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.