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Future Imperfect

Denis Solomon • 1,033 words

The man appointed by China to govern Hong Kong after July 1997 has chosen not to live in the British colonial Governor’s mansion, because Chinese geomancers have pronounced its feng shui (the influence of telluric currents on it because of its geographic orientation) to be unfavourable.

I wonder if their opinion would have been different if the mansion had not, over time, come to be hemmed in by high-rise commercial buildings, reducing its desirability as a dwelling. The predictions of the esoteric arts are all the better for a little push in the right direction. What better way for an official to pry loose funds for a new residence than to show that the future well-being of the territory in his charge depends on it?

The American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky says that there are two fundamental problems of human psychology. The first he calls “Plato’s problem”: how it is that human beings manage to make so much sense, in science, art and literature, of the fragmentary, obscure and confusing data by which they are surrounded. The second he calls “Orwell’s problem”: how it is that human beings, on the strength of evidence that should not fool a child, continue blindly to accept myth and superstition.

Human progress owes everything to the hard and disciplined exercise of reason, and nothing to the maunderings of soothsayers. But those capable of the hard and disciplined exercise of reason are always a tiny minority. The remainder are the matter of Orwell’s problem, seeking in religion and esoteric “science” one short cut after another to knowledge and power. Those of sufficient intellectual capacity to proffer justifications for their beliefs do it by resort to such phrases as “how little we know of the power of the human mind”.

This is the phrase used by Maxie Cuffie in his column in last weekend’s Independent, to justify his cautious interest in the “predictions” of “psychic” Yesenia Adams. The word “power” (like the word “psychic” for that matter) begs the question, which is precisely whether the human mind has powers beyond the generally recognised ones of ratiocination and imagination.

The research done by universities into “paranormal psychology” consists essentially of attempting to observe, under controlled conditions, the phenomena of which so much anecdotal “evidence” is heard: psychokinesis (the displacement of objects by psychic means) clairvoyance (unexplained knowledge, or prediction, of events) and telepathy (thought transmission). The experiments are banal in the extreme, and involve such procedures as attempts to forecast which cards are dealt from a pack.

In spite of several decades of research by such institutions as Duke University in North Carolina (one of the places where Harribance has been working, or being worked on) there has, needless to say, been no breakthrough. A relatively recent addition to the panoply of research tools has been brain scan technology, supplementing the older electroencephalographic tests, but, the brain being the complicated organ it is, with hardly any increase in understanding.

Maxie says that the report on the electrical activity of Harribance’s brain is as indecipherable as one of Nostradamus’ predictions, but shows that psychics have a different brain structure from that of other mortals. Maxie is wrong on two counts. Whatever the study shows it shows about Harribance’s brain, not about the brains of psychics. Secondly, the anomalies it shows are not of structure but of function.

Besides, I think Maxie is even wrong in calling the report indecipherable. I venture an interpretation, which I think for the purposes of the argument is as good as any: “Mr. Harribance’s brain has something wrong with it, but not seriously wrong”.

The interesting thing, for me as for Noam Chomsky, about psychics and such like persons is not their brains but the brains, or rather the mental processes, of those who believe in them. And far from being indecipherable, those processes are distressingly simple. A scientist, in testing a hypothesis, looks not for confirmation but for refutation. Double-blind procedures are used to safeguard experiments against the unconscious wishful thinking of the researcher. Once there is the slightest trace of counter-evidence, the hypothesis must be reformulated and re-tested. The average unscientific person seeks not refutation but confirmation. In other words he looks for evidence of what he would like to believe, and disregards, or denies the significance of, evidence to the contrary.

Soothsayers, whether knowingly or unconsciously, play upon this. A few accurate “predictions” will obscure the memory in eager-to-be-convinced disciples of a host of past inaccuracies.

I had a theory about the captaincy of Richie Richardson, which may be an enormous injustice to him but which I think illustrates another faith-creating device of the clairvoyants. Richardson was famous for his odd decisions about whether to bat on winning the toss, and was hailed as a strategic genius each time he made one and the West Indies won the match anyway. My uncharitable theory was that, knowing he had the best team in the world, he would make the opposite decision to the one expected of him, for the express purpose of boosting his reputation as a far-seeing strategist.

Yesenia Adams’ prediction that Republic would prevail over CLICO falls into this category: a single prediction carefully chosen to be counter to expectation will be just one mistaken prediction if it fails, but if it succeeds will be the jewel in her crown, especially if the other, less spectacular, forecasts are somewhat less than unlikely, or are couched in the habitually vague style of newspaper horoscopes.

What is constitutive of the future is not some blind chance or fate, to be divined in tea-leaves or cozened with bush-baths, but resolute and purposeful human activity. My admiration therefore does not go to psychics or spoon-benders, whether they are charlatans or, worse, believers in their own powers. I reserve my respect for people of action who, in the pursuit of their goals, will defy augury and let the chips fall where they may. Like the Roman admiral who, on the eve of a battle, was told the auguries were bad, because the sacred chickens would not eat. “Then let them drink”, he said, and chucked them overboard.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top