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Written in response to Prof. Stephen Braude's article Super-psi or Survival?

Perhaps an interval of twelve years since Stephen Braude prepared his case for super-psi and against survival has persuaded him that his arguments were misconceived, but since he has not disavowed his earlier conclusions, one must take them as the most up-to-date, articulate and intellectually rigorous of any modern attempt to meet the challenge to the evidence that human personality survives bodily death.

The first thing to recognise, and welcome, is his sensible starting point and respectable company. As to the former, he readily acknowledges the existence of psi, that combination, among the living, of telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and maybe psychokinesis of indefinite potency and extension. He invokes it in various combinations to explain all ostensible indications of a discarnate communicator. And as to the latter, well he shares the same platform as many distinguished super-psi protagonists who cannot shelter behind the veil of ignorance which shrouds most sceptics, from Richet to Dodds.

The issue Braude poses is one which had clearly emerged by the end of the 19th century to explain ostensible communication from the dead via the living; and Braude is one of the rare brave spirits among modern philosophers who has attempted an honest evaluation of the competing arguments. His efforts, however, are doomed to failure, thanks to a combination of questionable axioms leading to defective logic, and to the apparent ignorance of evidential material which he has either failed to address or of which he is unaware.

Although Braude seeks to dispose of the fundamentalists who question whether the very concept of survival is intelligible, it is not enough to dismiss their arguments as "quite shallow". We might well stand the assumption on its head and ask, as several millennia of mankind would have done until fairly recent times, whether it is the very concept of non-survival that is intelligible. After all, as modern physics has shown us, nothing dies: it is simply transmuted into different forms of energy. And once we have accepted the existence of a faculty which operates independently of the constraints of linear time and three dimensional space, as psi clearly does, then the assumption that it must be bounded by those very constraints from which by definition it is free makes no sense.

Braude seems willing to concede the case for survival of some form of intelligence provided we can find an ideal case. Only by implication does he indicate the attributes such an ideal must possess. And by implication he selects two types of cases which he presents as though they were the most persuasive around. One relates to the drop-in communicator from beyond the grave, like the legless Runki whose fifty year quest for his missing leg remained unsatisfied until rescued from immurement and given a Christian burial. The other concerns cases of apparent reincarnation, or possession, in which information is conveyed which is beyond the normal knowledge and competence of a living personality. For both these cases, Braude stretches the super-psi explanation to lengths which many will find barely tolerable, but he has on his side the logical contention that, since there are no known limitations constraining the operation of psi in its several forms, there is no justification for arbitrarily imposing or presuming them.

I think it would be fruitless to argue the merits of either case when there are better ones to hand. A good advocate will select the vulnerable part of his opponent's case and ignore the more impressive defences; but we are not concerned with scoring points or getting clients off legal hooks. It is not permissible in an objective search for truth to turn a blind eye to evidence which undermines a cherished hypothesis. I give two such cases, one well familiar to Braude; the other yet to be revealed. Both leave the advocates of super-psi defenceless.

The first is the huge corpus of written material collectively known as the cross-correspondences. I hesitate, but only a little, to introduce this because their volume and complexity invite sceptical critics to select odd extracts which fail to illustrate either the principal or the strongest examples of this remarkable series of mediumistic transmissions from 1901 through to the early 1930s. They illustrate one feature fatal to the super-psi advocates. They were clearly designed to falsify the hypothesis, energetically debated in the late 1890s, that all the veridical messages purporting to derive via mediums from known deceased personalities could be attributed to what later became known as super-psi. The ingenious mechanism for this demonstration was gradually revealed in the form of transmission of ostensibly meaningless pieces of information through the automatic writings of different mediums in different countries, fragments which became intelligible only when fitted together, usually by a third party, as one might assemble disparate pieces of a jigsaw puzzle into a coherent picture.

Many psychical researchers have preferred to steer clear of the X-Cs because of the abundance of Greek and Latin passages, the obscurity of the puzzles, the morass of difficult and irrelevant details through which the essential message has to be discerned, and the sheer patience and dedication required for their study. But it needs only one or two striking and relatively straightforward cases to make the point: that no medium, however gifted in acquiring information from living minds, can produce a meaningful message of which no-one alive is aware when the messages are written down. One would have to extend the super-psi attribute by arguing that a medium could precognise the time, perhaps several years thence, when the several scattered clues pieced together by a third party (normally one or more scholars in the hierarchy of the Society for Psychical Research) combined to make an intelligent message, and usually one beyond the normal wit and knowledge of the medium. I question whether even Braude would be willing to impose that strain on the credulity of his readers.

Braude may be forgiven for his ignorance of the second illustration, since it has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed Journal, and I do not wish to imperil the chances of its appearance by premature release of all the details. But I give the essence of the case in the knowledge that all the actual names, original documents and participants with a single exception will be made public. The single exception is that of a young woman whose brutally murdered body was found by a police detective who broke into her apartment in West London in February 1983. The detective spent five hours examining and recording every aspect of the body and the apartment. A few days later, accompanied by a colleague, he visited the home of a young Irish woman who was among the scores of members of the public to have responded to one of a large number of offers from the public for information.

The Irish woman described to the two policeman how she had been assailed over the weekend following the murder by a voice identifying itself as the murdered woman, albeit by her maiden name which had not been made public. In the course of the interview she gave some 150 pieces of evidence, almost all of it accurate, save for a few instances where the information was unprovable, but consistent. The medium's informant gave details of the precise circumstances of the murder, the clothing and jewellery of the dead woman, her activities on and before the day of the murder, the names of her closest relatives and friends, the appearance, age, habits, Christian name and unique nickname of the murderer. To dispel the obvious doubts of the police officers, and prompted by her discarnate informant, she proceeded to give the assistant officer three highly accurate pieces of information about himself which not merely astonished him but changed his entire belief system for life.

Some of the information could have been drawn from the mind of the policeman whose notes confirmed the accuracy of her descriptions. Some of it - the location of her friend's house, her pending divorce, fits of depression, the conduct of the murderer in her flat and in his getaway car after the killing, the length of time she had known the murderer, the tattoos on his arm, the description of his girlfriend, the false insurance claim he had recently made etc - was unknown to the officers, although subsequently verified. Some of it - the full name of a woman friend - was not confirmed as accurate until eighteen years later.

The murderer, a petty criminal known to the police, was not a suspect and had an alibi. Evidence from a murdered woman via a medium is not admissible in UK Courts. The case was cold stored until 2,000 when advances in DNA technology enabled the police to produce evidence which determined the fate of the killer, now serving a lengthy prison sentence. The crucial evidence was provided by the murderer's discarded pullover, rescued from a dustbin by the investigating police officer solely because of the impressive accuracy of the medium's information. The notes of his interview, along with the medium's semi-entranced drawing on which she wrote the murderer's nickname, and the cryptic address of a location which was found years later to have been the most likely hiding place of the stolen jewellery, were carefully preserved by the officer who, together with his colleague, and the medium, have testified to the accuracy of this evidence.

Thus far the case has been reported only obscurely, in an article by the police officer principally involved, in a privately circulated police magazine. What makes it so damaging to the super-psi case is the extravagance of the assumptions that have to be made to avoid postulating an intelligent deceased and clearly identifiable communicator. Here is a case where fraud and straightforward mind-reading from the living can be immediately eliminated as inconsistent with known and unchallengeable facts. Cold reading, body language, and the customary litany of feeble explanations employed by sceptics to account for veridical evidence clearly have no place here: there was no-one's mind to read for much of the evidence, even if one assumes that some of it was dragged from the reluctant depths of the murderer's own psyche. The medium was unknown to the victim, so far as is known; but even assuming that to be untrue, and positing ample cryptomnesic prowess by the medium, it could not accurately reveal facts unknown to anyone alive when the information was transmitted.

If, of course, one heaps on the overloaded psi faculty ample helpings of precognition, some retrocognition, and an ability to extract selective pieces of information from a number of totally unknown persons (including at least one fact relating to a dead girl friend of the murdered woman, the accuracy of which remained unknown until August 2001), then we can still support the super-psi theory. But whatever the evidence for individual components of psi, there is absolutely none for the presumption that it has a co-ordinating, purposeful and discriminating intelligence that can selectively visit the minds of several unknown persons and fit together from them a correct account of persons living and dead, and events past and future.

We should not be deterred by difficulties about establishing discarnate identities, or by the notorious inconsistency and unreliability of purported discarnate communications, and the host of reservations which any critic, and many spiritists, must feel about the nature of the afterlife and the integrity of the post-mortem persona. These are legitimate areas of dissent and investigation. But they must presuppose some form of surviving and communicating intelligence. The case I have just cited provides a very powerful weapon for the protagonists of simple survival.

December 22nd 2002.

A Response to Prof. Stephen Braude's "Super-psi or Survival?" by Montague Keen
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