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Bertrand Russell and Mnemic Causation

by Ted Dace

“It often turns out important to the progress of science,” writes Bertrand Russell, “to remember hypotheses which have previously seemed improbable.”1

If only he’d been true to his word.

On the brink of a genuinely scientific account of the mind, he cobbled together a straw-man substitute and promptly set it alight. His rejection of “mnemic causation,” the influence of the deep past over the present, was intended to clear the way to a materialist concept of mind.

A series of lectures published in 1921, Russell’s Analysis of Mind is geared around the proposal that the mind has no existence apart from sense data. “All psychic phenomena are built up out of sensations and images alone,” he writes.2 “Beliefs, desires, volitions, and so on” turn out to be “sensations and images variously interrelated.”3 Images may seem more mental than tangible, but according to Russell they “have a causal connection with physical objects, through the fact that they are copies of past sensations.”4 Images reduce to sensations, which in turn reduce to the meeting of nerve endings with the external world. From mind to matter in a few easy steps.

Recognizing that modern physics renders the concept of matter as mysterious as mind, Russell asserts that both terms ultimately reduce to a deeper “neutral” substance. Given his caution as a philosopher, it’s no surprise he never completely forecloses on the possibility of mnemic causation.5 Despite the window dressing, however, Analysis of Mind amounts to an attack on the idea that mentality is intrinsically real.

Russell denies that an animal’s search for food can be ascribed to its “mental state, which we cannot observe,” arguing that its apparent hunger is only an “observable trait in the bodily behavior … not some possibly mythical and certainly unknowable ingredient of the animal’s mind.”6 To say animals want to eat is akin to saying “rivers ‘desire’ the sea.” As in the case of water flowing downhill, “if we knew more about animals, we might equally cease to attribute desire to them, since we might find physical and chemical reactions sufficient to account for their behavior.”7 People fare no better in his analysis. “We may regard a human being as an instrument, which makes various responses to various stimuli.”8 Will, he says, is a mirage generated by the “kinesthetic sensations” that accompany muscular movements.9

With self-existence reduced to mechanics, psychology differs from physics only insofar as physics deals with “a given object from different places,” while psychology concerns “different objects from a given place.”10 That place is of course the brain, the location of our subjectivity, though he also locates this phenomenon in “the photographic plate.”11 Russell might have done well to take another look at psychology, as anyone who reduces emotion to a “confused perception” clearly has some inner work to do.12

The chief threat to Russell’s reduction of mind to matter came from his arch rival, Henri Bergson. In his 1911 book, Matter and Memory, Bergson asks why, if images are faded copies of prior sensations, we never confuse the recollection of a loud noise with the sensation of a soft one.13 Unable to answer Bergson’s question, Russell can only observe that we have a “belief-feeling” that a remembered image relates to the past.14 On what basis do we arrive at this belief-feeling? Russell cannot say. How do we acquire our sense of pastness?

The job of the brain, according to Bergson, is to calculate possible actions in response to sensory data.15 Inputs are converted in the most efficient possible way to outputs. That’s all there is to it. Within those cerebral folds, you will find no representations of the world, no emotions, no thoughts, no desires, no psyche. For Bergson, locating the qualities of mind in the brain amounts to a kind of neural mysticism. Is the brain so special as to simultaneously participate in the physical world and yet step outside it to represent it?16

Rather than construct images of the world, says Bergson, our brains merely facilitate our perception of it. Because the brain does its job, we apprehend (roughly) what is around us. Just as we see the world itself rather than a neural reconstruction of it, Bergson argues that in memory we perceive the past, if only in outline. But how can we perceive something that’s no longer there?

“The past has not ceased to exist; it has only ceased to be useful.”17 Bergsonian time is unbroken duration that conveys into the present all that preceded it. “Our most distant past adheres to our present and constitutes with it a single and identical uninterrupted change.”18

The continuous time of the quantum, as expressed in Schrödinger’s wave function, is disrupted via interactions with the local environment. From this we surmise that large-scale existence lies beyond the continuity of the enduring present. As a macroscopic object, the brain is indeed limited to the current moment. By contrast, the mind reflects time as it is, in which past (memory) adheres to presence (consciousness). Because the mind is absolute presence filtered through eons of physical and biological evolution, we possess the power of memory, to take an event no longer materialized and re-present it.

Unable to pinpoint where Bergson’s proposal went wrong, Russell conjured mnemic causation, not quite what Bergson actually said but close enough that in refuting it, he would seem to have shaken off his nemesis without even mentioning him by name. Alluding to the work of German zoologist Richard Semon, Russell explains his idea. “Whenever the effect resulting from a stimulus to an organism differs according to the past history of the organism, without our being able actually to detect any relevant difference in its present structure, we will speak of ‘mnemic causation.'”19

A child who has been burned, says Russell, reacts differently to fire than a child with no such experience. If the memory of being burned leaves no trace in the brain, but the child nonetheless reacts to fire in accord with prior experience, this indicates the direct influence of the remote past over the present with no material intermediary.20

By proposing that mnemic causation is indicated by the absence of any neural change reflecting a prior event, Russell rigged the results in advance. As we now know, and as Russell surely anticipated, the brain harbors “memory traces” correlated with past events. By materialist assumption, these neural configurations record the past. It may not work exactly like magnetic tape, but the result is the same.

A logician by training, Russell should have realized that mnemic influence in no way implies the absence of “any relevant difference” in brain structure. This is the inverse of the fact that the brain’s necessity for the act of recall falls short of sufficiency. Russell makes this point himself, observing that our dependence on brains for memory doesn’t prove that recollection is a strictly neural process or that memories are stored in brain tissue.22 So too the action of the distant past on the present, even if necessary to account for memory, still leaves a role for the brain.

Russell’s plan seems to have been to dispose of Bergson’s past-within-a-present so as to arrive at Semon’s concept of the engram as the only possible explanation of memory. A kind of neural engraving, the engram is the change in the brain’s resting state following an event such as being burned. It’s the engram that makes the child more alert and therefore less likely to be burned again.22 Semon’s explicit denial that engrams could be regarded as “immaterial or metaphysical” must have been music to Russell’s positivist ears.23

By attributing “mnemic phenomena” exclusively to the engram, Russell could fully incorporate memory into neurophysiology. Like knowledge, images and habits, memories exist only when aroused from the brain by the appropriate stimulus.24 As opposed to a mind obeying the laws of mnemic causation, we have a brain governed by “causation of the ordinary physical sort.”25

Semon, as it happens, wrote the book on mnemic phenomena (taking his cue from Mnemosyne, goddess of memory and mother of the muses). As he writes in The Mneme, “Already existing engrams are never remolded but remain as they were first imprinted.”26 The engram’s defining trait, stability over time, not only accounts for memory but helps explain the general stability of the organism in the face of the dominant tendencies of transformation and evolution.27

Yet it’s precisely their stability that makes engrams wholly unlike anything neuroscientists have actually uncovered. Every time someone remembers an event, the relevant memory trace loses its structure and must be “reconsolidated” from scratch. As John McCrone explains in New Scientist, “Resurrecting a memory trace appears to render it completely fluid, as pliable and unstable as the moment it was first formed, and in need of fixing once again into the brain’s circuitry.”28 If something interferes with reconsolidation, such as high voltage current or a protein-blocking drug, the memory can never be accessed again. This finding, which has been consistently replicated, baffles researchers since it means a memory, once recalled, is lost to the brain and must be re-established on the basis of nothing more than the actual recall, however cloudy, of the past event itself. Just when we become conscious of it, the memory is irreducible to information encoded in the brain. How can this be?

Regardless of how hard scientists try to impress memory into gray matter, it pops back up, bobbing on the ethereal sea of mind. Though facilitating recollection, the brain does so without storing and retrieving information about the past. And why should it? After all, the whole point of remembering something is that you don’t have to look it up. To construe the brain as an organic reference library is to banish memory and replace it with mere information storage. The fact that recollection may indeed revitalize past perception is only a problem for the materialist outlook.

Semon proposed another concept, known as mnemic homophony, that accounts for memory far better than the engram. Russell praises Semon for this ingenious idea, not for its application to habits and recollections but its explanation of how the richness of experience is rendered into abstractions, a process that befuddled philosophers as diverse as Berkeley and Hume.29

Semon compares the emergence of abstraction to the process of composite photography, in which the same frame of film is repeatedly exposed to different scenes.30 So long as they’re close enough in form, mental images in succession generate a fuzzy general image. Each time you see an oak tree, for instance, it calls to mind all the other times you’ve seen one, and this new image is superimposed on the rest, producing a composite picture you think of as “oak tree.”

Neither Russell nor Semon saw the contradiction between mnemic homophony and the engram. As material structures, engrams cannot simply blend into each other to form vague composites. While mental images may exhibit vagueness or fuzziness, matter always conforms to the principle of identity: x = x. An object is exactly itself, no more and no less. A vague object would lose this exact relation, being only somewhat itself and somewhat not. Of course, composite photographs always look a little fuzzy, but the picture itself, as a material object, cannot help but be precisely itself, its “fuzziness” solely in our interpretation of the picture.

The coexistence of successive perceptions in a single generalized perception cannot give the brain the ability to construct generalized bits of gray matter. Mnemic homophony was Russell’s worst fear realized, for it revealed where mind fails to fit into matter.

Semon and Russell’s resistance to the irretrievably immaterial nature of mnemic homophony placed them at odds with modern physics. Why base a theory of reality on matter when matter turns out to be some kind of space-stuff called fields? Descartes’s reduction of causation to contact mechanics went out with Newton, a fact confirmed in the nineteenth century with the onset of electromagnetic field theory.

Mnemic homophony gives us memory without the need for neural engravings. Semon always thinks of Capri when he smells a particular cooking oil because he once happened to catch a whiff of it from a nearby restaurant as he gazed at Capri across the Bay of Naples.31 No information storage is required, only the principle that any given mental state is influenced by similar previous states. Rather than encoding information about past events, the memory trace only matches whatever pattern of synaptic transmission took place during the original event, serving as a marker or sign that facilitates recall, re-establishing in consciousness a sense of the prior event much as radio antennae monitor the long-range influence of electromagnetism.

Recent neural research confirms that memory involves similarity between past and present patterns of brain activity. During the act of learning, neurons establish connections with each other. When we remember the moment the learning took place, something like the original pattern of connections is reinstated. However, as University of California researcher Jeff Johnson reports in Neuron, reinstatement of prior neural patterns takes place even when recall is limited to the learned information itself, without any details about the moment it was acquired.32

Like Russell, Johnson wants to know how the brain accounts for our sense of pastness. Since reinstatement applies not only to memory but knowledge, which is devoid of any sense of the past, neural similarity alone can’t provide an answer. If recall is more than just synaptic rearrangement but the actual revitalization of past experience, the problem dissolves. We sense a depth to time precisely in the act of plumbing it.

Recall is often a struggle. Instead of arriving all at once, the memory creeps in. First we get the general sense of it, and gradually the details emerge like the tissues of an embryonic organ. Though not at all what we’d expect from a data storage system, this is exactly what we’d expect from a tuning system. The signal is first captured and then strengthened.

Whereas episodic memory involves conscious recall, habit-memory is the unconscious cumulative effect of past behaviors on current behavior. Semon illustrates the role of mnemic homophony in habit with a game of fetch. Each time his owner cocks his arm, the dog understands he’s going to throw the stick. Even if he doesn’t actually toss it but only pretends, the dog chases the chimera because his owner’s gesture has awakened its memory of when he actually did toss the stick. Of course, this works only so many times. Before long the dog refuses to run until it has perfect homophony between the new stimulus and the old stimulus, i.e. when it actually sees the stick emerge from the hand. Habitual behaviors are activated by mnemic homophony, whether rough or perfect, between current and past circumstances.33

When musician Kristin Hersh and her band recorded for the first time in a “fancy” studio, she found herself unable to reproduce her usual vocal intensity because, as she explained to the engineer, when she performed live or in her usual practice space, she was relaxed enough to let go and allow the song to sing itself. In contrast to the song’s voice, her own voice was self-conscious and forced. The recording engineer’s first adjustment was to remove her voice from her headphones so she wouldn’t be screaming in her ears, but the intensity of the song’s voice remained elusive. What finally worked was simply to let her play guitar while singing, completing the homophony of her current performance with the abstracted essence of prior performances. Only then did Throwing Muses roar to life.34

We all know we usually have to repeat a newly learned procedure before it becomes “automatic.” But if the instruction is inscribed on neural tissue, why isn’t once enough? Stored information is a digital phenomenon; the data’s either encoded or it’s not. Semon’s memory is analogue, each performance of a procedure increasing the odds of it coming to mind with the relevant stimulus.

Like Darwin before him, Semon found the idea of evolution implausible without the ability of organisms to inherit and build upon the behavioral and bodily modifications implemented by forerunners.35 Otherwise, ongoing adaptations to changing conditions play no role in evolution. This is why, in The Mneme, he reports on salamanders coaxed into either holding their young in utero longer than usual or releasing them early, in both cases their progeny carrying on the newly-altered behavior.36 He also reports on trees transplanted from temperate to tropical regions and vice versa, either way their new adaptations cropping up in offspring.37 Echoing Darwin’s observations on farm animals, he observes that praying mantis populations grow more tame with each generation in captivity despite the absence of selection for this trait.38

Austrian theorist August Weismann tried to refute a plethora of such claims by cutting off the tails of hundreds of mice and noting the continued growth of tails in their offspring.39 Yet experiments demonstrating inheritance of acquired traits succeeded precisely because researchers induced organisms to make the changes themselves, just as the environment, rather than mechanically imposing new behaviors, prods creatures into actively adapting.

This debate has long since been superseded by the sheer weight of evidence. We now know that when fertilizers tinker with the growth cycle of a crop, the new pattern of growth continues appearing for generations.40 Defensive spines built up by Daphnia water flea in the vicinity of predators continue emerging in offspring never exposed to this threat.41 A Dutch study has found reduced lifespan among people whose grandparents, in their youth, gorged themselves during rare seasons of overabundance.42

The question is no longer whether adaptations are inherited but how. Since none of these examples involve genetic changes, biologists refer to the phenomenon as “epigenetic inheritance,” whereby newly acquired traits are passed on via modifications of chromosomes or even cytoplasm. Semon’s belief that migrating engrams transmit traits by altering germ cells may not be so far-fetched after all. But mnemic homophony gives us another option. If past and present can be connected on the basis of similarity within an individual lifespan, why not across generations as well?

You would never suspect, reading Russell, that Semon insists on the inheritance of adaptations or that he denies the reduction of memory to a machine-like process. With his “law of ecphory,” Semon contends that in contrast to machinery, which requires a complete input to produce a complete output, a memory can be fully realized even when the trigger, such as the smell of cooking oil, contains only a hint of the original event.43 He notes that embryos, again in stark contrast to machines, can weather “large and arbitrary subtractions” of their tissues and resume normal development as if nothing happened.44

Russell was too committed to establishing Semon’s materialist credentials to notice where he and Bergson overlapped. Many years later the task of synthesizing Semon and Bergson fell to a young biologist in training at Cambridge University, a theoretical nonconformist who took a year off from his laboratory work to study philosophy at Harvard. Unlike Russell, whose reading of Bergson was colored by professional rivalry, Rupert Sheldrake was captivated by Bergson’s radical take on time and its implication for memory. By coupling Bergson’s enduring present with Semon’s mnemic homophony, Sheldrake obtained the basis for a scientific theory of mentality, the very prize Russell sought in his Analysis of Mind.

Designed to explain organic development from egg to maturity, Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance is based on his Bergsonian reading of Semon. Where “mnemic” emphasizes the emergence of organic form as a memory-based process, Sheldrake’s use of “morphic” turns it the other way around, highlighting the proposition that nature’s inherent memory operates on the basis of form. The more similar a current organic form to a previous form, the more it resonates with that form.

Sheldrake extended the mnemic principle beyond the brain to the whole organism, including all levels of structure comprising it, such that every organ, every tissue, every cell and organelle reproduces the actions it undertook in previous similar situations. The body-memory that maintains the adult on the basis of its personal past is no different, fundamentally, from the species-memory that guides embryogenesis.

In applying morphic resonance to the embryo, Sheldrake reconfigured memory into a property of species as much as individuals. Thus human embryos develop along the same lines as previous human embryos whereas chimpanzee eggs divide and grow along the lines of previous chimpanzee eggs. Like reciting text from memory, at each passage the embryo simply replicates the actions of its ancestors when they reached that stage. Just as a recollection is associated with a neural memory trace, development from the egg is routed correctly via genetic markers. In neither case, whether neural or genetic, does the marker contain the memory itself.

Morphic resonance is revealed wherever successive generations of a given species improve at a given task without guidance from their parents. The best-documented spontaneous case of this phenomenon concerns birds in Western Europe that learned to open milk bottles. The technique was first observed in 1921 in Southampton, England among blue tits and spread primarily through simple imitation. However, since blue tits rarely travel more than a few miles, it’s unlikely imitation could account for the appearance of this habit in Sweden, Denmark and Holland. “The Dutch records are particularly interesting,” writes Sheldrake. “Milk bottles practically disappeared during the war, and became reasonably common again only in 1947 or 1948. Few if any tits that had learned the habit before the war could have survived to this date, but nevertheless attacks on bottles began again rapidly.”45

Of course, postwar birds may have learned the process again from scratch. For this reason William McDougall’s experiment on learning in rats provides a more compelling example. One of many scientists around the turn of the twentieth century to have demonstrated the inheritance of acquired traits, McDougall placed rats in a water maze and found that each generation solved the maze more quickly than its predecessor. Like Semon, he assumed the animals’ genes were somehow incorporating and transmitting the acquired ability. But when the experiment was replicated, first in England and then Australia with rats unrelated to McDougall’s, the tendency for improvement continued as before, an outcome inexplicable except in light of species-memory via morphic resonance.46

Long-range memory has also been revealed in tests on human subjects, for instance non-Japanese speakers who were better able to memorize authentic Japanese nursery rhymes than rearranged nonsensical versions.47 According to Sheldrake this result follows from the fact that untold millions of people have already learned the rhymes, and anyone trying to memorize the correct versions is influenced by their cumulative experience. When subjects of another experiment were shown Persian words for ten seconds, some real and some only Persian-like fakes, and then asked to recall the words, they fared significantly better at reproducing the real words.48

Flabbergasted by Sheldrake’s audacious proposal, neuroscientist Steven Rose designed an experiment that would surely dispose of it once and for all. The experiment involved day-old chicks divided into two groups, test chicks allowed to peck at yellow diodes and control chicks that pecked at chrome beads. After pecking the diodes, the test chicks were injected with lithium chloride, a toxic substance that made them mildly nauseous, while control chicks were injected with a harmless saline solution. The same procedure was followed for 37 days with a new batch of chicks each day. The data indicated that successive batches of test chicks became gradually more hesitant to peck relative to control chicks.

While this finding indicated the influence of previous experience, the most compelling result concerned control chicks given the choice of pecking at either the yellow diodes or the chrome beads. Over the course of the experiment, successive batches of these chicks became increasingly reluctant to peck at the diodes, suggesting that they were influenced by the cumulative experience of chicks that had pecked at the diodes and then been injected with lithium chloride. After stalling for months, Rose reneged on his agreement to write up the results with Sheldrake for publication.49

Needless to say, a handful of anecdotes and unrepeated experiments falls short of proof. While interesting, Sheldrake’s theory remains largely untested. But at least it has the potential to explain development from the egg. The same cannot be said of the quaint notion that DNA is a blueprint or recipe for building an organism.

Around the time he was mutilating mice in a misguided effort to refute the inheritance of adaptations, August Weismann proposed that organisms develop from the egg on the basis of information transmitted from parents via “determinants” (now known as genes).50 Though subsequent research seemed to confirm this idea, the gains in molecular biology that fleshed out Weismann’s theory would ultimately abolish it.

A theory is scientific insofar as it reduces a complex phenomenon, such as the organization of a living body, to something simple like information stored in DNA. At the core of Weismann’s proposal was the assumption that genes are relatively simple static structures that generate the developmental machinery which, in turn, produces the immensely complicated systems that comprise the organism.51 Different species are differently formed because each kind has a unique set of genes and therefore a unique developmental pathway.

Neither Weismann nor any of his intellectual descendants anticipated that developmental or “homeobox” genes would turn out to be virtually identical in species ranging from insects to people. As we learn from the field of “evo-devo,” what changes in the course of evolution is not so much the genes themselves but the regulatory DNA that switches them on and off to ensure that development is species-appropriate.

Usually adjacent to the homeobox genes they regulate, epigenetic tags or “switches” operate at blinding speed. According to molecular biologist Sean Carroll, typical developmental processes involve “tens of thousands of switches being thrown in sequence and in parallel.”52 The operation of switches is so complex that they can be analyzed only with combinatorial logic. “Because the combination of inputs determines the output of a switch, and the potential combinations of inputs increase exponentially with each additional input, the potential outputs of switches are virtually endless.”53 Every switch position and associated pattern of protein production is but a snapshot, a single frame in “one hell of a movie with nonstop action.”54

Imagine a forest overflowing with lightning bugs except that this forest is actually produced by the incomprehensibly complex and ever changing patterns of lightning bug flashes. Altering this pattern alters the shape of the forest. This, according to molecular biology, is how our bodies develop.

Whether we’re looking at cycling networks of proteins in a cell or webs of feedback loops governing everything from immune response to patterns of neurotransmission, the number of possible outcomes stemming from any given input is virtually infinite, blocking the way to successful physical analysis. Genes were supposed to be the exception, something we could bring within our orbit of comprehension. Now we find that the computation of genetic activity escalates infinitely, leaving us with the absurdity of reducing one complexity to another.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that a given set of complex genetic operations does lead, in a purely mechanical fashion, to a given bodily form. The problem here is that we’ve only pushed the question back a step: what gives rise to the complex pattern of gene activity in the first place? We’re back to morphic resonance, except that now, instead of newly developing organs resonating with previous organs under similar conditions, current genetic expression resonates with prior genetic expression. Whether or not the whole reduces to the gene, the organism is still explained by resonance and not genetics. It’s a reduction alright but to the past rather than the small.

In light of mnemic reduction, there’s no longer a compelling reason to characterize the organism in terms of its genes. Instead, both gene expression and organ development are informed by similar past activities. Rather than construct higher-level structure, the genetic level does just what it appears to do, pumping out the proteins required by cells to carry out their tasks. That certain proteins are necessary for the emergence of certain phenotypic traits in no way implies gene-protein sufficiency in the shaping of the organism.

Despite having captivated generations of biologists, Weismann’s proposal has no potential as an explanatory theory. Sheldrake, on the other hand, reduces the body’s stupendous complexity to an elementary property of nature, a kind of inertia of organic form. With the demise of the DNA-based theory, morphic resonance is the only game in town.

Since we don’t feel like machines, it’s odd that Russell had such faith in the reduction of organisms to mechanized assemblages of atoms. The most compelling data in opposition to this belief are generated daily by that ongoing half-baked experiment we call life. Unlike materialism, the mnemic theory makes room for the mind as a thing in itself, the seat of self-existence. We appear to be thinking, feeling, freely acting people – and not genetically programmed organic robots – because we are in fact people leading meaningful lives.

Russell clung to materialism like a child to his mother. By contrast Bergson and Sheldrake realized it’s precisely against matter that memory is defined. With memory freed from the smothering embrace of matter, mind is at last made sensible.

So long as it’s restricted to the brain, the mind can be dismissed as mere shadow play. Only when extended throughout the body does it find its home. Mentality is associated with every organ, guiding development and maintaining form via resonance with similar previous forms. The brain differs from other organs only insofar as it’s attached to sense organs and therefore involves awareness. Where brain-mind is at least partly conscious, gut-mind operates entirely in the dark.

“Mind and body” is more phrase than reality. We have two words for the same thing because we see body-mind from two perspectives, one in terms of space and the other in terms of time. As the body is the spatialized surface of the mind, the mind is the temporal depths of the body. Accordingly, death is where the body loses its mind, where matter and memory cease to be united.

What the ancients called soul or spirit has been translated in modern consciousness as the immaterial element of life. But we don’t have to define organic memory in the negative, any more than body-mind must be defined as the unconscious. The immaterial element is simply the influence of the remote past on the present. Previous actions undertaken in situations most resembling the current situation are the ones most likely to materialize.

The abstract image of “oak tree” in human thought is only a faded reflection of the deeper biological process whereby former explications of growing oaks overlap into a developmental map accessible to every sprouting acorn. Whereas the individual mind is the seat of imagination, species-mind is the seat of living formation.

Wedded to the dual reduction of the world to tangible matter and timeless law, Russell missed the message of the mind, which is neither one nor the other. In the end he got it wrong because he just had to be right.


  1. Russell, Bertrand, The Analysis of Mind, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1921, p 92
  2. Ibid, p 279
  3. Ibid, p 300
  4. Ibid, p 110
  5. Ibid, p 89
  6. Ibid, p 63
  7. Ibid, p 64
  8. Ibid, p 255
  9. Ibid, p 285
  10. Ibid, p 105
  11. Ibid, p 130
  12. Ibid, pp 283-284
  13. Bergson, Henri, Matter and Memory, London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1911, pp 318-319
  14. Russell, p 159
  15. Bergson, p 20
  16. Ibid, p 11
  17. Ibid, p 193
  18. Bergson, Henri, The Creative Mind, New York: Philosophical Library, 1946, pp 180-181
  19. Russell, p 86
  20. Ibid, p 77
  21. Ibid, p 91
  22. Ibid, pp 79-83
  23. Semon, Richard, The Mneme, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1921, p 275
  24. Russell, p 88
  25. Ibid, p 90
  26. Semon, p 240
  27. Ibid, p 14
  28. McCrone, John, ‘Not-so total recall,’ New Scientist, May 3, 2003, p 27
  29. Russell, pp 218-219
  30. Semon, p 164
  31. Ibid, p 92
  32. Johnson, Jeffrey D, et al, ‘Recollection, Familiarity, and Cortical Reinstatement: A Multivoxel Pattern Analysis,’ Neuron, 63, 2009, pp 697-708
  33. Semon, p 156
  34. Hersh, Kristin, Rat Girl, New York: Penguin, 2010, pp 288-291, 308-310
  35. Semon, p 290
  36. Ibid, pp 58-60
  37. Ibid, p 64
  38. Ibid, p 133
  39. Gould, Stephen Jay, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2002, p 201
  40. Durrant, Alan , ‘The association of induced changes in flax,’ Heredity, 32, 1974, pp 133-143
  41. Young, Emma, ‘Rewriting Darwin: the new non-genetic inheritance,’ New Scientist, July 9, 2008, pp 28-33
  42. Cloud, John, “Why DNA Isn’t Your Destiny,” Time, January 18, 2010, p 50
  43. Semon, p 124
  44. Ibid, p 177
  45. Sheldrake, Rupert, The Presence of the Past, New York: Times Books, 1988, p 178
  46. Ibid, p 175
  47. Ibid, p 189-190
  48. Ibid, p 192
  49. Sheldrake, Rupert, ‘An Experimental Test of the Hypothesis of Formative Causation,’ Rivista di Biologia – Biology Forum, 86, 1992, pp 431-44. Available from: (Accessed Jan 2 2014)
  50. Gould, p 207
  51. Bertalanffy, Ludwig, Modern Theories of Development: An Introduction to Theoretical Biology, London: Oxford, 1933, pp 32-33
  52. Carroll, Sean B, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005, p 114
  53. Ibid, p 124
  54. Ibid, p 128

Good Skeptics / Bad Skeptics

Part 1: Good Skeptic Ian Wilson on Nostradamus
by Guy Lyon Playfair

There can be few whose writings have been quoted, misquoted, debunked and even faked so often and so long after their death as those of the French physician, astrologer and prophet Michel de Nostredame (1503-1566), better known by his Latinised surname of Nostradamus.

Whenever there is a momentous event such as the death of President Kennedy or Princess Diana or the destruction of the World Trade Center, we can be sure that one of his numerous supposedly precognitive quatrains will be resurrected as evidence that he saw it all coming nearly 500 years ago.

There are all kinds of problems facing the critic who attempts to come up with a fair and balanced assessment of this enigmatic prognosticator. His ‘prophecies’ tended to avoid specific names, places and dates, and a sceptical critic can reasonably claim that he made so many of them (942, no less) that sooner or later one of them would be bound to correspond to something that happened somewhere or other even centuries later.

Then there is the question of primary sources, which is what professional historians like to work with. These are not always easy to find in this case. The most important sources are the annual almanacs Nostradamus published until shortly before his death, some of which only exist today in single copies scattered around several European libraries or in inaccessible private hands. These have to be distinguished from the many fake almanacs that appeared under his name even during his lifetime, and continued to appear well after it.

There are also the horoscopes he did for his wealthy patrons, some still unpublished, and who knows what might yet emerge from the attic of the former home of some member of the 16th century great and good? There were several of them who were sufficiently convinced by Nostradamus’ abilities to contribute to his considerable fortune.

To make sense of the Nostradamian muddle calls for the skills of a proper historian who approaches the subject with an open mind and knows how to separate wheat from chaff after trawling through the available primary sources. Ian Wilson, an Oxford graduate in Modern History, has done this very convincingly in his Nostradamus – The Evidence (2002). He makes his position clear in his Preface:

“Books about Nostradamus are mostly written by so-called ‘Nostradamians’ convinced that [he] had a genuine prophetic gift. Or by born-again sceptics like James Randi utterly determined to rubbish that idea. I belong to neither camp.”

His own book came to be written after his publisher wrote, a few days after the events of September 11th, 2001, complaining that he couldn’t find ‘a book on Nostradamus which looks objectively at the man, his times, his books, his prophecies and the psychology of why his prophecies are still rolled out (witness the last few days…)’ and asked if this was ‘something that might attract you?’

His initial reaction was a firm ‘No’, as he was reluctant to enter what he considered ‘crank territory’. But a commission is something only very rich authors can afford to ignore, so Wilson embarked on ‘a highly intensive period of getting to know Nostradamus’ with a wide-open mind. What he discovered was proof of Kepler’s claim, in his Tertius Interveniens (1610) that ‘the diligent hen will find the golden kernel in the rotting dunghill’ and should not ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater’.

Wilson has little time for much of the Nostradamian dunghill which is a pile of misquotations, false associations, unwarranted assumptions and wild speculations, yet he also gives Randi’s venture into historical and literary criticism, The Mask of Nostradamus (1990) fairly short shrift. For example, Randi’s claim, on the basis of an anonymous article he supposedly found in the New York Public Library, that no copy of the 1555 Prophecies exists, is ‘blown to smithereens’ by the fact that at least two copies have survived, in libraries in Vienna and Albi. A photo of the title page of the Albi copy on page 81 of Wilson’s book settles that argument. Wilson gives other examples of how Randi’s ‘supposedly myth-busting’ book introduced ‘myths entirely of his own making’.

He also gives examples of well-sourced ‘golden kernel’ prophecies that unquestionably did come true, such as those of the death of King Henri II in a jousting contest, the Great Fire of London (1666) and perhaps most persuasively of all, those contained in the lengthy and detailed horoscope that Nostradamus did for mining magnate Hans Rosenberger. Wilson rates this as ‘uncannily accurate’ even down to such details as his prediction that his client’s miners would meet a ghost in the mine which would scare them stiff which, Rosenberger confirmed, indeed they did.

This is sceptical investigation as it should be, and it reminds us that while there are plenty of bad sceptics around, there are also good ones with no axes to grind who reach their conclusions only after careful examination of the evidence.

See Part 2 Below:

Skeptics Concede Evidence for Psi


Concessions on the Evidence for Psi Phenomena

by The Editors


Does Telepathy Conflict With Science?
Chris Carter, The Epoch Times, March 26, 2012
Wiseman et al. concede on ESP: Journalist Stephen Volk reports that Richard Wiseman has admitted that the evidence for telepathy is so good that “by the standards of any other area of science, [telepathy] is proven”. Even more incredibly, another leading skeptic, Chris French, agrees with him.

The following extracts are from the website Subversive Thinking:

“I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that
remote viewing is proven.”
Richard Wiseman on remote viewing research.   See More

“It is a slight misquote, because I was using the term in the more
general sense of ESP – that is, I was not talking about remote viewing
per se, but rather Ganzfeld, etc., as well. I think that they meet the usual standards for a normal claim, but are not convincing enough for
an extraordinary claim.”
Richard Wiseman’s clarification of his previous citation on remote viewing. Emphasis in blue added.   See More

“The SAIC experiments are well-designed and the investigators have taken pains to eliminate the known weaknesses in previous parapsychological research. In addition, I cannot provide suitable candidates for what flaws, if any, might be present.
Ray Hyman on SAIC experiments on remote viewing.   See Paper

“The other major challenge to the skeptic’s position is, of course, the fact that opposing positive evidence exists in the parapsychological literature. I couldn’t dismiss it all.”
Susan Blackmore Confessions of a Parapsychologist (p.74). In: The Fringes of Reason, Ed. T. Schultz (Harmony, 1989).

“Human beings are not built to have open minds. If they try to have open minds they experience cognitive dissonance. Leon Festinger first used the term. He argued that people strive to make their beliefs and actions consistent and when there is inconsistency they experience this unpleasant state of ‘cognitive dissonance’, and they then use lots of ploys to reduce it. I have to admit I have become rather familiar with some of them.
Susan Blackmore in The Elusive Open Mind (p. 250-1). Emphasis in blue added.

“I am glad to be able to agree with his final conclusion – ‘that drawing any conclusion, positive or negative, about the reality of psi that are based on the Blackmore psi experiments must be considered unwarranted’.”
Susan Blackmore’s reply to Rick Berger’s critical examination of her psi experiments in Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, vol. 83, April 1989, p. 152.

“Why do we not accept ESP as a psychological fact? Rhine has offered enough evidence to have convinced us on almost any other issue…. Personally, I do not accept ESP for a moment, because it does not make sense. My external criteria, both of physics and of physiology, say that ESP is not a fact despite the behavioural evidence that has been reported . I cannot see what other basis my colleagues have for rejecting it… Rhine may still turn out to be right, improbable as I think that is, and my own rejection of his view is, in the literal sense,
Donald Hebb

Hebb’s concession that his own personal rejection of psi evidence (which he considered Rhine has offered sufficient evidence to have convinced us in almost any other issue) is, in the literal sense,
a prejudice.

At least, we should congratulate Hebb by his honesty in explicitly
accepting that his pseudskeptical position is not based on science
or evidence, but in pure personal prejudice.

You won’t see this level of intellectual honesty in most professional
pseudoskeptics, because their job consists precisely in creating
the public illusion that they’re talking in the name of science and
reason, and not in defense of their personal prejudices rooted in
psychological and ideological (i.e. materialistic, atheistic and
naturalistic) motives.

If a first-rate, highly competent professional scientist like Hebb
cannot escape from the materialistic prejudice against psi evidence
(and he had the courage to concedes it explicitly), what would you
expect from the normal, common, ordinary, intellectually mediocre
materialistic pseudo-skeptic?

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Chris Carter

Psi’s Threat to Skeptics

Bob Ginsberg:

As you point out in Science and Psychic Phenomena, skeptics often totally ignore the significant scientific evidence of psychic phenomena. Why is the existence of such phenomena so threatening to the skeptics?

Chris Carter:

If this were any other field of inquiry, the controversy would have been settled by the data decades ago. However, parapsychology is not like any other field of inquiry. The data of parapsychology challenge deeply held worldviews, worldviews that are concerned not only with science, but also with religious and philosophical issues. As such, the evidence arouses strong passions, and for many, a strong desire to dismiss it. Briefly, the so-called skeptics find the evidence threatening because any evidence for the existence of psychic abilities such as telepathy threatens the materialistic worldview. This of course, raises the question as to why the so-called skeptics cherish the doctrine of materialism, and go to such extreme lengths to defend it against evidence that proves it false.

Continue reading Chris Carter

Graham Nicholls

The Amazing Meeting
October 16-17, 2010, London, UK

Graham Nicholls
Graham Nicholls

“The Amazing Meeting” in London 2010 was the second London counterpart to the well established “Amazing Meetings” held in the U.S. by the James Randi Educational Foundation, an organisation figureheaded by James Randi, a magician focused on debunking paranormal claims.

Billed by their website as “a world-class fundraising conference” TAM London now attracts an audience of over a thousand supporters to the Hilton London Metropole and boasts speakers such as Richard Dawkins and Alan Moore.

As I took my seat at TAM London I couldn’t help but wonder if amongst the many attendees waiting excitedly to see their idols there were others like myself who have followed the skeptical community for many years, but who remain unconvinced by their devotion to what appears to be a rather limited understanding of science. I sympathise with much of what they stand for and agree that we should champion critical thinking, yet somehow the attitudes and ideas expressed at TAM do not look or feel like critical thinking as I’ve come to understand it. While I enjoy the work of many of the most respected skeptics such as in the clarity of the work of the late Carl Sagan or the poetry that Richard Dawkins can sometimes evoke, I become hesitant when their tone turns to one of certainty and conviction. The first person to speak at TAM was James Randi, he took the podium to welcome everyone and say how happy he was that he could make it to this year’s event, as last year his poor health had prevented him from attending. The crowd seemed overjoyed by his presence and gave him a standing ovation almost as soon as he appeared. It is clear that Randi is seen as a true hero within this community, with several speakers describing themselves as “unworthy” in his presence (including Stephen Fry). Something that, as I will explain, I find more than a little misguided.

Susan Blackmore

Next it was Sue Blackmore’s turn to give the first lecture of the conference. I remember many years ago seeing Blackmore featured in countless documentaries looking at the question of life after physical death, the possibility of ESP and other areas of the so called paranormal. Blackmore would offer possible physiological explanations for near death experiences or attempt to refute the findings of scientists researching psi. My reaction to her was not to dismiss her views, in fact it was Blackmore’s appearances that introduced me to the world of organised skepticism and encouraged me to question my own assumptions. Yet she also led me to question many of the skeptical assumptions that she was drawing from.

When Blackmore took the stage at TAM within the first few moments I knew the lecture she was going to give, it was much the same as the one she gave a couple of years before at the James Randi and friends meeting, which I also attended, but this time she expressed what appeared to be a quite genuine anger. She despairingly exclaimed that people will ‘hate you’ for saying that life after death does not exist or that psychic powers are not real. I could really sympathise with her feelings of frustration and hurt and why she would now want to distance herself from the world of parapsychology. I also don’t doubt her integrity, I simply doubt her conclusions and the ideology that now informs them. But it also occurred to me that while she showed her despair at the attitudes of who she refers to as ‘true believers’, I couldn’t help but feel that this same anger and vitriol was expressed throughout TAM towards those who do believe in the existence of psi or other phenomena. It seems to me that we need greater respect from both sides when dealing with these issues, I believe the skeptical position when fair and reasoned is valid and healthy, but I also believe that the pro-psi position is an important area of scientific inquiry when empirically driven and controlled, and that anything that hinders that inquiry is damaging not just to parapsychology but to the progress of science.

Even if I did find Sue Blackmore’s claims compelling it would naturally be unscientific of me to accept the views of one person on these important issues. Science works by replication and consensus and it seems to me that active researchers doing experiments in the field of parapsychology are getting overwhelmingly consistent results. Dean Radin’s overview of the field of parapsychology entitled ‘Entangled Minds’ offers an array of evidence from many different sources for that. Even many skeptics will admit when forced to engage with an informed proponent that psi is well established by the standards of any area of science. Richard Wiseman, the host of TAM, for example has stated this on more than one occasion. Yet many skeptics continue to say more research is needed, which seems little more than a way to avoid having to support psi, despite huge odds in favour of its existence. Nobel Laureate Brian Josephson has stated that in his opinion the ‘evidence for psi is overwhelming’.

So why the hostility? It seems to me that the answer to this question is partly that people want to be right, they don’t want to look foolish or be categorised as one of those ‘new age believers’, especially when they are scientists. There is also the history of science to contend with, since the enlightenment psychic abilities have been considered in the same category as religion and superstition leading many scientists to overlook the subject. Then there are the areas of the paranormal that are easily dismissed under scientific scrutiny, which leads some to conclude that the entire area is little more than the imaginings of credulous people. The result of these factors is a blanket and often intolerant dismissal of anything even remotely related to psi. This is a very sad situation and leads me to believe that the scientific method is the most important tool we have, without it we are lost in a battle of egos and opinion, what is really the key to getting to the truth of this issue is the data.

Blackmore was also first to make reference to Carl Sagan’s ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’, a quote constantly repeated by skeptics but few engage with the history of this quote. It seems that Sagan actually reworked the quote from Marcello Truzzi’s ‘When such claims are extraordinary, that is, revolutionary in their implications for established scientific generalizations already accumulated and verified, we must demand extraordinary proof.’

Truzzi was a founding member of The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, yet despite his being immersed in the skeptical community he later became critical of their methods. He went on to coin the term ‘psuedoskeptic’ to refer to the largely unscientific tactics of those around him. He went on to say in relation to parapsychology that when a skeptic claims that ‘a seeming psi result was actually due to an artifact, he is making a claim and therefore also has to bear a burden of proof.’ This is something that the modern skeptical movement would do well to remember.

Scientists who dare to explore theories of the extended mind or other aspects of consciousness possibly being non-local in nature are attacked and dismissed. A recent article by Blackmore on Rupert Sheldrake is an example and Sheldrake’s experience with Richard Dawkins underlines this still further. Dawkins declined to discuss evidence and blindly refused to engage with the research Sheldrake has done over many years during the filming of ‘The Enemies of Reason’ documentary. When faced with these kinds of situations it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are actually dealing with Truzzi’s pseudoskeptics, motivated not by science but by ideology.

As Blackmore continued through the story of her investigations into psi abilities, such as telepathy, and described the experiments she has done over the years she asked the audience if they had had any involvement with parapsychological experiments. To my surprise only three people put up their hands, one of whom as far as I could see was me. To put this in perspective I was sitting in a room of approximately one thousand people virtually all of whom proclaim disbelief in all psi phenomena, and some actively attack anything purporting to the paranormal in any form, yet only two of them had actually been involved in doing scientific experiments on the subject in any form. This again made me wonder what skepticism in this form is really championing? If you take the numbers having ever researched parapsychological phenomena seriously then it is clearly championing personal opinion over empirical research.

In conclusion, Blackmore underlined her disillusionment with parapsychology and how for 15 years she has had very little to do with it.

Richard Dawkins

The atmosphere changed as Richard Dawkins, biologist and author of The God Delusion, took the stage. A hush of anticipation seemed to fall over the hall. I would guess that many in the audience had come to see the hero of the new atheist movement in the flesh. As everyone focused on the stage I watched intently as Dawkins attempted to evoke in the audience an almost spiritual reverence for evolution and the genius of Charles Darwin. I could clearly see his frustration at the gulf between the layman and his own passion for science and I considered the impact that Darwin’s On the Origin of Species must have had on his life. In that moment I contemplated the impact that science has had on my own life, and a realisation came to me. It is not that science does not factor in the lives of average persons, or that they cannot see great beauty in much of what science has to offer. I believe it is the lack of a relevant usable approach and an engagement with the public’s fears and concerns in the way science is often communicated that leaves many unengaged or suspicious. Some writers and educators are realising this, but unfortunately divisive and arrogant proclamations from anti-theists such as Dawkins just alienate and inspire retaliation from the very people he claims he is trying to reach.

At TAM Dawkins made repeated attacks on Islam calling it the most ’evil’ of religions and the greatest threat. The crowd seemed to relish his statements, but I wonder would we overlook this kind of attitude if it were coming from a person on the street without the eloquent language and pretence that these views have something to do with science? I can imagine the impact this statement would have had on the Muslim community I grew up alongside in central London. They would have been outraged, angered and would have no doubt felt targeted as scapegoats. Dawkins speaks very effectively to a certain cultural class, but he seems ill equipped to understand the subtleties of human experience beyond this clique.

Dawkins’ talk at TAM entitled ‘Evolution: The New Classics’ seemed awkward, almost out of touch with contemporary society. He argued for the study of evolution to take the place once occupied by the classics in educational systems such as the one he attended. I can only be glad that the focus during my schooling was on understanding the religious and cultural heritage of the many diverse pupils around me through subjects such as humanities and STAS (Science, Technology and Society). An approach that I believe has been of great value in my life and helped to foster a deeper appreciation for other world views. Dawkins seems angrily opposed to this kind of approach, instead advocating a vision of science and society that imposes a limited ideology on its young people. His claim that he simply wants to instill critical thinking and a greater understanding of evolution is clearly not true when we hear his attacks on relativism and championing of utilitarianism. Evolution while of key importance to the understanding of our origins as a species cannot be the educational focus in places where the diverse cultures, among which Islam is one, dominate. Fostering understanding and awareness of each other is the first and most urgent step. In many schools overcoming language barriers, economic issues and alienation are real factors that define the landscape of the young people Dawkins wishes to convince of the importance of evolution.


It seems that the skeptical community represented at TAM creates a division between the public and science. They champion a form of science that bares little resemblance to the free inquiry that I have been so inspired by. In fact actual science was hardly mentioned during the conference, it was clear that what was being championed here was activism aimed at fighting the religious, alternative or credulous. A group of once professional magicians whose views have now been coloured by their understanding of deception. Indeed magic played a role throughout the proceedings with magician and psychologist Richard Wiseman doing a great job of entertaining the audience as the hours rolled on. But the issue of magic is an important one when considering the skeptical movement, it defines the thinking of many of the prominent names, especially those featured regularly on television such as James Randi, Derren Brown, Penn & Teller and skeptics such as Richard Wiseman, who offer their views on documentaries.

Shortly before James Randi, the most well known of the skeptical magicians took the stage I got the chance to exchange a few words with him. He was light hearted and avoided any questions of a deeper nature before disappearing into a press conference. I must say that I do genuinely sympathise with his goal on some levels; I was moved as his voice broke on stage during an interview as he described a boy whose medical condition had been exploited by the fake evangelical faith healer Peter Popoff. Individuals such as Popoff operate by exploiting the weakest and most vulnerable amongst us for pure profit and Randi is of course right to use his knowledge of stage magic to expose them. Yet I also look at Randi with an equally genuine sense of mistrust. I am well aware of him misleading the public with regard to the work of Rupert Sheldrake. He claimed that he had repeated Sheldrake’s experiments and found no evidence of telepathy in animals. Yet when Sheldrake became suspicious of this claim and challenged him to prove it he made excuses and failed to show the experiments he claimed he had done making it seem highly likely that they never existed. This is far from the behaviour we might expect from a real supporter of science, at the very least we expect fairness and honesty.

The more I’ve heard Randi speak at events and on television the more it seems as if his emotional passion, his sheer desire to expose charlatans makes him willing to blur the facts in favour of his agenda. This certainly seems to be the case with his claims about Sheldrake’s experiments, and it makes me wonder how many other situations there are like this one where the actual evidence is conveniently absent. Even his famous million dollar challenge has many critics and it is obvious to me that any genuine scientist or informed individual with psi abilities could never work with someone like Randi. Those I know who have tried have never managed to even have a fair and balanced discussion with him.


One of the few moments of actual scientific interest at TAM was Marcus Chown’s entertaining talk about his view of the strangest facts about the universe. It was a welcome highlight to the weekend, after so many offhanded remarks about religion and little of any substance, his lecture although humorous was full of interesting and intriguing pieces of information. Another talk of interest was by Karen James, Director of Science at the HMS Beagle Trust, an organisation seeking to build a replica of the original ship in which the young Charles Darwin traveled to the Galapagos Islands. She gave an impassioned speech about the importance of this project and how it will allow children and adults to walk in the foot steps of Darwin, yet with the advantages of the latest scientific understandings and equipment. These talks were highlights, moments when rather than focusing on mocking or attacking those outside of this community, the attention was on the joy of scientific discovery and learning.

Before I arrived at TAM I had imagined that the headliner of the event would be someone who has furthered scientific understanding or done something to champion critical thinking, so I was very surprised to hear that Alan Moore was the final speaker. It seemed he felt the same sense of confusion about why he was there, in fact the last time I saw Alan Moore speak live more than a decade ago he was championing magic (in the sense of witchcraft and the occult) and ideas that I can’t imagine would have gone down very well at TAM. He is a strange mix of poet, anarchist and philosopher. He obviously has a genuine interest in the margins of the mind and consciousness, but where he fits into the world of skepticism is a mystery. I felt that during his talk with Moore, the interviewer kept away from really asking him about his views on magic or the fact he says he worships an ancient snake deity.

So in conclusion it seems that TAM is in dubious territory, as one skeptical blogger at pointed out, it is not an outreach event or an academic conference, ’so that leaves the fact that it is a show. A piece of entertainment’. He goes on to say ‘A 1,500 seater venue of skeptic celebrities preaching to the converted whilst raising money for their organisation of choice is a church. And not a British church, but an American one, with American sensibilities. A Megachurch.’

Caspian Jago made the same criticism using the term ’The TAM Mega Church’, although he did actually attend and found many points about the line up either misplaced or simply unconnected to science or critical thinking. His conclusion was ’much as I am delighted that a skeptical conference can now herd a thousand skeptical minds into one hotel, I just felt there was something missing.’I felt the same way, there was indeed a lack of the real substance and engagement with what makes science and genuine critical thinking such a powerful part of life.

TAM was an event of bravado, childish prejudice and hollow generalisation, with a few moments of genuine sincerity, but with tickets costing from £208 a time, there was a sense that the real grassroots supporters of Randi’s vision were simply priced out of the event. But with over 1,000 attendees, it must have succeeded in its money-raising goal: £208 x 1,000 = £208,000! Even after deducting costs like the hire of the hall and speakers’ expenses, and allowing for complimentary tickets and concessions, James Randi must have gone home with well over £170,000 for his foundation. It is little wonder that much of the most cutting criticism of this event has come from within the skeptical movement itself. I can only hope that skepticism as a movement takes a deeper look at what it stands for and in the future seeks to champion inquiry and science instead of this circus-like celebration of disbelief.


Brian Josephson

Dr. Brian D. Josephson Cavendish LaboratoryUniversity of CambridgeNobel Laureate in Physics, 1973 Biography Cambridge Homepage “The system built up over the years to promote scientific advance has become one that narrow-minded people can use to block any advance that they deem unacceptable.”

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“A form of scientific fundamentalism”

In order to deal with cognitive dissonance, I argue that some skeptics use the same basic methods as religious fundamentalists [...who] often perform irrational cognitive contortions to dismiss evidence against their beliefs, such as when creationists try to explain the existence of fossils by saying that "God put them there to test our faith" (or...

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Chris Carter

Psi’s Threat to Skeptics This dialogue between Chris Carter and Bob Ginsberg is based on the book: Science and Psychic Phenomena: The Fall of the House of Skeptics Bob Ginsberg: As you point out in Science and Psychic Phenomena, skeptics often totally ignore the significant scientific evidence of psychic phenomena. Why is the existence of...

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Deepak Chopra

Chief Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), Associated Distinguished Professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), and chairman of the biotech company, Cognigenics. Dr. Deepak Chopra Skeptics in the Media: Gadflies Without a Sting There is a field beyond all notions of right and wrong. Come, meet me there. – Rumi...

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Matt Colborn

SPR’s Study Day on Skeptics London, October 25, 2008 Recently, the doyens of scientism have been having a media-field day, damning and blasting the “Enemies of Reason” in a manner somewhat reminiscent of McCarthyism. So perhaps it was inevitable that the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) would turn its attentions to the skeptics. The SPR...

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Ted Dace

Articles on the Activities of Dogmatic Skeptics

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Daniel Drasin

Zen … and the Art of DebunkeryOr, How to Debunk Just About Anything “While informed skepticism is an integral part of the scientific method, professional debunkers — often called ‘kneejerk skeptics’ — tend to be skeptics in name only, and to speak with little or no authority on the subject matter of which they are...

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John Gorenfeld

A Controversy over Sam Harris’s Atheist Views Sam Harris, author of The End Of Faith and Letter To A Christian Nation, sent out a message on 6th January 2007 that accused AlterNet of running an article that was “a poisonous mash of misquotation and paraphrasis for the purpose of portraying me as an evil lunatic”....

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Richard Milton

British journalist and writer reviews books by dogmatic skeptics

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Graham Nicholls

The Amazing MeetingOctober 16-17, 2010, London, UK Graham Nicholls “The Amazing Meeting” in London 2010 was the second London counterpart to the well established “Amazing Meetings” held in the U.S. by the James Randi Educational Foundation, an organisation figureheaded by James Randi, a magician focused on debunking paranormal claims. Billed by their website as “a...

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Gary Null and Richard Gale

Founder and executive producer of the Progressive Radio Network, Gary and Richard respectively, shed light on skeptic skulduggery

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Guy Lyon Playfair

In these articles, longtime skeptic-watcher Guy Lyon Playfair takes a skeptical look at some of their activities. His books include: This House is Haunted, Twin Telepathy, The Flying Cow: Exploring the Psychic World of Brazil, and If This Be Magic: The Forgotten Power of Hypnosis.

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Michael Prescott

Why I’m Not a Skeptic For the past couple of years, as a sideline to my usual work as a fiction writer, I’ve posted a series of online essays on paranormal phenomena. The topic is always controversial. Despite massive evidence to the contrary, some people continue to maintain that no such phenomena exist. Those who...

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Dean Radin

Chief Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), Associated Distinguished Professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), and chairman of the biotech company, Cognigenics. Dr. Dean Radin Clever Rationalizations that Get in the Way of Progress Abstracted from Chapter 13 of: “The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena” by Dean...

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Rupert Sheldrake

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake Biologist and author best known for his hypothesis of morphic resonance. At Cambridge University he worked in developmental biology as a Fellow of Clare College. He was Principal Plant Physiologist at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Hyderabad, India. From 2005 to 2010 he was Director of the...

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Alex Tsakiris

Alex is a successful entrepreneur turned science podcaster. In 2007 he founded Skeptiko, which has become the #1 podcast covering the science of human consciousness.

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Nancy L. Zingrone

On the Critics of Parapsychology Nancy Zingrone argues that whereas parapsychology has made substantial scientific progress in the past 120 years, techniques of criticism have not advanced correspondingly. Ms Zingrone suggests that this state of affairs is partly self-inflicted. Parapsychologists have been too willing to accept inadequate standards of criticism from the skeptical community. This...

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The Demkina Files

The Case of “The Girl with X-Ray Eyes” On February 14, 2005, UK television Channel 4 broadcast a program entitled “The Girl With X-Ray Eyes”. The presenters related the examination by CSICOP scientists of a Russian clairvoyant named Nahtasha Demkina. Claims had been made that Russian teenager Natasha Demkina was able to diagnose medical conditions...

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Suppressed Science on Skeptics

  “Suppressed Science” on Skeptics   Reproduced from the “Suppressed Science” Website *   Many who loudly advertise themselves as “skeptics” are actually “disbelievers”.   Properly, a skeptic is a nonbeliever, a person who refuses to jump to conclusions based on inconclusive evidence. A disbeliever, on the other hand, is characterized by an a priori...

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Skeptics Concede Evidence for Psi

  Concessions on the Evidence for Psi Phenomena by The Editors     Does Telepathy Conflict With Science? Chris Carter, The Epoch Times, March 26, 2012 Wiseman et al. concede on ESP: Journalist Stephen Volk reports that Richard Wiseman has admitted that the evidence for telepathy is so good that “by the standards of any...

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Deepak Chopra

Chief Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), Associated Distinguished Professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), and chairman of the biotech company, Cognigenics.

Deepak Chopra
Dr. Deepak Chopra

Skeptics in the Media: Gadflies Without a Sting

We live in a society where the worst humiliation, apparently, is to be duped. If Skeptic magazine’s table of contents reflects the world, we are buried up to our necks in charlatans, pseudoscientists, scam artists, and the self-deluded.

I cannot otherwise explain why being skeptical, without any additional positive contribution, is considered somehow admirable. I dislike skepticism when it sits by the road and shoots down any traveler trying to take a different way. I oppose skepticism when it turns destructive, using disdainful dismissiveness as its chief tactic.

Let me speak personally here as a target of skeptical critiques:

I have rarely met a skeptic who didn’t use ad hominem attacks.

1.   Skeptics generally leap to the conclusion that I am naive, self-deluded, or simply unread in the sciences.

2.   Skeptics rarely examine the shaky assumptions of their own position.

3.   Skeptics believe that doubt is a positive attribute. (Skeptics in person can be appealing, usually in a kind of quirky misanthropic way, although most come off as self-important petty naysayers who try everyone’s patience.)

4.   Worst of all, skeptics take pride in defending the status quo and condemn the kind of open-minded inquiry that peers into the unknown.

Continue reading Deepak Chopra