Who Is Susan Blackmore

by Robert E. McGrath

I'm not particularly skeptical about Susan Blackmore. I consider her one of today's most important skeptics, scientists, and students of the paranormal. Her life and work are an inspiration and a model of creative engagement, rational inquiry, and personal integrity. She has shown the right way to scientifically study paranormal phenomena, courageously pursued the truth wherever the evidence has led, and has repeatedly criticized "skeptics" who reject claims of the paranormal on less than rational grounds. When Dr. Blackmore speaks, Mr. McGrath listens.

Blackmore's scientific work is impressive. Beyond The Body [1] is the most complete examination of "out of the body experiences" (OBEs) to date, and will probably never be surpassed. This book is based on the unparalleled archives of the Society for Psychical Research in London, anthropological data, esoteric lore, and scientific data of various kinds. She examined theories of the OBE based on religious, philosophical, pseudoscientific, and scientific ideas. Characteristically, she personally experienced as much as possible of the "out of body" phenomena, and gives careful consideration to the reported experience of others. Blackmore emphasizes an experiential definition of the OBE: the experience of being "out of the body" is real and scientifically indisputable. This approach provides a rational basis for examining the OBE, without committing one to any particular explanation of it. Blackmore is sure the experience is real, if somewhat rare, although she is convinced that nothing actually leaves the body during an OBE.

Beyond the Body represents the foundation of one of Blackmore's continuing lines of research. This work has continued in her recent book, Dying to Live [9], a definitive look at Near-Death Experiences (NDEs). She has also investigated other phenomena which may or may not be related to OBEs and NDEs, including "Lucid Dreams", and altered states of consciousness, such as meditation. Throughout this work, Blackmore seeks to understand these experiences and their meaning. She examines questions that scientific psychology recognizes as fundamental, if scientifically intractable: the nature of consciousness, self-consciousness, experience, imagination, and memory. She holds (quite correctly) that the "paranormal" experiences she examines can and must be brought into "normal" psychology, however difficult that may be. This she has done with some success.

In seeking to understand the "out of the body" experience, Blackmore has asked: "What is an 'in the body' experience?" Brava, Susan Blackmore! This is a pretty darned good question! Despite the fact that we all have this experience much of the time, and usually take it for granted, there is precious little "scientific explanation" of this phenomenon. Blackmore's theories seek to tie together the everyday "in the body" experience, OBEs, NDEs, and other altered states of consciousness, using rational, testable scientific hypotheses.[1,2,6,7,9] She has shown that not only can science address these issues, but that by doing so we gain important understanding about what it means to be humand and how to live and die well.  This work is a great success.

Professor Blackmore has had much less success investigating conventional parapsychological phenomena, such as precognition, psychokinesis, and remote viewing. She has written of her initial belief in psi, the tantalizing hints she observed, and how the apparent evidence of psi vanished each time she applied tighter scientific controls. Her personal experiences seemed to show the reality of psi, yet she was unable produce any scientific evidence for it, or replicate studies by others which seemed to show it. Further, she found much of the published "evidence" and "theory" to be invalid or inadequate. Her scientific training forced her to conclude that she could find no evidence that psi exists. These developments are discussed autobiographically in [3, 4].

The conflict between her convictions based on personal experience and what she knew based on science presented a personal crisis for Blackmore. This sort of crisis has probably happened to many people. In response, some people might conclude that there really is "nothing there", and move on to easier scientific topics. Others might abandon rationality and science, preferring to trust their own personal experience of psi. Blackmore could not do either, she responded to the crisis by seeking to explain the conflict itself. If psi does not exist, she considered, why did she (and so many others) believe it did? Like the question of "in the body experiences", this leads to profound and important psychological questions, such as, "Why do people believe in the paranormal?" and "Why are some experiences felt to be 'paranormal' and others not?"

These ideas have led to a second important line of research: the examination of the psychology of "psychic experiences". Blackmore has identified what she describes as "cognitive illusions" analogous to "perceptual illusions". Just as "visual illusions" are "the price we have to pay for a perceptual system that does very well in a confusing world", cognitive illusions may be "the price we pay for the way our brains look for connections in chance and probability." [5, p. 62]. Psychologists find perceptual illusions valuable because they may reveal details of how people normally perceive the world. Blackmore's "psychic illusions" may be valuable for the same kind of reason: they may reveal how people ordinarily judge chance, infer cause and effect, and find patterns.

Examination of cognitive illusions has led to the consideration of the psychology of belief and skepticism. In her 1991 address to CSICOP (at the time of her selection for the Executive Council), Blackmore discussed the classic parapsychological concept of sheep (those who tend to believe in the paranormal) and goats (those who tend to disbelieve the paranormal). Events in the world are usually ambiguous and might be produced by a known cause, an unknown cause, or chance. We usually do not know "the truth", and routinely draw inferences based on limited data. When faced with a pattern of occurrences for which there is no solid explanation (which happens all the time) different people will draw different inferences. Sheep will tend to infer that operation of unseen, "psychic" forces. Goats will tend to see coincidence, or perhaps unknown but "perfectly natural" forces. Attributing all ambiguous events to mysterious, psychic powers closes one to much of the real world. Attributing all ambiguous events to chance closes one to the unexpected and the new. Both these positions are undesirable. Blackmore calls upon us to be open to the unexpected, while critical of what it seems to show. She imagines continuously soaring, at first sheep-ish, then more goat-ish, and back again. She calls this, "being a 'flying horse'", and calls upon us all to join her in this category. (See [8] for drawings of sheep, goats, and flying horses, among other things.). This is both sound psychological theory and good skeptical practice.

Beyond her contributions to knowledge, I am attracted to Susan Blackmore because she takes it all so darned personally. Her work is completely self-centered: she has spent her life attacking the questions she thinks are important. She asks, "Who am 'I'?", "What does it mean to be 'me'?", "Is there something more than physical reality?", "How can we really know?". She has repeatedly said, "I don't know", and "I may be wrong", but she has never stopped asking good questions. Despite the difficulty of these questions, she has not given up, nor has she compromised her high standards of inquiry. Who is Susan Blackmore? Even she doesn't know. But I think she's great.

Some Books and Articles by Susan Blackmore

  1. Beyond the Body. Heinemann, London, 1982. American paperback edition, Academy Chicago Publications, Chicago, 1992.
  2. "A Psychological Theory of the Out-Of-Body Experience", Journal of Parapsychology, Volume 48, 1984, pp. 201-218.
  3. "The Adventures of a Psi-Inhibitory Experimenter", in A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology, Paul Kurtz, ed., Prometheus Books, Buffalo, 1985.
  4. The Adventures of a Parapsychologist. Prometheus Books, Buffalo, 1986.
  5. "The Lure of the Paranormal", New Scientist, Volume 127, September 22 1990, pp. 62-65.
  6. "Lucid Dreams", Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 15, Number 4, 1991, pp. 362-370.
  7. "Near Death Experiences: In or Out of the Body?", Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 16, Number 1, 1991, pp. 34-45.
  8. "Psychic Experiences: Psychic Illusions", Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 16, Number 4, 1992, pp. 367-380.
  9. Dying to Live: Near-Death Experiences, Prometheus Books, 1993.


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