John Beloff: 1920-2006

Article excerpt

John Beloff was born in London in 1920, the fourth of five children of Jewish immigrants who had come to England shortly before the First World War. His father was a successful businessman, and the children of this close-knit family all went on to distinguish themselves in various ways. John often described himself as the least distinguished of the family, though those whose lives he touched would beg to differ.

An early interest in art led his parents to push him toward a career as an architect, and he began formal studies in that field. As the Second World War broke out, John joined the army, but after two and a half years, just before his battalion shipped out to Italy, he developed an illness sufficiently serious to cause him to be invalided out of the army (possibly saving his life, he was later to recall). During his time in the army he had time to read, gravitating toward books on psychology, and one book in particular left a strong impression. It was J. B. Rhine's Extra-sensory Perception (Rhine, 1934).

John eventually completed his architectural studies, but a few short jobs in architectural offices convinced him that he was not suited to that profession, and he started all over again as a psychology student, first at Birkbeck College and later University College. At University College, A. J. Ayer's weekly philosophy seminars captured John's attention. Although John remained unconvinced by Ayer's philosophy, he admired the great philosopher's intellect and saw his taut writing style as a model to emulate. Around that time he also came under the influence of a fellow student, whom he married shortly after graduating, and for the next 54 years, Halla was to be "the most important person" in his life.

After a year working with Raymond Cattell at the University of Illinois, the Beloffs returned to Britain, where John took a job teaching psychology at Queen's University in Belfast. During this period both John and Halla obtained their PhD degrees. Although John's PhD was based on research in visual perception that grew out of his interest in art, his interest in psychical research and parapsychology also grew. His first foray into experimental research was prompted by the interest of a young physics student, Leonard Evans, and together they conducted the first-ever experiments that attempted to demonstrate PK on radioactive emissions. It was, however, a more philosophical work that brought John some measure of academic prominence. To counter the continuing dominance of the behaviorist school of thought, especially that represented by Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind (1949), John published The Existence of Mind in 1962 (Beloff, 1962). In this short work John argued the case for a radical dualist understanding of mind, adding that there was a growing body of experimental support for such a position coming from the field of parapsychology. Dualism was quite intellectually unfashionable at the time, but the strength of his arguments caught the favorable attention of several important thinkers of the day, including Michael Polanyi, Karl Popper, John Eccles, and Arthur Koestler.

In 1962 both John and Halla were offered lectureships in psychology at the University of Edinburgh, which they took up in the winter of 1963. For both, the University of Edinburgh was to remain their professional home for the rest of their careers. Edinburgh proved a congenial home for parapsychological research, and John began a modest but often very innovative research program. In addition to experiments investigating training techniques that were reported to elicit evidence of psi, he explored the use of an early automated ESP tester with a built-in electronic random number generator and automated direct scoring of mass ESP tests, and using the galvanic skin response as an indicator of telepathy.

Alas, impressive psi results proved to be an infrequent visitor to John's lab. He was not afraid to admit that his own experiments did not have any large impact on the field as a whole, but they did have an important side effect. …