Why the World Around You Isn’t as It Appears

4 out of 5 stars
Why the World Around You Isn’t as It Appears: A Study of Owen Barfield
Albert Linderman (Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2012).

Why the World Around You Isn't as It Appears: A Study of Owen BarfieldAlthough it is not explicitly about the paranormal, this book uses Reason to argue against what has become the consensus view of Rationality. As such, I think it is philosophically relevant to many of the issues that crop up repeatedly in the polarised arguments between ‘sceptics’ and ‘experiencers’.

The opening chapters describe what the author calls ‘The Belief’ — the dominant view of reality that has developed since the Enlightenment and the birth of scientific method. All sorts of wonderful things have improved the quality of human life since then, but there have also been costs — social, environmental — and it is now looking as if the materialist or dualist views upon which our dominant ideology is based are starting to produce more problems than they may be able to solve.

Enter Owen Barfield, and his key concept that human consciousness — like the human organism — is subject to evolution. Linderman builds on Barfield’s ideas to argue that just as the notion of an individual self was an aspect of human consciousness that developed only relatively recently, so there are levels of awareness beyond the self, and it is the development of these additional faculties that are necessary to correct the damage done by The Belief. If this sounds woolly, consider the simple point that scientific method alone produces little without imagination.

The nature of thinking is presented as the key. Whereas The Belief encourages us to believe that thoughts are bio-chemical reactions sealed-off from the rest of the universe, developments in physics and the social sciences have made it increasingly clear that to think something is — in a pertinent sense — to bring that something into being. When we explore experientially the nature of thinking, we are also observing how we participate in and through nature as human beings. We are neither ‘cut off’ from nature, nor are we helpless puppets entirely subject to chemical reactions. ‘With our thoughts we make the world,’ as the Buddha supposedly said.

It’s not quite as simple as I’ve made it sound here, of course. There are lots of great arguments in this book to give adherents to The Belief something to think about. Many like to claim that they are being rational, but perhaps we should all stop to wonder whether Reason itself isn’t by definition a supernatural entity? I mean, it’s a bit rich for a materialist to lean on something so damned — erm… — ideal, isn’t it? Perhaps this is the reason why we never see sceptics or materialists taking the trouble to define Reason — because they know they’ll end up having to base any definition on something other than Reason, something that will most likely expose Reason’s basis in the irrational.

Reading Linderman on Barfield, it strikes me that Barfield might be one of those figures you stumble across occasionally, who are relatively obscure and yet have been hugely influential. Barfield was a follower of Rudolf Steiner, yet his way of expressing himself seems to have been wholly more accessible than Steiner’s often ‘way out’ writings. If Barfield was truly the first to express some of the ideas in this book, then all of us today who like to bang on about ‘non-duality’ and ‘higher states of consciousness’ may be indebted to him more than we realise. I shall definitely be seeking out some of his books to see if this is truly the case.

A local outbreak of unscientific scepticism

‘Paranormal phenomena do not exist,’ declares Professor Richard Wiseman on the web-page advertising his appearance at this year’s Brighton Science Festival.

He didn’t rise to my tweeted rejoinder, ‘Wouldn’t “there is no evidence” be better?’ So I emailed the festival organisers:

Dear Brighton Science Festival —

I’m concerned by the remark on your website, ‘paranormal phenomena do not exist’.
I don’t see anything wrong, of course, with arguing there is no evidence for the paranormal, or producing evidence for alternative explanations, but to suggest that a negative has somehow been proved seems to me an inappropriate assertion for an event purporting to demonstrate scientific reasoning.

Do you agree that it might be better if the wording on that page were changed?

With best wishes –

I received a response two hours later:

Dear Brighton Paranormal —

Scientists are intellectually prepared for anything, but to live one’s life in a tentative, provisional way isn’t possible, so we use the best theory that fits the facts as we find them. There is no evidence for the paranormal. There are plenty of reasons why people might believe in it, in spite of the evidence, but they haven’t looked at the evidence. That’s my view, but pop along to see Richard [Wiseman] and raise your doubts. He might be more uncertain than he makes out.

So they weren’t keen to change the wording, even though their reply included the very sentence I had suggested!

Dear Brighton Science Festival

Thanks for your thoughtful response!

I would pop along to Prof. Wiseman’s talk, but the present wording — sadly — doesn’t fill me with confidence that it isn’t based on assumptions.

Sure, it’s not possible to be tentative and provisional towards everything in life, but I think we can afford this where the allegedly paranormal is concerned. (Remaining uncertain about the existence of ‘ghosts’ doesn’t get in the way of daily living, I’ve found.) The paranormal is a wide and notoriously amorphous field, but to dismiss the lot in one sentence seems to reflect a lack of understanding. It is also a disservice to the scientists who have presented evidence contrary to Prof. Wiseman’s views. (Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake, for instance.)

The paranormal is a great field for demonstrating how scientific reasoning works, but I cannot see how the simplistic assertion that ‘paranormal phenomena do not exist’ will encourage anyone to question assumptions.

Yours ever doubtfully, but with best wishes –

Disappointingly there was no further correspondence. For now, the Brighton Science Festival seems content to allow this confusion between scientific proof and sceptical doubt.

No one has proved that paranormal phenomena exist, but in the absence of proof that they do it may prove incorrect to pronounce for certain that they don’t. Assuming certainty where there is none is a breeding-ground for ignorance.

There is nothing wrong with remaining open to evidence, or even taking the view that paranormal phenomena probably don’t exist, but this should be recognised for what it is – a hypothesis, rather than a fact.