Take, for example, the "Philip Experiment," which I bumped into for the first time yesterday morning. The "experiment" -- although I myself would have hesitated to use that term to describe it -- was the brainchild of Iris Owen, leader of the "Owen Group," which was a team of parapsychology investigators in Toronto in the 1970s. Owen and her pals apparently were tired of contacting the spirits of actual dead people, so they came up with an interesting idea; would it be possible to invent a fake dead person, and have that dead person's soul become real?
I was already laughing by this point, but it gets even funnier. Owen & Co. dreamed up "Philip Aylesford," a fictional seventeenth-century Englishman. Philip, according to the site Mystica, "...was born in England in 1624 and followed an early military career. At the age of sixteen he was knighted. He had an illustrious role in the Civil War. He became a personal friend of Prince Charles (later Charles II) and worked for him as a secret agent. But Philip brought about his own undoing by having an affair with a Gypsy girl. When his wife found out she accused the girl of witchcraft, and the girl was burned at the stake. In despair Philip committed suicide in 1654 at the age of thirty."
One of the more artistically-minded Owen Group members even drew Philip's portrait:
So the Owen Group began to meditate on Philip's life, meeting frequently to have deep discussions about All Things Philip. After fleshing out the details of Philip's history, they finally decided to have a séance to see if they could raise Philip's soul from the afterlife.
Have I been emphatic enough on the point that Philip Aylesford wasn't a real guy?
I doubt anyone will be surprised, however, that the séance and "table tipping" sessions that followed showed some serious results. Philip did the "rap once for yes, twice for no" thing, giving correct answers to questions about his life. Questions that, of course, everyone in the room knew the answer to. The table in the room where the séance was held moved in a mystifying manner; Philip, one source recounts, would "move the table, sliding it from side to side despite the fact that the floor was covered with thick carpeting. At times it would even 'dance' on one leg." Mystica tells us that Philip "...had a special rapport with Iris Owen," and even whispered some answers to her, although efforts to catch the whispers on an audio recording were "inconclusive."
We are told, by way of an "explanation" (although again I am reluctant to use that word here), that Philip was an egrigor -- "a supernatural intelligence produced by the will or visualization of participants in a group." I, predictably, would offer the alternative definition of, "a delightful mélange of collective delusion, hoax, wishful thinking and the ideomotor effect."
Of course, this hasn't stopped the whole thing from being spread about as solid evidence of the paranormal. It was the subject of a YouTube video, which I encourage you all to watch for the humor value alone. Even funnier, the "Philip Experiment" encouraged other parapsychology buffs to try to replicate the results. The Paranormal Phenomena site (linked above) tells us that other groups have been successful at making contact with Lilith, a French Canadian spy; Sebastian, a medieval alchemist; Axel, a man from the future; and Skippy Cartman, a 14-year-old Australian girl.
I bet you think I'm going to say "I made the last one up." Sorry, but no. The "Skippy Experiment" is a real thing, and "Skippy Cartman" was able to communicate via "raps and scratching sounds."
It's probably too much to hope for that she asked for "some goddamn Cheesy Poofs."
I know I've written about some ridiculous things before, but this one has got to be in the Top Ten. All through doing the research for this post, I kept having to stop to do two things: (1) checking to see if this was some kind of parody, and (2) getting paper towels to wipe up the coffee that I'd choke-snorted all over my computer monitor. I mean, really, people. If the paranormalists actually want us skeptical science-minded types to take them seriously -- to consider what they do to be valid experimentation -- they need to stop pulling this kind of crapola. I know that skeptics can sometimes be guilty of doing the throw-out-the-baby-with-the-bath thing, better known as the Package Deal Fallacy -- "some of this is nonsense, so it's all nonsense." But still. The fact that a lot of the paranormal sites that feature the Philip Experiment were completely uncritical in their support of its validity makes me rather doubt that they can tell a good experiment from a bad one in general.
That said, I have to say that if we really can communicate with fictional entities, there are a few characters from some of my novels that I wouldn't mind having a chat with. Tyler Vaughan, the main character from Signal to Noise, would be a good place to start, although I have it on good authority that Tyler is so much like me that I probably wouldn't gain much by talking to him. It'd be kind of cool to meet Duncan Kyle from Sephirot to ask him about his travels, and the brilliant, eccentric telepath Callista Lee from The Snowe Agency Mysteries because she could probably tell me anything I wanted to know about human nature.
But it's not possible, of course. And if all I got were some "raps and scratching noises" for my effort, it'd probably not be worth the effort in any case.
Most people define the word culture in human terms. Language, music, laws, religion, and so on.
There is culture among other animals, however, perhaps less complex but just as fascinating. Monkeys teach their young how to use tools. Songbirds learn their songs from adults, they're not born knowing them -- and much like human language, if the song isn't learned during a critical window as they grow, then never become fluent.
Whales, parrots, crows, wolves... all have traditions handed down from previous generations and taught to the young.
All, therefore, have culture.
In Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace, ecologist and science writer Carl Safina will give you a lens into the cultures of non-human species that will leave you breathless -- and convinced that perhaps the divide between human and non-human isn't as deep and unbridgeable as it seems. It's a beautiful, fascinating, and preconceived-notion-challenging book. You'll never hear a coyote, see a crow fly past, or look at your pet dog the same way again.
[Note: if you purchase this book from the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]