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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Reading List: Real Magic

Radin, Dean. Real Magic. New York: Harmony Books, 2018. ISBN 978-1-5247-5882-0.
From its beginnings in the 19th century as “psychical research”, there has always been something dodgy and disreputable about parapsychology: the scientific study of phenomena, frequently reported across all human cultures and history, such as clairvoyance, precognition, telepathy, communication with the dead or non-material beings, and psychokinesis (mental influence on physical processes). All of these disparate phenomena have in common that there is no known physical theory which can explain how they might work. In the 19th century, science was much more willing to proceed from observations and evidence, then try to study them under controlled conditions, and finally propose and test theories about how they might work. Today, many scientists are inclined to put theory first, rejecting any evidence of phenomena for which no theory exists to explain it.

In such an intellectual environment, those who study such things, now called parapsychologists, have been, for the most part, very modest in their claims, careful to distinguish their laboratory investigations, mostly involving ordinary subjects, from extravagant reports of shamans and psychics, whether contemporary or historical, and scrupulous in the design and statistical analysis of their experiments. One leader in the field is Dean Radin, author of the present book, and four times president of the Parapsychological Association, a professional society which is an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Dr. Radin is chief scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, California, where he pursues laboratory research in parapsychology. In his previous books, including Entangled Minds (August 2007), he presents the evidence for various forms of human perception which seem to defy conventional explanation. He refrains from suggesting mechanisms or concluding whether what is measured is causation or correlation. Rather, he argues that the body of accumulated evidence from his work and that of others, in recent experiments conducted under the strictest protocols to eliminate possible fraud, post-selection of data, and with blinding and statistical rigour which often exceed those of clinical trials of pharmaceuticals, provides evidence that “something is going on” which we don't understand that would be considered discovery of a new phenomenon if it originated in a “hard science” field such as particle physics.

Here, Radin argues that the accumulated evidence for the phenomena parapsychologists have been studying in the laboratory for decades is so persuasive to all except sceptics who no amount of evidence would suffice to persuade, that it is time for parapsychologists and those interested in their work to admit that what they're really studying is magic. “Not the fictional magic of Harry Potter, the feigned magic of Harry Houdini, or the fraudulent magic of con artists. Not blue lightning bolts springing from the fingertips, aerial combat on broomsticks, sleight-of-hand tricks, or any of the other elaborations of artistic license and special effects.” Instead, real magic, as understood for millennia, which he divides into three main categories:

  • Force of will: mental influence on the physical world, traditionally associated with spell-casting and other forms of “mind over matter”.
  • Divination: perceiving objects or events distant in time and space, traditionally involving such practices as reading the Tarot or projecting consciousness to other places.
  • Theurgy: communicating with non-material consciousness: mediums channelling spirits or communicating with the dead, summoning demons.

As Radin describes, it was only after years of work in parapsychology that he finally figured out why it is that, while according to a 2005 Gallup pool, 75% of people in the United States believe in one or more phenomena considered “paranormal”, only around 0.001% of scientists are engaged in studying these experiences. What's so frightening, distasteful, or disreputable about them? It's because they all involve some kind of direct interaction between human consciousness and the objective, material world or, in other words magic. Scientists are uncomfortable enough with consciousness as it is: they don't have any idea how it emerges from what, in their reductionist models, is a computer made of meat, to the extent that some scientists deny the existence of consciousness entirely and dismiss it as a delusion. (Indeed, studying the origin of consciousness is almost as disreputable in academia as parapsychology.)

But if we must admit the existence of this mysterious thing called consciousness, along with other messy concepts such as free will, at least we must keep it confined within the skull: not roaming around and directly perceiving things far away or in the future, affecting physical events, or existing independent of brains. That would be just too weird.

And yet most religions, from those of traditional societies to the most widely practiced today, include descriptions of events and incorporate practices which are explicitly magical according to Radin's definition. Paragraphs 2115–2117 of the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church begin by stating that “God can reveal the future to his prophets or to other saints.” and then go on to prohibit “Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums…”. But if these things did not exist, or did not work, then why would there be a need to forbid them? Perhaps it's because, despite religion's incorporating magic into its belief system and practices, it also wishes to enforce a monopoly on the use of magic among its believers—in Radin's words, “no magic for you!

In fact, as stated at the beginning of chapter 4, “Magic is to religion as technology is to science.” Just as science provides an understanding of the material world which technology applies in order to accomplish goals, religion provides a model of the spiritual world which magic provides the means to employ. From antiquity to the present day, religion and magic have been closely associated with one another, and many religions have restricted knowledge of their magical components and practices to insiders and banned others knowing or employing them. Radin surveys this long history and provides a look at contemporary, non-religious, practice of the three categories of real magic.

He then turns to what is, in my estimation, the most interesting and important part of the book: the scientific evidence for the existence of real magic. A variety of laboratory experiments, many very recent and with careful design and controls, illustrate the three categories and explore subtle aspects of their behaviour. For example, when people precognitively sense events in the future, do they sense a certain event which is sure to happen, or the most probable event whose occurrence might be averted through the action of free will? How on Earth would you design an experiment to test that? It's extremely clever, and the results are interesting and have deep implications.

If ordinary people can demonstrate these seemingly magical powers in the laboratory (albeit with small, yet statistically highly significant effect sizes), are there some people whose powers are much greater? That is the case for most human talents, whether athletic, artistic, or intellectual; one suspects it might be so here. Historical and contemporary evidence for “Merlin-class magicians” is reviewed, not as proof for the existence of real magic, but as what might be expected if it did exist.

What is science to make of all of this? Mainstream science, if it mentions consciousness at all, usually considers it an emergent phenomenon at the tip of a pyramid of more fundamental sciences such as biology, chemistry, and physics. But what if we've got it wrong, and consciousness is not at the top but the bottom: ultimately everything emerges from a universal consciousness of which our individual consciousness is but a part, and of which all parts are interconnected? These are precisely the tenets of a multitude of esoteric traditions developed independently by cultures all around the world and over millennia, all of whom incorporated some form of magic into their belief systems. Maybe, as evidence for real magic emerges from the laboratory, we'll conclude they were on to something.

This is an excellent look at the deep connections between traditional beliefs in magic and modern experiments which suggest those beliefs, however much they appear to contradict dogma, may be grounded in reality. Readers who are unacquainted with modern parapsychological research and the evidence it has produced probably shouldn't start here, but rather with the author's earlier Entangled Minds, as it provides detailed information about the experiments, results, and responses to criticism of them which are largely assumed as the foundation for the arguments here.

Posted at May 15, 2018 16:11