Monday, January 21, 2008

Two recent talks

On January 16 I gave a talk at Google headquarters in Silicon Valley, which you can view here. The title was Science and the Psi Taboo.

Abstract: Do telepathy, clairvoyance and other "psi" abilities exist? The majority of the general population believes that they do, and yet fewer than one percent of mainstream academic institutions have any faculty known for their interest in these frequently reported experiences. Why is a topic of enduring and widespread interest met with such resounding silence in academia? The answer is not due to a lack of scientific evidence, or even to a lack of scientific interest, but rather involves a taboo. I will discuss the nature of this taboo, some of the empirical evidence and critical responses, and speculate on the implications.

On January 19 I gave a talk at a conference entitled "Investigations of Consciousness and the Unseen World: Proof of an Afterlife?" I talked about the implications of psi, specifically telepathy, for the possibility of survival of bodily death. Other speakers included Loyd Auerbach on hauntings, Jim Tucker on reincarnation, Bruce Greyson on NDEs, Fred Alan Wolf on a possible relationship between survival of consciousness and the quantum field, Dianne Arcangel on afterlife encounters, Arthur Hastings on the psychomanteum, and Gary Schwartz and mediumship research. There were also demonstration readings by two well known mediums.

My impression of this conference was that the preponderance of the best available evidence suggests that something does persist after death. While the search for survival, as beautifully documented in Deborah Blum's book Ghost Hunters, has been muddied by fraudulent opportunists claiming to speak to the dead, after sifting through the good, bad and ugly evidence an evidential residue has remained that the best minds could not explain away. The same is true today. Much of today's evidence can probably be explained by one or more ordinary reasons. But not all of it. And the remaining bits, the best evidence, provide very interesting clues suggestive of survival.

It might be a disembodied "soul," or perhaps persistence of memory embedded in the environment in some unknown way, or an aspect of psi, etc. Exactly what it may be is not known, but in my opinion the likelihood of explaining the best evidence away as coincidence, or wishful thinking, or one or more cognitive biases, is exceedingly small.

Given the import of the mere possibility that something survives death, one might think that this would be a hot area of research. But as with research on psi in the living, there are perhaps 5 to 10 scientists in the world who are actively studying this topic. The limiting issue is funding, not interest.

One might think that purely out of curiosity the DoD might allocate say, 0.1% of their annual budget to study what happens after death, vs. the hundreds of billions a year spent each year on technologies designed to produce death: 99.9% devoted to the death machine, 0.1% to the follow-up question, then what? Seems reasonable to me.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The levitating pillow

I often receive stories of psychic experiences. Occasionally I ask the poster if I may repost the story here. (I change names and identifying places upon request, as I did in this post.)

I enjoyed reading Entangled Minds, and I've been perusing older posts on your blog. I just read the "Entangled Artists" entry from May 22, 2006 - the coincidental similarity of Teka Luttrell's art and the Shift cover, and I want to share a similar story with you.

When I was around 18 (many years ago!), I discovered the music and lyrics of an artist who became a mentor of sorts to me, in that his music opened my mind to expanded consciousness and spirituality - and the beginning of psi experiences for me, which I'm certain is no coincidence! This person was then (still is) very spiritual, very creative, and living on the West Coast at the time. While I was in college, one night before I went to bed, I'd been focusing very intently on this mentor, meditating to his music with headphones, which put me into a much higher/altered state of consciousness. I was fairly "buzzing" to put it mildly, vibrating at a high frequency. That night I had a lucid dream that I sat up on the bed, held my hand over my pillow and made it levitate. It was so vivid, so real that after I (my body) woke up I wondered if I'd truly just levitated the pillow in my sleep (as in sleepwalking)! I'd never had any such levitation experience - I certainly had never tried levitation in waking life or had any interest in the concept - and I've never had any such experience since then. So I forgot about it.

About 15 years later, I was having dinner with a mutual friend/colleague of my mentor. This dinner partner brought up my mentor, and seemingly out of nowhere, he recalled how years ago this guy (my mentor) "was into levitating pillows." My face went positively ashen and I was trembling; my friend saw this and asked what was wrong. I asked him, "When was this?" He said it was in the late 1970s, around 78-79 - exactly the year in college I'd had my levitating pillow lucid dream! Back then (in college) I never knew my mentor had practiced/concentrated on levitating pillows as a hobby (also, being a very private, somewhat shy person, it's not something he would have broadcast or made public) and at that point I did not know anyone who knew him. I had never, ever in 15 years associated the "dream" of levitating the pillow with my mentor - but now it makes perfect sense. I'd been very "tuned in" to him prior to going to sleep; I have no way to prove it, but perhaps that very night while I was sleeping in my dorm room, my mentor was attempting to levitate a pillow (maybe he succeeded!).... It's just too bizarre, too specific to be a mere coincidence. I can see no other explanation for it - a case of entangled minds, some sort of quantum entanglement occurring. One thing's for certain, upon hearing this story, this dinner partner had no doubt at all that my mentor and I had some strange psychic connection.

Anyway, it took 15 years to connect the bizarre levitating pillow experience to my mentor, and another 10 years to understand the possible cause - it was worth the wait! I thought this story might be of interest to you and had to share.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Why I'm not a skeptic

No, not why I'm not skeptical, or critical-minded, because those traits are essential in science. Rather, I don't consider myself a "skeptic," as in a card-carrying member of a skeptical society, because most (not all) of the people I know who belong to such societies are loud, arrogant, angry, and cynical. I prefer to spend time with people who are quiet, humble, calm and hopeful.

This came to mind after reading one of Steven Novella's blogs. In it he parrots skeptical mantras that are known to be wrong. I won't bother to address them here because they are addressed in detail in Entangled Minds. But I will respond to two comments. First:
"There is no proposed mechanism for ESP that amounts to a reductionist model based upon established physics or biology."

This is a peculiar complaint, because if we can only accept things in terms of what we already understand, then science is no longer an open system. It collapses into the worst sort of mindless dogma, and no genuinely new discoveries are possible. If you have any inclination to agree with Novella's comment, please read the history of science.

The second comment was:

"The lack of a possible or even hypothetical mechanism for ESP also means that ESP research is limited to anomaly hunting. All studies that propose to look for ESP (for example the research of Dean Radin or Rupert Sheldrake) are not looking for ESP (because no one knows what ESP is) but rather are looking for anomalies. In fact some researchers more honestly label what they are looking for as “anomalous cognition.”

I sometimes use the term anomalous cognition as a euphemism, mainly when I want to avoid freaking out academics. But psi research is absolutely not a "hunt for anomalies." Psi experiments are conducted to test, under rigorously controlled conditions, whether the experiences labeled telepathy, clairvoyance, etc., are what they appear to be (i.e. genuine ESP), or whether they are better understood as coincidence, delusion, or one or more cognitive biases. The anomaly label is valid only in the sense that verifiable effects are unexpected with respect to existing theories. But as I've mentioned above, to assume that nothing exists outside of what we already understand, especially when the effect is empirically and repeatable demonstrable (as some psi effects are), is exceedingly bad science.