[This article is based on an article that appeared in The REALL News, Vol. 1, No. 9, Oct 1
[This article is based on an article that appeared in The REALL News,
Vol. 1, No. 9, Oct 1993. (The REALL News is the official newsletter
of the Rational Examination Association of Lincoln Land, PO Box
20302, Springfiled, IL 62708.)]
_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_  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.
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
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_, 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
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
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.
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
_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 
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,
4. _The Adventures of a Parapsychologist_. Prometheus Books, Buffalo,
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.
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.
Robert E. McGrath
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank