: “Poetic creation still remains an act of perfect spiritual freedom. Poetry remakes and prolongs language; every poetic language begins by being a secret language, that is, the creation of a personal universe, of a completely closed world. The purest poetic act seems to re-create language from an inner experience that, like the ecstasy or the religious inspiration of “primitives,” reveals the essence of things.” (1972, p.510)

There is no better place to look for expressions of this ‘essence of things’ than the ancient world. The Kabbalah, for example is a mysticism drawn from the numerical value of letters of the alphabet that enlightens with linguistic and numerical conceptual relationships. The Ancient Egyptian language incorporates music, sound, form, volume, and number, building structural correspondences that develop exponentially outwards and inwards like fractals into a sacred vision of unity.

When 20th century physicists immersed themselves in quantum theory they stepped unwittingly into the shoes of the initiates of Ancient Egypt who had walked a similar path many millennia before them.

Bohr: “We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet too is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images and establishing mental connections.”

Heisenberg: “Quantum theory provides us with a striking illustration of the fact that we can fully understand a connection though we can only speak of it in images and parables.”

Bohr: “We are suspended in language in such a way that we cannot say what is up and what is down. The word reality is also a word, a word which we must learn to use correctly.”

Where Bohr and Heisenberg stood and blinked in awe, the Ancient Egyptians immersed themselves in this language. The relationship between ancient spirituality and what has been termed the New Physics have been around for some time. Some of the most famous physicists have looked to the eastern spiritual traditions. Robert Oppenheimer knew the Baghavad Gita, Bohr was interested in Chinese traditions, Schrödinger read the Upanishads and Heisenberg who travelled to India to meet Rabrindranath Tagore also approved the 1975 book by Fritjof Capra, ‘The Tau of Physics’, which explores the  connection between Eastern mystical traditions and contemporary views in theoretical physics. Now Laird Scranton has moved New Physics into an exciting new direction by revealing stunning similarities between Eastern and Ancient Egyptian symbolism.

Dead and forgotten Newtons and Einsteins of the ancient world were pioneers into the transcendental potential of mind. Cosmos in man is part of that majestic vision presided over for at least forty-two centuries by the Ancient Egyptians. The idea of mechanism as mysticism, preserved by elites, by mystery schools, secret societies and mystical traditions through the ages might seem to some like so much Dan Brown hokum and conspiracy theory; yet the esoteric is by nature veiled and elusive, a riddle, or as Schwaller de Lubicz simply put it, “Esotericism is the spiritual aspect of the world.” Ultimately we can never know more than we desire to know with our hearts. The lesson can only begin when the student is ready, when the right questions are asked. The mechanism is so vastly complex it poses an immense challenge to language. Mathematicians may exalt over a finely wrought proof, but is it not more elegant, civilizing, and beautiful to convey profound concepts not through mathematical code, or even everyday language, but as the ancients did, across the broad sweep of the sky, by weaving scientific truths with a mnemonic system of symbols into allegorical narratives, myths, epic poetry and incantations of transcendent power?

Our ancestors aspired to, were inspired by, and rose to the challenge of this language with breathtaking genius. Looking through the lens of our materially-bonded society, our perceptions are very different from theirs. It is difficult to appreciate their level of spiritual development or to understand what they are telling us, even when it is staring us in the face. This is why translations of Egyptian poetry so often sound like utter gobbledegook. The level of spiritual development in ancient cultures mostly eludes us.

Reading about mythology, shamanism, the history of religion, folk, oral, mystical traditions, and about the psychedelic experience, the greater sense I have of a spectacular synthesis in these fragments of cultural heritage. Such was the energy, focus, and sustained momentum of ancient cultures towards expressions of the sacred, I am entirely persuaded of their validity, that a connection to the transcendent was a living reality. I do not believe this is something that can be understood in the way we tend to frame human history and culture, as institutional, as resulting from enforced consensus, dominant ideologies or bound by the limitations of dogma. Rather it was something that sought to articulate itself fully and without limitation, to plunge deeply within and without the structural fabric of space-time. Such a concept can only be approached without cultural prejudice and on the understanding that Charles Darwin is not impugned in the slightest by Giorgio de Santillana, who wrote: “Mistaking cultural history for a process of gradual evolution, we have deprived ourselves of every reasonable insight into the nature of culture.” (1969, p.71)

As the repository of vast knowledge, Ancient Egypt would be a good place to start for further understanding. People eminently more qualified than I are already exploring in this area but there are countless other alluring avenues to investigate. Unfortunately this fascinating journey, its course unknown, must wait for the time being as I am compelled to fulfill some life-sustaining commitments. To feel hindered in this study is an inconvenience and a frustration, but things will I hope resume on a more agreeable footing before too long.

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Poor Professor Dawkins

The humorous side of Professor Richard Dawkins is tremendous fun – ipso facto his orbiting teapots, pink unicorns and spaghetti monsters.

Richard Dawkins

He is the scourge of woolly thinkers, irrational believers and apoplectic proselytizers. Who better than a softly spoken professor to make the appropriate, judicious and erudite denunciations on our behalf in the name of civilization and progress?

In his program, ‘The Enemies of Reason’, (broadcast in August 2007 on Channel 4, which I have only recently seen on Youtube), we see another side of Dawkins in which he attempts to maintain the humour while shooting himself in the foot, repeatedly, and with excruciating intellectual hubris. Ignoring Einstein who said that condemnation without investigation is the height of ignorance, Dawkins takes up the torch against the forces of darkness like an emissary of Pope Gregory IX. With a frown and a nod here and a sanctimonious smirk there, he hasn’t the slightest intention of investigating anything. Having no scientific basis, these superstitious beliefs fail to demand serious scrutiny from him. The case is closed. He is certain he is right and science is simply the winner.

In dealing with astrology Dawkins takes the obvious, cheap shot at popular sun sign horoscopes. Astrology has existed in this devolved form for centuries. On the way to the Coliseum, who should pop out from behind a pillar at patrician, Richardus Dawkinsus, tugging at the hem of his toga like a scene out of ‘The Life of Brian’? Why yes, it’s a street astrologer raving on about sun signs.

No, I’m afraid the sun sign straw man won’t do, yet this is the best Dawkins can offer.

No mention, of course, of those veritable Titans of science, Kepler, Copernicus and Newton, all of whom studied what they considered to be the science of astrology in great depth. An overview of their ideas might elevate the discussion somewhat, but would sacrifice the mildly derisive, light-hearted mood of the program. Pitting himself against these heavyweights would probably get a bit wordy, requiring defensive arguments about how science has progressed, evolved, matured. Such is the turf of your Sagan or your Burke, James Burke, and Dawkins stays off it. He would be wasting his breath because in Dawkins’ world the whole topic of astrology can be safely relegated to an after-dinner conversation about the aberrant minds of the credulous. One might ask Dawkins if a conversation about the selective advantage of credulity would not be more appropriate, given the incredibly long relationship of astrology with the human race.

Astrology remains elusive, part interpretive art, part science. That apparent contradiction is guaranteed to frustrate scientists, or worse – seriously piss them off. ‘Objections to Astrology’, published in 1975 by Lawrence Jerome and Bart Bok was signed by 186 eminent scientists and 19 Nobel Prize winners. This prompted philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend to write: ‘It shows the extent to which scientists are prepared to assert their authority even in areas in which they have no knowledge whatsoever.’

Scientists are no less prone to an ego-driven need to be right than anyone else. Not just egos but Ph.Ds, livelihoods, reputations, tenured positions, and years of work may be at stake, not to mention an entire worldview which is quite a big deal. ‘We believe,’ declared the 186, ‘that the time has come to challenge directly and forcefully the pretentious claims of astrological charlatans.’

Who knew that sitting on the toilet reading Sally Brompton was tantamount to an attack on western civilisation? Apparently we are in great peril of slipping back into the dark ages if we start following astrology. The whole premise of Dawkins’ program is to warn about the dangerous ‘epidemic of superstition’ which undermines our culture. What our educated elders overlook is that whenever we find authority being asserted by self-appointed Inquisitors General for Accepted Truths, it is usually an indication that the dark ages have already arrived. Many of our modern-day inquisitors can be found on The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, (CSICOP), the American sceptical organisation, which will debunk just about anything that challenges mainstream views of the world. Richard Dawkins is a proud and crusading member. (I use the original acronym of CSICOP although they dropped the ‘COP” and became the less authoritarian-sounding CSI.)  With acolytes on every continent and an insidious access to global media, they may not burn people at the stake, their weaponry may not include such elements as a fanatical devotion to the pope or nice red uniforms, but they are certainly ruthlessly efficient in their campaigns to excommunicate, silence and smear heretics. They think nothing of committing academic fraud to preserve the established order and according to psychology professor Richard Kammann, are ‘guilty of the very pathological science they were set up to attack.’ Arguments must be decisively won, positions ruthlessly defended, for if one inch of ground is given, the fear is that floodgates will open, that an entire worldview will fall apart and take civilization with it. Clearly such an epic struggle can take no prisoners or pull its punches, but it can only seem hypocritical to claim a rational and dispassionate approach to science when the battle for ‘truth’ is so fraught with acrimony and deception. In such entrenched, emotionally charged warfare, objective truth can never easily prevail.

Michel Gauquelin

Kepler said that looking for scientific proof of astrology was like a hen pecking around in ‘evil smelling dung’ until a ‘good little grain’ was found. One such hen is Michel Gauquelin. Over several decades of dogged, painstaking work, he was able to prove what came to be known as the The Mars Effect. A statistician, Gauquelin accurately demonstrated a link between planetary alignments in the birth charts of certain individuals and their chosen professions, the strongest being a link between Mars and the birth charts of athletes. Despite what our guardians of truth might tell us, the proof of this is conclusive and incontrovertible. Gauquelin repeated the experiment many times, even allowing the conditions to be set for him by sceptical organisations in France and the United States. CSICOP found itself terribly shaken by Gauquelin’s results. It was unable to undermine them without resorting to outright fraud. This led to a hemorrhage of resignations and a flurry of whistle-blowing as the tawdry tale leaked out – but was not widely published – of how CSICOP fudged the results to save face, and presumably, the world.

Psychologist Professor S. Ertel of Göttingen University later verified Gauquelin’s work, settled any question of bias, and discovered that because Gauquelin had always been so conservative with his data that the planetary effects were actually even more pronounced.

Astrologer John Addey used Gauquelin’s data and found significant correspondences when he applied wave-form harmonics to them. It is Addey’s work which gives astrology its solid theoretical foundation.

Astronomer and astrophysicist Dr Percy Seymour explained how signals sent by the planets, sun and moon are picked up and magnified by the magnetosphere of the Earth and can affect human beings. He found astrology to be entirely plausible and attempted to explain its mechanism. Straying intolerably from the party line he was roundly condemned by the scientific press.

Actually there are many more scientists who have produced an enormous amount of research into celestial effects and this work accumulates into an impressive case for astrology. What we have, in effect, is an impressive brood of Keplerian cluckers pecking at the long, smug noses of self-appointed Inquisitors General like Dawkins, who touches upon none of the fascinating recent history of astrology in his program.

For his Principia, Newton is deified. His name is engraved into the grand portico of academia alongside Kepler’s for his Astronomia Nova. Yet both of these scientists languish in Tartarean banishment for their Pythagorean beliefs. If they could wax lyrical on the harmony of the spheres today, a wider discussion on the subtler resonances in our cosmic environment might be possible. Astrology, like music, is the product of space, resonance, frequency and vibration. The solar system is a vibrating, unified whole. It does not influence us – it is us. Astrology is the interpretation of its meaning and every human birth resonates with the harmony and meaning of the celestial moment.

When dowsing is subjected to a Dawkins debunking there is a ridiculous experiment in which dowsers are asked to divine which boxes contain litre bottles of water and which ones contain bottles of sand. One by one these poor dowsers fail the test and wonder why, which makes me wonder whether Dawkins held open auditions for the dumbest dowsers in the British Isles.

Wherever there is water, rock and sunlight, there is potential for telluric ground current which can cause a neurological response in the dowser. It is a phenomenon to do with the natural environment, with landscape, geology, underground aquifers – not plastic bottles of water in boxes set up in a tent. Evidence that human beings are sensitive to these natural effects is found in the location of ancient sites all over the world, which are invariably constructed upon geophysical discontinuities. This was clearly laid out by scientist John Burke in his recent book, ‘Seed of Knowledge, Stone of Plenty’. It is because few people are familiar with the work of Dr Hans Dieter Betz of Munich University or Romanian physicist, Andrei Apostol, both of whose peer reviewed research has appeared in the ‘Journal of Scientific Exploration’, that Dawkins can get away with such absurd and dishonest propaganda.

Carl Sagan’s standard was that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. However, that only applies to the claimants. In contrast, the debunkers’ standard seems to be that claims held to be ridiculous require only ridiculous standards of disproof. The fact that the experiment was carried out in a tent, as opposed to scientifically with field experiments, introduces a deliberate context, or what is known in propaganda as ‘transfer’. A tent has certain associations – with the fun fair, the freak show, snake oil, hocus-pocus. The deliberate loading with context influences us emotionally and does not seek to activate our rational minds. As such it is propaganda and something else is going on that has nothing to do with reason or science. We are being manipulated for our own good.

On seeing this blatantly fraudulent set-up masquerading as a scientific experiment, I immediately smelled a rat and suspected a CSICOP-type assault. This was proved correct when I discovered the experiment was conducted by Chis French of ‘The Skeptic’ magazine, the British version of America’s ‘Skeptical Inquirer’ – media wing of CSICOP. Dawkins has publicly joined the ranks of the ‘pseudoskeptics’. He has allied himself with the desperately dogmatic elements of the scientific community, and with an agenda-driven organization that has a disgraceful record of legitimate, scientific inquiry.  Fraud and the omission of opposing arguments mean that declarations on behalf of reason fail utterly to convince. Surely this is self defeating. Why does he put his credibility at such risk? I assume the answer has something to do with desperation and with Dawkins’ egghead status which allows him to get away with it.

There is an anecdote that Christopher Hitchens tells in the documentary, ‘The Collision’. Hitchens postulated a scenario to Dawkins in which he had convinced every believer to become an atheist, except for one person. Hitchens said that if there was just one believer left whom he could turn atheist, he wouldn’t do it. He didn’t know why but he wouldn’t. Apparently Dawkins gave Hitchens a look that he has never forgotten. We can only imagine what kind of look it was but that it still haunts a tough old boot like Hitchens speaks for itself.

A countervailing organization like CSICOP serves the necessary function of opposing the parasites of the paranormal, the charlatans, the cold readers and scam artists, those who exploit the vulnerable. The trouble is that as custodians of scientific truths, CSICOP has a history of shoddy and corrupt practices. Richard Kammann who resigned from CSICOP in disgust over the Gauquelin affair wrote that the organisation had ‘descended into protecting orthodoxy and its own reputation as a goal more important than finding the truth.’ Science need not and should not be superstitious of the truth or of the immeasurable, of that which lies beyond the limits of understanding. Acknowledging the immeasurable requires a degree of humility. Einstein, a deist, wrote, ‘The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true art and science.’  When scientists are superstitious of the mystical, there is a danger they will look in the mirror and see the rigid features of a fundamentalist staring back at them.

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Rings and Arseholes

I can concede the appropriate context to personal discretion, but I feel the line, “My bronze ring has never been breached!” is best declaimed loudly in affronted Frankie Howerd fashion at a dinner party.

Contrary to initial assumption, the line does not appear in Ronald Harwood’s ‘The Dresser’. Instead one finds the equally good, “I hold no brief against buggers” – satisfaction being derived here from the theatrically rolled ‘r’ in ‘brief’.

Unable to trace the origin of the unbreached ring of bronze, we could turn to Stephen Fry. He makes delightful mention of a ‘bronze ring’ in at least one of his novels, also referring to it as a ‘non-poking compartment’. Nothing about ‘breached’ though. I may have just added that word myself for alliterative effect, but God knows my longterm relationship with bran products gives the lie to it.

If I were as erudite as Fry and not an uncultivated oik, I would be well acquainted with the possible Vulgar Latin derivations. Martial refers to a ‘culus aeni’, a bronze arsehole. (“Kiss my culus aeni”, said the whimsically charming Stephen Fry to Hugh Laurie one day during rehearsals at Cambridge.) I’ve no idea if ‘culus aeni’ was common slang in Martial’s day or his own creation.

The Latin for ring is ‘anus’ and we already have a bronze one, (Martial), so this is possibly a strong enough case for a Latin derivation, although I could find no direct Latin equivalent, i.e. anus aeni.

Poor old Latin ‘anus’ though, innocuous enough as ‘ring’ or ‘circle’, became ‘so associated with the anatomical sense’, that it ‘drove out the other meanings’. Ring/circle was forced to adapt in order to distinguish itself from its arsehole associations and became ‘annulus’. For a laugh we could say this occurred during the furiously sodomistic Late Republic, but it must have happened earlier than that. Anyway,  we have ‘anus aeni’, ‘annulus aeni’ or ‘culus aeni’, or whatever has the most agreeable ring.

Robert Temple has interesting things to say about ‘An’ and ‘Anu’, Sumerian words for heaven and god of heaven and how these share a common source with the god Anubis of Egypt. The actual Egyptian word for Anubis is ‘Anpu’, which Plutarch tells us meant circle. In Sanskrit, ‘Anda’ is the word for ellipse. These are fragments of a profound mystical heritage, an unfathomably ancient knowledge relating to the rotations and orbits of stars and planets, cycles of time written in the heavens, a fascinating astro-theological etymology that spans aeons.

The Romans took these concepts and turned them to arse.

But I digress.

‘Ring is British slang for anus’, informs Wikipedia without commenting further. Did this use develop independently of Latin, or is it simply ‘anus’ translated? Does the slang date back to antiquity, surviving as a deep-seated linguistic relic of Rome’s manly grip on ancient Britain? I can only conjecture, but I am sure Fry would know.

Thanks for the diversion, Wikipedia. You are the friend of pseudo-scholars and lazy journalists everywhere.


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