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Geller Again

Uri Geller is back in the news, which will please him. His name stands out in the CIA’s mass online release of classified documents last week, relating to the testing of him by Russell Targ and Hal Puthoff at Stanford Research Institute in 1972-3, and I’m interested to see how the media is reacting.

In fact there's nothing particularly new here. The documents themselves were declassified some time ago – it’s just that they’ve been placed online where they can be seen without having to go to a library. As for the Geller ESP tests, they were described in Targ and Puthoff’s Mind-Reach (1977), and in any number of other books since. The significance is that we can now see the original drawings, which in a few cases show how exactly Geller was able to reproduce images that had been drawn by the experimenters at a distance. The Daily Mail shows several of these.

What struck me especially is that the headlines are all about Geller, and (on the assumption that he’s a faker) the remarkable – and allegedly hitherto unknown fact – that the hardboiled CIA itself was convinced he was genuinely psychic. The Stargate programme is mentioned here and there, but the impression given is that Geller was the original ‘psychic warrior’, as some of the reports describe him. This is quite wrong. The positive tests may have played some role in the initial assessment by the US military intelligence, and encouraged it to give serious funding. But the long-term remote viewing at SRI was carried out by people like Ingo Swann, Pat Price, Hella Hammid and Joe McMoneagle, some of whom are said on many occasions to have provided actionable intelligence. Their collective contribution is far more significant in this field than Geller’s and yet, not being world famous, they’re hardly ever mentioned.

The sense I’m left with is how extremely primitive the public understanding of these matters is. None of the articles I’ve seen so far seem to have any sense of context. Some are overtly hostile –a particularly dinosaurish piece in yesterday’s Sunday Times stated, among many other untruths, that the psychics ‘never provided US intelligence with a single useful piece of information’. If that’s the case, why did it spend so much money for so many years? There must have been some reason why the viewers’ ‘customers’ in the intelligence community kept coming back for more.

A lot of this prejudice and misinformation, I’m afraid, has to do with Geller himself. When he came on the scene in the late 1960s it doubtless helped popularise ESP research. But because he’s always seen himself first and foremost as a celebrity entertainer – aiming to fascinate and mystify – he’s regarded by many people as an especially talented conjurer with a twist, one who (unlike other conjurers) claims that what he does is real. So of course they’re puzzled to discover that supposedly tough military types were taken in.

I had some dealings with Geller a few years ago (a writing job for a friend of his, nothing to do with him or psychic stuff), and found him to be charming and empathetic. I think he takes the whole celebrity thing way too seriously, but OK, that’s how he makes his living. What’s so frustrating is the way his notoriety casts a shadow over psi research. Whenever I discuss it with people who know little or nothing about it – which is not often, being a somewhat unrewarding business – it’s always Geller they mention, and since he’s been so heavily targeted by the sceptic community, never in a good sense. People seem to think that those like myself who believe psi is real have been ‘taken in by Uri Geller’, as if he was the sole and single reason for taking it seriously.

The chapter in James Randi’s Flim-Flam! that purports to debunk Geller’s SRI tests is something that all sceptics know about, as will doubtless be confirmed later in the comments thread. I expect also we’ll hear a lot about the ‘peep-hole’ in the isolation booth that according to Randi could have enabled Geller to see the target drawings, had they also been placed in the line of sight. It may indeed be that the experimenters’ methods were less than completely secure, but I’ve always been sceptical that highly-intelligent physicists could not have spotted something so basic (yes, I know, scientists are supposed not to know about magic tricks, but there’s nothing especially magical about a peep-hole).

And why would there be a hole in an isolation booth? I can think of one reason, to carry audio cables, but that’s normally done at floor level. So it’s no surprise to learn from David Scott Rogo, who took the trouble to visit Stanford to check up on Randi’s claim, that that’s indeed where the hole is, which means Geller could only have benefited from it if he’d been tasked with divining the colour of the experimenters’ socks - if it hadn't also been covered by a metal plate.

Another ‘explanation ‘of the SRI results, aired in a 1974 New Scientist article is that Geller had implanted a miniature communication device in a tooth, that enabled him to get the details of the drawings from a confederate. But I don’t know how much we’ll hear about that, as it never really took off.

None of this is to defend Geller, who can look after himself, or the probity of his SRI tests, which could be proved to have been entirely faked without in the least affecting the results of the far greater and multi-faceted remote viewing projects that followed over decades. The Psi Encyclopedia has yet to include a piece on the Stargate project (although one is being written now). But at the weekend, by coincidence, I uploaded a general survey of remote viewing by Stephan Schwarz, one of its most dedicated pioneers. He gives details of projects carried out at his Mobius lab, which included some very striking archaeological finds by a team of viewers that at various time included Ingo Swann, Hella Hammid, and the novelist Michael Crichton.

The piece also includes the unequivocal statement by statistician Jessica Utts:

Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well established. The statistical results of the studies examined are far beyond what is expected by chance. Arguments that these results could be due to methodological flaws in the experiments are soundly refuted. Effects of similar magnitude have been replicated at a number of laboratories across the world. Such consistency cannot be readily explained by claims of flaws or fraud.

Surely that’s the real story here – it’s just not one that’s likely to feature in the mainstream press.

The Science-Religion Continuum

This article in the New York Times ‘Stone’ column got my attention. It’s by science writer Robert Wright, whose 1996 book The Moral Animal I rather admired, while not agreeing with all its ideas.

Wright starts by quoting from an (unpublished) video interview he made years ago with William Hamilton, the Oxford evolutionary biologist whose theory of kin selection helped make the field so influential. At one point Hamilton mentions casually that he’s open to the idea that evolution might not, after all, be the whole story about moral purpose. Perhaps, he muses, we should be open to the idea that ‘promptings’ about the ‘ultimate good’ might be coming from a different source. He would have left it that, concerned about getting off-topic. But of course Wright was intrigued and pressed him further.

I asked him if he meant that there was some kind of “transcendental purpose” that we humans are generally oblivious to.

He answered: “Yes, yes. There’s one theory of the universe that I rather like — I accept it in an almost joking spirit — and that is that Planet Earth in our solar system is a kind of zoo for extra-terrestrial beings who dwell out there somewhere. And this is the best, the most interesting experiment they could set up: to set up the evolution on Planet Earth going in such a way that it would produce these really interesting characters — humans who go around doing things — and they watch their experiment, interfering hardly at all so that almost everything we do comes out according to the laws of nature. But every now and then they see something which doesn’t look quite right — this zoo is going to kill itself off if they let you do this or that.” So, he continued, these extra-terrestrials “insert a finger and just change some little thing. And maybe those are the miracles which the religious people like to so emphasize.” He reiterated: “I put it forward in an almost joking spirit. But I think it’s a kind of hypothesis that’s very, very hard to dismiss.”

Most scientists don’t like to think about extra-terrestrials because they think it means departing from the scientific worldview, Wright says. But it doesn’t. An ‘alien’ doesn’t have to be from another dimension, but rather inhabits our own universe – a physical being like ourselves, who in this particular context just happens to have a technological sophistication far beyond our own.

You may consider aliens spooky, but they’re not a spooky force. And they’re not supernatural beings. They’re just physical beings, like us. Their technology is so advanced that their interventions might seem miraculous to us — as various smartphone apps would seem to my great-great-grandparents — but these interventions would in fact comply with the laws of science. More to the point: If you ask how Hamilton’s aliens had initially imparted “purpose” to life, the answer is that they did so in concrete fashion: by planting simple self-replicating material on earth a few billion years ago, confident that it would lead to something that would keep them entertained (keeping them entertained being, in this scenario, life’s purpose).

Wright adds that it’s not intellectually disrespectable to hold that life on Earth is a cosmic computer projection, and that the history of our universe is the unfolding of an algorithm. That’s because it’s based on technology, not on metaphysics or any kind of supernatural conception.

You may scoff, but in 2003 the philosopher Nick Bostrom of Oxford University published a paper laying out reasons to think that we are pretty likely to be living in a simulation. And the simulation hypothesis has gained influential supporters. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium and America’s de facto astronomer laureate, finds it plausible. The visionary tech entrepreneur Elon Musk says there’s almost no chance that we’re living in “base reality.” The New Yorker reported earlier this year that “two tech billionaires” — it didn’t say whether Musk is one of them — “have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation.”

But then, as Wright points out, the cosmic projection hypothesis is a God hypothesis: ‘an intelligence of awe-inspiring power created our universe for reasons we can speculate about but can’t entirely fathom … theology has entered ‘secular’ discourse under another name.

Exactly so. And once you strip away the cultural and historical accretions around religious thinking, and penetrate to the spiritual core teaching, one could construct a religious-type scenario that is close to thinking in the (entirely secular) AI and digital future communities. Here, we could view channelled ‘spirit teachings’ – Seth, Agartha, White Eagle, Silver Birch, The Course of Miracles, and all the rest – as the ‘promptings’, as Hamilton calls them, of those who set up (or who at least manage) the simulation. They’re in the lab, quietly murmuring instructions to us from their distant planet, in a way that emerges fitfully in our active lives in what we call conscience, but which on occasion – and if we properly clear the mind channel of extraneous noise – we can literally make out the words.

(Obviously, Hamilton's scenario requires some kind of mechanism by which the distant ETs can monitor us and communicate, but let’s assume, with their vastly more advanced technological capability, they’ve figured that out.)

But then what about the voices that plague the mentally ill, that taunt them and drive them to commit murder? Are they also distant ET technicians talking to us? In that case, why would they want to send messages calculated to cause harm?

Well, perhaps we could extend the idea in creative ways: the human life experiment is controversial, and perhaps some disaffected individuals on this remote controlling station have broken into the laboratory and are trying to sabotage it. Perhaps one could build an entire theodicy around the idea of extra-terrestrial hackers!

I don’t think in these terms myself, but it seems that growing numbers of people in the technological and gaming communities – people who consider themselves to be atheists – talk in language that lends itself to a sort of secular theology. In its extreme manifestation it’s what Robert Geraci, a religious studies professor, calls ‘apocalyptic AI’, the idea that by transmigrating to more efficient non-organic ‘bodies’ we can eventually attain to blissful eternal life.

The conclusion is that secularists are actually quite comfortable with the whole God thing – or certain aspects of it, as long as it lies within human comprehension. That gets confirmation of a kind from the Uber-Atheist himself, Richard Dawkins:

It could be that at some earlier time, somewhere in the universe, a civilization evolved by probably some kind of Darwinian means to a very, very high level of technology, and designed a form of life that they seeded onto, perhaps, this planet. Now that is a possibility, and an intriguing possibility. And I suppose it's possible that you might find evidence for that if you look at the details of our chemistry, molecular biology, you might find a signature of some sort of designer, and that designer could well be a higher intelligence from elsewhere in the universe. But that higher intelligence would itself have had to have come about by some explicable, or ultimately explicable, process. It couldn't have just jumped into existence spontaneously. That's the point.

So Dawkins gives us permission to believe in a higher intelligence than ours, just so long as we don’t invest it with ‘supernatural’ qualities.

Back to Wright, who calls himself a scientifically-minded agnostic (uncertain, but leaning towards secularism), is actively interested in mindfulness and meditation, and is disparaging of militant atheists like Dawkins and Sam Harris. It’s not the nuts and bolts of creation that interests him, rather the development of morality in humans, which he depicts as purposeful while striving to keep it within the bounds of scientific secularism, as a product of evolution. But flirting with teleology gets him into trouble with fundamentalists like Jerry Coyne, who derides it as ‘creationism for liberals’. For Coyne, ideas like extra-terrestrials running a ‘human zoo’, or of life as a Matrix-style simulation, don’t deserve serious consideration.

For one thing, they are untestable claims and therefore unscientific ones. How would we know that we’re manipulated by aliens, or even part of a simulation? Further, it’s unparsimonious. What reason do we have for thinking that we are a gigantic real or virtual experiment rather than inhabitants of a real Universe? Adding those manipulative aliens just puts another layer on the hypothesis.

One answer, I suppose, is that humans have a powerful subjective sense of something beyond themselves, something significant that seems to demand the kind of explanation that scientific materialism can’t supply. But of course that’s not an issue for strict materialists for whom subjective human experience doesn’t merit consideration.

For his part, Wright shows signs of finding his self-imposed constraints irksome, as in this rejoinder to Coyne:

… some of the properties evinced by the system we’ve been discussing are the kinds of properties associated with “higher purpose” in the more traditional sense of a “divine” purpose. For example, there’s the aforementioned moral progress that has accompanied the expansion of social organization. And there’s the fact that sustaining history’s erratic but discernible drift toward a cohesive global community will almost certainly require more moral progress. Indeed, given the signs of backsliding on this project—given the growing prospect that humankind, having reached the brink of a global community, will dissolve into chaos—you could say that our species is facing an epic moral test. And God knows that kind of thing has traditionally been associated with divine purpose.

I find all this encouraging. It’s good to see a scientifically literate writer, who really knows his way around evolutionary psychology – one of the dominating explanatory paradigms of our age – engaging with a secular audience on matters whose importance that paradigm tends to obscure. A space is opening up, largely thanks to rapidly advancing digital technology, where one can potentially talk about metaphysical issues to secularists without sending them running for the hills. (Incidentally, Wright has a slot on, where he conducts video conversations with all sorts of interesting folk.)

That said, I also wonder whether one might extend this space, venturing further into metaphysical realms where the secular air is thinner, so to speak, but which is still nominally ‘safe’ in the sense that it remains attached to a secular base.

If we start from ideas of extra-terrestrials running the Earth project, or alternatively a Matrix-type scenario, would it be such a jump to locate these super-beings, not on some remote planet in a neighbouring galaxy, or even in another universe – both unfathomably distant – but in a different dimension altogether? A place, in other words, where we could never get to meet them even if we had suitably powerful spaceships, since their material reality does not interact with ours. Physicists do deal in extra dimensions, after all. Is there any reason why we shouldn’t conceive of them being inhabited by life forms, whose origin we can likewise attribute to impersonal evolutionary forces? How far can we stretch the envelope?

My point is that there’s a continuum here rather than a boundary. You travel from one state (science) towards an apparently antithetical state (religion) in a gradual way, certainly having to negotiate tricky gaps in certain places, but without being forced to step over a red line into a supernatural realm, where all bets are off no explanations are possible, and everything reduces to the idea of ‘God’. How far you’re willing to travel along this continuum depends on your tolerance of religious ideas, or your need to combine spiritual sustenance with loyalty to the scientific paradigm. A Coyne would not start the journey; a Dawkins might go a short distance, under protest. A Robert Wright would travel as far as he can take his audience with him.

Speaking for myself, having reached the boundary I could step over it without feeling personal discomfort. Perhaps that’s because, for better or worse, I seem to lack the need for mechanical explanations, that deep-seated, visceral appetite that drives the scientist. It’s also because I’m sceptical of the whole idea of ultimate explanations. You don’t have to envisage life in distant galaxies and alternative dimensions to bump up against the boundary, we’ve got one right here at home – even some materialists doubt that consciousness can ever be explained.