The South Shields Poltergeist
Psi and the Law

Book Review: Damien Broderick, Outside the Gates of Science

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.

Comments

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Excellent review! I do, however, disagree with you on one point...I think that the field of parapsychology has many good writers.

I'm glad I stumbled on this site. Will visit again.

Thanks for the pleasant review. I should offer one correction, though. My interested in psi phenomena long preceded my wife's frightening experience. It stretches back at least 50 years, from my first reading of Rhine's books and small experiments I conducted as a kid. More formally, my 1992 book THE LOTTO EFFECT recounts my investigation (in Australia) of nearly a billion guesses made by punters in several Lotto draws some 20 years ago. Some apparent anomalies in the results of my analysis are intriguing, but provide no evidence for collective precognition in such gambling events. If they had, I might now be a very rich man. :)

Damien

I agree with the review wholeheartedly. I read the book several months ago and was delighted to see the subject treated with such open-minded yet rigorous skepticism and analytical strength. If we had more thinkers like this in the field and fewer spiritual speculators, we would be closer to psi being accepted by mainstream science.

BTW, you might try reading the Afterword of The Gold Leaf Lady by Steven Braude. Apparently, having an astrologer on your side gives one an edge in scoring big at the slot machines.

I will try to pick this up, whenever I have the chance.

I have obviously not read the book, but I am a bit perplexed at this idea: "He is sceptical of the idea that it necessarily implies the existence of a non-material spooky source of consciousness, citing Ockham's razor."

PSI works regardless of distance, electromagnetics, etc. So in order to continue 'business as usual' thinking, there would have to be a transmitter inside our brains that makes all of this possible through a force yet unexplained. Barring this, we must consider more closely either dualism, or some version of monism (including the rather agnostic neutral monism). Therefore, I'm not entirely sure how Ockham's razor applies in this case, and how it would favour the current way of thinking over the alternative. Maybe I'm missing the reasoning.

As you have also pointed out, it is also strange to call to task the mainstream for essentially misrepresenting PSI, while at the same time negating survival research. I am not terribly familiar with this literature myself, and I'm sceptical whether it has answers in terms of 'survival' (we're playing with potentially very loose definitions here). However, some of the reincarnation literature I have read is thoroughly well researched, and at times, hair raising. It raises questions about whether our current thinking about consciousness is at all adequate. As such, I'd argue it belongs firmly in the realm of science.

The results of parapsychology experiments show that our current understanding of the laws of physics are inadequate. The observations that demonstrates this are related to the complex phenomenon (or set of phenomena) that we call "mind".

Mind interacts with the physical universe in a number of more conventional ways, so the mere fact of such interaction does not provide additional evidence that mind is not a physical epiphenomenon. That our current understanding of physics does not provide an explanation of how this interaction can take place does not make strengthen this as evidence for extra-physiciality, though it does provide an opportunity for future evidence to be collected for this. You can compare this, for example, with evidence for interactions beyond "current understanding" for bat sonar, shark electromagnetic sense, electric eel electrical "affect" ability, bee ultraviolet and polarization vision, bird magnetic sense, etc., before the necessary physics had been developed to explain these phenomena.

If you already believe in a dualistic or idealistic non-physical "stuff" of consciousness, then for you Occam's razor is quite comfortable attributing psi to it. (That Occam's Razor depends on prior belief is one of the reasons it is so frequently misapplied -- for example by self-proclaimed Skeptics). If you do not already believe in extra-physical consciousness, though, attributing psi to it instead of to yet to be discovered physics is a gigantic increase in complexity without any gain in explanatory power (attributing a not understood phenomena to something else which is not understood that presupposes that there is an entirely different reality with completely unknown laws that somehow interacts with the physical reality without being part of it, just does not provide an explanation).

I am very sympathetic to "consciousness" based descriptions of psi (really and truly I am). But psi does not prove the separateness of consciousness of from physical reality. That we only currently observe psi in relation to complex "conscious" systems does not mean that it is impossible that someday, with enough understanding, that we cannot build a clearly non-conscious device that will also produce these phenomena. It only proves that there is a hole in our understanding that might or might not be filled with such a concept.

Damien, thanks for dropping by, and for the feedback.

Topher, I agree in principle that psi might be seen to be compatible with an enlarged physics some time in the future. But in terms of the mind-body problem, my understanding is that psi is, or would be, seriously problematic for physicalism - that seems at least to be the view of materialist philosophers in the 'mind-body' debate (don't have the references to hand, but may come back to this in another post). At the very least, it vastly complicates the Darwinist explanation of the origins and development of the brain.

Perhaps the least we can say is that while psi does not prove the separateness of consciousness of from physical reality, as you say, it makes the physicalist argument a lot less straightforward.

If psi is treated as a phenomenon uniquely associated with consciousness and no other physically observable phenomena then it creates a problem for materialism, but not, as far as any clear argument I've ever seen, otherwise.

What it does create a problem for is the assumption that individual minds can be strictly associated with an individual brain and no other brain or physical system. Psi makes the boundaries of where mind resides much more vague, even within strictly physicalist theory. How vague that boundary becomes is a matter of speculation.

Topher, I generally agree; however:

"If psi is treated as a phenomenon uniquely associated with consciousness and no other physically observable phenomena then it creates a problem for materialism, but not, as far as any clear argument I've ever seen, otherwise."

As far as I can tell, though, that is a completely valid assumption at this point. That -- true -- may change.

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"What it does create a problem for is the assumption that individual minds can be strictly associated with an individual brain and no other brain or physical system. Psi makes the boundaries of where mind resides much more vague, even within strictly physicalist theory. How vague that boundary becomes is a matter of speculation."

That's true.

[I think the physicalist theory suffers from an inherent inability to address the hard problem, though I do agree that alternatives do introduce new problems themselves...]

By the way, Topher, I've noticed your posts on this and other blogs and forums and your thoughts are always clear and cogent; in addition, you appear to be extremely well informed. If I may ask, have you been personally involved in this field?

I also find Tophers posts well reasoned and thought provoking.
I believe he was the co-author with Radin etc. of the Parapsychology FAQ on the internet,correct me if i,m wrong Topher!
Anyway he seems to be the voice of reason on several other blogs when the discussion turns into a slanging match.

By happy "coincidence", I only just visited this blog having posted on what is essentially the self-same subject on Michael Prescott's,so I'll offer a brief version of my notion here. Simply put, the problems seem to be generated by the unproven assumption that matter preceeded mind, which was somehow allegedly generated by the brain in a magical (and unexplained) process called "emergent properties". However, if we consider John Von Neumann's interpretation of quantum observational theory to be correct, Mind must have preceeded matter in order to fulfill the requirement of an observer to collapse the wave function and make an actuality of the panoply of probabilities. This would explain our experiences of non-local effects (including all psi-related phenomena) and bring a new perspective for understanding the physicality of spacetime and even the reason no one seems able to define the concept of Time (even before the formulation of quantum theory, Einstein described Time and its division into immutable Past, ubiquitous Present and undetermined Future as a "persistent illusion", so well affirmed by precognitive events and experiments demonstrating presentiment). While I sympathize with Topher Cooper's apparent difficulties in these matters, I might offer reference to a short, one-page essay written by Dr. Richard Conn Henry, professor in the dept. of Physics and Astronomy at The Johns Hopkins University, published in the science journal Nature, Vol.436, 7 July 2005 (available online), titled "The Mental Universe". Granting that physical experiences and sensations can quite overwhelm the Mind (thus the preponderance of psi experiences in sleep and meditation, when the conscious mind is quiescent), the notion of individuality would, itself, also be illusory, seemingly individual minds being actual subsets of an Overmind, if you will. This would constitute the concept of "god" in a way far beyond the restrictions and prejudices of religious thought. Taken as a whole this idea solves so many of the problems created by materialism, though it doesn't bode well for Kurzweil's Singularity which, in agreement with Penrose and Hammeroff, will come and go without producing a conscious Mind. Additionally, the concept that Mind preceeded matter would nicely fulfill the simplicity requirement for those who consider Occam's Razor to be the intellectual standard by which all ideas regarding existence must be measured. And to the question "whence came Mind?", I would offer Mind as the Basis, the Primordial "Is". After all, how can there "be" nothingness? How can "non-existence" exist? If the so-called Big Bang initiated the physical Universe from a singularity, which is an abstract concept or "idea" itself, who/what did the conceiving? The Big Bang as the collision of 2 other, previous, universes? Where did THEY get THEIR start? Do we continue pursuing the notion into "infinity" (another undefinable concept)? When infinities begin to pop up in mathematical equations, we realize we're on the wrong course, deriving unusuable results. So it is here. What came "before" Mind? The question, with its foundation in an illusory reference to "time", seems to be without meaning.(Please forgive the length of my cumbersome response)

Yes, I'm involved in the field (more peripherally than I would prefer, though). Yes, I was one of the contributors to the parapsychology FAQ. My other fairly "public" role in anomalistics was that I wrote a column called "Anomalous Propagation" for the Journal of Scientific Exploration for a while.

And yes, I appreciate the kind words.

"If psi is treated as a phenomenon uniquely associated with consciousness and no other physically observable phenomena then it creates a problem for materialism, but not, as far as any clear argument I've ever seen, otherwise.'

As far as I can tell, though, that is a completely valid assumption at this point. That -- true -- may change."

I don't think so. I think that it is a valid *hypothesis* that is not currently contradicted by any evidence. There is a big gap between being a valid hypothesis and being a valid (i.e., justified) assumption. A lack of evidence should not be equated with an evidence of lack.

And, yes, *that* "may change" -- in either direction.

"I think the physicalist theory suffers from an inherent inability to address the hard problem, though I do agree that alternatives do introduce new problems themselves..."

I don't think so. We, including physicalists, have a hard time lifting our thinking away from our own essential, subjective nature. I think that the "hard problem" could be, from a physicalist viewpoint simply our own inability to accept that our perceptions of self are illusiary as to their indivisible, fundamental completeness -- despite the overwhelming evidence (whether or not you accept physicalism) that they are illusions -- that stuff is taking place within our awareness that we are not aware of.

Now, I'm not claiming that this is the resolution of the hard problem...

...But I am claiming that physicalism does not suffer from an "inherit inability to deal" with it. We may just be constructed in a way that leaves us inheritly unable to be comfortable with the way it deals with it.

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