Book reviews: Head to Head

Occasionally there is time to read enough books on a subject that it is worth comparing them. There are many many books on all sorts of subjects paranormal. Here I speak not of fiction but of actual paranormal experiences. Some of these books are able to look at this emotive subject in a way that helps to shed light on what might actually be going on. Of course, there are no absolutely convincing arguments, but a well constructed essay is thought provoking and interesting. Books like these are important inspiration for paranormal fiction. Interestingly, I think that there is perhaps more strangeness written that is thought to be fact that there is fictional strangeness that knows itself.

Why People Believe in Spirits, God and Magic (The Paranormal) by Jack Hunter
Jack Hunter is an anthropologist and is the founder and general editor of the peer reviewed journal paranthropology (
His ebook attempts to answer the question of why and how people believe in spirits, gods and magic from a social anthropology point of view. It provides an overview of supernatural traditions and practices around the world. The author also explores anthropological interpretations of supernatural and spiritual experiences, including the paranormal experiences of the anthropologists themselves when they are doing fieldwork. As a PhD candidate whose scientific interests clearly fall within the field of the spiritual and paranormal Jack has managed to get quite a few publications under his belt. This latest ebook is a rather endearing and level headed, objective (scientific) review of the anthropological basis for visions, spirituality and mysticism.
Essentially, the theory goes, we are the children of evolution and it has been a significant advantage to our ancestors to develop acute senses that can recognize danger, threat and predators lurking in the bushes. It is not much of a leap to understand that these same ancestors were better off seeing a threat one time too often than not seeing the predator that was there on one occasion. This bias towards a slight over sensitivity and the general lack of negative evolutionary consequences caused by false positive response (sic seeing imagined threats) makes us what we are today. We see simulacra in trees and on rocks and when the sun shines in a certain way shadows catch out attention; we take note very quickly of anything that is unusual or different to our concept of normal. None of this is helped by the plethora of natural agents, and latterly synthetic agents that can ‘broaden the mind’.
As Voltaire said “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.” In one sense it could be hypothesized that rituals lead to religion because questions “why do we bury the dead?” will lead inevitably to answers relying on current interpretation of the world and the afterlife. Jack Hunter’s work takes us neatly through the development of the study of the paranormal as an anthropological discipline. More importantly the development of shared beliefs leads to social cohesion and from there no doubt the seeds of inter-societal animosity.
This is not to say that the supernatural or paranormal is not real, merely that there is a serious point to be made that once we started to control the environment around us and communicate on a higher level it became inevitable that we began to consider and find answers to questions that lay beyond the normal pattern of daily life.

The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible by Joe Nickell
Joe Nickell is a prolific writer is the field of the paranormal and specifically favoring the debunking and exposing of unsupported stories. According to his biography he “has been called “the modern Sherlock Holmes” and “the real-life Scully”… Since 1995 he has been the world’s only full-time, professional, science-based paranormal investigator. His careful, often-innovative investigations have won him international respect in a field charged with controversy.”
Conveying the sense of adventure surrounding the investigation of any mystery, this is both entertaining reading and a comprehensive, science-based study of miracle claims. He evaluates the evidence in six major categories of miracle claims: miraculous images (such as “weeping” icons); magical relics (like the Shroud of Turin and the Holy Grail); miracle healings (at Lourdes or at the hands of healers like Benny Hinn); visionary experiences (including near-death experiences); saintly powers (such as stigmata); and “the devil’s work” (such as demonic possession).
“The Science of Miracles” is a collection of anecdotes from the author’s investigations over the years liberally spiced up with references to his many interviews, debate appearances and selection. Essentially it is limited on actual science but does contain numerous references to other literature. The science that is discussed is generally done by others. When the author does describe his own investigations it is clear that he is not averse to putting on a disguise to obtain access and close scrutiny of the miracles. The end apparently justifies the means. The scientific aspect is the close observation (when possible) of the artifacts and personages in question combined with a forensic examination of available literature.
The author’s logic proposes that identifying a contradictory theory is the same as proving the fallacy of the original theory. This black and white approach is all too common but is too simplistic to be called scientific. Personally I have no axe to grind either way but to me the investigations written in this book appear rather superficial and it is too easy to consider that the author is too easily convinced by his own arguments.
The book rambles through a predictable selection of miraculous events and judges them by the cynicism of the 21st century and indeed the knowledge of this age. There was little thought presented about the possibility that these miracles may have been more miraculous at the time they took place. It is clearly also a nearly impossible task to understand what the true facts were and what are the well-meant Chinese whispers handed down from antiquity; just as materials are corrupted by the passage of time, so are messages from the past.
Joe Nickell has investigated many things and looked carefully at many assumptions and this experience is clear in the pages of this ultimately unsatisfying tome. It is interesting to consider that Scully always managed to miss what she was experiencing, blinkered as she was by a preset notion of what was possible.
Head to Head
The two authors approach the subject of the supernatural / paranormal from very different directions. Hunter describes a detailed analysis of multiple societies and cultures and even though conveying belief systems as being inevitable he does not propose that they are necessarily incorrect or that the individual experiences were not real or felt. Nickell describes his own experiences in this work and essentially plays Alexander to the Gordian Knot of a swathe of miracles, texts and experiences taking the position that an alternative view (his) or identification of a single inconsistency must nullify the whole. While Hunter seems open to the possibility of any of the experiences being real, Nickell brings his theory of cynicism to validate the data he collects. Hunter’s work expands the feeling of wonder at the diversity of the inexplicable whereas Nickell’s leads one to a heavy feeling of the mundane.


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