The Aquarian Conspiracy/The New Age/Otherworld Journeys/Channeling-+-

The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in Our Time, by Marilyn Ferguson; Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1987 edition; paperback, 460 pages.

The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher, by Martin Gardner; Prometheus Books, Buffalo, N.Y.; hardcover, 273 pages.

Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times, by Carol Zaleski; Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford; hardcover, 275 pages.

Channeling: Investigations on Receiving Information from Paranormal Sources, by Jon Klimo; Jeremy P. Tarcher, Los Angeles; paper back, 384 pages.

One of the "new age classics"-Marilyn Ferguson's The Aquarian Conspiracy- has recently been reissued in a new edition with a new foreword by John Naisbitt and a new afterword by the author. It remains probably the most comprehensive introduction to the ideas, images, and metaphors of the new age.

Ferguson believes there are signs all about us of a cultural renaissance, which in her after- word she presents in the form of "breaking stories of the 1980s and 1990s." One of these stories has to do with cultural self-awareness and the discovery that simply knowing that something is wrong is the start toward making things right. Another is the growing awareness of "the reality of the whole," that everything is interrelated.

Other aspects of Ferguson's description are the discovery that chaos is an inevitable part of change; the rise of a Pacific culture, perhaps pointing a way toward a global culture; the increasing interest in metaphysical/spiritual news; the rediscovery of body/mind connections; the rediscovery of myth and metaphor as reshapers of social purpose; and the discovery that there are a wealth of solutions to social problems.

Ferguson offers a decidedly optimistic approach to our experience of crisis in our times, and this is a characteristic of much of what gets included in the "new age." It also is probably the weak point of the whole movement (if movement this is). New age critics cite this unbridled optimism and naiveté as a central problem with new age ideas.

Ferguson became the focus of the anti-"new age" crowd when her book first came out in 1980, in large part because of that scarifying title, unsettling to the conspiracy-fearing.

In his The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher, science writer Martin Gardner has collected together a generous selection of his columns from Skeptical Inquirer and other magazines.

Gardner is a leading debunker of a wide range of purveyors of what he calls pseudo-science, including Rupert Sheldrake, Shirley Machine, L. Ron Hubbard, the psychic surgeons of the Philippines, and of course the "trance-channelers," Ramtha, nee J. Z. Knight, in particular. "Prime-time preachers" also take it on the chin from Gardner.

Gardner is a lot of fun to read, and one often finds oneself agreeing with him. But like political cartoonists he is unfair, even vicious. One should not expect anything like a dispassionate scientist when reading Gardner. But devastating critique one can expect. Of course we love it when Gardner's sarcasm is directed at someone we do not respect, and hate it when it is directed against someone we do respect.

Gardner is much taken by the idea that magicians make the best debunkers of pseudo-science. I find this a bit puzzling, because it is difficult to imagine how a magician's ability to create an illusion constitutes proof that another person has created an illusion. That doesn't sound scientific to me.

Psychism of course has in no way been proved scientifically, though one might well question why scientific proof ought to be the measure. Extraordinary abilities of human beings don't lend themselves to laboratory method, first because they are human and therefore anomalous, second because laboratory method inevitably changes the activity or event to be measured because it is created by anomalous humans.

Nevertheless, those of us who are intrigued by "the new science" of folks like David Bohm and Rupert Sheldrake ought to welcome the presence of tough skeptics like Gardner, to help us keep a balance between what we might hope would be the case but should also consider might not be so.

Carol Zaleski's Otherworld Journeys is not strictly speaking about the new age, though it does deal with accounts of near-death experiences which certainly are related to "new age" interests. Indeed Zaleski mentions Gardner and the other skeptics of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claim of the Paranormal (CSICOP) for their debunking of observations that shed light on the conditions of near-death experience.

The most extreme example of this reductionism can be found in the writings of astronomer and champion skeptic Carl Sagan. . . Sagan makes short shrift of the entire history of religious conceptions of death and rebirth, paradise and the fall, penance and baptism, deities and demigods. This vast range of experience and lore might derive, Sagan suggests, from shadowy memories of the four perinatal estates of man: our Edenic intrauterine bliss, its disruption by seismic contractions, our delivery from darkness into light, and our postnatal swaddling.

Sagan, Gardner, Isaac Asimov and others of CSICOP, in their attack on "the vast Castle of Pseudoscience," have the effect, Zaleski says, of polarizing the opposition: "...fringe causes tend to cluster together, and their champions begin to speak a common language, even when they have little in common beyond the fact of being labeled fringe."

Zaleski's excellent book presents a thorough survey of accounts of near-death experience, from medieval times to the present day accounts such as Raymond Moody's Life After Life. In her evaluation of near-death testimony, she suggests "a middle path between reductionism and naiveté."

Religious experiences, she says, are invariably social and invariably individual. "Religious traditions reflect and promote social order and, in many cultures, tend to value the group over the individual." Yet "Religious experience is invariably individual" and "human beings are essentially alone in the experience of death and in the encounter with transcendent values."

The narrative integrity of near-death visions derives not merely from the fact that a story is told but, mote importantly, from the fact that the story bas an aim. What seems at first glance to be a visionary travelogue describing for the curious the sights of an exotic supernatural realm turns out to be the story of a conversion experience; and, as we have seen, its main purpose is to communicate to others the new insights gained by the convert.

Finally, Zaleski notes,

Whatever the study of near-death visions might reveal about the experience of death, it reaches us just as much about ourselves as image-making and image-bound beings. To admit this is no concession to the debunkers; on the contrary, by recognizing the imaginative character of otherworld visions, we move beyond the merely defensive posture of arguing against reductionism.

A fourth book relevant to "the new age" is Jon Klimo's Channeling: Investigations on Receiving Information from Paranormal Sources.

Klimo attempts to provide a thorough study of the channeling phenomenon. He de- scribes the various channelers, such as Jane Roberts (Seth), J. Z. Knight (Ramtha), Jach Pursel (Lazaris) and a number of others, and analyzes channeling both as a modem phenomenon and a historical phenomenon.

He discusses the content of "channeled" information, the purported sources, the channels themselves, and then offers a variety of possible explanations, including psychological and biological. Finally Klimo leaves it up to the reader to make the judgments, but he is fundamentally a sympathetic analyst, saying everything lies just ahead of us. Such a theory would have to include not only an integration of the various forces of Nature known to physicists but an integration of those forces with the dimensions of mind, heart, and spirit as well.

He also challenges "the double standard which holds that the beliefs and practices of organized religion are acceptable, while belief systems and practices outside organized religion-such as channeling with its claim to communication from nonphysical and spiritual realms-are not." It is striking that the mainline religious traditions all have their examples of "channeling," even though they haven't called it that. Indeed he notes that channeling phenomena are found in the roots of all the world's great religions.

Klimo examines a variety of "possible explanations" for the channeling phenomenon -psychological, biological, and physical. Brain/mind research is in truth at a rather primitive stage, and we really know very little about how the brain/mind works. Indeed, science (not unlike poetry) deals in metaphors, and Klimo offers what he calls "a concluding metaphor" at the end of his chapters on psychology and biology/physics as his own way of understanding channeling. It is, he says, a metaphor that "can be entertained by the atheistic materialist and the devoutly spiritual person alike."

In the first stage of the metaphor, each of us is an individuation out of the one universal physical energy ground of Being (physicalizing the mental), or out of the one Universal Mind or spirit (mentalizing the physical) depending on your perspective. Or, in a third, dualist, view, the entire physical energy universe is like one universal Brain/Body, and the consciousness that exists dependent on and in interaction with it is the one Universal Mind. Yet in any of these three accounts, each of us is an episode of individuation temporarily welled up into local, seemingly separate being. And we each appear to be surrounded by a semi permeable membrane that marks us off from the stuff that seems to be not us (including one another). These membranes may be molecule of skin, electromagnetic force fields, ego boundaries, or any other material or immaterial stuff derived from the same basal substance that one sees as being subdivided by such membranes in the first place.

This seeming separateness is not ultimately true, Klimo says, because the larger unity is what is true. That unity of every "thing" is Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Oversoul." It is the Gaia hypothesis (see Walter Schaer's article in this issue). It is the holographic model of the universe (see Renee Weber in this issue). It is what has often been referred to as "the interdependent web of all existence." As a "possible metaphor," Klimo's proposition points in the direction of the "Grand Unified Theory" that scientists seek.

It seems likely that claims of channelers are often (but not always) fraudulent, or at least self-deluded. And certainly much of so-called channeled information is pretty mediocre stuff. Still there are so many things we do not begin to understand about the human potential that foolishness can be found in abundance both among the "true believers" of "the new age" and among the proof-demanding scientists.

What is one to do? Observe life. Observe oneself. Observe oneself in interaction with others. Read widely. Think. And be willing to change one's mind.

-William Metzger

Winter 1988