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Sheldrake Post-Ted

I went to Rupert Sheldrake’s lecture about The Science Delusion at the SPR recently. I’ve read the book, and heard/read/seen various interviews, etc, so I’m familiar with the ideas. But it was worth hearing him speak in person. Considering his reputation as a heretic I’m struck by how relaxed and confident he seems. He’s not at all the ranting type; on the contrary, he comes across as reasonable and utterly convinced – with good reason, as he has so much actual evidence to back up his claims.

So it didn’t surprise me when he said that he talks to sceptics, and that they seem to be genuinely interested. There’s apparently a regular Sunday ‘service’ for atheists at Conway Hall in London. It sounds rather dull; obviously atheists don’t go in for dressing up and singing, so it’s just a sermon on the evils of superstition, and suchlike. When they billed a talk on telepathy and how it doesn’t really exist Sheldrake sneaked in and sat at the back. People in the audience started whispering and turning round, and eventually the speaker invited him up to make some remarks of his own. This sounds absurd – try imagining a bishop stepping down from the pulpit and asking Richard Dawkins to take his place - but Sheldrake says he got a receptive response. And indeed, once you start talking about actual experiences, and actual scientific research, why would anyone not be interested?

Earlier he’d been talking at the Hay-on-Wye book festival, debating with Nicolas Humphrey (ubersceptic psychologist) and Julian Baggini (atheist philosopher). He told us that he’d bumped into Daniel Dennett there, and took the opportunity to ask him whether he thought parapsychology was a pseudo-science. Of course it’s a pseudo-science, Dennett replied gruffly. However, pressed by Sheldrake, he declined to defend that assertion in a public debate – unsurprisingly, as I don’t think he knows much about it. Sheldrake now wants to put the same question to other sceptics, to get them to define their position. He says he has already asked Professor Chris French who, by contrast, thinks parapsychology is a genuine science.

After the talk at Hay-on-Wye he says he was buttonholed by Bronwen Maddox, the daughter of the late John Maddox – the editor of Nature who made him famous by denouncing his book on morphogenesis as ‘fit for burning’. The family were having guests round to their home nearby, to which Dennett had been invited, and they insisted he join them. Not altogether as one might expect, the Maddoxes were friendly and genuinely interested in his ideas. Bronwen’s brother Bruno remarked that Sheldrake had been a big name in their household when they were growing up – they were used to hearing him being discussed over breakfast.

That’s the thing about militant sceptics. When someone comes up with something they really really don’t like, what they ought to do is to keep quiet and let it pass. But they can’t help themselves – they get all excited and start shouting and gesticulating, so that the people they want to defend from such evil nonsense wake up and start to take an interest. Maddox did Sheldrake a big favour with his public rant. Now the same thing has happened with the TED controversy. Far from being downcast by his talk being bumped, Sheldrake was delighted with the result. Traffic to his website has soared, and all kinds of people have got in touch with him, never having heard of him before.

When Great Men Die

At the time of writing Nelson Mandela is clinging to life, as they say. Or perhaps trying to divest himself of it. South Africans are said to be praying for him.

It’s the cruel fate of some great national leaders to be kept alive as long as medical technology permits. When I went to Spain in October 1975 to begin my career as a journalist, I arrived just as Franco was at his last gasp. This was excellent timing for me, as it meant there would be big political changes to report. It was also joyous news for his many enemies. But it was seen by his supporters to be a catastrophe (correctly from their point of view, as his dictatorship started to crumble within months).

So the hospital doctors made heroic efforts to keep Franco alive for as long as possible. When I arrived in Madrid he had just suffered a third heart-attack, and was clearly being held together with string. Completely pointless of course - but there was a feeling that if they could keep the old geezer going for another month or two they could postpone the future. His last words were said to be, ‘I never knew it could be so hard to die’.

I wonder if something like that is happening to Mandela, who has been in and out of hospital quite a lot in recent months. The thought has occurred to some people. Andrew Mlangeni, a fellow prisoner in Robben Island, thinks it’s too much. When Mandela’s daughter came out with the usual platitudes – that her father is recovering, ‘he’s a fighter’ - Mlangeni was widely quoted as encouraging his family to ‘release’ him ‘so that God may have his own way’.

Some reports talk of Mlangeni having broken a ‘national taboo’, and of course it will be hard for South Africans to lose this source of great inspiration. But the taboo can affect any family, that make strenuous efforts to keep elderly loved ones alive against their will because they can’t deal with the emotional wrench of losing them - with the acquiescence of medical staff who, left to themselves, would prefer to let nature take its course. The case of a young stroke victim, who might conceivably be nursed to recovery, is one thing; the case of a chronically sick 94-year old something rather different.

How would this drama play out in the brave new world that atheists would like to live in, where humans are purged of nonsensical notions of living on after death? Perhaps we would hear less about release, and more about praise for being a 'fighter', for ‘raging against the dying of the light’, of squeezing the last drop out of a life that, once extinguished, has gone forever.

I don’t at all mean that atheists and agnostics can’t take an equally sensitive view of the matter as believers - of course they do. But if all humans knew – in the sense that science knows and wants all educated people to know – that survival of death is a fairytale, the merciful act of letting loved ones go might be harder to achieve.

Ghosts in Iceland

Iceland ghosts

Here’s a book which I think a lot of readers might be interested in, if they don’t already know it. It’s The Departed Among the Living, a collection of apparition reports by Erlendur Haraldsson, a veteran Icelandic psychic researcher.

Haraldsson and a colleague carried out a survey in Iceland in the 1970s, asking ‘Have you ever been aware of the presence of a deceased person?’ In a representative national sample of 902 people, 31 percent answered ‘yes’. During the following years they carried out interviews, getting people to describe the experiences, and asking detailed questions. The anecdotes form the basis of the book – there are perhaps around three hundred, a substantial number – and they are usefully grouped into categories: visual, auditory, smells and scents, sensing a presence, accidents and violent deaths, hauntings, warnings, animals, and so on.

It's the fullest book of such experiences that I’ve seen, at least in recent times, comparable with Gurney, Myers and Podmore's Phantasms of the Living. There is a depth and variety to at least some of the accounts, and also some useful commentary and stats. This being Iceland, a great deal of it has to do with accidents at sea, and the apparitions are often seen on large boats. Considering the country has a population of 300,000 (barely more than the London borough I live in) I’m left thinking that they must be an unusually psychic lot. Then again, perhaps they're just more accepting than the norm about anomalous experiences, and willing to talk about them.

There's an interesting selection on healers and cures, where people sense – and sometimes see – themselves being worked on by people who don't actually exist. This story concerns a crewman who had to take to his bed with back pain.

I must have been sleeping, although I felt quite awake and saw all that happened. There entered my cabin white dressed doctors who said they had been requested to examine me. I told them that no such request had been made. I remember this as I wrote it down immediately afterwards when I realised what had happened. They turned me around and examined my back where the pain was. Then they said: ‘We are going to operate on you’. I had never heard that this problem was operated upon. They said firmly it did not matter at all. I told them I had the shift at 4 o’clock in the night and it was impossible for me to be bedridden for a longer time. They said I would not be bedridden, could work the next day but should be careful and not lift heavy objects. Then I would be fine for a long time. As they said this I saw them and felt their hands on my back but felt no pain. They said the operation was over and they wished me well as I saw them disappear out of the door. I jumped out of bed and opened the door but saw only darkness outside. I shouted, ‘Where are the men?’ Then I heard the man on duty call back, ‘There have been no men here, you must have been dreaming’. I insisted there were two men dressed in white, doctors . . .

I had seen them so clearly as fully awake and always believed I had been awake all through this experience, although I was definitely asleep before. As I jumped out of bed, hardly able to move before, I felt no discomfort anywhere, completely healthy and have had no problem since, although I had had this problem for fifteen years and was often bedridden.

There are also a number that offer guidance or warnings: a voice that tells a factory worker sharply to ‘move away’, which he does, and escapes being crushed by dislodged piece of timber; a voice that tells a man to hurry home, where he discovers his elderly mother in a perilous condition; an apparition that forces a driver to swerve off the road, saving him from an accident; and so on.

Quite a few reports talk of some kind of communication between visitor and percipient:

A friend of mine appeared to me more than once. Five to ten days after he passed away he appeared in my room and I could feel him saying: “You knew it.” And I could feel myself thinking to him: “It’s going to happen to all of us.” I felt he was telling me that I had been right about the afterlife . . .

Reading this sort of account I often wonder how real these apparitions seem at the time. I get the sense that they are mostly seen as real people, as if they were physically there. They behave normally; they are often described as coming and going through doors, moving from one part of the house – or just as often, the vessel – to another. In other cases they might be visible only from the waist up. Sometimes they abruptly disappear, other times they slowly dissolve, as if in a grey mist.

On the other hand many are perceived as a ‘presence’, which is hard to imagine if you haven’t experienced it (for me, anyway). This account by a 30-year old woman talks about it explicitly:

I was not the only person to become aware of this. It was very obviously a deceased man. I saw how he looked, but not like one sees a living person in day-to-day life, but rather as if one somehow feels and accepts that someone is there, without actually seeing them. There were two families in the house and the children were also aware of this. They often talked about the man who was there beside them. We saw him practically every day and we could almost make a joke out of it. It was as if he had become one of the family. He almost always appeared in the same place in the room; just stood there. We made it a custom to avoid that area . . . I knew that his hair was dark and wavy, and that he was a handsome man with broad shoulders, but I cannot describe how I saw him. I thought he could have been about 35, in the prime of life . . .

As in many of the cases in Phantasms, the percipient doesn’t recognise the apparition, but other people later identify it from the description as a deceased acquaintance or relative. Some apparitions are collectively perceived: Haraldsson says there were 89 cases in which the percipient was accompanied by one or more people who should have seen the same thing, and in 41 of these cases they did so. In 29 of these cases a witness was found who could corroborate the account.

It so happened that three couples, including us, were invited to visit a house in Isafjord. When we went in, I saw a woman sitting in a chair in the living room. I must have looked away from her for when I turned to greet her she was gone. It turned out that four of us had seen the woman, and we mentioned this to the couple who lived in the house. They replied that there had been no one in the house except the two of them. When we compared our experiences and found that our accounts of what the woman looked like tallied we realised who she was. She was the grandmother of the woman who lived there, and the sister of one of the two men who had also seen her.

I'd love to quote more examples, but that’s probably as much as I can get away with. If you’re interested in such things, this book is definitely one to get.