This post consists of two unrelated topics. I don't have a lot to say about either of them, but together they add up to one barely adequate post.
First, I was interested in an article that a commenter named Ingrid pointed out in a previous thread. The article, "How Understanding Randomness Will Give You Mind-Reading Powers," talks about how people are better than expected at predicting some random patterns. People, it seems, have an innate sense of what a well-shuffled sequence would look like: OOXOX seems more likely than XXXXO, for instance. Since they are more likely to guess the first sequence than the second, their guesses can exceed expectations in many cases.
It's an interesting point, but I'm not sure how relevant it is to psi research. The article points to experiments done by J.B. Rhine in which test subjects guessed the sequence of Zener cards, and to tests performed on a radio show in which the national audience participated. As best I can tell, the radio tests involved only Xs and Os, and these sequences are, as mentioned, sometimes easy to guess. But the Zener card experiments involved five different cards, each imprinted with a different shape. It's not clear to me that people can guess better than chance when such a complex sequence is involved.
The article's implicit bias against psi also gives me pause. We're told that Rhine was gaining "notoriety" for his work, a loaded term; would we hear that Einstein gained "notoriety" for his theories? We're also told that the ability of humans to predict some random sequences is "far more interesting" than telepathy, which would be true only if telepathy is silly nonsense, as the writer evidently assumes. The article is also notable in what it neglects to say: that the Zener card experiments involved more than two options, and that more recent parapsychology experiments use random number generators to produce lengthy, complex, and presumably unguessable sequences.
Now on to the other topic. Last night I watched Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (2012). It's a well-made film dominated by Daniel Day-Lewis's spellbinding performance. I liked it, but I noticed a certain choice of emphasis that I found interesting—namely, that the religious and spiritual dimensions of the subject were almost totally ignored.
The casual viewer would never guess that abolitionism was largely a religious movement, born in Protestant churches and seen by its proselytes as a holy mission. Though abolitionists figure in the film, and though they occasionally make reference to moral concerns and to natural law, they seldom if ever ground their arguments in Christian beliefs, as the real abolitionists did. In fact, religion is mostly absent from the film, even though that era was much more religious than our own. I assume that the filmmakers, as secular humanists, were simply uncomfortable with religious sentiments and chose to exclude them from the story. (I've read that a similarly secularist approach was taken toward the abolitionists in Spielberg's Amistad, thoigh I haven't seen the film.)
Of more relevance to this blog is the treatment of Mr. Lincoln's personal spirituality. There is one scene where Lincoln asks if a man can choose the circumstances of his birth, which could be taken as a religious or spiritual question, and we do see Lincoln making reference to God's plan in his famous second inaugural address, but that's about it. Lincoln is shown as having a deep antipathy to slavery (even though, historically, he moved cautiously in the direction of abolitionism throughout his career, and may have been primarily concerned with saving the Union), but his antipathy is not based on any religious or spiritual doctrine.
Now, in real life, Lincoln seems to have been ill-disposed toward traditional religion; he did not attend church, is said to have written (but never published) an atheistic tract in his younger days, and probably had a somewhat pragmatic or even cynical attitude toward religious doctrines when he became president. However, all indications are that his attitude changed over the next four years, in part because of the strain of overseeing the war with its tremendous loss of life, and in part because of the death of his young son Willie. Lincoln's speeches became progressively more steeped in religious language and imagery as his presidency wore on.
After Willie's death, Mrs. Lincoln became attracted to spiritualism, even inviting mediums to the White House (then known as the Executive Mansion) to perform seances. It is known that Lincoln attended some of these seances. Mainstream historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose book Team of Rivals inspired the movie, downplay the idea that Lincoln took such affairs seriously, stressing that he was only humoring his wife or amusing himself. And yet we do have the testimony of Nettie Colburn Maynard, a trance medium who wrote a memoir describing her encounter with Lincoln. The book's publisher tracked down several contemporaries who endorsed Maynard's claim that Lincoln was sincerely interested in spiritualism.
I can see why today's filmmakers would not want to associate the revered Abe Lincoln with something seemingly as tawdry and discredited as spiritualism. But to leave out almost any indication of Lincoln's personal quest for religious and spiritual meaning is unfortunate. I suppose it may make him more "relatable" to the modern audience, but it also makes him just a bit less interesting, I think.
It's still a good movie, though.