Monday, 29 August 2011

Review - Is There Life After Death? The extraordinary science of what happens when we die. By Anthony Peake,

This book was thrust into my hands by a fellow magician, because she'd found it interesting and thought it might be my kind of thing. I think the author would have me believe that this was significant, a signal from my Higher Self who reincarnates endlessly into the same body, the same life-cycle, again and again.

For this is Peake's thesis - that we are each in one of the runs of our own personal, solipsistic, endless Groundhog Day. These repeats are an Eternal Return that differs only in tiny or great differences that increase with the degree of experience of the re-incarnating Self.

This book follows a pattern familiar from the science-mystic fringe: introduce a wacky and exciting idea, back it up with an unusual stretch of interpretation from quantum physics, then proceed to contrast 'Western thought' unfavourably with some interpretation of Eastern mysticism.

Peake kicks off with a dubious leap from the double slit experiment and the Copenhagen Interpretation, about which he writes one or two things few physicists would agree with.

Then it improves, with a good rundown of Bohm's Hidden Variable interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Then he presents the fascinating theory that input from our senses is 'buffered' until the buffer is full then released to consciousness, a sort of quantization of memory into packets. Which generally cannot be re-accessed - we are not talking about normal memory here, but the vivid memory of flashbacks, where a specific memory swamps consciousness.

Then he moves on to Pribram's holographic theory: (p90)
'In the same way that the image on a holographic photographic plate is a swirl of blurs and fuzziness, so it is with the universe "out there'. It is only when the lens of the brain, acting as a laser light on a holographic plate, brings out the three-dimensional image that the universe comes into being.'

He quotes Pribram:
'Maybe reality isn't what we see with our eyes. If we did not have that lens - the mathematics performed by our brain - maybe we would know a world organized in the frequency domain. No space, no time, just events.'
That is a stirring thought, and reminds me of how, in Northern myth, that drama is the primordial giant Ymir sacrificed by Odin and his two brothers to generate a comprehensible universe.

Then we're into Oliver Sacks-like meditations on what the weird zones of human neurology tell us about ourselves.

One of the unavoidable problems with a solipsism as encompassing as the one he seems to embrace is: How do you argue from the contents of your universe? How can I use quantum physics ideas, or neurological findings, to argue my position, when these sciences don't reflect any objective reality?

The idea that raw reality might have 'No space, no time, just events.', and that everything else is something we construct, is a degree of solipsism I can get with - the Woden-Vili-Ve in us hacks a (fairly) coherent universe from that timeless, stagnant Ymir confusion - but there is an Ymir there in the first place: solipsists tend to throw the Ymir of objective existence out with the universe we make.
He doesn't deal with this, doesn't justify his particular blend of facts from one direction and factless depths of solipsistic speculation on the other.

However, there is something very tempting about this idea. And it falls into that vast category of ideas which grow from that basic sense that there is something deeply, disturbingly wrong in our common grasp of what is happening in the world.

So why don't I 'convert' wholeheartedly to the belief system here?
Because, first, it violates Occams Razor, by sewing together a bunch of speculative ideas; and second, because I'm a constitutional pessimist, and this is one of those interpretations of the universe that attempts to rescue some degree of human-heartedness to what seems an indifferent or even hostile set of physical conditions. I suppose it succeeds in that, but it does seem rather harsh that we don't know that we are immortal. Surely if we're running the multiversal show, we would overcome that painful illusion?

I shall remain haunted by the core idea in this book, of serial virtual reincarnation, because it does explain a lot. Would I recommend the book? Yes, because it will give you an itch for the mystery.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Adventures in Ireland 2: The pilgrim's mountain, Irish hyperreality and the island sanctuary

On Lughnasadh Sunday we walked up Croaghpatrick, the mountain from which the notorious St Patrick is supposed to have banished the snakes from Ireland ('What's that guy got against reptiles anyway?'). Over 15,000 people (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8204987.stm ) go up every year on that one day, and you can believe it – the long track is as busy as the Old Kent Road. It was a pretty unpleasant climb, especially after we ascended into the fog and rain, but an incredible spectacle: people of all ages and dress styles, being helpful towards each other. An old man with two sticks fell in front of me, and people gathered round to help him up, I got one of his sticks back to him, and he proceeded another three steps before falling again. And it didn't stint on weirdness: up on the summit, in fog, a speaker system blared out Mass and the confession queue snaked up to the tiny stone church. On the way back down I saw a little old man in suit and tie and brogues, strolling up the scree-strewn path as if it was just another trip to Mass in his Sunday best. Back down and soaked to the skin after a four hour round trip, we drank comforting stout in the pub at the foot of the track.

We stopped for a meal on the way back, a hotel in Westport, the nearest town to Croaghpatrick. Donal came out with a perfect description of Irish tourist hyperreality: 'This place is a bit diddly-I’.

The next day was the Bonniconlon Agricultural Show, the local highlight of the year. It was fun, and definitely not diddley-I – sheepdog trials, horse jumping, cattle, sheep, goats, boxty to eat, what looked like the remains of a turf turning demo, a dog show, fairground rides for kids, water-collecting and field drainage systems, turf-stripping machines, a sheaf throwing contest which went on all afternoon, a fiercely anti-British IRA stall, and even a stress-relief masseuse from the local town who was having to work hard to convince the locals of the benefits of her craft.

The final couple of days we spent around the neolithic burial complex of Loughcrew Cairns, recommended to us as the less touristy version of the Boyne Valley passage graves. Not fancying another satnav adventure, we navigated map in hand to the general area, then disappeared into the maze of local roads. Wondering where we were going to stay the night, we suddenly spotted by the road a sign saying ‘Parking and Camping, open till 6’. It was 6.20, and the gate was still open, so we pull in and asked – and yes, not only did we have a place for our tent tonight but we’re right at the foot of the Slieve na Calliagh, the Hill of the Sorceress, the range of hills that start dramatically up out of a gently rolling landscape, topped by the Loughcrew Cairns.

So we sat by our tent, cooking and eating, watching the poachers go out a few minutes after the staff left the buildings, two lads on a quad bike, one of them with a shotgun. Some time and a few detonations later, they returned with a bulging bag. We walked up the main hill, where the most impressive tombs are, and saw the best sunset I’ve ever seen bar none – like a grid of red-hot steel mesh or flowing molten metal stretched across the sky.

The next day was for walking and magic. My Statement of Intent was: To experience ecstasy, to be taken out of myself.
Which I was.

Back in Britain, the following weekend was the riots. I thought of the crannog we saw in Lough Talt, a tiny artificial island sticking up from the water. It was some Bronze Age family's sanctuary from their bandit neighbours, complete with secret steps under the water level, the route known only to the kin who built it. Imagine, what a palaver to go through, to avoid robbery of your scarce and tiny resources – a few scrawny animals, on a pile of rocks. That's what life can be like when times are hard and there's no effective law.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Adventures in Ireland 1: Localism and the satnav; bathing in slime

I've now had my phone (destroyed by Irish rain) repaired, have devirused the main computer, welcomed another laptop into our home and taught it the house rules, had the car fixed following the breakdown it politely waited for us to get back from Holyhead to have, and fixed the shelf that fell off the wall in the middle of the night we arrived back. Yes, to a Ragnorok of household appliances. So now I can spend time writing my blog.

Stuck in Dublin traffic we have time to discover our satnav's map is not just Britain, but the British Isles, so we use it to get out of Dublin and on our way to County Mayo. By nightfall, we are in Ballina, and, flushed with our earlier success, attempt to get the machine to direct us to Bonniconlan, the nearest village to the hamlet our friend Donal lives in. Judy tries various spellings (we're already alerted to the range of spellings employed as Gaelic turns into English), but the device is having none of it. So we try 'Knockroe', the name of the actual hamlet. The satnav offers us a few choices this time, one of which is in Co Mayo, in the vicinity of Ballina. Hoorah,we think, and drive on, to a suburb of Ballina with long front gardens and bungalows. I text Donal: We're in Knockroe. The text returns immediately: You are not.

So Donal directs us to Bunnyconnellan (another spelling), where he comes and fetches us to Knockroe. The third Knockroe we'd had anything to do with today (I drew a discreet veil over the first).

This Knockroe turns out to be about 5 houses on a winding lane, one step up from a farm track. I ask him how people find Knockroe. His reply is the purest example of localism I've ever heard: ‘If you don’t know how to find Knockroe, you’ve probably no business being here.’

Our valuation of local knowledge over electronic deepens a couple of days later. Having been recommended the slimy experience of bathing in seaweed, we set out early for seaside town Inniscrone. The satnav takes us on rougher and rougher tracks, two stages at least worse than the road through Knockroe, until I'm starting to worry about the car making it in one piece. The terrain changes from small roads through woodland to open sections of bog, scarred by deep turf-digging trenches. I imagine we will emerge from this, onto a proper road, but suddenly the satnav put up its orange flag, and announces 'We have reached our destination'. We are at a crossroads between two potholed mud tracks with peat bog as far as the eye can see. The Ox Mountains looks twice as near as they should, and the only human activity visible is a few figures on the distant horizon doing something with a JCB. We get out and look round, imagining what it would be like to call the breakdown service here, then get back in and retrace our course.

We get to Inniscrone eventually, after a second false pass. We'd promised to change money for Donal, only to discover Inishcrone hasn't got a bank. So, back to Ballina, by which time we're ready for lunch. We shop, get Euros and finally make it to the Enniscrone Seaweed Baths.
What an experience. Each private room has a cedarwood steam box, and a bath which delivers hot seawater and is already full of seaweed and seaweed extract, cooked from vegetation gathered that day. It's Edwardian, very steam punk, and no pun. You steam, you soak, you please yourselves for as long as you like, floating in the slime. Highly recommended. Oh yes, it's good for you too.

Back at Donal's, the satnav tale goes down well. He takes us out on one of his walks, deep in Kilbride Bog, where we'd been misled to that afternoon, to a wilderness as wild as it gets in these islands.