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Psi and the Law

Psychics in the UK are getting hot and bothered about the change of legislation governing what they do. The Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951 is being scrapped, and they will in future come under the new Consumer Protection Regulations.  Like any other scam artist they can be prosecuted for knowingly selling someone a duff service, and if convicted face heavy fines or two years in prison.

Will it make any difference? To judge by all the hand wringing some people seem to think so. The Spiritual Workers Association complains that it  is 'turning spiritualism the religion into a consumer product, which it is not,' and that mediums will be more vulnerable to prosecution.

It's a bit hard to tell from the press reports just what the legal implications are. The law wasn't drafted with psychics in mind, so it's unclear how it will affect them. Their worry is that while the old rules obliged prosecutors to prove bad intent, the burden is now on them to prove they did not deliberately intend to mislead. To be on the safe side, mediums in spiritualist churches have taken to prefacing their readings with little disclaimers that this is 'not science, just an experiment'.

On the other hand the College of Psychic Studies, where mediums offer paid services, thinks that tightening standards is a good idea. The Office of Fair Trading itself says that individual psychics or mediums are not in the firing line - the aim is more to deal with foreign mass mailshot fraudsters extracting large sums of money. It says more than 170,000 consumers fall victim to clairvoyant scams every year, losing around £40 million. One psychic scammer sent messages demanding money saying 'you have to trust me ....BECAUSE YOUR FUTURE AND YOUR HAPPINESS DEPEND ON IT'. Another told people that 'there is, in your home, in the very place where you are living, a zone which has been booby trapped by negative waves' and again demanded cash to sort the problem.

If the law can discriminate between the 'bogus' and the 'genuine' then it's got to be a good idea. It's astonishing how brazen the scammers can be, trying to frighten people by claiming that have psychically seen a person is suffering an illness, and claiming to cure it. Then there are the 'psychic hotlines'. When a bunch of press reporters tried out Cilla Black's new pysychic hotline (£1.50 per minute) they said they were given costly advice on a series of non-existent worries, and at great length to keep them on the line.

But how does the law discriminate between good and bad, when science says they are both equally bogus? And will someone make the effort to find out? Sceptics are full of righteous fury at 'cold readers', and it's not impossible that some up-and-coming Randi could try to make a name for him or herself by pushing for a prosecution. It wouldn't be for some obvious fraudster, which would hardly count as a victory, but with a high-profile medium with a reputation to protect, like Colin Fry or Derek Acorah.

A test case would require institutional backing. Any takers? The British Humanist Association is excited at the prospect of 'real changes' to the current situation where psychics are able to make 'completely unsubstantiated claims' and take money for it. Logically, I suppose, that means they hope that anyone who works as a psychic will soon be liable to prosecution. As Richard Wiseman commented for a BBC report: "Anecdotal evidence on their abilities is impressive, but if you put it under more scientific conditions, their claims tend to crumble. [Now] they will need to be able to justify the claims they are making."

This is just Wiseman in rent-a-quote mode - I don't think he has a specific agenda. But of course the threat is implicit. How do mediums justify the claim that they can speak to the dead, if science does not accept that such a thing is remotely possible? If you go to a medium and she says, 'I've got your dead mum here', and you think, 'oh no you haven't', can you call the police and get her arrested? Who judges the quality of the 'evidence' in legal terms, and by what criteria?

The law does occasionally get involved in psychic and spiritualist controversies, and it's not a pretty sight. One of the earliest cases was when Henry Slade, the nineteenth century medium was taken to court by a sceptical sitter. He conducted a stout defence, but was probably done for from the outset, since the judge considered his claimed feats contracted the 'well-known course of nature', and he had to flee abroad to avoid jail (this tragi-comic tale gets an airing in Chris Carter's Parapsychology and the Skeptics). Another famous court case was the materialising medium Helen Duncan, whose claims were so fantastic she never stood a chance - she actually did do time in prison.

The logical conclusion of a prosecution against a medium is that the claims for psychism and survival of death would themselves be on trial. If there was another Slade or Duncan court case, it would test modern attitudes to these things. Perhaps the defence would call an array of expert witnesses to describe just how much evidence there is, and the prosecution would line up Wiseman, Blackmore, Hyman et al to pick holes in it. We'd then see m'learned friends getting to grips with what is usually considered a philosophical, academic or scientific question. And why not? - this is pretty much what happened with the 2005 Kansas court case over the claims of intelligent design.

I'm intrigued by the idea of this sort of contest, having always thought that evidence for psychism and survival involves matters of logic and is best examined in open debate rather than in purely scientific terms, where all sorts of untested assumptions get in the way. Will it ever happen?  Probably not - a law intended to stop people being obviously ripped off could surely not be used to investigate the profoundest metaphysical mysteries.  But you never know.

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.

The South Shields Poltergeist

I've always thought that the Enfield Poltergeist was one of the best attested. It's often discussed, being relatively recent and the subject of a full length book This House is Haunted by Guy Lyon Playfair and Maurice Grosse. But here's a very recent case that is its equal in terms of persistent and extreme phenomena. It's described by paranormal investigators Mike Hallowell and Darren Ritson in their new book The South Shields Poltergeist: One Family's Fight Against an Invisible Intruder.

The case occurred over several months in a terraced house in South Shields, a coastal town in north east England.  It started in December 2005 with anomalous movements of furniture and objects, and the following June came to the attention of Hallowell and Ritson, who staged an investigation over a period of several months. The victims were a young couple, Marc and Marianne, and their three-year old son Robert.

Some typical incidents logged by the couple early on include the following:

21.4pm: We ... found two chairs had been stacked on top of one another on top of the table in the bedroom.

12.40pm: Bed, box and drawers were heard moving in [Robert's] bedroom] upstairs.

5.00pm. The chest of drawers [from Robert's room] was pulled out onto the landing on the top of the stairs and the large box full of stuff was moved from one bedroom to another.

5.10pm. While in the bedroom two toys were thrown at Marianne and Marc.

5.20pm: the door leading into the kitchen opened three times on its own..

Often investigators arrive after the disturbances have lost much of their force and don't see much happening. But that's not the case here. The authors were present during many of the disturbances, and photographed and filmed many of them. One particularly convincing incident was a plastic water bottle which one of them saw and photographed balancing diagonally on the table, a quite unnatural position.

Repressed emotion in living individuals is quite often thought to be responsible in cases of this kind, but the investigators soon rejected this. They had a strong sense of an independent entity wanting to stir up trouble.  In fact it soon became obvious that the poltergeist was trying to frighten the couple. Once they found their child's rocking horse hanging by one its reins from the loft hatch in the ceiling. In another particular sinister incident, a large toy bunny was found in a chair placed at the top of the stairs, holding a box cutter blade in one of its paws. The poltergeist also took to writing threatening messages on a doodle-board in the child's bedroom, and in the later stages sent text messages to Marianne's mobile phone, such as 'get you bitch' and 'You're Dead'.

As time wore on the phenomena intensified. Big red weals appeared suddenly on Marc's torso and vanished equally mysteriously, in front of several witnesses. The investigators watched cupboard doors swinging open, light-shades swinging, the quilt on the bed moving. The couple were seriously frightened when the child himself was moved. On the first occasion they found him lying on the floor tightly wrapped in his bed quilt, with a plastic table on top of him. The child himself seemed to be asleep, but his eyes were wide open, as if he was in a trance. Another time the child appeared to have vanished altogether, and was eventually found in a closet, tightly cocooned in a blanket.

In fact no real harm seems to have ever been done, but the couple were terrified, and the authors speculate the poltergeist was trying to create fear in order to generate emotion that it could feed from. They compare the case with the Amherst Incident of 1878 in Nova Scotia, where death threats to the occupants were found scratched on the walls.

What to make of it all? The case fits a classic pattern in many ways, and reads like a very detailed account of what we are long familiar with from other accounts. The investigators quickly eliminated any possibility of Marianne staging a hoax - she was obviously frightened, and in any case was not involved in phenomena they themselves witnessed. They were at first less sure about Marc, largely because he didn't seem to react very much to the incidents, and was the type who might have enjoyed playing pranks. But they were certain he could not have been responsible for incidents they witnessed themselves, and by the end of the investigation had totally abandoned any idea of fraud.

I'm certain this book will soon become a classic of its kind, a very full and detailed description of eye-witness testimony, that will be compared with the Enfield case (Playfair provides a short foreword) and the Columbus, Ohio case described by William Roll in Unleashed.  I'm not sure how much it will resonate with people who are not already convinced that such things do happen. I  would personally like to have seen more independent corroboration of the kind that one often gets in other cases - from reporters, police officers, social workers etc. It's true there are 15 or so statements from other eyewitnesses, but most of these are from paranormal investigators who the authors invited to the house, and only witnessed one set of phenomena. The quantity and quality of eyewitness testimony can count for as much as of the phenomena itself.

On the other hand it might not have been in the couple's best interests to involve other people. And it's good to see such a rich episode being written up so fully and so readably. As a recent in-depth description of a puzzling phenomenon the book has few rivals, and will be an important addition to the literature.

Book Review: Chris Carter, Parapsychology and the Skeptics

I've always thought that if the existence of psi becomes generally recognised, the sceptics would indirectly have a lot to do with it. As the scientific case for it gradually builds, the angry agit-prop of old guard types like Martin Gardner and James Randi seems ever more irrelevant. Generalisations that parapsychology is a pseudo-science, there is no evidence, Hume's argument against miracles, etc, still have some force. But critics like Ray Hyman, Susan Blackmore and Richard Wiseman are also having to come up with specific objections to psi experiments, and  in a few cases doing experiments themselves.

So the time is ripe for giving these counter-arguments some close scrutiny. In fact I'm surprised it is not done more often, as many of them are so obviously specious. Of course researchers such as Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake have focused on this to some extent - Radin has a useful chapter on it in The Conscious Universe - but it's far from being their main focus. I think this has been a weakness for parapsychology as a whole, that the sceptics have managed to get away with too much for too long.

Chris Carter's Parapsychology and the Skeptics: A Scientific Argument for the Existence of ESP is arguably the first major attempt to place the sceptics' arguments in their proper context.  It's an important book, and should be on everyone's reading list who is serious about understanding the issues.

A brief look at some nineteenth century work with mediums sets the scene, with the examples of investigations of Henry Slade leading into more modern controversies. A description of CSICOP follows, and the disagreements over its early activities.  Carter goes on to discuss J B Rhine's work at Duke, PK experimentation, the Ganzfeld debate, and Sheldrake's research of a telepathic dog. Many notorious episodes are here, for instance the attempt by sceptical members of a National Research Council committee to stop a fellow member presenting evidence supporting the ganzfeld claims, and the failed attempt to get parapsychologists chucked out of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Also other dishonest shenanigans, like Randi pretending he had debunked doggy telepathy, when by his later admission he had nothing of the sort.

The book is chock full of quotes both from the sceptics and sympathetic scientists, which brings us closer to the debate, and often leaves one gasping with disbelief (the statement that there is nothing to argue about as there is 'no evidence of anything paranormal', here voiced by psychologist Nicolas Humphrey, is a particular head-scratcher).

I was expecting rather more space to be given to analysis of individual experiments: there is only a brief mention of the Stargate remote viewing programme, ditto on Sheldrake's highly suggestive work on the sense of being stared at and other of his research, the PK work by Jahn and Dunne at Yale, and so on. But I think Carter is right not to try to be comprehensive, and to leave plenty of space for dealing with the more general aspects of the critics' arguments.

For me this is actually where Carter is best, demolishing the scientific and philosophical objections to psi. As he points out, sceptics such as Blackmore like to say that it is incompatible with 'our scientific worldview', but this begs the question, which scientific worldview, the old one based on Newtonian mechanics and behaviourist psychology, or the emerging one based on quantum mechanics and cognitive psychology. Quantum non-locality and the view that consciousness, not measurement, is implicated in the collapse of the state vector both support the existence of psi and might even lead to predictions of it.  The conclusion, Carter argues, is that the term 'paranormal' is an anachronism and should be dropped, as psi does not operate outside nature.

I was particularly interested in his nuanced discussion of Benjamin Libet's finding that brain activity precedes a conscious decision, which is routinely presented by sceptics, in their dull way, as 'another nail in the coffin for dualism' (Blackmore, Dying to Live, p. 237), and which of course is open to contrary interpretations, as Libet himself pointed out. Wilder Penfield's experimental findings on the neurological basis of memory is also used by sceptics in an anti-dualist sense which Penfield himself did not endorse.

No book is perfect, and I did have a slight quibble with the way it was structured - it seemed to jump around a lot between historical periods, types of experiments, supporters and critics, and so on. Having said this, I know from my own experience of trying to write about parapsychology how  challenging it is to organise so much material. Nor does it detract from the book's value.  Carter explains that he originally tackled the subject in its entirety, but the result was so massive it had to be broken down into three parts: the next instalment will be on survival evidence and the sceptical objections. 

I suspect that in taking the debate directly to the sceptics Carter is first onto what may soon be a well-populated field. The enthusiasm for psi research in the 1960s and 70s led to a backlash over the next two decades with the founding of CSICOP, but there are signs that the sceptics may be running out of steam - the imminent suspension of Randi's prize being just one example. We may soon start to see the pendulum shifting the other way, and this time it is the nay-sayers who will be on the defensive.

Mouni Sadhu

I've always been one for trying to learn new skills, wholeheartedly believing the fiction sold by self-help gurus: "You can do anything you set your mind to ... Realize your dreams" ... etc.  Alas, I've learned by experience that actually I can't. I can think and write, and that's about it. Whenever I try to pick up a skill - playing the piano, speaking German, running a business, playing chess, juggling - I may achieve a certain shaky competence before finally grasping, what family and friends beg me to realise, that I'm crap at it, and should give up (actually that was mainly the piano).

One of the things I've tried to learn is meditation, and again, it's not something I got very far with. But in this case it's not because meditating is inherently difficult - I guess just about anyone can do it - but because I was never committed enough to take it the point where there would be tangible results. In fact over the years I forgot why I was doing it, or that it could lead to tangible results at all.

Recently I was clearing out an old bookshelf and I came across a little book called simply Concentration, by Mouni Sadhu (1959). I remember reading it twenty years ago, and that memory stayed with me ever since, together with a slightly guilty feeling of an aspiration never fully realised. I pulled it out recently and re-read it right through. Twice. It's a gem, and it left me feeling inspired.

The book is essentially a graded series of exercises aimed at gaining complete total mastery of the mind. They are meditation techniques, some of which I have seen elsewhere: for instance breathing 'colours' or focusing on the tip of the second hand of a watch, or clock, or the head of a pin. Each exercise is expected to take weeks or months, so this is something that would not expect to take less than, I guess, three years or more.

What I recognised, having remembered from reading the book the first time, was the slightly fierce tone. Sadhu leaves you in no doubt that he wants you to work. He's full of stern exhortations not to waste time pursuing 'egoistic and material aims', and instructions such as 'The beginner is strongly advised Not to Read in Advance any of chapters beyond which he is working' (I disregarded that one, sorry).

This is quite unfashionable now. TM, the system I'm most familiar with, insists that thoughts should not be blocked but simply observed and then allowed to depart. In Sadhu's approach the will is more strongly engaged: we are exhorted to show the mind who's boss. It's the teaching ethic of an earlier age, one that I'm old enough to have experienced and which I confess to being rather nostalgic for. Much of what I learned as a young child was from teachers who insisted I pay attention. 

There's also something rather appealing about the idea that full self-realization can be largely achieved through a handful of rather mundane seeming exercises, pursued with dedication and will. It's not of course the only thing: one has to pursue a spiritual path, but Sadhu rather takes that for granted.  I also like the plain speaking and the refreshing lack of Sanskrit terms and jargon. Sadhu was actually a devotee of Sri Ramana Maharshi, but points out that achieving the power of concentration is as much a part of western religious training as the eastern ones.

At the summit, he says:

You already know of many things which before were for you, as Himalayan peaks would be for an untrained climber from the plains. You can concentrate your attention on anything, under any conditions, without being disturbed, as formerly, by the onslaught of uncontrolled thoughts and emotions. You are really not interested in anything which lies beyond the magic circle of your attention and visualization created by your own will and no longer by something outside yourself.

This doesn't mean 'mental dullness', he insists.

Quite the contrary! The wise man possesses intelligence comparable to that of average people; but he only uses it when needed, and not as an untrained layman does, who thinks ceaselessly all his life and despite possible fame and fortunes, still amounts to nothing at his death. For a spiritually advanced man, thinking becomes something like the trivial functions of the average person such as eating or walking, etc. No reasonable man would fill his life solely with these functions and forget everything else.

A trained person, he goes on, can exclude all thoughts, ideas, words and images from the mind, and can choose or abandon emotions at will. If the exercises work, he says, a question will arise in the mind. (If it does not, the mind has not been properly stilled - go back and repeat the exercises for a few more months/years.) Addressing the question will lead to the summit of Samadhi, resurrection into a new state of consciousness, a precursor to full enlightenment.

I wondered, what sort of person it would be who could reach this peak of awareness, of mental and moral strength. What are the effects? Did Sadhu himself achieve Samadhi? Or was he just talking about it in an aspirational sense?

Perhaps the answer lies in the book itself. Despite, or perhaps because of it's apparently awkward and direct style, it has a curiously seductive power. There is an attractive, passionate urgency in it, utterly missing from modern manuals. I think he must indeed have reached his goal, but rather than rhapsodising about it, he provides a glimpse of its power through his writing. He left me feeling that it is something that even I could reach out for, if I was able to summon the necessary will, and that it would be really something worth having.

As for Sadhu himself, what kind of person was he? I pictured some grizzled Mounisadhu200Gurdjieff-type figure, but as you can see from the photo he looks like an average guy. He was a Pole, born Mieczyslaw Sudowski, and an electrical mechanic by trade. He fought for the Germans in World War One, lost his wife when the Nazis bombed Warsaw during the 1939 invasion, fought the Germans, was captured and spent time in POW camps in Germany and then Russia before going to live in Brazil, where presumably he started writing. A tough life, and one that must have fuelled a determination to rise above the traumas and tragedies of existence.

I don't know whether I will put Sadhu's exercises into effect or whether I will go back to my TM training. But for sure, meditation is something I'm not going to let slip again, and I thank him for that.

Click on this link for a sample of his writing.

Get Well Soon, Rupert

Had been planning to write today, but news of Rupert Sheldrake's 'mishap' has made it hard to concentrate. The general feeling seems to be that he's had a lucky escape, and that it could have been much worse, but it's still bad enough. I hear from a friend of his that the knife narrowly missed a main artery, that his leg swelled right up and an operation was needed to remove a large blood-clot - doctors say it may be a year before he can walk properly again.

I do feel a sense of relief that he is going to be OK, though. There aren't many good researchers in parapsychology, and we can't afford to lose one with his flair, imagination and courage. I wish him a speedy recovery.

Michio Kaku

I've yet to get a hold of Michio Kaku's new book The Physics of the Impossible, and most likely it'll be a while before I get round to it. But I'm intrigued by the publicity it's been getting, and its possible implications for parapsychology.

Kaku is a theoretical physicist at City University in New York, and a big player in the field of string theory. He's also a pretty effective science popularizer. He has got big attention with this book, only published in the UK today, by arguing that a lot of wacky ideas we associate with science fiction may not be completely impossible after all. 

Kaku puts forward three categories of 'impossibilities'. In reverse order, what he calls 'Type 3' include technologies that absolutely violate the known laws of physics, such as perpetual motion machines and precognition. These would require a fundamental shift in our understanding of physics. Type 2 are technologies currently at the edge of our understanding, but that might be possible one day, such as time travel.

Under Type 1, Kaku groups a number of things that are impossible today, but which do not violate the known laws of physics and so might one day become possible.  These include: force fields, invisibility, phasers and death stars, teleportation, telepathy and psychokinesis, robots, UFOs and aliens, starships, antimatter and anti-universes.

This is a pretty eclectic mix of ideas, theories and technologies. As to his reasoning, I'm a bit in the dark, as I haven't read the book. I understand that Kaku argues teleportation in terms of quantum entanglement - it's being done on the level of particles, so the principle is already there. Alien contact becomes more probable as astronomers scan planets in other solar systems, so that too is feasible. Robots already exist. He talks of invisibility on the basis of new materials that eliminate reflections and shadows. 

What gets my attention is the presence in the list of telepathy and psychokinesis. As I say, it'll be a while before I find out what his thinking is (comments welcome, in the meantime), but I'm guessing his approach is technology-based and that he proposes they will become possible when we figure out how to do them (in terms of parallel universes?)

Parapsychologists would have a couple of things to say about that: a) telepathy and psychokinesis are here now, and b) they don't involve technology. They would add that precognition, which Kaku thinks is really impossible, is closely associated with these things. But what interests me is how sceptics will respond. Normally they can't stand it when a high-profile scientists comes out in favour of telepathy, and they try to drown him out with a cacophony of jeering. I guess that won't happen here, though, because Kaku's idea of telepathy is precisely that it doesn't contradict known laws of physics, which is their main stated reason for objecting to it.

This is an interesting development. One outcome could be that Kaku's ideas could turn out to be too simplistic, and will be shot down by parapsychologists, pointing out that they don't relate to the considerable existing data. That would be a pity, although ironically since parapsychologists are so little regarded in the scientific community perhaps no one would notice. For even if the theory is not wholly convincing, it can only be a good thing if serious scientists bring psychism in the scientific arena. If the concept of telepathy can be raised without sceptics popping a fuse in public, perhaps the scientific world will start to calm down and talk about it rationally.