Category Archives: Science

The Exorcist: A Middle Way Interpretation

Spoiler Alert: This isn’t a synopsis or a review but I will reveal certain, important, plot points.  As such, if you haven’t yet seen it yet – and would like to – you may want to stop reading now. 

Cursed. Obscene. Scary. Nauseating.  Pea Soup.  These are just a selection of words associated with William Friedkin’s 1973 film, The Exorcist (adapted from William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name).  The Exorcist tells the story of the Exorcism of 12-year-old girl, Regan MacNeil, who has been possessed by a malevolent force.  It is set in affluent 1970’s Georgetown USA, where Regan lives with her atheist mother, who also happens to be a famous actress.

Even in the early 1990’s, when I was at school, this film had a reputation as being the most disgusting and frightening film ever made – which of course meant everybody wanted to see it.  This desire was only intensified by the fact that The Exorcist had been banned in the UK since 1984; a few friends and I even attempted to watch a pirated copy of it on VHS, but our excited anticipation was soon extinguished once we realised that the video quality was so bad as to render further viewing impossible.  In 1998 the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) lifted the ban, and The Exorcist was released – with much fanfare – in cinemas across the country.  Many of my peers came back with reports of disappointment and boredom.  ‘It’s not scary at all.  I didn’t jump once’ they’d say, or ‘I don’t know what the fuss is about, nothing even happens for most of the film’.  I was worried.  I’d recently read the book and really enjoyed it, but wasn’t sure how it would be translated into the ‘Scariest Film Ever Made’.  Could this really be the same film that had caused people to faint and vomit while watching it?  I knew loads of people who’d seen it the first-time round and refused to even talk about it, let alone watch it again.  Perhaps it hadn’t aged well?

When I did eventually get to see it that I could understand why my peers were confused about the reputation it had achieved.  I’m not the kind of person that finds Horror films particularly scary anyway, but I had expected The Exorcist to be an exception.  It wasn’t.  In this respect, the length of time that had passed since its original release did seem to have had an impact.  Horror films throughout the 90’s had a tendency to reject the kind of subtle psychological techniques used in the 60’s and 70’s in favour of ‘jump scares’ and ‘gore effects’.  Therefore, that is what any teenager going to see a Horror movie at this time would be expecting.  That’s not what they got with The Exorcist.  There’s hardly any ‘gore’ and it is almost entirely void of ‘jump scares’.  In addition to this, much of imagery was much less shocking in the 90’s than I suspect it would have been to a 70’s audience.  With these considerations in mind I can understand many of my peer’s sense of disappointment – in this respect it had not lived up to the hype.  However, as much I wasn’t scared in the cinema, I loved it.  I found it absorbing in a way that few films had been and was surprised by the skilful way in which it created an atmosphere.  The deep layers of meaning hidden within the imagery and narrative demanded repeated viewing.  It is a deeply unsettling film and I found that it stayed with me (as the book had) long after I’d left the cinema; something that did not happen with contemporary horror films such as ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ (which is instantly forgettable).  While it wasn’t what the hype had lead me to believe it would be, The Exorcist, as a film, had aged very well indeed.

After a period of about 10 years, where I watched it quite a lot, I spent a further 10 years without seeing it at all.  That is, until a few months ago, when I heard Mark Kermode (film critic and Exorcist expert/ super-fanboy) discussing it on the radio.  With some trepidation – I feared that it really might have aged badly by now – I sought out a copy and sat down to watch it again.  I needn’t have worried, it stands up incredibly well & I enjoyed it just as much (if not more) than I had before.  More importantly for this blog however, I also realised that it related, both stylistically and narratively, to the Middle Way.

Watching The Exorcist is a physical experience.  I know that watching any film can be described as a physical experience, we are embodied beings after all, but The Exorcist goes further.  You can feel the cold of Regan’s bedroom.  You can smell her necrotic breath as she lies, unconscious on the bed.  I don’t understand what cinematic tricks are used to create this effect but I suspect that it has as much to do with the sound as it has with visuals.  The ambient sound is hypnotic and the groaning rasp that accompanies Regan’s breathing creates a powerful and absorbing effect.  There are other scenes where the combination of visuals and sound work together to create the experience of embodied physicality, such as when Regan is made to undergo a range of intimidating and painful medical tests.

On the surface, The Exorcist is a fairly standard tale of good versus evil; light overcoming darkness.  During the first scene – where an elderly Jesuit priest, Father Merrin, is seen attending the archaeological excavation of an ancient Assyrian site in northern Iraq – the contrast between quiet contemplation and loud commotion is jarring.  While the scene is set within the suffocating glare of the desert sun, it is also pierced with dark imagery.  It’s within this context that we finally see an increasingly disturbed Merrin wearily, but defiantly, facing a statue of the Assyrian demon Pazuzu.  It is no coincidence that this scene brings vividly to mind the Temptation on the Mount, where Jesus overcame Satan’s attempts to divert him from his holy path to righteousness.  I’m sure that this premonition of the battle to come, is constructed and representative of several Jungian archetypes, but I’m not familiar enough to identify them all.  However, I’m confident that there’s the Hero, the Shadow, God and the Devil; the latter two also being representations of two metaphysical extremes: absolute good and absolute evil.  The key point however is that Father Merrin is not God (or even Jesus) and the statue is not the Devil (or even Pazuzu), they are both the imperfect embodiments each.

Understandably perturbed by her daughters increasingly disturbing behaviour, Regan’s mother seeks the help of neurologists and then physiatrists.  Both fail to identify a cause and both fail to succeed in their interventions.  Eventually, the perplexed psychiatrists suggest that Regan’s exasperated mother enlist the services of a priest, to which she reluctantly agrees.

The priest that she finds is a man called Father Damian Karras.  Karras is unlike Merrin, whose background is not really explored, in that he is clearly a conflicted and complex character.  We see him caring for his elderly mother, when no one else seems willing to, and we also see him, dressed in his Jesuit regalia, turn away from a homeless man who asks for his help.  Karras, then, is not a bad person, but neither is he that good.  The viewer is left to wonder the nature of this priest’s faith.  When we add to this the fact that he is a scientist (psychiatrist) as well as a priest, we start to see the depiction of a complex, multifaceted individual who struggles, in all aspects of his life, through the messy middle in which we all exist.

Karras, who is not qualified to perform the Exorcism ritual, convinces the Church of Regan’s need and Father Merrin is subsequently called upon.  The moment when he arrives at the house and looks up at the room which contains the possessed girl is inspired by The Empire of Light, a series of pictures painted by René Magritte in 1953-4.  As with the opening sequence, we are shown our archetypes juxtaposed in preparation for battle; this striking image was also used as the now famous promotional poster (which I used to have on my bedroom wall).  The clichéd battle between good and evil begins.  Except it doesn’t… not really.  Like the statue of Pazuzu, Regan is not an absolute representation of evil; she has been embodied by evil but is not the embodiment of it – she’s a 12-year-old girl.  Father Merrin is not the embodiment of good, he is just a representative of Christ (and therefore God).  This is made explicitly clear (if it wasn’t already) in an extended scene where the two priests desperately shout, ‘the power of Christ compels you, the power of Christ compels you’ over and over while throwing Holy water on the levitating girl.  A lesser film would have Merrin eventually defeat the demon and save the girl, but this is not what happens.  The elderly Exorcist dies during the gruelling exchange and Karras is left facing the demon alone.  Again, a lesser film would have Karras take up the role of Exorcist and overcome the evil force against all odds.  This is not what happens.  Religion, like science before it has failed and Karras appears to be in a hopeless predicament.  In the heat of the moment he takes the only course of action that he feels is available to him; he grabs Regan and shouts at the demon, ‘take me, take me’.  The demon gladly obliges and, a now possessed, Karras – who already exists somewhere between good and evil – is able to throw himself out of Regan’s window, where upon hitting the ground he falls down a flight of steep stairs, where he dies, presumably taking the demon with him and leaving Regan to make a full recovery.

Science, religion and the explicitly archetypal forces of good have not triumphed over evil and, in this muddled mess, appeals to authority do not always provide the promised solutions.  Instead our Middle Way hero, who’s able to hold onto his beliefs lightly, is left to address challenging conditions as they arise.  The solution he finds, I would like to suggest, seems remarkably like an extreme example of the ‘two donkeys’ analogy that is a favourite of this society.  By integrating competing desires, he is able to overcome conflict, albeit at great cost to himself.

 

A Hurricane of Paranoia

Is there any end to the flow of paranoid conspiracy theories seeded in the internet ocean? Like hurricanes, they seem to proceed implacably, one after the other. Not only do we have the illuminati, the reptilians, the 9/11 conspiracy theories, and the revival of flat earth beliefs, but more recent theories seem to suggest that almost no action is so bad that it can’t be attributed to the mysterious ‘deep state’. There were some who alleged that the Sandy Hook shootings were a set up, and now – before the hurricane has even struck the coast of Florida, there are those who allege that the hurricane itself is the creation of the all-manipulating authorities. What distresses me about the rising tide of conspiracy theory is the way in which closed loops of confirmation bias are increasingly fed by the ‘echo chamber’ effect of social media, aided by the widespread lack of the kind of critical thinking skills required to challenge them. The effects feed not only disinformation, but quite unnecessary social and political conflict. Just when everyone needs to be on the same side, dealing with enormously traumatic events, they end up undermining the whole basis of experiential judgement on which common humanity could develop. Although as I write, Hurricane Irma has not yet hit Florida, the consequences of a section of the population seriously believing that it’s all been set up by the US government can hardly seem anything but deeply insulting to those who will shortly doubtless risk (and possibly lose) their lives to save others, in the service of the very same public authorities who are being blamed for the disaster by these conspiracy theorists.

In many ways, a conspiracy theory is no different from any other absolute belief. Those in the grip of an absolute belief do not weigh up the evidence and select the most likely explanation for it: rather they select evidence that fits the beliefs that obsessive desire or anxiety are urging on them, and ignore or dismiss all alternatives. In this respect conspiracy theorists are no different from medieval dogmatists – they just have access to better communications technology. They trade on uncertainty, pointing out that there is no way of disproving their belief, but completely ignore that the same point applies to a wide range of other possible competing beliefs that can also not be disproved. Unrealistically expecting disproof, they remain attached to their conspiracy theory in its absence, but can only do so because the comparison of probabilities simply does not figure in their thinking. Any challenge to the theory is likely to be seen as under the deluded spell of the all-powerful conspiracy that otherwise rules the world. By maintaining and spreading such beliefs, too, social capital is earned by gaining prominence in the in-group, whilst to seriously question their basis is to risk that status and thus risk rejection by that group.

Those who attempt to offer ‘facts’ to refute conspiracy theories merely feed them by providing more of the same absolute language. The whole context in which they exist is one of dualistic opposition, so that the direct opposing of one ‘fact’ by another reinforces defensiveness. It is only by becoming reflectively more aware of the limitations of our knowledge, as well as positively confident in justified belief, that we can start to disentangle the kind of thinking that fuels conspiracy theories. By holding off from claims about ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’, but nevertheless investigating justification, we would be practising the Middle Way.

The belief that Hurricane Irma is created by the US government, like most other conspiracy theories, involves a weight of assumptions that make it vastly improbable when you start to consider those assumptions. The video that I linked above merely argues that there is a record of the US government researching and testing weather manipulation in the past, but gives no evidence at all that weather manipulation on the scale that would be required to either create or stop a hurricane is or ever will be possible. Even if it was, a large number of people would have to be in on the plot, and the government would have to have some kind of motive for doing it (the video falls into its nadir of incoherence when trying to explain why on earth the US government would want to engineer Hurricane Irma). But, of course, mere improbability and weight of assumption does not figure at all for a conspiracy theorist. The shadowy authorities are powerful enough – so they can do anything, it seems.

The role that these shadowy authorities play (the ‘deep state’, the ‘liberal establishment’ and its ‘fake news media’, the Communists, the Reptilians etc.) is very similar to that played by God in medieval times. The vaguer the actor the better, so that any inconvenient new developments can be readily attributed to it . It’s not necessary to offer any allegations about who exactly did what, since a vague suspicion is actually more powerful in inducing this kind of absolute belief. This shadowy authority is also, in Jungian terms, a projected archetype: an open potential that we have for power in ourselves is attributed to something beyond us.

But for those watching the video offering ‘proof’ of such a conspiracy theory, these considerations are unlikely to figure. In order to maintain critical awareness, the alternatives need to be available to you whilst you are watching such a video, or at least immediately afterwards. That for many people they obviously are not seems to be more than anything due to gaping holes in our education systems, which still leave many people without any practice in exercising that critical awareness. All the rest of us can do, I think, is try to support others in thinking things through, whilst trying to avoid simply inducing a dismissive reaction through too direct a challenge. Together with that, we can positively acknowledge the archetypes in us, not out there, and positively investigate the complexity of causation in an event like a hurricane, which may be our fault in some respects (looking at the wider context of climate change) but not in others. As the hurricane heads across the straits, my thoughts are with the people it is about to strike. For their sake, if for nobody else’s, please do not uncritically share conspiracy-mongering!

Picture: Hurricanes Irma and Jose on 6th Sept 2017, NASA (public domain)

The Third Phase revisited

Back in 2013, I wrote a post on this site called the Third Phase. This suggests that, although nothing in history is inevitable, there do seem to be some signs that our civilization as a whole may be entering a new phase of engagement with conditions. You could see that as a new kind of science, philosophy, psychology, or practice. Here is the crucial part of that post that explains the three phases:

In the medieval era, complexity was ignored because of the over-simplifications of the ‘enchanted world’ and its unresolved archetypes. We mistook projections of our psychological functions for ‘real’ supernatural beings. A supernatural world provided a causal explanation for the world around us that prevented us from needing to engage with its complexity. The medieval era was gradually succeeded by the era of mechanistic science, in which linear causal mechanisms took the place of supernatural ones. Although we began to get to grips with the processes in ourselves and the universe, this was at the price of over-estimating our understanding of them, because we were using a naturalistic framework according to which, in principle, all events could be fully explained.

We are now gradually moving beyond this into a third phase of intellectual development. In this third phase, we not only develop models to represent the universe, but we also recognise and adapt to the limitations of these models. We take into account not only what we know, but what we don’t know. The signs of this third phase have been appearing in many different areas of intellectual endeavor.

Look at the original post for a list of what those areas are. They include complexity theory, embodied meaning, brain lateralization, and cognitive bias theory. These are all relatively new developments, involving psychology and neuroscience, that come together to offer the basis of a new perspective. But that perspective is not entirely dependent on them, and is actually far older, since it is another way of talking about the Middle Way. The Third Phase may arguably have first been stimulated by people living as long ago as the Buddha and Pyrrho.

The Third Phase

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What strikes me, looking back at this idea more than three years after the original blog, is how simple and obvious it is. The idea of being aware of our limitations is not at all a new one. It’s just the product of the slightly bigger perspective that I’ve tried to illustrate in the diagram above. You can merely be absorbed in the ‘reality’ you think you’ve found, probably reinforced by a group who keep telling you that’s what’s real, or you can start to recognise the way that this ‘reality’ is dependent on (though not necessarily wholly created by) your own projective processes. You look at that hated politician and see the Shadow. You look at scientific theories based on evidence about the earth and see ‘facts’. Or you can look at yourself seeing either of them, and also recognise that those beliefs are subject to your limitations. In both cases that doesn’t necessarily undermine the meaning and justification of what makes the politician hated or the theories highly credible. It just means that you no longer assume that that’s the whole story.

The third phase is not simply a matter of the formalistic shrugging-off of our limitations. It’s not enough just to say “Of course we’re human” if the next moment we go back to business as usual. The third phase involves actually changing our approach to things so as to maintain that awareness of limitation in all the judgements we make. I think that means reviewing our whole idea of justification. In the third phase, we are only justified in our claims if those claims have taken our limitations into account. That’s the same whether those claims are scientific, moral, political or religious. So it’s really not enough just to claim that such-and-such is true (or false) just because of the evidence. People have a great many highly partial ways of interpreting ‘evidence’, and confirmation bias is perhaps the most basic of the limitations we have to live with.

So far people have only really dealt with this problem in formal scientific ways, but science is like religion in being largely a group-based pursuit in which certain socially-prescribed goals and assumptions tend to take precedence, even if very sophisticated  methods are used in pursuit of those goals. Such scientific procedures as peer review and double-blind testing are not the only ways to address confirmation bias, and they are applicable only to a narrow selection of our beliefs. The third phase, if it is happening, is happening in science, but it is also very much about letting go of the naturalistic interpretation of science: the idea that science tells us about ‘facts’ that are merely positively justified as such by ‘evidence’. In the third phase, science doesn’t discover ‘facts’, but it does offer justifications for some beliefs rather than others, and these are acknowledged as having considerable power and credibility. In the third phase, that is enough; we don’t demand an impossible ‘proof’. Better justified beliefs are enough to support effective and timely action (for example, in response to climate change).

The third phase involves a shift in the most widely assumed philosophy of science, but it is not confined to science. It is also a shift in attitude to values and archetypes. Some of us are still caught up in the first, supernaturalist, phase as far as these are concerned, and others in the second or naturalistic phase. Ethics and religious archetypes are either assumed to be ‘real’ or ‘unreal’, absolute or relative, rather than judged in terms of their justification and the limitations of our understanding. I do have values, that can be justified in my context according to my experience of what should be valued. At the same time, the improvement of those values also involves recognizing that they are dependent on a limited perspective that can be improved upon, just as my factual beliefs can be.

Perhaps what I didn’t stress sufficiently in my first post on the topic is that the third phase is not a matter of clearly-defined scientific breakthroughs. It is individuals who can start to exercise the awareness offered by the third phase with varying degrees of consistency. As Thomas Kuhn wrote of scientific breakthroughs or paradigm shifts, they actually depend on a gradual process of individuals losing confidence in an old paradigm and shifting to a new one. But there can also be a tipping point. When it starts to become expected for individuals to recognise the limitations of their justification, as part of that justification itself, social pressure can begin to be recruited to help prompt individual reflection.

We can hope for some future time when the third phase is fully embedded. When religious absolutists stop assuming that the way to make children more moral is to drill them in dogmas. When secularists get out of the habit of dismissing whole areas of human experience in their haste to find a secular counterpart to religious ‘truth’. When promoting understanding of the workings of our brains is no longer considered suspiciously reductive. When the public is so well educated in biases and fallacies that they complain to journalists who let politicians get away with them. When evolutionists respond to creationists not by appealing to superior ‘facts’, but solely by pointing out deficiencies in the justification of creationist belief, in ways that apply just as much in the realm of ‘religion’ as in that of ‘science’. Yes, we are still a long way off the entrenchment of the third phase. We can only try to get it a little more under way in our lifetimes.

Inside the third person

My own habit when I write even the more academic of my books is to freely use the first person: “I want to argue…”. Of course I’m still trying to put forward a case that has wider significance than just for me, but the use of the first person seems a vital aspect of honesty in argument – to show that it’s me arguing from my perspective, and I’m not pretending to be God. The I is a provisionality marker. So it sometimes comes as a shock when I realise just how much insistence on the use of the third person there is in many corners of schools, colleges and universities – particularly in the sciences, both natural and social, and for some reason also in history. Sometimes that just means lots of impersonal constructions like “it is argued that…” or “this evidence shows that…”, but when helping someone with the proof-reading of their dissertation recently I found that they referred to themselves throughout as “the researcher”. This degree of third person pretence seems very jarring to me, and the reasons I reject it have a lot to do with the Middle Way view of objectivity I want to Thinking girl CCpromote.

The reason that many teachers and academics drill their students to write in the third person are all to do with “objectivity”. The idea is that when you write in the third person, you leave yourself out of it. You’re no longer dealing with the “subjective” experiences of your own life, but with general facts that can be supported with evidence. Now, as an experienced teacher, I’d agree with the intention behind this – students do need to learn how to justify their beliefs with reference to evidence or other reasons, and learning to do this is one of the benefits of education. But I’m also convince that this is the wrong way of going about it. Whether or not you use the third person doesn’t make the slightest difference to whether or not you use evidence to support your claims and argue your case critically – but it does reinforce the apparently almost universal human obsession with the idea that you have ‘the facts’, or ‘the truth’ – an implicitly absolute status for your claims. If you really believe that you have ‘the facts’, then the evidence is just a convenient way of getting others to accept the same ‘facts’ that you believe in, not a source of any possible change of view. The ontological obsession hasn’t just emerged from nowhere, but is fuelled by centuries of post-enlightenment linguistic tradition.

Far better, I would argue, to use the first person to own what we say, in the sense of admitting that it’s us, these fallible flesh-and-blood creatures, who are saying it. Then the objective is objective because we have argued it as objectively as we can, not because we are implicitly pretending to view it from a God’s eye view. If we really recognise that objectivity is a matter of degree and depends on us and our judgements, then it is not enough to merely protest that we don’t really mean it when we use ‘factual’ language that habitually bears an absolute interpretation. If we are to bear in mind the limitations of our perspective in practice, we need to constantly remind ourselves of those limitations. The use of the first person offers such a reminder.

Objectivity depends not on ruling ourselves out of our thinking so as to arrive at pure ‘facts’, but rather on acknowledging our role in reaching our beliefs. Recognition of evidence of the conditions around us needs to be combined with a balancing recognition of the limitations with which we are able to interpret such evidence. Neither idealism nor realism, neither mind nor body, neither naturalism nor supernaturalism: but a recognition that none of these categories are ‘factual’ – rather they are absolutizing limitations on our thinking. If we are to take the Middle Way as the basis of objectivity, we need to stop falsely trying to rule ourselves out of the language with which we justify our beliefs.

I’ve spent enough time in schools and universities to know that academic habits are not easily reformed, and that we will probably be stuck with these third person insistences and their cultural effects for some time to come. No teacher will want to disadvantage their students in an exam by teaching them to use the first person if they know that the students will lose marks if they do so. But please let’s not use or spread this unhelpful custom needlessly, and let’s take every opportunity to challenge it. To use the first person to refer to our beliefs is to connect them to our bodies and their meanings and perspectives – which is one of the prime things we need to be doing to challenge the deluded absolutised and disembodied interpretations of the world that are still far too common.