Sentient Cutlery: A Challenge to the Amazing Randi

Peter B. Lloyd

(A response to James Randi's blog entries of 13th, 20th, and 27th of October 2006.)


Introduction

Uri Geller achieved considerable media attention in the 1970s by apparently bending spoons telekinetically. One of the physicists involved in testing Uri Geller was Dr Jack Sarfatti. Now, scroll forward to 2006. On 4th October, Uri invited Jack to his home in England, along with a small group of interested persons (Mark Pilkington, Philip Coppens, and Gary Osborn), for an informal meeting to talk about psi. Jack knew of my writings on philosophical aspects of psi, and he had recently participated in the Metatopia video project with myself and Susan Waitt. He kindly asked Uri to extend his invitation to me. Of course, I accepted. After the meeting, Jack asked each of us to write down notes on our observations, and circulate them within the group. I wrote down what I saw (ie a spoon being bent), what I recalled of the discussion, and my speculations on possible explanations of telekinesis with particular reference to cutlery.

I have, for some years, advocated a philosophical theory called 'mental monism' or 'subjective idealism', which was originally proposed in the West by Bishop George Berkeley in the Eighteenth Century, but has close parallels with Shankara's Advaita Vedanta from Eighth Century India. My comments on spoon bendng were framed within that philosophy. Specifically, I addressed these questions: (a) if spoons can be bent by the mind, what would be a plausible explanation? And (b) if mental monism were true, would that offer a better explanatory framework for spoon bending?

These rough notes were not particularly confidential, but they were intended for private consumption within that group, and not for wider circulation. By one means or another, they arrived at the desk of the well-known sceptic James Randi, who very kindly took the time to read them and comment on them in his weekly blog (www.randi.org). In fact, he did this three times (13th October, 20th October, and 27th October). If I'd known they were going to be so widely circulated, I'd have spent more time drafting them and providing background to my comments. And I wouldn't have included the private joke about Da Vinci synchronicities, which Randi's followers unsurprisingly did not realise was a joke.

More importantly, though, quoting material out of context without a link back to a relevant background explanation is just setting up a straw man and gets us nowhere. Randi did included a URL to my home page, which I appreciate, but my notes would have made a lot more sense to readers if Randi had dropped me an email letting me know he was quoting this material, and I could have provided some specific context, which I am doing here.

Since James Randi has taken the trouble to comment on my notes, I am doing him the courtesy of responding. I apologise that this is rather late, but I wasn't made aware of his October blog until the end of December. (Perhaps I should do vanity searches on my name more often, and I might pick up on these things sooner ...) There are some much more perceptive comments in a thread entitled "Sentient cutlery" on the Randi web site's forum. I have only just come across that thread, so I don't have any comments yet, but it contains some good criticisms of the 'sentient cutlery' theory. There is also some independent discussion about this in the Forum on Richard Dawkins' web site: (www.richarddawkins.net), but it's less technically informed.


Jack Sarfatti, Gary Osborn, Uri Geller, Mark Pilkington, Philip Coppens, Peter Lloyd, outside Uri's house on 4th October 2006.


Statement of Position

As James and his fans are very keen on the materialist creed and the anti-psi creed, let me briefly state my own position.
  1. Methodological position:
    I believe in one single, objective reality that is wholly amenable to rational, scientific investigation. I do not believe in multiple realities, postmodernism, creationism, intelligent design, or New Age hogwash such as qi energy or chakra vibrations, or visitors from outer space. I believe there is only path to the truth, and that is the rational and analytic examination of empirical data.
  2. Position on psi:
    I don't know for sure that any of the phenomena conventionally labelled as 'telepathy', 'telekinesis', and 'telecognition' actually exist, but the studies I have read in the open literature persuade me that the balance of probabilities is very strongly in favour of their existence. I am not an experimental scientist, and I have done no experiments on psi. My interest in the subject is this: given that there are published accounts by qualified scientists that, on the face of it, establish the existence of psi (see eg Radin's Conscious Universe for a literature survey), it is a proper and legitimate exercise for science and philosophy to attempt to formulate possible theoretical explanations, with a view eventually to generating testable hypotheses.
  3. Position on spoon bending:
    I saw Uri Geller bend a spoon at the meeting on 4th October, and I don't know how he did it. This is not a scientific datum: it is an anecdote. This bending appeared to be telekinetic: I watched the spoon the whole time: he gently rubbed it and did not apply enough force to cause it to bend; the spoon continued to do most of its bending after it left his hands. As this was decidedly not done in controlled conditions, it is impossible to make an assertion as to how the spoon was bent. I have no training in conjuring and I do not know whether a professional conjurer such as James Randi could reproduce what I saw. But this anecdote is beside the point. For, there are reports of the same action being done in controlled conditions (see the bibliography on Uri Geller's web site), and it is therefore a legitimate exercise to speculate on possible theoretical explanations.
  4. Position on metaphysics:
    The existence of the conscious mind (in the sense in which this term is used in standard texts such as David Chalmers' The Conscious Mind) establishes unequivocally that materialism is an inadequate metaphysical position. The only theories that are capable of resolving the mind-body problem are those that identify consciousness as a fundamental constituent of reality, such as panpsychism (as discussed in depth by Galen Strawson and others in the recent special edition of the Journal of Consciousness Studies vol. 13, no. 10-11) and mental monism (as advocated in my own writings). An implication of both positions is that, in some rudimentary sense, a spoon is indeed sentient.
  5. Conclusion:
    Given that there are laboratory reports that spoons can be bent telekinetically, and given that there are philosophical arguments that spoons possess some rudimentary sentience, then it is legitimate to examine whether the latter can help to explain the former.


The Randi Style

The Amazing Randi takes a noticeably ad hominem stance in dealing with people he disagrees with. For example, in his 13th October blog, he writes this: "Peter B. Lloyd, another member of this strange group, chimed in later during this Sarfatti fantasy-feast, with his own pinch of fairy-dust to scatter about.". In his 20th October blog, we get this: "Peter B. Lloyd ... one of the Coppens / Lloyd / Osborn / Pilkington / Sarfatti group who so adore magician Uri Geller and eagerly embrace strange and magical philosophical notions. <snip> his spaced-out ruminations <snip> These people actually accept and believe what Geller’s told them! <snip> Mr. Lloyd, asking sillier questions than we might have imagined possible from a man who apparently can do simple arithmetic and tie his own shoes <snip> [Mr Lloyd]’d say that it’s time to shuck this reality nonsense, join hands, and skip down the Yellow Brick Road, right? And pay no attention to that Man Behind the Curtain, please <snip> Lloyd and company will be frothing on about their Matrix world long after you’ve left their weird delusions far behind you.".

What disappoints me about this slurry of name-calling is that it makes the Scepticism movement look as petty-minded as the New Age movement. A certain amount of vitriol adds spice to a discourse, and it's not unknown for me to lose my temper with snake-oil merchants, so I'm certainly not going to criticise Randi for his anger toward people he regards as charlatans. But you can have too much of a good thing. Randi and the whole Scepticism movement has become obsessed with petty name-calling, and it's clogging up the arteries of debate. I firmly believe that scepticism is a central force in keeping the world sane and in pushing forward the frontiers or science in a ratiocinative way. Arch-sceptics such as Randi play a useful role in that process. It's just a pity that he chooses to do his job with such bad grace.


The Randi Creed

What is more disappointing is that Randi rejects science as well as pseudoscience, leaving him with just his doctrinaire position of materialism. Randi's starting point is the prior conviction that reality consists of the material world and nothing else, and there is no possibility of the existence of any of the phenomena conventionally labelled as 'psi'. In contrast, the scientific stance is that we formulate models (preferably simple and elegant) to accommodate whatever data our experimental programmes reliably yield. If it transpires that telepathy really occurs, then we just have to accept that that is reality, and get on with the job of formulating a scientific model of it. It's just plain silly to adopt a stance against psi, not matter what data are produced. Again, this undermines the value of Randi's programme of scepticism, which otherwise could have been a force for sanity.

In his 27th October blog entry, Randi writes: "Dan, I sense here an implication that psychics actually have something going for them besides tricks and subterfuge... That, I cannot accept." Cannot accept? Even if laboratory data establish it as real?


The Da Vinci Joke

The trouble with blind, programmatic scepticism such as Randi's is that the discourse quickly becomes polarised in a very predictable and boring way. The Randiesque comments on my Da Vinci joke is a case in point. The Amazing Randi goes on about it in his 13th October blog, and then it was picked up in JREF (the James Randi Education Foundation) forum. I don't want to waste time on trivia, so I'll try to be brief. First, this was an in-joke that people at the meeting would get, but when the contents of my private email are splattered into the blogosphere, the joke is definitely lost

My view on 'synchronicity' (in the Jungian sense of acausally connected coincidences) is this: maybe it happens, and maybe it doesn't -- but if it is acausal (which is Jung's definition) then it is unpredictable and indecipherable. It is absurd to read messages into seemingly synchronistic coincidences, precisely because they do not constitute a system of signs. Now, it so happened that Jack Sarfatti had a running joke about Da Vinci's name cropping up lots of times in his life; and it so happened that the same name cropped up in my life a few times at the same time. So I used this as an illustration of a bunch of coincidences that might, on the face of it. seem to point somewhere but in fact cannot -- in principle -- be deciphered to yield some meaning ... because they are not part of any predefined system of signs.

This is just the point that I make in the passage that Randi quotes, which concludes thus: "You can never use synchronicity to do anything, or to discover anything. It's just the background chatter in God's mind. Sure, it's real and it's meaningful, but you can't do anything with it so you may as well ignore it..". And yet this clear sceptical statement is ignored, presumably because Randi's programmatic scepticism needs to be critical of the enemy. So Randi concludes: "Lloyd says, 'Lots of da Vinci's but so what?' He sees how silly his own observation is, but he uses it -- as they all do -- to add to the useless and endless bits of trivia that can appear, to the unwary, to bolster the case for synchronicity." Er, no, James, I'm doing the opposite. I'm using the inconsequentiality of the coincidences to debunk the significance that New Agers read into coincidences.

The drivel that appears in the JREF Forum is even worse. As the saying goes, "If you've got a hammer, you find a nail." Likewise, if you've found a 'psi believer' then everything he says must be wrong.


Geller's spoon-bending

Randi writes in the 20th October blog entry: "We must ask whether anyone in the group that met for Mr. Geller’s 'demonstration' had any expertise in conjuring techniques?" We did not meet for a demonstration. We met to talk. Uri kindly volunteered to give a demonstration anyway. But there was no attempt at providing controlled conditions and no claim that this was a scientific experiment. Randi continues: "These people have presumed either that (1) it is not possible for them to be fooled by an accomplished conjuror, or that (2) Uri Geller, during their meeting, did not fool them with conjuring tricks. Either or both presumptions may be true, but they have decided that at least one is not true." This is obviously a non sequitur. In fact, I did not state in my privately circulated notes that Uri bent the spoon telekinetically. He bent the spoon, but I don't know how. Nevertheless, as I have written above, there have been laboratory tests in the past (such as those that Jack Sarfatti was involved in at Birkbeck College in 1973), and it is therefore legitimate to say: if Uri did bend the spoon telekinetically at our meeting, then what might the underlying mechanism be? And my comments were an outline of a suggested line of theoretical inquiry. If we can discern a view in Randi's rhetorical bluster, it is that we should ignore such data and not try to formulate theories of them.


Sentient Cutlery: the theory

So, enough of the trivia, let's get to the serious matter of sentient cutlery. Predictably, Randi considers that he knows that cutlery is not sentient. But it's pretty clear that Randi is not up to speed with what's happening in consciousness studies. I would recommend that he get a basic acquaintance with the subject by reading, say, David Chalmers' book The Conscious Mind and then study the JCS issue that I referenced earlier. Really, he should read a lot more than that before publishing pronouncements about psi, but that'll give him a start. Then, when he has some idea of what he is talking about, he might like to try to come up with some rational argument against the proposition that spoons are sentient.

The central problem for materialism, which Randi relies on, is that the conscious mind cannot be physical, and hence materialism is in direct contradiction with the fundamental empirical datum of conscious experience. I've written a long defence of this in my chapter in Batthyany and Elitzur's book (see my home page), which I'm not going to repeat here. In a nutshell: physical terms are defined analytically, mental terms are defined by private ostensive definition, therefore there cannot be an overlap of their denotation. Read the book if you want the expanded version.

Now, as even Randi will agree, we do not want to revert to the unworkable substance dualism of Descartes. So, the only option left is the set of theories that ascribe rudimentary consciouness to the basic ingredients of reality. The view that Galen Strawson maintains is that the basic ingredients of reality are the elementary particles and fields of physics, and his conclusion is that those submicroscopic elements are involved in sentience, and every assemblage of such elements (such as a spoon) is likewise involved in sentience. I happen to disagree with Strawson about the level of correlation between the mental and physical realms: he allocates an element of consciousness to the elementary constituents of the physical world (ie panpsychism) whereas I allocate an element of consciousness only to macroscopic bodies (ie Berkeleyan idealism). Ultimately, which view is right is a question for science to investigate and resolve. For now, I'm fairly sure the Berkeleyan view is right.

Now, if we are right in thinking that cutlery has some basic sentience, and if it is true that Uri Geller can bend the spoon with his mind, then it would be interesting to explore whether those two points are connected in some way. This is a question that I quickly outlined in my email to Jack Sarfatti's group. There's an expanded version on this web site, in Application to parapsychology (PDF). It's a development of ideas that I put forward in my 1999 book, Berkeley's Metaphysics and the Paranormal.

I might be going down completely the wrong avenue, but at least this is an attempt at an explanatory theory, and it does lead to some empirical predictions. (Which AFAIK nobody has tested. And I don't have the funds to run the tests myself.)


Sentient Cutlery: the informatics

In his 27th October blog entry, Randi quotes from readers who had emailed their own views on the out-of-context excerpts of my notes that Randi had posted the previous week. Some of the commentators clearly had no idea what was going on. Edmond Orignac wrote "As anyone must have succeeded at least once in his/her life to bend a spoon by pressing it too hard against an overcooked cake, the real explanation of Geller's amazing mental powers is not hard to figure out." So what does that have to do with a spoon that bends without being pressed, and continues to bend by itself afterwards?

Anyway, the comments were supposed to be about the informatics. In my notes I suggested that communication between Uri's mind and the spoon (or any telekinetic agent and the target) could be likened to an internet link, in which the connectivity is established informatically rather energetically. Edmond Orignac says that the analogy is "useless" but neglects to say in what way he thinks it fails. He then complains that I did not specify how many layers were in the psi communications system, and asks "which committee has designed these layers" Hello? Er, we're talking about natural phenomena, Edmond. They're not designed by committee! He then proceeds to throw some Randiesque rhetoric into the email: "One is left wondering whether in trying to 'explain' a supernatural phenomenon by an arbitrary engineering standard that he does not know nor understand." This doesn't even begin to make sense. If psi phenomena exist, then they are part of the natural world, and are amenable to explanation. The 'supernatural' is what you get in horror fiction.

Darren McBride disputes the analogy but Randi curiously cuts out the details, so we have no idea what McBride's substantive point was. All we're left with is the rhetoric: "gullibility regarding Uri Geller <snip> ignorance of the conjuring art <snip> a lack of understanding <snip> the lack of rigor" Hey James, how about omitting the rhetorical flourishes and quoting the substantive techncal points, instead of vice versa?

Dan Thompson says that my model is "simply ludicrous" but does not say in what way he thinks the analogy fails (at least, not in the bit that Randi quotes -- maybe he omitted the substantive point again, or maybe Dan didn't have a substantive point to begin with). He then proposes an analogy comparing telekinesis to a car engine, which he himself admits is nonsensical. Er, right, Dan. So why did you propose a nonsensical analogy? If you can't think of anything actually wrong with the model I proposed, then what was the point of sending your email?

Finally Matt Yarbrough likewise dismisses the model without making any substantive criticisms. He mentions "nonsense like remote viewing and crystals" but again no indication of what faults he finds in, say, Jessica Utts' statistical analysis of remote viewing.

So, in the section of his 27th October blog entry entitled "Misapplied expertise" we find no substantive criticism whatsover, just more of the Randi-style patter. As I said earlier, I'm entirely in favour of scepticism, debate, and criticism. But the material that Randi has pumped out on this particular issue is just flimflam.


Sentient Cutlery: the challenge

I don't have the financial resources to match Randi's million-dollar prize, but I will do this: I hereby offer a hundred bucks to the first person who can produce a theory that (a) provides a rational, non-magical explanation of how the conscious mind can be produced in a physical universe, and (b) does not entail sentient cutlery.


Acknowledgement

Thanks to Uri Geller for his hospitality at his home, to Jack Sarfatti for arranging an invitation there, to James Randi for his inimitable comments on the visit, and Susan Waitt for drawing my attention to those comments.


Selected bibliography

Lloyd, P.B.
(2005) "Mental Monism as a Solution to the Mind-Body Problem", pp 101-145 in: Mind and its Place in the World: Non-Reductionist Approaches to the Ontology of Consciousness, edited by Alexander Batthyany and Avshalom Elitzur, published by Ontos Verlag, Frankfurt, December 2005.
(1999) "Consciousness and Berkeley’s Metaphysics", privately published by Whole-Being Books (formerly Ursa Software Ltd), July 1999. ISBN 1-902987-00-4. .
(1999) "Paranormal Phenomena and Berkeley’s Metaphysics", privately published by Whole-Being Books (formerly Ursa Software Ltd), July 1999. ISBN 1-902987-01-2.
(1994) "The physical world is a fiction", Philosophy Now, no. 11.
(1993) "Is the Mind Physical?: Dissecting Conscious Brain Tissue", Philosophy Now, no. 6.

Radin, Dean
(1997) "The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena", HarperSanFrancisco. See also Consciousness Research Laboratory.
Utts, Jessica
(1996) "An assessment of the evidence for psychic functioning", Journal of Scientific Exploration 10(1)3-30. se all Jessica Utts' home page

All above material Copyright © 2006 Fencroft Ltd.


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