The mission of IONS in basic science is to explore
the frontiers of human consciousness, to push the boundaries of
the known, and to probe the cutting edge. This seems straightforward
enough, but locating the edge isn't as easy as it sounds.
Say you're preparing to slice a squishy tomato.
It's always a good idea to sharpen a dull knife before attacking
a slippery object, and after a few swipes on a sharpening stone,
the blade begins to sing. A few strokes more and it's sharper still.
Now you're inspired and wonder how finely honed this blade can get.
A thousand sharpening strokes later you're completely exhausted
and the knife blade has visibly shrunken.
But oh boy, now it's incredibly sharp. You figure
that with a few more hours of determined grinding you'll be able
to sharpen the cutting edge down to a single atom. But wait, why
stop there? Maybe it's possible to develop a subatomic cutting edge!
Eyes glazing over, you ponder the possibilities of a quantum cutter,
and then you completely forget about the tomato.
This parable hints at one of the difficulties
encountered when exploring the frontiers of consciousness. Frontiers
are unexplored territories; there aren't any road signs out there,
and the only certainties are doubt and ambiguity. In addition, the
exciting, spicy edge often feels far off and futuristic. But when
studying consciousness the frontier is more like seeing ancient
legends with new eyes.
One popular way to sharpen one's vision of this
edge is by becoming a "psychonaut," by personally diving
into the depths of inner space through the disciplined practice
of meditation, chanting, or any number of other mind-expanding techniques.
This subjective approach is often personally persuasive and at times
can even be transformative. But it also contains a dilemma - experiences
in nonordinary states of awareness can be extremely difficult to
evaluate. It's well known that expectations distort ordinary perceptions
and memories, so you can imagine how dramatically warped nonordinary
experiences may be. Without the checks and balances of multiple
ways of knowing, including objective scientific methods, there is
danger of succumbing to what might be called "narcosis of the
deep mind." These seductions can easily lead the explorer into
a hall of mirrors littered with the skeletons of explorers who've
lost their way.
Close cousins of the psychonauts' amazing tales
are rumors of secret, breakthrough experiments performed by exotic
scientists whose names, remarkably, often have no vowels. Such enticing
stories always outpace the plodding march of peerreviewed science,
and the consequence of this knowledge lag is that the authentic
razor's edge - the scientifically verifiable claim - is full of
qualifiers, devilish details, and advances measured in halting baby
steps. By comparison the faux cutting edge is chock-full of thrilling
possibilities, is easy to understand, and advances at warp speed.
Why is it important to discuss the distinction
between the authentic and the faux cutting edges? Because when I
give a presentation to a popular audience about how we are exploring
psi phenomena, afterwards I get questions asking why we're still
stuck on such elementary problems. Why aren't we on to more exciting
things by now, like using telepathy to communicate with extraterrestrials
(or in Terence McKenna's wry terms, the "pro bono proctologists
from Zeta Reticuli"). Surely, the questioner grumbles, conducting
one more psi experiment, regardless of the degree of scientific
sophistication, is a waste of time, hearkening back to the old-fashioned
1970s (or even the 1880s). My response is that we're obliged to
be exceptionally cautious when exploring the frontiers and that
thoroughness is always exasperatingly slow.
In addition, raising funds to launch these explorations
is a challenge because the return on investment is completely unknown.
Sometimes research leads into unexpected realms. Sometimes it leads
One might think that exploring the frontiers of consciousness would
be passionately interesting to lots of people, and funds would be
plentiful. After all, what could be more exciting than investigating
who and what we are? But surprisingly, funding in this area has
always been microscopic. Compare funding for psi research to funds
spent on, say, cancer research. The total funding for cancer research
conservatively amounts to perhaps $100 billion. All funds ever spent
on psi research total about $50 million. To put this into perspective,
imagine that all of the cancer research took place in one 24-hour
day. The comparable effort on psychic phenomena would then amount
to a mere 43 seconds of that day. In this sense it's amazing we've
learned anything at all. Imagine what we'd know by now if $100 billion
had funded explorations of deep mind.
Incidentally, the largest systematic effort to
understand psi, at least in terms of funding (about $20 million),
was the formerly classified program supported by the United States
government. Most of that program's work is now declassified and
available through the Freedom of Information Act in the form of
nearly 12, 000 documents. A large proportion of this information
is mundane paperwork associated with a government research program.
But it also contains thousands of pages of original research and
reviews (from the 1970s to the mid-1990s). Browsing through this
historical treasure trove, one can find examples of remote viewing
that blow your socks off. Remote viewing isn't always as reliable
as, say, a billion-dollar spy satellite. But then again, sometimes
remote viewing can do something no piece of hardware could ever
hope to duplicate: accurately describe future events and the inner
recesses of heavily fortified buildings. It would be foolish to
rely solely on remote viewing for gathering intelligence, but it
would be equally foolish to dismiss it just because it isn't perfect.
(Can you think of any form of human performance that's perfect?)
You can now own copies of these once classified documents by purchasing
the "Star Gate Archive" on CDs from the CIA, or more conveniently
you can order them through a website run by one of the former military
remote viewers (www.rviewer.com).
But this hasn't answered the nagging question,
"Is psi research really at the frontiers of consciousness research?"
The answer is yes, because when I talk about psi to a scientific
audience, instead of evoking yawns, I'm yelled at by angry academics
(typically just one or two) who insist that such effects violate
the laws of the universe, so any evidence to the contrary is pseudoscientific
nonsense, intentional fraud, or worse. That some unbending skeptics
go ballistic and refuse to examine the data is not news. But the
fact that the rest of the audience is often cowed into silence is
more troubling. The taboo against speaking openly about one's interests
within the scientific academy remains a potent constraint to progress.
IONS is in a leading position to help break this
taboo because we're not subject to the social limitations that restrict
what can be studied within academia. We'll continue to explore the
deep mind, develop increasingly robust forms of scientifically validated
evidence, and help catalyze mainstream interest in these topics.
Real psi remains a profoundly important challenge to prevailing
scientific assumptions, so it's one of the genuine cutting edges
we'll continue to investigate.