"Lives of the Psychics" and "The Second Creation"

By Frank Browning


Salon Staff
August 1, 2000 11:17PM (UTC)

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Frank Browning, in a review of my book, "Lives of the Psychics," is more confused and bad tempered than any critic has a right to be. His confusions on method are just embarrassing. To all thoughtful people there is a difference between presenting and endorsing a belief. In simple kindergarten terms, the anthropologist who studies and delineates beliefs of any kind is not signing off on them. I present material drawn from ethnographic interviews with individuals on all sides of a conventional material-spiritual divide. The book is not an endorsement of any of these views, nor am I a "booster" for any of the subjects I interviewed.

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I believe that some of my interview subjects are wrong. But this judgment is not a part of what I am doing. The consideration driving the work is that human experience is filled with anomalies that we cannot explain in any complete fashion, and these anomalies can be accommodated with both material and spiritual models (that's what makes them interesting). How to adjudicate and rank these rival explanatory models is the organizing theoretical frame for my book, not support for, or condemnation of, psychic views. I try to scan different research areas for evidence and arguments in this ranking exercise, maybe too many areas for the critic.

Browning's understanding of science is ... limited. He relies on a simple, non-reflective science that he uses to whack away at my examination of alternative realities, but it is this narrow version of science that blinds him on research agendas. Yes, the signature statement of science is a willingness to falsify all propositions. But the actual practices that dismiss and retain hypotheses remind us that there is no pure science that escapes the shaping influences of culture. I kept thinking of a sentence in Frommer's guidebook on Paris urging visitors to view the city from the top level of the Eiffel Tower: "On a clear day, you can see the entire city, but you face an epistemological problem: What is a view of Paris worth that doesn't take in the Eiffel Tower?" Maybe the news hasn't reached the farm yet, but the best science is aware of its positioning and limits, and includes pictures that examine its Eiffel Towers. A vast literature in philosophy of science, from Popper and Lakatos through Kuhn and others, discusses the great complexities in settling on a critical test to falsify statements, with a growing recognition that intuitive judgments are part of science in explaining how certain statements are protected from dismissal, and others allowed to fall away.

The important point here is that resistance to the unseen in our culture is part of our unspoken and intuitive beliefs about the scope and logic of reality, and these beliefs inevitably enter and inform our scientific judgments. They shape what we retain and falsify. More: Speculation at any moment in history on what counts as the supernatural, the limits of the real and its inventory of objects, is consistent with science. This may help explain why so many of our great scientists sometimes talk like mystics: Newton, Einstein, Feynman, Hawking (when he speaks of God's mind). The truth is that our best science is mysterious at the core, and current physics has issued a promissory note for a world without the traditional hostilities between the material and the spiritual. The metaphysical basis of all science is something great scientists seem always to recognize. Not Browning.

Finally, the writer's central question to the critic: Why not read the text as it is written? For example, I do not use the story of my daughter's dream as a "psychic insight" or "proof of a second psychic reality" but as a token for uncertainty, and one of the anomalies that (as I say in the preface) admits rival explanations. Nor do I categorize Copernicus as an intuitive psychic (and it was Galileo who supplied the evidence, not Copernicus). And so on. Reading a Browning review is like reading tabloid material. He simply makes things up. I do explore the possibility of alternative realities, but not with anecdotes or the interview material. I very tentatively offer a theory of limits drawn up from arguments developed in the first and last two chapters.

Browning gives no indication that he has read the text, or anything else, on consciousness, neurology, bounded rationality, the heterogeneity of science, the irrelevance of material-spiritual polarities, the importance of falsification, nor any material on out-of-body, near death and mystical experiences. If, for example, he had scanned any of the recent literatures on consciousness he would not utter silly references to Cartesian reasoning. This is a critic whose work is a paean for good science? I may be right or wrong in my arguments on alternative realities, but we'll never know from a critic who is overly preoccupied with writing quotable phrases, and who loves to score hit-and-run points on sentences plucked from context.

I ask myself, how can a critic be so irresponsible and yet so sure of himself (the old saying -- always wrong, but never in doubt)? Maybe Browning has spent too many hours studying Mendelian genetics, maybe botany is not the best background for commentary on physics or metaphysics. I don't know his work in science. I just wish he would read more in the areas where he poses as competent.

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-- Fred Frohock


Salon Staff

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