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What sparked your interest in psychical research?

I was raised as a nominally orthodox Jew, but rejected it in favour of what Professor Joad, the populist philosopher of the wartime years, described as positive agnosticism. I had left school prematurely, at 16, when my London home was bombed, my father killed, and my widowed mother left to fend for herself, so I became a journalist (at £1.00 a week!) to help support her. Having a somewhat precocious bent for the abstract, I was intrigued by claims made by friends on behalf of a young Irish clairvoyant, Tom Corbett, later among the most famous mediums in the UK. He gave readings to West End actors, many of whom were willing to tell me their stories, and sign statements, in return for being entertained to lunch in the House of Commons, where I was then working as a political journalist. This convinced me that, among the dross, there were nuggets of veridical predictions, some of which could not be written off as chance. I became, and remain, fascinated by the problem of time, as evidenced by cases of precognition.

What is your current position relative to survival of consciousness at death?

I can't any longer doubt it, intellectually. By that I mean that I am not a naturally spiritual person, and certainly not psychic. I have had no personal traumas, vivid revelations, life-saving premonitions, ghostly visitations and the usual experiences which persuade most people of the existence of a greater reality beyond this world: my approach has been cerebral, not emotional. I don't think that makes it any better, or worse: it's just the way I am. From the outset I've been an evidence man, although until the last ten or so years I really didn't think or read deeply about the issue of survival. The good fortune of finding myself involved in the investigation of the Scole group of physical mediums forced me to confront the evidence more intensely than can be achieved simply by reading about it — although I can now see how grievously that evidence has been neglected, and how powerful and revealing some of it is.

In your winning Ashby paper, you point to the cross-correspondence cases as the most persuasive evidence for the survival of human personality, but you state that because of their complexity the communicators apparently did not accomplish what they had intended. Is there any hope for resurrecting the cross-correspondences, reassessing their evidential worth, and putting them in language that can be understood be ordinary minds?

Yes, in mountaineering terms, the cross-correspondences are the North Face of the Eiger, and it's not surprising that few if any people now have the time, qualifications, incentive or stamina to tackle them. My involvement, as ever, was really fortuitous. I was invited by a distinguished colleague, Professor Archie Roy, the astronomer, with whom I had worked closely for some years when investigating the crop circle phenomena, to join him in examining some new material, hitherto suppressed, relating to an almost entirely unknown and completely ignored aspect of the cross correspondences known as The Plan. Archie is writing a book about it; I am doing the more academic study. Our view is that this strengthens still further the evidence not merely for survival but for intelligent, albeit in this case misguided, intervention in human affairs from beyond the grave. For personal reasons, completion of our task is held up during the lifetime of someone born in 1909, but we expect to make the fresh evidence available after his death. I hope that our joint efforts will revive interest in this formidable, lengthy and fairly bewildering experiment, the essence of which we have attempted to simplify. It would be idle to imagine, however, that anyone will plough through the 25 or so volumes of recorded messages received by a dozen different mediums over a thirty year period, with several fat volumes of interpretation and commentary.

You mentioned that Richet and Dodds were, and more recently Braude is, sufficiently familiar with the cross correspondences but still the resisted the survivalist hypothesis, although I do recall Sir Oliver Lodge writing that Richet told him just before his death that he did accept it. What is your understanding of their resistance?

There are very real philosophical difficulties in accepting not so much the evidence itself but the implications of the evidence. We find it very difficult to allow that surviving entities find themselves in a world where simultaneously there is no time as we know it, yet can interact on a strictly linear temporal basis with our world. The apparent absurdity of the deceased who smoke cigars, like Lodge's immortal son, Raymond, dress in their preferred habits, live in houses, stroll through gardens, etc., recreating the idealised world they would have wished to have lived in: this strikes most people as inherently absurd. Then there is the difficulty of determining just what survives: the degenerative remnant of a crumbling personality at the point of death, or his spirit magically transformed into the prime of life? And what of survivors who claim to be hundreds, occasionally thousands of years old, and never age: how are they reconciled with the foetus who thrives into youth and manhood on the other side in both our time and theirs? And does it stop at human beings, when the evidence of or about survived pets is so common and strong? If so, what about lesser beings, bacteria, viruses, leaves ... where is it supposed to begin and end; and why? To quote the philosopher and former SPR President H. H. Price, something which is unintelligible cannot be an acceptable hypothesis. I may say that's a view which I reject, but it's powerfully argued, and I think it reflects the grip which our terrestrial upbringing, language and thought processes have on our capacity to conceptualise a world in which, deprived of all sensory stimuli and mechanisms, the discarnate entity can nevertheless appear to exhibit them: in spades! Thus some of the more eminent doubters of survival have argued that the next world does not seem to be anywhere; and only when it is pointed out that it's actually at 15a Gooseberry Villas, Hendon Green, London SW19 does it dawn on them that the spirit world if it exists is not in our time and space dimension, and that the presumption of location is foolish. Nevertheless these are just some of the obstacles to acceptance of the survival concept.

Your Ashby essay does not refer to the Scole experiments. Does that mean that you do not feel they offer good evidence for survival?

The Scole investigation was cut short just about the time when we, the investigators, had all but completed the primary task of providing irrefutable physical evidence of macro-PK, i.e. physical phenomena examinable outside the seance room, and when we were about to embark on the more important ontological exercise. The transcripts of our sittings, recording the conversations between the investigators and the entities speaking through two entranced mediums, were mined for extracts relevant to discussion about the several experiments we witnessed or actively participated in. The trouble was that, as the published criticisms of our report show, the arguments centred exclusively on the quality of the evidence and the theoretical possibility that fraud or some form of deception could account for everything. This has tended to obscure the cumulative effect of the evidence, which most readers have found to provide a powerful argument in favour of intelligent discarnate communication. But it's not simple and readily digested.

What are the most interesting or convincing observations in the Scole experiments?

The Scole investigation was comfortably the most important and rewarding experience of my life. My chief object was not to obtain evidence I would find impressive, but to ensure that the conditions under which physical evidence was produced were as far as possible immune to reasonable criticism, and that what evidence we obtained was objective and not dependent on our feelings, recollections, impressions, etc. For me the most moving experience was what was introduced as a thank-you message for me, when we heard a piece of music (Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto) which had a particularly strong emotional significance for me as a schoolboy sixty years earlier, and which was being recorded on a blank tape in a recorder from which the microphone had been removed. That, I suppose, and the occasion when my left hand was caressed by a warm, sensual discarnate hand, the nails of which were clearly discernible, and which could not have come from anyone round the séance table. Probably the most exciting was the dematerialisation and rematerialisation of a visible 2" crystal. Would that we had been able to have it all on videotape!

Other than the Scole experiments, you must have been involved with some interesting investigations during your 57 years with the Society for Psychical Research.

Not really. There was a gap about 40 years after my work on Corbett and precognition when I had to concentrate on earning a living and bringing up a family. I had some challenging and demanding jobs which kept me fully occupied. But I remained a member of the SPR throughout, and looked forward to the time I could do more than try to keep up with the literature. More recently, apart from Scole, and some rather inconclusive ghost-hunting type of cases, the most interesting has been a brief series of experimental sittings with another evanescent physical group which has yielded some striking evidence, currently being battered about by sceptical referees.

It seems that real mediumship, the type demonstrated by Leanora Piper, Gladys Osborne Leonard, Eileen Garrett, Estelle Roberts, and others has declined considerably. Do you agree?

I think the decline is more apparent than real. There's a demand-and-supply law at work here, I think. In the more striking case of physical mediums, I fancy they simply went underground, so to speak, after the prosecution and imprisonment of a leading medium, Helen Duncan, in 1944; and there has continued to be great reluctance to expose themselves to the uncomprehending and often hostile examination of sceptical scientists. But there has recently been a revival here; and of course interest in mediumship and survival has been greatly increased by the popularity of TV shows featuring people like John Edwards, Colin Fry, James van Praagh and a remarkable ex-footballer called Derek Acorah, who appears able to identify accurately the full names of resident ghosts. The new willingness of many mediums, seeking respectability through scientific approval, to co-operate with psychical researchers is a most encouraging development. But it is not easy to find star performers of the likes of those you've mentioned,

Do you think all this evidence is going to produce the paradigm shift so often forecast?

I think it must do eventually, but remember, the problem is not the paucity of evidence but the strength of the prejudice against accepting it; and as science becomes more and more successful, especially in the belief that we are well on the road to producing intelligent automatons, manipulating existing and creating new life forms, so hubris mounts, and the notion of anything superior to Man seems to become otiose. I think the breakdown of materialism and reductionism will not come about through a religious revival: on the contrary, I think it is fear of that, and the supposed excesses which it is feared will accompany it, that helps to cement materialism as a creed. No, I believe it will be a combination of evidence, especially from Near Death Experiences, from veridical messages from deceased relatives, when subject to double-blind tests and rigorous controls, and from the inherent weakness of the case for evolution through random mutation with only natural selection as a negative determinant — a theory I have long believed to be at odds with clear evidence and sound reasoning. But that's another story ...

Note: This interview was originally published in the Academy of Psychical Research and Religion (now The Academy of Spirituality and Paranormal Studies) Bulletin, September 2003, (renamed The Searchlight) and is included on this website with the kind permission of the Editor.

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An Interview with Montague Keen