Thursday, 11 August 2022

Systems Methodology and the Buckmaster Bequest: An Update


The Society for Psychical Research’s Annual Report and Accounts for the year 2020-21 were published in late July 2022.  As it has been some time since I addressed the vexed issue of the awarding of £78,000 by the SPR to Dr David Rousseau in March 2014 for the task of providing six papers and a book, I thought it worth providing an update, as remarkably the matter is still unresolved.  The money came from the late Nigel Buckmaster’s extremely generous bequest to the SPR, and the lack of progress of this project is always recorded in the Annual Report.

The relevant section of the Buckmaster Committee report in the 2020-21 Annual Report says: ‘The delayed Systems Methodology for Exploratory Science project under Dr David Rousseau is finally nearing completion but has encountered yet another delay due to family reasons. The remaining and final product of this project is a practical handbook for applying Systems Methodology to the problems of psychical research, and this is now expected early in 2022.’  That early 2022 deadline, like so many before it, was missed.

‘Delayed’ is putting it very mildly.  In fact, this matter has been going on for so long, a significant proportion of the SPR’s present Council were not on it when the award was made and are probably unaware of how much money is involved.  SPR members will certainly not realise it from reading the annual Buckmaster Committee report.

The first Buckmaster report appeared in the 2013-14 Annual Report, and the relevant paragraph merely stated that a component of the ‘Buckmaster project’ was: ‘a research and publication project to develop Systems Methodology as a new tool especially suited to the investigation of spontaneous cases.’  Annual Reports since then have provided excuses for work not completed and revised delivery dates which were ignored.

Finally, however, last year’s Annual Report, for 2019-20, announced some good news:

‘After previous delays, the Systems Methodology for Exploratory Science project under Dr David Rousseau made good progress over the past year. All six of the planned publications are now finished and five have been published with the sixth about to be published. These deal with various topics including the fundamentals of Systems Methodology, reconciling spirituality and natural science, and using Systems Methodology to reconcile differing world views. The final product of this project is a practical handbook for applying Systems Methodology to the problems of psychical research, and this is underway and expected early in 2021.’

So, on paper it looked like finally significant progress had been made, apart from that niggling handbook.  Unfortunately, none of the contracted papers has yet made it to the SPR library.  Despite having been assured of their competition, we do not know what the titles are, nor how relevant they are to psychical research, and we are still unable to judge whether or not the Society has received value for its (considerable) money.

Hoping to get an idea of what the six published papers might be, I thought I would look at Dr Rousseau’s Centre for Systems Philosophy (CSP) website as it has a bibliography.  The first thing I noticed is that despite listing the various organisations with which he is associated, he does not mention being a Council member of the SPR.  One would have expected acknowledgement of an organisation that has been so good to him, but perhaps he does not consider the association to be advantageous professionally.  It is a sentiment sadly shared by some psychical researchers, though it is less common than it used to be.

Scanning the bibliography, it is not easy to work out which essays might fulfil the criteria for the Buckmaster contract.  I can see nothing specifically related to psychical research and systems philosophy.  It is possible the Buckmaster essays have not been listed in Dr Rousseau’s bibliography because they are SPR property, but there would be nothing legally to prevent them being included in a list of publications.

There are some essays on spirituality, a topic referred to in the 2019-20 Annual Report, and these may be the ‘planned publications.’  If they are the items in question, they would need a strong justification to demonstrate their relevance to psychical research.  Nobody will grumble that the scope has been extended from spontaneous cases, as originally announced in 2014, but what we get does need to be applicable to psychical research, not vaguely about ‘spirituality’.

After all, the entire project was posited on the basis that it would use systems methodology to develop new approaches in psychical research; what these might be currently remains a mystery.  Some of the essay topics alluded to in the 2019-20 Report sound generic and not produced with the SPR solely in mind.  Writing about ‘the fundamentals of Systems Methodology’ and ‘using Systems Methodology to reconcile differing world views’ sounds the sort of thing Dr Rousseau would be doing anyway as a systems methodologist.  Perhaps the handbook will make it all clearer, once we see it.

Never having been a fan of the proposal to sink £78,000 into this endeavour, I especially thought it a bad idea to pay the money upfront in three tranches, and not on production of results.  As evidence of the incentive the prospect of getting paid generates, it is worth noting that Dr Rousseau’s painfully slow progress on the Buckmaster work was not matched by the speedy production of the essay he co-wrote with his wife, Julie Rousseau (calling herself Julie Billingham), for the Bigelow Institute for Consciousness Studies’ 2021 essay competition.

The result, What would have to be true about the world? On evidence for the possibility of consciousness surviving death, was a $50,000 runner-up, and unlike the essays for which the SPR has paid is easily locatable in the CSP website bibliography.  Dr Rousseau should really have allocated the time he spent on the Bigelow entry to fulfilling his existing, and long overdue, commitment to the SPR.

One wishes the Buckmaster essays could have been delivered in a similar brief timeframe, rather than the best part of a decade it has so far taken.  This unsatisfactory situation really needs to be wrapped up after so many years.  If all the outputs cannot be produced immediately, and their relevance to psychical research firmly demonstrated, there are grounds for clawing back the money; though it is hard to see this happening in practice.

Monday, 6 June 2022

A Harry Price Bookplate


Recently I came across an item in an online auction, the description for which mentioned the name Harry Price. This was for a set of three books titled Church Stretton: Some Results of Local Scientific Research, edited by C W Campbell-Hyslop and E S Cobbold (1900/1904).  A laudatory review of the first volume in Nature informed its readers that ‘Church Stretton is a market-town about twelve miles south by west of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, and has a population of about 2000.’

What intrigued me was that each volume contained the bookplate of ‘a Harry Price’, as the description put it.  While not about psychical research, I wondered if the books might have come from the library of paranormal investigator Harry Price (1881-1948) as I knew he had a Shropshire connection: he claimed to have been born in Shrewsbury, and while this was a fabrication (he was born and grew up in London), he did have Shropshire links via his father.  I also saw the third volume dealt with archaeology, an early interest of Price’s.

Referring to the previous owner as ‘a Harry Price’ suggested the vendor was not aware of the significance of the name.  While one would have expected an antiquarian bookseller to have done some research, he is based in Telford, Shropshire, so presumably as far as he was concerned they were merely of local interest, and he had no reason to think they had a wider significance (or so I hoped).  Unfortunately, I could not enquire about them as it would have alerted him to their potential value, but the opening amount was not too high so I decided to take risk, even though Harry Price is not a particularly rare name.

Luckily mine was the only bid, and the next step was to establish whether it was the right Harry Price.  This was extremely easy, as Trevor Hall’s Search for Harry Price has a chapter discussing Price’s various bookplates, handily illustrating them all.  Mine were identical to the example in Plate 7 (shown above).  This Hall thinks was the earliest Price used, and he characterises it as ‘the spurious crested plate.’ He implies that not many examples are extant as ‘it is still displayed in a few items in Price’s collection.’

As to why Price chose the design, the answer casts an illuminating light on Price’s character and social pretensions.  There is, Hall states, a Denbighshire Price (ap Rhys) family who were created baronets in 1804.  Despite them being totally unrelated to his much more modest family background, Harry adapted their crest (‘faked’ in Hall’s words) with some modifications for his own use, thereby suggesting a link to a distinguished line.  His changes included the alteration of the Denbighshire Prices’ motto from ‘Vive ut vivas’ to ‘Dum vivimus, vivamus’, the Epicureans’ maxim ‘While we live, let us live’, which Price certainly took to heart.

I was fortunate Price bothered to include his plate in my acquisition, as Hall was told by Alan Wesencraft, the librarian then in charge of the Harry Price collection at Senate House, University of London, where it is housed, that a large percentage of Price’s books lacked any of his plates.  Wesencraft added that most of those with plates had them on the front free end paper rather than pasted on the inside of the front cover, a habit Hall considered curious as it risks wrinkling the paper.  My examples buck the trend by having been pasted onto the inside of the covers.

So how did the Church Stretton volumes come to be in the possession of a Telford bookseller in 2022?  Price’s library was deposited at Senate House Library in 1936 and bequeathed to it in 1948.  A University of London/Harry Price Library bookplate was pasted into each volume, and as these are not present in the Church Stretton books they must have left Price's possession beforehand.  Also, the title is not listed in the University of London’s online catalogue.  It seems he was not wedded to books on particular topics and decided to dispose of them after his need had passed.

As evidence, Hall mentions that apart from the crested plate appearing in books held at Senate House, by chance he came across an example much closer to home, in the Leeds Library, an institution with which he was associated.  Opening a book on trade tokens he was surprised to see the plate in question, ‘bearing the name of “Harry Price” on an elaborate scroll, below a crest which he had certainly no right whatever to display.’   From the library’s records Hall established the two-volume set was sold by Price to London bookseller Bernard Quaritch Ltd, from whence it was acquired by the Leeds Library in June 1913.

Price had a long-standing interest in numismatics, hence the books on trade tokens.  He became interested in archaeology upon moving to Pulborough in Sussex in 1908, when he tried to establish himself as an authority on the subject.  It is likely he would have been particularly interested in the third volume of the Church Stretton set as it deals with archaeology.  Unfortunately for him, he was caught out claiming to have been involved in excavations when he had had no connection with them, leading him to withdraw from the field in 1910.  It is likely then that the Church Stretton set entered his library between 1908 and 1910, so presumably the bookplate was in use by the latter date.  After that, his involvement in the subjects addressed by the volumes having been terminated, and his interests turning to other matters, he had no further use for them.

Price’s sale of books raises an intriguing thought.  The ‘borrowed’ lion with a rose was succeeded by the much more elaborate ‘Abomination des Sorciers’ plate – in keeping with the types of books for which Price’s library is now well known – no later than 1923   As the crested plate was certainly in use before 1913, Price was using it for over a decade, yet Hall refers to only ‘a few items’ in the Harry Price Library with it.  Perhaps Price had a clearout of items relating to numismatics and archaeology to provide the funds and space for his ‘magical’ library.  If so, it is possible he sold additional books bearing those plates, and they are out there, sitting on shelves of owners having no interest in psychical research, believing they were once merely in the collection of ‘a Harry Price’ but not realising who that singular individual was.  They might not be as rare as Hall assumed.

 

References

Campbell-Hyslop, C W and E S Cobbold (eds.). Church Stretton: Some Results of Local Scientific Research. Vol. 1 (geology, macro-lepidoptera, molluscs), Shrewsbury: L Wilding, 1900 (reissued 1904); Vol 2 (birds, flowering plants, mosses, parochial history), Shrewsbury: L Wilding, 1904; Vol 3 (pre-Roman, Roman, and Saxon archaeological remains, church architecture), Shrewsbury: L Wilding, 1904.

Hall, Trevor H. Search for Harry Price, London: Duckworth, 1978.

‘Our Book Shelf’, Nature, Vol. 62, 11 October 1900, p. 571.

 


Sunday, 20 February 2022

The Society for Psychical Research at 140

 

Sunday 20 February 2022 marks the 140th anniversary of the founding of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882 (on a Monday).  It’s not a satisfyingly round number, like a centenary or a sesquicentenary, but it seems worth marking nonetheless.  I’m sure in ten years’ time there will be significant celebrations, as there were in 1982 when there was a big conference at Cambridge, a series of books published by Heinemann on various aspects of psychical research, a collection of essays edited by Ivor Grattan-Guinness, and a history of the SPR written by Renée Haynes.

Grattan-Guinness’s Psychical Research: A Guide to its History, Principles and Practices provides a handy overview of its subject matter as it was viewed in 1982, containing contributions from some eminent names in the field.  One part discusses topics seen to constitute the range of psychical phenomena – mediumship, out-of-body experiences, apparitions, clairvoyance and telepathy, survival after death, poltergeists, psychic healing, precognition, psychokinesis and photography (Kirlian photography would nowadays be excluded) – and these could easily slot into a contemporary book, albeit with developments in experimental methods and theoretical models. 

Similarly, a contemporary overview of the relationship of psychical research to other disciplines would look much the same, with changes of emphasis (the section on computers seems quaint when set against their ubiquity now).  This is not to say psychical research has remained static over the last four decades.  Thinking about the way the Society has evolved since 1982, the title of the final chapter in Haynes’s book caught my eye: ‘Achievements. What Next?’  Naturally there is more on past achievements, of which there are many, than future prospects, but while the chapter is rambling, it provides a useful benchmark for measuring the subject’s evolution.

To begin with, Haynes detects an essential continuity, despite swings in intellectual fashions, since the Society was founded.  That is reasonable, as its objects are largely the same as they were in 1882, albeit the means of studying them have evolved.  However, she notes modifications in attitude.  Even by 1982, she felt ‘the pendulum has jolted from an overwhelming interest in mediums and their psychology to an overwhelming interest in the use of mass experiments evaluated by statistical methods’; from scrutiny of environmental and emotional causes of poltergeists to research on meditators and ‘psychokinetically-gifted people’ (the inclusion of emotional in relation to poltergeists is surprising, a pendulum that has swung back); and with the continuing trend towards what Haynes somewhat sniffily characterises as ‘the technology of psi.’

Her assessment of mediumship now seems unduly pessimistic, with a great deal of research being carried out into this and other aspects of the possible survival of consciousness after bodily death.  She does mention super-psi as a view gaining traction, linking it to clairvoyance, the latter to her mind less popular with SPR members in the UK than in other countries, particularly the US and France.  Super-psi is an idea that is posited as an alternative to survival (Stephen Braude is a notable champion), but it is doubtful there are national preferences for clairvoyance.  Final answers on survival she believed were beyond psychical research to determine, a familiar view today.  Technology provides useful tools for the exploration of possible psi processes.

Some elements of serious psychical research she includes in her roundup have since fallen out of fashion, such as metal bending and the Cox minilab.  Others have endured, though methods may have achieved a greater degree of sophistication since 1982.  There is still interest in anthropology (having picked up the label of paranthropology to define its intersection with the paranormal), folklore, biology and historical studies.  Considerable resources have been devoted to precognition research, and much debate generated, over the years.  It is unlikely a modern book on psychical research would devote nearly a page, as Haynes does, to Nostradamus.  On the other hand, the philosophical implications of the nature of time are as strongly debated.

As she was writing a history of the SPR rather than psychical research there is much that is skimmed over, or missing entirely.  Some areas of neglect are surprising – psychic archaeology for example – others less so, because the SPR had little involvement, such as developments in the Soviet Union.  Occult links and the vexed relationship with Spiritualists are passed over probably because of Haynes’s own views.  EVP, dismissed by her as a ‘vogue’, is widely researched, having expanded its scope to encompass ITC.  Out-of-body experiences are present, but not near-death experiences, in 1982 a major omission.  Healing, given a section in Grattan-Guinness’s book, is ignored.  She deals with reincarnation, shortly to become a growth area, in a few lines.  As an indication of the higher profile it now has, and perhaps a degree of patrician disdain, she does not refer to the campaign waged by pseudo-sceptics/counter-advocates, despite the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal having been formed in 1976.

Moving on to what psychical research has achieved in a hundred years, she notes the formation of similar societies in other countries and the occasional foreign SPR president.  The number of organisations and university departments concerned with psychical research has grown further since then.  Some areas, such as animal migration, she considers to have largely been solved, though not that of ‘psi-trailing’, where an animal can find its way across long distances to owners who may have moved.  There has been further work on anpsi, and the research of Rupert Sheldrake has looked extensively at psychic connections between animals and humans.

Dowsing she feels may have a magnetite component, which would supply a physical explanation, but would not apply, she concedes, to map dowsing.  Little controlled dowsing research has been carried out in the field during the last four decades, and much remains anecdotal, though Elizabeth Mayer’s claim to have recovered her daughter’s stolen harp with the help of map dowsing has been taken by some as evidence for its validity.  Thought transference morphed into telepathy and is studied, unlike Reichenbach phenomena, present in the 1882 Objects, which had vanished from serious consideration long before 1982.  Haynes says she considers psychokinesis proven, both experimentally and from spontaneous cases, and much more work has been carried out subsequently, without universal acceptance of the results.

Psychical researchers took mesmerism and, as hypnosis, cleared away its occult accretions and misinterpretations, and put it on a sound footing, meaning it has largely disappeared from psychical research outside amateur regression sessions.  Apparitions, and haunted places, have shown longevity, being investigated now as they were in 1882 and 1982.  Unfortunately, while there are greater numbers doing the investigating, many take their cue from television rather than the scholarly literature, and despite much ink and ingenious speculation being devoted to the topic, little real progress has been made.

Of hard science, Haynes mentions physics mainly in connection with the observer effect, the strangeness of some of physics’ findings acting as a gateway for strangeness in psychical research.  Awareness of the potential implications has increased enormously, with SPR vice-president Bernard Carr arguing that physics can provide the foundation for an expanded science bringing together matter, mind and spirit into a fuller understanding of the universe and our place within it.  There has been an increased interest in consciousness studies and their philosophical implications since 1982.

Haynes is out of sympathy with laboratory work, questionnaires, and the use of statistics, claiming, in her colourful way, that ‘The processes involved seem to resemble those of plucking, cleaning, and boiling a chicken down for stock.  The end product may be wholesome and nourishing; but nothing characteristic of the original remains, life, colour, shape are gone, regarded as irrelevant.’ (p. 165)  The resulting generalisations and abstractions, in her view, remove the researcher from the raw experiences of individuals.  Doubtless many ploughing laboriously through number-heavy papers in parapsychological journals would agree with her.

Haynes’s greatest fear was that the use of arcane, overtechnical language (‘gobbledygook’ as she terms it) within specialisms might inhibit cross-disciplinary research and lead to ghettoisation of specialists who failed to talk to each other.  Fortunately, it can be said with confidence this danger was averted, with psychical research benefiting from debate that crosses boundaries in the search for answers.  Qualitative methods exploring lived experience are thriving too, which no doubt she would have welcomed, while rolling her eyes at laboratory testing on groups rather than individuals, allowing potential ‘stars’ to slip through the net.

As a means of assessing the current situation, a useful overview has recently been provided by Terje G. Simonsen’s A Short History of (Nearly) Everything Paranormal.  Much would have been familiar to Haynes, including his central idea of the Mental Internet.  Crucially, though, he outlines three main approaches to our relationship to psi, focusing on laboratory, nature and spirituality, the last of the three seeking to comprehend ways in which our everyday existence, including psi, is part of a greater whole.  This issue was not addressed by Haynes, but it has become much more prominent since the publication of her book, as is evidenced by the foundation of organisations like the Scientific and Medical Network and IONS, specifically incorporating a spiritual element into their programmes, and the overlap of psychical research with transpersonal psychology.

It can be said that psychical research has progressed significantly since 1982, but with much still to do.  As for the future, the growth of computing, and specifically the Internet, in the last couple of decades has made an enormous difference to the way the SPR now operates. With electronic communication has come a greater ability to reach out and fulfil a core principle of the SPR’s charitable status, that of education.  Rather than talking mainly to a small group of like-minded individuals, it is now possible to disseminate the data of the SPR, and psychical research generally, in a way not foreseen in 1982.  This has opened up opportunities for cross-fertilisation of ideas that can only be helpful.  Grattan-Guinness’s geographical breakdown has four sections: Britain, Europe, Russia and the Soviet Union, and the United States, as if there was nothing to be said about other regions.  Thanks to the Internet, the conversation can now be global.

Haynes famously coined the term ‘boggle threshold’, and in the introduction to her centenary history (p. ix) defines it as ‘the level above which the mind boggles when faced by some new fact or report or idea.’  Phenomena are judged on a case-by-case basis, and her threshold was fairly high for some, much lower for others.  Evidence will become stronger or weaker, and boggle thresholds rise and fall, as psychical research evolves.  In the process, topics leave the field, as the Reichenbach phenomena did, while others enter it, as methods increase in sophistication even if underfunding remains constant.  In 1982 Haynes concluded with the words, ‘here’s to the next hundred years,’ and to that sentiment one can happily raise a glass.

 

References

Grattan-Guinness, Ivor (ed.). Psychical Research: A Guide to its History, Principles and Practices. In Celebration of 100 Years of the Society for Psychical Research. Wellingborough: The Aquarian Press, 1982.

Haynes, Renée. The Society for Psychical Research 188201982: A History. London: Macdonald, 1982.

Mayer, Elizabeth. Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind. New York: Bantam, 2007.

Simonsen, Terje G.. A Short History of (Nearly) Everything Paranormal: Our Secret Powers – Telepathy, Clairvoyance & Precognition. London: Watkins, 2020.

 

Monday, 29 November 2021

Thirty Years, on and off, in the Parapsychological Association


The Parapsychological Association (PA) is an organisation aimed primarily at those, from whatever discipline, who are studying parapsychology in order to advance a scientific understanding of it, and to facilitate dissemination of that understanding.  It brings together professionals working in the field with those who have a general interest.  The PA was founded in 1957, and in 1969 became affiliated to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Most members are drawn from the US and to a lesser extent Western Europe, though other regions, particularly South America, are increasingly represented.

I first joined the PA thirty years ago.  My welcome letter, dated 23 August 1991, was signed by John Palmer, then chairman of the membership committee, and soon to be President, who welcomed me as an associate member.  Enclosed with the letter was the Fall 1990 issue of PA News – a four-page newsletter edited by Nancy Zingrone – a small booklet containing the 1990 members’ directory, two pages on the PA’s aims and organisation, and a publicity leaflet.

My application reference was provided by PA associate, and the Society for Psychical Research’s Hon. Secretary, Arthur Oram, who had also recommended me for co-optation to the SPR’s Council the previous year.  The wheels turned slowly in those pre-internet days, as Arthur’s letter saying he was going to send a reference to the PA was dated 9 January 1991, so it took a further eight months for me to be told my application had been successful.  The subscription was $35.

I only seem to have remained in the PA until 1997, judging by the contents of my file, after which I left because I didn’t feel I was getting much for the subscription, not being in a position to attend the annual conventions, as PA conferences are termed.  Members were supposed to receive the annual Research in Parapsychology, but I recall publication being patchy, so apart from the magazine I had little to show for the money.

In the first issue of the newsletter I received, Nancy Zingrone had asked for suggestions for a better title than PA News.  By the time I left it was still called that, though the size had increased to 12 pages.  It would be nice to see a set of these historical documents digitised on the PA website, or perhaps included in the Lexscien online library (the PA is a partner organisation and Research in Parapsychology is already held in Lexscien).

During the early 2010s I re-joined for several years when doing postgraduate research, but left again when that finished and I was no longer eligible for the student rate.  However, I had always maintained an interest in the PA and was impressed by the number of online activities it had undertaken during the pandemic – lectures, symposia, the convention (this year in association with the Society for Scientific Exploration) and a monthly virtual meet-up, the Psi Agora.  So in March this year I decided to join for the third time, along with quite a few others I understand: like the SPR, membership has risen during the last couple of years as online events, accessible to members everywhere, have increased in number.

Comparing the PA in the early 1990s with today, I discovered that the PA’s membership categories have been rejigged to make them more inclusive.  In 1991 they were: honorary member (which was by invitation) full member, associate member, affiliate, and student affiliate.  Even affiliates had to have full membership of a professional organisation in an academic field (associates had to have an advanced university degree, and I had an MA in Modern European Thought, hence being admitted to that category).

Now the categories are: honorary member, professional member, associate member, supporting member and student member.  The conditions for professional membership have become more clearly delineated, though anybody who was eligible for full membership then would still be elected to professional membership.  Achieving an associateship is slightly harder than it used to be, with two criteria to be met rather than one.

However, where the old affiliate had to be a full member of a professional organisation, supporting member (my category now) includes anyone ‘who has an interest in the scientific and scholarly advancement of parapsychology,’ with no academic requirement.  Like the old affiliates, supporting members do not have voting rights, but whereas affiliates and associates paid the same, and professional members paid more, these days supporting members, associates and professional members are all charged the identical rate (currently $100).

An obvious difference in the last 30 years is in the evolution of the PA News into the beautifully-produced Mindfield.  It debuted in 2009 and is a valuable addition to the Journal of Parapsychology, which is circulated to members (the default for both is digital, with paper copies costing extra).  The PA has extended its activities to include career awards, book awards, a mentorship programme for student members, and general information on parapsychology provided through its website.

In addition to the PA’s direct undertakings, it is worth mentioning that Analisa Ventola, its Executive Director, has recently developed Public Parapsychology, previously a blog, into an online forum to encourage networking.  While it is still in its early stages, it promises to bring in non-PA members to explore parapsychological issues, and perhaps in turn encourage them to consider joining the PA. 

For anybody with a serious interest in parapsychology I would recommend PA membership.  There is a collegiate feel, and the organisation is always seeking to find ways to push the boundaries of the discipline to demonstrate its relevance.  For a taster of its scope and approach, there are many PA talks on YouTube.  The cost of membership may be a deterrent for some, but the rewards are worth the subscription.  Those who join both the PA and the SPR are eligible for a reduction on their subscriptions, making membership even better value, and supporting two important organisations in the process.

Tuesday, 16 November 2021

The $1.8 million Bigelow Competition


Robert Bigelow is a successful businessman with an interest in parapsychology and UFOs, and for a decade he was owner of the notorious Skinwalker ranch.  Like others who have suffered personal loss (the deaths of his 24-year-old son in 1992, his 20-year-old grandson in 2011, and his wife in February 2020), he developed an interest in life after death.  In June 2020 he founded the Bigelow Institute for Consciousness Studies (BICS), though he didn’t spend much money on its website.

Rather than an interest in aspects of consciousness per se, as the name might imply, BICS’ primary purpose is to ‘support research into both the survival of human consciousness after physical death and, based on data from such studies, the nature of the afterlife.’  Importantly, it is ‘seeking hard evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” that takes us beyond religion or philosophy.’  There have been efforts in this direction for more than a century and a half, but fresh attempts are always welcome.

This is not Bigelow’s first foray into the issue of survival: in 1997 he and his wife endowed a chair in consciousness studies at the University of Nevada, at a cost of $3.7 million.  Charles Tart and Raymond Moody, well known for work in transpersonal psychology and near-death experiences (among other topics) respectively, were the first chairs but, disillusioned by a lack of progress, Bigelow eventually terminated the endowment.  He founded BICS because, in an interview with Leo Ruickbie, editor of the Magazine of the Society for Psychical Research, he said he had decided the field needed ‘energising’.

 In January 2021, BICS announced a competition for essays summarising the best scientific evidence for the survival of human consciousness after bodily death.  Prize money totalling $1 million was announced, though the amount was later increased, and $1.8 million was eventually awarded.  As the BICS website put it, ‘‘The purpose of the BICS essay contest is to generate research, discussion and stimulate debate. And perhaps in so doing, BICS may substantially broaden the amount of quality information available to you from a single website source.’  When the story broke in the New York Times, unsurprisingly it attracted a great deal of attention.  The deadline for essay submissions was 1 August 2021.

So why a competition rather than some other method of promoting research?  In the interview with Ruickbie, Bigelow stated: ‘It’s a faster path, creating a contest.  You can achieve greater acceleration and awareness – and that was my objective, to accelerate awareness of the topic. So I thought, let’s have this contest, it’s a way to begin. It hasn’t been done before, certainly at least not at this scope. And what could it hurt, if it were properly put together?’

The amounts on the table were eye-watering in a field notoriously strapped for cash.  The top three winners would trouser a cool $500,000, $300,000 and $150,000, with smaller, but still respectable, prizes for the runners-up.  The judges were Jeffrey J Kripal, Leslie Kean, Christopher C Green, Brian Weiss, Jessica Utts and Hal Puthoff (all from the United States).  They also serve on BICS’ board of directors.  Apart from Green, these are familiar, and to varying degrees eminent, names in the field.

Such a rich offering was bound to tempt opportunists and cranks, so rules were laid down to attract the suitably qualified and filter out the tyre-kickers.  Not anybody could enter; essayists first had to demonstrate they were serious researchers, with proof of at least five years study in the field, and preferably affiliation to a reputable organisation (the Society for Psychical Research was given as an example).  Entries relying on religious doctrine would not be accepted because, as Bigleow told Ruickbie, ‘anybody can quote scripture, so that’s too sophistic to accept.’  Essays were limited to a maximum of 25,000 words, to weed out those who thought quantity would be a substitute for quality.

Even with the rules to guide them, plenty of people either thought they could furnish convincing evidence for the continuation of consciousness after death, or assumed the competition’s criteria were not as stringent as BICS had indicated.  Over 1,300 people decided to try their hand, of which 205 from 38 countries were shortlisted.  Amusingly, according to an acknowledgement by Bigelow on the BICS website noting the number of entrants, some people sent him ‘gifts’, and one can only assume these were intended as bribes.

The winners were announced on 2 November 2021.  There were 29 listed, the three top prizes plus 11 given $50,000 each and 15 $20,000 each.  Considering the scope of the competition and the importance Bigleow had attached to it, it was all very muted; in fact, the list of winners was published a day later than scheduled, with no explanation, and no fanfare.  There is going to be a ceremony to present the awards in Las Vegas on 4 December 2021, but it may feel a little anticlimactic coming so long after the winners’ names were announced.

Jefrrey Mishlove, host of the Thinking Allowed/New Thinking Allowed interview series, took home the $500,000.  A few of the essays were joint efforts, so a total of 43 individuals will share the money.  These are the 29 named winners, most, as one would expect, well-known in psychical research circles:

1st Prize: Jeffrey Mishlove, $500,000
2nd Prize: Pim van Lommel, $300,000
3rd Prize: Leo Ruickbie, $150,000

Runners-up ($50,000 each): Michael Tymn, Stephen Braude, Nicolas Rouleau, Bernardo Kastrup, Elizabeth Krohn, Sharon Rawlette, Jeffrey Long, Michael Nahm, Julie Beischel, Alexandre Rocha et al., David Rousseau et al.

Honorable Mentions ($20,000 each): Robert Mays et al, Chris Carter, Steve Taylor, Christopher Kerr, Bruce Leininger, Vernon Neppe, Helané Wahbeh et al, Chris Roe et al, Peter Fenwick et al, Walter Meyer zu Erpen, Akila Weerasekera, Greg Taylor, Nick Cook, Andreas Sommer, Sam Parnia et al.

The first essay to be published (by himself rather than BICS) is Mishlove’s, offering an early opportunity to see how the winner interpreted the aims of the competition, and a standard by which to judge the rest.  It is certainly lovingly put together, a multimedia presentation drawing on his extensive Thinking Allowed and New Thinking Allowed interviews, with links to segments of the films amplifying the text, and it is copiously illustrated.

It is titled Beyond the Brain: The Survival of Human Consciousness After Permanent Bodily Death (not to be confused with the long-running Beyond the Brain conferences organised by the Scientific and Medical Network).  In it, Mishlove has produced a kind of psychical research’s greatest hits, albeit necessarily selective and somewhat superficial, drawing on his interviews and mixing personal testimony and scholarship.

In the introductory section he recounts a powerful personal experience which convinced him of survival.  He notes the problems parapsychology has had achieving recognition as a valid scientific discipline and, championing metaphysical idealism (for which he relies heavily on the work of Bernardo Kastrup), lays out reasons for taking the survival evidence seriously.  He goes on, adopting a ‘bundle of sticks’ approach, to discuss what he considers the most important themes: near-death experiences, after-death communications, reincarnation, Peak in Darien cases, possession, instrumental transcommunication, xenoglossy, and mental and physical mediumship, plus miscellaneous topics such as psychedelics, terminal lucidity, the filter theory, and criticisms of the living agent psi hypothesis.

Whether one is convinced by his essay rather depends whether one had previously been convinced by his many interviews.  The essay adds little to that body, and he could be accused of recycling his previous work, remarkable though the number of his interviewees and the range of subjects discussed over the years have been.  He has compiled a useful introduction to the various strands adduced by researchers suggestive of survival, but if he had been given a book deal for this material, he would not have received $500,000 for it.

It is an interesting, wide-ranging and accessible read, but the tone of much of it feels like a distillation of the SPR’s Psi Encyclopedia.  I was hoping for some twist, something which broke new ground in our efforts to determine whether or not there is post-mortem continuation of consciousness, but came away disappointed.  Mishlove has contributed hugely to the field, and this award felt a little like the actor who wins an Oscar for a particular role which is not their best work, but really as covert recognition of a career’s achievement.

One can see why, though, Bigelow would have been happy with Mishlove’s approach, because their views align closely.  In the interview with Ruickbie, Bigelow contends: ‘materialism has become another religion, science has become another religion. That has dominated the twentieth century and probably will do so for the rest of this century.’  After Ruikbie asks for his thoughts on consciousness, he says in part, ‘Thought is key, so even forming the universe, if we want to go out on the super macro scale,’ and he espouses the same filter theory of the brain as Mishlove.  Mishlove argues that ‘Metaphysical idealism is the most logically consistent position as it eliminates the problems of both materialism and dualism,’ and he is critical of scientism.

Mishlove’s and the other winning entries will be placed on the Bigelow website in due course.  They will also be published in 5-6 volumes intended to be ‘collector’s items’, and ‘each volume will be hard cover, richly bound in faux leather with gilted pages and ribbons’, which sounds lovely.  These will be distributed free to university libraries, hospices (which should cheer the residents up) and some religious institutions.  Unfortunately, the print format will work against Mishlove’s careful selection of videos to complement his text.

In addition to the winning entries, we can expect to see losing entries finding their way into the public arena.  Some are already available, such as James Beichler’s and Tom Butler’s.  Anthony Peake for some reason has chosen to read his out in a series of YouTube videos.  We can expect quite a few of those papers which did not place to circulate in the coming months, so those who agree with Bigelow on the importance of the survival issue will have plenty to chew on in addition to the canonical 29, and they will offer an opportunity to assess the losers against the winners to see how they compare.

Ian Wardell’s initial thought following the announcement of the winners was that, because of the way the terms of reference were framed, ‘My suspicion is that most of these essays will largely regurgitate the evidence that is already out there and will do little to persuade skeptics.’  Such was predictable, as the competition sought ‘papers that summarize the best evidence available for the survival of human consciousness after permanent bodily death.’  It will be interesting to see whether any of the other winning entries actually dig deeper or are rather ‘the best of the rest’, a procession of summaries of already-available data.

If it turns out Mishlove’s is indeed the best, it will be hard to escape the conclusion that while Bigelow may have achieved his goal of providing a pool of information and generating debate, the examination of the survival of bodily death has not advanced further.  On the other hand, Michael Tymn, a runner-up, saw the problem with the competition differently, believing the necessary evidence had already been accumulated as long ago as 1920, and any gathered since is merely ‘icing on the cake’.  By that standard, the competition was bound not to produce anything new.

So, did Mr Bigelow get his money’s-worth?  Based on Mishlove’s essay I would say not.  I’m sure he has made 43 people very happy, but I can’t help feeling the field would have been better served if he had set up a grant-giving foundation (with a larger pool of referees) and handed out smaller sums on a more sustainable basis for specific projects that help to progress our understanding, rather than make a big gesture for a handful of essays retreading old ground.  An organisation like the SPR could I’m sure have done a lot with nearly $2 million.

It does seem likely Bigelow will continue to put money into survival research, judging by his remarks to Ruickbie.  Asked what next, he replies: ‘We’ll be thinking about 2022, as to what we can do for that year. Is it going to be another contest? Is it going to be something that is going to involve some of the applicants, some of the people generating these essays? We would want to come up with something that certainly wasn’t just a repeat. We’re interested in ideas as to what could constitute a new kind of contest for 2022.’

One hint he threw out is that he wants to extend his effort from asking whether consciousness survives bodily death to trying to determine what ‘the other side’ is like, as the next logical step – the second strand of the Institute’s aims, according to its website.  Only time will tell if the generous sums of money Bigelow is sinking into research have produced worthwhile results, and really moved the field forward significantly.

 

References

Beichler, James E. ‘Best Evidence for the Afterlife is Something to Die for’, Academia.Edu, 2021. Retrieved 12 November 2021.

The Bigelow Institute for Consciousness Studies, https://bigelowinstitute.org/index.php

Blumenthal, Ralph. ‘Can Robert Bigleow (and the Rest of Us) Survive Death?’ New York Times, 21 January 2021. Retrieved 5 November 2021.

Butler, Tom. ‘Case for the Survival Hypothesis’, Tom Butler’s Etheric Studies, November 2021. Retrieved 13 November 2021.

Mishlove, Jeffrey. Beyond the Brain: The Survival of Human Consciousness After Permanent Bodily Death. 2021.

Ruickbie, Leo. ‘Death: The Final Frontier’, Fortean Times, issue 405, May 2021, pp. 36-39. Reprinted as ‘The $1,500,000 Question: Is there Life After Death?’ in The Magazine of the Society for Psychical Research, issue 3, 2021, pp. 4-7.

Society for Psychical Research, The Psi Encyclopedia, https://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/

Tymn, Michael. ‘Aerospace Magnate Robert Bigelow Searches for Answers on Life After Death’, White Crow Books, 8 November 2021. Retrieved 9 November 2021.

Wardell, Ian. ‘Bigelow Competition for the Best Essay on the Evidence for an Afterlife.’ Ian Wardell: Philosophical Thoughts, 10 November, 2021. Retrieved 11 November 2021.