06/10/2013 03:16 pm ET | Updated Aug 10, 2013

Science vs. Pseudoscience

"Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science, but [humans need] both." -- Fritjof Capra

A conflict between "science" and "pseudoscience" is now playing out on the national stage, including in the Huffington Post. The conversation is long overdue. I speak of the recent flap surrounding two TED lectures on the nature of consciousness -- by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock -- that were initially removed from YouTube because TED's scientific curators deemed them "pseudoscience." The move generated strong reaction from TED's normally doting followers.

Sheldrake's and Graham's offense: proposing the unorthodox view that consciousness is nonlocal.


At issue is the relationship between "brain" and "mind." Brains are easy to locate. The human brain is the wet, convoluted organ of about three pounds that resides in the cranial cavity of the skull. It is a clearinghouse for sensory stimuli, the seat of the emotions, the control center for complex movement, the processor of language, and presumably, the originator of thought. Mind, on the other hand, is the faculty of conscious, subjective experience: the "ghost in the machine." If free will exists, mind is the seat of free will. "Brains are automatic, but people are free," asserts at least one neuroscientist. The chief attribute of the brain is its extraordinary complexity. The chief attribute of mind is its inexplicable unity. Mind and brain are related, but how remains enigma.

The mind may be localized to the brain. Then again, it may not. Many scientists view mind as an epiphenomenon of neural activity. In particular, this seems the stance of Eric Kandel, 2000 Nobel laureate in physiology, as articulated in In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. Study the brain long enough it is presumed, and we will eventually understand mind. But a lot of evidence -- anecdotal and scientific -- suggests otherwise.

Freud earned scientific immortality by naming and probing the subconscious layer of mind beneath conscious awareness. Carl Jung, Freud's protégé, parted company with Freud over the nature of the subconscious. Freud saw the subconscious -- a dark place of illicit desires -- as the seat of mental ill health. Jung turned the tables to reveal that the deepest longings of the subconscious, when brought into the light of day, point in the direction of the subject's greatest authenticity. As a therapist, Jung's job was to liberate the aspirations of the subconscious.

Jung transcended Freud in another fundamental aspect: mind has both subconscious and supraconscious aspects. Individual consciousness taps into a shared realm of symbolic archetypes. Dreams, Jung found, are particularly susceptible to influences from the "collective unconscious," which he defined as "a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature ... identical in all individuals." Jung, a Swiss with deep affinity for Native American culture and beliefs, spent considerable time in the American Southwest studying aboriginal ways. The aboriginal "world soul" and Jung's "collective unconscious" are perhaps different cultural expressions for the same phenomenon: shared consciousness.

Experiments with group dreaming -- for example, the Dream Helper Ceremony of former Princeton University psychologist Henry Reed and University of Virginia psychologist Robert Van de Castle -- strongly suggest that Jung was right. If consciousness has a shared aspect, then brain and mind are not synonymous. Brain is local; mind is not. Brain is particle. Mind is wave.

Consider also the relatively common phenomena of mystical and near-death experiences (NDEs), each of which has nonlocal connotations. Two timeless classics -- William James' Varieties of Religious Experience and Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy -- attest to the ubiquity and power of mystical states of consciousness, which are nonlocal by definition. Similarly, a substantial body of anecdotal and scientific evidence regarding NDEs has been amassed by a number of reputable researchers, among them Elisabeth Kübler-Ross of the University of Colorado, Kenneth Ring of the University of Connecticut, and Raymond Moody of the University of Virginia. Despite differences in religion, nationality, race, age, and era of those who have reported mystical or near-death experiences, accounts are remarkably consistent.

Beyond the world of everyday sensual experience lies a universe of the paranormal. Paranormal or "psi" phenomena include telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, distant healing, and more exotic phenomena including out-of-body experiences sometimes associated with NDEs. Psi experiences are ubiquitous. Perhaps half the human race, if honest, has had some memorable or moving experience that falls outside normal sensory awareness.

Despite the prevalence of extra-ordinary experience, mainstream science has not been kind to the paranormal. Psi phenomena lie beyond known physical laws and often violate temporal causality. Thus mainstream science has dismissed psi with varying degrees of disdain: by ignoring the phenomena altogether, by labeling psi investigations as "pseudoscience" as in the case of the TED controversy, or by declaring psi experiments the work of charlatans.

In a previous post I lauded the pioneering work of experimental psychologist Lawrence LeShan, who set out in the 1950s to debunk all paranormal "nonsense." The overwhelming quantity, quality, and coherence of the research data, however, soon converted LeShan from a skeptic to a believer who has spent the remainder of his life studying the paranormal. A theory began to take shape in the groundbreaking The Medium, the Mystic, and the Physicist (1966), continued in his A New Science of the Paranormal (2009) (published as he neared 90 years of age), and culminated in the recently released Landscapes of the Mind (2012). LeShan opened to mystical insights because of his scientific integrity, not in spite of it.

In The Conscious Universe (1997), parapsychologist Dean Radin confronts head-on mainstream prejudices against psi by using meticulous statistical meta-analyses of more than a century of data obtained by the most reputable psi researchers. These include J. B. Rhine at Duke University and researchers of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) Laboratory. Radin's statistics offer seemingly ironclad evidence for the legitimacy of many types of psi phenomena: ESP playing-card tests, telepathy experiments, and the highly refined Ganzfeld remote viewing experiment, among others.

Psi challenges the metaphysical assumptions of science: dualism, materialism, determinism, causality, and reductionism. (See my series on Science's Sacred Cows.) But then so does quantum mechanics. The response of the scientific community to these two challenges, however, remains markedly different. Mainstream science has reluctantly embraced quantum theory. In contrast, on the whole it consistently considers psi to be anathema.

The philosophers Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead, and the Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine all argued for a more tolerant science, for reasons unrelated to the paranormal. Prigogine wished to heal the "schizophrenia" that plagues humankind. He pleaded: "Whitehead's case as well as Bergson's convince us that only an opening, a widening of science, can end the dichotomy between science and philosophy." Suggesting a way through the impasse, LeShan invokes the wisdom of the French philosopher Ernest Renan, who asserted that there exist two legitimate scientific methodologies: la science de la nature and la science de l'humanité. The former studies what can be quantified; its methodologies involve general laws and measurement. The latter studies what cannot be quantified; its methodologies involve deep contemplation of the subject: listening, empathy, and sympathy. The German language also affords dual words for science: Naturwissenschaft and Geistewissenschaft, the "science of nature" and "science of the spirit," respectively. "For the study of psi, we need both methods," argues LeShan.

Nonlocality is now mainstream in physics. Psi phenomena strongly suggest that consciousness is also both nonlocal and collective. Were mainstream science able to relax its rigid orthodoxy, rigorous scientific investigations could help to confirm or refute this hypothesis, to shed light on the numinous qualities of the cosmos, and to probe the full potential of the human being.

The real nexus of the TED controversy therefore lies not between "science" and "pseudoscience." It lies between skepticism and scientism; i.e., scientific fundamentalism. Skepticism is necessary and healthy for science. Fundamentalism is neither.

(This essay is adapted from Chapter 17 of Reason and Wonder.)