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Matthew Colborn on Consciousness

I'm halfway through Matthew Colborn's new book on consciousness, Pluralism and the Mind, and am hugely impressed. Matt has posted here a few times, and has an interest in Buddhism and psychic research, which has helped to form his views. He provides a good survey of existing approaches in psychology, neuroscience and the philosophy of mind, and points up the flaws in physicalist thinking.

If you're interested in consciousness, and want a readable survey of the topic, then this is the one to go for. I'll be posting a review in a week or two.

Cold Reading

I mentioned cold reading in Randi's Prize, referring to the description by psychologist Ray Hyman. Hyman practised palm reading as a young man, until a respected teacher suggested he mix it up a bit, attributing a reading he'd given to one person to someone else. Clients believed in his psychic powers just the same, and that made him into a sceptic.

However a few people have pointed out that the real expert in cold reading is the British writer and entertainer Ian Rowland. James Randi considers him the world's greatest authority, which is good enough for me.

Rowland first published his classic book on the subject, The Full Facts of Cold Reading, in 1998. When I looked at it, quite a while ago now, I felt the techniques he described could not account for the best research, and left it at that. But sceptics are so convinced about cold reading, and talk about it so much, I thought I should give it another look.

Interestingly, body language only plays a minor role, Rowland says. Shrewd observation of appearance - of the type Sherlock Holmes astounded Dr Watson with - is more important, but is still not the main method. Obviously they can't be, if readings can be done over the phone. Although later he describes how he once correctly deduced from a woman's appearance that she had been a professional signer, which was pretty cool.

Fishing for information? Again, that's just part of it. Nor does it have anything to do with being credulous or gullible - many clients are actually quite smart. What counts is whether or not they know the trick.

Rowland also says candidly that psychics and their clients are mainly women. He believes that women's natural social skills encourage them to credit themselves with intuitive gifts. Men, on the other hand, cultivate an image of strength and independence, which isn't helped by seeking outside advice.

A good performer, Rowland says, will combine a number of different techniques. Some have to do with making general statements, others with giving accurate facts, others with making predictions, and so on.

Some of it is about 'Barnum' statements which most people consider to be accurate of themselves, for instance that 'you have a strong need for people to like and respect you'. But the book offers quite a few variations on this theme.

For instance, you can state that a person has a particular personality trait, but then also refer to its opposite as also sometimes being true. That makes sense to me. If you tell someone they are normally very calm but can also get very angry; or generally cheerful, but sometimes sad, and so on, you can hardly go wrong.

You can also use flattery, although best done discreetly, eg. the owner of this watch is a very impressive person. Two things that people especially like to be told, apparently, are that they are 'wise in the ways of the world, a wisdom gained through hard experience rather than book-learning', and that they 'know how to be a good friend'.

Offer rewards to make the client feel good and encourage her to believe the 'junk' you are telling her, Rowland advises. It's essential to praise her for being 'open-minded and receptive to many different kinds of wisdom'. Perhaps tell her that she's psychic too.

For older people it's a safe bet to say something like, 'you often wonder what happened to those dreams you had'. With younger people it's, 'you feel a sense of frustration that your talents and abilities are not given full recognition', which most agree with wholeheartedly.

My main interest was to see whether there is anything in these techniques that could explain the ability of psychics sometimes to produce quite detailed information. Many of Rowland's tips involve making vague factual statements that can be firmed up if they seem to be accepted. It helps to know where the odds are in your favour. For instance you can say something like, 'I sense there is a 2 in the house where you live', on the grounds that in a street with 50 addresses this will be true of 19 of them.

If you really want to impress, then go for ... drum roll ... the lucky guess. For instance throwing out a name at random and claiming that it 'means something to you'. Or 'I sense you have known someone for quite a while who has blond hair', but without making a specific connection.

If you do a bit of homework, and know what the main industries are in the area, you can hazard a guess about your client's occupation. You can make statements that are likely to be true, for instance that 'you have a box of old photos'. Or you can extract information by covertly getting feedback, for instance by asking at the end of a statement, 'does this make sense to you'.

Predicting the future you can talk about what the client wants to hear, eg about health and finance, tell them that 'things will get better soon', that 'someone new is going to come into your life', 'you will experience a minor injury, problems with an investment', etc, as long as you don't specify when. Or you can make predictions where the odds are 50:50, as the hits will more likely be remembered than the misses.

The book's gently humorous and well written, and I can see why it's been so successful. I've boiled it down - the statements are quite full and artfully constructed, and you would need to read the whole thing to get a full sense of how they might work in practice.

It's also one of the most deeply cynical things I've ever read, and after an hour or so I'd sunk into a state of extreme despondency. Not just at the creativity and craftsmanship that can go into deceiving people (it's not entertainment like conjuring tricks), but the idea that some people really are taken in by this nonsense. A double hit on one's view of humanity.

It did confirm me in my view that cold reading is not - in actual reality, as opposed to the sceptical imagination - a useful explanation of how the best mediums can come up with specific and accurate statements. I don't mean the, 'you have a bad back', or, 'you're carrying your husband's wedding ring in your bag' type, which I think it's fair to say characterise the gambits described here. I mean the 'you were recently hospitalised after standing on a rusty nail' and 'your husband called you Puggy' type. I think I've already mentioned somewhere John Edward telling a woman in the audience her dead father was laughing at her for mixing gloss and emulsion paints when she was redecorating. As far as I can see, nothing in Rowland's primer explains this sort of thing.

To do that you would have eventually to posit much more direct forms of cheating - eavesdropping on the audience, rifling through bags, planting stooges, and so on. It occurs to me now that this is one reason why cold reading is consistently offered as the explanation for what psychics do. It involves a certain degree of skill, and engagement with the client, so it seems less confrontational to accuse people of it than of covertly gathering information.

A faint subtext in Rowland's book is that it doesn't really matter whether it's true or not. He's clearly good at it and one gets the sense that he can give almost as much satisfaction to clients, who know that its fake, as if he really was psychic. People love sometimes to be the centre of attention. Here it's a man doing by numbers what a woman would do naturally and intuitively - engaging with an individual in a sort of celebration of his/her life.

Apparently the techniques have applications in things like management, negotiation, sales and marketing, and so on, which Rowland gives courses on. The book is quite pricey, but there's more information about him and the techniques on his website.

St Paul's Protest

St paulsChristianity is supposed to be based on the Jesus of the Gospels, clearing the money-changers out of the temple, sticking up for the poor, harassing hypocritical church officials. The reality is often different. The Church as an institution feels about the great unwashed just as the rest of society does - that they're a damn nuisance.

Years ago I used often to walk past St John's church in Waterloo, in the days when it provided food for the homeless. Just what Christianity is supposed to be about. But it was an eyesore - surrounded by rubbish, aggressive beggars and mangy dogs crapping on the pavement. No surprise when the church decided enough was enough.

Now the same drama is being played out across the river at St Paul's Cathedral. Anti-capitalist protesters are camped outside, and the cathedral's authorities are plotting to get rid of them.

It turns out that St Paul's Canon Giles Fraser was on his own in tolerating the protesters when they first arrived. His colleagues' decision to close the cathedral, on spurious 'health and safety' grounds, was contemptible, and I don't blame him for wanting nothing more to do with them. They could at least have pretended to possess some genuine Christian impulses.

The prospect of people who came to protest about bankers' greed being forcibly removed by police at the behest of professional Christians would be especially hard to stomach. Especially when St Paul's board is apparently run by bankers and other City bigwigs - the very types the protesters are complaining about.

Actually I was a bit puzzled that Fraser was so quick to resign. I thought he might stay and fight a bit. It seems he just didn't want to be part of any process that might lead to violence. I also wonder whether he hasn't been milking it a bit, with big interviews (the pic on the front of the Guardian today made him look like Jesus, gazing up at heaven).

But I've always liked him for his common-sense and the humane views about religion that he expresses in his articles. And it's inspiring to see someone acting with real integrity, at a time when people seem increasingly unwilling to accept personal responsibility for anything.

A lot of people think the protesters put St Paul's authorities in an impossible position. St Paul's is a national shrine, they say, a "theatre for the finest religious music and worship". It can't have riff-raff cluttering up the steps. What will tourists think?

That's the unsolvable paradox at the heart of Christianity - a religion based on spiritual values but in practice is so often human and materialistic.

The truth is that the Christian church is always in an impossible position - and from time to time gets reminded of it.

Nicholls vs Randi

There's an interesting interview here with Graham Nicholls, who writes about out-of-body experiences. I've yet to read Graham's book, Avenues of the Human Spirit, but it definitely looks worth checking out.

The interview got a comment from James Randi, who wonders why parapsychologists like Radin and Sheldrake are not queueing up to take the Million Dollar Challenge. Graham explains why...

The Spiritualization of Science

We take it for granted that the future would look astoundingly different to our eyes, if we could only see it. Could medieval folk in their dingy hovels possibly have visualised the world we inhabit?

And what would strike them most? The machinery and labour saving gadgets? The concrete forests? Or the fact that people aren't constantly spitting, cursing and hitting each other?

It takes effort to imagine the future. What comes to mind most easily are the dystopias which Hollywood does so well: urban jungles, totalitarian systems, technologies gone mad.

Otherwise our humanistic reflexes encourage us to think in utopian terms, as if today's positive developments will lead to a better tomorrow.

This morning I found a book in my shelves that I didn't know I possessed: Wider Horizons: Explorations in Science and Human Experience (1999). It's published by the Scientific and Medical Network, which I joined recently, and consists of essays on alternative science/spirituality topics.

One that caught my eye is by Mark B. Woodhouse titled 'Worldviews in Transition'. Woodhouse argues that we are in a process of transformation in which "materialistic reductionism, fear, hierarchical control and disempowering competition" will all yield to "holism, multi-dimensional realities, mutually empowering cooperation, and the singular importance of compassion and unconditional love". Not merely because these are nice ideas, he suggests, but because the old ways no longer serve us.

He lists about thirty areas of change, anticipating the new millennium, and I hope he won't mind my reproducing some of them here. (He has written a book called Paradigm Wars, which should be worth checking out).

I have to say, though, confident assertions of this kind make me feel conservative. I know people who are much more cautious than I am about psychic phenomena. However when it comes to things like extra-terrestrials and ancient civilizations and earth mysteries I too find myself hanging back.

A part of me is also suspicious about utopianism. Contemporary materialism could prove much more durable than we hope and expect, and the challenge from conservative religious fundamentalism may also grow. If the battle between those two old-world ideologies dominates the next few decades, it might hold up any moves towards the "sacralization" of science.

One could also argue that, given the manifest imperfections of human nature, spirituality-based thinking by definition will always remain apart from the mainstream. It may even be that we understand it best by seeing it as an alternative, a goal to strive for. Or is that unduly pessimistic?

To be fair, Woodhouse acknowledges that these emerging ideas and trends are still very much a minority position. And I agree when he says we're better advised to 'spend less time examining the ships in the harbor, more to looking in which way the winds are blowing.'

Here are some of Woodhouse's predictions, in terms of prevailing praradigms and how he sees them metamorphosing:

Past/current: Matter and energy are coequal realities, each translatable into the other. Current/developing: Energy or fields of force are fundamental; matter is compressed energy - trapped light.

Past/current: All that we can know is confined to three dimensional sensory awareness. Current/developing: reality is multi-dimensional; our physical sensory level is but one of many.

Past/current: Consciousness is a by-product of (or identical with) the neurochemistry of the brain. Consciousness is a passive mirror of external events. Current/developing: Consciousness is irreducible and extends as a spectrum to other realms. The Brain is a filter. Consciousness deeply influences outer worlds.

Past/current: If mind exists, as many believe, it is as a separate (non-physical) "ghost in the machine". Current/developing: Energy-consciousness exists throughout the cosmos, including in plants, cells and animals.

Past/current: Only sound and the electromagnetic spectrum have "frequencies" that are of much use to us. Standard physics, chemistry and biology are what we need to control our environments. Current/developing: Everything has a vibratory signature, from angels and love to disease and the weapons of war. Power accrues to those who understand and access those signatures and their forms.

Past/current: If God exists, as most believe, "He" is separate from creation and rules through organized religion. Theism prevails. Current/developing: God/Goddess is not separate from creation; accessing inner divinity is a key to spirituality. Panentheism is a more inclusive cosmology.

Past/current: To be "religious" means to have faith in your God, belong to an organization that supports your faith, and to act according to scripture. Current/developing: Emphasis is on spiritual development over outer forms of religion, including the transformative power of transpersonal experiences.

Past/current: The paranormal (broadly conceived) violates both science and common sense; it is illusory. Current/developing: The paranormal is becoming normal. Basic theory is changing to accommodate it.

Past/current: Being healthy means not having any overt signs of illness or disease. Curing disease is eradicating symptoms and physical pathology. Current/developing: Health means optimum function of all interrelated physical, emotional and spiritual systems. Healing is deeper than curing.

Past/current: Humans evolved from a chemical soup by accident, random mutation, and natural selection. Keep refining Darwin. Current/developing: Not without periodic "boosts" from sources external to the planet. Interspecies evolution is not biochemically explained.

Past/current: Human civilizations have existed for no more than seven thousand years - no earlier than 5000 BC. Current/developing: Civilizations probably existed tens of thousands of years ago, if not more. The Sphinx dates to at least 10,000 BC.

Past/current: Education is left-brained information/skills to help us do something useful and to transmit the values and paradigms of our culture(s). Courses don't fit in a coherent paradigm of human nature and social purpose. Current/developing: Different learning styles, deep critical thinking skills, psychotechnologies, life long learning, and the power of self-image are stressed. Courses do fit a coherent overarching paradigm of human nature and social purpose.

Past/current: It always costs a greater amount of some form of energy to produce a lesser amount of another form of energy, eg. the gasoline engine. Energy production is not free. We can increase efficiency, but never over 99%. Current/developing: Esoteric technologies are emerging to master gravity (thus space travel), produce five times the quality and quantity of food, detoxify the environment, eliminate gas engines, and extract "free" energy from the vacuum field.

Past/current: The media objectively and truthfully reports most of what we need to know. Investigative journalism tells us the way "things really are". Current/developing: News that deeply threatens existing power structures is either not reported or unfairly reported. A new world requires full disclosure.

Past/current: We are on the planet because our parents by design or accident created us. We now have to determine the best way of surviving. Either God put us here to worship Him, or we create our own relative meaning in a chaotic world. Current/developing: We chose to be here on a soul level to grow in wisdom and alignments with love, to integrate our spirituality with our physicality, and to contribute to the creative evolution of the universe.

Past/current: When we die, we either rot in the grave or go to (some version of) Heaven or Hell. Current/developing: Reincarnation promises to become the prevailing "after life" philosophy.

Past/current: In theory extraterrestrial races exist somewhere "out there". But they are not here and would have no interest in us, even if they could travel here efficiently. Besides, if they were here, our governments would tell us. Current/developing: Extraterrestrial races have visited Earth for thousands of years and are currently in, on, or around the planet. If they are not formally recognized as of this writing (1998) they soon will be.

Past/current: Our current worldview(s) have served us well and should be refined, but not abandoned. Judeo-Christian, Cartesian-Newtonian, or Postmodern paradigms will take us into the new millennium. There's no need for alarm or for pie in the sky. Current/developing: We need a fundamentally new worldview to respond to current transformational challenges. Holism, Systems and Complexity theories, and the Perennial Wisdom underwrite a vision for the next millennium. They are both needed and realistic.

The Ghosts at Stans

Stans houseOne of the fullest descriptions of poltergeist activity is a nineteenth century case that took place in Stans, Switzerland. I first came across it in Gauld and Cornell's Poltergeists, and from their summary and extracts found it to be one of the most dramatic cases I'd ever come across. Pure Hollywood. The source is a pamphlet written in the mid 1860s by Melchior Joller, the lawyer whose household had been torn apart, and who was anxious to give the true story of the events, based on the diary he kept at the time.

However it's in German, so is not as well known as it deserves to be. So I've been amusing myself in my spare time by doing an English translation. It's quite long, about 40 pages in the original. You can read the full version here if you're interested, and I plan to make it available on Kindle in due course (for free). In the meantime, here's a summary.

We're talking about a large ramshackle old house on the outskirts of Stans, a small town in the central part of German-speaking Switzerland, near Lake Lucerne (see picture - it was torn down quite recently). It was occupied by Joller, a 42-year-old lawyer and member of parliament who had lived in it all his life, and his wife and seven children. The events started slowly in late 1860, when various members of the household - although not Joller himself - started hearing odd knockings from bedsteads and walls. They were especially alarmed when, as happened in some cases, the knockings appeared to respond to their spoken commands. However whenever they told Joller about it, he told them it was superstitious fancy, and to forget about it.

One day when the children were alone in the house, things started to get more serious.

During the course of the morning 14-year-old Melanie was alone with the housemaid when she mentioned that her younger sister Henriette often heard a peculiar knocking on the wall of the bathroom, so the two of them went there to look. Henriette came by at that moment and confirmed what she had said. But Melanie couldn't hear anything and wouldn't believe it, calling out loudly 'in God's name, if something is there, then come out and knock!' And immediately there was a knocking, like someone rapping with his knuckles. Then Oscar turned up, and hearing what had happened made the same demand, and again it immediately answered with the same knocking. When their older brother Edward heard what was going on he too rushed up and made the same request and for the third time it gave the same answer.

Terrified, they flew headlong out of the house and sat on the bottom of the front steps. At this point an oval stone, roughly the size of a fist, flew between Melanie and the youngest boy Alfred, who was standing quite near to her, however without hurting either of them. After a while they plucked up enough courage to go back in and get their lunch, finding all the cupboard doors in the downstairs living room and chamber, big and small, wide open. They closed them and went into the kitchen, from where they saw that the door of my study was also standing open. They closed it and took out the key, but soon it was standing wide open again. Thinking it might be because of an air current, they closed the windows and shut the doors firmly, and then stood by the front door, to see whether it would open again. Nothing happened, but the moment they turned to go the door stood wide open. Again they closed it. Now they clearly heard the muffled steps of someone coming down the stairs. Then the bedroom door opened again; they closed it and bolted it but the moment their backs were turned it opened again. As things were getting ever more peculiar, they again left the house.

It was time for lunch so the maid went back into the kitchen. Looking towards the corridor, she thought she saw someone hanging a sheet from one corner down the stairs from the upstairs banister. Observing more closely, it seemed to be rounded off at the top and with two long black marks at the bottom, like the tips of two feet. Shocked she called out, "who's there?" With a sound like "Wuh", the form suddenly vanished, at which the girl went white and stumbled outside screaming.

The children spent the day outside in the barn, venturing near to the house every so often. But things became so extremely weird - groans, strange shapes flitting around, doors constantly springing open, and other bizarre events - that when their mother came back in the evening she found them outside weeping with terror.

Joller seems to have been typical of many educated men of his time, conventionally religious, but at the same time holding a modern, progressive outlook and an interest in science. So far he had no direct experience of the phenomenon, and was exasperated at repeated mention of it. If they bothered him any more about it, he warned his children, he'd take a stick to their backsides.

Soon afterwards his wife heard the familiar knockings in the corridor and made him come and listen. He agreed it was odd, but since it was getting late he said he'd get to the bottom of it the following day. In the meantime he read aloud from an improving book on the evils on superstition, in the hope that it would persuade his family to stop being so stupid. Right on cue, the noises started up again, and he spent the rest of the evening in a fruitless search for the cause.

The next day the disturbances started in earnest.

The din began again at six o'clock in the morning and spread all over the house. It started underneath the living room door, two or three quick blows as if made by a heavy wooden mallet; this was followed by a heavy knocking on the doors ... and in various places upstairs, with short pauses between. The knocking on the doors sometimes ended with strong blows...

All the time the racket was going on all over the house - now here, now there; now upstairs, now downstairs - with increasing strength. I narrowed my investigation down to the phenomenon itself, which seemed to occur at short intervals mainly on the doors and floors of the living room and lower bedroom. I placed my hand on the door, variously on the inside and outside, and on the upper half around which the blows were perceptible, yet without feeling anything on my hand, not even a draught or disturbance of air. I also held the door half-open, so as to observe it from both sides; the rapping occurred again without my perceiving any cause.

I went and stood outside while my family observed from inside - for a long time in vain. Eventually there were such mighty thumps on the door between the bedroom and the kitchen that each time, being made of soft pinewood, it visibly bent. At around ten o'clock I went and stood by the bedroom door and gently pulled back the bolt so that the door was only just held on the latch. My wife stood with one of the boys some twenty-two paces behind me, placed so that when the door opened she could see the kitchen window in the background, whilst I could only see the dark kitchen wall.

After a little while the door was so powerfully struck that it flew open and hit the wall. In that moment I saw - I was certain of it - something dark, although I couldn't make out its shape precisely against the dim background. It shot like lightning from the door to the side of the chimney. Rushing after it, and before I could say a word, my wife and son called out that they had just clearly seen a dark-brown half arm bone dart back from the door, and their assertions were so quick and simultaneous there could be no doubt this apparition had passed in front of them... I made a stringent search of the chimney, but found it empty, with no mark on the fallen soot, nor any other clue.

The next day Joller got back from work to find the whole family outside, shaking with terror. He went inside and found that the disturbances repeated every few minutes, including blows on the floor "so violent, it was as though a wooden mallet was being swung with all the strength of a powerful arm, causing the living room table to spring in the air and displacing the objects sitting on it." The heavy living room door burst open and slammed shut again "with the greatest force", and there were blows on the bedroom door that were so strong he feared it break into pieces at any moment.

Joller was becoming seriously alarmed, especially as crowds were starting to gather in the street outside. He got various local worthies to come and help, who although they could plainly see and hear what was going on, could only offer vague speculations that led nowhere. He then told the police, who also observed the phenomena, and by the middle of the next week the town council had authorised an official investigation.

Joller seems to have hoped this would take over the burden, but to his bitter disappointment it petered out without achieving anything. This seems at least partly because the family had temporarily moved out while the investigation was in progress, and in their absence the phenomena largely disappeared. Yet as soon as the investigation terminated and the family returned, it all started again in force.

From early September to the third week in October the Jollers were effectively left to cope on their own,. By this time they dared not sleep in the house, and instead lodged nearby, but the phenomena raged during the day while they were there. The backdrop was the bangings and door slammings, which occurred at more or less short intervals, although not necessarily continuously. They also found themselves being bombarded with objects - stones, mainly, but also things like apples and pears (which presumably were lying under the trees or were being stored somewhere). There were sounds - brooms sweeping, spinning wheels, water running, etc - that sounded entirely realistic but had no visible source, as in this example:

As we were sitting at the table after lunch, two of my children saw a transparent fuzzy silhouette tripping towards them from the front door, and through the corridor to the open living room door, where there were several loud knocks; the door then slammed shut in the usual way. Around one o'clock in the afternoon the sweeping was again to be heard in the dark corridor, and it carried on in front of the opened door; there, heavy muffled steps were heard, as if someone was walking away. Soon afterwards I heard a sound in my study as if someone in the little closet next door was working a spinning wheel, with the thread being turned in long pulls. The whirring of the spindle was so clear and lifelike that I was sure it was just what it sounded like. Yet I found no trace of such a thing, and it seemed that wherever I went it was always in the next room - nor did my investigations seem to disturb it. The maid claimed she had already heard this spinning several times of late; it sometimes sounded to her like the grinding of cogs, like an old Black Forest clock being wound up.

Objects were also displaced, in an apparently mischievous manner.

While the family were sitting down to coffee, the maid, sweeping by the open living room door, drew our attention to a noise upstairs. We hurried up, together with three students who had dropped in out of curiosity. In the upstairs living room a strange sight of disorder met our eyes. On the left wall a big tableau (of Amazons fighting) had been taken down and was lying upside down on the floor, as were both mirrors from the further wall. A glass sugar bowl, which normally stood on the right on the high chiffonier, lay likewise tipped over on the floor in front of it, the cover at its side. A fruit basket that had been standing on the chest-of-drawers at the backwall lay in the same condition, and the oil lamp at the far wall had moved. Next to an ornamental lamp a little sun-blind that had previously stood in a corner of the room now hung from its handle, stretched wide open. Under it a red cloth that normally hung by the window had been laid on the floor and nearby a uphostered chair lay upside down. Many of these items were fragile, yet none were broken... Meanwhile a neighbour who had just come into the house was gazing in astonishment at the weird arrangement in the living room, where all the chairs lay upside down around the table.

And in another example:

When I got to the house I discovered that shortly after my departure in the morning there had been three quick and very violent blows from under the living room floor. My wife, who was in the bedroom, went with Emaline and stood by the door; in this moment both saw a stool in the living room move slowly from its place and then in a flash turn over with its legs in the air, hitting the floor so violently that the dust from the grooves in the floorboards blew up. Then the living room doors slammed so violently that the noise could be heard far over the neighbourhood.

As a busy professional, Joller was under immense pressure to keep up with clients and court cases, while simultaneously dealing with the constant havoc in his household. Being an MP he had a reputation to think of, and to be the centre of unexplained disturbances that made him an object of gossip, speculation and innuendo, must have been intolerable. For the next six or seven weeks the Jollers had crowds gawping outside, many of them on a day-trip from nearby Lucerne. There were numerous curiosity-seekers in the house itself - probably admitted by Joller in order to back up his own claims about the inexplicability of what was happening - and at one point the crowds outside managed to break in.

In our age we're used to the phenomenon of ordinary people being suddenly engulfed in a media firestorm, often through no fault of their own. We have a lively sense of the ghastly destructive havoc it causes in their lives. In Joller's time, I guess, it wasn't so common, but this is effectively what happened to him. He calls it a "public stoning", and says: "Woe betide anyone unlucky enough to get mixed up in such a thing. He will be shown no mercy, thrown as prey to the raging monster."

By mid-October Joller was beginning to lose heart, and around the 23rd he and his family moved out of the house for the last time. As far as I'm aware, little is known about their movements after this, except that they fetched up in Rome, where Joller died some three years later.

What are we to make of it? Is any of it true?

If we think such things don't happen, and must always be attributed to hoaxing or misunderstandings, then I suppose we have to dismiss it as a confabulation, however convincing it sounds. On the other hand the case is well-known in Germany and Switzerland, and I imagine there must be documentary evidence of it, in newspaper reports, town records, personal reminiscences, and so on. In which case it could not be completely made up.

But then could it be a hoax played by one member of the family, a line that was vigorously promoted by sceptics and scoffers at the time? I think that's hard to sustain, if you accept at face value what Joller described. There was far too much going on for one person to have achieved it on his/her own, and the sheer variety of the phenomena would have required not one bit of trickery but a whole range of different devices. Nor is plausible that that a household of ten people would not have quickly discovered the tricks. It's slightly more plausible that Joller was the victim of a hoax by the rest of his family, or by a group of his children. But if you read Joller's account, you will quickly see that he was careful and methodical in his observations, and it's hard to believe that he would not quickly have figured out what was really going on.

What especially weighs with me is the rich literature around these sorts of unexplained knockings. Some of the other phenomena - stone throwing, realistic sounds, misplacement of furniture and objects - have been reported in several hundred other cases as well. So it's by no means an isolated example. If we accept that such things can occur in nature, then this would seem to be an authentic example.

But then we may go on to ask whether it has to do with psychokinesis of the living or spirits of the dead. The narrative describes a strong sense of presences in the house, and many visual sightings - in the early stages, of fuzzy or transparent shapes, but then towards the end of faces at the window glimpsed from the outside. There are also frequent sounds - of unseen people groaning, and occasionally also of speech. In this context an incident that occurs early on may have some relevance. The children are sheltering from the disturbances outside when an old crone hobbles past and engages them in conversation: it appears she knew four young girls who used to live there, and who were drowned in the nearby river in a tragic accident. So there's something there to support the idea of a haunting, although Joller does no more than hint at it and clearly does not want to go into detail.

What strikes me most about this narrative is its immense pathos. Always the most interesting thing about the paranormal for me - by far the most interesting - is that vortex of interaction between the normal and the utterly, absurdly abnormal. Many people in modern secular society are exactly like Joller. Their ideas are informed by science, and it's natural for them to abhor superstition. Tales of ghosts and things-that-go-bump are for inferior types, the weakminded. Yet very rarely, such a person is badly bitten by the real thing. Suddenly he becomes an outcast, a denizen of the world he once complacently despised, of the supernatural believer, desperately semaphoring his discovery to the world - which merely jeers, as he himself would surely have done, and takes no notice.

Throughout the narrative you sense a man clinging to the hope that if he only observed everything that was going on, and faithfully noted it down - in such a way that he could get the rest of the world to accept it - then he would remain sane and untouched. Alas for him, this did not happen. The fact that he died so soon afterwards, and in exile - ruined and perplexed - makes his story all the more poignant.

Psychic Sally

Psychic sallyEvery psychic performer seems to get into trouble sooner or later. Some dodgy incident occurs that hangs around like a bad smell for the rest of their career.

Sally Morgan, a fixture on British TV screens for the past couple of years as "Psychic Sally", is having her moment in the doghouse. At a show last month an audience member claimed to have heard a man's voice, apparently in a projection room at the back, speaking words which Morgan herself spoke a few seconds later on stage. Then a staff member realised they might be overheard and closed the window. It sounded very much as if he was feeding information to her earpiece about people she was giving readings to.

The British press dutifully worked itself into a lather. Here's Jan Moir in the Daily Mail:

Do psychics and mediums really contact the dead and then deliver messages to their loved ones left here to mourn on Earth? I think not, Watson.

Not once, not ever, not by luck or skill or happenstance, not delivered on a bolt from the blue by Tinker Bell whistling Dixie, not passed on by a blob of shape-shifting ectoplasm swinging down from heaven on a trapeze.

Who does believe in this sort of stuff? Only the lonely, as Roy Orbison might put it. Not to mention the simple-minded, the vulnerable, the distraught and the recently bereaved. And into this vacuum of raw sadness creep the psychics, ghouls ready to ply their greasy trade.

Sally Morgan says that death is not the end; it is the beginning of a journey. Actually, death is not a horizon, it is a slammed door. And try as we might, we can't get on the other side of that door, unless we die ourselves. Which, of course, we are all going to do, sooner or later.

The dead stay dead. They might live on in our hearts and minds, and in the conversations and memories of those who loved them, but you can't ring them up for a chat. The notion that they pass on advice and messages to their families is a crock.

I can see why sceptics dislike psychics, but I'm not clear why they get so agitated about people believing in an afterlife.

Morgan plans to sue, apparently. That's unusual, and will be interesting - if it actually happens, which I doubt.

However Moir did reveal something quite interesting. She says she before a Morgan show starts, members of the audience are invited to write messages and leave details of their bereaved relatives in the big bowl in the foyer. So she'd only have to skim a few of them to get information before going on stage. Or else someone could feed the information through her earpiece.

That could comfortably explain the one thing about Morgan that I found quite impressive - her ability to produce correct names. Once she has locked onto an audience member, it takes just a few seconds for her to come up with the name of an appropriate deceased relative. I haven't seen anyone else do that so consistently.

On the other hand, to solicit key information so openly is odd behaviour in a performing psychic. It looks so dubious. So why would she do it? Perhaps she's naïve: it never crossed her mind that anyone would find it questionable.

Again, if it's the basis of fraud, it would involve teamwork. Someone has to be observing the audience members, linking them to the scraps of paper they submit, perhaps also listening to conversations, identifying likely targets, and feeding the appropriate information. Most likely it would need more than one person. But that would make her hugely vulnerable to blackmail. To an extent, one would think, that would be hard to sustain in practice. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, someone would blab to the press. True, Morgan must have plenty of cash, with audiences like that, but if she is a faker she surely can't be paying everybody off.

The implication in this story - at least as it was reported - is that the audience usher who heard the man speaking at the back of the theatre closed the window because he was giving the game away. Actually it seems just as likely she closed it because he was disturbing the audience - the show organisers say he was one of two lighting technicians doing their job. But it's hard to see how the fraud could occur without theatre staff becoming aware of it. And one who stumbles on the trick, instead of trying to blackmail Morgan into keeping quiet, might consider it ethically preferable - as well as financially more rewarding - to take the story to one of the Sunday tabloids.

Obviously, the reason I'm picking holes in the prosecution case is because I believe psychic ability is a genuine, if rare, feature of consciousness. I think these sorts of performances would be hard to sustain if they really were based on the methods that sceptics describe.

For instance I noticed Skeptic magazine editor Chris French, in his Guardian article on the subject, casually state: "In a skilled practitioner, cold reading can produce much more impressive results than the rather amateurish readings produced by most psychics."

Well, I would very much like to see some evidence to back that up.

The Realness of NDEs

Robert Perry has been thinking deep thoughts about near-death experiences: Why do they seem so real?

He quotes a conversation he had with psychologist and NDE researcher Bruce Greyson, who told him he once interviewed

a schizophrenic man who had jumped off the roof of a building because he heard the devil’s voice telling him he deserved to die and should kill himself by jumping. He said that, while falling through the air, he heard the voice of God telling him that he would be all right and did not need to die. Obviously, he did survive, though with some broken bones.

When I interviewed him a couple of days after his jump, he regarded the devil’s voice as a schizophrenic hallucination, but he insisted that God’s voice was real. I pointed out to him that, from the perspective of a third party like myself, both the devil’s voice and God’s were voices only he heard, and therefore I had no way to tell they weren’t both hallucinations; and I asked him how he made the distinction.

More here.

The Dark Side of Genius

Steve Jobs's passing brought to mind something that has puzzled me quite a lot: the dark side of genius. The obits mentioned his bad temper with associates, but didn't make a big thing of it. You expect a bit of that in an effective leader, right?

But it's has been getting more attention since Gawker ran a post by Ryan Tate titled "What everyone is too polite to say about Steve Jobs".

The piece berates Jobs for "censorship and authoritarianism" - for instance blocking content he considered salacious from Apple devices, and creating a "culture of fear" within the company, with a special loyalty protection team searching computers for leaks and confiscating mobile phones. Jobs's "fascist tendencies" are also seen in his harassment of people who tried to get a scoop on new products.

Then Jobs is blamed for Apple's dependence on children in Chinese sweatshops to make its products, and for his lack of philanthropy (compared, say, with his rival Bill Gates). He scrapped charity programmes on his return to Apple (which considering its financial position was hardly controversial), and never reinstated them.

He's also criticised for "acting like a tyrant":

There were things Jobs did while at Apple that were deeply disturbing. Rude, dismissive, hostile, spiteful: Apple employees - the ones not bound by confidentiality agreements - have had a different story to tell over the years about Jobs and the bullying, manipulation and fear that followed him around Apple... Jobs regularly "belittled people, swore at them, and pressured them until they reached their breaking point. In the pursuit of greatness he cast aside politeness and empathy. His verbal abuse never stopped."

Gawker's sister blog had a run-in with Apple last year when it ran a video of a prototype of iPhone 4, and an editor's home was raided by police. That makes the criticism look personal.

In fact Jobs's behaviour is common in successful men. Talented people who see a chance for greatness, and go after it, put the result before anything else. The ends justify the means, they believe. If the little people who stand in the way of the vision get squashed, so much the worse for them. Or you could put it down to stress. During the second world war Winston Churchill's wife once took him aside to complain about his habit of angrily berating his staff.

To have a positive vision that has the power to enrich the lives of millions of people, and to strive to make it a reality, seems to involve a pact with the devil. You don't mind making a few people's lives a misery - it's worth it for "the cause". But if you're left with that karma when you're gone, how do you deal with it? Do you regret it, and in some way pay for it? Or do you just accept it as part of the deal?

What's so puzzling is where people show enormous qualities of empathy and humanity in their work, for which they are universally loved and revered, but which turn out to be utterly lacking in their behaviour to those close to them. Bing Crosby for instance - a petty domestic tyrant and bully, according to his son. The novelists Dickens and Hardy behaved with a shocking lack of feeling towards their wives. The British children's writers Enid Blyton and A.A. Milne (of Winne-the-Pooh fame) seemed instinctively to grasp the inner world of children, able to communicate with them on some very direct level, yet their own children remember them as cold and distant.

Just a few names that come to mind. I think one could make a very long list. It's an odd paradox of the human condition.

Pinker on Violence

Steven pinker Steven Pinker has been getting a lot of attention for his new book about human violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature. His idea is that humans have been getting less violent over the course of history.

That seems counter-intuitive, considering the mass slaughters of the twentieth century. But it's something I've long believed, and that I think we pay too little attention to. When the size of the world population is taken into account, Pinker points out, a vastly greater percentage are now living peaceful lives - and will die in their beds - compared even with just a few hundred years ago.

To judge from the reviews and articles, Pinker is getting a lot of blow-back about this. Most people find it hard to believe. His point, which I agree with, is that we are affected by 'presentism' - we're only really aware of what is happening in our own time. There's also the effect of communication technology. If we could view newspapers and documentary films of days gone by, we would have a pretty lively idea of just how murderous the Mongol hordes were, the Turks, Tartars, Maghyars and all the rest, and just as efficient at doing away with large numbers of people as the Nazis.

We would also understand how vile life must have been for ordinary people, overshadowed by communal violence and the threat of torture and death at the hands of cruel authorities. Fictional representations - in novels, films and TV costume dramas - are really about the concerns of 21st century folk, dressed up in old-time costumes. If we could go back in time the shock would be intense, like being transported to an alien planet. Never mind that we wouldn't be able to decipher their language - the way people behaved to each other, and what they derived amusement from, would have seemed like a waking nightmare.

Whereas a few hundred years ago it was considered normal to roast a wrong-doer alive for fun, and savour his screams (at least according to Pinker), now people in advanced Western societies will sacrifice their lives to try to save a drowning dog. To me this is a remarkable development, and I wonder what has driven it.

Violence - the fear of it, and the fascination - seems to be so embedded in our natures we can't escape. As a journalist I'm strongly aware how selective we are about focusing on negative events. It seems to fill a human need.

I used to work in an office in which a radio was kept permanently on, churning out chit-chat, pop music and hourly news bulletins. These would typically consist of a political controversy followed by a short litany of the day's horrors - a young woman raped and murdered, a father of three beaten to death by feral teenagers, that sort of thing. A (usually) female voice would recite the ghastly details in exactly the same chirpy disconnected tone that she then used to describe the weather. For her they were just words on a page. I dreaded it, and it took an effort of will to remind myself that these were vanishingly rare emergencies, statistical blips in the overall picture of millions of people all over the country living quiet untroubled lives.

Pinker's perspective is that of the evolutionary psychologist. Nothing to do with evolution, of course - today's humans are genetically and anatomically identical to those of five hundred years, and probably five thousand years ago. We have exactly the same impulses: what's changed is in the value we ascribe to them. If the human species has been becoming steadily less violent, that's not from a growing moral sense, but from strategic calculation. Our interests, in terms of our bringing up offspring and perpetuating our genes, are just as likely to be advanced by peaceful cooperation as by violence, and once this perception gains traction it is increasingly preferred.

This is the standard scientific argument, adopted by atheists like Richard Dawkins to dispense with the rather awkward fact of humans appearing to have a tendency towards altruism. I haven't read Pinker's book and I'll be interested to find out his conclusions (while avoiding the slaughter porn in the first half). I gather he ascribes this change to the development of democratic institutions in the modern period, which seems uncontroversial.

But how did this institutions come into being? What motivated them? We should surely consider the role played by a growing compassion arising from conscience. Social reformers, liberal agitators and Christian philanthropists were the ones who helped to forge a new social consciousness over the past few hundred years - appealing not to people's self interest (although that may have been part of it), but to a sense of pity for their fellow humans. That's an appeal which, by now, we appear to have taken so much to heart that we don't think twice about it.

Going further, a spirituality-based view would point to karma as the mechanism by which humans learn to avoid violence and cruelty, having suffered the effects themselves. In this analysis, the impulse to hurt and maim - although often every bit as powerful in the human psyche as it always was - is kept in check by the (unconscious) memory of what we ourselves have been through, and our determination never to inflict it on anyone ever again.

However welcome as a development, it brings home just how much human experience depends on the social environment. I guess many of us - and I include myself - behave well in situations where we might otherwise behave badly, not from some innate sense of it being wrong, but for fear of inconvenient repercussions. We can easily see how, in a different environment - for instance Germany under the Nazis - conventional morality can disappear like a puff of smoke. We can see how members of threatened regimes, in Syria for instance, abandon all constraints in order to protect their positions. It's not impossible to imagine circumstances in which our own inner demons might again one day escape.

To be sure, this is a large subject. Pinker has opened up a Pandora's box, and I expect it will generate a lot of speculation.