Books reviewed by SPR reviewers
Here’s a novel novel. J. J. Lumsden has written a story about a parapsychologist investigating an apparent poltergeist, using the plotline as a vehicle to provide serious information, in the form of endnotes, on psi research. The result is entertaining and instructive in equal measure, and will appeal to SPR members as well as the general reader who would like to know more about parapsychology.
Dr Luke Jackson, a professional parapsychologist engaged in pre-sentiment research (that’s endnote 51), is headed to a retirement community just outside Tucson, Arizona, for a flying visit to his grandparents en route to a conference in Hawaii – a choice of destination clearly designed to stimulate numbers applying for post-graduate courses in the subject. Unfortunately, just before he arrives his grandfather dies, causing him to extend his stay in Arizona, and while there he is asked to help out with a problem which is making a local couple consider leaving their home.
They are plagued by spooky manifestations such as strange Indian speech coming from downstairs at night when they are the only ones in the house, writing in the bathroom which appears and disappears, a candle that mysteriously burns down with no human agency, and so on. At a loss what to do, they ask Luke for his advice, so he sets about determining whether the phenomena have a paranormal explanation or not. The plot that follows, although coming to a tidier conclusion than much spontaneous case research, does give an idea of the sorts of problems that the investigator faces when probing what is really going on in a given situation and trying to make sense of what witnesses say.
The result is thoroughly enjoyable, but a problem with interweaving a detective storyline with information on parapsychology is that it affects the flow, made more noticeable by the fast pace of the procedural element. Every now and again the momentum slackens for a Socratic exchange in which a character will ask Luke a question, such as, “Tell me Luke, exactly what does a parapsychologist do?”, or “Spontaneous experiences are common?”, or “So what about healing?” to which he replies with a mini-lecture on the topic.
One learns to recognise the signs, and tends to think, “ah, the science bit, concentrate,” but the extensive supplementary material that elaborates these points is well worth the effort of working through and Lumsden has taken pains to make quite technical information accessible to the non-specialist. Areas covered as the narrative unfolds include testing various aspects of psi in the laboratory and possible explanations, theories of poltergeists, Electronic Voice Phenomena, Near Death Experiences, issues of fraud, and methods used by pseudo-psychics.
Lumsden also takes the opportunity to scrutinise methods used by sceptics, noting where they have been unfairly applied to parapsychology. The book concludes with a lengthy bibliography to enable the reader to follow up particular areas of interest. One puzzle that remains is why he chose to call a supporting character Chet Baker, with not a trumpet in sight.
Lumsden is apparently going to produce a sequel, and there are hooks in The Hidden Whisper that could be expanded. It would be nice to see a series, with educational underpinnings to page-turning fiction, as Dr Jackson examines things that go bump, or perhaps just beep, though whether Lumsden will generate as much interest from descriptions of Luke’s pre-sentiment research as he does from the Tucson Poltergeist is another matter.
A book has recently been published which does something very important very well. The book is Irreducible Mind: Towards a Psychology for the 21st Century, edited and largely written by Edward and Emily Kelly, with chapters by a number of prominent parapsychologists. Its aim is to demonstrate empirically the need for a new philosophical and theoretical framework to accommodate the phenomena of mind and consciousness.
A number of features make this scholarly, weighty (at over 800 pages literally as well as intellectually!) and clearly-written volume very special. It provides a comprehensive review of experimental and theoretical consciousness-related research in the light of its historical context and development, with a deep and wide-ranging philosophical sweep. It is also passionately scientific, both in following empirical evidence wherever it might lead, and in demolishing orthodox fallacies which managed to embed themselves in the current worldview on the basis of dubious empirical and/or philosophical credentials. In fact, much of the book’s argument relies heavily on empirical evidence provided by current research, particularly in neuroscience. However, the book also draws extensively on areas of evidence which tend to be outside the current framework (and that includes paranormal phenomena), often because of the difficulty in finding a place for them within the picture constructed on existing assumptions.
The book is aimed both at specialists and an educated general readership. It will be particularly rewarding for serious readers who try to follow developments in consciousness research and theoretical debates, while not being directly involved in that branch of learning. Readings in consciousness theories often leave one with that dissatisfied “yes, but what about [slot in your piece of evidence] …” feeling, yet unsure whether the problem lies with the theory, or with one’s own lack of expert knowledge. The arguments presented here draw attention to the problem that research in this area is often rich in data but less so in understanding, and throw doubt on the assumption that more of the same data will somehow reveal the full picture. Another feature valuable for the general reader is that the flaws in much of the theorising in mainstream psychology become apparent without the need to refer to what some would regard as “fringe” evidence, i.e. that of experimental parapsychology or subjective human experience, not to mention survival research – although such evidence is given its due weight.
The first chapter gives us a compact history of twentieth-century psychology, from behaviourism to cognitive neuroscience of today, emphasising the inability of these theories to account for many important aspects of mind and consciousness. It is followed by an introduction to Myers, the “forgotten genius”, and his contribution to the study of the mind-body problem. The chapters which follow bring comprehensive reviews of areas either neglected within the current framework of psychological research (such as the influence of mental states on the body, secondary centres of consciousness, near-death experiences and related phenomena, genius-level creativity or mystical experiences), or regarded as “basically solved” (such as memory, where “trace” theories, although taken as axiomatic within the current framework, are shown to be fraught with empirical and conceptual difficulties). The final chapter draws together the arguments running through the book, making a case for the theoretical framework, developed by Myers and William James, in the light of current scientific knowledge, including the more fundamental area of physics.
This clearly presented overarching view of the fundamental philosophical issues which lie behind the conflicting, and often passionately held, attitudes towards the field of psychical research/parapsychology, is an important event for anyone interested in the questions of consciousness, mind-brain relationship, and where the possible answers might lead us.