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« Who Believes in ESP? | Main | The End of Psi-ence »

Why Brian Josephson Embraced ESP

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 Tucson, Arizona, in 1994 at “Toward a Scientific Basis of Consciousness.” Below is a slightly modified version of my write-up of Josephson for The Undiscovered Mind. Over the years, many readers have complained to me that scientists’ personalities have no bearing on their work. That is true in some cases but not in others—and especially those involving fringe science. It is useful to know, for example, that Freeman Dyson, whom I profiled in The End of Science, is a contrarian who loves to provoke his colleagues, and that Brian Josephson—well, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

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.



Thanks for this post, which is very interesting. So it was the Copenhagen Interpretation to blame?

The Josephson Junction led to practical high-sensitivity magnetic field sensors, SQUIDs, , but the quantum weirdness based on Cooper pairs and quantum tunnelling doesn't validate ESP.

The failure is ultimately in classical physics, which should be formulated with inbuilt indeterminancy for the 3+ body problem (which leads to chaos as Poincare discovered). The whole myth of classical physics being somehow deterministic (Maxwell and GR) is based on ignoring this:

‘... the ‘inexorable laws of physics’ ... were never really there ... Newton could not predict the behaviour of three balls ... In retrospect we can see that the determinism of pre-quantum physics kept itself from ideological bankruptcy only by keeping the three balls of the pawnbroker apart.’ – Tim Poston and Ian Stewart, Analog, November 1981.

Professors David Bohm and J. P. Vigier in their paper ‘Model of the Causal Interpretation of Quantum Theory in Terms of a Fluid with Irregular Fluctuation’ (Physical Review, v 96, 1954, p 208), showed that the Schroedinger equation of quantum mechanics arises as a statistical description of the effects of Brownian motion impacts on a classically moving particle. However, the whole Bohm approach is wrong in detail, as is the attempt of de Broglie (his ‘non-linear wave mechanics’) to guess a classical potential that mimics quantum mechanics on the small scale and deterministic classical mechanics at the other size regime.

The actual cause for the Brownian motion is explained by Feynman in his QED lectures to be the vacuum 'loops' of virtual particles being created by pair production and then annihilated in the small spaces in intense fields within the atom. Feynman

‘... when the space through which a photon moves becomes too small (such as the tiny holes in the screen) ... we discover that ... there are interferences created by the two holes, and so on. The same situation exists with electrons: when seen on a large scale, they travel like particles, on definite paths. But on a small scale, such as inside an atom, the space is so small that ... interference becomes very important.’ (Feynman, QED, Penguin, 1985.)

It is tragedy is that Bohm ignored the field fluctuations when he tried to invent "hidden variables" which were unnecessary and false, and failed when tested by the Aspect check on Bell's inequality. The Dirac sea corrected predicted antimatter. It is clear from renormalization of charge and mass in QFT that the Dirac sea only appears to become real at electric fields over 10^20 volts/metre, which corresponds to the "infrared (IR) cutoff", ie the threshold field strength to create an electron + positron pair briefly in vacuum. The existence of pairs charges being created and annihilated in quantum field theory only appears real between the IR cutoff and an upper limit "ultraviolet (UV) cutoff" which is needed to stop the charges in the loops being having so much momenta that the field is unphysical. All this is just a mathematical illusion, due to QFT ignoring discontinuities and assuming Heisenberg's uncertainty principle is metaphysical (creating something from nothing) instead of describing the energy of a discrete background Dirac sea of particles which gain energy from the external field they are immersed in:

‘What they now care about, as physicists, is (a) mastery of the mathematical formalism, i.e., of the instrument, and (b) its applications; and they care for nothing else.’ – Karl R. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, R.K.P., 1969, p100.

‘… the Heisenberg formulae can be most naturally interpreted as statistical scatter relations, as I proposed [in the 1934 German publication, ‘The Logic of Scientific Discovery’]. … There is, therefore, no reason whatever to accept either Heisenberg’s or Bohr’s subjectivist interpretation of quantum mechanics.’ – Sir Karl R. Popper, Objective Knowledge, Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 303.

Hence, statistical scatter gives the energy form of Heisenberg’s equation, since the vacuum is full of gauge bosons carrying momentum like light, and exerting vast pressure; this gives the foam vacuum.


A few years ago, I was curious about an item on one of Josephson's webpages where it
says (at the bottom) "Is homeopathy nonsense (and why it may not be)?" so I emailed him.

I've supplied the URL which remains "link to be added" on his page - it pertains to "the anomalous structure of water"
and (I suppose) the notion of emergent/coherent behavior in H2O.


About the "inner turmoil" and hallucinatory states: in "Rational Mysticism" it would have been good to read about an everyday person using his wits to patiently build a path out of the chaos into cosmic consciousness.

Andrei Kirilyuk

Looking for a Miracle

Well, talking about all those “supernatural” things and their adherents, why not to acknowledge a major underlying motivation, which has always been a UNIVERSAL motivation behind practically all great human endeavours. Namely, people always need and are looking for a “miracle”, understood in a wide sense of something “truly unusual” and desirably very positive, “transgressing” usual (current) borders of our possibilities. Long ago they could see a miracle in many now “natural” phenomena, then “religion” imposed a unified and better arranged “order of miracles”, after which we had scientific and technological “real miracles”. But now all of it has become “common”, sometimes still mysterious and attractive, but not so fascinating as a genuine miracle can be. If we recall the truly exciting, euphoric atmosphere around science and technology in the 60s-70s of the last century, where almost nothing seemed impossible for a scientific progress advancing without visible limitations, it becomes clear that quite “realistic” science can also be perceived subjectively as a miracle. But now all miracles have gone, scientific ones were the last to die, and we have today that terrible, cold world without veritable miracles. So they try to invent or look for new ones, often just for money (e.g. “nanotechnology” or various artificially “secret”, military-based “fringe science” programmes), but sometimes with a sincere intention to find something “really new”, exciting and promising. I think Brian Josephson's search is of the last series, and therefore although I divide “general” scepticism of John Horgan concerning the current absence of any solid, scientifically repeatable confirmation of “paranormal” phenomena, I would propose to have yet another look at this quest, in terms of the “last hope” of humanity to find at least something that would be beginning rather than ending.

I would like also to add something to “personalised human portraits” of scientists certainly providing greater attractivity to John's writings and probably contributing to a fundamentally needed step from esoterically isolated science style to “science with a human face” (it may be less important at this stage that those “faces of science” often look rather weird...). In this respect, one has an essential difference between straight-out searchers for ANY truth they consider probable like Brian Josephson and all those “scientists of the System”, especially at their high enough, “Nobel” level. Brian Josephson may well be the only (or one of the very few) Nobel Prize winner whom “ordinary” scientists can directly contact and have a sensible dialogue (at least if relevant professionally). This possibility of communication and in general a “free” attitude to facts and colleagues is extremely important in professional science practice, it is also different from journalist-scientist relations, where a journalist from a sufficiently influential information source is usually very welcome to publicising a scientist's research and results. For comparison, it is rather difficult to enter in communication with somebody like Roger Penrose (not a Nobel prize winner, but very “prominent” science figure): although Penrose also has its VERY weird concepts at the border of paranormal, he is somehow more a “System man” trying to “protect” his “private business” in his small comfortable universe (he or anyone else of them), and therefore it is practically impossible to have a “normal” scientific, professional exchange between colleagues (unless you are from a particular “close circle” of accepted adherents, team, etc.). The same difference involves opposite attitudes to freedom of scientific research and publication, etc. It's a fact that usually “ufologists” are much more open in general, with respect to any scientific research and publication. And irrespective of the destiny of their particular ideas, I think that future inevitably belongs to that kind of much more open (also to the public) science practice and not to the currently dominating “closed” kind of official (and publicly supported!) science. Again we see that, paradoxically, only “weird” scientists tend to be normal in science practice (see also my previous comment “Barriers to Intelligence Development”, ). I would not underestimate those specific advantages in the epoch of great change in science and elsewhere.

And finally, as concerns the content of current “miracles”, whether they can be “real” (true) or not, etc. The majority of PARTICULAR, detailed ideas may well be wrong (when they are not simply fraudulent), just because it is a too “far-away” search, inevitably full of “ad hoc” assumptions and subjective guesses (but “official” science is full of that too!). However, taking into account the (always growing) number of deep, truly fundamental “mysteries” to which standard science CANNOT propose ANY reasonable, consistent solutions (despite tremendous efforts of its “greatest minds”), it becomes clear that SOMETHING VERY DIFFERENT from that bankrupt official paradigm – and therefore de facto a relative “miracle” – should necessarily exist. In other words, there can be no “inexplicable (major) facts”; in the limit, “God”, that quintessence of “paranormal”, is also but a particular explanation (which simply is too general and therefore needs further refinement). So something very different from usual, “non-miraculous” science will necessarily appear (including even a possible, but now EXACTLY SPECIFIED origin of the limits of knowledge) – or else we shall disappear, after which it's simply the (personal) degree of (im)patience with respect to that “greater truth” that determines adherence or non-adherence to explicit search for “paranormal” miracles.

Matthew Cromer

Actually the ego is a little dream story, believed in for a while (starting about age 2 1/2, developing and coming into its full development through adolescence) but it is a dream which is eventually woken up from by the real self. Meditation can help you see this, but any state of consciousness will work -- basically the "self" is simply a series of thoughts which arise within consciousness and are paid inordinate attention to. By allowing the attention to move from the contents of those thoughts to the "seeing" of thoughts and everything else, it is seen that the ego is, as Einstein put it, simply "an optical delusion of consciousness".

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