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From the Preface

[An ESP experiment] “immediately appeals to his [or her] unconscious readiness to witness a miracle, and to the hope, latent in all [people], that such a thing may yet be possible. Primitive superstition lies just below the surface of even the most tough-minded individuals, and it is precisely those who most fight…” 

C.G. Jung, 1952.

It is of natural science to investigate nature, impartially and without prejudice.

J.R. Smythies, 1967.

Anomaly

  • something that defies explanation – adds spice. Beyond spice, anomaly offers hope, the hope that something – whatever it may be – exists beyond the everyday. We humans live in hope eternally. But what exactly is an ‘anomaly’? I do not mean the kind of oddness or peculiarity in human behaviour that is everywhere to be seen. I am referring to things that really should not be so, the weird, the spooky, the face in the mirror that isn’t you. Anomalistic experiences are curious, strange, ‘funny peculiar’.  As we engage with the experience itself, we freely ruminate and craving to understand, we dig to discover something new. The goal here is to do precisely that, to dig below the surface of anomalistic experience, to take a close look at the psychology of the paranormal, to put psi ‘under the microscope’.  One should not be surprised if all is not as it seems and we can expect surprises aplenty here.

I approached the writing of this book with anticipation

wondering where the adventure might lead. I hoped it would lead towards new insights, explanatory theory and nuggets of new knowledge.

In the end, I reached an altogether unexpected conclusion…

How, you may well ask, can that be?  Surely, an ‘expert’ about psychology and the paranormal should already have reached an opinion one way or the other, a strong point of view?

Not so.

I genuinely have no idea where this new investigation will lead.I write as a zetetic.[1] I have a map and a set of place names[2],  but what exists at each place is uncertain. I last visited this field 20 years ago. Now, with ‘new eyes’ and new evidence, one’s understanding could be significantly different compared to 20 years ago.  Unlike previous visits, I am giving the psi hypothesis an initial probability of being a real, authentic and valid experience of 50%.

Please take a minute to consider your own current degree of belief in ESP.  Indicate your current belief with an arrow on the Belief Barometer below.[3]

My objective

is to cut a path through the vast, tangled jungle of publications with a machete that is sharp and decisive. With each new claim, one must reads, reflect, question, reflect some more, and ultimately decide at one particular moment the degree of plausibility that each specific claim possesses. Belief Barometers will be used to mark your and my degree of belief for each individual claim. The amount of variation in one’s degree of belief indicates a sensitivity to evidence.  If somebody simply says ‘0%’’ or ‘100%’ to absolutely everything, that surely indicates intransigence and intolerance of ambiguity.

One cannot profess definite explanations in advance because that would be blinkered. If we already KNEW the answers, we would cease to investigate, I would not be writing, and you would not be reading. The truth would already be out and we would be picking at the flesh of dead learning like vultures at a dead elephant.

No true zetetic starts from a fixed position. She/he suspends judgement while seeking and exploring with an open mind. In any science, all ideas are provisional, pending further investigation. Those who assert a fixed point of view before looking at the evidence break the ‘Golden Rule of Science’, which is to let conclusions follow the evidence.

Anomalistic psychology

includes the entire spectrum of conscious experience in all of its glorious splendour. By examining in-depth the evidence both pro and con any particular claim, one gains an entitlement to offer conclusions. Even then, the conclusions are tentative, pending further investigation by independent investigators. I am also minded to recall Heraclitus’ well-known dictum, “You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are continually flowing on.”  Having stepped into the paranormal river on a few occasions, it was each time a different river.

It is impossible here to include everything in Anomalistic Psychology. The selected exemplify phenomena that have received significant attention from researchers over the last 50 years.  Fun though they may be: Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, Clever Hans, mediums, Ouija boards, and stage mentalists didn’t make the cut. See them in the ‘red tops’ and on YouTube.

Returning to the world of psi

after a 20-year respite, I am curious to see what has changed. Anomalistic Psychology is now the battle-ground of psi (Luke, 2011) and there is a growing stockpile of sophisticated methods and findings that can be considered to be supportive of paranormal interpretation.

My return to the field is not without some amount of trepidation, for now I risk being the target for pot-shots from both sides!

However, a strongly partisan view is unhelpful to making any progress in this, or any other part, of science.  Progress requires a dialogue between advocates of differing positions. I wish to put down a marker that says: “Peace. Nobody won. Stop fighting.” That’s not to say there won’t be criticism; there must be, otherwise there can never be progress.

To establish a dialogue, I invited seven *stars* of the field to respond to my criticisms and questions: Daryl Bem, Susan Blackmore, Stanley Krippner, Dean Radin, Hal Puthoff, Rupert Sheldrake, and Adrian Parker. Warm thanks to one and all.

Evidence, critique, new theories

In this book, I present evidence, critique, and new theories. Whenever possible, I use verbatim quotations of advocates concerning specific claims. Nobody can ever legitimately say that a claim has been ‘disproved’; if the truth of a claim is undecided, it is only possible to say that it is neither confirmed nor disconfirmed.

Whatever one thinks, the world is always independent of how we might wish it to be. There is nothing wrong about believing in psi if one chooses to, and scientists have no place disparaging such beliefs. Belief in the paranormal is normal.

Sociologist Andrew Greeley (1991) put it this way:

“The paranormal is normal. Psychic and mystic experiences are frequent even in modern urban industrial society. The majority of the population has had some such experience, a substantial minority has had more than just an occasional experience, and a respectable proportion of the population has such experiences frequently. Any phenomenon with incidence as widespread as the paranormal deserves more careful and intensive research than it has received up to now….People who have paranormal experiences, even frequent such experiences, are not kooks. They are not sick, they are not deviants, they are not social misfits, they are not schizophrenics. In fact, they may be more emotionally healthy than those who do not have such experiences.” (Greeley 1975: 7)

Scientists should be agnostic about the ontological status of paranormal experience and examine the circumstances that constrain or facilitate exceptional experiences.  In approaching each claim, I maintain a zetetic viewpoint, neither believing nor disbelieving,  attending to the evidence. Only after one has completed a thorough survey of evidence is one entitled to an informed opinion. A zetetic must not be naïve, however.

Master zetetic, Marcello Truzzi (1987):

Marcellotruzzi

“The ground rules of science are conservative, and in so far as these place the burden of proof on the claimants and require stronger evidence the more extraordinary the claim, they are not neutral. But, we also need to remember, evidence always varies by degree, and inadequate evidence requires a tolerant reply which requests better evidence, not a dogmatic denial that behaves as though inadequate evidence were no evidence” (p. 73).

Astronomer, Carl Sagan (1995) also offers wise advice:

260px-Carl_Sagan_Planetary_Society

“It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress. On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones.” (Sagan, 1995, p 25).

The first 20 years of the 21st century

brought many astonishing scientific discoveries: the first draft of the Human Genome, graphene, grid cells in the brain, the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cells, the Higgs boson, liquid water on Mars and gravitational waves. Not bad going in such a short time!  During this same period, Anomalistic Psychology has grown at an enormous pace with increased numbers of investigators and publications (Figure P2).  Disappointingly, however, new discoveries or theories are few and far between. If there has been one discovery, it might be stated thus: The science of anomalistic experience is more complex and obscure then most psychologists ever imagined. When we are at the beginning of new venture like this, we must not be deterred by having no real answer to two of the hardest questions in science: What is consciousness and what is it for? [5]

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One of the greatest scientific minds of the last century, Stephen Hawking, stated:

Stephen_Hawking.StarChild

“Science is beautiful when it makes simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations” (Sample, 2011).

It has also been said that advances in science come not from empiricism but from new theories.

Parapsychology, like its ‘big sister’ Psychology, has always been heavily empirical and short on theory. The rapid growth is indexed by multitudes of empirical studies in the absence of notable theoretical developments.

By becoming more theory-driven, the field of ‘Psychology + Parapsychology’ as an integrated whole seems likely to make faster progress.

It seems counterproductive to treat Parapsychology and Psychology as separate fields.

Bringing the ‘Para’ part back into mainstream Psychology helps to integrate the discipline. This book takes a step in that direction. Parapsychology and Psychology contain myriads of variables, A,B,C…N…X,Y,Z.  An established strategy for developing new research in Psychology and Parapsychology is for the investigator to identity ‘gaps’ in the field and to set about filling those gaps with correlational and experimental studies with almost every possible permutation and combination of variables.  The gap filling approach is one strategy for keeping productivity high but, often, it is at the expense of developing new theories. As already noted, the academic world is based on quantitative measures of performance[6] and the number of publications a researcher can claim matters. This drive towards publications leads to what I call ‘Polyfilla Science’.

Polyfilla Science

For every ‘hole’ investigators can fill, they are almost guaranteed a peer-reviewed publication. ‘Polyfilla Science’ exists on an industrial scale, keeping hundreds of thousands of scientists busily occupied in hot competition. The ‘winners’ of the Polyfilla competition are the ones who tick the highest number of boxes and harvest the most citations.[7]

‘Polyfilla Science’ can be represented as a multidimensional matrix of cells where the task of science is viewed as filling every last cell in the matrix (Figure P3).  This method of doing science is more akin to a fairground shooting gallery than to theory-driven science.  In the absence of theory, many researchers use a Polyfilla ‘shotgun’ by testing a dozen or more “hypotheses” in one shot. Popular though it is, ‘Polyfilla Science’ isn’t the only game in town, and a theory-driven approach is also available.  Theory is used to identify the principles behind questions that need answering in a process of confirmation and disconfirmation of predictions. When one considers the fact that there are one hundred thousand psychology majors in the US alone, all needing a research project, it is no wonder the Polyfilla approach is so popular.[8]

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The book is geared towards the needs of teachers, researchers and students interested in Anomalistic Experience, Parapsychology and Consciousness Studies.

In comparison to the scientific discoveries in other fields, Psychology or Parapsychology have made no world-changing discoveries in the last 50 years. By this, I mean discoveries that are worth telling your grandchildren. In my opinion, the lack of significant theoretical developments, and the Polyfilla Approach, are two of the main reasons for this lack of progress.  All this needs to change.

Avoiding the drunkard’s search

One must beware – and avoid – the drunkard’s search principle – searching only where it is easiest to look. You probably already know the parable:

A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his wallet and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost it here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost it in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is”.

lost_in_the_dark

We must look wherever psi could be found, not only where it is easiest to look.

The search for psi is a complex, winding trail of traps and pitfalls. When we observe evidence, we must not,  a priori, rule it out as subjective validation or confirmation bias. An openness to being wrong may cause uncomfortable feelings, but knowledge and truth are never givens. When we are lucky enough to discover something new, this is hard-won treasure.

I present here new theories in the spirit of open inquiry. There’s a saying that ‘today’s theories make tomorrow’s fish-n-chip paper’. Possibly, probably, these theories are wrong.  So be it. If possible, falsify my theories, throw them out, and develop better ones. By testing and falsifying existing theories, newer, better theories can be obtained and so on indefinitely. As I share thoughts and conclusions, the reader will be able to contest and challenge  and contrary evidence.

We’ve walked on the Moon and are heading to Mars, but we still don’t yet know the function of consciousness. One of the starting points must be to separate fact from fiction in anomalistic psychology.

Notes

[1] Zetetic from the Greek zçtçtikos, from zçteô [ζητέω (zéteó) — to seek] “to seek to proceed by inquiry”.

[2] [2] Tópos, the Greek name for “place” (τόπος); ‘topic’ in English.

[3] Belief Barometers appear throughout this book.

[4] The majority of so-called ‘skeptics’ are disbelievers and/or deniers who have adopted the label ‘skeptic’ for its more temperate connotations. The late Marcello Truzzi was one of two co-founding chairman of the leading US skeptical organisation CSICOP (the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal). Truzzi became disillusioned with the organization, saying they “tend to block honest inquiry, in my opinion… Most of them are not agnostic toward claims of the paranormal; they are out to knock them.” Using the title of ‘skeptic’, Truzzi claimed that this association of debunkers could claim an authority to which they were not entitled: “critics who take the negative rather than an agnostic position but still call themselves ‘skeptics’ are actually pseudo-skeptics and have, I believed, gained a false advantage by usurping that label.” Genuine or ‘classical’ skepticism is the zetetic view to suspend judgement and enter into a genuine inquiry that assumes any claim requires justification. Maintaining a zetetic position of open inquiry requires a steady hand and a critical mind. There is no room for naivety but a touch of Socratic irony may at times be helpful. A protracted correspondence between Martin Gardner and Marcello Truzzi , indicating their two contrasting viewpoints, has been published by Richards (2017).

[5] Nagel (2013) and Strawson (2006), among others, argue for the ancient philosophy of pan-psychism, in which all physical objects from atoms to the cosmos all have conscious experience.  Elsewhere, I have described Consciousness  as “a direct emergent property of cerebral activity” (Marks, 2019)..

[6] Numbers of publications, citations, grant monies, prizes, promotions and awards.

[7] One of the world’s most published and ambitious ‘Polyfilla’ psychologists told me a self-effacing story about the occasion he went for an interview at the University of Oxford. A member of the panel asked: “Dr X, you have a huge number of publications. But what does it all mean?” He didn’t know the answer and got rejected for the post.

[8] Polycell Multi-Purpose Polyfilla Ready Mixed, 1 Kg, i#1 best seller on Amazon.co.uk, 16 May 2019.

[9] The history of the field is adequately reviewed by others e.g. John Beloff (1993) or Caroline Watt (2017).

One person’s coincidence another person’s yawn?

I recently came across the late Michael Thalbourne‘s  ‘A BRIEF TREATISE ON COINCIDENCE’.  Fascinating!

Especially notable in Michael’s account is the huge  gap that exists between the impact of a coincidence on the experiencer and an outsider perspective on the very same event.

This fact is revealed in his own experiences of sharing coincidences and witnessing other people’s reactions. This observation has been confirmed in laboratory research suggesting that one person’s amazing coincidence can bring on a yawn.

Michael Thalbourne

Dr Michael Thalbourne (MT)  was born in Adelaide, South Australia, on March 24th 1955 and passed away on the 4th of May 2010. He was educated at the University of Adelaide and the University of Edinburgh. From 1980 until 1987 Thalbourne was employed at the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research at Washington University in St Louis Missouri, USA.  In 1992 he returned to his hometown of Adelaide where he served as the President of the Australian Institute for Parapsychological Research and was the editor of the Australian Journal of Parapsychology.

Survey of Beliefs about Coincidences

MT used a 10-item survey of attitudes towards, and experience of, coincidence with  24 people.  To  the statement “I have experienced truly astounding coincidences”, 25% reported “often”, 63% “now and again”, and 13% reported “rarely”; nobody reported “never”.

Another statement was:  “I experience many small coincidences which would probably not impress other people but which make life interesting for me”. 29% responded “strongly agree”, 58% said “agree”, while 8% were uncertain and 4% said “disagree”.

A third statement was “It takes a certain vigilance of mind to see subtle coincidences.” Sixty-seven percent agreed or strongly agreed, 17% were uncertain, and the same percentage said “disagree”. Thus, the majority agreed with the statement.

The causation of coincidences was included in the survey. MT asked: “Coincidences may be expected to occur from time to time just by chance or pure luck, and they never signify anything important or meaningful.”  MT reports that no one said “strongly agree”,  33% said “agree”, 21% were uncertain, while 29% disagreed and 17% strongly disagreed.

Another statement was “People who report many coincidences must be reading meaning into events which are just random.” Eight percent strongly agreed, 25% agreed, 38% were uncertain, 21% disagreed, and 8% strongly disagreed.

What is quite interesting is the strong link between having a positive attitudes towards coincidences and being much more likely to believe in experiences of the paranormal (r = .72, p < .001).

Egocentricity – the ‘yawn’ factor

One problem in considering coincidences is the  “egocentricity” bias (Falk, 1989).  People consider their own coincidences to be surprising and worthy of note, but other people hearing those same coincidences tend to be dismissive of them, thinking they occurred purely by chance.

MT confesses that, following the Falk study, he became more reluctant to share his own personal coincidences with other people. As a person who recently shared a coincidence in print myself, I can well understand MT’s reaction.  But the large number of coincidences that he experienced seemed too great to be a chance effect, so he thought he’d carry on sharing them. I have also felt this way at times, and there is no fool-proof way of eliminating the paranormal hypothesis, as far as I am aware.

MT gives three detailed examples of what he took to be potentially ‘paranormal’ coincidences. I quote these here as part of a developing portfolio of published cases.

MT Case 1

Thursday April 21st, 2005…

MT states: “I was deeply immersed in Liddell and Scott’s (1889) An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon. In particular I was studying the preposition ΠΡΟ (i.e., PRO) to see whether it could mean “on behalf of”. I scoured the two-thirds of a column devoted to this preposition, but could not find the meaning I wanted. I had to give up at that point, because at 6:30 I was to go out to a fast food restaurant with a friend, for dinner.

Less than half an hour later, when we were at the restaurant, there passed by our table a young lad in soccer gear: on his shirt were the words, in Greek, ΑΣΠΙΣ ΠΡΟΝΟΙΑ (ASPIS PRONOIA). I for my part was astonished that he should be wearing, in Greek, even though as part of a longer word, the preposition ΠΡΟ. I knew that ΠΡΟΝΟΙΑ was a compound word made up of that preposition ΠΡΟ plus ΝΟΙΑ (from NOEEIN, to perceive), meaning something like “forethought”. (However, I was unfamiliar with the word ΑΣΠΙΣ, and I asked the boy what it meant, but he didn’t know. When I got home, I looked it up and discovered that it meant “a body of soldiers”. So the soccer shirt meant something like “a body of soldiers with forethought.”)

It seemed to me that the coincidence of having two quite unrelated instances of the Greek word ΠΡΟ within half an hour of each other was highly unlikely to occur by chance.

I’d never seen the boy before, and have never seen him since, nor have I seen this Greek phrase (or any other Greek words) on another soccer shirt. However, those around me with whom I shared the coincidence dismissed it as chance (as perhaps the reader will too!) But the egocentric bias is strong for the experient of a coincidence as well as for the people to whom it is told. Thus, I continue to regard the coincidence (and many that I’ve experienced since) as being more than chance.”

MT Case 2

“Saturday, December 11th, 2004, my family and I were gathered at the flat of my youngest brother to celebrate his 42nd birthday. Two coincidences occurred to me that day. First of all, my brother possesses a CD of the composer Monteverdi which he himself never plays but which he good-heartedly loans to me now and again. I spoke aloud the name of the composer, Monteverdi. I was misheard, and was asked “Verdi”? I said, “No. Claudio Monteverdi.” But the question got me thinking, “What is Verdi’s first name? Is it Giuseppe?”

I resolved to check my Webster’s Biographical Dictionary when I got home. Yes, p. 1515reveals that his name was indeed Giuseppe. The coincidence occurred a little later when I was watching the evening news, and a man was interviewed whose first name was given at the bottom of the screen as Giueseppe. (I in fact wondered if the station had spelt the name Giuseppe incorrectly.)”

MT Case 3

“The …coincidence involved my father telling a joke about George W. Bush wanting to get into Heaven to talk with Moses. Bush tried several times, but on each occasion Moses told St. Peter to send him away. Finally, Moses said “The last time I talked with abush I ended up wandering in the wilderness for 40 years!” That evening, just after 8:30, I was watching a commercial station on which there was a movie called For Richer or Poorer with Tim Allen in it as an entrepreneur engaged in setting up theme parks. The character revealed his latest theme park inspiration, which he called “Holy Land”, and pointed out a bush “which bursts into flame every hour”. I know for a fact that my father was unacquainted with the movie and so he had no idea that the theme of the burning bush was to arise later that evening. It is interesting to me that when I told my father about what I’d seen and heard on TV that very night, sceptic that he was, his reaction was one of dogged silence, and certainly not the cry “How amazing!”, as he battled his cognitive dissonance. If he said nothing about the coincidence it would go away.”

MT’s conclusion

MT  dismisses skeptical explanations based on chance “as a bottomless pit, able to swallow up each and every coincidence that does not already have a normal explanation.”

On the other hand, MT wisely states that “we must be ever cautious about the coincidences that we do evaluate as paranormal.”

The fact is, however, there is no fool-proof method to say one way or the other. It comes down to one’s own subjective evaluation.

What do you think?  Is pure chance the only credible explanation, or  are there hidden causes, or is something paranormal going on?

‘An obscure public-house on the Chiswick bank of the river’

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23rd August 2018

At 30,000 feet on the midday flight from Marseille to Heathrow, I am thinking how to spend the afternoon. Unable to go straight home because an estate agent has arranged a viewing with a potential tenant, how would I fill this time?  I decide to go for lunch at one of my local haunts on the Thames bank, the City Barge.

Set aside for a moment the fact that the estate agent who had arranged the viewing was Chesterton’s, a family firm with connections to the writer GK Chesterton (1874 – 1936), ‘the prince of paradox’.  A few seconds after I made the  decision to go for a pub lunch ‘on the Chiswick bank of the river’, I open my kindle and make a fairly random decision to continue reading ‘The Man Who Was Thursday, a Nightmare by Gilbert K Chesterton (GKC).

I flip over the page to see in stark black and white a description of that very place which, moments previously, I had decided to visit, viz:

“”I think,” said Gregory, with placid irrelevancy, “that we will call a cab.” He gave two long whistles, and a hansom came rattling down the road. The two got into it in silence. Gregory gave through the trap the address of an obscure public-house on the Chiswick bank of the river. The cab whisked itself away again, and in it these two fantastics quitted their fantastic town.”

Coincidence is both puzzling and remarkable, a contiguity of events that appear to have no causal connecting principle between one another. A coincidence that seems to go way beyond the laws of chance can elicit a strong sense of the paranormal. I analyse here the ‘Chiswick Coincidence’ for the light it may shed on anomalistic experience.[1]  The correspondence between the free and voluntary thought of going to the pub on the Chiswick side of the river and Gregory’s choice to do the identical thing is particularly striking. This coincidence, like others that I,  or close family members, have experienced is multi-layered. I discuss here each of these 7 layers.[2]

First layer

The ‘Chiswick Coincidence’ consists of two contiguous elements:

Element 1: My decision to go to the City Barge for lunch (because my flat was being viewed by Chestertons).

Then seconds later:

Element 2:  I read the line ‘an obscure public-house on the Chiswick bank of the river’ in the book by GKC.

Thus, the  first layer of coincidence is the fact that the estate agent and the author GKC are members of the same family.

Second layer

The second layer is the fact that the decision to go to the Chiswick riverside pub was followed only a few seconds later by reading a piece of text referring to a ‘public-house on the Chiswick bank of the river’. My immediate reaction being “Wow!”, “Whoa!” “WTX!” in no particular order.

SdP35CityBarge1930s_900

Historical records indicate that The City Barge has existed since 1484 when it was known as ‘The Navigator’s Arms’. Its first appearance in the licensing lists was in 1787 when it was the ‘City Navigation Barge’. As the ‘City Barge’ it was refurbished in 2014.  Historical sources point to at least 5 or 6 pubs on the Chiswick side of the river at the time of GKC’s story. The pub mentioned by GKC could have been any or none of these, perhaps only a figment of GKC’s fluid imagination. Two clues make the City Barge a good candidate however. Photographs of the City Barge from 1910, two years after the publication of TMWWTAN, show Thames barges actually tied up directly outside the City Barge. Also, when the two characters in GKC’s story, Gregory and Syme, leave the pub, they go out by the door and “close to the opening lay a dark dwarfish steam-launch”. This description fits the immediate riverside proximity of The City Barge perfectly.[3]

A kindle is a portable library. Mine is 1.33 GB of books, both fiction and non-fiction – the complete works of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens, Joyce, Austen, Pepys, Swift, Zola and much more.  On the date in question, there were 498 works containing 146,817 pages [4]. With 350 words per page, there were around 50 million words on my kindle.  The odds of seeing the words “public-house on the Chiswick bank” on the first page I opened is around one-in-10 million (10-7).

Third layer

I checked my diary for the days immediately following the date of this event (23rd August 2018). My diary says that I would be meeting my publisher Robert Patterson to discuss a new book on Psychology and the Paranormal.. Was I perhaps on the lookout for anomalistic experience at this time? If so, I had been presented with a brilliant example.

Fourth layer

The idea of writing this book meant that I would soon be seeking new material. Although I was at the early stages when this incident happened, I can imagine no more suitable an illustration for a book on anomalous experience than this very incident. Reflecting back on this period, I can see how helpful the coincidence was in resetting my paranormal ‘Belief Barometer’.

Fifth layer

Enter – or, I should say, re-enter – Martin Gardner.  Martin had kindly contributed Forewords to editions of my previous book on ‘psi’ (Marks and Kammann, 1980; Marks, 2000).[6]  Sadly, Martin died in 2010 leaving a huge legacy of 100s of literary and scholarly works with a readership of millions. I have copies of many of Martin’s books including Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (Dover, 1957), Mathematics, Magic and Mystery (Dover, 1956), The Annotated Alice. The Definitive Edition. Lewis Carroll (W W Norton, 2000).

th

In researching TMWWTAN I made the discovery that Martin had written a Special Annotated Edition of TMWWTAN (Gardner and Chesterton, Ignatius Press, 1999). Goose bump territory! How very strange. Discovering this Special Annotated Edition seemed enigmatic and enthralling in equal measure. The three-way connection between Gilbert K Chesterton, Martin Gardner and the very book I am writing does not end here.

Sixth layer

As Chesterton noted, “hardly anybody who looked at the title ever seems to have looked at the sub-title; which was “A Nightmare,” and the answer to a good many critical questions” (Autobiography, Kindle Locations 1301-1303). Two key themes of TMWWTAN are free will and evil.  The Chiswick Coincidence triggered a change in my stance from disbelieving skeptic to neutral inquirer.  My eyes were opened to the genius of Gilbert K Chesterton, certainly a special writer and TMWWTAN is no ordinary book. It has been rated as one of the greatest works of 20th century literature. To quote from the American Chesterton Society website (https://www.chesterton.org/who-is-this-guy/):

“Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) cannot be summed up in one sentence. Nor in one paragraph…But rather than waiting to separate the goats from the sheep, let’s just come right out and say it: G.K. Chesterton was the best writer of the 20th century…The reason he was the greatest writer of the 20th century was because he was also the greatest thinker of the 20th century… What was it he defended? He defended “the common man” and common sense. He defended the poor. He defended the family. He defended beauty. And he defended Christianity and the Catholic Faith.”

I was pleasantly surprised to read the above description that GFK defended the “common man”, common sense and the poor, my own values exactly.  Clearly, Gilbert Chesterton also made no secret of the fact that he believed in God, prayer and the afterlife.

Seventh layer

 Like GKC, and he also made no secret of it, Martin Gardner believed in God, prayer and the afterlife. In his autobiography, Martin stated he loved reading “anything by G. K. because of his never-ceasing emotions of wonder and gratitude to God, not only for such complicated things as himself, his wife, and the universe, but for such “tremendous trifles” (as he once called them) as rain, sunlight, flowers, trees, colours, stars, even stones that “shine along the road / That are and cannot be,” (Undiluted Hocus-Pocus.The Autobiography of Martin Gardner, 2013, p. 205).

GKC, together with the Basque philosopher and poet Miguel de Unamuno, were Martin’s two mentors. Martin’s autobiography mentions God no less than 128 times.[7] According to Martin Gardner (2013):

“Just as knowing how a magic trick is done spoils all its wonder, so let us be grateful that wherever science and reason turn they plunge finally into stygian darkness. I am not in the least annoyed because I do not understand time and space, or consciousness, or free will, or evil, or why the universe is made the way it is. I am relieved beyond measure that I do not need to comprehend more than dimly the nature of God or an afterlife. I do not want to be blinded by truths beyond the capacity of my eyes and brain and heart. I am as contented as a Carnap with the absence of rational methods for penetrating ultimate mysteries” (p. 341).

For a lot of different reasons, and in completely unexpected ways, the Chiswick Coincidence opened my eyes.  At a seventh layer, I find that the coincidence revealed another synchronicity: the shared values and beliefs of Martin Gardner, in many ways one of most precious mentors, and a man I could never have met, GKC, the author of the metaphysical thriller TMWWTAN.

Combined Probability of Seven Layers

I give estimates here of the probabilities for each layer followed by a combined probability estimate.

Layer 1: The probability that the estate agent and GKC himself are from a single family is estimated to be 10-3. This estimate takes into account the number of West London estate agencies (500+) and the chance that the agent that I had selected would have a strong familial connection with GKC, the central character in this episode.

Layer 2: The probability that my plan to visit the Chiswick riverside pub would be followed a few seconds later by seeing the words ‘public-house on the Chiswick bank ’on the first page of my kindle is estimated to be 10-7. This estimate takes into account the huge quantity of kindle text (in excess of 50 million words) that I could have selected to read on this occasion.

Layer 3:The probability that on the same visit to London I would be meeting my publisher Robert Patterson to discuss a new book is estimated to be 10-1 . This accords with the frequency of such meetings which is approximately once a year.

Layer 4:Taking into account the fact that no contract for the paranormal book existed at the time, the probability that the Chiswick Coincidence would be useful material for this book is estimated to be 10-1   

Layer 5:Taking into account of the fact that, before this incident, I knew almost nothing about GKC,  the probability that somebody I knew, somebody I regarded as a mentor, somebody who had written forewords to two of my  books, Martin Gardner, would also be somebody who had written a Special Annotated Edition of TMWWTAN is estimated to be 10-4

Layer 6: The probability that lifelong personal values, to defend the “common man”, common sense and the poor, I later discovered to be GFK’s values is estimated to be 10-1 [8].

Layer 7: The synchronicity in values and beliefs between Martin Gardner and Gilbert K Chesterton, author of TMWWTAN, is estimated to be a certainty. Martin loved GKC’s writing and shared his values and beliefs.

In addition, it is necessary to consider the boundary conditions. Sitting on an aeroplane on a short-haul flight, offers a variety of activities, viz: doing nothing, doing a puzzle, watching a film, listening to music, snoozing,  chatting,  looking out of the window, drinking a tea or coffee, reading a non-kindle item (newspaper, magazine or book), or reading a kindle. I estimate the probability that I would have chosen to read my kindle on this occasion as one-in-ten ( 10-1 ).

The combined probability P of the seven synchronicities and the boundary condition is:

P  = 10-3 X  10-7 X  10-1 X  10-1   X  10-4   X 10-1  X 1 X  10-1   = 10-18

= one in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000  

i.e. one in one quintillion (a million, million, million) [9]

 These odds are so astronomical in scale, one must consider the possibility of a paranormal explanation. Not to do so would seem irrational and contrary to science.

Explaining the Coincidence

How might this remarkable 7-layered coincidence, together with its impact and meaning, all be explained?  Let’s consider the explanations that are available from each side of the theoretical divide.

Hypothesis 1 – N Theory Explanation: Coincidences are bound to occur every once in a while purely by chance.

From the perspective of N Theory, I give the first type of explanation. The nugget of the Chiswick Coincidence lies within Layer 2:

Event A: choosing by free will to go to the City Barge for lunch.

Event B: choosing by free will to read, only moments later, a story, I would soon discover, that contains an incident about a  ‘public-house on the Chiswick bank of the river’.

When considered independently, neither event is in any way extraordinary. Only their near simultaneity appears extraordinary. If I had read the passage a few months, weeks or even days previously or sometime later, I would have noted that I knew just such a place but would not have blinked an eyelid.  Any Londoner is familiar with the experience of coming across familiar places in novels or movies.

It is necessary to consider the possibility of a hidden cause, something that might create the illusion of synchronicity when it isn’t really there. One possibility is that GKC may have been frequently mentioning things in and around Chiswick. In this case the coincidence might not be so odd after all.  It is possible to test this hypothesis relatively easily. It is said that Chesterton was one of the most prolific writers of all time. He wrote around 80 books, several hundred poems, 200 short stories, 4000 essays, and several plays. I downloaded the Delphi Collected Works of GK Chesterton onto my kindle. Using the kindle search function I found that there only 7 occurrences of the word “Chiswick” in GKC’s Collected Works. This fact makes the Chiswick Coincidence seem even odder than before.

Another possibility that must be considered is that I had already seen the crucial passage on a previous occasion. This possibility can be safely eliminated for two different reasons. Firstly, if I had already seen this passage, I would already noticed the connection between one of my favourite riverside haunts and GFC’s mention of it. In this case, seeing it for a second time would not have seemed the least bit remarkable. Secondly, a kindle automatically remembers the point reached at a previous reading and obligingly opens the selected book at that page.

The ultimate skeptical explanation is possibly the most accurate. It says that coincidences are just – coincidences!  A coincidence is a coincidence is a coincidence; a random, chance kind of thing. Something similar to the Chiswick Coincidence is occurring with someone somewhere almost every second of the day. When this extremely striking kind of coincidence occurs, it is bound to attract the experiencer’s attention. It is purely the wheels of chance turning and nothing else – once-in-a-blue-moon ‘Lady Luck’ and ‘Father Time’ jump into bed together and another coincidence sucker is born.

Hypothesis 2 – P Theory Explanation: Reverse causality by unconscious reading of the text triggers the decision to visit the pub on the Chiswick side of the river.

What of a paranormal interpretation? It is essential to air all possible explanations and the P Theory warrants a fair hearing.  The two key elements of the Chiswick Coincidence remain :

Event A: deciding by free will to go to the City Barge for lunch.

Event B: deciding by free will to read, only moments later, a story, which contains an incident about a ‘public-house on the Chiswick bank of the river’.

What about the possibility of reversed causality such that Event B occurs immediately before Event A.  This P Theory explanation goes like this: I read the part of the story about the Chiswick pub by an unconscious process of clairvoyance, clairvoyantly seeing the text about a ‘public-house on the Chiswick bank of the river’ inside my kindle.  Reading this text at an unconscious level triggers my decision to go to the City Barge for lunch. Afterwards, at a conscious level, when I switch on the kindle and actually read the text, I feel a sense of wonderment and surprise. This is no coincidence at all – reading about the Chiswick pub naturally and logically led to my plan to visit it.

If one is open to psi processes as scientific possibilities, then there should be no problem in accepting the P Theory explanation. In fact the P Theory nails it. If the skeptic demurs that there is no evidence for clairvoyance, unconscious perception or reverse causality and it just cannot be so, the P Theorist might well retort: “Normally, yes, but on this occasion all three happened.” There is no rational way of resolving the matter; which interpretation one accepts rests entirely upon subjective judgement.

Summary and Conclusion

On a homeward journey, involving multiple free choices, a striking coincidence happened. The laws of chance suggest the odds against the Chiswick Coincidence are around one-quintillion-to-one.  Both an ‘N Theory’ interpretation and a ‘P Theory’ interpretation remain logical possibilities. There can be no definitive method of proving which explanation is the correct one. This incertitude requires a neutral stance and a degree of humility about one’s reaction to striking anomalous experience.[11]

My search for a scientific explanation was matched by an equally compelling realisation that there might not be one. Which interpretation is true cannot be decided by reason. Only personal preference –based on one’s a pre-existing bias – allows one to reach a definite conclusion.


Footnotes


[1] I freely acknowledge some readers may well view my ‘Chiswick Coincidence’ with skepticism.  If for no other good reason, ‘One person’s coincidence can be another person’s yawn’; https://wordpress.com/post/coincidences.blog/251

[2] The reader is encouraged to explore personal coincidences using this method of ‘layer analysis’.  Looking for layers of meaning enables one to grasp the full significance of a synchonicity.

[3] The City Barge is a 10-minute drive from Bedford Park, the “queer artificial village” of  ‘Saffron Park’, that features in GKC’s novel.

[4] With the settings on the kindle as they were at that time, there are 4-5 kindle pages to every printed page.

[5] To specify these distributions, a large sample of data points with exact odds values would be required.

[6] Martin Gardner (Foreword to the Second Edition, Marks, 2000) wrote: “It will rank as one of the strongest and best exposés ever directed at the more outlandish claims of parapsychology”(p. 13).

[7] By comparison, Chesterton’s autobiography mentions ‘God’ 62 times.

[8] I share GKC’s values as listed but not his religious beliefs.

[9] A quintillion is cardinal number represented by 1 followed by 18 zeros (US) and by 1 followed by 30 zeros (UK). Here I use the US definition.

[10] I adopt this response from Gardner (2013) The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (p. 235).

[11] Michael Thalbourne (2006) dismisses skeptical explanations based on chance “as a bottomless pit, able to swallow up each and every coincidence that does not already have a normal explanation.” The fact is, in regard to this coincidence, there is no fool-proof method to say whether the P Theory of the N Theory interpretation is correct. It comes down to making one’s own subjective evaluation.

About ‘The Roots of Coincidence’

Thanks for visiting. The Roots of Coincidence is the title of Arthur Koestler’s famous book. I use the image from Koestler’s book cover as a logo. Here we explore what those roots might be.

We examine Koestler’s theories, and explore theories of our own.

The aim is to collect as many stories as possible about coincidences, those strange experiences in which two events appear to be connected:

A dream or daydream that predicts something that actually happens

A phone call out of the blue from a person you had just thought of

A passage in a book about something you had just been thinking about

An uncanny event that is linked to something you did, felt or thought

Or something else altogether that just struck you as surprising.

For some reason or another – I really don’t know why – I experience a lot of coincidences.    I will share a few of them here.

Your accounts of your own coincidence experiences are warmly welcome here.  No need to give your name if you don’t want to.  I will be pleased to publish them under your chosen pseudonym.

Please add them as comments or send an email to: davescoincidences@gmail.com

Who knows, perhaps we can even explain how and why these experiences happen.

To get into the swing of things, let’s start with a real humdinger: ‘An obscure public-house on the Chiswick bank of the river’.