A review of :
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.
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 progressionfrom 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.)
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
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,
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):
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
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
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
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
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.
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:
This is best understood through an example:
With regard to studies of psychokinesis (ability to move or otherwise affect physical objects through thought alone), Humphries makes the crushing observation
Similarly for ESP research, he observes that
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:
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,
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:
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.
This article originally appeared in Psychozoan: A Journal of Culture
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© Copyright 1998 by Joseph Morales