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I mentioned recently that I attended a talk by Chris French, a UK telly sceptic, at the Society for Psychical Research. French argued that there are 'normal' explanations for most paranormal-seeming phenomena, and that they are probably spurious as a source of religious belief. He acknowledged this would not go down terribly well with an audience that by-and-large assumes the paranormal is a genuine category, but he carried on cheerfully, perhaps hoping that some of us might change our minds.

A sort of mirror image of this set-up occurred when NDE researcher Peter Fenwick was invited to talk about death-bed visions to the Anomalous Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths College in South London, which French runs. I fidgeted a bit during French's lecture, so I couldn't help wondering how his lot managed to sit through Fenwick's. I don't suppose the students have to swear a sceptics' oath or anything, but it would be surprising if many of them did not think like French does: weird stuff happens, but let's just call it anomalous, OK, nothing actually paranormal about it.

In principle I'm all for sheeps and goats coming out of their pens and talking to each other. Who knows, we all might learn something. Alas, I have to say, with respect to French, who is one of the more approachable sceptics, that what I got was to be reminded how thin and one-dimensional the sceptic's view of parapsychology is. I found myself revisiting that eureka moment I experienced about two years after I first started researching the subject, when I broke through to that hinterland of responsible research that sceptics hardly ever visit. A personal flashpoint for me is poltergeists: when French put up a slide mentioning Amityville and the Fox sisters, and talked briefly about problems with the Enfield case, I wanted to stand up and heckle - what about Miami, Rosenheim, Andover, South Shields? Really, how can children learn to do all these extraordinary things by trickery? Have you read any of the research?

Conversely, it must make sceptics uncomfortable to have to listen to paranormal claims being put forward without some kind of qualification. I wasn't at Fenwick's talk, but I have heard him speak before - he's probably the best-known scientific researcher on the topic in the UK - and there's a report of it in the new SPR Paranormal Review. He described a study he ran based on a television appeal for cases, which pulled in nearly a thousand reports of what he calls ELEs or 'end of life experiences, the best of which were followed up with interviews with carers in hospices and nursing homes.

A common theme was reports of the dying having sudden experiences of joy and love, and of visions just before death - in 40% of cases the dying acted as though someone had come to take them away, most often parents (24%) or other relatives (14%).  On very rare occasions living relatives shared the visions, which is something I'd like to hear more about. Some people, including GPs, said they witnessed 'white mist' or a 'heat haze' or 'smoke-like disturbances' leaving the body. There were also instances of mechanical like clocks stopping at the time of death, and apparitional deathbed coincidences. (There was no mention of last-minute lucidity in cases of Alzheimer's, which I mentioned in the review of Irreducible Mind recently, (May 19, and see comments), but perhaps such instances were not caught by the survey question).

Sceptics must have been wishing Fenwick would get to the bit where he explains it all away on various grounds: drugs, expectation and belief factors, etc. In fact he did run through these and other possible causes, but dismissed them on various grounds. The writer of the review states mildly that he thought Fenwick accepted at face value much of what had been reported, and hoped that further research would be a bit more detached. Actually I think this is often an issue with research of this kind: for instance I had forgotten, looking at some of Ian Stevenson's work recently, how completely he seems to identify with the reincarnational hypothesis.  On the other hand, in these sorts of contexts, it's hard to appear scientifically neutral if you think the available 'normal' alternatives as implausible, and by rejecting them appear to endorse the reality of survival of death.

So in the end, what is gained? Of course lots of people believe in paranormal stuff uncritically, and they really do need to know that at least some of it can be explained in normal terms. Perhaps some of those people turn up at SPR talks, in which case, who knows, French made some converts. But what really matters, it seems to me, is that sceptics - or at least people who are uncommitted, and are being pressed by their elders and betters to reject these things as spurious -  are exposed to real research about these extraordinary and neglected areas of human experience from time to time. My guess is that, of the two speakers, it was Fenwick who really gave his audience something to think about.

Past Lives and The Skeptic

Went to a lecture bySkeptic editor Professor Chris French recently (rather surprisingly at the SPR, but I won't go into that). He mentioned in passing that the current edition of the mag contains a 'devastating' refutation of Ian Stevenson's research on children's memories of a previous life. This sort of claim always gets my attention - I wonder whether a critic really could have demolished in single magazine article the life's work of a leading psychical researcher. But you never know, so I thought I'd have a look.

The 7-page article is by Leonard Angel, not someone I'd come across before, but who I learn is a Canadian philosopher, and author of Enlightenment East and West (1994). His book contains a chapter debunking parapsychology, and especially Stevenson's past life research, which is also the subject of a Skeptical Inquirer article by Angel at around the same time. In the earlier piece he focuses on methodological flaws. He attacks the Lebanese case of Imad Elawar in Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, accusing Stevenson of gross failures in his methods of research, write-up of data, and analysis of hypotheses and claiming an 'unfortunate insensitivity to central issues in data-gathering, presentation, and interpretation'.

I don't have Twenty Cases to hand, so can't really say how well his arguments stands up. My feeling has always been that Stevenson's methods are open to criticism, but that this kind of sweeping assertion by a sceptic seldom turns out to be justified. It didn't help that Stevenson's rebuttal in the magazine, after complaining about 'grave omissions' and 'inappropriate emphases', only covered one of Angel's points (he said he wasn't given enough room to do more). However it was striking, as far as it went. 

Angel had criticised Stevenson for having in the Imad Elawar case relied on the testimony of one particular individual, who was the verifier for 28 items of information. The fact that one of these was contradicted by someone else, Angel thinks, is reason to consider him unreliable. Stevenson replies that he himself had felt the need to get more verification of this witness's statements and made a follow-up trip to the Lebanon the following year for this specific purpose - only five of the 28 items were made solely by him. This is all clearly stated in the book, and Stevenson considers Angel's failure to mention any of it to be 'ill-considered guile or carelessness'.

In this new piece Angel questions the degree of correspondence between the statements made by the child and the circumstances of the claimed previous life. He complains that Stevenson ignored one of the most fundamental tenets of science, which is to eliminate the 'null hypothesis' before plumping for a paranormal interpretation.

... I'm suggesting that if anyone got many groups of correspondences between one life and another earlier life, and abstracted them a bit so that they looked like claims of past life memories, and then randomly mixed them in with evidence about past life memories, similarly abstracted, and then had subjects - ordinary people, or scientists - make guesses as to which need special explanation - then there would be a mere chance distribution.
Angel is struck by a list of correspondences between his own biography and Stevenson's, as recorded in an obituary of him published in the NY Times. He considers that some people might call these correspondences remarkable, though in fact they would not be. The list includes that fact that both men were born in Montreal, got a degree at McGill University, married twice, had a mother interested in spirituality, once lived in a house with a big library, and so on. His point is that if you start looking for someone who fits these general sorts of characteristics you could succeed, but it wouldn't mean that the subject actually had once been that person.

To investigate this, Angel suggests an experiment aimed at finding out whether or not random batches of material about people will generate as many correspondences with possible past lives as they would with real supposed memories of past lives. A number of correspondences would be generated, some of which would not be plausibly be thought to be paranormally generated (the control group) and those which Stevenson and some other people might think are paranormal (the experimental group). Blind subjects would guess which correspondences came from which group. If there was no statistically significant correlation between the cases guessed as coming from the experimental group and those that actually came from it, as Angel suspects will turn out to be the case, then there is no reason to consider anything paranormal in such cases.

It's an interesting idea, and any experimental approach that can help to put this sort of field research onto a more solid scientific footing can only be a good thing. But I didn't really understand the relevance of it to Stevenson's work. The correspondences Angel lists between himself and Stevenson are very general, and many of them do not relate to other people, places or circumstances but merely to the two men's ideas. However this isn't typical of the best reincarnation-type cases, which are compelling precisely because some of the children's statements, which are subsequently found to match with the circumstances of a deceased person, are so very particular.

In Children Who Remember Previous Lives, Stevenson describes the Sri Lankan case of a three-year old girl who said she remembered having lived in a town called Kataragama, and that her father owned a flower shop, was bald and wore a sarong. If that were all, and was typical of such cases, then Angel might have a point.  But the child also said that in the previous life her father was called Rathu Herath, and that she had drowned after being pushed into a river by a boy, and not just any boy, but one who happened to be mute - a set of circumstances that surely could not reasonably be held to apply to more than one person. 

Or take the case of Sunil Dutt Saxena in Stevenson's Indian collection.  He said he used to live in a certain town in a big house with servants, and that he had owned a fridge, a radio and other luxury items - all pretty general stuff. He claimed to have owned a factory and to have been married, which narrows it down a bit. But he also said he had been married four times and that he had founded a college, which was named after him, and named the principal, who was one of his best friends. In the same volume is the case of Jagdish Chandra, who among other things mentioned the names of the previous personality his father and his brother, stated correctly that the brother had died of poisoning, and identified the location of a safe his father kept his cash in.

In these three cases, and others that were 'solved', families were found in which the life of a recently deceased person matched the child's statements, in circumstances that researchers say largely precluded any non-paranormal explanation. (In the Jagdish Chandra case, for instance, his father, a lawyer, wrote down all the relevant items of information before advertising for help in tracing a person they might apply to.)

It's true that we are making a subjective judgement about what kinds of correspondences can be judged to point to a paranormal process. This is one of the biggest issues in parapsychology, much of which involves just this kind of inexplicable matching - in statements by mediums, in telepathic and apparitional cases, in out-of-body perception, and so on. And in principle it's something that does need to be addressed, with the use of control groups for instance. But I suspect the reason researchers in all these categories don't give this much priority is because the information that gets matched is often far too specific for it to be a matter of chance coincidence. The reason sceptics press for it is because they don't read the research, so they don't know that. (I can't believe that the 'cold reading' argument relating to mediums could survive a detailed knowledge of the Leonora Piper material, for instance, but sceptics seem hardly aware of its existence.)

Despite this, Angel argues rather forcefully that Stevenson's failing even to consider an experiment of the kind he suggests is an indication that he didn't care about the scientific method. This allows him to criticise his credentials - he uses words like 'laxity' and 'sloppiness'. It's rather clear that he doesn't intend it as a constructive criticism - surprise surprise - so much as a way of diminishing Stevenson's work, to discourage other people from taking it seriously, and give cheer to sceptics like himself who are deeply discomforted by its implications.

Just to be sure we get the point Angel constructs the article in the form of  a dialogue, in which the researcher is portrayed as querulous and evasive, flailing under the onslaught of our hero's incisive questioning. Stevenson is made to flounce out whenever the questioning becomes too hot, returning sheepishly each time to face his tormentor. A sample:

LA: So you think that a succession of case investigations such as you conducted for about forty years is sufficiently scientific?
IS: Yes. That is what I just said.
LA. True, that is what you said. But it seems to me what you did may only look as though it is scientific. Perhaps you didn't follow the most basic rule for scientific investigation.
IS: Please! To suggest that I failed to do the most basic thing is absurd...This is nonsense... I'll be gone. Then you won't be able to talk to me any longer.

As always, this sort of thing leads me to speculate about the sceptic's own thought processes. He can't for one minute accept the claims, because they contradict knowledge and assumptions which he believes to be unassailable. So his mind starts to generate a defensive strategy. This involves fastening onto a particular idea, and selectively picking up elements that seem to support it, while screening out those that would quickly refute it. Once he has detached himself from the research, the counter-strategy that has taken root is now free to flower in its own environment, unchallenged by any restrictions. It only needs to be fleshed out, in a way that represents the researcher as a cretin, to restore a sense of emotional equilibrium in himself and in his like-minded readers. 

That's not to suggest that the work of Stevenson and other researchers in the field should go unchallenged, or that experimental approaches cannot be found that might strengthen this type of field research. It's hard for many people - and I include myself - to read the reports without constantly interrogating the statements and at least sometimes wishing for extra information and reassurance. They are just flat-out incredible. But we can readily distinguish between a constructive suggestion and one whose real purpose is just to make sceptical propaganda.

The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama is in town to meet with Gordon Brown, and the press is delighted with him. Journalists love a leader who has no airs and graces - at a function yesterday they watched fascinated as he fumbled in what the woman at The Times called his 'crimson man bag', which she thought might contain 'something sacred', and eventually produced a 'sweetie to keep him going', he explained, 'as Buddhist monks don't eat dinner'. What the hacks especially liked was his irrepressible light-heartedness.  Every time he answered a question he would giggle, and sometimes even roar with laughter, not because anyone had made a joke but just out of sheer high spirits. This awes them, and they are constantly talking about it.

Well, I have my own idea about this. A few weeks ago (April 8) I mentioned my rediscovery of meditation, which I've practiced off an on for twenty years but without ever really getting into the habit of. I got interested again after reading a book by Mouni Sadhu, a devotee of Sri Ramana Maharshi, who describes the goal of samadhi. So I've started doing it twice a day, as recommended by my Transcendental Meditation teacher years ago (which incidentally is probably a reason I haven't been able to post as frequently as I'd like).

It's not that I'm particularly interested in developing siddhis, those special powers supposed to come with serious and dedicated practice. I suppose I am attracted by the idea of achieving greater stability and being able to face life's vicissitudes more calmly. But I did start to notice a rather curious effect. It doesn't always happen, but I've come to recognise it and even rather to look forward to it.

What I noticed at first was a sort of relaxing of the face muscles. At first I put this down to a general all-round bodily relaxation. But then I noticed the effect was concentrated in the middle of each cheek - it was as though some alteration was taking place there. I then realised that the corners of my mouth were lifting up, and not in response to any direct input on my part - it was quite involuntary. This went on gradually until I was embarrassed to realize I was wearing a big cheesy grin, at which point my features instantly fell back to their customary seriousness. After a while the same smile stole back, and again without any conscious willing.

This has happened a few times now, and I really can't explain it. It's not an expression of any inward feeling, as far as I can tell. Who knows, perhaps that will come later, and this is the advance indication, so to speak. I hope so.

But it does seem to suggest what can happen with dedicated meditation. At a Buddhist talk recently I noticed how the speaker would every so often suddenly stop talking in mid sentence. I wondered at first if something was wrong, and then realized he was just wheezing with quiet laughter, rocking backwards and forwards, although nothing particularly funny had been said. It was as though it was something he had to stop and do every so often - once the fit was over he carried on. It makes sense to me now that the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was known as 'the giggling guru'. Also in TV films I've seen about TM there's an atmosphere of constant gaiety among the practitioners.

As for the Dalai Lama, I read somewhere recently that he spends no fewer than five hours every morning meditating and praying - five hours!  For the leader of a people in exile, and at a time of what for most people would be terrible stress, that's perhaps what he needs to go on seeing the funny side of life.

Book Review: Kelly & Kelly et al, Irreducible Mind

I've been hogging the SPR library's copy of Irreducible Mind, having been too cheap to shell out the fifty-odd quid for it, and now they want it back. Woe. (Sorry if you're one of the people waiting for it.) I can't imagine being without it for long, though, so will doubtless end up buying it, and be glad to have it in my shelves. No question, this is one of the most important publishing events in its field for a long time.

Not, of course, that this will be instantly recognised by the people it is mainly aimed at - mainstream psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers. The book's uncompromising rejection of the reductionist models they take for granted will probably just baffle them, at least at first. I'd be curious to know what sort of reaction they have been giving it in their publications, but I guess it will be a slow burn. No matter; the case it makes is so complete and compelling it must surely sink in eventually.   

The main authors are Edward F. Kelly and Emily Williams Kelly, with contributions by Alan Gauld, Adam Crabtree, Bruce Greyson and Michael Grosso. The book has been out for a while so has had quite a bit of attention (Michael Prescott had a good look at the chapter on NDEs a while ago). But if you're not aware of it yet, it's an update of the ideas of Frederic Myers, one of the SPR's main founders, the first and arguably still the greatest theorist produced by psychical research.

Myers looked closely at unusual mental phenomena - automatic writing, hysteria, mediumship, dreams, hypnotism, genius and mystical experience, and the like - as well as the ostensibly paranormal phenomena collected by the SPR.  He came to a view of the unconscious that contains different centres of consciousness, complete in themselves, but of which we are not aware, and which we often draw on, for instance as a source of creative inspiration.  His big idea was the Subliminal Self, an ultimate 'I' that has roots in a transcendental environment of some sort, with which the conscious part of ourselves is reunited following the death of the body.

Myers's approach was in harmony with the thought of William James, who however did not long survive him. The field was then free for Freud and others to promote a quite different, pathologized view of the unconscious, as a sort of garbage dump of repressed anxieties, a source of tension and potentially of illness and disease. Subsequently the emergence of behaviourism effectively led to consciousness being abolished altogether as a topic for scientific consideration. Essentially Irreducible Mind builds on Myers's and James's pioneering ideas, reinforcing them with new evidence that has accumulated in the past century.

I'm used to thinking of psi as making the current physicalist paradigm untenable. What I hadn't properly appreciated is that there are many other kinds of mental phenomena that do the job just as well, without involving claims of 'spooky action at a distance' which many people find hard even to consider. In fact the book actually contains rather little from the paranormal canon, and it's interesting to see how the argument for an enlarged view of the mind-brain relationship can be largely made without it.

I was especially interested by Emily Williams Kelly's chapter on psychophysiological influence. This assembles data that shows mental ideas, images and conceptions having tangible effects on the organism. Numerous studies show that a person has an increased chance of dying shortly after suffering bereavement, for instance. There are also well documented cases of people being convinced for one reason or another they would die at a certain time, and then doing so, despite being in perfect health. Kelly also cites cases of people's hair going suddenly white from shock, of stigmata and marks on bodies corresponding to suggestion, of yogis buried underground whose hearts flatlined for days and came back to life shortly before being recovered.

The placebo gets attention too, with the growing recognition that mental states somehow trigger a healing mechanism. Kelly cites an extraordinary 1957 study, in which a patient close to death badgered his doctor to be included in a trial of a new medicine.  Within three days his tumours were half their original size and after ten days he was discharged, continuing in good health for two months. But he became ill again after reading press reports that the drug might not be effective after all. His doctor, sensing what was going on, then persuaded him to try a 'new improved version of the drug', which in fact did not exist - he injected him with water. The patient recovered again, with results even more dramatic than before. But after two months he learned from the media that further studies had shown the drug to be quite worthless, and within days he was dead. (p.145).

Interestingly, the science and medical community sometimes resists such claims as fiercely as it does telepathy and psychokinesis. Take hypnosis: this was briefly used in the nineteenth century before the discovery of chloroform as an anaesthetic, and it worked. In one case it was used in an operation to remove a massive face tumour, which involved ripping open the patient's face and yanking the tumour through the eye until it burst - through all this, according to the surgeon the patient 'never moved, nor showed any signs of life, except an occasional indistinct moan' (p.189). Yet one doubter absurdly preferred to think that in such cases the patient, having formed a bond with the doctor, 'wants to please him, so bravely tries to inhibit signs of pain.'

Kelly points out that such resistance tends to disappear the moment scientists think they can explain it. Putting something into scientific language - hypothesizing a chain of events among various neural centres, for instance - provides a physicalist framework which superficially makes the claim less threatening. However she also points out that the explanations really don't amount to very much.

The essential problem we are left with is that such phenomena imply a causal direction hard to account for in mechanist terms. It's one thing to conceive of brain chemistry bringing about ideas and images in the mind. But it's something else again if mere ideas or images can set in train vastly complex chains of events within the body. How does a belief that one will overcome one's illness, or an instruction to make this happen, translate into the hugely specific biological steps required to bring that about?

It would be hard to exaggerate either the quality of this book or its importance. I'm struck by the lucidity of the text - as a layman I hardly ever found myself floundering - and an enormous amount of data and argument is deftly handled. Some of it was completely new to me: I had no idea that patients suffering from advanced dementia sometimes become quite lucid in the moments before dying, as is apparently often reported by hospital nurses, and I look forward to seeing published data about this, as it obviously carries important implications.

As well as being astonishingly erudite - the extent of the scientific literature it surveys is truly impressive - it's also a very bold book. It's encouraging to find such a serious and well-supported defence of non-physicalist positions that, baldly stated, inevitably invite derision from the mainstream, but with so much supporting evidence must surely start to be taken seriously.  There's a lot here about the 'filter' theory of the brain proposed by James and Myers - and later also backed by, among others, C.D. Broad, Henri Bergson and Aldous Huxley - which is irresistibly suggested by the action of psychedelics. And I can't recall ever in a science book, and certainly not a recent one, encountering such a clear and forthright argument in support of an essentially dualist view of mind-brain - again, if psychologists want to dismiss it out of hand it has to be asked, what is their explanation for all the evidence marshalled here to support it?

All of this will be immensely valuable to people like me who try to interest people in the claims of parapsychology. Evidence of telepathy and precognition, not to mention the more bizarre paranormal claims from mediumship, poltergeists and the like, are toxic to the conventional view of mind, but they are also hard to accept if you are not used to them. It will be a big help to be able to refer to a similarly enormous body of evidence that does not immediately require such a major emotional adjustment, but which at the end of the day points pretty much in the same direction.

Rational Mysticism ?

Greg at the Daily Grail has an interesting piece relating to sceptics and mysticism (The Mystical Skeptic? May 9). I was going to add a comment, but got a bit carried away, so am posting here instead.

Picking up on Susan Blackmore's recent descriptions on her LSD experiences, Greg points out that other sceptics/atheists have also expressed an interest in mystical experience.  Sam Harris, author of the polemic The End of Faith talks positively about 'rational mysticism', for instance (which in a way is not surprising, as he seemed open-minded in that book about parapsychology, although without going into any detail). He also mentions a book on the subject by John Horgan called Rational Mysticism, and cites Horgan's comment about Blackmore:

Blackmore has had flashes of the mystical self-transcendence referred to in Zen as kensho. In fact, she includes her out-of-body experience back at Oxford among them. She views that experience as a hallucination, but a profoundly meaningful one. She has taken to heart the lesson imparted to her toward the end of her journey, that no matter how much we learn and grow, there is "always something more". As a result of that lesson, she views mystical experiences not as ends in themselves but as way stations on a never-ending journey.

I agree with Greg in wondering whether the term 'rational mysticism' is not an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Eastern religion was one of the reasons I got interested in parapsychology: not having ever had any kind of mystical experience myself, I wondered about the idea that humans can temporarily achieve a state of knowing which utterly convinces them of the existence of God and a reality beyond this one, and the sense that they will continue to be a part of that reality when they are 'dead'. How much importance should one attach to it?

This insight seems to arise from meditative practices or, as described in the Rig Veda, from the effects of soma. So it's clearly related to changes in brain chemistry. Does that make it spurious? In the modern world we can approach these altered states from a secular perspective, as Blackmore clearly does. But if the experience can be subverted by a rational perspective after the event, how powerful could it have been in the first place? We would have to suppose that if all these mystics, meditators and initiates throughout history had read Dennett and Dawkins then they would have come out of their trance and decided that these ineffable and transcendental intimations were simply illusory, even if valuable or beneficial on some lower level (but what exactly ?)

I don't really buy any of this. If you read about mystical experiences of ordinary people - in Raynor Johnson's Watcher on the Hills, or Alister Hardy's The Spiritual Nature of Man, for instance - over and over you get this hugely powerful sense of what one can only term 'enlightenment'. People talk constantly about having had a glimpse of the true nature of reality, that we are all one, that love is the only true universal constant, and so on. They almost all say that they now understand what is meant by the term 'the peace that passeth all understanding'. What you tend not to find is people saying, 'yeah, while it was going on I thought I saw God and heaven, and it was really cool, but now I realise it was just stuff going on in my head, no biggie.'

I suppose a sceptic could argue that researchers and writers select, and that in fact there are grades of experience, from which they choose only the most outstanding or the ones that further their own religious agendas. I haven't actually seen that argument, but that's probably just because sceptics aren't normally at all interested in mystical experience. Yet the overwhelming impression, and one that incidentally is supported by the research on NDEs, which is pretty thorough, is that this is a quite distinct class of psychological event. You either have a transcendental, transformative life-changing experience - or you don't. 

So how is it possible to blur this boundary? I suspect that what's going on here is that semantic confusion which lies at the heart of sceptical discourse, the tendency to elevate weak experiences to the level of the real thing. It's an inability - or unwillingness - to distinguish between different types or levels of experience. I always think that Michael Persinger's work is an example of this: he claims that a lot of mystical and paranormal experiences, including elements of the NDE itself, can be induced by his magnetic helmet, but he doesn't really provide any evidence that they are the same things. The suspicion is that he's comparing apples with pears.

Blackmore's 'out-of-body' incident is another small but relevant example. My sense is that this experience, which occurred in her early twenties after smoking a joint, is pretty central to the subsequent development of her thought. The crux of it was her realization that the details of what she saw while roaming around Oxford 'out of her body' were actually inaccurate. For instance a particular roof, which she had observed as having chimneys and red tiles, did exist, but not as she had perceived it: it was actually green and had no chimneys.  She concluded that she had experienced a psychological construct, an illusion generated by the brain. The implication - and again this is absolutely central to sceptical thought - is that there really are two alternatives to choose from, and a critical, probing intelligence will understand the truth that escapes those who are less discerning.

There really is an issue here, and in fact even OBE adepts have recognised the illusory nature of some of their perceptions. (Interestingly, James Randi describes a rather similar incident in his own experience). Blackmore built on it to develop her psychological theory in Beyond the Body (1982). But while it adds a perplexing layer of complexity to the puzzling business of OBE perception it ought not to invite simplistic either-or interpretations. By the time Blackmore gets round to the near-death experience in Dying to Live ten years later it's become a central dogma - her chapter explaining away the accurate veridical perception reported by some hospital patients is as wonderful a piece of bluff and obfuscation as you will find anywhere.

What's really interesting is that Blackmore seems to be conflating her own hash experience with the full NDE. At the end of the book she says that many people who have had NDEs have come back from their experiences convinced that they have seen the spirit world, that they have grasped their 'higher self' and that they will live after they die. But she has experienced it too, she responds, and come to a different conclusion (p. 259). I found this rather shocking. As far as I can discover what she experienced differs quite markedly from the classic NDE described by Moody, Ring et al - she says nothing about tunnels, deceased relatives, life reviews, beings of light and so on - and it is quite misleading to suggest otherwise.

Finally, it strikes me that Horgan's comment about Blackmore's interest in meditation and mysticism hints at the rather incomplete nature of her experiences. The idea that there is 'always something more', and that mystical experiences are not ends in themselves but 'way stations on a never-ending journey' is an important insight in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions. But has she really arrived at it herself? Or is it something that she is repeating, and that accords with the rather limited nature of her own experience, because she hasn't actually felt that overwhelming transcendence that other people sometimes report?

I don't want to push this too far, because in lots of ways I respect Blackmore's work. We have a common interest in vitally important issues that ought to engage the attention of thinking people far more widely than they do. Also, it's hard to know exactly where she's at without quizzing her directly - who knows, she may really be onto something. But without a good deal more clarity from her I shall be pretty sceptical that she really does have anything original to say about mystical experience, or indeed, more generally, that the idea of rational mysticism means anything at all.

The Illusionists

Thanks to Greg at The Daily Grail for drawing attention to Richard Wiseman's article on magicians and the paranormal, which I'd missed.  Some magicians - Randi, Penn and Teller, Paul Daniels, etc - are so obnoxiously loud about their disbelief in psychic phenomena, it creates the impression that they all think the same way. Not so, according to Wiseman, himself a former professional magician, who polled professional and semi-professional conjurors around the world. A quarter of his sample of more than 400, he says, believe in the reality of telepathy, precognition or psychokinesis

In fact there have been, and continue to be, conjurors who have experienced psychical incidents they can't explain, and are quite happy to go on record about it. The famous nineteenth-century French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin was famously gobsmacked by the psychic Alexis Didier - a fact that Harry Houdini apparently didn't know when he named himself after him, and he was disgusted when he later found out. There's also a rather little known fact about JN Maskelyne, the Randi of the nineteenth century séance era as he is portrayed in debunking books. The sceptics describe, as historical fact, that the phenomenon of table-turning was explained away by the scientist Michael Faraday, although it plainly wasn't, as even a glance at the documented reports would confirm. Another fact, but one I think you will never learn from the sceptics' books, is that Maskelyne himself tried it out, got a result, and publicly avowed it to be a genuine psychic phenomenon, and not at all accounted for by Faraday's suggested mechanism.

Wiseman himself draws attention to the fact that magicians earn their bread by making things disappear. His point is simply that they will be far less likely to believe paranormal claims, because they understand how tricks can be done. Of course, but what's less well understood is that one of the things they make disappear is any evidence of paranormal phenomena. That's the illusion they create.  It's comical to see scientists like Richard Dawkins elevating practitioners like Randi to the status of experts, when all they are doing is selectively reviewing data to make their audience think what it suits them to believe - a classic case of distraction and misdirection.

The literature is simply stuffed with examples of this process in action - sceptics lapping up pretty much anything these self-appointed experts feed them, without any real attempt at critical thinking, all the while imagining that they are being heroically clever. It's an absolute mirror image of the 'devious charlatan duping gullible believer' scenario.

It's true of almost any episode that conjuror-sceptics have been involved in, but one that comes instantly to mind is Randi's debunking article of the Columbus, Ohio poltergeist, the case of Tina Resch. When this started getting international publicity Randi was asked to check it out by Paul Kurtz who had just founded the CSICOP. He hastened to the scene, only to find that the family would not let him in. No matter - he got some negative gossip from jaded reporters, who hadn't managed to see the spook in action, and cobbled together a debunking article. This is printed in Kendrick Frazier's anthology Science Confronts the Paranormal, and is one of very few sources that sceptics cite. The piece centres on a forensic dissection of a news photograph supposedly showing the spook in action. What sceptics don't really understand it that that's pretty much all it does - Randi didn't see anything at first hand, or interview anyone who had. Yet they typically consider his article utterly damning, not just of this case but of the whole category.

Wiseman has none of Randi's aggressiveness thankfully, but he's not above this sort of misdirection himself. He used to be involved with the Society for Psychical Research, and years ago sparked a furious controversy about the Italian séance medium Eusapia Palladino. His argument, laid out in the SPR journal with a good deal of brio, was that the report of the SPR's Naples investigation in 1908 - as complete an endorsement of séance phenomena as can be imagined - was actually riddled with holes. He proposed that Palladino had an accomplice, probably her husband, who had previously contrived to create a movable panel in the wall, through which he clambered at an opportune moment, and then managed to create much of the 'phenomena' behind a curtain. Wiseman's point is that the report does not provide the explicit detail to rule this out. You'd have to know a bit about the circumstances to grasp how utterly implausible this is - it would not have worked for five minutes. But if you don't, it's easy to be taken in by Wiseman's assurance and self-belief.

Actually I don't think there's any real harm done in this particular case - the claims regarding Palladino are hardly affected. On the other hand Wiseman's intervention in the case of Rupert Sheldrake's psychic dog Jaytee is surely as dubious a piece of chicanery as anything that Randi has carried out. On the basis of four rather poorly thought-out experiments he claimed to have debunked media claims that the dog always knows exactly when its owner is coming home. This wasn't hard to do, but he failed to acknowledge that Sheldrake himself had never claimed this, and was instead pointing to a suggestive statistical correlation established in 117 experiments (they showed the dog spending only an average of 4% of the time waiting by the window during the main period of his owner's absence and 78% while she was returning). Close scrutiny, if sceptics were capable of such a thing, would show that Wiseman has utterly misrepresented this episode - but of course they are happy to take his word for it. (See Chris Carter's Parapsychology and the Skeptics for a summary).

A few days ago I questioned Susan Blackmore's slightly contradictory attitudes, and in the same way, I'm not always sure where Wiseman really stands. He's a charming fellow, and not obviously fired by hostility to the paranormal - he once told me he finds it good fun, and course he's done quite well out of it. Unlike Randi he is capable of nuanced thinking, and seems impressed by some of the ganzfeld work for instance.

Nor is there really any point in complaining about what sceptics do. They are addressing their audience and meeting its expectations.  As stage magicians always say, some people really like being deceived. It's up to those of who us who think that this is more than just a game to expose the tricks for what they really are.

Trip Down Memory Lane

You'd have to be of a certain age to make sense of some of the stuff being written about Albert Hoffman after his passing last week. LSD, which he invented - or accidentally stumbled upon, better said - was a big part of youth culture in the 1960s and early 70s. It has hardly been available for the past thirty years, so I suspect most people wonder what all the fuss was about. But those of us who experimented with it are taking the opportunity to dust down some of our wilder memories.

One is Susan Blackmore, a contemporary of mine at Oxford University in the early 1970s (although I had no interest in parapsychology then, and our paths never crossed). Blackmore has always been very open about her use of cannabis, and it didn't surprise me to find her writing a paean to Hoffman in the Guardian at the weekend. Like many regular users, she says, she used to take acid once or twice a year in her mid twenties - 'quite often enough for a drug that last 8 to 12 hours, has extraordinarily mind-bending effects, and can leave you exhausted and full of amazing lessons that you need time to digest.' That was exactly my view of it - it always astonished me that other people could drop acid as casually as they would roll a joint. I remember one poor soul did it two or three times a week, and got seriously raddled as a result.

Blackmore adds that Hoffman had already had mystical experiences long before he took LSD, and was therefore 'well placed to appreciate the deeper significance of its mind-altering effects'. I wonder what she means by 'deeper significance'. It's always interested me that Blackmore combines an interest in Buddhism - she meditates and follows the practice of mindfulness - with an aggressively materialist view of consciousness that owes more to Richard Dawkins than Stanislaf Grof. As I understand it she belongs naturally to the school of thought that sees in the neurological correlate, that is the fact of altered brain chemistry engendering transcendent experiences, the 'final nail in the coffin of religion' - in fact I seem to remember coming across that dread cliché somewhere in her writings recently. Certainly, she's at pains in Dying to Live to account for the near-death experience in reductive terms, and her attempt there to explain away veridical out-of-body perception is so forced that I have to wonder if deep down she really believes in what she is doing.

If you've never tried acid it's perhaps natural to follow the scientific and secular logic. But my impression is that most people who experience the awesome power of psychedelics really are fundamentally changed by it. They have the insight famously expressed by William James after dosing himself with nitrous oxide that there are other realities, other forms of consciousness besides our daily experience which are potentially at least as significant. That has been my experience: it's a long time since I took acid, and I only ever did it a few times. But ever since, it has provided me with perspectives on life, on consciousness and on reported mystical experience which I'm not sure I could have gained in any other way.

It's tempting to wonder how our society might have developed if it had embraced psychedelics instead of running away from them. Would sceptics be so aggressively dismissive of reported psychic experiences? Could a book like The God Delusion ever have been written if the writer had any direct appreciation of mystical states of mind?  Would thinkers and researchers in consciousness be so totally wedded to the computational theory of mind and brain if they had actually experienced altered states?  The alternative that LSD experience naturally promotes is the 'filter' theory - the idea that the brain acts as a barrier to undifferentiated reality, and can be subverted by certain chemical modifications to allow full contact with it - which Aldous Huxley picked up from Henri Bergson and popularised. As far as I'm aware, it's not seriously discussed in scientific circles, for obvious reasons, but if scientists dropped acid now and then it might at least get an airing.

You might think that Blackmore's example stands in contradiction to such ideas. Here is an open-minded, curious and imaginative thinker, someone willing to experiment with altered states of consciousness that in other people typically encourage a non-materialist interpretation, yet who resists that with the dull, dogmatic inflexibility that characterizes far less adventurous spirits. There may be a good reason for this, and perhaps, to be fair, she explains it somewhere that I have yet to come across. Yet it seems paradoxical, and it leads me to wonder, as I often have before, whether with her strident scepticism it is really herself she is trying to convince.