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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).


The Edgar Cayce Koan

Psychic Unknowingness
and Our Amaurotic Tendencies

David Lane

I appreciated Elliot Benjamin's agnostic purview as outlined in his recent article ["Agnosticism and Fundamentalist Mediumship"], particularly his acceptance of alternative viewpoints concerning how mediums garner information. I found the unnamed “President's” pointed rejoinder to Benjamin (where he snidely queries, “do you think that everything Edgar Cayce said in his readings was just his imagination?”) to be not only silly, but also more of a rhetorical boomerang than he might have realized. Why? Because a close analysis of the Cayce readings that was conducted by K. Paul Johnson, a sympathetic scholar who was encouraged in his research by A.R.E., didn't find anything of a truly paranormal nature.

Edgar Cayce
Edgar Cayce (1877-1945)

I had the opportunity of reading Johnson's manuscript before it was published by SUNY Press and found it to be a remarkably objective study—so impressive, in fact, that I wrote a long review of it, which I include here since I believe K. Paul Johnson and Elliot Benjamin share much in common. Perhaps if that unnamed “President” closely studied Edgar Cayce in Context he would realize why Elliot Benjamin is spot-on when he writes, “But I'll say again that my agnostic perspective looks at all possibilities, and the interpretation of coming from my imagination for what I experienced at my Mediumship workshop is a very reasonable one, and I know the process I was using at the time and it felt to me very artificial, and there are all kinds of interpretations that do not involve either an afterlife or psychic interpretation for anything I heard in the responses from people that I worked with at my conference.”


Skepticism is an extremely valuable tool in the arsenal of the researcher, but it is a tool among many.

In this new study of Edgar Cayce, Mr. Johnson exemplifies a most remarkable methodological bias: open-mindedness. Unlike typical studies of the paranormal or the transpersonal, where the reader is left with either adopting a believer's or a skeptic's position, Johnson weaves an illuminating pathway by which one can see where Edgar Cayce's readings have been historically and factually inaccurate or where they indicate a potential transrational imperative. In either case, Johnson is masterful in avoiding the pitfalls that usually sink investigations of this kind. As he demonstrated with his pioneering books on the history of the Theosophical Masters, where he literally grounded the metaphysical Great White Brotherhood down into the social and political moorings of the late 19th century, Johnson places Edgar Cayce in the larger, infusing environment of the early and mid-20th century. By doing so, the reader begins to appreciate the religious context out of which Edgar Cayce was operating, and, in turn, how to better appraise the import of his trance readings.

Johnson does not believe he has the final answer on Cayce's psychic abilities. Rather, he has taken a multi-dimensional view of the man and in so doing can easily navigate between the waters of empiricism and occultism, while all along remaining relatively unscathed and still objective. Undoubtedly, Johnson is the best guide we have on Edgar Cayce to date.

Having said that, however, my task is not to adopt Johnson's broader phenomenological perspective, but rather to illustrate how a skeptic, particularly one steeped in western science, grapples with the phenomenon of Edgar Cayce. In other words, my task is to "explain" the apparently transpersonal or paranormal elements suggested in the Cayce readings. My approach is decidedly reductionistic (a term I use unhesitatingly and with approval) and therefore tends to look for the simpler, more earthy interpretation of any paranormal claim, whether it be in the realm of ufology, medicine, astrology, or psychic gifts.

Thus, in the case of Edgar Cayce's trance readings I have employed the principal tool of my trade: Occam's Razor. Essentially what this entails is "shaving" down the extraordinary claims surrounding Cayce's readings and attempting to discover a more ordinary explanation. Now Occam's Razor is not a magic blade and it should be remembered that it doesn't always work. It so happens that some phenomena are not quantifiable or reducible. They resist wholesale reductionism and must be understood on entirely new levels of explanation. It may be true to say that a futuristic novel, like Aldous Huxley's Island, is ultimately comprised of letters, 26 individually distinct symbolic units, but entirely misleading to suggest that reading those components in isolation is all that is necessary to understand Huxley's meaning and intention. Obviously, the novel must be read in its entirety (from whole sentences to whole chapters to the whole book) in order to properly appraise all of its various facets.

Thus the spirit of reductionism is not to deflate everything no matter what to its atomic structure, but rather to simplify and reduce those things that are amiable to such reduction. To say that water is H20 is illuminating, since we get a deeper insight into how and why water is formed. It is what philosophers of mind, like the Churchlands, call intertheoretic reduction, an entirely appropriate and meaningful way to grapple with physical mysteries. But to say that the Encyclopedia Britannica is nothing more than alphabet manipulation is to completely miss its most important feature: information. Such information, though comprised of smaller units (whether they are comprised of English, French, or binary), cannot be comprehended until its higher levels of organization are ascertained and understood: the word, the sentence, the paragraph, the page, the chapter, etc. It is on those higher levels where the fullness of information conveyed in the encyclopedia can be appreciated.

But keep in mind one important caveat: regardless of how sophisticated, or higher level order, our information may be—as in the case of the printed or online versions of the Encyclopedia Britannica—it is always built algorithmically: one step, two step, three steps; A, B, C; one letter, one word, one sentence, one paragraph, etc. Our world is a scaffolding project and the closer we pay attention to the various steps inherent to that scaffolding the more accurate and precise our descriptions of the universe become.

How this relates to the field of parapsychology in general and to Edgar Cayce specifically is twofold: 1) before we entertain theories that are trans-rational we should attempt to discover explanations which are rational or pre-rational; and 2) if it so happens that no adequate scientific explanation is possible, even with our current state of advanced technology, we should not succumb to ad hoc transcendental theorizing. Why? Because the very moment we opt for "sky hooks" (Daniel Dennett's lovely phrase for non-algorithmic guesses in contradistinction to "cranes" which are algorithmic and procedural) we have, more or less, surrendered any hope for a communicable understanding of why so and so actually transpired.

To be sure, this does not mean that we cannot wildly speculate any number of possibilities for the odd event, but rather that we "test" those speculations in the empirical world. If we fail to do this, and this seems to be habitual among various New Age practices and beliefs, we are then left open to an almost infinite array of competing stories which rely more on faith than reason.

In light of this context, I personally don't see anything whatsoever in the Edgar Cayce readings which suggests that something truly psychic or supra mundane is happening. But this does not mean that I think that Edgar Cayce is a fraud or consciously trying to deceive his audience. To the contrary, I think Cayce appears quite sincere, even if naive, about the origins of his gift. What is perhaps more important, however, is that Cayce has had a profound impact on many people from all walks of life who have found tremendous meaning and purpose in his readings. This ranges from those who were in direct contact with him to those who have only met Cayce through his writings.

Thus the Cayce phenomenon must be tackled in two different ways: 1) From a purely scientific framework. Do these experiences represent something genuinely paranormal? And 2) Regardless of their putative origins, what does Cayce "mean" to people? These are, I would suggest, distinct questions and should be handled as such. Otherwise, the tendency is to conflate the two and in the process obfuscating any clear answer that may be apparent to both.

In answering the first question, we must be careful not to be so cynical and so dogmatic that we do not fully investigate all of Cayce's readings. This is why Johnson's approach is so useful and why his book is a necessary prelude to any final indictments on the extra-sensory claims inherent in much of Cayce's predictions. It is one thing for me to think that there is nothing "spooky" going on in Cayce's life and work, but quite another for my opinion to be stretched into a final scientific pronouncement. I have a strong hunch, based upon my reading of Cayce, that there is nothing paranormal happening, but my hunch is merely that and cannot, and indeed should not, be construed as a final closure to the ongoing investigation of Cayce's ideas. Skepticism is an extremely valuable tool in the arsenal of the researcher, but it is a tool among many. Ironically, it is better to have more broad-minded investigators explore Cayce first than having either firm believers like a Jess Stearn or an I.C. Sharma, or hard core skeptics like a James Randi or a Paul Kurtz, try to lionize or debunk him. The reasons for this are simple: the researcher who is unsure of his/her position allows for more conflicting reports to come to the surface, whereas the researcher who is already certain—either pro or con—has a tendency to drown any report which doesn't buttress his/her views.

Thus the scientific investigation of Cayce's psychic abilities must not be prematurely "explained away" by skeptics who have not fully and thoroughly investigated his case. Yet, at the same time, the flowering of hagiography that appears to be growing year by year around Cayce should not hamper such an investigation. W. H. Church's novelizations of the Cayce readings are a prime example of what not to do with Cayce's legend. Such crossbreeding of fact and fiction may sell lots of books, but they substantially detract from an unbiased appraisement of the sleeping prophet.

The second question, where one asks how Cayce's life and work has provided meaning to thousands of individuals, is a more complex issue since it involves a wide range of human emotions. Unlike the first query, which I believe can have a final answer (psychic or sociological? paranormal or normal? prophet or folk psychologist?), the question of meaning is an open-ended investigation which by its very nature betrays any single or final response.

Edgar Cayce has become—whether he would have wished it or not—a religious figure. And as a religious figure he serves as a fulcrum for people's yearning to connect with the mystery of being, the sacredness of life, and the wonder of creation. Edgar Cayce has become a modern myth and because of that exalted status transcends the either/or question of genuineness that skeptics, like myself, want resolved. Even if Cayce's readings turn out to be nothing more than the misidentified projections of his own unconscious mind, the Cayce phenomenon will not disappear because for many followers it is not simply a question of psychic ability. It is, rather, a larger question of sacred meaning and purpose and how they have found both in their relationship with Edgar Cayce's life and work. For these advocates Cayce remains a numinous touchstone and not merely a litmus test for borderline science.

One of the more interesting, if controversial, features of Johnson's book is that he takes a two-track approach in evaluating Cayce's psychic readings. First, Johnson attempts to distinguish fact from fiction in Cayce's proclamations. This modus operandi, refreshingly different from most of the popular studies on Cayce which tend to fuse the two (see W.H. Church's conflations, for instance, in his book Many Happy Returns)*, allows Johnson to be both critical and sympathetic. Second, while freely admitting where Cayce has made mistakes, Johnson then looks for the possibility that there may be a deeper religious or spiritual truth buried within the narratives, even if they contain fictitious elements. This is a particularly powerful approach since Cayce's readings tended to be full of spiritual import. Indeed, it may well have been this spiritual aspect that attracted so many to become followers of Cayce's prolific readings. In this regard, Johnson's fascinating profile of Cayce's numerous religious influences (from Theosophy to Bhagat Singh Thind) illustrates that the readings arise from the current fashions of the time.**

What a skeptic may wish to find but doesn't is an airtight case for Cayce's paranormal ability. Yet this is not Johnson's fault, since he meticulously tries to substantiate Cayce's clairvoyance, as in the instance of a predicted passage in the Great Pyramid and the right paw of the Sphinx. In both instances, Cayce's information was shown to be inaccurate. Yet despite such disqualifications, Johnson rightly states that Cayce's material remains interesting as a cultural phenomenon despite its "scholarly implausibility." Thus, Edgar Cayce in Context is not so much a study of purported paranormal ability (the evidence being scant or non-existent), but rather an insightful look at how a genuinely sincere "prophet" can change the course of people's live even if his prophecies are not extra-sensory. In other words, Johnson has tapped into the spiritual heart of Cayce and shown him to be a man of deep psychological insights, if not paranormal ones.

Ironically, the finest endorsement of Edgar Cayce's genuineness comes from a most unlikely source: Baba Faqir Chand, the radical Radhasoami guru of Hoshiapur, India. Faqir Chand, who is well known for dismissing any miraculous claims made about his life and work, proudly displayed a letter from Cayce's foundation, the A.R.E. When asked directly about Cayce, Faqir and his successor, Dr. I.C. Sharma, argued that he was an authentic mystic. This is no slight praise since it arises from a lineage, which tended to dismiss almost all gurus as frauds. Hence, I think Edgar Cayce's readings will survive into the 21st century not so much as illustrations of psychic ability misread, but as psychological and spiritual documents which resonate with seekers interested in a larger synthesis of New Age thinking. In this light, Edgar Cayce emerges as one of the architects to the modern esoteric revival.

Finally, I think K. Paul Johnson represents a new breed of scholar sorely missing in the academic field. He combines an acute critical judgment with a deeply held spiritual empathy, a rare combination. I think it is for this reason that Johnson's first two books on Theosophy have altered the course of future scholarship in that area. I have no doubt that Edgar Cayce in Context will do the same.


* I have been conversant with the Edgar Cayce phenomenon for quite some time. I was commissioned by FATE Magazine back in the 1980s to review W.H. Church's then recent book on Edgar Cayce and his readings entitled, Many Happy Returns. I found the text atrocious primarily because instead of solely relying on the Cayce readings, Church decided it would be helpful to augment them with his own fictionalized interjections, including made-up dialogues that are not found in Cayce's own writings. To add insult to injury, Church argued that his additions were not really fictional. It is hard enough to wonder whether Cayce's original readings are genuine or imaginary without adding another layer of fantasy to them. Perhaps I can be forgiven for ending my scathing review of Church's book with the words, “The only happy return here for the reader is at the refund counter.” Interestingly, a couple of years ago a television crew from Canada flew down to interview me for a featured program devoted to Edgar Cayce. Michael Shermer and I were chosen as the two skeptics to refute some of the more outrageous claims made about Edgar Cayce. I found myself in the unlikely position of partially defending Cayce, since I have long felt that he was not trying to perpetuate a fraud (like other charlatans I have known in the past, such as John-Roger Hinkins or Gary Olsen or Paul Twitchell or Sathya Sai Baba), but was rather genuinely sincere in his belief that he was just a medium for a higher power. But that doesn't mean that I think Edgar Cayce really had psychic powers. I don't. I just think we can all be deceived about the origins and causes of inner voices, visions, and the like.

** It is a little known factoid that Edgar Cayce was a personal friend of Dr. Bhagat Singh Thind, a spiritual teacher who taught a variant of shabd yoga practice. They were so close, in fact, that Cayce followed some of Thind's breathing and meditational practices and advised others to do the same. For further information about Thind and his interesting life and work (including allegations of plagiarism and genealogical dissociation) see Dr. Andrea Diem's The Guru in America (MSAC Philosophy Group, 2008).

POSTSCRIPT: A Kierkegaard Clarification (or not?)

This is why I think Ramana Maharshi's state specific philosophy is an insightful and instructive one.

Elliot Benjamin's ends his essay explaining that he was somewhat confused with my claim that when “we are deeply depressed or extremely ill, we don't worry as much (if at all) about death or non-existence.” He mentions Søren Kierkegaard and one of his more famous titles, The Sickness Unto Death, as an indicative counter ballast to my over arching claim. Yet, a close reading of Kierkegaard's insightful tome shows that he is focusing on a spiritual death, not necessarily a physical one.

My claim about severe depression or extreme illness was that in such situations, the idea of non-existence or the end of such suffering (by death or the cessation of consciousness) doesn't concern us as much, since what we desire in those moments is not “more” or “fuller” awareness, but less, much less.

Perhaps I can make my point clearer by using sleepiness as my example. When we are fully awake and happy and things are going well, we like the space we are in and we don't want it to end. Because of that, sometimes a fear arises that something will terminate it (the end of a beautiful vacation, the death of a lover, etc.). However, if we get really sleepy, our major concern focuses on when we are going to bed. Yes, we may still have fears and wants and desires, but their force lessens in direct proportion to how sleepy we are. Get sleepy enough, and philosophy and its urgencies disappear in a nocturnal flash.

Likewise, get sick enough (and here I can speak from firsthand experience, particularly on a few research trips to India where I got dangerously ill) and the great, unanswered questions of existence take a definite back seat to the desire for non-consciousness or deep sleep.

Another example that may help underline what I am driving at here comes from my youngest son, Kelly, who is (in the words of his current 2nd grade school teacher) an “old” soul and much more serious and much more philosophical than most adults I have met. I have noticed that whenever he is happiest he will come to me and remind me of a dream that has haunted him since he was 3 or 4 years old. In this dream, he realized that those he loved most—his mom and dad—were going to die one day and this made him unspeakably sad. However, I have also noticed that whenever he is very sleepy or quite under the weather (with a bad cold or fever), he tends never to mention the dream to me. Why? I think the answer, though it may not be universal, is a fairly obvious one: the fears we have are directly correlated to certain forms of awareness and their respective intensity. This is why I think Ramana Maharshi's state specific philosophy is an insightful and instructive one, especially as he raises the important point that only certain questions arise at certain times and even then with oscillating degrees of urgency. So when we probe deeper into the nature of self-reflective awareness (and its cyclical tendencies) we ask meta questions, such as “why do I ask why?” or “why do I fear death at twelve noon more than when I am really sleepy”?— simple and perhaps on the surface silly questions, but much more telling than we may wish at first to admit.

I also think Elliot Benjamin reveals something quite telling when he writes,

“And along these lines, I must also say that I don't find it particularly comforting to know that I will eventually fall asleep and consequently all my unsatisfying ponderings about the lack of universal meaning in a materialistic universe will not be troubling me while I am sleeping—as long as I am not dreaming about it, which I apparently am safe from when I am in the dreamless deep sleep state. I mean, sure the extremely depressed person eventually gets some respite when he or she falls asleep, but this does not stop this person from committing suicide the next day.”

Yes, it isn't appealing or satisfactory when we are fully aware and concerned (precisely the issue under discussion here and in our previous essay) to think right here and now that our questions will not be answered and that deep sleep will only give us a temporary respite. But that is exactly the argument: depending on our relative state of wakefulness (or alerted state of consciousness) we find some questions deeply pressing, whereas others concern us less, and vice versa. In other words, the questions that trouble us so much tell us more about our own state of being than about the universe to which we ask such questions. Immanuel Kant, of course, realized this centuries ago in his famous Critique of Pure Reason, even though he and others during this time period were naïve about neuroscience and its implications. In short, inspect the “I” that asks the question and see when and where and why it asks such at particular moments and not at other times.

This type of self introspection unravels the Gordian knot that seems to bind us to what has been rightly called the first human error: the confusion of neurology with ontology or the conflation of one's state of mind with the “real” state of the cosmos. We never absolutely know when we go to sleep if we are going to awake again. We assume such, of course, and over time we have become so accustomed to such repetitions that we have deluded ourselves about consciousness as a seamless and continual process when, in fact, it is anything but. Consciousness interruptus (or the vagaries of self awareness) show us moment to moment that we don't see the world as it really is. We cannot even see ourselves, much less grasp the totality of all that precedes and transcends us. Therefore, Socrates' most famous dictum, “Know Thyself” is a much more difficult injunction than we might at first surmise, since the very basis of the self and its varying energetic states blind us from comprehending them “as they are” but instead trick us into a perpetual hall of mirrors.

Wittgenstein touched upon this amaurotic tendency in human beings and the constrictive world of language in his philosophic lectures at Cambridge. The Zen Buddhist use of Koans (paradoxical questions or statements designed to usurp the rational mind) provides an even more illustrative understanding of why the questions we ask (and our unceasing attempts at answering them) are predicated upon an unenlightened predilection. We may think that such questions as “does a falling tree make a noise if there is no one there to hear it” are important or even answerable, but a textual analysis shows that the question itself rests upon unstated assumptions inherent in its construction. Unravel those assumptions first, and the question itself takes on a wholly different form. Likewise, unravel the uninspected assumptions we have about consciousness and the questions we have been asking from time immemorial will become transformed in the process.

To Conclude: A Zen Koan

A FAMOUS soldier came to the master Hakuin and asked: "Master, tell me: is there really a heaven and a hell?"

"Who are you?" asked Hakuin.

"I am a soldier of the great Emperor's personal guard."

"Nonsense!" said Hakuin. "What kind of emperor would have you around him? To me you look like a beggar!" At this, the soldier started to rattle his big sword in anger. "Oho!" said Hakuin. "So you have a sword! I'll wager it's much too dull to cut my head off!"

At this the soldier could not hold himself back. He drew his sword and threatened the master, who said: "Now you know half the answer! You are opening the gates of hell!"

The soldier drew back, sheathed his sword, and bowed. "Now you know the other half," said the master. "You have opencd the gates of heaven."

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