27 September 2007

How not to advance understanding of OBEs

This is an article which appeared in the Financial Times magazine. It reminds me of how deplorable it is that we continue to be prevented from making any progress in research on out-of-the-body experiences (OBEs), as well as being unable to publicise our criticisms of tendentious work in several other well-established areas, such as philosophy and education. The point about OBEs is that they may very well shed important light on the processes of normal perception, given that they represent a sort of ‘subversion’ of the ordinary organisation of perceptual data. The would-be paranormal association is a red herring, as far as I am concerned.

People (including academics) say, as a knee-jerk reaction, ‘OBEs are very difficult to work on, aren’t they’ (as a way of writing off the possibility of doing so). This is simply not true (at least it is not true of work that might be done by us), but we have never been able to do any work on them. If we could, I am sure developments would be rapid.

We hoped that Charles’s very constricted supervised work on them for his DPhil might have led to less restrictive opportunities, but of course it never did. Nor, of course, did it lead to any academic career progression for Charles in the direction of a Fellowship or a Professorship. (I wanted Charles and Fabian to get Professorships as soon as possible so that they could support my applications, if for no other reason.)

As regards the experience described in the article, it is typical of a certain type of case in which the person turns around and sees himself lying on the ground, unconscious. This particular case could be described as near-death, since the subject was clinically dead for a short time, but exactly similar experiences have been reported with less serious causes, and not ‘near death’.

Several of Charles’s subjects, when he was working at the Department of Experimental Psychology, had OBEs fairly often, and I am sure it would be possible to find out a lot more about them if we were in a position to do so.

23 September 2007

Have some apparatus

Copy of a letter to a philosopher

When I met you I referred to my constant altercations with Rosalind Heywood about the expensiveness of apparatus. People (including journalists before they stopped interviewing us) have always liked to talk about our need for apparatus, as if it was the only thing we were short of, and as if it could be of any use without salaries, a hotel environment and ancillary staff. They apparently liked to think of me being even worse off than I was, actually spending my own impoverished, statusless time taking readings on a piece of experimental equipment! Which is an exceedingly slow way of getting information to process, and I never thought I would be able to do it.

Apparatus was what we were most often offered, either as a gift of other people’s cast-offs or (less often) bought, very cheaply, especially for us, without any offer of even a partial contribution to our running-costs while we used it. I used to call this ‘the treadmill syndrome’.

To go back to the beginning; when I was thrown out at the end of the ruined education, I needed an academic career with professorial status and a hotel environment; I did not want to do experimental work of any kind (i.e. doing work on one piece of equipment myself, in person), although I saw that I might have to do so in working my way back into a university career and, if I had, I would have had to be paid enough (as a minimum) to employ a research assistant.

Being head of a department with several people working with a large number of pieces of apparatus producing several streams of information, in the way Professor Eysenck was, would have been (and still would be) a different matter altogether; that would have been a tolerable possibility, although to make it more than just tolerable, it would need to be on a large enough scale to include residential college (hotel) facilities. That was what I was trying to set up when Rosalind destroyed my hopes of support from Sir George, Salter et al.

Rather than continuing to work as a secretary to Professors nominated by Rosalind, whether in a new organisation under her auspices or at the Society for Psychical Research, I withdrew from the plans for the new organisation, which had now become her organisation with Sir George and Salter dancing to her tune, and resigned from the SPR so that I was clearly dependent on what I could get by appealing for money.

So far as I was concerned, I was not in a position to do anything, but Rosalind put me under pressure to ‘do work’ of a pointless kind, even in such bad circumstances.

I could not point out anything realistic, such as that before I had a hotel environment doing anything would be negative, in no way positive, and my life was bad enough as it was. I knew that whenever I had said anything realistic about what I needed, Rosalind had used it to arouse a storm of hatred and disgust against me. So I confined myself to pointing out that even one of the type of EEG I might use would cost a good deal of money, and that I had nowhere to put it. (I did not say, which was more to the point, that I could not afford a research assistant to work it.) This led to many painful and unrealistic conversations in which Rosalind suggested, for example, that I might put it in my parents’ house in Kidlington (they had moved to Oxford by that time). ‘There is no room large enough’, I said, ‘There is only a box-room’. ‘You could have a smaller model with fewer channels’, she said. ‘It wouldn’t be possible to get it up the stairs’, I said. ‘You could hoist it through a window’, she said. ‘The window isn’t large enough’, I said. ‘You could have an even smaller EEG with fewer channels’, she said. And so on.

I should like to point out that when I was thrown out at the end of the ruined education I had no plans to do research in any field connected with psychical research. I had read Myers’s Human Personality in Somerville Library but at that stage I thought that even if there was anything in any of the supposed phenomena, it was not obvious to me how research on it could be done. I did not feel tempted to repeat the sort of statistical experiment which I had read about, in which some controversial ‘evidence’ for ESP was produced. This did not seem to me to advance matters at all, and doing it would be very labour-intensive.

When I arrived at the SPR I started a plan to set up a research institute of my own, but that was because I needed an institutional and hotel environment. I started doing this before I had any definite views about the likelihood of any of the phenomena being genuine or, if they were, what the best ways of getting to grips with them would be.

My ideas about these things evolved gradually. I was in contact with people who reported various experiences and also had available the past research records of the SPR. Also I had to think how to make the best of the various opportunities which came my way. I would never have thought, myself, of doing a mass ESP experiment, but Cecil King required it and offered access to his publications to do it in. Therefore, to improve the shining hour and make it a bit less futile, I tried to think of a prediction simple enough to be tested in such circumstances and, as it happened, it worked at the level of significance normally required.

16 September 2007

Being "spiritual"

Copy of a letter to a philosopher

You said that some Rosicrucian SS men gave some help to a Buddhist who was also a communist, because he, like them, was a spiritual person, and you wondered what I thought of this story. This is quite difficult to answer, so perhaps it is worth trying.

Basically, I am really just agnostic. People are always trying to get me to endorse some element in the modern ideology as desirable or ‘better’, and although I wrote The Human Evasion very carefully to avoid appearing to be advocating some approach to life, I did nevertheless acquire a sort of fan club (none of whom ever came to work here, either to find out more about my ideas or because I advertised our need for help).

According to this fan club I was supposed to be advocating ‘going with the flow’, which I suppose means following the line of least resistance, giving in to all the social pressures. And, I suppose, general hippie-ish dropping-out. What I am putting on my blog and website now provokes vitriolic reactions, and my ‘fans’ appear to feel let down because I have lowered my standards of wisdom and enlightenment.

I do not have any insight to speak of into what might be called spirituality. I never had an outlook like that and could not have seen how to start acquiring one if I had wanted to; I cannot imagine wanting to.

The person at the Society for Psychical Research who expressed the greatest appreciation of spirituality, wherever it might be found, was Rosalind Heywood [see also here, here, here and here]. She also played routinely on the element in human psychology which had appeared to me most incompatible with centralisation — viz. the belief in society as the source of significance.

When she wanted to influence someone, which was usually to the detriment of someone else, whether me or otherwise, she would always start by flattering the person for the significance which a numinous society had conferred upon them. ('You are/were a great Professor / Ambassador / Colonial Governor etc.')

So I think it is the case that all sorts of spirituality are likely to contain a belief in the significance to be derived from other people/society, even if this is not obvious because they consider themselves to be free and uninhibited by repressive bourgeois standards, or by a belief in capitalism or individualism.

A typical Rosalind anecdote:

While waiting in a corridor at Eton to meet her son, whom she was visiting, she had become aware of the presence of a great and infinitely wise (vaguely angelic) Being who brooded over and guided the Etonian goings-on.

You observe that this story gets in the information that her son was at Eton, as well as demonstrating Rosalind’s belief in the sacred numinousness of statusful social institutions. She had a similar story about waiting to meet an MP in the House of Commons, also presided over by a Being of superhuman wisdom.

12 September 2007

Aphorism of the month

The object of modern science is to make all aspects of reality equally boring, so that no one will be tempted to think about them.

(from The Decline and Fall of Science)

10 September 2007

Tall poppy syndrome

I read an article recently (see below) which purported to demonstrate that there is nowadays in this country a hatred of success. This was done by referring to a game which was played for money. In this game one of the options was to reduce someone else’s winnings, by some sacrifice of your own.

It was found that players often made use of this option. I expect the conclusion that will be drawn from this piece of research is that success should not be permitted because other people dislike it. It has already been stated that research shows that what makes people happy is not what advantages they have themselves, but there being nobody who has more.

(The only form of success to which people have little resistance is that of socially appointed oppressors of humanity, in which case the successful person may enjoy some status and power over others so long as he retains his position, but is unlikely to become rich enough to enjoy any autonomy. He is not going to be free to do anything he wants in any way he could get anything out of, and will always be expected to get his kicks out of frustrating and oppressing other people.)

Actually I have been a victim of the 'tall poppy syndrome' all my life, without having ever been allowed to become a tall poppy. Perceiving that my ability might make it possible for me to become successful, I was scythed down as a precautionary measure. When I was thrown out of the university and started to save money (which I had no tolerable way of earning) to work towards being able to afford the institutional environment which I needed to have, I rapidly became a tall poppy in the eyes of other people, since I became the owner of a small house far more quickly than those who had acceptable careers and salaries, although I was living in it from hand to mouth, with no heating in the winter, since I had no source of income. Hence, I was always perceived as the capitalistic landlord or employer to be fleeced and done down as far as possible.

Similarly, I suppose that the anticipatory tall poppy syndrome has contributed to the fact that funding and career advancement have always been withheld, no matter what efforts I made to demonstrate my ability to make the best possible use of any opportunities or breaks which I might be given. I have always had the impression that the more successful such research as I could do in poverty and exile might be, the more rigorously was withheld any reward which might have permitted me to give any further demonstration of my functionality.

Sometimes, when I have commented on the fact that funding or salaried career advancement (even to carry on work in fields which I had initiated) would preferentially be given, on whatever excuse, to anyone rather than myself, however desperate my need for it might be, people have hastened to ascribe this to cut-throat competition for commercial advantage. There would always be someone who wanted the money or position for themselves. This is in line with the modern idea that the profit motive is the only source of all evil.

However, the tall poppy syndrome (applied in anticipation) provides a much better explanation of the insuperable obstacles to progress which I have encountered in practice. It has certainly appeared to me that people were prepared to exert themselves against me, even though no benefit would accrue to themselves beyond their sadistic enjoyment of my continuing frustration.

(written in 2002)

Extracts from article in Daily Mail, February 13, 2002, written by Tim Utton:

Scientists believe they have proved that we don’t like success and are jealous of self-made millionaires. The researchers discovered that Britons hate ‘winners’ and would happily give up some of their own earnings to damage those who are more successful …Volunteers were tested in an experiment using real cash in which some became richer in a betting game involving choosing numbers at random. Players could anonymously ‘burn away’ the winnings of better-off rivals but forfeited some of their own cash each time they did so. Almost two-thirds destroyed the money of those doing better than them, despite the high cost to their own pocket. Professor Andrew Oswald and colleague Dr Daniel Zizzo, of Oxford University, found that half of all the cash winnings had been deliberately destroyed by envious rivals … “This research shows up for the first time how envious people can be, particularly when they start at an equal level and see others becoming richer.” The research will be seen by some as proof that ‘tall poppy syndrome’ has taken root. The phrase, first coined in Australia in the 1980s, refers to the tendency to scythe down those who are deemed to have got above themselves.

03 September 2007

Thinking for oneself

This is a letter I wrote in 1986 about 'individualism'. Since then, the particular version of individualism discussed here has become considerably more prevalent.

In a recent piece of writing I used the expressing ‘thinking for oneself’, and in the letter to you about Nietzsche there was some reference to 'individualism'. Now this is an area where terminology can be very misleading. The tribal ethic is in many ways very authoritarian and anti-individualistic. Above all it is anti-hierarchical (that is to say it will not tolerate any subsidiary hierarchies coming into being which are not actually determined by the tribe). Nevertheless, it will be asserted by upholders of tribal morality that they believe very much in people ‘thinking for themselves’, being allowed to ‘live their own lives’ and ‘doing their own thing’. This area requires very careful consideration because it is perfectly possible for someone to agree with you on the assumption that what you mean by the verbal forms you use is diametrically opposed to what you do mean.

For example, a fairly standard object of social approval at the time of writing is a person who has been in a convent and left [this was a reference to ex-nun Karen Armstrong]. Characteristically, such a person will say that she was expected to be uncritical of authority in the convent, but then she went (let us say) on a university course and was taught to ‘be critical’ and ‘think for herself’. This made returning to the convent unthinkable, and now she has a happy life ‘making her own decisions’. Actually this probably means being critical of certain ideas being promoted in the convent by reference (probably implicit) to widely accepted but unanalysed assumptions.

‘Thinking for oneself’ has a strong tendency to mean ‘identifying with the implicit assumptions which are fashionable at present and rejecting the ideas of any individual or minority which do not reinforce them’.

I saw this illustrated in the contrast between my convent school and the state grammar school I went to — which was far worse than the convent, so far as I was concerned. But on the ideological level (which was not directly related to how they treated me) the difference was between a very explicit set of beliefs, and one vaguely defined but actually equally emotionally loaded ideology. The nuns would give various reasons why you should believe in God and, having done so, why you should believe he was in favour of certain things and so on. I did not find the reasons convincing, but then the nuns admitted that ultimately it was a question of having faith, and they said (which was after all quite true) that you accepted all sorts of other things on faith in normal life. It seems to me that if you found their arguments convincing enough to accept their system, despite the extent to which it was authoritarian, this would be ‘thinking for oneself’ as much as is usually practiced, if not more.

The state school did not explicitly claim to be authoritarian, but one found oneself under enormous implicit pressure to behave in certain ways which would imply certain beliefs about the moral rightness of certain things. However, it was maximally easy for people to conform to these pressures without ever formulating what assumptions they implied. In fact, the indefiniteness of the situation was such that it would require very considerable intellectual powers to make a start on setting out the underlying assumptions with any clarity. The inconsistencies and weaknesses of the nuns’ positions were relatively open to inspection; those of the state school lay protected by the fact that they were not defined at all.

Incidentally, you keep referring to my speculation about the psychodynamics of human nature — viz. that what makes people able to tolerate their own finiteness is positive appreciation of the finiteness of others. Well, it is a speculation. All that is really open to introspection is that interacting with people, or thinking about them, is what makes it hardest to be aware of the shockingness of the existential situation. People derive security and meaningfulness from other people. But the speculation arises, not from introspection, but because one observes that while people ostensibly set great store by other people, they don’t really seem to mind about them much, at least about what happens to them.