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.
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.
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?
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.
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.)
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.
"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.
"Consciousness and Berkeley’s Metaphysics", privately published
by Whole-Being Books (formerly Ursa Software Ltd), July 1999. ISBN 1-902987-00-4.
"Paranormal Phenomena and Berkeley’s Metaphysics", privately published by Whole-Being Books (formerly Ursa Software Ltd), July 1999. ISBN 1-902987-01-2.
"The physical world is a fiction", Philosophy Now, no. 11.
"Is the Mind Physical?: Dissecting Conscious Brain Tissue",
Philosophy Now, no. 6.
|(1997)||"The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena", HarperSanFrancisco. See also Consciousness Research Laboratory.|
|(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.