Tag Archives: god

Semantics and the lowest common denominator

I have been interested in books, TV shows and lately Podcasts about supernatural, paranormal, extraterrestrial and other such stuff for a long time. Lately I have been listening to lots (lots) of Podcasts dealing with all sorts of topics somewhat from the fringe. Sometimes the host(s) of the show and the guest are very careful how they talk about a subject. Often, though, words (or memes) such as reincarnation, near-death-experience, ghost, alien, UFO, etc, are dropped as if they (and we, the listener) know exactly what that is. The guest sometimes talks about the afterlife in such specific ways as if they had just finished a college course on it. Of course that kind of language usage and specific words and terms dominate our daily life. Terms, such as food, sleep, super market are spoken and used in written form and usually they are understood close to what they were intended to mean.

Quickly, though, we come to more dubious words that are used in everyday language by a large number of people and on the surface we go: “Sure, I know what a conservative (or liberal, or progressive) is.” Except, that you have two different people trying to explain it and their understanding will most likely not overlap much. How about the word god? How about the phrase “I believe in god?” What does that mean? This could conceivably take a lifetime to explain – and the explanation would again contain usage of terms that are assumed to convey clear, unambiguous information but in turn require more explanation.

In a way, isn’t this what the working body of science has tried to mend? When ‘normal’ people talk about a theory they usually mean something they think is an explanation – not necessarily backed by any evidence or any logical or rational path of reasoning. In science the word theory has a very specific meaning and is clearly defined. It seems science strives to implement very strict definitions of the language and terminology it uses. That means, ideally, that those who have studied specific scientific fields can communicate in very precise and unambiguous terms. While this is the ideal situation, more often than not it has turned out that established scientific fact (along with the terminology) was simply wrong. Luckily, science can admit errors and correct them

Now we get to the fringey stuff, where two folks talk about reincarnation or ghosts as if they both knew exactly what is being talked about, assuming that they are also talking about the same thing, and (before I forget) that those things actually exist. Can there even be a meaningful discussion under such circumstances? Again: the thing that is being discussed is most likely not the same for each party, often one or both of the parties have not experienced anything like a ghost personally but get their information from other sources, who also use terms and words which are not defined but are taken as truth. This is how huge pyramids of fringe theories are built on hot air.

You could claim that much of the scientific body of work and knowledge is equally built on hot air. Perhaps it is, I don’t care, but the rigorous definition of terms and relationships plus a high internal consistency amounts to something and has changed material reality. It’s akin to a bunch of musicians knowing the same tune in the same key, agreeing on how to start, when to modulate to where and how to end. It may all be made up from hot air, but it works. While you put a bunch of people together, some who may not know how to hold their instrument, you tell them to play a tune that everybody should know from listening to the radio, nobody counts off, nobody knows the key (or even what a key is). What you’ll hear could be very adventurous, maybe interesting but probably won’t resemble the song they were supposed to play. And if they try it again it will sound totally different.

I guess here comes the clincher. Is it possible that nothing has any meaning unless it is given meaning by what or who consciously experiences it? And then that experience will be incredibly deep, valuable and detailed until the experiencer tries to explain it to someone who hasn’t experienced exactly the same thing – at which point the experiencer will start accepting the verbalized, official version him or herself. Makes you wish for something like telepathy, where an experiencer could transmit the experience directly to somebody else….

Some podcasts I really like (warts and all):


Mysterious Universe

Paranormal Podcast

The Paracast

and on the skeptical side:

The Skeptics Guide to the Universe

Geologic Podcast

Big Picture Science


There are of course a lot more but the day is only so long….

The medium makes the message

If you read many of the posts on this blog you’ll notice that I have been a musician for most of the past 30 years or so. Specifically, a “Jazz Guitarist”. Many knowledgeable folks have tried to classify what “jazz” is or what qualifies a certain piece of music as “jazz”. I admit that I actually don’t know or care – I just like to improvise. And not in the sense of playing a ’solo’ but making up music alone or together with a band.

Lately I have been playing a lot of solo guitar gigs and much of my practicing consists of improvising music just on guitar alone. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I throw all harmonic rules out. Most often I start out with a standard jazz tune or an original but since I am by myself I can go wherever I want. I don’t have to stick to the ’chorus’ (which of course is utter blasphemy when playing with other people). In principle I take material I know how to play (and what it sounds like) and try to stick it together in a hopefully logical and musical way. This material can be small melodic fragments or interesting chord sequences unrelated to a specific tune or piece of music. Or I take larger chunks from music I have played before (the famous introduction to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” comes to mind). Often, just trying to play the bridge of a well known standard in a different key will introduce a new dimension and risk, leading you down unexpected alleys. And then there are random unintentional notes (call them mistakes) which often play the role of ’genetic mutations’ where the basic idea is good enough to be repeated and each repetition sounds less than a mistake – clearly a kind of evolution. This sounds easier than it is but after a few ’normal’ tunes a certain flow develops and I start playing differently. The result may not sound all that different to a listener – after all I am still using the same material – but to me it seems to come from a different source. The music mostly comes out by itself. The two hours of my gig usually just fly by.

I have often tried to find patterns and rules to explain to students how I do this (actually one of my friends, who is a cognitive neurologist, is also interested in this). Some people have called this process ’stream of consciousness’ or ’channeling’. And here comes the 78 degree turn: Many years back I had a great fondness for the books of one Jane Roberts. Roberts claimed that she channeled an entity called Seth. In the beginning the channeling happened through a Ouija board and later verbally through Roberts. At the time when I read these books I didn’t care where that material came from. I just found it very fascinating since it dealt with a lot of things I kept thinking about, such as UFOs, alternate realities, weird stuff from various holy books, the works. It was like reading a novel. The common explanation for action with an Ouija board are involuntary movements of the operators’ finger muscles. So essentially, the information that is produced comes from the participants. I guess it’s a version of facilitated communication which has been pretty much proven to be a hoax.

Moving on to Roberts’ verbal delivery. While delivering for the Seth entity she used a different voice and her husband Robert Butts often asked in-context questions. Do I think Roberts actually delivered messages from Seth? No. I think she was improvising. She was, in other words, telling a story, made up from material she had picked up, knowingly or unknowingly, from many sources. Naturally the material was blended with original ideas (Roberts was after all also a Science Fiction writer) and it seems some ideas pop up again and again over her channeling career, mutating and evolving.

One can of course argue my conclusion but I think Roberts did the same thing that I do when I improvise music on my guitar only in her medium. Nothing ’supernatural’ about it. The medium makes the message.

Why Shouldn’t We All Get Along (with the aliens)?

If you read some of the posts here you might have guessed that I try to be a rational, skeptical, scientifically minded individual. Somebody who has never been to college but realized he probably should have been. This ‘rational’ streak of my life isn’t very old, though. Up until about ten years ago I was into paranormal-UFO-alien-conspiracy stuff – big time. I didn’t exactly know what I was believing. Everything, I guess. Of course that was also the time when the internet started to offer easy access to all sorts of before unseen material – at least unseen by me.

I was raised Protestant. In Germany there were really only two confessions at that time: Catholics and Protestants. Other than the obligatory go-to-bed prayer, school mandated weekly church visits (can you believe that?), and Confirmation at age 14 we were pretty much left alone by our parents’ religion, although my mother was a bit shocked when at age 15 I choose to opt out of religion in school. After I left school and moved out from home religion lost any meaning for me whatsoever. But I slowly started to get interested in ‘the other side’. UFO stories made my ears perk up. When I read my first book about past-life regression I was hooked. In Germany it was still pretty hard to find material to read about all these topics. In the mid 1980’s I read my first Seth book by Jane Roberts. Couldn’t get enough of these.

After moving to the US in 1988 I found there were huge bookstores with hundreds of books covering everything supernatural and metaphysical. We had book stores in Germany but nothing in comparison. Maybe it’s because I am German, but “if it’s in a book,” I thought, “it must be true.” While I was still consuming Science Fiction at an alarming rate my exposure to any real science all but disappeared.
My wife must have thought I was nuts when I was telling her all the strange and outlandish stuff I was learning from this strange literature .

Then, as I mentioned, came the internet. The MJ12 papers. Area 51. Roswell. Conspiracies. When I read Robert Anton Wilson’s  Illuminatus! books there was a slight nudge to becoming a bit skeptical. And then I came across David_Icke’s “…And The Truth Shall Set You Free” and the whole thing blew up in my face. In this whole fabric of UFO reports, conspiracies, alternative realities, whatever, everybody was claiming they were correct and everybody else was wrong. The one claim they all had in common was that scientists were close-minded and didn’t want to hear anything about their lofty claims. It took another year or so for me to make the connection: Why didn’t I believe in a biblical god? Why, again, did I think following religious leaders blindly is foolish? Then I realized that most if not all of these fringe beliefs were just that: beliefs with no substantial proof, based on an individual experience or, even worse, a deliberate deception. Just the same as religious ideology – and I didn’t believe in that. And then all of a sudden I was free!

Another fact had kept bothering me all through my paranormal phase:
I was so eager to experience any supernatural phenomenon, so open to see a UFO, see a ghost or develop my own psychic abilities – but nothing ever happened. I guess I don’t have the ‘gene’.

In short order I became a skeptic. Subscribed to Skeptical Inquirer, started listening to skeptical podcasts and reading science books. It was kinda cool to slowly find out that there were many people like me even though somehow in most personal conversations I just stayed away from the topic of skepticism and atheism – just to be polite.

Then people like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins published books about atheism. And they didn’t really take care not to step on anybody’s toes. Harris asks, why can’t people who act on their religious believes held as accountable just as anybody else? Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” accuses parents of indoctrinating their children into their religion and damaging them for life. These authors were expressing what I had been thinking for many years. For a few years I became really mad. Partially that was due to a government which tried to play the religious card whenever possible. Not a Christian? Then you’re not one of us. Makes you feel very welcome indeed.

I have some friends who are Mormon. At least I think so. They never told me. I never asked. Although there were times when I almost did because I was curious. They never tried to convince me to become Mormon. They are very cool, creative people. They show up on time, don’t get drunk on the gig, don’t yell at me. They didn’t ask me if I was an Atheist when I called them for a gig. Who am I to tell them that their belief is ……what? Stupid? Irrational? Old fashioned? Maybe their belief system doesn’t really do that much. They would probably be decent folks without it.

So, then, are there two sorts of religion? The religion people carry inside? Their ‘personal’ belief. Can’t really share it because it may well have been inspired or evolved (snicker) from the other form of religion: the dogmatic sort, the rules imposed from outside for no good reason except that a pope, priest or pastor somehow extracted them from the Bible, the Koran or some other historic text. The kind of religion that the people in high places want to keep the same, absolute, a constant, untouchable. I suppose that the religion people display when they are together in church is not exactly the same thing they feel when they are by themselves.

As I was slowly becoming a skeptic I noticed how hard it was to let go of irrational believes – and it’s incredible how much stuff we accept as real and true that’s actually total bogus and yet it influences our lives in profound ways. Here’s a personal example:
When I was 16 and my guitar playing was slowly becoming presentable to a public I realized that it was also developing into something special: Through it I was able to express my individuality. More importantly, it became my ‘pie-in-the-sky’. If only I could become so good and write so many tunes, etc, one day I would be successful. People would know about me and my music and it would have financial rewards. This became my carrot and my stick. For many years it was almost inconsequential whether my pie-in-the-sky would ever materialize. I can easily imagine that for a religious person Jesus and going to heaven could be their pie-in-the-sky. While my pie essentially came down to earth some years ago – when I noticed that I am playing gigs for people who come to see me play, some buy my CDs with my music on them, and while I am not famous I am well known and recognized locally – the religious ‘pie’ ideally stays in heaven until you die. At least from the outside this looks like a pretty effective carrot (although with many religions it seems more of a stick.)

So, what then am I trying to say?
I just said that I don’t believe in a god – Christian or otherwise. But I also know from first-hand experience that I won’t practice my guitar without having something to practice for. It helps the motivation imagining some huge gig in front of thousands of people – even though that gig will probably never become reality. Hell (no pun intended), it’s next to impossible to get up in the morning without having somewhere to go to or something worthwhile to do. And not to defend organized religion, but they usually do offer you one heck of a benefits package even though I think it’s all made up.

As always, instead of black and white it’s a spectrum of finely shaded colors what people believe in and why. Just don’t come to my door and tell me that your god loves me because he might be a little disappointed.