Science and the Paranormal

Arthur J Ellison. Science and the Paranormal: Altered States of Reality. Floris Books, 2002.

Arthur Ellison, who died shortly after completing this book, was for many years the most dominant figure in (some would say virtually dictator of) the Society for Psychical Research, and given the title, it might occur to a general reader that it will provide the latest scientific evidence on the paranormal, and its implication for science in general. Someone with a scientific background with little knowledge of psychical research but keeping an open mind on the subject, might in addition read it to see whether the subject is going to be worth studying.

Both groups of readers are likely to be disappointed, for there is no real discussion of the scientific implications of alleged paranormal experiences; rather what one gets is Ellison’s own experience and prejudices, all delivered in a tone in which credulity ("I have rarely met a fraudulent medium") mixes with considerable self satisfaction, and a constant refrain that the whole scientific community is much at fault for being out of step with Arthur Ellison and the SPR.

The perceptive reader might come to the conclusion that Ellison himself is perhaps one of the 'shamanic personalities', discussed by James McClennon, who have all sorts of odd experiences, and are able to (at least temporarily) convince others that they have shared them. Rather than being passive observers of the various wonders described such people are part of the psychological nexus which generates them.

Supporters of the paranormal seem to go in for diametrically opposed views on human perception, some seeing it as a perfect observing and recording apparatus; while some, like Ellison, seem to argue that the whole external world is an illusion. This seems to be the gist of Ellison’s argument for idealism, arguing that our world is fashioned by our beliefs in some very fundemental sense. This must be true to some extent, in that our beliefs and expectations may strongly influence our perception of the world. But there are clear limits to this, for example scientific discoveries often turn out to be very surprising, counter-intuitive or downright unwelcome. Even more profoundly Ellison is quite unable to say how animals which do not have our elaborate verbal culture are able to fashion a coherent world. Furthermore, no matter what our beliefs may be there is no evidence of them allowing us to grow back a severed limb or bounce safely back up again after jumping off a 300-foot cliff.

Indeed it struck me that Ellison’s arguments were simply intellectually incoherent. For example, if the world is but an illusion then surely all the 'facts' of psychical research are as illusionary as everything else, so what is the point of getting steamed up about them? It is clear that psychical research, as much as electrical engineering, only makes sense as an activity if we assume that there is an external world out there which is in some sense or other modelled in our sensory experience. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia Supplement 40, September 2002.


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