Dr. Jack Hunter, Anthropology, Animism, Panpsychism and What’s Next|383|

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Dr. Jack Hunter has blazed a new trail called paranthropology, but that’s just the start of his paradigm busting.

photo by: Skeptiko

Jack Hunter: It’s kind of like murky territory. I know that Gordon [White of Rune Soup], for example doesn’t like the idea of panpsychism and he, like you, was talking about panpsychism is kind of like a backdoor materialism again, at the end of the day.

Alex Tsakiris: I think it’s a crutch. I think it’s the last bastion of materialism holdouts… one foot on the dock, one foot in the boat, kind of thing…

Jack Hunter: It’s on the way towards animism but it’s not willing to go all the way. When we talk about panpsychism for example, we’re talking about some kind of, like a fundamental kind of consciousness, or a fundamental awareness that’s not consciousness as we understand it, it’s the basis of awareness. Whereas, when we’re coming from an animistic perspective, that other consciousness has just as much agency and intention in the world as we do, they just express themselves in different kinds of ways.

So, the consciousness of a rock isn’t necessarily just some kind of, like a flatline background consciousness, but actually it possesses its own agency and intention in the same way that we do, but it expresses its agency and intention in the world in a very different way, perhaps over, like vast, vast timescales or things like that.

Alex Tsakiris: This is fun because this is now an opportunity to take the conversation one step further because I’m listening to you and Gordon and all your cool thoughts on animism and I’m thinking, “But guys, you’ve missed the point. It’s on the way towards what?” Again, I mean, take these different wisdom traditions and I’ve always been interested in yoga and in the East and in particular Vedanta and non-dual kind of thinking. Hey man, all of those people, they’re saying, “Sure, spirits are here, spirits there, spirits everywhere.” On the way towards what? It’s about transcending that spiritual reality and getting to what’s next.

So, it does seem to me to be somewhat of an arbitrary stopping point to say, “Ah, we’ve got it. We’ve arrived. It’s animism.” No, it’s like this discussion you were having about, does animism subsume idealism, “No, of course not, because idealism is really closer to that non-dual, vedantic kind of thing that says… it all goes into one. The wave and the ocean are separate only because we imagine them to be separate.

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skeptiko-Join-the-Discussion-3Alex Tsakiris: Welcome to Skeptiko where we explore controversial science and spirituality with leading researchers, thinkers and their critics. I think we have the right guest to fill that promise today. Dr. Jack Hunter of Paranthropology fame is joining us. Jack, welcome to Skeptiko, welcome back, thanks for joining me.

Jack Hunter: Thanks for having me, it’s good to be back.

Alex Tsakiris: You were on a while back with this very excellent book that I have up here on the video screen, Talking with the Spirits, extraordinary work, and you followed that up with a new book, Engaging The Anomalous, which we’re going to talk about. We’re going to talk about both of those but tell us a little bit about this new book in general, what it’s about and all of that good stuff.

Jack Hunter: This book is basically a collection of essays that I’ve written over the last seven years or so. It was kind of written alongside my thesis, so in a way it’s like a mini version of my thesis. My thesis actually takes parts of the chapters from this book and kind of expands on them and makes them a little bit more academic. But really, these are the essays that I was writing as I was trying to think through the whole process of writing my thesis, right from the very beginning.

They were all published in different kinds of journals, for example, the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena, their journal. They were one of the first groups to publish any of my writings. There’s a few chapters in the book from there.

There’s some other chapters, one was published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. Others were published in various magazines and different places like that.

So, it’s kind of like a hodgepodge of my thoughts.

Alex Tsakiris: I think it’s unfair to call it a hodgepodge. We should also alert people, remind people, that you are the publisher/editor of this excellent journal, Paranthropology. There’s so much packed, even in that name there, but I wanted to point this out because I thought it was so interesting.

George Hansen, The Trickster guy, wrote the foreword to your book and I love this one little piece on there, he said, “Here’s a young guy who, when he started his PhD program eight years ago, founded a journal, Paranthropology,” and he said, “Quite audacious.” I thought, “Wow, doesn’t that kind of sum it up.” You’re such a cool guy, a mellow guy, I love the way you push these boundaries and you’re mellow but you’re incredibly audacious too.

It is rather audacious to say, “Hey yeah, I’m just going to take anthropology, turn it upside down, take it from this anomalous parapsychology, paranthropology kind of perspective and, yeah, that’s just what I’ll do to start my PhD thesis,” eight years ago. What was that all about?

Jack Hunter: Well, really the journal started because when I became interested in the possibility of an anthropological approach to the paranormal, I was looking for academic journals, different kinds of venues where anthropologists would be talking about these kinds of things. Obviously, I came across the parapsychology journals, the work of the Society for Psychical Research and then eventually I discovered the journal for the Anthropology of Consciousness. That seemed to be the most fitting for what I was interested in.

But when I started to read the journal itself, I realized that over the years… and this is something that other people have picked up on as well. Mark A. Schroll wrote a really good article about this called Wither Psi in the Anthropology of Consciousness, and basically, over the years, the more extreme, kind of high strangeness, weird paranormal kind of stuff, had been expunged from the journal and they’ve gone down a much safer route of thinking about the anthropology of consciousness.

When you think about parapsychology, it’s a discipline that deals with phenomena that are not fully explained by the mainstream explanatory models of psychology. So, we’re dealing with things like telepathy and psi and things, which mainstream materialist psychology says can’t exist, but then the data seems to suggest that it does.

So, with anthropology, what we’re interested in, or with paranthropology rather, what we’re interested in is phenomena that the dominant explanatory frameworks of anthropology are not able to fully explain.

The dominant models that we’ve got are things like social functionalism and biomedical reductionism and all of these kinds of things. These are a cognitive approach again. These are the dominant explanatory frameworks that are used in anthropology.

But then, when we come to analyze things like spirit mediumship or different kinds of paranormal phenomena, we find that those explanatory frameworks don’t really work, they don’t match the data and they don’t really tell us anything about what’s going on.

So, that’s where I think paranthropology is. It’s a dealing with phenomena that mainstream anthropology doesn’t really have an adequate explanation for.

Alex Tsakiris: Great. Ontology?

Jack Hunter: When we talk about ontology, we can take it in two different ways. We can take it in the philosophical sense of an inquiry or a study into the nature of being, so, thinking about what exists. Then we can take it in the, kind of, anthropological sense, as referring to, kind of like a set of things that a particular group of people holds, that exists. If that makes sense.

Some people have said that when we talk about ontology in anthropology, what we’re really talking about is, it’s just another word for culture or world view, but actually it’s more than that. We’re not just talking about beliefs, we’re talking about the whole [Amazonian 00:11:58] Shamanic Society, for example, it’s going to contain a whole load of other kinds of entities, beings, different kinds of things, to a Western materialist ontology.

So, that’s what an ontology is, it’s the sum of all of things that exist within a particular framework.

Alex Tsakiris: Awesome. Fortean?

Jack Hunter: Okay, yeah. This is a really important one for me, because as I was saying, when I founded the Paranthropology Journal, I wanted to focus on those kinds of more high strangeness kinds of things, and the Fortean approach provides a nice, kind of method, it gives us a way of thinking about those without bracketing them out in a way that social sciences have tended to do in the past.

Alex Tsakiris: To just make sure, in case people don’t know, quickly cover who Charles Fort was.

Jack Hunter: He was a writer, kind of towards the tail end of the 19th century and he wrote these four books, which were basically collections of all of these accounts of strange unusual phenomena that he’d found documented in various scientific journals and newspapers and things. So, he gathered all of these things together and he called them his ‘Damned Facts’, these things that science…

Alex Tsakiris: I’m sorry, your video cut out, so I’ll use that opportunity to interject and just weave in a couple of examples, the raining frogs and this kind of stuff, which we can’t get around the fact that this is documented. This is in the news that we can correlate it with other news events, this seems to be an accurate reporting of what’s going on at this time and they said there was a solar eclipse, “There was a solar eclipse.” They said these hoards invaded, and “They invaded,” and right along beside that, they have all these farmers out in the field observe the frogs. Why would we dismiss one account and then another? And that was Charles Fort, saying, “Yeah, why would we? We can’t. Let’s just at least record these.” Do you want to expand on that?

Jack Hunter: Exactly. He’s just saying that there’s all of this stuff that happens out in the world that our scientific models have actively ignored for the past 200, 300 odd years. He thinks that they’ve been pushed aside, for whatever reason, because they don’t fit in with our established models or whatever.

Really, what he wants us to do is challenge science with all of this ‘damned data’, so put it on the table again and also to encourage us to think about things in slightly different ways.

One of the things that I’ve taken most from Charles Fort is his idea of intermediatism, which is his kind of philosophical perspective on the nature of reality. I suppose you could call it his ontology really. He says that everything kind of exists on a spectrum, kind of like on a sliding scale between realness, on the one hand, and unrealness, on the other. So, everything that exists in the world exists somewhere on this spectrum, which basically means that anything that exists, it’s not 100% real and it’s not 100% unreal as well.

Alex Tsakiris: Awesome. Here’s where I want to go next and I gave you the heads up on this beforehand. You did an interview, not too long ago, with the very excellent Gordon White and the interview you guys did was terrific. I thought it could also serve as a tremendous springboard to our discussion, because so many of the topics you brought up in that interview are things that I want to talk about. Also, I love this idea of the [unclear 00:15:54] these important conversations that people are having through shows like Gordon’s and seeing if we can take it to the next level, because I always hate starting at ground zero, like we always have to do, rather than say, “Hey, here’s what came up for me when you guys were talking.”

So, with your permission, let me play to listeners a clip from that interview that you did with Gordon and then we can chat about that as a launching off point into a number of things that we’re going to talk about.

Jack Hunter: We were trying to think of how we could frame it, because I’ve thought of other terms before. There are terms like post-secular anthropology and all these different ones, and really, they’re all talking about, kind of the same thing. It hasn’t kind of crystalized yet. Do you see what I mean?

Gordon White: Yeah, yeah. I just think it needs a barrel roll, because paranormal is beside, super is above, meta is above. I think you just need to go, “Do you know what? Fuck you. It’s anomalous anthropology, that’s what it is”. That’s what it is.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, so there’s some really cool stuff there that we can talk about. First of all, I love Gordon’s ‘barrel roll’. I think that’s just very cool, and then I love when you guys get into, you know, you take the ontology thing that we just talked about and then you talk about, or maybe Gordon, what he does, ontological flooding. I just thought, “Wow, isn’t this a cool, kind of level 3 conversation that I want to jump in on and talk about.”

Maybe you can frame up for people who aren’t really getting what that’s all about. Tell them what it’s all about, because I think it gets right to the heart of where you’re at, what you’ve done, some of the most exciting things about this book and your work in general. What are you guys talking about there?

Jack Hunter: Ontological flooding is the term that I have developed for my kind of approach to thinking about all of these competing explanations. Actually, I don’t really think of them even as competing explanations, just explanations that give us snippets of the truth.

Alex Tsakiris: Can I interject something in there Jack?

Jack Hunter: Yeah.

Alex Tsakiris: This discussion that you guys had, actually spurred some creative thoughts for me and that played into another interview that I just did with Chris Knowles and let me talk you down that path because it’s kind of interesting.

When you say ontological flooding, you’re really contrasting that, I think, with ontological bracketing.

Jack Hunter: Yeah.

Alex Tsakiris: Which says, “Oh, we should only understand it this way. We should only understand it this way.” So, this conversation I’m having with Chris Knowles, and he’s talking about the New York City Gala and how the Catholic Church has somehow created this crazy thing where they’re loaning items to this, basically, Luciferian kind of festival and all this crazy stuff, and I said, “Wait a minute. This is reality bracketing.” This is, on one hand, saying, “Oh, this is just fashion. Don’t worry about it, it’s just fashion,” and on another level, it’s saying, “Well no, this is spiritual, this is about the Church.” Or “This is political, this is about the Pope and Catholicism.” “Oh no, this is about mind control and culture shaping.” It’s reality bracketing.

I was drawn in that direction because of this conversation that you and Gordon had, and I think the parallels are important to me and I think they can be drawn out in a way that you’re taking it from more of an academic thing, but it’s the same thing.

When you say ontological bracketing, you’re talking about reality bracketing. You’re talking about getting into a certain blinders mode where you say, “Oh no, I can only look at this culture through this lens and I must not look at any of this other stuff that’s going on.” What I think you’re saying is, “No, we need to look at what’s going on from all of these different realities and we need to look at them all at the same time,” which is even more difficult, and we need to break through the Fortean Damn, which I think you have a great thing about the Damn Damn thing.

Jack Hunter: Yeah.

Alex Tsakiris: So, I just wanted to set the table with all of that stuff and thank you guys for kind of teeing that whole thing up for me. But ontology bracketing, reality bracketing, reality flooding, ontological flooding, let’s go there for a while.

Jack Hunter: I think what really comes out of this idea of ontological flooding is the idea that we need to embrace complexity and not be so, kind of set in our ways with trying to find simple explanations for things.

The example that I use to explain ontological flooding a lot of the time is with spirit mediumship, where you have all of these competing explanations, which think that they’ve sorted it all out. Like I said before, social protest theories that say that spirit mediumship is all about social protest. Then you’ve got biological, medical theories that say that spirit mediumship is just a biological aberration, as some kind of an illness or a disease. There’s the psychodynamic theories, all sorts of different theories, but at the end of the day, none of them is a completely satisfying explanation in themselves.

Actually, when you start to piece them altogether, we see that we’re dealing with something that is way more complex than any of those individual explanatory frameworks has been able to accommodate.

So, ontological flooding is really saying, and as you were saying, that we need to take into account all of these various perspectives at the same time, to get the best or the nearest to reality perspective that we can get.

Alex Tsakiris: Help people understand, animism compared to, let’s say, panpsychism or compared to materialism or compared to idealism. Without getting too much into the philosophical part of that, but just at a really kind of quick level, the people who are saying animism, when they throw in that same sentence with idealism and…” what are they talking about?

Jack Hunter: Again, going back to what I was saying about spirits and stuff, that was kind of like an outdated way of thinking about things, it was implicitly loaded with assumptions about the people who were animists. So, you’re suggesting that the people who were animists were kind of primitive and that their way of thinking was useless.

So, right from the very beginning, anthropology has been interested in animism, but again, it’s kind of bracketed out its, kind of, ontological truth value, if you can talk about such a thing, so that it’s just a bunch of beliefs, relativism.

Alex Tsakiris: Let me interject and see if this is true or not, because sometimes me coming as a total novice might help, but you’ve got to correct me because this could be totally wrong.

So, the anthropologist walks into the forest of New Guinea and he goes and talks to the Sharman and the Sharman says, “That tree just talked to me, and that rock also is wise in this way, and the water is this,” and the guy’s taking his notes, he goes, “Okay, this guy, kind of has this really weird belief system because he thinks all of these things are alive and have this spiritual quality to them.” So, is that originally what they thought animism was?

Jack Hunter: Yeah, and they thought it was a belief system, because they implicitly understood that, again, the Western materialist scientific ontology was the only one that’s actually true, the only one that’s actually real.

Eventually though, through more and more ethnographic engagement with people, so more and more anthropologists going out over the years and living with people and interacting with them, learning their lifeways, we begin to realize that animism isn’t just a belief system, that animism is actually a mode of engaging with the world. So, it’s a way of living in the world. It’s not just about beliefs, it’s about practice and experience and participation in the world.

Now, animism is often referred to as a relational ontology. So, the foundational components of animism, the foundational elements of it, are to do with relationships between persons and they say that not all persons are human. In anthropology we talk about other than human persons as well. So, these could be rocks, plants, animals and all of the other kinds of spirits and gods and deities as well.

But the important thing is the situating of society within a network of relationships. This is where the ontology differs from materialist ontologies and all the other kinds of Western mainstream ontologies, is that we’re realizing, through animism, that we’re embedded in this bigger network of interactions with different kinds of minds, different kinds of intelligences and that these relationships are the fundamental building blocks of reality.

Alex Tsakiris: Then, add to that, flood that with our understanding, our gradual understanding of the paranormal, and someone goes out and encounters spirits or our understanding through parapsychology of medium research or of other encounters with the paranormal that now eat away at the underlying assumption that was originally made that not only is it a belief system but it’s an incorrect belief system. So, you’re crushing the idea that it’s a belief system, it’s not a belief system, it’s a total engagement with reality, but then add to that that there is a reality to that reality and that my presuppositions about how the world works and the craziness of this spiritual realm have now begun to crumble with the parapsychologists and the paranormal people, right?

So, all of these things are happening at once in real time and having these different affects and forces on the whole process, right?

Jack Hunter: Yeah, definitely.

Alex Tsakiris: So, we should add to that conversation then, and I want you to pick this up, because I think this is what throws people sometimes too, and it’s a lot to deconstruct, is that animism is now being reintroduced into these conversations, like with you and Gordon, as an alternative to idealism, as an alternative to materialism, and I think we’ve just given people an idea of why that conversation goes on, but maybe we need to add to that a little bit and explain how those are kind of now put on, “Oh yeah, panpsychism is basically like animism and that’s different than idealism and materialism.” Do you have any thoughts in terms of helping people understand that?

Jack Hunter: Well, yeah. It’s kind of like murky territory. I know that Gordon, for example, Gordon doesn’t like the idea of panpsychism and he, like you, was talking about [unclear 00:47:02] and things, that panpsychism is kind of like a backdoor materialism again, at the end of the day.

Alex Tsakiris: It’s a crutch.

Jack Hunter: Yeah. You think that’s Gordon’s crutch?

Alex Tsakiris: No, no, no. I think it’s a crutch. I think it’s the last bastion of materialism, holdouts, one foot on the dock, one foot in the boat, kind of thing. I’m mixing metaphors, but…

Jack Hunter: It’s on the way towards animism but it’s not willing to go all the way. When we talk about panpsychism for example, we’re talking about some kind of, like a fundamental kind of consciousness, or a fundamental awareness that’s not consciousness as we understand it, it’s the basis of awareness. Whereas, when we’re coming from an animistic perspective, that other consciousness has just as much agency and intention in the world as we do, they just express themselves in different kinds of ways.

So, the consciousness of a rock isn’t necessarily just some kind of, like a flatline background consciousness, but actually it possesses its own agency and intention in the same way that we do, but it expresses its agency and intention in the world in a very different way, perhaps over, like vast, vast timescales or things like that.

Alex Tsakiris: This is fun because this is now an opportunity to take the conversation one step further because I’m listening to you and Gordon and all your cool thoughts on animism and I’m thinking, “But guys, you’ve missed the point in the same way. It’s on the way towards what?” Again, I mean, take these different wisdom traditions and I’ve always been interested in yoga and in the East and in particular Vedanta and non-dual kind of thing. Hey man, all of those people, they’re saying, “Sure, spirits are here, spirits there, spirits everywhere.” On the way towards what? It’s about transcending that spiritual reality and getting to what’s next.

So, it does seem to me to be somewhat of an arbitrary stopping point to say, “Ah, we’ve got it. We’ve arrived. It’s animism.” No, it’s like this discussion you were having about, does animism [unclear 00:49:23] idealism and it’s like, “No, of course not, because idealism is really saying that it’s closer to that non-dual, vedantic kind of… it all goes into one. The wave and the ocean are just separate only because we imagine them to be separate.

So, I’ve teed it up enough there, let’s start that discussion.

Jack Hunter: Yeah, well I agree with you because I don’t think that animism is the place to stop necessarily, but again, like you’re saying, it’s one step closer to whatever the ultimate thing is. But, I think it’s a particularly useful way of thinking about the world, given that we have, for the past 150 years been literally destroying our planet. It gives us, kind of like a framework to rebuild our relationship with, kind of like the ground of our being here. Do you see what I mean? Thinking in terms of relationships shows that we are part of this wider network of things, whether it turns out to be an idealist universal, multiverse or whatever, animism teaches us that we have to look at the local area as well.

Alex Tsakiris: I love that. I think that’s extremely wise on a number of levels and it kind of gets into this last topic that I wanted to talk about, and we have been talking about really, and that is, what works and what doesn’t?

From a practical sense, once we give up on the idea that we’re going to get to the answer, we’re going to get to the solution, we’re going to solve our own problems and solve the problems of the world. Once we get past that we can be a little bit more humble and say, “Okay, what might work towards making me better in answering these questions?” And, as you eluded to, if we can be humble about our role in the world we can maybe look at the same things, those same bitter questions from that personally. “Okay, what can I do to make things a little bit better in my community, a little bit better with my family?” you know, at the dinner table or whatever.

With that, we ought to introduce people to your excellent podcast. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re talking to a podcaster. Dr. Jack Hunter has entered the world of podcasting. Permaculture, I swear I did not get the whole permaculture thing, Gordon’s been talking about it for a year, since I’ve been listening to him. I got it for the first time when I heard episode one of your podcast and how this relates.

So, let me play a clip from this, an extended clip and then let’s talk about it.

Jack Hunter: Okay.

Jack Hunter: I would argue probably that my approach is not so much to do with belief and is more to do with experience. So, the kinds of things that I’m interested in are usually rooted in, from my perspective they seem to be rooted in experience first and then belief is something that comes later.

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