Several respondents to “Who Believes in ESP?” have mentioned
that Brian Josephson, like Freeman Dyson, is a prominent physicist who believes
in paranormal phenomena. I met and interviewed Josephson in
In 1962, when he was just 22, Brian Josephson discovered the quantum property now known as the Josephson effect. After he won a Nobel prize in 1973, Josephson, already a tenured professor at the University of Cambridge, renounced conventional physics and dedicated himself to the study of psychic and mystical phenomena and other forbidden matters. For years, I had heard physicists trade rumors about Josephson's metamorphosis. What happened? How could someone with so much scientific talent defect to the dark side? I had an opportunity to find out on the second day of the Tucson consciousness conference, when Josephson agreed to have lunch with me at a Taco Bell (Josephson chose the restaurant, which he had heard offered “very good” Mexican food).
Sitting in the restaurant, Josephson looked as though he was trying to conceal his identity. His face was almost entirely concealed by his floppy white hat, thick black spectacles, shaggy hair and sideburns. He wore a black t-shirt bearing the digitized likeness of Alan Turing, another British prodigy whose relations with the scientific establishment were troubled (although for very different reasons). He spoke haltingly, between bites of his burrito, shunning all but the most fleeting eye contact. Born in
Cardiff, Wales, in 1940, he grew up as a strict scientific materialist. "I was pretty well turned off religion by the rituals," he said. "I was exposed to the idea that you could explain everything on the basis of science."
By the mid-1960s, however, he had begun to turn away from conventional physics. Like many other physicists, he became entranced by the seemingly crucial role of the observer in quantum mechanics and by the strange "nonlocal" correlations linking inhabitants of the quantum realm. He was drawn to the works of sages such as Krishnamurti, an Indian mystic whose books cast a spell over many western intellectuals in the 1960s. In 1966, moreover, he befriended George Owens, a mathematician with a strong interest in the paranormal.
After some hemming and hawing, Josephson revealed that his transformation also sprang from changes "within." I asked him to elaborate: Did he have psychic or mystical experiences himself? "Well, in some ways, but not..." He paused. "I've had some strange experiences..." He prodded his burrito. Eventually he told me that in the late 1960s he began having "hallucinatory states" as a result of working too hard on a physics problem. "My experiences were basically a result of a long period of having very little sleep," he said. He took "major tranquillizers" for several years before managing to quell his inner turmoil through transcendental meditation. "Meditation provided enough stability where I didn't need" tranquillizers, he said.
Winning the Nobel prize gave him the confidence to discuss publicly his interests in the paranormal and to scold the scientific community for its skepticism. He insisted to me that the data supporting telekinesis and extra-sensory perception are "fairly convincingly." Quantum mechanics could help to account for ESP, he said, but only if it is overhauled. The current theory "doesn't allow the language of process or intention and so on. So I think we're going to have to extend quantum theory so we take that into account as well."
Josephson had no regrets about having abandoned conventional physics. “I consider what I'm doing now to be more important." He believed that meditation could help scientists enhance their abilities and insights. Ordinary consciousness, he explains, is “egoic.” The ego "dominates everything" and one is no longer open to the influences and intuitions available to a "pre-egoic" child. Through meditation one can achieve a "trans-egoic" stage, in which "you gain the benefits of the processes that you were influenced by before the ego became dominant, while retaining some of the organizing ability of the ego."
Meditation had also given Josephson deep insights into music. He came to believe that music stems, to some extent, not from superficial cultural influences but from timeless, universal "structures" of the mind. By studying the human response to music, Josephson suggested, scientists could probe these structures. "So my intuition is that may have great significance for our understanding of mind," he said.
Josephson's own tastes in music included both classical and rock and roll. "Some of that has considerable merit," he said of rock. "Something that may appear quite noisy, sometimes you get the feeling there is something quite deep to it." Any personal favorites? After pursing his lips for a moment, he revealed that he liked Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water . "I don't know if that's particularly deep, but..."
In the background, Whitney Houston was shrieking, "I'll always love youuuuuu!" The Taco Bell lunch throng had come and gone. Having consumed his burrito, Josephson was keen to get back to the conference to hear a lecture on "information physics, neuromolecular computing and consciousness" by a scientist from
Yugoslavia. We dumped our garbage in a wastebasket, placed our trays on a stack and headed back out into the blinding day.