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Open letter to science editors

 
THE SCIENCE OF CATASTROPHISM

Prof. Irving Wolfe

We are here this weekend to assess the current state of catastrophist
research. My purpose tonight will be to define what is meant by
catastrophism. In its most general sense, catastrophism is the theory that
enormous cataclysmic events of continental or even global nature have
occurred to the Earth in the recent past, which is to say within the life of
humankind on this planet. It also holds that these catastrophes, these vast
natural upheavals, (e.g., immense tidal waves and hurricanes, large-scale
volcanism and conflagrations, etc.), have left indelible records on the Earth
and in our psyches, records that can be discerned from nature and from human
sources and then interpreted to reconstruct our cosmic past. Third, it holds
that these immense events have been primarily caused not by volatile
conditions on Earth but by the intervention into the Earth's magnetosphere of
huge nonterrestrial objects, i.e., large bodies coming at or near us from the
sky which have provoked violent interactions and exchanges with the Earth,
which then caused the disastrous effects upon it.

These are the central points advocated by Immanuel Velikovsky, with whom the
theory has been most notably associated. He put his case in a series of
sensational books, the majority published between 1950 and 1960. The most
famous is Worlds in Collision, and the shock of Velikovsky upon conventional
science, the wave of furor, outrage, suppression, misrepresentation,
disinformation and character assassination which resulted, is deservedly
notorious in the history of science and has been chronicled in many books and
articles.

We are not, however, assembled here to talk about that. It is a story for
another time. Nor is everyone here a total follower of Velikovsky, although
many are. Our purpose is rather to explore what he began, to look at what
different paths have been taken from his origin, what different concepts have
been developed (and there are many) to account for the wealth of data (and
there is much) which seems to indicate that, at more than one time in the
geologically recent past, immense earthly catastrophes did occur. From the
evidence, it seems that at different times the Earth was seared and scarred
and rent and overturned, and the sky was filled with darkness and light,
blazing heat and choking dust, rains of fire and overwhelming thunder,
unstoppable, unpredictable and colossal. We who are catastrophists believe
three general things: that events like these did probably occur, that our
ancestors saw, remembered and recorded them in myth, religion, folklore and
art, and that we the human race are as scarred psychologically by them as the
Earth was geologically. As Velikovsky put it, "We are descendants of
survivors, themselves descendants of survivors."

This may sound radical, hard to accept, implausible, like a fairy tale. Fifty
years ago, when Velikovsky's theory first emerged, hardly anyone believed it.
How could it be true? Had not science told us that the world was benign and
the sky was stable and the universe was a clockwork which would tick without
upheaval forever, and that humankind's only task was to try to understand it?

That was 1950. Today, however, we have just witnessed the comets of Shoemaker-
Levy thudding into Jupiter one by one, vast hammer blows upon the giant
planet, any one of which (and there were 21) would singly have wiped out much
of life on Earth, and we have learned that the sky is not what we thought it
was. It is not placid, nor eternal, nor safe, for, had the trajectory of
these comets or asteroids or meteorites been only slightly different at the
beginning, (depending on where you think they started out), it could have been
us. For this reason, I would say (without joking) that how we see the cosmos
can be designated as BJ or AJ, before Jupiter or after, for the Shoemaker-
Levy comets were an intellectual and spiritual watershed. Because of them,
we can no longer pacify ourselves with the placebo that these things could
only happen in the distant past or in distant parts of the universe, or both.
We now know that large bodies can enter the inner Solar System, that it can
happen near us and now, and who knows when the next will come, and it could be
soon. Catastrophism is real and it is urgent.

We who will speak to you this weekend are for the most part catastrophists.
Not everyone, however, agrees with Velikovsky, nor do the disagreers agree
among themselves about the many alternate theories that have been developed
from his starting point and his kind of data. What we do share is a common
concern about the issue of catastrophism, the question of what happened to
the Solar System in the recent past and what effects it has left upon the
globe and human culture. The comets of Shoemaker-Levy have taught us that the
Solar System can be turbulent and dangerous, that we live in the midst of an
active cosmic area which is not calmly stable but can experience immense
fluctuation, and that intruders from the sky could cause huge devastation to
our entire globe. This can no longer be deemed impossible. Catastrophism is
an idea whose time has come. If this is true, then that realization must be
met, not childishly with fear and fury, nor with terror and lament, but
openly and honestly and knowingly, like adults. No split between reason and
passion, but mind and heart together facing the awareness that the things we
describe happened, and that we must learn them and acknowledge them and make
them a part of us if we are to go on. That is what motivates us all in our
research. It is the task which we as catastrophists have because we created
it, and it is the problem that will be illustrated in this symposium - how to
make sense of the data, how to derive the picture which will incorporate it
all and tell us what we are, what the world is and what to do about it, and
where to go from here. That is to say, what to make of life, of the Earth,
of the cosmos, of existence. No less than that is the puzzle we are all at
work on together.

The result is the science of catastrophism. It is highly interdisciplinary,
for the speakers you will hear this weekend come from many fields and from
many countries on three continents. To give you an idea of the areas which
catastrophism involves, they include astronomy and physics and astrophysics
and geophysics, myth and folklore and religion and classical literature,
mathematics and linguistics and statistics, palaeontology and archaeology and
archaeoastronomy and calendrics, and literature, history, politics and
psychology, (and that is only a partial list). From each of these fields, a
stream of evidence is being accumulated which seems to indicate that several
catastrophic incursions have occurred in the past 5000 years, perhaps in a
series connected like shock and aftershocks. Many of us, from many different
disciplines, are bringing many different sorts of knowledge to bear upon this
one central focus-the strong possibility that our Earth and our human race
have experienced enormous and terrifying global cataclysms within human
memory.

What is new are our methods and our results. Concerning our methods, we use
as data not merely everything produced by nature but everything produced by
the human race, for we consider both to be equally significant. That is to
say, not merely the sciences like physics and astronomy, nor even the social
sciences like psychology and anthropology, but religion, fairy tales,
folklore, mythology, literature and superstition, because we feel that,
wherever human consciousness is least active, least censorial, the deep
collective truth will emerge, whether it be the geological history of our
planet buried beneath the surface of the globe or the fears and memories of
our race buried in symbol and allegory.

Velikovsky led us to it in his books, which deal with the Solar System, the
physical condition of our globe, the course of history and the nature of
human behavior. He was a psychoanalyst, and he was trained to put his
patients on a couch and probe their dreams, terrors and memories to get inside
the psyche of the individual, dig down to the largest traumas, discover what
they were, make the patient aware of them and thus release him from
victimization by them. Metaphorically, this is what science does to nature,
putting it on the couch of experiment and theory to discover its past in
order to better understand its present and thereby control its future. It is
a classic technique for unearthing the hidden, and Velikovsky applied it to
the human race as a whole. How? By deciding that the dreams of our race,
(i.e., the relics of our collective past), are to be found in our religions
and mythologies and stories and imaginative narratives, that these are
relevant data, hard and reliable like all data if properly interpreted, and
that to study them is to put humanity on the couch. We who are
catastrophists therefore use this incredibly rich vein of material, along with
scientific and social-science data, as essential complementary evidence in
our attempts to build up a composite picture from every suitable angle of
what may have happened and what we fear.

What are the results? Most of us believe that something very vast occurred in
the heavens and on Earth and to us in the past few thousand years, not once
but many times, not identically but equally traumatic and horrifying. At
different moments, oceans overflowed the land, tidal waves tore across
continents, volcanoes and earthquakes erupted everywhere, winds shrieked and
hurricanes ravaged and forests were set on fire as destruction came from a
sky ablaze with heavenly bodies in disordered motion. There was dazzling
light or sudden darkness, immense heat or rapid frost, rivers changed their
courses and cracks appeared in the earth, mountains rose or fell. In the
human sphere there was toppling of fortifications, destruction of cities and
the ends of kingdoms, vast slaughter and frenzied migrations, while in the
animal and plant domains some species ended and new species were created. We
believe that the history of the Earth and of the human race is an alternation
between moments of catastrophe as I have just described them and the calm
developmental periods inbetween, which is to say that both the lithosphere
and the human sphere undergo the same sequence of destruction and then
recovery, rising each time to a new earth and a new culture but then
undergoing a decline and a new catastrophe before ascending again. This is
our true history, as opposed to the facile and delusive portrait we are
usually given of the Earth experiencing a steady ascent from molten
planetesimal to habitable planet, human life exhibiting a steady climb from
early to middle to modern man and human society evolving calmly from
primitive savage to hunter-gatherer to modern urbanite. That is the fairy
tale, not catastrophism, for, if we are interpreting the evidence correctly,
the history of our planet and its inhabitants is jerky and inconsistent, with
periods of peace punctuated by outbursts of violence. If social and
biological life has "evolved," it has done that spirally and spasmodically.

Our task now is to pin the thing down, to sort it out and assign each item of
data correctly to form a picture of what really happened. That however is
not at all easy, because often the signatures are blurred or are too general
or occur repeatedly, and as a result a number of different revolutionary
theories have emerged from within our own circle and there are consequently
many catastrophic interpretations extant in all the areas we touch. I
described nineteen planetary hypotheses, for example, in an article I wrote
for the journal The Velikovskian, each of which rejects the standard
cosmology, and a glance at the debates in the American journal Aeon or the
British journal Chronology and Catastrophism Review will illustrate very
quickly the divergences which exist between the many competing historical
schemes, even though they all agree that the traditional dating of ancient
empires is incorrect, often by centuries. One of the things this conference
will do, therefore, is give you an idea of the range and depth of
catastrophist research, where it is, what it has produced, where it hopes to
go, for we are engaged in a huge intellectual adventure, a voyage of discovery
which we hope will become a recovery of our physical, social and psychological
past. Victor Clube and Tom Van Flandern on astronomy, Roger Wescott on
anthropology and linguistics, Bill Mullen on classical language and
literature, Nancy Owen on ancient Mesoamerican cosmology, Eric Miller on
ancient Chinese cosmology, Henry Bauer on the history of science, Richard
Heinberg on folklore, Vine Deloria on Amerindian myth, Ted Holden on the
dinosaurs, Lynn Rose on calendrics, Gunnar Heinsohn on ancient history and
stratigraphy, Ev Cochrane and David Talbott and Dwardu Cardona on myth,
Robert Grubaugh and Wallace Thornhill and Charles Ginenthal and Donald Patten
on the physical sciences, Duane Vorhees on cultural history and myself on
literature and ideology, will give you some idea of how many different
disciplines are being applied to this one central overriding puzzle.

What has all this spawned? Well, to begin with, there are eight books by
Velikovsky in print, plus four or five in manuscript, while eleven books have
been published on Velikovsky, in addition to five books on catastrophic
theories which deal largely with his questions but offer distinctly separate
answers. Six journals have appeared in the past 25 years and four are still
very active in Canada, the U.S., England and Germany, and they contain
hundreds of scholarly articles on catastrophism. There have also been dozens
of conferences on catastrophism in the past quarter century. Our group alone,
the Canadian Society for Interdisciplinary Studies, of which I am president,
has held a conference annually since 1981. Three or more films have been made
on the topic, while a fourth is being prepared in time for next year, in June
of 1995, when a Centenary Conference to honor the hundreth anniversary of
Velikovky's birth has been organized in New York, to which this conference is
a prelude. There, we will celebrate his contribution, not in blind
endorsement of all of his views, but to recognize his seminal role in
bringing catastrophism into the area of legitimate scholarly study, and to
show, as this conference will too, what has been happening in the fifty years
since Worlds in Collision burst onto the intellectual scene, what concurrent
paths have been taken, how it has grown and diverged, what different parts
today are being handled by different hands.

At the New York conference, three or more new books on Velikovsky will appear,
plus perhaps a new video film, in addition to the Proceedings of this
conference. When all of these scholarly contributions are added together, it
is easy to see that catastrophism has been and continues to be the object of
serious specialized academic scrutiny. That is why I refer to what we do as
a science. It is a careful building-up of data and hypothesis. Even though
no full concensual theory has emerged, and the hypotheses that exist now fall
into several sets, subsets and subsubsets as I outlined in my article in The
Velikovskian, and even though some speculations which flared up five years
ago or ten have now been discarded while new ones have appeared, that is as
it should be, and as it is in every science, even the hardest. Physics has
gone through superstrings and twistors but today there is no concensus about
elementary matter, astronomy has seen the quick rise and fall of bubble
theory, inflation theory and wormhole theory, but today there is no concensus
on the origin of the universe, psychology is divided into over 100
irreconcilable isms, philosophy has produced more alternatives in the last
150 years than in the 2000 years before that, cognitive science has reached a
dead end after three centuries of competing explanations and literary
criticism is an irresolvable battleground of undecidability. In no domain is
there agreement about fundamental concepts, there is only debate.

When therefore we find that catastrophism too is beset by rival hypotheses, as
you will see at this conference, and that there are those who disagree with
it altogether, as you will also see, these do not make the activity
unscientific. They are rather signs of life and vitality. We are a young
science, as physics was the year of Planck, as astronomy was the year of
Hubble, or as psychology was the year Freud began. Essentially, we are hard
at work, and what we display like every science is depth, dedication and
diversity. If one considers the qualifications of most of the people
involved, the nature of the issues tackled and the accuracy of the questions
asked, we are a science. Or, if one considers the journals, the articles, the
conferences, the research projects, the validity of the data that have been
accumulated and the strength of the provisional surmises, we are a science as
every science was at a similar stage of its development, as geology or
chemistry or paleontology or archeology were, for instance, in the nineteenth
century. Even the disagreements, the speculations, the irreconcilable
suppositions and schools and camps, are typical.

In 1950, catastrophism was mainly a speculation, with lots of raw data, some
insights as to processes, some guesses as to causes and events and some
predictions from them. Now, half a century later, with so much more research
done and so many more specialists involved, with weak theories weeded out and
determined proponents for those that have endured, catastrophism is in what I
would call the hypothesis stage. That is to say, it is a marketplace of
general ideas in competition, as all sciences are, and this gives it a
vitality, a thrusting forth, a reaching ahead which is teeming with energy
and hope. Are we closer to the truth? Who knows. Is all the data in? It
appears not. Have all the possible hypotheses been formulated? There is no
proof. Who will win? We cannot tell. Will it be one of the researchers
presently involved? There is no proof. What is true is that catastrophism
is alive and active and resonant, that there is lots going on which you can
share for this weekend. We cannot tell where it will end or even what its
next phase will be or what it will produce along the way, for it is in flight
along a path whose future remains to be determined. What exists is the
puzzle and the research, and all that matters is that it is done in a manner
which is careful, reasonable, informed, legitimate and above all alive. We
think it is fascinating, and exciting, and important, and we're happy that
you're going to learn a bit about it during this weekend.
 

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