Whatever It Is
Who is the real Uri Geller? Is he a complete fraud, a very clever magician who has fooled much of the world into hailing him as the greatest psychic of all time? Or is he the greatest psychic of all time, despite all the denunciations and allegations? Surely he must be one or the other, but how are we going to find out which?
For some, there is no difficulty at all. There are no such things as ‘psychic powers’, they say, so anybody claiming to practice them must be phoney. Any kind of action at a distance or exchange of information beyond the limits of our known senses is impossible. People certainly have hunches and intuitions, to be sure, but there is no need to dream up words like telepathy and clairvoyance to account for them. As for psychokinesis, we know enough about the human brain to say that any kind of ‘mind over matter’ outside the body is nonsense. There is no known natural force that could account for it. If there were, we would have been able to measure it by now. All so-called psychic phenomena can be ascribed to one of three well-known factors: coincidence, faulty observation, and lies.
If you take this view, as many do, then Geller must be a magician. He began in show business, and he has never left it. Nowadays, instead of performing to large audiences he performs to single individuals, who should know better than to take him for what he claims to be. He has a great act, and he has perfected it in fifteen years of constant repetition. But, say the magicians, he’s one of us. We rumbled him the minute he set foot on the stage.
We gave him the chance to confess and to be welcomed into our secret brotherhood. He turned it down, and went on to fool most of the people most of the time, but not all of us. He’s a magician all right – it takes one to spot one, and we spotted him right at the start.
If Geller’s ‘powers’ were ever to be the subject of a court case, this is probably how the prosecution would summarize its claims. The defence would object, waving handfuls of papers and protesting that numerous eminent scientists had shown that the accused had unusual powers. Had he not demonstrated them over and over again in the laboratory just as convincingly as on the stage or in the television studio?
The prosecution would have none of this. Scientists are the easiest of people to deceive. They are not trained to deal with professional deceivers. As for all those deluded businessmen who have paid Geller millions to find gold, they would be better off hanging their maps on the wall and throwing darts at them . . .
So the arguments would go on. By the end of the case the jury would be too confused to reach a unanimous verdict, and everybody would go home still believing what they had always believed.
It is very difficult to prove anything nowadays, even in a court. I have sat on a jury myself and taken part in two cases, one of which went on for several days. On both occasions, the accused was found not guilty, and our verdict is now on the record. In one case, I am proud to say that it was probably due to my vigorous arguments with my fellow jurors, in which I pointed out that the prosecution case was all based on assumptions, hearsay and testimony from the police, who were obviously hoping for a conviction although they had somehow managed to ‘lose’ the only piece of evidence that would have settled the matter.
The case for the prosecution sounded quite reasonable, as did the case for the defence. Both were argued eloquently and at great length. Choosing which of them to believe was not easy for some of us. The defendant was an Asian immigrant, which complicated matters. One juror assured me privately that ‘they’re all a bunch of crooks’, but did not say so in the jury room in front of the five non-white members, each of whom might well have had some fellow-feeling for the defendant (as might I also, having been born in India). We all had our own views about crime in general, and the way it should be dealt with, and some of these were quite extreme. However, when I managed to concentrate the minds of my colleagues on the case in question, and pointed out that we were supposed to reach a verdict solely on the evidence, we all had to agree that the prosecution case just was not good enough to send a man to prison. So, much to my relief, we let him off.
Uri Geller went on trial in 1970, when he was first publicly denounced, and the case continues. The prosecution has claimed that he must be a magician, for two reasons: everything he does (well, most of it) can be replicated by conjurors, and there are no such things as psychic powers in the first place. Even the scientists who have studied him most closely, with one or two exceptions, have not come out and endorsed his powers unconditionally. They have pointed out correctly that science is not about what people believe, but about repeatable experiments and explanatory theories, and they have neither of these to report.
On the other hand, millions of people all over the world have no doubt at all that Uri is a genuine psychic. Strange things have happened in their own homes just as he has predicted: clocks and watches have started ticking, spoons and forks have twisted out of shape for no obvious reason, and messages have been received from some distant television studio or newspaper office, after being beamed out without the help of any known form of radio or electronics. Is it possible to fool so many people for so long? And can we dismiss the testimony of Uri’s closest friends, each of whom can reel off a list of very odd things that they have seen happen in his presence?
The case for Geller is just as reasonable as the case against him. The reason why neither has yet been accepted to everybody’s satisfaction is very simple: there are too many vested interests and preconceptions involved on both sides. Many have already reached their own verdicts, and nothing said by either side is going to make them change their minds. Little that I say will make any difference either, so I will say nothing to those whose minds are made up except that the evidence on which they base their opinions may not be as good as it seems. From now on, I will address myself only to those who, like me, are genuinely mystified by Uri Geller and are equally prepared to believe that he is genuine or that he is not. That is exactly how I felt when I began to work on this book. The fact that I already had plenty of experience of other people’s psychic powers made me all the more anxious to arrive at the right verdict. Like any collector, I had no wish to acquire a fake.
Let me return to my court case for a moment. I spent a good deal of time during the trial watching the defendant, who was only a few feet from me. He did not say much when he was spoken to, answering questions quietly and politely and often looking very bewildered.
‘You can see he’s got something to hide,’ my anti-Asian fellow juror muttered one morning during the lunch break, to which I replied that in my opinion he just looked terrified.
‘Wouldn’t you be?’ I asked. We had both been looking at the same person, yet we had reached very different conclusions about him. If you are suspicious about somebody, anything he says or does is going to look suspicious.
So it has been, right from the start, with Geller. Magicians, who think they know how he does his tricks, watch for the misdirections and the rapid hand movements they think he must be using. And they see them! At least, they think they do, and they assure us that they did.
However, two points must be considered. One is that magicians can be deceived just like anybody else. The Amazing Randi was taken for a ride with no difficulty at all by the non-magician Dennis Stillings, who proved his point by doing it again at once. The other is that magicians are professional deceivers, and are the most suspect of witnesses, although it is hard to imagine what could have motivated magicians such as Dickson, Zorka, Cox and Leslie to come out in favour of Geller other than a simple desire to speak the truth. It should also be remembered that these four observed him rather more carefully than the majority of his detractors have ever done. On the whole, the evidence from the magicians is inconclusive, but weighted strongly in Geller’s favour.
The same is true of the evidence from the scientists, whose positive findings far outnumber their negative ones. They may not have come up with final proof of any kind, but most of them are quite sure that something very odd went on while Uri was in their laboratories. As for the evidence from the general public, this is overwhelmingly in his favour. There are millions of people all over the world who may not understand what psychic power is, and may not even be very interested in it, yet they have experienced it for themselves. Like Uri, they have lived a little of the mystery. They may since have banished it from their conscious minds, but for a brief moment they have known that there is more to human nature than finds its way into science magazines and textbooks.
There have been too many snap judgments both in favour of Geller and against him, and some of the more extreme examples of each strain belief. For example, some of those who accept his powers without question find Puharich’s extraterrestrial-control theory too much to swallow, and I have not yet managed to swallow it myself. Nor have I spat it out, however, for, improbable as it may seem, it cannot be ruled out. Puharich has an impressive track record in many areas of scientific research, and if we accept some of his findings why should we reject others? We may complain that some of his theories about Uri only added a further complication to a subject that was quite complex enough already, but I for one am not prepared to assert that they are wrong.
It is much easier, as both Uri and I have shown, to debunk some of the misleading material that has been published about him. To list all the cases would be a very tedious task. To give just one of many possible examples: Brendan O’Regan wrote in the New Scientist (20 November 1974) that the feature on Geller published in the 17 October issue of the magazine contained no less than forty-two erroneous statements, seventeen of them ‘blatant errors of fact’ and the rest either ‘unsupportable innuendo or gross misrepresentation’.
If science magazines cannot get their facts straight, what can we expect from the popular press? In September 1985 I was interested to read in an Israeli magazine called Bul (issue dated 13 September 1986!) that yet another anti-Geller opus was on the way, subtitled ‘The Crook from Outer Space’. Among its sensational revelations: the ‘Israeli comedian of the past’ was now living in a state of terror, ‘like a hypnotized mouse’, having been placed on an unnamed person’s hit-list, and was guarded around the clock by ‘a team of frightening gorillas’. Uri translated this extraordinary article for me with surprising good humour, and readily allowed me to dig through his vast files of anti-Geller material, of which I am sure he has more than anybody else. After visiting his home several times a week for more than six months, I saw nothing more frightening than the children’s collection of toy monsters, and it was some time before I became aware of his security arrangements, which are as discreet as they are effective.
I will now try to scrape off both the mud and the whitewash and reach my own conclusions about Uri Geller.
It cannot be disputed that he has had an impact upon his time such as we have not seen since the days of the Victorian medium Daniel Home (1833-86) and the escapologist Houdini (1874-1926), both of whom became household names, though for very different reasons. Home baffled and astonished London society and several European royal families for more than twenty years, producing most of the standard phenomena of the seance room from table-turning and materialisation of ‘spirit’ forms to the levitation of himself, and a hundred years after his death his reputation remains intact. Houdini spent much of his life crusading against Spiritualist mediums and imitating their performances on stage, yet such was his skill at escaping from handcuffs, strait-jackets and jails, that some suspected him of having psychic powers, and there is reason to believe that he seriously considered this himself. Ironically, it was Houdini and not Home who was accused of fraud, and he had to fight a court case in 1902 to clear his name as an ‘honest’ deceiver of the public.
Geller has made a reputation that can be seen in two ways depending on your point of view. To some he is the second Home, to others he is the Houdini of his time. His act may be unlike either of theirs, yet he has combined something of what would seem to be two incompatible careers: demonstrator of psychic phenomena and purveyor of entertainment to the masses. Like Home, he has produced so many apparently genuine psychic phenomena for so long that to some he must be a magician. Like Houdini, he has mystified audiences large and small so consistently that others believe he must have genuine psychic powers.
Comparisons cannot be taken too far. Geller is not the second Home or the second Houdini. He is the first Geller, and by any standards he is an original. He has extended his fields of operation far beyond the stage, studio and laboratory. He has put his talents to work in those areas where we would expect psychic powers, if there are such things, to be most useful, and he has literally struck gold. It should be remembered that he has done so not on his own initiative but on that of his employers, some of whom he has named.
There is plenty of evidence that people have risen to the top of many professions by making use of what they would call ‘hunches’, ‘gut feelings’ or simply ‘intuition’. In 1962, three members of the Industrial and Management Engineering Department of Newark College of Engineering in New Jersey began to look more closely into this matter. Two of them, Douglas Dean and John Mihalasky, later co-authored a book entitled Executive ESP, and by the time this was published in 1974 they had statistical evidence to show that successful company presidents scored better at computerized number-guessing tests than less successful ones. Their results, they concluded, ‘show that the probability of getting a superior profit-maker is much increased by choosing a man who scores well in precognition’. Curiously, few of their subjects professed to have much interest in psychic matters. ‘I do not know any psychics,’ said one. ‘I believe in ESP for one reason because I use it.’
In December 1974, the magazine Psychic published interviews with nine American business leaders who described numerous instances in which they had made their own mind-power work for them. They included the founder of the Ampex Corporation, a former director of Phillips Petroleum, the owner of a steel company, a publisher, a management consultant, and the head of a large property development firm. Their comments included this revealing one (from the steel man) on the subject of parapsychology, ‘I’ve experienced it, felt it, seen it – whatever it was!’
If top people speak in this vague-way about psychic powers (or whatever they are), can we expect somebody who earns a living by claiming to use them to be any more precise. Geller is in fact considerably more articulate than many concerning his own powers and the way he uses them. He has told us here all he can about how he bends his spoons, receives and sends his telepathic messages, and finds things. He makes it all sound quite easy, but unfortunately most people who follow his instructions as given here will find that they cannot do the same. For the use of psychic power is far from easy to explain. It depends not so much on what you do but on who you are.
Who do you have to be, then, in order to become a Uri Geller? There are some clues to be found in his life story that may be worth examining for a moment. First, let us take the incident in which a spoon he was using during a meal when he was about four years old bent and broke in front of his eyes. This was witnessed by his mother, who has assured me that it happened just as he described it. She has also confirmed to me that Uri was able to read her mind from a very early age. So it seems that he grew up accepting that this kind of thing was quite possible.
It is well known that children do not develop a sense of logic and critical ability until both hemispheres of their brains are fully formed, which is usually around the age of eight. Before then, as any hypnotist knows, they are very highly suggestible and will accept whatever comes along as part of their view of reality.
It is also well known to the new generation of parapsychologists, who are interested in how psychic phenomena occur spontaneously rather than in how they would like them to occur in their carefully controlled experiments, that the essential first condition for their occurrence is a complete absence of resistance to them. Once this resistance is allowed to build up, it is very hard to break down. Psychic functioning is not a question of learning how, but of avoiding being told that this or that cannot be done.
Psychic functions are not really as mysterious as they are often made out to be. The American psychiatrist Jan Ehrenwald has shown that such human ‘hyperfunctions’ as telepathy, clairvoyance and psychokinesis are the exact mirror-images of the ‘functional deficits’ of the hysterical conversion syndrome. The latter lead to a restriction of human abilities, usually in the form of ‘hysterical’ blindness, mutism and paralysis; the former expand the reach of the ego by enabling it to transmit or receive information at a distance, or to create motion of physical objects without contact. Writing of the features of the ‘psi syndrome’ in his book New Dimensions of Deep Analysis (1954), he noted that:
We have seen time and again that despite their apparently capricious, haphazard nature they are governed by the same laws which apply to the dream, to the neurotic symptom and to unconscious processes in general. In short, they are subject to established psychodynamic principles.
So we can look upon psychic powers as extensions of normal powers rather than as something supernatural only bestowed on people who come from outer space. When we describe somebody as having been born psychic, what we really mean is that he, or more often she, was born with abilities we probably all have, but which are educated out of most of us. It has become socially acceptable for women to have ‘intuition’, but less so for men. All the evidence indicates that women have no more intuition, or any other psychic powers, than men, but that they have much less resistance to them. The majority of ‘mediums’ therefore tend to be women, but this does not reflect the distribution of psychic gifts between the sexes. (In the magazine article mentioned above, only one of the top executives interviewed, publisher Eleanor Friede, was a woman.)
Ehrenwald has come across many examples of telepathy and precognition in his own consulting room, and speculates that the doctor-patient relationship is similar to the ‘symbiotic’ relationship of mother and child. Symbiosis, in this context, means a close and mutually beneficial relationship between two living beings. This is naturally strongest between a mother and child, but it can also occur later in the child’s life whenever its interests are closely associated with those of somebody else, whether or not personal emotions are involved. It is a relationship that can be quite independent of sexual or intellectual attachment.
As an only child, whose father was often away from home on military service, Uri was inevitably in his mother’s company relatively more than he would have been as a member of a larger family with a father in permanent residence. This did not lead to the unnaturally prolonged dependence of child upon mother that is sometimes found in families in similar circumstances. Indeed, Uri’s childhood seems to have been perfectly normal in every way. What interests me is that his early psychic experiences, most of which involved his mother, were allowed to remain undisturbed in his forming mind. He grew up accepting them, and has never found any reason to reject them.
I often wonder if that bending spoon in the hand of four-year-old Uri actually fell apart by entirely normal means? It could have been a spoon of poor post-war quality that had reached the end of its useful life, implanting as it did so an image in Uri’s mind that was to remain there for good.
The psychologist Kenneth Batcheldor has studied the psychological conditions necessary for the manifestation of psychokinesis for more than twenty years, and as I described in my book If This Be Magic he has put his theories into practice with remarkable success. One of his most important discoveries is that inexplicable phenomena, such as the tilting of a table, can be expected to occur once those concerned believe, even wrongly, that they are already occurring. He calls this process ‘induction by artifact’, and I demonstrated it myself when I told Uri that he was making the needle of my compass move by mind-power. As I have already described, he did not in fact do this until after I had told him (wrongly) that he had. He then made it move at once. A naturally disintegrating spoon would be the ideal artifact to induce a belief in the possibility of spoons bending by less normal means.
An important feature of the symbiotic relationship is what Ehrenwald calls ‘doctrinal compliance’, whereby patients produce what they believe the doctor, analyst or hypnotist expects. This, he says in the book mentioned earlier, can be in the form of ‘unintended suggestion emanating from the therapist who is usually unaware of its operation’.
Something like this seems to have taken place when Andrija Puharich arrived in Israel in 1971. For the first time in his life, Uri found himself being taken seriously by an experienced research scientist, who also happened to be a skilled hypnotist. Uri has described how ever since he can remember he has been interested in space travel and the possibility of distant civilizations. Puharich spelled out his own interest in such matters very plainly in the preface to his book Uri:
I had suspected for a long time from my researches that man has been in communication with beings not of this earth for thousands of years. This personal opinion comes from a close reading of the record of ancient religions and from my own observations and data.
The latter included some remarkable information from an Indian named Dr Vinod, obtained during a self induced trance and supposedly originating from the intelligence source called The Nine.
The very day after Puharich first met Geller, they discussed space matters, and Uri gave a detailed account of his longtime interest in this area. At one of their first hypnosis sessions, Puharich asked outright, ‘Are you one of the Nine Principles that once spoke through Dr Vinod?’ The answer was ‘Yes’. Doctrinal compliance had been established, and what followed was inevitable: a sudden and dramatic elaboration of all the space-fantasies that had been in Uri’s mind throughout most of his life.
It must be made clear that those fantasies were genuine. We have the independent testimony of Mrs Agrotis and Joseph Charles, and no doubt there are other pupils and teachers from Terra Santa College in Nicosia who remember being entertained by Uri’s spontaneous end-of-term recitals of them. Neither Puharich nor Geller made them up. They were there, and as we would expect they grew and blossomed in the favourable climate of the hypnotic trance. They may not have been literally true, any more than a dream need be literally true, but they were unquestionably in Uri’s mind. As I have said, how they got there is a question I cannot answer.
Once rapport had been established between researcher and subject and strengthened by this common interest in matters extraterrestrial, Uri’s psychic gifts developed rapidly. So did his already considerable self-confidence. He was all set for a career as a psychic superstar.
However, Uri made it clear right from the start of his association with Puharich that what he really wanted to do in life was become rich and famous. This is not a surprising ambition for an only child of a family of very modest means who already had more than a year’s experience as a professional entertainer, and a very successful one.
Whatever we choose to think of Puharich’s extraterrestrial theories, we must give him the credit due to him. It was almost entirely through his efforts that Geller ever set foot in a scientific laboratory, which he never really wanted to do. And why on earth should he? Would it be reasonable to have asked, say, Itzhak Perlman to take part in a series of laboratory experiments in sound production instead of playing his violin on concert platforms all over the world?
Since 1971, Geller’s whole career has been a succession of responses to challenges and the suggestions of others. Although his stage routine has not changed much in fifteen years, he has never been able to resist a challenge in the form of a suggestion or an offer, rather than the now-or-never confrontation favoured by hostile critics. It was not even his own idea to become a public performer in the first place – his original stage career evolved gradually, from private demonstrations for Shipi and Hanna Shtrang, through similar spontaneous shows in the homes of others to the school performances arranged by the enterprising Shipi (who was fourteen at the time) and finally to the public stage, where he might have remained for some time if Puharich had not steered his career in other directions.
It was Sir Val Duncan of Rio Tinto-Zinc who suggested that Uri should apply his talent to such serious matters as finding oil and minerals. This suggestion was later reinforced by a number of hard-headed businessmen of whom two, Clive Menell and Peter Sterling, have allowed their names to appear on the record. I have met a third, who flew several thousand miles to London in 1985 for the sole purpose of securing Uri’s services, and flew home as soon as he had done so. He was not prepared to let me quote him on anything at all, except that he had not informed even his fellow directors of his plans. He gave me the impression that he knew exactly what he was doing, proving Uri’s observation that people at the top do not question his abilities, but often simply arrange to put them to work.
It was the man known as Mike who tried to entice Geller into the intelligence community, and it was various American customs, narcotics and FBI agents who on their own initiatives asked him to look for kidnap victims, corpses, and assorted villains. His success in all these areas was limited for reasons that are easily understood: he is a public performer by nature, and not an undercover agent, and he has good reason to fear for his personal safety if he becomes too widely known as the psychic detective or the super-dowser who cannot fail.
Credit for the original suggestions that he should expand his horizons is due to two influential Israelis: Amnon Rubinstein, who was to become minister of communications, and the defence chief Moshe Dayan. Rubinstein, in whose home Uri gave one of his first demonstrations, originally acted as adviser and guide and has remained on friendly terms up to the present. As for Dayan, we can assume that he passed on his impressions to those he reckoned to have a need to know. The only service Uri will admit to having performed for him was helping locate a piece of pottery during a late-night archaeological dig. I would be surprised if Dayan had failed to make any further use of skills of this kind.
Richard Deacon, a well-informed writer on espionage matters whom I know personally, devoted a chapter of his book The Israeli Secret Service (1978) to the controversial subject of ‘psychic espionage’. He makes it clear that this is something on which the Israelis are considerably more up to date than any other Western nation. According to one of his sources, Geller’s activities were closely monitored by Soviet-bloc observers from shortly after his arrival in the USA, and it is known that they were monitored by the Mossad long before then.
The idea of psychic espionage is an exciting one, and has led to a good deal of wild speculation but very little hard evidence. The only area in which it has been well established that there is a useful role for psychically talented spies to play is that of remote viewing. In 1984, columnist Jack Anderson published a series of articles on a CIA project codenamed Grill Flame, a development of the work already mentioned at SRI begun in 1972 by Ingo Swann, Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ. This project, Anderson said, had produced information later verified by satellite about a very sensitive nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk in Soviet Kazakhstan, and had led to the location of a crashed Soviet Tu-95 ‘Backfire’ bomber somewhere in Africa.
Targ, together with his colleague Keith Harary, visited the Soviet Union in 1983, returning in October 1984 to carry out an experiment in remote viewing between Moscow and California, with the Georgian psychic healer Dzhuna Davitashvili as subject. During the experiment, which was videotaped, she produced accurate information about two target sites in San Francisco selected by a random number generator and visited by Harary. The experiment, which was witnessed by a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (whom I have met), demonstrated the possibility not only of remote viewing of a site 10,000 miles away, but also of precognition, for the targets were not selected until six hours after they had been described.
The military applications of this kind of experiment would seem to be potentially considerable. However, if I were in charge of a team of psychic spies, Geller is the last person I would want to be involved. Not only is he too well known and too accessible to the media, but he has always refused to co-operate on any test that could lead to negative or destructive use of psychic powers. Psychic warfare is quite feasible in theory, but the problem in practice would be finding subjects willing to take part.
A psychic peace campaign, of the kind described in Uri’s Chapter Twelve, is another matter. Here, the prospects are promising. In the course of several visits to Eastern Europe, I have constantly been given urgent pleas for helping research the peaceful uses of psychic powers. I do not think this would have happened unless those concerned were well aware that research into their less peaceful uses is going on.
Recent events have shown that an individual’s change of attitude can have far-reaching effects. Barely three years after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Egypt’s President Sadat made his historic visit to Israel, changing the minds of millions simply by stepping off an aeroplane. There followed the longest period of peace between Israel and Egypt since the creation of the former. The Geneva meeting in 1985 between the chief executives of the USA and the USSR was another occasion on which the states of mind of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev may have achieved more effect than anything they said to each other. The same may be true of the ostensibly unsuccessful 1986 summit meeting in Iceland. The idea that an individual like Uri Geller can help shape world events simply by shaking hands with Adnan Khashoggi is less far-fetched than it might appear. Events are caused by minds, and minds can be changed both by their owners and by others.
There is a place for real magic in the modern world. Indeed, it is much needed, although the distinction must be made between co-operative and autocratic magic. If the magician seeks to dominate his environment, in the manner of Dr Faustus, he will be destroyed by the forces he creates or invokes. If he seeks to alter his environment by invoking an already existing creative force and collaborating with it for the common good, he will work apparent miracles.
‘Magic is not, as so many wrongly believe, merely a collection of rites, ceremonies and supernatural feats. It is much more than that. In a few words, it is a way of looking at the world. In its very essence it implies a mental state.‘
I apologize for taking this perceptive comment, by one of the harshest critics of the paranormal, out of its context: a review of Professor Lynn Thorndike’s eight-volume A History of Magic and Experimental Science by Eric J. Dingwall in the first issue (1959) of the International Journal of Parapsychology. Thorndike’s monumental work, which took him fifty years to write, is, in Dingwall’s words, not only a history, but ‘an illustration of the dangers inherent in the magical way of looking at the world and . . . an indication of the apparently enormous difficulties that mankind has in escaping from such conceptions’.
That such dangers exist is undeniable. Nor can we challenge Dingwall’s assertion that ‘it is where there is ignorance, as Montaigne pointed out in the sixteenth century, [that] imposture has free scope’. Yet this is only one side of the picture.
The ‘slow escape from magic’, to use Dingwall’s term, coincided with the emergence of modern science and the triumphs of such demystifiers of nature as Newton, Descartes and Galileo. Yet magic has refused to go away, partly because modern science, for all its achievements, has not yet answered any of the questions most of us really want answered. In many areas, such as the limits of the human mind and its possible survival of physical death, it has preferred not to look for answers. Meanwhile, it has been our scientists and not our occultists who have found ever more efficient ways of harming and killing us and of systematically destroying the natural environment. Scientists have much less cause for self-congratulation than some of them appear to think.
The idea that medieval magic evolved into or was replaced by modern science is a myth. If mankind still believes in magic, it is because there is a widespread and very deep-rooted awareness that there is some truth in it. The psi phenomena of today are, as Ehrenwald has pointed out, ‘derivatives of magic that have been dehydrated, deboned and filleted to make them digestible for scientific consumption’. The term ‘psi’, he says, is ‘an antiseptic, expurgated or sanitized version of magic’.
The extraordinary reactions provoked by Uri Geller’s appearance on the scene, both favourable and hostile, show that today both the desire for magic and the fear of it are as widespread as they have ever been. Here was a talented and personable young entertainer claiming to be performing real magic in the context of the dehydrated and sanitized profession of conjuring. By doing so, he infuriated the professional magicians by suggesting that he could do what they could only pretend to do. He also upset many scientists, who operate in a different reality, by showing that psi phenomena cannot be studied in terms of science as currently understood.
‘Is Chaos Necessary?’ is the title of the chapter in Targ and Puthoff’s Mind Reach in which they discuss their SRI research with Geller (whose name they seem to have done their best to avoid mentioning ever since). To be fair to them, they were no more prepared, despite their impressive scientific backgrounds, for a laboratory subject like him than he was prepared for scientists like them. Chaos is necessary, Geller knows it, and he has a remarkable instinctive ability for producing it in almost any conditions. The real magician cannot operate in everyday reality; he must destabilize it and replace it with his own.
One criticism often made of Uri is that he is inclined to see mysteries where others do not. If there is a thump on the ceiling while he is talking to a reporter he will suggest that it was something ‘strange’. Or if somebody mentions a certain person or a place, he might claim ‘I was just going to say that – I’m reading your mind!’ and so on. This can easily be mistaken for ‘fraud’, but it is an essential part of the destabilization process, one that has been fully validated by Kenneth Batcheldor’s theoretical and practical research into the psychology of paranormal physical phenomena. Uri knew all about ‘induction by artifact’ long before Batcheldor gave it a name.
‘Once the belief in a supernatural world is established and the conviction that, by appropriate methods, this world can be explored and brought into a kind of subjection to the operator’s wishes, then magic follows as night follows day,’ wrote Dingwall in the article mentioned above. ‘But,’ he continued, ‘once the belief in a supernatural order of things is weakened, then doubts as to the correct interpretation of obscure events arise and the scientific way of looking at the world begins to make its appearance.’
As I have seen for myself time and time again, psi phenomena do not take place until those concerned either expect them to do so very soon, or believe that they already are taking place. This has been my experience on several cases of the poltergeist type, at experimental table-sessions with the Batcheldor group, and on many occasions in Uri’s company. His ability to induce psi by artifact is unrivalled.
It may be asked why, if this is so, stage magicians do not occasionally perform real magic by mistake, as it were, after inducing belief in it in their audiences. The answer is that there is good reason to believe that now and then they do. Houdini, for example, spent much of his life tormented by the question of whether this had happened to him, and he had private conversations on the subject with a number of mediums as well as fellow magicians. Unfortunately, he never found the answer, or if he did he kept it to himself. This side of Houdini’s complex and contradictory personality is well discussed by his sympathetic biographer Raymund FitzSimons in his book Death and the Magician.
David Berglas, one of Britain’s best-known magical entertainers, has been both president of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and acting chairman of the British branch of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. He has told me that many of his professional colleagues do believe in psi and that all of them (himself included) cannot always fully explain how they produce their own effects.
After following Geller’s career closely for more than twelve years, and becoming one of the very few magicians to establish friendly personal relations with him, Berglas had this to say in Psychic News (13 December 1986): ‘If he is a genuine psychic, and genuinely does what he claims to by the methods he claims to use, then he is the only person in the world who can do it. He is the only one to have demonstrated consistently. He is a phenomenon, and we must respect that. If, on the other hand, he is a magician or a trickster or a con-man, he is also phenomenal – the best there has ever been. So, whichever way you want to look at him, we must respect him as one or the other.’
When I asked Berglas which way he wanted to look at Geller, he made the enigmatic comment: ‘I can do what he does. Whether I do it in the same way that he does, I really don’t know.’
Uri Geller is a magician. That is, he practises what appears to be real magic as defined by Dingwall. If he were to use a few simple tricks in order to induce the real stuff, this would not affect the validity of the final product. (He has repeatedly assured me that he does not.) In my opinion, his instinctive grasp of the conditions – usually chaotic – necessary for the manifestation of psi is the best evidence in favour of his genuineness. Others argue that it is precisely this ability to control his surroundings that points to his non-genuineness. How, then are we ever going to settle the matter one way or the other? I can argue that Uri has satisfied me that genuinely inexplicable things take place in his presence – the episode of the shaving mirror would be enough to establish that. Others, however, can claim that since even professional magicians can be fooled, who am I to distinguish between a real psychic and a fake one?
I can only testify that on the evidence of my own senses, I have no reason to believe that he has ever tried to deceive either me or anybody else. The case against him is founded on the shakiest of evidence, not to mention several often repeated lies. His detractors have done a very poor job, preferring the innuendo, the assumption and the smear of dispassionate observation and careful study of facts. They have rejected evidence that would be considered acceptable in any other field of scientific inquiry, and they have used methods that would be considered unacceptable in them. I am wholly unimpressed by both their case and their methods of presenting it. Kangaroo courts should not be mistaken for courts of law. On the evidence I have seen and examined, of which it has been possible to summarize only a small part in this book, there is only one possible verdict: Geller is not guilty as charged.
The witch-hunters have been chasing after the wrong target. They have failed to grasp the obvious: if there are such things as what are generally known as psychic powers, they must be available to observers as well as to those under observation. If somebody can demonstrate them positively, others can demonstrate them negatively and suppress the very effect they claim to be trying to observe.
Deciding for yourself whether there are such things as psychic powers or not is really quite easy. What is difficult and impossible for some, is accepting the fact that they might exist. The late Sir Alister Hardy once designed an experiment whereby an agnostic or even an atheist can test the efficacy of prayer, which can be summarized like this: ‘Whether you believe in it or not, try it for yourself on the assumption that it might work. Obey the rule scrupulously, then see if you get results.’ Prayer, he said is a ‘formula for generating religious experience’ whether you are already ‘religious’ or not.
The same type of experiment can be carried out by anybody interested in finding out whether there are such things as telepathy, clairvoyance or psychokinesis. Expecting them to happen under your conditions and when you are ready for them is no use at all. They happen under their conditions and in their own time. The sensible researcher will re-create those conditions and then allow them to occur.
The history of psychical research is full of frauds, con-men, con-women and assorted nuisances who have wasted the time of a lot of well-intentioned people. Uri Geller, in my opinion, is not one of them. Nor is he just one more ‘medium’ in the Home-Palladino-Schneider category, which is reserved for those very rare individuals who demonstrate unusual and inexplicable powers and are not found to be fraudulent.
What is he, then?
He has two firsts to his credit. He is the first professional entertainer to bring ostensibly genuine psychic phenomena into the homes and lives of millions. He is also the first to put psychic powers to work successfully on a large scale in the ‘real’ world of big business.
In the process, he has unnerved us all. He has given us a tantalizing glimpse of what might be. Some of us have taken a quick look at this and backed away in fear and confusion. Others have denounced it as something that should not be allowed to exist. A few have looked more closely.
What they have seen has forced them to question their assumptions about the way the physical world and the human mind are supposed to behave. Scientists have done their best to return to normal-work after a brief visit to their calm laboratories by the travelling Geller show. Millions of television viewers have sat and watched this enigmatic and mischievous fellow going about his business of reorganizing reality.
The bent spoons may be locked away in filing cabinets. The face may have faded from the screens. But the subversive idea has remained buried in the collective subconscious: things are not what we have been taught they are.
It will not, I suspect, remain buried for long.
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