Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.  —Bertrand Russell

The idea of order for premodern Europeans had a certain mathematical neatness that would have been appreciated by premodern Chinese. But medieval Europeans were obsessed by a fear of chaos, a terrifying cosmic anarchy best explained humorously by Bill Murray in Ghostbusters as

Human sacrifices! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!

Premodern Europeans wanted an orderly universe based on Aristotle’s Great Chain of Being. At the top was God, and moving downward from the pinnacle you’d find the angels, the monarch, great nobles, lesser nobles, and the rest of us (and we were about 96 percent of the population).

The sovereign once ruled over the land because he was “the master of time” (the calendar), but over time and with cultural reinterpretation, sovereignty distorted into rulership based on one’s pedigree or genetics (after gens — breeding — which brought us gentry and gentleman).

The logical extension of the Great Chain produced Louis XIV and Charles I. (It also heavily contributed to antisemitism, but that is another story.) What was once considered ruling “by the grace of God” or “mandate of heaven” degenerated into the divine right of kings.

A place for us

In the ancient sense (which evaporated in America only with the coming of the first world war) place also signified a particular piece of land and a sense of politics. Status in society was linked to land-owning, and one’s responsibilities were tied to the land. One knew one’s place (people still said this about black people until the 1970s). A woman’s place was in the home (people still said this about women in the 1970s).

In Europe until the Enlightenment (and, in some places, until the present day), marginalized social groups such as Roma, Jews, and females, were not allowed to own land, and thus prevented from sharing the communal sense of place. Perhaps the property laws explained why some Victorian men argued at length about whether women were actually human.

Chain of fools

You can find the brave new version of these ancient ideas in Nancilee Wydra‘s books and Feng Shui Institute of America (Winchester, Ohio) and Feng Shui Institute International (Marco Island, Florida). Her Pyramid School is merely Aristotle’s “great chain of being” updated to New Age.

The marketing for FSIA says it addresses

…Western beliefs and values. The “pyramid” philosophical approach synthesizes wisdom and knowledge from all of the schools of feng shui while filtering out cultural and geographical proclivities.

“Cultural and geographical proclivities”? Pyramid School marketing makes traditional ecological knowledge (in this case it’s feng shui) sound like a perversion. Savor the irony: Western beliefs and values are a “cultural and geographical” proclivity.

What FSIA teaches and Wydra espouses bears no resemblance to authentic feng shui — on purpose. Wydra formed Pyramid School “to offer an option for those who wanted to incorporate their own beliefs and values into feng shui approaches.” FSIA claims to have borrowed “wisdom and knowledge from all of the schools of feng shui” — but it only uses ideas from Lin Yun. (A teacher who has studied “Black Hat, Nine Star Ki and Modern feng shui” would not know authentic feng shui if it came up and slapped him.)

Pyramid School sees feng shui as a New Age form of “drill, baby, drill.” Wydra defines feng shui as

the vehicle that can help you … harness the physical surroundings for personal advantage.

That’s just a New Age-y way to express greed. That’s why it works so well with the law of attraction.

Do they have a feng shui solution for climate change? Don’t hold your breath.

FSIA sells confidence tricks such as subjective validation and cold reading as feng shui classes. For a class called “Conducting and Writing a Powerful Feng Shui Consultation,” you learn “listening actively for key words” and “read[ing] body language.” Students are taught these techniques “to help … determine the true issues that confront the client.”

Along with being the hallmarks of grifters and scam artists, in the U.S. this is tantamount to practicing medicine (psychology or psychiatry) without a license. It leaves Pyramid practitioners open to malpractice suits along with their felony charges.

Then there are the scags, holons and architypes.

  • Holons — in Wydra’s world a holon is a pyramid-shaped hierarchy “where all components must be in place for the individual to be able to achieve goals.” Pyramid holons have psychobabble names (Self-Actualization, for example) or pseudo-Chinese names (for a hint of the exotic). Wydra’s system doesn’t have any relation to the scientific philosophy or how it is used in biology and systems theory. It’s the Placebo Effect with pseudoscientific jargon.
  • Archityping — a process and a tool. A floor wax and a dessert topping.
  • Scag — Ironically, this term is slang for heroin, for someone who constantly borrows things with no intention of returning them, and a Pyramid School tool “that uncovers gender roles, social economic status, support systems, generation and historical references, and positive and negative geographical/geological conditions.”

Why do Pyramid people need so much information for their feng shui? Well, they really don’t, for their glorified interior decorating service — and in several states this amount of information in the hands of unlicensed and unauthorized businesses is illegal because of privacy laws.

Before you have a session with a Pyramid School consultant, know your privacy rights, because they don’t care about privacy laws!

Wydra says her school accepts theories “that have either scientific proof or are supported by a belief system” (according to Designing Your Happiness 1995:17). Their marketing literature features a lot of “Dr” name-dropping to sway the credulous. Don’t be fooled: when she says “scientific proof” she really means belief-based. FSIA marketing uses the phrase Western beliefs and values as code words for Nativist thinking and Western occultism mixed in with pseudoscientific blather and psychobabble.

Given FSIA’s cultural and geographic proclivities, Pyramid School feng shui is merely one more McFengshui greenwash.

FSIA encourages degrees in fields Wydra thinks are related to feng shui (baubiology, social work and psychobiology). Actually, bizarre is not too strong a word for many of Wydra’s ideas.

Her belief system and unique ideas about science cast a long shadow over her credibility, though she bills herself as “a master cultural interpreter,” “a pioneer who has challenged a complete set of cultural beliefs,” and “the Nan Landers [sic] of Feng Shui.” (Click here for information on the real Nan Landers.)

I intended to say that

Consider Wydra’s belief that intention alone can be enough to produce change. In Look Before you Love (1998:v) she declares that in science this is called the Heidelberg Principle, a “phenomenon” where “the mere fact of being observed changes … results.”

Her confusion about quantum mechanics is based on a misunderstanding of the Heisenberg Principle (also known as the uncertainty principle), named after Werner Karl Heisenberg (1901-1976).

Some people, including Wydra, think the uncertainty principle means the world is unpredictable when actually the opposite is true. The uncertainty (Heisenberg) principle is a recipe for making measurements with a precision that would be unimaginable with classical physics.

Quantum mechanics, the centerpiece of modern physics, is misinterpreted as implying that the human mind controls reality and that the universe is one connected whole that cannot be understood by the usual reduction to parts.However, no compelling argument or evidence requires that quantum mechanics plays a central role in human consciousness or provides instantaneous, holistic connections across the universe. Modern physics, including quantum mechanics, remains completely materialistic and reductionistic while being consistent with all scientific observations.— Victor J. Stenger: “Quantum Quackery”

Besides the malapropism, Wydra confused the uncertainty principle with the participatory anthropic principle, which is used by people like Deepak Chopra to suggest humans can create molecules by thinking.

Robert Park in his excellent book Voodoo Science (2000) notes this concept suggests that psychic healing and casting spells rely on chaos theory, and quantum mechanics supplies the summoned spirits. It gives a new spin to The Tempest, in which Shakespeare tackled the thorny issues of colonialism and racism.

Only left-handers are in their right minds

For Wydra, a bagua is predicated on the idea that right and left share inherent meanings across cultures, but she qualifies this idea by repeating her culture’s myths about brain functions. (Corvallis and Beale 1983: viii)

A bagua, stresses Wydra, works by analogy as a conceptual map of our psyche, as a glimpse into our thought processes. The right side of the brain, she says, controls emotion and abstract thinking while the left side handles “the practical aspects of cognition.”

Armed with these facts, she says,

it is natural to align areas relevant to our emotional life on the right side of the room and areas dedicated to critical thinking on the left. (Book of Cures: 47-48)

Connect the right side of the house or a room to emotion and relationships, she says. Decorate the left side of a room according to organized and logical mental functions. (Ibid.: 49)

Wydra’s crackpot theories can be found in American pop culture and New Age books. The facts about brain function are just the opposite of her claims.

Although our unconscious and conscious minds exist interdependently, the hemispheres control opposite sides of the human body and function asymmetrically. The right brain registers sensory input from the left side of the body (which, by the way, is traditionally the yang side). The left brain registers sensory input from the right side (which is traditionally the yin side).

In urban folklore, the left hemisphere has assumed much of the character of the military-industrial-entertainment complex with its dominant, linear, coldly rational stereotype. By contrast the spiritual, emotional, compassion-oriented right hemisphere reflects the creative order of the New Age. (Corvallis and Beale: 168)

Though our genetic material is primarily a product of our primate past, humans have asymmetrical brains. The brains of most right-handers exhibit a counterclockwise torque. (Ibid.: 138-139)

The left hemisphere gives us rhythm and the ability to judge simultaneity, temporal order and duration, in addition to fine motor control (something women are especially good at). Ibid.: 174

Across cultures, human females appear to be superior to males in verbal ability (also a left-hemisphere activity).

Most left-handed people around the world are male, disabled learners, schizophrenics, epileptics, and hyperactive. Ibid.: 207

Was that why ancient Chinese codified yang as being left-handed?

I think…therefore the idea stinks

Wydra also promotes the outdated Christian belief that sentience and consciousness are uniquely human — although scientific evidence doesn’t agree with her. Read Daniel Dennett’s book on consciousness, and the works of Antonio Damasio.

Because Christianity elevated humans to rule over our closest genetic relatives (chimpanzees, bonobos, and other primates) along with the rest of the natural world, humans stand at the apex of Pyramid School ideology with only a fuzzy “unknown” higher than humans on Wydra’s Great Chain of Being.

Read Wydra’s books and articles with a great deal of skepticism. She has contributed as many crackpot theories to American pop culture as Erich von Daniken and Pat Robertson.