In search of the light
The adventures of a parapsychologist
Revised version 1996
First published 1986
Unpublished commentary March 2008
Susan Blackmore is one of my science heros; this book explains why and it also ties up a very small loose end from my own biography. You might not guess to look at me, but I've spent time in a ganzfeld.
While a student at Oxford, Blackmore had a full-on out-of-the-body experience and as a result she became fired up to prove the reality of psychic phenomena. She duly studied an appropriate PhD, mixed as a peer with all the parapsychology big names, did loads of experiments. Here comes the hero bit. She's a good scientist. She designed and performed her experiments properly, but the proof she was ardently convinced she could produce did not emerge from them. Shaken but determined, she kept trying, yet the world remained dumbly material. So she changed her mind. She gradually came to think that psychic phenomena do not exist. Isn't that amazing? To change your beliefs as a result of looking carefully? Wow!
At the end of the seventies, when I was a student at Cambridge, I got the chance to take part in some telepathy experiments being run by Carl Sargent. I was pretty excited by this - Sargent had got a fair bit of media attention as he appeared to be getting clear and reproducible results. I had read Arthur Koestler and was also impressed that Hans Eysenck thought there was sound evidence for psi phenomena. Eysenck was a notorious intellectual hardnose yet he expressed this view in a book called Sense and nonsense in psychology . That's tellin' 'em! It felt like parapsychological research was definitely on the scent of something.
My interest faded very rapidly after leaving university - it wasn't sustained by any exciting psychic experiences such as Blackmore's. So it was some years before I noticed that the promising beginning seemed to have fizzled out - no more serious aticles in the guardian. Whatever happened to Carl Sargent, I wondered?
The evidence for psi which impressed Hans Eysenck was the work of JB Rhine at Duke University. I forget where I first read a proper account of the Duke University experiments. Yes, the initial results were impressive and no one has ever accused Rhine of being a fraud or a fool, but his experimental design left plenty of room for improvement. So he tightened up the design and the results were a bit less impressive. And so on: with each improvement to the experimental setup the psi effect diminished until it disappeared altogether. Ah. I see. Hmmm. Interesting. And pretty much that's the story of all parapsychology research. There has now been more than a century of this, and all the exciting results turn out, on examination, to be the result of either deception or sloppy experimentation (which is perhaps a kind of self-deception).
Susan Blackmore spent time at Carl Sargent's laboratory. Which was he - fraudulent or sloppy? That ultimately remains a mystery but In search of the light does give an inside account of the circumstances which led to his abandoning research into psi. (According to wikipedia he became a computer games designer and died a few years back).
Well that’s the story of my very brief flirtation with the paranormal, but what about Dr Blackmore – what did she do after she became disillusioned with the prospects for parapsychology?
She realised that what she was really interested in was conciousness and that this fascination does not depend on any particular interpretation or explanation. Conciousness is no less a thing because it seems to have no other ‘basis’ than the same atoms that make up the rest of the universe. The loss of a paranormal explanation does not in the least detract from the amazing experience we all have when we open our eyes in the morning. The findings of neurobiology do not in any way tarnish our raw experience of pleasure, pain, music, colour, warmth ...
There might even be personal benefits to a more material view of our minds, to becoming a bit more humble about what our minds can do:
I was driving home ... one day. There are two possible routes ... The main road is longer and rather boring, but the single track lanes can be slow; meeting a tractor, or even another car, means reversing and waiting. Which way should I go today?
I sat waiting for the lights to change and wondered what would happen if I simply did not decide. A flash of fear gripped me. Surely I would crash through the fence and into the hedge between the two. The lights changed. A hand grasped the gear lever, a foot pressed the pedal, the steering wheel moved to the left, and we set off down the lanes. The decision was made without "me." "I" wasn’t needed.
I gradually extended that new attitude to other, more tricky decisions, and I now practice this way of living. Ten years ago I wrote: "I am not very good at making decisions". I wouldn’t say that now. Decisions seem much easier without a false idea of a "self" who makes them, or to whom the outcome matters one way or the other.
For me, the whole book was worth it just for that passage. I don't go around saying 'the self is an illusion' because that's unhelpful, but there is something odd, something illusory about the idea.
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