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Sheldrake's New Book - Preview

Rupert Sheldrake's new book, The Science Delusion, is published on January 5. Should be a big event. I've just received an invite to the book launch in London on the 17th, chaired by Dr Peter Fenwick. But I'll review it before that - soon, I hope.

Here's the blurb

The science delusion is the belief that science already understands everything, in principle. The fundamental questions are answered, leaving only the details to be filled in. The impressive achievements of science seemed to support this confident attitude. But recent research has revealed unexpected problems at the heart of physics, cosmology, biology, medicine and psychology.

In his new book, Dr Rupert Sheldrake, one of the world's most innovative scientists, shows how the sciences are being constricted by assumptions that have hardened into dogmas. Should science be a belief-system, or a realm of enquiry?

Sheldrake shows that the 'scientific worldview' is moribund. Increasingly expensive research is reaping diminishing returns. In the sceptical spirit of true scientific enquiry, Sheldrake turns the ten fundamental dogmas of science into questions, opening up startling new possibilities. The 'laws of nature' may be habits that change and evolve. Minds may extend far beyond brains. The total amount of matter and energy may be increasing. Children may inherit characteristics acquired by their parents. Memories may not be stored as traces in our brains. Mental causation may work from the future towards the past, while energetic causation works from the past towards the future. The Science Delusion will radically change your view of what is possible.

This is the subtext to a lot of thinking and writing in the consciousness/spirituality sphere. It looks as though Sheldrake is going to tackle the problem head on.

The deliberate echo of The God Delusion suggests that it will be quite polemical. That wouldn't surprise me. Sheldrake is thoroughly fed up with the treatment he gets from sceptics, and I get the feeling he's running out patience. It would be natural to want to fight back.

That worries me ever so slightly. I can't imagine Sheldrake as a polemicist. I've always admired his ability to calmly face down his critics without resorting to their sort of dogmatic excitability - a key requirement in this field.

But then he's a veteran scientist and an enormously experienced writer and investigator. So if anyone can pull it off, he can.


I've been thinking about what to write as follow-up to Randi's Prize. My aim is to try to interest people in psychic research who might not otherwise pay it any attention. I don't want just to preach to the converted.

So who should I be I talking to? The most recent survey I know of here was carried out by Penny Sartori (who some years ago researched near-death experiences in a Welsh hospital). In her poll of 3000 British adults, published early this year, exactly two thirds said they believed in some form of afterlife. This is higher than the figures I'm used to seeing, which range from about a third to a half. Belief in reincarnation was at 22%, which is comparable to previous findings. Belief in the genuineness of psychics was at 53%.

We'd need a much higher sample - in the tens of thousands - to have any confidence about the numbers. But it's safe to say that belief in the genuineness of psychic phenomena continues to be significant in British society. Yet this is not at all reflected in the British media. It's common to see writers in the press pouring scorn and vanishingly rare to see anyone taking it seriously - in fact, I can't once recall such a thing. I've seen discussions of near-death and out-of-body experiences, but they're quite rare, and tend often to be based on claims by neuroscientists to have discovered what causes them. Ditto ghosts, telepathy, etc.

So if you'd never read anything else you'd suppose that Britain was a completely secular society, apart from a minority of superstitious misfits who should know better.

When Richard Wiseman published his debunking book Paranormality last March, the Daily Mail and the Guardian both published an extract on precognitive dreams. The Guardian subsequently let me respond to it in its Response column. To judge by the response - both in the comments to the articles and in the phone calls and emails I subsequently received - this is something that people are seriously interested in, and often experience. But it seems editors only feel confident about publishing articles about this sort of thing in inverted commas, as it were, next to comments from Professors Richard Wiseman and/or Chris French that put the madness into perspective.

I hoped that someone in the media might talk about Randi's Prize as a serious attempt to explain why the paranormal is not just goofy entertainment, but has serious implications. Realistically I suppose this was never going to happen. Why would they want to read a book about psychic stuff? Everyone knows it's nonsense, right?

So my next book will be more about trying to put the subject in a wider perspective. I've got to figure out ways to talk about it without triggering people's automatic defences, and reassure them that it's OK for 'serious' people to think about things like telepathy and near-death experiences. Trying to change perceptions is a big challenge for a writer. He has to get their trust, which means appearing to be - as I know myself to be - a sane inhabitant of the real world.

This means I'm going to have to work on my own profile as a writer. I've been tweeting occasionally under my own name @robert_mcluhan. I plan to tweet more regularly on mainstream subjects: eg, books, articles and events in neuroscience, philosophy, social ethics, etc. The point is to make connections with the people I want to try to reach in the future, who by definition are put off by talk of ghosts and mediums.

But I obviously want to keep in touch with people who come here and know what I'm about. For that, I've set up a second account, @Paranormalia_ (the name is apparently in use already, hence the pointless underscore). I'll use this to tweet alerts about new blog posts and other related stuff that I come across.

So do please follow me on one or the other - or both. (I'm also on Facebook.)

Susan Goes to a Séance

Went to Goldsmiths in South London yesterday to hear Susan Blackmore give an entertaining talk about her visit to a séance. She explained that her notoriety as a sceptic makes her a target for people trying to change her mind, and had half promised she would go to one if an opportunity arose. Someone took her up on that and she decided to give it a go.

(She didn't identify the circle, having been asked by the organiser not to. But she mentioned it posts audio files online, and I found it here. )

It's a materialisation circle which meets regularly, in a large garden shed. Blackmore was invited to arrive early and check the place out for anything suspicious. She found the usual set-up with a 'cabinet' consisting of an enclosed space for the medium to sit in covered by a curtain, and couldn't see anything obviously amiss, although wasn't sure what to look for. There were about ten sitters, who mostly seemed to know each other. The medium, when he arrived, turned out to be a big burly chap. When the sitting started he was tied to the chair "with the most incompetent tying I have ever seen" - a bit of rope and a granny knot, although cable ties were also used that looked more impressive. She didn't know what method was used to escape from cable ties, but assumed there must be one.

Blackmore had certain expectations of what a séance would be like - a lot of holding of hands and hymn-singing to "build up the power". It turned out there was little of that - only a rather perfunctory prayer at the beginning, and then an Abba CD playing for the duration. There was total darkness, so she couldn't see anything. I think she had intended to play a section of audio from the website, but the equipment wasn't working, so to give us an idea of what she heard she asked us to close our eyes (to simulate darkness), then rattled two chairs together quite violently for a bit. She then produced an extraordinary choking roar, which settled down into a rough rasping whisper - the voice of the materialised spirit.

There was a lot of excited chatter, with talk of the 'power' being 'really strong this evening'. A number of 'spirits' were said to have materialised, including one named Yellow Feather, talking in different voices that all, as far as she could see, came from the medium himself. At one point there was a big to-do when they announced they would dematerialise him: he duly appeared to vanish from the chair - according to sitters who were invited to touch it - and his voice came from the ceiling. Everyone seemed very impressed, and afterwards they adjourned for tea and cakes.

My own expectation was that Blackmore would treat the whole business with laughing incredulity, which of course she did. She provided the standard sceptic - and in my view, entirely inadequate - preamble about the history of Victorian spiritualism to set the tone, and wondered - perhaps with more justice - why nothing seems to have changed in a century and a half. The séance always involves the same props: the trumpet for direct voice, the obligatory native American, and so on.

But she did seem genuinely baffled by it all. Why on earth would people behave like this? She was sure no one was benefiting materially, as there was no charge for attendance. Talking with the other guests afterwards she heard that people came because they wanted something 'spiritual' in their lives. But this didn't make sense, because there was nothing remotely spiritual about anything that happened. Perhaps it was the mere sense of being visited by 'spirits' that gave them the sense of this. Or perhaps they just did it to get out of the house and have fun.

I've never been to any kind of séance, let alone one that purports to materialise spirits. I know that psychic researchers who started checking them out in the 1880s found them quite tiresome, and I suppose I would have felt the same. If I'd had to sit in the darkness listening to Abba for two hours, and a succession of voices talking platitudes, without any clear indication that they came from anyone else but the medium, and having to accept all the claims of what was happening on trust - I think I'd have gone a bit mental.

There was some discussion afterwards, and I don't think anyone came up with any halfway plausible explanation. This has always been one of the great puzzles facing investigators of séance phenomena, that it's not just about charlatans fleecing the gullible public, but that groups of people seem willing to meet once or twice a week, over periods of years, to converse with spirits who, according to all sensible notions, cannot possibly exist. Why do they do it? What do they get out of it?

I did not get much sense of how much Blackmore had thought about this. Did she think it was a charade that the sitters voluntarily acted out? In that case, the psychological issues involved would be dramatic. Then how much of it was deception, and how much self-deception? Any serious simulation would presumably require a certain amount of skill to achieve.

I personally think that sceptics give far too much credit to people in these situations for the amount of effort they are prepared to go to in order to carry out their nefarious tricks. I doubt that they are that motivated. It would make more sense if they were just sitting there and letting stuff happen.

So my own, admittedly heretical suggestion would be that this lot have stumbled on something that exists in nature, some odd natural process, whether or not it is what it seems to be, and are just working with it - as many have done before them. I can't accept Blackmore's version of history, that William Crookes was 'taken in', as she puts it, nor do I think Charles Richet was fooled at the Villa Carmen. But I can readily accept that her bafflement at the idea of a silly charade is nothing compared to the confusion most of us would feel at having to take it seriously.

Scandinavian Fires

The new Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research has just turned up. It has an interesting paper by Erlendur Haraldsson on an Icelandic case which is reminiscent of the famous Stockholm fire incident involving Swedenborg, and described by Immanuel Kant.

The Icelandic case first. It concerns Indridi Indridason, a physical medium who began sitting in Reykavik in 1905, producing strong table movements, automatic writing and trance speech. In November of that year a new communicator appeared, unrecognised by anyone present. He spoke Danish and identified himself as 'Mr Jensen', a common Danish name. There was a rest break, and when the sitting resumed, 'Jensen' reappeared. He said that during the interval he had been to Copenhagen (1300 miles distant) and seen a fire that had just started in a factory there. He left but then returned later in the sitting, saying the fire service had succeeded in putting the fire out after an hour.

As Haraldsson has established, there exist press reports of a fire in Copenhagen at this time. The details match up, that it was in a factory, the time it started, and that it was brought under control within an hour. At this time Iceland was not connected telegraphically with anywhere else. Telephones arrived a year later, and telegraphy only in 1918. The island was completely dependent on snail mail by sea.

A rather obvious explanation is coincidence. Fires in big cities are hardly uncommon. In the four weeks during which the fire occurred (two before and two after), four fires were reported in the main newspaper, including the one described in the Icelandic séance. Only that one started in a factory, which was a far less common occurrence than fires in homes. And only that one was a major fire - the others were small and quickly extinguished, and attracted much less notice.

Haraldsson dutifully considers some other possibilities, that the medium had a confederate in Copenhagen who started the fire or that the message was brought by carrier pigeon - neither of which really get off the ground.

I don't think this is particularly strong evidence, simply because it can be dismissed as coincidence. But I do find it interesting for this reason: that if mediumship is a genuine phenomenon, and if, even, it's more than clairvoyance, and disembodied spirits can return to this world and pay us a visit, then this is the sort of thing one would expect to happen. It would be surprising if the visitors couldn't travel around the globe and observe what's going on.

The incident of the Stockholm fire is a case of seeming clairvoyance. It occurred in 1759 and is described in a letter written four years later by Kant to a friend. The Swedish intellectual (seer, polymath, etc) Swedenborg had been travelling from England and had arrived in the port of Gothenburg, some 250 miles from Stockholm.

About six o'clock, Swedenborg went out, and returned to the company quite pale and alarmed. He said that a dangerous fire had just broken out in Stockholm, at the Södermalm, and that it was spreading fast. He was restless and went out often. He said that the house of one of his friends, whom he named, was already in ashes, and that his own was in danger. At eight o'clock, after he had been out again, he joyfully exclaimed, "Thank God! The fire is extinguished three doors from my house!". The news occasioned great commotion throughout the whole city, but particularly among the company in which he was. It was announced to the Governor the same evening. On Sunday morning, Swedenborg was summoned to the Governor, who questioned him concerning the disaster. Swedenborg described the fire precisely, how it had begun, and in what manner it had ceased, and how long it had continued. On the same day the news spread throughout the city, and as the Governor had thought it worthy of attention, the consternation was considerably increased; because many were in trouble on account of their friends and property, which might have been involved in the disaster.

On Monday evening a messenger arrived in Gothenburg who was sent by the Board of Trade at the time of the fire. In the letter brought by him, the fire was described precisely in the manner stated by Swedenborg. On Tuesday morning the royal courier arrived at the Governor's with the sad news of the fire, the loss which it had occasioned, and houses it had damaged or ruined, not in the least different from that which Swedenborg had given at the time when it happened, for the fire was extinguished at eight o'clock.

This is very unlikely to be mere coincidence. The dates and times match, and Swedenborg's alarm is appropriate to the scale of the conflagration, the largest to occur in the city for many years. It started in Södermalm half a mile from Swedenborg's home and was extinguished less than 300 feet from his house.

Kant seems to have considered it good evidence, and having got a friend to check it out, in both cities, says it is "free from all possible doubt". On the other hand, apart from descriptions of the fire in two newspapers there doesn't seem to be much in the way of independent supporting evidence, so that's all there is to go on. Purely anecdotal. But still pretty startling stuff and, again, if psi is a genuine phenomenon it's the sort of thing we'd expect sometimes to happen.

The Joseph Communications

Joseph bookI've been sent two channelling books to review, Revelation: Joseph's Message (2008) and The Joseph Communications: Your Life After Death (2011). I have mixed feelings about channelling literature, but I'll try to give an objective sense of the contents and then give my two pennyworth.

The books come from a new-ish circle based in the north of England, and are transcripts of trance sessions channelled by Michael G. Reccia, via a 'highly-evolved spirit guide' who (obviously) goes under the name Joseph. Revelation is a series of talks on particular subjects: creation, death and karma, health, work, power, etc. Your Life After Death focuses on the experience of life after death. There is a third book which I haven't seen, and a fourth is said to be planned.

The set-up is similar to Jane Roberts's Seth. As 'Joseph', Reccia talks fluently in front of small gatherings - first delivering a discourse on a particular topic, then answering questions. Joseph describes himself as a former denizen of this world, who some time ago chose not to reincarnate, and wants to help us rediscover the truth about reality and the severity of the situation we face. The delivery is clear and articulate, with no funny accents or behaviour, although Reccia as Joseph gesticulates a lot and sometimes bangs the desk to emphasise a point.

My impression is that the ideas accord mainly, but perhaps not completely, with the picture given by theosophy and spiritualism over the past century and a half. His concepts are sometimes quite hard to follow, but that's typical too. An example:

We wish to talk about beginnings today, and about the seed that is within the human soul; for the soul is not the seed, it is a covering, a vehicle for the seed and not the seed itself. The seed is separate and comes into being of its own violition. Yet there is a paradox here, because it does not have that volition until it becomes separate. So we ask you to consider that God wishes separation in order to grow. The volition first comes from God but, at that point, the seed becomes aware of its own purpose. In other words, God at first thinks of separation and, at that point, the separation exists. Again, the paradox is that the separation is a concept of God, and therefore a part of God, so actual separation never - in terms of your understanding - exists.

So each seed is separate and yet contained within the whole that is God, but God allows the seed to experience growth through the illusion of individuality. The seed is then clothed in various radiations that allow it to interact on a physical level with that physical level. These can be compared to 'skins' or fields of various energies that complete the illusion of separateness from God, from the inner to the outer, the skins become more dense, but they are nothing more than shades put around a light and, within those shades - and particularly within the outermost three - the Earthly perceptions and consciousness reside; but these are nothing more than an illusion, a field which is tissue-thin.

Our task in contacting you is to peel back the layers of misconception that separate the seed from its greater whole and, in doing so, to create an increase of the God-power within the fields, so that the growth that is expected of the seed by God in projecting Itself into individuality can take place. We have to warn mankind that this expected growth is not taking place at this time.

A chapter on 'medicine' argues that the idea of illness is a misconception. There is nothing really wrong with us. We are part of God, and because God is perfect it follows that we are perfect too. If a patient gets better after medical treatment it is because he/she has faith in the treatment. The treatment itself does nothing; it is the patient's faith that makes them well.

In another chapter, Joseph reveals that he was a citizen of the ancient civilization of Atlantis, which existed before the 'second coming' of man. (Reccia reports having been given images of 'a beautiful city set against a lilac-coloured sky and surrounded by peaceful waters in which sailed majestic vessels, intricately carved and decorated.)

Joseph describes Atlantis having a different technology, using 'particle physics' to move objects, able to move and rearrange buildings with the power of mind, heal without touching, and so on. However at some point there was some kind of cataclysm, when it all went to people's heads and changed them.

There was a lot of pain, there was a lot of death, which was caused by these people suddenly creating dark things, dark thoughts that previously didn't exist on the Earth. It changed the nature of how animals looked at each other, and the vibrations were absorbed by the flora and fauna. The earth became a more aggressive place...

I tell you the Earth that I knew is vastly different from the Earth that you know - just a pale shadow of how it used to look. Mistaken thought has done all that, has caused the havoc, the chaos... It is arrogance to suppose that your people are the first people; that your civilisation is the first civilisation. It is not.

This was the Fall, and is the origin of human problems - an idea that Joseph returns to often. Another concept is a sort of mental force field around the Earth made up of humans' thoughts and passions, and which as a result is mainly negative. This 'Field' distorts our thinking, and we let it attract us back into life again and again.

These themes are developed in Your Life After Death, although the focus is less abstract and more personal. Here are a few extracts:

Very quickly in the lower spiritual realms you learn that you have to guard and 'treat' your thoughts - not to hide or mask them but to work on them because your thoughts are instantly displayed in the colour-shield that you have around you. You cannot approach a person in one way and think towards them in another. There is no subterfuge - you do wear your colours 'on your sleeve' and those around you recognise what you are thinking, what you have thought and what you have done because of those colours...

When you view someone in front of you on Earth - your 'friend', your 'enemy', your 'relative', your 'loved one' - you are only seeing one aspect of them. The soul of that person has gone through many incarnations, many experiences, and you do not really know who you are addressing. With the people around you, were you to see who you were really addressing you would be shocked, humbled and amazed and you would change your attitude towards many people. You would approach each person and say, 'I do not know who this person is; I cannot judge them; I cannot be angry with them; I cannot feel superior to them because I do not know who they really are and what they have achieved to this point in their lives.' Appearances are deceptive - please remember that and it will help with your transformation of the physical world...

Souls find themselves in landscapes that are very familiar to them and yet are brighter, clearer and more polished. The skies are bluer; the clouds are whiter; the architecture more perfect; there is a symmetry to the trees (and by symmetry I do not mean they are equally balanced one ach side - I mean that the God within them is more apparent, so more symmetry, perfection and harmony is perceived within their form) and there is nothing that jars about the landscape.

You see great landscapes that on Earth would perhaps frighten you or be too awesome to contemplate. There are towering cliffs, waterfalls, basins of cascading water and vast plains. There are mountains that, to you on Earth, would seem too immense to take in, with dimensions too great to understand. You see spirits who have come from Earth living in places that would terrify you on Earth - living at the edge of waterfalls, living on the edge of chasms, living high in mountains without fear (because there is nothing to fear) ... taking in the majesty of the landscape rather than concentrating on fear of harm to the human frame, which no longer applies...

You are able (using the modern idiom) to 'multi-task' quite easily in the spiritual realms, but you multi-task with your full participation in different aspects of your experience. You can have as many or as few experiences at the same time as you wish, and you can be as involved or as uninvolved in those experiences as you wish. In other words you can be casually involved in a conversation but also be aware that you are undertaking great spiritual tasks at the same time whilst also being aware that, on another level of your consciousness, you are absorbing knowledge whilst you attend a lecture or speak to highly evolved spirits about the evolution of your soul ... and all these things are happening with your conscious participation at the same time.

Many people arrive in the spiritual worlds (as we have said in earlier chapters) and do not wish to change; they wish to get back to the Field and they wish to remain as they always have been - and for them progress is relatively slow. There are other souls who have investigated spiritual possibilities within and outside of themselves and there exists within those souls an eagerness to see what is next. With those souls the journey is far easier and they progress away from the initial physical plane much more rapidly than those souls who wish to come back and be dictated to by the Field once again. Then there are those souls who, fairly instantly upon leaving the physical plane, regain knowledge of who they were before they came to the earth plane. For them it is simply a matter of remembering and re-instanting their personality as an advanced soul and then gaining instant admission to the sphere from which they have come and to which they can gain entry again.

He describes the various spheres of existence and talks about the Lords of Karma, souls who 'have evolved to a point where they have been given custody of certain souls ... in the name of love' and are charged with placing each soul in circumstances where they can grow the most, both on Earth and on other worlds, and plotting out the course of their lives. However in what seems to be a radical departure from other examples of the genre, Joseph forcefully insists that reincarnation is never forced on anyone. People reincarnate of their own volition, because they are drawn in by the Field, wanting to go on having sensual experiences and/or to complete unfinished business.

So many choose to come back, and when they choose to come back, when the decision has been finally and absolutely made and we say to them, 'Are you sure?' and they say, 'Yes,' with an anger. 'Who are you to interfere?' ... they are already pulling themselves back towards the earth plane through free will.

I hope I've given a fair summary of the contents. There's no doubt about the sincerity of everyone involved. The books are attractively produced, and I'd judge them to be a significant addition to channelling literature. I'd also say the project has all the ingredients for commercial success, as the team behind clearly have a good idea about business, branding and marketing (see their website).

On the other hand I'm cautious about taking this sort of material at face value. Even if one happens to accept mediumship as a genuine phenomenon one is bound to wonder about the genesis of these 'spirit teachings'. The stuff about Atlantis is surely fantasy, and it's disturbing to see it being presented as fact. Certain odd comments seem to me to be neither true or wise, eg. 'The Buddhists are mistaken. They strive for Nothing, yes, but they strive for obliteration of the consciousness, which cannot happen,' Ditto the insistence that illness is just in our heads and that all medicine is effectively placebo.

This might not matter if the material is genuinely helpful. For people who haven't thought about it much before, to be stimulated to think about survival, and the nature of the changed psychological environment, is perhaps useful. But the underlying tone, in Revelation particularly, is one of complaint and exasperation: 'Message to Earthlings from Utopia: Your planet is horrible and your situation is dire! It's your fault! You must learn to be spiritual like us!'.

I realize some people find this inspiring, perhaps from appearing to be delivered by some wise being beyond our ken. But for all the obscure metaphysics, and the sermonizing about the need to change our ways, there is little of what would help us to achieve that. It's all about the destination, nothing about the actual journey.

If it's spiritual guidance we want, I'd argue we should look for it closer to home. Lately I've been re-reading one of Jack Kornfield's books, The Wise Heart, which offers practical advice on how to deal with issues such as fear, anger and resentment, from a human who has had to deal with these issues himself. I have to say, I find this much more helpful than listening to lectures about humanity's shortcomings.

I suppose a come-back to my complaints is that I'm not ready for this sort of exalted teaching. I won't argue with that. But I'm genuinely interested in the phenomenon of channelling and in the worldview that it promotes. Is it all a mysterious confabulation of human minds? Or is Joseph what he claims to be? And in that case, are such teaching entities perhaps themselves sometimes subject to the illusions they strive to warn us against?

Book Review: Matthew Colborn, Pluralism and the Mind

It's normal to suppose that human beings are conscious. However, until recently science could barely bring itself to accept that there was such a thing as 'consciousness'. Now it agrees that it does exist - sort of. Most neuroscientists and philosophers still think it's an illusion, but since they have come up with viable tools and concepts they want to apply them to find out how the trick is done.

How can these wildly different viewpoints ever be bridged? And could there one day be a theory about consciousness that will satisfy everyone?

These are questions that Matthew Colborn asks in his new book Pluralism and the Mind, a critique of current neuroscience and philosophy of the mind. Colborn is a freelance writer with a background in cognitive science and an interest in parapsychology. The book provides an admirably clear overview of the existing approaches and some of the more 'alternative' ones also. That makes it appealing to people like me who are sceptical about the insistence that 'the mind is what the brain does'.

A typical statement by a neuroscientist is that

the mind is fundamentally a sentient computing device, taking sentences as input from sensory transducers, performing logical operations on them, and issuing other sentences as output.

And again

It makes no sense (in scientific terms) to try to distinguish sharply between acts that result from conscious intention and those that result from our reflexes or are caused by disease or damage to the brain.

Colborn starts by showing us how wildly incongruent such confident assertions seem in the face of very different types of conscious activity, from the typical stream of thoughts and impressions in daily life, to considering the view from the window, or, at the further extremes, mystical experience and ketamine drug trips. Then again, how can the life-or-death decisions involved in the struggle of a concentration camp inmate to survive be considered on the same level as unconscious reflex actions?

A lot of the book is a well-argued critique of current thinking, which largely follows from the insistence on a monist (non-dualist) materialist framework for understanding consciousness. Colborn puts this into a historical context. Deterministic ideas were developed in the seventeenth century but received a strong impetus after Darwin, with TH Huxley arguing that consciousness was a side effect, or 'epiphenomenon', of brain activity, having no causal effect. In the twentieth century the philosophy of mind was seduced into behaviourism and the idea of the 'blank slate'. In the context of 'a Cold war technocracy', he says, 'humans and machines came to be seen as literally interchangeable'.

That still largely applies. Behaviourism gave way to a modified view derived from information theory, of which Daniel Dennett is the best known but by no means the only advocate, that we don't have subjective experiences at all - we just think we have them. The logical extension of this is that we don't have free will: the appearance of it is just an illusion. Our brains make up our minds, and if we think we do something because 'we' will it, we're wrong - we're just rationalising it after the fact.

Despite the limits of physicalism, which Colborn ably exposes, there remains a confidence that wholly conventional theories will eventually crack the problem, given enough time, money and new techniques. This confidence is largely the result of the burgeoning of neuroimaging technology, which is correlating brain activity to specific types of mental activity in ever greater detail.

But here too there are important constraints. Mapping various localities is good as far as it goes, but it also exposes how widely distributed cognitive functions actually are. That makes it hard to establish whether a particular area is carrying out a specific task on its own or whether it is just a critical line of communication between other areas. Some of the apparently intractable questions surrounding memory - how it is defined; how it persists; whether it really is encoded via synaptic charges - may be settled as neuroscience develops. However neuroimaging only provides correlations, not explanations. Also, there is still no theoretical framework that can accommodate all the data. Colborn quotes Steven Rose's remark that we are 'still trapped within the mechanistic reductionist mind-set within which our science has been formed'.

It's true that neuroimaging data provides abundant indications of information-processing and representations taking place in the brain. But these presuppose a conscious observer to make sense of them: the information that researchers derive from the results of their experiments is in their minds, not in the brain itself. We can't point to evidence of particular types of brain activity and call it a 'brain language' of symbols, information and representation, any more than we can call rings in tree trunks a 'language' from the fact that we can use them to derive information about past climate conditions.

Colborn's preference is for pluralism, following William James's pragmatic refusal to agree that the universe consists only either of matter or of mind. As James complained, 'All philosophers...have conceived of the whole world after the analogy of some particular feature of it which has particularly captivated their attention.' Colborn also frequently cites Paul Feyerabend, who challenged the right of science to insist on a single correct method, and instead advocated a more open, even anarchistic approach.

Accordingly he refers to thinkers with more radical views, lying at the margins of established thinking. One is Walter Elsasser, who argued for an alternative 'holistic' biology, on the grounds that some organisms are too complex to be understood in terms of their constituent parts. Elsasser's work bears some resemblance to Rupert Sheldrake's theory of morphic fields, Colborn suggests, although he adds that the latter is short on evidence to back it up. He looks, too, at the ideas of Mae-Wan Ho, who explores features of living organisms such as wholeness and individuality and has concluded that consciousness occurs throughout the whole organism.

He also examines Henry Stapp's quantum model, which Edward Kelly discussed in Irreducible Mind as a possible contender for a dualist conception of consciousness. Stapp argues that neuron firings at the nerve terminals are capable of creating quantum effects, causing probability clouds to occur throughout the brain. If true, that would mean the brain's operations cannot be understood purely in classical terms. His approach has been criticised on a variety of fronts, and Colborn himself thinks it will probably not be taken seriously until the role of quantum mechanics in biological systems is better understood. But even if the details are wrong, he points out, Stapp has shown that it is at least 'possible to talk about the world in a formal way that is not wholly deterministic'.

The need for a pluralist approach becomes all the more pressing when we consider parapsychological phenomena, as Colborn believes we should. He is not at all dogmatic about this, but includes a brief consideration of psi phenomena, and tackles some of the key sceptical objections (for instance Ray Hyman's insistence on treating parapsychology on the same level as physics and biology). Where survival evidence is concerned, he notes the difficulty of disentangling it from evidence of psi on the part of the living. The best we can do, he thinks, is balance probabilities in individual cases.

So Colborn ends by rejecting the view that a single model holds all the answers, and, when discovered, will sweep all before it. The current reductionist approach is too narrow, and also dehumanizing, and although dualism is severely problematic from a scientific viewpoint he sees a combination of both as the eventual solution. In other words, we may come to accept that both are valid within certain situations and not in others. He returns to Elsasser, who believed that, while science must remain 'rational' there is no guarantee that nature can be comprehensively ordered into a rational scheme.

He adds:

[T]he 'universe of mindless, meaningless, brute physical particles' does not exist out there in the phenomenological world, but only within the models of science. To understand this, we should recall Protagoras's point about 'man being the measure of all things'. We project various qualities and properties out into the world, and as the ancients and medieval thinkers projected life and animation, many scientific rationalists tend to project mechanism and meaninglesness. But the latter is just as much a conceptual, imaginative vision as the former. The main reason it has such force is that it is built into the very fabric of our culture, and reinforced via the practical marvels and achievements of science. But these achievements do not point to such a vision being 'true'; in fact, Einstein was probably right to suggest that they constitute fictions by which we make broad sense of the cosmos.

Admitting some form of dualist thinking would mean abandoning the hope of discovering a grand scheme of consciousness, he concedes, and it also smacks of relativism, which hard-headed scientists run a mile from. But it may be more realistic: we may have to accept that many conceptual worlds remain possible, and we must 'learn to love difference'.

'If we accept that all of our models are partial, distorted, and adaptations to local demands, cultures, environments, ways of life, etc. and that these external pressures themselves constantly fluctuate, then this pluralistic viewpoint seems preferable to a zero-sum battle for the One True Way.

In my view, this is science writing of the first order. It isn't flashy - it contains few flamboyant images and metaphors - but it's clear, detailed and thoughtful. It gives a highly readable account of the story so far, and if you want an account that is open to non-dualist thinking, this is an ideal choice. It also sticks relentlessly to the central theme: that the knowledge elite has created a series of myths and models which we are in danger of mistaking for reality itself, and that we need to remain open to all kinds of approaches, however heretical they may seem to some.

This is important, because there just isn't much out there that challenges the materialist consensus about consciousness, that is also scientifically and philosophically literate, and that talks the language of the scientific mainstream. Irreducible Mind was something of an ice-breaker in that respect, and Colborn himself says it motivated him to put develop his own views. This new literature is significant for those of us who would like to see alternative approaches to consciousness taken more seriously. If we want parapsychology to be better understood, there needs to be a conceptual framework in which it starts to make sense.

Excerpts from the book can be read here. Colborn blogs here.