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.