Journal of the Society for Psychical Research

Volume 61 Number 846 January 1997

Back To Basics

At the 20th International Conference of the Society for Psychical Research, four of us – John Beloff, Guy Playfair, Richard Wiseman and myself – were asked to speak for just ten minutes each on the theme ‘Back to Basics’. The idea was originally Guy Playfair’s. He suggested that we may have lost our way and could benefit by going ‘back to basics’ and asking ourselves what our subject is all about and what we are trying to achieve. At the last minute we were also asked by our Chairman, David Fontana, to make sure we included a personal position statement; to say where we each stand today. I rather enjoyed this improbable challenge and the following is what I found myself saying.

The basics I want to go back to are those with which our founders began more than a hundred years ago. Myers once said that the most important question to him was: “Is the Universe friendly?” (Gauld, 1968, p.149). And Gurney once told William James that “the mysteries of the Universe and the indefensibility of human suffering were never far from him” (Gauld, 1968, p.156).

I would say that this is true of me too. In a sense those are as much the basics for me as they were for them. But psychical research is more than those very deep and general basics. Back in the very first Proceedings of our Society in 1882, Barrett, Gurney and Myers said that if the phenomena they were investigating were real they would “necessitate a modification of that general view of the relation of mind to matter to which modern science has long been gravitating” (Barrett et al., 1882, p.34). In other words, as Alan Gauld put it in his (1968) book on The Founders of Psychical Research, psychical research was like a candle in the dark. The darkness was materialist science and the candle was the study of psychic phenomena. Nowadays we may be more used to Carl Sagan’s view. His latest book is called The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. For him and perhaps many scientists, materialism is the candle, and it shines in the darkness of superstition, the paranormal, and all those popular shows on television every week: a complete reversal.

I think our founders would have been – I’m not sure whether delighted, or stunned, or mystified or what – if they could see the success of materialist science now. Success is measured in many ways, but we cannot deny that materialism, as a general way of looking at the world, has been enormously successful in science. To my mind there is one idea at the heart of materialism’s success. It is the best scientific idea ever; the simplest, the most powerful and the most beautiful idea in all of science today. It was around then, before the founding of psychical research, and probably had quite a strong influence on the origins of psychical research. It is, of course, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

Darwin’s is a supremely materialist theory. It says that this beautifully-designed body of mine, and indeed those of the microbes in me and the rat behind those skirting boards, and everything else living around us are not designed by a creator. No creator is needed; they are designed by a dumb algorithm. That’s why the theory is so beautiful and so simple. It explains that this is all I am. I am the beautiful product of a dumb algorithm working in a complex universe. I am utterly dependent on the rest of that universe, and the evolutionary processes in it, for my existence. Yet I have come to the idea, the ridiculous, false and childish idea, that there is somebody inside looking out through the eyes, and in control of this body.

David asked me to say where I stand today. I stand in many places with many perspectives, but there are two that are absolutely central to my life. First is as a scientist. I think that science is inexorably heading towards a particular view. It was doing so in the days of Myers and Gurney and William James, and it still is. This scientific view is one that gradually reveals how and why we come to believe in an illusion. The illusion is that there is somebody in there; that consciousness does things; that we as independent, separately-existing conscious entities run our lives and move our arms and legs. Scientific analysis finds no such entity inside the brain, and no need for one.

I come to this view also through a different aspect of my life; that is, my Buddhist practice. This is not something I very often talk about in the context of psychical research, but it is relevant here. I have been training in Zen for about fifteen years, and it is, at least for many people, a very long and slow process. It is a process that trains you, not by intellectual argument as I am doing in the scientist mode, but through practice, through meditation, through sitting and letting go of thoughts, or through mindfulness. Mindfulness means being present in every moment of life. It means letting go of plans and recollections, desires and intentions and just being here, now. The strange thing about this practice is that it seems gradually to reveal the illusion. You begin to see through, to experience seeing through, the illusion of a self doing things.

As Peter Fenwick (1987) puts it, it means a “freeing of the individual from the illusion that he is ‘doing’”. The Buddha taught, two and a half thousand years ago, that “actions do exist, and also their consequences, but the person that acts does not” and Buddhaghosa says “Here suffering exists, but no sufferer is found.” There’s nobody in there.

This is where I stand, as nobody separate – as just one part of this complex universe.

Now what about psychical research? Where does that fit in? Psychical research is going the other way; it is saying not only that ‘I’, as a conscious separate entity, have the power to move my arms and legs, but that I might, as a conscious separate entity, be able to affect that ‘No Smoking’ sign over there and cause it to drop off the wall by the paranormal power of the mind, or by the power of consciousness.

This is why I am so deeply sceptical. It is not just because of the lack of evidence, or because of the lack of a convincing theory or a plausible mechanism for psi. It is because to my mind psychical research is going backwards. The exciting ideas in science, and my own spiritual practice, are both going the same way; the ‘no-self’ way, if you like; the ‘no-power-of-consciousness’ way. It is a scary way, and a difficult way, but I think it is true.

Psychical research is therefore claiming something which to me just does not fit. It wants to prove the power of consciousness and put the self back on centre stage. Of course I might be wrong, and that is why I keep coming to these conferences – but I do not think consciousness has any power.


Barrett, W. F., Gurney, E. and Myers, F. W. H. (1882) ProcSPR1, 13-34.

Gauld, A. (1968) The Founders of Psychical Research. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Sagan, C. (1966) The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. London: Headline.

Fenwick, P. (1987) Meditation and the EEG. In West, M. A. (ed.) The Psychology of Meditation, 104-117. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Rahula, W. (1959) What the Buddha Taught. London: Gordon Fraser.