Emma Restall Orr believes animism is more logical and coherent than scientific materialism — she may be right.
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On this episode of Skeptiko…
Emma Restall Orr: …that’s the sadness about so much of science, because it’s taken us from where Christianity, and in our British culture Christianity was so thick — and it laid in the authorities, and it told everybody exactly what to think, what to feel, how to behave — and then science has taken over done exactly the same thing, and that was a problem in Christianity, and it’s a problem in science.
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Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science and spirituality, with leading researchers, thinkers and their critics.
I’m your host Alex Tsakiris, and I suppose I rail on and on about the absurdity of mainstream science’s position [regarding] consciousness — that is that it’s an illusion, a product of the brain… biological robot… meaningless universe — all that stuff you’ve heard a million times. But the real absurdity is that we still debate it. It’s still respectable for mainstream science, intellectual types, academia types to kick those ideas around and mull them over and really dig into them, when it’s just ridiculous.
So, it’s quite refreshing when someone who’s totally on the outside, and has the dubious distinction of being a prominent member of the Neo-Druid, Neo-Pagan community, let alone the fact that she’s a woman, it’s just fascinating when someone like that can step forward and just kind of kick the shit out of materialism, very succinctly, very concisely and does so in a way that brings us back to that question that I always ask — how can this be?
So, Emma Restall Orr is our guest today, she’s the author of many very interesting books, extremely articulate, an excellent writer. Of course, we didn’t agree on some things, but agreed on many more and it was certainly fun and delightful to have her on Skeptiko and to [have] her join me in this conversation.
Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome Emma Restall Orr to Skeptiko. Emma is the author of several books including The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature, in which she suggests that animism, this idea that everything, even rocks, trees, stars, are alive with consciousness. Well, she dares to suggest that this radical, crazy idea is actually a coherent alternative to scientific materialism.
Anyone who’s listening to this show knows that I’m saying that tongue in cheek, because we all know that scientific materialism has been shown over and over again to be many things, but at its core, just bad science. I don’t think that’s going to be surprising to you, but I think Emma’s approach might be a little bit different and interesting to Skeptiko listeners because Emma has a long-time background as a Druid and a Neo-Pagan. So we’re going to have some fun times talking about a whole bunch of different stuff.
Let me start by saying, Emma, welcome to Skeptiko, thank you so much for joining me.
Emma Restall Orr: Thank you Alex, it’s a pleasure to be here. I hope, after your introduction there, I can actually make some sense of my thoughts, instead of just, open my arms and say, “Listen, this is how I experience life.”
Alex Tsakiris: I think you’ll do quite fine. First of all I have to give a compliment and a praise to my friend Mike Patterson, who kind of nudged me into doing this interview; Mike has helped me with some other shows, and he said, “Wow, this is really a cool book, I think it’s right up your alley,” and I looked at it and I go, “Wow, this is really interesting,” and at the same time I was intrigued by the whole Druid thing as I think a lot of people will be.
…point well taken, point well taken, but just, let me interject, because this is kind of an interesting dialogue, I’ve never really had this with anyone in the past, but you’re hitting on something I think is kind of interesting. See, like for example, I do not have that strong sense of connection to place that a lot of people do, and I totally respect that. I totally respect where you’re coming from and respect in the sense that I think it’s completely genuine and I think some people experience that at a very deep level, and I think other people don’t.
Emma Restall Orr: That’s interesting because when I studied, when I used to teach Druidry around the world — in The States, in South America, in Australia, all around, the sort of the Celtic or the British diaspora, the Druid diaspora — and I would be teaching people to explore the context, their ecology, the land that they’re living in, while at the same time understanding that the only way they can reach Druidry is through their ancestors, because Druidry is not the religion of that landscape, it’s the religion of, perhaps their ancestors. For me in Britain, I get Druidry through the landscape.
Alex Tsakiris: To me it seems like the lines get really blurry, as soon as we go back a little bit. Let’s take ancestor worship. I am totally in connection with my ancestors, I feel their presence, I ask for their help and guidance. I’ve never said this on the show before, but that’s okay. But, I also feel drawn to Neem Karoli Baba from India, right? And I have this strange connection with Yoga that’s just popped up in my life, and Hindu practice. I don’t know where that’s coming from and I haven’t explored that fully, but that is there in an undeniable way.
So I’m not resistant to anything you’re saying, I’m just saying, for me, and for a lot of people I know, it just isn’t that clean cut where I can say, “Gee, you know, I feel this connection,” and, man, my connections seem to be very, very blurred; in a lot of other ways that feel totally good as I connect to them, [and] they don’t feel out of place or anything.
You know, I live in Southern California, in San Diego. Man, I remember when I first came here, I felt a connection to this place, I felt like, this is more where I’m supposed to be. I don’t know if this is the ultimate where I’m supposed to be, but this is more where I’m supposed to be than Chicago where I grew up.
Emma Restall Orr: Yeah and I grew up in Denmark, in Spain, in South America on the far east. I was in Chicago for a few years as a child, so [I was] all over the place, and actually it was my desire to connect with my ancestors that brought me to England and to commit to living in England. My brother is in The States; he’s a professor at State College in Pennsylvania, and my son is in The States. So I have a sense of that global identity, but for myself, for my own need, and I think this is specific, I think there are people that strive for a connection with God, Godness, Deity — whatever that means, whatever we understand that to be — and there are some that don’t. There are some who strive to connect through their ancestors, through the land, and some who strive through their reason, through community, through archetypes or other kinds of culture and mythology.
For me, ancestry was very important and I would rationally… looking at in a psychological perspective, that must be, I would imagine connected to the fact that I have a genetic weakness in my nervous system, which my grandmother has, my aunt has, and it goes back through my grandmothers. So that has inspired me to understand my ancestry perhaps better than if I were fighting fit and had no need to see where these things came from.
But, I think it’s like anything, once you start to explore it, you either grok it, it either feeds you or it doesn’t and I find that a lot of people, once they start to know the names of their ancestors, start to know where they come from, start to breathe in and eat the food of that place, they start to find a deeper connection. Without that, they don’t know that there’s a superficiality, an un-rootedness about their being, but once they start to find those roots, they can find a deep nourishment. Not everybody does, but sometimes that can be an enormous source of nourishment and learning and I would recommend it to anybody.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, so I’m stuck on this now and I can’t let it go. What about reincarnation? I mean a lot of people have direct experience with memories of their past life, I don’t want to judge that one way or another, other than to say, the best science that we have, in terms of looking at that, like the folks at The University of Virginia, Jim Tucker and before that Dr. Ian Stevenson — undeniable, I mean, just seems to be a reality and it’s been passed down just by virtually every wisdom tradition, including Druidry, right? So reincarnation takes that in a whole different direction. I mean, forget about connection to the land, the soil, you’re all over the globe, some people would say even outside of this earth thing, you know, in terms of these lives. So, isn’t it again, kind of a fuzzy line, where we draw and say… and it just sounds a little off, whenever I hear someone say ‘blood’ I’m like, “Wow, wait a minute, what are you talking about?” Isn’t it kind of bigger than that?
Emma Restall Orr: It is very much bigger than that and I think… okay when you talk about blood you’re talking about things which are immediate sensory connection. So I love the desert, I love the Mediterranean coast, I love the forests down, you know, 300 miles away. All of that, I love it, but what’s right here at the moment is the wood of the table that I’m sitting at, that’s a deep immediate sensory experience, it doesn’t mean that other things aren’t important, and I’m not connected to other things.
But also I have had, what I believed were clear experiences within myself and within other people, of reincarnation, of stories that made sense, that connected in ways that we couldn’t have understood, and yet now, I don’t believe in reincarnation.
Alex Tsakiris: Without getting too abstract, I think what it also does is it taps into this very basic fundamental need we have for being in control, or at least maintaining the illusion of being in control. I mean, really, when you break it down, that’s what materialism’s all about; it’s saying, “Hey, there’s all these rules, and these rules work perfectly and we can measure everything and everything’s going to come out okay,” and I think everything beyond that only happens when we give up this sense of, you know, we’re really not in control.
Emma Restall Orr: Yes, and I think that’s the sadness about so much of science because it’s taken us from, you know, where Christianity and in our British culture; Christianity was so thick and it laid in the authorities and it told everybody exactly what to think, what to feel, how to behave and then science has taken over and one exactly the same thing.
Alex Tsakiris: Right.
Emma Restall Orr: And that was a problem in Christianity and it’s a problem in science and it’s only when we break apart both of those that we can find the value in both of them. And I would take that back to Druidry and to Hinduism and to Islam and to everything. I mean, there are folk in Paganism who are doing just the same thing.
Alex Tsakiris: Right, right. I want to talk about that. We all this need or this ability or this blind spot to spin into orthodoxy right? And to be all following, you know, just, “Tell me answers so I don’t have to think too much.”
Emma Restall Orr: Yes and that’s like saying, well there’s life and there’s dead, and you are alive or you’re dead and that’s it, and there’s black and there’s white and there’s… you know, there’s none of that, there is just the being, the experience of being in the mindedness in a profusion of patterns that we perceive in various different ways. That’s what it’s about, but that’s a very… for most people that’s the way of madness, because we use all these tools in order to tap down, or smash down, hammer down a reality. And reality, I would [characterize] reality as that which we need to believe in order to stay sane.
So it’s got nothing to do with the actuality of the universe, it’s about what we need to believe is true in order to stay sane.
Alex Tsakiris: I get where you’re coming from, but I’d say it in a slightly different way because in your book, The Wakeful World, what you do is draw the contrast, the relief if you will, and say, “Okay, let’s look at materialism, does that really hold together?” And when you start picking it apart, then, for the average person who’s coming at this; by comparison you’re already drawn to animism, because you’re like, “Wow, that really is so ridiculous, you mean I’m just this biological robot in a meaningless world, nothing is real, my experience isn’t real, nothing else matters or I’m not interacting…” you know, it sounds at that point, so absurd and so crazy that I think anyone is open to, “Well what’s the alternative?”
Emma Restall Orr: It’s not even that it’s meaningless because the meaninglessness to me is somehow, it’s a human emotional response to the reality, I’ll use that word. If you look at it rationally — scientifically if you like, using the tools of science, there is no understanding in science of what consciousness is. There are people like your friend, going through stories, they’re anecdotal stories and they’re looking at research, but it’s through narratives, through stories, through experience, but what is consciousness? Nobody knows. And the fact that nobody knows what consciousness is, is really hidden in our world. People don’t talk about it. There’s an assumption that someone knows that, because if you don’t know what consciousness is, then why are you giving anti-psychotic drugs, what are these antidepressant drugs, what are these drugs that shift consciousness? I’m not talking about plants and drugs that come out of nature.
Alex Tsakiris: But they don’t answer the question either, I mean, it doesn’t matter if it’s organic, it’s still the same question; one of the ways to get there is the Hindu neti neti neti, I mean, it’s not that, it’s not that, it’s not that. It’s also this origin of the Skeptiko of the Greek philosophers, keep asking the question, it’s not that, it’s not that.
So we don’t know what consciousness is, and as we get closer to it and whereas we understand that perhaps consciousness is fundamental — it is the base of everything, then that means it’s going to be impossible to ever know what consciousness is, but what we can do and what is useful and what you are doing is saying, “You know what, it appears that consciousness is not this, it’s not purely an epiphenomenon of the brain, it isn’t manufactured the way we manufacture cars, it isn’t neurologically based.”
Emma Restall Orr: It doesn’t make any sense to look at where consciousness emerged, when did consciousness suddenly come into…? You know, we look at […] at what point does it…? It’s a category error, it doesn’t make sense.
Alex Tsakiris: Exactly.
Emma Restall Orr: It emerged out of something else, it can’t, it’s too different, it’s absolutely fundamentally different, and it’s disrespectful; now I’m shifting it from the scientific to the spiritual and putting in that word — for me it’s disrespectful for imagine that it’s not fundamental.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, I got that. So what are you bringing to the table? What is Druidry telling me about the big picture questions I want to know — Who am I? Why am I here? I mean, that’s why I’ve done a hundred shows on near-death experience, that’s why I’m interested in mediumship, from a scientific standpoint, or reincarnation. I want to answer the big questions — what does Druidry tell me about this extended consciousness realm which seems to be at the center of everything?
Emma Restall Orr: I’m going to go back before you interrupted me so beautifully, which is study nature and that included study human nature. Study it as deeply and fully as you can. So for me, as you’ll see in my books, that includes for me studying the heritage of my philosophy, so the heritage of western philosophy, going outside of that work can help me studying Hinduism and Buddhism and Shintoism, whatever it may be. Studying until I understand more what works, in terms of my perspective, my perception and that includes, or that brings us, when your focus is on nature, that brings you to a respect and wakefulness and a willingness to open your mind to what nature truly is.
Alex Tsakiris: But Emma, you have to realize, anyone could say that, anyone can and does say that. There’s a bunch of new-agers who, at the end of the day seem to have very nasty ulterior motives, who say exactly the same thing.
Emma Restall Orr: That’s not what I’m saying. You’re asking me, so what is it specifically that Druidry can offer or I can offer? What I’m saying is that what we’re all doing is we’re studying stories and experience, other people’s experience and our own experience and we’re studying stories and we’re narrating our own experience. We’re doing the same thing. You’re saying, “Everyone can say that,” and I’m saying, “Yes,” that’s human nature, that’s what we’re doing. It is absolutely simple, it’s all the same stuff. What you’re saying is, “But hang on a minute, but where are you finding some truth?” We say there isn’t any truth, all it is, is about doing the simple stuff, that’s it. Just absolutely simple and getting it right, and we know we’re getting it right when we’re living in a sustainable harmony. And that sounds trite as well, because it’s simple, because that’s all there is.
Alex Tsakiris: Let me throw out one of my ways of measuring truth, that I’m kind of going towards. So, one of the things I have is, and it’s out of the Bible, I’m not a big Bible person at all but, you know, “You’ll know them by their fruits,” right? So I love people in the alternative spiritual community and I consider myself in the alternative spiritual community, even though I don’t know what the heck that means, but I run across people in the occult or esoteric or Wicca or all this and they hit with the Aleister Crowley thing, you know, and I just want to say, “Great, perfect example, let’s know him by his fruits.” A despicable human being. We don’t need to overthink that, we don’t need to hear about how the Beatles loved him or how he changed society, he lived a despicable life from every way we can record it. So I take him as an example of, maybe I want to, kind of, question more, what he’s doing.
Emma Restall Orr: How we find the value, how we find lessons that are absorbing, lessons that are worth learning, yes absolutely. Because again, it’s about relationship. You can find sound, nourishing, elevating relationships with people who are peaceful, joyful, who are working, living well and that’s exactly what you’re saying, I would agree entirely.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, but all that just get a little bit problematic, I kind of always recoil when people say that. So the Amazonian people are animistic until somebody walks in with a fricking machete and then they say, “Wow this kind of works pretty good,” and the next day somebody works in with a chainsaw and some people say, “No,” but some people say, “Yes.” I also relate to the other story where you talked to the Native American/Canadian people who are honest and say, “Gee, we have a hard time stripping out some of the dogma and the orthodoxy that’s kind of hung around for a long time.” I mean, we’re all trying to figure out the same thing, I think we’re all some place in that grey area. I’m not totally on board with [the idea that] that you can be totally animistic. I think you can be, kind of more than that; a lot of us could move in that direction pretty comfortably without ever having to kind of pull back.
Emma Restall Orr: My experience is that it’s like, you know one of those cubes where all the lines are drawn in and you can just shift your perspective of which side is front ways, do you know what I mean?
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah.
Emma Restall Orr: There’s a name for that, I can’t remember what it is.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, the Rubix Cube, yeah.
Emma Restall Orr: When you shift and the front is there and then you can shift your perspective and the front is the other side of the cube, and that instant shift of perspective is what I feel it is. I think you can, you can see everything as alive, you can feel, you can react, you can respond moment by moment to everything as minded or you can shift your perspective and what is around you is inert and that is, I think, a shift, a radical shift of perspective.
I think there is a grey area, in terms of the intellectualizing, with the understanding of it, but not the experience of it, moment to moment.