How I joined a cult. Part 6: Science!

18 Jan

Continued from Part 5 1

Note the child. Many kids appreciate the benefits and take well to meditation.

The ’80s BBC 1 series QED – that which was to be proved – popularised scientific principles by applying them in various arenas. One week it looked at fire-walking. With poets and professors, bakers and bankers’ nieces parting with goodly sums for a course of chanting, meditation and other preparatory rituals before baring their soles to a pit of red hot embers, it joined them in a quest to find out WTF was going on.

The QED team did the thermal sums – ember heat, number of strides, duration of foot-ember contact and intervals between the same – to conclude that this feat was explicable by known laws of physics. Putting money where mouth lay, the presenter skipped the rites but did the fire-walk anyway. He then gave his account of why he’d been able to do so. A crucial variable being length of pit, he dared the course leader to walk one half as long again. (The pit being narrow and shallow, allowing exit at any point, the challenge crossed no lines of experimental ethics.)

The man took up the gauntlet and the pit was extended but at the last minute he cried off, citing non-alignment of inner forces. I recall no talk of charlatanism. Simply that both Occam’s Razor – the crisp simplicities of calorimetry versus the arcanity of spiritual hocus pocus – and Upton Sinclair’s insight – it’s hard to get a man to see a truth his salary depends upon him not seeing – had for the zillionth time been borne out.2

QED willingness to put its own conclusions to the test was science in action. Scientific theories are ‘courageous’. (Literally so in this case, the presenter confessing understandable trepidation on first lowering naked foot to raked ember.) They generate hypotheses which can in principle be disproved.

Falsifiability, a key principle in assessing knowledge, is closely tied to predictive power. If I say a certain soccer team lost last week because its manager offended the gods with his profanity of thought, you may doubt me but won’t easily prove me wrong. But if I insist it will win 3-2 next week after conceding 14 corners and 23 throw-ins, and offer generous odds on that outcome, you’ll sit up and take notice. Should what I foretold fail to materialise, well, then you’ll collect handsomely and mark me down as a useful idiot.

And should it come to pass? Maybe you won’t buy my theory that it’s all down to the manager cleaning up his mental act – in fact you may report me to the police as a person of interest in their inquiries into match fixing. You’ll allow though that what I said could in principle have been falsified but in practice was not. While my hypothesis having held up would not prove my theory correct, had it not held up that theory would have died on the spot.3

(No theory ever gets to be proved correct. The best we can say of any – Newton’s, Einstein’s or Schrödinger’s kitticidals – is that it has not yet been proved incorrect.)

All manner of narratives: physics, voodoo, the Book of Genesis, astrology – shit, even Chicago School economics! – can explain past events. But only one of those narratives says, ‘under this precise configuration of circumstances, this outcome will occur.’ 4


Andrew Cohen has a rare ability to plunge mass gatherings into ‘non dual awareness’ or – less tendentiously – states which present to the external eye (at once objective yet superficial) as trancelike. Maybe method has something to do with it; maybe not. What I will say, pursuant to Part 5, is that our seemingly rational but invariably, when we dig a little deeper, superstitious world-views lead many of us to dismiss explanations which fall outside our Cartesian zones of acceptability.

(And a few of us to embrace them with such unseemly zeal as to place our objectivity and ability to reason, if not our actual sanity, in doubt.)

A common explanation of what men and women like Andrew Cohen pull off is mass hypnosis. I don’t buy this, but that’s not the point. Neither popular offerings of that explanation, nor those of seemingly greater authority, have publicly done as QED did and put their ideas to the test by replicating those reported states, in groups of volunteer subjects, using known techniques.

I don’t say they daren’t. Just that, if they have, they’ve kept uncharacteristically quiet about it.

Other arguments can be made. On the one hand I can vouch that while Andrew’s presence was unusually conducive to the states reported in Part 4, it was by no means an essential condition. On the other, burden of proof shifts as improbability rises. If I say I didn’t turn up for a planned hike due to a tummy upset, and couldn’t call because of a lost phone, I don’t expect – unless I have form on such excuses – the pals I let down to demand proof. But what if I say my no-show was because a huge hungry crocodile attacked me on the canal towpath?

And, finally cowed by the blows rained down by my bloodied fists, made off with my phone?

To that burden of proof objection, a reasonable person might add that while the QED theory of fire-walking generated a falsifiable hypothesis simple to test, it would be harder to replicate the conditions – not the mesmeric skills but subjects’ reports of resultant inner states – for testing a hypothesis borne of mass hypnosis theory. S/he might further add that the expense could not be justified given the unimpressive record of ‘paranormal’ phenomena where rigorous scrutiny has been feasible.

That said, the ingenuity of social psychology experiments is well known. Would such an attempt be truly unfeasible? Think of the glories attendant on success! For the up and coming Ivy League iconoclast, being the one to nail once and for all the guru chimera would mean instant elevation as the new Stanley Milgram or Philip Zimbardo. Security of tenure, lucrative sponsorship deals and enhanced sexual allure would surely follow. Given the stakes, that failure of mass hypnosis devotees to put up or shut up carries weight with me.

As does the fact that, unlike Uri Geller, Andrew Cohen does not make claims that meet standard definitions of ‘paranormal’. But now I’m going round in circles like Bertie Wooster, first person narrator in Right-ho Jeeves. On seeing newt admirer Gussie Fink-Nottle dressed up, at Jeeves’s say-so, as a scarlet Mephistopheles to overcome the terrors of courting one Madeline Bassett, Bertie soon finds himself seeking an out from the ensuing exchanges:

Gussie: “And you can’t get away from it that, fundamentally, Jeeves’s idea is sound. In a striking costume like Mephistopheles, I might quite easily pull off something pretty impressive. Colour does make a difference. Look at newts. During the courting season the male newt is brilliantly coloured. It helps him a lot.”

Bertie: “But you aren’t a male newt.”

“I wish I were. Do you know how a male newt proposes, Bertie? He just stands in front of the female newt vibrating his tail and bending his body in a semi-circle. I could do that on my head. No, you wouldn’t find me grousing if I were a male newt.”

“But if you were a male newt, Madeline Bassett wouldn’t look at you. Not with the eye of love, I mean.”

“She would, if she were a female newt.”

“But she isn’t a female newt.”

“No, but suppose she was.”

“Well, if she was, you wouldn’t be in love with her.”

“Yes, I would, if I were a male newt.”

A slight throbbing about the temples told me that this discussion had reached saturation point.

I know the feeling. It’s time I parked the discussion of how Andrew Cohen got the results he did. While many of his critics think they know, all I have is a slight throbbing about the temples and a sense that I Don’t Know and likely never will.

Andrew spoke, on the enlightened versus egoic relationship to life, with an eloquence, force of logic, sparkling wit and pristine simplicity second to none. Eloquence and logic, simplicity and comic timing are things we can all get our heads around. Yet such rationally grounded answers, even if complete, carry their own mystery. Andrew’s mother, at the time his harshest critic, said in Mother of God – subtext: “he’s not the Messiah: he’s a very naughty boy!” – that something miraculous had taken place in India in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Now seeing her son hold his audiences spellbound – poets and professors, bakers and bankers’ nieces – she wrote that as boy and youth he’d been bumbling; painfully inarticulate. (Indeed, she’d taken him to some of New York City’s most reputable shrinks – she says with his tacit consent; he says different 5 – but to no avail.) Nothing had prepared her for the lightning-veined maestro he’d become.

Did Indian guru HWL Poonja accomplish what New York’s trick-cyclists could not? Did he open for his diligent pupil the full box of enlightenment goodies, just one of them a silver tongue?

Pass. My temples throb. I feel the need to turn to the less demanding subject of what Andrew Cohen said in the Swiss Alps in 1996 and, with significant additions, the later retreats of Nice, Massachusetts and Rishikesh. This will be the focus of Part 7.

* * *

  1. Part 4 promised “more on contemplation in Part 5”. In the event, Part 5 was devoted to a defence, apropos a conversation with a pal, of Part 4’s failure to convey the ‘feel’ of non dual experience; a failure to show rather than merely say. In similar vein, Part 2 referred to a cult “I’ll be speaking of in parts 3 and 4″.  I still haven’t got there. What I conceived as an inquiry of four or five parts now looks like running to ten at the very least. Final sentence of this post aside, I’ll hereafter refrain from laying such precisely located hostages to fortune.
  2. Since not only the course leader but paying attendees were strongly resistant to the QED explanation of fire-walking, Upton Sinclair’s was not the only maxim borne out that day. Another, arguably more relevant here, is that it’s easier to fool a man than to convince him he has in fact been fooled.
  3. I lie. My theory would not have ‘died on the spot’ had my 3-2 forecast proved wrong. That’s what makes my theory – relating managerial mental hygiene to soccer success – shoddy. Since not all the conditions are observable, I’d have taken refuge in circular claims that the manager had lapsed back into his old profane ways. Still, the point – scientific theories as ‘courageously’ generating falsifiable predictions – stands.
  4. In the natural sciences, “this outcome will occur” is usually taken to mean every time. In the human sciences, which must contend with intentionality, it suffices to say “this outcome will occur more often than can be attributed to random chance.”
  5. After leaving Andrew Cohen I learned that guru hostility to psychoanalysis goes with the terrain, a truth convincingly explained in The Guru Papers. I’m a psychoanalytic sceptic myself, having known individuals ‘in therapy’ for years, the only observable outcome being an even greater tendency to self absorption. But gurus have a more compelling objection. The very notion of an unconscious self is anathema to ideas of ‘enlightenment’ as a state where one no longer has any ‘shadow’.

5 Replies to “How I joined a cult. Part 6: Science!

  1. “kitticidals”?
    Interesting and fun, after all, there are more things in heaven and earth than can be explained and I usually require an explanation before I concede possibility and certainly any kind of probability, but I am not a total skeptic. I have occasionally seen and heard things which are definitely hard to explain. The human brain is capable of many incredible feats and unless you have Aspergers as Newton and Einstein are believed to have been afflicted by(and considering what they achieved I wouldn’t have minded if a little of Aspergers had afflicted me)most of our potential is never attained.
    I saw a simple test on a Chimpanzee’s abilities and it was astounding which left me wondering if we humans have actually devolved from the Chimps state of grace and savvy over thousands of years rather than elevating our brain’s capacity. It would certainly explain the thinking vast swathes of mankind(or lack thereof)have displayed in my lifetime alone.
    I’m probably a bit of an oddball, but it is my belief that much of what is attributed to paranormal activity, which humans have claimed to have witnessed and recorded, is in fact just as possibly, human subconscious activity so far successfully unmeasured.
    I have no direct proof of my suspicions, merely incidents that I could not accept glibly as paranormal when I believed something else had occurred.
    Stay safe:)

    • She lay down by the sewer
      And by the sewer she died
      Now at the coroner’s inquest
      They called it sewer side.

      Al Bernard – It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’

  2. If someone thinks”there are more things in heaven and earth than can be explained” why would they require an an explanation before they concede possibility?

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