Mind, Nature, and the Paranormal with Stephen E. Braude
Hello and welcome, I’m Jeffrey Mishlove Today we are going to explore The mind, nature and the paranormal. With me is Dr. Stephen Braude, Who is the past chairman of The philosophy department at The University of Maryland and The past president of the Parapsychological
Association. Steve is the author of numerous books Including most recently Crimes of Reason, The Gold Leaf Lady, Immortal Remains, The Limits of Influence, and ESP and Psychokinesis. Welcome Steve. Thank you Jeff, good to be here. It’s a pleasure to be with you. You’re a rare person In the sense you have had A mainstream academic career, And pretty much throughout Your whole career, you’ve been Quite open about your Interest in the paranormal. After getting tenure anyway, yes. Jeffrey Mishlove: Hah ha did you feel the Necessity to keep it quiet initially? Well no, the fact is it wasn’t Until I got tenure that I remembered An exceptional incident that happened To me back in graduate school Which was watching my table rise In the air for about 3 hours in broad Daylight. And then I realized that if I was an honest scholar and philosopher I needed to come to grips with this. So I just played it straight until That time. I see, more or less suppressed The memory until I really put it out of mind. I knew at the time in graduate school That when this happened I couldn’t really discuss this With my mentors. So I literally put it out of mind. Well, that strategy, whether Conscious or subconscious It did, I’m not sure I would Have gotten tenure had I Expressed an interest in the Paranormal before that. Having achieved a level Of recognition and tenure And even chairmanship of Your department, at that point, You felt comfortable in engaging Publicly in paranormal research. I’m not sure I ever felt comfortable Doing it. I mean I was incredibly naive At the beginning of my academic Career. I actually thought that academics, Especially philosophers and scientists Would be committed to discovering The truth and to show you How naive I was, I even thought That they would be happy to learn That they had been mistaken So long as making that discovery Brought them closer to the truth. Since then I haven’t found too many people That fit that idealized profile. Well, my experience is that Just about everybody I know Engaged in research in the area Of the paranormal, and I think Some adjacent areas that Are really normal but sort of Borderline. Everyone has a War story about having to deal With unreasonable criticism, Emotional criticism, and not just Criticism because I think Any scholar can deal with criticism, But actual threats to ones career. It got in the way to my promotion To full professor. It didn’t block It entirely but it retarded it. That Was the only real threat to my career. I have experienced a great deal Of hostility and really stupid, contemptible Behavior from other people In the academic community. I don’t regret any of that in Retrospect because I really Think I now have a clearer Picture of who my colleagues are, Some people who I expected to be Open and reasonable surprised me By their rigidity, and on the other Hand some people who I expected To be inflexible surprised me With their open mindedness. So I am grateful for The war stories. As a philosopher, you have had occasion To try and analyze the arguments Used by the various skeptics and Debunkers. I am sure these arguments Fall into various categories. Some are legitimate methodological Criticisms but many seem to be emotionally Based in a way well beyond the Level of normal academic discourse. One of the striking things I feel I have noticed is that academics Who are opposed to psi research In general often resort to sleazy or Clearly defective dialectical tactics, Who’s flaws they’d be quick to recognize If the arguments were directed against Them. For example straw man arguments, Generalizing from the weakest cases. I see that all the time in parapsychology. One clear example would be Trevor Hall, who wrote a book about The medium D.D. Home His book on D.D. Hume spends About a quarter of the entire book Discussing one of the most poorly Documented cases in Hume’s entire Career, a levitation outside the window, Of Ashley house, where an alleged Levitation occurred. Jeffrey Mishlove: This is in the 19th Century? Right. It’s a case that is absolutely Immaterial to evaluating the Mediumship of Home altogether. And while Home obsesses about That case he never discusses The strongest pieces of evidence But it seems to me in parapsychology It is precisely the strongest pieces of Evidence that matter, the ones are Hardest to explain away. What puzzles me is that Many skeptics who are clearly not Familiar with all the literature in Parapsychology and the Related fields are very quick To use this phrase and I’ve Heard it over and over again, There is not a shred of evidence, They love that word �shred�. Not a shred. It’s true and fortunately it’s Very easy to show that if You have the right kind of public Forum, these people are just posturing And bluffing. Because if you ask Them to demonstrate their command Of the evidence, they can’t do it. And I’ve had the pleasure of doing That on any number of occasions, But it’s very easy to make such People look like fools. It’s very difficult then for People to pursue research In these areas, it’s as if There are social pressures Not to inquire at all. Yes I used to find that My students who are Majoring in psychology Were being threatened by their Mentors in the psychology department Not to take my seminar, my upper Level seminar in philosophy and parapsychology. They were being threatened with Various kinds of reprisals. Why go that far? It’s hard to analyze. I think In the case of psychologists who Seem to be more militant about this Than, say people in physics, it may because Psychology is already being impugned as Being a soft science, not as tough or Legitimate science as physics and chemistry And other physical sciences. So psychologists may be on the defensive already. Well it’s as if the very notion That there might be anything at All to extra sensory perception Telepathy, psychokinesis is enormously Threatening to some people,to Their world view. It is and I think it Is really easy to the Connection to psychokinesis Or PK. Think of it this way If somebody can move a Matchstick a millimeter by Thought alone, it’s a very small Step conceptually. From doing that, To making somebody drop dead From thought alone. So the existence Of any psychokinesis at all, forces us To take seriously a kind of magical World view which most of us Associate usually condescendingly, Only with so called primitive cultures. Jeffrey Mishlove: right It’s a world view according to which We might have to take seriously Such unsavory consequences such as People having accidents, or things that We think of as the evil eye or hexing. Of course there are parts of the world Usually in undeveloped countries Where that sort of thing goes down Rather smoothly, but in most developed Countries it causes just the opposite. I think a lot of parapsychologists would say You’re going overboard, the phenomenon Isn’t there, were not going back To an era of witch craft persecution But you seem to be suggesting we Have to look seriously at the way People thought about these things 2 or 300 years ago. I think we do, or well it maybe correct To think that we’re, if we take this Phenomenon, these phenomena seriously That we’re reverting to a kind Of magical world view. I actually Think that’s right, but I am not Alarmed by that, that may be The correct view. But what Interests me is that there are People willing to consider Positive applications of things Like PK, healing or prayer For world peace but refuse to Pay attention to their own inconsistencies Because they fail suddenly to see What I think they would recognize Another context, that no force Can be used exclusively for The good so if you’re willing To take the possibility of psychic Healing seriously, you have to take Seriously the possibility of psychic Damage to somebody. Well if these emotional skeptics Are basically frightened of a world In which psychokinesis and telepathy Existed on a regular basis Then perhaps their overly Emotional reactions or attempts To shut down all inquiries is justified. Well, I think it may be an Overreaction in this sense, even If it’s possible for thoughts to kill Let’s say. It hardly follows that they Will just because we have a negative Thought. I think we need to back Up for a second. One of the pervasive Mysteries of parapsychological research And one of the major problems today is Parapsychological research history, Is that we haven’t a clue for the sort Of thing we are trying to study. It’s not As is we have a clear history Of the so called natural history of Psi phenomenon. We don’t know What it’s doing in real life. Presumably it has some sort of role Outside of the context parapsychologists Set out to look for. I mean Psi phenomena didn’t start at The point research began. These Phenomena have been brought into Lab because people were reporting Spontaneous ostensible psi Events for millennia. There’s an ethno-historical Tradition that includes witchcraft, Shamanism, yoga, all sorts of Cultural approaches to the paranormal But very often it does involve the Possibility of harmful consequences. Absolutely, but let’s just suppose as A thought experiment, that psi events Can be triggered unconsciously. Jeffrey Mishlove: OK In fact there’s even evidence If you want to look at the laboratory Evidence supporting that. Quite apart from that If it’s possible for people To be influencing the world Psychically, then, maybe even Animals influence the world psychically, Then imagine just how enormously Complex this underlying causal Network has to be, that we’re Positing here. It may be that all of Us, much of the time, are putting Out our psychic feelers to the world Trying to influence things unconsciously Or consciously. Now if every Living creature or just every Human is trying to do that It might seem to be miraculous In that any of our psychic intentions Actually succeeds. It looks as though They would have to navigate this Enormously complex causal nexus. Just to hit their target. I puzzle often over the question Of whether a favorable cultural attitude Actually is psi conducive. More Experiences occur to people when The culture supports it. It may well be true and unless You’re willing to look at The natural history of psi And try to figure these things out You’ll never have a handle on that. And until you have a handle On that it seems almost Ludicrously premature to try And bring psi events into the lab, Because we have no idea what We are trying to study. Well laboratory research and Parapsychology dates back to At least to the 1940’s, 1930’s you Can even find earlier examples. One might say it’s the dominant Mode of parapsychology inquiry Right now is the experimental Method and parapsychologists are Very proud that they are Using the same methods of other People in the behavioral sciences Even to some degree the same methods Used in medicine and physics. Well I think that is a part of the Pervasive attempt among parapsychologists To demonstrate that they are just doing Regular science but the nasty truth Of the matter may be that to really Do proper research in parapsychology You have to adopt a different kind Of method because we are dealing With a phenomenon which if it Exists can apparently subvert any Controls that we could conceivably impose. Again if you look at a PK or a Psychokinesis experiment, how do You make sure, for example, that it’s Only the official that’s being tested For PK that’s demonstrating PK It’s not as if we can go through with A PK meter looking for lines of Force prior to the events happening. So for all we know the actual Results we obtain might be Due to the official subject or The experimenter, to a casual Onlooker, or to somebody on a Mountain top in Tibet. There’s no way to know. My understanding is that there Are no known barriers. No known ways to always Block ESP even though there Are some statistical trends. Right, yet parapsychological Researchers often act as though All of those connected with a psi Experiment are going to adhere to This idiotic gentlemen’s agreement Where only the official subject, We’ll use only the psychic ability being Tested for and only when the Experimenter’s gun goes off You know, at the right appointed Time and that no one else Even remotely connected with The experiment will use whatever Psychic abilities they might have To muddy the evidentiary waters. Well your argument would suggest That if psychic abilities, or as Parapsychologists say psi Abilities are real, these methodological Problems will pertain not only to Parapsychology but really to every Other behavioral science. I think that might be one of the Reasons why there is so much resistance In the regular science community Against taking parapsychological research Seriously. I think many scientists intuit
that If we allow psi to draw a picture Of the world then all bets are off And all hell could break loose. I mean it’s not just parapsychologists Who have an emotional investment In the outcome of their experiments. And if that can be psi conducive And if parapsychologists can influence Their machines psychokinetically, then Who knows how the evidence in science Has been corrupted by similar phenomena. Well your arguing for a more naturalistic Approach which is to my understanding How the field really began, 150 years Ago or so case study research was The dominate mode and the best I can figure out the methodology Of the case study Is not so different from preparing Evidence to present in the courtroom. You interview witnesses, you try To document as carefully as you can What actually occurred then you Reconstruct what happened looking For possible alternative explanations At each point along the way. Exactly, one thing we can do, I don’t even think we have to eschew Experiments entirely if we keep them Out of the lab. I mean there Have been experiments on physical Mediums for example, that have Been very carefully done, it’s just That they have been done In contexts more congenial to The subject than conditions In a normal laboratory. Now lest our viewers think Of you as some sort of a Gullible philosopher who is Willing to swallow all of this Paranormal stuff hook Line and sinker to the point of Reverting back to some of the Thinking of hundreds of years Ago when witches were Burned at the stake. I know You are very critical of certain Approaches to parapsychology. For example the whole question Of survival after death. From Your point of view the evidence Is not where many of the proponents Say it is. No I think the case for Post-mortem survival is not Nearly as strong as many Of the survivalists would argue. But I think the main challenges come From two sources. First of all There are a number of extraordinary Capacities of living human beings That need to be taken seriously. There we would look at cases Of savantism, prodigies, dissociation, Latent capacities for example. That might account for many of The phenomena that we have Seen, in ostensible survival cases. The biggest challenge comes From positing psi phenomena Among the living, telepathy or Clairvoyance for example among mediums. In other words no matter what evidence I might come up with that seems To argue in favor of the survival There is a case on record that’s Gotten a lot of attention where it Seemed as if a long deceased chess Master was manifesting through A spirit medium and actually Played a game of chess with a Living chess master. The game Was subsequently analyzed by A parapsychologist who himself Was a chess master and said this Is a game that reflects unique Talents that couldn’t have Been acquired simply through telepathy. The problem is telepathy is required To explain even how the survivalist Scenario works, because you need to Explain how the medium and the Deceased chess player are communicating Which moves to do. You also have to Posit clairvoyance on the part Of either the surviving chess Player to know what the state Of play is. Or telepathy with the Medium to know what the state of Play is. So no matter where you Turn you’ve got psi phenomena. You’ve either got survivalist psi. Psi on the part of the deceased Or on the part of the medium. Or living agent psi On the part of the medium. I recall reading an issue Of the Smithsonian Institute magazine From 1903 summarizing all the evidence For survival in that era. What they Wrote back then over a 110 Years ago, was that while the evidence Doesn’t yet force us to conclude That the human personalities Survives bodily death for sure. It does establish the existence of Telepathy or clairvoyance and I am Under the impression we Haven’t evolved much since then. No I don’t think we have And I think some of the methodological Issues to which I referred earlier Indicate why. I mean just as It’s difficult to control for PK It’s difficult to know how to Do a double blind experiment In Parapsychology. I mean the only Sources of information you can actually Block are normal Sources of information. Right. Then one has to assume I suppose that human beings Operate primarily on normal information Channels and maybe occasionally you’re On a subconscious level, what we might Think of as psychic Channels of information. You might think it’s occasional But I don’t think we even know That. I mean that’s part of what I was indicating earlier when We don’t know the natural history Of psi. And it’s not as if our ESP Experiences have to announce themselves By being dramatic or radically discontinuous With our other thoughts. So it doesn’t have To be an internal analog to a flourish of Trumpets announcing when an ESP Event is going to occur. Jeffrey Mishlove: right So for all We know we could be interacting Telepathically with the minds of Strangers. I mean most people Have errant thoughts of some kind Or another and we tend to suppose we Just cranking them up by ourselves. But we have no way of being sure Of where they are really coming from. No we don’t and we have thousands Of them every day. We have to navigate our own Thoughts, it’s very tricky. And then When you add to that the complexities Of modern psychoanalysis for example Where Freud argued very cogently That we don’t even want to know What’s in our own subconscious mind. Let alone have other people Have access to that. Right, so psycho-dynamically the cases Are very complex. Para-psychologically The cases are very complex and most Researchers are operating at a Very superficial level it seems to me. One of your areas of specialty Is multiple identity disorder, Multiple personality disorder. Stephen E. Braude: Associative identity disorder. Associative identity disorder. Can you describe that and explain How it might or might not Be related to the paranormal. Well in cases of what used to Be called multiple personality disorders, Now dissociative identity disorder, People exhibit apparently relatively Autonomous but quite distinct personalities. Or identity states sometimes with Radically different physiological Counterparts to them so one Alter-identity might be near sighted, Or resistant to certain drugs, and Another one would not. I’ve heard that the colors of the Eyes can change. Yes, eye glass prescriptions, colors Of eyes can change, facial features can Change, musculature can change. You might argue for the possession of Different spirits. Well the reason there is survival research Is that what you see in many cases Of DID or MPD look like what You would see in certain Cases of mediumship. So I think a really clear headed Appraisal of evidence for survival Requires a deeper understanding Of dissociative phenomena than You’ll find among most of the People writing on survival. Well even among psychologists I gather, it’s controversial. Well, yes, it’s controversial in The same way that psi phenomena Are controversial and the same Source of sleazy dialectical tactics Deployed against association Researchers are virtually identical To those deployed against parapsychologists. Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if those Sleazy tactics occurred in many Other areas of science where People get involved in heated debates. Oh yes, I mean intellectual dishonesty Isn’t confined to dissociative research Or parapsychological research. Another related area in psychology Is hypnosis. Yes and an example of the kind Of bad argumentation I’ve been Pointing to is Nicholas Spanos For example waged A prominent campaign against the Reality of hypnosis as an altered State distinct from engaged role Playing or social compliance. But he generalized from the Weakest pieces of evidence. He focused on hypnotic phenomenon That are relatively easy to Simulate to please hypnotherapists Or hypnotists and completely Ignored the cases that mattered. For example Esdaile in 19th century India was performing radical surgery, Removal of great toe nails by the roots, Limb amputations, removal of 100 pound scrotal tumors, Yes you heard that right. And subjects who were undergoing these Procedures showed no reaction Whatsoever, no sign of pain. Now if that’s not a paradigmatic Altered state, I don’t Know what is. The intriguing thing to Me about Esdaile’s surgeries And hypnosis is there’s kind Of a parallel in psychical research Where in the 19th century you Had all of these incredible mediumistic Phenomenon, table levitations, Ectoplasmic spirit materializations That don’t seem to occur today And some people seem to think Well if they’re not happening Presently maybe they never Really happened at all then. Well I’m not sure if they Are not happening presently, But I think they have been Driven somewhat underground. There’s still physical mediums around Today and there’s still plenty of Interesting hypnotic work being Done, even experimental work. There are some recent studies on hypnotic Dentistry where hemophiliac dental patients, There were I think 250 surgical procedures On hemophiliac dental patients under Hypnosis and no bleeding. Jeffrey Mishlove: oh ok very interesting. Well what you’re pointing out Stephen is that the human mind Is a vast frontier and we still Know so very little. Stephen E. Braude: couldn’t agree more. Stephen Braude it’s been a pleasure Having you with me. Thank you very much. I look forward to More interviews with you. Me too. Thanks very much. And thank you for being with us.