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Psi and Cannabis

There have been a lot of false dawns about legalising cannabis, but a rational outcome seems possible at last. The recent landmark votes in Colorado and Washington have coincided with surveys that show large majorities in both the US and the UK in favour of scrapping the ban. Even the politicians are starting to catch up, with bills being presented in Congress. Here it's striking that, although David Cameron is still being a gung-ho drugs warrior, conservative voters are just as keen on change as Labour.

The ban always seemed incomprehensible to me. In my student days I gravitated naturally to the 'head' community. We passed much of our leisure time in clouds of hash smoke and psychedelic rock music, and enjoyed scandalising the buttoned-up types. We weren't noticeably less successful, then or since; drug taking was not a differentiator, except for a few people who seriously overdid it.

It's the same with the growing acceptance of gay marriage. These social issues interest Weed image me because I see the scientific proscription of psi in quite similar terms. Psi threatens the integrity of the scientific worldview in the minds of many scientists, just as, to conservatives, gays and drug fiends threaten the harmonious function of society. The analogy isn't exact, obviously: psychics and mediums are free to ply their trade in the way that drug dealers aren't (or at least aren't supposed to be). But the underlying fear is the same: of potential chaos and disintegration. From the outside, the sceptic movement looks like people coming together to affirm their sanity in a world threatened by growing mental deviancy.

I've remarked before on striking parallels between social conservatism and psi-scepticism, even if there is no obvious overlap between these communities in other respects. Arguably, it's just as irrational to insist that certain experiences that have been widely experienced and verified are in fact imaginary, as it is to impose bans on what people indulge in the privacy of their homes, and with zero risk to others.

There's also the element of austerity. We must take the hard road, and forbid ourselves the luxury of indulgence. Cannabis may make us feel good, but it's a dangerous high, a removal from reality. Homosexuality is decadence to the point of depravity. Psi offers the feel-good factor of wonders and miracles, instant healings, life in a paradisial world to come, and so on - but we must sternly resist its siren call.

But why? Sceptics are articulate about why they think psi isn't real - much less so about why it's a bad thing.

However when we start to focus on this more, there's a genuine debate to be had. Perhaps, from a social perspective, it's reasonable to be cautious about opening up to new ideas and practices. In the nineteen sixties drugs did seem to encourage a lot of whacky behaviour, and it must sometimes have seemed to the war generation that society was on the verge of breakdown. In a sense, the social effects that would follow from science validating the reality of psi are comparable to the social effects of legalising cannabis. With cannabis it's clear that there are dangers, particularly with regard to the mental health of young people, and I've mentioned a few times my own view that a social shift to acknowledging psi might have similarly distorting effects.

Telepathy: Are my thoughts my own? Or are they being beamed to me? Is someone trying to manipulate my behaviour by making me do irrational things?

Remote viewing: Can I be observed from afar when I'm undressing, having sex, pilfering from the petty cash box in the office? Is someone right now, in some dark room somewhere in another city, eyes closed, focused hard, images flickering under his/her eyelids, spying on me?

Precognition: Are unscrupulous dealers using psi to clean up on the stock market, at my expense? How can I get some of that action? Is it legal?

Psychokinesis: Did my hateful ex-husband/wife use focused power of thought to make me crash my car / lose my job / get cancer? Can I go to the police and get him/her arrested?

Life after death: Are spirits of the dead here in the room with me? Do they mean me harm?

There's a word for all of this, one that we believe we have emancipated ourselves from: witchcraft. Psychics and researchers may deny that these powers can be used to invade privacy or to do harm to others. But they would have to be extremely persuasive to counteract popular prejudice. It's what people believe that counts. If science says these things are real, then how can I protect myself from people trying to harm me from a distance?

We can see the beginnings of the problem in neuroscience, which has been making us think differently about the stuff in our heads. If our brains make us think and act in particular ways, if we don't have free will, then perhaps we aren't responsible for everything we do. In practice - at least as far as I'm aware - this new scientific 'reality' hasn't impinged too much on the real world: criminals and wrongdoers are still made accountable. But psi is potentially a whole other problem.

We talk about sceptics being 'closed minds' and identify the psychological barriers to belief. In a purely intellectual sense - from the point of view of empirical experiment and philosophical analysis - their arguments really are shallow. But might we be prepared to admit that science, being sceptical, acts as a barrier to something that humans have to accommodate themselves to carefully and gently? Perhaps it provides a kind of shelter, a sanctuary of reason, where we can exist without having to worry about these things, only about the people who believe in them.

My point is that psi-scepticism is a much more complex business than we might think. It's not just about ideas and arguments. As with cannabis and all the rest, it's about acclimatising ourselves to a potentially threatening new reality. Before we accept it we need to go in with our eyes open, and understand exactly what we're doing.

Will Storr's 'The Heretics'

I've been enjoying Will Storr's extraordinary new book The Heretics: Adventures With the Enemies of Science. Storr has previously written sceptically but entertainingly about ghosts. We spoke a while ago when he was researching James Randi, and the book does indeed contain a revealing interview with the Amazing One himself.

Like his previous book this is a journey of discovery: to find out what motivates people to hold 'unbelievable' ideas such as creationism, UFOs, homeopathy, etc. And yes, ESP, although with qualifications: the sceptics are more of a target here than the advocates. Besides Randi, he talked to a Bible-thumping creationist, Holocaust denier David Irving, climate-change sceptic Lord Monckton and various therapists, quacks, charlatans and complete idiots, as well as a few sensible people to get an objective view. It might have been called Conversations with the Crazies, as it has the same dynamic as TV films by Richard Dawkins. Writing about these people, he says

is like being a tourist in another universe. There is something noble about their bald defiance of the ordinary, something heroic about the deep outsider-territories that they wilfully inhabit, something comforting - in a fundamental, primeval way - about their powers of cognitive transport.

This sounds a bit patronising, but Storr is genuinely interested in these people, and in getting at what motivates their worldviews. He obviously has the reporter's knack of getting people to open up to him. Nor is he convinced that his scepticism is always justified. He confesses to a feeling of kinship, and thinks this may have to do with his own troubled early life, marred by emotional instability and delinquency, about which he is quite candid.

This blog's readers will be interested in the bit about psi sceptics, so let's come to that first. It's at the end of the book, by which time - especially having just been exposed to the clinical lunacy of David Irving - I was in a state of slack-jawed amazement. So I was dismayed to see Rupert Sheldrake being wheeled in as if he was the next to be given the treatment. In the sceptic scheme of things he'd be an ideal fit. Is the reader supposed to think that believing in ESP is as certifiably crazy as denying the Holocaust or believing in the literal truth of the Old Testament?

It's a bit unclear: Storr does admit at one point that he is deeply sceptical - his unconscious mind is broadcasting a 'great, dark lump of no' - but recognises this to be a prejudice and hopes that talking to people on both sides he will get a sense of who is telling the truth. He first buttonholes Sheldrake, who accuses both Richard Wiseman and James Randi of dishonesty. So Storr talks to both of them as well. Wiseman is very plausible - as Sheldrake wearily warned Storr he would be - but Storr is alert enough to recognise the inconsistencies in Wiseman's position, and notes how easily Sheldrake defended himself against Wiseman's attacks. He concludes: 'It was the opposite experience from which I had been led to expect.'

When we come to Randi, it's clear that Storr is sceptical about his status as 'truth's war dog', and that it's he, not scientists like Sheldrake, who are in the dock. Like the other extremists, Randi seems completely unaware of glaring inconsistencies in his position: one the one hand he abuses psi believers in the most offensive terms imaginable, yet he wants to be taken seriously as an investigator and rejects the term 'debunker'.

Storr also exposes the way that Randi ducks and dives to get out of actually having to test people for the Million Dollar Challenge. One case he describes in some detail is that of the Greek homeopath George Vithoulkas, who seems to have been deadly earnest about applying for the Challenge, and spent a lot of time and money arranging for a suitable hospital clinic to arrange the trial. To Vithoulkas's consternation he was blocked at the last minute by Randi, who went back on the arrangement he had previously agreed to, and demanded that Vithoulkas go back and start the whole process again. By this time Vithoulkas had had enough and threw in the towel. (One of Randi's team told Storr that this showed clearly that Vithoulkas was 'trying to find an excuse and quit the test'.)

Storr also manages to confirm the unreliability of notorious claims made by Randi with regard to Uri Geller, and also to Professor Gary Schwartz's investigation of mediums, when he pretended that psi researcher Stanley Krippner had agreed to be involved in judging Schwartz's data for the Challenge. Krippner told Storr he had not agreed to anything such thing.

The interview itself is a rather sad affair, but if you're interested in Randi it's probably worth the price of the book. This is a man at the end of his life, still sharp and malicious, but surprisingly frank about a troubled upbringing (although Storr does not comment explicitly, there's a Walter Mitty sheen about claims of extraordinary brilliance Randi is supposed to have displayed as a child.) Storr is mainly interested in his debunking career: he confronts him about various contradictions and makes him defend his various lies, overstatements and exaggerations, including the notorious claim, which he admitted to Sheldrake was untrue, that he had tested the 'psychic dogs' claims and 'they fail'.

By now Storr is starting to feel he is giving the old man a bit too much of a hard time, so to take some of the pressure off he gives him an opportunity to backtrack on previous hints that he supports social Darwinism. To his consternation, Randi does nothing of the kind; instead he makes explicit his view that society should take a hand in purifying the gene pool of stupid people.

As long as it doesn't interfere with me and other sensible, rational people who could be affected by it. Innocent people, in other words. These are not innocent people. These are stupid people. And if they can't survive, they don't have the IQ, don't have the thinking power to be able to survive, it's unfortunate . . . We would be free of a lot of the plagues that we presently suffer from. I think that people with mental aberrations who have family histories of inherited diseases and such, that something should be done seriously to educate them to prevent them from procreating.

The interview ends with Randi amiably agreeing with Storr that, yes, he does overstate, and sometimes lie and get carried away.

'No question of that. I don't know whether the lies are conscious lies all the time,' he says. 'But there can be untruths.'

All this confirms the central idea that Storr has been coming to, which is that we humans tell ourselves stories that help us make sense of the world.

All of it begins in the unconscious, where we experience hunches about moral rights and wrongs . . . When we come across an explanation of the world that fits perfectly over the shape of our feelings - a tale that magically explains our hunches and tells us that it is all okay - it can seem of divine origin, as if we have experienced revealed truth.

There is quite a lot on this. Inevitably Storr gets onto the illusion-making of the brain; his impassioned discussion of what, in the hands of academic psychologists, is a rather dry topic, is one of the best I've seen. In fact this is an excellent book by a very talented writer. I don't have space to mention some of the other interviews, but I was full of admiration at the effortless way he gets advocates of extreme positions to damn themselves from their own mouths. The encounter with David Irving on a trip with a bunch of racists to a concentration camp is riveting.

However where psychic research is concerned, as I've mentioned before, I'm not generally a fan of journalistic approaches like this. I thought Steve Volk's Fringe-Ology was rather good, perhaps because it views paranormal topics sympathetically. But in general I don't think that going round talking to 'experts' is a good way to try to resolve controversies like 'is ESP true or not'. It didn't surprise me that Storr was ricocheting all over the place after talking to various people, struggling to decide who was telling the truth. It makes for dramatic reading, but if you want to understand what's going it's surely better to focus on the scientific arguments and research rather than try to make subjective judgements about which advocates are the most or least reliable.

I also think there's a growing temptation to look for answers in controversies such as these to the power of the brain to create illusions, narratives, patterns, etc. In fact I'd argue that it's getting out of hand. The problem is that it can be used as a sort of blanket explanation for everything that we struggle to understand, or suspect may not be real, while at the same time it reinforces a very definite metaphysical view of human existence, that we are bugs crawling over a rock in space, and that the effusion of thoughts in our heads is just biological stuff, of no more account than vapours or smells. Implicitly it validates a particular scientistic view, that we actually aren't capable of believing what is true, that existence is meaningless.

I don't doubt the importance of myths and narratives in the formation and maintenance of our worldviews. For myself, I remain passionately convinced of the ability of empirical study and experiment, of philosophical discussion and analysis, to cut through this miasma - less dramatic and colourful, perhaps, but a more sure way to true understanding.

Fuck-off Atheism

I've read a few books by atheists over the past year or so and am starting to think of myself as something of a connoisseur. I'm struck by their immense confidence. They're also becoming more extreme. There's a sense of inhibitions being dumped, as if they're trying to outdo each other with a sort of reverse, more-atheist-than-thou piety.

Since many of them are American, and surrounded by noisy religiosity, that's perhaps to be expected. But I haven't read anything quite as uncompromising as philosophy professor Alex Rosenberg's The Atheist's Guide to Reality. This is articulate, polemical, no-pansying-around, full-on, in-your-face, fuck-off atheism.

Rosenberg starts with a little list of answers to various propositions.

Is there a God? No.

What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.

What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.

What is the meaning of life? Ditto.

Why am I here? Just dumb luck.

Does prayer work? Of course not.

Is there a soul. Is it immortal? Are you kidding?

Is there free will? Not a chance.

What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.

Why should I be moral. Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.

Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don't like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes...

Does the human past have any lessons for our future. Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with.

It's pointless trying to persuade people about the non-existence of God, he goes on. Hume said it all, and much of atheist discourse since then has just restated it. Atheists have better things to do, 'like figuring out what we ought to believe about a reality without a god'.

Rosenberg doesn't like the term 'brights', popularised by Dawkins and Dennett, which he thinks is 'precious and self-congratulatory'. However he likes 'scientism'. Yes, it's always used pejoratively, but why shouldn't atheists make it their own? He turns the customary usage on its head - everything that critics find appalling about scientism is precisely what makes it, in his view, so valuable.

[It's] the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything; that science's description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and that when 'complete', what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today. We'll often use the adjective 'scientistic' in referring to the approaches, theories, methods, and descriptions of the nature of reality that all the sciences share. Science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understanding is all about.

The fact that Christian books about life's questions keep being written and bought suggests the pat answers don't really scratch the itch. By contracts, the answers that science provides are not warm and fuzzy, but once you understand them they stick. You are unlikely to give them up, so long as you insist that evidence govern your beliefs.

Rosenberg thinks the 'why is there something than nothing' question is actually a non-question. The concept of mystery is simply unacceptable. The Big Bang is just a quantum event, wholly indeterministic.

Why is there a universe at all? No reason at all. Why is there a multiverse in which universes pop into existence for no reason at all? No reason at all! It's just another quantum event. What science and scientism tell those who hanker for more is 'Get over it!'

(Wasn't it James Randi who complained of quantum theory being the 'refuge of scoundrels'?)

Rosenberg is as much interested in the moral implications of scientism, in the loose, general sense of the kind of behaviour scientism advocates. He rails at secular humanism for trying to fill the religion gap by pretending to be a religion. Even Richard Dawkins has succumbed to the 'delusion' that a substitute for religion is required and available from science. Is science really one of the supreme things that makes life worth living?

[Dawkins] gets misty eyed when he thinks of the general theory of relativity, or the symmetry of the double helix, or how the invisible hand works to make everyone better off. So what? Why should we be like him? More important, does Dawkins have an argument or a reason or a basis to claim that science makes life worth living for everyone, or only for some people, or just for those smitten by science or scientism, or perhaps exclusively for Richard Dawkins?

He finds it hard to see how science itself could provide any argument for the supreme or intrinsic value of science - or anything else for that matter.

In the same way, he thinks existentialist philosophers are silly for insisting that we must create meaning for ourselves. They never saw the 'fatuousness' of trying to create something that nature had ruled out as impossible.

Creating purpose in a world that can't have any is like trying to build a perpetual motion machine after you have discovered that nature has ruled them out. Of course, it takes scientism to see this. Existentialists, like almost all philosophers, would have rejected scientism had anyone offered it to them . . . Luckily for us, mother nature has seen to it that most of us, including the secular humanists, will get up most mornings and go on living, even without anything to make our lives meaningful. The proof is obvious. There is nothing that makes our lives meaningful, and yet here we are, out of pyjamas.

Humans should avoid introspection because it fosters illusions, such as that we need something to make life meaningful in order to keep living. We should treat introspection as a symptom. Since science is all there is, it's pointless even thinking about the other stuff.

Certainly, scientism can't take authenticity seriously. Making heavy weather of what introspection seems to tell us turns out to be a big mistake. It may be responsible for a certain amount of great art, like Finnegans Wake or Waiting for Godot, highly entertaining to those who can sit through them. But taking introspection seriously creates a demand for satisfying narratives or stories, the search for ultimate meanings and cosmic purposes, and the quest for values in a world devoid of them. The quest is deep, heroic and futile.

So what should scientistic folks do when overcome by weltschmerz? Why, take a pill! If it doesn't work . . . take a different one!

Three weeks is often how long it takes serotonin reuptake suppression drugs like Prozac, Wellbutrin, Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, or Luvox to kick in. and if one doesn't work, another one probably will.

I must say, I derived a sort of perverse enjoyment from all this - its smiley-face philistinism made me laugh. It's what happens when atheist logic is taken to extremes - it disappears up its own fundament.

But perhaps there's a benefit in seeing the moral and cultural implications of scientism spelled out. For despite everything science tells us about our origins, the human experience remains embedded in a sense of meaning and value. One result of that is the enormous and varied worlds of art, philosophy, music, imaginative literature, and so on - and scientific discovery too, for that matter. Introspection is how we discover about ourselves, about our innermost desires and motivations, and also - crucially - about how other people feel. That sense of meaning that Rosenberg complains of is not a disease to eradicate - it's what enriches us and drives us and makes society function.

What Rosenberg has actually done is demonstrate the profound limitations of scientific thinking when applied to the totality of the human experience. He wants to reduce it to science's knee-high view. But that doesn't mean that he won't attract followers.

When John Gray, a British political philosopher, made nihilist noises in Straw Dogs a few years ago, it attracted a good deal of fascinated attention. Some reviewers seemed to find it refreshing. Gray was vague and didn't go as far as Rosenberg, but it's possible this kind of radical atheism will become more widespread. If it starts to be held as a model of how people should live, then who knows, one day we might wake up and find ourselves living in a scientocracy, yet another bossy-boots political system, where humanity with all its chaotic splendour is beaten into the little space created by narrow minds.

Make no mistake, this is visionary stuff. While the likes of Ray Kurzweil dream of perpetuating the human experience in mechanical form, this is the parallel enterprise of reducing the human psyche to its mechanical essentials. Perhaps at Kurzweil's Singularity, the two strands of thinking will meet: this new, pure human mind - scientifically purged of its illusions - will fit neatly into the robotic form that the boffins have prepared for it.

Actually I don't think it will catch on. For some reason Rosenberg's tract made me think of the Dada movement of the 1920s, with its revolutionary zeal to overthrow conventional ideas about art - tremendous energy and brio, but in hindsight quaint and childishly exaggerated. Humans are what they are, and nothing's going to change that. What Rosenberg calls scientism is not a full understanding of humanity - quite the contrary - but essentially just another attempt to escape from it.