I have mixed feelings about journalists' books about the paranormal. There's a tendency to think they can get to the bottom of it by talking to a few key people, but they only really scratch the surface, and lose interest as soon as they've got enough material to write up.
Volk is a Philadelphia crime reporter, and Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable and Couldn't might have been that sort of book, based as it is on interviews and encounters with researchers and experiencers of various kinds. In fact it's excellent, and as an introduction to science/religion topics is one of the best I've read. Volk has a deeply personal interest, from his memories of the poltergeist that haunted his home as a child and from the impact of the deaths of close family members, and gives a strong sense of caring about the subjects he investigates: near-death experiences, psi research, consciousness, UFOS, poltergeists, mystical experience, neuroscience and lucid dreaming, which he typically explores through the work of key figures. The narrative fiction style is lively and empathetic, and shows a novelist's eye for people, places and situations.
A worry for journalists especially is to seem credible and objective while tackling subjects that many people find suspect. Unlike some writers, Volk is not defensive about this and is keen to be as inclusive as possible, while steering clear of the margins on either side.
We live in a world of false certainties: Whether we are discussing politics, religion, or economics, when we flip on our televisions or open our Web browsers to a news site, we encounter the often strongly held opinions of others - opinions that lead us into a series of binary choices: conservative or liberal, believer or atheist, capitalist or socialist. My argument, simply, is that these are false choices - that there are middle paths that bear more fruit.
All of the figures he describes, in their way, are chipping away at the barriers raised by dogmatists and helping to found a new worldview 'in which science and spirituality serve each other'. At the same time he avoids some of the more controversial areas: psi-research is covered quite cursorily, and there's little about mediums and psychics, apart from a tense phone conversation with Uri Geller, which quietly makes the point that he is keeping such people at arms length (he also admits to incredulity when Mitchell shows him a bag of bent spoons he watched children twisting out of shape merely by stroking them.)
But the problem of the Paranormal Taint, as he calls it, remains a strong theme throughout the book. Volk makes the point well in the first chapter while discussing the case of Kübler-Ross. The Swiss-born psychiatrist might have broken the news about the near-death experience after coming across it frequently in her work with the terminally ill. However she didn't mention it at all in her book On Death and Dying, and it was left to Raymond Moody to publicize the discovery a few years later. A good thing too, Volk points out: the work that helped break taboos and alleviate suffering might have been ignored completely if it had been tainted by a hint of superstitious belief. (Sadly, Kübler-Ross did later go to the other extreme, showing a level of credulity that wrecked her reputation.)
Elsewhere Volk describes an atheists conference attended by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Patricia Churchland, where Stuart Hameroff offered his ideas about quantum consciousness. Anything that smacks of dualism would go down like a lead balloon in such company. Dawkins in particular seemed so upset he could not even look at Hameroff and stared sulkily in the other direction. Generally, says Volk, the talk was greeted with the 'hushed whisper of fabric, of one hundred butts shifting uncomfortably in their seats'.
This sort of classy writing is one of the book's strong points. I liked the discussion of Andrew Newberg in trying to test the idea, promoted by hardline atheists, that religious faith is obviously connected to mental disorder.
Would some sort of malfunction show up that explained the spiritual experience? Or would he somehow get a glimpse of God as a kind of ghost in the machine? In his pursuit of an answer, Newberg has become a curator of human spiritual life - taking snapshots of various transcendent states and hanging them on the walls.
I also enjoyed the chapter on the astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who famously experienced a powerful sense of the interconnectedness of all things on his journeying in space and later founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS). It seems astronauts as a species are known for undergoing profound shifts in their thinking and priorities, and it's a smart idea to explore mystical experience in relation to such a highly contemporary activity. Here too there's a sense of a perceptual boundary being bumped up against, as the idea of space tourism, touted by entrepreneurs like Virgin's Richard Branson, suffers from the 'giggle factor' - when people hear an idea that is disturbing or challenging they laugh. The implications of this for the paranormal are obviously great, Volk points out. 'Yes, some people want to embrace every New Age idea. But others laugh, just as automatically, before even considering what they're laughing at.'
There are some fascinating examples of the interaction between science and the media. Volk describes the case of a researcher who discovered a statistically significant tendency in people who had experienced an NDE to show the same altered brain firing patterns as people with temporal lobe epilepsy. The study was small and no serious conclusions could be drawn. Nevertheless, it drew a disproportionate amount of interest from the media, with articles in the New York Times and Discover which effectively stigmatized these people as dysfunctional, when actually they rated more highly than the controls on measures of active coping. The study's author meanwhile received letters from believers earnestly thanking her for proving that it the NDE is real, and from scientist colleagues for proving that religious belief is a brain disorder.
One of the most interesting chapters concerns a new mental therapy being pioneered by Allan Botkin. This is based on the recent discovery by psychotherapist Francine Shapiro, which she calls 'eye movement desensitization and reprocessing' or EMDR which actually involves nothing more complicated than getting the patient to move his or her eyes from side to side, as if they were watching a ping-pong match. EMDR faced a good deal of scepticism at the outset, but now seems to be thriving. However Botkin, a specialist with war veterans, stumbled on the further discovery that the procedure can conjure up an image in the patient's mind of the key person in his mental flashbacks - perhaps a buddy he was not able to rescue, or someone he killed in battle - who he can then engage with and receive a kind of closure. Botkin calls this Induced After-Death Communication (IADC) and uses it in therapy, apparently with considerable success.
Volk's own experience was convincing: it induced interactions with two deceased family members. But he is concerned about the name, which he points out may bring opposition, not least from fellow practitioners of EMDR already struggling to gain acceptance for what seems like a fringe idea. This might be a good instance of the value of the 'middle path' - to acknowledge the practical efficacy of a technique which transcends the boundaries of known science, but without insisting on its paranormality.
In other respects, I found myself constantly reflecting on the real meaning of this middle path. It's one thing to be open-minded and avoid being dogmatic. Readers will respond to these things in different ways and those of us who try to engage their interest have to defer to their sensitivities. But a path is not a destination, and detachment should not be seen as a virtue in itself, especially if it encourages the avoidance of any long-term commitment. If humans are biologically uniform - which I believe is a given - there's no sense in which, for example, it is both possible for certain gifted individuals to bend spoons by mental effort, and simultaneously impossible for anyone to do so; or in which it is both possible to remain conscious after the death of the body and to lose consciousness instantly and for ever. Unless we are going to argue that such things are themselves subject to a dual status, like Schroedinger's cat - and I don't think it's come to that yet.
In fact the middle path is a construct, a fudge that we create for practical and sensible reasons. It's a safe place where we can be comfortable, a tree house where we can observe the jungle around us without exposing ourselves to danger. In that sense, a book like Fringe-ology is an artifice, that draws readers deep into the unknown while providing constant reassurance - as indeed are many books about the paranormal, mine included. Involved as I am myself in this authoring business, and knowing how difficult it is, I can only admire Volk's extraordinary skill in pulling it off so well.