The Future and Beyond: Evidence for Precognition and the Survival of Death
H. F. Saltmarsh
Precognition (an incomprehensible idea about the future) and survival of bodily death (an enormous hope, operating in the service of coping with our greatest fear): Can we say anything useful or sensible or hopeful about either of them? Or will we just go down dead-end paths that have been well trodden by many thoughtful people before, without arriving at a satisfactory place?
Sometimes in our lives, the world seems to give us signs that we are on the right track--like a little precognition as one is getting ready to write about precognition?
This morning I had decided on awakening that immediately after breakfast I should begin working on writing the forward to these two wonderful books by H. F. Saltmarsh. I had put the task aside for more than a year because of the pressure of other projects. As I sat down to breakfast I noticed I was quietly singing an old song to myself, a song whose words (as I was remembering them) were:
I sailed on the sloop John B.,
My grandfather and me.
Around this old town
We did go . . .
A couple of minutes later I looked at the daily newspaper crossword puzzle I planned to do with my breakfast. One across, the first word called for, was "sailing ship." The word "sloop" was of course what was needed.
I wryly remarked to my wife that my "psychic powers" seemed to be hard at work on what was really important in life, thinking I was making a little joke about the relative triviality of crossword puzzles. I hadn't yet made the connection that perhaps this was a little precognitive sign.
Precognition has always been a covertly difficult subject for me. I say covertly, or maybe unconsciously, because for much of my life I had no idea just how difficult it was. I had been studying the literature of psychical research and experimental parapsychology since my teenage years and, as a scientist, had almost immediately accepted the reality of precognition. Besides well-documented spontaneous cases of it in people's lives, such intriguing cases you will read in the first Saltmarsh book, the experimental evidence for its reality was excellent.
Basically, an experimenter would ask a percipient to predict some future target, typically the order of a deck of cards. The predictions would be written down, and at a designated time in the future, a deck of cards would be thoroughly randomized by repeated, blind shuffling and the final order then compared with the predictions. Not always, but far too often for chance to account for it, there was more than just guessing in the percipients' predictions. They were getting extra "hits," and the reality of occasional precognition was demonstrated.
The logic of this was very simple and clear, and, in the more than 45 years of a career partly devoted to parapsychological investigations, I have always included precognition as one of the five psi phenomena that is established beyond any reasonable doubt.
"Reasonable doubt"--good old reason. A very handy tool, but perhaps not always up to the full spectrum of reality.
Here's what opened my eyes to my covert problem with precognition:
In the mid-1970s, my students and I began some studies trying to train other student percipients to use their ESP (extrasensory perception) more effectively. This was based on a theory of mine (Tart 1966) that the traditional method of testing people for their ESP ability contained a major flaw. That method involved percipients guessing decks of hidden cards over and over and over. While results in general were significantly above chance expectation, showing that various forms of ESP existed, there was a common trend for percipients to get worse as they continued the tests. This was called the decline effect.
I looked at this situation as a psychologist with some knowledge of learning theory, and realized that the testing situation involved repeated trials with no immediate feedback of results. That is, you guessed all the way through a deck, typically of 25 special cards, and only at the end were the cards turned over and compared with your guesses. Psychologists had long ago discovered that withholding or delaying feedback constituted what was called an extinction paradigm, a way to confuse a subject and destroy any skill that subject, animal or human, had at a particular task. Thus, it was not at all surprising that a decline effect in ESP performance was common. For all its logic, this was not a welcome idea to parapsychologists because of its implication that we had been killing off the very phenomena we wanted to study.
In our studies at the university, the percipients worked at an electronic machine, the Ten-Choice Trainer, which provided immediate feedback on each guess. A sender/experimenter in another room tried to send the percipient each target number, so we thought of this as a telepathy study. This was a "real-time" telepathy study: Each percipient's goal was to correctly guess the target number currently being sent by his or her experimenter on each trial. Our initial studies were quite successful in getting high ESP scores in a telepathy mode, in not having any signs of declines, and in some people apparently showing the beginnings of learning. The results are described in detail elsewhere (Tart 1976).
Some time after my initial data analyses for telepathy, it occurred to me that, as had often been done in others' parapsychological research, I should further analyze the data to see if there were other effects than simply hitting on the intended, real-time telepathy targets. Among these analyses, I looked for precognition. I found massive precognition effects on the target one ahead of what the percipient was aiming for on each trial. That is, they were guessing a target that had not yet been selected by the random number generator. These were highly unusual precognition effects also, for they involved extremely significant (odds of millions to one) avoidance of the correct target!
One of my major research projects all through my life, and still underway, is myself. I've always been interested in observing and understanding the way my own mind works. I noticed strong and unusual feelings as I discovered these precognition effects, so, looking inward, I discovered that while I had consciously and rationally long accepted the reality of precognition, at a deeper level the concept of predicting the future through some form of precognition was totally nonsensical to me! So nonsensical that I wasn't really specifically resistant to it nor did I defend against it: You don't need to defend yourself against what isn't there.
Now I had some deeper understanding of one of the reasons some people argue so strongly (and often irrationally) against the possible reality of precognition. All because precognition had snuck into my own laboratory when I wasn't looking!
Have I come to terms with precognition? Not really. Intellectually, I still accept it on the basis of the same kind of experimental evidence that initially convinced me, but now I remind myself that I still have some non-intellectual, perhaps non-conscious resistance and rejection of precognition, and I had better be careful not to let my rational processes be covertly influenced by that resistance.
So back to the sloop. Did it really sail into my mind through precognition, as a little reminder from the universe that I was on the right track to start writing the forward to these books and, hopefully, stimulate brighter minds than my own to think about precognition and survival, and so help us understand these vitally important topics better?
Well maybe. But then maybe not. Perhaps in my earlier unfolding of the newspaper section to where I could later retrieve the puzzle I unconsciously read the clue. I would take an oath in a court of law that I didn't look closely at the puzzle section while unfolding the paper, and certainly didn't consciously read any of it, but I can't completely rule out the possibility that my eyesight is better than I think it is when used by my unconscious mind, and so perhaps it got a peek that then stimulated the song coming into my head.
How about just coincidence? Perhaps I think about sloops all the time? Not likely. I don't know exactly what a sloop is, just some kind of old-time sailing ship. I doubt that I've ever used the word aloud in conversation, and I can see no reason for the word to pass through my mind more than once every few years, if that often. I'm not a boat person.
And perhaps my memory is making the story a little better than it actually is? Are the words "I sailed on the sloop John B." a memory distortion after seeing that "sloop" was the needed word in the crossword puzzle, the actual words being "the ship John B.?" But I think I've sung it as sloop over the years, or perhaps as either sloop or ship.
Or is my resistance to precognition still coming out by thinking of these alternatives?
And isn't this still a good sign that we are on the right track? Being able to illustrate the difficulties of evaluating possible precognition in ordinary life? I once had some marvelous synchronicities happen when I was writing an article on synchronicity that I took as a good sign that the article was on the right track (Tart 1981), so perhaps this was something similar?
All of this discussion illustrates some of the problems in deciding whether precognition is real, much less what it means about the nature of reality. Saltmarsh's precognition book deals with all these issues in a reliable, sophisticated, and quite readable way that is very intriguing. And, regardless of my (or your) personal psychological resistances, the laboratory evidence for the reality of occasional precognition is still very, very good.
Too, while many of us prefer the intellectual clarity of laboratory studies, where we have a limited set of known conditions, it is the richness of spontaneous precognitive events in life, even if complex, that gives us the most important hints as to their nature and function. Saltmarsh's cases, though old, are rich indeed.
Needless to say, precognition makes no sense in terms of common sense or physics- classical views of the material universe, or in terms of the doctrine prevailing in almost all of contemporary science of materialism which makes the mind nothing but the operations of the physical brain. Whether the strange physical world of quantum mechanics, where time is much stranger, has anything to do with the human brain, is still a hotly debated, and generally doubted, topic among physicists and neurophysiologists. And this is what makes precognition so interesting and challenging, of course. The day we understand it will call for a major deepening of our understanding of reality.
Speaking of materialism, insofar as the mind is nothing but the operation of the brain, the topic of Saltmarsh's second book, possible survival of bodily death, is clearly a priori nonsense. Why bother to think about it? Mind equals brain, brain stops at death, end of story. . . .
But if a human mind can sometimes reach into the future, precognize, that's a very "mind-like" thing to do, rather than a "brain-like" thing. Indeed all of the five robustly established forms of psi (telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psychokinesis, and psychic healing) establish a general case that a dualistic view of humankind, that mind may be something of a quite different order than simply matter, needs to be taken seriously. If mind is different from matter, the ending of the material substrate of ordinary consciousness is not necessarily the end of mind. So perhaps our personal life-stories are not automatically ended by death?
One of the main thrusts of early psychical research was the question of postmortem survival. Although contemporary parapsychology largely ignores that issue, preferring the clarity of simplified laboratory work, the evidence collected by careful investigators over the years has been very impressive. Whether you can say survival has been proven is a tough question: Some say yes, some say no, some say maybe, and the vast majority of humanity outside the very small circle of psychical researchers is almost totally ignorant that there is any evidence on the issue.
My best understanding at this time is that the possibility of survival has been firmly established, and so we should be devoting enormous resources to investigating an issue like this which has vital implications as to how we will live our lives. Of course we are not doing so in our crazy, modern world, so the old evidence, including that discussed by Saltmarsh in this book, is still of great importance.
I will very briefly summarize this evidence. People go to spiritualist mediums, who claim to "channel" or relay information from deceased people. The vast majority of communications obtained in this way are not really evidential in proving the identity of the ostensible surviving communicator: They are too general or more involved with emotional interaction that, while very valuable to those going to mediums, is not evidential. This is to be expected: The vast majority of ordinary telephone calls are not particularly evidential of anything either. But some mediumistic communications involve detailed, factually correct information from the deceased (I won't keep saying "ostensible" every time I used "deceased" or "communicator" as it's awkward, but technically that's what I mean) that seems to prove the identity of the deceased. Once you've ruled out deliberate fraud--and there are some fraudulent mediums, of course, just as there are charlatans in all walks of life--doesn't this prove that at least some people survive death sometimes?
This is where a major complication comes in, a complication that helped divert modern parapsychology to simpler laboratory studies and generally discouraged survival studies to the point where the amount of effort going into the question is quite trivial compared to its importance.
The complication: When a medium relays information from a communicator that is correct, might that information simply be telepathically picked up from the sitter's mind and unconsciously worked into an impression of the deceased? We have robust evidence that living people sometimes have telepathic contact with each other. We have robust evidence that telepathy (or the other forms of ESP) can be used in an unconscious way. So a medium may honestly believe she or he is simply relaying information from surviving spirits, when it's actually their unconscious mind putting on a good impersonation, fortified by psychically acquired information about the deceased.
If we could put firm limits on the operation of ESP, we might rule this out, but at this stage of our knowledge we can't. We don't have any evidence to show ESP can pick up specific kinds of information. Once the possibility of unconscious impersonation in concert with ESP was recognized as an alternative to the reality of surviving spirits, survival research reached a major stumbling block, an obstacle still very much with us today.
Here we come to the major contribution of Saltmarsh's second book--the evidence for survival from the cross-correspondences. As is detailed in the book, several psychical researchers struggled with this problem while alive, then died. They then apparently got together on the other side and figured out a way to cooperatively send messages through various mediums that taken separately would make no sense, but put together by living researchers would provide much stronger proof of survival. It would seem preposterous for the unconscious minds of a number of mediums to be able to telepathically cooperate in such a sophisticated fashion, so the possibility that we actually survived death would gain much stronger support.
Were the cross-correspondences, the demonstration organized from the other side, successful? Personally, I can't tell in any final way: The cases involve quotations and allusions to classical literature that I don't know enough about for me to reach a firm conclusion. The experimenters and educated people of those times were far more familiar with the classics than most of us today; it was a natural language for them. But is the material fascinating? Yes! Is it one of the most interesting ideas to come along? Yes! And perhaps most importantly, I hope this example of ingenuity will inspire new researchers to devise other ingenious ways to study the survival question. We need to know!
Charles T. Tart
Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,
Palo Alto, and University of California, Davis
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