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Psi and Holocaust Denial

It was a shock to learn there's a British bishop who thinks the Holocaust never happened, and I wondered why I'd never heard of him before: Richard Williamson. Turns out that after being ordained in 1976 he was based in seminaries in the US and Germany, and most recently in Argentina. Also, that he's a protégé of the ultra-traditionalist French Catholic archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who consecrated him a bishop - although he had no authority to do so, along with three other traditionalists, to spearhead the fight-back against Catholic liberals; all five were subsequently excommunicated. So not very British, and not really a bishop.

Williamson's views are the familiar mix of dangerous and the dotty. He thinks that 200,000 Jews died in the Nazi concentration camps - 300,000 tops - and that there were no gas ovens. He's a full-on conspiracy theorist (Kennedy assassination, 9/11 arranged by the US government, etc). He apparently also thinks the Sound of Music is pornographic. He's getting some of the worst press I've ever seen for a man of God - 'loathsome', 'crackpot' and 'creepy fundamentalist' are some of the milder descriptions.

Williamson has hit the headlines in a big way because Pope Benedict has rescinded the excommunications. Not because Benedict agrees with Williamson about the Holocaust - he's firmly distanced himself from that - but because he wants to heal the schism that Lefebvre provoked and which the 'Panzerkardinal' - as Benedict, née Ratzinger, was not very affectionately known in his role as Pope John Paul's enforcer - failed to prevent. But this supposed act of reconciliation has created a huge stink, especially in the German media, which is aghast that a German Pope, of all people - and incidentally a member of the Hitler Youth, however unwilling - should have linked himself so publicly with a Holocaust denier. 

I found it deeply weird seeing Williamson say, during an interview he gave while on a recent trip to Germany - facing the camera calmly and dispassionately - that he 'believed the Holocaust never happened'. (He'd apparently forgotten that that's a crime in Germany, and had to plead with the TV reporter afterwards not to shop him to the police.)   I then remembered that Holocaust denial is one of the things that Skeptic editor Michael Shermer lists as bizarre beliefs in Why People Believe Weird Things, along with creationism, UFOs and telepathy. Williamson says there is 'no evidence', but it takes a hell of a lot of fact twisting and suppression to get to that position - as was shown not long ago in the court case involving the historian David Irving.  And indeed, as Shermer spells out at some length in the chapter he devotes to the subject.

The more you look at it, the more confused we seem to be about who are 'skeptics' and who are the 'believers'. In some ways Williamson could be regarded as a skeptic: skeptical of the claims, and skeptical, he says, that there is any evidence to back them. On the other hand, his use of the word 'believe' is telling, and it takes an awful lot of determination to explain away the evidence.

I've talked here about creationism - the ultimate in irrational belief, according to the conventional view - being actually a species of skepticism, a determination to explain away the abundant evidence of evolution. It's exactly the same with disbelievers in global warming, who we do call skeptics, and who adamantly disregard the scientific evidence, claiming that it's cooked up or exaggerated, but with such obvious and egregious misrepresentations as to appear absolutely irrational.

I got a bit of stick from skeptics a while ago for suggesting that there are deep psychological issues involved in psi-denial that makes it comparable with all these other categories. But is that really so out of order? Like the Holocaust, there's abundant evidence of psi; it's been documented, surveyed, verified and experimentally created, sometimes on camera, for nearly two centuries, and the material on it would take years to do justice to. The same with evolution and global warming. The deniers in all categories ignore the evidence, misrepresent it, explain it away. But in some categories they are dangerous and/or mad and deserve to be pilloried, while in others they are praised as 'healthily skeptical'.

This doesn't mean there's anything remotely equivalent morally between psi denial and Holocaust denial. But it's wonderfully ironic that people like Shermer can recognise the irrationality of one kind of skepticism, while absolutely disregarding it in themselves in relation to another. In terms of temperament there's a sense in which Williamson - barmy and repugnant - and Shermer - the healthy skeptic who rightly excoriates his kind - are one and the same.

Deathbed Visions

If you haven't come across it, there's an excellent book by the Fenwicks published last year called the Art of Dying. It's a collection of anecdotal reports and analysis about what happens when someone dies, from the point of view of the living. There's quite a lot about deathbed visions, also deathbed coincidences, "hallucinations" at the time of death,  and so on, plus a discussion of the unsolved problem of consciousness, and thoughts on what it means to "die a good death".

Peter Fenwick is a British neuro-psychiatrist who made an excellent contribution to NDE research with The Truth In the Light, also co-written by Elizabeth Fenwick. He's partisan in the sense of being convinced of survival - which annoys some people - but his background makes the book somewhat more than just a collection of stories.

I'm interested in researchers' reasoning, but what I find especially fascinating is what people say they experience. There's an abundance of that here, and these are very ordinary people talking, family members and carers who watch the act of dying taking place. Reading the book left me feeling yet again that strong sense of paradox: that so many people have experiences of this kind, and yet so little is said about it publicly, because it's thought to be somehow not a legitimate subject of discussion.

I thought rather than talk about the book I'd simply quote one or two examples from different categories - I'll probably spread them out over a few separate posts. To start with here are a few examples of deathbed visions. Enjoy :)

I was nursing my friend who had definite views that there was no afterlife. In her last couple of hours she became very peaceful and arose from her unconsciousness periodically, saying clearly and happily such phrases as 'I will know soon', 'Come on, get on with it then, I am ready to go now', and 'It is so beautiful'. She would immediately lapse back into unconsciousness after uttering these phrases. She was very obviously content, happy and at peace. It was a wonderful experience for her partner and me. (p. 27)

He was going unconscious. When I looked at him, he was looking fixedly at something in front of him. A smile of recognition spread slowly over his face, as if he was greeting someone. Then he relaxed peacefully and died. (p. 29)

I said, 'Are you sure you were not dreaming?', to which she replied, 'I know a dream from what I have been seeing.' She seemed very happy and would say little more, although I felt the experience had a particularly calming effect on her... (p. 28)

My brother was in hospital dying from emphysema. His breathing was very laboured, when all of a sudden he stopped and his breathing suddenly appeared normal. He looked at about 45 degrees upwards and smiled broadly, as if at something or someone: he turned to me and died suddenly in my arms. I am positive to this day that he wanted to tell me what he had seen. Those few seconds before he died will live with me for ever, it was so powerful. (p. 29)

My uncle served in the First World War and experienced the horrors of the Somme, which lived with him for the rest of his life. He had led a group of men, returned with only three survivors and was badly injured himself. He was awarded the Military Cross...  It was around 30 years ago, when he was dying of cancer, that the following event took place. During his illness my mother cared for him at home, and I remember one evening we were sitting with him talking quietly. He was too ill to contribute much to the conversation but liked to hear us chatting, when suddenly he leaned forward and stared across the room. He became very animated and looked very happy as he began to talk to people he could obviously see but we couldn't; he was calling them each by name and asking how they were and how wonderful it was to see them again. It became apparent from what he was saying they were some of the men who had served with him at the Somme and died there. There was a look of wonderment on his face and he forgot his pain...  I will never forget that night and though I could not see his friends, I have no doubt whatsoever that they were there. I didn't see him conscious again, and he died a couple of days later. (pp. 34-5)

Online psi classes

Glad to see that Caroline Watt's new online parapsychology course is up and running. Watt is senior lecturer at The University of Edinburgh's psychology department and teaches in its Koestler Parapsychology Unit. The introductory course, designed by her, runs over ten weeks and costs £200, which seems pretty reasonable.

It's not about ghost hunting, as some might think if they stumbled on it by chance, but aims to give a scientific view of psi research. Students are given readings of chapters from the latest edition of Harvey Irwin's excellent Introduction to Parapsychology, co-authored by Watt, along with journal articles, and audio interviews with parapsychologists and skeptics. They include some well-known names, eg Stephen Braude, Dean Radin, Jessica Utts, James Alcock and Richard Wiseman.

The course seems to be getting a good response, to judge by students' comments on the site and a generally favourable review by one of the first participants, French philosophy student Louis Sagnières. Sagnières thinks the articles are a bit tough without a background in parapsychology, which I can well understand - I admit to finding some experimental psi papers quite hard work, and regret my lack of any grounding in science, maths and statistics. Classes are divided into groups of ten, and he says the amount of inter-group discussion seems to vary from one to another. His only real gripe is the University of Edinburgh website, which handles the course and, he says, is somewhat slow and clunky, although he adds that other students don't seem to have noticed anything amiss. 

Full marks to Watt for creating a channel that offers a grounding in the scientific arguments around psi. Hopefully it's just a beginning. If there's ever going to be a serious debate about it, there need to be people who understand the arguments, and the more educational sources there are the more informed the discussion will become.

Two Books About Home

Peter Lamont's recent book on Daniel Home, The First Psychic, has been sitting on my bookshelf for the past year, and I've just got round to it. I bought it to keep up with what's being said about psychical research in public, but put off reading it, because I couldn't face the condescending treatment that writers often adopt when talking about psychics ('look at me, being very daring and talking about THE PARANORMAL, of course it's all nonsense, but no harm in just having a quick look at these funny people and their clever tricks, etc.'

In the event I was pleasantly surprised. The text is clear and readable: it looks as though Lamont's really taken trouble over it, and he's got a good grip on the sources. He makes the necessary qualification right at the start - 'Daniel Home was the world's first psychic. Perhaps he was a charlatan, but that makes him no less mysterious...' - and the 'perhaps he was a charlatan' line is repeated throughout. But he quickly establishes that he takes Home seriously and that conjuring is no good explanation for at least some of the things that hundreds of people said they saw happen during Home's séances. The militant scoffers like David Brewster, Charles Dickens and Robert Browning come off rather badly, and the debunkers don't get much support.

They get their say in another recent book, Knock, Knock, Knock! Who's There?  by Patrick Waddington, which by chance is reviewed in the current SPR Journal by Zofia Weaver (I could find no details about the book online, but it's a New Zealand publisher, Whirinaki Press, 2007). Waddington follows the line that the only possible explanations for Home's feats are conjuring or delusion, since they are impossible in nature, and comes up with creative 'solutions' apparently without caring much for plausibility. A lot of it's just innuendo: if Home complains of being ill, he is 'playing the card of poor health' or 'remembering to be ill'; a mugging incident must have been staged by Home himself, and so on. Weaver also remarks on Waddington's curiously old-fashioned exhortations, reminiscent of Victorian tracts: 'Men and women of good sense need to resist [spiritualism], now as always, by appealing against its absurdity'.

Like may debunkers, Waddington can't make the distinction between psi and survival. Referring to Home's séances at the Tsar's court in Russia he approvingly quotes hostile comments by a courtier named Anna Tyutcheva, who, he says, rejected any supernaturalist interpretation of what she saw. Actually, Weaver says, she rejected the spiritualist interpretation - not at all the same thing.  She provides a translation of Tyutcheva's diary entry, as follows:

The table, on which we rested our hands but only lightly, rose up from the ground to a significant height, tilting to the left and to the right, while neither the lamp, nor the pencil, nor any of the other objects lying on the table, moved at all from their places, even the flame of the lamp did not sway. The table answered with blows; one meant - no, two times - perhaps, three times - yes; five times meant that the table wants the alphabet, and then it indicates the letters with knocks. I received answers to my questions by means of blows under my stool; as my stool was a wicker one, I felt the blows as much as I heard them. I first asked the table whether it was a spirit. The table answered that it was the spirit of a dead man and demanded the alphabet, but refused to write for anybody  apart from Prince Suvorov, and for him it wrote the name Friedrich...

We saw the accordion, held by Home, play by an invisible hand some very moving church chants. It also played when held by Mrs Maltseva and Princess Dolgurukaya. We heard the rustle of a hand on the silk dress of Princes Dolgorukaya, and in this way answers consisting of "yes" or "no" were given. I was firmly grasped by the knees. All the time I and all those present felt ice-cold breezes on our hands and legs. As far as I am concerned, I was quite stupefied and, moreover, was fighting off sleep, even though I was very interested in what was going on. (That night I slept eight hours straight through, although I had been suffering from insomnia because of headache and toothache.)

One of my first questions to the spirit was whether he can manifest in stools as well as tables, and all the time I felt small blows on my stool... all the blows were taking place with unbelievable speed, there is no way in which the actions of a person, or even a number of people, could keep lifting a big and heavy table with such speed. This must be either a magnetic phenomenon, not observed until now, or it is supernatural. But in the latter case you ask yourself, why are these manifestations so stupid...

The most curious thing, in my view, is that the large clock with the playing monkeys, which I have already described and which after Home's last séance at Tsarskoye [Selo] woke me up in the night when the mechanisms started working by itself without being wound - the very same clock, which has been moved here and put on top of the wardrobe, and which had not been wound and had not played since then, started working against this morning, although it has not been touched; all the monkeys started moving and the noise was tremendous. But this mechanism is very difficult to wind, requiring a thick key, and only then will all the three monkeys start playing their instruments. I must say that this incident made me feel uneasy. During the séance itself, on the contrary, I did not feel frightened at all, and felt more like enjoying it and laughing; as soon as I felt a touch I would involuntarily cry out.

Weaver comments that when one reads the relevant diary entries in full it is clear that the various ad hoc sittings precluded any chances of setting up a conjuring apparatus. Intriguingly, she points out also that present at the séance was the Tsar's chief of the secret police, the real power behind the throne, who would certainly have had Home's possessions and activities thoroughly examined without his knowledge, not necessarily because of his mediumistic abilities, but because of his influential connections with a family of anti-Russian Poles exiled to France.

I realise that some people find it easier deal with these sorts of claims by manufacturing conjuring scenarios - that Home had levers attached to his feet, that he should have been tied up, that he'd pressed the family's children into acting as his accomplices, and so on. But I'm with those who get worn down by the sheer amount of description of this kind, and the variety and impressiveness of the effects. If the conjuring scenarios worked, that would be OK, but they don't.  That seems to be Lamont's position too - himself a magician, and a former chairman of the Edinburgh Magic Circle - although in his book it's more implied than insisted on.

But what does Lamont make of it? In a final 'postscript' he puts forward the idea of The Trickster, found in the mythology of many cultures, and since myths can be read in many ways, we are free to make what sense of it we can. 'Perhaps we need to be reminded that uncertainty is real and certainty an illusion,' he suggests. 'After all, is there anything of which we can be truly certain?' Reality is what we observe, our idea of it, never the thing itself, which may be unknowable. Whatever explanation we feel comfortable with - that it's 'a trick without an explanation, an unknown force without a theory, or perhaps the work of spirits' - are just ways of categorizing it, but don't tell us anything.

So we have a choice of boxes, but if none of them is adequate, we might simply decline to use any of them. We could instead recognize that we do not always know what is going on, that perhaps we never know for certain. ... When faced with an anomaly, we can see it as a problem, as a source of confusion that upsets our comfortable world-view. Or we might use it to remind ourselves that reality is not so comfortable after all, that behind the boxes we have built lies a more complex universe, and therefore a sense of mystery that may never be removed.

So in that sense, Lamont concludes, Home was a Trickster, who upset the Victorians, forcing them to question their comfortable world-view, and making them wonder what they really knew what was going on.

All this seems very wise, and I agree with it - as far as it goes. Anyone with ambitions to write about the paranormal for a mainstream audience has to perform a delicate balancing act. It's risky to push your own point of view: you have to sketch out different ideas and responses so that people can take their pick. Lamont is a lecturer at the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh, and if there's one thing these guys have to know how to do, it's get people interested in psychical phenomena without scaring them off. There's a lot of subtlety and sensitivity in this.

Yet for me all this is just a way of talking. It's what happens when one worldview hits the buffers, and another is struggling to be born. The Trickster is a great image for uncertainty, ambiguity and confusion, but that's all it is. I don't believe that humans collectively are fated always to view psychics and psychism as a bizarre anomaly, or as a cause for anxiety.  For many of us individually psi is in a certain sense coherent and meaningful, and points to a quite different way of looking at the world, one that can even help determine how we live this life. It's just that that view is just never going to get aired in a mainstream biography. 

Psi and Creationism

Charles Darwin is going to be everywhere in 2009, it being the 200th anniversary of his birth, and the 150th of the publication of The Origin of Species. So I thought I'd get my contribution in early.

The reason is, I've been thinking about that extraordinary poll published just before Christmas about state school science teachers' views on creationism. Apparently no fewer than 29% would like to see it taught in science lessons, alongside the Big Bang theory and the theory of evolution. That's taught, not discussed, as if it had equal scientific standing. The milder view, that is should at least be discussed - and for merely suggesting which Professor Michael Reiss lost his job last summer as director of education at the Royal Society - was supported by a whopping 73%.

Even Richard Dawkins thinks it's defensible to mention it in a historical context, as a discredited theory. But teaching creationism as a rival theory to evolution, Dawkins adds, would be like teaching the stork theory alongside sexual procreation as an explanation of where babies come from.

That seems to me exactly right, if we're talking about the Genesis myth.  My belief in psi puts me at odds with most scientists, but I've never had any argument with them about that: the idea that the Genesis myth might be factually true, in the face of all the evidence from geology and biology - and for that matter in preference to all the other equally colourful creation myths that human cultures have produced at different times - always seemed to me to be utterly bizarre.

But there are two big problems with this survey. One is that it doesn't distinguish the old-school kind of creationism with the more recent Intelligent Design, which at least talks in biological terms, however little seriously they are taken by most biologists.  I guess most of the teachers who responded must have assumed that the latter was what was meant. That would make the poll result a bit less alarming: most people would see a difference between an idea which is scientifically dubious and one which is flat out nonsense. 

But the poll also mentions creationism in the context of the origins of matter, which is something else again. The anthropic principle, the idea that the incredible fine tuning required to create a stable universe, with the conditions for sentient life, implies the existence of a Designer, may not be what most scientists think, but it's hardly controversial in the way that biblical creationism is. For teachers to want to discuss that in classes seems absolutely natural - in fact it would be surprising if they didn't.

So the poll is deeply misleading. With three different ideas bundled as one, we don't really know how many teachers think what, or the kind of danger they pose to impressionable young minds.  All we have are a lot of scary headlines that reinforce the impression of creeping irrationalism and an imminent return to the dark ages. To me, that's what happens when scientists and science journalists, with all their natural prejudices, are allowed to determine the basis of the debate. It's a very obvious mistake, but in the original reports no one seemed to pick it up, because there's never any discussion about it - the distinctions aren't understood.

All this is relevant to psi, because parapsychology is viewed by scientists in exactly the same terms as creationism - as a dangerous and irrational pseudo-science, pursued by mavericks who scratch around for evidence to vindicate their religious preferences. Intelligent Design is the bigger target, benefiting as it does from the funding and evangelism that parapsychology conspicuously lacks. It's true, parapsychology might start getting unwelcome attention if moves to spread the teaching of it in British universities accelerate, but I think that's still some way off. In any case I can't see anyone going to court over it, as has happened with Intelligent Design.

There's a credibility issue here for psi advocates. Can they afford to let themselves be linked in the mind of the academic community with a knowledge movement which is transparently not scientific but religious? Or should they be actively striving to disassociate themselves from it?

I suppose that depends partly on what we actually think about Intelligent Design. Does it have any merit at all? 

I was taken to task by psi skeptics recently for calling creationists skeptics of evolution - I suppose the Randi crowd were provoked by the idea that they could have the smallest thing in common with religious fanatics. But if you think about it, even if they are at opposite ends of the belief spectrum, they have similar tactics.   My impression of Intelligent Design is that it tries to identify organisms that are too complex to have formed by natural selection. The classic one is the eye, but I've always found the Darwinist comeback convincing, as for instance in Dawkins's Blind Watchmaker. Evolution skeptics do just what psi skeptics do: search for weaknesses in the evidence that stop them from having to take the central claim seriously.

Following this line of thought, I actually think that parapsychologists have more in common with Darwinists than with creationists. Parapsychologists and Darwinists have each gathered a vast body of data, have classified and analysed its characteristics, and are more or less unanimous about its significance. Both are opposed by a small group of critics - debunking conjurors and psychologists in one case, scientists with fundamentalist convictions in the other - who think they have a better idea, and are applauded by a large community of believers - scientists and atheists in one case, traditional Christians in the other - who don't bother with the detailed arguments, but assume that the battle is being won on their behalf.

In scientific terms, of course, psi is utterly toxic to Darwinism: a brain that can somehow communicate with a particular brain some distance away - or in some cases the other side of the world - is not something that could have come about purely by natural selection. Something else is involved: Rupert Sheldrake's ideas about morphic resonance are a fascinating alternative, even if they leave a lot unexplained.  But I don't sense that parapsychologists are keen to pick a fight with Darwinists about this, in fact rather the opposite: they tend to talk about a sixth sense having 'evolved' - as a warning mechanism, for instance.

But still, psi is a scientific claim, and has nothing to do with religion. Whatever their critics like to say, parapsychologists don't share the religious basis of creationism. They aren't 'mystagogues in search of a soul', in James Alcock's striking and fatuous phrase.  Charles Tart has an interest in spirituality, but I don't think that's typical. I'm not aware of any obvious religious yearnings in psi experimenters like Charles Honorton, John Beloff, Dean Radin, Adrian Parker; or in field investigators like Ian Stevenson, Alan Gauld, Guy Lyon Playfair, William Roll, etc. It's just not something they talk about or seem particularly interested in. It's trying to get to grips with a natural phenomenon that motivates them. 

Of course it complicates matters that psi is connected with spirituality and religious experience, and especially with the idea of survival of death. But it's difficult for hostile scientists to make the necessary distinctions here. I believe that most of them barely understand that psi is seen by many parapsychologists not to point to survival, but to provide an alternative explanation of psi phenomena.

Against that, it's hard to deny that however little parapsychologists are motivated by religion, psi does have potentially powerful religious implications. If it were ever acknowledged to be genuine by the scientific establishment we would be in an utterly changed intellectual environment. I don't mean that lots of thinking people would stop being agnostic or atheists, but it would hard for them to base these convictions on scientific certainties about the universe having a purely mechanist basis.

So, coming full circle, scientists are right to see parapsychology as a threat to the mechanist worldview that informs their thinking, and atheists are right to see it undermining secularity.  But there is one more thing. The kind of religion that psi seems to encourage, for want of a better word, is not the creationist religion. Creationist beliefs and psi-type beliefs are the focus of two quite different strands of religious thinking. It's the difference between Bible thumping Christianity and New Age spirituality. Telepathy, spirit survival, and near-death experiences are all anathema to the evangelicals who tend to be gung-ho creationists, and their intolerance doesn't win them any friends in the opposite camp either.

There's a lot of stuff going on here, and I admit that much of it is just thinking out loud. So let's try to nail it down a bit.

First, it's becoming clear that the term 'creationism', as used by scientists and journalists, covers a spectrum of different ideas and beliefs. Until this is better understood there's going to be confusion about who thinks what, and how much it matters.

Second, parapsychology can suffer by association with creationism, and those of us who believe that psi is real need to decide where we stand. Does psi mesh with the idea that the universe was designed by an Intelligence? Should we be sympathetic to rival attempts to undermine the mechanist worldview? Or should we reject them as poorly evidenced and unconvincing?

Following on from this, are these two types of alternative 'knowledge' compatible with each other? If one is convinced by the intellectual arguments for ID, can one also accept the arguments for psi? Or would its very different religious implications rule that out? If psi ever becomes intellectually respectable, it's likely that ID will be too. In that case the knowledge community, presently united round a core idea, will be divided into hostile religious camps, each claiming to be backed by scientific evidence, and each promoting very different worldviews. An interesting, but rather disturbing thought.