The Psychopath Inside by James Fallon

fallonj-psychopathinsideIs anyone born evil? Okay, “evil” is a very religious term; let me put it another way. Is anyone born with a genetic predisposition towards psychopathic behaviour? A few years ago, before I knew much about neuroscience, I would have answered that question with a confident no. In my naivety, I thought that equality existed in nature – that we were all born with the same ability to be good or bad. I started to rethink that when I read Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape, and now, after reading James Fallon’s The Psychopath Inside, my original stance is convincingly refuted.

The typical human being feels empathy. When we see a suffering child, for instance, we instinctually feel compassion for him. It’s not a choice we make, but an automatic response. The mind of a psychopath works differently. There are particular areas of the brain that are switched off or deficient. This can lead to an emotional disconnectedness, and an ability to do harmful acts without the pangs of conscience.

Psychologist James Fallon once performed an experiment to see whether he could identify convicted murderers, purely by examining scans of their brains. The test group featured a fifty-fifty split of murderers and ordinary individuals. Alarmingly, Fallon was able to separate the murderers from the others with one hundred percent accuracy. Clearly, despite what we would like to believe about equality and freedom of choice, some of us have a genetic predisposition towards murder, and some of us don’t.

Fallon’s book got especially interesting when he turned himself into one of the test subjects, discovering that his own brain had these same psychopathic traits. And yet he is not a murderer. This finding led Fallon on a journey into his own past, not just examining how he has lived his own life, but delving into his ancestry, where he discovered a succession of murderers residing up the family tree. Fallon came to accept that he had psychopathic traits. He fully admits to being manipulative of others and sensing an emotional disconnectedness from people, even his wife. His psychopathic tendencies appear to have been kept in check by the fortuitous circumstances of his life. Had he been born into an abusive family, he might have grown up into a very different individual. It appears that full-fledged psychopaths are both born and made – a combination of nature and nurture, genetics and circumstance.

A really interesting issue to contemplate in relation to psychopathy is responsibility. Imagine a murderer getting caught, being put on trial, and holding up his brain scan for the judge to consider. “How can you hold me accountable for what I did?” he argues. “I was born this way. This is who I am. How can you blame me for acting in accord with my own nature, just like the lion that tears apart its prey because that’s its nature?” We have a “diminished responsibility” legal category for crazy people. Should we also include psychopaths in this? I wish the book had delved into this matter, but it doesn’t.

This examination into the neural basis of psychopathy brings greater clarity to the observation that equality is an illusion, striking as that may sound to the ears of polite society. Nature is not fair, as observation of the animal kingdom attests. There are winners and losers, and the whole game of life ultimately boils down to power struggles. So, the prime reason why we would incarcerate psychopaths is because of Lex Talionis, the law of the claw. We do it because we’re in charge, because we can, because we want to – because the number of empathetic individuals outweighs the number of psychopaths. So we will use that advantage to shape the kind of world we want. Fairness to all isn’t a concept that the natural world recognises. Nature is based on power, and that is all the justification we need. A truly balanced human being is one who is capable of both hostility and empathy, as each situation demands.

The Psychopath Inside is a worthwhile addition to the library of any student of human nature. Part medical textbook, part memoir – the author not only provides a great deal of research data, but is prepared to be unabashedly frank about his own life experiences.

Supernormal by Dean Radin

radind-supernormalDean Radin is the senior scientist at the institute of Noetic Sciences. This is his third book on psychic phenomena. His first two, The Conscious Universe and Entangled Minds, concentrated on providing evidence for the reality of psi through statistical analysis of the wealth of experiments conducted over the past centrury or so. This new volume is largely concerned with why some people have a higher aptitude for psychic ability than others. The deciding factor that Radin attempts to identify as the culprit is meditation. The book is subtitled “Science, yoga, and the evidence for extraordinary psychic abilities.” Psi phenomena are extremely slippery to prove in a lab setting, except by doing a huge meta-analysis. But what if we could demonstrate a measurable trend, such as an observation that long-term meditators outperform non-meditators? Using a wealth of experiments, Radin builds a very convincing case.

The one aspect of the book I’m not so sure about was the wisdom of using the “siddhis” of Buddhism as a credible blueprint for a modern discussion of psi. Siddhis are the alleged supernormal abilities of Buddhist masters, recorded in Buddhist scripture. Radin reckons there is more than a grain of truth in the old scriptures, although there is almost certainly a large amount of overdramatism.

Having read Radin’s previous books, I’ve noticed that any discussion of technique was absent. It’s all well and good to have evidence for psi, but what does an experimenter actually do to cause psychokinesis, telepathy, or precognition. This absence is finally addressed in the latest volume, albeit in a rather vague way. If you want to play with psi, learn how to meditate. Why? Presumably because meditators have the required mental discipline and are competent at holding prolonged “empty” states of mind, where the ordinary, incessant mental chatter is silenced. From my own past experimentation, I concur that it is indeed the state of “no thought” that provokes psi phenomena. And there really is no shortcut achieving an effect. It takes persistent practice. I could occasionally perform limited acts of PK, using a device called a psi wheel, but only when I was daily practising. And even then it was hard to figure out exactly what mental mechanism was causing the effect. The daily practice had the effect of making it easier to slip into a state of “no thought.” Now that I’ve been out of practice for years, it appears to be much more difficult when I decide to just give it a try once in a while.

Most psi effects are small, although Radin has a striking personal story to tell about his own experience at a “PK Party”, where he accidentally ended up bending a spoon. I was also delighted to see the humble psi wheel get a positive mention, as this was my own personal area of interest and where I had some legitimate success.

Supernormal is written in a much wittier and more conversational style than Radin’s previous books. It’s very accessible, but no less deep. Although I have to say I didn’t much like the accompanying illustrations of superhero characters striking yoga poses. I think this image cheapens the credibility of psi and alludes more to those fraudulent career psychics who tout their so-called “powers.” The philosophical territory that the book deals with in the closing chapters is particularly profound. Psi phenomena provide the best evidence for the kind of non-dual underpinnings to reality that mystics have talked about for thousands of years. The book is written as a standalone volume, so there is some necesssary overlap with the previous books, in order to give a complete picture. But a little revision does us veterans no harm. I’ve learned a lot from all of Radin’s books. He is a meticulous thinker and a true pioneer. If I might indulge in a little prediction: when psi is eventually integrated into science, Radin will be looked upon as a key figure who was well ahead of the game. He’s doing really important work, especially when you consider that he’s investigating a side of reality that pioneers such as Stephen Hawking are not prepared to acknowledge. Those of us who are lucky enough to have had a legitimate paranormal experience might be ridculed, accused of fraud or self-delusion, but we know better. So does Dean Radin.

The Conscious Universe by Dean Radin

radind-consciousuniverseThis is the first book written by the senior scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences. It was first published in the USA in 1997, but did not have a UK publication until 2009, where it bore the title The Noetic Universe (some UK readers, having already sourced Radin’s earlier work, mistook this for a new book). Both the US and UK editions, stylistically, contain huge marketing blunders. The US edition features an illustration of a levitating spoon, which, let’s face it, is not the sort of image that conveys legitimate psychic research. Meanwhile, the UK edition has a bewildering title and is styled like a Dan Brown novel – because psychic dabblers and Dan Brown fans constitute the same audience, apparently.

But that is where the criticisms end, because, quite frankly, this book is phenomenal. It is a painstakingly detailed critique of psychic research across the twentieth century. It’s a little harder to read than the book’s follow-up, Entangled Minds, but that’s only because the sheer attention to detail in the facts and figures makes the reading experience a little dry at times. Perseverance is well worth it.

The usual attitude of the armchair sceptic is that there is no evidence for psychic phenomena. Unfortunately, the person who says this has, more often than not, never looked for evidence. This is exactly the sort of book that is essential reading for a genuinely objective sceptic who wishes to become better informed. No serious sceptic could maintain a scornful attitude towards parapsychology, after digesting this volume.

The reality is that psychic phenomena are real, but subtle and hard to replicate. Radin’s main argument is through the technique of meta-analysis – by combining the results of all available psychic experiments, the failures and the victories (as well as taking into account the problem of selective reporting), to achieve an overall odds-against-chance figure.

After making a credible case for the existence of “psi,” Radin concludes the book with some philosophical discussion about the nature of reality. What do experiences of extrasensory perception and psychokinesis teach us about how the universe works? This section, for me, was the most rewarding. My own past interest in doing personal psi experiments stemmed from a philosophical conviction that the universe is non-dual – which is exactly the sort of model that Radin identifies as necessary for explaining how psi phenomena can be real.

Radin seems to care passionately about influencing his peers in the scientific community. I applaud him for daring to stand alone, in a poorly funded field that is often ridiculed. I feel that this is an extremely important book, ahead of its time. If you read one volume on psychic phenomena ever, make it this one.

The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot

talbotm-holographicuniverseThere is good reason to believe that the universe is, in some sense, holographic. Put another way: solidity isn’t quite so solid. Science has a lot to say in defence of this counter-intuitive idea. Atoms are mostly empty space, which is what allows vast portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, such as X rays and radio waves, to pass right through solid matter, including our bodies. Inside the atom, electrons are bouncing all over the universe with no regard for the speed of light restriction. There is a universe of localised objects which is held together by a deeper and more fundamental universe that is non-local. We may say the universe is “holographic” as a means of useful analogy. A holographic photograph has no actual three-dimensional solidity, but it gives the appearance that it does – as does the universe.

Talbot’s book begins by reiterating some deep and complicated scientific ideas by Karl Pribram and David Bohm. He suggests that the term “holographic” is more than mere analogy. Holograms have the curious property that if you cut them in half, you don’t end up with half the picture in each segment; you get two copies of the whole picture. The universe, it is claimed, is also like this. Each part contains the whole. Personally, I find more value in the simpler model that the universe is a non-dual unity; each part appears to contain the whole because there aren’t any parts. I rather like Bohm’s terms for the two sides of reality: the implicate and explicate order.

Once Talbot establishes his theoretical model of the universe, his interest is in showing how it can provide a rational basis for explaining paranormal phenomena. This is the very same insight that struck me some years ago, when I got to grips with non-dualism. I proceeded to experiment with psychokinesis, and managed to get some small but mind-blowing reults. PK was, however, something very slippery and hard to replicate on demand – which strikes me as the key reason why paranormal phenomena have never yet been integrated into science.

In the last two thirds of the book, Talbot tackles dreams, healing, stigmata, psychokinesis, the aura, clairvoyance, precognition, reincarnation, out of body experiences, near death experiences, etc. This is where the book started to fall apart for me. Although I have had direct experience of a psychic “ability,” there is no doubt that charlatans abound. Talbot provides a catalogue of paranormal experiences, some of which beggar belief. To his credit, he is conscientious about quoting his sources, but some of those sources seem more than a little dubious to me.

For instance, it is claimed that some stigmatics have nail-like growths protruding from their hands, mimicking the wounds of Christ. In Talbot’s view, this is due to the mind’s ability to change the body through intention. The Christian’s powerful identification with Christ through a lifetime of meditation eventually manifests in his own body. The problem is: if such stigmata are real, why isn’t the medical world standing back in awe? Why hasn’t it revolutionised our ideas about mind and body? This isn’t some highly subjective piece of evidence for PK or ESP. The stigmata is present and observable; it won’t wanish like a ghost when you shine a light on it. Since the phenomenon hasnt been subjected to scientific scrutiny, I have to question the reliability of the source. Talbot, however, doesn’t.

Similarly, he talks about Sathya Sai Baba in a positive light. Sai Baba was a very popular Indian guru, surrounded by countless devotees. He claimed to be able to manifest objects out of thin air. I have a hard time taking such claims seriously. The warning signs of fakery are all there: a love for public adoration, the projection of a larger-than-life image, and a refusal to subject your “powers” to scientific enquiry. It beggars belief how Talbot can simply accept this man’s claims without question. Talbot himself claims to have had profound experiences of his own in childhood: poltergeist manifestations and objects materialising out of thin air. All I can say about that is: I wish I had experienced it, because I’m unable to believe it otherwise.

I really wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. But when Sai Baba and the stigmatics came up, I lost all confidence in Talbot’s ability to separate truth from nonsense in the arena of the paranormal. If all the things that Talbot catalogues are true, then there is no good reason why James Randi’s Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge has remained without a winner for decades. For a far more rational and level-headed examination of paranormal phenomena, read the works of Dean Radin.

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

saganc-demonhauntedworldThe subtitle of this book is “Science as a Candle in the Dark,” which captures the theme beautifully. The book seeks to teach the importance of the scientific method in determining truth from error. It’s careful not to assert that the scientific method is the only method, but is clearly the most effective, as given by its success. The value of critical and sceptical thinking is discussed, with many examples. One of the best chapters is the one where the author discusses what he calls the “baloney detection kit,” covering the various logical fallacies, such as ad hominem abuse, appeal to authority, causation mistaken for correlation, etc.

I confess I wasn’t prepared for how fun this book was going to be to read – and that’s chiefly down to the type of subject matter that Sagan handles, such as his lengthy comparison of the UFO abduction phenomenon to the old stories of religious visions. He also spends some time going into psychic phenomena, and even Satanic ritual abuse.

If there is one weakness in the book it’s that it doesn’t quite do justice to those occasional areas of human enquiry where the scientific method lets us down. I’m something of an occult dabbler, and I’ve made successful experiments in psychokinesis. I was curious to see if my convictions about my own work could stand up against Sagan’s assertions. He is a little overly dismissive of psychic phenomena, and while discussing this subject he seems to forget for a moment that the scientific method is just a method, not our only means of determining truth. The reason the scientific method has thus far failed to give us proof of psychic phenomena is because the phenomena are extremely slippery and hard to replicate. A genuine experience of ESP might be a sudden feeling of dread that something terrible has happened to a friend, then later finding out that he’s been in a car wreck. Such an experience cannot be replicated in a lab, because the experiencer has no idea what he did to prompt it.

The arena of religion understandably comes under fire for anti-scientific dogmatism, but Sagan handles the topic respectfully, while not pulling his punches.

Overall, this is an excellent book. The first step in truth-seeking is not to determine what to believe, but to learn how to think. The Demon-Haunted World provides an excellent guide to that initial enterprise. Sagan is masterful at making science understandable for the lay reader.

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow

The essence of the theory being proposed in this book is this: the Big Bang was not just the creation of our Universe. Simulaneously, there were many other universes, which operated on very different physical principles. Most of these failed to become coherent and collapsed, but at least one (ours) happens to operate in just such a way as to facilitate galaxies, solar systems, and evolving lifeforms. Effectively, the God hypothesis (intelligent design) is done away with by giving yourself an infinite amount of attempts at creation by chance, which take place in adjacent dimensions to ours. Interesting idea, but one which seems impossible to prove. Atheists will probably like it, and theists will view it as a convenient means of doing away with God.

From my own philosophical perspective (non-dualism), I’m more in touch with the Ground of Being as being something impenetrably mysterious, by virtue of it existing beyond the contraints of space-time. The pursuit of a “theory of eveything,” which is Hawking’s particular hobby-horse, seems like a fool’s errand – like attempting to write out the digits of pi, as if the infinite can be captured within the finite. Not going to happen. At the edges of our understanding there will always be mystery. That mystery, in relation to the Big Bang, is the non-dual essence from which duality springs. Religionists call it God. Scientists call it the singularity. We’ll ever get to the bottom of what it is, because we’re finite and it’s infinite.

It seems to me that Hawking’s hypothesis is based on the desire to maintain the idea of the Universe as a machine – a view we inherited through Newtonian mechanics. In science, materialism reigns, while consciousness is seen as an insignificant product of evolution. The flipside is the mystical perspective, where consciousness reigns, and material reality becomes real only as an experience of consciousness. I support a position of neutral monism in between, where the Ground of Being is neither matter nor conscousness but the mysterious essence that gives rise to both.

Putting aside the highly theoretical parts of The Grand Design, the book has much going for it. There is some stimulating historical material, charting science from the Ionian Greeks, through to Copernicus, to quantum mechanics. The latter, as usual, is very tricky to understand for a lay reader like myself, but I gained some new insight. The book is marvellously presented, with colour diagrams that help to make the science comprehensible. There is a very good explanation of the double-slit experiment.

The book coins the phrase “model-dependant realism,” and explains this as the view that certain things are true (real) within the boundaries of particularly defined contexts. The idea of matter as illusory is explained at length. Inadvertently, Hawking succeeds in demonstrating something that the mystically inclined among us perceive but often fail to articulate. This material was priceless.

One of the great quests of science is how to come up with a quantum theory of gravity – in other words, how to integrate general relativity with quantum mechanics. This continues to elude scientists. Hawking concedes that the quest for a single theory of everything might ultimately have to consist of a bunch of separate theories united through an understanding of model-dependant realism.

The Quantum Universe by Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw

As a truth-seeker who has investigated everthing from Christianity, to atheism, Satanism and Eastern philosophy, I thought it was about time I tackled the daunting arena of quantum theory – in particular because, philosophically speaking, I’m a non-dualist, and quantum physics does seem to talk of a world that is fundamentally interconnected in a manner that is at odds with relativistic science.

The book started out as intelligible and fascinating, but after a few chapters I quickly got lost in the mathematics. Nevertheless, I persisted, and I’m glad I did, because even though quantum physics continues to be desperately complicated, I’m definitely not quite so in the dark as I was before. The book stumbles into the same “error” that Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time makes: those readers who can understand the later chapters didn’t need the early ones, while those who benefit from the early chapters can’t understand the later ones. The target audience for the book just isn’t clear. There are some funky chapter headings like “Being in Two Places at Once,” “Everything That Can Happen Does Happen,” and “The Universe in a Pin-head (and Why We Don’t Fall Through the Floor).” These give the impression that this is definitely a book for the lay reader. Not really!

The book fell into a pattern for me. With each chapter, I was able to extract something intelligible and useful from the first few pages, then I would get bamboozled by complex math. The best part of the book for me was a brilliantly clear and thorough explanation of the famous double-slit experiment. This I can understand and appreciate – and it does fill me with a sense of wonder that space-time is underpinned by this extremely odd particle-wave duality. But as for the fine-print of how the quantum world operates, I’m afraid I will simply have to take physicists word for it when they say that an electron travels to its destination via every point in the Universe.

Worth reading for the ten percent of it that I could understand.

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

The usual argument you hear from religionists about morality is that unless you derive your values from a higher power, then those values are objectively meaningless. What right has one man to say to another that his actions are morally wrong, when they are both merely men making personal judgements?

That said, Harris’s target readers in this book are not religionists, but scientists. He maintains that science has, for too long, steered clear of this issue, and in doing so has allowed religion far too much leeway. Harris’s premise is this: the consequences of our behaviours have an objective impact on the wellbeing of conscious creatures, therefore ethics is a matter of objective scientific inquiry. Measuring our actions against this basis is something that we do unconsciously anyway. Well, unless we are a psychopath, that is. (And the book does include a very eye-opening section on psychopathy that doesn’t pull its punches.)

Back when I was a Christian, I knew better than to use the moral argument for God’s existence. I understood that atheists had every right to refine their behaviour in light of the impact of their actions – for purely pragmatic reasons. But sadly, there are still Christians who will use this argument – totally blind to the fact that every other social species in the animal kingdom is able to get along just fine without a divine lawgiver.

My view of ethics differs somewhat from Harris’s, although he writes with such precision and clarity that his assertions had a profound effect on my perspective, helping me to refine it. Before reading this book, I understood that the primary function of ethics was the refinement of natural instinct in the interests of personal survival; ethics that included the wellbeing of others were ultimately for the benefit of the self. However, after reading The Moral Landscape, I gained a fresh perspective on altruism. I came to understand it as the flowering of the survival urge (not something that Harris explicitly asserts). When personal survival is established to the point where there is abundance, that same urge blossoms into an interest in the wellbeing of others less fortunate. To state that another way: we must be good to ourselves before we can be good to others.

I also disagree with Harris’s assertion that we should be able to come up with objective values – clearly defined “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” if you will. I don’t think it can be that simple; each unique situation merits individual consideration. For instance, in the interests of my survival, I know that I would not act in the same way in a post-apocalyptic world as I do in present-day Western civilisation. In the former, I might have to kill to survive, whereas in the latter, it’s likely I will get through my life without doing much harm to anyone.

The main downside to the book was Harris’s assertions about free will. He views it as an illusion. One of the main problems I have with atheists is that they tend to be materialists, and materialists make a pretense of understanding consciousness. Harris unfortunately makes this same error, turning human beings into little more than automatons, despite the fact that we feel our “selfness” very keenly. They key to understanding this lies in differentiating the mind (which is physical) from the pilot of the mind (which is metaphysical). A lengthly discussion of this is beyond the bounds of this review. Faults aside, The Moral Landscape is an insightful book that has the power to be transformative.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Uniquely, I’m someone who first read The God Delusion as a Christian and now I’ve read it for a second time as an ex-Christian. In my first reading, the book didn’t convince me to abandon my faith. Looking back on my original review, I still concur with many of the points I raised in criticism of it. You see, I was no idiot as a Christian. And this is part of the problem with Dawkins’s book: his tone, from the get-go, is that you’re a moron if you believe in God. He characterises the most profound dilemma of my life as foolishness.

Dawkins does not get why people gravitate to religion. He has never understood the view that human nature is broken. This is the driving force that causes people to seek salvation, redemption, spiritual awakening, etc. The feeling that there is something incomplete or malfunctional in man, such as “original sin.” When a religion addresses this need, that is why people flock to it. And this deep psychological attachment then becomes the reason why the religionist cannot be reasoned with. I now believe the view of human nature as “fallen” to be erroneous, but this key issue is not even addressed by Dawkins’s book and it is the very cornerstone of religion.

The God Delusion can basically be split into two parts, each comprising roughly fifty percent of the volume. In the first half, Dawkins makes the argument against God from an evolutionary perspective – the view that complex things are always formed out of simpler things. This is the basis from which Dawkins argues that God, if he exists, must have been something incredibly simple, because a vastly complex God would have required a creator, in the same manner that the theist argues the universe requires a creator. In arguing this way, Dawkins simply does not get what is meant, philosophically, by the idea of a “first cause” or an “uncaused cause.” It is a reference to something wholely outside of the constraints of space-time, something formless and timeless that encompasses all that is in the material realm – something wholely other. I confess that, as a Christian, I gave up on the book at this halfway point, because Dawkins failed to make his case in laying the groundwork.

The second half of the book is mostly concerned with slamming religion as a force for evil. Much of what Dawkins says is true, and a torch should definitely be shone on it all. The trouble is, the Christian is not overly concerned with the atrocities done by others, or the horrors done in the past in the name of Christ. The Christian sees his religion as a personal relationship with God, and his only concern is his own standing before God. And if the Christian feels that his religion is beneficial force in his own life, that’s primarily what matters. A great deal of what Dawkins says will sit in the mind of the Christian reader as a huge ad hominem argument against religion that will have no effect.

One very controversial moment in the book was Dawkins’s suggestion that it might be a good idea to prevent parents raising their children in a religion, on the grounds that such indoctrination is a form of child abuse. I don’t know which is scarier: the idea of parents controlling the education of their own children, or the state dictating it.

The God Delusion only scratches the surface of the problem of religion. The tone and content serve as little more than an effort at mutual atheist backslapping. An expert in evolutionary biology, who attempts to tackle a bigger subject that inevitably strays into philosophy and metaphysics, only reveals how out of his depth he is.

In fairness, I’ve concentrated on the negatives, but there’s a lot in this book that is good. It’s just not nearly good enough.

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

I’m always interested in filling in gaps in my knowledge, and evolutionary biology is a big one. For many years I was a believer in creationism, but since abandoning Christianity, I am more open to the idea of evolution (since I’m no longer being simply told what to believe).

I approached this book believing in evolution but doubting the precise mechanism by which it is claimed to work (natural selection). My objection is based on the fact that evolution has never been simulated in a computer. It’s supposed to be an automatic, non-conscious process, and yet we can’t replicate it artificially. Why? Time to learn from the experts.

Well, I didn’t get an answer to my question. I was delighted to read that Dawkins had taken it upon himself to attempt to simulate evolution on his little 64K computer (this was the 1980s, remember). He claims to have created insect-like creatures that he terms “biomorphs.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain the argorithms that he used to achieve that. I am left to wonder how much of his results were more akin to faces in the cloud than to actual complexity that gives an organism a definite survival edge. Certainly, Dawkins’s program has never been superceded by a better one that shows the principle of natural selection operating on a bigger scale.

Nevertheless, evolution happens; no question about it. Dawkins provides brilliant and very engaging accounts of the development of the eye and echolocation in bats. He expertly debunks creationist objections, explaining how cumulative selection works – nothing like a tornado blowing through a junkyard and creating a Rolls Royce by random chance.

The book unfortunately begins to falter about halfway through and continues plunging to the finish (at least for the lay reader), as it tackles the finer points of evolutionary theory, delving into obscure areas with the titles punctuationism, Lamarckism and taxonomy. He can be long-winded at times, and needlessly arrogant. I could stand the arrogance if he really was as right as he thinks he is, but when he strays out of his field of expertise into metaphysics, he’s completely inept. He has no concept of time other than as a forward-moving arrow, and so, when he thinks of the idea of God, he can only describe him/it as a highly complex organism needing a creator of its own. You can’t tackle metaphysics without delving into philosophy. Dawkins’s unexamined assumption of “materialism” doesn’t cut it.

In the end, I gained some valuable knowledge about evolution, but my main contention was only reinforced. How can you say natural selection is an unconscious process when the organisms doing the the evolving are conscious?

And what is consciousness? The Blind Watchmaker would have benefitted from a chapter on consciousness, discussing the theories on what it is, specifically whether it is an emergent product of evolution, or a metaphysical precursor to the evolutionary process. For reasons that are too lengthy to go into here, I side with the latter. Unfortunately, one may specialise in evolutionary biology, while knowing little or nothing about psychology and metaphysics. This lays the basis for making hugely wrong conclusions, when diverse fields of enquiry overlap. Nevertheless, The Blind Watchmaker is recommended reading.

The Book of the Damned by Charles Fort

Charles Fort (1874-1932) was a collector of unusual news items from a wide variety of sources. Due to his books, he became the man from whom the Fortean Society, as well as the British magazine Fortean Times, derives its name. He is very much like a Victorian Fox Mulder with his X-Files cabinet. Fort was originally a novelist, but The Book of the Damned (1919) was to be a turning point in his career, becoming the first of four books on the paranormal, which are commonly found today as a single omnibus edition.

This first volume is concerned largely with bizarre objects that have fallen from the sky, with the occasional mention of strange markings on the ground and submarine objects, both of which possibly originated in the sky. You won’t find the term “flying saucer” in the book, as this predates the saucer era. What you will find is a catalogue of the most bizarre things that will put furrows of confusion across any UFO ethusiast’s brow. There are falls of frogs, fishes, unknown gelatinous substances, a wide range of inorganic materials, impossibly large hailstones. The “damned” of the book’s title refers to anything that mainstream science cannot explain and therefore seeks to bend into a shape that will fit conventional explanation, or as a last resort, ignore. For instance, science seeks to explain the fall of frogs as frogs that were taken up in a tornado and deposited back to earth in a different location. Fort points out an instance which defies this explanation, such as when a second fall happens at the exact same place on a different date. Science, however, ignores this – damns it, if you will.

Fort proposes something that he terms the “Super-Sargasso Sea” as a quasi-explanation for what’s going on – an invisible realm in the sky populated by all sorts. It’s difficult to tell how much credence Fort himself puts in this theory, as the book is full of wit. Fort presents himself as someone who is more concerned with getting people to admit how little the know, rather than claiming he knows something himself. He calls himself an “intermediatist.”

Fort’s style is the book’s weakest point. Everything is tossed together in a somewhat random fashion, with the author’s rambling commentary flowing throughout, often making the same point over and over in different words. As such, it became tiresome to read at times, and I often felt that a good essay would have suffices in place of such a large volume. But what I loved about the book as a whole is that Fort has the heart of a philosopher, and this shines throughout. This is really a book about the nature of truth, and our relationship to truth. How do we know what we know, and do we really know anything at all for sure? Fort continually points the finger at the “positivists” – those whose attitude is “Well, such-and-such cannot be true, because it defies such-and-such, so we shall damn it,” as if current scientific theory were an unshakeable absolute. The universe according to Charles Fort is a place that keeps thwarting our attempts to “positivise” (as he calls it) – to determine absolute truth in our science.

It’s difficult to know how much or how little of Fort’s catalogue is trustworthy. But Fort himself admits that if only a portion is true, then his point stands. The Book of the Damned is an effective warning against the error of scientism. Far too many sceptics and rational thinkers turn mainstream science into dogma, and completely forget the lesson from history of how knowledge has continually evolved, and will continue to do so, with many corrections to what we “know” along the way. I leave you with a few quotes from the author:

Science of today – the superstition of tomorrow. Science of tomorrow – the superstition of today.

All phenomena are “explained” in terms of the Dominant of their era.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

What truth-seeker’s library would be complete without A Brief History of Time, the famous physics book that became a best-seller with the general public. I approached this volume as a lay reader, having quite a poor knowledge of physics (sadly, I failed my GCSE Science back in school).

The book opens brilliantly, with an easily digestible chapter on how our cosmology has evolved over time, from the Greek philosophers to the present day. Next we learn about the interrelationship between space and time, how we discovered that both are not fixed and absolute, but flexible. We move to the discovery that the universe itself is expanding, and how this points to an event in the distant past that we call the Big Bang. After all this great stuff, unfortunately the book starts to slowly slip out of my control. By the time I’m hitting the chapter on black holes (about mid-way through the book), I’m eighty-percent lost. I continued ploughing my way to the finish line, not understanding most of what I was reading, but keeping by eye out for digestible tidbits – which did show up occasionally.

There’s nothing actually wrong with this book, other than the fact that there seems to be some confusion about who the intended readership is. I find it amusing that the author pauses to define the word “ellipse” in an early chapter, when several chapters later he is blinding us with terms like “quantum fluctuation.” It’s difficult to see how a book of this nature gained such popularity with lay readers, other than some very effective marketing. It’s really aimed at physics students.

Even so, as a lay reader, I gained an invaluable deeper appreciation of the nature of space-time, one which complements and enhances my own philosophical understanding of the universe. The Big Bang is not “something out of nothing,” as theists commonly misunderstand. It is all the energy of the universe compressed to infinity – where form and duration collapse, becoming an infinite all or one. There is something very profound about the nature of energy, as something that cannot be created or destroyed, when we consider that “God” (whatever that is) cannot be created or destroyed. The Big Bang is also the point at which the laws of physics cease to function. Materialistic atheists should take note that this is providing a very large clue about the limits of science in its capacity to ever provide us with a total worldview.

Regarding the mathematical complexity of much of the book, I also gained an appreciation of just how much of what science asserts is highly theoretical and subject to error. Great changes in theory frequently occur at a level far beyond my understanding of physics. But it is safe to say that the fundamentals are here to stay.

A hard read, but well worth it.

Brave New World Revisited by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World Revisited was written thirty years after Brave New World. It is a non-fiction work, essentially a comparison between the predictions of the original science fiction novel and developments in the real world. In the novel, the world population is kept at an ideal number by means of eugenics. In the real world we see an ever encroaching trend towards over-population. Huxley discusses how we have become ever more skilled at “death control” (living longer and healthier lives), but we have no corresponding birth control. The forces of predation, sickness and natural disaster, which keep the rest of the animal kingdom in balance, are having less and less effective against humans, due to our own ingenuity. Related to overpopulation is the problem of over-organisation, where a human being becomes nothing more than as a cog in the wheel of society; the human exists only to serve a greater social organism, whereas the social organism is really no more than a social organisation. Integral to the book is the tension between anarchism and totalitarianism; too much freedom versus too little.

A major theme of the book is mind-manipulation in its various subtle forms. Hitler comes under the spotlight, in particular how he made his propaganda successful using fervent emotion, reinforced through repetition. This is contrasted with propaganda that addresses the intellect. In our advertising-saturated lives, the chapter “The Arts of Selling” is more relevant today than ever. Huxley brings to light how we are exploited by those who sell products by tapping into our fears and wishes. An excerpt from the chapter “Brainwashing”:

The fact that strong negative emotions tend to heighten suggestibility and so facilitate a change of heart had been observed and exploited long before the days of Pavlov. As Dr. William Sargant has pointed out in his enlightening book, Battle for the Mind, John Wesley’s enormous success as a preacher was based upon an intuitive understanding of the central nervous system. He would open his sermon with a long and detailed description of the torments to which, un­less they underwent conversion, his hearers would un­doubtedly be condemned for all eternity. Then, when terror and an agonizing sense of guilt had brought his audience to the verge, or in some cases over the verge, of a complete cerebral breakdown, he would change his tone and promise salvation to those who believed and repented. By this kind of preaching, Wesley converted thousands of men, women and children. Intense, pro­longed fear broke them down and produced a state of greatly intensified suggestibility. In this state they were able to accept the preacher’s theological pro­nouncements without question. After which they were reintegrated by words of comfort, and emerged from their ordeal with new and generally better behavior patterns ineradicably implanted in their minds and nervous systems.

Later chapters are entitled “Chemical Persuasion” (the use of drugs to control a population), “Subconscious Persuasion” (the subliminal technique of persuasion by association), “Hypnopaedia” (hypnotic suggestibility). The book closes with a forward-looking discussion on education.

This small book is a treasure-trove of rational information to chew over, for anyone who wants to have a more conscious existence – that is, to be more aware of the forces controlling our lives, and thus more able to make our own choices. In today’s world, we have the unfortunate phenomenon of the paranoid conspiracist, who learns the very real nature of the information presented here, through “researchers” like David Icke and Alex Jones, but then he ends up believing that there’s a secret “Illuminati” who are trying to bring about a New World Order – an ancient elistist brotherhood who are actually the Biblical Nephilim in disguise, or reptilian shapeshifters from another dimension. If you wonder how people can get so carried away, that’s because it begins with a genuine grasping of truth leading to an awakening out of a hypnotic trance of sorts. Unfortunately, not all are up to the task of maintaining a sharp critical perspective on information, and they fall prey to the more outlandish claims of fear-mongers and sensation-seekers.

Brave New World Revisited represents the best of the modern “truth movement” without the bullshit. A book to treasure and to read again and again.

The Spontaneous Healing of Belief by Gregg Braden

The cornerstone of this book is the view that we do not live in a purely mechanistic universe of unbreakable laws, but that heart-felt belief can have a tangible effect on reality itself. What we know as physical reality is but an expression of a deeper reality, and that deeper reality is consciousness. The universe is what Braden terms a “consciousness computer.”

For reasons of my own, I’m already sold on the view that the universe is holographic and that we all are all one consciousness. It was interesting reading Braden’s justifications for this view, drawing in particular from the findings of quantum physics, such as the double-slit experiment.

The book is a mixture of cutting-edge science plus Braden’s personal memoirs, both from his everyday life and his travels to remote places for research. Some of the justifications he makes from personal life felt a little shaky. For instance, he talked about a man who expected to die at thirty-three because his brother had died at thirty-three, his father, too, and his father’s father. Braden believes that it was the belief in this “family curse” that was bringing about the actual result in each case; our bodies seek to mirror what we believe about ourselves. Now, the principle may or may not be true, but the scientific foundation of it cannot stand on a few anecdotal examples from Braden’s personal life. Likewise, Braden makes much of an “impossible” hand-print impression on the wall of a cave, supposedly put there centuries ago by some highly knowledgable seer who lived there and learned to wield power over reality itself, pressing his hand into the rock. I’m rather more sceptical of such tourist attractions. Nevertheless, these memoirs certainly made interesting reading.

Despite these criticisms, I do think Braden may be one of the pioneers helping to bridge the gap between science and spirituality. This gap has certainly been shortening for me personally in recent times, as I withdrew from the influence of dogmatic religion, while also realising that the world was stranger than classical physics. What I notice is a convegence of ideas. Braden’s “belief creates reality” hypothesis is not different in principle from my personal experiments with telekinesis, no different than the power of positive thinking, no different from those “manifesting wealth” teachings, no different from answered prayer, no different even from the underlying principles of Satanic ritual (and that last one is not a joke; see my review of The Satanic Bible). It is extremely interesting when ideas from so many different philosophies converge and point to the same principle: belief affects reality. It tends to make you think, “Maybe there’s really something to this notion.”

Tales from the Time Loop by David Icke

The book begins with a short autobiography, which I read with great interest, particularly to hear David Icke’s own reflections on his experiences in the early 1990s, when he had his brief “son of God” phase that caused so much public ridicule. The rest of the book is divided into four parts, or layers, as they are called.

First, “The five-sense conspiracy.” This is the largest section of the book and comprises some two hundred pages. Icke begins by filling us in briefly on the overall picture of the conspiracy, involving secret societies, hidden-hand leadership, pryamid power structures, and the various scams that are played on humanity. The bulk of this section of the book is taken up by an examination of the wars in Afganistan and Iraq in the wake of 9/11 – a tearing down of the propagana given to us by the mass media and a look at the US government’s real motivations, as well as the consequences of their actions for innocent Middle Eastern civilians. Icke’s previous book was Alice in Wonderland and the World Trade Centre Disaster. Although I haven’t read that book, my guess is that the material in Tales from the Time Loop forms a sequel of sorts. The information quickly gets complicated to sift through, and I confess that at times I’m left not quite knowing what to believe. The chapter on civilian casualties is particularly moving, and at the very least the reader is left with a sense that he needs to question an awful lot more than when he hears on the TV news.

Layer 2 is “The extra-terrestrial/inter-dimensional conspiracy.” To call the information in this section startling is an understatement. Essentially, Icke’s claim is that many of the key people in positions of power (and throughout what is called the Illuminati) are possessed by entities from another dimension – entites that have a reptilian form. Icke was first introduced to this side of the conspiracy through receiving numerous reports in the late 1990s of people who witnessed another person “shape-shift” into a reptilian. When enough of these reports came to light, this indicated that there was something worth researching. 100 pages of Tales from the Time Loop is dedicated to this topic, merely a fraction of what went into his earlier book on the reptilians, The Biggest Secret, which I haven’t read. In summary, the secret rulers of the world can be traced back to antiquity, via secret societies and religions, right back to ancient Babylon and Sumer. The worship of the serpent, in various forms, can be seen far and wide in ancient religion. Human sacrifice is one of the primary ways these entities obtain energy. Such practices never ended, but go on in secret today, among the rich and famous. Reptilian shapeshifting is commonly reported in Satanic ritual abuse.

That’s just a fraction of the story. It reads like a science fiction extravaganza, and I can’t get on board with all of it. Icke’s big problem is that he never pauses long enough to let the reader catch his breath. The revelations come thick and fast, building one of top of the other, and the reader (me, anyway) is left behind somewhere along the way amidst a fog of information that he can’t hang on to as provable. Icke relies heavily on quotes from other written souces, particularly authors Zechariah Sitchin and Stewart Swerdlow. The former has written books which take an alternative view of human history and the latter claims to have had access to an underground base where reptilians were operating from. I simply don’t have enough information to make a decision. I wish Icke had simply tackled a few aspects of the reptilian theory thoroughly instead of trying to cram everything into a small space. For instance, I find it very interesting that the ancestry of the vast majority of American presidents can be traced back to Charlemagne. If that’s true, then there has been something very big and very fishy going on for hundreds of years outside the public eye. I also find it very interesting that so many Freemasons were involved in the formation of America, and that government people participate in a secret dark religious ceremony at Bohemiam Grove every year. It is unquestionable that there is something shadowy going on in the world that the public is not privy to. I just wish these themes were developed fully, but all too often Icke says, “You can read more about this in my book, X.” To be fair, though, Icke’s summaries do raise important questions and open up many avenues waiting to be explored. Every chapter has thorough footnotes about where you can go to find out more.

Layer 3 is called “It’s all an illusion”. This is where the book goes in the direction that I really appreciate, where we delve into the philosophical and the intuitive. Physical reality, as we know it, isn’t solid. Three-dimensional solidity is just a perception of the human body and brain. Underneath all of this, the universe is really an energy field. Now, you can believe that, or you can believe that physical solidity is the basis from which all else stems. Either way, it’s a belief, and none of us can get outside of our perceptions to find out. You might ask, what does it matter? Well, if the physical universe is just a perception, perhaps consciousness is a far greater thing we have imagined. Perhaps all that exists is one gigantic consciousness, and every human life is that consciousness undergoing an experience of separation from the full magnitude of what it is. The cornerstone of this part of the book is an experience that Icke had in Brazil, where he was invited to take a psychoactive drink called ayahuasca as a means of opening the door to a higher perception of reality (a similar account is told by Aldous Huxley, regarding mescaline, in his book The Doors of Perception).

Layer 4 is “Transforming the illusion.” The focus is on waking up from all the nonsense we’ve been conditioned to believe is normal life and all the traps that keep us hypnotised. The ultimate conclusion to all this is that we learn to laugh about life – to realise that this tiny life is just a game, full of endless possibilities, on the great canvas of infinite awareness. Really insightful stuff.

There were moments, in the earlier parts of the the book (especially the reptilian section), that I thought I was going to be giving this a bad review. But overall, when I’ve digested all 450 pages (and they’re pretty big pages), I find myself yet again impressed with David Icke’s insight. Once more, my mind has been stimulated to learn more and more from the wealth of information that lies ignored just outside the mainstream.