TWO EVENTS – March 19 in LA and March 21 in Lethbridge (Canada)

14 Mar

 

 

Two events in one week!  

Thursday, March 19, in West Hollywood/Los Angeles:  I’ll be talking with the amazing artist and trans rights activist, Calpernia Addams about creativity and the human body!  Click on the image below for more info!

TheArtofHavingABody

 

Saturday, March 21 at The University of Lethbridge in Lethbridge, Alberta, I’ll be talking about queer sexuality and pornography!  The lecture is open to the public!  Click on the image below for more info!

UL

Please come! And if you can’t, spread the word on your facebook, twitter, tumblr, myspace, friendster, tamagotchi, kooch ball, and 8 track player!  Smooch.

When Proof Is Heaven: Why Near-Death Experiencers and Their Critics Keep Getting Science Wrong

3 Feb
EA

Eben Alexander

Two years ago, I published an essay on the problems with both near-death experiences (NDE) and the criticisms of it.  I used the book Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander (who recently penned a new book with all the same pitfalls, The Map of Heaven) as emblematic of these problems.  The problems with NDE and its critics are themselves emblematic – of problems with science and proof in general.  As I move into writing more and more about science and culture, I thought I’d republish the essay (in slightly modified/update form) here as a good touchstone for some of my thoughts.  For another exploration of this topic, see my conversation with Skeptiko host and science skeptic, Alex Tsakiris, posted late last year.

***

Is Proof Heaven?

The story is one you’ve heard before: a man slips into a coma and nearly dies.  While his body fails, he somehow experiences lights, colors, and landscapes, all while disconnected from his body.  Messages are imparted, deep feelings are felt, and then the man is sucked back into the material world.  His whole perspective has changed, and he’s ready to talk about it. 

The difference in the bestselling book, Proof of Heaven, is that the author and experiencer, Eben Alexander, is a neurosurgeon.  Alexander’s near-death experience (NDE) was triggered by a rare form of E. Coli infection/meningitis — but the real weight of the book rests on his education and experiences as a doctor, which are meant to give him a more informed perspective on the whole ordeal, which featured women floating on butterfly wings, clouds, psychic intervention, and more.  His credentials are meant to serve as a bridge between these fantastic features and their facticity. After all, Alexander and his supporters ask, who could be better qualified to talk about an NDE than a practicing neurosurgeon?  To this end, Alexander counters many of the standard arguments against the reality of NDE content, using his understanding of the brain to skewer them one by one.

Neither his credentials nor his account prove Heaven, however.  Instead, the book and its subsequent critical fall-out point to deep cultural concerns, less about Heaven and more about proof.

A cursory look at online and print reviews of the book reveal what you might expect: depending on whether you’re a skeptic or a believer, Alexander’s credentials mean that he does know better than most about brain states and can trust his experiences, or that he should know better and distrust them.  I share some of his critics’ concerns, if not their vitriolic and dismissive feelings.

The ad hominem attacks constitute the lowest form of critique regarding Alexander.  That doesn’t mean they’re not worth a look, and anyone interested in Alexander’s case specifically, rather than NDEs in general should take them into account.  As the recent revelation by The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven co-author Alex Malarkey shows, some people just flat-out lie about having an NDE to make money.  But even if Alexander is a hoaxster (he’s probably not), the NDE experience is so widespread that unless you’re interested in a death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach to the phenomenon, it’s not going to take you very far.

As for more scientific concerns, Alexander includes an appendix in the book which addresses common scientific questions when it comes to NDEs.  But questions remain.  Unanswered questions for me, which I have not yet seen raised by others, include ones about possible psychotropic substances in the E. Coli bacteria themselves, as well as the possible involvement of Acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme whose activity is studied in schizophrenic patients, and whose function is amplified by other types of meningitis.  Another question — and it’s a big one — comes from more than one of Alexander’s critics (though most vocally from famed atheist Sam Harris), who wonder if Alexander’s cerebral cortex was actually shut down.  Alexander asserts again and again that it was; his critics say it wasn’t.

If it was shut down, then Alexander believes he has the right to claim the D of NDE, because according to mainstream medical models, human beings must have brain function to live.  This won’t ever work for skeptics, because they’ve created an un-winnable and nearly tautological argument that goes like this: a shut-down cerebral cortex equals death.  How do we know Alexander’s cerebral cortex wasn’t shut down?  Because he didn’t die.  Finality serves as the marker of death for many skeptics, so there was no “after” in Alexander’s afterlife: he merely entered into a weird sort of hypnogagia.

Such questions of science and definition, however tedious answering them may seem, are demanded by Alexander’s title, which claims “proof.”  His entire account of his NDE is aimed at communicating to others that the afterlife is real, that it is composed of beings who love and care about us.  It’s a vividly written account to match the lucidity of Alexander’s NDE state, and through it, he reasons that since when he nearly died he saw a beautiful woman on a floating butterfly wing who said he could do no wrong in life, that everyone will encounter a similar experience when they die.  In other words, he tries to create a general scientific principle out of his observation.

We’re bound to bang our heads against the wall if we follow the path that Alexander or his critics have laid out for us.  The lines are drawn and no one is going to switch sides, not only because Alexander hasn’t proved anything, but because the whole enterprise of foregrounding “proof” is misguided.  Not only when exploring NDEs, but also in use of certain kinds of medicine, parapsychological phenomenon, and more.  When it comes to non-materialistic and/or individualized phenomena, seeking proof above all else blinds us to the extraordinary and profound nature of subjectivity.

There may be overlapping (though not universal) themes — in NDEs, for example, “walk toward the light” and “everything is love” —  in all non-materialistic phenomena, but they always intersect with and are informed by the unique matrix of the individual’s personality and social circumstances.  One person may see a ghost, whereas another person in the same room may see nothing.  Acupuncture may heal one person’s back pain and leave another’s unhealed.  For the latter example, skeptics might be happy to cart out placebo, but they don’t have any real understanding of how placebo works, and it, too, affects different individuals differently. 

Not only are the experiences individualized, but many of them exist within mind states (i.e., the content and contours of our thinking and feeling world, as opposed to physical brain states).  Alexander can tell us all about the clouds and colors of the afterlife, but he can’t make us see them, because they intersected with his mind alone.

In other words, for certain experiences, reproducibility (and by extension, falsifiability), a bedrock of materialistic science, seems to go out the window.

The subjective, the individual, the irreproducible, are anathema to the skeptic’s (though not all scientists’) version of science.  Subjectivity and anecdotes generally cloud our judgement of the truth, skeptics say.  In his rebuke of the book, Amitai Shenhav advocates the values of distance and objectivity.  We must, he explains, remove ourselves from our experiences to really understand them, which would be impossible for Alexander, who experienced an intense euphoria during his NDE.  Setting aside the good feelings that researchers like Shenhav feel when they believe they’ve sufficiently distanced themselves from feeling, there’s another weird paradox here.

In the materialistic demand to somehow untangle ourselves from the world completely in order to understand it, we’re asked to borrow a popular theological narrative.  

First, researchers are meant to believe there’s a way to create an experiment and not intervene or interact with it, and that they’re meant to do everything they can to preserve this principle. 

Second, they should believe that thoughts, feelings, and impressions have nothing to do with the reality they’ve set up inside the experiment and that there are laws (controls, etc.) that they’ve also created that actually prohibit them from interfering with whatever takes place inside the experiment world.  This is remarkably similar to the deist or TV-addicted version of God — an old man on a distant cloud with a billion billion TVs.  He set the show in motion so he could watch, pretending things happen independent of him.

For those who demand total objectivity, proof is Heaven, or God.  It’s a distant principle which should be always appealed to, never questioned, and of which nothing is greater.

Of course, it’s impossible to be objective.  First, there’s a long and rich history of  the very concept of objectivity and its evolution.  This is constantly ignored by skeptics like Harris in favor of pretending objectivity has a fixed definition without history or context.  Second, in the course of its conceptual development, we were warned against the dangers of our current form of objectivity (one that was supposed to be divorced from experience).

goethe

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe 1749-1832

Philosophers and scientists like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as well as Leonardo da Vinci, Rudolf Steiner, David Bohm, and many others reminded us: because all our scientific knowledge comes from thinking and feeling, there’s no way to truly filter it out.  Objectivity is a subjectively chosen gesture in someone’s thinking.  More to the point, we shouldn’t seek (at least not always) to filter it out.  Rather, if we seek to include it in our scientific understanding, we amplify the dialogue the “outer” sense world has with our “inner” thought world.  We learn more deeply about the world this way, we don’t swap out one TV-watching God with another.

We don’t and shouldn’t fall for the lazy new age trap of explaining such pitfalls of science in much-babbled about but rarely understood terms of quantum entanglement, changing photons, waves vs particles, and so forth.  Using specialized and complex physics to explain away critiques we don’t like or to wistfully fill in the gaps in our understanding is a fool’s game. What we need instead is to consider the inclusion of the subjective thought world in our scientific perspective; it’s a task taken up by some prominent and respected scientists, but not the majority. For now, the inner world, mind states, and subjective experience are generally dismissed as valueless (or worse) in experiments.  Increasingly, they’re dismissed even as objects of study; we have cognitive science and neuroscience, but not thought science or imagination science.

We see just how mapless mind state territories are when Alexander struggles with descriptions of his NDE, constantly expressing how difficult it is to convey them.  While some critics are cynical about this aspect of the book, I’m sympathetic.  Alexander is trying to explain, using sense-bound detail, things he experienced without the aid of his senses.  When someone says he/she “saw” something while unconscious, with what eyes?  And heard with what ears?  These experiences are not conjured up by sense organs and so elude the entire enterprise of empiricism, which is based on sensory input.  And it isn’t just empiricism but most of our descriptive language that’s based on sense metaphors.  So trying to describe non-sensual experiences with that language must be extremely frustrating.  This is also why Alexander resorts to the truth of what he experienced.  Truth is an inner quality, not determined by empirical fact (facticity, even according to materialists, often changes under scientific scrutiny), and so employing words like truth feels, well, more truthful. 

A science more like Goethe’s or Bohm’s (and less like Alexander’s or Harris’s), i.e., a science that asks us to think about our thinking while we observe, would help create better language for moments like this.  There’s always a tension between individual  experience (subjectivity) and being able to convey things in shared language (via objectivity and proof), but we need to balance the scales better.  If we include subjectivity in our scientific processes, we do just that.  Then the kind of approach popular skepticism supports becomes an option or an aspect of our scientific approach, not the only approach that thou shalt not have any other approaches before.  That way, we can (rightfully) criticize Alexander on his deceptive claim to proof with questions like the ones I and Harris pose above, but we can also marvel at the account.

We can ask: Why did Alexander encounter these particular images?  What do they mean to us as well as to him?  What is this feeling of truth he keeps referring to?  How is it different than what is “real”?  What makes his experiences distinct from other NDEs in content?  What does it mean that human beings encounter these strange mind states when they have NDEs?

Questions like these allow us to meet Alexander as well as ourselves as human beings, and as deeply mysterious.  They allow us to encounter NDEs and other non-materialistic phenomena as having meaningful content, because they relate to subjective concerns without dismissing subjectivity.  Even if Alexander’s experience were caused by brain trauma (and I’m not convinced one way or the other), these questions would still be important because it wouldn’t be the material/external “proof” alone that mattered, because we would recognize content and form of experience as equal in value to proof. There are contours to our inner world, but if we dismiss their value, we will never understand them.      

Alexander invites dismissal by claiming “proof” the way that he does.  If I’ve been a little hard on Alexander, I understand, also, that he’s not entirely to blame in his need to display his proof.  We live in a culture awash with proof, constantly telling us that to understand truth, we must ignore or exile the existence of free will, thought, and human-ness.  But for all the good feelings of Alexander’s NDE, for all the wisdom and love it imparted, he still seeks to abandon the truth of his inner experience for the dramatic outline of proof, and so makes them oppositional.  They don’t have to be opposed, merely balanced.  It’s not that we can’t approach mind states with science, it’s just that our current version of science has not yet made itself worthy of the task.

The Question of Light: Tilda Swinton’s speech at the Rothko Chapel

27 Jan

tildaBelow is the only place to read Tilda Swinton’s moving and radiant speech at the Rothko Chapel in Texas.  

Why do I have it?  A brief explanation.

Last year, actress Tilda Swinton was presented with the Rothko Chapel Visionary Award at the The Rothko Chapel, which is home to fourteen of Mark Rothko’s paintings.  It’s also a spiritual and human rights center whose mission is “to inspire people to action through art and contemplation, to nurture reverence for the highest aspirations of humanity, and to provide a forum for global concerns.”

One of her friends (writer William Middleton, mentioned in the unabridged version of the speech) sent the speech along to me and my boyfriend.  We read it aloud to each other, we paused, we marveled at the wisdom: art and light and compassion.  Then we read it again, inspired by its unfolding grace.  

When I tried to locate a link to the speech online, it was nowhere to be found.  I found photos of the event, the celebrities there, the gowns and the expressions.  But Swinton’s words, like many of the most beautiful words, were spoken, alive in the world, and then invisible again.

Below is Tilda Swinton’s speech.  The original version begins with words of gratitude,

“I had a dream last night that my brother told my father why I am here tonight and my father misheard the name of your most generous prize and declared those who honour me highly perceptive to be recognising me with a Contrary Award. I am sincerely humbled by any honour you do me.”

For the purposes of offering it to an audience not in the Chapel that evening, I’ve edited it slightly, removing parts that are directly referential to the event. The integrity of the speech remains, and it is an illumination.

***

“Discovering the landscape of a world inhabited by artists has been one of the miracles of my life.

I was brought up in a world where art was something owned and insured – usually inherited: but seldom if ever made by anyone I knew.

I had an early inkling that there was fun to be had over the hill, like the feeling when faced with a sunset that someone’s throwing a mega awesome party just beyond the nearest cloud, and I set off to join the caravan. Let’s just say I was in search of company, headed towards the glow, and I found it.

I believe that all great art holds the power to dissolve things: time, distance, difference, injustice, alienation, despair. I believe that all great art holds the power to mend things: join, comfort, inspire hope in fellowship, reconcile us to our selves.

Art is good for my soul precisely because it reminds me that we have souls in the first place.

We stand before a work of art and our spirit is lifted by it: amazing that someone is like us! We stand before a work of art and our spirit resists: amazing that someone is different!

It occurs to me on a regular basis that the cinema carries the potential to be perhaps the most humane of all gestures in art: the invitation to place ourselves, under the intimate cover of darkness, into another person’s shoes, behind another set of eyes, into another’s consciousness.  The ultimate compassion machine, the empathy engine.

Here is the darkness.

Here comes the light.

No8

– Rothko, Mark. No. 8. 1952. Private Collection.

When my children were ten, they came back from school elated one day to tell us they had started the supremely grown-up business of learning science.

When we asked them about their first lesson, they proudly announced they were addressing the study of light.

When we pressed them to describe how their teacher had approached the topic, with the bemusement of those genuinely unaware that there could ever be any other way, they told us that she had closed all the shutters and that they had sat in the dark for an hour.

Where I live in the far north of Scotland, the question of light is an axis central to every season, to every day.  In the topmost branches of June, the skies turn navy blue just before midnight and hover there until about 3:00 when the sun comes blooming up again.

At the turn of the year, on the other hand, a long lunch folds itself into the evening before you know it, and then into night-night blackness until way after the school bell in the morning.

A fisherman I know from a nearby village told me one day that he and his brothers had long ago pulled up a massive turtle, far from its tropical home, onto the deck of their boat in the North Sea off the east coast of Scotland.  He described how it lay there, unfathomably exotic and helpless amongst the mackerel, and that he would never forget their discussion about its fate.

‘What is it? No idea. Let’s kill it.’ Which they did. He said he had never regretted anything so much in his life, that he knew something failed in them at that moment.

We know what threatens our humanity the most; we shouldn’t need reminding.

The capacity to project our own shadow onto others, to edit our understanding of our own frailty, to hold it at bay, to play tag with our vulnerabilities.  You’re It, don’t touch me.  Our attachment to an idea of malevolent foreignness, of malign darkness: this is our Kryptonite… we know this well.

Swinton in Rothko Chapel (from W Magazine)

Swinton in Rothko Chapel (from W Magazine)

Over the weeks that my mother was dying, the year before last, I went out into the nights and trained my eyes to see in the dark.
It provided a particular kind of comfort undiscovered anywhere else at that time.  By then I had sat in the Chapel and the serene witness of Rothko’s velvet abyss accompanied me on those nightwalks. The truth is, it’s never been very far away, ever since.

The last feature film my friend Derek Jarman made before died of AIDS in 1994 was Blue.  For many, his masterpiece – an Yves Klein- blue screen and a soundtrack.. a work made just as his sight was leaving him as he became blind.

Maybe most of all great art encourages us, as does this film, as does Rothko, not to stop at opening our eyes, but to go on to close them, as well.  To go to what we know deepest, earliest and most clearly: that we humans are, in essence, humane, fair, kind.  Gracious. Light-filled. Wise.  And that our darkness is just what it is: an intrinsic and balancing ballast to all that loveliness.

…Perhaps the most radical suggestion we can make about ourselves is not that we are not different. Or even that we are. But that we are both.

I remember a very specific moment in my children’s development, around the age of seven, when the power of reason became the happening thing, as in, ‘ No I can’t climb up a tree with you now because this dinner needs cooking…etc?’’

Along with this magical property came the anthem that still rules in our household to this day, the mantra of it can be both.

‘Would I like the chocolate eclair or the fairy cake? Do I want to play with my Lego all night or, as it happens, go to sleep because I’m super tired?… Do I like my twin brother /sister or – could it be – that I really really hate him/her?”

…Light and Dark both at once.

Welcome to the age of reason, welcome to life.

…Wherever you are alone with yourself most will show in that magic mirror.  And bear your heart witness, and keep you company whenever you need to draw on it.

We come. We take it home with us. We never really leave.

The Rothko Chapel is a sacred space because of precisely this capacity it has to re-bind, to re-balance, to re-store, to re-inspire the spirit in its simple and essential gesture of darkness held in light. Of art held in spirit. Of spirit held in life and the living of life. It is a truly humane space for humans to find themselves in.

Glamour is a word derived from the Scots, meaning ‘dangerous magic.’

The Rothko Chapel is glamorous beyond any glamour known to any Highland witch. It is a light that never goes out.

I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the kindness of your invitation.

And for the inspiration of your fellowship.”

- Tilda Swinton, 2014.

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photograph by Lucy Gray

(UPDATE 2/12/15 – Rothko Chapel got word of the enormous response to this post and has put the speech up on their website.  There’s also a beautiful photo of Swinton speaking.  I’m so happy the speech has found its way back to its original home!)

Treatment As Metaphor: What Happened When Susan Sontag, My Mom, and I Were Diagnosed with Cancer

22 Jan
FullSizeRender

My mom and I on my 22nd birthday. She died a little over two years later.

My essay“When You’re Sick You’ll Wait for the Answer but None Will Come,” was the cover article of a recent issue of The Stranger.

In 2007, a doctor told me I had lymphoma.  Looming over this diagnosis was my mother’s slow death of bone cancer in 2001.  My literary hero, Susan Sontag wrote about cancer and our attitudes about it so convincingly; but I found that when I was confronted with fear for my health and life, her thoughts on illness weren’t complete.  What about our attitudes about treatment?  I’ve been mulling over this essay for year, and am happy to have written (exorcised?) it and to have it finally out.

Read the entire thing here, read some excerpts below, and feel free to share your experiences in the comments.  Thank you.

***

I was on a hospital gurney in a hallway, and I’d been there, confused, for hours. I was wheeled out there after a CT scan on my abdomen.

Am I okay, I’d asked the CT technician. She looked down at the floor.

“You’re going to die,” she said.

And then, animated, “Just kidding! The doctor will see you in the hall.”

She patted me on the shoulder. That’s the kind of person she was.

I was there after being assaulted by my boyfriend; it was the first and only time he’d hit me, and I promised myself I’d never see him again. I didn’t have a job, I’d just finished grad school, and now my rib was broken and I had internal bleeding and bruised intestines that would scar up. I wasn’t sure what was next for me. The CT scan was for my liver and spleen to make sure they hadn’t split open.

My spleen was fine; my liver was fine.

“Your spleen is fine; your liver is fine,” the doctor said. I was in the kind of pain that’s not just dull or sharp but also frightening.

“The suspicion is that you have lymphoma.”

I’d talked to this doctor hours ago, when I checked in for my injuries. We talked about police reports, and he checked my breathing.

What? I asked.

“Your lymph nodes are irregularly large; you’ll have to get another CT scan. The suspicion is lymphoma,” he said again. Suspicion. Was that a diagnosis?

A smiling nurse appeared next to us. “At least you caught it early!” she said. “Think about it! The assault saved your life!”

***

Death comes, and when it does, it sounds like a creaking door. I know this because when my mom was finished with cancer, a noise uttered its way past her teeth. Like something being crushed slowly, but there was no burst or relief at the end. She died on a bed in our house. She’d spent a lot of time before that moment disappearing. No more fat or muscle on her, no more talking; she was like a piece of paper with bones in it. Each breath was a disjointed heave and hiss, and then it stopped.

I was 24; she was 56.

None of this will tell you enough about her, nothing could, but I’ll try:

My mom would tug at my sister’s hair or pinch me when we misbehaved, because she was a big sister to us. Her mother died giving birth to what would have been my mom’s first younger sibling. My mom corralled and held us against harm. She wouldn’t let us watch violent movies. She wrote a short story about a woman who slit her wrists in a library and everyone walked by quietly, trying not to notice. She read a lot. She gave classes for women at Barnes & Noble. She told me that as a little girl, she had a dream about looking out her open bedroom window as nickels rained in from the sky until the entire room was full. Sometimes she’d make me or my sister or anyone laugh so hard that we couldn’t breathe. She had a John James Audubon bird book that she’d pull off the shelf and page through with me: the colors and the brushstrokes and the scenes of struggle and beauty.

They’d told us she had cancer, bone cancer. First it was breast cancer, and then it was bone cancer. Ten years ago, they amputated her fleshy left breast. She said that on surgery day, she put a sticky note on her breast that read “Good-bye.” Treatment came to a temporary halt in a curved line of black stitches across her ribs. That should be enough, but no! A breast wasn’t enough for them. Not the cells, not the doctors. Ten years later, there was a tumor on her sternum, and then her leg. Then she was in pain. Constant pain. From diagnosis to death, it was a little more than two years.

***

Treatment” is a word made up of different words.

“Treat” is from the French traiter, derived from the Latin tractare. To handle, deal with, conduct oneself toward, tug, drag about.

“Ment” is a magical suffix that turns actions into things. To add “ment” to the end of a word is to draw it into the world.

That means treatment may be “the state of conducting oneself toward something.” That’s as gentle as a quiet, correct step.

It also means that treatment may be “the state of being dragged about, the state of being pulled violently.”

When we’re sick, or when we think we’re sick, we seek treatment. Since we all get sick sooner or later, treatment is a part of being human. It’s not separate from our lives, it’s not a feature of certain people’s experiences, it’s not optional.

EPSON scanner image

Susan Sontag

Writer and intellectual Susan Sontag, in her book Illness as Metaphor, wrote of this obligation to be sick in our lives. And she also wrote that to decorate our illness with metaphors and melodramas was to make matters worse. “Illness is not a metaphor,” she wrote. “The most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.”

She was diagnosed with cancer on three different occasions. First, breast cancer in 1975. She responded to it with Illness as Metaphor, a radical mastectomy, and chemotherapy, which she opted for over a “modified radical” mastectomy, which was a less invasive treatment. She viewed cancer as a growth, so radical treatment was necessary to getting to its root (radicalis from the Latin radix or “root”). An extremity of uprooting. When a friend came to her with a cancer diagnosis and fears about the pains of treatment, she told him that when he was in such terrible pain that he may have to stop, that’s when he should take another treatment. Then another. She was expressing sympathy by encouraging defiance. I wonder why she didn’t notice that her approach to treatment echoed perfectly her approach to living, and so was alive with metaphor.

Radical in her heart, radical just above it.

***

Looking up treatment was a treatment itself. Perhaps I could calm down if there were cures.

Night sweats, itchy skin, fever, abdominal pain, cough, fatigue, weight loss, rashes, back pain. None of these are disease-specific. I found myself suddenly scratching my legs more and waking up in the middle of the night. I found myself exhausted. Was it lymphoma or just “normal” or had I been hexed?

“You should calm down,” one friend said.

“You should rest before you drive across the country,” said another.

I didn’t go back to the doctor. I wanted to escape everything, and I had to make sure I would never interact with my boyfriend again.

I put my things in my car and drove across the country alone, from Amherst to San Francisco, wondering if my back pain was from sitting or impending death. In one of those states in the middle, the ones that are so beautiful that they blend together and make you forget their names, I stopped my car and watched pronghorn antelope grazing. I’d never seen antelope before. The only sound was the wind, which rushed up fast like the grass was exhaling. Then I remembered: lymphoma. I wondered if the states were being granted to me, one by one, showing up to say good-bye or calm me down. I’d felt my lymph nodes in my neck every day. I still catch myself feeling them. I wonder how my hands got up to my throat, searching for something.

There was a feeling of spinning.

***

A question that is bound up in illness for us: Who’s to blame? If the person who chooses to pray as treatment dies of cancer, is it their fault? If so, isn’t the same true for someone who chooses chemotherapy for cancer and dies of cancer?

People will be quick to tell you that some attitudes toward health are “dangerous.” This is true. They’re all dangerous.

…But what if we eat raw food? What if we drink enough water, if we take vitamins, if we sleep well, if we exercise, if we meditate, if we go on “retreats,” if we take psychedelic plants, if we get massages, if we become vegetarians, if we eat more organ meats, if we force ourselves to laugh, if we take morning walks?

We try to avoid illness and treatment, and in avoiding it create a constant state of illness and treatment.

JANUARY 22 EVENT: Sexpert meets DeathXpert – Me and New York Times Bestselling Author, Caitlin Doughty, in Discussion

13 Jan

Thursday, January 22 at 8PM at the Body Well in West Hollywood:

I’ll be speaking with New York Times Bestselling author of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory Caitlin Doughty.

flyer

Event Description:

Human life starts with sex and ends with death; they’re life’s only requirements.  So why do we have so much trouble talking and thinking about them?  Why are the fundamentals of the human body so scary and confusing?

SGIn this event, we’ll investigate:

  • How to cultivate a healthier attitude towards sex and death
  • How sex and death are intimately intertwined
  • What happens to the body in death and during sex
  • and more!

Join New York Times bestselling author of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory, Caitlin Doughty, and acclaimed writer and sex expert Conner Habib for a night of lively discussion about death and sex, moderated by The Body Well’s Dr. Mike Carragher.

Audience members will join in after the talk with a question and answer discussion including the panelists.

Suggested donation: $15 – $25  All are welcome.  No one turned away for lack of funds.

Parking: There is a parking lot behind The Body Well accessible via the alley. There is also metered parking available on Santa Monica Boulevard.

2014: The Best Stuff

1 Jan
MeandCM

Connor Maguire is a smooth motherfucker. Also, he fucked me while I hung upside down from a tree branch (see “Other Stuff”)

Happy New Year, everyone!

This is my best stuff.

It doesn’t have to be your best stuff.

But if you want, you can tell me yours in the comments.

Last year, I went into this-is-good-because-of-this and on and on.  This year, just a list.  I’ll meet you in the New Year.

***

NP

Nina Persson, singing her animal heart out.

Music:

Nina Persson: Animal Heart 

Augustines: Augustines

These were also the two best concerts of the year for me.  Augustines played an acoustic set in Nashville – stripped down and personal and intense.  Nina is the best singer of our time, and her albums don’t ever quite capture how powerful her presence is live.  If she comes anywhere near to where you live, see her.  Her voice is unforgettable.

***

th

Tom Hardy. Oh, Tom Hardy. From The Drop.

Movies:

Calvary

Jodorowsky’s Dune

The Drop

The Babadook

The first two about spirituality and the paths it takes, echoing out into the world.  The third, a crime drama with an amazing script.  The fourth, a psychosexual horror movie that scared the shit out of me and made me cry.  When does that ever happen?  I keep thinking about them all.

***

AJ

The occult intensity of Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Books: (as usual, I didn’t mostly read books that came out this year, so these are the favorites of what I read, not of new releases):

The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson

The Magus of Strovolos by Kyriakos C. Markides

Psychomagic by Alejandro Jodorowsky

Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock

The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh

Tampa by Alissa Nutting

On the list, in order, a book-length poem about lost love; two books about spiritual healing that scramble your mind; a brutal collection of short stories; a hilarious and dark play; a fucked and undeniably entertaining novel about a woman who gets a job as a middle school teacher to seduce kids.

***

me and connor

This was a fun thing.

Other Stuff:

Took the year off from porn to eat donuts, focus on writing, and chill out in Los Angeles.  I might do more, I might not. On the one hand: filmed gay sex with insanely hot guys.  On the other hand: donuts.

My scene with Connor Maguire came out in January of 2014.  I can’t believe that fuck in the woods is a year old now.  Aaaw.

I now have a boyfriend, which looks crazy written down like this, but feels awesome.

I went to Mexico for the first time.  It was awesome.

I was elected as Vice President of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee (APAC) in the summer.  I help improve the health, happiness, and quality of life for adult performers (gay, straight, queer, etc) currently working in the industry.

My essay, “What I Want To Know Is Why You Hate Porn Stars” was the cover story for the Stranger and became, like, a thing.

I met Scott Caan.

I appeared in the storytelling show, Risk!, for a second time, sharing the stage with Nicole Byer, among others. I talked about having sex with a straight dude in the Amherst Brewing Company bathroom when I was in college.  So, you know: general interest story.  That story is featured on the Risk! podcast, in an episode featuring Aubrey O’Day.  Yes, that Aubrey O’Day.

Farewell, 2014.  So much coming up.  Can’t wait.

shirtless

Love, Your pal, Conner Habib.

Fight Science with Science: A conversation with Skeptiko host, Alex Tsakiris

9 Dec
onstage1

This is the most interview-y photo I could find.

Over a year ago, I conducted a series of interviews with thinkers/scientists/artists who were pushing on the boundaries of our world views.  I planned on releasing these interviews as part of a podcast.  I decided to scrap the podcast (maybe I’ll work on another one sooner or later), but the interviews were just hanging out on my computer.  So I’ll be posting them periodically on here.  

Alex Tsakiris is author of Why Science Is Wrong…About Almost Everything and host of the Skeptiko podcast, where every week or so, he has a conversation with near-death experience researchers, skeptics, debunkers, neuroscientists, philosophers, conspiracy theorists, UFO investigators, and other people in the great cultural battle over the shape and worth of science.  Almost everyone who comes onto Skeptiko is pushed on (sometimes pushed on quite hard) to confront their own assumptions, prejudices, and holes in their logic.  It’s sort of like a how-much-can-you-endure reality show for thinkers.

Many critics of the show point out that Alex can misunderstand science, that he can be a bully, that he “sandbags” his guests.  You can listen to the episodes and see for yourself whether or not you think that’s true.  I certainly don’t agree with all of Alex’s positions, nor the thinkers he sometimes champions.  Often, while listening to the show, I’ll be yelling out loud to no one like a crazy person – But why didn’t you say THIS, Alex?  My disagreements inform my own thinking, but are irrelevant to my enjoyment of the show, or what I find so valuable about it.

The value of Skeptiko isn’t that Alex is correct all the time.  Sometimes he is, sometimes he isn’t, and sometimes I don’t know how to tell which is which.   What’s valuable is that, each week, Alex confronts his own assumptions and prejudices.  To listen to Skeptiko is to hear Alex’s world view changing and his understanding of science refined, little by little.  This display of personal growth is inspiring, particularly since he’s constantly talking with people who are deeply attached to and embedded in their own perspectives.  A shift in world view, without some serious trauma, is a slow and grueling process.  Alex exposes himself to this shift with every conversation, subjecting himself to the revealing and sometimes painful Skeptiko mission statement, “Follow the data… wherever it leads.”

***

Conner Habib: What are the red flags for you when you’re talking to people in paranormal/spiritual communities that you’re not getting a consistent story or rigorous investigation?

AT

Alex Tsakiris

Alex Tsakiris:  I think it’s challenging on so many levels because when you get into the paranormal there does get to be this degree of strangeness no matter where you start.  You walk in and you wind up in this very strange spot.  I guess I’m kind of an idealist in that I’ve always felt like I should get a straight answer.  I’m upfront and I should get the same back. 

I have to say, when I first encountered the skeptical crowd and found out the deception that was going on and how they’re not consistent in any kind of logical way, I really felt compelled to push on that because it directly contradicts the front that they’re putting up that they are interested in critical thinking, that they are interested in the scientific method.

Take Hazel Courteney (author of Countdown to Coherence on Skeptiko episode 136) for example – I love her message, and I think her topic is extremely important – this spiritually transformative experience that totally knocks someone on their butt.  I think those things happen and I think they can be a real distressing moment – an extremely unsettling part of someone’s life.  People right now are locked up in mental institutions in a very dark place all over the world because they’ve had some kind of amazing transformative spiritual experience and they’re unable to orient that with in a way that our culture can understand and accept.  So I feel challenged when someone like Hazel goes through that experience.  You better be on your game! Don’t go through that and start mixing it up with some other new age mumbo jumbo.  You have an important story to tell and an important job to do, go do it!

I want to hear the message, but I want to hear it’s coming from someone who’s applying good critical thinking skills.

CH: How is that different from science proceeding from a series of wrong pathways and wrong alleys and having its foundation resting on something that’s not correct?

AT: My point is: There’s a standard that all of us that are seeking this higher degree of truth need to hold to.  And it’s not some sort of impossible standard.  It’s just common sense.

We all bring our personal credibility to the table, and we also bring our process to the table.  I love being public in the way that I am.  I love doing posts and putting my name on them, and then you (the audience) are my fact checkers.

CH: Skeptics do things the other way around – they investigate individuals under the shadow of dismissal.  You’re saying, I talk to each person and try to get a feel for what they’re doing and how true what they’re saying is.  I wonder if there are any phenomena where you think, “I don’t think so. This doesn’t seem to be true to me at all as a phenomena,” from the outset.”

AT: That’s a tough one because I  feel like I’ve been proven wrong so many times.  I’d say “no way that that’s true,” and then six months to a year later…

CH: In materialistic science it’s the same thing, where so much seems crazy and then I realize, whoa, that’s true!

But for me, it’s sort of backwards – I’d say a materialistic universe isn’t possible.

AT: I agree! That’s off the table.

CH: Interpretations can seem wrong to me.  Retro-science UFO stuff, that UFOs built the pyramids, stuff like that.

AT: I’ve been digging into the UFO stuff and like you was pretty dismissive and really if you look at the evidence, it’s just overwhelmingly convincing that there’s a real phenomena there.

And the government cover up has been completely outed.  You have thousands of documents from the FBI after saying for years they had no documents.  CIA, army, navy – thousands of documents where you have lie after lie after lie.

What you really have to do then is step back with that as a base and say if the deception is that well-orchestrated and complete, then where do we draw the boundary on what’s really happening here?

On all this stuff, you have to consider the deception.

Without knowing the motives, you just have to look at the data.

The same is true with scientific-spiritual stuff.  Like near-death experience (NDE). If you look at study after study, it’s backed up.  But then these insignificant little studies that seem to refute NDE data, suddenly become hot topics.  Why?  It’s so easy to look at the refuting data and say it doesn’t amount to anything.  How could that really stand up to any of the data in favor or NDEs?

CH: I think that’s something scientists and scholars of science have trouble seeing – power structures in the scientific community, and then beyond that power structures of intentional deception. 

There are power structures in science itself as well.  I wanted to talk about one of those –

I want to talk about how people in power in certain positions in discussions about science what the argumentative moves are made.  Because when I hear your show, I hear those moves again and again.

Lynn

Lynn Margulis (1938 – 2011)

It’s not just between skeptics and believers.  It’s between people in science and other people in science.  The best example I can think of is this debate between my teacher Lynn Margulis – who is pretty much a naturalist/materialist – and Richard Dawkins.  Dawkins has a meager body of scientific work – not many people know that, of course. 

So Lynn had a different theory of evolution based on symbiosis called symbiogenesis.  I don’t want to get into all the details of symbiogenesis and its merits or problems, but let me go through a debate she had with Dawkins.  It was at Oxford and you can hear it at Oxford Voices.

So Lynn was invited there to be a professor, and she’s debating with Dawkins and other neo-Darwinists.

The challenge starts when Lynn says during the debate,

“You give me any example, documentation either in the fossil record, in laboratory cages or in the field, any case where it’s documented from the beginning to the end: this is one species, these are the events that are the accumulation of random mutation and this is it transforming into another species.”

This is a direct challenge, and the first move Dawkins makes is interesting to me.  He doesn’t respond, because he can’t.  He realizes that he has no documentation.  So what he does is he moves into a sort of dismissive I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I assumption.  He says, “Well you don’t have the documentation either!”  (It’s interesting to note here that he is admitting there is no documentation).

So she responds with details.  She says, no, this isn’t a guess.  She gives one example of flatworms that show beyond any doubt that new species arise from symbiogenesis.  The example is established and irrefutable by any scientist.  So she gives these well-documented and concrete, observable examples of how her model works.

So then the next move Dawkins makes – since she does have documentation – is to say, “Why on earth would you want to bring symbiosis into this when we have a perfectly good theory over here?”

Notice here it doesn’t do anything to substantiate his own theory.

I love her response.  In response to why would you want to bring symbiosis into it, she laughs! And she says, “Because it’s there!

So it’s there – can you (Dawkins) incorporate this into your model or not?

So then Dawkins is forced to contend with it being there.  So then he says – and I hear this move from skeptics on Skeptiko a lot – that she’s using a really isolated example.

“Once in a blue moon!” Dawkins says.

No, she says, it’s multiple examples.  And she then proceeds to give multiple examples.  Example after example of how it’s true.

So the debate goes on, and as she’s talking, he chuffs and says, “We don’t want another anecdote!”  Anecdote?  She’s providing verifiable scientific evidence.  And who is “we” here?

So now all evidence is anecdotal.

And then the final move, which is the most interesting to me:  Dawkins goes on to detail his version of evolution, and instead of talking about organisms you can see or concrete examples, he gives this long story about fire and a blue flame jumping to another patch of fire and he creates this completely imaginary example.  It’s powerful, but totally imaginary.  And he says that that shows how neo-Darwinism could completely work.  So in the end, he overturns all the concrete evidence by presenting an imaginary example.  And that’s supposed to trump what’s really there.

You’ve interacted with these moves all the time in your show.

AT: There’s a lot to pull apart there.  I love the final bit – we have to pull it apart from the psychological aspect of the individual and the sociological angle and the political angle…

As far as the moves, one of the things I’ve come to understand – and it’s comforting in a way – is how different people seem to be wired for how much change they allow in their worldview.

My worldview is pretty open to reinterpretation based on the evidence. Encountering people who aren’t that way is comforting to me in a way, because it helps me understand how the world really works. 

There are people who will just not change no matter what the evidence will do.

The moves you’re talking about in a lot of cases are often basic psychological tricks people are playing with themselves to preserve their ego.  The real goal is: Please don’t require that I change the way I think!

I think we have to look at that whole phenomena differently than the higher power structures – whether there is someone nudging things this way or that way.  I think a lot of these people are useful idiots.  They’re doing the bidding of other folks without even realizing it.

For example, when you connect our society with materialism, you step back in awe and you think, “My gosh, all our power structures are based on materialism.”  And I used to say, “materialism? you mean scientific materialism, not consumer materialism,” until someone said “no, they’re both the same!” 

And they are; there’s no one without the other.  So if you see materialism and how totally enmeshed we are with it, then you start to see just what’s at stake, and why it plays out the way that it does.  Those are the ideas that will be advanced in science, in academia, regardless of the data.  And then you’ll have the players that emerge on their own and play out these little scripts. Like Dawkins: No one has to wind-up Dawkins.  he just goes on his own. You just identify who these people are and promote them through the ranks.  It becomes a self-sustaining system.

CH: The “selfish gene” is in complete lockstep with the economic system.  So you don’t have to have a vast conspiracy, you can just have people who are participating in  capitalist economic systems seize onto this version of evolution because it’s so much like the rest of their lives.  So this is the version of evolution that gets the most airplay.  It just seems right because it matches up with buying stuff and cost-benefit analysis.  So there is that level of it.

ARW

Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913)

AT: A few episodes ago we did a show on Alfred Russell Wallace (covered in both Skeptiko episode 149 and Skeptiko episode 247).  Fascinating, fascinating to me. I was not that familiar with it.

It’s so clear that from the beginning that Darwin completely stole the idea of evolution.  If you go look at the time stamp when Alfred Russell Wallace sent the letter to Darwin and then Darwin says, “I didn’t get it for six months later!” and then he sends another one and Darwin says, “that one was delayed by 18 months!” as well… You know, fool me once!

The point is here’s Wallace, who unlike Darwin, from the beginning stated the obvious: survival is more of a group function; survival of the fittest is survival of the fittest group. 

But you can understand what the political and social implications of survival of the group.  Oh that’s socialism, communism! We don’t want that! Survival of the individual, that’s individualism, capitalism. 

Let me say, I have benefited greatly from the capitalist system, and if I look at capitalism, I sure as heck would choose that over socialism just in terms of functioning of a society.  But as you’re saying, and as I’m saying too, we have to separate that from the best evidence we have for a scientific theory.  It just doesn’t match up.  And this neo-Darwinism does seem like a script to sell us a political and economic idea, which it doesn’t need, because I think it has merits on its own.

CH: That presents us with a challenge.  As these more spiritual, less materialistic ideas start to filter into science there’s a certain point that we’re going to have to filter those out.  It’s not like we get over that hump.  We’re going to have all sorts of new challenges – whether it’s Dean Radin’s work or whoever, the people you talk to.  How do we separate them? I think it’s important to always be vigilant and not forget once we have this one victory.

AT: Right, I think it gets back to the old axiom: Science is a method, it’s not a position.  If you just hold to that, then it’s a method of discovery and to that end, you’ve got to look at skepticism too.  One of the things that I’m exploring more and more is that we’ve been conditioned to believe that skepticism has a place in science. A key place in science. What if it doesn’t?  What if that’s a false thing we’ve been sold?

I can credit Dr. Peter Bancel (experimental physicist on Skeptiko episode 102) who was working on the Global Consciousness Project.  He said, “Look, science is about asking questions, and we just continue asking questions.  Skepticism doesn’t really come in other than it’s another question.  Oh you did this experiment?  Did you apply this control?  Was your method better done this way or that way?”

It’s about questions, not the idea we’ve been sold about skepticism, that you have to be skeptical, which is an idea that’s come about to support the atheistic materialistic skeptical community that really extends way beyond the James Randis and Michael Shermers.  It’s really entrenched.

CH: Something I hear you banging your head against sometimes is the scientific method itself.  I wonder if you’ll begin to question the method itself in the way it’s practiced now.  I remember when you interviewed Tom Clark (Skeptiko episode 24) and he said that with science, “the method isn’t a moving target.”

In fact, that’s not entirely true.  The method and the way science has been practiced over the centuries has drastically changed and has become something now that it wasn’t always. 

So with Peter Bancel he says, “we’re supposed to keep asking questions,” well that to me seems like a way that science isn’t practiced now.  That would be the of gathering data first and letting conclusions arise on their own, rather than blocking everything off by a framework of assumption.  That blocking things off is the way a lot of people practice science now. 

I studied the way Goethe practiced science, for example.  It’s also the way Da Vinci and

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832)

other geniuses practiced science, and that’s not what he did. He just observed and observed and observed. 

And then there’s this other component that the skeptics leave out completely, which is that Goethe included his inner experience of his observation of the phenomena as part of the data he gathered.  So it was, I was thinking this when I looked at it, I felt this when I looked at it.

In other words, laying everything bare that was in the interaction, and observing his own interaction with the phenomena he was studying as part of the science.  Sometimes he’d do that to get some truth about the phenomena from those observations of himself, but a lot of it was just to wave away the clouds.  Skeptics don’t do that at all.  The skeptic line is, “I’m going to be objective, I’m not interacting with the thing I’m studying, and I have a detachment from it.”

AT: I love your quote from Tom Clark, the naturalism guy, because I think you’re spot-on, I hadn’t thought of it quite in that way.  To say, “science is not a moving target”?  Yeah, it is a moving target, and I love the example with Goethe because it really gets us back to the whole consciousness thing.  Because we know with quantum theory that we are totally enmeshed in what we are observing and that the observer is affecting the outcome.  It also gets back to what we were talking about before (the interview started) – this whole game is being played in what we call consensus reality. 

You’re observing the green in the trees, well it’s not really green, it’s just we get together and collectively say that those photons hitting us makes green, and well that poor guy is colorblind it’s not green to him, but hey for the most part it’s green and that’s how we’ll go.  That goes on over and over again.  And it’s just a game, it’s a convenience we use.  And I think you’re right to extend that to science, it’s a game, it’s a rule, and we’re trying to nudge ourselves a little closer to a better understanding that helps us sleep better at night.

CH: And there probably is a reality to green, to use your example, but we have to understand our inner reaction to green to be able to bring the reality of it out.

AT: But it would be an individual reality, right?  Because otherwise I’d say, “see that bug outside my window crawling on that green leaf, he’s not saying, ‘wow, this is green!’”

CH: I mean that it’s not an outer objective reality, but it’s a shared inner experience.  Can we talk about that shared inner experience as well as the “objective” outer reality in our science? That’s something that doesn’t really happen, so the shared inner experience is just sort of left out.  But in fact, the inner experience is what’s connecting us in consensus, we just pretend it’s the outer phenomena.

AT: I think that touches on a really important word, “experience.” Look at what a challenge it is for science to deal with it. 

You asked me earlier what’s a red flag.  A red flag for me is the wholesale dismissal of a large body of human experience. 

Using the anthropological example – that really struck me (before the interview) – when you said “look at experience, experience, experience” in cross cultures.  When I see that, I say, “there’s something there!”

People having the same experience, well that’s a reality.  I think that’s so important, because you look at the issues we wind up spending a lot of time fighting about, which we really shouldn’t because they’re obvious. 

So: near death experience? Come on! There are too many people experiencing that to dismiss it.  Deathbed visions, medium experiences, ghost encounters: Too many cases to wholesale dismiss it.  I don’t have to pin it down or say what’s causing it, but don’t tell me it’s an illusion, it’s delusion, or give a stupid explanation.  It just doesn’t fit.

CH: As I was delineating Dawkins’s moves before, it’s like that. Before they’d say, “that’s not real!” And now a lot of people say, “well we all admit the phenomena is real.” Like they always admitted that which we know they hadn’t.

AT: Right!

CH: And at this point, we’re at the move of, “we don’t need another anecdote.” All of it is supposed to be an anecdote somehow, it’s not evidence.  On an even grander scale than just dismissing experiences of individuals in present time, what science as it’s practiced is doing now is dismissing literally all the experiences of every culture that existed before this Western materialistic culture, and all the ones that exist now aside from that.  And that to me is just preposterous.  You really think that every one is history and every other culture was and is wrong? Really?

AT: Good point!

CH: When you talk to Tom Clark or James Randi, there’s this funny assumption that people bring to the table, when they say, “anything paranormal that’s explained would suddenly be ‘normal’ if we could explain it.”  And that’s something else I want to talk about with the moving target of science.  Because if we could begin to talk about this so-called paranormal world, wouldn’t that raise the normal world up into it?  It wouldn’t be “normal” in the way we think of it now. 

I wonder if you have a vision of what would happen as these phenomena become more and more accepted.

AT: It kind of irks me a little bit when even people I like and respect in the paranormal are quick to say, “well this won’t really change things too much. It’s gonna be business as usual, we’ll just have to tweak this or that.” 

No, I don’t think we should say that.  One of the things that comes to mind is what you were mentioning – the different conceptual consciousness frameworks that different groups might have.  If we look at it from that standpoint, an anthropological standpoint, and look at our own cultural bias, we think, “wow, the limits are even lifted up higher in terms of what that new knowing might mean for us.”  That goes beyond a little tweaking of our scientific model.

At the same time I don’t think we have to worry about that too much, I don’t think that’s our job.  I think our job is just to push forward with what’s on our plate right here and kind of let that stuff happen.

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