The science of seance

Philosophical Interactions with Parapsychology - Test Your Psychic Powers
July 26, 1996

C. D. Broad at Cambridge and H. H. Price at Oxford were the two most eminent British philosophers to concern themselves with psychical research. But, while Broad duly compiled volumes of his own works on this topic during his lifetime, Price, who died in 1984, never got round to doing so. We are now indebted to Frank Dilley, an American philosopher, for making good this omission. Part 1 comprises Price's papers on general parapsychological topics including a number of book reviews; Part 2 is devoted to his ruminations on human survival of bodily death.

Already in 1937, at a meeting of the Aristotelian Society devoted to the vexed question of precognition, to which both Broad and Price contributed, Price delared; "The evidence for the occurrence of various sorts of supernormal cognition is now very large, and much of it is very good. And the conclusions to which it points are so strange, and so desperately in need of philosophical clarification that it is quite absurd for us to maintain a stand-offish attitude about them". Since then, this evidence has been enormously extended by the experimental research, especially in the United States, but most of the evidence which Price chooses to discuss here derives from publications by the (London) Society for Psychical Research mostly based on spontaneous cases or the investigation of mediums.

Price is never dogmatic but manages to combine an openness towards the possibility that the mind is a much odder phenomenon than we normally assume, with an engaging sense of humour. He lays much emphasis on the unconscious and, like Bergson, considers the possibility that mind as such may be potentially omniscient while the particular brain to which it becomes attached contrives to restrict its scope to the biologically important here-and-now. If we are to make sense of such phenomena as clairvoyance and precognition, we have to credit the mind with some very remarkable powers indeed.

Two ideas which Price pursues in this volume deserve mention here. First, his suggestion that images may not after all be purely subjective phenomena. They may possess a certain degree of autonomy such that an image formed in one mind may occasionally hive off and find a haven in another mind, as suggested by certain cases of telepathy, notably those involving apparitions. Arising out of this speculation, Price posits the existence of a "psychic ether" (a concept to which two of these chapters are devoted) wherein these images may be stored. Thus,"images, once formed, could persist in being over a long period, independent of the will or knowledge of their author". Such a "psychic ether" would seem to be indicated by cases of long-term hauntings.

This book is unlikely to appeal to readers who do not already take a serious interest in the paranormal. Unfortunately, Price's philosophical successors have mostly abandoned that concern. Anglo-American philosophy since then has tended to concern itself with problems of language or else has embraced an outright materialism that equates mind with brain. In either case, evidence for the paranormal is either ignored or derided or shelter is sought behind the barrage of professional sceptics. As a result, philosophy of mind has suffered, and if this book can do anything to reverse this trend it will have been worth the effort.

Test Your Psychic Powers is basically a manual for those who think they may have psychic ability or at least are curious about such abilities. It concludes with three chapters on such occult practices as the Ouija board, palmistry and astrology. There is also a chapter devoted to crystals, whose supposed magical properties were a feature of New Age Culture. It here comes second after the chapter on telepathy. Each chapter includes a brief introduction often illustrated by some striking cases drawn from the literature and, in every case, suggestions are made for practical tests which the reader could carry out for him or herself.

Belief in the paranormal, based on personal experiences, is very widespread, as every poll has shown, so a book like this should appeal widely to those who have been genuinely concerned about their own experiences or would simply like to know whether or not they are themselves psychic. Although the general tone of the book is distinctly sceptical as one would expect (the first author is well-known to the parapsychological community), the tone throughout is friendly, helpful and reassuring. However far-fetched or fantastic some of the claims may strike us, they are here dealt with politely and respectfully with the implication that it is up to the reader to make up his or her own mind on the point at issue.

To sum up, I have no serious criticisms to offer and the book can be recommended unreservedly to its intended readers.

John Beloff was formerly at the department of psychology, University of Edinburgh, and is now retired.

Philosophical Interactions with Parapsychology: The Major Writings of H. H. Price on Parapsychology and Survival

Editor - Frank B. Dilley
ISBN - 0 312 12607 7
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £45.00
Pages - 294

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