Sunday, December 18, 2005

Flying high

An friend sent me the following quote, from the now-deceased yogi Neem Karoli Baba: "It is better to see God in everything than to try and figure it out."

I was just one of a group of folks on my friend's mailing list, and probably the person least likely to to be impressed with the yogi's thought. Certainly, I am not unsympathetic with the idea of seeing God in everything; that strikes me as more reasonable than seeing God in just some things -- miracles, say. But trying to figure things out is, in my opinion, humankind at its best. What is science but trying to figure things out?

In any case, I've never been particularly enchanted by the holy men of the east. All those magic tricks they are so famous for -- teleportation, bi-location, levitation, fire-walking, and so on -- are fakery designed to hoodwink the gullible. Yeah, yeah, I know; the internet is full of testimony to the authenticity of these "greater siddhis." That only proves there is no end to the nonsense people will believe in their quest for the transcendental.

Consider the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru to the Beatles. He was into levitation. I remember a "yogic flying" competition staged by the Maharishi's followers in Washington, D.C. some years ago. They successfully demonstrated their mastery of Stage 1 of levitation, a bounce from the lotus position called "hopping." They never quite made it to Stage 2, "hovering," or Stage 3, "free flight." Only the holiest of yogis, apparently, are permitted to soar.

In 1977, when the Maharishi went to India with his disciples, an Indian skeptics group offered him 10,000 rupees (about $1,000) to fly from Old to New Delhi, a distance of about two miles. The Maharishi agreed, but then backed out when the time came to fly up or shut up. Yogic transportation is a spiritual activity, he claimed, not for secular demonstration.

So come, Josephine. We don't need a flying machine. Just sit with me here on the floor. Cross your legs into the lotus position. Close your eyes and chant this mystic mantra: "Higgily, piggily, diggildy, dare. Here we go soaring up in the air."

OK, I'm being cynical, the typical materialist scoffer. So be it. When I see a yogi fly I'll eat my hat. Till then, I'll scoff.

Levitation has a long mythic association with the spiritual life. Holy men and women of many religions have been reputed to levitate, including hundreds of saints from the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps the most consistently airborne saint was Joseph of Cupertino (Italy, not California), who reportedly made dozens of flights in or about his church, once landing amid lighted candles and setting his clothes on fire. Many people claimed to have witnessed Joseph defy the law of gravity, but since it all happened a very long time ago there's not much we can do to check the reliability of their reports. Unholy people, such as witches and warlocks, also flew in medieval times, presumably with demonic propulsion.

More recently, levitation has been most frequently claimed by spiritualists, dabblers in the paranormal, and members of fringe cults. Many well-known mediums established reputations as flyers, including D. D. Home, W. Stanton Moses, Eusapia Paladino and Willy Schneider. Their demonstrations usually took place in darkened rooms. Apparently, darkness enhances the ability to levitate.

What does science make of all this mystic soaring? Is the law of gravity subject to amendment? Are there spiritual powers that can make Newton's apple ascend to the tree? Not likely. Levitation is a scientific problem for psychologists, not physicists.

Sigmund Freud wrote about the desire to fly in his essay "Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood." Leonardo was passionately interested in flying. He studied the anatomy and flight of birds, and designed several kinds of flying machines, including something akin to the helicopter.

One of Leonardo's earliest "memories" was of being visited in his cradle by a bird. The bird opened Leonardo's mouth with its tail, and thrashed the infant on the lips. It is not difficult to guess what Freud made of this.

The flying fantasy, said Freud, is a disguise for the infantile wish to be capable of sexual performance. He buttressed his case by compiling instances of words in various languages that associate birds and flying with sexual organs or sexual activity. For example, Freud tells us that the commonest expression in German for male sexual activity is vogeln "to bird," and in Italian the penis is called l'uccello "the bird." I don't want to make too much of Freud, but his analysis, if true, might help us understand the popularity of levitation.

But there I go again. Trying to figure it out. Disenchanting life. Rooting out mystery. A typical skeptic bent on removing every vestige of spirit from the world. Well, in this I rather agree with Carl Sagan, who wrote: "Science has beauty, power, and majesty that can provide spiritual as well as practical fulfillment. But superstition and psuedoscience keep getting in the way, providing easy answers, casually pressing our awe buttons, and cheaping the experience."

When we give up trying to figure it out, we slip back into the middle ages, in danger of setting our pants on fire with Saint Joseph of Cupertino. And the forces of hocus-pocus reaction are certainly growing in influence every day, even in America. Is this the future we want? Imagine great cadres of levitators, serenely disposed in the lotus position, overflying our cities, darkening the sun like vast flocks of passenger pigeons. Imagine kamikaze levitators, cultic leaflets in hands, dive bombing our homes and places of work. Imagine a great End Times air show, with thousands of yogic flyers doing barrel-rolls and loop-the-loops, and skywriting for all to see warnings of Armageddon.

Be glad we have the laws of physics to keep them on the ground.

Further Reading

For an enlightened view of the relationship between science and eastern traditions, read the recent article of the Dalai Lama, based on his talk before the Society for Neuroscience. An excerpt:

Although Buddhist contemplative tradition and modern science have evolved from different historical, intellectual and cultural roots, I believe that at heart they share significant commonalities, especially in their basic philosophical outlook and methodology. On the philosophical level, both Buddhism and modern science share a deep suspicion of any notion of absolutes, whether conceptualized as a transcendent being, as an eternal, unchanging principle such as soul, or as a fundamental substratum of reality. Both Buddhism and science prefer to account for the evolution and emergence of the cosmos and life in terms of the complex interrelations of the natural laws of cause and effect. From the methodological perspective, both traditions emphasize the role of empiricism. For example, in the Buddhist investigative tradition, between the three recognized sources of knowledge - experience, reason and testimony - it is the evidence of the experience that takes precedence, with reason coming second and testimony last. This means that, in the Buddhist investigation of reality, at least in principle, empirical evidence should triumph over scriptural authority, no matter how deeply venerated a scripture may be. Even in the case of knowledge derived through reason or inference, its validity must derive ultimately from some observed facts of experience.

See my account of firewalking in Skeptics and True Believers.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.