On Being a Good Witness

Organizations like Association TransCommunication help by reporting what others are saying. As ATransC Directors, interfacing with so many people in this frontier field has helped us develop something of a consensus opinion of how to relate to many of these phenomena. This viewpoint has become our guide for the NewsJournal and the website. In this way, ATransC and similar organizations help develop a shared, informed point of view which would normally be developed by mainstream science and academia.

It helps to ask questions. It is important that people in our community feel free to do so. Perhaps our most effective defense against delusion is discernment through critical thinking, and that is accomplished by the free exchange of ideas. This is not to say that one opinion is as good as another. Reality behaves according to principles which are knowable. In fact, an opinion can only be personal opinion if it is not supported by empirical evidence.

In this regard, it is important that people do not believe something is paranormal that is not. This has been a real problem in our community as mundane artifacts were widely seen as “evidence” but later understood for the mundane artifacts they really are. One form of photographic orbs comes to mind as a good example, as increasingly, we see “No Orb Zone” signs prominently displayed on websites.

A Case Study

(c) FEG2011-ectoplasm_enjuryIf we were to write a case study to illustrate this point, it could be based on recent comments about darkroom séances. With our first report of a darkroom séance, we noted that a person who was knowledgeable about EVP sent us an email announcing that “It seems fake to me.” He went on to say that “I believe there is a trap door or something like it. Notice that he’s behind the curtain for no real reason other than to shield eyes from whatever he’s doing. He may be an escape artist. He may have an associate sneak in from the floor or wall, etc. If he hid a small speaker in the wall outlet it could sound like this. He literally could have someone in another room speaking into a wireless mic and then it can be projected through the hidden speaker.”

This person also expressed a common complaint about pictures of ectoplasm: “The ectoplasm is most likely cotton gauze or some such item that he hides somewhere on his body. In the old days, they would hide it in their mouths then let it dribble out….”

We recently received a similar email from a person who experienced a darkroom séance, and there is a most disturbing blog of a similar nature posted by a person in England. In both cases, the person is quite knowledgeable about some forms of these phenomena but appears to lack understanding of materialization mediumship. Most important, though, is the potential damage their comments may have on the community.

We have given this considerable thought. Given that questioning experiences is important, how does one do so without seeming to be negative? The answer may be in the initial assumptions people have when they formulate their questions. We see three basic viewpoints: the “proof” is faked, the “proof” is real and what we refer to as “suspended judgment.”

Assumption of Trickery

It is easy to assume an instance of phenomena is faked by saying, “There must be…” [assumption it’s faked] rather than “How could that be?” [assumption it is real]. Offered explanations about how something could have been faked are seldom supported by how the explanation could realistically explain the evidence. The “There must have been a trap door” explanation is a good example. It ignored our report that we had thoroughly examined the room and that the circle had just moved into the rented house. The trap door explanation may sound reasonable. For people who assume trickery, it may even seem right. Once the trap door explanation is accepted, then all of the remaining “proofs” are easily ignored as more of the same trickery.

We saw this assumption of trickery take on a life of its own as people claiming to be Spiritualists went into something of a feeding frenzy as they found all sorts of “trap door” explanations for a well-known physical medium’s work.

Assumption of Fact

Assuming the validity of phenomena without question is equally damaging. Not knowing why a person believes something is true too easily leads to the appearance of faith-based systems of belief. The mainstream community will not take our frontier field of study seriously so long as vocal members of our community claim obviously mundane events as paranormal.

One of the most important factors keeping this community from maturing into the mainstream is the indiscriminate belief in “evidence” that is not actually evidential. It has prevented us from developing a common, credible point of view and assures that mainstream society will continue to accept the Skeptic’s view that we are delusional.

Suspended Judgment

As an engineer, I have been trained to examine the dynamics of a system to determine the forces influencing its operation. If I miss one of the forces, I fail to understand the system. I am also trained to understand that there are few definite answers. While I must go forth with the assumption that I understand a system, it would be irresponsible of me not to include safeguards in the design intended to prevent unintended consequences of the design. There are no absolutes, only current viewpoints.

In keeping with my training, the attitude I attempt to maintain when I witness phenomena is one of suspended judgment. This to me is the middle way in which experiences can be taken at face value, uncontaminated by assumptions based on belief rather than evidence.

My first experience with darkroom séances was a sitting with David Thompson. Lisa and I tried very hard to write the Winter 2010 NewsJournal report of that experience in terms of what happened without too much examination because we had so little background knowledge. Since that sitting, we have sat with David several more times and with other circles. We have also conducted a great deal of study and have spoken with many experts in the field.

Today, we understand that most of the phenomena that are given a “trap door”-type explanation can be explained by more realistic hypotheses. For instance, one complaint from the English blog was that the order of events in the medium’s séances is always the same. Of course, we have noted this, but we have also noted that virtually all of the mediums we have sat with have a similar order. I asked Stewart Alexander about this and he indicated that he did not know about his actions while in trance, but that he needed everything to be exactly the same leading up to his entering into trance.

A new hypothesis we are developing is that the familiar order of events in a séance helps to entrain the medium’s mind, leading the medium to ever deeper levels of trance. In a different form, as reported in the Fall 2010 NewsJournal, Hoyt Robinette appears to use a long billet reading session (saying what is sensed in closed envelopes) to help him produce the astounding precipitation phenomena for which he is known. The sameness is not a proof the medium is in too much control. It is probably a necessary mechanism that makes the phenomena possible. It took us many experiences and much study to see that.

White Crows

Philosopher William James told us: “If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, you mustn’t seek to show that no crows are; it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white.”

It is not necessary to believe all that you experience. Instead, ask yourself if there is a single aspect of an experience that is convincingly paranormal. If so, then, based on your background understanding about things paranormal and how others have responded to the experience, you probably have reason to say that there may be truth in the experience. Say to yourself “I am not necessarily convinced about most aspects of this experience, but that one aspect is very convincing so I will keep the whole experience in my ‘wait and see folder’ as I seek more understanding.”

The “white crow” may take a while to show up. This is why suspended judgment is so appropriate. For instance, some darkroom mediums finish séances with their chairs moved from the cabinet to the open floor of the room. The theory is that the entities use this to safely dissipate the accumulated energy, and of course, to provide something of an exclamation point to the demonstration.

(c) FEG2011-ectoplasm_handMoving the chair, and the usual messing with the medium’s clothes has been difficult for me to put into evidential perspective. However, at the end of the darkroom demonstration Stewart Alexander provided during the 2011 Stewart Alexander and Friends Conference, I witnessed the glow tabs on Stewart’s knees passing by me at eye level, less than a foot from my face. Our fellow travelers were further around the circle and saw the tabs tilt dramatically as Stewart’s chair floated around the room. He had been partially awakened for the experience and complained something to the effect, “I really do not like this part.” Later, with the lights on, we discovered Stewart’s undershirt lying on the floor.

That was a “white crow” for me. While I have no theory as to how the chair is levitated and clothing is removed or reversed, I have pretty much exhausted my knowledge of possible mundane explanations. Sure, it is strange behavior and yes, I cannot do it, but strange or beyond my capability does not automatically lead to the assumption of trickery.

Unintended Consequences

Physical mediums are a rare lot. Like super athletes, they are born with the ability but it seldom becomes evident without years of development. As a reluctant mental medium, I can attest to the fact that it is scary to give “spirit greetings.” I can only imagine the mental and physical fortitude required by the likes of David Thompson, the FEG medium and Stewart Alexander.

From the perspective of a “normal” job, there is little money in physical mediumship. All of the mediums we know have almost a spiritual imperative to demonstrate so as to show sitters they will survive transition. Many of them travel the world so that we can have the chance to know this truth–if we can set aside our prejudices. It is probable they do not breaking even..

The attack by that English blogger became personal and was more debunking than an effort to understand. The blogger is responsible for what is on his website, so I must assume he supported the many naive comments from like-minded website visitors. If I were the medium, my response would have been to stop demonstrating. Instead, he effectively turned the other cheek and agreed to be interviewed by one of the other Spiritualist bloggers who was promoting the English blogger.

It will probably not take very many attacks like that to deny the rest of us the chance to witness at least one white crow. This is where the activist in me begins to look for a big stick, so I will close here.

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