Genesis as History

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I watched a movie last night expressing what I guess are current views of Creationism, some of which I can buy, some of which I can’t.Of course Creationism sees the Bible as being accurate historically. I don’t entirely disagree, but think there are contradictions.

The movie began with a rationale for believing in the Great Flood, something I tend to agree about. The geologist appearing in the movie calls the Grand Canyon convincing evidence for the Flood, seeing the geologic layers revealed in it as having been laid down suddenly and catastrophically, rather than gradually over millions of years, as mainstream science contends. I think that’s possible, whether it was a local flood or worldwide. There’s a less known site in this country, in eastern Oregon, which some scientists believe was similarly eroded by huge volumes of water moving very fast. They think that one was caused by an asteroid striking the ice pack then covering most of what is now Canada, vaporizing or melting large amounts of ice, and also releasing water from a large lake, just as the geologist believes about the Grand Canyon.

The viewpoint the movie cleverly takes is that of catastrophism, which was anathema in mainstream science for quite awhile.

There’s other possible evidence for a Great Flood too: that the Great Salt Lake in Utah and the Caspian Sea in Asia are saltier than they ought to be for their apparent ages. There are also two salt lakes in the Middle East at high altitudes, Lakes Van and Urmia. Lake Titicaca in South America is also at high altitude and is a salt lake, but it seems to have once been a seaport that got lifted up when the Andes mountains were formed.

So far I can agree with much of what the movie says. But part of its quarrel with the conventional dating of the Grand Canyon is, according to the geologist, that the various dating methods for ancient stone and fossils do not agree. That’s certainly a problem, but not enough of one to justify the belief that the world is only 6,000 or so years old. That figure has been a dogma among certain Christians since the 18th century, which makes it questionable in itself.

One of the examples used to justify that figure is a site in which there are fossils in many layers, and the geologist says that each layer shows its own ecosystem. He attributes this to the Great Flood washing over the world more than once. Were this true, it seems to me the fossils would be jumbled up together, as sites reported by other sources state.

The Creationists seem to be on firmer ground questioning natural selection as the evolutionary mechanism. Not that it doesn’t work in producing variations within species, but the idea that all life on earth has a common ancestor is hard to believe. For this to happen, one would have to expect new species being produced from other species. There are variants of many species (cats and dogs are two examples), but those are different breeds, not different species. We haven’t seen new species being created since human beings began to write about 5,000 years ago.

For another thing, it would take a very long time for life to begin from bacteria and differentiate into vegetables, marine life, amphibians, and mammals. Creationists have a point when they question if enough time could have passed. There’s a point in the fossil record (I think after the dinosaurs went extinct) that an explosion of new species occurred. How did that happen? If the asteroid strike which made the dinosaurs extinct was that destructive it’s hard to see how much of any kind of life could have survived, especially many species with no obvious ancestors.

But part of the reason for the question about time scales involved seems to be the Creationist desire to prove Genesis literal. Thus they talk about the process of creation described in Genesis as only taking literally six days. Why is that so important?

One question the movie didn’t address was that of Cain: if his parents were the first humans, as we who read the English translation of the Bible are supposed to believe, how did Cain, after leaving his family, find someone to marry? Let alone found a city? The sensible solution to this is that in the original Hebrew the Adam and the Eve were treated as generic human beings instead of individuals. The story of the Fall would refer to individuals at a later time.

But the movie sees dinosaurs as being part of the punishment of humans for the Flood, and representing the corruption and violence of the world after the Fall of Man. Then it has the dinosaurs dying in the flood, which must have taken place (according the their version of the age of the earth) not much more than 4500 years ago, or about 2500 BC. Again, the questioning of timelines by the movie’s makers doesn’t really provide evidence to suggest that the earth isn’t much older than that. It does suggest that tests to determine the ages of rocks, artifacts, fossils, etc, don’t agree with each other, which does call science’s view into question, but doesn’t give positive evidence.

Another question the movie doesn’t address is one that started people thinking about evolution in the first place: how did life survive the Great Flood in the Americas (where are there are flood legends, just as in Asia) when the animals couldn’t have possibly been taken to or picked up by Noah’s ark? And the thing that really began to make scientists think was the variation in animals and plants around the world. The New World had examples of both that the Old World didn’t, and species in isolated places (like solitary islands) developed in unique ways. The New World also DIDN’T have species found in the Old World, like horses and elephants, fossils of which were found later. But different species and variants within species were an example of evolution at work in isolation from other parts of the world, though not an example of new species being derived from old. It also doesn’t explain the evolution of humans from apes, though we do seem to be closely related to them.

I don’t object to Creationists questioning the findings of science if they do so in a rational way. Scientists can be biased and make mistakes too. What I DO object to is trying to rationalize taking the book of Genesis literally, as well as other Christian dogma, unless there’s very strong evidence for it.

Vampires

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A program shown on PBS tells of corpses found in Anglo-Saxon villages in England of about a thousand years ago which had been mutilated. Not many of them, but a few, had had their heads removed after death, and placed between their legs. Why? Apparently because they were suspected of vampirism.

The idea of vampires is a pretty old one, and seems to have been common to much of Europe. It died out in England, but not in other places, especially in eastern Europe. The documentary speaks to a peasant in Rumania who had helped unearth a recent corpse which had red around its mouth and a swollen belly, which he and the others had taken as evidence that the person was a vampire. They had opened the grave because a young woman said her uncle, who had recently died, had visited her and sucked her blood. The peasant said he had removed the corpse’s heart and burned it at the village crossroads, after which the young woman got better.

The idea of vampires is identified with Rumania, partly because of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, which is partly set in Transylvania; and partly because a fifteenth century monarch of Rumania, Vlad Tepes, was called Dracula, and is thought to have been a (or the) model for the literary character. Vlad Tepes was certainly not a pleasant man, having been notable for impaling people he didn’t like. That is, seating them on a wooden stake, pushing it up through their rectums into their bodies, then letting gravity slowly kill them. Probably rulers in that time, and maybe particularly in that place, had to be severe in order to survive, but Tepes seems to have been extreme even there and then.

The documentary says that Stoker based his novel on actual folk beliefs about vampires (it was unclear to me whether he added some powers to his character that weren’t part of common beliefs or not), but changed the image of the vampire from a problem found in rural Europe to a well-dressed cosmopolitan aristocrat. That’s the image that got popularized in plays and movies over the last hundred years. The question is, was there ever anything to the vampire myth, or was it simply misunderstanding?

Scientists and historians interviewed in the documentary argue that the idea of the vampire came from ignorance. Red around a corpse’s mouth and a swollen belly are the work of bacteria after death. The interviewees believe that the concept of vampires was used to explain illnesses the peasants were vulnerable to.

One historian notes that in the country away from the fireside the world is absolutely dark at night, except for a candle or torch that could be carried. It would be different in larger towns and cities, but villagers had to fear warriors sneaking up on them as well as storms and illnesses.

Some of the illnesses were pretty fearsome too, like leprosy, tuberculosis, and bubonic plague. We have to remember that nobody at that time had much idea where disease came from, and peasants would be more ignorant than most. If people began having horrible symptoms and dying, there was almost nothing anyone could do. How could they defend themselves against something they utterly failed to understand? In that situation, blaming illness on the dead was as reasonable as anything else. As one historian points out, the suspects usually were people most hadn’t liked when they were alive. The idea seems to have been common in much of the world, too. People living in the Himalayas seem occasionally to have been concerned about vampires as well. In Bulgaria and Italy too.

The hypothesis seems pretty plausible, but I wonder if there may anyway have been something to the old view. Vampires seem to resonate with a lot of people. Whether or not they literally drank blood, it doesn’t seem too strange to think of people who might drain in some manner people of vital energies, perhaps by doing something as simple as constantly demanding attention.

While vampirism as explanation for illness is probable enough, the documentarians didn’t look into the illness of the young woman in Rumania. Was it bacterial or viral? Or psychosomatic? Knowing that would go some distance toward deciding if the traditional idea of vampirism is totally invalid. It may seem totally stupid, but some of our ancient ancestors knew things we no longer know, as shown by some of the monuments we have no idea how to build. It’s not impossible that they knew more than we do in cases like this too.

 

Robert Anton Wilson’s Journey to Expanded Consciousness

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Robert Anton Wilson is a philosopher of sorts whose acquaintance I first made some forty years ago with the Illuminatus trilogy. Recently rereading it for the first time in decades, I found it wasn’t as compelling as back then, so I went on to his memoir, Cosmic Trigger, which was.

In that book he tells how he grew up in an Irish Roman Catholic home, jettisoning his Catholicism when it conflicted with his sex drive, and reached adulthood interested in lots of things. For one thing, he tried joining a lot of different groups (Ayn Rand and Trotskyite groups, for instance) which made him realize that there were a lot of different ways to see the world, and that different groups have different things they accept and reject. This means that virtually no one sees the world as it actually is: there’s always something being rejected or ignored which provides a different perspective on things. Wilson called these tunnel realities.

And humans tend to dislike different perspectives. Christianity in particular has dictated what people must and must not believe. A lot of people and organizations have imitated them. We’ve become very aware that people give us propaganda instead of truth, and resent it, even if we’re not good at telling the difference.

Wilson got caught up in the psychedelic experience of the early sixties before it became well-publicized. He took peyote first, then LSD when it became available. On one of his peyote trips he observed a green-skinned humanoid figure dancing. This was before Carlos Casteneda began publishing his books, when the green-skinned figure would become known as Mescalito, the spirit of the peyote. As the sixties progressed he met Timothy Leary to interview him, and they realized they had a lot of interests in common. Leary suggested he investigate Aleister Crowley, and Wilson did so, with increasing interest.

Crowley practiced magick (the spelling to distinguish it from Harry Houdini sleight of hand), and found it a rich source of unusual perspectives. Wilson had heard Crowley was a junkie, but also that he had climbed higher on Chogo Ri (a mountain in the Himalayas) than anyone else, which seemed unusual for a junkie. He began reading Crowley’s books, many of which suggest exercises to expand consciousness. Wilson began practicing a number of these, sometimes in conjunction with LSD or other psychedelics, sometimes without.

One such was to go a week without using the word “I” and punishing himself (Wilson bit his finger) whenever he slipped and said it. He found his state of mind changed pretty dramatically, and began to see his ego as an inconvenience.

Another practice was to invoke various gods or goddesses of the pagan past. He would decorate with colors and symbols associated with each, pray to them, and recite various invocations that Crowley had written. He found that these practices began changing his worldview too. Once he began getting results, he would start invoking a different god or goddess.

Wilson had also met William S. Burroughs (author of Naked Lunch most famously), who told him about strangeness associated with the number 23. Burroughs had discovered it when talking to an ferry boat sailor named Captain Clark, who told him he had sailed the ferry 23 years without an accident. That day Burroughs heard that Clark’s ferry had sunk, killing all aboard. Then he heard about an airplane crash, piloted by another Captain Clark. It was flight number 23. Wilson began looking for 23s, and began finding them synchronistically. Synchronicity is a pattern which doesn’t seem to have a cause, but appears too meaningful to be merely coincidence. The more Wilson looked for 23s, the more he found, and the more meaningful they were. He records numerous examples, one being that sperm and egg each contribute 23 chromosomes to what becomes a human fetus. There are many more.

He was also interested in UFOs, and their significance. Such incidents are often witnessed by lots of people, though not all agree on what they see. The incidents seem to contradict the laws of nature, and it’s uncertain what their cause is. They’re similar to reported incidents prior to the twentieth century which people used to attribute to encounters with angels, or with fairies. They can be pretty bizarre. My favorite was reported by a man living in Wisconsin, who said a UFO landed in his yard, an alien got out and handed him some pancakes. That seems a nice thing to do, but what was the significance? The pancakes, incidentally, turned out to be ordinary pancakes when analyzed. Wilson thinks such an incident (and many others) indicate that when we’re confronted with something completely unfamiliar, like a technology well in advance of our own, our consciousness tries to change it into familiar terms, however senseless (or hilarious) those terms turn out to be.

Besides the magickal practices and psychedelic drugs,  Wilson had been reading as many of Crowley’s books as he could obtain, and found that Crowley had been practicing Tantra, or sexual magick, which consisted of various ways to postpone orgasm which would make it extremely powerful and psychedelic. In the early 1970s in the midst of these practices Wilson began to believe he was receiving messages from the area of the star Sirius.

Sirius is the brightest star in our sky, and has a very interesting history. When he began to research it, Wilson found that the Dogon tribe in Africa had told people (Including Robert Temple, who wrote a book about it) a lot of information about Sirius no one would have expected them to know, including that it was a double star, and that the second star (invisible until the twentieth century to astronomers until they had telescopes powerful enough to see) was much smaller than the primary, which is the one easily visible. Sirius, known as the Dog Star, contributes heat to the “dog days” of summer, and would contribute much more if the universe weren’t expanding, and Sirius receding from us. When asked how they had found out these things, the Dogon said aliens from Sirius had told them.

When Robert Temple researched further he began to believe there had been contact with aliens in the Middle East about 4500 years ago, and that knowledge of this had traveled across Africa to the Dogon. If such a thing happened, and if his timeline was correct is difficult to say. Egypt already had a great deal of interest in Sirius well before 2500 BC. They identified it with the goddess Isis, and in building the Great Pyramid, constructed a shaft to the south through which they could observe the star. When Wilson looked into this further he found that a LOT of people claimed to have received messages from Sirius, including Crowley.

George Gurdjieff seems to have known about this too. When writing his most important book he realized that he had made some passages more plain than he intended, and said he needed to bury the dog deeper. When asked if he didn’t mean the bone, he said, No, the dog, and that the dog was Sirius. Sirius is also said to be the star portrayed on the card by that name in the Tarot deck. Some say the Tarot was put together by Sufis, and Sufis provided at least some of Gurdjieff’s education in the occult.

By the time all this was happening, Wilson had quit his job at Playboy, and was trying to earn his living by writing. He was having some difficulty. He and Robert Shea, who had also worked at Playboy, had written the Illuminatus trilogy, satirizing many conspiracy theories they came across while working at Playboy. The Illuminati were composed of people from the Freemasons who had achieved higher consciousness, but their organization located in Bavaria was outlawed in the 18th century. Some saw them as heroes, many saw them as villains, and the more the two authors researched the group the more probable it seemed that they had a long ancestry which may have extended back to ancient Egypt or even further. Learning about them fit well with Wilson’s desire to expand his own consciousness.

He and Shea had finished writing the novel, but were having trouble getting it published, so Wilson was poor. He and his family were living in San Francisco with poor people, since they couldn’t afford a great place to live. He was doing a Sufi exercise to open his heart, and was often horrified at things he saw poor people have to go through.

Such things touched his own family too. His youngest daughter, who was aware of his occult interests, and shared them, got beaten up by a gang of black kids, but understood that if she held a grudge against them, it would only continue the negative energy–so she forgave them, and never showed any fear or dislike of anyone black. Wilson was amazed that a girl in her early teens could be so wise.

By this time Timothy Leary had been busted for possession of pot and imprisoned. He managed to escape and spent some time overseas before being kidnapped in Afghanistan and brought back to the USA. Just why the authorities were so hysterical about the threat his advocacy of LSD posed may be clearer when one realizes that his interest in the drug was because of its ability to change what he called “imprints”, impressions that cause the mind to see things in certain ways. Governments prefer that people see things in ways they prescribe. Anything that allows them to see independently is threatening. Leary had incautiously advertised his intentions, trying (as Wilson sees it) to reserve the use of LSD to competent professionals who could use it as a tool to safely help people. That he publicized it so effectively helped to spread its use, and many used it less than safely. Of course the main effect of government prohibition was to drive LSD into the black market and prevent scientists from studying it. But before LSD became illegal Leary had used it in a project with prisoners that was very successful in preventing recidivism. With less public hysteria, and with good training, mental health could have been greatly improved.

When Leary was released from prison he no longer wanted to talk about drugs, but about immortality and space travel. He had theorized a model of various higher “circuits” that LSD, other drugs, and various practices can induce to begin operating in human beings. Four of these he said were the ones we use in our ordinary life on earth. There are, he said, four others which are rarely experienced, and which are for use in outer space. He wanted to become immortal and journey in a starship which need not go faster than light if its passengers were immortal. He expected science to discover a method (or methods) to attain immortality quickly (this was in the mid-1970s). This was where I began to part company with the ideas in the book.

For one thing, immortality would cause immense problems if people in general stopped dying. Nature, as experienced on this planet, is organized around death: each generation has to make way for the next. All living organisms reproduce, therefore all must die. Their deaths help provide, through decomposition, the food that will nourish all the organisms that support life on the whole planet, which is already overpopulated with humans. An order of magnitude more would even more rapidly deplete the natural resources which could provide for them. And not enough space ships could be built–at least until we can easily mine the asteroids or moon– to take more than a small percentage to other star systems. There’s also a possibility that the bulk of the human race has responsibilities here.

Leary and Wilson seem to have been confident that human science would rather quickly find a way to stop death and keep humans healthy and happy for hundreds, thousands, even billions of years. That was forty years ago. Why haven’t we heard anything about it since?

One reason is that immortality is something the powerful wouldn’t want ordinary people to have. If a method of immortality was discovered, powerful people would want to keep it for themselves. If such a thing has been discovered, I suggest that is exactly what has happened. Immortality would be a powerful tool to obtain even more power.

That section of the book seems almost insanely optimistic, reminding me of something Wilson says he learned about Crowley from someone who knew him well. Crowley, his acquaintance said, often believed that the illumination he had attained was shared by many of the people he met, causing him to trust wrong people. Israel Regardie, a biographer of Crowley, who has worked as his secretary in the 1920s stated that Crowley had unresolved issues which caused him to have blind spots. He was, in some respects, wiser than many, but he wasn’t perfectly wise. Regardie’s autobiography stops before 1914, by which time he had had and assimilated most of the visions which had so deepened his perceptions. He had written most of the works for which he is known, and had also lost all his money. He lived more than thirty more years, but Regardie didn’t find his later life inspiring.

Another example of the optimism Wilson shows is his view of the acceleration of knowledge. Human knowledge took a long time to increase in the past, especially knowledge shared with the largest part of humanity. With the beginning of science about 500 years ago, knowledge has been piling up at an ever increasing rate. Some were predicting forty years ago that by this time the human race would be entirely transformed, with many obstacles passed very quickly. This has obviously not happened. The human race remains stuck in sorrow and suffering.

But much of the book remains exciting, though I can’t agree with all of it. It’s a sort of detective novel in which the author tries to understand more and more of how the world operates, and goes further and deeper than usual understandings. That can be pretty thrilling.

Wilson ends the book by telling how his daughter was beaten to death by an unhappy man who couldn’t have understood what he was doing, and how he resisted allowing that to crush him. As terribly as he suffered from that, he found that many people loved him and his family, and wanted to help in any way they could. One psychologist made a point of visiting a couple of times a week to talk if anyone needed him. Wilson later called such kindness bewildering, and was grateful and amazed it should exist. I don’t know if one should see such a crushing death as some kind of punishment for Wilson or anyone else in his family, but if he had done wrong, he was certainly punished.

He ends the book by asking Timothy Leary what he did when he was overwhelmed by negativity. Leary replied, “Come back with all the positive energy you can.” This, said Wilson, was how he learned the final secret of the Illuminati.

 

Conservatives and the Environment

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Cal Thomas, a well-known columnist wrote about climate change in a recent column. He doesn’t believe the climate is changing, or that, if it were, human activities have anything to do with it. One reader of the local paper caught him lying about that.
He cited one source as saying the Earth hasn’t warmed in eighteen years. The source in fact said that the earth had been warming steadily in that time. The other two sources Thomas cited were run by like-minded conservatives, so we can probably assume they had no more interest in being impartial than he did. Conservatives dislike the whole idea, and like to dismiss it as a way liberals (and presumably a majority of scientists) have devised conspiratorially to dictate to everyone.
Why did Mr. Thomas get so emotionally involved as to lie? Why does anyone? We all have biases. But one reason might be that one’s complicity in an ongoing catastrophe may be hard to acknowledge, especially if your political faith is partly defined in denying it.
Whether or not you believe human activity is causing climate change (I’ve always thought it plausible), what should be apparent is that humans spread pollution all over the world, destroying many plant and animal species. Elephants, rhinos, and lions are merely some of the most visible.
It should also be clear that destroying plant life, especially deforestation, is detrimental to the ability of plants to change carbon dioxide into oxygen, which is more urgent when we pump tons of CO2 into the atmosphere yearly. That’s just one of the more obvious ways we destroy the environment we depend on for life ourselves. It’s an example of liberty become licence, in the name of profit.
Profiteering is one of the things conservatives accuse liberals of in connection to climate science. Is that really likely? Profits from clean energy are mostly potential at this point, while profits from the fossil fuel industry are well-established, so the profit motive is much more likely to be projection on the part of conservatives. It’s the fossil fuel industry that has for years been casting doubt on climate science. They want all our eggs in their basket, even though their basket is poisonous. Is propaganda to stop a new industry the way the free market is really supposed to work? Conservatives in this country are wedded to the idea of the free market, but it isn’t an unmixed blessing.
A good example of negative capitalism is illegal drug trafficking. This is capitalism without regulation, and we see how it operates. Torturing and killing are standard.
Are they capitalism unmasked? One would hate to think so, but there’s no doubt they are capitalists. They produce and deliver a product for which there’s a demand, and they’re ruthless in accomplishing that.
Is that essentially different from oil and coal companies hiring scientists to cast doubt on climate science? What they’re doing is a lot less overt than beheadings, kidnappings and murders, but is on a more massive scale, and arguably more damaging.
It’s interesting how bitter Thomas and other conservative commentators get on the subject of human activity causing climate change. They really want the whole world to agree with them, and may be bitter in part not just because of the disagreement, but because a sizable portion of the world considers them immoral.
They aren’t immoral just for their beliefs, nor are they they only ones who are immoral. Living in this country it’s very difficult not to be complicit in the massive pollution that interferes with the natural processes that keep all of us alive. Think of all the products we manufacture that don’t biodegrade. Probably millions of tons each year that leave piles of eternal trash littering the world. The one thing you can say in favor of this trash is that it’s convenient.
I contribute my share of trash too. When I give patients medications I use plastic med cups and plastic cups, and throw them away after one use. When I started working in a hospital almost fifty years ago it was somewhat different. A lot of the equipment was metal, and we sterilized it in an autoclave for repeated use. Now bedpans, urinals, and wash basins are all plastic. IV fluid containers used to be glass, now they’re plastic. IV tubing and oxygen tubing is all plastic. So are the lancets with which we stick the fingers of diabetics to check their blood sugars. Syringes are mostly plastic, and are only used once. The facility where I work generates a lot of plastic trash every day, and then you can multiply it by many other nursing homes in this area, two hospitals in the city where I live, and others nearby, plus doctor’s offices. That’s only one region, and includes only the medical industry. Consider how many other things are made largely of plastics, including computers, phones, CDs, DVDs, toys, etc. All these things are attractive, but are bad for the environment, since they don’t biodegrade. And I don’t see us trying to find alternatives to any of these things.
That means we still aren’t serious about the problem. My meditation teacher said that pollution would continue while people called each other names about it. The name-calling hasn’t stopped, and the pollution continues.
Our country can be great when we truly face our challenges. Right now most of us aren’t willing, and Cal Thomas lying about what our problems really are doesn’t help matters.

Wilhelm Reich Making a Life in America

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After Wilhelm Reich settled in America his view of psychiatric therapy became something more tangible than abstract analyses of dreams, resistance, etc. He saw health as the free flow of energy in the body, and unhealthiness as anything blocking that flow. This view is similar to that of Chinese medicine, and acupuncture in particular is supposed to facilitate energy flow. On superficial research, though, I don’t see anything as deep or as systematic in it as Reich’s view.
Reich saw chronic muscular spasms as blocking uncomfortable or unacceptable emotional energy, which would then remain trapped in the body, unable to be discharged, which would create sexual dysfunction to greater or lesser extent.
The greater the dysfunction, he thought, the more rigid the personality, and the more liable to cooperation with and submission to tyrannies. He saw people in general as being unable to accept freedom and responsibility, which made them easy to manipulate by master propagandists like Hitler. This is no less obvious today.
Myron Sharaf, his biographer, who had previously worked with him, says that he resented the system which made effective treatment available only to a small elite who could afford to pay for it. By this time he was less interested in therapy than in research, but had to continue treating patients to finance his research. He tried various educational initiatives, hoping that some other method would emerge that could treat people on a large scale, but was unable to find any.
His view of sexuality was threatening to many ordinary people, but especially to people in positions of power. The director of the hospital in which Dr. Elsworth Baker ( a student and associate of Reich’s) worked turned against him (though previously considering Baker a particularly fine psychotherapist) when he discovered Baker’s interest in Reich’s methods of treatment. Still, he managed to conduct some research in areas that he thought would help people.
One area of research was with children, instigated by the birth of his son, Peter. He loved to observe Peter’s behavior, and noted that his primary energetic area was his mouth: when it sucked on his mother’s nipple, and the nipple responded by becoming erect, he saw the excitement manifested by the nipple becoming a unit with the infant’s mouth. Obviously, from his perspective, this was a highly important source of contact for the infant in particular, but probably also for the mother.
He also saw the infant’s eyes as highly sensitive and charged. Infants, he said, preferred lively colors, and if able to watch their surroundings while riding in carriage or car, would do so avidly. They also liked eye-contact with their mothers, but if the mother’s eyes weren’t “alive” enough, this could cause a withdrawal.
His experience with Peter prompted him to start a program to study the interaction between mothers and infants. The program never got too large, and other efforts got in its way, but Reich gleaned some insights from it that were ahead of his time. He was a proponent of natural childbirth, though he also wanted the safety of birth in hospitals. He didn’t want the infant separated from the mother after birth, unless absolutely necessary. He wanted to be very careful about medicines and other substances ingested by the mother during pregnancy too.
He also noted a behavior in which Peter shook slightly, and his eyes rolled up in his head after nursing. He called this “oral orgasm”, and saw it as analogous to adult genital orgasm. Again, the stimulus would come from the mother’s nipple. This is another of his observations which has been scantily researched since, if at all.
Another of his projects was treatment of a young woman with schizophrenia. He saw schizophrenia as being much different in manifestation from neurosis, but stemming from similar causes. The main difference was a split between sensation and perception, he thought. He found the young woman almost embarrassingly honest, in contact with her deep experiences, but with distorted perceptions. Neurotics he found to be out of touch with their deep experiences, because of their muscular armor, and unwilling to talk about what sensations they had.
The young woman felt “both protected and persecuted by her ‘forces’, the nature of which she did not understand.” Reich began to see her “forces” as projections of her bodily sensations, and focused on helping her lose her fear of the streamings of energy in her body. He stressed the necessity of GRADUAL release of emotion and energy so that the patient would not be overwhelmed.
He was surprised to find that the patient identified her “forces” with the sun, suggesting she perceived them in her whole surrounding environment. Sharaf notes that a number of Reich’s former colleagues were saying HE was schizophrenic at this time, and indeed he was perceiving energy everywhere, just as his patient did. But although Reich could be self-destructive and paranoid, Sharaf doesn’t believe he ever really lost touch with reality. He continued to have deep insights the rest of his life, even during the stress of being persecuted because of his work.
His concern with such a patient was to avoid such crude treatments as electric shock, but to help the patient learn to tolerate intense sensations without “going off” in the eyes (rolling the eyeballs upwards to lessen the intensity).
Reich said this patient had endured verbal abuse from her mother for years, and had conceived a murderous hatred for her, wishing to strangle her. At one point she asked to squeeze Reich’s throat. He said he was a bit frightened, but told her to go ahead. He said she placed her hands very carefully around his throat, and squeezed very gently, after which she sat back in her chair, and he observed her breathing normally (one of the indicators of whether energy was blocked in the body).
Reich didn’t entirely cure this patient, but her condition did improve. Sharaf points out that schizophrenics sometimes improve from any kind of treatment or none, but that this is rare. She reached a level where she could function better, though not ideally, being more neurotic than psychotic.
Reich also became concerned about what he called the “emotional plague” character. Most neurotics he called “character” neurotics. They were unable to give, but usually minded their own business, and caused little damage. “Emotional plague” people were different in that they attacked, and persuaded others to attack people they disapproved of. He saw these “plague” people as having a lot of energy, but being so armored they were unable to use it positively, and were envious of anyone freer than they. Sharaf cites Martin Luther King’s persecution by J. Edgar Hoover as an example of this: Hoover threatened to expose King’s sex life (Hoover’s own was questionable by contemporary standards), a method that worked with most people Hoover dealt with. In this case, King refused to be intimidated.
Emotional plague characters are also very prominent today. It’s popular to discriminate against people with different sexual orientations than one’s own, against women seeking contraception or abortions, and against women’s rights in general. This was the sort of tactic Hitler used so ably, as a means of distracting people and directing their anger against scapegoats. These tactics are used today by people of equal sexual dysfunction, as pointed out in the sexual histories of three of the men most responsible for prosecuting President Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Two were also having affairs at around the same time, and one paid out a lot of money because he had molested a child.
When negative rumors started about Reich in the town of Rangeley, Maine, where he had his summer home, he tried to find out who had started the rumors and confront them directly. In one case, a local citizen called Reich and the people working with him Communists. Reich wrote to him, asking if he’d started the rumor, didn’t get an answer, but had his identity confirmed by others. Reich then wrote a letter, which the people working with him signed, talking about the dangers of slander and gossip, and how those using them as tools rely on people’s fears of being slandered themselves. Sharaf thinks he was successful in this case. But more serious problems had already begun.

Wilhelm Reich: Using Orgone Energy

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In his bioenergetic experiments Wilhelm Reich had noticed particles he called “bions”, which he thought were transitional forms between nonliving and living matter. There were three in particular: red, lancet-shaped particles he called T-bacilli, and two different blue particles he called PA and SAPA bions.
The latter two first immobilized then killed the T-bacilli, especially the SAPA bions, which he had derived from ocean sand. The latter also seemed to emit some kind of radiation, which left marks on his skin when exposed to it, and also gave him severe conjunctivitis so that he had to take a break from microscopy.
In order to isolate this radiation to study it he built a box of metal on the inside and organic material on the outside. He had noticed that metal reflected the energy (though the energy could also penetrate the metal), while organic matter seemed to absorb it. These boxes he later called orgone energy accumulators (he coined the word orgone from a combination of orgasm and organism) and he would use them therapeutically, but his biographer emphasizes that this wasn’t originally what they were for.
These accumulators seemed fishy to many people, as if Reich were some sort of charismatic quack. Myron Sharaf, his biographer, takes pains in his biography to show how Reich arrived at his ideas and techniques through a development of his basic ideas by observation of himself, of patients in therapy, and scientific experimentation.
Reich was by no means perfect. He managed to antagonize many people, including his first wife and many former friends, by demanding they be as interested and committed to his concerns as he was, and that they help him with what he did. But he also antagonized people who didn’t understand what he was trying to do. Studying sexuality seemed suspicious to many, as did his later therapeutic techniques of having both male and female patients mostly undressed (men in shorts, women in shorts and bra) so he could observe changes in skin color, warmth and coolness, patient’s breathing, etc. He also physically manipulated patients, using his thumb or palm to loosen muscular segments in chronic spasm. This often elicited strong emotional outbursts of rage or sobbing (he called sobbing “the great softener” of the musculature).
Sharaf says that Reich thought this a more direct way of discovering the origin of neuroses than analysis of dreams or resistance, in which he was less interested anyway. Not because he was unable to analyze in these ways, but because he preferred the tangible, and biology was obviously more tangible than psychology, though not necessarily easier to understand. But when people heard of this sort of therapy they envisioned sexual orgies, and Reich’s frank sexual attitudes contributed to that misunderstanding.
Reich found what he often felt was willful ignorance difficult to bear, especially from people close to him, and especially if he had alienated them. One man, about Reich’s age, who had befriended him and introduced him to psychoanalysis, must, says Sharaf, have found it most difficult to be in Reich’s shadow and have Reich demand his support besides. As insightful as Reich could be, he couldn’t always see why people refused to let him take over their whole lives, or that they could disagree with him without having sinister motives. Even people who generally agreed that his work was important could resent the demands he made on them to support him.
When he put SAPA cultures in his orgone accumulator (as he would later call it) he saw flickers of light. This he had expected. After he took the cultures out of the box, he observed the interior of the box again to compare what he saw. Flickers of light were still visible in the box. He reasoned that there must be traces of the culture still in the box, so he cleaned it thoroughly, but STILL saw flashes. Slowly and reluctantly he concluded that the energy wasn’t just in the cultures, but in the atmosphere too.
He questioned that conclusion: if the energy was omnipresent, why had no one else noticed it? But he became more convinced of his conclusion when he saw the same kind of flashing in the night sky.
He saw this without the use of any equipment. He saw it in the sky opposite the moon, which he though made little sense. If flickering in the sky was caused by light diffusion, it should be greater or at least equal around the moon, but it was greater in areas between the stars. The flickering was the same as he had observed in the box. His eventual conclusion was that that the energy was in the atmosphere, not just in the SAPA cultures, and thus was virtually everywhere.
Few other people accepted what Reich thought he’d discovered. He approached Einstein, who was initially fascinated, but then explained the phenomenon away. Other scientists thought the flickering entirely subjective, after-images of the sort children love to play games with, eyes closed.
Reich, says Sharaf, always kept in mind how our attitudes to our own sensations can affect our reactions to orgone energy: from orgastic potency to bions to energy in the atmosphere. Were Reich’s observations objective? Reich liked to quote Goethe: “Is it then so great a secret, what God and mankind and the world are? No! But none like to hear it, so it rests concealed.”
This is a perspective we can’t exclude. Fear is merely the most obvious thing that prevents us from seeing things as they are. Religious and scientific people are as prone to this fear, or to the preference for the paradigm they’re used to, as anyone.
Reich was able to break out of (after initially building on) previous paradigms and follow where his research led him. That’s what scientists are supposed to do, but often don’t manage, at least in part for reasons they can’t control, or can control only with difficulty.
Such reasons include sexual anxiety, which most of us have. Religious and scientific people are not necessarily exempt from it. Another reason is the investment most people have in their preferred paradigm. Religious people who see their religion as necessarily rejecting science won’t be persuaded by scientific argument, at least about the subjects causing them anxiety. Scientists are invested in their careers and the mainstream conceptions which they have to accept to greater or lesser degree if they want to continue to get funding for research. Being a maverick, as Reich was, largely shuts down outside funding. Sharaf quotes Max Planck as saying that new ideas don’t become accepted because their originators are so persuasive (some exceptions obviously apply), but because those opposing the ideas die off, and younger scientists, who have lived longer with the ideas, are more inclined to accept them. This resistance to the acceptance of new ideas obviously protects various scientific fields from going off in all kinds of wild, REALLY crackpot directions. But it also prevents fruitful ideas from being accepted as quickly as they might be. An example of that is Alfred Wegener, who proposed in 1912 that the continents moved, and got ridiculed for it until the 1960s, when the theory of continental drift was accepted. In the case of Reich, this resistance has helped prevent his work being objectively analyzed, although people who agreed with his thesis also were usually not trained scientists, and didn’t take the trouble to acquire this training.
At first, Reich thought the T-bacilli mentioned earlier were specific cancer causing agents, but then found them in perfectly healthy people and animals. That caused him to think of how organisms succeeded or failed in resisting illness, a concept that was, again, ahead of its time. Cancer, he found rarely developed in a young healthy host, but usually in an older, biologically damaged one. In healthy people red blood cells broke down into particles of relatively equal size. In unhealthy people they broke into a variety of sizes. He found this aspect of blood an accurate predictor of the production of cancer tumors. These were found at high magnifications that others studying cancer didn’t use.
From 1941-43 he saw 15 cancer patients, and found that cancer was only one symptom of an underlying process. One of these cases was a woman with breast cancer who was thought hopeless. He found that her sexual life had not been satisfactory: she had been married, but her husband died after two years. After that, she never became sexually involved again, and her desires turned into anxiety states. When he saw her, he found that her musculature was extremely rigid, and that she was unable to breathe deeply. He also found that cancer patients in general were emotionally mild and resigned, which he thought related to loss of energy in the organism, even at the cellular level.
He had tried treating cancer with injections of SAPA bions, but found this inconvenient. He had decided that the SAPA bions were the same as the orgone energy he saw in the atmosphere, so decided to try putting the mice he’d been experimenting on into the orgone accumulator.
He found the results dramatic: the mice quickly got healthier. The orgone energy positively affected the organism. Reich and his students began using the accumulator themselves, and noticed that their vitality increased.
So Reich tried using the accumulator to treat human patients. His cancer patient, he found, had her hemoglobin level rise, her pain recede, and she was able to sleep without use of morphine. Her breast tumor shrank, she was able to get out of bed, and resume housework. But other problems surfaced.
With the increase in her energy level, she became anxious and depressed. She seemed to experience acutely the unsatisfactory nature of her life, and asked if the accumulator could cure her neurosis too. Reich had to tell her it could not. He saw her as a psychiatric patient, and she made some progress, but then broke her leg, declined rapidly, and died. Reich’s treatment hadn’t been completely successful; it had prolonged the patient’s life for ten months, and had kept her tumor-free and pain-free for much of that time.
Sharaf points out that Reich didn’t treat her with a narrowly specific means, but treated her physically first, then psychiatrically, as that became appropriate. This was an example of his having a broad enough knowledge base to be able to more or less see the whole phenomenon she was experiencing, and be able to treat each aspect of it. It’s also an indictment of overspecialized science which can miss crucial aspects of something for lack of sufficiently unspecialized knowledge.
Reich was also cautious in his claims about the accumulator, and willing to admit there were things he didn’t know. Another cancer patient, with whom Reich worked on other projects, built his own accumulator and used it as he thought appropriate, being in a sense his own doctor. Reich encouraged him to do this saying that they didn’t know the simplest things about the accumulator and the energy it used, and had to find out. Other scientists attacked Reich because he said that the orgone energy penetrated metal, but he didn’t know why. One would think such a frank admission would be preferable to claiming more knowledge than he had, but it wasn’t.
With all his imperfections, this period of his life (possibly more than others) shows Reich pioneering on a broad front, rather than finding specialized knowledge about a narrow subject. He must have felt that once he opened up an area of investigation, more specific research could follow. But few in the mainstream of science were interested in following where Reich had gone. By the time Sharaf’s biography was published (1982) some of Reich’s concepts were being used in various forms of treatment (Bioenergetics was a direct descendent of Reichian therapy, practiced by Alexander Lowen, a student of Reich’s), but little basic research had been done on many of his various findings. From the time he lived in Norway in the second half of the 1930s (if not before), there were people in mainstream science who seemed determined to prove him a fraud, hardly an objective stance.
Sharaf quotes Dr. Courtney Baker, son of Dr. Elsworth Baker (one of Reich’s students, and practitioner of his form of therapy), who performed one of Reich’s experiments and didn’t get the same results. Dr. Baker objected to the idea that someone who generally agreed with Reich’s concepts couldn’t be objective and report experimental data that didn’t agree with Reich’s predictions. Scientists predisposed to disagree with Reich were certainly no more likely to be objective.
Whatever one thinks of Reich’s ideas, one ought to be appalled at the way Reich found himself the object of a witch hunt, eventually went to prison for fraud (which had not been clearly proved), and had his books burned, something that’s not supposed to happen in this country. That will be a subject for a later post.

Wilhelm Reich: Transition from psychoanalysis to natural science

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In the mid-1930s Wilhelm Reich had reached a transition point. He was still interested in neurosis and other mental health problems, but becoming more interested in the physical mechanisms underlying them. He had burned his bridges with the psychoanalytic community in Vienna and elsewhere, with the Communist parties of Germany and Denmark (at least), and several countries thought his treatments were invalid. Norway became his refuge, but he had problems there too, some of which had to do with his new interest in experiments meant to quantify sexual pleasure.
He used skin potential experiments because he thought this a way to determine pleasure at various parts of the body. This was because positive and negative charges could be measured, and positive charges he correlated with pleasure. Pleasure represented the organism expanding towards the world through the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is the part of our nervous system outside our conscious control, which controls the heart, function of the organs, release of hormones, etc. It is far more sophisticated than the “consciousness” that we tend to think is all of us. The sympathetic division is responsible for the fight or flight response, which means moving away from the world, or contracting. Here he had a formula for the orgasm, which he saw in electrical terms:

“(1) Mechanical tension (filling of the organs with fluid; tumescence, with increased turgor of tissues generally).
“(2) The mechanical tension associated with an increase of bio-electrical charge.
“(3) Discharge of the accumulated bio-electrical charge through spontaneous muscular contractions.
“(4) Flowing back of the body fluids: detumescence (mechanical relaxation).”

(Quoted from Fury on Earth, by Myron Sharaf).

This was the hypothesis he hoped to prove through work in the laboratory, a confirmation of the intuition Freud had had that mental and emotional illness had a neurological and physical basis, though Freud had been unable to discover it. Sharaf comments that he gave much space to Reich’s experiments to emphasize that he didn’t suddenly leap from theories about sexuality into orgone energy, but gradually evolved into what he considered important discoveries through the research he did in the lab based on his view of sexuality, which was based on personal experience and on experience with his patients in therapy.
So he placed the “experimental” electrode on an intact skin site, and the “reference” electrode on a scratched area that the charge beneath the skin would measure. Sharaf says the same principle is used in such research now. Nonerogenous zones he found to have a pretty stable charge, but the erogenous zones varied more. When pleasure was felt positive charge increased. With fear or anxiety, the potential became more negative. Other somewhat predictable reactions were found too, but all these depended on the patient being able to experience pleasure. That meant the patient had to be emotionally healthy enough not to block pleasurable sensations. Lack of emotional health would lead to chronic muscle spasms to defend against disturbing feelings, including sexual feelings. Other researchers didn’t take this into account.
Researchers in particular didn’t understand why Reich designed his experiments the way he did, which often diverged from common practice in the areas he worked in. One Norwegian scientist in 1935 tried the experiments and didn’t get the same results as Reich. Reich, however, criticized in turn the other scientist’s methodology. The scientist focused on attaching the electrodes securely, not understanding that the securely attached electrodes interfered with the patient’s pleasure, which was what Reich was trying to measure. This was probably a misunderstanding frequently repeated.
Making the problem even worse in the public eye was the idea that Reich wanted to study intercourse between mental patients, which was a conflation of two separate things: he did want to study mental patients, but not sex between them; and he did want to study sexual intercourse to determine the electrical nature of it, but because of where the electrodes would have to be placed, was unable to do so. The confusion of the two made him sound like a sex maniac. This made him unpopular in Norway among people uncomfortable with sexuality to begin with (not that Norway is or was different from other countries in that respect). What he in fact wanted was scientifically verifiable information about the nature of sex. That in itself many people found threatening.
At that point he made another discovery that seemed crazy to many people.
At the same time as his bioelectric experiments, Reich decided to study simpler forms of life. Sharaf suggests it was because he was tiring of the psychological complexity of humanity. He says Reich’s critics think his motive was a sort of megalomania–he had to achieve more and more, especially since there was no validity to what he claimed to be discovering. Reich’s defenders said, on the contrary, that he was following the logic of his previous researches. He could rarely observe the human orgasm; behavior of protozoa he could observe any time.
His critics seem also to have been suspicious because he refused to specialize in one field, as has been the general pattern of human work, at least since the Industrial Revolution. Most people are content to be either psychoanalysts, sociologists, or natural scientists, without traveling from one area of study to another. Such division of labor is efficient in the industrial sense, but leads to missed observations in the scientific sense. Too narrow a focus obscures the subject.
But when he went to the Botanical Institute in Oslo to get cultures of amoebae, the assistant there told him all he had to do was put blades of grass in water and examine them in 10-14 days. Reich asked how the protozoa got into the infusion. “From the air, of course,” the assistant replied, and looked astonished. Reich asked how protozoa got into the air. The assistant didn’t know. Reich took the assistant’s attitude as a sign the question he asked was an important one. He did indeed find protozoa after 10-14 days, but wondered how they got there, so began watching the infusion of grass stems in water as constantly as possible. Other scientists criticized him for watching at higher magnification than they thought appropriate, but Rich pointed out that he was more interested in “developmental” processes along the edge of the grass blade than in the structure of the vesicles. He stated this repeatedly, but made no impression on his critics.
He watched continuously through a high-powered microscope (eventually arranging for time-lapse photography, unusual at that time) to keep the infusion under observation), and saw the cells at the edge disintegrate into vesicles (“small bladders, cavities, sacs, cysts, bubbles or hollow structures”). These might collect together without any defined borders.
Louis Pasteur had taken nonliving matter, put it in sterilized water, and sterilized the surrounding air too, proving to the satisfaction of most scientists that spontaneous generation didn’t occur. Reich was now resurrecting the possibility that it DID. His method of continuous observation was thus important. Pasteur’s experiments had been done in the mid-19th century, and no one since had investigated the ground he had covered.
Reich was especially interested in motile organisms of several types. Those with spontaneous inner movement he called “bions”, and thought them transitional forms between living and nonliving.
Sharaf sees this as an analogy with Reich’s loosening of rigid character traits and muscular spasms in his patients, allowing spontaneous life of strong sensations and emotions to emerge.
Reich faced a number of criticisms of his experiments. One was that his cultures were contaminated by spores from the air, or were in his materials in a dormant state. He therefore sterilized the substance to be placed in the solution, and the solution too. Sharaf says, not only did the vesicular behavior still occur, it happened more rapidly. He tried the same thing with coal particles after heating them to 1500 degrees. Vesicular behavior still happened. If the experiment was correctly designed, this sounds very much like the spontaneous generation Pasteur had supposedly disproved.
Another repeated point was his interest in pulsations within the vesicles. Critics dismissed these as “Brownian movement”, which was also mistaken. Brownian movement is the movement of small organisms or particles from place to place, believed to be caused by bombardment from molecules. This could not explain pulsations taking place WITHIN an organism.
These are two examples of mainstream scientists apparently more anxious to dismiss Reich’s findings than to dispassionately analyze what he was looking for and what the results of his efforts really indicated. That, in itself, doesn’t prove him right, but proves at least some of his critics wrong. Reich believed he had discovered a transitional phase between nonliving and living matter. Whether or not he was right, at least some of his critics refused to look at his hypothesis and experimental evidence, apparently because it contradicted their worldviews.
Unfortunately, this isn’t unprecedented in the world of science. Mainstream Egyptologists seem unable to recognize that the monuments they’re working around are IMPOSSIBLE. They believe that the stones cut to build these monuments, ranging from large to immense, were cut with copper tools (disproven by a group in the 1970s), placed with extreme precision by human muscle power (including slabs weighing some 70 tons in the Great Pyramid, and over 100 tons in the temple facing the Great Sphinx), and intricately carved either by copper tools or knocking stones together. Their narrative doesn’t include a high technology (of which we know nothing) that makes far better sense of the evidence of the monuments.
The resistance increases when someone like Reich takes a controversial view of human sexuality. Sigmund Freud had also to take heated criticism for his own views, and Reich went further than Freud.
Later, during his stay in Norway, his critics demanded he be deported because they thought his research worthless, and were expecting many refugees from the Nazis. One of Reich’s friends provided what Sharaf calls “a satirical defense.”
He said there were a ‘”few very odd things about the controversy. All of a sudden it is claimed that Dr. Reich must be expelled from the country. When did it become a crime to perform some biological experiments, even if they should prove to be amateurish? When did it become a reason for deportation that one looked in a microscope when one was not a trained biologist?”‘
Reich provoked such extreme reactions. To be fair, not all of them were because of the revolutionary nature of his researches, but often because of his own behavior. He wanted everyone close to him to be as interested in his latest ideas as he was, which was not realistic. He entered into a romantic relationship with a patient (who apparently had wanted this even before therapy began), which was unprofessional, and was fortunate not to have bad consequences from. He took out his anger on various patients, also unprofessional, though it indicates just how frustrated he was by scientific criticism that seemed to deliberately misunderstand. Nonetheless, his discoveries DO seem to me to be revolutionary (though as a nonscientist I can’t properly evaluate them).
Sharaf says that even Reich’s critics agree that some of his work was highly original and useful, usually the work done in the 1920s. His later work is considered mistaken at best, fraudulent at worst, but, Sharaf notes, no one can agree where and when he went wrong. It’s not a given that all his work was accurate (Sharaf says he told students, “Prove me wrong”), but to say that all of it was wrong and/or fraudulent seems extreme.
As the 1930s ended his researches were far from over, and it was these later ideas that many thought drastically wrong, if not crazy.