Psi Encyclopedias

The In-Betweeners

I read a great story in a private forum recently about Marcello Truzzi, the sceptic who co-founded CSICOP with Paul Kurtz and others, but fell out with them over their militancy. I don’t suppose anyone will mind if I retell it, but I won’t reveal the source.

Truzzi was seated next to a parapsychologist at a conference dinner, and the two were arguing about whether or not remote viewing had been proved. The parapsychologist challenged Truzzi to try it then and there. Truzzi grudgingly agreed.

It was decided that the viewing would be precognitive, with the target selected after Truzzi’s experience. Truzzi was taken through the protocol, then asked to describe what imagery he saw.

He said he saw a circle. It was hard and smooth and probably metallic, possibly yellow, but at one point in the circle there was something with texture. I asked him to make a drawing. He drew a rectangle with a bird on a branch in it.

A waitress was called over and asked to write down objects in her field of vision. She chose a salt shaker, a pearl necklace that one of the women was wearing, a fork, a wine glass, flowers in a vase, and the parapsychologist’s signet ring. A second waitress was handed the list and asked to select a single object. She chose the ring.

This was an exact hit. I can’t publish the images here, but it’s a rectangular bloodstone, dark green with flecks of red, set on a gold ring. The stone is engraved with two heraldic images, one of which looks like a bird on a perch (described as a ‘kingfisher atop a bar of bunting’).

The incident was witnessed by several other people at the dinner. Truzzi found it embarrassing and insisted on being given the session data, including the order tickets on which the waitresses had created the target set and target selection.

Later the parapsychologist reminded Truzzi about the episode and challenged him about his scepticism.

There was a moment of silence as we both sat there remembering this experience. Then Marcello said, "I am much more effective and influential as a reasonable skeptic than as a convert."  We never discussed it again.

Truzzi was surely right. He filled a rather important role, that of the moderate sceptic who was prepared to confront the militants. Psi advocates see him almost as an ally in that respect. But how useful would it have been for him to express conviction about the reality of psi? In that case he would have been one of many, his influence diminished, a necessary task neglected.

People who straddle the boundary are rather rare – and intriguing. Another example is William James. In his recent biography Michael Tymn is critical of James’s ‘fence-sitting’ with regard to survival. Considering the strength of Piper’s phenomena, which was sufficient to convince Oliver Lodge, Richard Hodgson and James Hyslop, why did James continue to be so ambivalent? Tymn considers this a lack of courage on James’s part.

A reviewer – Alan Gauld in a recent issue of the SPR Journal – disagrees. He points to the ‘brilliant’ attack that James made on materialist view of consciousness and his ‘forthright’ declaration of acceptance of psychic phenomena, almost alone among professional psychologists of the day. Far from being a fence-sitter, Gauld argues, James had fundamental doubts about survival, based on genuine dismay at the state of the departed as ‘a vacancy, triviality and incoherence painful to think of.’

In a later issue Tymn pushes back. He points out that reference to his experiences with Piper are glaringly absent from The Varieties of Religious Experience. Hodgson, having seen the proofs, was perplexed that James never once addressed the survival issue, the very crux of religion. So in a hastily added postscript, apparently added to justify the omission, James concedes that although religion means immortality for most people, facts are lacking for ‘spirit return’, despite his admiration for the efforts of psychical researchers, and being ‘somewhat impressed by their favourable conclusions’.

Yet James often in his writings referred obliquely, and sympathetically, to the idea of survival. At the end of Varieties he states:

I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist’s attitude, and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and of scientific laws and objects may be all. But whenever I do this, I hear that inward monitor of which W.K. Clifford once wrote, whispering the word ‘bosh!’ Humbug is humbug, even though it bears the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow ‘scientific’ bounds.

For all this, James ‘continually beat around the bush’ on the survival issue, disguising it in such terms as ‘the eternal’. Tymn writes:

He said that a person should be content in his or her faith that there is a higher power, even if that higher power does not promise life after death... In effect, he was saying that the blind faith of religion is enough, whereas the goal of psychical research was to move from disbelief or blind faith to conviction through scientifically-developed evidence.

In short, James deliberately took the point of view of the ‘rigorously scientific’ disbeliever, on the grounds that tactically it is better to believe too little than too much. Tymn takes this to mean that he preferred the ‘safe’ approach, one in which he didn’t have to put his reputation on the line.’

Is this criticism of James justified? Tymn’s assessment did confirm my sense that James was deliberately ambivalent about survival. And it’s natural to feel that this was a lost opportunity. If James, a pioneering psychologist with enormous influence, had swung behind the survivalist convictions of other credible people who investigated Piper – notably Hodgson, Myers, Lodge and Hyslop - then perhaps the academic world would now be taking mediumship and the concept of survival more seriously.

To be fair, Tymn doesn’t go this far. But I’m sure some people think this, and it’s almost certainly false. The only effect of James’s espousing a belief in survival would have been to weaken his intellectual standing – he would have been a sadly diminished figure, both in his own lifetime and in posterity. But as a pioneering scientist, James’s dedicated interest in religious experience has helped generations of people to think about it in ways that might not otherwise be possible.

It’s certainly possible to imagine both Truzzi and James going further down a path towards conviction. Psi-advocates might wish it for their sake, believing that it’s better for anyone to understand the truth, or in order to have influential people in their camp (not understanding that such influence would vanish they moment they crossed the border). Conversely, it greatly irritates sceptics that someone of James’s stature should have dabbled in woo, and they make excuses for him, for instance that he was ‘bamboozled’ by evil charlatans.

So of course they get attacked from both sides. But I don’t believe they, and others like them, are insincere. They just happen to grow into a particular view of things - by an unusual combination of temperament, experience and circumstances – and the debates about science, psi and religion are all the richer for it.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Welcome back Robert.

Interstingly, many people take the same stance on Carl Jung as they do with William James.

Although Carl Jung's psychology incorporated the smearing together of the personal and collective unconscious, calling it "experiencing the numinous" and also had a lucid NDE after his heart attack, he assiduously avoided speculating on the afterlife and a God apart from the archetypal images and symbols created through the human collective unconscious.

Good to have you back.
Rick Stuart

Thanks Richard. It's been a while, but I have not been idle, as I shall tell :)

Yes, hadn't thought of Jung - a good example. Others?

And there was me just about to write you an email asking what you've been up to Rob ;)

My reasoning concerning James and Truzzi (he never told me THAT, and I think I did ask him whether or not he'd had any experiences of his own) is that they were judging these issues according to a combination of their own subjective experiences (or lack of them) and the wider evidence, according to their own take on that and the further questions it raised for them. But they were reluctant just to fall back on speculating too much on mere logical possibilities. That CAN result in just 'making stuff up' to fill in the gaps, and merely ignoring everything that does not support one's own position thereafter.

That is where the wackier stuff on both sides of the 'fence' comes from, with all the hot air and aggressive defensiveness that goes with it.

I'm not surprised that James therefore took the position that he did and I feel that he was being entirely honest, as is Michael Tymn . But, let's face it, James lived in a very different era and was a founding father of psychology - he was therefore bound to be rather less likely to jump in with both feet than, say, Russell Wallace, who really bought into the Spiritualist interpretation of mediumship - perhaps a bit too uncritically.

Truzzi and James were both honestly cautious, and there's nothing wrong with that.

This came to me in a timely manner.The other evening I had a discussion with a person who seemed very confused. Normally I would have diclosed more but this time I became very cautious. I thinks one has to internally vet everyone one communicates with and this discussion was helpful. Thanks

I wonder what would happen if a major world leader had a deep near death experience? Or even more provocatively, a spontaneous world-view transforming transcendent vision? I don't mean just any old apparition sighting, but a class of experience they would be unable to keep quiet about.

Hollywood celebrities and artistic types may openly discuss their encounters with the Divine, but that only adds to their panache and marketability.
Yet if a David Cameron or Barack Obama-level world leader had an experience that left them talking like Eben Alexander, would they still be able to keep their job?

I seriously doubt it, even though the world would be a better place if we listened to them.

It's said that Churchill had spontaneous psi experiences, RB. He claimed in an autobiography that one of these probably saved his life during the Boer War. It's also been claimed that he was an active supporter of Helen Duncan...although I've never thought that the evidence for that was very strong.

@Steve - I'm sure quite a few world leaders have had psi related experiences that they may or may not rationalize away. Empathetic intuitiveness could be how they find themselves at the helm to begin with. In other cases, I think political leaders make it to the top via ego-driven sociopathological reasons, but that's another story...

What I would like to see is a major world leader after a transcendent experience that left their perspective irrevocably changed.
Suppose Vladimir Putin had a deeep level NDE after say, a heat attack? Not a basic OBE, but a full-blown encounter with The Light? Would he be able to effectively govern? Would his newly found understanding of life have any impact on the rest of the world?
It would definitely create a bit of a stir.

I found myself thinking along the same lines when I read some time ago a blog post written by Hayley Stevens, a young British skeptic & ghosthunter. During her career, she has experienced a number of very odd occurrences that truly seem to defy all conventional explanation, and yet she refuses to believe in ghosts on account of them.

Some would accuse her of being stubborn in not accepting the reality of the paranormal, but I on the other hand thank her for having the strength to retain that unperturbed state of agnosticism, without which she might lose the objectivity she needs in order to keep looking for the real answers, instead of falling to easy yet-unverified beliefs.

RD, I once tried to imagine what would happen if someone invented a moral serum that nullified the worst aspects of human nature – hypocrisy, egotism etc…all of the various manifestations of selfishness that belong to the primary evolutionary drive in favour of the ‘interests’ of the individual, rather than the wider social group. I pictured a group of world leaders –politicians, religious figures etc. all jockeying for position to be last in the queue to take it. In short, the effects of such a drug would make it almost impossible to accommodate the demands of everyone else - from one’s closest colleagues to people from all backgrounds, in every corner of society. It might not be totally impossible to govern effectively, but it would be incredibly difficult and would involve huge compromises to one’s new found moral compass. I think that such a drug would be virtually useless unless everyone took it at the same time.

I have some sympathy with Hayley Stevens. On the occasions that she mentions, she received no ‘survival’ evidence (an intelligent communication, containing sound information in support of identity), to support the most popular notion that a ‘ghost’ is the spirit of a deceased human being. Without wasting too much space plumbing the depths of what I don’t know about Hayley Stevens in relation to her personal perspective, I’m guessing that she’s never been in a position where she’s encountered such evidence in relation to a ‘haunting’ . That’s not too far from my position, despite having undergone similar experiences during investigations. I ‘m further guessing that, like others (myself included) she’s experienced a disconnect between the popular idea of what a ghost is, and what ACTUALLY occurs when most ‘hauntings’ (and many ‘investigations’ of them) are examined critically.

@Richard: In actual fact, Jung, in his later years, gave a TV interview for the BBC in which he said that he didn't believe there was a God he knew there was a God.

The comments to this entry are closed.