Susan Blackmore goes in search of the soul
MOST people believe in God, their own soul and the paranormal.
This is the theme of Nicholas Humphrey's Soul Searching: Human Nature
and Supernatural Belief, and he deftly spells it out using snippets of
the history of science
from Bacon and Brewster,
Kierkegaard and rich literary
quotations from Swift and Sontag.
The basic argument of Soul Searching is that human beings
desperately want two things: understanding and reassurance. A Christian street
paper declares: "I just want to know who I am and why I'm alive." Gauguin
scrawled the questions "Where have we come from?
What are we? Where are we going?" on his "last" painting (he survived the
subsequent suicide attempt).
The answer we would prefer is that we have an eternal soul.
This provides understanding in the form of a theory about human nature, and
reassurance in the form of hope for a future life. What people want, Humphrey
contends, is to get their souls back from science, as their "ticket to a
better world". They may use the methods of science, for science is powerful
and respected, but ultimately they want to prove science
wrong. They want to prove that, deep down, each of us is more than just
a collection of machine parts but is a powerful entity whose thoughts have
consequences and whose desires can make the desired come true.
Humans, says Humphrey, are natural
dualists. This dualism explains why most people believe
in the paranormal. The argument operates in two directions at once, almost
in a circle. On the one hand, paranormal phenomena
would make sense only if human beings actually have a soul. On the other,
people avidly seek evidence of paranormal phenomena to bolster their belief
in the soul.
I most enjoyed this argument as it was applied to
Jesus, though I suspect many Christians will find
Humphrey's analysis offensive. Jesus performed
"miracles", such as changing water into wine,
raising the dead and walking on water. Yet these, Humphrey explains, were
precisely the kind of tricks that
charlatans of the time were regularly
performing. Why were the phenomena so restricted? Why did Jesus not do something
truly exceptional with his powers? According to his "argument from unwarranted
design , it is this restriction of his powers that gives the game away. The
theory that he was the son of God cannot explain those restrictions and therefore
For Humphrey, the better explanation is that he was a common
conjuror-possibly one who genuinely believed in his own supernatural powers-but
a common conjuror nonetheless. The same argument can be applied to modern
metal benders, whose restricted powers (bending spoons and forks, but not
spades, for example) cannot be explained by psychokinesis, but make perfect
sense in conjuring terms, to the constraints on poltergeists, ghosts, psychics
and soothsayers, and to the question of why psychics don't get rich on the
His handling of the actual evidence is similarly misleading.
For example, he briefly mentions Helmut Schmidt's research into PK
(psychokinesis, or mind over matter) using
random number generators,
but then dismisses it out of hand with one dated quote from a single sceptic.
Anyone who does not know the literature may conclude that Schmidt is the
only researcher into PK using random number generators
in his tests, when in fact there have been hundreds of such studies. There
has even been a meta-analysis of nearly 600 RNG experiments, which showed
a small but reliable effect that was not related to study quality or dependent
on any one laboratory.
'Gauguin himself asked: Where have we come from? What are we? Where are we going'
The best known research in parapsychology today uses
the ganzfeld technique, a kind of
partial sensory deprivation believed to enhance ESP.
Humphrey summarises it in two pages and dismisses it with one recent unpublished
reanalysis which suggests a serious flaw. This is unfair given the fact that
the ganzfeld technique has been around for two decades, has received enormous
publicity, and has been thoroughly criticised both from within and without
parapsychology-without any consensus being reached. Humphrey may well be
right that something other than extrasensory perception is responsible for
the results, but many people far more knowledgeable than he have failed to
find out what it is.
Where Humphrey contributes something new is in applying his
"argument from unwarranted design" to parapsychology: the fact that paranormal
claims are false can be deduced, not by dissecting each experiment and finding
flaws in it, but by looking for unexplained restrictions on their appearance.
There are numerous restrictions on when, where and to whom psychic phenomena
occur, and since these cannot be explained by theories of ESP or PK,
some other theory is needed.
But what sort of theory? Humphrey seems ignorant
of the many parapsychological theories that attempt (even if nor very
successfully) to explain the oddities of ESP, and of the experiments designed
specifically to test them.
I also imagine most parapsychologists would agree that new
theories are needed. They might liken our knowledge of ESP in 1995 to, say,
that of electricity in 1795. It made no sense then that sparks could be produced
from cat's fur and amber but not from china and orange peel. It makes sense
now because we have good theories. If there is an anomaly in human communication,
we might understand it in the future.
Susan Blackmore is at the University of West England.
Soul Searching: Human Nature and Supernatural Belief by Nicholas Humphrey,Chatto & Windus,£15.99,ISBN 0 7011 5963 4.