INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
DOUBTING MIND
Great Skeptical Thinkers

Harry Houdini

Felisha Jacobus

“Do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see are necessarily 'supernatural,' or the work of 'spirits,' just because you cannot explain them.”
- Harry Houdini

Born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary, Harry Houdiniwas one of the world's greatest illusionists and stunt performers known for his uncanny, sensational escape acts. More than that, he is also a noted debunker of spiritualists and psychics. His original name was Ehrich Weisz, which he later changed to Harry, an Americanized version of his nickname “Ehrie”, and Houdini, originating from the French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. During his early years, Houdini worked various jobs to support his family, where he attained the skill of picking locks working as a locksmith (A skill very much used later on in his career). Houdini began to pursue his interest in magic and started his professional career at the age of 17, doing small magic shows, and also working with his brother Theo as “The Houdini Brothers”. He then married Beatrice Rahner, who would serve as his lifelong partner and stage assistant under the name “Bess” Houdini.

Through the years, Houdini gained attention after repeatedly escaping police handcuffs and prisons. He would offer $100 to anyone who provided handcuffs from which he could not escape, but not once did he ever have to pay. Naturally, Houdini earned the title, “The King of Handcuffs”. After several acts and successfully making his name in the United States, he toured to Europe where he extended his fame by escaping from straightjackets and coffins. It was said that his tricks were attained both from his strength and remarkable skill of picking locks.

Harry Houdini
Harry Houdini

A common feature of his performance was being immersed into an oversized milk can filled with water and hidden behind a curtain. Houdini would usually escape in three minutes, but would frequently wait behind the curtains for almost half an hour, purposely to create suspense and a dramatic re-appearance. One case in England, Houdini allowed the milk can to be filled with beer instead of water. Not used to the effects of alcohol as he never had a taste of it, he had to be pulled out to safety by his stage assistants. It was one of Houdini's rare cases of failures. Although those instances happened, Houdini's act reached its peak with the Chinese Water Torture Cell in 1912, where he was suspended by his feet and lowered upside down into a glass tank filled water. The performance was so daring and suspenseful that it became the hallmark of his whole career. Houdini was able to successfully perform his dangerous, difficult acts as he practiced regularly and relentlessly. To further develop his capacity to hold his breath, he installed an oversize bathtub in his house to be able to practice routinely. Through extensive training, he was able to play card tricks without looking at his hands, and tie and untie rope knots with his feet.

As an illusionist who plays tricks and has dealt with various possibilities that bring about death, Houdini had developed an interest in the matter of afterlife, including the realm of spiritualism and the occult. This marked the beginning of Houdini's animosity towards spiritualism and mediumship. Following the death of his mother, Cecilia, with whom he had been very close to, Houdini sought to find evidence of the afterlife, hoping to be able to reconnect with his mother.

Houdini along with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a friend of his, would attend more than 100 séances, a meeting attempting to make contact and communicate with spirits in the afterlife. Doyle was known as one of the most prominent advocates of spiritualism back in the day. Later on, however, Houdini found that the mediums he met were often frauds. Being a magician with knowledge in depicting deception and illusions, Houdini had the ability to detect and recognize such trickery. It was at this time that he began his vigorous campaigns against psychic mediums. He began investigating their methods, ultimately exposing their frauds. Houdini's attempts to debunk psychics and mediums directly influence his performance on stage. Oftentimes, he would duplicate their methods and reveal the tricks and frauds of mediums as a part of his show. On top of that, he would answer questions concerning false mediums in newspapers all around the country, claiming to have exposed the lies of what he called as “vultures who prey on the bereaved”.

There was an episode in the spring of 1922 where Houdini had decided to set up a demonstration to show Doyle that he had found a way to manifest slate writing, a common method among mediums employed for receiving messages from the dead. In actuality, Houdini was trying to prove how it was mere sleight of hand. He succeeded in pulling off his trick, leaving Doyle, who had always believed that Houdini possessed psychic powers and spiritual network, in awe. Houdini then explained such to Doyle himself:

“Sir Arthur, I have devoted a lot of time and thought to this illusion ... I won't tell you how it was done, but I can assure you it was pure trickery. I did it by perfectly normal means. I devised it to show you what can be done along these lines. Now, I beg of you, Sir Arthur, do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see are necessarily 'supernatural,' or the work of 'spirits,' just because you cannot explain them....”

Unfortunately, Doyle refuses to be swayed by his beliefs, continuing to believe that Houdini had psychic abilities. The following summer of 1922, Doyle's wife had given Houdini a purported message from his deceased mother, claiming to have been achieved it from automatic writing initiated by a trance. However, Houdini was doubtful as the letter included several suspicious marks such as a cross, which was odd as his mother was Jewish, and the fact that the letter was written in English, which Cecilia did not speak. Houdini knew immediately the letter was fraudulent, and exposed Doyle's wife for portraying deceptive psychic abilities.

In 1923, Houdini took a time off from his shows and travelled across the country to give lectures regarding false mediums and spiritualism. Later on, in the same year, he decided to join a committee formed by Scientific American magazine to offer a total of $5,000 for any mediums that could show genuine psychic abilities by passing the committee's tests. After a few months of joining the panel, Houdini had succeeded in debunking renowned medium Mina Crandon, better known as Margery. This act turned him against Doyle, resulting in a rift between the two because they had opposing ideologies. The friendship dissolved and eventually turned into public threats and lawsuits when Houdini unveiled the deceiving methods of one applicant of the prize whom Doyle had previously endorsed. Undaunted, Houdini continued on to expose spiritualists and false mediums until the day of his death.

Interesting enough, even the seemingly ruthless debunker could not resist the temptation of doing one last spiritual experiment before his last breath. Some time before his death, Houdini had instructed Bess, his wife, to look for signs and evidence of his attempt to communicate with her in the afterlife. On October 31, 1926, at the age of 52, Houdini died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix in Detroit, Michigan. It was said that his affliction was caused by a punch on the stomach by a McGill University student, rupturing his appendix. Houdini refused to seek medical help and continued to travel until the day of his death. Bess continued to look for evidence of Houdini's soul, holding private séances every Halloween for more than a decade. However, before her death in 1943, Bess declared the experiment a failure. It is as if Houdini, even after his death, proved of the lies and deceit of spiritualism and the supernatural. “Ten years is enough to wait for any man,” Bess uttered.

Further Reading

1. Escape Artist Harry Houdini Was an Ingenious Inventor, He Just Didn't Want Anybody to Know, www.smithsonianmag.com

2. A Magician Among the Spirits, Fredonia Books (NL) (June 24, 2002)

3. The Miracle Mongers, an Exposé, Independently published (October 5, 2019)

PREFACE | David Christopher Lane

Before the current pandemic altered our day to day lives, the MSAC Philosophy Group had been working on a book entitled, Doubting Mind: Great Skeptical Thinkers, which contained separate essays on a number of notable researchers who champion critical thinking and skepticism when analyzing paranormal claims, such as UFOs, astrology, and various religious claims. The book has now been finished, though it took a bit longer than we anticipated.

The word skeptical has too often been conflated with the word cynical. The former term comes from the Greek word skepsis which properly defined means "to look, view, observe." Or, as Miguel de Unamuno explained in 1924 in his book, Essays and Soliloquies, "Skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found."

To be cynical, on the other hand, indicates that the person is "[pre] disposed to disbelieve or doubt the sincerity or value of social usages or personal character or motives and to express it by sarcasm and sneers, disparaging of the motives of others, captious, peevish."

Therefore, it is important to understand that a skeptic is not one who ad hoc dismisses borderland ideas, but is one who is willing to go the extra mile to gather more (not less) information about any given phenomenon. As I have often remarked (to the obvious consternation of certain cult followers), we, humans, are too gullible when we accept miraculous claims without further investigation. We are cheap sluts for the paranormal, believing too easily in conspiracy theories that defy the known law of physics.

There are many reasons why this is so, but I suspect that in a world where everything eventually eats one another to survive (whether it be a vegan eating plants or a carnivore eating meat), any organism that can develop a buffering illusion to survive such a horror show has an evolutionary advantage over others that cannot. This came into sharper relief for me this past week as I watching the British made television mini-series, War of the Worlds, where in one particularly poignant scene a mother who has just witnessed the death of her children at the hands of an alien species realizes that there is no point in continuing to live in such a horrific environment. She opts to shoot herself and the viewer instead of being shocked perfectly sympathizes with her decision.

Nature is a madhouse if looked at objectively and therefore it is not surprising that we have evolved all sorts of mental defense systems in order to live long enough on terra firma to pass on our genetic heritage. Since we are the survivors in this boiling cauldron of eat or be eaten, we have inherited a variety of tools to ward off the true existential dread that can overcome any being that becomes too keenly aware of how this DNA game plays out.

I mention all this as a necessary preface, since no matter how well versed we may become in science (and trained to become good doubters, in the positive sense of that term), we still retain at the core of our beings a deeply emotional component that defies a purely rational or logical way of being. We may act like scientists from time to time, but we are not scientists in the long term. We are vulnerable creatures and our myths and our fairy tales will persist even if we opt for agnosticism or atheism, though they may take on a different color and hue and justifications.

Thus, this book provides us with but a small glimpse of how to think more rationally and critically, despite the sobering realization that we cannot be great skeptics all the time.






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