Robert Perry on A Course in Miracles, synchronicities, coincidences, life’s purpose, God and Jesus.
Posted on 20 March 2011, 16:49
This is an interview with author and researcher Robert Perry. I thank Robert for kindly accepting the interview. Enjoy.
1-Robert, tell us something about your background.
I grew up in Southern California and in my teens became interested in thinking about big questions, mostly about how the mind works and, eventually, what is its ultimate nature. I was trying to develop my own system to explain these things, based on introspection and logic. I hoped for a career as a kind of philosophical psychologist, rather naively ignoring the fact that this sort of thing had been out of vogue for a very long time! I got my degree in psychology in college and planned to go on and get a PhD, but my spiritual interests, which had developed in the meantime, intervened.
2-Why did you get interested in A Course in Miracles (ACIM)?
In my late teens, I had been active in my Lutheran church, but realized I had no rational basis for believing what I did. So I became interested in questions of spiritual truth. I explored the areas that so many of us have—mysticism, comparative religion, parapsychology, near-death experiences—and concluded that whenever a person got an experiential glimpse of something beyond the physical, he or she saw roughly the same worldview. Even though there were differences in what was glimpsed, the similarities in the basic view of reality really grabbed me, as I had never been taught anything remotely like this. I decided that either this view of reality was true or it had been hardwired into our brains by evolution. For various reasons I decided it was not an illusion produced by the brain, and my spiritual journey began.
A few years into this, I heard about A Course in Miracles, which my friends eventually bought for me for my twenty-first birthday. The Course both attracted and repulsed me. It alternately reinforced and went against the pictures of spiritual truth I had built up from other sources. Also, my spiritual roots were in the truth being glimpsed in many places, so focusing on one teaching felt like spiritual bigotry to me. However, over a period of several years, the Course slowly drew me in. Its reasoning convinced me, and I increasingly turned to its practical methods, simply because they worked better for me. I finally decided that it was my path.
During this time, I was asked to teach at a local Course in Miracles center, and the act of teaching the Course was also a factor in convincing me. Teaching at that center then led to being invited to speak elsewhere and to write articles for Course newsletters. One thing led to another and I eventually realized this was my career, and reluctantly let go of my dreams of being a philosophical psychologist.
3-Can you explain to us which are the essential teachings of ACIM?
The Course’s teachings are rooted in a certain view of reality. When it uses the word “reality,” it means a spiritual realm that is fundamentally different from this world. This spiritual realm is a kind of fusion of the pure oneness we associate with Eastern mysticism and the more personal elements found in Christian theology. In this timeless realm, we exist in perfect oneness with an unconditionally loving God.
However, in the distant past, we chose to separate from God, and this choice was projected outward and became the physical universe, which the Course sees as the outer picture of the wish to be separate. Thus, although this sounds very odd to our modern scientific sensibilities, the Course sees the universe as a psychological illusion, and also as ultimately life-denying. It is not an individual illusion; it is dreamt up by the countless minds of all living things. So it is a collective dream, and a rather vast and long-lasting one, but it is still just a dream, and ultimately just a tiny blip in the infinite minds of God’s children.
This all sounds very abstract and far from our daily concerns, but it is the basis for the Course’s practical message. We tend to see suffering as coming at us from the outside. The world doesn’t treat us very lovingly, and this, we think, is the problem. The Course, however, sees the daily attacks launched on us as illusory, as the outer projection of a hidden aggression within our own minds. We have identified with a false, attacking nature, and this is the real problem. Each day, we watch a stream of judgmental thoughts and uncaring behavior go forth from us, and this convinces us that we have hopelessly defiled our original purity. As a result, we unconsciously believe we deserve all the merciless treatment we get from the world. The Course says that all weeping is really weeping for our own lost innocence.
The way out of this deep-seated guilt is forgiveness. This is how we get back in touch with our original loving nature; we let go of the grudges that stand in the way of love. This is a different forgiveness, though, than the usual idea, in which we acknowledge that someone “sinned” but forgive them anyway. In the Course, forgiveness is a change in perception, in which we realize that our anger was based on a false view and so was never justified. We now see that attacking behavior, being part of an illusory world, has no power over us. We also realize that the attacking figure we see is not that person’s real nature, and so we look past it to a divine innocence and worth that remain unchanged. With these realizations, anger no longer makes sense.
As we become more forgiving, we devote ourselves to extending love to others. Through caring behavior we give them the message that their errors haven’t damaged their divine worth. This heals their unconscious guilt, and it also heals us. As we see genuine, selfless love go forth from us, we finally become convinced that we too must still be as pure as we were in the beginning with God. When this conviction becomes total, we wake up from the dream of this world, open our eyes, so to speak, in Heaven, and realize we have been there all along.
4-Has ACIM any practical applications?
The whole Course is geared toward practical change. Its second volume, the Workbook, trains a student in the Course’s spiritual discipline, which ultimately encloses one’s day in spiritual practice. This practice first aims at establishing a peaceful state of mind in the morning, primarily through meditation, and this then becomes the foundation for having a very different kind of day. During this day, we use other forms of spiritual practice for renewing the peaceful state we established in the morning, and also for protecting it from the various upsets that inevitably occur. We also are trained to frequently ask for inner guidance, which in my experience leads to much wiser and saner decisions.
5-Which is the concept of God in ACIM? Does it correspond to the concept of God in monotheistic religions like Christianity?
I think the Course’s view of God is one of the most beautiful things in it. I believe most of us sense that a God Who gets angry and punitive looks suspiciously like the projection of the human ego. On the other hand, an impersonal God Who is pure consciousness has always struck me as somehow less than a person. The Course manages to combine the best of both views, both the personal Creator and the impersonal Ground of being. In the Course’s view, God has the attributes of a person, in that He (again, the masculine pronoun is just a cultural convention) has a Mind, a Will, Thoughts, and even feelings. But in contrast to how we see a person, He is infinite, which means He is not bounded by a body or a form of any kind. And so those attributes I mentioned are also unbounded. Thus, His Thoughts are not fleeting little wisps but are instead eternal, limitless realities. And His Will is a power that has no second, nothing to stand in its way. It can only be gone against in the realm of illusions.
Also, because God is an infinite Person, He has none of the pettiness or divisiveness of the human ego. As a result, the judgmental, unloving, punitive side of the traditional God is completely absent. Therefore, this God is unbelievably loving and caring. The Course likens this Love at one point to the most loving mother imaginable: “He loves you as a mother loves her child; her only one, the only love she has, her all-in-all, extension of herself, as much a part of her as breath itself.” Yet even this earthly parallel, as extreme as it is, falls far short of the reality of God’s Love, for the Course claims that, strictly speaking, “there is no parallel in your experience of the world.”
Like the Christian God, the Course’s God does create. But He only creates spiritual beings who are like Himself and one with Him. He did not create the physical world. In a characteristically bold passage, the Course reviews the painful and unloving attributes of this world and says, “You but accuse Him of insanity, to think He made a world where such things seem to have reality. He is not mad. Yet only madness makes a world like this.”
6-Critics often ask a crucial question: which is the evidence supporting the belief that the words of psychologist Helen Schuman are the actual and true words, teachings and messages of Jesus? How do you respond to such critical question?
As you say, this is obviously a crucial question. In looking at the evidence, we encounter an initial problem, in that this Jesus does not at all fit the traditional image. He does not present himself as a savior who asks for belief in his saving acts and divine status. Rather, he comes across as a teacher who is trying to bring about a radical shift in perception. This is not the Jesus we grew up with, but oddly enough, this does fit the Jesus being uncovered by modern historical scholarship. This quote is from leading scholar Marcus Borg: “Rather strikingly, the most certain thing we know about Jesus according to the current scholarly consensus is that he was a teller of stories and a speaker of great one-liners whose purpose was the transformation of perception. At the center of his message was an invitation to see differently.” Any Course student who reads that quote would immediately feel hit between the eyes.
What New Testament scholars are uncovering is a radically different perception of the world that is contained in the most historically authentic of the gospel teachings. In the view of many scholars, this radical view is best contained in what is often called the Sayings Gospel Q, a hypothetical gospel which scholars believe was the source of much of the teaching in Matthew and Luke, and the main source of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. It is our oldest record of the Jesus tradition. The teachings in Q often sound incredibly Course-like. For example, here is one: “Love your enemies and pray for those persecuting you, so that you may become sons of your Father, for he raises his sun on bad and good and rains on the just and unjust.” Here, because God does not discriminate in his love between the good and bad, we shouldn’t either, to the point of loving the “bad” in our lives in the same way we love the “good.” This is such a different view than the traditional, yet it’s in striking agreement with the Course. (For those interested, I have contributed a chapter on these teachings in Q to an academic collection.)
In addition to these parallels with the historical Jesus, I see the author of the Course as an incomparable genius. That is obviously a subjective assessment, yet I believe that over time the Course will come to be generally recognized as a unique masterpiece. Its originality, wisdom, practicality, insight, and artistry really set it apart. Therefore, although there are many thinkers I have great respect for, my experience of the Course’s author is that he is on a whole different level. I have come to expect a level of mastery from him that I would be stunned to find in anyone else. This, as you might imagine, contributes to my sense that this really is Jesus.
If anyone is interested, I’ve explained at greater length my reasons for thinking the Course was written by Jesus in an article titled, “What if Jesus Really Did Write this?”
7-In your opinion, who was really Jesus of Nazareth?
If you look at our oldest and most historically reliable sayings from Jesus, he is virtually anonymous. He is simply the speaker of these teachings. And along with that, there is the implication that he has himself realized these teachings. Thus, just as he asks us to “enter” God’s kingdom, a state in which we live under God’s unconditional love and care and are immune to the brutalities of this world, so he himself seems to have entered this state. And just as he asks us to be an agent of the kingdom in this world, in which we bring to others its miraculous love, care and freedom, so that is what he did.
However, in the early decades after his death, you can see the focus slowly switch to Jesus himself and his exalted status and importance. I think this is a natural human tendency, but it was the beginning, I believe, of Christianity veering dramatically away from Jesus’ own focus.
Personally, I believe that Jesus had a unique grasp on the process of salvation, the process of transforming our minds and our world. I think countless teachers have penetrated this great question to one degree or another, and we should be grateful to all of them. However, I think that Jesus’ lofty vision of an unconditionally loving God and the radical implications of that for a transformed inner state, transformed relationships, and a transformed society, has immense significance for our world.
8-Do you think Jesus’ Resurrection is (probably) a fact?
I actually do. I think the evidence for it is surprisingly good, and should not be dismissed on the grounds that such a thing is impossible. I have found value in the arguments of conservative scholars on this, whose work I otherwise disagree with. I have especially been influenced by the testimony of Paul in this regard, who within a few years of Jesus’ death spoke with those who were there and witnessed the risen Jesus. And I have also been heavily influenced by the Shroud of Turin, the evidence for which is actually quite remarkable, notwithstanding the (now discredited) 1988 carbon dating.
However, once we decide the resurrection happened, we confront the most important question: What did it mean? If we interpret it in light of later Christianity, it becomes proof of the divinity of Jesus. I believe that instead, though, we should interpret it in light of Jesus’ own teachings. And in fact, it looks like something straight out of those teachings. Jesus constantly spoke about being in the kingdom, a state in which a person is immune to the assaults of the world because he is wrapped in God’s love and care. And isn’t that what we see in the resurrection? I view the resurrection, therefore, as what has been called a “parabolic act,” a lived-out parable, in which Jesus demonstrated an extreme version of what it means to be in the kingdom.
9-What do you think of Jesus’ disciples having experienced or “seen” Jesus, after his death? Do you think it has any natural explanation (like hallucinations), or some kind of paranormal or even supernatural explanation is more probable to be true?
In light of my last answer, it’s obvious that I opt for some sort of paranormal explanation. First, I think the evidence argues for an empty tomb. Then there is the fact of multiple sightings involving a number of people, including many people at once—Paul mentions five hundred at once. There is also the fact that his followers had no prior expectation of one person resurrecting—the resurrection was believed to be a collective event. Finally, there is the profound conviction those experiences imparted—they gave the disciples the strength to go out and preach and die for their faith. When you put all of these things together, I think the best explanation is that his followers saw something we would consider real.
10-You have researched and written about synchronicities and coincidences. You have argued for the probable existence of what you call “signs” or, more technically, Conjunctions of Meaningfully Parallel Events (CMPEs). Can you tell us how do you define CMPEs, and what objective criteria do you use to discern them from accidental or random coincidences?
In a typical synchronicity, you have two events that come together and just happen to share a striking similarity. The classic example is Carl Jung’s scarab, in which a patient was telling him a dream about a golden scarab, and then Jung heard a golden scarab beetle tapping at the window. You have two events—the telling of the dream and the arrival of the beetle—that share a single striking similarity: a golden scarab.
A CMPE is really an extreme version of this, which makes them much harder to explain away as random. You still have two events that come together in time. But rather than sharing one similarity, they share a long list of similarities. I call these parallels, and in a CMPE the two events will on average share about nine parallels. Further, these parallels will come together to tell a coherent story. And this story is a commentary on a situation of concern in one’s life. This situation will usually be quite relevant for the person at the moment, and it will typically be the focus of at least one of the events.
As you can see, this is a fairly specific phenomenon. And it’s quite a bit more specific and detailed than this bare-bones definition suggests. As such, real examples of it instantly stand out from garden variety synchronicities; they are a distinct breed. To measure this distinctness, I have devised a ten-item scale that assesses a possible CMPE along the lines of ten expected characteristics, and we are using that scale to measure the possible CMPEs we have collected in a recent pilot study we did.
It will help if I can give a brief example of a CMPE (which I relate in more detail on my blog). It’s fairly trivial but it’s easy to tell. Last summer my wife Nicola got out the red canister vacuum cleaner from the closet under the stairs and was vacuuming. Our daughter Miranda, who was then four years old and who has a lot of fears, expressed the fear that she would be sucked up. So Nicola spent some time explaining to her that wouldn’t happen and demonstrating what the vacuum could and couldn’t suck up.
A few minutes later, Nicola read Miranda a bedtime story, picked at random from a brand new book of fifty stories. In this story, there is also a family of little string people who live unnoticed on the floor in a house. This story also involves a red canister vacuum that is stored in the closet under the stairs. And it also has the little daughter in the (string) family express fear that she will get sucked up. Finally, her parent (in this case, her father) reassures her that that won’t happen. As you can probably see, rather than just one parallel between the events, there is a whole series of them. Also, the CMPE is about a relevant situation in our lives—how to deal with Miranda’s fears. Its advice is to do what the parents in the events did: patiently explain and ideally (as Nicola did) give a demonstration, showing that there’s nothing to fear.
11-Is there any scientific evidence in favor of the existence of CMPEs? Are they scientifically replicable phenomena?
Our pilot study was a first step in gathering scientific evidence about this phenomenon. We had seventeen participants, who we then educated in the model. They were instructed for a four-month period to look out for CMPEs and send in what they thought were examples. In the end, we collected sixteen genuine CMPEs and twenty-three failed ones. So we did find this phenomenon happening in the lives of our participants, and this is an initial suggestion of CMPEs being a real phenomenon that is genuinely happening out there in the world.
So the phenomenon can be investigated scientifically, and that is starting. At the same time, there are a couple hurdles to get over. One is that you cannot produce these things in a lab and you therefore have to rely on people’s testimony, something that skeptics are reluctant to do in a paranormal area like this. On the positive side, though, many CMPEs involve written or recorded events, like a newspaper article, a TV show, or an email. And sometimes you even have two written events that are time-stamped as well, like two emails showing up at the same time. So in those cases, you don’t have to rely on anyone’s subjective narrative.
The other difficulty is that processing a CMPE obviously has an element of subjectivity to it. However, what I have found is that those who have long experience with the phenomenon will independently handle the same CMPE in basically the same ways. For instance, I have tried this several times with the act of interpreting the meaning of a particular CMPE. I have interpreted it and then have given the basic information to a friend of mine to independently interpret. He and I regularly come up with roughly the same interpretation. I include a couple examples of this in my book so you can see for yourself. So this hurdle can be overcome. Right now, however, there are only a very few people who are qualified, and getting more such people will take time.
My hope, of course, is that scientific investigation of this phenomenon will continue and slowly build. I think it can make important contributions to our understanding of the world.
12-Is there any actual or plausible proposed mechanism to account for CMPEs?
Let me first say that this, in my mind, is a distinctly secondary concern. My main concern is that we have this phenomenon, one that seems to be a real, naturally-occurring phenomenon, so let’s investigate it.
Having said that, I do devote the final chapter of my book to this question. I explore a number of possible mechanisms, and settle on God, or something God-like, as the best fit for the evidence at this time. I realize this makes people immediately think that this whole thing was driven by a religious agenda from the start, but it really didn’t happen that way, and so I’d like to briefly tell the story of how I’ve ended up at the God explanation.
When CMPEs first started happening to me thirty-five years ago, I wasn’t particularly concerned with where they came from. In the back of my mind, I just pictured some sort of impersonal mechanism that somehow had access to the blueprint for my life. However, as I processed hundreds of these things over many years, this sense slowly grew in me that I was being spoken to. The fact is that CMPEs seem designed as a communication. Their basic structure is that they highlight a situation we’re concerned about and comment on it. And their commentary tends to be very wise, very far-seeing, and extremely consistent over time. Significantly, this consistency holds when different people have CMPEs about the same situation. As an example, in 2009, four CMPEs came over a two-week period. Two happened to me in Arizona. One happened to a friend in Georgia. And another happened to another friend in Missouri. And all four expressed the same specific and completely novel idea. This naturally gives the impression that these CMPEs were not generated by something confined to the individuals involved.
So over time, it just felt to me like some kind of mind was communicating with me, a mind that transcended the individual. For a number of reasons, some of which I’ve just mentioned, this mind has a God-like quality to it. So I found myself thinking more and more in terms of God. But what really cemented that in me was that the signs themselves started communicating that view. In fact, they were quite clear on it while I was still edging in that direction. For instance, they repeatedly said I should devote the last chapter of the book to this idea. And then when I did, I had a huge CMPE about it. While I was polishing that last chapter, a friend, who didn’t know I was working on anything like that, sent me an article from a Christian theologian who was sharing his own experience of feeling spoken to by God. The parallels between my chapter and this article were stunning—I counted over thirty. It was one of the most impressive CMPEs I’ve ever had. I tell the story in the book’s epilogue.
So that’s a brief account of how I got to this position. But as I said, my main concern is with the phenomenon itself, not with where it comes from.
13-Can CMPEs be useful to predict the future? And if it’s the case, does it conflict with free will?
I have a chapter in my book on this topic. Only the occasional CMPE will offer a flat prediction. Most of them are conditional: “If you do this, this will happen.” When they do offer straight predictions, I have found them to be pretty impressive. For instance, they repeatedly predicted what was coming in regard to the Course in Miracles copyright controversy that happened in the 90’s. They also told me things about my youngest daughter years before she was born. And this is not hindsight; these are things that I had written down ahead of time. However, they are definitely not infallible in this regard. I tell the story of a prediction in the book that fell flat on its face.
I don’t think their predictive ability conflicts with free will. I personally think the future is pretty malleable because of our choices. And this may explain why some of the predictions of CMPEs are either wrong or exaggerated. For instance, with the one I mentioned above that was clearly wrong, the signs made that prediction years ahead of time and then stopped talking about it, which is unusual for them. That made me wonder if perhaps the winds had shifted and that future was no longer slated to happen. Whether or not that was the story in this case, I do suspect that the future is a matter of probability, not certainty.
14-Do CMPEs provide evidence for God’s existence and, if it is the case, do they tell us something specific, original and reliable about God and life’s purpose?
As I said earlier, I think they are evidence for something God-like, something that transcends the individual and that can weave seemingly random events into intelligent patterns that offer wise, helpful commentary for our lives. To my mind, this is a new class of evidence in relation to God. We have always had internal spiritual experiences, but part of the value of CMPEs is that they consist of publicly observable events. We also have the anthropic principle, where the basic physics of the universe seems oddly fine-tuned for life, but of course, CMPEs are a very different kind of evidence than that. So I think they have something new to contribute to the question of God’s existence.
What do CMPEs tell us about God? Speaking personally, and assuming for the moment that they do come from God, CMPEs give me the sense that God is truly present in my life. Because of the wide range of topics they address, I get the feeling that God is concerned with literally everything in my life and that all of it is suffused with purpose. CMPEs push for constructive, forward movement in all areas of our lives, as if every area is meant to contribute to some larger goal. However, three areas stand out the most: Our relationships, our inner development, and our life purpose. CMPEs seem especially concerned with forward movement in those areas.
15-Do you think there is good evidence for the existence of an afterlife? Can CMPEs tell us something about it?
I think there is very solid evidence for the existence of an afterlife, but I see that as coming from phenomena other than CMPEs. I can’t think of any direct contribution they could make to that issue. That being said, Bruce Greyson, one of the main researchers of near-death experiences since the beginning, said in his review of my book, “Perry’s model for making sense of CMPEs may be applicable as well to validating NDEs.”
16-Does the existence of CMPEs conflict with contemporary evolutionary theory, which suggests that no objective purpose in life and nature exist at all?
I’ve pondered this for a long time. I am no biologist, but from what I know, you don’t need a supernatural force to explain evolution. I find the process proposed by biologists as believable in part because it seems so similar to how a lot of things work on earth—the strongest and cleverest survive and propagate, and the other guys get wiped out. I don’t think you need God to explain that. In fact, I personally don’t want to make God the author of evolution, because it is a brutal and bloody business. It is essentially amoral. No matter how good and worthy you are, if I am strong enough to crush you and yours, my genes will carry the future and your line will be finished. Do we want a God that sets up a system like that? At that point, God is like the emperor presiding over the gladiator games at the Coliseum.
However, even if evolution would still proceed without any higher influence, that is not to say that God is not a player in the process and does not exert influence at key junctures. That is much like what I believe I see happening with CMPEs. Life goes along. People jostle for position, and the ones with the sharpest elbows tend to win the day. But every now and then, amidst the mess, events come together in ways that seem like a visitation from above. That’s what I see in ordinary life, so who knows, maybe evolution works that way, too.
17-Do you think that being aware of the existence CMPEs in our lives can be useful to our everyday life (e.g. to solve problems) and, more importantly, for our spiritual evolution?
In my life, they have been literally invaluable, for concerns ranging from mundane problems to loftier issues like spiritual development, and from specific decisions to long-term directions. I have no way of calculating what I owe to their counsel. They paint a picture of my life, both in details and in the broad strokes, and I try to follow that picture as my blueprint. Both my wife and I rely on them quite heavily, simply because they have earned our trust over time. And while I think we currently are in a unique position in regard to them, I have seen many others experience tremendous benefit from them as well.
18-What suggestions and tips would you give to our readers in order to help them to identify CMPEs in their own lives?
Probably my main tip would be to read the book and do the exercises in the backs of the early chapters. It takes a while to get used to the model. It’s a new concept, and new concepts need lots of explanation and examples before they stick.
In lieu of that, my advice is to watch for what I call the “Huh, that’s weird” reaction. When two similar events happen to bump into each other, something in our mind usually registers that. We think, “Well, that was odd.” But then we typically dismiss that reaction, and not long after, forget the whole thing. It vanishes from memory.
The key is to focus in on that reaction, and then to look carefully at the actual similarity between the two events. There will generally be one or two striking similarities, or you wouldn’t have had that “huh” reaction. But the crucial test is whether you can then notice additional parallels beyond that. You should expect to see a whole “cloud” of less noticeable, more general parallels surrounding the more specific and obvious ones you noticed at first. When you see that combination—striking specific parallels surrounded by more general ones—chances are you have a real CMPE.
19-In addition to your books, what other books on these and related topics would you like to recommend to the readers?
I recommend the work of Marcus Borg in relation to the historical Jesus, especially Jesus: A New Vision, and also the work of the Jesus Seminar, especially in The Five Gospels, Profiles of Jesus, and The Gospel of Jesus: According to the Jesus Seminar. I also recommend the work of James Robinson in regard to the Sayings Gospel Q, especially The Gospel of Jesus: In Search of the Original Good News. For a more academic exploration of Q, see John Kloppenborg’s work, for instance, The Formation of Q: Trajectories in Ancient Wisdom Collections, and also James Robinson’s Jesus: According to the Earliest Witness. On the resurrection, I recommend debates between William Lane Craig and liberal scholars, such as Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?: A Debate between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan (even though on other topics I side with the liberals). In regard to CMPEs, my book is the first exploration of this topic, but I hope not the last. In regard to A Course in Miracles, I unfortunately can only recommend work by myself, Greg Mackie, and Allen Watson, all of whom come out of the Circle of Atonement, just because a tradition that emphasizes careful, non-dogmatic fidelity to the words of the Course has not yet developed.
20-Would you like to add something else to end the interview?
It has actually been a real pleasure to be able to talk about the things that matter most to me. I have never had the opportunity to talk about A Course in Miracles, the historical Jesus, and CMPEs all at once. So I have truly appreciated the opportunity you’ve afforded me here. Thank you very much.
Links of interest:
-Website “Circle of Atonement” (dedicated to A Course in Miracles)
Article Courtesy of Jime @ http://subversivethinking.blogspot.com/
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How Richard Wiseman Nullifies Positive Results and What to Do about it. By Chris Carter
Posted on 14 March 2011, 18:13
Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 74: 156-167 (2010)
“Heads I Lose, Tails You Win”, Or, How Richard Wiseman Nullifies Positive Results, and What to Do about It: A Response to Wiseman’s (2010) Critique of Parapsychology by Chris Carter
Psychologist Richard Wiseman is a well-known British critic of parapsychology, frequently appearing in the British media to “debunk” psychic research. In his recent (January/February 2010) Skeptical Inquirer article “‘Heads I Win, Tails You Lose’: How Parapsychologists Nullify Null Results”, Wiseman argues that parapsychologists have tended to view positive results as supporting the existence of psi, yet have adopted various strategies to ensure that null results do not count as evidence for the non-existence of psi. However, I am going to demonstrate that throughout Wiseman’s career, he has tended to adopt a “heads I win, tails you lose” approach to parapsychology’s research findings, viewing null results as evidence against the psi hypothesis, while attempting to ensure that positive results do not count as evidence for it.
In his article Wiseman levels the following criticisms against parapsycholgists:
• “Cherry Picking New Procedures”. By this Wiseman means that positive findings in parapsychology have “emerged from a mass of nonsignificant studies. Nevertheless, they are more likely than nonsignificant studies to be presented at a conference or
published in a journal”.
• “Explain Away Unsuccessful Attempted Replications.” Wiseman argues that parapsychologists come up with various excuses for not accepting failures to replicate positive results as evidence for the nonexistence of psi.
• “Meta-Analyses and Retrospective Data Selection”. Wiseman argues that meta-analysis provides evidence against the existence of psi, but that parapsychologists retrospectively decide only to analyze data that fits with the existence of psi.
Cherry Picking New Procedures
In this section Wiseman wrote:
Parapsychologists frequently create and test new experimental procedures in an attempt to produce laboratory evidence for psi. Most of these studies do not yield significant results. However …they are either never published … or are quietly forgotten even if they make it into a journal or conference proceedings. (Wiseman, p. 37)
But how does Wiseman know that “most of these studies do not yield significant results”? He provided not a shred of evidence for these claims, yet continued:
Once in a while one of these studies produces significant results. …the evidential status of these positive findings is problematic to judge because they have emerged from a mass of non-significant studies. Nevertheless they are more likely than
non-significant studies to be presented at a conference or published in a journal. (Wiseman, p. 37)
Again, Wiseman offered no supporting evidence for these claims. When he remarked that “The evidential status of these positive findings is problematic to judge because they have emerged from a mass of non-significant studies”, he refers to what is known as the “file-drawer” problem: the likelihood that successful studies are more likely to be published than unsuccessful studies, which are more likely to end up discarded in someone’s file drawer.
It has long been believed that in all fields there may be a bias in favor of reporting and publishing studies with positive outcomes. Given the controversial nature of their subject, parapsychologists were among the first to become sensitive to this problem, and in 1975 the Parapsychological Association adopted a policy opposing the withholding of non-significant data, a policy unique among the sciences. In addition, the skeptical British psychologist Susan Blackmore (1980) conducted a survey of parapsychologists to see if there was a bias in favor of reporting successful ganzfeld results, and concluded that there was none.
Still, since it is impossible in principle to know how many unreported studies may be sitting in file drawers, meta-analysis provides a technique to calculate just how many unreported, non-significant ganzfeld studies would be needed to reduce the reported outcomes to chance levels. In a ganzfeld debate between skeptic Ray Hyman and parapsychologist Charles Honorton, Hyman had raised the possibility that the positive results were due to selective reporting. However, once Honorton calculated that the results could only be explained away by a ratio of unreported-to-reported studies of approximately fifteen to one, it is not surprising that Hyman concurred with Honorton that selective reporting could not explain the significance of the results. (Hyman and Honorton, 1986, page 352)
In the following case Wiseman seems to engage in a “cherry picking procedure” of his own:
The Natasha Demkina Case
In September 2004 Wiseman took part in a classic debunking exercise, claiming that a young Russian girl who had seemingly psychic powers of medical diagnosis had failed a test he and his fellow skeptics designed. In fact, the girl scored at a level well above chance.
Natasha Demkina, then 17 years old, claimed that she could look deep inside peoples’ bodies, examine their organs, and spot when something was wrong. As part of a test broadcast on television by the Discovery Channel, Natasha was given a set of seven cards, with a medical condition indicated on each. Medical subjects with these seven conditions (one of which was “no condition”), each bearing an identifying number, stood in a row and Natasha had to mark each card with the number of the person whom she thought had the condition indicated on the card. Under the tightly-controlled conditions imposed by the experimenters, she identified four of the seven correctly. The odds of getting 4 hits or more out of 7 by chance are more than 50 to 1 against. Another way of expressing this would be to say the probability that the null hypothesis is correct – that is, that Natasha displayed no genuine ability but merely got lucky – is less than 2 percent. However, Wiseman declared the test a “failure.” He was only able to do this because the experimental protocol, to which Natasha and her agent had been asked to agree, curiously states:
“If Natasha correctly matches fewer than 5 target medical conditions, then the Test Proctor will declare that results are more consistent with chance guessing and does not support any belief in her claimed abilities.”
Accordingly, it was announced that Natasha had “failed the test”. Brian Josephson, a Nobel Laureate in physics, investigated Wiseman’s claims about this test and found them to be seriously misleading. http://www.tcm.phy.cam.ac.uk/~bdj10/propaganda/
Keith Rennolls, Professor of Applied Statistics, University of Greenwich wrote a letter that appears in the 2004 December 17th issue of the Times Higher Education Supplement. In part it reads: I have reviewed Professor Josephson’s arguments, published on his web page, and findthem to be scientifically and statistically correct. In contrast, the statement of Professor Wiseman, of CSICOP, ‘I don’t see how you could argue there’s anything wrong with having to get five out of seven when she agrees with the target in advance’, demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of how experimental data should be interpreted statistically.
The experiment is woefully inadequate in many ways. The chance of the observed 4 successes 7 subjects by pure guessing is 1 in 78, an indication of a significantly non-random result, as claimed by Professor Josephson. The experiment, as designed, had high chances of failing to detect important effects.
Here we have a case in which Wiseman nullified a positive result by arbitrarily ignoring the fact that the girl scored at a level commonly accepted in scientific experiments as strongly and significantly above what chance alone would predict. In other words, Wiseman “cherry picked” an experimental design that had high chances of failing to detect important effects.
Explain Away Unsuccessful Attempted Replications
Regarding follow-up studies of successful psi experiments, Wiseman complained:
However, any failure to replicate [the original effect] can be attributed to the procedural modifications rather than to the nonexistence of psi. Perhaps the most far-reaching version of this “get out of a null effect free” card involves an appeal to the
“experimenter effect,” wherein any negative findings are attributed to the psi inhibitory nature of the researchers running the study. (Wiseman, p. 37)
It is somewhat hypocritical for him to dismiss appeals to experimenter effects, especially remarks about psi-inhibitory effects, since one of the best documented studies demonstrating this effect involves himself. (Wiseman & Schlitz, 1997) Wiseman and Marilyn Schlitz ran identical studies in the same location using the same equipment, in order to see if participants could detect whether or not the experimenter was staring at them. Wiseman’s results were not significantly different from chance, while experiments involving Schlitz produced results significantly higher than chance would predict.
In the following case Wiseman attempted to explain away a potentially embarrassing successful replication.
A Dog that Knew when its Owner was Coming Home.
One of Wiseman’s most highly publicized experiments concerned a dog named Jaytee. His owner, Pamela Smart, claimed that the dog could anticipate her arrival home. Pam’s parents noticed that Jaytee seemed to anticipate Pam’s return, even when Pam returned at completely unpredictable times. It seemed as though Jaytee would begin waiting by the window at about the time she set off on her homeward journey (the following was first described in Sheldrake, 1999a, 1999b and Sheldrake 2000).
In April 1994 Pam read an article in the Sunday Telegraph about research into animals that seem to know when their owners were coming home, being undertaken by biologist Rupert Sheldrake. She contacted Sheldrake and volunteered to take part in his research.
After receiving a grant from the Lifebridge Foundation of New York, Sheldrake began videotaped experiments with Jaytee in May 1995. Between May 1995 and July 1996, thirty videotapes were made of Jaytee’s behavior under natural conditions while Pam was out and about. Pam’s parents were not told when she would be returning, and Pam usually was not sure herelf. The results showed that Jaytee waited at the window far more when Pam was on her way home than when she was not, and this difference was highly statistically significant (p
The researchers discovered early that Jaytee responded even when Pam set off at randomly selected times. This was an important discovery, as it seemed to clearly rule out an explanation based upon routine, or expectations based upon the behavior of her parents. Consequently, twelve more experiments were videotaped in which Pam returned home at random times, determined by the throw of dice after she had left her home.
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