The Montague and Veronica Keen Foundation
Dedicated to love, truth and simplicity

If, as Schopenhauer wryly asserted, new ideas are first ridiculed, then violently opposed, and finally acknowledged as self-evident truths, what stage has been reached in the battle to demolish the citadel of reductionist materialism? It is the iron rule of science that theories must be subservient to facts, and an abiding myth that scientists observe it once theories have established their limpet-grip on accepted belief. In no sphere of thought or discovery has this been more clearly demonstrated than in the reception given by the scientific establishment of the day to the findings of psychical research.

It is melancholy but chastening to turn back a full century to examine the pronouncements of those who had devoted much of their lives to a critical examination of evidence wholly incompatible with the concept of a world apprehended solely through our five senses and bounded by linear time and three dimensional space. It was obvious that a revolution, in thought not less profound than those which had followed Copernicus, Pasteur or Darwin, was imminent. An abundance of evidence amassed over the preceding thirty years had shown incontrovertibly that some people were able to draw what they could not visibly see, fulfill instructions from persons separated from them by both time and space, or convey accurate information about people, facts and places beyond the reach of any recognized sense. Those who had conducted the investigations, executed the tests and critically filtered responses to mass inquiries about hallucinations of living and dead persons were men and women of eminence in their fields. So it seemed both obvious and inevitable that, in the face of overwhelming evidence, the orthodox view of mind and matter would shortly succumb, and the world would reject as a superficial and damaging illusion what it had hitherto lauded as a self-evident truth.

What has gone wrong? We are not discernibly nearer this revolution than we were in 1900. Yet the intervening century, far from spawning refutation, has generated more and more events irreconcilable not simply with the supposed limitations of our senses, but with fundamental laws of causation, thermodynamics, even gravity ... However, “if a conviction is so firm that it is impossible for us ever to have any reason for doubting what we are convinced of, then there can be no further questions for us to ask; we have everything we could reasonably want” as Descartes concluded (in his second set of replies to the Meditations). And around the same time his famous contemporary, David Hume, was being equally didactic in his essay on miracles, widely and erroneously held to justify the rejection of any anomaly which offends soundly established and universally recognized truths. Thus, while any scientist would accept that a theory, regardless of its venerability, must be subservient to fresh discoveries which require it to be modified, even obliterated, there are some theories which have become so ossified into inflexible laws as to be immune to attack by doubt or demonstration.

It is therefore fruitless to point to the numberless occasions when scientific bodies or leaders either ignored or ridiculed those heresies, from the circulation of the blood, the descent of meteorites, the discoveries of Mendel, the bacteriological basis of infection, or the announcement of X-rays: in all these cases scientists rejected what was later embraced. They did so because they were unable to fit the phenomenon into a theoretical model which made sense; or because it was not susceptible to repetition or replication. All of them required paradigmatic shifts, but not such as might completely undermine the pillars of self-evident truths on which an entire world view was built.

But what, it may be asked, is so special, so subversive, about a demonstration of telepathy which distinguishes it from, let us say, X-rays? One requires an extension, but not disruption, of the ‘laws’ of physics, and is susceptible to repeated demonstration to order in a controlled environment; the other credits the human brain with a faculty apparently unconnected with any discernable part of it, and which would appear to operate independently of space, time and the inverse square law, thereby constituting a combination of unacceptable heresies which threaten a return to primitive magic and superstition. What is worse, the claims of extra-sensory perception remain contaminated by their close connection with spurious mediumistic practices and the charlatan antics of the séance room, the fairground crystal gazer’s contemptible pretensions and all the other pseudo-sciences from whose clutches the noble achievements of nineteenth century science has wrested susceptible minds.

A century on, and little has changed, on the face of it. The scientific establishment remains resolutely hostile to the paranormal, but the contemptuousness with which its leading spokesmen treat it has the hallmarks of the last-ditch desperation of those who feel encircled by the advance of the old enemy. Their citadel is under fire from two sides. From beyond the barbican the paranormalists have all but abandoned their attempts to confront the Establishment head-on with evidence from an abundance of spontaneous cases. Instead they have attired themselves in the dress and adopted the standards of the defenders themselves. This they have done by appearing to subscribe to the philosophy and conform to the requirements of experimental evidence which is repeatable, susceptible to quantification and attended by a level of procedural rigor which satisfies the demands (even though it may dismay the expectations) of the embattled Establishment.

So for the past sixty years the abundance of evidence from poltergeists, ghosts, mediumistic communications and a host of comparable and challenging examples of anomalous cognition, has been supplemented and fortified by a stream of reports from institutions conducting repetitive, worthy, although essentially boring experiments which have produced astronomically high levels against a chance explanation of both straight telepathy and distant viewing, to say nothing of psychokinesis. If this has posed a dilemma for the Establishment, which has resorted to ever more arcane means to avoid the challenge, then no less serious is the erosion from within. It is indeed a testimony to the triumph of prejudice over objectivity that materialism has managed to cope with the consequences of quantum mechanics, with worm holes in space and spooky action at a distance via entanglement and hence non-locality, with the burial of the speed of light as an absolute limit to the transmission of anything, with the ten or more dimensions postulated by theoretical physicists grappling with string theory – and still proclaim intact a nineteenth century philosophical edifice.

The tenacity with which the infiltration of such seditious evidence has been resisted is both illustrated and explained by the ID controversy, particularly virulent in the USA where it has political, educational and philosophic implications which have barely been felt abroad. The Darwinian concept is of evolution driven by a blind watchmaker, to use the graphic description of orthodoxy’s most eloquent protagonist, Richard Dawkins. It is the product of nothing more than random genetic mutation, and is everywhere presented as the sturdy bastion against its alternative theory, that based squarely on a literal interpretation of the biblical account of the creation. We thus have rational and righteous scientific objectivity backed by a mountain of irrefutable evidence, to contrast with the relics of a faith-based fanaticism which is the bedrock of superstition, hostile to Science and Progress, birthplace of intolerance, progenitor of dangerous cults and extremist obscurantism, origin of religious conflict and doctrinal bigotry ...

The conflict thus presented has left two opposing forces apparently incapable of accepting any weakness in their own concepts lest it admits a damaging compromise. This has meant that those daring to point to the several lacunae in the evolutionary evidence or to the many examples of symbiosis pointing to intelligent design, or to features logically inconsistent with fortuitous concatenation, are accused of being creationists in disguise. Calm efforts to examine how, by a series of unguided, accidental genetical mishaps, the bombardier beetle could develop two poisonous sacs which eject paralyzing venom into its victims without harming itself, tend to be obliterated by a rancorous denunciation of all who question what has become promoted from a theory to a fact. The puzzle over the absence of any fossil evidence showing the gradual extension of a giraffe’s neck to contain seven large vertebrae is met with the desperate invention of punctuated equilibrium to explain the evolutionary gap, and the elevation to near saint-like status of its principal propounder, the late Stephen Jay Gould, for having discovered a way to advance a theory without supporting evidence.

On a more practical level we have been watching rearguard actions by scientific dinosaurs in such areas as hypnosis – still in some minds uncomfortably positioned on the boundary between reluctant acceptance and blind rejection as a scientific reality; dowsing, where the weight of practical evidence is slowly, but very slowly, overwhelming the absence of an explanatory model, or the indiscipline it shows during attempts at controlled experiments; osteopathy and acupuncture, which are grudgingly acknowledged as having passed the efficacy test, despite the absence of an acceptable explanatory model; and soon – who knows? – therapeutic prayer.

The speed with which evidence from research into prayer (a variety of psychokinesis or telepathy) will gain admission into the antechamber of respectability remains uncertain; but there are signs that a change cannot be indefinitely delayed as cracks in the materialist edifice multiply and fissure. Among the most recent and telling blows it has sustained is the mounting clinical evidence from cardiac arrest patients who, although brain dead, regain consciousness and recall what they could neither see nor hear. To add to the steadily accumulating, statistically irresistible, evidence from laboratory type tests undertaken within the severity of protocols designed to satisfy the most resolute critics, we now have timely and novel evidence from mediumship.

For decades it has been the rule that messages purporting to derive via mediums from the dead may be disregarded because of the alleged prevalence of fraud, the ease with which skilled readers of body language and physical nuance could infer information where they were unable to obtain it in more surreptitious ways, and the failure to subject such claims to scientific testing. What had hitherto been dismissed as unrepeatable, one-off, spontaneous phenomena, is now shown to be susceptible to disciplines acceptable to critical scientists. That is an important advance – and a damaging blow to those who persist in declining to recognize the evidence.

Supplementing this are the more widely publicized television “readings” by John Edwards in the United States and Colin Fry in the UK, regularly featured on the Living Channel of Sky TV, in which members of the public, given detailed information about deceased relatives, are clearly convinced of the authenticity of the information. Dismissal of these because they are uncontrolled, entertainment-orientated and fraud-susceptible demonstrations is not simply to affirm a belief that the scores of researchers, producers, cameramen and attendants involved are willing to risk their integrity and perhaps their jobs by consistently engaging in a conspiratorial deception: it goes very much further. The nature of the programs must presuppose willing participation of members of the public in a fraud which requires rare and impressive acting ability as well as pointless and often embarrassing deception. And as to none of all this is there supporting evidence.

“Sit before fact like a little child and be prepared to give up every preconceived notion: follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses Nature leads you,” adjured T. H. Huxley, one of science’s most revered figures, in a much quoted homily, which he preferred to ignore when holes in the theory of his hero, Charles Darwin, were pointed out to him. But even Huxley could not have realized that the manner in which the body’s defense system automatically musters forces to repel the intrusion of alien transplants, is precisely matched by the mind’s equally strong, and autonomic, psychological protection mechanism. If new concepts fail to negotiate the barrier of encrusted preconceptions, the proffering of respectable evidence as credentials will fail to effect change; more likely it will simply stiffen the defenses.

Many of those who survey the forces mustering against this outdated philosophy, and who conclude that the walls are about to crumble, are infected by a misleading apocalyptic vision. Perhaps our terminology is at fault in employing revolution as a word to describe both a process of industrial or agricultural change occurring over a period of more than a century, and a Bastille storming or a Palace invasion taking place in a matter of hours. Changes in worldviews are evident only to historians, and few among them can agree on their duration and timing. The slow, but accelerating, infiltration of heresies into academia will be marked by the willingness of an increasing number of its members to murmur that the Emperor, if not totally naked, is uncomfortably scantily clad. More and more will be willing to put their heads above the parapet and first question then challenge outright, a philosophy any attack on which would earlier have invited peer contempt and an abrupt halt to prospects of promotion. No longer need those already at the top of their academic trees risk the derision which attends those who are said to have lost their marbles, been seduced by mystical cults or simply gone soft in the head, like Bockris, Mack, or Josephson. And slowly the editors of broadsheet journals will cease ignoring the trend or consigning to the sensationalist purveyors of the tabloid press responsibility for reports which may carry the risk of deception, invite the wrath of authority or earn the disapproval of the cognoscenti.

This is a slow process, however. Those who envisage apocalyptic change ignore the lessons of history and the immunity of all but a handful to the damascene road syndrome. The transformation from heresy to orthodoxy may be faster than Max Planck’s wry description of the manner and rate of scientific progress, funeral by funeral, but not dramatically so. Rather than speculate on the consequential changes which may transform religious belief, levels of spirituality and similar essentially subjective attitudes, in more prosaic mode we ought first to examine what, if any, practical effects this might have. How does one answer the brutal, uncomprehending challenge posed by those willing to accept evidence they have neither ability, time nor inclination to challenge, but who simply ask: so what? Will the collapse of materialism and the triumph of an essentially spiritual philosophy feed more hungry children, resolve tribal conflict, abolish border quarrels, appease al Quada, raise living standards or build better homes?

One immediate answer must be that it will give hope and comfort to millions of bereaved and grieving parents, children and loved ones who can now feel that science has accepted that consciousness, independent of the brain and of our time, survives beyond death, and that personalities can and do transmit their thoughts and confirm their identities. To many it will give a new meaning and purpose to life, and make suffering and the pains of others more bearable. More subtly, however, it will help confer respectability not simply and directly on the fields parapsychology and psychical research, and open up funding prospects which refusal of recognition has hitherto denied, but in associated fields of more practical import: in the field of health and medicine. There would naturally be resistance to any abandonment of testing procedures, epidemiological criteria, procedural rigour and orthodox blind studies; and rightly so. But there would be a greater readiness to recognize that there are many areas where such procedures, and the axioms on which they are based, are inappropriate. Thus instead of uniformly dismissing as natural remission the disappearance of symptoms hitherto deemed certain to kill in a matter of weeks, the medical establishment, attended by a new humility, would be more willing to recognize the possible efficacy of spirit healing. Instead of downgrading the practitioners of a 4000 years-old art of acupuncture because the underlying theory makes no sense to western etiology, there will be a steadily greater willingness to judge on results not condemn on principles. The pioneer seeking to have his iconoclastic work recognized in a respected peer-reviewed journal has normally been told that it cannot be considered without first arranging independent replication; and then finds that funding is refused for such unorthodox experiments until publication in a peer reviewed journal confers the required authority. That vicious circle should also be broken.

Desirable though such developments may be, however, they are not the outcome which those who look for a change in human conduct expect. A more respectful genuflection in the direction of ancient wisdom and a less arrogant treatment of beliefs which fail to fit into the old paradigm: these we can perhaps take for granted. But will this alter the conduct of Man to mankind, dissolve conflicts which now shatter so many innocent lives, or in a new spirit of fraternal love reconcile nationalist Catholic with Orange Protestant, or West Bank settler with suicidally-dedicated Palestinian insurrectionist?

Alas, there is neither sign nor historic precedent to encourage us. When belief in the primacy of consciousness was all but universal, and dutiful adherents of all three monotheistic religions never questioned the existence of the soul or doubted the permanence and threat of the Hereafter, terrestrial strife, religious wars, famine and plague were rarely far away. Those who subscribed most devoutly to a belief in the soul, and who would contemptuously reject materialism, had it been invented in their day, were not thereby disposed to dispense their wealth to the poor or abate the zeal with which they massacred their opponents. Even noble experiments in altruistic living, from Robert Owens’ pioneering settlements in Britain and the USA to the early communistic kibbutzim in pre-war Palestine, eventually crumbled under pressures alike from human frailties and the verismo world of commerce and capitalism. One is left with the melancholy reflection that religious inspiration and spirituality thrive well in the cloistered security of a monastery, but suffer mortal blows from the harsh realities of life without, saintliness being a rare virtue.

Yet this may present too gloomy a prognosis. Take the evidence of those who have had direct, and usually unexpected and dramatic, evidence of the paranormal, whether as a revealing telepathic message, a veridical vision, a premonitory warning, a miraculous escape, a precognitive dream or a mediumistic message of convincing genuineness. For every person who acknowledges his experience publicly, there may be a score who remain silent for fear of ridicule or disbelief. I am constantly encountering people who confess never to have told their closest friends, sometimes even their own spouses, of such incidents: they remain suppressed until they discover from a sympathetic listener that such experiences are commonplace, but rarely admitted because the intellectual climate is hostile.

It will take longer, perhaps much longer, than the optimists assume; yet as and when the primacy of consciousness, and hence the irretrievable breakdown of materialist reductionism, overwhelms the established order, that most fundamental of qualities, humility, will supersede intellectual arrogance and prepare the pathway towards a realm where love of humanity rises above the baser attributes of modern Man.

That may sound a modest achievement, but its implication and effect will be profound. The regular excoriation of the unorthodox will no longer automatically consign challenging concepts or marginalize their advocates. No more will the revival of ancient wisdom or traditional remedies be equated with outmoded superstition. Evidence will be judged more on its reliability than upon its presumed implications. What our children are taught in schools will be governed by a new liberal discipline, not be ruled by the dictate of concepts based on the exclusiveness of neurological synapses, electrical stimuli, chemical reactions and memetic automatism. A fresh tolerance will undermine fundamentalism, and departures from the norms will no longer be attended by social opprobrium and intellectual disdain. And these will be real advances along the road to a new enlightenment and a more fulfilling life. We will at last see ourselves as merely temporary occupants of our bodies, and our task on Earth as more than just the satisfaction of worldly needs and bodily desires.

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Consciousness: Are the Walls Crumbling? by Montague Keen