ESP Enigma

Diane Hennacy Powell. The ESP Enigma: The Scientific Case for Psychic Phenomena. Walker and Company, 2009.

Powell is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, with a training in neuroscience, and is therefore better able than many to be aware of the various problems integrating 'ESP' into modern neuroscience-based views of consciousness. We would expect someone with her background to examine the problem in a scientific fashion.

Well she does treat her own subject of neuroscience in a scientific fashion, with discussions of some recent research, the results of damage to specific areas of the brain, the possible role of dreamlike states in the production of out-of-the-body and near-death experiences etc. There is much of interest in these portions.

When it comes to the evidence for ESP and PK, the tone seems very different, for while her boggle factor is clearly more sharply set than many in this field, clearly excluding macro PK and seance room phenomena, much of her discussion in this area is anecdotal and shows little appreciation of the complex psychological, social and cultural background of much of this testimony. Worse still is her rapid descent into the kind of promiscuous paranormalism, in which the likes of Edgar Cayce, Peter Hurkos, Carlos Casteneda, Fritjof Capra, David Bohm , Rupert Sheldrake and Harold Burr all rub shoulders with one another, and with discussions of relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, chaos theory, interconnectedness, eastern world views, reflexology and iridology. All that is left out is Uncle Tom Cobleigh and his old grey mare. The assumption seems to be that if enough enough ingredients are thrown into the pot something tasty will emerge.

Part of Powell's problem is that she is, like many in this field, essentially looking for anomalies to use as ammunition against the dreaded materialism, because she cannot see how anything as special as consciousness can arise from a material brain. I rather suspect that this is more of a cultural or aesthetic problem than a scientific one, and one that ultimately comes from the class structure of classical Greek civilisation, where the pure, sacred world of the mind, the province of gentleman philosophers such as Plato, was contrasted with the grubby, profane, polluted world of matter, the realm of subaltern groups such as women, artisans and slaves.

This Hellenistic world view was incorporated into early Christianity and some of its offshoots, and has greatly influenced Western thought ever since. This tendency to try and separate consciousness from brain activity leads her into more problems such as "we do not know how the desire to drink creates the brain cell activity" which sets up the chain of nervous action which leads to the lifting of a glass. From the monist point of view there is no problem, because the decision to the pick up the glass is the product of the brain activity, and the "desire" is the experiential part of that activity.

Of course it is hard to imagine how patterns of electrical and chemical activity in the human brain can give rise to conscious experience, but if you really think about it, it is not any easier to really understand how activity in fields, energies, astral bodies, unextended mind-stuff or whatever can give rise to conscious experience. All that makes it appear so, are the cultural prejudices described above.

as with many such writers, Powell really does not do justice to the many complexities and disputes within this field, and barely touches upon the sceptical critiques of many of the topics and personalities covered. The approach to parapsychology is not really scientific, and I doubt that this book will convince many agnostics let alone sceptics, though it may impress some arts graduates with little background knowledge of science or the history and intricacies of parapsychology and psychical research. --   Peter Rogerson - Originally published online on Magonia Review, 12 February 2009.

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