Prof. Peter Wadhams

Cambridge Professor of Ocean Physics, and Head of the Polar Marine Sciences Group in the Scott Polar Research Institute.

Super-psi or Survival? A Response to Prof. Stephen Braude

 - Peter Wadhams -

NOTE: It is recommended that the reader firstly reads Prof. Stephen Braude's original paper, Survival or Super-psi? before this criticism.

          BRAUDE'S PAPER "Survival or Super-Psi?" makes a number of important and serious points, but in the end leaves the reader frustrated as he does not take the argument to the logical conclusion of defining what sort of super-psi is necessary to replace survival as an explanation for experimental data.

As befits a member of a university philosophy department, he takes a great deal of care to define his terms. He shows that "survival" itself has to be defined, in that a surviving consciousness which is absorbed into an undifferentiated "universal soup" of consciousness can scarcely be said to have survived. What matters is the survival of individual attributes, including memory and identifiable personality elements. In considering the possibilities for super-psi, he rightly points out that even apparently straightforward manifestations of psi are not in fact simple at all. A case is PK with various forms of random number generator, where the occurrence or not of positive results seems to be independent of the nature of the randomising process (mechanical or electronic or radioactivity; or various forms of complex circuit). In essence a successful performer is willing a result without understanding how he is bringing that result about. The same might be said about deep trance hypnotic subjects when, for instance, the hypnotist tells him that he is holding a red hot iron bar when he is in fact holding a pencil; a blister appears, but there is no way that a conscious mind can organise the cells of the skin into creating a blister when no source of heat is present. The subject (via the hypnotist) wills, and achieves, a result without knowing how he is bringing it about.

Braude then loses his way somewhat. He goes on to discredit some specific (but not crucial) pieces of evidence for survival. He analyses one of Stevenson's cases of apparent reincarnation which had some weak points, while ignoring the many stronger cases. He ridicules a medium who claimed to be receiving messages from Cagliostro, which were not in character. He considers that the case of Patience Worth may be one of exceptional unconscious creative powers. He asserts that super-psi may have no limits, so we cannot rule it out in any case of apparent survival evidence. This is an unsatisfactory way to end the paper, since I believe that we can tackle the question of survival versus super-psi by working out just what properties super-psi needs to have, and seeing if we can test for them.

It thus seems to me that the whole question of survival of death as a scientific hypothesis rests critically on whether a super-psi hypothesis can be formulated (or bent, twisted and stretched) which can also cover the observed phenomena. We can forget fraud and similar psychological props of the sceptics - there is just too much interlinked evidence from too many honest sources for this to be feasible. On the other hand, super-psi (a hypothesis which, ironically, a sceptic can't afford to support because he rejects psi as well as survival) could possibly offer an alternative explanation for evidence suggestive of survival of death. In one sense, of course, it's not an "explanation" since psi itself, let alone super-psi, is unexplained; we know little about its mode of working, limitations etc, and this makes it difficult to formulate or to refute a super-psi hypothesis. But so long as super-psi remains in play as a possibility, we have to look carefully at it and, if it can be made to cover the facts, Occam's razor tells us we should adopt it as the preferred hypothesis, given the antecedent unlikelihood of survival (on the basis of biochemical arguments about brain cell destruction at death). But if we can discriminate by some "killer experiment" between survival and super-psi and show that super-psi was completely impossible in that experimental context, then we are left with survival (in all this I'm talking about scientific acceptance or rejection of a hypothesis, rather than personal belief).

So the big question is, what would be a killer experiment? The problem is that, to cover all the facts, super-psi has to be retrocognitive. It has to leap the time barrier as well as the space barrier. For instance, if we accept the evidence from Stevenson and others that some children appear to remember past lives in that they utter statements containing facts known only to a specific person who died before the child was born, then two survivalist explanations are reincarnation or possession. A non-survivalist explanation has to account for the fact that information which existed only in the mind of person A subsequently appeared in the mind of person B, where person B was born after person A died. Such an explanation would have to involve something like child B having exceptional psi abilities which cause him to "tune in" to some kind of psychic resonances from the mind of a now-dead person and, by moving backwards in time, read the living mind of that person. You could call it "retrocognitive telepathy" or just "retrocognition". And if precognition exists (which I believe has been experimentally demonstrated, and which is a huge challenge to scientific thinking) then why not retrocognition? Retrocognition would also cover many types of veridical statements by mediums to sitters (of the "I left a new will in a secret drawer of my desk" type). The trouble is, we don't have much evidence that retrocognition as such actually exists, outside of the need to postulate it to cover these survival cases. While people often report flashes of insight or dreams of future events that come true, if you had such a flash or dream about something that had already happened, you wouldn't think of it as exceptional at all. So it may exist without us recognising it. There are a few spectacular cases, which the late Andrew Mackenzie gathered into a book called "Adventures in Time" (like the ladies at Versailles), but that book mainly impressed me by the smallness of the number of cases that he could find.

One possibility for a killer experiment that could overcome super-psi would be a variant of the cipher test, where an experimenter leaves a cipher message, the key of which he intends to communicate after death. In this variant a panel of excellent mediums is assembled, who make every possible effort to determine the key by "ordinary" telepathy from the experimenter while he is alive. When he dies, we only consider messages received by members of that same panel of mediums. If the key is received, then this argues for survival rather than super-psi, since if a medium couldn't pick up the information by ordinary common-or-garden telepathy, it is hardly likely that he could do so by the more exotic and presumably difficult retrocognitive telepathy.

Another thing that we can do is to re-examine the types of evidence for survival and decide which are the strongest in competition with super-psi. An example which seems to come out weaker than before are the cross-correspondences. These have been taken as amongst the strongest evidence for survival. In his book "Human Personality and its Survival of Physical Death" Myers showed himself fully aware of the dangers of taking the statements of single mediums as evidence for survival. He did not mention the idea of a surviving person sending a message through two mediums such that only joining the messages together made sense, but in reading his book you get the feeling that that is just what Myers would do. It's characteristic of his way of thinking and working. Also he was a classical scholar and the messages are all riddles from classical literature. So for two reasons it looks like the hand (or surviving mind) of Myers was at work. Yet one of the mediums involved in the cross-correspondences, Mrs Verrall, was herself classically educated and was one of the inner circle of SPR members who knew Myers well and might have been familiar with his way of thinking. It is possible, therefore, that an unconscious fragment of Mrs Verrall's personality conceived of the cross-correspondence idea, sent half-messages telepathically to her fellow medium (Mrs Holland in India) and sent the other halves up to her own conscious mind. There was no conscious fraud, just an unconscious scheme to prove survival. 

It seems to me that Stevenson's reincarnation cases remain the strongest evidence for survival, requiring the most stringent form of super-psi, that of "retrocognitive telepathy". And if we can show that this form of super-psi does not occur in other contexts, then we have a powerful case for survival.

Peter Wadhams, 3 February 2003.


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