Sunday, December 13, 2009

Deep disturbances in morphic fields

This post is looking into a particular application of Rupert Sheldrake’s concepts of morphic field and resonance that may have significant value for parasociology. Sheldrake’s concepts have been developed to help describing at least three fundamental characteristics found in nature. The first one is about how new forms and behaviours become the norm within a specie, an issue that Sheldrake calls “formative causation.” The second is linked to the first one, is that new forms and behaviour emerge out of habits, and such habits accumulate through a collective memory not resident in the biological forms themselves. In other words, with time, a form or behaviour becomes a permanent fixture, and this is what he calls a “morphic field” (morphic meaning “something becoming into being”). The implication is that such form or behaviour is not pre-determined by mechanistic laws of nature, but rather emerges in ways that cannot be predicted, and looking in the brain or genes of specie will not lead to finding the memory repository. The last characteristic is that such habits spread within specie in “normal” ways, but also through “non-normal” ways that cannot be explained through mechanistic science. That is what he calls “resonance” and this is the part of his theory that got much of the criticism from the scientific establishment. Sheldrake also extended his theory to other notions outside biology, like how ideas spread among humans, and this led him into research about telepathy and ESP (i.e. examples of “non-normal” resonance).

There are a number of researches that certainly point in the same direction as Sheldrake’s theory. One of the most applicable of such researches for parasociology is the one conducted on monkey colonies in Japan by Lyall Watson. He observed the monkeys developing a new technique (i.e. animal showing capability for innovation) of washing food that was given to them. The findings are even more astonishing as the new learning spread to other islands (where the monkey colonies had no contact with each others), when a certain threshold is met. As stated by Watson:

“But the addition of the hundredth monkey apparently carried the number across some sort of threshold, pushing it through a kind of critical mass, because by that evening almost everyone in the colony was doing it [washing sweet potatoes]. Not only that, but the habit seems to have jumped natural barriers and to have appeared spontaneously, like glycerine crystals in sealed laboratory jars, in colonies on other islands and on the mainland in a troop at Takasakiyama.” (Watson 1979, 148).

Deep disturbances in morphic fields

One of the issues that Sheldrake’s theory is not well positioned to explain is how new fields come about. The explanations he offers are actually closer to a mystic discussion about a “super and primordial morphic field” that can be easily equated to the notion of divinity. Given that such notion implies a fundamental belief as the key assumption, it is clearly outside the bounds of the scientific realm. Yet, if we keep in mind Watson’s research, for the monkeys the arrival of sweet potatoes given by humans appeared to be god-given, yet is was not.

I think there is a better explanation and it could reconcile traditional science and Sheldrake’s perspective. New fields emerge when old fields are deeply disturbed. Such disturbances are caused by the surrounding environment of a given field, which environment is made of many fields (many of which are probably not even known). The interactions between these different fields are so numerous, complex and with fields that we are not even aware of, that it is impossible to predict in a mechanistic way what would come out of such interactions. Hence, given the human limited capacity to grasp highly complex systems, to consider them as random would just as good. If one prefers to call this randomness the “mysterious ways of God,” so be it, as it would not change the explanatory structure anyway.

In private correspondence with Rupert Sheldrake, he agreed with me that this notion of deep disturbances is congruent with his theories. The key here, is not trying to predict in a mechanistic way when disturbances will occur, as we cannot do so given the high degree of complexity, but rather to identify which kind of disturbances leads to particular field breakdowns. To use an analogy, one could think of a group of people playing poker at a table. The field (i.e. the game) has rules and the players, with time, known other players’ ways of hiding their nervousness. The group of players have an accumulated memory, and sometimes non-normal resonance might occur when the players guess correctly (through telepathy?) the real hand of another player.

Then the table is suddenly push up in the air from the bottom, all the cards and chips go up in the air, and fall down on the ground. This creates a liminal moment, the collective memory is temporary lost, and the game is suspended. Some time is spent to pick up the cards and chips, and the table is reset based on the players’ individual memory, which is likely not to be 100% what the collective memory had it before. During this liminal moment, it is very likely that some players might use the time to cheat (steal chips, lie about their hand, etc), as the power of the field is momentarily stopped, and anything can happen. Could, then, UFO waves, Marian apparitions or RSPKs be one of those liminal moment where anything can happen because some fields have been deeply disturbed?

Insights from a concrete example

In order to see what would be the fit of morphic resonance to understand some of the most difficult to explain paranormal phenomena, a concrete and mundane example is propose here. This is a bit of digression towards something else, but the insight for UFO and paranormal research is important.

I am using the example of Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans towards the end of August 2005. It is clearly a sudden and deep disturbance to a series of fields. But not all fields were actually disturbed, and not the ones that people usually tend to think of.

What happened with Katrina was a major physical event (i.e., a hurricane) that caused very deep disturbances to at least two physical fields, namely the “biological ecosystem to ensure survival “(access to food and drinkable water, dry places to rest, elimination of infectious material, etc.), and “physical communication infrastructures” (roads, phone lines, cellular towers, Internet cables, radio and TV stations antennas, etc.).

Several symbolic fields (i.e. human fields) were not disturbed after all, in spite of what the media were reporting at the time. The chaos and lawlessness on the ground was actually vastly exaggerated, although people’s suffering remained quite acute and real. A symbolic field that could be called “local solidarity” (people were helping each other according to many witnesses, many heroic acts) remained strong, and this was observed directly by anthropologists who came to help (Ethridge 2006) and by a series of subsequent surveys (Scott & Howitt 2006; Rodriguez, Trainor, & Quarantelli 2006). In other words, social order on the ground did not collapse.

Even the field of criminality remained what it is, even if it had expanded opportunity because the police was not functional due to the extensive damages to infrastructures. The looting occurred mostly in the few days after the storm when people’s situation became seriously desperate as there were no signs that help was coming (Lavelle & Feagin 2006; Sims 2007). This was survival, not criminality.

Finally, the ugliest part of it was that field of racism, which has a long history in Louisiana, that remained very strong as poor blacks were overwhelmingly affected by the events (before as they could not afford to evacuate, during as they were stuck there and the media portraying them as bad and ruthless, and after as they remain the least able to restore their life) (Lavelle & Feagin 2006; Sommers et al. 2006).

The symbolic field that was really affected was the one related to the power of those who have political authority: the government or the state (in its general meaning). The police, without its physical infrastructure could not function; the municipal, State and Federal governments were completely overwhelmed and seemed paralyzed in spite of having put in place a series of measures in the days prior to the hurricane. The general paralysis was so extensive that it is hard to explain without introducing the notion of “non-normal” morphic resonance.

The real interesting issue is that governmental auhtority (at all levels, and including the police and the military) has its power based in the capacity of using physical strength to impose its will; what we call order. Anyone having any education in political science will know that the state is best described by Max Weber’s classical definition: “a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” (Gerth & Mills 1946, 78). As well, the modern state has very much developed as a morphic field through habits. As brilliantly described by Charles Tilly,

"[…] transition to direct rule gave rulers access to citizens and the resources they controlled through household taxation, mass conscription, censuses, police systems, and many other invasions of small-scale social life. But it did so at the cost of widespread resistance, extensive bargaining, and the creation of rights and perquisites for citizens. Both the penetration and bargaining laid down new state structures, inflating the government’s budgets, personnel, and organizational diagrams. The omnivorous state of our own time took shape." (Tilly 1992, 25).

It was very telling that the sense of “order” was re-established in New Orleans , not when people were actually safe but when people started “to see so many uniformed men bearing machine guns, patrolling expressways and major intersections” (Scott & Howitt 2006, 29). These soldiers did not have any legal capacities to play a police role, nor were they helping with the delivery of aid and evacuation of stranded people. They real effect was to re-establish state authority, a symbolic field fundamentally based on the potential use of physical violence.

What all this means is that (1) some symbolic fields are directly dependent on physical fields (i.e. state authority is dependent on physical force to coerce), (2) that resonance occurs between fields that are akin, or more closely dependent, and (3) resonance occurs also when there are deep disturbances, not only when there are new habits created.

Prospective findings

If Sheldrake is right, then his theory should also work the other way around, and this has a very direct consequence for parasociology: UFO waves, RSPKs, and Marian apparitions (to name a few) would be disturbances in the symbolic realm (national identity and psycho-social field of the family), which resonates directly in physical fields dependent on the disturbed symbolic fields (as there are strange physical manifestations that can be observed). In other words, a UFO wave or RSPK would be physical disturbances created through resonance by “symbolic hurricanes”. The key question, then, is: what are those physical fields that are directly dependent on symbolic fields? This puts a very interesting twist to the notions morphic fields and resonance.

Post-specific bibliography

Ethridge, Robbie. (2006). “Bearing Witness: Assumptions, realities and the otherizing of Katrina”. American Anthropologist 108(4): 799-813.

Gerth, H.H. and C.W. Mills. (1946). From Max Weber: Essays in sociology. New York: Galaxy Books.

Lavelle, Kristen and Joe Feagin. (2006). “Hurricane Katrina: The race and class debate”. Monthly Review 58(3): 52-67.

Littlefield, Robert S. and Andrea Quenette. (2007). “Crisis Leadership and Hurricane Katrina: The portrayal of authority by the media in natural disasters”. Journal of Applied Communication Research 35(1): 26-ff.

Rodriguez, Havidan, Joseph Trainor, and Enrico L. Quarantelli. (2006). “Rising to the Challenges of a Catastrophe: The emergent and prosocial behavior following Hurricane Katrina”. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 604: 82-ff.

Scott, Esther and Arnold Howitt. (2006). “Hurricane Katrina: Responding to an ‘ultra-catastrophy’ in New Orleans”. Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government Case Program, Case no. C15-06-1844.0.

Sims, Benjamin. (2007). “’The Day After the Hurricane’: Infrastructure, order, and the New Orleans Police Department’s response to Hurricane Katrina”. Social Studies of Science 37(1): 111-118.

Sommers, Samuel R. et al. (2006). “Race and Media Coverage of Hurricane Katrina: Analysis, implications and future research questions”. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy 6(1): 39-55.

Tilly, Charles. (1992). Coercion, Capital and European States: AD 990-1992. Cambridge: Blackwell.

Watson, Lyall. (1979). Lifetide. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Eric Ouellet © 2009

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