The Intuition Network, A Thinking Allowed Television Underwriter, presents the following transcript from the series Thinking Allowed, Conversations On the Leading Edge of Knowledge and Discovery, with Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove.


JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. We're all confronted with claims of the so-called paranormal and supernatural. Today we're going to be looking at how do we make sense, how do we begin to explain or understand, the supernatural. My guest, Professor Michael Scriven, is an interdisciplinary scholar; a former professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, where he taught the philosophy of science; an expert in mathematics, physics, computer science, psychology, and also parapsychology. Welcome, Michael.

MICHAEL SCRIVEN, Ph.D.: It's a pleasure to be here, Jeffrey.

MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to have you here. You've been involved in parapsychology since the early days. In fact, you gave one of the early addresses to the Parapsychological Association, in the days when J.B. Rhine was still alive, and you also wrote a dissertation in philosophy at Oxford University on explanations of the supernatural. Michael, is it possible to explain the supernatural?

SCRIVEN: Well, that was the puzzle, Jeffrey. It wasn't clear whether if you explained it, you didn't show that it was not supernatural after all, and of course if you could do that, then there would never be any supernatural; or whether in fact there was some kind of explanation of the supernatural that didn't involve explaining it away. It was an interesting question -- still an interesting question, I think, but quite a difficult one. When a new force emerges, like magnetism or electricity, to begin with you try to explain it away, show that it's really something else in disguise. And then you try to explain that it's something else very heavily disguised -- there are hidden fluids doing it all, or hidden strings. But then eventually you concede that it's there. Well, as I saw things in those days, it looked to me as if parapsychology was moving towards the point where we would have to concede that there were new forces in the world other than the standard ones of science, and I was trying to look ahead to see what we would do about explaining phenomena in terms of those.

MISHLOVE: Now, let's start by looking at parapsychology for a moment. You try to look at it very rigorously as a mathematician, as a philosopher of science. Does parapsychology stand up, in your estimation? Is there data there that we need to take seriously?

SCRIVEN: Oh, I think certainly. It's a very great mixture, ranging across the whole spectrum from trivial and superficial, misleadingness, through charlatanry, to material which you really can't dismiss easily at all and must treat as prima facie evidence for the supernatural or the paranormal.

MISHLOVE: Many people feel that ultimately this will be explained in terms of known electromagnetic forces; but what you're suggesting is that what we may be dealing with isn't the supernatural in terms of a divine influence, but rather a new force in nature that we have yet to discover or to understand.

SCRIVEN: One or more new forces, or possibly forces that we know about -- the short-distance forces of the nuclear perhaps -- showing up on the large scale in some way which we wouldn't expect. But something new.

MISHLOVE: There's been quite a movement amongst quantum physicists today to suggest that in quantum physics there are so many strange things being proposed -- particles moving backwards through time, multiple dimensions of time and space -- that given these sorts of things, the so-called supernatural, paranormal, parapsychology would be expected.

SCRIVEN: Yes, I think that's a welcome attitude, instead of the very closed-minded attitude that parapsychology ran into in the early days, when there was an attempt to dismiss it altogether. We were talking earlier about the Humean argument, which was the argument that no miracle, even if witnessed by a thousand people, could be believed in, because it was much easier to believe that the people lied or were deceived than to believe that all the laws of nature were wrong, and a miracle appears to be a violation of many of the laws of nature. That argument was tried in parapsychology, as you recall, in a famous effort to show that it really could never be established that telepathy or clairvoyance occurred, because it would always be much more sensible to believe that the laws of nature were true and that people who thought something else had happened were mistaken or lying.

MISHLOVE: In other words, ESP stood for Error Someplace. There had to be fraud or sloppy science.

SCRIVEN: Yes, and that was just a little bit too strong an argument to be workable, because it would of course mean you could never show that existing science was wrong, and you must be able to do that. When the geocentric theory gave way to the heliocentric theory, something had given way, and the evidence piled up that it had to be abandoned. So in the same way, when we discover a new force we've got to come to the conclusion that previous accounts of the sources of motion are just inadequate.

MISHLOVE: The notion of revolutions in science is quite interesting here. Would you say that the parapsychologists who are coming up with data relating to extrasensory perception and psychokinesis are in some sense revolutionary scientists -- that what they're dealing with could challenge existing knowledge?

SCRIVEN: Yes, it certainly challenges existing knowledge, just as the precession of the perihelion of Mercury challenged classical Newtonian physics. The problem with parapsychology is that it never quite jells into a set of systematic procedures or events or phenomena, so that it's never quite clear what adjustments you've got to make for it. But you've certainly got to stand by and be prepared to make radical adjustments. And for many people that's more than they can manage.

MISHLOVE: Now, when you say it's not clear what adjustments you need to make, are you thinking in terms of the repeatability of these phenomena?

SCRIVEN: No, more trying to find patterns in them. For example, are there correlations between certain personality characteristics and certain extrasensory capacities? If those patterns began to emerge, one feels, one could get more of a grip on what was happening here. At the moment what you have is aberrant phenomena, and you must therefore be very cautious about grand claims about knowing everything that's going on, because it's clear that we don't. But just what it is that we have run into here isn't yet clear.

MISHLOVE: Many people would like to explain supernormal, paranormal, parapsychological phenomena in terms of a notion of mentalism or idealism or spiritualism or divine intervention. You on the other hand, as I understand your position, accept these phenomena, but you're basically an agnostic or an atheist and a materialist. How do you reconcile these things?

SCRIVEN: Because I'm also a realist, and if they're real, then they're part of the furniture of the universe, and the scientist must accept their existence. One can't assume that being a scientist is the same as thinking that science in 1986 is all there is to science. That would be being a closed-minded scientist, and that's what many scientists turn out to be when threatened by the emergence of something new.

MISHLOVE: Now, some people -- for example, Sir John Eccles, and Popper, the philosopher of science -- have suggested that the notion of a mind-brain dualism is tenable, given the kind of data that they come up with in neurophysiology and in psychology and with reference to parapsychological data. You seem to object to that dualistic position.

SCRIVEN: Not if it's what we might call a mild dualism, if it's double-aspect theory, as people sometimes say -- that is, the life of the mind is seeing the events of the brain from one point of view; the life of the observer is seeing them from another point of view, the outside point of view. That's a kind of dualism which makes perfectly good sense, but if one thinks that really there's a realm of reality there that in some sense violates or transcends the laws of physics, that's pushing it a bit too far. That isn't established by dualistic considerations.

MISHLOVE: What you're basically suggesting then is that it's impossible for you to conceive of a reality that would violate the laws of physics.

SCRIVEN: No, not at all. The laws of physics as they are now could easily be violated. I'm what you might call an open-ended, or open-minded perhaps, materialist, in that I don't think that materialism at a given date is at all likely to be all of the story. But nothing is going to persuade me that at the moment materialism is false because there is such a thing as parapsychology or there is such a thing as mental events.

MISHLOVE: But what you seem to be imagining is that as this new data comes to be incorporated, the laws of physics will expand to absorb them.

SCRIVEN: That will be the natural way to go, and that's the way we've always gone in the past when we discovered genuinely new phenomena -- magnetism, electricity, and so on.

MISHLOVE: So for something to be truly supernatural, it would have to in principle be unexplainable, even in terms of the physics of the far-distant future.

SCRIVEN: That's the problem. It then becomes very difficult to see how you would establish that such a thing existed. But there is another way. If in fact it was connected to the intervention of a divine being or family of beings, then that's a conventional part of the connotation of supernatural, and so one might well say that this was a supernatural event because it was pulled off by the conductor who orchestrates the things that break all the rules. If there was evidence for that, then I would be quite willing to talk about those phenomena as supernatural.

MISHLOVE: I've heard it said, and I don't quite recall where, that the greatest miracle of all is that we exist at all. Is there any way to explain basic existence?

SCRIVEN: No, not in the sort of explanatory framework that we use to explain things within the framework of existence. In a way that's obvious; but people often argue that since you can't explain everything the way that we explain things, then of course there must be -- and then what do you say at that point? There must be an explanation in terms of something behind the scenes? But then of course the problem is that you pull the same trick on that something, because there would have to be an explanation of that something too. You see, you can't eat your cake and have it. If you wish to insist that there must be an explanation of everything, and then I say, "Well, how do you explain everything?" then you say, "Well, there's something that produced it." Then of course that something itself must in turn be explained, and so on ad infinitum.

MISHLOVE: Ad infinitum.

SCRIVEN: So therefore that argument won't get you --

MISHLOVE: That's an argument for the existence of God, which you're basically rejecting because you say it leads to an infinite progression.

SCRIVEN: I don't reject it because it leads to an infinite progression; it's just that if it does lead to an infinite progression, then the first step in the infinite progression is not God but simply something which in turn is explained. God is supposed to be the thing which doesn't get explained; but the very line of argument that forces you to bring God in, of course will also get rid of God, show God to be just a phenomenon in turn.

MISHLOVE: Well, basically what you're saying is that as an agnostic or an atheist and a philosopher, you don't believe that the existence of God can be proven logically.

SCRIVEN: It can't be proven at all. There's no such thing as a nonlogical proof.

MISHLOVE: Well, all right, I'll accept that. And of course we find in mathematics, and in philosophy in general, every logical system is necessarily incomplete in any case.


MISHLOVE: So whether or not it can be logically proved may be irrelevant to whether or not the supernatural, the supernormal, exists.

SCRIVEN: No, what the incompleteness theorems show is that there are certain things you can't prove within a system of proof. And there's no doubt that, as I said a minute ago, you can't explain the existence of the entire universe within the system of the universe. No question about that. But it doesn't follow from that that you've suddenly seen a way in which to prove that there is something special out there, because if you were to say that, then of course I'd pull the same trick on you.

MISHLOVE: Well, let me go back then, and let's talk about existence. We exist. We're talking to each other. How do you explain it?

SCRIVEN: How do I explain that we're talking to each other?

MISHLOVE: How do you explain that we exist?

SCRIVEN: The usual sort of ways -- you know, in terms of our parents, and so on and so on; and our continued existence in terms of the coherence of the forces that sustain us, and so on. Explanation is always explanation of a certain type.

MISHLOVE: Reductionist, in other words.

SCRIVEN: Well, it's always likely to be reductionist, but it isn't quite always reductionist. Sometimes we explain things in terms of goals. And that would be possible about the universe, but then of course if the universe is explained in terms of the goals of some other being, we immediately have to ask the question where that other being came from. So there's no end to that. You don't get out of the trouble by postulating one more step in the line of argument.

MISHLOVE: There are those people who suggest that the universe itself really looks much more like a big drama unfolding than like a mechanism, like a Newtonian type clockwork.

SCRIVEN: That's well put, I think. It's much more like that. I don't want to argue that the actions of people based on their thoughts are somehow irrelevant to what's happening in the universe. They're very relevant. So clockwork without thoughts in it isn't the way to explain things. Now that we have the power we have, our decisions and thinking have an enormous amount to do with the way things happen.

MISHLOVE: Another significant contribution, Michael, that you've made to the philosophy of understanding these things is the notion of backwards causality in dealing with the phenomenon of precognition. If I'm able to have a dream about an event that takes place next week -- and many such dreams have been reported in great detail in the literature -- it suggests that a future event caused my dreams. In the past people said, well, that's obviously illogical; it can't occur.

SCRIVEN: That was a mistake. The arguments they gave there were fallacious. Interestingly enough, partly as a result of the line of argument that I use to show that backward causality could occur, in physics a number of fairly substantial theories have been built on the idea of backwards causation amongst particles. And so that has its counterpart in the physical world too.

MISHLOVE: What do you think of precognition?

SCRIVEN: I think the evidence for it is less strong than the evidence for telepathy and clairvoyance, but I think it's not dismissable. There's some evidence, and therefore you've got to face the question of what are you going to do about it, and you can't just say no matter what that evidence is like, it couldn't exist.

MISHLOVE: Let's talk a little more, then, about the various evidences in parapsychology. We can do a number of things with them. We can try to explain them, and we run into some of these obstacles that we've been describing. Another attitude, which you as a pragmatic philosopher must be interested in, is how can we use them; what value is there for us in the possibility that there may be these human abilities? Have you given thought to that?

SCRIVEN: Oh yes, there are enormous values. There's no doubt that these would be pragmatically very important. Some of the early experiments I designed produced cumulative effects from very mild psychokinetic capabilities, and the idea there was to use levers, metaphorically speaking, to eventually move part of the world that's very visible, using a very, very small force. I think that clearly could be done, so that even the tiniest psychokinetic force would be something that could lead to enormous results.

MISHLOVE: I've often wondered, when one thinks about extrasensory perception and psychokinesis, it's almost as if extrasensory perception is a little spark of omniscience, and that psychokinesis is a spark of omnipotence, in a sense. If one had total psychokinetic abilities, one would be omnipotent.

SCRIVEN: And then the question is, of course, what happens to everybody else? Do they also have the powers? And in that case, we've got an irresistible force and an immovable object.

MISHLOVE: Maybe the solution is that we create a society in which we try and convince each other we don't have these powers.

SCRIVEN: Yes, that could be a defense mechanism. But even at the personal level, without getting to the social level, it's often tremendously threatening for people to believe that either they or somebody else has such powers. Most of us are very deeply threatened by the idea that somebody could tell what we were thinking, for example. Taking away that veil is terribly threatening. And of course with respect to power, if people could manipulate the roulette wheels and the dice, it would be very upsetting to the system player.

MISHLOVE: Do you think that these fears have somehow retarded the development of our understanding?

SCRIVEN: Oh, certainly. There's no doubt that the feeling that we already know it all makes many people feel much more secure. And so when faced with parapsychology, or claims from within parapsychology, their immediate reaction is to deny it because it's threatening to them; instead of which they should say, how interesting, and let's look at the evidence.

MISHLOVE: I remember once I interviewed Arthur Clarke and asked him, "Do you believe in ESP?" He'd written many novels about it. He said, "Well, I don't believe in ESP, because I don't want anybody to read my mind."


MISHLOVE: I think I have to commend him on being willing to be so explicit about it, but it seems like an untenable position.

SCRIVEN: Yes, that's wish fulfillment. In regard to the universe, it's not a reliable method.

MISHLOVE: And yet many people suggest just the opposite -- that it's the believers who are involved in wish fulfillment, magical thinking.

SCRIVEN: And no good denying that that's happened too. They have manipulated the phenomena, manipulated things so as to make it look as if there were something there. So just as there are some people who can't stand the novelty of these things, there are others who can't stand the dreariness of a world without them. So this is a stage on which the play of imagination and reality is fascinating.

MISHLOVE: We hear so much about the fraud that takes place, and the deceit. How do you deal with that?

SCRIVEN: Well, you must understand that even though we may have a fraudulent President, it doesn't mean that absolutely everything he did was no good. That attitude, which is surely the common-sense attitude, is the attitude of reality, realism. And yet when we start looking at parapsychology, if we're so generous as to concede that it might occur, we then suddenly crack on standards of perfection, so that suddenly if it's to occur, then only perfectly honest people can have these powers -- an extraordinary demand. I mean, it's much more likely, isn't it, that seance mediums who are sometimes able to pull off remarkable phenomena, sometimes can't. But there's the paying customers gathered around, and by then they have learned the tricks which make it possible for them to pull off an imitation of it. Probably everybody except you and I are happy enough about that. But suddenly, when we discover that, then we're inclined, most investigators are inclined, to dismiss everything that that medium came up with. We never do that with scientists. We've discovered scientist fakes lately; we were just chatting about those. One shouldn't conclude from that that none of their work was any good. You should look at the work that could be independently confirmed.

MISHLOVE: That's what's really required, is independent confirmation.

SCRIVEN: That's right, and that's why parapsychologists have to bring in others to watch what they're doing. It's very helpful to do that.

MISHLOVE: So basically, one of the things that you're suggesting is that those people who object to the so-called paranormal -- and I don't like the word paranormal; it seems like paraconceptual is a better word -- beyond what we can conceive of today because they say it's a priori impossible, because it violates all the known laws of physics -- that's an untenable position.

SCRIVEN: That's an absurd position. It would mean physics could never discover anything new. so that isn't it. And then on the other hand it's absurd to say that the slightest scent of such a novel phenomenon must be accepted as a sign of reality.

MISHLOVE: Nor does the phenomenon compel you to take a religious or a spiritual attitude towards it.

SCRIVEN: Exactly.

MISHLOVE: You're not even tempted, I guess.

SCRIVEN: Not even tempted, no, though I was when I was twelve years old. I couldn't see any other way to go. It took me many years to chew this one over.

MISHLOVE: Yet you're willing to accept the idea of a universe in which minds can somehow be directly linked with each other. You're willing to accept the idea of a universe in which it's possible to perceive information from the future, and to be influenced by events that haven't even taken place yet. How do you deal with that? I mean, you must have at least a personal spiritual view of these things.

SCRIVEN: No more than one had when one began to realize what relativity implied. I mean, for me these are the signs that the universe is a lot more interesting place than we had previously realized, and after all that's what every discoverer has found across the centuries of our history of science.

MISHLOVE: One of the concepts that some physicists are using to deal with the so-called paranormal, the paraconceptual, is the notion of quantum interconnectedness -- the idea that the assumption that we make in our day-to-day lives that we are separate, that there is such a thing as separate objects in the universe, or that our mind is separate from it all -- that that breaks down, that we're really deeply connected to the most distant galaxies.

SCRIVEN: Yes, we are in a sense. Now, whether or not that's a sense which can pull any strings at distant galaxies, or even in another room, is not so clear. But people have always been optimistic that it might mean that. It reminds me of Jungian acausal synchronicity, which was an attempt to do a somewhat similar thing through the common unconscious mind.

MISHLOVE: The collective unconscious -- the notion that if I were to have a dream about something, such as the classic dream of the scarab beetle which one of Jung's clients told to him, and at that moment such a beetle appeared on the window of the therapy office. He's suggesting that there's some larger force manipulating all of these things. Is that a tenable notion?

SCRIVEN: It's a tenable hypothesis. The evidence was not strong enough to have to adopt it, though. One just has to say that there's a statistical frequency of coincidence that is highly significant; I mean, it gets gamblers through lifetimes. One can't dismiss this. One needs something considerably more substantial than that, and it's very difficult with these unique events to get some idea of antecedent probabilities; therefore it's very difficult to make proofs dependent on them.

MISHLOVE: We're beginning to run out of time, but I do want to touch on one other area which I know you've given a lot of thought to, and that's the notion of disembodied consciousness, survival after death, the idea of whether we can have an identity apart from our bodies.

SCRIVEN: Yes, and I'm convinced that the truth is that we don't in fact, on the evidence we now have -- with one or two nasty little exceptions that make things more interesting, but also untidy. So I would say on that one, the evidence goes against it at the moment, but for me it's all the more interesting if it's true.

MISHLOVE: In other words, you'd enjoy the idea of surviving.

SCRIVEN: Indeed.

MISHLOVE: But I think what you're saying is that if you survived, it wouldn't be you; it couldn't be the same identity.

SCRIVEN: It might be, but it's very hard to see any evidence that that happens. But it might be. It's certainly conceptually possible. A lot of people have argued that it couldn't make sense at all, but it makes perfectly good sense.

MISHLOVE: Oh. All right, well, maybe I misunderstood your original position there. I thought you were with the former camp.

SCRIVEN: No, no, it makes perfectly good sense; it's just that as a matter of fact it doesn't look as if it's true to me, on the evidence I see. But there's some pretty interesting evidence, and you have to work very hard on it.

MISHLOVE: I'm sure you're aware of the cross-correspondence cases, where it appears as if a disembodied entity communicated portions of a message to mediums on different continents.

SCRIVEN: Yes. The problem with that is precognitive clairvoyance. It's possible to trade it off against that. There is one set of experiments where you can't pull that off, but it's generally possible to do that.

MISHLOVE: Well, if you're left with precognitive clairvoyance as your alternative to survival after death, are you explaining it, then, or are you explaining it away?

SCRIVEN: That's a very good question, and logically I think it is an explanation without explaining it away, because you're explaining it in terms of something that is itself paranormal.

MISHLOVE: Which is quite interesting. I mean, you're explaining it in terms of something which is basically an unknown.

SCRIVEN: Basically still very little known, yes. So these realms are realms beyond our realms, and yet they will have their own logic and their own correspondences. We'll see interesting things there, I'm convinced, and I certainly hope so.

MISHLOVE: Michael Scriven, it's been a pleasure having you with me. It's been a delight to see how you are able to integrate the paranormal with a materialistic perspective. Thank you very much.

SCRIVEN: Thank you, Jeffrey.


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