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Beyond The Occult: Twenty Years’ Research Into The Paranormal (Book Review)

Colin Wilson, Watkins Publishing, London, 2008 (pp 524)

This review article is forthcoming (November 2009) in: The Sceptic (UK)

Reproduced with permission

In 1988, the British existentialist, occultist and paranormalist writer Colin Wilson published the first version of this book; he has now amplified and modified it to take account of recent relevant data and theorising, as he perceives them.

Wilson regards the evidence for the reality of paranormal or spiritual entities and phenomena of many kinds as very strong, and indeed dislikes the tendency of many others who accept these things as real to treat them as matters of quasi-religious ‘belief’ (p 295). Obviously, skeptics and most scientists will disagree with him as to the strength of this evidence. But Wilson is intelligent and in general terms not uncritical; and he has to be regarded as a serious thinker and (by skeptics) as a worthy opponent. It must be said, however, that over the years he has at times displayed a degree of semi-deliberate conceptual confusion and a tendency to special pleading. For instance, where it suits him he sometimes seeks to remove favoured phenomena from the scope of empirical investigation by verbal sleight of hand involving the popular uses of terms such as philosophy (contrasted with science). Older skeptics may recall him muddying the waters in this way in a televised debate with the late Chris Evans (who himself brought the skeptical case into disrepute by adopting a naively scientistic stance). Wilson is a skilled (if informal) writer, and this kind of manoeuvre must be watched for in reading him.

Because of his views on the evidence, Wilson struggles to understand how skeptics can adopt the views they do adopt; he sees them as at best ignorant or confused. See for instance his discussion of earlier paranormalist accounts of the ‘psychic surgeon’ Arigo (pp 332-333), where he identifies as altogether implausible the contrary skeptical views expressed by Evans and even by James Randi (known for his own ability to fake psychic surgery).

This leads into a general discussion of the alleged weaknesses of skepticism (pp 333-335). Relying as he often does on personal testimony, Wilson says ‘to someone … who ha[s] actually witnessed such things, it is self-evident that if they contradict [eg] medical theory, then medical theory must be wrong’. Now it is of course true that all scientific theories, however well-grounded they may appear to be, are subject in principle to empirical disconfirmation. But this disconfirmation is itself subject to the well-known methodological constraints centred on ‘Ockham’s Razor’; and anecdotal personal testimony is very seldom adequate to overturn very well-grounded theories of general application. Except in extreme cases, it is almost always more likely that a given body of anecdotal testimony is mistaken, or is being mistakenly interpreted, than that the scientifically established view of eg the healing capacity of the human body is grossly wrong or lacking.

Wilson believes, however, that most skeptics (including Evans, Randi, Martin Gardner, etc) reject claims of the paranormal for much less worthy reasons – namely, their rigid beliefs about what is and is not possible, which are not effectively challenged in their minds because they refuse to examine the evidence (or refuse to examine it fairly). He cites with approval James Hyslop’s view that the existence of paranormal phenomena is in fact scientifically proved, and that anyone who rejects it is ‘either ignorant or a moral coward’ and not worthy to be engaged in debate (p 334-335).

It is notable, however, that Wilson ignores much of the most focused overtly empirical skeptical work on the paranormal. For instance, names such as Hyman and French do not figure in his index. (Neither, incidentally, does that of Ray Hyman’s best-known paranormalist protagonist Charles Honorton!) One should also note that, as Wilson admits, he himself has witnessed only a few types of allegedly paranormal phenomenon – not including those specifically at issue here. He is often relying on relayed anecdotes, many of them recounted by people already committed to the beliefs in question. And he also seems to accept as genuine some cases generally deemed debunked, eg that of the Fox sisters (p 318).

In places (eg pp 316-319, on multiple personalities) Wilson’s basic critical intelligence asserts itself more strongly, and he withholds judgment or provisionally adopts a less dramatic interpretation of the data. But it has to be said that these passages are rather few.

Wilson’s acceptance of paranormal phenomena is broad: magic of various kinds, disembodied spirits, multiple personalities interpreted in spiritual terms (he discusses this specific phenomenon at length), psychic powers including precognition (‘memories of the future’), visions, mediumhood, poltergeists, etc, etc. See his contents list and index for the relevant pages. References to William James, C.G. Jung, Arnold Toynbee etc are frequent.

Wilson accepts the evidence for survival of death; and he endorses Dostoyevsky’s view that if we have no souls we cannot survive death, and therefore accepts that souls exist (p xxix). (See also Stephen Goldberg’s Anatomy Of The Soul, where it is suggested that important aspects of a mind can exist after the demise of the brain from which it is generated. Interestingly, Goldberg too is missing from Wilson’s index.) In this context, it should be noted that Wilson is vaguely pro-Buddhist (see eg p 459) but never engages with the major philosophy-of-religion problem posed by the Buddhist ‘no-soul’ principle: what, exactly, survives (and is reincarnated, if one accepts this latter), if we do not have genuine selves/souls?

My own area of specialisation, linguistics, arises only occasionally in this book. Wilson accepts (not uncritically, but I suggest without adequate evidence) the claims of Ian Stevenson and others regarding people speaking or understanding languages which they have not learned, and dramatic explanations for this alleged ability (eg pp 175-176, 307, 394). And in places he is simply wrong about sociolinguistic facts (eg p 371 on Egyptian). More generally and more importantly, he regards language as the most important tool of ‘narrow, left-brain consciousness’, which he sees not as normal consciousness but as a ‘rather specialised and abnormal form developed as a tool for controlling the world’ (see eg p 123); like many other such writers, he holds that this development (whatever its advantages) has had the baleful effect of suppressing our natural awareness of what we now see as the paranormal/spiritual and limiting our ability to have the relevant ‘peak experiences’ (pp 22, 57-59, 305, passim).

Obviously this book is important reading for skeptics, especially specialists in alleged spiritual and paranormal phenomena, representing as it does an intelligent ‘opponent’.