A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

Book Review

The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena

by Dean Radin
(HarperOne 1997)



[note: The reason I did not post this review--actually it's more of a deconstruction--in a more timely fashion is that I did not want my students to read it and parrot my comments. I used Radin's book as a text in my Critical Thinking about the Paranormal course. I am now retired and offer these comments for those who didn't take the course so they can see how exciting the field of parapsychology has become. Actually, I am hoping that this review will discourage some readers from pursuing a career in this barren field.

The review was written up from my notes for the course and has 13 parts. I apologize for its length.

For the particularly devoted reader, I have also written a review of Radin's Entangled Minds.]

part one

Dean Radin has a master’s degree in electrical engineering and a Ph.D. in educational psychology from the University of Illinois. He is director of the Consciousness Research Laboratory and Senior Scientist and Laboratory Director at the Institute of Noetic Sciences. He also does research for the Boundary Institute. He’s been active in psi research for several decades and has published more than 200 papers related to parapsychology.

The Conscious Universe – The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena (1997) was awarded Amazon.com’s 1998 Bestseller Award for parapsychology. Brian Josephson, Ph.D., Nobel Laureate and Professor of Physics at Cambridge University told the British newspaper the Guardian that he considered the publication of Radin’s book “the most significant scientific event of 1997.” (Radin published a follow-up book in 2006, but it is just more of the same with the addition of a weak attempt to link the paranormal to entanglement, a concept from quantum physics. I'll add comments on his latest book at the end of this review.)

On his acknowledgements page, Radin calls his path “the road less traveled,” yet in a 2005 Gallup poll, 75% of Americans said they believe in at least one paranormal phenomenon. The same poll found that 41% believe in ESP; only 25% aren’t sure about it. Radin plays up the underdog role in his introductory chapter, identifying psi with scientific ideas dismissed by most scientists. A 1992 survey of National Academy of Science members found 77% do not believe in psychic phenomena. Even so, the public is largely in Radin’s corner when it comes to belief in the paranormal.

Yet, as Radin makes clear in his preface, most people who believe in psychic phenomena do so from personal experience or faith. Most are unaware of the scientific evidence for psi. He says “what many people think they know about psychic phenomena ‘ain’t necessarily so’.” He claims that “scientists have essentially proven that psi exists.” They have done this using “well-accepted experimental methods familiar to scientists in many disciplines.” What he doesn’t tell the reader in his preface is that the scientific evidence consists, for the most part, of statistical anomalies that have been interpreted to be proof of psi. Perhaps he didn’t want to scare off the general reader early on in the book, but Radin’s claim that “scientists have essentially proven that psi exists” hinges on his interpretation of statistical data. To understand this evidence the reader is going to have to learn about statistics and meta-studies. It is to his credit that despite the fact that most people are innumerate and are put off by complicated mathematics, Radin has found a niche in the popular media.

The introduction to Radin’s book begins with a quote from Carl Jung to the effect that it is imperative to consider the mind (psyche) as being independent of the brain and the “space-time limitations” of physical entities. This position is known in philosophy as dualism. Dualism is opposed to monistic materialism and the notion that ‘consciousness’ is a term used to identify various functions and processes of the physical, material brain. Materialism, which is the view of most neuroscientists, denies that consciousness is an independent entity that can exist without the physical body.

Dualism leaves open the question as to whether psi involves the ability of consciousness to receive or transfer information without physical means altogether or whether there are physical processes occurring that we are as yet unable to detect. As we will see, Radin tries to have it both ways. On the one hand, he believes that evidence of psi provides support for the anti-materialist hypothesis. On the other hand, he thinks that someday we may be able to explain even miracles without resorting to supernatural explanations. Someday, he thinks, we will understand the physical laws and mechanisms that govern events that are now called paranormal or supernatural.

Susan Blackmore, who worked as a parapsychologist for many years, notes in her book Consciousness: An Introduction (2004). that “most of what we have learned so far [in studying consciousness]….seems to point away” from the existence of minds that are separate from brains that can magically affect the world. “Parapsychology,” she says, “Seems to be growing further away from the progress and excitement of the rest of consciousness studies.”

Radin and many other parapsychologists would disagree with Blackmore’s assessment. In a chapter on “Mind-Matter Interaction,” Radin notes that believing “the concept that mind is primary over matter is deeply rooted in Eastern philosophy and ancient beliefs about magic” (127). However, instead of saying that it is now time to move forward, away from magical thinking and toward more scientific thinking, he rebuffs “Western science” for rejecting as “mere superstition” the beliefs of ancient Eastern philosophers. He claims that “the fundamental issues [of consciousness] remain as mysterious today as they did five thousand years ago.” To which I can only suggest that he read Blackmore’s book, which provides a survey of various competing views of consciousness now being argued about by philosophers and neuroscientists, but also provides abundant evidence that many fundamental issues are now well understood. Still, I must agree that despite all the advancements in the neurosciences, consciousness is still a deep mystery and a profoundly interesting topic. We certainly have not arrived at the final answer to the questions “What is mind?” and “what is its relationship to matter?”. But a lot of the mystery has evaporated with the progress made in the neurosciences over the past century. The weight of the current scientific evidence seems to favor Blackmore’s position, not Radin’s. Nevertheless, Radin and other notable parapsychologists, such as Charles Tart, consider their work to be contributing to consciousness studies. Thus, as we engage Radin’s evidence for psi, it will be worth asking what parapsychologists have contributed to our understanding of the mind.

In the introduction to his book, Radin claims that there is a predictable four-stage sequence in the history of science that governs the acceptance of new ideas. The first stage involves an idea being confidently proclaimed by skeptics to be impossible because it violates the “Laws of Science.” In the second stage, skeptics concede that the idea is possible, but claim that it is not very interesting and that “the claimed effects are extremely weak.” According to Radin, this is the stage psi research is in now. Stage three witnesses the mainstream coming around and recognizing that the idea is important and that the “effects are much stronger and more pervasive that previously imagined.” Finally, in stage four, the skeptics claim that they thought of the idea first.

This unique account of the history of science is not supported by Radin with any examples of a scientific idea that has followed these four stages. This is understandable because there probably aren’t any that fit this description. Here are five scientific ideas that most people should be familiar with:

1. the heliocentric theory
2. the theory of gravity
3. natural selection
4. the double-helix theory of DNA reproduction
5. plate tectonics

At one time each of these was a new idea in science. Do any of them fit the picture Radin paints? No, nor does any other scientific idea that I am aware of. It seems that Radin has expropriated and distorted Schopenhauer’s quip: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Is this true of Euclid’s geometry? Or of the basic principles of logic, such as the principle of contradiction? This quote from Schopenhauer has become a common mantra among those with questionable ideas. It is as if one thinks that because one’s ideas have been ridiculed and violently opposed, it is inevitable they are correct and will one day be accepted. In any case, it seems obvious that this false model of the history of scientific ideas is convenient for Radin’s view that psi is in the midst of transitioning from stage one to stage two and that stage three “can already be glimpsed on the horizon.” Then, of course, it is only a matter of time until we reach stage four where skeptics claim that they discovered psi long ago. I don’t think so!

Of course, what really matters is not Radin’s sense of the history of ideas but whether there is strong scientific evidence for psi. Heretofore, declares Radin, believers in psi have had to base their beliefs on faith, wishful thinking, and anecdotes. But now we have scientific evidence and proof that psi exists. It is this evidence that we must examine. But first we must make sure we know what we are talking about. Thus, Radin begins by noting that psychic phenomena fall into three types. “The first involves perceiving objects or events beyond the range of the ordinary senses.” To this category, known as ESP [extrasensory perception], belong clairvoyance, clairaudience, precognition, remote viewing, and telepathy. The other category, known as PK (psychokinesis) involves “mentally causing action at a distance” and includes not only using the mind to affect material objects outside one’s own body but psychic healing as well. The prevailing scientific theory, according to Radin, dictates that the mind should not be able to do these things because they occur due to “intention, the mind’s will.” He says no more about this notion of mind that science supposedly precludes but he does describe what he considers to be the scientific view of the mind. Most scientists today, he says, think of the mind as “merely a mechanistic, information-processing bundle of neurons” or “a computer made of meat.” Clearly, Radin finds the prevailing view repulsive. The question is: Does he provide a cogent argument that the mind does things that can be better explained by positing an additional entity, a non-material consciousness? We’ll present his arguments in due time.

The third category of psi phenomena is survival of consciousness (SOC). To this category belong out-of-body and near-death experiences, mediumship, reincarnation, EVP, past-life regression, healing prayer, as well the search for ghosts or using things like a Ouija board to contact spirits.

Radin proclaims: “Psi has been shown to exist in thousands of experiments.” Yet he admits that “there are disagreements over how to interpret the evidence.” What he seems to mean is that some people think the evidence shows that psi exists while others don’t. He says that even “hard-nosed skeptics,” who aren’t convinced that the evidence demonstrates the existence of psi, still admit that “something interesting is going on that merits serious scientific attention.” Maybe, but there is a mighty chasm between scientific evidence psi exists and something interesting is going on. The “hard-nosed skeptics” may have quite different reasons from Radin for thinking that there is something interesting going on. The skeptics may agree that there are statistical oddities that have been experimentally produced. What those statistics signify is debatable and it is certainly not assumed by skeptics that they signify the existence of psi.

Radin seems not to have much interest in what skeptics have to say, however. When he launches into another historical reconstruction regarding the “gradually changing attitudes of prominent skeptics,” for example, he seriously distorts the ideas of Carl Sagan and Ray Hyman by quoting them out of context. Here is part of a passage from Sagan that Radin quotes:

At the time of writing, there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers; (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images “projected” at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation (Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, Random House, 1995, p. 302).

Radin calls this “an astonishing admission” and goes on to crow about “other signs of shifting opinions regarding the reality of psi phenomena “cropping up with increasing frequency in the scientific literature.” However, Radin fails to note that Sagan went on to write: “I pick these claims not because I think they’re likely to be valid (I don't), but as examples of contentions that might be true.” They “have at least some, although still dubious, experimental support. Of course, I could be wrong.” He then goes on to relate how in the mid-1970s he found himself unable to sign a manifesto called “Objections to Astrology” not because he thought astrology has any validity, but “because I felt (and still feel) that the tone of the statement was authoritarian.” Sagan was not admitting anything about the likely reality of psi phenomena. He was merely being cautiously skeptical: No claim should be dismissed out-of-hand or rejected simply because it seems absurd or stupid, or because of the motivations, lack of scientific qualifications, or moral character of its proponents. A claim should be accepted or rejected only if the evidence warrants it. Sagan was simply defending the view that a good skeptic must be open-minded. He was not saying that any of these three claims is true, probably true, or likely to be proven true. He is stating the claims as those who believe them would state them and he is saying they deserve “serious study,” that is, they should not be dismissed out-of-hand. He said the same thing about astrology.

Radin quotes Hyman accurately as saying that “Parapsychologists should be rejoicing” because a government committee said their work should be taken seriously. What Radin fails to note is that Hyman was very critical of the government study and has remained adamant in his denial that psi has been proved in thousands of experiments.

On the other hand, it is true that parapsychologists have come a long way in responding to the criticisms of skeptics and that their work has been published in a several mainstream scientific journals. However, it must be emphasized that these scientific studies have shown only that their statistical results are not what would be expected by chance and are “statistically significant.” Psi researchers have assumed that if you can’t prove they cheated, erred, or produced statistical flukes, then the only reasonable explanation of their statistical data is that psi exists. Again, Radin’s use of a quote from Hyman makes it appear that Hyman agrees that these statistical data support the psi hypothesis. Yet, all Hyman has said is that the data are not likely due to chance.

Tart, Radin, and other parapsychologists know that a single study here or there is not going to do the job. Replicability, Radin notes, is essential in science. Of course, replicability cannot simply mean doing the same experiment in the same way and getting the same results. If the first experiment had any kind of error or flaw inherent in it, replicating the results just replicates the error. Radin makes it clear that there are many cases of replication of studies that have found evidence for the existence of psi. In fact, he goes much further and claims that “most psi researchers today no longer conduct ‘proof-oriented’ experiments.” He claims that instead of trying to find proof of the existence of psi, researchers are now focusing on questions like what influences psi performance? And, how does psi work? He also notes that the evidence for psi includes evidence from experiments on “mass mind” or “global consciousness effects,” using psi in casino gambling and lottery games, and other applications.

If scientists have already proven the existence of psi and are now working on explaining how psi works and are applying psi to their gambling practices, why hasn’t’ the rest of the world heard about this? Indeed, why hasn’t the scientific community heard about these wonderful developments? Radin claims that most scientists aren’t aware of the proof for psi because it’s been “suppressed and ridiculed by a relatively small group of highly skeptical philosophers and scientists.” These conspirators, he says, claim that psi scientists are delusional or incompetent. Unfortunately, he doesn’t provide any examples or evidence for these assertions. Instead, he notes that many skeptics consider that “the widespread belief in psi reflects a decline in the public’s critical thinking ability.” He promises the reader, however, that in chapter 15 (“Metaphysics”) he will examine the origins of science. This, he says, will shed some light on why the public generally accepts psi while the scientific community doesn’t. We’ll return to this discussion later.

Some skeptics might point out to Radin that psi researchers seem related to psi in the same way that earlier scientists who believed in the ether and phlogiston went about their business explaining how the ether and phlogiston work. He criticizes science for being prejudiced, for prejudging the unexpected statistics found by psi researchers. But Radin also is prejudging things: He assumes that the statistical oddities found by parapsychologists are proof that all of modern science is based on a false understanding of the nature of science and of the universe. For, if the parapsychologists are right then everything other scientists think they know about the world is wrong.

Radin, however, has no doubts. He writes that “the eventual scientific acceptance of psychic phenomena is inevitable.” He tells us that in chapter 16 he is going to explain how psi works. He believes psi research will profoundly affect our notions of space, time, mind, and matter. He even thinks that miracles will become explicable in terms of psi, thereby profoundly affecting theology. He laments that science has not helped us understand such concepts as “hope” and “meaning.” He wants science to include a dualistic metaphysics and overcome its materialism. In short, he thinks psi research will provide scientific evidence that forces us to accept the metaphysical beliefs of mystics, who think everything is related as one holistic entity in which the spiritual dimension (imagined as disembodied consciousness) functions according to will. Like many others in his field, Radin tries to put forth a return to vitalism and some form of philosophical idealism in opposition to mechanistic materialism. Like many other parapsychologists, he claims this is a giant leap forward instead of a nostalgic longing for a magical past.

end of part 1

Part  1 | 2 |

more book reviews by R. T. Carroll

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