Monthly Archives: July 2013

Doubting the Debunkers

Skepticism should be applied to claims made about physical facts and events, as well as the truth-claims of individuals and belief sytstems. There is, however, a difference between skepticism and debunkery. Skepticism proceeds from doubt; debunkery begins and concludes with a kind of solidified, inevitable doubt necessitated by ideology rather than detailed survey and rational interpretation of fact(s). In this post I would like to address two examples of what I consider to be debunkery, and how they represent faith-statements rather than factually-based conclusions.  I will be including links so that the reader can judge the “pro” side  for him or herself. The two examples are the Shroud of Turin and the Roswell, New Mexico UFO “crash” case (aka “the crash at Corona”).

Denial of Shroud authenticity is mostly based on the C-14 testing of 1988. The testing occurred; a date was procured, with parameters limited to a period of approximately the 13th-14th century.  Case closed. Or, perhaps, not. Critical review of the testing has found it, to say the least, somewhat lacking in normative features.

Prior to the testing, the number of laboratories was halved, much to the protests of the inventor of the test himself. The sample, selected after only about an hour of deliberation, was cut from a particularly contaminated area, which had not only been exposed to smoke and probably to soot, but also to an unknown number of unprotected handlings by human hands through repeated exhibition. The sample was discovered to contain cotton fiber, which should not have been present, as the cloth itself is a herring-bone weave of linen; that is, a strand of cotton had been sewn into the testing sample. It is not implausible that some late-Medieval hand may have attempted to repair this part of the cloth, introducing a foreign element into the dating; worse, perhaps, the segment itself was a replacement patch, not part of the original cloth. This raises the question of the sample’s originality. In any case, the Shroud’s current inadequate state of “knowness” surely demands further testing.

Decidedly, this baffling linen cloth should be retested, with new samples being cut from another section or sections. Although I am not a scientist, pinning the question of the Shroud’s authenticity on the results of a single test seems to me dicey at best. Especially when the test results contradict the “momentum” of the research so far completed, which in no way suggests that the Shroud is a human artifcact, whether a pious rendering, or an outright hoax.

The cloth’s means of image production continues to remain a complete mystery, and no attempt at reproduction has been able to fully duplicate the image while at the same time duplicating all of its anomalies, (for an example of one more, recent, failed “duplication”,

http://www.acheiropoietos.info/proceedings/HeimburgerWeb.pdf

… and a shorter version:

http://theshroudofturin.blogspot.com/2012_07_01_archive.html

including all of its 3-D features, and its forensic accuracy, Historically speaking, no explanation has been found for its transgression of typical Medieval art conventions, its very probable pre-Turin history – see Ian Wilson’s many works for referencing the pre-Turin Shroud; as well as Noel Currer-Briggs’ The Shroud and the Holy Grail), or its perfect conformity with the Cloth of Oviedo:

http://www.shroud.com/guscin.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sudarium_of_Oviedo

This being the case, I, the non-scientist, would think, intuit … guess, suspect … that a single test that countra-indicates all, or at least most, of the other evidence would itself strongly suggest re-testing. Sadly … the Shroud was not available for further testing, which is the fault of its owners, not of the testers.  Even with the consideration that the testing conditions could have been better, it is not a case of “failed science”. Rather, it was a case of science not having been given the fullest chance to succeed/proceed. Hence my stringent, if not strident, insistence that the Shroud be tested again, and that a successful campaign toward that end will be a future outcome.

Now for some links. Concerning the dating-test flaws and the reasons for skepticism regarding them, please consult:

“The Jackson Paper” at

http://shroud-enigma.com/challenge/jackson_paper/jackson-paper-on-image.html

http://shroudstory.wordpress.com/2012/02/27/carbon-14-dating-on-shroud-of-turin-were-botched-2008/

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/04/0409_040409_TVJesusshroud.html

The Big Carbon Dated Mistake: Shroud of Turin and the Scientific Quest for God

http://www.shroud-enigma.com/resources/The-C14-dating-of-the-Shroud—web-version.pdf

Of provenance, chain of custody, proper care and suitability of samples

Some interested readers may find the above sites a somewhat penitential read, but I trust that their homework will be at least as serious as mine, and that their conclusions will follow from the data presented. I feel the same way about the links to be shortly provided against the ever-so-fictitious “explanation” for the Roswell event as an errant Mogul balloon.

The late science popularizer and UFO skeptic Carl Sagan said, “Something came down” in Roswell in July, 1947. Practically everyone agrees on this basic fact, with the obvious contention lying in the interpretation.

My basic “take” on this case is that the U.S. government lies whenever it wants, for any reason that it deems helpful to itself, and it lied about Roswell. Roswell at least proves this much. If the Roswell AFB’s intial announcement that it had found a “crashed disk” was a lie, then … why would they lie … and to the press? On the other hand, if the crashed disk was real, then why would they lie about it via an after-the-event-coverup (in our era of massive government, this question has several plausible answers)?

In any case, here we have either: 1) a primary lie (even though there is no understandable reason why trained, experienced personnel would attempt to magnify, all out of proportion, a still-recognizable weather device, into a big joke of a spacecraft, and then announce their fairy tale as fact to the papers); or a secondary lie which contradicted the original story (whether or not that was a lie).

For better or worse, Roswell has not, and will not. go away. I don’t pretend to know what happened on Max Brazel’s ranch on that stormy post-War night. I – we – all know that the government tells lies, and we know that the Roswell AFB did announce their discovery of a crashed disk. I – we – all know that Roswell AFB then announced that the discovery was a “mistaken” weather balloon.

Having acknowledged the basic truth-problems, they continued on into subsequent decades, through which the government has trotted out several explanations (justifications?) for its “take” on Roswell. The remarkable fact is that these governmental reports are mostly fanciful rationalizations for a “line” that began with the initial  …”the Roswell ‘disk’ is really a crashed weather balloon” … announcement. Particularly pernicious is the repeated suggestion that the “disk” was a crashed Mogul “audio spy” balloon (it probably wasn’t), and that all reports of tiny alien bodies were garbled descriptions of AF crash test dummies (probably not, because such dummies only came into use approximately a half-decade post-Roswell). Both explanations are probably and plausibly false, as suggested in essays at the following links to the Roswell/UFO researcher Kevin Randle fully demonstrate, as follow:

http://kevinrandle.blogspot.com/2007/02/national-geographics-and-ufos.html

http://kevinrandle.blogspot.com/2008/10/more-bad-news-for-mogul.html

http://kevinrandle.blogspot.com/2008/07/how-secret-was-mogul.html

Of course I realize the issues that are endemic to citing only a single source/author, but Randle’s articles work adequately as an introduction to alternatives to the government’s official story about Roswell-Mogul and the supposed general involvement of “weather balloons” in the case. For a brief overview of the case from a different site, please see:

http://www.ufoevidence.org/cases/case1134.htm

I am not making any huge claims here. I am simply saying that:

The Shroud continues to be an anomaly, that its testing could have been better, and ought to be redone, if granted permission;

… and that …

“Project Mogul” as a full explanation of the Roswell incident is woefully inadequate and plaubibly indicative of potential governmental misdirection.

Thanks for reading.

The Shroud: Fresh Light on the 2000-Year-Old-Mystery, Ian Wilson,  Bantam Books UK: 2011.

The Shroud and the Grail: a Modern Quest for the True Grail, Noel Currer-Briggs, St. Martin’s Press: NY, 1987.

Some flaws in Blatty’s novel, “Legion”

William Peter Blatty wrote a sequel to his smash hit, The Exorcist. Titled Legion, it is the story of supernatural revenge wrought through a “scandal” engineered by the demon of the first novel.

As Fr. Damien Karras is dying at the bottom  of the steps – after inviting the demon to “come into me” and taking it out the window with him – the angry expelled demon slips the spirit of the dead Gemini Killer into Karras’ dying body. Karras himself goes on to his Heavenly reward, leaving a temporarily empty shell. But the demon soon fills the corpse with the Gemini Killer’s spirit, and arranges for the Gemini to continue his life of serial murders via the body of the saintly Karras.

Unlike the film version, in the Legion novel, Karras is truly gone and does not appear as a character at all. Rather, his corpse is being manipulated by the Gemini, who in turn is being supported, behind the scene, by the demon. Blatty brings back as protagonist police detective William F. Kinderman from the first novel, who must get to the bottom of a new series of murders in Georgetown, and who ultimately, and to his horror, identifies the killer as the Gemini’s spirit, now residing in Karras’ resuscitated corpse. During the process, Kinderman meets Dr. Vincent Amfortas, the novel’s “Karras figure” – a deep but tortured soul; and Amfortas’ nemesis at the clinic, the brilliant but petty and spiteful Dr. Temple.

Although I love this novel, nonetheless I feel that it suffers from seeming to have been written in a hurry, containing jagged edges, irrelevant and baffling material, and leaving important questions unanswered. Some of my criticisms follow:

1. Kinderman’s seemingly endless speculations on the (supposed) high probability of Intelligent Design are never really answered or addressed. It is if Blatty wishes to convince the reader that some version of ID is a foregone conclusion, as worked out in the “steel trap” mind of the elderly Jewish detective. For me, it doesn’t work, mainly because Blatty doesn’t give Kinderman sufficient knowledge about what real science really says about natural selection and its relationship to evolution and “deep time”. That is, we only get Kinderman’s naive, scientifically inadequate views, but never the other side. We watch Kinderman convincing himself of ID without having him seriously invoke alternatives, thus preaching to his own choir and giving himself relatively easy answers. This uncritical attitude is far from the sharp thinking of the Kinderman we met in The Exorcist.

2. Was the nasty Dr. Temple really having an affair with Dr. Amfortas’ one true love? If so, this unpleasant little interlude has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the narrative; it doesn’t advance the story; and it only leaves a baffling sense of distaste in the reader’s mind. It doesn’t clarify Temple’s character, and only serves to torment Amfortas, who is already tormented beyond the capacity to endure.

3. What is the purpose, at the very end of the story, of having Kinderman indict Temple of feeding “Patient X”/”Tommy Sunshine” (the Gemini Killer residing in Karras’ body) bits of historical data about the Gemini Killer? The entire point of the novel is that the Gemini Killer is indeed, is in fact, in possession of Damien Karras’ resuscitated corpse. But if Temple was educating Patient X about the Genimi, this weakens the case that Patient X was really harboring the Gemin’s tortured spirit – i.e., he could really have been an innocent with a blank mind which Temple filled with otherwise secret Gemini-data, convincing this innocent that he was really the Gemini. Of course, the actual presence of Karras’ resuscitated body – because of its clear supernatural implications – mitigates against this idea, but the idea is still an unnecessary complication.

This puts an entirely ill-conceived, unnecessary – and show-stopping – doubt into a narrative – and into the reader’s mind – which otherwise points directly toward the Gemini Killer’s reality, the one factor on which the story depends. I simply cannot understand why Blatty threw in this red herring at all, much less threw it into the story’s climax – which, without this element, would have been totally cohesive and coherent in establishing the real presence of the real Gemini as explanatory of the mystery at the narrative’s heart.

4. What becomes of the question of justice – human and divine – when Blatty simply lets the Gemini off the moral hook? By this I mean:

At the end, the Gemini, reconciled to the spirit of his dead twin brother, and depotentiated by the death of his father against whom his crime spree was directed, simply dies passively and gently, implicitly taken, along with his near-angelic brother, to an apparently joyous afterlife … all without having to answer for the murders of Alex Kintry, two priests, nurses, hospital patients, etc.

In his historical life, the Gemini was clearly culpable for committing multiple murders. At his death, he briefly “went to Hell” – but only to be “rescued” by the vengeful demon of The Exorcist – who then sent him back, in Karras’ body, to continue his life of crime. Thus, the Gemini got off “Scot-free” for his mortal crimes, and for posthumous crimes committed via his manipulation of Karras’ body. It’s as if, in some kind of rush not only to pull all the disparate elements together, and to provide a happy ending, Blatty completely overlooked the dark questions of basic morality as applied to the fate of the Gemini Killer – an enthusiastic and unrepentant murderer.

There are other flaws in the Legion novel, but these suffice to illustrate the difference between this story and Blatty’s earlier The Exorcist. If only Blatty had applied the same discipline to Legion that he applied to The Exorcist. A better, more frightening, and more satisfying book would almost certainly have resulted.

Buddhism is not “negative”

There is a common theme, freqently echoed in fundamentalist Christianity, that Buddhism is a negative religion. It is said that Buddhism is pessimistic, world-denying, immersed in suffering, the practice of a resigned embrace of suffering, etc. Not so: and this is obvious from one of Buddha’s basic teaching. Buddha, describing his core mesage, typically said things like:

“I teach suffering, and the end of suffering.”

This statement is “negative” only if one falsifies it by dividing it, retaining the first claim and discarding the second.

If an opponent can be persuaded to listen, breaking the sentence down will be helpful:

“I teach suffering”…

COMMA,

… “and the end of suffering” …

PERIOD.

Repairing the mutilated sentence presents the fulness of Buddhist “positivity”, i.e. that life is suffering, but there is also an end to suffering. Obviously, no one followed Buddha because he taught the plain truth that life is suffering. Equally obviously, people followed, and follow, Buddha because of his claims about, and the methods he developed to vanquish, suffering. There is no “negativity” involved in true perception of Buddha and Buddhism.

“The Exorcist”: addressing one more misconception

Audiences have misunderstood some of The Exorcist’s basic themes and premises, some of which have been addressed on this blog, for example, the egregioiusly misconceived notion that the story’s film director, Burke Dennings, had been molesting Regan MacNeil, the possessed child. In a similar mode, a substantial number of viewers think that the film was a “downer”, that “the Devil won”. This is sometimes expressed in statements such as, “The Devil won: he possessed a priest [Fr. Damien Karras, played by Jason Miller], forced him to commit suicide, and also killed his elderly mentor [Fr. Lankester Merrin, played by Max Von Sydow]”.

The facts, however, are quite the contrary:

1. Damien Karras did not “get” possessed, as is the case in standard possessions. Instead, he deliberately challenges and invites the demon to “come into me…take me…”  To its everlasting regret, the demon responds to Karras’ taunt. Karras is shown briefly possessed, advancing on Regan – who is now unpossessed – and framed within the demon’s would-be strangler’s hands. Karras then imposes his will on the demon, taking it out the window with him, and effectively expelling it upon his impact at the bottom of the Hitchcock Steps. Thus, the demon did not possess Karras, but ironically, Karras possessed the demon and kicked it out, in an act of Christ-like self-sacrifice. Nor is there any entertaining of an idiotic corollary, namely, that Karras “went to Hell”, because in Catholicism, “suicide is a mortal sin”. But of course, Karras’ action was not suicide. It was really a form of demonicide – as well as an act of matryric self-immolation reminiscent of the Church’s earliest heroes. If anyone “deserves” Heaven, it is Damien Karras.

2. Not only did the demon not kill Damien Karras, far less did it kill Lankester Merrin. The demon has two purposes: 1) to make witnesses to a possession feel so “animal and ugly” [updated screenplay] that they begin to despise themselves and to feel that not even God could love them; and 2) to kill Regan while Merrin looks on helplessly. This is in revenge against Merrin for an earlier exorcism in Africa in which the priest bested the demon. Therefore, it is essential to the demon’s purposes that Merrin be alive to witness the demon’s “victory” of killing Regan in Merrin’s presence. The demon has a crucial investment in Merrin LIVING long enough to witness Regan’s demon-caused death.

Hence, any idea that the demon killed Merrin is bound to be automatically still-born. Worse for its adherents, Blatty’s novel is explicit on the point. When the demon has seen that Merrin has died prior to Regan’s planned death, it rages at Karras, referencing the dead Merrin, “you [Merrin] would have lost” – thereby assuring the reader that Merrin’s death itself represented a clear defeat for the demon, who never intended to kill Merrin, but rather to humiliate him and crush his faith.

This viewing of this gem of a film ought always to be accompanied by reading of Blatty’s novel. No screenplay can possibly convey all the subtleties of its originating source, and The Exorcist is an exemplary illustration of this principle. One can much better read Blatty’s authorial intentions in the screenplay by contrasting it to the novel. Only then can one see the screenplay’s brilliancies – as well as the important details that it omitted.

Jodo Shinshu: why I am a solitary practitioner

This is just a brief statement as to why, although I write in an occasional blog, that nevertheless, I do not belong to a sangha, social or virtual. Of course, I take Refuge, but only a a subjective inclination of the will, not as an external social expression.

The reason is easily understood. As far as I can tell: the modern sangha is largely a mess. Visiting virtual sanghas has demonstrated this to my satisfaction.

Most online sanghas, and their web links, seem confused about, or, worse, uninterested in, their own foundational principles. They expound on plenaty of culturally-related activities and issues, such as Obon festivities, preach unchallenging “feel good” sermons, engage in “churchy uplift” … while simultanesously maintaining a non-noble silence about basics such as the nature of Amida, Shinjin, Deep Listening, and the great saints Shinran and Rennyo.  For example, a Shin podcast to which  I have repeatedly listened featured two “experts” in the field confessing their confusion about Amida’s existence and Shinjin: a kind of doubt that could only arise in minds that in fact do not have expertise in the area.

Of course, I do understand that any religion must – for it to be both universal and pragmatic – find a balance between simple fundamentalism and overly-intellectual mythicism. For me, the ideal condition must lie somewhere between the two extremes.

To understand what I am saying, the reader is directed to examples of the “two kinds” of extremes, as follow below.

1. Simple, non-scholarly Shin:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/true_shin_buddhism/

… and …

http://web.mit.edu/stclair/www/shinuglyblog/blog/index-57634.html

2. Complex, overly-mythicist Shin:

http://shindharmanet.com/

…and…

http://www.shindharmanet.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/pdf/Bloom-Amida.pdf

By this time, the reader is entitled to say, “Quit your whining”. Don’t I have anything positive to say? Sure I do, as exemplified in the following links:

http://buddhistfaith.tripod.com/pureland_sangha/

http://buddhistfaith.tripod.com/beliefs/index.html

http://web.mit.edu/stclair/www/content/view/56/87/index.html

http://www.nembutsu.info/jpuind2.htm

http://www.adelaideshinbuddhistdojo.com.au/

The point, however, is that to the best of my knowledge there are very few modern sanghas that emphaise and promulgate both of Shin’s basic truths, namely that:

1. Amida is a real Buddha; a transcendent being who works and whose work, according to Shinran, is both the unfolding of the Dharma and ultimately “inconceivable”;

2. Amida also has a symbolic role that points beyond Monk-Dharmakara Amida to the Buddha’s ineffable cosmic Dharmakaya Body ; and a symbol, as well as a concrete reality, of our enlightenment and salvation.

Perfect balance may be an impossibility for any humanly-operated institution and is probably just too much to hope for. Yet I see (in my perhaps limited vision) a sangha that is unnecessarily imperfect, and needs a good dosage of reform performed with the motivation for, and express purpose of, attaining the ideal of perfect – or at least near-perfect – balance, between fundamentalism and mythicism.