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Nicholas Humphrey


Human nature and supernatural belief

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2002).

Nicholas Humphrey takes up an uncompromising attitude to the paranormal: it doesn't exist. In this book he sets out to explain why he is so sure that this is the case and he also considers what it is that prompts so many people to believe in the paranormal. As survey after survey has shown—one conducted by Humphrey himself—such belief is indeed widespread in the developed world. Scientists generally have a lower incidence of belief but, even so, some prominent scientists have, as Humphrey puts it, "broken ranks and declared their fascination, and in several cases their open enthusiasm." Humphrey sees the reason for this as a reluctance to face up to the bleakness of the world view placed before us by scientific materialism.

The book has three parts, which are not sharply marked off from one another. In the first, Humphrey looks at how people have tried to dilute the implications of science. They have sought refuge in religion, in naïvely optimistic studies of the natural world, or in trying to create a science of supernature. In the second part he talks about the search for various kinds of miraculous phenomena to act as a counterweight to reductionist science, and in the third part he offers a critique of modern parapsychology and its claims.

This is a sustained and powerful attack on the paranormal, with no punches pulled. There is, for example, a lengthy discussion of the miracles attributed to Jesus in the New Testament, which Humphrey sees as very much on a par with those attributed to modern psychics such as Uri Geller. Indeed, he thinks that the miracles of Jesus set the stage (an appropriate metaphor here) for all subsequent paranormal phenomena in Western culture. They provided the type or pattern for the new phenomena that people imagined and hoped they might find. Discussing the psychology of the psychic, Humphrey thinks there is usually a blend of conscious deception, particularly at the outset, with ultimate self-deception, so that even psychics who start by cheating generally end by believing in their own powers. In this they may be aided and abetted by collaborators, often family members, who engineer apparently paranormal phenomena that reinforce the psychics' belief in themselves.

A considerable amount of laboratory work on the paranormal was carried out in the twentieth century—too much, in fact, to be reviewed in detail—and Humphrey discusses only a few of the studies. This is not only because of lack of space; his position is that the whole quest is fundamentally mistaken, a wild goose chase. His reason is that he finds logical and not just scientific and empirical objections to the existence of psychic phenomena. The discussion becomes rather technical here, but in outline his position is that there is in principle no way in which human beings could produce the kinds of effects that are supposed to occur in experiments designed to demonstrate ESP (extrasensory perception) or PK (psychokinesis). If he is right there is of course no point in carrying out experiments of this kind.

In a final twist, Humphrey goes on to say that it would not even be desirable for the paranormal to be real. Darwinian natural selection would simply not work in such a world, where the boundaries between individuals would break down and competition between individuals would not be real.

The strong implication has to be that it is only in a world where it has been practicable for living things to maintain and defend the physical, temporal, and spiritual boundaries of their minds and bodies, that all the beauty and variety of life and culture could have come into existence. Which means in effect that it could have happened only in a world of normal laws. For it is precisely these defences that paranormal forces—if they existed—would undo.
This is one of the strongest and most uncompromising critiques of the paranormal to have appeared in recent years, written with a great deal of charm and humour. Moreover, Humphrey is commendably clear; whether you agree with him or not, at least you always know exactly what he is saying.
%T Soul Searching
%S Human nature and supernatural belief
%A Humphrey, Nicholas
%I Chatto and Windus
%C London
%D 1995
%G ISBN 0-7011-5963-4
%P ix + 244 pp
%K parapsychology

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