It seems to me that a lot of people in the spirituality business positively embrace the idea that mind and matter are intimately related. In principle, I go along with that. In practice, though, I’m bound to say that my ideas about the relationship between mind and the external world are quite conflicted.
At the end of a busy day last week, I thought I’d squeeze in an hour clearing up loose ends on the Psi Encylopedia. One chore was to update a particular page. When I went to it, I found a new draft had been created. I’d no recollection of having made it, and in this instance no one else could have done it. So I decided to get rid of it.
Just as I was hovering over the delete button I heard a stentorian voice in the street outside shouting ‘WAIT! WAIT!’ I knew it was my neighbour shouting at his dog, but it crossed my mind that this might also have some relevance to my current circumstance. Then, as often happens, I rebelled against the thought. The idea that external events might have neatly coordinated themselves in order to send me a message hardly bears thinking about. I prefer to rely on my own judgement, make my own decisions.
So I went ahead and hit delete. I quickly discovered that, having misunderstood the function (which is one I don’t generally use) I’d deleted not only the draft but the entire original page. I hunted around, but it was gone. I couldn’t fish it out of the recycle bin, as there isn’t one. I had to contact support and get them to recover it from the backup, which was time-consuming and costly – and embarrassing.
So yes: ‘Wait!’ would have been good advice to follow. I should have put it off until the next morning, when I’d have been fresh, and would have taken the trouble to check before taking action.
In that case, I could say the mechanism – whatever it is, and however it should be described – is essentially benign – at least in this case. So why resist it? There doesn’t even have to be a metaphysical dimension: my subconscious mind wants to tell me something, and opportunistically takes account of something in the external world to bring it to my attention.
And to be sure, accepted this way it can be useful. I recall a morning at work many years ago being utterly frustrated by a seemingly intractable problem. Then I had to go out on an errand, which involved a short journey on the underground. As it happened, just days earlier new ticket barriers had been installed, the kind that are still in operation in London today, where ‘exit’ flashes up in green when you present your card, and ‘seek assistance’ in red comes up if the card isn’t working. On this occasion, there must have been something wrong with my card, and I got ‘seek assistance’. Given my current preoccupation, that seemed like good advice. So when I got back I consulted a colleague, and between us we soon figured out a solution.
I’ve seen ‘seek assistance’ hundreds of times since, without attaching any special significance to it. So I could say, it’s all in the mind. If you experience something that seems meaningful in a special way, it’s because your subconscious is trying to tell you something.
Fair enough. But there are times when the externals seem to order themselves in a very particular way, combining with my inner world to bring about a result that could not occur simply by random. It can even seem like a joint operation: a mysterious outside influence co-operating with my subconscious – almost as if two people are conspiring to attract the attention of a rather obtuse third party.
One day about a year ago, I stepped into the street and was startled to see a hearse parked outside. Right by my front door. It seemed odd, but I thought no more about it, and the next day it was gone. But two days later, there it was again! I was spooked – it felt like a visit from the Grim Reaper. I did a quick mental scan: a distant relation was seriously ill, but I didn’t feel a connection there; my own family were all fine. Then I caught what I was doing. Looking for a rational explanation I recalled that a funeral company had recently started up two blocks away. Perhaps it owned the hearse, and for lack of a parking space was obliged to share the residential parking. In this way I put it out of my mind.
I recalled the incident again six weeks later, when I saw the same vehicle parked in a neighbouring street. Two things immediately struck me.
The first was that it wasn’t a hearse at all; it was a Mercedes Benz E350 estate car, sleek and black and shiny, with lots of chrome and a square rear-end, but nothing out of the ordinary, and not remotely big enough to carry a coffin. So what on earth made me think it was a hearse?
The second thought was that, just a day or two after my second sighting of the ‘hearse’, our twelve-year-old Staffie, on a trip to the vet for his annual jabs, was unexpectedly diagnosed with terminal cancer, and three weeks later had to be put down. He was a much-loved family member, and his passing threw the household into uproar.
Putting all this together, I reasoned as follows: On a subconscious level I had some premonition of a coming tide of emotional turbulence related to a death. To bring it up to the surface, some part of myself subtly altered my conscious perception of an external object in such a way as to create a particular meaning, which did indeed lead to the desired result. That done, I could make of it what I would – which in my case was nothing, since I prefer not to pay attention to such intimations. And surely I was right not to. It would have been no great help to precognise this sort of event, on the contrary, it would have caused needless anxiety. If stuff’s going to happen, it will.
But in my heart of hearts I can’t really accept that there’s nothing going on here that isn’t entirely explicable in terms of everyday psychology. In the case of the dog-walker telling me to wait, it’s true that he goes out every day, also that I’ve heard him shouting like that once or twice before. But to explain why the shout came at the precise second that it was needed, and not ten seconds before, or ten seconds after, or at any other time, one has to resort to the Argument from Pure Coincidence, which sometimes works, but at other times looks transparently like a means to avoid what one finds unsettling.
Again, it’s true that my misidentification of a car precipitated an internal drama that uncannily matched a subsequent event. But it’s also true that an appropriate vehicle was parked in the only place where it’s presence would force itself on my attention, and when this didn’t happen, got parked in exactly the same place a second time, as if whatever organising principle was at work was having another attempt (I’d never seen it there before, and never saw it there again.)
So I’m left with the idea that a part of myself psychokinetically interacted with my external reality in order to bring about a physical event, perhaps with the additional involvement of some other agency.
This shocks me, but then I consider: shouldn’t I also be equally shocked by the idea of precognition? To many minds that’s so destructive of common-sense notions as to be hardly worth thinking about. Yet for some reason precognition doesn’t disturb me in the same way, I just take it to be an indication that our reality is not as we take it to be, and that one day perhaps far in the future it will be understood in a different way. In another sense, of course, precognition fits into the current evolutionary framework as an adaptation that confers a potential advantage on animals seeking to evade predators. That helps create the comforting illusion that it can, after all, be explained from a naturalistic perspective.
Precognition is essentially passive, a channel for information that one can act on or disregard, or in most cases simply not be aware of. Certainly, if one thinks through the implications it can be terrifying.
But psychokinesis is on another level altogether. The idea that humans may actively influence their environment at a distance by the power of thought has a terrible history. It would be equally disturbing, whether it goes on unconsciously all the time or can be employed as a deliberate means to manipulate. And it must surely be obvious that for science to validate psi would introduce a dangerously destabilising factor into social relations. Looked at from this perspective, surely, no one can reasonably complain about psi phenomena being taboo, or denounce ‘psi-deniers’ for standing in the way of reason.