Natural born believers?

Review of Soul Searching by Nicholas Humphrey,
London, Chatto & Windus, 1995. £15.99 240 pp.

New Scientist, 11 November, 44-5

Most people believe in God, their own soul and the paranormal. This is the theme of Humphrey’s book, and he deftly spells it out with snippets of the history of science from Bacon and Brewster, philosophy from Kant and 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’s “last” painting (he survived the subsequent suicide attempt) had scrawled on it the questions “Where have we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”.

We all want answers to these questions and seek them avidly. Yet science does not provide the answers we crave. Science creeps inexorably towards the conclusion that human beings are nothing but matter, put here by accidental forces rather than by a grand designer, and with only the puny powers of our bodily machinery. We have no separate mind or soul, no magical powers of thought or action, and even in a crisis our deepest needs cannot be known to absent friends, except by the miracles of modern technology.

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 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 each of us is deep down, not just a collection of machine parts but 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 that belief in a soul.

Of course these beliefs are all rubbish, according to Humphrey. There is no soul and the search for the paranormal is all a big mistake – a wild goose chase.

Much of the book is, therefore, a demolition of paranormal claims – and, along with that, a rejection of everything remotely spiritual or mystical.. What makes the book different from many others of its kind is what Humphrey calls his “argument from unwarranted design”. If we find that some phenomenon is unduly restricted in the way it occurs, and our theory cannot explain why it takes the peculiar form it does, then we should suspect that our theory is false.

I most enjoyed this argument as it applied to the case of 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, we should ask? Why did Jesus not do something truly exceptional with his powers? According to the 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 is false. 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 none the less.

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 why psychics don’t get rich on the lottery.

Finally, claims Humphrey “I undertake a critique of modern parapsychology”. The cover even boasts that it is a “devastating critique”. It is not.

He begins by arguing that parapsychologists are searching for the soul. However, he seems unaware of the long and vociferous argument over this very issue. In 1987, the prestigious journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, debated the topic with a lead article “Parapsychology: Science of the anomalous or search for the soul?” by Canadian psychologist James Alcock. He, like Humphrey, argued that parapsychologists were really trying to defend metaphysical dualism. Certainly some parapsychologists are dualists (such as John Beloff, whom Humphrey frequently cites) but most are not, or at least claim not to be. In this same journal, numerous parapsychologists responded that dualism was irrelevant to their search for anomalies and explained why. Yet this crucial debate is entirely ignored by Humphrey.

His handling of the actual evidence is similarly misleading. For example, he briefly mentions Helmut Schmidt’s research on PK (psychokinesis, or mind over matter) with random number generators, but then dismisses it entirely with one dated quote from a single skeptic. Anyone who does not know the literature may conclude that there is nothing more substantial in the RNG-PK research, when in fact there have been hundreds of such studies. There is even a meta-analysis of nearly 600 experiments, which shows a small but reliable effect that is not related to study quality nor dependent on any one laboratory.

Similarly the most important of the ganzfeld research is summarised in two pages and dismissed with one recent unpublished re-analysis 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 concensus being reached. Humphrey may well be right that something other than ESP is responsible for the results, but many people far more knowledgeable than he is 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 painstakingly dissecting each experiment and finding flaws in it, but by looking for unexplained restrictions on their appearance. Psychic phenomena show numerous restrictions in when, where, and to whom they 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 not 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 or orange peel. It makes sense now because we have good theories. If there is an anomaly of human communication we might reasonably hope to understand it in the future.

It would be wonderful indeed if skeptics could by-pass the laborious task of critical analysis. Yet Humphrey has not convinced me that we can. By ignoring the best of parapsychology, he will have added himself to that sorry list of parapsychology’s critics who are uninformed and unfair.