Friday, October 01, 2010

The powers of the human mind -- to transcend the ordinary

A friend and colleague, who is favorably predisposed to the anomalous and paranormal, suggested I read Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind, by Elizabeth Mayer, who unfortunately died just after completing the book.

If you are a fan of ESP, remote viewing, channeling, body auras, intercessory prayer, and so on, this is your book. If you've been impressed by works by Larry Dossey, Rupert Sheldrake, John Mack, Deepak Chopra, and so on, this will be your cup of tea.

Mayer comes across as a sincere, well-meaning investigator of the paranormal. But if you have a healthy regard for reproducible, non-anecdotal evidence, you won't find much of it here.

I have no desire to debunk a book whose author is no longer with us. And I am open to the idea that there may be much more to reality than we presently understand; in fact, I would say it’s a virtual certainity. So let me only say a few words about the title of Mayer's book, Extraordinary Knowing.

It seems to me that the author is actually making a case for ordinary knowing, if "ordinary" means commonplace. She is talking about the kind of knowing that has characterized most of human history, and is still dominant. Shamanism. Witchcraft. Voodoo. Intercessory prayer. Communication with the dead. Fortune telling. Clairvoyancy. Astrology. Magic. The presumed power of the human mind to directly control inanimate nature. The kind of knowing that Mayer is so keen to document is as commonplace as commonplace gets. As commonplace as the tabloid newspapers at the checkout counter of the supermarket.

You want extraordinary knowing, try science.

Try the science that for all of its missteps and occasional lapses gave us the universe of the DNA and the galaxies. Try the science that sequenced the human genome and mapped the radiation of the Big Bang. Try the science that gave us conventional modern medicine, the electricity grid, computers and the internet. Try the science that is deeply skeptical of the anomalous phenomena that Mayer describes.

I find more extraordinary knowing in any weekly issue of Science or Nature than in a bookstore full of best-sellers on the paranormal.