Seeing Ghosts: Experiences of the Paranormal

4 out of 5 stars
Seeing Ghosts: Experiences of the Paranormal
Hilary Evans (London: John Murray, 2002).

Hilary Evans, Seeing Ghosts: Experiences of the ParanormalA well-organised and thoughtful book that bases its analysis on almost 200 cases, which are interspersed throughout the text and incorporated as the argument develops.

Evans builds on the ideas of previous researchers, especially the SPR, but his interpretations take a slightly different trajectory from theirs. Unable to accept that all ghost cases are misperception or coincidence, but agreeing that the mechanism must be some form of hallucination, Evans pushes into the possible causes of these hallucinations, having to account for their veridical content in many cases.

Two hypotheses are offered: (1) super-psi, an as yet unknown ability of the subject of a ghost experience to access information otherwise unknowable; and (2) the extended self, an as yet unknown vehicle by which the object of a ghost experience can influence the subject, in some instances perhaps from a point beyond death.

Evans suggests either hypothesis is adequate to explain the ghost experience, but evidently favours the parsimony of the latter, given the difficulties that arise when we consider the motivation for the percipient’s supposed use of super-psi. In other words: why see ghosts, unless ghosts are there and willing to be seen?

I was surprised by my own doubt concerning Evans’ even-handed and Fortean approach to his case material. The Chaffin case, for example, in which a dead father appears to reveal the location of his revised will is co-opted by Evans as support for his ‘extended self’ hypothesis (p. 104, 237). Yet this case has been satisfactorily resolved by Mary Roach, who has produced evidence that the ‘revised’ will was actually a fake by the dead man’s son, who therefore probably invented the story of the ghost.

Another case (p. 65) similarly bugged me (although I have no explanation). It concerns an investigator who arrives at a location and leaves the door unlocked for a delayed colleague. The householder soon after reports that she sees a ghost; the investigator sees nothing; but then the delayed colleague steps into the house and asks where the ‘other man’ has gone. Evans takes this tale at face value, partly because he is acquainted with the investigator concerned. Me, I was too suspicious not to feel this story too hokey somehow, nor to avoid wondering if the householder and the delayed colleague weren’t in collusion.

Evans seems averse to coincidence. ‘Surely this is stretching chance too far!’ (p. 225), he says, and makes similar remarks elsewhere. But improbable things can and do happen. My own hunch is that coincidence plays an important role in ghost experiences. Evans style of thinking is scientific in the respect that even though he posits currently unknown mechanisms, his are nevertheless mechanistic theories, envisaging a discrete chain of causes in the production of ghost experiences. Personally, I like the weirder option that ghosts are synchronicitous experiences, perhaps beyond causality. This is territory that Evans only begins to confront when considering the implications of his ‘extended self’ hypothesis for the relationship between ghosts and time (p. 265).

On the one hand, then, I found Evans not sceptical enough, whilst on the other, too mechanistic. What I suspect this might mean is that he is probably doing a better than average job of finding a useful middle ground between inflexible scepticism and irrational belief.

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Supernormal

4 out of 5 stars
Supernormal: Science, Yoga, and the Evidence for Extraordinary Psychic Abilities
Dean Radin (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2013).

Supernormal by Dean RadinThis is far less dry and more readable than Radin’s previous books, but it hinges still upon his familiar approach: the use of statistical meta-analyses of formal parapsychological experiments to demonstrate a definitive effect in favour of the paranormal, or ‘psi’.

Radin uses Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as a hook on which to hang his narrative, partly because a whole host of psi phenomena seem to be described in this ancient text, but also because it fits with the direction in which Radin’s research had led. In the early days of parapsychology, experimenters discovered small but discernible effects among their subjects. This effect was increased when subjects cultivated a meditative state. And then the effect was discovered to be even more substantial among people specifically trained in cultivating meditative states. Yoga, Radin suggests, whatever else it might be, is a means by which people can develop siddhis, the Sanskrit term for psi.

Yet therein lies my quibble with Radin’s line of reasoning. Patanjali’s assertion that meditation on changes and their consequences in the mind ‘develops the ability to observe the mind of others’ (3.19) might suggest one thing to a parapsychologist, but something subtly different to a meditator. For instance, Patanjali might have meant something along the lines of ‘knowing how one’s own mind works enables one to know how the minds of others work’, or perhaps ‘when meditating on the mind, this is like experiencing someone else’s mind’. Both of these describe unusual experiences and insights, but they do not necessarily require a paranormal explanation.

Personally, I have had what seemed to be psi experiences arising directly from meditation. Yet it seemed to me that every quotation from Patanjali in Radin’s book was amenable to other interpretations that matched my own experience but did not necessarily depend upon psi. In short: there is an argument to be had that what Radin calls a siddhi is not what Patanjali meant.

What I liked most about this book, however, is Radin’s suggestion that mainstream science has nothing to fear from psi. The parapsychological evidence suggests its effects are – relatively – tiny and rare. But Radin never tires of pointing out that they are real. If psi is there (and it is, says Radin) then it has been there all along, and science has got along just fine in spite of it. Medicine has progressed and astronauts have landed on the moon despite all the telepathy, precognition and psychokinesis that must have been fizzing along gently in the background.

The final chapters of the book turn somewhat vague with speculation, but I could help agreeing with Radin that what the actual evidence for psi suggests is that the world will not fall apart if it is taken seriously.