The Psychic, the Inquisitor, and the Scientist

When I launched this website during the summer of 2020, I was excited about the opportunity to discuss topics that are important to me. I was also eager to go public with my metaphysical classes and the readings I have been doing for so many years. That was the easy part. What I was not prepared for was the challenges posited by branding my services: as I soon realized, I had to claim a label for myself.

I eventually settled for “psychic;” however, I still cringe when I see this term associated with my name. Technically, “psychic” is the correct definition for what I do. I sense, see, and know things other people seem unable to perceive. Yet I am also fully cognizant of the stigma associated with this word.

While in today’s world the term “psychic” often evokes gullibility and deceit, psychic skills are as old as humankind. In prehistoric times, the spirit world was frequently the only recourse against ill fortune, and those who were able to communicate with the subtle realms most likely enjoyed a decent standing among their peers. Fast forward to about 10,000 BCE, and the social stratification ensuing the rise of agriculture began formalizing and bureaucratizing the role of spiritual specialists.

One of the salient qualities of organized religion is the monopoly it exercises on magic and the sacred, usually to the detriment of those who do not abide by the same beliefs and do not defer to the same hierarchies. A most brutal example of the role of organized religion in stifling alternative perceptions of reality is the witch hunt that took place in much of the Western world between the 16th and the 18th century, killing approximately 40,000 people.

Why were witches persecuted with such animosity? Not only were most of them women—a troubling quality in patriarchal times—but they also claimed they could talk with spirits and flaunted unusual powers. These skills threatened the authority of the clergy and its monopoly on truth.[1]

While it is beyond the purposes of this essay to delve into the complex political and ideological dynamics underlying the witch hunt, it bears mentioning that the Catholic and Protestant habit of drowning witches or burning them at the stake lasted well into the 18th century.

Openly eschewing the monopoly on truth held by religious organizations, by the same time philosophers like René Descartes and John Locke as well as scientists like Isaac Newton had begun reclaiming the fundamental role of reason in exploring and defining the world. As these thinkers established a new paradigm steeped in rationality, the witch hunt mercifully came to an end; yet the obsession with burning witches gave way to the habit of dismissing them as charlatans.

During the 19th and the early 20th century, scientists had an ambiguous relationship with spirituality. Casting all things metaphysical as the province of superstition, many of them claimed that, eventually, science would fully replace the need for supernatural beliefs. Others, instead, took a genuine interest in the study of occult dynamics: among them, medical doctor Wilhelm Reich tried to measure subtle energies and physicist Michael Faraday took an interest in spiritism. Several scientists would attend the seances that were popular in those years, exposing fraudulent mediums but also acknowledging the truthful ones.

What characterized these researchers’ investigations was true skepticism as a suspension of judgement and the desire to ascertain the authenticity of supernormal phenomena. In contemporary Western science, however, the dominant definition of skepticism has morphed into a faith in its own right–namely the belief that nothing exists beyond the physical world and no amount of evidence disproving this conviction is worthy of consideration.[2]

As always, notable exceptions abound; these include the work of parapsychologists eager to deepen their understanding of occult dynamics. The marginal status of their discipline in today’s academia, however, bears evidence to the hegemony of the materialistic paradigm and its iron grip on the production and the legitimation of knowledge. This entails, in the first place, the perpetuation of the discredit and the pathologization of expanded sensory perceptions.

At the dawn of the 21st century, this stigma still causes many educated professionals to refrain from publicly discussing their psychic experiences. Nobody is likely to be burned at the stake; however, say one word too many and your reputation will be forever tainted. Unlike the witches of yore, it is not in the nearby pond that you will be drowned but rather in the ridicule provided by your own social and professional circles.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, goes the saying: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Over time, the persecutions meant to protect the dominant definition of truth have been replaced by more sophisticated—and certainly less brutal—dynamics; yet the stigma continues. One can only hope that, eventually, even mainstream Western scientists will relent in their defense of the materialistic paradigm, embracing true skepticism as the suspension of judgement vis-à-vis the unknown.

[1] The witch hunt also targeted outspoken and independent women as well as political opponents and wealthy individuals whose properties would be confiscated after their death.

[2] This consideration applies to the educated segments of Western societies. Religious fundamentalists and conspiracy theorists, instead, are ensconced in a pre-Enlightenment episteme where science is viewed with suspicion and rationality is dismissed as an unnecessary trapping.

Image by Parvesh Kumar via Unsplash

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