Myth of an Afterlife?

A couple of people have spoken to me about a review I wrote last year for the SPR Journal, on a book purporting to debunk afterlife claims. I thought I’d give it a more general airing.

The book is titled The Myth of an Afterlife: The Case Against Life After Death, and is a collection of essays aiming to demolish arguments for survival of consciousness after death. It’s edited by Michael Martin and Keith Augustine and published by Rowman and Littlefield, who also published Irreducible Mind (which in terms of heft and production values it rather resembles). It proclaims its departure from nearly all of the contemporary literature on an afterlife in taking the ‘eminently reasonable’ position that, in all probability, biological death permanently ends a person’s experiences. It argues that the questions that one should ask about an afterlife have been mainly dictated by those who believe in one, and encourages the consideration of other questions that have been overlooked but that are essential to ask.

The writers are mainly philosophers and psychologists, with some neuroscientists and others. Many are, or have been, involved in paranormal sceptic activities. The volume is jointly edited by Michael Martin, an atheist philosopher, and Keith Augustine, a philosopher and executive director of the sceptics website Infidels.org, which is dedicated to combating pseudoscience and paranormal belief on the Internet (and which one supposes is behind much of the aggressive editing of psi-related material on Wikipedia.)

The essays are grouped in four parts. The first, headed ‘empirical arguments for annihilation’, describes in detail the dependence of life and mental functions on a working brain and nervous system - the effects of strokes, accidents and dementia; brain scans that connect behavioural changes to lesions in specific areas, and so on – along with insights from evolutionary theory and the relationship between personality and genetics. Given the powerful scientific evidence - from cognitive neuroscience, psychopharmacology, comparative psychology, behavioural genetics, evolutionary psychology, developmental psychology, and neurophysiology - it seems obvious that minds cannot exist in the absence of a functioning brain, however much we might wish it.

The second section describes conceptual and empirical difficulties for the principal models of survival: interactionist substance dualism, an ‘astral’ body, and the Christian idea of bodily resurrection. Essays explore such topics as the metaphysical impossibility of survival or of nonphysical souls violating physical laws, and the implausibility of astral bodies and astral worlds, the latter by Susan Blackmore. The philosopher of mind Jaegwon Kim also makes an appearance, arguing for the incoherence of the dualist idea of an immaterial mind or soul interacting with a physical brain.

A short section of three essays focuses on concerns about the nature of afterlife. They expose logical absurdities such as the idea of God condemning a person to an afterlife in hell, and the incoherence of notions of heaven: How would a soul move from place to pace? How would it recognize other souls? What would disembodied souls do all day, since presumably there would be no need to sleep? A third essay addresses the intrinsic unfairness of karma, as a moral law that inflicts horrible punishments on individuals in the form of disease, disabilities and poverty for alleged previous wrongdoing they have no recollection of ever committing.

It’s not uncommon for atheist writers to tackle survival without at all referencing the evidence from psychical research (for instance, Mark Johnston’s Surviving Death (2010) and Samuel Scheffler’s Death and the Afterlife (2013) ). The editors here are fully aware of the importance of such research for many people, and accordingly take pains to demolish it as thoroughly as possible. Essays in section four address alleged shortcomings in claims for ghosts and apparitions, out-of-body and near-death experiences, and reincarnation and mediumship research.

The book is impressively clear, thorough and detailed. It is also forcefully argued. The driving force is Keith Augustine, who set the cat among the pigeons some years ago with a series of arguments in support of near-death experiences being hallucinations, which are reprised here; he also provides two of the longest essays, an introduction and a chapter titled ‘The Dualist’s Dilemma: The High Cost of Reconciling Neuroscience with a Soul’ (co-written with Yonatan I. Fishman). These two pieces cover most of the main arguments, with the other contributions reinforcing it with sidelights and detailed explorations of individual facets.

As one would expect, this is a highly partisan construction, of the kind that a team of expensive lawyers would present in court to sway a jury. Any refuge or loophole used by survival proponents is ruthlessly sought out and exposed. Might one suppose that terminal lucidity – the phenomenon of elderly patients with advanced dementia being restored to a brief moment of coherence in the hours or minutes before death – reinforce a dualist view? Alas, says Augustine, the evidence is anecdotal; hardly any cases have been satisfactorily documented. In any case, we should not place too much trust in exceptional cases:

Proponents who appeal to uncharacteristic cases as evidence for the independence thesis … suffer from a kind of tunnel vision, latching on to any data potentially favorable to their own point of view, heedless of the fact that the exceptions prove the rule. And in focusing on the rare neurological outliers while disregarding the immense body of neuroscientific evidence unfavorable to their perspective, independence thesis proponents frequently overlook the comparatively poor quality of the data thought to support their point of view (p. 251).

Arguments that are often employed by survival proponents – perhaps somewhat casually – are forcefully confronted. Thus for instance, ‘correlation is not causation’ is countered by the observation that the effects of other organs – the kidney’s role in filtering toxins, for instance – is not disputed, and that it’s highly selective to apply different reasoning to the brain (p. 102). (Who now continues to resist the implications of the correlation between smoking and lung cancer?) To insist otherwise, is a ‘fallacy called moving the goalposts: an utterly unreasonable person pretends to be reasonable, if only more evidence, impossible to obtain, were available’ (p. 103).

Most readers here will find a major weakness in the book’s one-sided consideration of psychical research, as is usually the case with sceptic productions (although this will not be obvious to its natural audience). The arguments are as detailed and skilfully expounded as I have seen anywhere, but they stray little from the long-established script. Important caveats and objections regarding experiments and investigations– some new, others made originally made by psi researchers themselves – are mixed in with the familiar generalisations about cold reading, conjuring tricks, witness unreliability, and so on. Inevitably, studies that support the sceptic view – and that knowledgeable readers will recognise as laughably biased and misinformed - are said to have been carried out by ‘sophisticated’ researchers.

It also appears that, for all the focus on established science, the arguments here are not always less subjective than those they oppose. For instance, Augustine concedes that survivalists do not generally contest the neuroscientific evidence for mind-brain dependence: the problem is the way they interpret it (p. 4). But he nevertheless seems to believe that the great preponderance of evidence of correlation – which the book establishes by piling it up in quantity - obliges us to make the qualitative leap to accept causation.

Out of sheer intellectual honesty, a few brave souls within parapsychology have conceded the daunting challenge that this evidence poses for survival. But their only apparent recourse is to argue – quite implausibly – that the ambiguous parapsychological evidence for survival actually outweighs the virtually incontestable neuroscientific and other evidence for extinction (p. 5).

The claim of ambiguity surely cuts both ways. Even leaving aside evidence of psi, the source of consciousness in brain functions is never more than an appearance – however incontestable to some - and the considerable difficulties for physicalists of establishing how consciousness arises are hardly at all addressed. The writers have little to say about the problems raised by indications, thoroughly catalogued in Irreducible Mind, that mere suggestion can bring about appropriate, and highly complex, biological effects – sudden unexpected cures, stigmata, and the like – implying that, far from being an epiphenomenon, consciousness can exert direct effects on matter in ways utterly mysterious from a physicalist perspective. One imagines that such evidence would be treated on the same basis as paranormal claims (that it is weakly supported and probably spurious), but that can hardly be said about the placebo effect, which is not listed in the index.

Also, the book shows that tendency, marked with atheist and sceptic writers, to make unwarranted assumptions about what should be the case if such-and-such were true, and to hold that, since it is quite clearly not the case, it cannot therefore true. Sentences that begin, ‘One would expect that…’ should be treated with caution. We can accept, to take just one example, that viewed as a biological event, death should happen in a more-or-less uniform biological manner for every individual of the human species. But we cannot go on to infer that afterlife and rebirth must equally be uniform experiences, and that the manifold cultural variations in near-death and reincarnation reports therefore indicate that these are products of the imagination. If consciousness and memory survive the death of the body, one might at least acknowledge the possibility that communities continue to exist that are shaped by culture, and whose actions – for instance in the manner in which they are reborn, in terms of gender, the length of time following death, and so on – conform to the cultural norms that their members are accustomed to.

In this context there’s also a point to be made about differing temperaments. Much that is unflattering is said about those who believe in an afterlife: that they indulge in wishful thinking, that they’re swayed by religious faith in the teeth of the evidence, that they blithely overlook difficult scientific and metaphysical obstacles. But it hardly needs to be pointed out that sceptics have their own mental and emotional quirks: notably, the conservative tendency to seek security in what has been objectively established, and to be repelled by unappealing problems, mysteries and unresolved issues whose investigation, nevertheless, history tells us may lead eventually to new insights, and even to changed worldviews. It’s true that human testimony such as that provided by family members in rebirth cases can be infuriatingly complex and difficult to disentangle, but it doesn’t mean that conclusions cannot, or should not eventually be drawn from it that are potentially every bit as significant as those based on brains scans. And while questions about what survival could possibly mean boggle the literal mind, an imaginative exploration of these mysteries – such as many people follow by immersing themselves in psychical, religious and spirituality literature – can help to provide illumination.

That said, this is an important book, and can be read with profit by believers, if only to remind themselves how formidable the arguments against survival of consciousness can seem to be. It will reinforce the atheistic convictions of its natural audience, and will doubtless encourage young Americans, especially, to disregard the God-talk they hear spouted all around them. To be fair, for many people, it is far more reasonable to trust the conservative, well-established claims of brain science than the apparently uncertain – and often chaotic and incredible – testimony about anomalous experiences. One can only hope that at least some of those who are impressed by the book will have the curiosity to seek out the other side of the story.

THE MYTH OF AN AFTERLIFE: THE CASE AGAINST LIFE AFTER DEATH edited by Michael Martin and Keith Augustine. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, 2015. 675pp. £51.95. 978-0-8108-8677-3

References

Kelly, Edward F., et al. (2007). Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century. (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield).

Johnston, Mark (2010). Surviving Death. (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Scheffler, Samuel (2013) Death and the Afterlife. (New York: Oxford University Press).


Ghost Stories

Regular readers know I like to poke around and see what’s afoot in the media at this time of year. Mostly I found only a lot of rather boring short articles providing ‘scientific’ explanations for ghosts, from the likes of Joe Nickell. This one made me laugh:

Shane Rogers and his team from Clarkson University in the US observed similarities between paranormal experiences and the hallucinogenic effects of fungal spores. This may explain why ghost sightings often occur in older buildings with inadequate ventilation and poor air quality.

As did this:

Kesha's Sexy Supernatural Energy

Pop singer Kesha admitted in an interview with Ryan Seacrest that she believes she once had sex with a ghost. "I've got a song called 'Supernatural,'" she explained. "That song was about having sex with a ghost. I lived in this flop house at Rural Canyon and there was this weird energy that lived there, and it used to keep me at night and wake me up. And it progressed into this dark, sexual spirit. It did scare me, but that's part of the fun of it."

Then I came across this piece in the comment section of the Guardian’s website. The article itself is weak, but it was clearly meant to start a conversation, which duly took place. The comments thread is some fifteen pages long, much of it containing personal ghost stories from readers around the world – a sort of global campfire event. For once, the scoffers seemed outnumbered, no one taking much notice of them.

I could comment, but sometimes it’s better just to listen. Here’s a selection:

when i was a kid around 10 my family and me lived with a ghost.. two things really stand out but small things also were apparent like leaving something on in a room leaving the room coming back later to see what you turned on was off...or at night when we went to bed light s turned off.. i was hiding under covers.. you would hear what sounded like a ball bouncing.. the two things that stand out .. my family and me were in the living room watching tv.. when down the hall on a dresser was a newspaper.. the pages were slowly turning one by one. as if someone was reading them.. and this one where there cannot be any doubt.. i was standing in the living room next to my brother.. mom was sitting on the couch.. across to where mom was sitting was a wall about10 feet in front of her.. on the wall we had a plastic ornament of a man.. i was saying to my brother their are no such things as ghosts.. and all of a sudden the ornament was slammed down hard to the ground right next to where mom was on the couch.. 10 feet to where it was hanging on the wall.. i apologized after that..


Here is my story: Believe it or not! I came to live in Brazil in 1991. After visiting a Spiritist Centre for charitable reasons and although a strong agnostic, I became interested in the Spiritist doctrine. (Although it had been prominent in the UK at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the 20th century, with famous scientists amongst others, it has all but disappeared nowadays.) Anyway, shortly afterwards I started doing some psychic writing and I was the biggest Doubting Thomas ever. My writing was produced in a conscious state, often in a dialogue (question and answer form)
"Your friend needs help!"
"Which friend?"
"The one in a wheelchair?"
"Julio?"
"Yes"
"When?"
"Now"
"Now?"
Yes , now!"
"OK"
It was after midnight. I told my wife and said "It's now or never. I need to go to Julio's house to see if this communication is real"
Ok" she said. " but don't go alone... take our oldest son along with you."

I woke him and we quickly set off into town. When we arrived at Julio's house, there was a light on. Not totally bad..... As is customary here in Brazil, I clapped my hands (they don't knock on doors) and Julio's mother appeared immediately at the door.

"You'll think I am crazy but I came to see if Julio needs help."
"Thank God you are here," she replied. "I need to take him to the hospital urgently and there were no ambulances available. I have no money."
"Do you want to go to the hospital now?"
"Yes please"
"Right, let's go."

We went to the emergency at the teaching hospital in a nearby town where a doctor saw Julio and said he was OK to go home with medication but if there was any change we were to bring him back immediately. We bought the medicine at an all night chemist next top the hospital and went home.
I asked Julio's mother if she was religious. She replied that she was and that she had her bible open and had been praying for help all day.
Julio was eight years old at the time. He had hydrocephalus with a valve draining excess fluid from his head to his abdominal cavity. One sign there may be a problem with the valve was if he started vomiting. He had been vomiting all day, hence the mother's worry and the need to get him to the hospital..
Needless to say, I am no longer a Doubting Thomas.


When travelling round Europe with friends as impoverished backpackers, we stopped off at my friend's penpal's granddad's house in Paris. My friend's penpal told us we can kip in the lounge but not go upstairs to where the comfy beds were. Sod that I thought, when he had gone and everyone else had settled down on sleeping bags on the floor, and went and found a bed upstairs in the dark. As I was dozing in bed, i suddenly felt myself wide-awake, and curiously watched as I was pulled upright in bed, pulled up to standing, floated off the bed and was suspended in mid-air in the corner of the room looking down on the bed. In the bed though, it wasn't my body but that of an old man with short cropped grey hair, pale complexion and eyes closed. There was no fear at all, only curiosity....then nothing. Next morning, I relayed my story to my friends who in turn related to the penpal when he came round to pick us up. He became very agitated, angry even at my having broken our promise to him. His granddad had died in that bed four months previously and no-one had slept in it since. There was no photograph of the granddad in the house, but when we returned to the penpal's house, he showed me a photograph of him then and. of course, it was the same man I had seen lying on the bed the previous evening.


I grew up in a weird creepy house and have lots of stories but know they'll just be torn apart but there is one strange thing in particular that happened which isn't really a ghost thing but anyway. One day I was doing the dishes in the kitchen and I had a like a vision/waking dream kind of thing where my sister burst into my house crying. About 20-30 minutes she did burst into my house crying and everything about it happened in the same way I had imagined it. It wasn't some big trauma or anything and I don't even remember what she was upset about but I often think back and wonder what happened to make me 'see' it before I did.


Mostly I've seen a cat, resembling our beloved late Siamese, but most of the sightings were actually before she died, when she was becoming ill - no, it couldn't have simply been her. During one, I was feeding my hamster and turned to see a Siamese sitting on the kitchen table, just as clearly as reality, I was surprised since I always shut the door to keep her out when caring for the hamster and checked she wasn't in the room first, so looked to the door which was clearly still shut, not understanding how she'd seemingly got in, looked back at the Siamese still sitting on the table, then after a few moments, they just weren't there any more. I think that the room looked different after that, too - the laundry room tidier, which wasn't the only time things seemed to change or more likely shift back after such events. Perhaps it's a kind of access of (your) earlier memories, imprinted on the current scene, or alternatively the space-time disruption theory, if you like.


Sunny afternoon playing chess with my young son. We were in the enclosed veranda, in what was reputed to be the oldest house existing atop the Scarborough Bluffs, Scarborough, Ontario, Canada, that is. When a female in a long white summer dress went through the door into the garden. Thinking it was my wife I called out for her to put the kettle on so we could have tea . No response which was unusual. My wife was still upstairs in our bedroom. Seemed strange, as I looked out in the garden. Nobody there. Past it off.

Weeks later at a neighbour's house party. The local councillor's. His wife asked if I had seen our ghost yet. Seems quite well known in the neighbourhood!

Didn't believe in Ghosts before, but do now. Appears she has a history.


Something similar happened to my husband when he was a teenager - the house his parents own used to be a bakery (amongst other things...) and one weekend, he somehow managed to wake up before his parents and went downstairs and was sitting in the living room (which used to be the shop part of the bakery). The door to the stairs started to open, and he thought it was his mum having come down to make breakfast, and went to open the door for her, and came face to face with a woman in a Victorian-style red dress, her hair up, and with a shocked look on her face like she hadn't expected to see him there, just as much as he hadn't expected to see HER. Then she disappeared.

Another time, he was in the kitchen, and saw someone in the living room, walking around where the old bakery counter would have been, also dressed in Victorian style clothes. He thought (again) that it was his mum, and called out to her if she wanted any tea making. When he didn't get a reply, he went in to ask again, thinking she hadn't heard him, and was startled to see she wasn't there. She'd been upstairs the whole time (and obviously not dressed in Victorian clothes) and was confused as to why he was asking if she'd been downstairs at all.
Interestingly, they later found a painting of the woman my husband saw, in that same red Victorian dress, in the attic (loft?) and gave it to the relatives of the previous owner of the house (who they are friends with) thinking it belonged to them. But whenever they try to hang it up, the painting flies off the wall and ends up on the other side of the room, face down, so they've given up even trying and have it stored somewhere. Personally, I think it belongs with that house, but that's just me.


When i was a kid my family and me lived with a ghost we had quite a few scares.. one time while my family and me was watching tv in the living room. down the hall on a dresser was a newspaper and slowly one by one the pages were turning as if someone was browsing through it.. another time which cannot be any doubt i was standing next to my brother in the living room by the front door.. mom was sitting on the couch.. across where my mom was siting is a wall.. on the wall was a plastic ornament of a man .. i was saying to my brother their are no such things as ghosts.. and all of a sudden the ornament was slammed hard to the ground where my mom was sitting 10 feet across from where it was on the wall i apologized after that


My work colleague's eighteen month old year old daughter always refused to have a bath in his mother-in-law's old house, even to the extent of grabbing hold of the door frame as she was being carried in there. The mother-in-law sold the house eventually and a few weeks later went round to collect the post. The new owner told her that her husband was refusing to sleep upstairs and had made up a bed in one of the downstairs rooms because of the ghost of a woman in a red dress on the landing.

My own mother-in-law was a district nurse and went to visit an old lady. On her way up the stairs a man dressed in old-fashioned attire walked down past her. When she turned to see who it was, he had vanished into thin air. She went into the old lady's room with a shocked expression and the old lady said: "You've seen him then? He came with the clock" and she pointed to an antique grandfather clock she'd had delivered a few weeks previously.


As a younger single mum with a child, I exchanged with a woman who was in a hurry to get out of her house. From the first night, I heard a child crying... it wasn't mine, no other children around, no cats. As time went on, several friends who stayed at the house, heard a crying child. I didn't say anything, but kept copious notes. I also had the feeling that someone was watching me, and my own child was heard talking to someone and referring to him by name, though there was nobody in the family with that name. I then found out that the woman I had changed with had a child that she had neglected. He died. And yes, his name was the one my own child kept repeating. I lived in that house for ten years. The really sad thing for me though is that the woman later neglected a second child who died... but this time, she went to prison.


When I was doing my post doctoral research at a famous west coast university, I encountered a ghost of a close relative. This relative told me stuff regarding "my personal and professional" career in two and a half years. This was details I considered to be very specific, and in fact so outlandish to be impossible. This ghost appeared whilst sitting in my bedroom at around 9 pm west coast time. This close relative "verbally" communicated to me then quickly vanished.

To cut a long story short - Two and a half years time later: it was true.
From being an atheist rational scientist, I became an agnostic!


I am an atheist and do not believe there is anything after death. Some years ago we had a time when we could hear a baby crying. It would happen most often in the evening and several people heard it, both family members and visitors. The baby monitor picked nothing up. It lasted for about three months and then stopped as suddenly as it started. We lived in a detached house at the time and there were no babies nearby in neighbouring houses.

I have no explanation for this phenomenon. I just know what I heard.


We went on the Mary King's Close ghost walk with a couple of friends who were visiting from Peru a while back (this is going back a fair few years, since we haven't lived in Scotland for over 10 years now, and my son is now 19 and he was just a wee thing then...) but we didn't even get a third of the way thru before he went absolutely mental ape shit and refused to go any further no matter what anyone said or did (I didn't even consider it that bad, and I DO believe in spirits), so they had to get someone to come and get us to take us back to the main ground level. I never did get to see the rest of it, tho my husband and friends continued on without us and said it was really creepy and spooky, even without my son's freak-out.

He's always been a bit odd tho. (when he was about 2, he had a 'conversation' with his Gran-gran who'd just passed away, tho we didn't know it (that she'd passed away, I mean) until about 3 minutes later when the nursing home staff opened the door to the room we were waiting in and told us. Then they asked him who he'd been 'talking' to, and he very calmly said 'I talkin' to Gran-gran' and pointed to the corner where he'd been sitting and chatting away, and all hell broke loose. (Hubby's parents (or any of his family, for that matter) are not religious people at all, but they all went completely nuts when he said this. It's still a matter of contention even now - he still insists he saw her, and they insist he didn't.


I have some stories. I am late to the party, but here goes...
I own an interesting old house that dates back to the 1500s. Four people who have worked in the house have had "experiences." One was a young cleaner who opened the master bedroom door into the hallway to see a middle-aged woman in a black Victorian dress and white apron, with her hair styled in a bun, descending the stairs. She appeared solid, but when she reached the landing below she vanished into thin air. The cleaner was stunned by what she saw—or thought she saw. She went home.

Recently a man doing some work in the attics claimed he distinctly heard someone enter the house and noisily stomp up several flights of stairs. He called out to the "stair stomper," assuming another worker, a younger man, had come by, though he was not expected. There was no answer, so he searched, but the house was empty and the door was locked. No one else was ever there that day—not even a delivery was made. This man did not believe in ghosts, but then another time he briefly glimpsed a woman in the main hall, so now he's open to the idea of them.

Another worker, an older man, arrived one morning to check the house (we were away on a trip) to find a saucepan set upright on the slate floor in the kitchen. The saucepans were always kept firmly stacked upside down in a standing iron rack. The wayward saucepan was filled to the brim with water. No one had been in our isolated house and there were no leaks in the ceiling. No thirsty dogs to drink from it, either. There was no explanation to be found, but certainly there must be one.

There are ancient vaulted stone cellars below the house and the door leading down to them is sometimes found open, even though it latches firmly. I do put that down to the micro climates found in an old stone house.

A previous owner saw an angry-looking man with a dark beard. He was wearing a black old-fashioned suit and he walked into the main reception room and scowled at her. She told him to get out and he vanished. She may have been tipsy at the time.

I had a cleaner who would only work if she could bring her mother or her daughter along for company—she was so spooked by the house. She really was unhappy about it and finally quit.

Is my house haunted? I've never experienced anything spooky there, other than a strong sense of past lives lived in the house. No ghosts, no personalities. The house is very atmospheric in a nice way. Maybe that strong sense of the past suggests things to people. There is a ancient burial mound out front which probably helps!

We have been approached by ghost hunters seeking permission to do an investigation. That's not happening!


My husband's parents' house has several spirits similar to what you're describing (it's Victorian-era as well, tho it's been thru several incarnations as a bakery, a doctor's surgery, and the village post office during its lifetime). My husband has seen a Victorian lady several times, and we both have seen (and heard) a dog in the house which vanishes into a walled-off area into what used to be the butchery. (an area of the house I refuse to go in because it's creepy as hell...) His parents claim it's a fox but what fox is in the house and disappears into a wall? I mean, come on... (never mind that his mum is animal-phobic and won't have animals anywhere near her, let alone wild ones in the house)

I've seen an old man (I'm assuming it's a man, it was man-shaped, tho I never really saw a face. It was pretty evil, whatever it was) at the end of the upstairs hallway, glaring at me one night when I went to use the loo and it scared me so badly I wouldn't go without waking hubby up to come with me after that. He was outside what used to be the doctor's office when it was the surgery.

And we've both heard the old lady who used to live there before his parents bought the place (she died in his parents' bedroom; she was the aunt of the people they bought it from), coughing and hacking away at night in that front bedroom whenever his parents were away. Apparently she used to talk to the Victorian lady in the red dress when she was alive, so she knew there were spirits in the house too. We found this out from the neighbours who used to be her carers. She would sit in her rocking chair and chat 'into thin air', while claiming to be talking to a lady in a red dress, which was the same lady my husband saw multiple times as a teenager. (and nearly walked into once LOL)

I'd definitely believe houses have a way of at least recording the lives of people who lived or passed thru there, if nothing else. Tho it kind of creeps me out to think it might be recording ME at the same time, and I might someday appear as a spirit to someone else. *shudders*


I grew up in a weird creepy house and have lots of stories but know they'll just be torn apart but there is one strange thing in particular that happened which isn't really a ghost thing but anyway. One day I was doing the dishes in the kitchen and I had a like a vision/waking dream kind of thing where my sister burst into my house crying. About 20-30 minutes she did burst into my house crying and everything about it happened in the same way I had imagined it. It wasn't some big trauma or anything and I don't even remember what she was upset about but I often think back and wonder what happened to make me 'see' it before I did.


My ghost story - the great hairy wart on my otherwise rational scheme of things.

When travelling round Europe with friends as impoverished backpackers, we stopped off at my friend's penpal's granddad's house in Paris. My friend's penpal told us we can kip in the lounge but not go upstairs to where the comfy beds were. Sod that I thought, when he had gone and everyone else had settled down on sleeping bags on the floor, and went and found a bed upstairs in the dark. As I was dozing in bed, i suddenly felt myself wide-awake, and curiously watched as I was pulled upright in bed, pulled up to standing, floated off the bed and was suspended in mid-air in the corner of the room looking down on the bed. In the bed though, it wasn't my body but that of an old man with short cropped grey hair, pale complexion and eyes closed. There was no fear at all, only curiosity....then nothing. Next morning, I relayed my story to my friends who in turn related to the penpal when he came round to pick us up. He became very agitated, angry even at my having broken our promise to him. His granddad had died in that bed four months previously and no-one had slept in it since. There was no photograph of the granddad in the house, but when we returned to the penpal's house, he showed me a photograph of him then and. of course, it was the same man I had seen lying on the bed the previous evening.


Psi and the Far-Right

Here’s a philosopher who’s attracting interest in psi research circles. He’s Jason Reza Jorjani, half-Iranian by birth and professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology, where he teaches on science, technology and society. The Parapsychological Association has reviewed his book Prometheus and Atlas, commending ‘his scholarship, his breadth, his commitment to the problem of the place of the supernatural in our thinking, his jazzy and spunky but serious style’. Jeffrey Mishlove has interviewed him three times on New Thinking Allowed. The Society for Psychical Research invited him to give a talk, and subsequently published a lengthy essay by him in its journal.

Why all the excitement? It’s largely because it’s unusual to find a philosopher of Jorjani's readability and erudition holding a big vision in which an acknowledgement of psi phenomena plays a major part. This comment by parapsychologist Charles Tart gives an idea:

Jorjani’s book is not casual reading, but it’s not a swamp of philosophical jargon and word games either. If you’re interested in the roots of both Eastern and Western cultures, and the conceptual systems driving so much of modern culture, including spiritual culture, it’s an excellent book. Particularly, Jorjani is aware of parapsychological phenomena, the specters as he calls them, which official culture tries to banish, but which are very important to our full understanding of humanity and reality. These “ghosts” just won’t go away in spite of our extensive use of “magic words,” masquerading as reason, to banish them!

Jorjani is familiar with psi research, referencing among other things experimental PK work by Robert Jahn at Princeton, the Stargate remote viewing program and Stephen Braude’s scholarly analysis of early mediumistic studies. But I think he’s less interested in the details than in its implications, that materialism is an imposter, a sort of upstart ideology that has succeeded by suppressing knowledge about ‘the spectral’, as he calls it. He’s good on the part played by key individuals in this, such as Freud who ‘deliberately and duplicitously’ concealed evidence of psi interactions that he knew to be true; and Kant, who was deeply influenced by Swedenborg, but publicly debunked him to protect his chances of getting tenure.

Even Descartes, who developed the mechanist framework that became the basis of modern materialism, nevertheless understood from his experience of precognitive dreams that this could not be the whole story; he just chose not to follow that up. But times change, Jorjani says, and in the modern era, thinkers like Henri Bergson and William James, have resurrected the idea of psi phenomena as being part of the natural world.

It’s not surprising that all this should strike a chord with many parapsychologists. But there’s a twist. Earlier this month a video emerged of Jorjani giving a half-hour talk to ‘Identitarians’ in Stockholm. This is a big deal. Identarians are a European ultra-right, openly racist movement, not large, as far as I can tell, but with strong roots to anti-Islam and anti-immigrant parties in other countries, at least two of which – Poland and Hungary – are in government. The video has been posted on the website Righton.net (slogan: ‘Putting the action in reactionary’), where it rubs shoulders with full-on, foaming Trumpism.

I listened to this talk to see just what psi phenomena might have to do with extremist right-wing politics. Jorjani repeats the view he expresses elsewhere, that parapsychologists have fatally underestimated the effects on society of psi phenomena – the fact that, as he puts it, that their research opens up ‘the ultimate epistemological abyss’. But he goes further in painting an apocalyptic vision of psi, first being harnessed to bring down the current socio-political order, then to replace it with a sort of psi-mediated utopia. A society in which ESP played an active part would be utterly transparent, he suggests, since it would mean the end of secrets and lies, and also of crimes, because the thought police would have precognitive knowledge of them and take steps to prevent them. PK could prove a deadly means of destroying enemies, producing ‘first rate psychic assassins’). All this, he considers, would pose an intolerable threat to the liberal democratic political order, which ‘would be absolutely incapable of enduring such a situation… Not since witches were burned at the stake have we had a legal framework that even considers such possibilities.’

A crude attempt of this kind has already been seen, he contends – in the brief flowering of the Nazi ideology. The party grew out of the Thule Gesellschaft (Atlantis Society), which was founded in Munich towards the end of World War I, and which merged theosophical ideas with German ultra-nationalism. Its largely secret membership, which included some top German scientists, believed that Atlantis was the ‘lost homeland of the Nordic master race that descended from the heavens’. Its ambition was to overthrow ‘the dogmas of revealed religion and the outdated rationalistic enlightenment concepts of liberal individualism with a new politics’.

Unencumbered by scientific doubts about psi, Himmler and others enthusiastically promoted psychic warfare – psychics based in Berlin are said among other things to have pinpointed the location where Mussolini was being held prisoner by Italian anti-fascists, facilitating his rescue – an early forerunner (if true) of the Stargate military remote viewing program, which Jorjani also references here.

To Jorjani, this is potentially a blueprint for a new order coming about through a ‘spectral revolution'. He concludes:

However catastrophically they failed, these first postmodernists understood that the key to overcoming modernity lay in a psychical revolution in the sciences, but also that such a scientific revolution cannot come about unless society has been radically reorganised into a hierarchically integrated organic state.
A caveat: this is a short talk, outlining provocative ideas that would need a good deal more elucidation to pin down. They’re apparently intended to inspire a particular audience but seem somewhat unclear and inconsistent, and indeed, what I’ve outlined here may not fairly represent his thinking. (They’ve certainly surprised parapsychologists, and I assume there’s nothing of this in his book.)

But it seems clear enough that Jorjani is pointing out to extremists the advantages to them of psi’s power to disrupt. If and when the science establishment can no longer block it, the liberal democratic order will be overwhelmed, and this will open the way for the development of a new order of which they dream. The Nazis tried and failed; but others in the future may succeed.

What do we make of this? One immediate thought is that Jorjani’s idea of what psi might be capable of vastly exceeds the known facts. He talks as though an arsenal of psychic superpowers awaits for humanity to exploit, just as soon as it stops pretending that psi doesn’t exist. Oddly, it’s the same mistake that some sceptics like James Alcock make – to argue that psi, if true, would be calamitous: a world in which certain universal norms can no longer be relied on. But the evidence from a century of a half of research indicates, on the contrary, that psi is extremely elusive, fickle and unreliable. There’s nothing to suggest that the mere act of acknowledging its existence will change that, let alone release some transformative power in which it becomes the bedrock of a future utopian technology.

What I agree we should be concerned about is the effects of a widespread belief in psi, and the potential of that to generate insecurity and distrust. But one of the ingredients of the fear of psi, it seems to me, is the inability to adopt a balanced view of it, at least in the first instance. The idea of it is so radical, it tends to promote radical ideas, in the absence of understanding based on responsible research. What’s needed is education, to encourage public understanding of what it is, and its limits, and persuade advocates not to make overheated claims.

I’m not sure exactly what Jorjani means by radical reorganisation into a ‘hierarchically integrated organic state' (perhaps because I’m not familiar with far-right jargon), but I assume it’s nothing good. Like many people, I worry about what we increasingly see in some countries and circles, a fashionable fatigue with democracy, its messiness and compromises, and a yearning for some better form of government. The term ‘illiberal’ society touted by Hungary’s Viktor Orban pops up in the European media – not necessarily approvingly, but it reinforces the notion that it’s now a legitimate ‘thing’ – and similar ideas are starting to get exposure in the US, with the publicity the ‘alt-right’ is getting from the Trump campaign. In reality, surely, there’s no alternative to liberal democracy that would not sooner or later lead to secretive, corrupt authoritarian government and economic stagnation, and that would take decades to overthrow.

It would be little short of tragic if these repulsive endeavours were to enlist psi research – a little and struggling scientific discipline – as the basis of a core ideal. It’s unhelpful enough for ‘psi’ and ‘occult’ even to appear in the same sentence, without the addition of ‘Nazi’, ‘Himmler’ and ‘SS’, and no modern, forward-looking enterprise, as I believe psi research to be, can afford to be linked to fevered Atlantean fantasies. Of course people are free to say what they like. But if this is what Jorjani really thinks, I can’t see the psi research community continuing to embrace him with quite the enthusiasm it’s been showing until now.


Facelift

I do a lot of Web reading these days on my iPhone, an ideal way to fill otherwise wasted moments on trains and buses, standing in line in supermarkets, etc. So I thought it was more than time to give Paranormalia a facelift and make it responsive to smaller screens.

Easier said than done. Eight years ago there didn’t seem much to choose between Wordpress and Typepad. So I chose Typepad. Now Wordpress rules the world, and Typepad… is still Typepad. Wordpress users can choose from scores, possibly hundreds of themes designed to be responsive; Typepad has two. Unless you pay extra, as I’ve had to, in order to get a handful to choose from. Grrr.

None are what I’d have chosen, and I did think seriously for a while about migrating to Wordpress. In the end, I found one that just about works. (It’s only a blog, let’s not get too precious.) It’s still not working as intended on phones, but I think I know what the issue is, so hopefully that will happen soon. A work in progress.


Reborn as Twins

Here’s an intriguing case of the reincarnation type reported in an Indian national news site.

It concerns two 15 year old cousins who lived next to each other, and who accidentally drowned while playing near a pond in 2010. Recently, two twin boys aged five turned up on the doorstep of the two families claiming to be the cousins reborn. The families now accept this, as the twins recognised family members and accurately answered questions about the cousins’ past life. One of the fathers says the twin claiming to be his son reborn remembers ‘everything’, for instance that he’d kept his brown wallet inside a trunk in his room, which turned out still to be there. The boys also took them to the place where the cousins had died.

These are skimpy details, such as you’d expect to find in a short news report, and easy to dismiss if you disbelieve this sort of thing. But the report has a lot in common with cases documented by Ian Stevenson and other researchers, as can quickly be seen from this collection of brief case studies I compiled for the Psi Encyclopedia: the quick rebirth after accidental death, the compulsion to contact the families of the previous life, the families’ belief in the truth of the claim, based on numerous accurate details too small and intimate to be known by strangers. (There's another, general article on the topic by Professor Jim Tucker.)

It’s exactly the sort of case that researchers might usefully follow up, in which case there’s reason to think it would develop into the kind of richly evidenced narrative that characterises Stevenson’s country case study collections. A downside is that the contact has already been made, when ideally that event would be closely observed by some disinterested third party. But that rarely occurs, and at least this case has the merit of having developed in recent days – many (most?) of Stevenson’s cases were months or years old by the time he was able to investigate them. It occurs to me to wonder how much of this sort of work, if any, continues to be carried out in India and other countries where such cases surface.

The really striking feature here is the double rebirth, by people closely connected in the previous life. There are two connected cases in Stevenson’s Turkish collection, a husband and wife who were murdered in the same crime, but these seem to have been reborn into different circumstances (Ismail Altinkilic and Cevriye Bayri). Here, by contrast, we have cousins who were also close friends, reborn as twins.

A more tantalising parallel is with the case of the Pollock twins, one of two dramatic 1950s cases that helped fuel a fascination with reincarnation in the West, along with the Bridey Murphy hypnotic regression case. This is a well-known story, but the details are worth restating. Briefly, in May 1957 John and Florence Pollock lost their two daughters Joanna, 11, and Jacqueline, 6, who were run over in the street by a car driven by a suicidal woman. In October 1958, Florence Pollock gave birth to twin girls. John immediately noticed a birthmark on the face of the younger twin, a thin white line running down her forehead, that corresponded closely to a scar on the face of the younger of the dead girls that had been caused by a fall at age two. The older twin had a birthmark – a brown patch resembling a thumbprint – in precisely the same place where the older of the dead girls had had an identical birthmark. Since the twins were found to be monozygotic (from one single egg cell, and therefore genetically identical), this sort of physical difference was not to be expected.

Four months after the birth the family moved away. When the twins were aged three their parents brought them back to the town for a visit. According to John Pollock, they appeared familiar with the streets and with the location of landmarks such as the school and a playground, before these came into view. When, later, the twins were given dolls that had belonged to the dead girls, one accurately recalled the names that their previous owners had given them.

There were also sinister reminders of the tragedy itself. On one occasion the girls appeared terrified by the sight of a car that, although stationary, appeared to be coming towards them, screaming, ‘The car! The car! It’s coming at us.’ In another incident, their mother came upon one of them cradling the other’s head in her hands and saying, ‘The blood’s coming out of your eyes. That’s where the car hit you.’ At age five, the memories abruptly disappeared. The children were in their teens when they learned about the full circumstances from their parents, and know as little about the truth as anyone else.

The outstanding – and somewhat unnerving – feature of the Pollock case is that it appears to have been premeditated – in a literal sense. John Pollock, a Catholic, had developed a belief in reincarnation that naturally brought him into conflict with his priests. He became obsessive about this and started praying for God to send him a sign if reincarnation was true. After the tragedy occurred, Pollock first felt that it was God’s judgement on him for praying for proof of reincarnation, but became convinced nevertheless that this would be the sign, and that the girls would be reborn to him and his wife. Florence’s pregnancy naturally reinforced this belief, which he clung to, even though the odds against twins were 80 to 1, and doctors could find only one heartbeat and set of limbs.

I first read about this case in a sceptical book on past life memories by the British historian Ian Wilson, Mind Out of Time. I recall at the time (some thirty years ago) finding the story absurd, and John Pollock’s behaviour an appalling example of New Age gullibility. Later, I supposed that this jaundiced view had been encouraged by Wilson, but when I went back to check quite recently I wasn’t so sure. He points out, as he could hardly avoid doing, that all the information comes from Pollock himself, and as a fervent believer in reincarnation – someone who passionately wants it to be true – he’s hardly a credible witness. Yet I sense that Wilson is nevertheless quite impressed by it – his main target in the book are memories elicited by hypnotic regression.

The case clearly can't be held up as evidence. Despite its obvious similarities with the body of research – rebirth shortly after tragic death, curiously coincidental birthmarks, phobias related to the manner of death, familiarity with locations known to the previous personality, the quick fading of memories – its grossly histrionic features make it an outlier. But that's what makes it so striking. The chief thought I’m left with – a shocking one, if we're to accept this as a true account – is the extent to which obsessive thoughts might translate into real events in our world, and at what terrible costs for the people involved.


Patience Worth and the Problem of Bias

As editor of the Psi Encyclopedia, I’ve been taken to task for an article there about Patience Worth, authored by philosopher Stephen Braude from a chapter in his book Immortal Remains. Braude ends by echoing an earlier commentator’s conclusion that,

it is…safer to credit “Patience Worth” to the unconscious and to classify her, officially, as Mrs. Curran’s “secondary self”.

The complaints seem to be twofold: that this conjecture is unwarranted, and that the encyclopedia is imitating Wikipedia by giving a platform to sceptics.

I gave a short answer in the comments thread in Michael Prescott’s blog where this was aired, pointing out that the encyclopedia has (unusually) two articles in on this subject; the other is by Michael Tymn, who it’s fair to say would not endorse Braude’s view, although his piece is more straightforwardly factual. I also mentioned that I didn’t myself necessarily agree with Braude’ conclusion, and indeed had thought of writing a sort of rebuttal. That would take a lot of work, more than I have time for – so this isn’t it! But here are some general thoughts.

First, the question of bias. The Psi Encyclopedia aims to give a window onto psi research as it actually is, not the garbled version offered by sceptics (as in Wikipedia). But there’s always been lively debate within the field itself, notably about the reality or otherwise of postmortem survival. Spiritualists who helped found the Society for Psychical Research quickly bailed out – they couldn’t accept that the evidence might not seem conclusive to everyone – and over the years, some have continued to criticise the SPR and individual researchers for continuing to argue against it.

I believe the encyclopedia should reflect those internal debates. It doesn’t need to make the case one way or another, it should just describe the evidence and the arguments. That’s what I ask contributors to do, to try to make their pieces factual and objective, and reflect the spectrum of opinions.

That said, I don’t think it’s useful to exclude altogether articles that argue a case. On the contrary, it’s of benefit to readers to see psi research in action. It’s surely to the advantage of the field – if not an absolute necessity - to show that it takes a tough-minded approach and is prepared to properly interrogate the evidence – not least to help combat the untruth that psi-advocates are religiously-inspired ‘believers’.

So I envisage eventually a separate section containing articles that take different positions. If Braude’s Patience Worth piece seems an anomaly it’s only because the first of these, and is not properly marked off from the rest of the material. Once that’s been done more effectively than at present, I think there’ll be less confusion about what the encyclopedia stands for, or concerns that it’s promoting a particular (and controversial) point of view with regard to postmortem survival.

It’s worth also making the point that Braude doesn’t play down the extraordinary talent that shines through the Patience Worth character – on the contrary, like most of us who are familiar with the case he’s in awe of her genius. Nor does he understate the challenges (as a psi denier would): that Curran had previously shown none of the characteristics, in terms of creative and intellectual powers, feats of memory, knowledge of literature or arcane areas of linguistic and historical research; that the character didn’t develop over time, but emerged fully formed; the extensive use of obsolete and archaic locutions, some never used in the US; and the extraordinary feats of composition, in terms of speed, consistency and memory. He concedes that the literary facility has no parallel in history.

But Braude disagrees – against Walter Prince (who investigated the case), and others since – that that the scale of this achievement, being far beyond anything of the kind previously achieved, therefore could not have originated in Curran. This might be the first and only instance of a rare talent, he suggests. He chips away at the assertion that her real interest lay in music, arguing persuasively that there’s a lack of real evidence for this, and the music thing might actually have been imposed on her by her mother. He finds intriguing similarities between Curran’s history and the life profile of exceptionally intelligent and gifted people. Altogether, he builds a picture of a young girl whose creative urges were stunted by her family’s expectations, and who unconsciously found an outlet for her repressed abilities through mediumship, an acceptable female role.

The fact that savants have been capable of extraordinary feats of memory and creativity suggests that something of the order of a Patience Worth is within human capabilities (however rare). Inevitably, he finds support in the case of Helene Smith, where the semblance of discarnate communication seemed decisively overturned in favour of Smith’s imagination, and to other cases of creativity in mediumship.

By contrast, Braude finds little of value in the survivalist case, not least because no evidence has ever been turned up of a person who lived that fits the meagre details that Patience Worth supplied. He also suggests that this case goes far beyond the norm in mediumship in being ‘the first and only documented case of literary and mnemonic abilities at such a high level of creativity and fluency, and the first and only recorded case of mediumistic communication with virtually no ‘noise in the channel’ (and for nearly twenty-five years at that)’. In its robustness and multi-dimensionality, he concludes ‘Patience’s personality more closely resembles those of well-developed alter identities’ in cases of disassociation identity disorder (DID).

I found all this intriguing and well-argued, if somewhat speculative. I’ve never really thought that Patience Worth was good evidence of discarnate survival in the conventional sense, like the best drop-in cases, for instance – there are too many puzzles for the matter to be clear.

But that cuts both ways. Once the effect of Braude’s lawyerly pleading has faded somewhat, I’m still left with the stubborn, if perhaps subjective sense of something occurring that really can’t be accommodated within orthodox ideas about the mind. How could Curran’s ‘unconscious’ conceivably have acquired the easy familiarity with copious amounts of seventeenth century archaisms so obscure they had to be hunted down, and the facility to deploy them, by cryptomnesia or any other mysterious process? It’s one thing for a savant to demonstrate astounding feats of arithmetical calculation, something quite else to display an extensive knowledge of past terrestrial facts. Yes, the fact that Patience could write just as effectively in nineteenth-century English undermines the impression that she was a former denizen of the seventeenth, as sceptics point out. But that only amplifies the mystery – it doesn’t explain it.

What really strikes me about Patience Worth is her strongly didactic intent. Her casual utterances, poetry and aphorisms in particular seem intended to show up the shabbiness of human behaviour at every turn – if you’re not familiar with them, check out the examples in both Tymn's and Braude's articles in the encyclopedia, and Amos Oliver Doyle’s excellent website.

There’s something unearthly in her utter sense of security and rightness, as if she’s come from a different moral universe to give us struggling mortals lessons in wisdom. In that sense, she might be seen in the context of spiritual teachings, like Jane Robert’s Seth, White Eagle and the rest – that are no more ‘evidential’ in a scientific sense, but are sufficiently outstanding to have had a powerful impact on millions of people. Hers is a quick wit that radiates humour, never airy-fairy or boringly pious, but tough-minded and down-to-earth.

If we argue that a startlingly accomplished level of creativity can emerge in full flow from the unconscious of a person who has never hitherto shown the slightest sign of it, aren’t we obliged to develop similar arguments to account for the high moral seriousness shown by Patience Worth? Were these inclinations, too, repressed in Pearl Curran in some way? Is there evidence for this in DID?

Still, I’m not sure how useful it is to try to reach a conclusion here. Inevitably, those who doubt postmortem survival will describe Patience Worth in terms of DID; those who believe it occurs will see it as evidence of that. To the thinking, secular mind it’s of course ‘safer’ to see the case as one of unconscious confabulation, in the narrow sense of avoiding new realms of mystery and speculation. But surely few who are truly familiar with it would agree that that’s ‘officially’ decided.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think I’m satisfied with the view of Patience Worth as an event in Pearl Curran’s psyche. But neither do I necessarily think of her as a ‘spirit’, a discarnate individual in human terms. Over the years I’ve abandoned the temptation to be literal about survival, or to project assumptions shaped by terrestrial existence into a posthumous state. ‘Patience Worth’ might be a composite creation, perhaps based around a previous existence as a seventeenth century farm girl, but drawing on other lives as well, even the incarnation of Curran herself.

When she insists her origins don’t matter – and tosses crumbs of information she hopes will satisfy our cravings – we might take her at her word. She’s not necessarily being evasive. In her world, the notion of individuality has been left far behind – like a suit of clothes it’s adopted in order to communicate meaningfully in ours, as Jane Robert’s Seth too said he’d done, taking on the guise of a previous existence (although not the most recent, a rather ‘colourless’ individual called Frank Withers that he preferred to forget).

In this line of thinking we’re not dealing here with a duality of humans and spirits in their different realms, but rather the creative power of consciousness, which transcends boundaries and, in different ways, can emerge on both sides and intermingle. If creativity continues beyond what we call death, in myriad and powerful forms, then to express it in partnership with the living, when the opportunity offers, seems like a cool thing to do.


Psi Encyclopedia Open for Business

As some readers will know already, the Psi Encyclopedia is now online!

The address is http://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/

It can also be reached by www.psi-encyclopedia.org

or

www.psiencyclopedia.org

Michael Prescott kindly introduced it here

In response to some early comments on his blog, I’ve discussed the question of bias, and the extent to which sceptical material is, or should be, included in articles. I expect there’ll be some changes in response to feedback, at some point.


The Season for Ghosts

By chance, back in September, I found myself watching the second Republican presidential candidates’ debate, and had nightmares for a week, so Halloween came early for me. But now here it is for real, and I’m on the lookout for ghost stories in the media.

Simon (X-Factor) Cowell is milking an alleged ghost sighting during filming in a house in France. Enough said.

A piece of more or less serious reporting is found in the New York Times, which says:

Ghosts, or at least belief in them, have been around for centuries but they have now found a particularly strong following in highly secular modern countries like Norway, places that are otherwise in the vanguard of what was once seen as Europe’s inexorable, science-led march away from superstition and religion.

The article describes a haunting in the southern coastal town of Moss, in a travel agency, rather prosaically. The staff experienced inexplicable computer breakdowns, strange smells and noises that experts couldn’t trace the causes of. They also suffered constant headaches. The problems vanished when a clairvoyant came in to do some ‘cleansing’, so they inclined towards a supernatural explanation.

Some take a sternly rationalist approach. A humanist sceptic interviewed for the article insists that the interest in ghosts is caused by ‘charlatans playing on people’s fears’. Others came up with other rational sounding explanations. Moss apparently is quite a centre for ghosts, so perhaps there’s some collective suggestibility going on.

Elsewhere, Ben Radford speaks out for sceptics, and is also on hand to explain to puzzled journalists why people believe in ghosts.

Some claim to see a revival of interest in ghosts among fiction writers. The Guardian thinks vampires and the gory horror genre generally are in decline, and that the good old ghost story is back.

Just such a tale is described elsewhere, about a Chicago ghost called ‘Resurrection Mary’. A young man met a beautiful young woman at a dance, and after spending the evening with her offered to drive her home. She gave the address and they set off. But on the way she asked for a detour, and when they reached the local cemetery she got out and vanished. When he inquired at her home the next day, her mother said she’d been killed in a hit-and-run accident five years earlier and been buried in Resurrection Cemetery.

The Chester Chronicle lists a number of hotels that boast of being haunted, presumably because it attracts custom. Example: the Schooner Hotel, Northumberland, a 17th century coaching inn is ‘not for the faint-hearted. The Poltergeist Society has named it the Most Haunted Hotel in Great Britain twice, so don’t expect to get much sleep. There have been more than 3,000 reported spooky sightings over the last few years alone and over 60 individual spirits identified at the property.’

Oo-er.

All this sort of thing makes titillating reading, and doesn’t amount to much. If I believe in ghosts, it’s certainly not because of location hauntings, which apart from the sheer number of alleged sightings have little to recommend them from an evidential point of view. We’ve included a few mentions of alleged haunts in the Psi Encyclopedia, but really only because they’re of interest to so many people that it might seem surprising if they were omitted.

I suppose it’s potentially interesting if visitors to a hotel, say, casually mention having seen an individual wearing nineteenth century dress, and want to know if a film is being made nearby, and similar statements are made by other guests on other occasions, which does happen, but these cases are hard to document to a convincing degree. And it’s easy to mock the earnest ghost-hunter, staking out a seventeenth-century house with piles of complicated gadgetry: fun to do, but is there is a single case of this kind that significantly advances our certainty about ghosts?

It’s when the fixed location is absent – a class generally termed ‘apparition’ in the research literature – that you start to find genuinely interestingly veridical elements. Perhaps the most important is the ‘crisis coincidence’ of the sighting occurring at the exact moment when the individual is in the process of dying somewhere else. But there are others: the apparition that is seen by two or more people simultaneously, the apparition that is identified in a photograph, and – a class I find particularly interesting, since it implies the possibility of generating evidence experimentally – the apparition that is deliberately projected by one person attempting to appear to another at a distance (of which there are a few well-documented examples).

Of course it’s possible, and perhaps even likely, that some of the hauntings that get brought out of the cupboard at Halloween actually do encompass convincing evidence of this nature. In which case, the problem has more to do with the lack of research and documentation, or of channels by which these might become known.

All this said, there is one haunting in the literature which by any standards is extraordinary, the so-called Cheltenham Ghost of the 1880s, described in an early issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. The main witness, Rosina Despard, first saw it when she was nineteen:

I had gone up to my room, but was not yet in bed, when I heard someone at the door, and went to it, thinking it might be my mother. On opening the door, I saw no one; but on going a few steps along the passage, I saw the figure of a tall lady, dressed in black, standing at the head of the stairs. After a few moments she descended the stairs, and I followed for a short distance, feeling curious what it could be. I had only a small piece of candle, and it suddenly burnt itself out; and being unable to see more, I went back to my room. The figure was that of a tall lady, dressed in black of a soft woollen material, judging from the slight sound in moving. The face was hidden in a handkerchief held in the right hand. This is all I noticed then; but on further occasions, when I was able to observe her more closely, I saw the upper part of the left side of the forehead, and a little of the hair above. Her left hand was nearly hidden by her sleeve and a fold of her dress. As she held it down a portion of a widow's cuff was visible on both wrists, so that the whole impression was that of a lady in widow's weeds. There was no cap on the head but a general effect of blackness suggests a bonnet, with long veil or a hood.

Despard was far from being the only witness. This is indeed something of an anomaly, an apparition that was seen and heard repeatedly by a number of people, and with a clarity and frequency that’s not easily explained away. So it could be dismissed as an ‘outlier’. I’ve attached the full report here, and if you want something stronger to celebrate Halloween with, it’s worth a look.

Download Cheltenham ghost jspr


A Journalist Returns

A few people have gently chided me for my absence, which I too regret, but can’t do much about. We’ve talked a lot here about the problems facing psi research, and there comes a time when it’s more important to do something that just talk. Which unfortunately doesn’t leave much time for thinking – the essential precursor to talking. But I appreciate being reminded to get back into the groove, as we old hippies say.

Regular readers will like to know that the Psi Encyclopedia is a going concern, and with luck will be in business within two or three months, once the glitches have been ironed out. At this early stage there are about a hundred articles contributed by thirty writers, totalling around 350,000 words. It could be four times that within two or three years, and if we keep the momentum up, perhaps as many as 800 entries eventually, including book reviews and short profiles. The balance isn’t as good as I’d like, with not enough on experimental parapsychology. But some well-known people in the field have agreed to contribute, so this should even out quite quickly.

Owing to an oversight, the website briefly escaped into the wild a few weeks back, and there were frequent sightings on Google. I heard from one source that it came up unexpectedly in a search on a psi topic, second only to Wikipedia, and occupied the next three places as well. My own tests weren’t as successful, so the search terms he used must have been pretty specific. But I still found it heartening.

In the meantime, I browse forums to pass the time on bus journeys, and have been pleased to see links to some quite sensible articles in the mainstream(ish) media. And so to the real subject of this post, which is not me but Peter Kaplan, the former New York Observer editor, who died two years ago. In a recent piece in Elle his widow Lisa Chase describes experienced a series of startling coincidences in the three months following. Convinced he was trying to reach her, she contacted a medium, Lisa Kay. There followed an immediate telephone reading that produced a number of specific items of information:

LK: He's talking about a ball. He says, 'Find the signed ball in the bag and give it to David.'

While Peter was in the hospital, a good friend, knowing he loved the Yankees and particularly Joe Torre, their longtime manager, got Torre to sign a baseball—a talisman. But the day I brought it in, Peter shook his head. "I can't," he said. "Put it away." I didn't know why it upset him, but I put the ball in his closet, in a canvas bag that I'd packed with his clothes and toiletries to bring to the hospital.

LK: He's showing me blood. Did he die of a blood clot? Something about blood. I'm seeing the word 'genetic.' She said it in an almost staccato fashion: Ge-net-ic.

LC: He died of a blood cancer. And his doctors told us it was probably related to the lymphoma his father died from…

LK: 'I'm a lucky guoy. I got the better end of the deal.'

What was amazing about this was the way Lisa pronounced it: "guoy," not "guy." It was precisely the way Peter said it, with an exaggerated Brooklyn accent. He'd use that expression when we were making up after a fight: I'm a lucky guoy…to have you.

Some of the details could not have been learned in a quick Google search, Chase points out.

She goes on to talk to the Windbridge Institute’s Julie Beischel, the mediumship researcher. She also persuades the medium to meet her, to find out more about what she does. This sort of stuff interests me, because I’m always curious about what mediums actually hear and see when they get contacts:

"First," she said, "I don't talk to dead people. I don't see dead people. I hate that." It drives her nuts. "Spirits are energy—energy can't be destroyed, just read the quantum physicists. Max Planck. They're just on a higher vibrational frequency, and I have to tune in to that."

What did she do to prepare? "I meditate. I quiet my mind. I connect to my heart, set an intention to read. I make sure I'm well hydrated. I leave my problems at the door, making myself completely available to be a receiver." What happens when the signs, or "hits," as she calls them, start to come? "Sometimes it's a little movie. Sometimes a picture. A symbol. Sometimes it's just one sign—a smell." Or a sharp, fleeting pain in her head if, say, the deceased had a brain tumor.

It’s not (or shouldn’t be) remarkable to see personal testimony like this written up in a glossy women’s magazine. But it’s unusual to see the thoughtful musings the article prompted in an essay by a New York Times writer, Ross Douthat, who clearly didn’t mind kicking up the usual angry gibbering from rationalist readers in the comments thread. Douthat suggests that the idea of secularism can be reinterpreted to mean that we can embrace numinous experiences as real – in other words, without treating them as strictly psychological events – and continue to be considered ‘secularist’ just as long as we don’t use them to get into institutional religious activity.

Under secularism, in other words, most people who see a ghost or have a vision or otherwise step into the supernatural are still likely to believe in the essential reality of their encounter with the otherworldly or transcendent; they’re just schooled to isolate the experience, to embrace it as an interesting (and often hopeful) mystery without letting it call them to the larger conversion of life that most religious traditions claim that the capital-S Supernatural asks of us in return.

What secularism really teaches people, in this interpretation, isn’t that spiritual realities don’t exist or that spiritual experiences are unreal. It just privatizes the spiritual, in a kind of theological/sociological extension of church-state separation, and discourages people from organizing either intellectual systems (those are for scientists) or communities of purpose (that’s what politics is for) around their sense, or direct experience, that Something More exists.

This interpretation – which I think is clearly part of the truth of our time — has interesting implications for the future of religion in the West. One of the big religious questions going forward is whether the large swathe of people who have drifted from traditional faith but remain dissatisfied (for excellent reasons!) with strict neo-Darwinian materialism constitute a major market for religious entrepreneurs. Is there a version of theologically-liberal Christianity that could actually bring these drifters back to church and keep them in the pews? Is there some new synthesis –pantheist, deist, syncretistic — that could seem plausible and nourishing and intellectually satisfying enough to plan an actual new religion in “spiritual, but not religious” territory? Is there enough residual Christian orthodoxy knocking around in the West’s cultural subconscious to make a revival or Great Awakening not only possible but likely? Etc.

This isn’t new thinking - a lot of people are quite consciously in this space - but it’s interesting to see it voiced in the mainstream media. We don’t have to treat science as the ultimate arbiter when it comes to the reality or otherwise of psi phenomena, since this is subject to competing interpretations. 'Secularist' doesn’t equate with 'materialist', and it’s fine to disagree with physicalist science. What matters is that we don’t rock the boat by using psi experiences as a reason to return to orthodox religiosity, or construct a new quasi-religious ideology that demands allegiance. A plea for pluralism, in other words.

What militant rationalists hate about this – and they’re right to be anxious – is that it chips away at the old materialist faith. That’s the role for which institutions like the CSI (CSICOP) were created, to badger editors into rejecting articles that take psi claims seriously. The message is: Don’t you realise what a laughing stock you’re turning your publication into? We’ve seen how devastating that can be in freezing out serious debate about psychic experiences.

But if, when these editors die, and, being natural communicators, strive to communicate the astounding fact of their continued survival, it’s natural that their living peers should show at least a little curiosity and interest, and not give a damn what anyone else thinks.

The more people like Douthat are willing to stick their heads above the parapet, the less power the sceptics’ ridicule will have.


King Richard

Robert here, still too busy with the new encyclopedia to write for the blog, alas, but looking forward to getting back in touch as soon as my new duties permit.

In the meantime I’ve heard from Henry ‘Rabbitdawg’ Brand, who has an interesting tale to tell, and in fact just the kind of thing that should interest Paranormalia readers. Thanks, Dawg.   


This is something I tripped across on an NPR radio show called Snap Judgement. It involved the discovery of the remains of King Richard III in a parking lot in 2012. Being a bit of an Anglophile, I already knew the basic story, but was completely unaware of the strongly documented paranormal aspect of the case. I've seen nothing about it on any of my trusted paranormal blogs or websites. Ironically, the only sources of information I've found for the paranormal side of the story are in the mainstream media. By mainstream, I mean 'respected' media, not the Daily Mail or other tabloids where you would expect to find these sort of things.

Here's a brief overview of the details:

Philippa Langley became obsessed with Richard III in 1992 after she fell ill, and gave up a successful career in advertising. During her recovery, she decided to write a film about him. The more research she did, the more she began to believe the House of Tudor had conducted a massive smear campaign on the good king's name. Too many facts didn't add up, logically or intuitively.

As a side note, I thought of Michael Prescott and his theories questioning the authenticity of Shakespeare's play's, when I read that many members of The Richard III Society believe they have evidence of the Tudor dynasty recruiting Shakespeare (or his surrogate) to write a disparaging play about him. Apparently, dirty political tricks and disinformation isn't anything unique to our era.

But here's the kicker, from a Guardian article:

In 2004, as part of her research, Langley visited Leicester, where it was rumoured the king was buried on the site of the old Greyfriars monastery. Her trip proved fruitless, but then as she was about to leave, she noticed a car park with a private barrier across it and felt "an overwhelming urge" to go inside.

"In the second parking bay, I just felt I was walking on his grave," Langley says calmly in the hotel pub where we meet. "I can't explain it."

A year later, she went back to test her hunch (no pun intended) and the feeling returned. This time, someone had hand-painted the letter "R" over the parking bay to mark it as reserved. For Langley, it was a cosmic sign that "I needed to get on with it".

  Of course, the rest is history (groan). Using private funding, the body was found within four hours of digging in the exact place where she said it would be, and this was documented by a television crew. Many of her intuitions about Richard III have been reasonably verified by respected archeologists, although some are still hotly debated.

I'm sure you know how that feels.   What I really like about this is that the more I dig into the story, the more intriguing and convincing it becomes.

The only skeptical response I can find is that Philippa Langley didn't adequately document her hunch beforehand. Still, this critique doesn't explain how she knew exactly where to find the remains, and I seriously doubt she wanted to go around lobbying archeologists and a city council with stories about a "feeling".  This is just an summary of what happened, but the mainstream sourced information I've found online makes a much better case for the paranormal effect than I possibly can. Here are a few links to pursue, for anyone who's interested.     

The Snap Judgement episode.

This podcast is only about fourteen minutes long, but it's informative and compellingly crafted. Brits like Robert might get a little kick out of hearing the story from an American point of view. Definitely worth a listen.

The Guardian article.

A Macleans Magazine interview.

A lame skeptical response:

Or you can Google it yourself. Information is everywhere, except on the more credible paranormal blogs and websites. Go figure.

Henry Brand