Psychic Powers Part II

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  • Communication with the dead
  • Psychometry
  • Levitation
  • Teleportation

Yesterday I went into the conceptual structure of what might be termed the more prosaic psi abilities, and although I did stray into the area of anecdotal evidence and the assertion that they exist, I was more focussed on what they amount to. I do believe they exist, of course, but what I’m saying here should, I hope, not depend on a commitment to their reality. This is more about the idea of psi than their existence.

Some of the ones I’m left with amount to what are called siddhis in Yoga, that is, supernatural abilities, and are considerably more radical than the ones I’ve mentioned before. They’re more “showy”, sometimes literally in the sense that they might be faked as part of a stage show and would impress an audience. Yogis warn people against using them (which simply suggests they believe they exist) because of their showiness and because they “are powers in the worldly estate”, i.e. the temptation exists to use them for one’s own material gain, which if you believe in reincarnation for example is hazardous. Buddhists believe that if a human is reincarnated as a deity, the chances are they will succumb to the temptation to use their powers for selfish ends and end up in Hell in their next incarnation. A similar attitude exists among Christians, who often see these powers as real, but as dangerous for the person using them as they’re Satanic in origin. Other Christians see them as abilities humans would have had if sin hadn’t entered the world.

Communication with the dead is a controversial topic. For instance, dreaming of people who have passed away could be understood this way, and happen involuntarily. If it is as it appears to be, it seems to rely on consciousness and identity both surviving death, and therefore on the existence of a soul as an entity with a substance which exists in the same sense that a physical body exists but of different essence. However, it’s also conceivable that information is being obtained in another way. Anyone who’s seen ‘Black Mirror’ will be aware of the idea that a dead person can be simulated convincingly from their online behaviour, but that this will run the risk of eventually becoming unbearably creepy, and in our own interactions with each other we do build up sophisticated models of how our loved ones behave and who they are. If we are communicating with mere simulacra, the question arises of one’s own integrity and authenticity in one’s own life, in that if one wishes to live on in such a manner, for it to be an accurate copy of oneself one will need to conduct onself honestly towards others.

I would actually broaden the concept of communing with the dead here to a wider set of phenomena also including apparent past life memories and hauntings, and would further suggest that these are not all the same thing, some being much more amenable to naturalistic explanations than others. In what I’m reluctantly forced to call “ghost hunting” in the absence of a more dignified and Latinate-sounding term, a distinction may be made between genuine hauntings by spirits and something more akin to traces of events being played back by “stone tape”, as it came to be known. I find the latter more convincing than the former, and although a process whereby that could take place is hard to identify, I have discussed this in the post on the Chronovisor. It’s a well-established fact that traces of incidents are left in inanimate objects in various ways, such as exposure to daylight or heating, which can be “played back”, and there are very clear traces of events left in the form of such things as footprints and fossils.

The Tanakh is quite clearly opposed to the idea of communicating with the dead although it also seems quite inconsistent as it has practically nothing to say about what, if anything, follows death. The so-called “Witch Of Endor” incident is the only reference I’m aware of the dead communicating with the living, where it’s specifically stated that Samuel speaks to Saul from beyond the grave. The story is recounted in 1 Samuel 28, and there’s no suggestion that the medium is being deceitful. Elsewhere it says that the dead are conscious of nothing at all, or know nothing, in Ecclesiastes 9:5. Hence this appears to be inconsistent. What I understand to be the standard Christian view, and to some extent probably also the Jewish one, is that when people die, they cease to be conscious until the Day of Judgement, at which point they are brought back to life in a living body. Consequently in a Jewish or Christian setting the idea of communicating with the dead is right out, but in the case of Christianity the emphasis on Satan as a personification of evil means that demons or the Devil are likely to be seen as a likely source of apparent information from the dead, and that it’s a case of deception and impersonation for manipulative purposes.

Outside the Judæo-Christian context, and for once it seems justified to talk of a joint tradition while noting the rather more negative connotations in Christianity, there is ancestor-worship and the elevation of status of elders into that of deities. It makes sense to suppose that the perceived increasing wisdom of the old will continue to increase after death until they have a superhuman status. However, there’s also the attitude that the dead who do communicate with us have unfinished business on this plane of existence which it would be best to resolve. Since I’m not particularly well acquainted with Spiritism or Spiritualism, I feel I’m venturing onto unfamiliar territory here and would actively welcome someone’s input on this. Spiritism differs from Spiritualism in that the former asserts that reincarnation occurs but the latter is agnostic on the issue. They believe that spirits of the dead maintain their identity and continue to influence the physical world, in other words telekinesis. Some scientists took Spiritism seriously and it could be said to have been founded by scientists in the first place, notably Emmanuel Swedenborg. Everyone in the Spiritist Universe is gradually making progress towards moral perfection, and nobody is ever reincarnated into a lower form of life. Spiritism is also theistic or deistic (I’m not sure which), and is associated with the Brazilian/Afrikan religion Umbanda.

Spiritualism, unlike Spiritism, initially had no sacred texts, and had a strong liberal strand, in which many of the people involved in it supported votes for women, the rights of indigenous peoples and the abolition of slavery. It was much-criticised in the late nineteenth century due to a large number of mediums being accused of fraud, but it occurs to me that there is a tide away from belief in spirits towards a more materialistic belief system, perhaps in more ways than one. I honestly don’t know how sincere mediums were at the time, but I don’t really see any reason to suppose that the majority weren’t acting in good faith whether or not they were actually able to do what they claimed. I could compare it to complementary medicine. Whether or not it’s efficaceous, the majority of practitioners either believe that it is or that it’s of benefit to their clients. Why would the same not be true of Spiritualism?

Spirits of the dead are said to be inclined to communicate with those who are still alive, and to be evolving spiritually. The movement was also associated with the Quakers in the nineteenth century, although judging by the Quakers here in England I know today there must surely have been a drastic divergence in beliefs, because I can’t imagine any of them entertaining such a world view. The “Indian spirit guide” can be seen as an abiding awareness of the genocide practiced against the Native Americans and perhaps a recognition of the unearned mercy some of them might show post mortem. Although there is something of a loose system around Spiritualism, people completely outside any such tradition often claim to be in contact with the dead, and in fact that would include me, as I believe I at least meet an accurate representation of my father-in-law and one of my grandfathers in my dreams. However, I’m not convinced that identity survives death. I think perhaps individual experiences move around and enter the minds of others, and because they are always first person experiences they are labelled as happening to the person reporting them by their consciousness. However, I’m not going to say flat-out that it’s impossible to communicate with the spirits of the dead. I’m not sure what I think about EVP either, although I experimented with it as a teenager.

EVP is “Electronic Voice Phenomenon”, which is the perception of voices in static. It was said to have provided the inspiration for the Chronovisor, although in that case the voices were interpreted as coming from the past rather than being spirits. In a way, EVP is rather like divination such as reading tea leaves, where some kind of arbitrary, pseudo-random process is used as the basis for extracting apparent information, which may in fact be pareidolia. Static on TV has been suggested for the same purpose, and it’s even been said that the digitalisation of media is part of a conspiracy to close off a potential channel of communication with the spirit world, although this sounds seriously paranoid to me, but perhaps almost nostalgically so. In 1959, a Swedish film producer made recordings of bird song. When he played them back, he claimed to have heard the voices of his dead parents. I don’t know the details of this incident, but there is sometimes “print-through” on tape recordings, where a previous recording made on the same tape can still be faintly heard. Actually that isn’t print-through apparently, but it does happen (print through is where nearby tape on a reel induces faint audio patterns in the currently played portion of tape). Also, it’s interesting that once again the more spiritualistic interpretation is made of the phenomenon, that it was the current spirits of his parents he heard rather than a relic of the past when they were still alive. I don’t know how to choose between these alternatives. Is it time travel or paranormal? Both are very marginalised views. I don’t remember how I got the idea to do this. It would’ve been in about 1981 and it followed on from listening to things like numbers stations, over the horizon radar, jamming and Morse signals a couple of years previously. It doesn’t seem to have been learned from anyone else’s experiments with it. I found that I got vivid visual images in my imagination and could hear music after a few minutes of listening to white noise. In 1985, the book ‘The Ghost of 29 Megacycles’ was published, claiming that a particular frequency was particularly liable to this.

An interesting experiment conducted in 1972 involved the invention of a fictional ghost and a gradually induced séance atmosphere, and as this was increased, participants began to experience a sense of presence. I’m afraid that’s all I know about that.

Psychometry, a word which I think is correct but which I’m attempting to recall from reading it once about four decades back, seems to refer to the idea that a personal object in someone’s presence becomes charged with their energy and personality, as if it’s been magnetised. I was vividly aware of this idea when I visited a herb garrett in Bermondsey, where a surgeon’s saw for removing legs was on display. It had been used on numerous occasions to remove limbs which would otherwise have guaranteed the patient’s death, without anæsthetic of course. Although my rational mind said one thing, it was almost impossible to believe in the heat of the moment that that saw had not been imprinted with the immense quantity of agony it must’ve caused. However, on making this observation to a friend who was also there, he suggested the opposite. This tool had saved hundreds of people’s lives. This is the kind of thinking involved in the idea of fetishism in the religious sense, or perhaps for some in the sexual sense. More specifically, relics of saints and the cross carry a similar idea. In the realm of mediums and readers, as I might call them, the idea is that you can hold a personal effect and psychically reconstruct a person’s life and identity from the psychological impression you receive from it. Once again, like a chronovisor, it’s based on the idea that there are natural recording properties in objects which have been in close proximity to certain events or perhaps just generally, and to me at least this idea has immense emotional appeal. I know I’m not alone in the idea that I wanted to save every written note my mother left me as a child because destroying it would be like killing her. This has an obsessive-compulsive element but is probably quite common and needn’t be medicalised. In the late nineteenth century some people believed that psychometry would prove to be as important a branch of science as the study of electricity. It’s just hard to believe that the physical world really is as indifferent as it apparently is, and although disbelief in this is fine and probably correct, the emotional element is important, and we are emotional beings living in an emotional world. Few people would consider the possessions of a loved one to be completely insignificant, and if they were to dispose of them all after their death the chances are that they would be motivated by grief and not wishing to be reminded of their loss rather than lack of sentiment. This is also where the urge to hoard originates. As with several other alleged psionic abilities, mediums have been enlisted to use psychometry to investigate crimes and missing persons. The presence of DNA on such items means that today a similar kind of significance can actually be rigorously pursued with a high degree of confidence.

I’ve been into teleportation previously on this blog, so I’ll only cover it briefly here. There are a number of supposèd incidents of teleportation recorded, notably one which is said to have occurred between Manila in the Philippines and Mexico City in 1593. A soldier guarding the governor’s palace in Manila felt dizzy and faint, and leant against a wall, closing his eyes. When he opened them a few seconds later, he found himself in Mexico City. He was aware of the recent assassination of the governor of the Philippines before the news was able to reach the city, was jailed for desertion and then released when it turned out several months later that this assassination had indeed occurred. This is of course said to be a tall tale. Another incident involved a nun referred to as the Lady In Blue, whose real name was María de Jesús de Ágreda, who was said to teleport regularly from her abbey in Spain to the land of the Jumanos in present day Texas and New Mexico, between 1620 and 1623. When visited by missionaries in 1629, the Jumanos were said to have been very eager to be baptised because of her proselytism. There are a number of other examples, and Qephitzat Ha-Derekh is the Hebrew name for the phenomenon. Most teleportation today would be considered to be a science fiction device like the transporters in ‘Star Trek’, and teleportation is a bit different from the other examples of psionic powers because scientists have succeeded in relocating the information of a microscopic object’s quantum state without using any kind of physical signalling mechanism or moving the object itself. However, teleportation of the Qephitzat Ha-Derekh kind is another matter entirely, and a common question asked about teleportation is of whether it amounts to death followed by the creation of a clone in another place with intact memories or is a genuine method of transportation.

Finally, there is levitation, famously promoted by the Natural Law Party in the 1992 General Election here and also elsewhere in the world. I could dilate on the political party, which is associated with George Harrison and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and has actually won some elections, but will confine myself to making the observation that levitation in the context of the NLP is considered a Siddhi in the Yoga tradition and the party itself was the target of considerable outrage from my ex at the time. Levitation is another example of something which is practically achievable without paranormal involvement in some situations, as with superconducting magnets and high-intensity sound waves. It’s also said to occur by some Hindus and Christians, in the latter case sometimes but not always being seen as demonic. Levitation is practiced as a trick in some situations, where it seems to involve certain kinds of muscle control enabling someone to “plank” from beside a hand-held staff placed on the ground.

To conclude, then, this has been an attempt to survey psionic abilities, some of which haven’t even been mentioned. Although I have my own beliefs, I’m more attempting to describe what they are than advocating for their possibility or impossibility. I was hoping also to investigate philosophically the intelligibility of the claim that there can be supernatural explanations for phenomena, but unfortunately I’ve run out of time so it’ll have to wait.

Psychic Powers

There are certain topics which will mark one out as being in some sense beyond the pale, not to be taken seriously, perhaps psychotic, once one broaches them. At some point on this blog I plan to talk about ad hominem, which is the alleged fallacy committed when a person’s reputation is used to dismiss their arguments, but not yet. That said, there is an element of ad hominem here because once I’ve said that I believe in psychic abilities it may mark me for some as an unreliable source of accurate information.

I’ve told this story before on here but it’s worth revisiting. A number of years ago, I gave a talk on philosophical counselling at Leicester Secular Society. In case you don’t know, philosophical counselling is a method of applying philosophical methods and theories to a client’s feelings, behaviour and thoughts to reveal inconsistencies or examine them more closely in a revelatory manner and reach a state of greater well-being as a result. I’m almost accidentally qualified to offer this service although I haven’t explicitly done it very often except as part of a herbal consultation, but it does exist independently of herbalism as a therapy. Unfortunately, the person introducing me mentioned that I was a herbalist, which was fine for most of the audience but one of them was unable to hear my talk without filtering it through that lens and simply became critical and acerbically attacked me verbally. Dunning-Kruger was in full effect, but it’s also an example of ad hominem, since I was from that point on unable to penetrate their K-skepticism.

Many people reading this will already be aware that I’m theist and that this forms an important part of my life, and having learned this they may consider that I am in a sense unreachable to rational argument. If, however, you view my theism in a broader context, it means that I reject metaphysical naturalism, and I have that in common with many people who either reject organised religion or are agnostic or atheist without necessarily focussing that strongly on those labels, but do believe in psychic abilities.

However, I ask myself, is it actually necessary to believe in the supernatural to accept ESP, and what does it even mean to say something is supernatural? Before I go on, I want to mention specific categories into which psionic abilities are usually categorised. I may well miss some, and I want to point out that this is a conceptual classification which is not yet meant to involve commitment as to whether these things are real:

  • Telepathy
  • Dowsing
  • Remote viewing (or other senses)
  • Clairvoyance, clairaudience and others.
  • Precognition
  • Telekinesis and psychokinesis
  • Communication with the dead
  • Psi missing
  • Psychometry
  • Levitation
  • Teleportation

There may be others, and there are overlaps. At least one of these would in theory require absolutely nothing more than a particular physical ability, and it may be worth reversing some of these to see if they reveal anything extra.

I’ve put telepathy first because I think it’s different from most of the others. We are familiar with signals being transmitted and received via radio waves, and there are animals with magnetic senses such as rays, who hunt by detecting electrical signals within the bodies of their prey. They may of course be aided by the fact that both are immersed in water, although pigeons are able to navigate using Earth’s magnetic field. Whether or not human telepathy exists, there is no need to posit the existence of anything exotic or supernatural to accept its possibility. We detect light with our eyes and there are many organisms with luminescent organs. There seems to be no reason at all why an organ could not exist which transmits or receives radio signals. Whether they actually do exist is another question, and whether this is how telepathy operates, if it exists, is equally mysterious. However, in principle there just could be such abilities, even if all they amount to is the ability to communicate silently in a similar manner to vocalising. On a broader level, there also seems to be no reason why an animal wouldn’t be able to sense brain activity, perhaps by contact with the head in a Spock-like manner. Electroencephalograms exist.

Dowsing is in the same category. There has been a theory that bodies of water influence Earth’s magnetic field. It would clearly be an evolutionary advantage for an animal living in an arid environment to be able to detect subterranean water, and water is a very unusual substance. When I say dowsing, I’m not talking about using a pendulum over a map to find sources of water or something else which is more divorced from the circumstances where one is in close proximity to the body in question. Whereas dowsing may or may not be corroborated by experiment, the fact remains that it makes sense to be able to perceive the proximity of water, and in fact magnetic fields do interact with water: for instance, applying a magnetic field to water increases its melting point. It also makes sense that some native metals would be detectable for similar reasons.

The “gotcha” in these two categories is the question of the actual presence of such organs in the human body, or perhaps a more diffusely distributed function throughout the body manifested on a cellular or systemic level. There does not in fact appear to be any such organ, but there is an issue with post hoc “adjustments” which is the essence of pseudoscience, so if an experiment were to be conducted, it should be rigorously designed enough to postulate exactly what physical basis is sought and how it might operate.

Phenomenology is also an issue. Do we all encode our consciousness uniquely, or do we have a universal language of experience? Is it intelligible to “tune into” another’s brain and find that their red is one’s blue, for example? I think it isn’t, because concepts fit into a network. For instance, of the spectral colours yellow is the brightest and so arguably the closest to white and indigo is the darkest and therefore closest to black. If you disagree with this subjective judgement, you and I may perceive colours differently but we do appear to be having a meaningful disagreement, which can be checked using some other part of our mental systems. When it can’t, it’s possible that one of us is simply wrong. But there’s another level of phenomenology. Would we be experiencing the world of another person from a first person perspective, or would it be more like hearing their voice? What is telepathy actually like? What would it be like for a blind telepath to tap into a seeing person’s mind or vice versa? These questions might not depend on the reality of telepathy, or it could be that if they were pursued far enough they’d reveal that there is something wrong with the idea of telepathy.

Inverted telepathy is in a sense telekinesis, in a rather sinister sense in fact. A telepath detects events in someone else’s mind, but a practitioner of telekinesis is causing events to happen outside their body without using directly motive force. The mental analogue of this is mind control and thought insertion. Thought insertion is said to be a symptom of psychosis, although clearly the likes of gaslighting, brainwashing, propaganda and advertising kind of are thought insertion in a way, and of course mind control. It isn’t clear that psychic mind control would necessarily be any more disturbing or unethical. In fact, given the recent advent of “nudge” psychology, therapeutic use of mind control would be akin to hypnotherapy. In the right setting and with informed consent it could be completely benign.

Telekinesis is the more physically forceful sibling of mind control. Just to clear up a minor point of nomenclature, telekinesis is the ability to move objects with the power of one’s mind, whereas psychokinesis is an instance of telekinesis, or so it seems. Apply this to telepathy, incidentally, and you have psychopathy as a specific instance of telepathy, which in fact does make sense in terms of mind control to some degree! There’s also a bit of a caveat here as regards plausibility. One example of telekinesis might be pyrokinesis, which is the ability to set fire to inflammable objects by touching them, which may in fact be physically possible by influencing nerve impulses in a similar manner to electric organs in fish. From that it may also follow that it’s possible to interfere with electronics or move ferrous metals without this being a particularly paranormal talent, although again the necessary anatomy and physiology in a human body is not known to exist. Psychic surgery would fall into this category if it existed. Belief in the power of prayer is effectively belief in psychokinesis via an intermediary, and I’ve long maintained that if one is to believe such things are possible, accepting that prayer is sometimes granted is a brake on delusions of grandeur. One could believe either that one can directly affect the world or that one’s prayers might lead to God affecting the world, and the second position is humbler, and I would say psychologically healthier. This doesn’t depend on it being true either.

Precognition is something I firmly believe in because I seem to have experienced it pretty unambiguously, and recorded it before the fact in some cases. For instance, this is mixed, but when new clients would contact me by ‘phone for the first time, I would sometimes experience sympathy symptoms a few seconds before and expect to receive a ‘phone call imminently for a complaint associated with those symptoms, which would then happen. This, again, is not hindsight because my preconception of the client’s health preceded their first contact with me. Along with several other incidents, my experience and the way I have recorded it before the fact is enough to convince me that precognition exists. My attitude towards it is that it’s probably a universal ability, not that I’m special, similar to Beverly Jaegers, a C-sceptic who believed psychic abilities were latent in everyone and just needed training and practice to be brought out. This also suggests that K-skeptics are ignoring their own precognitive experiences or attributing them to chance. All that said, it’s entirely unclear how precognition would work given current science, although bafflingly, nothing ever seems to rule out time travel back in time no matter how much physics is discovered. A less personal example is Nostradamus’s apparently successful prediction of 9/11, which was also publicly interpreted as such more than two decades before it happened. With precognition, it’s important to be sure to make a detailed record protected from potential editing before the event predicted.

Remote viewing, which presumably involves other senses too, is the ability to see things at a distance. For instance, in one experiment the island of Kerguelen in the Indian Ocean was described without foreknowledge and in another, details of the Saturnian system were ascertained which were later confirmed by the Voyager probes. However, Immanuel Velikovsky also made a number of predictions about planets in this Solar System which turned out to be correct, but they were based on false premises. It’s possible to be correct by chance or educated guesses, and that mechanism for success could be hidden from consciousness. That said, this presumes to know another’s mind better than they know it themselves, which is dodgy ground. Remote viewing was researched by intelligence services up until the mid-’70s, but it was discontinued owing to the lack of useful results. It isn’t clear that this means they didn’t find it worked. However, police departments have attempted to use remote viewing to find missing persons, Beverly Jaegers again having been involved in this in 1971. The UK government researched it in the ‘noughties. It’s hard to know what to make of government agencies taking the idea seriously, as it could just reflect the non-scientific background of the people running the departments. One gets the impression generally that parapsychology was taken a lot more seriously in the 1960s and 1970s than it was later, and there’s a clear trend in a less accepting direction, which I perceive as a lack of openness to the possibility, but the clear implication is that there have been only negative results, or at least a meta-analysis would show this because statistically there could be some outlying positives which have no significance in a larger setting, that is, they’re just good luck. However, a general trend towards physicalism or mechanism would also show this and the mere fact that it isn’t fashionable needn’t be taken to mean there’s nothing in it.

Psi missing is a phenomenon which could be seen as pareidolia – a tendency to see patterns where none exist. If you take data such as with the Zenner Cards illustrated above and you ask people to guess twenty-five in a row, the null hypothesis is that 20% of the guesses will be correct. However, two other claims could be made looking at such data. One is precognition, where one card ahead is guessed correctly. If this is done twenty-five times, the final result can be discounted because it would be after the end of the experiment, so the probability of being correct is already four percent higher in this situation, making the probability of a positive result for precognition higher. Psi missing is an unusually low result, so it would be a result whose probability is significantly worse than random guessing. However, given the same data set and these three possibilities, the probability of finding something in them becomes much higher even though it may not in fact reflect anything genuine.

Larry Niven called psi missing “Plateau Eyes”. In the Known Space universe, there is a planet circling τ Ceti which is generally Venus-like and uninhabitable but has a high plateau called Mount Lookitthat sticking out of the clouds which humans have settled. On this planet, there is a high proportion of people who tend to be ignored. This enables them to get away with things other people wouldn’t, but it also means they find it very hard to find work or be promoted. I sometimes wonder if I have this! It could also be understood as bad luck, although it isn’t quite that because it can work to one’s advantage. If it exists of course.

Clairvoyance and clairaudience are older terms for a more generic form of ESP. Clairvoyance is the ability to visualise things beyond the “norm”, so for example it could include the past, the future, distant places or spirits, auras and energies. Clairaudience is the auditory equivalent, suggesting that clairvoyance is focussed only on vision but this doesn’t seem to be how it is.

I’m going to have to stop at this point. Part II tomorrow.

‘The Book Of Predictions’ – A Review of Successful and Failed Predictions

Forty years ago now, having published two Books of Lists, the authors listed on the front cover shown here compiled ‘The Book of Predictions’, probably in connection with the fact that the 1980s had just begun. The preceding two titles are creatures of their time in that their content is now the kind of thing you might find on Buzzfeed or elsewhere on the internet, but since such things were entirely new at the time they were very popular and there were two further editions after ‘Predictions’. I was personally fascinated by them. They only ended when the internet began to be more available to the general public, the last book being published one year before Windows 95 came out.

‘Predictions’ is, as is often acknowledged within its pages, very hit and miss and many of the predictions seem ludicrous today. It also isn’t just about predictions of the future past 1981, but has, for example, a whole chapter on the subject of bad predictions, another on well-known predictors such as Nostradamus and pieces on matters such as nuclear weapons, agriculture and music. However, the bulk of the book consists of predictions taken from various people broken up into periods starting in 1982 and ending in 2030, but some are much further ahead with the last date being in the year 3000.

One of the interesting things which can be done with this book today is not simply to look back on it and laugh, or see what it got right and what it got wrong, but to ascertain which predictors were the most successful and look at themes detectable in the book about what was wrong but widely expected, what was right and widely expected and what was correct but only predicted by one or two people. From that, it’s possible to select the kind of person who tends to be correct about the future.

Predictors can be placed in several categories. There are bookies, experts, science fiction writers and a fourth category I might describe as “psychics”, although that isn’t entirely accurate because, for example, it includes astrologers. Not everyone asked took it seriously and quite a few people pointed out, perhaps partly as a way of protecting their reputation, that they didn’t intend for their contributions to be considered predictions so much as forecasts. Arthur C Clarke, for example, did this, and he’s an interesting case because of his own ‘Profiles Of The Future’ published two decades previously, which sought to do something quite similar in the realm of science and technology. ‘Predictions’ has a wider remit, covering the likes of geopolitics, population, climate change and warfare.

Conceivably, the book could suffer either from vagueness plus confirmation bias or from the “right twice a day” effect. It seems likely that if one makes a large enough number of predictions, some of them will be true simply due to their variety and the laws of probability. Moreover, with hindsight the words written could be crammed into the moulds subsequent events provided, particularly if they’re quite general. This is often said of Nostradamus’s work, for example, but as I’ve covered elsewhere it’s notable that if you read interpretations of his ‘Centuries’ they actually do sometimes seem remarkably accurate. Nostradamus is subject to the kind of “hyper-skepticism” which is not really scepticism at all but involves people making up their minds in advance that he’s wrong, and in fact he was widely interpreted as predicting 9/11 several decades before it happened. Erica Cheetham’s books, for example, published in the late 1970s, describe the Twin Towers attack quite accurately. Nonetheless it’s important to bear such cognitive biasses in mind.

The content is in some places adversely affected by people choosing to propagandise and grind axes. A particularly notable example is David S Sullivan of the CIA, who described the USSR taking over the world. His “predictions” now read as either paranoid or nakedly indoctrinaire. Other people seem to have described what they would like to happen without paying much attention to the trends of history or the Zeitgeist, such as one author who portrayed extensive neighbourhood food gardening programs, occurring for example on high-rise building roofs, which is a nice idea and might even be practical, but also seems quite fanciful and is clearly wishful thinking.

Notably, a number of predictions were made multiple times and turned out to be wrong, and it’s instructive to contemplate why they haven’t happened. These include: nuclear war, nuclear blackmail, orbital solar power stations (that one in particular is probably the most common of all), the Jupiter Effect, widespread hydroponics, high inflation, controlled fusion, 3-D television, widespread use of holograms, a lunar base, a new Ice Age and underground cities. One of these probably needs further explanation if you weren’t old enough to remember it at the time. The Jupiter Effect was a prediction made in 1974 on the basis of the fact that on 10th March 1982, all the planets including Pluto would be on the same side of the Sun within 95° of each other, which was true and clearly easily predictable because of the known movements of bodies within the Solar System. The idea was that the tidal forces raised by all the planets on this one would lead to quakes and volcanic eruptions, and there was also a retroactive prophecy that it had occurred two years earlier and caused the eruption of Mount St Helens. The San Andreas Fault was a particular focus. Some of the predictors in the book not only included this prediction, but went on to describe probable political, economic and social consequences. To be fair, if there had been such a cluster of natural disasters, the predictions conditional upon them would probably have been quite accurate, and although it wasn’t widely discussed at the time, it’s also conceivable that the Butterfly Effect could have a hand in it happening, but it didn’t, and John Gribbin, who wrote the book and its sequel about Mount St Helens along with Stephen Plagemann, later said he was embarrassed about the forecast and retracted his claims.

Controlled fusion, of course, comes up over and over again in predictions and is permanently “thirty years away”. If a similar compilation of predictions were to be made today, it would almost certainly be included. It hasn’t happened of course, and back then many people would have been just as dismissive of it as I’m being now. That doesn’t mean it will never happen. In Brian Stableford’s ‘History of the Third Millennium’, I think he placed its achievement in the 2070s, when it depended on supercomputers being able to predict and vary the necessary configuration of the magnetic containment bottle sufficiently fast, so maybe. I don’t know. I put controlled fusion in ‘1934’. However, there’s another more peculiar and mysterious incorrect prediction which was made over and over again: orbital solar power. For instance, the July 1976 National Geographic includes an illustration of an enormous solar power station several kilometres across being constructed at the L5 point near Cynthia (“the Moon”). Several reasons why this hasn’t happened may be: that we’ve stayed in low-Earth orbit since the Apollo missions; the microwave beams needed to transmit power back to this planet are effectively death rays; the fossil fuels lobby. It is, however, a glaringly different future in that respect because if this had been done safely, the Arab countries relying on oil wealth would no longer be able to do so and would probably have become more liberal, and of course there would be less anthropogenic climate change.

This brings me to the fourth widely made error: the expectation that there would be a new Ice Age. This was famously held by Nigel Calder, editor of the ‘New Scientist’ at the time, but it was in any case uncertain. A 1977 edition of the ‘National Geographic’ includes an article called ‘What’s Happening To Our Climate’ where uncertainty is expressed about whether it would get hotter or colder, and also includes the first reference I read to the Butterfly Effect. I remember reading it and concluding that it would get hotter, which disappointed me because I found the idea of a new Ice Age quite exciting. There’s even a list of which countries would be worst affected by it, including this one and Bhutan. Nigel Calder did contribute to the book and made the prediction that by 2000, anthropogenic climate change would have been refuted and also that SETI would have been abandoned due to negative results. It’s interesting that the second of these hasn’t happened, and I’ll return to that.

Hydroponics are a “futuristic” and science fiction staple of a few decades ago, and are still done sometimes. They have the advantage of not needing any suitable soil and are free from competitive species, but they haven’t caught on. I don’t know why this is. I actually almost did them myself this year but Sarada vetoed it due to lack of room in the house. Somewhere on this blog is a breakdown of land use taken from this book, and it’s way more efficient to grow many crops hydroponically than in soil, and also preserves the soil from erosion. Hydroponic plants have a greater yield, grow twice as fast as plants in soil and use a tenth of the water. Harvesting is simpler. However, there can be waterborne harmful organisms, they need a lot of monitoring so they’re labour-intensive, the plants are reliant on human intervention rather than soil for nutrition and the root systems are small, so I imagine you can’t easily grow carrots or potatoes this way. There also needs to be a reliable power supply and the initial investment is higher than for soil-grown crops. However, the disadvantages don’t seem to be major enough for them not to have been adopted so I don’t really know why they aren’t more popular. I can see the issue with developing countries and hydroponics though.

High inflation can be seen as an extrapolation of “more of the same”. People at the time widely expected inflation to continue as it had, and even the predictions of inflation falling in the book are quite modest, one being eight percent. This didn’t happen of course, because increasing unemployment was used as a policy to keep wages down and decrease the cost of production. Presumably at the time this was only theoretical or considered beyond the pale, or it may just simply be that at the time inflation was considered a fact of life. It’s very common for this to be assumed at the time and TVTropes even has a page on it. There’s also some disguised inflation, particularly in property prices and therefore the cost of accommodation, which tends to be excluded from quoted figures, so the true inflation rate is in fact higher than it seems.

Three-dimensional displays and holograms are another anomaly. The latter were popular at the time of writing, and ‘The History Of The Third Millennium’ published in 1986 used two as cover images. There was also experimental holographic cinema. It appears that for there to be actual displays like televisions and monitors, there would need to be very small rapidly moving parts, which may be the problem. Again, I’m not sure about this one. Still holograms in particular ought to have caught on more than they have, but in fact it seems to have been a limited fad. Lunar bases also haven’t happened, which is due to the curtailment of human space travel due to perceived high costs without much result and the fact that it has tended to be public sector.

Finally in the list of unfulfilled popular predictions is the reduction in average work hours. This hasn’t happened because of what’s been called the “bullshit jobs” phenomenon, when useless paid work increases, and because universal basic income hasn’t happened either. There’s also the usual prediction that school hours would shrink or reduce to nothing and be replaced by home ed, which I won’t be discussing here because I have a whole blog devoted to the matter. In a way, of course, this has now happened, though not in a very positive manner.

There’s also a number of popular accurate predictions. Top among these is the internet. The internet as a popular tool was predicted from as long ago as seven decades ago and is quite possibly the most predictable thing ever to have happened from the perspective of the mid-twentieth century. There are also several other inventions and facilities connected to this which are also widely predicted, including mainstream domestic waste recycling, Electronic Funds Transfer by consumers, video calling, ebooks and ebook readers, print on demand, online shopping, including for groceries, computers beating chess champions, pharmaceutical cognitive enhancement, the Hubble Space Telescope, the detection of exoplanets and a major nuclear power station disaster resulting in many losses of life in the mid-’80s. Another one which is kind of half-right and half-wrong is the widespread use of mobile ‘phones, which were of course expected to be worn on the wrist. Ultimate Black majority rule in South Africa was also popularly predicted, although like the collapse of the Soviet Union, also predicted by many, it was expected to happen much later than it in fact did. There isn’t much more to say about these predictions other than that they were correct, except that they share a feature with the more sporadic correct predictions.

This feature is that although there are many unequivocally correct predictions in the book, they tend to be dated much earlier than they in fact happened. A relevant statement is made about this too. One contributor made the observation that predictions for less than a decade in the future are usually too radical and those made for more than a decade in the future too conservative. This is borne out by the pattern in the book itself. Many things are predicted for the ’80s which did eventually happen but long after the end of that decade. On the other hand, the end of Apartheid and the Soviet Union are often either missed completely or dated much later than they actually happened. We can apply this idea to today when we look at scientific and technological predictions, that the dramatic, perhaps more hyped ones predicted today to occur by 2031 are going to be dated wrong but may well happen eventually, and that those expected after 2031 today (2021) will sometimes be correct but occur earlier when they are. This raises the question of what happens with the events predicted towards the beginning of that time, and it also suggests, as if it could be done that mathematically, that events predicted to be around a decade away are, if correct, the most likely to be accurately dated. Whereas this may not be so, it does suggest that an optimum period for accuracy could be calculated given enough predictions. It would also be surprising if predictions made for the following year are the least accurate. In fact, a popular date for correct but chronologically inaccurate predictions in the book is 1987, which is just over half a decade later than when they were made. The accuracy graph has a hump about five or six years down the line, declining towards ten years and then dropping below the X axis afterward.

A further pattern is that there are two types of people predicting correctly. One, rather small, set of people makes hit after hit, as if they’ve seen documentary footage of the history of the next fifty years. A much larger group has one or two hits. I’ll list some of the sporadically accurate predictions (by content rather than date) first:

  • Devolved local government, i.e. small “town halls” distributed throughout a district rather than in a single location.
  • New diseases due to environmental destruction. This is around the time AIDS was discovered but at that point it hadn’t been connected to deforestation.
  • The discovery of a new phylum of animals in the deep ocean.
  • Brain implants for neurological problems
  • An insulin pump
  • Drones
  • Self-driving cars
  • Computers more common than cars and used more than driving
  • “Communism” ends in the USSR, which then breaks up
  • Public-private partnerships and ’80s focus on the rôle of government in the economy
  • Biosphere II
  • Principles of social order become science-based rather than ethics-based
  • Video evidence and testimony admissible in court rooms (the first of these may change due to deepfakes)
  • An explosion in CGI animation in cinema
  • Online music libraries with agents recommending tracks and artists according to the consumer’s personal tastes
  • Reduction in inflation. Amazingly, only one person out of dozens made this correct prediction, and even the date is accurate.
  • Gated communities
  • A viral pandemic starting in the Far East which spreads throughout the world, predicted to occur in 2025.

There are also a few “super-predictors” – people who got almost everything right, though usually not in terms of the year they would happen. The crucial thing here is to try and work out what factors make these people so good at it, but before I get to them, I want to mention a few people who stand out. For me, two of them are Steve Wolfe and Roy Wysack, but I get the impression they’d prefer me not to discuss their predictions so I’m going to omit them apart from that mention, and in any case that’s because there’s a personal connection. There’s a rather sad list in hindsight made by Jim Fixx, who predicts among other things that he will compete in the Boston Marathon in 2030 at the age of ninety-eight. Rather oddly, the SF writer A E van Vogt appears to mention Jim Fixx’s death in the same volume, although it didn’t happen until 1984. Isaac Asimov, whom one might expect to be amazingly accurate, actually only got one thing right and that was the internet, which is such a widespread prediction as not to be remarkable at all. The overpopulation gurus Anne and Paul Ehrlich didn’t make one accurate prediction. The last honourable mention goes to Timothy Leary, who was laughably, ludicrously wrong about absolutely everything, and I can’t help but wonder if there’s a link to drug-taking there.

Onto the super-predictors then.

David Pearce Snyder is still active today and describes himself as a consulting futurist. He predicted nationwide EFT, software piracy, email scams, internet shopping, smart meters, the decline of small businesses due to online shopping, Chernobyl, the growth of small extremist political parties in the US, 9/11 (not in detail) and online courses. However, he also predicted that all of these things would come to pass by 1989. Even Chernobyl is predicted two years early.

Joseph Martino, who seems to have died recently, made a number of predictions regarding consumer ownership in terms of percentage of households owning particular products. These included 90% videodisc or equivalent ownership by 2006, which is probably accurate – he’s unwittingly talking about DVDs; 90% of correspondence by email by 2005; 90% professional use of internet journals by 2004 and 90% school access to the internet by 2001; 90% ownership of video games consoles by 1992 (actually probably the Sega Mega Drive); 90% of commerce by consumers by EFT by 1995 (the date is wrong here but it did happen). That’s a lot of “ninety percents”. These are all roughly correct, and it’s notable that he was able to predict accurately because he was approximate. He didn’t name the popular games consoles involved, was aware of the likelihood of a replacement to videodisc but didn’t know what it was and so forth, and this may be what helped his accuracy. However, it isn’t just vagueness which allows it to be fitted into the facts post hoc, but a kind of flexibility of imagination and openness to possibilities, which may be key to his success.

Andrei Sakharov is in there too, and was quite accurate. He successfully predicted the use of computers for accurate weather forecasting and protein folding, the invention of smart materials and the detection of exoplanets, which is a common prediction.

Bell Labs is not an individual but has a history of accurate prediction. They managed to predict personal ‘phone numbers (these exist but are also realised through mobile ‘phone use), the redundancy of professional telephone installers, the internet and voicemail services as opposed to answerphones.

Professor Garry Hunt is also still with us. He predicted the detection of a planet beyond Pluto (actually dwarf planets due to their redefinition but from a 1981 perspective this is correct), the discovery of rings around Neptune (I also expected this and by the time Voyager had found Jupiter’s rings it seems to be a bit of a no-brainer but it wouldn’t be scientific to have said this at the time), problems caused by space débris, Mars rovers (oddly very late on, in the late 2020s), non-attributable anthropogenic climate change, i.e. the stochastic increase of weather-related disasters which can be attributed as a group to climate change but in no individual cases, a decline in coal production and the rise of Zoom videoconferencing, obviously not under that name. You can learn more about him here.

Trudy E Bell and the SF author Ben Bova were both editors of the science magazine OMNI and the former also edited ‘Scientific American’. Between them, they predicted spacelab, non-scientists on space shuttle missions (nobody predicted the Challenger disaster incidentally), the absence of SETI results, space tourism by the rich and a US Space Force, i.e. Trump’s idea although I’m not clear what that is.

I’m going to take a break from this list to talk about the SETI predictions. Both Nigel Calder and Trudy E Bell predicted that SETI would be abandoned due to lack of positive results, but this has not happened. To be ad hominem for a second, Calder’s prediction was coupled with his dramatically incorrect and also politically incorrect prediction that anthropogenic climate change leading to overall warming would be soundly refuted. Whether or not you accept anthropogenic climate change (and it’s anti-scientific to reject it), it’s very clear that the majority of scientists and governments do, and if you like you can compare it to my own rejection of non-baryonic dark matter. I’m aware that the consensus is in favour of the existence of non-baryonic dark matter, but I might want to assert my belief that it doesn’t exist by claiming that it will be rejected within ten years. However, I very much doubt that it will be rejected, so it seems to me that Calder’s claim has an emotive element to it. Regarding SETI, do people know what that is? Just in case you don’t, SETI is the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence, mainly via attempting to detect radio signals although there are other data such as attempting to find megastructures being built around Sun-like stars. The most positive result is from the “Wow!” signal, which predates the book. It’s been noted since 1981 that the interval during which detectable significant radio signals would be transmitted would be very short compared to the length of a civilisation’s history. We no longer use analogue signals much in the developed world (I don’t know how things are elsewhere) and this was not appreciated at the time of publication. That said, it’s equally possible that we’re all just in denial about it. Also, accidentally transmitted signals from our planet don’t reach as far as Proxima Centauri and it’s also been suggested that for all we know, other civilisations use zeta rays, which we have yet to discover. Hard to say really what’s going on.

It was G. Harry Stine, now long-since deceased, who contrasted short- and long-term predictions and also said he made forecasts rather than predictions. It’s therefore ironic that he managed to be a super-predictor. He predicted the internet, new light-weight structural materials (such as carbon and boron nitride nanotubes), electronic picture frames, landscape channels, large flat-screen displays, cognition-enhancing drugs, transgenic babies and the electronic alteration of brain function. Stine was involved in model rocketry, a SF author, libertarian activist and was instrumental in the development of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Hence he was in a position close to government policy and also technology and speculative fiction, and maybe it was this combination which made him such a good predictor.

Roy Mason, as an architect an example of nominative determinism, was quite successful. He predicted domestic internet access, working from home and large flat display screens with scenic displays (and it occurs to me now that this is actually what we later called “desktop wallpaper”). Marvin Adelson, a name which may be incorrect, predicted computer simulation and mockups of planned buildings, poor people living as caretakers in largely empty buildings and innovative spectacular architecture in oil states.

Then there’s the sexologist and psychotherapist Albert Ellis, who is generally spot-on about everything in his own area of expertise. In his case I get the impression that he was one of the movers who helped create the world as it is today in sexual terms, which is why he’s so accurate. It’s kind of him doing this, almost as if he just published his agenda to the world and said, “this is what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life”, which ended in 2007. He predicted no guilt about masturbation by 1992 along with less than ten percent of people feeling guilt about premarital sex, the routine use of condoms to prevent STDs and millions of people leaving orthodox religion because of its prudishness and prejudices about sex. By 2000, most couples would cohabit before marriage. In 2010, most faith groups would be more liberal about sex, and by 2020, 85% of married women and 90% of married men would have had pre-marital sex. He didn’t make a single incorrect prediction.

Charlie Gillett, a music journalist, predicted the rise of independent record labels in the ’80s, increased popularity of world music in the West and online music libraries from the 1990s. Again, he was correct, but he also made a prediction about music tracks missing a single instrument which the listener could play along to with theirs, which is similar to karaoke but if it happened, didn’t become popular. Gillett would’ve got to see these things come to pass as he died in 2010.

After this lot come the psychics, and you might expect them to have posted a load of rubbish, but this is actually not so. A disparate group of people have been lumped together here and it’s notable that the astrologer Andrew Reiss didn’t get anything right, but the actual people claimed to be psychics didn’t do too badly. Bertie Catchings had quite a few misses, but also followed the usual pattern of getting things correct but placing them too early. These included satnav, GPS use by the public, Google Earth, a data TV channel, ubiquitous mobile ‘phones by 1990 (actual handheld ‘phones this time rather than the usual wristwatch device prediction), computerised address and ‘phone directories and tags for lost children (which are actually really mobile ‘phones again). Ann Fisher got gated communities correct and similar fortress-like protection for corporate headquarters. One Francine Steiger successfully predicted domestic biomasse fuel. Beverly Jaegers is an interesting one. She was an ex-sceptic who described herself as having received “no fall on the head”, having “no special powers” but was “just a person who tried and found she could do it”. Consequently it isn’t clear exactly what’s going on with her and it probably merits further exposition. She predicted laser surgery, insulin pumps and liver transplants. Jaegers claims that psychic abilities are in everyone and can be brought out via training and hard work, which is a very appealing line. One would want to believe it was true, but it’s still interesting that she had moved from scepticism to belief. It seems plausible to me that there might be a way to work on data received via the senses subconsciously to form some kind of Gestalt which turns out to be so. Psi as in extrasensory perception might not be required. It could be more than guessing, detailed and uncannily accurate.

Here are a couple more superpredictors. Ian Miles predicted Madonna-style eroticism in fashion, dyed hair, ebook readers (using cassettes though) linkable to home micros, questions over the intrusion of video into privacy and the existence of special interest groups around niche porn and also child sexual abuse rings. Also, he foresaw multimedia PCs with internet access.

The last person I want to consider is one Arnold Brown, co-chair of an “invisible college” of corporate futurists and planners. Again, this person might be a bit like Alfred Ellis, in that he had his finger on the pulse of actual future planning, which raises the question of whether he was in fact reporting on some kind of plan which has been successfully realised. He predicted the idea of retro charm and the collector’s item status of any manufactured item pre-dating 1945, interactive TV, pay TV, electronic games, video discs, minicameras, home computers, the internet, online retail catalogues, online grocery shopping, internet banking and the end of print encyclopædias. He specifically mentions ‘The Book Of Predictions’ as something which would be superceded by online sources, and may well have had the books of lists in mind as well. Besides all that, he also envisaged the rise of extreme sports, the decline of paper book, newspaper and magazine publishing and self-driving cars.

There’s also an article on a Central Premonitions Registry, which is of considerable interest. The founder, Robert Nelson, had to sift through huge quantities of rubbish and religious rants against what he was doing, and found his work quite depressing as it involved endless doom mongery from the general public, but his aim was to find reliable predictors. One of them is included in the book, but only got one prediction correct – inflation falling to eight percent. However, he does mention one person who was quite remarkable. Arlene Handy was a poorly educated and barely literate woman whose letters were almost illegible. She claimed to be visited regularly by two spirits in her dreams who show her the future in her dreams. In the twelve years she wrote to Nelson, every prediction was wrong or impossible to understand except one. On 16th February 1973, she dreams that two figures in white turbans climbed over a two metre high fence in Khartoum and killed an American ambassador. On 2nd March that year, Cleo A Noel Jr, US ambassador to Sudan, was assassinated by two members of the Black September Movement after being kidnapped, with the details as predicted. So, the question arises, was this just pareidolia after the fact, a case of a hit due to sheer volume of material?

In 1982, OMNI reported that the most successful predictors were those who used both hemispheres of their brains to do so. Whereas this partakes of the whole hemisphericity myth, it’s possible to salvage something from this, and not absolutely necessary to posit precognitive abilities. What it means is that if you want to make a high proportion of successful predictions, your best bet would be to use both intuition, imagination and hunches and analysis, logic and extrapolation, i.e. the supposèd right and left brain functions. This sounds like good advice. The best strategies for successful prediction, or rather perceived successful prediction, are not the same as the best approach to real success in this area. It’s possible to make a large number of vague predictions, and then some of them will turn out to sound as if they’re correct. On the other hand, a degree of vagueness in the right way is not the same as dishonesty, but recognises that the future is substantially unknown, so for example the prediction of video on demand tailored to the user, made in this book, is essentially YouTube, but it’s an achievement to abstract it sufficiently from what was possible or thought of at the time to predict what would actually happen. Similarly with agents which choose content based on one’s previous preferences. Neither of these are dependent on knowing the details of internet browsers or web servers, but they are nonetheless significantly accurate almost because they’re vague, and that vagueness is not cheating which allows anyone to read something into the prediction with hindsight. If you are in some way embedded in a particular field, it seems that you’re likely to be good at making predictions in that field. This is true, for example, of Alfred Ellis and Arnold Brown. On the other hand, if the CIA guy can be taken at his word, he was heavily involved in intelligence work and it almost seems that it was that that led to him being unable to see the wood for the trees and making phenomenally incorrect forecasts about the state of the world. It’s also notable that some of the things everyone expects to happen really do happen, and nobody is really surprised, but maybe about half of the events most people would agree are bound to happen actually don’t, and it’s worth asking what the differences are between those two categories. It’s also important to be detached from one’s prejudices. Several of the most accurate predictors on here have a background which I find completely incompatible with my values, and on the other side, there appear to be, for whatever reason, accurate predictors who say they’re psychic, which would be hard for someone to swallow if they were of K-skeptical bent.

For what it’s worth, I do believe in precognition as a psionic ability as opposed to being merely a talent for guessing the future accurately based on rational processes resulting from information received through the scientifically recognised senses. The reason I believe this is that there are various events for which this is the simplest explanation, and up until fairly recently, the possibility that psionics exists was taken seriously in academia. The fact that it isn’t currently doesn’t make it any less valid. I’ve noticed other reviews of this book tend not to accept its accuracy in some areas. For instance, there’s a review on Goodreads which says only two percent of the predictions are correct, and this is a major underestimate. It’s also useful as a pointer to the superpredictors, and it’s worth listening to those who are still around and reading what else those who have passed on have to say, and also examining their lives, to work out what makes a good predictor. Hence the book is still worthwhile, and will doubtless still be in 2031 by which time the term will mainly have run its course.


As a Christian, I’m not supposed to believe in reincarnation. That said, there was a time before the emergence of Christian orthodoxy when many Christians did, and more recently the Cathars, for example, did believe it happened. There is also an allegation in the gospels that John The Baptist was a reincarnation of Elijah. Some Jewish mystics also believe in it. However, two things about this. Firstly, I’m not Christian in the sense of having faith in Christ as a living God and Saviour in human form because there seems to be a lot of evidence against the idea that the Holy Spirit exists. Secondly, although one’s knowledge and faith in the doctrines of one’s religion should be a guide, they should never be an excuse for dispassionate observation of the evidence or its lack regarding a possible fact of the matter. Ultimately, our only duty in this respect is to the truth, assuming truth to be absolute and bivalent, and that a correspondence theory of truth is correct rather than a coherence theory, and approaching something in this manner ultimately strengthens any justifiable faith. It’s part of a cycle.

I’m going to start from Christianity. An early argument I made to other Christians regarding reincarnation was that it seems to be more just than having just one shot at life, after which you’re either damned or saved. It gives one longer to commit to Christ or otherwise and enables one to make amends and have as many chances as are needed for salvation. As far as I know, though, no Protestant, Orthodox or Roman Catholic church today accepts the idea of reincarnation as a general process. This has apparently not always been the case. The Cathars were a twelfth century Gnostic Christian sect who believed humans were angels trapped in physical bodies who would not enter heaven until they were purified (hence the name, from the Greek καθαρσις), and until then we would be reincarnated. Cathar Perfects also always travelled as same-sex couples, which led others to attribute homosexual relations to them, although it isn’t clear whether this was defamatory or a fact. It was said to be to avoid sexual temptation. Unsurprisingly, the Cathars were persecuted by the Church. The Albigensian Crusade was conducted against them and they were massacred and executed. In fact their doctrine doesn’t appeal to me because they’re Gnostic, but I hope I don’t need to say that I consider their massacre to be a great evil. They may have been an invention of the Church as an excuse to kill lots of people. I’m not aware of the details here. As a thirteen year old I liked the idea of the Cathars and regarded myself as one because I saw myself as a Christian who believed in reincarnation. A friend of mine saw this as a very bad thing because of their apparent tolerance of homosexuality. They were influenced by the Bogomils and a group I’ve not otherwise heard of called the Paulicians. The Bogomils were also Gnostic and opposed to physical and institutional places of worship as their own bodies were considered to be temples, which makes no sense to me because they were supposed to be Gnostics, who believe matter is evil and see the body as a prison as far as I know.

There’s a widespread belief among both supporters and opponents of reincarnation, that the early Church accepted the belief, and in particular Origen of Alexandria, born 184 CE, is said to have implied that it happened. Origen certainly believed that souls existed before conception. He also believed in a succession of universes in which souls appear to become incarnated in each æon, so that definitely sounds like a form of reincarnation, although not in the sense that someone living in his time might still be around today in a different body so much as that after the end of this æon, a new world will be created and they would live a life then, just as they had before this æon.

The soul has neither beginning nor end. [They] come into this world strengthened by the victories or weakened by the defeats of their previous lives.

Falsely attributed to Origen but widely publicised.

It looks as if Origen’s cosmology has been vaguely passed on to people who later read into it what they wanted to hear, so when they hear the word “reincarnation”, more strictly μετεμψυχωσις, they tend to assume it means a soul living a series of lives in the same universe rather than having one instance per æon in a sequential multiverse. However, the fact that there were still Gnostic Christians around in the fourteenth century who had inherited their own beliefs from other religious groups suggests that there may have been an underground Gnostic movement which survived the early Church and, through all that time, maintained such a belief. In fact I’m wondering if Origen’s belief was in fact modified in the same manner as the popular misconception of it today has been, and that in fact they just plain did believe in reincarnation.

Judaism has a tendency to be quite positive in some places about beliefs which Muslims or Christians tend to clamp down upon. For instance, whereas orthodox Protestant and Roman Catholic churches usually reject divination outright nowadays, including the Kabbalah, Judaism not only embraces it as part of its own tradition but actually seems to prize it and encourage certain people, namely older men, to explore it. Jews do not perceive the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible – what Christians tend to call the Old Testament) to refer to reincarnation and the Talmud never refers to it either. However, the Karaites, a non-Rabbinical sect of Judaism which relies directly on the written Torah, believe in gilgul, “rolling” of the soul between bodies as they live out their lives. One reason for this is that it seems to explain the suffering of small children, because if they sinned in previous lives this can be seen as divine retribution. The Zohar refers to the idea several times, stating that a proud man (sic) might be reincarnated as an insect or worm. It also says Cain’s soul entered the body of Jethro and Abel’s the body of Moses. The Hasidim just plainly and explicitly believe in reincarnation and say that particularly enlightened individuals are able to remember previous lives. Apart from gilgul there is also dybbuk, which is spirit possession, and ʻibbur, which is where a soul enters a person’s mind from heaven to assist them. However, as far as I know observant Jews nowadays don’t usually believe in reincarnation. As usual, the specific beliefs of faithful and observant Judaism do vary considerably on this matter.

In the Christian New Testament, a claim is made that Jesus may be a reincarnation of Elijah.

 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

Malachi 4:5-6, New International Version

This is of course the Tanakh, but in the New Testament, the following passage, one of several, appears:

They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’

Matthew 16:14, New International Version

This at least suggests that many saw Jesus as an example of what was at some point referred to as ʻibbur, a soul descending from Heaven (which doesn’t seem to be a very Jewish concept incidentally) to help Jesus, or perhaps a plain and simple reincarnation of Elijah. This cannot, as far as I can tell, be reconciled with the later orthodoxy about the nature of Jesus Christ, but interestingly the phenomenon of ʻibbur is remarkably similar to Stapledon’s ideas in ‘Last And First Men’ and ‘Last Men In London’, and of course also somewhat similar to the idea of Bodhisattva.

So in the end, I think I would say that there is definite evidence for the acceptance of the idea of reincarnation in Judaism and heretical Christianity, and early on perhaps even in the embryonic Christian church itself. Of course that doesn’t mean reincarnation is a reality, but it’s just interesting that it isn’t as far from the Abrahamic tradition as is sometimes assumed. The Druze are another example of Abrahamic religionists who believe in it.

The spiritual home of the doctrine of reincarnation is of course generally perceived to be in South Asia, where it’s held to be true by Jains, Hindus, Buddhists and, perhaps surprisingly, Sikhs. Among them, the idea is more formalised and linked more explicitly to karma. Jainism, probably the most physicalist of all religions, sees the soul as weighed down by karma as a kind of subtle contaminating matter which sticks to it when one acts in such a way as to tie oneself to the cycle of life in the world below mokṣa, as with inflicting suffering, lying, theft or committing sexual misdeeds. Buddhism can sometimes analyse the soul completely away and just see things in terms of karma being passed on, and I will return to this as it seems quite significant to me. The idea of reincarnation in Hinduism is so familiar it isn’t worth going into here. It’s worth noting, though, that the link made between the moral quality of one’s life and reincarnation present in both Judaism and the dharmic faiths, and usually inherited in the West from this source, is not present in other parts of the world.

Pythagoras believed in reincarnation and passed the belief to other Ancient Greeks, and at the same time the religion of Orphism, which may have been influenced by Indian thought. Elsewhere in the world beliefs in reincarnation also exist, for instance among Native Americans and Australian Aboriginals. It could be that the religions of South Asia only happen to include belief in reincarnation because they better preserve a more universal ancient human tradition of spirituality than in many other places. In Siberia, children are given the names of dead relatives in the expectation that they receive their personalities. That said, other groups of peoples do believe in an afterlife instead, with no reincarnation, hence ancestor worship.

All that said, this needn’t imply that reincarnation actually happens. There are many near-universal beliefs which have turned out not to be so. Presumably at some point in the remote past, everyone assumed the world was flat, and everyone was wrong. But are we assuming here that those who do believe in reincarnation are in that particular aspect more ignorant than we are? For all we know, they were drawing conclusions on evidence that suggested that hypothesis. In a sense, the scientific method didn’t exist at that time but human beings were still capable of reasoning and used it to improve their quality of life, so why conclude they were wrong or merely superstitious? Why believe in reincarnation or an afterlife, or something else? It does stand to reason that fear or mere incomprehension that such a complex thing as a human personality and consciousness could cease to exist permanently with death, and therefore that the afterlife or reincarnation could be seen as rationalisations, but why choose one over the other? Does it say something about a culture which one they believe in? Are there other beliefs apart from extinction and oblivion?

I also have no idea which belief is more popular or whether they coexist in the same spiritual traditions.

A belief can be thoroughly explained as fulfilling some kind of emotional and social function without turning out to be incorrect. These two approaches are in different realms. In a less culturally integrated situation, belief in reincarnation can still satisfy some kind of need. One example of this is past life therapy. Here, a patient is hypnotised and regressed into time before their birth, at which point they may receive the impression of having lived other lives before this one. Dr Edith Fiore is one such practitioner. She has worked with countless people in this respect, making a connection between their current physical and mental conditions and experiences in their past lives. For instance, someone who suffered headaches might find she had been clubbed to death in a previous life or someone with a phobia of heights might find that they fell to their death previously. Now, I’m not convinced that these are real but I can see that it might help someone make sense of their life today to have these apparent explanations available and even that they might help resolve physical symptoms and illnesses to some extent. Fiore apparently went on to look at cases of spirit possession and alien abduction, which sets off my bogometer, but her work on past life therapy precedes these and I wonder what that’s about. I can still believe that this could be helpful even if it has no basis in reality. Fiore’s view seems to be that the soul has a fixed gender and passes from life to life, which manifests itself as someone mainly experiencing life as cis but without any necessary sense of incongruence or dysphoria when they’re trans. I can actually get on board with this in a limited sense because I think the cis/trans division isn’t primary. Rather, the division is between people for whom their perceived gender is significant and those for whom it isn’t, but of course I have a whole other blog devoted to that. I will just say two things here though. Firstly, I’m aware that there are gender-incongruent people who explain their condition as a soul of one gender in the body of a different sex, and secondly, I think most people who believe in souls also believe that they’re either not gendered at all or that they all have the same gender. I also have an issue with how non-binary and intersex people are supposed to fit into that picture. However, my point is that people in the here and now are using the concept of reincarnation as a therapeutic tool, to explain what they otherwise find inexplicable. However, past life regression often seems not to be historically accurate and may be confabulation. Even if the memories retrieved existed ready-made in the subject’s brain, the same may be true of dreams, and there is at least a lot of extraneous information in those which don’t correspond to waking life or anything in it. For instance, a couple of nights ago I dreamt my carpal bones are being guarded by a pack of dogs. This means nothing literally, though it probably does reflect my felt need to protect my arms from injury when moving my father around.

The notion of karma is another one of these. There is of course a cognitive bias called the “Just World Fallacy”, apparently also known as the “Just World Hypothesis”. This is the belief that life is fair. Consequently, when bad things happen to good people it’s sometimes because of something bad that they’ve done in the past, and doing good brings rewards. Sometimes karma is evoked to explain this, and before I go on I should state that I do in fact believe in karma but not in this way exactly. Sometimes, it seems more that a just and loving deity is acting to balance the scales of justice. A lot of this amounts to victim-blaming and self-aggrandisement, but the position of past lives is clearly evoked as one way to explain how, for example, a child might be born with a life-threatening health problem. I have to say that this particular version of karma is pretty irksome to me and can also come with a general negativity about life as found in, for example, Ayurvedic medicine, where reproduction and development are generally viewed in a negative light and by extension women are seen as inferior since they are thought of as the vessels for new life, i.e. a failure of a spirit to achieve nirvana. That’s a nauseating, disgusting view and I want no truck with it.

Some people do believe past life therapy is “real”, but that it doesn’t involve the patients’ own past lives. Rather, they see it as their minds reaching out into the past to find lives which resonate with their problems. This could explain, for example, the clichéed “I used to be Cleopatra” phenomenon. It is possible that someone felt an affinity with her and made that connection, and therefore that there is a genuine psychic connection which is not, however, the same as reincarnation. Or, much more simply, maybe they just have a strong desire to have lived a glamorous and important life, perhaps like that of Jayne Mansfield, who is of course someone I used to believe I was personally a reincarnation of. And as I’ve said, I do still feel, on seeing her eyes and face, that that’s me looking back at myself. A powerful impression, but not something which has any basis in reality. I’m not that delusional, or at least my beliefs are not delusional in that particular respect. It serves mainly as a reminder of how vivid these impressions can be.

The probability of any random person being a reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe, Cleopatra, Napoleon or any other famous individual is of course very low if identity survives death and the self is incarnated in a single body as a complete entity. I don’t know how many Hollywood stars there were in 1967 but I do know there were more than a million births between Mansfield’s death and my birth, so even if there were a thousand of them the chances are only a thousand to one. It didn’t happen. No matter how strong and eerie my feelings are when I see her in a film or a photo, I know this is an illusion, but it illustrates the power these impressions have over the mind.

There do appear to be genuine memories of past lives. For instance, there’s a case of a mediæval peasant in England who suffered a head injury and is said to have been able to speak only in Ancient Greek when he recovered consciousness, and the religious context of that makes it unlikely that he would have faked that. This is of course also anecdotal. It’s also common for children to spontaneously recall apparent past life memories. These occur whether or not there is a belief in reincarnation in their community or family, and fail to correlate with mental illness, and they also take place where there is no contact with mass media. These memories are usually reported between the ages of two and five and the children concerned often seem to have phobias and likes which don’t seem to result from learned experience since birth. Sometimes these apparent memories correspond to those of another person whose life can be discovered, and there may be birthmarks corresponding to injuries sustained in that person’s life. This sounds outlandish of course, but it’s backed up by studies undertaken by medical scientists and is not in this case just anecdotal or hearsay. There’s a list of peer-reviewed scientific papers here. This is not just a load of superstition.

I think there might be two coëxisting explanations for this which are akin to dreams. It’s probably best to describe dreams first. Daniel Dennett is prominent among the proponents of the idea that dreams are not experiences but false memories. I agree with this to some extent but don’t think they are best explained in this way because of lucid dreaming and the axes which Dennett has to grind. His own explanation of lucid dreaming is pretty poor and violates Ockham’s Razor. You’ll probably gather that I have little respect for Dennett’s thought. Even so, it’s plausible to me that in waking life, dreams are reconstructed memories from the brain state during REM sleep. However, this doesn’t stop dreams from being experiences but may indicate that the relationship between consciousness and time is different with dreaming than it is during wakefulness, and this is also a waking explanation for dreaming and shouldn’t be taken as authoritative because the waking state of consciousness is not the only one and may not be given a higher status than others. Past life memories in small children could be similar. The physical state of the brain in early life is analogous to someone who has just woken from a dream because it may contain various things experienced as impressions and memories which didn’t actually occur in the literal past, but in a projected past created as a result of the physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living. However, just as dreams are a different relationship between consciousness and reality than waking consciousness, preëxistence could be too.

The reminiscence bump is a peak in strong memories of one’s life. For most people it occurs between fifteen and twenty-five. That is, people tend to remember that decade of their lives more vividly than the rest. Oddly, this doesn’t correspond to the age people go back to when they have dementia, which is often their thirties. Anyway, like most other people I do have this reminiscence bump, which for me corresponds to the years from 1982-92. However, musically I have recently realised I have a previous apparent reminiscence bump I can’t account for. A couple of years ago, I attempted to identify how much of the ’60s I could actually remember, and unsurprisingly a lot of this involved singles which I remembered from when they were popular and first released rather than having heard them since. I wrote these down and found, very surprisingly, that they were almost all from May 1967, which is two to three months before I was born. My current explanation for this is that I heard them in the womb, although that may not make much sense because babies are apparently born with synæsthesia and fail to label their sensory experience as consisting of separate senses. However, it’s also true that transracial children who were exposed to the auditory environments of their birth mothers in utero have been shown to pick up their parental languages significantly faster than those of their adopted communities, which suggests that fetuses can hear. This raises another issue. When does reincarnation occur? If it’s after the second trimester, do premature babies have souls? There are two explanations I can think of for my musical reminiscence bump which are interesting as opposed to probable. One is that I simply remember them from hearing them in utero. This is actually quite problematic as many scientists would reject the possibility that the human brain is sufficiently organised at that time to do that, and also I’m not sure how clearly an ear immersed in amniotic fluid with more such fluid between it and the amnion, uterine wall and abdominal wall can hear music. Our daughter clearly could hear fireworks five months after conception, but loud bangs are not the only part of instrumental and vocal music. Another explanation is that these are the memories of someone who was old enough to recognise music and remember it, possibly my mother or even Jayne Mansfield, or more likely, someone who was adolescent to adult at the time. Perhaps this is part of someone else’s reminiscence bump, born between 1942 and 1952.

There seem to be two major problems with reincarnation. One is that we don’t seem to have memories of future lives or lives of entities elsewhere in the Universe. I should probably explain this. The passage of time as we perceive it seems to be associated with being living, conscious bodies of the kind we are, and in fact we don’t always perceive it at all. If there is a soul existing separately from the body, it would seem to be in a timeless state which doesn’t experience time as flowing. That would mean that incarnations of the soul are like the spines of a sea urchin, puncturing spacetime in various places but converging at a central point which is the soul itself, not subject to spacetime. If this is so, it might be expected that there’s no difference between a life in the nineteenth Christian century and one in the thirty-seventh, or life here on Earth and another in a Bernal sphere in the Andromeda Galaxy back in the Eocene. But we only seem to remember adjacent lives in the relatively recent past. We also don’t seem to recall contemporary lives, which is a bit odd as well. A partial explanation is that we tend to remember spatiotemporally adjacent lives better than ones which are more distant, and our memories of the future tend to be interpreted as precognition, visions, prophecies, whatever.

The other problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a soul in the sense used here. This is problematic in various ways, for instance it doesn’t seem to explain how God can exist or how we can apparently communicate with the dead, because even if that’s faked by Satan or demons they would still be incorporeal beings, in other words souls. However, there seems to be nothing about the human body which suggests it’s “haunted” by a ghost-like entity. There’s no sign of the brain being able to do anything which isn’t amenable to naturalistic explanation. From a religious perspective, the Bible definitely seems to deny that there are such things as souls quite clearly, so a Christian such as I ought to be physicalist, believing only in conscious lumps of matter called people. Therefore, there is a problem. How can reincarnation happen if there are no souls to be reincarnated?

I think a clue to the explanation lies in the possibility of precognition. If we have a convincing impression of life in the future after our own deaths, we usually don’t interpret it as a memory of a future life but as extrasensory perception. We asymmetrically interpret ESP, real or not, according to when and where its source seems to be. An impression of a contemporary distant event or object is generally understood to be remote viewing (assuming it’s visual) or telepathy. The same impression of a future event or object is interpreted as precognition or prophecy. But when we have apparent memories of a time before our conception, we call that reincarnation, or see it as evidence of that. What’s wrong with the idea that we simply receive impressions throughout space and time and just label them as belonging to us when they’re from the past? Alternatively, what’s wrong with the idea of seeing future memories as future reincarnations? Quite a lot in the other case, but if you believe in reincarnation, why wouldn’t you have memories of future lives as well as past ones? And rather chillingly, maybe the reason we don’t have memories of past lives away from this planet is that we’re alone in the Universe. Even so, it seems more likely that we just experience lives which are nearby in time and space.

I mentioned previously that not all Buddhists believe in souls, but they still believe in reincarnation. This is because they don’t conceive of anything which makes up a person continuing to exist after their death for more than a very short period of time, except for their influence on the world. I should point out at this stage that I’m recounting this from memory. It’s true that what one does in one’s life sends out ripples which leave their mark on the world, very obviously through having descendants for example, but in myriad other ways. This doesn’t require a non-naturalistic account, and it means that these ripples, which could be seen as karma, could converge on the as yet unborn. This is closer to how I see apparent reincarnation.

You’ve probably noticed that I’m not remotely sceptical about psychic abilities and the supernatural. This is because they seem to be part of my and other people’s everyday experience and there doesn’t seem to be a naturalistic explanation for them. For instance, on many occasions I’ve experienced the symptoms which clients have had several seconds before they contact me for the first time, and I had a dream on 15th September 1983 of events which appeared to involve people I had yet to meet with recognisable landmarks and buildings in Leicester, a city of which I then knew nothing and had no idea that I’d end up living there. Moreover, this is not confabulation as I wrote a detailed description of the dream in my diary at the time. I think probably most people have these kinds of experience as well as many others which are at first wanting of a boring explanation but eventually get one with some careful thought or analysis. One of these is that the sheer plethora or experiences is bound to turn up the occasional coincidence which will register with one’s pattern-recognition device, the human mind, when it seems to be significant but not with the many more which don’t. But given that I learned to predict when a new client was about to ring me based on these experiences, for example, this doesn’t seem to fall into that category. Nor do I think I’m unusual in that respect. I would expect most people to have these experiences but perhaps dismiss them or ignore them. I do the same with many of mine, but I do acknowledge that they happen.

As I’ve said, Ockham’s Razor needs to be applied to this. We seem to have impressions gathered non-naturalistically, but we sort these into separate categories according to when and where they occur, so we end up thinking that there are different phenomena involved: precognition, telepathy and reincarnation. Reincarnation is particularly problematic because it seems to require belief in a soul. The simplest explanation is that since there is no soul in that sense, our minds simply receive accurate impressions from elsewhere in time and space through means other than our recognised physical senses. It may not even be necessary to abandon metaphysical naturalism here. We can just acknowledge that they exist but that we don’t know how they can.

Olaf Stapledon Part II – The Jayne Mansfield Connection‽

DON’T STOP READING JUST BECAUSE OF THE TITLE! That’s for later. Oh, and massive spoiler warnings of course.

Yesterday I wrote a post about the SF author, philosopher and peace activist Olaf Stapledon. Once I’d “done” ‘Last And First Men’, ‘Star Maker’ and ‘Last Men In London’, I realised it was getting really long, so I decided to break it up. That said, I did start on ‘Odd John’, so I broke off in mid-flow and will now continue with that novel. And yes, unlike much of Stapledon’s fiction it is actually a novel with plot, characters and everything.

‘Odd John”s full title is ‘Odd John: A Story Between Jest And Earnest’. I’ve largely ignored the satirical element in Stapledon’s fiction up until now, but it’s there in spades, possibly even humour. This makes a lot of his work “between jest and earnest”. I can relate to that because someone once said of me that they could never tell if I was serious or not and I realised that often, neither could I. It may not be surprising that I can relate to this.

The novel is a biography written by a journalist, who is, however, claimed to be the same person as the narrator of ‘Last And First Men’. That, though, claims to be narrated by one of the Last Men from two thousand million years in the future, so the questions arise of whether this is just a slip by the author, and of whether the reader can justifiably see the novel as written by the journalist under the unconscious influence of that same Neptunian. It’s also possible, indeed likely within the setting of the novel itself, that John Wainwright is in fact influencing what the narrator is writing in some way, telepathically or just by very subtle psychological manipulation. He is after all seen to do this within the story, for instance with the businessman who invests in South Africa – “the money stayed in the Empire”. In fact that whole conversation between John and the Magnate is pure gold for a socialist, and another example of Stapledon’s satire. This can also be seen in the treatment of the subhuman descendants of the First Men by the monkeys and their refusal to put down pieces of gold, the hidden flavour-based racism of the Other Men, the face masks worn by the early Neptunians to hide their mouths because eating is considered obscene and sex is just widely accepted by the public as natural and normal, and in the whole “Gordelpus” fiasco and the limited understanding of science, philosophy and spirituality seen in the First World State. None of these, though, comes across as lecturing or axe-grinding, and they all fit well into the “plot”, if there is one. Okay, they fit well into the chronicle when there’s no real plot.

Back to ‘Odd John’. The novel describes the central character’s life from birth to his death at a young age. He’s said to have a distinctive laugh in certain situations few would find funny, and to have very probably laughed in the face of his death, which he anticipated well in advance. This laugh, I think, represents the same sentiment as the detached appreciation for all the lows and highs of life in the Universe Stapledon alludes to elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, John is home educated and his mother carries out the pretence of teaching for the sake of public scrutiny, but he is in fact an autonomous learner. He didn’t get on well at school. As he moves through childhood, he becomes an adept cat burglar, and starts inventing things to profit from the patents. Take note, this is significant for me personally – here’s the first sign of madness, ideas of reference specifically. An idea of reference is where an apparently insignificant detail is interpreted by a diagnosably psychotic person to refer to them directly or have other special personal significance, and in this case it’s conveniently protected from scrutiny. This is, though, the only idea of reference I’m aware of having, so I will move on for now. John then discovers, interestingly, that he can’t play the money markets in the same way as he’s able to succeed in other areas, because he’s completely taken in by scams and dishonest dealings, which brings to mind, as does the entire book, the suspicion, as I often feel with Stapledon’s accounts of “first men” who are early sports for Homo superior, the neurodiverse. Incidentally, it’s also this book which coined “Homo superior“, and I’ve previously talked about the genealogy of the concept from this via Arthur C Clarke to David Bowie.

One way of looking at this novel is that it’s about a superhuman character, but it diverts from the usual graphic novel-style depiction of the subject because unlike those superheroes, John actually decides to turn his back on the world at large and do his own thing, trying to find his own people and community – other superhumans. His aim is to live his life unimpeded, not to save the world. He’s also bisexual, and has relationships with women and men alike. This was published in 1935! He then sets off across the world in search of companions, and finds several, including a man who died thirty-five years earlier in Port Saïd who communicates with him telepathically across time. He also encounters an evil baby eighteen years old who seems to have a long term malevolent influence on the entire group and tries to drag him down to Hell. I’m not sure what to make of this except that Stapledon does seem to believe in the idea of an evil cosmic force, as some of his other writings show. He doesn’t seem to believe in a literal Hell. I think maybe this baby is supposed to be an extremely frustrated, extremely advanced superbeing who would take many decades to reach adulthood. One of his fellow commune members, Jacqueline, looks about thirty but is in fact over one hundred and sixty years of age and has an elderly daughter who seems easily old enough to be her mother. I think part of the point of this section of the novel is to present a survey of how people might evolve piecemeal into a more advanced species. Stapledon undoubtedly believes in theistic evolution with a goal, although it’s also true that human intelligence of a certain kind has indeed advanced in the past few million years.

After all these adventures, John and his friends do indeed succeed in setting up a utopian colony on an uninhabited Pacific island. This is a naturist multi-ethnic community able to hide itself by manipulating Earth’s magnetic field with concealed buildings in a rain forest. There is highly sophisticated technology on the island including a total matter-to-energy conversion generator controlled by the mind, and something which appears to convert atomic matter to dark matter, which seems out of place until you realise the concept of dark matter was first thought of by Kelvin in 1884. The narrator compares the atmosphere to a Quaker meeting, something of which I think we can presume Stapledon has considerable experience. Some time after this, an international expedition attempts to carry out a mass arrest and are repelled by a psychic attack from the commune. After that, the group bequeaths the results of its studies in written form to the human race and is attacked by mercenaries, unsuccessfully. John sends psychic visions to his mother Pax outlining their plan to destroy themselves and their island, and the plan is accomplished, rather like the self-killing of the flying humans on Venus in ‘Last And First Men’.

‘Odd John’ was, until recently, Stapledon’s only work whose film rights had been sold, and it got far enough that David McCallum was chosen to play John Wainwright and George Pal was going to direct. This was in 1967, and sadly nothing came of it. Then again, maybe it wouldn’t’ve been any good anyway.

For me, the most remarkable thing about this book is what others would regard as an idea of reference in Chapter VI, but which I see as an Easter egg. I won’t go into detail about what this is because I think that if it were to be revealed, it would cease to be able to perform its function, which it may have to do again in future, I hope many times. In order for this to happen, I need to be able to make a long-lasting impression, not necessarily a big one, on culture in my lifetime, and I believe I have now done this and am able to pass this on beyond my own lifetime. For it to work, however, it’s important that nobody else knows what it is. I told you this was going to go weird. It will be obvious to whoever needs to see it in a future generation.

Getting back to apparent sanity, we reach ‘Sirius’. This is said to be Stapledon’s most relatable novel, even though its central character is a dog. It’s remarkable for having a cover which, as is so often the case, reveals that the artist has never read the book:

Adrian Chesterman, 1979

That’s Plaxy and Sirius apparently. ‘Sirius: A Fantasy Of Love And Discord’ was published in 1944 and makes references to the Second World War. Along with the reference to Hitler in ‘Star Maker’ I often wonder how Stapledon felt about having made such a massive miscalculation in ‘Last And First Men’. Maybe I shouldn’t wonder. Maybe I already know. Another few preliminary remarks. James Herbert’s ‘Fluke’ is also about a superintelligent dog and I wonder if it was inspired by this, although I’ve never read it and it may turn out to be completely different. A friend of mine actually went so far as to name her child Plaxy because of this book. I’m certainly not aware that the name existed before Stapledon wrote this.

If I wanted to be dismissive, I would say this book is basically ‘Frankenstein’. The novel is set in North Wales. A scientist breeds dogs for increasingly human-like intelligence and injects pregnant bitches with a hormone that stimulates brain development. This usually kills the mother because it causes her brain to grow as well and fatally increases intracranial pressure. He succeeds in breeding very capable sheepdogs and making a living from them, and finally in producing one dog of human intelligence, who is born at about the same time as his daughter Plaxy. They form a very close relationship and Sirius, who lives far longer than a dog could be expected to, grows up with her. He is chiefly frustrated by having to live in a human world with a canine body, and by being the only one of his kind. However, he does succeed in having a relationship with a bitch and feels that he can kind of glimpse the person she would be if she had his kind of intelligence. He is apprenticed as a sheep dog, which he does really well, and manages to write and post a letter back to Plaxy. He also, and this is difficult, enters into a sexual relationship with Plaxy. Ultimately he is killed and I can’t remember how that happens. I don’t remember this as well as the previous ones.

Pacarane Political Party – will be removed on request

There’s a whole lot going on here. I want to mention first of all that although Sirius is described as a large Alsatian in the novel, I always saw him as a Shetland sheepdog, although an unusually large one. The name Sirius is very clever, because he’s the brightest star in the canine firmament. Returning to the name Plaxy, this is as I say very probably an invention of Stapledon’s because in ‘Odd John’, John Wainwright’s mother is called Pax, and whereas I can believe in someone being called that and presume it’s a real personal name, Plaxy is not a name I came across any real person being called until I met the actual, real life, person who had been given that name. It makes reading the novel a somewhat odd experience because of the association, and I have to keep reminding myself that the character in the novel is not the same person. The novel is, as I say, considered to be the most “human” and relatable story of all his work, and the irony of the central character being canine is not lost on readers of his other works here. The author sets himself a problem by attempting to describe the superhuman in most of his work, since that is by definition unimaginable, although he still manages quite well. In this novel, he solves this problem by pulling everything down a notch, and having a “subhuman” species become human-like. The similarities to ‘Flowers For Algernon’/’Charly’ are also apparent. Stapledon manages to take the supernality of his usual protagonists out of the equation here and examine the issue of being a misfit hampered by one’s physical limitations and that of society, and it can therefore be read as a metaphor for disability. Sirius is not simply a dog with a human voice. He can’t vocalise as most of us can and has developed a kind of argot which only those close to him can understand, although he understands English perfectly well. It also works well from a vegan perspective because one is forced to relate to a member of a different species face to face.

I’m going to have to discuss the bestiality. This is never explicitly portrayed but is clearly going on and I think is what results in his murder. Olaf Stapledon is no stranger to Gender and Sexual Minority content. At this point I’m going to have to refer to ‘Star Trek’. From a conservative perspective, ‘Star Trek’ is a filthy show where humans regularly practice bestiality, since inter-species sexual relationships are normative in it. Humans marry Vulcans, there are mixed-species characters and so forth. Taken from a certain viewpoint, wherewith I emphatically disagree, it’s a moral sewer. Imagine a show set on a ranch somewhere with people having sex with horses, sheep and dogs portrayed in a positive light. This would, I conjecture, have some difficulty with being greenlit on primetime TV. But in a sense that’s substantially what ‘Star Trek’ is: ‘Wagon Train’ in space where the human characters have sex with the horses. We never see it like that though, because there’s a crucial difference: informed consent. A real bitch or dog can’t give informed consent to sex with a human, but Sirius can. The other aspect of this issue, ethically, is that it engages the wisdom of disgust, so there are right and wrong reasons for opposing zoöphilia and one of them edges into racism from the perspective of the prejudiced person. In any case, I think this represents Stapledon’s remarkable anachronism, and again he may also be using it as a parallel to homophobia. As far as I can tell, Stapledon believes in utopian bisexuality, or possibly pansexuality since he portrays a world with ninety-six genders.

This novel is also markèdly unlike his other works in that its stage is very restricted. As far as I can remember it’s entirely set in a village in North Wales and the surrounding farmland. This reflects the restrictions in Sirius’s own life. There also seem to be parallels with Olaf Stapledon’s real relationship with his wife Agnes. Agnes Zena Miller was his cousin, born in Australia in 1894 and therefore eight years his junior, and they were friends from her childhood, at which point Olaf was already adult. I wonder if he felt disquiet at the age gap, the relatively close genetic relationship and the fact that they met when she was still decidedly a child, and I believe that the relationship between Plaxy and Sirius may reflect this. There’s also an incident in ‘Odd John’ when John, at the age of fifteen and looking like a twelve-year old, has a relationship with an adult woman called Europa. I just wonder. I also think that what we now think of as fair situations for including under the GSM/LGBTQIA+ umbrella have not always been the same, and therefore that Stapledon’s attitudes towards sex make us somewhat uncomfortable today because they appear to include pædophilia and zoöphilia. I needn’t remind you that until the early 1980s the Pædophile Information Exchange was supported by the National Council for Civil Liberties or that even in the later half of that decade one of the German Green Party’s policies was the legalisation of sex between adults and children. It disgusts us now but it didn’t back then, or at least the category of queerness had a different scope. As I said yesterday, he was very much a man of his times.

I now move on to what I think of as Stapledon’s more obscure writings. One of these is ‘The Flames’, or rather ‘The Flames: A Fantasy.” This is an epistolary story published in 1947, and is written from a mental hospital. A living flame has been trapped in a rock for millennia and is found by Cass, short for Cassandra but a man, who feels the urge to put the rock on the fire, thereby releasing the flame, who reveals after some time that it has caused Cass’s wife to kill herself and is manipulating conditions on Earth to make them more suitable for its species to thrive upon by, I think, attempting to cause a nuclear holocaust. It also wants him to be their ambassador to humanity. Cass extinguishes the flame and embarks on a mission to destroy all of its race, until he is sectioned after shutting down a furnace in a steam train factory. The letter’s recipient, Thos (for Doubting Thomas), visits Cass in hospital, where Cass claims to have established contact with the flames who are living on the Sun. At the end of the novel, Cass dies in a fire he started himself, burning down the asylum.

Probably the most significant theme in this novel, which incidentally seems to be motivated out of concern for the use of nuclear weapons, is that Cass is seen as psychotic because of his contact with the flame beings, and having that name, he is of course fated never to be believed. This idea of voices in the head being mistaken for a psychosis is also present in ‘Last Men In London’ and ‘Star Maker’. Authors are not their work, of course, and they don’t necessarily honestly entertain the ideas they put into novels, but clearly Stapledon is serious about some of them, for instance Communism is clearly what he sees as the ideal society and depicts Communist societies often in his work, and there also seems to be a link between his love life and his writing, often in a very healthy way.

The final work of fiction I’ve knowingly become familiar with is ‘Darkness And The Light’. This is unremittingly depressing. The 1942 novel seems influenced by being written in wartime. Stapledon envisages two possible futures stemming from what he calls a Tibetan Renaissance. One path leads to a dystopian nightmare and the degeneration and extinction of the species and the other to a socialist utopia. I only bothered to read the depressing bits! I don’t remember it clearly but it left me with the impression of being overwhelmingly pessimistic even compared to his other work. I probably shouldn’t’ve ignored the brighter side.

That concludes the fiction of his that I’ve read since my birth. The others are, as far as I know, ‘Old Man In New World’, which is about a man in the 1990s witnessing a parade where he notices that the seeds of jingoism and belligerence leading to the Second World War are once again germinating. ‘Four Encounters’ is an unfinished mainstream short story describing meetings with four people archetypal of the mystic, scientist, revolutionary and Christian.

With the exception of ‘Nebula Maker’, which is an early draft of ‘Star Maker’, I think that’s it for his fiction. Tell a lie, there’s also ‘Death Into Life’, which is about the afterlife. However, being a philosopher myself I’m also familiar with a lot of his non-fiction, including ‘Beyond The Isms’, ‘Philosophy And Living’ and ‘A Modern Theory Of Ethics’. This last is his PhD thesis, presented in 1929 and his first published prose. When I read it, I was surprised to find that it was uncannily similar to my own first degree dissertation ‘A Cognitivist And Consequentialist Theory Of Ethics’. It should probably be pointed out that this is a very common and hackneyed topic for undergraduate dissertations, and probably was back then as well, and it doesn’t bode well for a future career in academic philosophy. I presume that at the time it wasn’t a career-defining decision for Stapledon to write on this subject because unlike me he did actually go on to become a pro, as it were. ‘Philosophy And Living’ is a two-volume introduction to philosophy somewhat along the lines of something Russell might have written. I can’t really remember ‘Beyond The Isms’. There are some others such as ‘Waking World’ and ‘New Hope For Britain’ which I haven’t read.

Stapledon’s biggest claim to fame is probably that he was a major adversary to C S Lewis, to the extent that he included a version of him in his ‘Space Trilogy’, specifically ‘That Hideous Strength’. I don’t want to go into too much depth here but Stapledon’s depiction of the genocide of the Venerians in ‘Last And First Men’ very strongly negatively impressed Lewis because he felt he was too dismissive of them and regarded the Fifth Men’s natural supremacy as the only morally relevant point in the incident. In Stapledon’s defence, I would say that the human race was completely devastated and spiritually destroyed by that act, and they didn’t exactly get off lightly either. They knew it was an atrocity but felt they had no choice, and were fighting not only for their own survival but for the survival and growth of enlightenment in the Cosmos. They were not aware of any other sentient life forms in the Universe at any stage in their history apart from the Martians, who by this time were extinct, and for all they knew, that could’ve been the end of intelligence in the Cosmos. The Venerians were also doomed anyway. That said, I do see Lewis’s point. But Stapledon was a nice, gentle guy and also had a strong spiritual life. There’s no way he was the monster Lewis caricatured him as.

‘Last And First Men’ at least seems to have been influenced by the philosophy of Henri Bergson. I’m not aware of anyone else mentioning this, so maybe I’m wrong or maybe it’s just coincidence, but I mention it just in passing because I think there may be a link between their thought, although Bergson is in a very different tradition of philosophy than ours. Apart from that, there are a number of other interesting influences on his thought such as J D Bernal’s ‘The World, The Flesh And The Devil’, which is partly the inspiration for parts of ‘Star Maker’. But to me the most interesting figure, along with his ideas, is J W Dunne and his ‘An Experiment With Time’. J W Dunne thought up a theory of time called Serialism, which also influenced J B Priestley. This can be seen, for example, in ‘Time And The Conways’ and to a limited extent in ‘An Inspector Calls’. Serialism attempts to account for precognitive dreams by proposing that there’s a second time dimension along which consciousness operates which enables it to perceive past and future as well as the present. In dreams, the waking consciousness’s relationship with time is different and operates in a manner less constrained by the first time dimension as lived through progressively by the wakeful mind. The obvious problem with this is that there is an infinite regress of time dimensions. As well as influencing Stapledon’s writing, Serialism also seems to be an element in Tolkien’s idea of Lothlórien time, where it seems that time passes more slowly there, implied I hear by lunar phases, and of course in the Chronicles of Narnia, where time in Aslan’s world appears to pass more quickly than it does in ours. In fact, I can’t help thinking sometimes that the wardrobe does seem to be very much larger on the inside and leads those who walk through its doors to have a very peculiar relationship with time. Does that sound at all familiar?

These are all, of course, fictional devices although I get the impression that J B Priestley at least was pretty serious about his, since his plays don’t seem to be fantasy or even magic realism. Olaf Stapledon’s version of mental time travel is described in considerable depth in ‘Last Men In London’. After a ten-day period of isolation spent in study and meditation, the person concerned enters a trance which decouples their daily activities for maintenance of their health and fitness such as eating and exercise from their consciousness, which lasts thirty hours. After that point, the subject appears to fall asleep, but subjectively finds themselves experiencing at first a confused blizzard of experiences from arbitrary points in human history which gradually narrow down to the target mind living in a specific place and time. This can go on for months or even decades as far as an observer of the person’s body is concerned, but of course the consciousness of the individual concerned is experiencing at first hand the life of a different individual in the possibly very distant past.

If you know me face to face or in other situations, you will be aware that I’m quite focussed on dream work and lucid dreaming.

Jayne Mansfield

Here we go then. This may be the point at which you stop reading. It may even be a good idea to do so. Have you ever had a conversation with someone which appears to be going along in a fairly ordinary manner but then, as if they’re still talking about the weather, they start expressing their concern about a race of little people living in the trees which need to be legislated against (yes I did get that from Donald Fagen, in case you’re wondering)? Well that’s what’s about to happen to this blog post. You can still leave this post thinking I’m sane and that my contribution is, I hope, worthwhile and interesting. But do also feel free to accompany me on my descent into madness.

Jayne Mansfield is a 1950s movie icon who of course was tragically killed when her open-top car collided with the back of a lorry on 29th June 1967, causing her fatal brain trauma and immediately killing her. I was born thirty-one days later. On the night of her death, it’s said that someone spoke with her voice at the exact moment of her death. Unfortunately I have no further recollection of this story.

She’s almost exactly the same age as my mother, having been born Vera Jayne Palmer on 19th April 1933. Her IQ and mine have also been measured at exactly the same figure, but then IQs are pretty much meaningless in my opinion. She had a degree in physics and drama, and became a stage actor, playing in ‘The Crucible’. She’s been referred to as a “female female impersonator”. It isn’t clear to me whether she used her intelligence or not, but it does seem a shame that she didn’t get to use her physics degree. She bought a mansion on Sunset Boulevard which became known as the Pink Palace, in 1957, seven years after Stapledon’s sudden death from a heart attack. Her film career was at first successful but went into a decline. In the ’60s, she became a LaVeyan Satanist and Anton LaVey put a curse on her boyfriend Sam Brody, apparently to protect her from what he saw as Brody’s malign influence. Jayne was then involved in a car accident, she had her jewellery stolen, she was charged by the Venezuelan government with tax avoidance, robbed in Las Vegas and sexually assaulted by a mob in Rio. Brady then suffered a car accident on 22nd June 1967. After her death, she’s said to have haunted the Pink Palace. It was impossible to paint it a different colour in spite of investigations by experts on the science of paint. At her memorial service, a series of amber lamps suddenly brightened with no explanation. All the hair on the back of her daughter’s hair was torn out when it got wrapped round the axle of a toy electric car. People in the house reported a feeling of being watched. Mama Cass moved in some time later and died in her sleep of a heart attack in a hotel in London in 1974 at the age of thirty-two. The next occupant of the house felt the urge to bleach her hair blond and have breast enlargement surgery for reasons she was unable to explain and dress in some of the clothes still remaining in the house from Mansfield’s occupation, spent thousands of dollars on Mansfield memorabilia and finally heard a voice pleading with her to “get out” of the house, which she did so with considerable alacrity. Ringo Starr then bought the house and had the problem with attempting to have the pink paint covered up mentioned previously. He was followed by Engelbert Humperdinck, an ex of Mansfield’s, who concluded the house was not haunted but was a little perturbed when a quake revealed a heart shape in the garden, which was a favourite motif of hers. This, however, turned out to be a filled in paddling pool.

Why am I telling you this? Isn’t it parsecs away from the story of Stapledon? Well yes, on the whole, although they were contemporaries and there are spiritual concerns, plus there’s someone called Cass in both biographies, if ghosts can be said to have those. But the reason I mention this is that on hearing the story of Mansfield’s immediate haunting after her death, I began to believe I was her, that is, her reincarnation. This was substantially because the account I read got the date wrong and said she’d been killed the day before I was born. I have now completely discarded this idea. Even now though, when I look at photographs of her I still feel that I’m looking back at myself in them. It remains an uncanny experience. I definitely don’t feel like that when I look at Jean Shrimpton (who’s a close blood relative of some kind). It’s probably a process of auto-suggestion.

But there’s still the other issue, which doth unfix my hair.

William Olaf Stapledon had certain identity issues and an apparent belief in mental time travel. There are quite remarkable similarities between his PhD thesis and my first degree dissertation in spite of the fact that I hadn’t read his at the time I wrote mine. It’s possible, of course, that the influence of his thought on mine via his other writing succeeded in causing me to believe similar philosophical positions to his.

It’s very common indeed for people to “discover” that they are reincarnations of Cleopatra or some other famous historical figure from the distant past. I’m personally very sceptical about the idea of reincarnation because I don’t believe the self holds together as an entity even in life, except socially. Past life therapy, I believe, serves the purpose of creating a meaningful narrative for the client which helps them cope with their current circumstances. My own model of personal identity is that there is an underlying persistent identity within one’s own life, but that memories are more diffuse and disconnected, in a manner rather similar to Stapledon’s apparent view that he contained multitudes, perhaps even elements from elsewhere in the Universe or other times. I also believe that time travel is possible in dreams, because dreams as we apprehend them are not merely physical events in the brain. I have also myself experienced precognitive dreams which I wrote down the morning after I had them and were fulfilled several years later, and they corresponded to what I wrote down at the time, which I did to avoid the possibility that I might create false memories.

As I’ve said, I practice extensive dream work and sometimes dream lucidly. Last night’s dream is in fact lucid. I also recount dreams in the present tense because I believe they have a different relationship to time than our waking experience has. And, on one occasion, I have attempted to travel back in time using a lucid dream. Here it is:

I am in a dark multi-storey car park in Canterbury in the late 1960s, on the back seat of a car. Sitting in the front passenger seat is Olaf Stapledon. We have a conversation about his future and my present, which I think is probably the late 1990s at this point. Unfortunately, like the guy in Asimov’s ‘Birth Of A Notion’, I find myself unable to remember any facts at all about my waking present except that we now have decimal currency, so I fish a few coins out of my pocket and show him. He is mildly peeved and disappointed, and I am most apologetic.

Now I’m not saying that I’m definitely a reincarnation of Olaf Stapledon. Doing that would make me seem too special, and on the whole we’re all just faceless replicas in an impersonal universe. But I can’t account for the couple of sentences in ‘Odd John’ I mentioned before, and which of course I conveniently refuse to recount because I’ve used them to send a similar message to the future, so that makes them unfalsifiable in a pseudoscientific way. Nonetheless I do believe that somehow memories can be communicated between minds which exist at different places in space and time, and that I have in fact done this.

Feel free to call me crazy. Stapledon was himself quite afraid he might be judged as insane too. But also, ask yourself, what function this has in my life, and just because I’m delusional, is this more harmful or helpful to me and others. After all, happiness is often propped up by delusion and that’s healthy.