Since coming out as a “non-believer” and a skeptic I’ve read lots of books. One of my favorite discoveries in the last year has been contemporary philosopher Daniel Dennett. Dennett likes to tackle tricky questions related to consciousness, free-will and neurology. During some of his public lectures he likes to give an analogy to help explain his research and the current study of human consciousness.
Here’s the analogy. Dennett has a friend who was writing a book on magic. People asked this person “is your book about real magic?” and this friend would reply “No, it’s about stage tricks, mirrors, prestidigitation etc” (I’m paraphrasing Dennett’s illustration here). So you see “real magic” is the magic that you can’t do, the stuff of fantasy films, Harry Potter and the like. Real magic is impossible. But the magic that you can really do is usually considered “fake magic” even though it’s far more real than casting spells, lifting hexes, and channelling energy through arcane objects. Consciousness is the same way. We have mechanical explanations for how parts of human consciousness works. We have material descriptions of what consciousness is and we have some idea of what further research (research on physical patterns, in a lab) will probably be needed to help us unlock that mystery. But for some people, that view of consciousness will never be “real consciousness.” No matter how good the scientific explanations become, that view of consciousness will be seen as just “a bag of tricks” (as Dennett is fond of saying). And of course a bag of tricks can’t possibly be real consciousness just as stage magic can never be real magic.
What does this all have to do with firewalking?
Firewalking is a cultural practice still performed throughout the world and also by some motivational groups here in the USA. In traditional firewalking usually a “shaman” or holy man of some sort (titles vary by religion) will walk across a bed of hot coals which are spread out across the ground. At the end of this “test of faith” the holy man’s feet are unscathed. He has literally “walked on fire” and appears to have done so using the aid of the supernatural. At least, that’s what some would claim. Some modern practitioners might say that having a positive mental state protects your feet from the flames. The real explanation is actually quite simple: air is a poor conductor of heat and the burnt ashes on top of the coals act as an additional barrier (other materials can also work if arranged and set up properly). Just as you can retrieve a hot pan from a very hot oven using just a thin cloth barrier, all without receiving 3rd-degree burns on your palms, so too can you take a brisk walk across the ashes on top of glowing embers. Real firewalking involves good prep-work so that things don’t get out of control (too much heat and not enough barrier). And, even when the coals have cooled down a bit you aren’t likely to find any shamans willing to stand upon a bed of coals for an hour while their toes cook. So that’s it. Firewalking is something that a shaman, or anyone with enough care and experience, can accomplish. It’s less dangerous than it initially appears, though there are still risks.
I believe in firewalking, as this post title says. But, I don’t believe in supernaturally empowered, or psychically enabled firewalking. I believe in real firewalking just as much as I believe in real magic and not in horcruxes and mystical pentagrams. To me the act which you can actually do and provide a consistent explanation for is far more real than the idea of what some people hold about that event. Some people who see a ritual performed are convinced that there must be “something more” which we modern people raised with “Western values” and a scientific approach to truth must be missing out on. To that I simply say: show me the evidence, and I’ll believe it. Demonstrate a firewalking technique which goes far beyond what can be accounted for with the known physical laws (longer duration, higher flames, more exposure etc) or conduct a carefully controlled study demonstrating that mindstate or belief in certain metaphysical principles really is the deciding factor in who gets their feet burned or not. If the data comes in proving that there is some sort of extra factor going on which cannot be explained by simple physics of burning materials and heat conductivity (or the thickness of padding on one’s feet), then this discovery would be a boon for the world and definitely something worth knowing about (of course, this challenge would require that these results could be repeated and independently verified or the possibility of a fluke or deception still remains).
For a more detailed account of the physics behind firewalking check out the video below or read this article which explains the “trick” in more detail.
PS – If physics is sufficient to explain the phenomenon of firewalking, then trying to add in another key element (something like “confidence,” “mental state” or belief) appears to be a violation of Occam’s Razor. If I have to assume a factor which is vague or untested, then I am providing additional speculation which is not required in order to make sense of firewalking (well, at least the type of firewalking which has been observed in our world). Also, none of this is meant to “bash” people who really do think that there is “something more” to all of this. It’s simply a way to explain my perspective as a skeptic and a naturalist. I would love to try firewalking some day (under proper supervision of course, with first-aid nearby).