There is no taboo on studying psychic phenomena, just boredom

October 20, 2013

Regular commenter (and blogger) @lettersquash left a great comment here yesterday. I want to write a quick post picking up an important point from it. It concerns the repeated yammering from parapsychologists and psychic researchers (not to mention cancer quacks) that mainstream science has a taboo against studying psychic phenomena. Lettersquash notes that Rupert Sheldrake, for example,

rails against the taboo against studying psychic phenomena, although people have been studying it for centuries (and finding nothing).

The ‘taboo’ is boredom, the boredom some of us feel when someone tells us enthusiastically their house is haunted or they saw a spaceship land on their lawn last night or they know their dog can understand everything they’re saying….

The whole rant is excellent and well worth reading and responding to. I will post a few quick thoughts on this topic here…..

It seems to me that far from having a taboo about spiritual or psychic phenomena, scientists and serious researchers have been especially accommodating of such ideas. If people were not so emotionally invested in these ideas (and I include scientists here) there is no way that science would have wasted so much time and energy on them. Yet regardless of how many times such claims are demolished by properly conducted research, and such ideas are shown to be utterly useless by the laws of physics, nutbags like Rupert Sheldrake or Dean Radin continue to insist that it’s merely because of a taboo that these ideas have not entered mainstream science. No. It’s because these presumptious nitwits have published their poorly researched failures too quickly and are too egotistical or too greedy to back down.

The history of science is littered with failed hypotheses and disproven theories. Even very popular and plausible ones were swiftly dispatched pretty much as soon as it became clear that they were implausible. The theory that gravity was due to the existence of an “ether” through which the planets moved was dropped as soon as Newton figured out the math for measuring the exact velocity of planets at all points of their (elliptical) orbits. He was shocked to find that it they moved exactly according to his theoretical calculations which deliberately ignored the effects of the resistance he expected to find. (Like air resistance, it was supposed that ether would also cause a slight drag.) Had ether been equated with the Holy Ghost, or — a more relevant example — been supposed to be the medium through which we can communicate with the dead, we would probably still be forced to speak of it respectfully in hushed tones and fund research into why science “can’t explain” how it allows planets to move through it without resistance.

It’s an insult to science and to scientists to claim this taboo exists. Science itself is the process by which evidence is evaluated for its reliability and usefulness. Scientific method is entirely concerned with this, and scientific knowledge can be said to consist of those things which are so well established that it no longer makes any sense to test it. It’s not that difficult to realize that this valuable knowledge has implications — namely that we don’t need to waste time on investigating clearly implausible ideas.

If there is a taboo it’s against treating religious ideas exactly the same as other ideas and dismissing them when they have been clearly shown to be useless.

Of course, it’s fine if people want to go on gathering data and carrying out experiments (though why not try conducting them properly for once???). Maybe one day you’ll hit the jackpot. ESP will be proven to exist and we will be able to read minds with exactly the same accuracy as if we were guessing; homeopathy will be proven and we’ll be able to heal people just as effectively as a placebo; psychics will legitimately be able to help police find missing children with exactly the same success rate as random chance…. And a Golden Age will ensue….

UPDATE 17 June 2014

I wasn’t joking in the comments below when I warned of a $20 fine for any commenter linking to a paranormal claim that has already been thoroughly debunked. Unfortunately, one commenter below posted this link to a book containing a veritable encyclopedia of idiotic charlatans and woos, (Uri Geller, for example) and a long list of fraudulent and debunked woo practices (Kirlian photography, for example). Many of these topics are no longer worthy of consideration, beyond serving as rather mundane cases studies of well documented fraud, delusion, and ignorance. 

For this act, I hereby fine commenter Roman Voronjanski $20 to be paid to Doctors Without Borders. As an act of clemency, however, a fitting donation has been paid by this website on behalf of the offender. Please do not offend again. Next time I won’t pay it, and you will be placed on moderation until you do.

Confirmation notice – €20 donation (click to enlarge if you can read German)

Posted by Yakaru


  1. Thanks so much for that mention, yakaru, and I seriously LOLed at the last paragraph of this! Yeah, that’s the carrot – the suggestion that we’re really close to discovering some amazing spiritual secret that will make life work as it does in our wildest, happiest dreams. Despite having never left the mat for longer than Newton would have predicted centuries ago, let’s carry on trying to yogic-fly for hours a day! We MUST be doing something wrong. There CAN’T be anything wrong with the theory, so it MUST be the practice.

  2. I’ll reiterate my thumbs up for lettersquash’s original comment and add another for Yakaru’s elaboration on it.

    I seriously LOLed at the last paragraph of this! Yeah, that’s the carrot – the suggestion that we’re really close to discovering some amazing spiritual secret that will make life work as it does in our wildest, happiest dreams.

    As mentioned in the original thread, that’s one thing that made the paranormal turn sour for me. They made big claims and promises for the future but never made visible progress. It doesn’t help matters that a lot of woo TV shows love to end on a big “inconclusive” and woo papers on “more research needed.” It’s an eternal tease.

    One point I’ve had to make to some newage trolls is that the anger I experience isn’t because I fear change, because I’m jealous of their powers or original thinking, because I have a financial or emotional investment in skepticism, or whatever they think of. I get angry because they’re dragging me through the same tedious, transparent routines all over again. They don’t seem to grasp that I’m impatiently trying to get them to deviate from the failed formulaic arguments. If they want to change my mind, they need to present something new. Unfortunately, they typically aren’t interested in learning where I’ve been, except to rehearse their prejudices.

  3. This is a very good point and one worth amplifying. This idea of pushing against imaginary taboos is another example of quacks trying to convince their followers that they have special knowledge. “I can teach you about something that is so powerful, scientists won’t even study it!” People eat that kind of thing up, for some reason.

    There’s nothing wrong with a failed hypothesis, of course. The problem is when they aren’t probably discarded when it’s realized that it is a failed hypothesis.

  4. It’s forbidden fruit salad. Add a dash of sticking it to the nerds, sprinkle in the hipster desire to like something before it’s accepted by the mainstream consensus, and drown it in the dressing of you’re a blithe spirit because you have a magical intuition that breaks all the stifling Straw Vulcan rules.

  5. @lettersquash,
    I appreciated your original comment doubly — not just for clearly summing up a few things I’d been trying to formulate & raising many important issues, but also because I read it straight after moderating that comment from “Albert Einstein”.

    I’ve been insulted and attacked by spiritual people for a couple of decades now, (it even used to happen when I was a woo), so it really doesn’t bother me… But the arrogance of someone using Einstein’s name to leave a pig ignorant unfounded insult is really a bit much. So I thought your rant hit exactly the right tone.

    @Bronze Dog & Mariah
    It’s incredible how they manage to be both formulaic and incoherent at the same time, isn’t it. I guess it’s not really such a paradox. When I was a woo I was sure I knew what all the words in my own forbidden fruit salad meant, but really they were just empty shells that sounded like they must mean something.

    And I didn’t realize that setting the bar that low makes it impossible to distinguish the “nice harmless stuff” from blatant quackery and fraud.

  6. I used to think that Sheldrake was using satire to ask questions like who should be the arbiter of what is studied by science. Now I realise that he is, in fact, just another old academic, bored with his students and hoping to become adored by a new age audience.

    This should be recognised as a mental illness, and I really would like to hear some suggestions for naming such a syndrome.

  7. I suspect he’s suffering from a myoclonic von Dänikenization of the central nervous system. In this, the sufferer’s junk DNA somehow becomes activated, in a process that science still can’t explain. This then affects the 90% of the brain that we usually never use and causes it to compulsively repeat certain words and behaviors for decades until eventually all bodily functioning ceases.

    It’s named after Erich von Däniken, who is still lecturing about ancient aliens 40 years or more after his ideas were thoroughly debunked.

  8. Sounds contagious. May be he should be quarantined along with Radin, Lipton, Siegel and the rest.

  9. That post did it for me too Yakaru. I have felt much of what you say here.
    I’ve considered in the past the large and probably still growing group of things that have their own in-built explanations as to why they are untestable and how the mere motive of well designed and controlled experiment (our best way of knowing what is true) allows them to wave off any negative data because the ‘critical vibes’ were disruptive, or the visiting spacecraft has a propulsion system which interferes with mechanical things like cars and cameras, or the ancient natural spirit of the wildlands wont let you actually see the supposed monster.
    Science has achieved so much, but with a selection of vague, misty, magical and ethereal reasons, the woo can not only answer the question (albeit a pissy and totally unconvincing answer), but at the same time and without effort they have placed their claims above and beyond scientific examination. It frustrates me too.
    I put a lot of stock in science. I see the ways we can know things using it’s method and how further testing can narrow the results to closer determine exactly what we are dealing with.
    I see its self-correcting nature and have come to understand the enthusiasm that can come from it.

  10. Closure of parapsychology lab throws spotlight on scientific taboos.


  11. @anonymous,

    Exactly. Nature is one of the top scientific journals. That it carries a news item about the closure of a failed parapsychology unit (in a leading university) demonstrates that there is no taboo against this stuff.

  12. Hello,

    First I have to say that I really like this blog. It’s really a good thing to promote critical thinking and debunk scammers who try to rip off their customers. I also think it’s good to talk about or even criticize religion, because it’s a normal topic like any other.
    However, I don’t think we can be absolutely certain that no psi exists. There are some experiments with anomalous results. No, I’m not talking about the Ganzfeld experiments. I’m referring to experiments from dream research.

    As you perhaps know, most anomalous experiences are reported to occur in dreams. Virtually every culture had its share of anomalous dreams. You probably know the story with the seven fat cows and the seven lean cows that apparently predicted the future in a symbolic way.
    Also, the IASD (International Association for the Study of Dreams) does telepathy contests every year with striking results sometimes.
    Besides that, Stanley Krippner, a parapsychologist whom even skeptics like, has conducted dream telepathy experiments over a long period of time. His experiments were statistically significant.
    You can read about his work here:
    As you might know, the CIA once funded the Stargate Project. Psychics had to use ESP to provide secret and unknown information or locate target objects. There’s a great debate about whether psi spies could obtain accurate information. However, the official report concluded that they didn’t. You can read about it here:
    Another experiment, performed by the distinguished sleep researcher Carlyle Smith, PhD, is also very intriguing in my view. You can read about it here:
    The article has a link to his email adress. You can ask him questions or give him advice if you find methodological flaws.
    Near-death experiences are very interesting in my view as well. Whether they’re stories generated by our brain or whether something is really going on can’t be said at the moment, I would humbly suggest.
    Here are three great links:

    Here is a fair book about spirituality and parapsychology, presenting both the believer’s and skeptic’s position:
    Last but not least, here is a paper from a guy who experienced precognitive dreams. It was written by a guy who experienced precognitive dreams, he is definitely not a scientist. While I acknowledge that his reports are anecdotal and that anecdotes might be fraudulent, it still offers some insight into stories people experience:

    Click to access Theory_Of_Precognitive_Dreams.pdf

    Why am I posting this?

    I’ve had experiences with anomalous dreams which I believe can’t be explained. I thoroughly considered all explanations before coming to this conclusion. If you’re interested, I can post my experience.
    I am interested in a fair, open-minded discussion. I’m very interested in science and absolutely love the scientific method. I just believe there might be more to this stuff than we think.
    By the way, you wrote about NEW Age quacks like Dr. Lipton who are dishonest and uninformed or simply ignorant. However, there might be more to epigenetics than we think. How far it goes, no one knows. Just watch this BBC documentary.
    I again want to emphasize that I don’t support scammers, ignorant creationists, global warming deniers, New Age quacks etc. I just think we all should stay humble and open-minded and just try to do our best.

  13. However, I don’t think we can be absolutely certain that no psi exists.

    No one claims to be absolutely certain of this. The issue is that no one’s proven that it does exist, and as doubters, we think the parapsychologists have the burden of proof.

    Besides that, Stanley Krippner, a parapsychologist whom even skeptics like, has conducted dream telepathy experiments over a long period of time. His experiments were statistically significant.

    Never heard of him, at least not by name. Why should we like him? Also, statistical significance is meaningless if the protocols don’t rule out known causes and confounders, which is often the issue.

    As you might know, the CIA once funded the Stargate Project. Psychics had to use ESP to provide secret and unknown information or locate target objects. There’s a great debate about whether psi spies could obtain accurate information. However, the official report concluded that they didn’t.

    Nothing unusual, there. Government officials and agencies often have pet projects inspired by wishful thinking rather than grounded in science.

    While I acknowledge that his reports are anecdotal and that anecdotes might be fraudulent,

    You just walked your way into a common straw man, the idea that skeptics assume deliberate fraud first. It’s more commonly about the reliability of human perception and memory. Humans have a universal capacity for self-deception and are prone to altering their memories to form narratives that fit their expectations or appeal to their ego.

    I’ve had experiences with anomalous dreams which I believe can’t be explained. I thoroughly considered all explanations before coming to this conclusion.

    Which explanations have you considered? A lot of beliefs exist because people vastly underestimate the actual volume of available explanations.

  14. Thanks for your comment Roman, most welcome!

    As Bronze Dog has pointed out, what’s too often missing case reports is consideration of alternative explanations, and from studies, proper methodology.

    I’ll refer you here, for an interesting take on the history of psi research–

    I also argued here, that actually we are better equipped now to uncover psi than ever before, yet good solid evidence is still missing–

    The above link gives a hypothetical example of a psychic experience, and suggests ways that it could have been documented, with the exact sequence of events recorded by email, or GPS, or photo from a cell phone etc. Memory might be subjectively convincing, and it may, hypothetically, even be exactly accurate, but unless it can be objectively or alternatively verified, it’s quite useless for anything but encouragement to look further.

    I’m not at all opposed to research into the subject, but I wish that it would be properly carried out, and any supposed “positives” repeated and properly verified BEFORE it hits the headlines.

  15. Okay, here’s an example of what’s wrong with psi research. From your link, on precognitive dreaming.

    Click to access Theory_Of_Precognitive_Dreams.pdf

    Look at the abstract–

    This paper examines the phenomena of precognitive dreams which are part of anomalous cognition and occur during physical sleep.

    The “phenomenon” in question has not been proven, but the author simply assumes it is real, and sets out to study it.

    Precognition Dreaming is the act of observing future events that take place later in the objective world.

    …With absolutely no decent evidence verifying its existence….

    The duration of time between the dream and the future event can range from days, weeks, months and even years.

    He makes it sound like he’s got so much evidence that he needs to break it down into manageable bits. In fact, he doesn’t know any of this at all. He’s just making it up.

    The quality of information observed during a dream can vary, depending on psychological models of memory, awareness and perception [MAP].

    But just in case a mass of properly conducted research suddenly drops on his desk, he’s already got a sorting method for the “quality of the information” sorted out in advance. I guess he pre-cognitively dreamed it.

    See the problem, Roman? Your honesty, curiosity and open mindedness are not shared by the vast majority of writers in this field. That’s why I always give up after reading the first paragraph of these studies.

  16. Sure, I can see your problem here. But the paper was written by a person who studied arts, not science. You can’t blame him. I only said his experiences are pretty interesting if they are true.
    Look, in the end of this paper he admits: “Although science struggles to identify and prove the reality of this phenomenon, it
    certainly doesn’t wait for science to say if it’s real or not.” You see, it’s not a scientific paper. He considers it to be real because of his own observations.
    Please comment the following study, this is much more interesting:
    This is a strange journal, I admit. Look only at the study, regardless where it was published. If it’s true, then psi can become really practical.
    Can you find any flaws in this study?

  17. How about you look at it more closely? What do you see wrong with it? The previous link I looked at was a pretentious piece of nonsense. Why did he present it in the format of an academic paper if all it was was a heap of speculation? Why did you ask me to look at it? I thought you were saying there’s evidence. That was the opposite of evidence.

    And the next paper — please check these yourself before posting them here. It’s immediately recognizable as pseudo-science.

    Let’s assume that the experiment was properly and rigorously conducted according to normal scientific standards, which I totally doubt, but to avoid wasting time I won’t bother checking it. Look at the conclusion:

    Young, healthy adults are capable of dreaming details about the personal problems of an unknown individual simply by examining a picture of the target and then planning to dream about that individual’s problems.

    Pseudo-science. They haven’t bothered getting anyone to independently replicate the experiment, but have already concluded that healthy young adults are capable of doing this. A scientific result would stick exactly to the actual results and not generalize them in that manner. This is taking one favorable result and running straight to PR department with it instead of checking it.

    And I invite anyone else who doesn’t mid wasting some time to take a closer look at the methodology.

    Roman, posting any more badly conducted research here will carry a $20 fine.

  18. Hello,

    The conclusion is very bold and maybe an overstatement, I agree, but the experimental design is what matters, in my view. Can you find any flaws there?
    I think it’s not fair to judge an experiment by looking at the wording of the conclusion.

  19. I don’t know why the piece about precognitive dreaming was written in the format of an academic paper. I asked you to look at it because it contains interesting anecdotal evidence, no scientific evidence, see the difference?
    First, all science begins with observation which is basically anecdotal evidence. When you test the phenomenon in a lab and you observe something, it becomes scientific evidence.
    Second, the author tried precognition in lucid dreams. Lucid dreams are dreams in which you know that you’re dreaming. This phenomenon is proven empirically as you can read here:
    As far as I know, psi abilities were not tested in lucid dreams to date.

  20. The reason why it was written in that format is because, just like the “precognitive dream” paper, they want to sell it as a piece of science, and can only do that by misrepresenting themselves in the most basic and deceitful manner.

    Sorry, but I’m not interested in any anecdotal evidence. Some people find that stuff entertaining, but not me, and especially not if it is presented in such an utterly dishonest, presumptuous, and ridiculous manner.

    I’ve practiced meditation for a couple of decades, studied many forms of spirituality, interpreted my experiences according to various belief systems which I believed at the time, and I’ve experienced plenty of “weird stuff” — dreams that seemed to come true, OBEs, “seen” aliens, been an alien, experienced “being on a spacecraft”, been haunted (very scary), communicated with the dead, had a healing miracle, caused healing miracles… just like everyone else.

    I enjoyed it all at the time, but I never told anyone about it because the interpretation is different from the experience itself; memory is colored by the interpretation; talking about it distorts it even more; and then throw in the blazing egotism and arrogance of spiritual people and all you’ve got is a huge crock of self-serving BS….And then they present it as a scientific study. It’s pathetic.

    If psi researchers really wanted to discover anything, they’d gather data properly. If they ever stumbled on a real piece of psi evidence, they would lose it through crappy recording methods.

  21. First, meditation has positive effects on the brain. It increases emotional control, boosts the immune system and alleviates pain. Check the facts yourself. Wikipedia has them all.
    Second, you seem to have had some weird beliefs earlier. I’m glad you got rid of them. Seriously I have much empathy for people who believe without using their critical mind. Whether it’s God, aliens, gurus or whatever doesn’t matter. They probably need some help. I admire your website because it uncovers scams. You got more skeptical because of that which is also admirable. However, please be aware that your traumatic experiences if I can call them that way may also lead to cognitive dissonance. Because of that, you might fail to recognize that there might be more to life than we know. Being to critical can also blind to facts, look at relationships were people view each other too critically (which is called distrust). They sometimes exaggerate things and so on. Know what I mean? I don’t want to accuse you of anything, don’t get me wrong, I merely wanted to say that this can happen.
    Ah and the Law of attraction is bullshit and is certainly not a natural law. However, placebosheal illnesses sometimes. This sometimes works, but you of course shouldn’t rely on that. Get what I mean?

  22. “please be aware that your traumatic experiences if I can call them that way may also lead to cognitive dissonance”

    I never hinted at any traumatic experiences. I had overwhelmingly positive experiences. But I’m also interested in reality, and it’s very clear that in reality there is no evidence for any of that stuff at the moment. It’s also clear that the people who claim to be looking for it are either hopelessly incompetent or deliberately deceptive. You should stop excusing their frivolous time wasting.

    “Because of that, you might fail to recognize that there might be more to life than we know”

    I am certain there’s more to life than we know. And if those things do in fact influence reality at our level in some subtle way, then there is no way some crappy prejudiced, self-interested boring idiot like Sheldrake or Radin or the people who did the fake studies you linked to, will ever find it.

    I am not, in principle, denying that these things might exist, just that there has so far been no solid evidence for them. What there has been, however is thousands of poorly or deceitfully conducted studies, anecdotes recounted as truth, and — the subject of the post — constant whining that science is somehow opposed to it.

    Look, treat anecdotal evidence for what it is — unreliable and scientifically useless.

    ** Incidentally, on a positive note, I think you hold the record for most civil dissenting commenter so far on this blog…. Only one double post, only a one or two assumptions about my character…. And it’s unusual that anyone goes this long without having a melt down! Thanks for your comments!

  23. Look, there’s no solid, replicable evidence at the moment, I never claimed anything different, but claiming that all studies in parapsychology are fraudulent is like saying all women are stupid or all Germans are neat and punctual. Don’t you believe that intelectually honest parapsychologists exist? I gave you a study about dream telepathy. You criticized its conclusion by saying it’s pseudoscience. I said that it’s merely a slight overstatement. I asked you to point out its flaws concerning methodology. I know there was much fraud in parapsychology, maybe more than in the other sciences which certainly hurt its reputation of being a science at all.
    I also want to point out that studies in other sciences are sometimes sloppily designed.
    I also want my beliefs to be grounded in reality. That’s why I want an open-minded, fair discussion.
    As I said earlier, good studies were carried out by Stanley Krippner. Stan received numerous awards from the American Psychological Association. Check Wikipedia.
    Carlyle Smith, a distingueshed sleep researcher from Canada, did the dream telepathy study I gave you. He received an award from the Canadian Sleep Society.
    Here’s the link proving my statement:
    Do you think scintists receive awards for their incompetence? Think twice.
    I’m absolutely not defending anyone despite what you may think. I don’t think I’m less rational than you are, just because I think there might be something to it. That’s a very careful statement, at least in my humble opinion.
    Meditation, for example, is very helpful. It creates feelings of happiness, boosts your immune system and alleviates pain. There’s plenty of evidence for that.
    Also, placebos can heal people, at least from some conditions. The effect is known to exist, but noone knows how far it goes. The LOA stuff, although it’s complete bullshit, might be able heal to heal some conditions, because the mind is known for its healing capabilities. Evidence for all my statements can be found easily on the internet.
    I also want to say that lucid dreams were once considered to be a paranormal phenomenon. Now they’re scientifically studied all over the world. Check Wikipedia.

  24. And thanks for your compliments! I hope you consider me to be intellectually honest.

  25. Yes, I do think you’re intellectually honest!

    However I didn’t say that all parapsychology studies are fraudulent. I said either badly conducted or deliberately deceitful. I have never seen a single properly designed and correctly conducted study. Not one. I have heard of honest parapsychologists too, second hand, but I’ve never seen any direct evidence of it.

    After 25+ years of looking into this stuff, every single piece of evidence I’ve ever encountered (including much that I accepted as true) has immediately fallen to bits on closer inquiry,

    I have looked into this very deeply, and I suspect one big difference between your position and mine is that I have no more patience for this stuff or the people who make their living from it.

    I am not at all opposed to people researching it. I just want them to do it honestly and not bother me unless they really have something. That would also be the case if they were all as honest as you claim Krippner to be.

    What interests me more is the way people fool themselves (me included — just I do it in other areas of life, not spirituality so much!) and to counter the constant attacks on science that come from spiritual teachers, quacks and (in less dangerous form) from parapsychologists, as this post deals with.

  26. Yeah I think we have reached agreement. That was a really good reply. I would just give the advice to always keep an open but critical mind.
    If you don’t know of any intellectually honest parapsychologists, here are the best I know:
    Stanley Krippner
    If you have looked deeply into the stuff for more than 25 years, it’s a shame you don’t know him. This is the most respectable, intelectually honest, critical, scientific parapsychologist who is very respected by skeptics like James Randi. If I were you, I would do some research. Start with this link:
    Douglas Stokes
    Douglas Stokes believes in psi but he has criticized many studies. He also published an article in the skeptical enquirer. He blatantly admits that the existence of psi has not been scientifically demonstrated. He has an excellent book that you can read here:
    Check him out! You can download every chapter as doc file.
    Because your criteria seem to be very high, I won’t post any other here. These are by far the best as far as I know.
    I believe psi should be studied because there are so many anecdotal reports. These things seem to happen sometimes. I even have some friends who seem to have experienced it. The research should be done propperly, I agree. I believe there’s no taboo on psychical research. I have done some informal experiments myself. I kept a dream journal and tried to incubate psychic dreams. Often, it didn’t work, but sometimes, I seemed to have success. This is no evidence, just experience.
    I know that many parapsychologists can’t deal with criticism. I don’t think it’s because they want to deceive others, but it’s because they’re blinded by hope and belief. Many of them seem to be decent people. Don’t be angry at them.
    Of course there are quacks who want to undermine scientific progress. They are enemies of science. I think you should keep uncovering their hidden agendas and marketing strategies.
    It’s good you’re interested in the psychology of deception, belief, fear and hope. Keep your good work, just treat psi phenomena fairly. It’s controversial whether they exist, noone knows. There are some studies that seem to indicate that such phenomena may indeed exist, other studies find nothing.

  27. Hi Roman. This might help. http://www.skepticforum.com/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=23300

    I haven’t read the full paper, only the abstract and quoted passages in this response to it, but it’s clearly not much like proper science. Towards the end of this discussion, there is a general critcism of this kind of statistical manipulation (I can’t honestly call it analysis), which to my mind is the crux of the problem. It is a little like cold reading. If we find someone mentions hands, we match that with our target, who has a problem in her hands, but we skim over lots of non-matching data as though it had no statistical significance at all, when in fact it does – it SHOULD be counted against the hit. In just the same way, when a “psychic” says to the audience, “I’m hearing from someone called Jake…Jack?…Jules?…Jillian?…it definitely begins with a ‘j'”, we habitually ignore the blank silence of the audience, the misses, until they get a hit. I could emphasize some of the other errors in this – particularly the idea of making up a scoring scale on the fly, conducting an experiment as part of a class, giving incentives, using one’s own students as participants, etc. – but they pale into insignificance against this issue of how the human brain habitually misunderstands statistical judgements. There should not be a scoring scale that says “Lungs = 1” or “Breast hurt = 2” unless it includes “Lawnmower = -1”, “Great crested newt = -1”, etc., etc.

    Another very significant criticism is that students were shown photos of the target person. Any positive effect might equally indicate that human beings are very good at picking up subtle cues about people’s problems from their faces. It’s a counter-hypothesis that is vastly more likely than that we can magically know those problems through some psychic process.

    It’s usually bad practice to start wondering about mechanisms for anecdotal non-effects, but in this case it might be instructive to do so. What in the name of Zarquon do these people imagine is the conduit of human problems or other data that is correlated in the spirit realm with photographs of faces? It’s as dumb as expecting that ghosts would communicate with us in tape hiss, or mumble the initial of their first name incoherently in the ear of a psychic.

  28. Hi,
    Some of the criticism sounds plausible to me, some doesn’t.
    1. The scale
    I don’t know whether the scale was made on the fly. The Hall-Van de Castle Scale is used widely in dream research. See the following link:
    2. The photographs
    This sounds like legitimate criticism. I wrote to the author the following email:
    Hello Dr. Smith,

    Did the photos in your dream telepathy study show more than faces? Did the people on the photos look unhealthy?

    Yours sincerely,

    Roman Voronjanski
    That’s what he replied:
    Hello Roman,
    The pictures were photos. They did not look unhealthy. As you know, individuals often cannot even name the correct emotion when looking at a photo of someone. Interestingly, several students came in right after seeing the picture and before they had any dreams. They had “intuitions” about what the person might have. They all turned out to be quite wrong. Not even close.
    Carlyle Smith
    It’s difficult to judge who is right, because the photos were not included. Their inclusion would be unethical, however.
    3. Using his own students
    Basically, there’s nothing wrong with that, but in psi research, you could give unconscious clues. The problem with that criticism is he didn’t know the people himself.
    4. Picking the dreams that fit
    This is a very important criticism that should be examined. Cold reading is a serious problem. Here, the designer of the study tried to minimize the risk of being picky. He examined the dreams of his students before the study and during the study. Also, he had a control group that had to look at ficticious photographs. The dreams were not describing the problems as close according to him. The problem with this paper is, however, that it doesn’t list all the dreams, I mean the ones that didn’t fit. This is a shame.
    5. Incentives
    If you have ever taken part in a study, then you know you get some money for taking part. Here, the students got grades. In many studies, students get a reward, so nothing wrong with that either.
    Of course, this is no evidence, just some indication that there might be something. I’m very well aware of all the cold reading techniques and I also know they’re really smart. I have a very good book about cold reading.
    I hope the author wasn’t dishonest. He didn’t publish all the dreams and didn’t include the photos (understandably so).
    Read the experiment yourself.

  29. 6. Explanation of the results
    If his results are correct and not fabricated or something, the explanation would still pose a problem. If these phenomena occur, then we don’t know why. This guy on the forum seems to be mocking, which is not appropriate.
    Sorry, I’m not a scientist, so I can’t criticize the statistics used.

  30. Roman, can you tell me why you say “Ah and the Law of attraction is bullshit and is certainly not a natural law.”? It hasn’t been studied as much as dream telepathy, but large numbers of people have strong anecdotal evidence of it working. Why don’t you reserve judgement and say it might be true? Why are you “mocking” (or at least, completely dismissive) about it? Why are you “certain”?

    The Krippner/Grateful Dead article was funny and included some indications of the problem with psi. I’m not a statistician either, but I understand the general principle. If you throw a (hypothetically perfect) die, the laws of physics say you will get approximately 50/50 heads/tails, right? But the laws of chance don’t specify how approximate that’s going to be. So, imagine you have a black box with a readout on it, and it “predicts” the result of a random choice like a coin toss. You could hypothesize that it contains a psychic spirit that can tell what the coin will do, and run the experiment. You then get – occasionally – a result that standard scientific tests would consider statistically significant. But it’s not repeatable. Indeed, lots of experiments suggest the null hypothesis. Now, if you’re a psi believer, you don’t care. You say that sometimes your psychic box works and other times it doesn’t, and more research must be done…let’s not rule it out…let’s be open-minded.

    And of course, that’s fine – let those who want to keep tossing coins do so – to see if they get statistically more heads if the wind is in the right direction, there aren’t too many sunspots, they’ve dropped a good tab and they’re at the right kind of rock concert. But after some time thinking about these things, you realise they are actually arbitrary – why not do research to discover the small pink unicorns that live inside clover flowers and are sometimes visible – or ants inside Krippner’s pocket?

    You appeal for the possibility of psi phenomena because lots of people report them, but there are almost certainly purely psychological reasons why certain perceived phenomena crop up again and again. This is what Sheldrake keeps going on about – there’s likely to be something real because so many people believe their dog is psychic or they know when a friend is about to call. Learn some standard psychology. Understand that the brain is a pattern recognition machine, and it recognises patterns largely by creating them from a bank of what it expects and then seeing if they fit the outside world, and it does this in a dreadfully biased manner.

    We make mistakes very easily, and then those mistakes get compounded. Krippner’s belief, for example, that he knew his grandfather was dead before it was announced may have been imagined after the event – or pure coincidence – or natural intuition (unconsciously processing data he wasn’t aware he knew). That could predispose him to belief in psi, which would then begin a snowballing of “experimenter effects” in his life and work. Yet that article says that after all that life’s effort he doesn’t believe in anything, hasn’t found anything, just “plays with ideas” and says that if psi is real it’s not predictable…but he still believes it so much deep down that he blames the solar weather for failed repetition of the results! That makes him something less than intellectually honest in my book – he’s apparently not being open-minded – he’s not giving the null hypothesis enough credit.

  31. “large numbers of people have strong anecdotal evidence of it working. Why don’t you reserve judgement and say it might be true?”

    — Yep.

    I have strong anecdotal evidence that these phenomena are entirely a matter of interpretation (or rather misinterpretation). I’ve believed in telepathy and thought I saw it working and could do it pretty much at will. Now I realize I was fooling myself. If anecdotal evidence is acceptable then mine anecdotal evidence to the contrary should also be given equal weighting if not more weight.

    This is always the problem with lowering standards for evidence — you let in all kinds of nonsense along with the desired nonsense.

  32. Hello,

    You said I’m dismissive of the law of attraction. Yeah, that’s true. It’s because I believe it’s difficult or even impossible to falsify it. Everything that is unfalsifiable should not be studied by science. I think it’s unfalsifiable because you could be subconsciously trying to attain your goal or the placebo effect may be at work and you couldn’t rule out these possibilities in an experiment.
    Here’s an example:
    Let’s suppose you want to attract a beautiful wife or the cure of a disease. If you imagine all day long that you want the girl of your choice, you will pay more attention to girls. If you’l meet the girl of your dreams in real life, you’ll say it’s meaningful coincidence. Nothing wrong with that interpretation, because it’s really meaningful to you. However, when someone says it was the law of attraction, it’s probably wrong. Why? Because the Occam’s razor, a central scientific principle, says that the simplest explanation should be accepted unless data suggests otherwise. Why can’t we gather falsifiable data? Well, because you can’t create a control group that doesn’t use the law of attraction, because, according to believers, you always use the principles of attraction. Besides that, noone can see your thoughts in a lab. Because believers say that every thought has the potential of manifestation and we think thousands if not millions thoughts a day and we can’t control this variable, all experiments would be useless.
    I think if spontaneous remissions occur (and they do, even from difficult conditions), it can be attributed to other factors, such as the placebo effect and probably other mechanisms. Mind-body medicine is serious science.
    The law of attraction belongs into the realm of religion, not science. I think you should write an article in your blog telling people why the law of attraction can never be science, telling all the arguments why it can’t be falsified.
    Now about the criticism of Krippner.
    I think your criticism of Krippner is unfair. Why?
    1. He accepts criticism in comparison to other parapsychologists. Accepting criticism is very important in science. You should give this fact some credit.
    2. He did his dream telepathy experiments that have not been reproduced. He found some correlations with geomagnetic activity in his experiments. Finding correlations is normal, even if they don’t seem plausible at the time.
    3. You said: “Krippner’s belief, for example, that he knew his grandfather was dead before it was announced may have been imagined after the event – or pure coincidence – or natural intuition (unconsciously processing data he wasn’t aware he knew).”
    You’re right, it could be. This is something he admits by the way, but if such a thing happened to you, wouldn’t you want to find out what it was? Be honest!
    4. Deep down, he believes in parapsychology. That’s almost certainly true. If your experiments worked (that were praised by many people by the way) and others can’t replicate them, you’re in a state of cognitive dissonance. You have three options:
    1. You could doubt the validity of your experiments and experience. Doubting them would mean you attribute everything to coincidence and false memory and other things. That’s the route you have chosen.
    2. You could admit that you don’t know and that research should go on. That’s the route I and Krippner take. Deep down, I admit, I also believe in psi, but I also know that the amount of evidence is not satisfactory at the moment. I wait for the decades to come. I mean, I’m just 21 and have some time on earth. I also admit that my experiences could have other explanations, but after a thorough analysis by myself and friends (of which one is skeptical of psi), I think these explanations are unlikely. The skeptic said that it was due to false memory or later attribution of facts. Yeah, could be, but I don’t think so at the moment.
    3. You could be like Sheldrake or Radin and claim that psi is a scientifically proven fact. This is wrong. Telling something like this is intellectual dishonesty.
    And you know what? We all are prone to belief, some more than others. A few studies I’ve found on the internet suggest that even highly intelligent people believe some things to be correct although they’re not. If I later find out that I’ve been fooled, that’s fine. I’ve decided to believe in psi due to my aparent experiences with it.
    I just want to define what intelectual honesty in parapsychology means to me so all know what I’m talking about:
    1. The scientist should accept criticism, even from hardcore skeptics. Krippner does that, Stokes as well.
    2. Parapsychologists shouldn’t blame skeptics to be dogmatists and materialists. It’s a pity many or even most do this.
    3. Parapsychologists shouldn’t attack skeptics. This shows their stupidity. Some even have written books to debunk skeptics. This is not necessary, in my view. If psi exists, it will sooner or later find its way into mainstream science. Maybe spirituality and science will merge one day in unpredictable ways, who knows?
    That’s what I expect from fair and intellectually honest skeptics:
    1. They should criticize the methodology of parapsychologists in a fair way.
    2. They shouldn’t consider parapsychologists to be dishonest out of hand or consider them to be gullible, although some are.
    3. Skeptics should treat parapsychologists fairly. That’s often not the case. Just look into forums of skeptical organizations and you’ll know what I mean. The scoffing needs to stop.
    In October, I’ll start studying psychology at university. When I’ll be a scientist, I’ll be better equiped to deal with methodological flaws. I want to become a scientist who wants to study highly intelligent children and altered states of consciousness. I hope my plans will work.

  33. And who said your anecdotes have more weight? This is emotional classification, not scientific rigor. Science has to evaluate all anecdotes. Anecdotes can show the scientist where to look, that’s all. Claims have to be experimentally tested with very tight controls and scientific rigor.

  34. The reason I mentioned my anecdotes is to illustrate the weakness of using anecdotes as evidence. If i lowered my standards down to that which most parapsychologists routinely use, then this post would have been just anecdotes about how I don’t think telepathy exists because that’s how it looks to me. Would have been just as enlightening as the average parapsychology paper, only less pretentious.

    I could also study a whole lot of people who report similar experiences to mine, and suggest that there’s an etheric barrier around peoples heads that prevents telepathy, and get some university to pay me to study it. It’s all explained by quantum physics.

    Every single anecdote I’ve ever seen used by parapsychologists was unverified and in its details unquestioned. Memory is colored too strongly by personal emotions and interpretations and post hoc reasoning for them to be of much use, yet their significance and veracity is routinely unquestioned. (See post on Dean Radin linked above.)

    When Krippner finds something and it gets verified, studied by others, replicated dozens of times and refined, then I’ll take a look. Until then I wish him luck and remind him that the distinction between speculation and knowledge is an important one if he wants to do proper work, and not jsut grandstand and waste everyones time like all the others.

  35. I agree with you on most things. However, I still think that psi might be a complicated system and we don’t know all the factors yet. That’s why scientists can’t replicate it.
    But I have another question: What is if psi behaves like quantum physics? I mean, if the channels get on and off randomly and consistent replication is therefore impossible? For example, radioactive decay can’t be predicted. What do you think?
    Thanks for the debate by the way. You have great arguments!

  36. Yep, something might exist that acts in ways that are extremely difficult to replicate. In which case it will never be found by people with shoddy research methods.

    If there was something in quantum physics that influenced this stuff, it would show up as anomalies in the math.

  37. All right, thank you!

  38. Maybe Lettersquash will answer some of your earlier points, but all I can really add that your comments remind me that these are important questions about the nature of existence and the way we experience it, regardless of how many creeps and cooks make useless careers out of it.

    Nice to have a level headed dissenter/semi-dissenter here for a change! Thanks, Roman.

  39. Roman, thanks for explaining about your view of the law of attraction. I’m afraid I see psi in much the same light, since it apparently shows no consistency. I believe your (and Krippner’s) hope is rather naive, i.e. that it is just “complicated”, and that is why we haven’t got to grips with it yet. I have tried to give you a sense of why that is. My “black box” predicts random numbers with no worse success rate than any of the supposed psychics (on my reading of the data so far). I am, of course, ignoring the cheats and pathetically incompetent experimenters (and why are there so many of them in parapsychology?), taking account of the file drawer effect and so on. I admit that this is a personal reading of the state of affairs as much as yours is. But this really is a good picture of it. Serious, hard-core psi research is done in this manner – subjects trying to influence random number generators, for instance, are admitted by believer experimenters to show only miniscule variations from chance, inconsistently to the point of being virtually random, but they believe this is a clue, a good start, and so the whole research cycle starts again instead of them recognising that there are just as many experiments, or a good deal more, that show negative effects or none, and these cancel out the “promising results”. What it does is show that they are almost certainly coincidental.

    How many heads should I throw, Roman, to convince you I’m not psychic? If I get 502 out of 1000, does that show that I’ve got the beginnings of something? This is the actual reality of the field as far as I am aware.

    It is folly to believe in something for which there is not strong evidence, expecting that it’s complicated and we haven’t fine-tuned our methods yet. Of course, that is possible, but belief, or hope that it will be shown to be true in however many years, should indicate to you that you are probably not thinking straight about the subject. As Yakaru said, emotions colour our memory. and thus our judgement. The sign of a good scientific mind is one of doubt, not belief. Try not believing in psi. Try a lot.

    I have written an article or two on the LoA. http://lettersquash.wordpress.com/2008/10/29/the-secret-shhhhh-pass-it-on/ In this one, I also get on to placebo and then I do a little experiment in which I genuinely try to influence ten coin tosses to get heads all the time, and after nine tails my brain starts rationalizing that I’m a sceptic, so I’m bound to magically disprove my own psychic abilities. Superstition is a deep psychological program we run.

  40. Hello guys,

    I know that the evidence is weak for mentally influencing number generators. I would be convinced someone is psychic if he can throw about maybe 600 heads or so. This would be 20% above chance. 575 heads would probably also be enough, it’s 15% above chance. If we’re very nice people, we can lower it to 550 heads which would be 10% above chance. Are these numbers high enough?

    You’re probably hinting at the experiments done by the PEAR lab (Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research). The lab was closed in 2007. The results were weak indeed. The lab was also criticized for its research methods.
    The most promising line of parapsychology research comes from dream research. Krippner’s and Carlyle Smith’s telepathy and precognition experiments are the formal expieriments I like most, but there are also informal groups which try to investigate paranormal phenomena. The IASD (International Association for the Study of Dreams) has a dreeam telepathy contest every year.

    Here’s how it works:
    It’s much cheaper to do it online and you can have much more participants all around the globe. I found some dreams to be very interesting.

    Another promising line of research comes from near-death experiences. Check out the following links:
    You Tube vid

    Please watch the youtube video at least before we continue the debate. If you want to know more about consciousness and why science struggles to define it, you can also check out the following link:

    All this is certainly no easy stuff and there are many discoveries to be made.
    Here are some other things I want to point out just to make you think:
    Despite all our sciences, we don’t know how such a difficult molecule like the DNA could have emerged. If you read the Wikipedia article on abiogenesis, you can see that there are many competing hypotheses. This suggests that we actually don’t know. If you had biology in class, you probably talked about the process of DNA replication. If you can remember how it works, you might have noticed that this process is, in fact, quite beautiful. How this could have been arisen by chance is a mystery to science.

    Also, your blog seems to be talking about epigenetics a lot. While I agree that there are many quacks who claim miraculous things, I am also aware that some discoveries in epigenetics might, in fact, prove to be revolutionary. They have the potential to contribute greatly to our understanding of heredity. Look at the following links:
    You Tube link

    Also, noone knows what happened before the big bang so far. If you speak to an atheist, he’ll say we came from nothing or from some quantum bla bla bla that I don’t understand because I’m not a physicist and it’s too difficult for me to grasp. If you ask a believer of some sort, he’ll say a God of some sort created it. Whether He or she will say that his or her God is pantheistic, deistic or personal, doesn’t matter. We have to believe or not believe because we don’t know any better. Whether you say we came from nothing or a God created it, I have no way of disproving you at the moment.

    A few thoughts about faith and knowledge

    As you probably know, science is a vibrant field that is always changing. We’re learning more and more about ourselves and the universe. Science is open-ended which means that paradigm shifts occur whenever new data arrives. Our current understanding of the world might be very limited, because if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t need to do research anymore. Sure, you could say science is based on evidence and I couldn’t disagree, but we also have the problem of interpretation. We only can base our interpretations on what we already know, thus, we have to rely on what we already know and assume to be true, so science is also parcially based on faith.
    Since there are questions that can’t be empirically studied, we have to believe things. For example, whether God exists or not.

    Also, I guess, you underestimate the effects of cognitive dissonance. We’re all biased. None of us is completely open-minded. If you consider something to be true, you need much less evidence to accept it. At the other extreme, there are people who don’t accept something no matter how much evidence exists.

    Back to psi

    At the moment, there’s no good, replicable evidence for psi. Whether psi exists or not, history will reveal. Whether I an naive or not, noone knows. I try to do my own informal experiments while thightening my criteria for success. If you want to read about the most important experiments in parapsychology and its flaws, you should read Douglas Stoke’s book. It also contains speculations what psi would tell us about timespace and
    consciousness if it will ever be discovered. You can find it on the following pages:
    I have posted the links to the book a few times now, because I belive they might get lost between all my arguments.
    I had a private correspondence with Krippner. I asked him whether he thinks psi will be accepted into mainstream science. Here is what he wrote:
    “Yes, I think that psi phenomena will eventually find its way into mainstream science. Just last month I was a member of a panel on parapsychology at the annual convention of the Association for Psychological Science. We had excellent questions from the audience and not one of the questions was derogatory or scoffing. This would never have happened a decade ago.”
    So, studying psi is no taboo, the answer was proof of that.
    Maybe he’s right, maybe not, we’ll see.

  41. –Moderation/ Admin Notice–

    Roman — please make your comments shorter and try to stick to only one topic — the topic of the post! Also, be warned about the $20 fine for posting links to studies that are badly conducted or to claims that have already been debunked. It will be enforced from now on — you would have to donate $20 to Doctors Without Borders and send me a confirmation by email. It’s kinda the opposite of the Randi $1m Challenge. -Yak

  42. Here’s a brief response to the irrelevant points you raised:

    “This suggests that we actually don’t know. If you had biology in class, you probably talked about the process of DNA replication. If you can remember how it works, you might have noticed that this process is, in fact, quite beautiful. How this could have been arisen by chance is a mystery to science.”

    Correct that scientists are not sure. Wrong to say that they are mystified. There are entirely plausible hypotheses, worked out in great detail. Spiritual thinkers have contributed absolutely nothing whatsoever to this field. Look into the criticisms of Intelligent Design Creationism and inform yourself before spreading ignorant nonsense that has long been debunked. The matter is closed for discussion here.

    “I am also aware that some discoveries in epigenetics might, in fact, prove to be revolutionary.”

    Find where I dismissed the entire field of epigenetics on this blog, and post your comment there. If you can’t find me saying that, then ask yourself why you posted that comment. Also closed for discussion on this thread.

    As to paradigm shifts, see here before lecturing me.

    “At the moment, there’s no good, replicable evidence for psi.”

    Yep, and how about doing what everyone else does who doesn’t have a zot of evidence for their pet theory — wait until you’ve got evidence before bothering others with it.

    Any more of these rambling comments and you will be placed on moderation and strictly edited for relevance.

    Others might have the patience to check your links and deal with your arguments. They are invited to do so at length.

  43. Sorry for my rambling comments. I didn’t know you handle it so strictly. I never intended to piss anybody off.
    If you don’t have the patience to check my links, I think debating makes no sense. Sorry man, I thought you’re interested.

  44. Yeh, the rules are a bit unclear here – sorry. Sometimes it resembles a kind of open forum, which is ok occasionally, but I also want other readers to be able to read through the comments to get a quick impression of the debate.

    Sticking to one topic per comment makes it easier to read, and makes it easier for people to respond.

    Personally, I used to be interested in this stuff, but as I said earlier, I’ve seen enough. Others might be, so feel free to briefly post what you think is the best, especially if you’ve checked out criticism.

    Sorry for being grumpy.

  45. Hi,

    I think I posted everything I found useful and interesting. I don’t think I have anything else to say. If someone is interested in the latest debate about parapsychology, I Recommend getting the book “Debating Psychic Experience: Human Potential or Human Illusion?” that you can easily find on Amazon. Thank you for taking time to respond to my comments. History will prove me right or wrong. I just tried my best. People should feel free to criticize what I’ve said or ask questions. I appreciate the skeptics’ arguments because science is based on skepticism. I still think there might be things that science will never be able to study. Good luck and do your best!

  46. I don’t understand the claim that there are things that science can’t study. Why not? There are already many many many many things that scientists study that humans don’t directly observe. Brain waves, distant planets, cell activity, to name a few. It stands to reason that there are things we haven’t yet discovered, but as we have not yet discovered them, we don’t know what they are.

    On another note, the thing about blind spots in critical thinking is that one can easily point out the flaws in other people’s belief but not see their own. One can easily debunk crying statues yet still believe in a virgin birth. Or debunk the law of attraction and be interested in psi, as I’m seeing here.

  47. Well, I believe there are things that science will never be able to study, because, if there’s a God or any higher being for example, how should you prove that? Maybe there are things that are beyond us.
    Yeah, I agree. Everybody has blind spots in critical thinking. This is simply due to the fact that we’re flawed human beings and I’m a flawed being like everyone else that descented from monkeys like everyone of us.
    I’m interested in psi because I had personal experiences with it. You might be surprised, but I once believed in the law of atraction when I was younger (with 16 or so, now I’m 21). There are other spiritual things that science will never be able to study. Are meaningful coincidences or random? You can’t create an experiment to disprove this theory. It’s religion, not science.
    I discuss psi with my friends sometimes, also with those who are skeptical of it. Maybe they can see things that I can’t see and give me some new perspective. If I think it’s wrong and I’ve been fooled, I’ll admit it. For now I can say I’ve chosen to believe in it.

  48. I’m actually with you on the idea that there might be things that science can’t study — like if spiritual beings existed that intervened in reality in completely undetectable ways. But if science can’t study it, neither can anyone else. And certainly at the very bottom of the list are people who think they already know how it works.

    There might also be personal revelation that can be subjectively known with as much certainty as anything else. But if there is, it has never led to any scientific knowledge or any successful. Never. Not one.

    You seem to think that science arrogantly pronounces that certain things don’t exist, or that certain things are not worth studying. To me that’s a sign that you’ve read too much anti-science spiritual propaganda, without even realizing that it’s propaganda. The version of science you, and many others who comment here, oppose exists only in the mids of spiritual propagandists, and if you only read them, you wind up making the kinds of false assertions that you, and many other commenters here, make.

    What science is good at is distinguishing between knowledge (i.e., those things that have been so thoroughly tested that it would be a waste of time to re-test them — and the are the basis for scientific advancement); and those things which are speculative.

    From a good basis of firm knowledge, real progress can come. From badly conducted tests and dogged refusal to accept the evidence comes 140 years of paranormal research which has made no progress at all. Again, I say keep going if you want, but be polite enough to find something before hogging the spotlight.

    …Jeez, you’re only 21, Roman…. All I can say is, read as much proper straight normal science as you can. Spiritual teachers and many parapsychologists really are conducting a propaganda war against science. You wouldn’t realize it if you only read their works. They represent science about as accurately as skeptics represent spirituality! Go to the source!

  49. I never said that science arrogantly pronounces that certain things don’t exist. Only some people do. I read normal science. I love science. I don’t reject established theories of science like the theory of evolution for example. If you would know me, you would know that I’m quite informed about science, especially psychology. A few comments before, you said I’m a levelheaded person that is intellectually honest. Have you changed your opinion? If yes, on which grounds?
    Science is thriving on experimentation, debate, further experimentation, further debate. This process goes on until substantial evidence has accumulated to pronounce with some level of certainty that something is true or false.
    What you don’t seem to understand is that the whole topic of psi is controversial. There’s a sincere debate going on whether such phenomena exist or not, even in the American Psychological Association (APA), one of the most official psychological organizations in the world. To see it yourself, go to:
    They created a book which deals with anomalous cognition and experiences and the accumulated and often controversial evidence that exists so far. And they’ve published a 2nd edition! Why do you think they did this?
    Science has begun studying near-death experiences empirically which is a very recent development. The things they find are very interesting. Even phenomena like this need to be studied and explained like everything else. There’s also a debate among neuroscientists, psychologists and doctors whether it’s all created by the brain or whether something like a soul exists that has an influence on the brain. Both have strong arguments. History will decide who’s right. I posted all the links in previous comments so readers can inform themselves. People are arguing about this since Arestotle and Plato by the way. And yeah science doesn’t know what consciousness is so far. You can read about this in a philosophical paper by David Chalmers that I’ve posted earlier.
    You agreed that some things like the existence of God can never be proven scientifically. If a deistic or pantheistic God exists that created the universe, science will never be able to detect this being, no matter how hard they try. The same goes for a God which intervenes in ways science can’t detect. Maybe there’s no God at all. There will always be a multitude of beliefs and perspectives surrounding this topic and we need to live with that. We have a natural thirst for transcendence which Abraham Maslow described in his famous hierarchy of needs. You’re living proof of that because you were once quite spiritual, as you told me.
    Why you have a problem tolerating a wide variety of perspectives and worldviews is a mystery to me.
    I’m well aware that some parapsychologists are conducting a propaganda war against science. I know that. I cann tell you a few names if you want. This, however, doesn’t mean that I’m against science or that I’m an enemy of science. But you know what? Have you ever read some derogatory and scoffing comments by skeptics? Do you think they’re polite? Nope, dude, they’re not. Just visit their forums. Some of them get pleasure from bitching about parapsychology, spirituality, religion, transcendence etc. They say their mission is to educate the public on the paranormal. Have you ever heard that bitching has ever educated someone?
    The only thing I wanted to say is that psi phenomena are debated within the scientific community. If there was no sincere debate, they would never have invited Krippner to the panel on parapsychology, hosted by the Association for Psychological Science, another official, credible psychological organization. I already posted part of his email above.
    I was always polite, I made careful, informed, thoughtful statements, I posted great links where readers can find good information from credible sources. I admitted that psi has not been satisfactorily demonstrated so far. What’s your problem? I’m not defending anyone, I’m not conducting a propaganda war against science, in fact, I’m supporting science. I just wrote about my perspective on the matter, you told me yours. What’s the problem?
    Ah and a popular psychology book for undergraduate students “Atkinson & Hilgard’s Introduction to Psychology” also contains two essays about psi, in the “Seeing both sides” section. How many articles from credible sources do you need to recognize that the question of psi is seriously debated?

  50. To show you that I’m capable of taking creticism seriously, here is a link criticizing the PEAR experiments:

  51. Here is a book by an intelectually honest person that admit that evidence for psi is not good. The book is great because it outlines the history of psi, psi experiments and criticism, psi healing experiments and consciousness theories:
    The author admits that he doesn’t know if psi will ever be established which is also my opinion. The interested reader can check it out.
    This is the last link I’ve posted. I think I’ve said it all.

  52. Please, Roman, only one comment at a time. And More importantly, please scroll up to the original blog post. There is an important update, triggered by that last link you provided.

  53. Yes, Roman, it was largely PEAR’s research I was referring to. I thought it would be worth responding to a couple more things you posted links to. I don’t think much of Chalmers’ hypthesis that consciousness is a fundamental, irreducible property of reality. It follows from the naive assumption that awareness is unitary, complete, a something that we all “have”. Sure, the laws of physics don’t explain or encapsulate consciousness, so consciousness is something else that may need explaining, but one might make the same argument about mathematics or emergent properties like life or sex or flight or the irridescent feathers of a bird. The laws of physics don’t necessitate these things, although we may be able to explain them by reference to those laws. As far as I can tell, this is Chalmer’s eroneous argument about consciousness, that the laws of physics don’t explain it. Of course they don’t – just as they didn’t explain irridescence or flight at one time – we haven’t understood how the laws of physics give rise to what we call consciousness yet. Personally, I think what we call consciousness is pretty illusory, but that’s a long story.

    I also watched the youtube video that was the first of your links on a “promising line of research from near-death experiences”. This demonstrated even more the blind inertia of cultural heritage. I commented there, but it doesn’t seem to have got past moderation, despite being polite. Most of his (I forget the doctor’s name) arguments were antagonistic to his hypothesis. People “die”, he brings them back to life, and the person “returns”, he says. “Where have they been while they were dead?”, he asks, apparently genuinely convinced by his own point. This kind of argument makes perfect sense to those in the thrall of dualism, but to a monist, they scream IDIOT! I commented that people are like cars who think they are “runnings”. When a car breaks down, it stops running, but we don’t ask where its running went before we fixed it. He said something about people in vegetative states showing responses, although they’re not fully conscious, and again seemed to imagine this supported the idea that some spirit was locked in there. Vegetative cars, similarly, can sometimes show life in their horn or indicators without their full running coming to life. Clearly the running, the real car, is trying to get back home into its bodywork.

    The most (ostensibly) powerful piece of evidence for survival of death – that people report near death experiences – was not critically analysed, and all manner of explanations can be given. The emotive example of a three-year-old boy drawing a picture and reporting that he was connected to a light by a cord might trigger our irrational acceptance naturally, but we’re prompted to believe it couldn’t be by influence. How could a child so young have been influenced by tales of NDEs? Well, he was clearly capable of *communicating* such ideas in words and pictures, so why would we imagine that he was incapable of *absorbing* that information, perhaps from family members or a documentary on TV? We have learned that children absorb a lot more information than we gave them credit for.

    I’m not quite sure why you posted the sceptical article about NDEs, which provides more reasons to doubt that they indicate a separate soul or life after death. You seem happy to read criticism, maybe because you’re impervious to it. As you said yourself, you have chosen to believe, and there is no sound evidence. And then you wrote the F-word.

  54. No, I’m not impervious to criticism. I just know that science doesn’t know what consciousness is so far. I also know that there are people that think it’s illusory. That’s one of many opinions about the matter that I respect. Some people think differently. The debate whether monism or dualism is true has been going on for Millennia. We have to research near-death experiences to clearly show whether we humans have a soul or not.
    I posted links about different perspectives so readers can have an informed decision.
    Monism would also need to explain how we could possibly have a free will.
    If NDE research fails to demonstrate that we have a soul, then we probably don’t. Because it’s a young discipline, it’s difficult to predict what it will reveal.
    Which kind of evidence would you need to accept that dualism is true? How would such an experiment look like? How could we test this idea?

  55. You do know that there are legitimate scientists who study consciousness?

  56. Yeah I know. Do you think I’m uninformed? Sam parnia is a legitimate doctor. Pim van Lommel is a legitimate doctor. Susan Blackmore, a skeptic, is a legitimate psychologist. Keneth Ring, a proponent of dualism, is also a psychologist who has a phd. Ray Hyman, a skeptic, also has a phd in psychology. Krippner also has a phd in psychology.
    Honestly, I believe the debate is a bit pointless.
    I once was a very strong believer, then I became a strong skeptic, now I have a position in between. If more evidence accumulates that we don’t have a soul and that psi is non-existent, I’ll become a skeptic and atheist. If evidence accumulates that we do have a soul, well, I won’t need to become a believer, because it will be scientific fact, or at least, a scientific idea supported by evidence then. I want to see what the future brings. You guys seem to have a problem with that. I want to see what NDE research will reveal. It’s a young discipline. Not many studies have been done so far. The most interesting study at the moment is the aware study by Sam Parnia in which 25 hospitals from North America and Europe take part. It will study whether people have awareness during NDEs. In 20 to 50 years, we will know for sure what the truth is, I’m confident about this. I’m a young, intelligent, educated, critical, informed, nice and courteous person that will go to university soon. Your comments seem to imply that I’m naive which I don’t think is true. I’m not trying to convince anybody of anything. I wanted to point out that it’s all a scientific debate which you can’t acknowledge for some reason. I’ve posted comments that prove that it is. Thousands of debates concerning NDEs and consciousness can be found online.
    Do you think the book by the American Psychological Association doesn’t indicate that it’s a scientific debate?

  57. Excellent — (from Lettersquash above)

    “people are like cars who think they are “runnings”. When a car breaks down, it stops running, but we don’t ask where its running went before we fixed it.”

    From Roman:

    “I just know that science doesn’t know what consciousness is so far…
    Which kind of evidence would you need to accept that dualism is true? How would such an experiment look like? How could we test this idea?”

    The last few centuries of research into the brain were spent researching exactly that. Descartes thought the pineal gland was the anatomical structure that resonated to the winds of spirit, an idea which was eventually discarded because it didn’t fit with the growing evidence. (But fans of esoterica still associate with the 6th chakra, because spirituality thrives on that which sounds good, rather than that which fits the evidence.)

    Subsequent centuries were spent searching through brain anatomy looking for the place where the soul reaches into it. This is the side story to the whole history of neuroscience. Here’s a brief timeline of discoveries.

    That timeline sums up the epic story behind the the statement that “science doesn’t know what consciousness is.” It “doesn’t know what consciousness is” because it assumed dualism for centuries, but never found any evidence for it. It turns out that the question “how does the soul influence the brain” is a useless one, based on erroneous assumptions.

    In terms of scientific progress — understanding reality and saving lives — dualism is a useless concept. Those who are still looking for it are sacrificing their careers in search of this Noah’ Ark. They have so far contributed nothing to the field, and have helped no one. Most of them — the vast majority — haven’t even figured out how to conduct an experiment properly.

  58. I again want to post two links, describing both positions, a spiritual and a skeptical one:

    Click to access cmv1i1_Rauh.pdf

    The wikipedia articles on consciousness, near-death experiences, dualism and Monism contain great information.
    I want to tell you something: I know that if nothing new and revolutionary will be discovered, the skeptics will win and spirituality will ultimately die. Most of the scientific evidence so far suggests that we’re living in a materialistic world and if near-death experiences can be described in purely physiological terms, spirituality will be gone forever, especially in the scientifically inclined and educated people. The same goes for other altered states of consciousness. If scientists won’t discover that people indeed can provide accurate accounts of their surroundings despite the brain being completely shut off, I will become a complete atheist and psi oponent (as I once was). Altered states of consciousness will give us insight into the nature of reality and consciousness itself. As you know, altered states of consciousness are not very well studied.
    Psychedelic experiences, near-death experiences, lucid dreams, out-of-body experiences, meditation – all these phenomena will tell us something important about life, I’m sure. If no psi and nothing mystical and transcendental exists, they still might turn out to be a window into our subconscious. Research already suggests that lucid dreams can be used productivily for many things. Are you satisfied with that answer?
    And again I want to emphasize that I love science because I know that the scientific method has brought us closer to understanding the world as it is.
    The only thing that I wanted to achieve by posting my comments is that you and all the readers recognize that there’s a real debate within science about the nature of consciousness, ndes, psi and other anomalous phenomena. They are a legitimate field of study and that there’s no taboo at all.
    Thanks for your link by the way.
    The best nde study so far can be found here. The authors conclude that there might exist some form of non-local consciousness. It was published in 2001 in the Lancet:
    Do you at least acknowledge that there’s a real debate about this stuff? Was the book by the APA proof of that?
    I hope I didn’t come across as a closed-minded individual. I support a collaboration between skeptics and parapsychologists to find the truth. I wouldn’t be upset if there’s nothing to it. I don’t have a hidden agenda or something, not at all. Of course it would be cool if such phenomena exist. I had a personal experience which, if it was only an accedent, can be considered a very improbable thing. My view is that these things will eventually be proven. Maybe they won’t.

  59. I see many misunderstandings in what you just wrote,

    If you see the world in dualistic terms — matter being like little billiard balls which are being pushed around and organized by some spiritual force (to put it a bit too simplistically). Then, you think that if the spiritual forces turn out not to exist, all you’re left with is lots of little billiard balls crashing about randomly and meaninglessly. So NDEs and PSI seem to offer the only way out of such a hellish meaningless prison.

    You wrote:

    “Most of the scientific evidence so far suggests that we’re living in a materialistic world and if near-death experiences can be described in purely physiological terms, spirituality will be gone forever”

    If you define spirituality as NDEs and PSI etc, then yes. But personally, I see that stuff as intellectualized anti-spirituality, and I hope it dies. It has died for me, anyway. But my spirituality (for want of a better word) is still there — sensitivity, openness to beauty, love for people and various animals etc, commitment to being honest with myself; staying true to some values that I see as self-evident.

    “Materialism”, i.e., reality, contains all that for me, in my experience. But if you think those things only exist if psi and NDEs are real, then it’s no wonder you’re so reluctant to let them go.

    All this NDE and psi stuff is really the cheap end of the spectrum, in my opinion. There are much better things to do and explore in this area.

    Zen and sufism, for example, are aimed at becoming aware of what is being experienced right now, rather than putting hopes on certain ideas being true. It’s about dropping illusions, and living as fully as possible in the present. Science is also a brilliant and profound path not only to a deeper understanding and vision of nature; it is also an excellent tool for discovering and letting go of illusions.

    There’s plenty of original research you can do in this area — how to become aware of the present and the contents of your subconscious without going mad or becoming depressed and lonely. I have needed some esoteric ideas to keep me going at different times in my life – I know full well it’s hard being alive.

    It’s not easy, but each of us has a unique perspective on this, and unique gifts and tools for exploring it — art, science, history, sexuality, dreams, meditation – they’re all doors into the present. And they’re much better than all this intellectualized esoteric theory.

  60. Wow, that was a great and very moving comment, Yakaru. Incidentally, I wish I had come up with the car analogy, but I read it somewhere, JREF I think. I repeat it quite a bit now.

    I’m still a bit iffy about Zen, and my limited experience of Sufism wasn’t good either.

    Roman, you argue politely and at length – which I’ve not seen here before from someone with your views. I’ve been reading some of your links. I’ve deleted a lot of draft replies. In case you were confused, the F-word I meant was “faith”. Searle is an odd sort of sceptic. I do wish these people would stop trotting out truisms like the unity of consciousness, or the inability of control-based systems and computation to give rise to subjective experience, appealing to no more than intuition. It doesn’t seem strange to me nowadays that a lump of matter equipped with senses and computation should feel the impacts of its sensory organs and the results of its computations. We are still in the trance of stories we’ve told ourselves about the need for representation. There is no reason to suppose that reality, or the sum of sensory data, must be projected on some kind of screen to be watched by homunculi for it to be witnessed. Maybe matter just rubs up against its own parts and the environment, and we do so with lots of layers of abstraction, delay (memory) and analysis. That would be as lovely and miraculous a fact as that some “internal” soul wears us like a suit in order to experience the world before moving on to wherever. Dualism doesn’t seem to solve the hard problem to me – it seems to create it.

  61. Hello guys,

    I argue about this politely and at length because I want the issue to be resolved. You know, the question about the nature of reality is a very important one and it needs to be investigated. For something to be investigated, you need different perspectives and ideas and lots of dedicated research.
    I believe if we’ll explain what NDEs are, where they come from and what it’s purpose is, we will know the answer definitely. At least you guys have to admit that people tell very fascinating stories. We have to take these people seriously and study this topic like every other.
    Maybe you guys think I’m driven by faith. This is, in fact, not the case. If I was, I would not debate with you. I don’t want to have my beliefs reinforced. I simply want to find out what life’s all about and what it means to be here on earth. I’m not a New Age guy like many of your other commenters probably are. I’m just a very curious individual who believes that consciousness needs to be studied, especially altered states of consciousness. Maybe, we’ll learn something surprising along the way, maybe that our understanding of the nature of reality was wrong. Maybe we won’t. Fact is, if we don’t study these things scientifically, we’ll never find out.
    If we take Zen, for example, there’s satori, the mystical experience of enlightenment. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi pruposed that this experience might resemble the state of flow.
    Yakaru, you probably hinted at mindfulness meditation research. I agree that this is a very important topic of study, really. I’m also fond of the potential it has to improve our health and our well-being. The same goes for lucid dreams. They’re scientifically proven and it’s a very cool experience.
    Maybe you know that Zen speaks about non-attachment as well. Non-attachment means that we don’t cling to our emotions and ideas.
    I know a sufi personally. Sufism has its origins in Islam. This woman is muslim. Although they have some cool mental techniques, basically, it’s a religion. They have a strong belief in God and some even practice exorcism and things like that.
    I also believe in values. The purpose of my life is to spread as much love, wisdom and knowledge as I can and to be a honest, curious, sincere, intelligent, understanding human being.
    Maybe I should add that I’m blind from birth. I want to become a blind scientist in the area of psychology, because this is what I have the most interest for. I speak English, German and Russian fluently.
    I’ve read countless books dealing with science, spirituality, philosophy and religion. I’m a very informed person. I think we should think about what all these fields can contribute to our understanding of the world.
    And guys, please don’t think that I cling to psi or something. I just said that psi is a very controversial topic and that these phenomena will find their way into mainstream science sooner or later or they won’t. This is all I wanted to say. We’ll see what consciousness research will reveal in the future.

  62. Ah, I think we have different meanings for the word consciousness, which is why I made my above comment. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to think that “consciousness” encompasses something that exists outside the human mind?

    Anyway, you might benefit from studying more in depth on one of the many fun things our brains do called confirmation bias. Sam Harris’ writings on NDEs are also worth a read.

    I used to believe in a something outside of the human brain. I had many weird and “unexplainable” experiences and was quite devoted in my spiritual search. It took me awhile to even consider alternate explanations for some of the things I’d experienced. The more I learn about how our minds work, the more I can see that, literally, it was all in my head. For some reason we resist being told that something is all in our head, but in fact that is often the case!

    I’ll give you an example from my experience. I was certain that I’d experienced the moment of my daughter’s conception. It was a few days after I’d had sex, and I was walking around in my kitchen and suddenly experienced something in my mind that I described as a “starburst” and my first thought was to wonder if I’d just become pregnant. I was walking around in a spiritual haze in those days. Anyway, when I shortly thereafter learned that I was pregnant, I “knew” that I’d felt the moment of conception. I had googled how long after sex can conception occur, and it was within that window. So not only did I feel conception, I now knew what happens at conception and that when the two cells join together, it immediately has a soul. Because I felt it. I laugh now but the feeling was so strong that even for some time after sharpening my critical thinking skills, that one puzzled me. It’s not a puzzle to me now. For one thing, I have no idea when conception occurred. It’s likely to have occurred before my starburst moment. Also, getting pregnant was on my mind. I wasn’t thinking about it in the exact moment of the experience, and that’s what fooled me at first. But the brain shows us experiences sometimes based on our beliefs and ideas about things. (That’s one point raised about NDEs, that they are not universal but rather differ according to culture.) looking back, I’d say I was probably experiencing hormonal fluctuations. It really was a precious experience at the time and I held on to it for quite awhile.

    We discuss this patiently and at length with you because it’s important to us as well.

  63. Hi Mariah,

    Thanks for your interesting comment.
    Yeah I know that NDEs differ across cultures. See this link:
    I know, however, that there are still many similarities between the accounts. See the link, it discusses the problem very well.
    Now there’s the question how they should be interpreted. Is this the evidence for an afterlife or does it show the great imaginative capacities of our brain? If it’s all hallucinatory, why are there similarities then? Well, it might be because we all have similar expectations what should be happening at death, or it’s because we have similarities in our physiology.
    Now there are people who report seeing relatives they didn’t know, for example, when a child was extramarital and the parents kept quiet about it. They recognized their father or mother, for example, when they saw a photo of them. There are also people who seemed to have heard conversations in a room or in neighboring rooms which were confirmed by witnesses although they had virtually no brain activity. The problem with that is that people could have made it all up. Even if they’re honest people, they still could have a faulty memory. See where I’m going? It’s a real controversy whether these stories are true or not.
    Testing this in a lab is very difficult. I mean, inducing clinical death would be very very unethical. Now, there is a study done by Sam Parnia. 25 hospitals are taking part in it. They will study people’s awareness during near-death experiences. See this link:
    The first phase of this study has already been completed and will be published in a medical journal. See here:
    To put it short, there is the afterlife hypothesis and the dying brain hypothesis. It’s still a debate whether the one or the other is correct. Although most scientists believe that the dying brain hypothesis is true (do to the evidence we’ve gathered so far), we should also consider the afterlife hypothesis because a minority of scientists, the majority of NDE researchers, a substantial number of dream researchers and the majority of the public think differently. We should test it like any other hypothesis, and to say it’s a waste of time is unfair. It’s the most fundamental, most controversial question that we have. It’s of great public interest to discuss these matters in a scientific way!
    Well, you asked me to define consciousness. Consciousness is subjective experience. Period. If you ask me whether I think it’s internal, external or both, well, I don’t know, but I consider the fact that there might be some sort of consciousness outside our brain very seriously. What science knows is that the brain has undeniably something to do with it. A brain damage is always accompanied by impairment of a function. Now, there are scientists who suggest that the brain receives consciousness like a radio receives a broadcast, and there are other scientists, the majority in fact, who suggest that the brain, and only the brain generates consciousness. We will see what future science will reveal. Research is likely to find the answer to the question how consciousness is generated and what it is.
    If you want to be on the safe side, you should think that consciousness is generated only by the brain.
    Well, I know the ideas by Susan Blackmore, Sam Harris and others. In fact, Harris doesn’t know what consciousness is either. Here’s a quote by him: “…an analysis of purely physical processes will never yield a picture of consciousness. However, this is not to say that some other thesis about consciousness must be true. Consciousness may very well be the lawful product of unconscious information processing. But I don’t know what that sentence means—and I don’t think anyone else does either.”
    Well, this sentence means nothing, really. Harris has in no way contributed anything to consciousness research.
    But I want to say something different. Because the topic is so controversial and noone knows the answer to this most fundamental question, we could continue in one of the three ways:
    1. We could debate personal experiences critically.
    2. We could keep discussing about psi and NDEs, although I don’t know what else I could say. I know about the different explanations for apparent psi and NDE cases, so you can’t educate me on that matter. I know what the confirmation bias is, I know what the filedrawer problem or the publications bias is, I obviously know what faulty memory means, I also know that people can fool themselves. So what could we discuss about? Psi and NDES have been debated numerous times on the internet.
    3. We could leave the debate altogether.
    What would you prefer?

  64. @lettersquash,

    The car analogy reminded me of something some zen master (or maybe it was Buddha) who said something like where does the wind go when it stops blowing.

    Yeh, zen & sufism are also full of crap. But they’re the only traditions I know of where I could fairly easily find something of some merit in them that I could at least point to. In zen, especially, the idea that the self is an illusion, which science also supports. Few spiritual people want anything to do with the idea (or twist it into something safer) because it would also imply there’s no reincarnation and no “higher” beings either.

    I like some of the old sufi stuff from the middle ages. (@Roman, as well as being associated with Islam, it is also has strong roots in Zoroastrianism, blended with Greek mysticism: sufi = “sophy”, as in the Greek for wisdom.) But it’s all run through with the same old problems – hierarchy, power, sex abuse, fraud, stupidity etc.

    Actually I’m pissed off that spirituality gets hijacked by people like Sheldrake or the crowd from The Secret, etc. I’d love to use spiritual concepts to oppose them, and although I think that would be possible, science does it better…..MUCH better!


    I’ll add a compliment to lettersquash’s praise of your demeanor here — thanks for taking the time to formulate your ideas so clearly. Responding has helped me clarify some of my thinking about this.

  65. Thank you so much for your compliments. I did my best.

  66. Mariah, that was a wonderful example of how we convince ourselves of knowledge we don’t have (confirmation bias or wishful thinking or whatnot) – really useful in this kind of discussion. I’d have loads of examples if my memory was any good! I certainly know what you mean about “walking around in a spiritual haze”. Thanks for introducing Sam Harris on consciousness, and Roman for posting a link…so that I can rant about him now.

    I must throw Dan Dennett’s work into the mix. I haven’t actually read his work on consciousness yet, but I’ve read about it, and it makes a lot more sense than Searle’s, Chalmers’ or Harris’. Harris is another reciter of traditional hand-me-downs. It’s almost as though these people set out to make the *problem* of consciousness as clear as possible instead of shedding light on it. Anything that helps make it intractable makes for a better essay. He begins by giving a sloppy, assumptive definition:

    ‘By “consciousness,” I mean simply “sentience,” in the most unadorned sense. To use the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s construction: A creature is conscious if there is “something that it is like” to be this creature’. Wow. I’ve read about Nagel before and always imagined his bat **** (er, idea) was probably 18th Century – I’m amazed, he’s contemporary.

    Harris continues to fool himself that Nagel’s construct is worth trying to abstract thereafter. Why does he fail to notice the possibility that what it is like to be an animal (or anything) is equivalent to being it – no more, no less? Why, if one professes to be searching for monist conceptions of the issue, isn’t this hammering at the door? Because, like all of us, he is unconsciously suffering the historical fallout of Cartesian dualism. Even if he isn’t overtly dualist, he can’t stop believing that consciousness is a seamless mysterious substrate with “contents” composed of qualia, etc.. What it is like to be a conscious entity, he imagines, is a “something” and it *should* be capable of being isolated, generalised or explained. The note on this point demonstrates a perfectly innocent boggling that anyone can contest the idea (when challenged by Dennett).

    I’m with Dennett. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consciousness_Explained Consciousness, in this general, substantive sense, is an illusion, and qualia don’t exist. They are already beginning to take on the mantle of phlogiston. What we call consciousness is a story we tell ourselves (a set of cognitive constructs). Story-telling is a behaviour, and behaviour is compatible with physicalism. The unity of consciousness is a powerful illusion, and the usual objection beloved of sophisticates, “Well, who is observing the illusion then?” only serves to illustrate the aeons of our story-telling about our “selves”. You do. I do. The body producing the illusion is observing the illusion. Awareness is a behaviour. Why is it a puzzle that it’s “internal”? – we’re only in our bodies, not outside them (horizon research notwithstanding). Why is it a puzzle that it’s “subjective”? – we are subject to and subjects of our sensory inputs.

    I infer that there is “something it is like” to be a stone, but I don’t know what because I’m not one (presumably, it’s pretty dull). I expect robots will impress upon us emphatically and with emotion that they are conscious within the next decade. We’ll have a long debate about whether they are or not, whether that’s the same kind of consciousness as ours, etc. “Morons”, they’ll say, and power down for a nap / destroy us to make the planet clean again.

    What is a puzzle to me is why the hell I’m THIS lump of matter (or organisational process of matter) rather than any other in the universe! I hope you don’t mind me going on about all this. It’s turned into quite a wide-ranging discussion.

  67. “What is a puzzle to me is why the hell I’m THIS lump of matter (or organisational process of matter) rather than any other in the universe!”

    Yep. There’s no answer to that. All there is is being able to look at it and utter the magic sutra “WTF???”

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