A Little Knowledge

Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer. Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind. Bantam Books, 2007.

Elizabeth Mayer, a Freudian psychoanalist employs a dowser to help recover her daughter's stolen harp. The positive results impels her into the world of psychical research, and she soon finds that her colleagues, like any other random group of people at a dinner party, can recount their own anomalous experiences. These are the sort of things that they normally keep secret, especially in the authoritarian world of the American university hospital. There are rumours of the 'horror stories' about what happens to those who don't keep quite about these things. These 'horrors' turn out to be pretty small beer, no one is arrested, tortured, imprisoned, raped, executed, had their house fire bombed or their children thrown out of school for these infractions, the 'horror' consists of various impediments in their climb up the academic greasy pole.

Mayer, being a Freudian psychoanalyst, had started off being sceptical of such things, after all there has to be someone to look down on. Truth to tell, parapsychology, at its best any rate, is much more of science than Freudian psychology. Parapsychologists at least try to act like scientists, conducting real and often well devised experiments, and not just quoting the quasi-religious mantras of a master. Once the wall of scepticism is breached it is difficult to know where to stop. For Dr Mayer there must indeed be limits, for the narratives she quotes are missing tales of ghosts, poltergeists, UFOs, bigfoot, nameless night visitors and talking mongooses and racoons, to say nothing of meetings with Jesus, Mohammed, the Virgin Mary or the fairies at the-bottom of the garden. Which points out that there are cultural fashions or norms in such folklore, with differing subcultures having differing approve anomalous experiences.

If Meyer's pilgrimage into the paranormal begins with the finding of her daughter's harp, it ends with the claim by the dowser that he also repaired it by means of psychokinesis, whereupon she has a hard collision with her own personal boggle factor.

In the end neither she nor veteran physicist Freeman Dyson can work out what to make off all this. Dyson suggests that these anomalies are part of an 'effervescent mental world' which can never be caught by science. Yet this is itself of the artefact of selection among the anomalies. Perhaps one way of applying this idea across the board is to argue that they are breakdowps in the way human beings organise their perceptions of the world, rather than belong to the world out there. If they are 'out there' then perhaps they are nothing more than the residual chaos of things, in a world which is far more lawless than good, well brought-up physicists want to believe. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 95, May 2007

1 comment:

Terry the Censor said...

> after all there has to be someone to look down on

Ha ha!

In the mid-eighties, I would visit friends at the relatively prestigious University of Western Ontario and Waterloo University. They took me to parties peopled with their fellow aspiring pharmacists, optometrists and -- if it was a "good" party -- someone who had been accepted to medical school. My friends had no fear I could keep up with any scientific discussion, but they were horrified that I might admit to being an English major in the creative writing programme! To spare my pals such dishonor, we agreed that when someone asked for my major -- and everyone at such parties did ask for your major -- I would pretend to be a harmless biology major.

Of course, none of these posturing 20-year-olds cared a fig about science, it was all about getting a degree that would lead to high earnings. Their working-class parents brainwashed them into disdaining "useless" arts degrees. (I had the same background but my mother failed to divert me into business studies, her preference. My own choices have not led to a bank presidency or cabinet position, but I have no regrets.)