The Times, 16 June 2006
John Beloff was Britain’s pre-eminent parapsychologist, an academic who did more than anyone to establish the study of paranormal phenomena as a legitimate academic pursuit. He was an atheist, a humanist, and a passionate supporter of voluntary euthanasia, described by his friends as a kind and exceptionally modest man.
Born in 1920, Beloff was the son of Russian Jews who settled in London before the First World War. He was the fourth of five children, and the last of them to survive. He apparently found it hard growing up in the shadow of his clever and successful brother Max (Lord Beloff), and often described himself as having been the failure of the family, called by his parents a dreamer, or a dolt, and without any clear sense of direction or ambition.
At his parents’ insistence, and with no better ideas of his own, he embarked on a career in architecture, but was neither suited to it nor happy doing it. The Second World War was his escape, but this too fuelled his sense of inferiority. After two and a half years he was invalided out of the army and said later that he always felt inferior to those who had fought and had a good war record to their credit.
In spite of this unpromising start Beloff finally stumbled across what was to become his life’s work by reading J.B.Rhine’s Extrasensory Perception, in which Rhine coined the terms ‘ESP’ and ‘parapsychology’ and effectively founded the new field. This book inspired Beloff to start afresh, taking a degree in psychology, and then moving on through lectureships in Illinois and Belfast, finally settling at the University of Edinburgh where he remained the rest of his life. There he built up and presided over what was, until recently, the only university laboratory of parapsychology in Britain, inspiring numerous PhD students and researchers. He was accompanied and encouraged throughout by his wife Halla, who met him as a student, and subsequently became an eminent social psychologist herself.
When his friend, Arthur Koestler, died in 1983 Beloff learned that he was to be an executor. Since Koestler gave his entire estate to found a Chair of Parapsychology, Beloff became closely involved in the difficult process of finding a university that would accept what many saw as a poisoned chalice. In the end the chair went to Edinburgh. Parapsychological research continues there to this day, largely due to Beloff’s steady and intelligent handling of this ever-controversial subject.
Beloff often wrote about the “relentless question” that pursued him throughout his work – in reality a whole set of related questions having to do with the existence of paranormal phenomena, the nature of the human mind, and the possibility of its survival after physical death. These were the same questions that had motivated the work of such early psychical researchers as Frederick Myers and Henry Sidgwick, and led to the founding of the Society for Psychical Research in London in 1882. Having joined the SPR in 1962 and been elected to its Council two years later, Beloff played a central role in the Society for many decades. He gave lectures, wrote numerous articles, and was Editor of the SPR Journal and Proceedings until 1999. He was elected President of the SPR in 1974 and described giving the presidential address as his finest hour.1982 saw the combined centenary of the SPR and jubilee of the Parapsychological Association, an occasion marked by a joint conference at Trinity College Cambridge, and by Beloff being elected president of the PA for the second time. In 2000 a conference was held in Edinburgh to celebrate his 80th birthday and his contribution to parapsychology.
What is perhaps most striking about Beloff’s work was the steadfast determination with which he defended the existence of psychic phenomena, including telepathy, clairvoyance, and communication with the dead, without himself ever having witnessed convincing phenomena at first hand. He was known by many as a negative, or “psi-inhibitory” experimenter; meaning that phenomena which appeared in the laboratory for other people would not do so for him. Sceptics argued that the phenomena do not exist, that the idea of a psi-inhibitory experimenter is just an excuse invented by believers, and that Beloff’s failure to elicit them showed only how well controlled his experiments were. He never accepted that interpretation, perhaps preferring to believe that his failure to find any evidence was due to his own inadequacy rather than any lack in the phenomena themselves.
Although best known as a parapsychologist, Beloff was also a respected philosopher. He was outraged by Gilbert Ryle’s 1949 book The concept of mind in which Ryle rejected the dualism between mind and brain, and pilloried the “dogma of the ghost in the machine”. Beloff’s own 1962 book, The existence of mind; was an attempt to prove Ryle wrong, for Beloff really did believe in that ghost – a powerful mind that can cause behaviour, exert its will, and be the conscious subject of experiences. In other words, although he described himself as a “conservative thinker”, he defended dualist views that were almost unanimously rejected by other philosophers and scientists.
He also believed in the possibility of survival after bodily death, even though he was an atheist, a rationalist, and had no truck with religion. As with the paranormal phenomena, he tried, but failed, to witness evidence of life after death; while others described seeing levitating tables and spirit voices, they never appeared for him.
He was a long term supporter of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society of Scotland, which described him as “a rock upon which the future rests and grows”. He hated a fuss, made it clear that he wanted no funeral, and donated his body to medicine.
John Beloff was born on April 19, 1920 and died on June 1, 2006. He is survived by his wife, Halla, a daughter and a son.