Friday, November 29, 2013
This post is the last one of the Zeitoun series. The next posts will look into the 1989-1990 UFO wave over Belgium.
The Zeitoun events from the perspective of the MPI (part 6)
After reviewing the evidence available on the apparitions at Zeitoun in previous posts, this text is proposing an analysis based on the Model of Pragmatic Information (MPI) developed by the parapsychologist Walter von Lucadou . The MPI has been used on this blog at numerous occasions to analyze other large scale paranormal events (or socially relevant anomalies (SRA)), such as the 1952 UFO wave over Washington D.C. Because of these previous presentations of the MPI, only a brief recapitulation of the model will be provided here. For more details, please refer to this particular post and this one.
Introduction: Back to the MPI
The MPI has been originally developed to study poltergeists, better-known as Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis (RSPK) in parapsychology. Von Lucadou, based on his extensive empirical research on RSPK, noted over time that RSPKs tend to unfold according to a general pattern, and therefore it is possible to predict how a RSPK would start, peak and disappear.
Most scientific parapsychologists consider that poltergeists are actually uncontrollable psychokinetic (PK) forces (or energy) produced by someone in a family, or a small and close knit group, who has deep but unexpressed psychological challenges. It is oftentimes a teenager, but not always, and the reasons for such over-representation of teenagers are not well understood at this time . The extension of the MPI to large scale events (such as the Zeitoun apparitions) is based on the assumption that collective psychokinetic is the fundamental element behind the anomaly.
According to the MPI, a RSPK evolves in 4 phases: (1) Surprise, slow start when only a few notice something really strange and unusual; (2) Displacement, ramping up and peaking when many start to notice but start to believe that the phenomenon is caused some sort of non-human entity; (3) Decline, when sceptical observers arrive, as they do not believe in the non-human entity explanation and have a more rigorous look at paranormal events; and (4) Cover-up and Disappearance, when official authorities get involved and declare the phenomenon to be a hoax or a fraud.
In each phase, there is a particular set of people who seem to play a more preponderant role. In the surprise phase, there are a few people who experience something completely unexpected with strong emotions, which are called the “focus person and his/her immediate environment”; (2) during the displacement phase, other people (who are called the “naïve observers”); joined the first experiencers but these new people tend to displace the meaning of what is occurring by fixing the explanation on the activities of some powerful non-human entity; (3) then during the decline, people called the “sceptical observers”, usually made of professionals and well-educated people, enter the fray and challenge directly the supernatural explanation provided by the naïve observers; finally in the cover-up, society through the “authorities” steps in to quell the public disturbance caused by the events.
From the point of view of the MPI, the people around the phenomenon and what they believe to be true are key parts of the RSPK process. It is why the naïve observers are very important in reinforcing the belief in the supernatural origin of the phenomenon, so are the sceptical observers and the authorities in making it disappear.
Phase 1: The very short ambiguous start
The events of Zeitoun started with the surprise of a few non-Christians (the public transit workers) and Christians (women walking in the street at the same moment). These people were afraid that someone would commit suicide, and they were quite worried, enough to call the police. On the other hand, some Christian women were completely excited and rejoiced to see what the construed as the Virgin Mary. In spite of the diverging explanations, for all these people there was no doubt in their mind that there was indeed someone on the Church’s roof. During the surprise phase, like in a typical RSPK, the first few experiencers already hypothesized a supernatural explanation for what was seen without being fully certain about it. Notably, the Church priests were not present to confirm what was seen at the time of the first apparition.
The gathering of people at the Zeitoun site took a few days to become major public event. The word of mouth process brought an increasing number of people from the neighborhood, not too sure what to think. As well, the first witnesses did not report all the other strange phenomena noted later, such as the “birds”, the smoke, the scent, etc. From that point of view, this fits generally well the description proposed by the MPI of an RSPK, where the phenomenon grows in intensity and diversifies itself in the later displacement phase.
As noted before, the focus person in the case of SRA is difficult to find. In a typical family RSPK, the individual who has unexpressed psychological challenges can be identified fairly easily, as the disturbances, usually, only occur in his or her presence. In the case of a collective PK, who might be the focus person is much less clear.
However, there are a few clues available. The MPI proposes that the use of psi effect (PK) is to convey a message (hence the notion of “Pragmatic Information”), which in the case of a typical RSPK would be about the psychological distress of the focus person. Such messages tend be symbolic, comparable to night dream symbolism produce by the unconscious part of the mind.
At this point in the analysis, let’s take note that the very first people who saw the phenomenon were Muslim people, part of the Egyptian broader public service, who were all thinking that they observed someone “near the abyss”. There is an implicit possible symbolic message here; more on this below. Furthermore, in the case of Zeitoun, like in most typical RSPK events, the symbolic message seemed to have been missed completely by the people in the surrounding environment, namely the Muslim workers and Christian women.
Phase 2: Rise and peak through displacement
In the days that followed the first apparition, the crowd started to gather in greater numbers around the Church. In the MPI language, the naïve observers arrived in mass to the site. If there was any doubt about the Marian nature of the phenomenon, they were quickly set aside by the intense religious fervour and the growing intensity of the apparitions. New phenomena started to be seen such as the “birds”, miraculous healing, smoke, scent, and movements of the apparition beyond the roof. During the first few first weeks, the interpretation was fully displaced towards a supernatural explanation. Even some of the original public transit workers were absorbed into the naïve observer crowd after experiencing what they construed as miraculous healings.
According to the MPI, such “slippage”, from a symbolic message to the belief of having a non-human entity in action is actually a requirement for the phenomenon to continue and grow. As long as the message is not understood, as long as the emotional-symbolic system is not closely observed for what it is, the level of indeterminacy in the psi-related system remains high, and therefore a key condition for non-local (or non-causal) effect (psi) to occur is maintained.
Phase 3: No immediate decline…?
It is here that the Zeitoun case is particularly interesting from the point of view of the MPI, as it did not follow the usual pattern of a RSPK: the phenomenon continued for a number of months before starting to experience serious decline. What happened?
The decline phase, according to the MPI, is directly linked to the arrival of sceptical observers on the scene, shattering the beliefs that the naïve observers were upholding. What happened at Zeitoun is something rarely seen in a typical RSPK: the authorities stepping in quickly with a sympathetic approach to the phenomenon! Not only they did not try to quell the supernatural events and its explanation, but actually they did everything to institutionalize its supernatural meaning.
When the Coptic Church sent priests to investigate, they quickly agreed about the “genuine nature” of the Marian apparition. The alleged visitation of President Nasser, if true, would have just reinforced the social and emotional dynamic favorable to the Marian explanation created by the swift action of the Coptic Church. Furthermore, by creating a professional medical committee to investigate the miraculous healings, the Church essentially “enlisted” many people who would normally be considered “sceptical observer” to further reinforce the supernatural explanation. This had for effect of neutralizing, at least in Egypt, dissident voices from potential sceptical observers. This approach from the Coptic Church is perfectly understandable and very much to be expected from a religious institution that canonically accepts the notion of miraculous apparitions. By comparison, such sympathy for poltergeist entities does not exist in modern police and health authorities
Phase 4: No cover-up just growing indifference
The disappearance of the phenomenon appears to be in conjunction with the shrinking size of the crowd, which of course had a feedback and self-reinforcing effect of creating a phenomenon less interesting to attend to. In the case of Zeitoun, given that the authorities were fully on side with the supernatural explanation, the quelling effect of formally branding the phenomenon as a fraud or a hoax simply did not happened. Hence, from the MPI perspective it was rather growing indifference that slowly “killed” the phenomenon. In other words, the anomaly ceased to be socially relevant but without the “slandering” interventions of powerful social actors (i.e., the authorities).
Who were the focus persons?
As discussed in a previous post, and in this post, people, symbolism, geography and dates can help us identifying possible candidates for a focus person. As stated above, the first to see the anomaly were Muslim public workers and Christian women. From this point of view, the message, or pragmatic information, might have been directed towards the Muslim people who were closer to the government of the time (socialist, nationalist and not particularly religious), and to the Christian minority of Egypt. The symbolism of being “near the abyss” seems to be a serious warning that people were close to getting into a very serious problem. The location, Cairo, is the seat of Egyptian government, but it is also the largest city in the country, so geography is information more equivocal as to where the focus persons could be.
However, the dates seem to be particularly relevant. The events in Zeitoun started on 2 April 1968. What happened in Egypt, at the same time, that might cause a serious collective upset but that could not be fully expressed by other normal means? This is of course open to interpretation, but later in April 1968 the Egyptian government liberated over one thousand jailed radical Islamists, members of the Muslim Brotherhood , including Ayman al-Zawahiri who will become later on the no.2 and now no. 1 leader of Al-Queda . The Brotherhood eventually organized the assassination of Egyptian president Anwer El-Sadat in 1980. More recently, they stole away the original spirit of the Arab Spring of 2010. They got one of them elected as president (Morsi). They are suspected of orchestrating, or at least informally encouraging, repression against the Coptic Christian minority. And they got the Egyptian military worried enough about the future of their country to organize a coup to remove the Islamist president Morsi, and redraft the new constitution against the Islamists.
Could the knowledge, or precognition, about the liberation of over 1,000 members of the Brotherhood in 1968 created a strong collective feeling of throwing Egypt into the abyss? Certainly the notion that these people were dangerous already existed in Egypt in the 1960s. Could there be some people in the Egyptian national security apparatus in 1968, who were aware and extremely anxious of the government’s plan to provide an amnesty to members of the Brotherhood, but unable to speak up? This seems probable. Could they be the focus persons? Impossible to tell for sure, but they seem to be likely candidates.
There is little doubt that geophysical activities in Egypt in 1968 contributed to create the enabling conditions for very unusual events to be perceived. Many of the phenomena described by the witnesses can be explained through various theories and models found in geology, even if some models remain incomplete, such as the tectonic strain theory. Yet, on its own geological explanations of all the events once they are taken together and looked at from a more granular perspective cannot reasonably account for what happened. To stick to a purely geological explanation, one would need to invoke a long list of geological coincidences never seen before and dismiss condescendingly all the witnesses as unreliable. This is an unreasonable perspective that is based on a belief that a purely naturalistic explanation somehow exists but cannot be proven. The religious explanation is no different from the geological one, as it is based on a theological corpus from which a belief in Marian apparitions can be supported but not proven. It is a matter of belief.
From a parasociological standpoint, the events in Zeitoun were socially relevant anomalies. Some of such anomalies resist naturalistic explanations, and yet there were certain geophysical enabling conditions at play, as well as pre-existing beliefs in Marian apparitions, which contributed to perceiving anomalies. Such context points towards the possibility that collective psi effects occurred in Egypt in 1968 and later on, where geology and religion played an important support role.
The events in Zeitoun, if there were psi effects involved, could be described as psychokinesis. The selection of the MPI to study the events as a collective form of RSPK was justified. The analysis of the Zeitoun apparitions using the MPI provided a different interpretation to what happened. This explanation is neither religious nor naturalistic, and yet does not require a belief system. The final explanation, or at least an explanation that would satisfy almost everyone, is likely to be never found. But clearly, the choice is wider that just geology or religion.
From a parasociological and parapsychological perspective, the fact that the events did not unfold as a typical RSPK is not an invalidation of the MPI. What happened is rather that the institutional conditions (Church authorities versus regular police or health authorities) were different in the Zeitoun, and can be explained easily in terms sociological differences between different societies. Incorporating such different institutional contexts into the analysis shows in fact that the MPI’s capacity to predict RSPK is preserved and even enhanced. If the authorities jump early in support of a supernatural explanation, this is not without consequences.
One can just wonder if the American military authorities had supported the extra-terrestrial hypothesis (ETH) in the 1940s and 1950s how the UFO phenomenon would have evolved over time. In fact, it might have died earlier because this would have de-energized the combative naïve observers (ETH ufologists), as they would have had no conspiracy to uncover. The naturally occurring growth of indifference, over time, would have done the rest in making the phenomenon disappear.
 For more on von Lucadou and the MPI, please see this brief biography, and this paper on the MPI.
 Once more, and to be clear, the concept of RSPK excludes any notion that the disturbances popularly known as poltergeists are caused by non-human entities of some sort (although the belief in the existence of non-human entities is critical for the phenomenon is continue for a while).
 Hiro, Dilip. (1989). Holy Wars: The rise of Islamist fundamentalism. New York: Routledge, p. 69.
 Erickson, Marc. (2002). “Islamism, fascism and terrorism (Part 4)”. Asian Times, 5 December, available online at http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/DL05Ak01.html.