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)


 

 

 

part thirteen

Chapter 15, “Metaphysics,” is a key chapter to understanding how Radin thinks. While reading this chapter, I was reminded of the ID arguments about the nature of science. Both Radin and ID proponents think science made a wrong turn in the 17th century when it began to separate itself from philosophy. In Radin’s view, what he calls “classical science,” and what the rest of us call science or natural science, cut off the possibility of psi as a possible subject of science. His reasons for believing so are the same reasons the ID folks think “classical science” is so bad: it is materialistic and deterministic. The ID folks think this not only excluded God and spirits as possible subjects of science, but it led to all the moral evils we see today. Radin also blames our sins on materialism. “If you watch the nightly news on television you’ll certainly see many people being treated like machines,” he says (p. 257).  He blames the scientific worldview for the debasement of humanity that is featured on the nightly news. Like the ID folks, he does not provide any evidence or argument for this indictment. He also claims that materialism and determinism are the main reasons mainstream science has resisted the experimental evidence for psi. What a lame bit of rationalization that is.

Like the ID folks in their attempt to muddy the waters about evolution, Radin claims that science is in deep trouble. The ID folks claim the basic tenets of evolution are on shaky grounds (they aren’t) and that ID offers a viable alternative to natural selection (it doesn't). Radin argues that “most of the fundamental assumptions underlying classical science have been severely challenged in recent years” and the old assumptions are dissolving because of advancements in many disciplines. “New assumptions are carrying us toward a conception of the world that is entirely compatible with psi,” he proclaims (p. 250). The truth is that mainstream science is no closer to accepting psi than it ever was. There are some scientists who agree with him, but he exaggerates their numbers and their influence. In his lucid moments, Radin admits as much as he whines and bemoans the treatment of scientists who admit to their colleagues that they believe in psi, or worse, that they want to invest precious research time and money in it.

He also has a naïve view of the history of science. He tries to accommodate Kuhn’s view of the history of science by claiming that because of the anomalies discovered by psi researchers—all of which are statistical anomalies, by the way, and are not what science means by anomalies—we have to change our assumptions about materialism and determinism. He confuses the experience of a genuine anomaly in science with statistical significance. The discovery by William Herschel in 1781 of a planet, Uranus, that did not fit with predictions made by Newton’s laws is an example of a true anomaly. The discovery that the statistical data for a random number generator is not likely due to chance is not the discovery of an anomaly in the same sense that the discovery of Uranus’s orbit or of X-rays was an anomaly. Finding a statistic that is not likely due to chance is not an anomaly. It is an indication that some kind of causal event is most likely occurring. There is no justification for assuming a law of nature or a basic scientific theory has been violated when an odd statistic is discovered. Yet, Radin and some of his fellow psi researchers treat any statistically significant result in a psi experiment as proof not only that psi exists but as proof that the fundamental assumptions of natural science (classical materialism and determinism) must be abandoned. The fact is that they’ve already been abandoned in quantum physics, but it is false to claim that they’ve been abandoned in favor of some sort of mind-body thesis where mind and body are two aspects of the same reality with mind being dominant (a view Radin seems to favor). One does not see a rush of physicists to adopt the psi hypothesis just because they think quantum physics offers an explanation of how psi works. This is Radin’s belief regarding nonlocality, but most physicists do not share his way of thinking.

He asks the question: “Is the mind causal, or is it caused? Are we zombies with ‘nothing’ inside, or are we self-motivated creatures free to exercise our wills?” (p. 251) This false dilemma is very similar to the ID folks' belief that the choice is either no soul or free will, and if science is right then we are soulless robots with no moral capacities. Radin thinks that the wrong turn was made centuries before the rise of modern science, when philosophers rejected the notion that the universe is conscious. The future should be a return to the past! He wants us to return to ancient philosophies, especially those of ancient India.

To Radin, as with the ID folks, a mechanistic world is a world “without meaning” (p. 253). At times, he seems to be longing for the good old days when men were medieval, the world was organic, and things were alive with spirits. He especially dislikes behaviorism because, he claims, it made personal awareness into “meaningless illusions” (p.254). With behaviorism, “science had evolved into the absurd position of the mind denying its own existence. Science had effectively lost its mind” (p. 254). Of course, if he knew his western philosophy better, he’d know that the view that mind is material is thousands of years old. He’d also know that whether we’re materialists or dualists or idealists has nothing to do with whether life is meaningless or meaningful. Even if the universe were an organism with a mind, that wouldn’t make Radin’s existence any more meaningful than that of a monkey’s toenail.

Radin oversimplifies positivism as “what is real is measurable.” Positivism never made such a claim. Theories of what is real are called metaphysical theories and positivism considered metaphysical statements to be meaningless. Radin considers Ken Wilber to be the philosopher of science of the day. Wilber is one of the guiding lights behind what is called Transpersonal Psychology and is an opponent of materialism and evolution.

Radin thinks that modern science can’t explain “the placebo effect, or intuition, or out-of-body experiences, or psi.” What he means is that he doesn’t like the explanations given and would prefer ones that recognize a conscious universe.

He is completely baffled by the idea of patterns in biology, and thinks it is not easy to explain how memory remains intact, for example, when neurons are lost in huge numbers. So what if it isn’t easy to explain something? In this case, it isn’t that hard to explain. I find it more interesting to consider how every cell in your body and every atom in your cells could change over a lifetime and you’d still be here with a sense of your personal history (assuming no brain deterioration). The physical body may not have a single component that is identical to the ones that made it up 40 years ago, yet consciousness endures all the changes and may or may not still identify itself as the same consciousness. It is true that consciousness is mysterious, but positing Eastern or ancient Western metaphysical notions doesn’t make it any less mysterious. That’s the easy way out: to posit a will or a realm of being that explains all the difficult stuff.

I can see why Radin likes Wilber, who apparently promotes the idea of progress and purpose versus the scientific model of changing, but purposeless, phenomena. But progress is relative and subjective. We certainly consider consciousness progress in evolution, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that consciousness did not evolve to make progress. Nor do we need to posit a mind that directs matter to be conscious, etc. These thoughts are not progress! They are regress to ideas that have been superseded by more fruitful ideas.

Radin seems to think that the world becomes a tidier place if we posit a mind behind it, a mind with volitions, a "divine" mover of things. (I put "divine" in scare quotes because Radin never mentions god or divinity in his quest.) Why? “It provides a way of thinking of how the placebo effect can work, how deep hypnosis can significantly alter body chemistry, and why something as ephemeral as wishing might produce meaningful coincidences in the objective world” (p. 261).

He even distorts what parapsychology is. He claims it “explicitly studies the interactions between consciousness and the physical world” (p. 263). Parapsychologists assume they are studying the effects of consciousness on the physical world, but they can’t explicitly study such interactions until it is established that there are such interactions!

Radin claims that science assumes that mind is a machine and machines don’t have psi. So, the mind doesn’t have psi. Thus, he says, the assumptions of modern science are to blame for “the persistent controversy over psi” (p. 263). In fact, there is no persistent controversy over psi. Most scientists reject psi as improbable and are not swayed by the thousands of experiments that “prove” psi. If there were some realm of volition causing effects such as thoughts or the movements of objects, then psi could be explained. Without an assumption of volition in the background, psi is lost. Yet, he insists that the evidence for psi is to be found in thousands of experiments that have been done using the methods of this “inadequate” classical science. His argument begs the question. He can’t claim these experiments prove the existence of psi unless he assumes that any statistically significant result in a psi experiment is evidence of psi. But he can’t claim they are evidence of psi unless he assumes that the statistically significant results are evidence of a causal realm outside of the realm of material causality. In short, if we assume there are no other explanations for our data, then they are proof of psi.

He also seems to misunderstand the notion of those who argue that the universe is a great thought, i.e., is a representation of our minds. He takes this to mean that the universe is a mind (p. 264). He also claims, without proof, that “the nature of human consciousness” has been a “taboo topic” (p. 264). I don’t know where he got that idea. He quotes physicist Nick Herbert, who says that we don’t have any theories of consciousness. According to Herbert: “About all we know about consciousness is that it has something to do with the head, rather than the foot” (p. 265). Radin does not do himself well by quoting a physicist on the extent of our knowledge of consciousness. He and Herbert might benefit from reading Susan Blackmore’s Consciousness: an Introduction.

Another "philosopher of science" favored by Radin is Willis Harman of SRI and the Institute for Noetic Sciences. He’s proposed a new metaphysics to replace the “orthodox” view of modern science. This “new” metaphysics isn’t really that new. It’s an Eastern philosophical view of the universe as one, organic, and conscious, where everything, including madness, mystical experiences, paranormal experiences, etc., are “normal … states of consciousness” and windows to various dimensions of reality.

Radin likes the Eastern notion of everything being connected to everything else and interacting with everything else—the butterfly concept: a butterfly flapping it wings in east Texas has an effect on Mars. He even tries to wax poetic about it: the ancient doctrines, he says, “suggest a richly connected network of physical variables interacting like a shimmering weaver’s loom” (p. 269).

Regarding the mind-body problem, he wisely recognizes that “we are probably not dealing with interactions between two dissimilar entities, but with a single phenomenon” (p. 270). Yet, he rejects both materialism and idealism! He opts for “mind and matter are something like two sides of the same coin” (p. 271) and attempts no further clarification. He certainly doesn’t mean anything like what Spinoza meant when he called the body an idea of the mind. In support of his view that dualism is a mess, Radin cites Ken Wilber and the Bible, and claims that this mess means that there should be lots of evidence for psi. He offers no explanation of this claim.

He also claims that psi applications are being used every day (p. 272), but he doesn’t give any examples in this chapter. He covered this topic in chapter 12, “Applications,” where his examples include the following: therapeutic touch, healing prayer, intuitive medical diagnosis, remote viewing by the military, the work of psychic detectives, and intuitionists in business. He even cites applications that Joe McMoneagle has envisioned during his remote viewing reveries (p. 200). Radin also devotes an entire chapter to psi in the casino, though you will look in vain for a way to beat the house. He does claim, though, that his own work in this area can help you choose the right time to lose less than you usually would.

Radin is right in concluding this chapter on metaphysics with the question: isn’t this just mystical mumbo-jumbo? Yes it is. And he is right in noting that science and mysticism both issue from the desire to understand the world around us. Why he doesn’t opt for two paths is not answered. Why must mysticism be incorporated into science? Because, he seems to think, if science remains purely rational and logical there will never be any room for the irrational and illogical. This is not true, as the work of behavioral economists have shown. It is true that without mysticism in science, there will be no room for psi or spirits. Only by changing the nature of science can psi become scientific. Again, this is the same idea we run into with the ID folks. Only by changing the nature of science can ID be invited to the party.

I’ll conclude by saying that if I thought that these studies of psi or spirits were likely to lead anywhere significant, I’d be on board. There is no reason to think that this will happen. We are in a much better place today than we were one hundred and fifty years ago to understand why people believe in spirits and psi. These should be matters for psychology. We are in a very good place today to understand why the defenders of psi and spirits are capable of deceiving themselves into thinking they have solid scientific evidence for their beliefs. When one compares what science has accomplished over the past 400 years, it boggles the mind to think where we would be if the scientists of the 17th century had adopted Wilber’s or Radin’s worldview. Do they really think we would have made progress? That we would have learned much about the world by chasing after chimeras? It isn’t because the worldview of modern science shut out psi and spirits that scientific research into such subjects isn’t taken seriously. Yet, it is very unlikely that science will ever become so debilitated that it will turn to eastern philosophy or a medieval worldview to accommodate the “alternative” science folks. They will continue to be annoying and they will have a few successes like the waste of money on alternative medicine studies, a few university departments devoted to psi studies or spirit science, a few schools requiring religion in the science classroom, dozens of popular television programs, and bookstores in national parks with creationist accounts of how the Grand Canyon was formed.

In the long run, though, I don’t think the spirit scientists will succeed. For one thing, they are free to work under any metaphysical system they so desire. Nothing can stop them. What more could they prove by assuming everything they want the rest of the scientific community to assume? The assertion that science unfairly restricts assumptions is bogus. Believe what you want about the nature of the universe. Nobody cares. But holding up a thousand statistical oddities as proof that science made a wrong turn 400 years ago is so ludicrous I wonder why I have wasted all this time writing about it.

I suppose it is possible that we humans are to the universe what bacteria are to our stomachs, and that all the planets, stars, and galaxies are parts of a conscious universe. After all, if the material parts that make up the bodies of conscious animals can give rise to consciousness, why couldn’t an arrangement of galaxies give rise to a conscious universe? Couldn’t the universe have evolved into a conscious being? Very unlikely, I would say, unless there are many universes and the ability to perceive them is essential to the survival of ours. Very unlikely, if there would be no survival value for self-perception. There are many more things in our universe that we know have evolved and survived for millions or billions of years without being conscious. There is no need for the universe to be conscious. Perhaps our universe did have to compete with others and consciousness gave it the advantage it needed to survive while the others failed. Even so, the likelihood that this conscious universe would be able to perceive us or care about us would be about as likely as us being able to affect the bacteria in our stomachs by an act of will.

No doubt Radin can cite a meta-analysis that shows that we can eliminate Helicobacter pylori by mental intention with odds against chance of ten zillion to one.

Even if he does, however, I still won't believe it.

*

postscript

See my review of Radin's Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality.

further reading

What if Dean Radin is Right?

end of review 

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