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Three Writers in Search of the Paranormal

Reviewed by Joseph Morales

  A review of :

Jeffrey Mishlove, The Roots of Consciousness;
James Randi, An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural
     (also published in the U.K. as The Supernatural A-Z: The Truth and the Lies);
Nicholas Humphries, Leaps of Faith: Science, Miracles, and the Search for Supernatural Consolation.

ASIDE FROM BIBLE studies, it is hard to think of a field that arouses such passionate and strongly-held differences of opinion as parapsychology. Perhaps, in retrospect, this should not be surprising. The attempt to apply scientific methods to the study of what are commonly classed as "supernatural" phenomena could not help but bring to a focus the ongoing rift between scientific and spiritual worldviews that constitutes perhaps the defining drama of our times.

Perhaps it's best to begin by revealing my biases. Let me say that, before I read these books, I was inclined to be doubtful of most claims of  paranormal phenomena, for the usual reasons: because research in the area has been dogged by instances of fraud, inadequate controls, and that most damaging of scientific phenomena: irreproducible results. Further, several years of occasional dabbling with divinitory systems (such as the I Ching and Vedic Astrology), and acquaintance with those who professed to have intuitions about the future, have left me disappointed by the chronic vagueness and/or inaccuracy of the information received. But . . .

I've also always been nagged by the accounts we all hear of strange and fantastic coincidences; near-death experiences; generally successful dowsers, and the like. And, there is the sneaking suspicion that certain types of debunking personalities take skepticism to an extreme. It seems like it should be possible to accept the existence of anomalous data and wait for a good explanation to be found, instead of instantly dismissing some types of findings because one can imagine no way to reconcile them with our current system.

Clearly, it is a question of degree. There is some truth to the skeptical motto that remarkable claims demand remarkable evidence. If someone tells me that they play piano, I usually believe them; but if they claim they can levitate, I would prefer them to demonstrate. (Just thinking about this makes one wonder how many lies go undetected in everyday life because they are not remarkable enough.)

These three books by Mishlove, Randi, and Humphries each purport to give a thoughtful, reasoned account of paranormal phenomena, such as might interest someone like myself who is to some extent undecided. But their approaches, and what they reveal of the personalities of their authors, are quite different.


voudoun4.jpg (15472 bytes)JEFFREY MISHLOVE IS described as the holder of the only doctoral diploma in Parapsychology ever awarded by an accredited American university (U. C. Berkeley). Since 1986, Mishlove has hosted a weekly public television series, Thinking Allowed, in which he interviews well-known figures in consciousness studies, parapsychology, and the like. In his writing he comes across as a rather engaging personality: boundlessly curious like a little puppy dog, but still capable of standing back and questioning his own responses.

Despite its title, The Roots of Consciousness ( first published in 1975 and issued in a revised edition in 1993), is not primarily a study of the nature of consciousness or of psychology in general. Nor does it really focus on altered states of consciousness per se (a la Charles Tart) or the spectrum of consciousness (a la Ken Wilbur). Instead, the book focuses on psychic and magical phenomena, and it is organized to follow a definite progression—from histories and summaries of traditional beliefs, to a discussion of  modern psi research, to an examination of recent neuroscience and physics that might shed light on psi abilities. A final appendix ("Consciousness - A Hyperspace View" by Saul-Paul Sirag) even includes a lot of mathematics and equations so you know its really, really scientific.

The publishers state that "Mishlove gives skeptics room to voice their most sophisticated criticism of parapsychology research and allows researchers their most articulate responses." To a large extent this is true. Some of the nice features include a section on "Proper Scientific Controls for ESP Experimentation," and another on the psychology of cognitive biases. Mishlove does include opposing viewpoints, and he includes many useful citations that readers can pursue for further information on the various topics covered. As a result, this book contains a lot of useful information even if you don't agree with the author's viewpoint. (For he doesn't attempt to conceal the fact that he has a viewpoint, which is that there really are paranormal phenomena, even if we've had a hard time researching them.)


proto2.jpg (20563 bytes)JAMES RANDI'S An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural forms a sharp contrast to the previous one. Randi, a stage magician who has tirelessly worked to expose psychic fraud, is a no-nonsense kind of guy. Although the British edition of his book is titled The Supernatural A-Z: The Truth and the Lies, Randi doesn't find anything to be both true and supernatural, nor does he seem to perceive any grey areas in the evidence. And here I find myself in rather an embarrassing situation. Although I suppose that Randi is probably correct in most of his conclusions, you might never know it just by reading this book. I am reminded of a Sufi saying: "Better an intelligent enemy than an ignorant friend." Randi seems like the kind of friend who could give skepticism a bad name.

For starters, Randi seems to have been in somewhat of a muddle about what type of book he was trying to write. The book is organized like an encyclopedia, rather after the model of Lewis Spence's Encyclopedia of the Occult (which Randi acknowledges as a major source). But if you are looking for a survey, you are likely to be disappointed, as Randi's book does not even approach the scope of Spence's volume.

Suppose, on the other hand, you are a looking for a study of why people believe in supernatural phenomena. In that case you might wonder why Randi's page-long article on vampires does not mention modern research about how diseases like porphyria, together with medieval ignorance of the normal stages of bodily decay, might have helped give birth to the legend.

Then again, suppose you are looking for a source of information you could use to reason to your own conclusions about psychic and supernatural phenomena. In this case, you are likely to be depressed by the general lack of detail in the "debunking" passages of these articles. For example, about Erich Von Daniken, we are told that "his calculations are wrong, his facts are misquoted." Which calculations? Which facts? Randi doesn't tell us, nor does he direct us to any source that would provide these details.

The generally biting and sarcastic tone of  his entries can also be annoying, but I comment on the fact only because it seems a clue to the nature of this book. Derision is a tool of intimidation, not of reason. William James once said

Our reason is quite satisfied, in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of every thousand of us, if it can find a few arguments that will do to recite in case our credulity is criticized by someone else. Our faith is faith in some one else's faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case. (From "The Will to Believe")

If you replace the word "credulity" with "skepticism," this quote seems admirably to embody the purpose of Randi's book. It is as if the book were written simply to provide those who are already skeptical with a stock of snappy, crushing little observations to recite at parties in case the topic of supernatural beliefs ever comes up in conversation. And the best part is that nothing in the text requires or even encourages you to do any thinking; you are simply to trust the great Randi and put your faith in him because he is, after all, the Voice of Reason. Isn't he?

Personally I would find it easier to accept Randi's word for things if his research weren't so lax. For example,

  • The article on mantra asserts that "It is determined, not by divine inspiration as often claimed, but from information such as birth date and the date on which the student first began affiliation with the movement." The method described is actually specific to the Transcendental Meditation movement, which consists of followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. What could have made Randi think that this same method is followed in all the vast and varied mantra meditation traditions of the East?
  • The article on the Secret Gospel of Mark accepts at face value the claim that the fragment is of truly ancient origin. But Per Beskow in his book Strange Tales about Jesus has given reasons for suspecting that the Secret Gospel is actually a modern forgery.
  • The article on Tarot cards states: "The form of deck most used today is the Golden Dawn, designed by A. E. Waite, a mystic, and drawn by artist Pamela Coleman Smith about 1900." The deck designed by Waite and Smith is actually the Rider Tarot Deck. The Golden Dawn Tarot Deck is a different one.
  • The article on vampires lists the "traditional" beliefs that "Sunlight is invariably fatal to vampires" and that vampires do not have reflections in a mirror. Actually, neither idea is traditional: the former notion was introduced by the 1920's silent movie Nosferatu and the latter was originated by Bram Stoker in his novel Dracula. (See The Vampire Encyclopedia by J. Gordon Melton.) Did Randi actually research this article, or did he just write down some hazy recollections of Saturday night horror movies?
  • An article on the Necronomicon soberly describes it as authored in Arabic by Abdul Alhazred and translated into English by John Dee. I'm really hoping that Randi meant this article as a joke. The Necronomicon is, of course, an entirely nonexistent work described in horror stories by H. P. Lovecraft and related authors since the 1920's. The popularity of Lovecraft's stories has recently lead several people to publish hoax Necronomicons purporting to be the real thing; the best was compiled by Colin Wilson under the pseudonym George Hays. Wilson later confessed to the prank. Now, if Randi knows all this, why would he perpetrate the hoax in a book that is devoted specifically to exploding hoaxes? At the best, this article shows amazing bad taste; at the worst, an astonishing ignorance of his subject matter.

To give a feeling of the differences between Mishlove's and Randi's books, we may compare their articles on some of the same topics. For example, on the subject of astrology, Randi gives a historical overview and a snappy quote (from one Francesco Guicciardini):

How happy are the astrologers if they tell one truth to a hundred lies, while other people lose all credibility if they tell one lie to a hundred truths.

In the area of scientific research into astrology, Randi mentions only one study, in which it was found that, given a collection of astrology readings to choose from, a subject is typically not able to pick out which reading was based on his or her own birthdate. (Randi actually gave a better demonstration of the vagueness and suggestiveness of astrology readings on a Nova episode some years ago, but he doesn't mention that here.)

Mishlove, it turns out, shares much of Randi's skepticism about astrology, concluding that "The major claims of traditional horoscope interpretation lack scientific support." But Mishlove's article provides more useful detail. Mishlove discusses the same research study mentioned by Randi, but he specifies the issue of Nature in which it appeared, and also includes a long quote from it. He points out that the test subjects, who could not tell which astrology reading referred to them, were equally unable to pick out their own description from a stack of descriptions generated by a standard personality test. But this is not offered up simply to make an excuse; Mishlove cites other research whose results were usually embarrassing for astrologers. And he mentions one class of research that appears to have successfully found correlations between planetary positions and success in certain professions. We don't know what Randi would say about that research, since he never mentions it in his book.

From astrology, let us turn to their articles on firewalking. Randi begins his: "This stunt consists of walking barefoot over a bed of glowing coals (usually charcoal) and emerging unharmed."  Note the word stunt, which he uses three times in as many paragraphs. He explains: "The secret is not in the preparation of the foot, the mind, or the soul, as often claimed, but in the fact that wood ash has very low 'specific heat' and does not 'hold' as much heat energy as other substances. A frying-pan, placed in the path of the fire-walker, would burn the foot badly if stepped into."

This is a very pertinent and interesting observation, but it's not the only naturalistic explanation that I've heard of. Another scientist claimed that one's foot is protected by some strange property of sweat that forms an impenetrable barrier at certain precise temperatures. Mishlove mentions still another possibility: that no part of the foot remains in constant contact with the coals long enough to receive a burn. So has firewalking been proven a "stunt" or are we just looking at a bunch of scientists making a posteriori excuses for an embarrassing phenomenon; excuses that are never tested rigorously to establish whether they are correct? Does Randi walk on hot coals himself? Does he keep a bottle of ointment on hand for the significant minority of people who suffer serious burns when they walk across these "low specific heat" coals?

Mishlove's firewalking article, while longer and more informative than Randi's, nevertheless has serious deficiencies of its own. He does not even mention the concept of specific heat, for example. And while he acknowledges some evidence that suggests that purely natural processes at work, he goes on to say that fire-handling appears to be a less explainable phenomenon than fire-walking. Yet all he has to offer on the topic of fire-handling is some anecdotes, which receive as much space and attention as if they had been accounts of carefully controlled studies.

The topic of firewalking suggests to me a basic methodological problem with psi research, to the extent that it is the study of what the Parapsychological Association defines as

The apparent ability of human beings and other species to acquire information about their environment and to affect it physically without the use of currently understood mechanisms. (Quoted in Randi's article on psi.)

In other words, psi research specializes in the study of certain classes of anomalies: observations of occurrences that seemingly should be impossible. But as long as no rationale is found for such phenomena, and as long as the phenomena appear to violate physical laws that are very well tested, Occam's Razor (the scientific principle of preference for the simplest explanation) is going to dictate that the data be written off as experimental error. On the other hand, if a plausible physical mechanism is ever found, then the occurrences cease to be anomalies and become "stunts" instead, which are no longer unexplained and thus no longer within the purview of psi research. Parapsychology, to the extent that it succeeds as a science, must destroy its own subject matter.

Mishlove's and Randi's overall conclusions about psychic research are characteristically at odds. Randi says

Though it is not widely accepted or even well known to the public, it is a fact that no paranormal, psychic, or supernatural claim has ever been substantiated by proper testing.

It seems that a lengthy, closely reasoned book would be needed to substantiate such a blanket claim, but Randi has not attempted to do so, at least in this volume. For example, he doesn't define what he means by "proper" testing, nor does he focus in any systematic way on recent psi research with an eye to pointing out the deficiencies in its methods.

Mishlove is predictably more upbeat, though still fairly conservative in his conclusions. He notes

The critics argue that psi claims, if accepted, would dramatically change our self-image and world view. Therefore, they claim, we must use extraordinary care in evaluating the data. As extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, it is reasonable to use a higher standard in looking at psi. They are correct; and psi research, after more than a century, has yet to meet such a higher standard.

But he goes on to plead that the relative paucity of funding makes it difficult to conduct and reproduce tests of the elaborate type that the critics require. He also suggests that scientists typically ignore studies that have no detectable  flaws, or reserve judgment indefinitely, in a way that suggests a definite unwillingness to consider unwelcome evidence. And he states that

For the skeptics to make this claim stick [that psi research should be abandoned], it would be incumbent upon them to demonstrate that the beyond-chance findings of psi research can reasonably be attributed to various artifacts, fraud, or other conventional hypotheses. At the current time, the skeptics are much farther from this goal than the psi researchers are from establishing psi.


dragon.jpg (31718 bytes)IT TURNS OUT that countering the latter argument is a major goal of Nicholas Humphries' book, Leaps of Faith. According to the publishers, Humphries is a psychologist was has done research at Cambridge University on the evolution of the mind. He has written an extremely thoughtful and literate book to justify his position of total skepticism toward all supernatural phenomena, up to and including religious faiths (the type of sacred cow not explicitly targeted by Randi). While his arguments are rife with errors, they are generally sophisticated errors expressed in flowing and persuasive language. This is a book that spurs one to think, and for that reason alone we should be glad that Humphries has written it.

Rather than surveying the whole spectrum of supernatural beliefs, Humphries restricts himself to representative cases that he uses to illustrate certain general principles for evaluating paranormal phenomena. The result is a comparatively shorter book than Mishlove's or Randi's, but one that benefits from its tighter focus. It also shows a sort of gloomy integrity that one has to admire. It is as if Humphries really misses his faith, but feels compelled to reject it in favor of the higher goal of Truth.

The volume begins by examining the nature of religious belief. Humphries asserts that the function of religion is to explain our current situation in such a way as to imply that a reassuring future lies in wait for us.

. . . when thinking in religious ways, people almost always start with the future and then work their way backwards to the present and the past. They begin at the end, and go on till they have come to a suitable beginning.

Unfortunately, Humphries seems to think it is enough simply to assert this. He doesn't actually present evidence that any particular religious belief was arrived at in this way.   Further, his emphasis on the role of religious faith as comforter seems excessive. For one thing, not all religious beliefs are comforting. The notion of an eternal Hell is quite a frightening one — I remember being quite vividly frightened by it as a child — particularly when coupled with such popular theological concepts as that we are fundamentally sinners who are unworthy of Heaven, and that only a small minority will be selected for salvation (as Jesus seems to state in the Gospels). Surely it is more comforting to contemplate the Epicurean doctrine that death is the end of pains and pleasures alike.

In any case, students of comparative religion have noted additional functions of religious belief, including the establishment of a moral code and the attempt to control nature (through rituals intended to secure a good harvest, etc.). These are dimensions that Humphries does not begin to address in his analysis. Nor does it seem to occur to him that something like progress underlies in the history of religion. Yet modern faiths certainly de-emphasize some concepts that experience has shown to be unreliable, such as the ability to guarantee a good harvest through any kind of ritual. Most of us would also see the abandonment of human sacrifice as some kind of progress. And the accumulation of techniques in the mystic traditions for reaching ecstatic states of consciousness seems a definite type of progress, albeit perhaps progress in psychology rather than metaphysics.

The book becomes much more interesting when Humphries moves on to examine modern attempts to justify the supernatural through psi research. Here, Humphries introduces a really interesting principle he calls the Argument from Unwarranted Design. He states it as follows:

If a phenomenon shows signs of being unduly restricted in its form and manner of occurrence, so that our theory of its underlying cause provides us with no principled reason why it should take just the form it does, then we should suspect that the true cause of the phenomenon lies elsewhere.

This is best understood through an example:

If [Uri] Geller has been able to bend a spoon merely by mind-power, without his exerting any sort of normal mechanical force, then it would immediately be proper to ask: Why has this power of Geller's worked only when applied to metal objects of a certain shape and size? Why indeed only to objects that anyone with a strong hand could have bent if they had the opportunity (spoons or keys, say, but not pencils or pokers or round coins)? Why has he not been able to do it unless he has been permitted, however briefly, to pick the object up and have sole control over it? Why has he needed to touch the object with his fingers, rather than with his feet or with his nose? Etcetera, etcetera. If Geller really does have the power of mind over matter, rather than muscle over metal, none of this would fit.

With regard to studies of psychokinesis (ability to move or otherwise affect physical objects through thought alone), Humphries makes the crushing observation

There has never yet been a psychic who could, for example, take instructions from an audience about what they would like to see done. "Simon says: turn the light off, levitate the pencil, ring the bell . . ." The psychic has his routine. The audience must take it or leave it. But if, as it should be, it is merely a matter of his willingness to act, this is, if you think about it, a bit odd.

Similarly for ESP research, he observes that

. . . just as there have been especially gifted performers on the stage or in the drawing room, so there have turned out to be specially gifted experimenters in the parapsychological laboratory: individuals who, either by their own virtues or with the assistance of good subjects, have obtained results that other experimenters cannot match.

Humphries argues that skeptics have no need to provide an explanation for every positive result that is reported by psi researchers. The attempt to do so, to always answer the question "What, then, is your explanation?" he sees as misguided. As long as the research results include a pattern of unwarranted restrictions, we are safe in concluding that the phenomenon was not paranormal.

The trick lies is deciding what restrictions are unwarranted, and here Humphries admits that many psi researchers are happy to explain away restrictions that seem quite suspicious to him. There is some risk here, not acknowledged by Humphries, of adopting a nonfalsifiable position. All anecdotal evidence can be rejected because it was not collected under controlled conditions. All experimental evidence can be rejected because there are suspicious restrictions on the effects shown. But does not the effort to create a controlled experiment more or less force the researcher to focus on a narrow range of effects?

Clearly, the principle of Unwarranted Design is one that must be wielded with great care. It proves nothing by itself, but it would be useful to bear in mind when reading a thorough survey of parapsychological research. Humphries does not provide such a survey. However, he does refer the reader to some books that sound promising, including Parapsychology: A Concise History by John Beloff, Science and Parascience by Brian Ingliss, and Science and Supernature by James E. Alcock

Toward the end of the book, Humphries attempts to make such research unnecessary by arguing that psi abilities are impossible in principle and not just in fact. In other words, he tries to show that that the most commonly-studied forms of psi (extrasensory perception, telepathy, and psychokinesis) are impossible for purely theoretical reasons, all aside from what experiments may show.

This sort of claim should strike an alarm bell immediately, for proofs are really the business of mathematics rather than science. In a formal mathematical system, where certain axioms are taken as given, one can use them to definitely prove certain theorems. But in science, where you argue from empirical data, the most you ever achieve is a certain measure of probability, and even that depends on the application of interpretive criteria (such as parsimony) that cannot in themselves be justified. It is good to remember the example of the scientist who proved that heavier-than-air machines could never fly. Based on his assumptions, the proof may have been perfectly valid. But it didn't stop the Wright brothers from inventing the airplane.

To proceed, Humphries' arguments are based on a model from communications theory:

. . . if we take seriously the communications model, we have to suppose that some sort of causal chain is involved as follows: the source events are encoded as a signal (of unknown type) which is then transmitted (via an unknown medium) until it is picked up at the receiver where (by unknown means) it is decoded and produces some further events related to the first.

Of course, this is a whopping big "If" to start out with. It ignores recent speculations by physicists based on paradigms such as the holographic universe, according to which each part of the universe somehow encodes information about all parts of the universe. If consciousness has access to this holographic encoding, it could obtain information about anything anywhere. To be honest, the whole "holographic" paradigm is quite confusing and vague, but no more so than half a dozen well-established discoveries of modern quantum physics, and it doesn't involve any obvious logical contradictions.

But you don't have to buy into a holographic paradigm to see flaws in Humphries' model. For example,

You can only communicate in this sort of structured way when and if you — or whoever designed the communication line — know exactly what the characteristics of the channel are, and what kind of receiver is on the other end. . . . With all realistic examples of PK or ESP, however, the truth is that the receiver . . .is usually far from being a standardized device and the parameters of the transmission channel cannot be fixed.

Compare this, however, with ordinary perception. When I go outside and look at a tree, the tree is clearly not a standardized communication device whose parameters are known to me in advance. This fact doesn't stop me from perceiving it. Since Humphries' communications model doesn't apply to ordinary perception, there seems no clear reason to suppose it would apply to extrasensory perception.

As an illustration of PK, Humphries imagines a case where a student in one city tries to control the fall of a die that is rolled in another city. Here he objects that the student would need to apply forces to control the motion of the die, and to do so effectively, the student would need to know many details about the die's position, motion, elasticity etc. that are not available to the student. But to make this claim, he first has to assume that ESP is impossible, which is as much to say that he assumes one of his major conclusions.

Then Humphries argues that even if the student does have all the necessary information, she does not have the means to make the necessary physical calculations, nor any mental awareness of doing so. She simply wishes for a certain outcome. But of course the mind is capable of making many fine calculations on a subconscious level, such as those involved in physical balance and coordination, or the mighty arithmetic calculations demonstrated by certain savants who say that the answer "just comes to them."

In discussing telepathy, Humphries observes that each human brain is unique in its detailed structure:

And it follows that no two are sufficiently similar for them to respond to any particular imposed energy field by having the same thought or feeling.

Follows how? Though everyone has different networks of dendrites connecting their brain neurons, we certainly have a lot of instincts and capabilities in common. Differences in detail do not rule out the possibility of commonalities in gross structure that would be sufficient to enable communication. I'm not arguing that such commonalities actually exist, but clearly they are not the sort of logical impossibility that Humphries claims.

All this discussion of brain structure versus psychic powers carries the additional, hidden assumption that the mind is in fact contained wholly within, or is generated wholly by, the brain. In the main, I would agree with this view, but of course many people do not, — some of them eminent neuroscientists (Sir John Eccles, for example). If there really is something immaterial about the mind, then all bets are off because we know nothing about whether the immaterial mind contains a standardized communication device or whether it has access to a transmission channel with well-defined parameters.


AFTER ALL THIS, what have we learned? Psychic phenomena still appear to me to be unlikely rather than impossible in principle. Further research appears to be warranted, albeit probably not on the increased level of funding that Mishlove would like. (We have to keep some sense of proportion when dividing funds between parapsychology and, say, cancer research.) And the questions that psi research implies about how scientific research works are at least as interesting as the questions about whether psychic phenomena do, in fact, exist.

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This article originally appeared in Psychozoan: A Journal of Culture

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Copyright 1998 by Joseph Morales

Picture credits:

  • Drawing, "Cosmic Wheels" by Sandro del Prete, from Optical Illusions by Bruno Ernst.
  • Photo of Voudoun ceremony by Gloria Rudolph from Voudoun Fire: The Living Reality of Mystical Religion, by Melita Denning and Osborne Phillips.
  • Drawing of microscopic organisms by Kathryn Delisle from The Illustrated Five Kingdoms by Lynn Margulis, Karlene V. Schwartz, and Michael Dolan.
  • Engraving of a dragon from Alchemy: The Medieval Alchemists and their Royal Art, by Johannes Fabricius.
  • Tarot card "The Fool" from The Ancient Art of Tarot, Pacific Game Company. The artist is unknown to me.