Divine Message Fallacy

November 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Written in July 2008.

When I was a Christian, there were many issues in the church that bothered me. One of the most aggravating, though, began with some variant of the following phrase:

The Lord gave me a message for you…”

This was followed with some holier-than-thou, well-meaning, and usually very misplaced directive on how the subject should change or otherwise live his or her life. My bad, a pastor, often gets these “messages” from people—typically elderly women with a history of meddling and judgment.

What do you say to that? “Sorry, I think you heard wrong”? That never goes over well. “But the Lord told me! Are you denying God’s authority?” Saying their meddling comes from on high (and they might even believe it does) gives their words extra weight, because after all, God is never wrong!

My father generally says, “Thank you, I’ll ask Him further about that,” then asks his God just in case it is a valid perception, essentially checks it with his own experience.

One might think that occultists and pagans wouldn’t have such issues—but in reality, it’s worse.

The problem is that there are so many avenues for this perceptual projection in a pagan worldview. In Protestant Christianity, there are 1. messages from God, 2. perception of demonic forces, and… that’s all I can think of.

In Paganism, there are the following:

  1. Channeling and/or aspecting deities or spirits
  2. Messages from deity or spirits
  3. Divination (tarot, ouija board, etc)
  4. Psychic attack
  5. Dreamwalking and astral projection
  6. Eempathy
  7. Extrasensory perception
  8. Auras and energy
  9. Past lives

…and I’m sure I’m forgetting some.

Let’s go over some of the ways these can be abused.

1. Messages from Deity

This is no different than in Christianity. Usually the meddler will get a “message” from the subject’s patron, which the subject should of course pay attention to.

I think the best way to respond to this is with a “Thank you for your concern, I’ll think on that,” and then check with your gods yourself. If you’re getting a wildly different message, the “messenger” is probably wrong.

2. Channeling or Aspecting

I have known people to channel or aspect a deity in ritual (or pretend to) and then, while still “wearing” the deity, give someone in circle the channeler’s thoughts or judgments. Sometimes the channeler will later “not remember” the “message” (because of course it wasn’t them) but say, “it must have been important, you should heed it”.

When I’m giving the person the benefit of the doubt, I’ll believe that they believe it was genuine—but unless I can get a confirmation from the deity later, on my own, in private communion, I’ll be very skeptical as to the veracity of the message. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate the contamination and distortion inherent in the vessel, no matter how well a channeler trances out. That’s if they’re not being downright consciously manipulative.

3. Divination

Getting a divination from friends who know your issues is always risky. Oracles such as tarot are subjective, and I’ve known readers to insert their own opinions of your situation into the reading, weighing it with the authority of the cards.

An example: A very opinionated friend had read tarot for me several times before, but we’d fallen out of touch for several months. We got back in contact, updated each other on our lives, and I asked for a reading. I did not tell her my question; this was her preferred style, and it provides less perceptual contamination. I asked about something she had no way of knowing about.

The reading was spot-on. I know tarot, so I was able to “read over her shoulder”, and her interpretation was solid—until halfway through, when she very clearly felt she knew what I was asking about. She started smugly inserting her own opinions on what I should do about my education in the guise of “The cards say you should…”, when my question had to do with nothing of the sort.

Not telling your topic of inquiry to the reader is one way to circumvent this, as seen above. People who know what’s going on in your life, though, can often guess; I’ve suspected my subconscious of contaminating my interpretation when I’ve read for others and figured out what they’re asking about. Getting divinations from people who don’t know you well is better.

4. Psychic Attack

This one is obnoxious and irritatingly common. Accusations of “psychic attack”, often unwarranted, have begun witch wars or made them worse. Had a bad day and you’re mad at another pagan? “They must have cursed me!” Tell all your friends! Found out that a long-time member of your circle identifies as a psychic vampire? Well, you were tired after working overtime last week… they must have fed from you against your will! Confront them in a hostile way (or, alternatively, under the guise of “I care about you, but you need to learn to control yourself”). Can’t let them get away with that, after all!

I honestly have no clue how to deal with this one. Denying it or suggesting alternative reasons for their tiredness, bad day, or other issue doesn’t always work. I’ve even heard people respond to denial with, “Well, maybe you didn’t mean to and didn’t know you did it, but you did!” If they insist on perpetuating that sort of drama, and nothing you say or do will change their mind—maybe they’re not the healthiest people to spend time with. Unless you enjoy the drama of witch wars and fractured magickal groups—in which case, please stay away from me. 😉

Sometimes all you can do is ignore the drama monger or break ties with the person entirely. Witnesses might help—someone who is energetically sensitive and can attest as to whether or not a phenomenon came from you, though that could just as easily slip into accusations of people “taking sides”. Seeking the guidance or mediation of a balanced, well-grounded elder may also help. Stay calm; if you react, the drama monger will take it as more fuel for his or her fires.

5. Dreamwalking and Astral Projection

A friend of mine who is a member of a small occult group of some note once had a stalker. This stalker learned about her membership, read up on the group, joined its forums, and started claiming that my friend had dreamwalked to him and was trying to seduce him, psychically feed on him, and other such things. He said he dreamed about her, so she must have dreamwalked to him. My friend remembered doing no such thing, and his description of her supposed astral appearance was very different from past descriptions of such by people she’d dreamwalked to on purpose. Arguments to the contrary, in private, proved useless.

This is similar to the psychic attack issue, and there’s about as much you can do—which is to say, dismiss and ignore. Alternatively, someone might claim to have dreamwalked or projected to you or to an area of interest and claim to have pertinent information. If the person shares private, personal information of yours with you, that’s a little creepy, in that stalker sort of way. Either they’re telling the truth and have been astrally spying on you, which is invasive, or they’re trying to impress you with their l337 powarz and have actually hacked your email, spied on you physically, or some other unpleasantly stalker-ish and illegal activity. In either case, you might want to report the person to the police, because one way or another, they got private information that they shouldn’t have had access to.

If the person instead shares information about a nonpersonal area of interest, check the info as best you can. Newspapers, internet, and television news channels are all potential resources. Don’t take it at face value; there are a lot of factors that influence perception, and the reports could easily be colored, distorted, or just plain fabricated.

6. Empathy

Oh boy. This one’s complex, large, and not often discussed. It’s also the one I’ve run into the most, and even been guilty of before. A sample scenario:

Are you doing okay?” asks Super Sensitive Empath, concern etched on her face.

Huh?” Odd question. You’re feeling kind of neutral, content, laid back. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

She gets that knowing look. “You don’t have to be polite with me. What’s wrong?”

Um… really, I’m fine. Doing pretty well, actually.”

A patient sigh from S.S.E. “You’re angry about something. You’re trying to hide it, but I can feel it.”

Oookay. You do a cursory check on your mental state, just to humor her. All clear. “I’m pretty sure I’m not at all angry. I’m afraid you’re wrong.”

Oops. Now Super Sensitive Empath’s oh-so-wonderful and ever-reliable senses are called into question. Now she’s got something to prove. “I can feel strong anger in you. You just really don’t want to talk about it. Tell me what’s wrong. I’m worried about you.”

Exasperation shows in your voice now, and you really just want her to leave it alone. “Nothing’s wrong!

You’re yelling,” S.S.E. says triumphiantly. “How can you tell me nothing’s wrong when it’s obvious you’re mad?” She reels a little bit. “Your anger is painful…” She’s just sooo sensitive.

There are infinite variations of this scenario, and they’re all frustrating. I’ve found no good way to handle it when the “S.S.E.” won’t accept your description of your emotional state. One can only really address the empath, and I’ll do that in a separate article, because such an address gets lengthy.

7. Extrasensory Perception

This covers a wide range of phenomena and claims, most of which are similar enough to empathy, dreamwalking/astral projection, and channeling/aspecting to not require specific elaboration. One, however, has come up often enough in my personal social circles to merit some mention: precognition.

Telling the future is a chancy business. Your mileage may vary, but my experience leads me to believe that nothing is set in stone; the future is mutable. Divination and precognition, in my opinion, perceives only the likeliest pattern. When reading the “outcome” cards in tarot, I state it as “If this pattern continues…” because a significant change in the pattern of events or pertinent individual’s behavior will generally change the outcome.

Like channeling/aspecting, supposed precognition can be used to try to influence others towards the precog’s desires. Let’s say you want to pursuer a particular romantic relationship, and a friend is jealous or thinks such a relationship will negatively impact him in some way. He has a “bad feeling about it” that you should really heed because, after all, he’s precognitive! If you don’t believe him, it’s a personal insult! Or he “has a dream that feels like it’s about the future,” and it depicted disaster if you go forward with this relationship.

Of course, since most relationships have problems from time to time, and since more relationships fail than succeed, it’s very likely that something will go wrong in the relationship at some point. If you pursue the relationship despite the jealous friend’s dire warnings, he’ll jump on the chance to say “I told you so” and “See, I really am a precog!”, ignoring the fact that all relationships have problems. If you agree with him, then he has more weight on his side for future manipulations. Walk carefully if you have a friend like this! It is even possible that the person doesn’t mean to be manipulative, and sincerely believes he’s predicting the future, but that doesn’t make it any less manipulative.

Sometimes a person might have a legitimate precognition, but it’s cloaked in symbolism and easily misinterpreted. I know one person who had a vision of a mutual friend shooting fire from his hands at a particular event, in conflict with a young man, and a girl was involved. The visionary took this literally; he believed that magic would become more powerful by the time of that event and his friend really would throw fire around. The event came, reality remained the same, but the “fire-flinger” and the young man had a bitter, heated conflict over a girl for the entirety of the event. The vision came true—but not the way the visionary thought it would.

If someone has a supposed precognition that concerns you, take it with a hefty dose of salt. Take it as an opinion, a warning from the messenger if you wish, and weigh the potential risk. It never hurts to take a more careful look at a situation, but don’t let the precognition (which may or may not be valid) make your decision for you.

8. Auras and Energy

This has much the same issues as empathy. I have known people to say that someone they dislike has “bad energy”; I have known people to be scathing towards visitors because “their energy was off that day”. Now, I will admit to feeling wary of people I’ve just met for no reason I can perceive other than energetic, but I try to give them a chance to prove me wrong. Sometimes one’s mood can influence either one’s energy or one’s perception of others’ energy. Using such perception to belittle or manipulate is, in my opinion, distasteful and poor manners. If energy bothers you, then shield. Maintain healthy boundaries.

One abuse of perception is giving someone too much information (real or distorted) about herself, thus warping or robbing her of the identity seeking/development process and contaminating her perceptions with your own. The ethics of this require individual contemplation; what I find ethically reprehensible might be no big deal to another person. If someone shares with you information he sees “in your aura”, take it as opinion and perception, but not hard fact. If he insists that you are insulting him by expressing doubt, he’s got control issues or some serious insecurities that are his responsibility to deal with.

9. Past Lives

It amuses me that an apparent pick-up line among Pagans and New Agers is “We were lovers in a past life” (or knew each other, or were related, etc). I have watched myth-making in process, where one person shares a few details of a past life, and the second person uses those as a springboard for more details, until two people (or an entire group) have woven an extensive, oft-exciting, and dramatic story that they’re emotionally and psychologically invested in.

I have also watched attempts at mythmaking, where two people admitted feelings of recognition and connection, and the younger person kept throwing out hooks and prompts for the elder to build on. “I know I knew you! Don’t you remember this vague event…?” The older person recognized what was going on and didn’t take the bait, instead asking her for details or denying remembrance (or both). The younger person floundered in response, saying such things as “I don’t remember details; don’t you remember more about this?” or making noncommittal, vague, general responses and trying more probing questions.

Just because you were with someone in a past life doesn’t mean you should be with them in this one. Some people, wanting to belong or fit in, might come up with memories (however distorted or fabricated) of friendships or other relationships with another person or group. Some might have memories of a disliked person (or object of jealousy) as an enemy in a past life and use that as justification for their dislike.

One occult group that places a good deal of emphasis on reincarnation has, I think, a healthier view. They say that they have been lovers, friends, and bitterest enemies, but they are not the people now that they once were, and those issues are then, not now.

In Conclusion…

There are unhealthily manipulative people in any group, and that includes Pagans. Many people want their opinions heard and heeded, and will (consciously or subconsciously) seek ways to give their opinions extra weight. Perception is easily distorted and contaminable, even if the experience is honest and the communication of such is well-intentioned. Be careful, question, and check others’ perceptions against your own experiences.


Believe It or Not?

November 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Written in December 2007.

Everyone has personal criteria for what is possible, probable, and impossible, but most people make flash decisions on such things using their own cognitive shortcuts. People who follow paths less traveled have to be more aware of their personal criteria, lest they stumble off the sometimes difficult-to-see path and into delusion and nonfunctioning.

Why do you believe what you believe? When you have an unusual experience, how do you figure out whether or not it’s valid or true, or where it comes from? When someone tells you about their own identity or odd experiences, what controls your “bullshit meter”? How do you check your perceptions?

I encourage you to develop your own criteria if you haven’t already. It may differ from mine, and that’s fine; my outlook on the world is my own, not yours, and my approach to gnosis is my own as well. The following is my personal criteria for determining whether something is true or not, valid or invalid, distorted or relatively sound. Please keep in mind that this is a very general list; it’s modified for different experiences, but listing individual procedures for evaluating everything from dreams to memories to encounters with deity is beyond the scope of this article.

Step 1: External Consistency

  • …with science:Is the phenomenon consistent with established science, or does it outright contradict known science? For instance, mental shapeshifting does not contradict well-supported scientific findings (and could possibly be explained or re-interpreted through some mechanisms of psychology), but full physical shapeshifting from a human into a wolf contradicts known biological possibility.Now, just because something isn’t consistent with known science does not mean I discard it outright – what is scientifically “known” has been known to change, after all (we once “knew” the sun revolved around the Earth), and could be inaccurate or misleading – but it does mean I am more skeptical and will subject the phenomenon to a harsher scrutiny.
  • …with lore: Is the phenomenon or experience consistent with established lore or wide cultural experience, or does it outright contradict such? If someone experiences Hethert/Hathor as being partial to beer, that’s not hard to believe; it’s well-supported by extant lore and texts. If someone experiences Yinepu/Anubis as enjoying chocolate – well, there’s no textual or cultural evidence to support it, since chocolate wasn’t exactly a highly available commodity in ancient Egypt, but there’s also nothing to contradict it. My response might be something along the lines of, “That could be possible; I’ll have to try offering Him chocolate and see if my experience is that He likes it or doesn’t like it”. If someone experiences Sekhmet as being an evil servant of Apep/Apophis, however, I would feel very doubtful, because that outright contradicts established lore and cultural experience in a very big way. This does not mean that every time an experience contradicts lore that it is wrong, however – simply that, like with scientific contradictions, I will be more skeptical and subject the claim to a more intense scrutiny.
  • …with my experience: Is the phenomenon or experience consistent with my own experiences and perceptions? This is the least weighty of all the consistencies, because my own perceptions could be skewed or inaccurate, but they’re still true for me to at least a moderate degree. If I normally experience Bast as a bright warmth, and then suddenly one day some entity pokes at me saying that it’s Bast but feels like prickling saltwater, I’m going to be suspicious, because it doesn’t fit my past experiences of Bast. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an alternate explanation (i.e, a different spirit, or one of Her messengers), or that it’s not Bast, but I’m nonetheless going to be very careful in my interaction with said entity.

Step 2: Internal Consistency

  • …with itself: Does the explanation of the phenomenon contradict itself in any way? For instance, if someone tells me in detail about an experience they have, and partway through the story new information crops up that conflicts with information earlier in their storytelling, then they’re contradicting themselves. Alternatively, if the spirit masquerading as Bast in the External Consistency example gets aggravated and changes demeanor suddenly before schooling its behavior back to the masquerade, that’s also an inconsistency and makes it less believable.
  • …and synchronicity: Is there any synchronistic evidence, either in corroborating stories that the person relaying the experience can tell about, or in my own experience, or in another person’s experience?

Step 3: Alternatives

  • Mundane explanations: What are possible mundane explanations for the phenomenon? Depending on what the experience is, this is often the first thing I check. If, for instance, I’m experiencing a strange feeling in my stomach that I suspect might be mostly or wholly energetic, I don’t automatically assume that it isn’t mundane. I run down a checklist of mundane possibilities first: When did I last eat? What did I last eat? Could I have picked up a stomach bug from somewhere? Where in my abdomen area is it – could it be related to menstrual cramps, and if so, when is my period due? Have I been stressed out lately? Of course, stress can tie in easily to energetic complications, but I don’t believe there is much that doesn’t have at least some sort of mundane counterpart. I just believe that the mundane part can be added to, complicated by, caused by, or itself cause energetic/subtle reality/Unseen world effects or phenomena.
  • Lore/science-consistent explanations: What are possible alternative explanations for the phenomenon that are consistent with lore and/or science? In the example used with External Consistency, let’s say someone is experiencing Sekhmet as an evil servant of Apep. I’d first get more details: What exactly is She doing, how is She behaving, what are the details of the experience? Could it simply be explained as Sekhmet being particularly harsh or intolerant of isfet on the part of the person having the experience? That would fit with the lore. Alternatively, could it be that they are not experiencing Sekhmet at all, but rather a different entity or energy? Or, in the other example of someone claiming to physically shapeshift… If we do not outright assume that they’re bullshitting and lying, and accept that they actually believe they physically shifted, then there are more questions to ask. “Were they under any mind-altering influences at the time (drugs, alcohol, blood sugar crashes, beta state…)?” is probably the biggest one, and the likeliest possibility as far as science-consistent explanations go.

Step 4: Consider the Source

  • History of reliability? Is the source (my own mind; another person; an instrument like an EMF detector or other paranormal investigation tools) reliable, and has it shown itself to be reliable multiple times in the past? If my significant other described an experience, I’d be reasonably likely to accept it as strong possibility, even if it didn’t meet everything in the checklist (though I’d bring up the possible contradictions to him, certainly), because I know him to be fairly solid in his perceptions. If a very paranoid friend described an experience, I’d be highly skeptical and more prone to outright disbelieve him or come up with a very scaled-down alternative version of his story, as he’s shown himself to be the sort who blows things way out of proportion and sees danger where there is none. If I was detecting something with some sort of mechanical instrument and it gave me unusual findings, I’d check all the settings on it to make sure something wasn’t out of whack or distorting the findings, especially if the instrument had a history of being touchy and easily going out of balance.
  • Possible perceptual bias/contamination/distortion?What are the possible perceptual distortions? Every person has an intricate set of perceptual filters, a set of preconceived beliefs and ideas about the world, themselves, and the interactions thereof that color their perceptions and interpretations of phenomena (both physical and otherwise). This includes (but isn’t limited to): personal symbology, the person’s favorite heuristics (cognitive shortcuts), mood and temperament, and learning style.These filters color everything. It’s the reason five different witnesses of an event (such as a crime or accident) will give five somewhat different (and sometimes wildly different) depictions of what happened. By comparing and contrasting the different stories, you can come to a closer idea of the truth – but even then, your ownperceptual filters will color your conclusions.If I perceive that there’s some sort of malevolent entity in a room, for instance, what could be interfering with these perceptions? I’d ask myself the following questions:

    Is the room dimly lit or cluttered with stuff that could be unsettling my mind? Did I have a heightened state of arousal before entering the room – for instance, was I already stressed, or have I just seen a horror film or been told a scary story? How is the room typically used, or who typically uses it – could there just be unpleasant energetic residue built up over time that I’m misperceiving as an entity? Is anyone else sensing anything similar, and could they be suffering from the same sort of perceptual distortion? Did someone suggest to me that there was a malevolent entity here, and I’m only sensing what I expect to sense as a result?

Step 5: Intuition

  • Does it feel right/wrong? Sometimes, after running all of the above checks with inconclusive results, it comes down to gut instinct. Does the phenomenon or the story of the phenomenon “feel” right? Does it ring true? Or does it just feel as if there’s something off with the whole idea, interpretation, or situation? Obviously this is not something to base my belief on completely, but it is a factor. If something doesn’t quite feel right, or a conclusion seems a bit off, then I will give the subject a closer scrutiny, even if it checks out all right with the other criteria I demand of any paranormal or nonphysical phenomenon.
  • Does it feel as if there is a grain of truth? Maybe the phenomenon fails some of the big checks on my list, and doesn’t feel right, but still there’s that niggling little sense in the back of my mind that there’s something to what I’ve experienced or what another person is relating as hir experience. It feels like there’s a grain of truth to the matter, buried somewhere deep under fluff and misperception and paranoid extrapolation. If I feel there is worthwhile truth buried deep within layers of distortion and dross, I may dig until I find it.

Conclusion & Assimilation

  • Believe it? Partial belief? Disbelief? Finally we come to the conclusion. Does the phenomenon pass all or enough of my checks? If so, I’ll probably accept it as true, or valid, or at least as a good possibility. Does it just pass some of the checks but fail others, or is it inconclusive? Perhaps I accept it as a possibility, but am still a bit skeptical; or accept it as possibility with a few revisions in the explanation of its cause, source, or nature. Or, if the phenomenon fails too many of the checks, I’ll reject its validity or veracity outright. Alternatively, I may choose a differing explanation for the phenomenon from the one originally suggested (by my own mind, or by a book, or by someone telling me about their strange experience and what he believes it to be, etc).
  • How to incorporate into personal paradigm? If I think the phenomenon, theory, experience, or story is true, then it gets incorporated into my personal outlook on the world; how I think the world works, my personal schema or paradigm. I have to figure out how to incorporate it into said paradigm, of course. Most things fit fairly easily, without any need for adjustment to phenomenon or paradigm, but sometimes something requires me to stretch or alter my paradigm. A truly life-changing, perception-shattering experience will require an entire rewriting of said paradigm – but those are rare, and I believe such experiences require the utmost scrutiny before being accepted as true.
  • Personal explanation/interpretation? Validity and usefulness?How do I, personally, explain or interpret the phenomenon? can say “I believe this phenomenon occurred” or “this experience happened”, but not agree on the nature of, cause of, or reason behind the phenomenon with another person who experienced the same thing. I have my own interpretations.Secondly, is the experience valid or useful? Just because something has a distinctly mundane cause or counterpart doesn’t mean it’s not valid as a mystic experience; and just because a belief or perception may be entirely psychological and entirely within one’s head doesn’t mean it’s not useful for one’s identity or personal growth. For example, I believe that on some level, I am hawk. This could be all in my head and have no spiritual or energetic reality whatsoever, and I freely admit such possibilities. However, it’s a useful identity construct for me, and it’s something I experience and is thus valid as experiential reality and personal mythology.Essentially, I ask myself: If this experience is entirely mundane, or if this thing I might believe turned out not to be true, would it harm me to believe it or use it in my identity/paradigm? If not, would it be helpful, useful, or add to my life experience in some positive way? If it’s useful and valid, then I just may incorporate it into my paradigm anyway, regardless of how I interpret it and regardless of whether or not it’s factually true (as opposed to archetypally, mythically, or emotionally true). I just won’t incorporate it blindly, not considering the alternatives.

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