'Twas Brillig ... Sam Harris and the Question of PSI

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OVER THE PAST TWO YEARS I HAVE BEEN ADVISED by several of my readers that my acceptance of Sam Harris--author of The End of Faith--might be unwise, not because of his writings about religion, but because of his apparent acceptance of some paranonnal phenomena. To wit, the University of Central Lancashire professor of psychology Michael Eslea cautions: "When Harris rafts against theistic religions, The End of Faith is a terrific read and a powerful argument, but when in the final chapter he turns approvingly towards Eastern mysticism and spirituality, he veers into woo-woo territory." Here is what Harris writes in this vein:

   There also seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality
   of psychic phenomena, much of which has been ignored by
   mainstream science. The dictum that "extraordinary claims
   require extraordinary evidence" remains a reasonable guide
   in these areas, but this does not mean that the universe isn't
   far stranger than many of us suppose. It is important to realize
   that a healthy, scientific skepticism is compatible with a
   fundamental openness of mind.

An open mind, yes, but not a gaping hole through which reason leaks out and blind belief seeps in to replace it. In a footnote to the above paragraph, Harris refers us to Dean Radin's Floe Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena, Rupert Sheldrake's The Sense of Being Stared At: And Other Aspects of the Extended Mind and to other books, as his authority for having such a belief. Yes, "mainstream science" has ignored this material because it does not stand proper examination, as Mr. Harris can discover by looking into it in more detail. The fact that something gets published does not necessarily validate it. Mr. Harris adds to his comment this astonishing--certainly for him--suggestion: "There may even be some credible evidence for reincarnation."

Let me here remind readers that if the Sheldrake and Radin declarations were really tree and properly derived, then they would stand as good evidence for the reality of parapsychology and would make them eligible for the JREF million-dollar prize. But Sheldrake has directly refused to apply for that prize, and Radin has made the same decision by choosing to ignore it. One has to wonder why ...

That aside, it is evident to me that Mr. Harris has not carefully examined either Radin's book, or anything written by Sheldrake. If he had subjected that material to the same proper scrutiny that he applied to religion and the "God" question he so well handled, I'm sure he'd have come to the same conclusions that I have--that there's nothing in it, that there's no "reality" to psychic phenomena, nor to reincarnation, other than the conviction of some incautious or seriously deluded individuals who can attract publishers who understand and thus exploit the naivety of the book market.

Mr. Harris also has an attraction to mysticism, particularly to Eastern aspects of it, and appears to give credence to some of its tenets. To my mind, metaphysical claims and notions that result from mystical "experiences"--which can take place entirely within the individual's minds--cannot be accepted without accompanying, supporting, strong, empirical evidence. Surely that is not too much to ask for?

To be fair to Mr. Harris, however, if he does accept "psi" as real, we should not be too surprised. Many times following one of my lectures I've been approached by an academic who says something like: "While I agree with your assessment of Sylvia Browne, UFOs, and homeopathy, Mr. Randi, I saw a book written about the Bermuda Triangle, and it was very convincing! Surely they wouldn't publish an entire book about it if it weren't real!"

Oh yes they would ...

Sam Harris Responds

In response to this, my initial assessment of Harris' position on the paranormal in Swift, the weekly newsletter of JREF (randi.org/jr/2007-06/062207. …