Mark L. Cowden is the author of Spirit Voices: The First Live Conversation Between Worlds, a book that ought to be causing a stir on the paranormal scene.
Cowden specialises in audio technology, and in this capacity joined the Northern Ireland Paranormal Society (now renamed ‘PSI Ireland’). Members of the team, including Cowden, featured in a BBC television programme, Northern Ireland’s Greatest Haunts, which has so far completed two series.
In episode one of the second series, during the investigation of a supposedly haunted location, Cowden succeeds in using specially adapted equipment to record the ‘voice’ of a spirit replying to questions asked in a separate room by mediums Marion Goodfellow and Andy Matthews. When Goodfellow later hears Cowden’s recordings, which support the inaudible communications she claimed to be receiving, she breaks down in tears. ‘For the first time ever,’ explains Cowden, ‘other people could hear exactly what Marion heard when she was communicating with a spirit’ (p. 145). A clip of this incident, and the full episode of the show, are currently available on YouTube. Cowden describes how he was able to repeat this feat at a second location, later in the series.
However, the book is more than a description of a technological process. It is mainly the story of how Cowden awoke to his own psychic talents. ‘[T]he recorded evidence I was getting had little to do with the equipment,’ he writes. ‘I was getting results because I was evolving in the right direction with my own spirituality’ (p. 150-1). The right direction, according to Cowden, is to undertake paranormal investigation in aid of a greater good, which involves liberating earthbound spirits and awakening ordinary people to the reality of spirit.
Although in the television programme he is portrayed as a member of a sceptical paranormal team, in his book it is clear he has come to regard himself as a spiritual practitioner, like the mediums. The only difference is in his use of electronic equipment to augment his psychical abilities. Otherwise, Cowden is swinging a pendulum, sensing energies, and receiving communications from entities just like any common or garden psychic. ‘I was becoming more interested in just how my intentions and my own spirit related to the success of my recordings’ (p. 119), he writes.
But just as sceptical materialists harbour untested assumptions, mediums and psychics can also do the same. Medium Andy Matthews, listening to Cowden’s recordings on the television show, comments that they are a clear demonstration of ‘intelligent contact’. Yet we have to question this, I think, because Cowden’s remarkable work foregrounds the important question of what a record of the paranormal actually is.
Not all ‘records’ are analogues or pictures of what they represent – such as a hologram, for instance. A web page is another example (one that I understand better), which is also not an image so much as a series of instructions for constructing itself on a specific device. (Select ‘View Source’ from your browser’s menu to see exactly what I mean. A web page isn’t an image; it’s code.)
What if a ghost or spirit were something similar? I think there might be good reason for supposing that it is. Cowden, however, contrasts the intelligent communications he captured with another type of recording, which he aligns with the famous ‘Stone Tape’ theory of hauntings: ‘The voices didn’t seem to be interacting,’ he remarks of these. ‘I had tapped in on conversations conducted hundreds of years previously’ (p. 142). Clearly, Stone Tape phenomena would be images of past events. But what if the ‘intelligence’ manifested in the other type of recordings is not originating from some supposed mind behind the voice, but from the execution of a set of ‘instructions’? If a ghost were a bundle of meanings and feelings triggered to run on contact with a human consciousness, this might create an impression of intelligence, but it would be artificial.
This has certainly been my experience, when working with spirits of the dead and other discarnate entities. In spirits of the dead we encounter a very limited constellation of emotions and motivations. A living person can be different things to different people at different times, whereas the dead are trapped within a specific story. This is not a person; neither, in my view, can it really be considered an ‘intelligence’, it is only the remains of one. An animal has a far greater range of responses and a more expansive personality that what we ascribe to a ghost. That’s probably why it seems an act of kindness to help a ghost ‘move on’. Becoming nothing restores a ghost to a nature that is paradoxically more human than the obsessive and static collection of attributes we ordinarily suppose a ghost to be.
The same is true of other kinds of spirits and of deities. We turn to them for the attributes they offer. We couldn’t work with Ganesha, for instance, if he had the ability to one day become more like Kali – as a human might do, either willingly or unwillingly. Working with gods and spirits produces change, but our consciousness is what executes those changes, not the gods and spirits themselves. Our consciousness can turn itself to anything because it isn’t, in itself, anything. Ganesha’s clearance of obstacles, Kali’s cleansing destruction, and uncle Albert’s inability to realise he died in 1941 are all nowhere without a human consciousness that turns itself towards them and manifests them.
And yet Cowden’s achievement was to record voices. So surely something is actually out there, operating of its own accord? Watching the television programme, it’s not that Cowden recorded the specific words that Goodfellow claimed to hear (does she even claim to hear ‘words’?) but he certainly obtained responses that followed the gist of the conversation Goodfellow claimed to have. Just as every different type of web browser interprets the instructions for building a web page broadly the same, yet with slight differences, so it seems that Cowden rendered not an exact image of what Goodfellow clairvoyantly received, but something that conveys its general sense.
The utterances captured didn’t sound to me what we might expect from a speaker of eighteenth century English – the period in which had lived the historical person identified by the mediums as the ghost. Likewise, in Cowden’s book, when he divines the name ‘Darren’ for the spirit of a mill worker (p. 37), you have to wonder how common that name would have been back in the day. (Cowden doesn’t consider this and I’m no expert, but my guess is ‘possibly not very’.) And when a female spirit is recorded saying, ‘It’s okay’ (p. 156), then that word dates her to possibly no earlier than 1790, but – again – no comment is made on this.
If we assume that ghosts are actual people from history on another plane of existence, then such assumptions must stand or fall on details such as these. However, if we accept that there’s no ghost without an interceding, interpreting human consciousness, then it doesn’t much matter. The ‘Philip’ experiment at Toronto University in 1972 demonstrated how human belief alone can produce a ghost with tangible physical effects, even though the historical back-story intentionally ascribed to it has no basis in historical fact. Cowden’s recordings can stand, not as the actual voice of a ghost, but as the manifestation of a ghost’s voice mediated by human consciousness.
Since my night alone in the company of one, I’m less inclined to view ghosts as evidence for survival of the personality post-mortem, but I’m more inclined to the view that working with spirits facilitates our own spiritual development. Beyond the grave, I think that non-existence awaits. Anything that endures on this side is karmic traces, the remnants of a personality. On the basis of my experience so far, I don’t believe there’s another world, but instead the lack of one, which – to the extent we can approach this through spiritual practices whilst still alive – suggests something far more amazing.