Syntagma Digital
Editor, John Evans

Broadcasting Commentary: Finite monkeys

Monkey Cage Monkey

Those finite monkeys are back rampaging around their infinite cage again. Prof Brian Cox, and scientifically-literate comedian Robin Ince, with a couple of guests mostly of a scientific bent, returned to their berth on Radio 4 Monday afternoon, giggling their way through the hilarious subject of death.

The thing is, I had an eerie feeling that they had culled the topic from this very website, Syntagma, which is big on death.

Druids were mentioned, a dead giveaway! And ghosts, ye gods! It’s nice to be appreciated by the godlings of BBC radio broadcasting.

As Brian Cox said at the outset, he is a scientist and could only judge the topic scientifically. This meant that a lot of what followed was a bit arid and centred on genes, DNA and cells, surely the most boring entities in the whole wide universe. Naturally, when you reduce death to a cellular level, it sort of kills it stone dead, as ’twere.

As always with this anarchic show, though, it was hilarious.

Dead strawberries were examined in detail, but the possibility of their resurrection was disappointingly ignored. It seems the Jesus factor is missing from the lawns of Wimbledon.

A little background: When I started writing about God, the soul, life, death and everything in between, I guessed that in this scientific age it was no good using medieval nomenclature, so I defined soul as personal consciousness, God as impersonal consciousness, and mind as the contents of consciousness.

Note the holy precision of them. Given that ancient words take on many meanings, they are, I think, much clearer to a modern audience, which is really all that counts. Naturally, I avoid writing for academics, even if they do nick my ideas like smarties (double entendre alert).

To clarify my very slight qualifications to write about such weighty matters, I did physics, maths and chemistry at A Level and read psychology at university. The study of religion, especially mysticism, has become my life’s work, if I may be so ponderous.

Monkey Cage covered the physical aspects very well; only one of the cast, a guest, whose name escapes me, dealt with the psychological side. She mused that humans are scared of ghosts and that must be significant. Indeed it is, for it shows that we accept their reality even if they are a bit hazy on the eye.

As for Brian: ever thought about seeing a shrink? Living in a world of sub-atomic particles must be a terrible burden, especially as you would have to graft a molecular microscope onto your face to make life workable. And don’t you keep tripping over anything bigger than a dot?

One final question. However did you persuade the staid old Beeb to put on a programme like that?

John Evans

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

Coming eventually: Mystology: A different way of looking at the world. Also a website, mystology.com.

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Broadcasting Commentary: The Prion of Science

Frog in a well

In recent years, this site has been a sharp critic of the science industry. Not against the endeavour in itself, but of its tendency to hyperinflation: in the choice and cost of its projects, and of the declared results.

Until recently, we were a fairly small band in this country, which includes James Delingpole and Christopher Booker at the Telegraph. To call them sceptics would be mild enough to have them demanding a recount.

By contrast, the BBC has always been science-mad, taking science’s press releases as gospel and reporting claimed “discoveries” as wonders of the modern world.

Imagine my shock on Monday morning when Radio 4’s Start the Week, ably chaired by Allan Little, put four scientists through the mangle. The programme is available on the Radio 4 website.

One of the reasons for writing my forthcoming book Mystology: A different way of looking at the world is to make a decisive break with the scientism of the Western world by viewing it through the eye of mysticism instead. By mysticism, I don’t mean religion, a slab of ideology that has to be swallowed whole by its adherents. Regular readers won’t need an explanation, but here’s a summary of mystology.

Imagine an alien descending to Earth with the task of reporting back to his planet on our human way of life. Assume also that his only sense is that of hearing — this mimics the narrowness of our own sensory field.

He would naturally be attracted by sound alone, so we would expect him to make off in the direction of the loudest noise. Our extraterrestrial visitor would be more than likely to end up in the most deafening nightclub in town. The report back would make interesting reading.

The mystical among us believe that modern science shares the plight of our hapless ET in respect of its description of humans, both physical and psychological.

The prevailing model of human beings is similarly distorted by the same narrowness of focus: science concentrates largely on material processes as cause, rather than effect.

Mysticism has traditionally had a very different perspective. It sees people as made up of two distinct but temporarily conjoined parts: the animal (body, brain and nervous system) and the spiritual, a soul beyond that of the animal and beyond the remit of conventional science.

The errors of science, as the mystically-inclined see it, arise from the limited vision of the lower, physical body, whose intellect has a tendency to don the mantle of enlightenment, while ignoring its own tunnel vision. The story of the two frogs sums it up perfectly:

One frog lives in a small, mildewed well, while his cousin inhabits sand dunes by the sea. When the ocean frog goes to visit his kinsfrog in the well he’s dismayed by his narrow viewpoint.

“This well contains all the secrets of the universe,” he is told.
“And what are they?”
The well frog puffs himself up in a display of self-importance. “The universe is ten feet in diameter and bounded by a brick wall.”

When the ocean frog describes the vast blue vistas of his own home by the sea, his cousin laughs knowingly. “These are just neurological disturbances of the brain caused by over-excitement; hallucinations, dear frog, pure illusion. You should see a shrink.”

Many scientists are just like the frog in the well, disbelieving anything beyond their purview — geneticist Professor Steve Jones recently described spiritual experiences as a form of mental illness.

This is a self-limiting situation, which will always bedevil anyone putting a spiritual point of view. Zen is an attempt to get round this impasse by placing the whole of its emphasis on experience alone, without added description.

Buddhism is often accused of being atheistic. Its viewpoint is more simply understood as a paradox: God is everything and there is no God.

In order to see divinity, we need to stand back apart from it and realise what we are looking at. When merged with the divine, we don’t see it, just as we can’t see our own eyes. As the Christian mystics put it, God is dark to us.

But if God is everything, it is not possible to stand apart. Therefore God is always invisible to us. If, however, we shed our physical body in mystical experience, we see the world, and the divine, for what they are and on their own terms. This state is by invitation only, so we must work for it.

In ignorance, some look elsewhere for God, into the far reaches of the universe as scientists do, instead of within ourselves. And when they fail to make contact, they claim there is no God.

In this terrible isolation all the suffering of the world begins.

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Midweek Mysticism: Divination — Jung, the I Ching and the Tarot

Tarot I’ve long retained a healthy scepticism about the ancient art and practice of divination. I like to think I’m an empiricist in the English philosophical tradition. If I can’t make something work, I lose interest in it.

That doesn’t mean it can’t blossom for someone else, of course. The problem is that many of its practitioners seem to hang out on fairgrounds and slightly downmarket television shows. However, I was in for a surprise.

When I was reading psychology at university my hero was the great C.G. (Carl) Jung, a Swiss genius of towering breadth of learning and imagination. His mystical apotheosis was a revelation in every sense:

When the summit of life is reached, when the bud unfolds and from the lesser the greater emerges … and the greater figure, which one always was but which remained invisible, appears to the lesser personality with the force of a revelation, he … will know that the long expected friend of his soul, the immortal one, has now really come.

It doesn’t get much better than that. Jung was also a lifelong student of the Chinese Book of Changes, the I Ching — a rather intellectual tool for divination.

Its method is similar to most other systems of reaching out to foreknowledge, which use the physical to attain the mystical. In ancient China, Taoists used 49 yarrow stalks, throwing them six times to the ground to make up a hexagram. Jung was convinced it worked and practised diligently.

My own experience of it was one of tedium. I adopted the modern method of throwing three coins instead of yarrow sticks. I managed to get hold of three old British pennies, the surprisingly large and heavy copper coins that were in use until 1971.

At first the process seemed interminable, asking a question, then throwing the coins six times and building up a hexagram of six whole and broken lines. I used the Richard Wilhelm translation which had a stimulating commentary by Jung himself.

It seemed to work on many occasions, but could be densely obscure, lacking the vivid nature of real life. Perhaps I was expecting too much.

Some years later — not long ago — I was given a pack of Tarot cards as a present. These, of course, are much more associated with the fairground that ever was the I Ching. But as I shuffled through them, I recognised Jung’s Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious. I was immediately attracted to them and began to try them out.

As often with divinatory methods, it takes a while to break yourself into the deeper aspects of the system. I had sporadic matches with various outcomes, but as with the I Ching, they seemed tenuous and distant, lacking immediacy.

But I didn’t give up on them, because of their archetypal dynamism and the brilliance of the commentary in the book that came with my version. Gradually, the mist clarified and the “immortal one” seemed to answer. I am still staggered by the relevance of the answers I now get.

The Tarot can be a bit scary. The first time you get the Death card is not for the faint-hearted: in some versions, it’s a black skeleton with a scythe riding on a black horse — truly the stuff of nightmares.

All is not lost. The card represents merely a decisive loss, perhaps a job (the sack?) or the need for a complete, beneficial, change of direction. Until, that is, your turn for departure from this world really does come.

If you can accept my assertion that it definitely does work, you stand a chance of making it relevant for yourself after a period of induction. So how does it work?

I suspect it has more to do with biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s “extended mind” — the universal, or Nirvanic consciousness, than any other theoretical medium.

This is genuinely mystical; that is, something beyond normal consciousness and means of seeing. It links our earthly life with what lies beyond. It is both accessible to those who want it enough and will guide them through mysteries without end.

Jung’s “culmination of life” was such an experience. Divination is just the opening shots in the greatest journey of all.

John Evans

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Saturday Ramble: At the Earth’s core

Eye Nebula

Consciousness is the world’s greatest mystery. As the basis of everything, from electrons to the universe, it touches on all objects and all non-objects.

I had a stab at defining it last week* which brought in a lot of comment, especially when I pointed out that science in general, and neuroscience in particular, get it hopelessly wrong. That lapse has had consequences so profound that our entire civilisation looks at the world through the wrong end of a telescope.

Science has become a reductio ad absurdum with its plodding “scientific method” that serves best as a testing tool for constructing machines. The boffins have virtually given up on consciousness, concluding that it only exists as a by-product of something else: the brain. In reality, consciousness is the cause of everything, even the “something else”.

Mysticism, which is not the witches and spells and hocus pocus of popular imagination, can be properly defined as the study of consciousness. It is not taken seriously by science — with the exception of a few brilliant minds, such as C.G. Jung.

In an upcoming book, Mystology: a different way of looking at the world, I try to get to the bottom of this, the greatest riddle in the universe and beyond. There will also be a website, Mystology.com at some stage.

For now, only existential philosophers and romantic poets have come anywhere near grasping the core of consciousness:

Sweet is the lore which nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mishapes the beauteous form of things:
We murder to dissect.
William Wordsworth

“And here are trees and I know their gnarled surface, water, and I feel its taste. These scents of grass and stars at night, certain evenings when the heart relaxes — how shall I negate this world whose power and strength I feel? Yet all the knowledge on earth will give nothing to assure me that this world is mine.”
Albert Camus

That’s real philosophy, not the dissecting, mathematical muddle we’ve been served up from the beginning of the 20th century. Camus concludes: “The faint lines of these hills and the hand of evening on this troubled heart teach me much more.”

Instead of examining the surface of the world and giving it name, form and measurement, the philosopher cloaks himself with it and tries to understand it from the inside, as does Wordsworth. In that, he is more mystic than scientist and comes closest to the core of things.

John Evans

* “Consciousness is both personal and impersonal. The latter is what we call God, the personal is “soul”. Consciousness (with upper-case “C”) is soaked into the Universe and, indeed, is indistinguishable from it. Some Zen masters make this distinction as Big Mind/Little Mind, although I prefer to use “mind” for something else: Mind is the contents of consciousness, our everyday thoughts and impressions. It is what dies with our body, leaving consciousness (soul) to carry on to the next stage.”

John Evans is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

Coming soon: Mystology: A different way of looking at the world. Also a website, Mystology.com.

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Midweek Mysticism: Why science and mysticism are irresistible in fiction

Avebury Stones
Avebury: a village in a mystical stone circle

To modern folk, mysticism and science fiction are on different planets, so to speak.

Mystics tend to dismiss the plodding scientific method that nails science to an overbearing materialism and which ignores the greater part of human experience. Science stridently derides the “woolly thinking” of mysticism.

And yet the best of science fiction is very mystical indeed. I was reminded of this by a BBC Radio 4 programme this morning. It was a retrospective of a golden age of children’s television, the 1970s, and specifically a popular serial called Children of the Stones, produced and broadcast by HTV in 1977.

It was typical of the genre. Iain Cuthbertson played the druid central character, and Gareth Thomas the long-suffering astrophysicist father of a questing boy. The story is set in Avebury, an English village surrounded by a circle of standing stones. A full description of the plot can be found on Wikipedia.

Suffice it to say, it’s highly mystical, combining astronomy: black holes and a supernova, with druid sorcery and a succession of time shifts. Amazingly, a DVD of Children of the Stones is still available at Amazon, illustrating the usefulness of “the long tail”. Like other examples of its type it has become a cult, with its own fan websites.

Mystical science fiction dominated the Seventies and early Eighties. The Quatermass series were must-watch television at weekends, and the books of John Wyndham often serialised, including The Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos, The Chrysalids, and The Kraken Wakes.

They had one thing in common, a superficial scientism and bags of mystery, an unbeatable combination. But why do these sit so well together?

Nowadays, the brooding terror of these programmes has been replaced by postmodern, jokey zaniness, as in Dr Who. They lack depth.

Contemporary science programmes, such as the BBC’s sometimes excellent Horizon, are crying out for the magic touch of mysticism. We sense they are not complete as they are. A telescope is much like any other, and banks of computers a total bore. Geeky guys talking quantum stuff tend to be incoherent, the suave voice-overs sleep-inducing.

The fact is, science and mysticism are made for each other. Indeed, I would suggest are each other: explorers after truth. One viewpoint looks from the side at shiny surfaces, the other from the inside at endless possibilities. Put them together and you have entertainment dynamite.

I would go so far as to say that science is only “true” when it glows with mystic light, and mysticism only accessible through a kind of alchemy, the first science.

Strange things happen when the ego (the thinking mind) is bored. It begins to invent colour and zest as entertainment. Long lists of statistics become doorways to other worlds, which become theories about black holes, multi-dimensional universes, dark energy, and time travel.

Science then enters the realm of science fiction, a mass breakout from the world as it is, bleak, boring, untidy, while missing the point that this world is a veil hiding endless spiritual landscapes and, more importantly, the Truth.

Television executives should cease being the dupes of the vast science industry, parroting its press releases, and go back to their creative roots in mysticism and spirituality.

They could start by retrieving the archived tapes of those sci-fi series of the 1970s, noting the deep mysticism at their heart. Nothing since has been half as entertaining as they were.

John Evans

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

Spiritual Mystics in the Modern World is coming soon.

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