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« The End of Strings (for now) | Main | Why Brian Josephson Embraced ESP »

Who Believes in ESP?

Since Discover published my update on The End of Science, some readers have informed me that science—far from ending--is on the verge of thrilling breakthroughs in the understanding of paranormal phenomena, or “psi.” Coincidentally (or is it synchronistically?), the Rhine Research Center in Durham, North Carolina, just sent me a fundraising letter making the same point.

The center is named after Joseph B. Rhine, a psychologist at Duke University who in the 1930s started investigating extrasensory perception and telekinesis. Along with the Institute for Noetic Sciences in California, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research program and Britain’s Society for Psychical Research, the Rhine Center (no longer affiliated with Duke) insists that psi is real and doggedly pursues investigations of it.

In the fundraising letter, Sally Rhine Feather, Rhine’s daughter and the center’s executive director, contends that the scientific evidence for ESP and other paranormal effects “is substantial and continually growing.” Researchers “are now focusing on how it works” and “can be used in healing and even business [!] applications.” The letter adds that half of all Americans believe in ESP and 65 million have experienced it first-hand.

As Deborah Blum points out in her new book Ghost Hunters, a century ago William James and other leading intellectuals thought psychic phenomena—including ghosts and channeling--worth investigating. Unfortunately, since then no one has produced any credible evidence for psi. That is why vanishingly few prominent scientists evince belief or even interest in psi now.

One notable exception is the physicist Freeman Dyson, who in a fascinating essay in the March 25, 2004, New York Review of Books says he finds psi credible. His family included two “fervent believers in paranormal phenomena,” a grandmother who was a “successful faith healer” and a cousin who edited the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. Dyson conjectures that no one has produced empirical proof of psi because it occurs under conditions of “strong emotion and stress,” which are “inherently incompatible with controlled scientific procedures.”

This reminds me of Richard Feyman’s quip about string theorists: they don’t make predictions, they make excuses. Another common excuse of psi advocates is that skepticism kills psi. That, they claim, is why no one has been able to win the million-dollar prize that the magician and debunker James “The Amazing” Randi has offered to anyone who can demonstrate psychic powers. The converse of the skepticism excuse is much more likely to be true: the so-called evidence of psi is just a product of wishful thinking (when it's not simply fraudulent).

Psi advocates also whine that their revolutionary results are ignored and suppressed by uptight narrow-minded scientists locked within their boring, materialist paradigm. Bullshit. The vast majority of scientists would love to see clear-cut evidence of psi--just as they would love to see evidence for strings, or parallel universes, or Martians--because it would blow science wide open and make it thrilling again. The evidence just isn’t there.


nigel cook

Hi John,

This is a very nice post, but you missed the background to the ESP theory which lies in string theory, according to Nobel Laureate Brian D. Josephson of Cambridge University, England.

Josephson has worked out a vital insight about how the special mathematical skills of string theorists are derived from a "mental vacuum state" and "shared vacuum bubbles" of ESP.

His research is on the Cornell (quoted below". I remember you attacking in the Scientific American some poor military scientific project guy a few years back, just because he believed in UFOs or paranormal.

Strange that you are now not mentioning that Brian Josephson is doing the same thing? Maybe you are secretly being bribed by him to keep quiet? Or maybe is too threatening, and you can't bear to condemn a paper deposited on because of its [false] reputation of rigor, based on stringy stuff?

Please let me know if your exclusion of Josephson's research (below) is a genuine oversight, or whether you are a secret Josephson supporter!


Physics, abstract
From: Brian D. Josephson [view email]
Date (v1): Tue, 2 Dec 2003 20:47:29 GMT (7kb)
Date (revised v2): Tue, 2 Dec 2003 23:15:12 GMT (7kb)
Date (revised v3): Tue, 9 Dec 2003 18:25:38 GMT (8kb)

String Theory, Universal Mind, and the Paranormal

Authors: Brian D. Josephson
Comments: 20KB HTML file. To appear in the Proceedings of the Second European Samueli Symposium, Freiburg, October 2003. In this version minor errors have been corrected, and a concluding comment added concerning classification. Keywords: ESP, string theory, anthropic principle, thought bubble, universal mind, mental state
Subj-class: General Physics

A model consistent with string theory is proposed for so-called paranormal phenomena such as extra-sensory perception (ESP). Our mathematical skills are assumed to derive from a special 'mental vacuum state', whose origin is explained on the basis of anthropic and biological arguments, taking into account the need for the informational processes associated with such a state to be of a life-supporting character. ESP is then explained in terms of shared 'thought bubbles' generated by the participants out of the mental vacuum state. The paper concludes with a critique of arguments sometimes made claiming to 'rule out' the possible existence of paranormal phenomena.


On this note, you and your readers might find Susan Blackmore's account of why she abandoned "psi" research entertaining:



G Milks

ESP has as much evidence as:
- Alien driven UFO's
- Ghosts
- Gods
- Demons
- String theory
- Creationism
- Intelligent Design
- Steady state universe
- Divine intervention
...and the list goes on.

Shame on Freeman Dyson who should know better.


Here's a suggestion... Take your summer break and attend the Rhine Research Center's summer study program. Spend two months learning what other scientists deem worth pursuing. Participate in the research and talk to the experts. Just make sure to pack an open mind.


A "mental vacuum state", gotta just love that! Surely the Josephson paper is a string theory send-up?


Hi Absolutely,

No it isn't a spoof! Professor Brian D. Josephson paper is real. See his page

"Professor Brian Josephson, director of the Mind-Matter Unification Project of the Theory of Condensed Matter Group at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, a project concerned primarily with the attempt to understand, from the viewpoint of the theoretical physicist, what may loosely be characterised as intelligent processes in nature, associated with brain function or with some other natural process. [ESP]"

He actually corresponded with me by email quite a bit. He really believes in ESP, and is saddened that I don't. It is interesting that he doesn't seem insane, and sends funny jokes like:

From: "Brian Josephson"
To: "Nigel Cook"
Sent: Wednesday, January 04, 2006 4:59 PM
Subject: Re: mathematics

... An old Cambridge story, concerning a person who found himself sitting next to the taciturn Prof. X (X being variously named as Dirac, Stokes ..) at dinner.

Person sitting next to X: "someone has bet me I won't get more than 2 words out of you tonight"

Prof. X: "You lose!"


* * * * * * * Prof. Brian D. Josephson ::::::::
* Mind-Matter * Cavendish Lab., J J Thomson Ave, Cambridge CB3 0HE, U.K.
* Unification * voice: +44(0)1223 337260 fax: +44(0)1223 337356
* Project * WWW:


Hi G. Milks: Freeman Dyson is a fascinating physicist. I've read many of his books and really like his deep viewpoints. The best physical introduction to QED is Dyson's 1951 lectures:

But he does get things wrong sometimes:

(1) After 9/11 he wrote a web comment saying he has some empathy with un-American sentiments, the frustration of enemies of the USA, etc. That was the wrong way to look at the situation, really.

(2) Another problem is that he is too constrained by ignorant orthodox. See his terrible paper:

Freeman Dyson, Innovations in Physics, Scientific American, September 1958, Vol. 199, No. 3, pp. 74-82:

‘Most of the crackpot papers that are submitted to the Physical Review are rejected, not because it is impossible to understand them, but because it is possible. Those that are impossible to understand are usually published.’

He also says:

‘I have observed in teaching quantum mechanics (and also in learning it) that students go through the following experience: The student begins by learning how to make calculations in quantum mechanics and get the right answers; it takes about six months. This is the first stage in learning quantum mechanics, and it is comparatively easy and painless. The second stage comes when the student begins to worry because he does not understand what he has been doing. He worries because he has no clear physical picture in his head. He gets confused in trying to arrive at a physical explanation for each of the mathematical tricks he has been taught. He works very hard and gets discouraged because he does not seem able to think clearly. This second stage often lasts six months or longer, and it is strenuous and unpleasant. Then, quite unexpectedly, the third stage begins. The student suddenly says to himself, “I understand quantum mechanics”, or rather he says, “I understand now that there isn’t anything to be understood”. The difficulties which seemed so formidable have mysteriously vanished. What has happened is that he has learned to think directly and unconsciously in quantum mechanical language, and he is no longer trying to explain everything in terms of pre-quantum conceptions.’

This is just Copenhagen stuff. You can interpret the four quantum numbers and the Schroedinger equation physically (click my name). Dyson's tried to substantiate crackpotism by quoting Niels Bohr's ridicule of an idea by Wolfgang Pauli:

‘We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question which divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct. My own feeling is that is not crazy enough.’

Congratulations! I think this is the first time I've seen an article by a scientist using the term "Bullshit". The context was perfect. I think you must have read the little book by Frankfurt.


Re: Prof. Brian Josephson's project at Cambridge

With our world groping along somewhat blindly technologically, as it has been doing for centuries, it's heartening to see something like the Mind-Matter Unification Project come into being. No matter how laughable and crude this beginning may be, it's. . . a beginning.

I hope the Project began operations with an agreed-upon working definition of what makes up "Intelligence." I've discussed the term "Intelligence" with a man who has worked in the AI field for thirty years. He says AI people have never agreed on the meaning of the word--and yet they work every day toward an Artificial "Intelligence"!

It seems to me that the understanding of what it means to be intelligent should be the first concern of any rational adult. And task #l for the Unification Project.


Matthew Cromer

There is actually a very substantial amount of controlled scientific evidence for psi phenomena and an overwhelming amount of anectdotal evidence.

That some people prefer to disbelieve says much more about the power of a mental model to shape beliefs in what is possible than the quality of the evidence.

My blog covers scientific evidence for psi phenomena.


I experience a form of ESP on a daily basis. I don't know if I could prove it -- I don't really care about proving it (selfish, I know), but it definitely exists! if science can ultimately determine very much about reality...then you can be certain it's going to prove that there's something to ESP.


A methodology toward simple experiment on the hypothesis that ESP can be directly experienced without being 'objectively' measurable:

1) ask Google to search up the recent findings on the neurocognitive phenomenon which you may know as the Out of Body Experience (OOBE).

2) Read the two papers which Google locates.

3) In your studies you may also learn of a legal herb used by shamanic priests in the southern United States of which it is said "causes an OOBE"; if you cannot find the herb to try, there is a simple yoga exercise which will also trigger this neurocognitive disjoint effect.

4) Considering the undoubtedly scientific repeated-experiment independently confirmed of those two serious clinical neuroscience papers, and considering your own shockingly confrontational experience with either the herb or the yoga exercise, ask yourself this: Between the me that is my flesh and the me that is that ghost I experienced directly who among the two actually experiences the ESP event?

What does your answer tell you about why (a) ESP is very likely very real and (b) why no one will ever claim Randi's money?


" one has been able to win the million-dollar prize that the magician and debunker James 'The Amazing' Randi has offered to anyone who can demonstrate psychic powers."

That offer is not real, it is a long-running publicity stunt.

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