Have just finished Outside the Gates of Science: Why It's Time for the Paranormal to Come in from the Cold, by Damien Broderick, an award-winning sci-fi writer. It left me enthused and intrigued (and also, as often happens, a bit bewildered, but I'll come back to that). Parapsychology is not especially blessed with good writers, so it's good to come across someone who, as well as having a good knowledge of aspects of it, has ideas of his own and can put together an entertaining read.
Broderick's curiosity seems to have been stimulated by a psi episode reported by his wife. While gardening one day, she experienced a sudden jolting image of a bloody body, and was convinced something terrible must have happened to her daughter. She found the girl was OK, but an hour later a police officer arrived to tell her a close relative had just been killed in a car accident. Subsequently Broderick spent quite a bit of time boning up on the experimental research and talking to key figures in the field.
He starts by discussing the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR), by Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne. But what really gets his attention is the remote viewing work begun by Russell Targ and Hal Puthoff working with Ingo Swann at the SRI, which evolved into the CIA-funded Stargate programme. He traces the ins and outs of this at some length, and is clearly impressed by the work of Joe McMoneagle and other stars in the field. He also describes the work of Stephan A Schwartz, a friend and former research director for the Rhine Research Center, who in November 2003 gave a class of remote viewing students the task of identifying the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein. Their consensus was that the ousted dictator would be found crouching in a subterranean room or cave reached by a tunnel, beneath an ordinary looking house on the outskirts of a small village near Tikrit, and looking like a homeless person, with dirty rough clothing and long ratty hair - these and other details proved to be spot on.
Broderick make it clear that he believes psi to be genuine, without identifying himself too obviously as a full-on believer. From time to time he mentions the views of critics like Hyman and Alcock, but then quietly ignores them. He does seem to be shocked by some of the sceptics' behaviour, though. For instance he describes the conversation in which hardline sceptic Peter Atkins rubbished Rupert Sheldrake's work to his face, and then, under Sheldrake's gentle pressure, conceded that he hadn't read any of it. He also describes at some length the National Geographic TV film in which McMoneagle and Edwin May unequivocally succeeded in passing a remote viewing test on camera, only to hear it dismissed by the programme makers as 'coincidence'.
If there is so much experimental evidence in favour of psi, why don't scientists take it seriously? Broderick thinks a main reason is that there is no theory that could explain it. Accordingly he spends much of the second half of the book discussing what can be said about this, much of it in terms of quantum theory. He praises Evan Harris Walker's attempt to blend psi and quantum physics as a landmark effort, and is similarly respectful of Dean Radin's belief that quantum nonlocality and entanglement are more than metaphors, and provide deep insights into the nature of psi. Personally he is cautious, siding more with May, who as a former nuclear physicist is somewhat dismissive of such approaches. At the same time he feels that the mere fact that psi can plausibly be discussed in these terms counters the sceptics' claim that it is outlawed by the laws of physics.
I was especially interested in Broderick's speculations about the possible evolutionary development of psi, which is something I've often felt is rather neglected. He starts with an idea put forward by lunar astronaut Edgar Mitchell, that psi is a primordial or 'first' sense, an intuitive or visceral knowing 'based upon a complex form of quantum correlation that was certainly present in nature long before the species evolved to their current stage, and even before the planetary environment evolved to produce the normal five senses.' Picking up some ideas of James Carpenter and Rupert Sheldrake, he sees the function of psi to
get us ready for what's coming at us, like a social guide muttering discreetly in our ear, tipping us off to the names and status of those we are about to meet, directing us to the correct dinner utensil or appropriate garment for the occasion. It anticipates our needs, provides a sort of anticipatory Google search on current and upcoming experiences, and usually brings the results to us in the form of "inadvertencies", apparently irrelevant events and experiences that nevertheless "implicitly express the action of the orienting activity". Jung would have called them synchronicities. Psychotherapists like to weasel them out as clues to what's going on in the unconscious of a client.
Broderick concludes it is extremely likely that psi is an evolved function of the human species, playing its contributory part in our survival and thriving. He is sceptical of the idea that it necessarily implies the existence of a non-material spooky source of consciousness, citing Ockham's razor. Mystical ideas of a Source, favoured by Jahn and Dunne for instance, he sees as quasi-religious flights of fancy. As for afterlife belief, he favours the notion that this is based on the 'real, confusing experience of half-remembered dreams'.
Unless mediums and parapsychologists can demonstrate unequivocally that such a domain is real and attainable, its adherents will regard afterlife as something to be hoped for in private faith, rather than by watertight public evidence, and that posture is antithetical to the spirit of science, even paranormal science.
Some readers will find this problematic. Certainly my assumption has always been that that psi essentially contradicts physicalist explanations of consciousness and points instead to Cartesian or 'radical' dualism. It's hard to conceive of telepathic interactions over a large distance in terms of brains that evolved from single cells. At what point in evolutionary history did these lumps of jelly enclosed in skulls acquire the potential ability to be in telepathic contact with other similar lumps a couple of continents away? I don't contest that psi abilities may be subject to evolution, indeed I think we should follow this reasoning as far as it goes. But there's something a bit unsatisfactory about treating psi purely as a materialist phenomenon.
The impression I get is that Broderick thinks that precisely because psi can be discussed in a scientific framework that materialist assumptions remain untouched. Admirably undogmatic, he allows a faint possibility that paranormal phenomena will 'remake our scientific models and certainties', offering a gateway to some spiritual truth surpassing scientific knowledge. But he clearly doubts it.
For me this is makes the book so fascinating, the way it illustrates a certain approach to the problem of how we relate to psi. Broderick is comfortable talking about it in a scientific milieu. The experimental evidence is persuasive: we should acknowledge that, and expect it to be accommodated within a larger scientific paradigm, perhaps 50 years hence. But apart from the episode of his wife's he is not at all interested in its daily manifestations - in, for instance, mediumistic communication, poltergeist episodes, apparitional incidents, and so on, or indeed phenomena such as near-death experiences and children's memories of a previous life - which can hardly be excluded from any serious discussion of its larger relevance, particularly with regard to postmortem survival of consciousness.
Demanding watertight proof, if afterlife belief is to be anything more than faith, is surely just to establish his own boundaries, just as, in their muddled way, the makers of the National Geographic film revealed theirs when they first devised a stringent test of psi, and, when confronted with a successful fulfilment of it, still refused to believe it. I can't help feeling that it indicates a need for the doubting mind to be so entirely overwhelmed that no further resistance is possible. The fact is, there is an abundance of evidence suggestive of survival which is capable of various interpretations, and this needs to be sifted, examined and subjected to just the kind of nuanced discussion that Broderick gives the experimental research.
Having said all that, Broderick has shown how the debate is going to develop. If parapsychology is to win a wider audience it will be precisely in this way, by open-minded, scientifically literate observers being willing to acknowledge that there is something important going on and taking the trouble to inform themselves about it. Such people will be reluctant to stick their necks out it means having to change their fundamental worldview and start believing in afterlife, ghosts, God and whatever else. So cultivating this space is perhaps what will ultimately help psi to become more accepted within the scientific and secular community.