Notes on the Tantalus Effect

for Nick Herbert, his guidant grace

by Michael Rossman


        In the quest for scientific verification of psi ("psychic") phenomena—telepathy, clairvoyance, PK, etc.—we must search not only for patterns in the evidence, but for meta-patterns in the meta-evidence.

         In this case, the meta-evidence consists of searches for patterns in evidences. Such searches range from the most loosely structured, uncontrollable and unreproducible (imaginative analyses of small sets of bizarre personal occurrences) to the most rigorous, leanly-focused and reproducible (statistical analyses of radioactive events.) What they find, it seems, is often more than can be sensibly dismissed, yet never enough to establish an effect conclusively—tantalizing signs, that slip from our grasp as we try to fix them, establishing the meta-pattern in the meta-evidence.

         This way of putting it recalls the myth of thirsty Tantalus, condemned to find the river ever receding from his lips as he bends to drink, the water slipping through his cupped fingers. One who wonders what offense of scientific or Western man has disposed us to this fate might find speculative fare in Robert Graves' survey of Tantalus's sins (The Greek Myths, Sec. 108), but my take here is more domestic and skeletal. I see it as the problem of catching a fly, of catching a fly on the fly.

         Please bear with me if the Trickster skips in punning rhyme, it can't quite be controlled. The Tantalus Effect—as I imagine others before me may have named it—is real. Its (c)leanest examples perhaps are found in certain classical series of experiments in card-reading, etc. with talented percipients, which produced early results of vanishingly-low probability that proved impossible to replicate within their frameworks. Its messiest examples dissolve into proven fraud, viz the Uri Geller fiasco. In between, there is more a continuum than a hierarchy of forms and ways in which the Effect is made manifest. Anyone conversant with this field of inquiry—from the whackiest UFOlogist to the most conservative lab researcher—can cite their own examples. And perhaps everyone should, to test the hypothesis that the Tantalus Effect is an objective and reproducible phenomenon, and hence susceptible to scientific study. Were these meta-observations gathered systematically, there would be enough material to begin to develop a natural history of the Effect, to understand the patterns of its variance and expression, and perhaps to deduce something about its causes.

         In the meantime, inspired by scattered observations, I think about catching a fly, and wonder how to call the Trickster to account. The fly here is an instructive pun, born of kinesthetic wisdoms. The ball descends from the sky towards my hands; I brace myself, shift, and calculate simultaneously, my organic computer integrating even the rebound from my elastic flesh as I grasp the fly successfully. Thus Western mechanism at the height of its perfection, able to measure, and armed now to account its own interaction down to the level of quantum blur. Where my blurred vision clarifies to reveal the fly not as a spheroid but winged and legged and eyed, darting from my futile swipe. Sucker! It's not just that the wind from my hand blows it from my grasp. The damned thing's got intention! And I'm reduced to just another creature in the cosmic ballpark, the kitchen, dueling with the gods.

         As with quantum duality, so this duality of ball and creature, of event and "malign" intention. Observed one way, it seems thus; observed the other, of another nature. We await the Heisenberg of this translation.

         I say "malign," for there is a teasing quality in the pursuit of psientific proof that may conceivably be more than simply our projection. While writing the massive tract "On Some Matters of Concern in Psychic Research" so long ago [in New Age Blues, E.P. Dutton, 1979], I forbore to record or puzzle my strong impression from the patterns of inquiry I surveyed—that our frustration might come not simply from reaching to grasp something mobile in a medium that pushed it away as we closed our grip, but also from deep mischief. Watching inquirers contend even with such "dismissible anomalies" as the promising statistical runs cited above, I succumbed to helpless anthropomorphism and saw a checkered demon leading me down a likely corridor, smiling back at me from each corner he turned as I came ever closer, until I rounded the last bend to find only a blank cul-de-sac, and heard his derisive whistle behind me as I wheeled to catch a glimpse of him disappearing through another door, with only his Cheshire grin lingering, disembodied.

         As nuttiness is so mixed with sobriety in psi discourse (or, less unkindly, as sloppiness is with care), it is necessary to distinguish clearly between the assertion that the Tantalus Effect is an objective and reproducible phenomenon, and the hypothesis that it involves conscious agency. (Note that versions of this hypothesis need not invoke demons, nor more than our selves as agents, for the Trickster may lodge at the quantum level in our brains.) Even so, the clean separation of this assertion from this hypothesis is impossible, or so it seems to me.

         For I suspect that one may argue rigorously, and in time concretely demonstrate, what I put here impressionistically: Inquiry into psi phenomena is epistemologically contaminated by self-referentiality. To "prove" one psi effect will be to prove a broad complex of effects sufficient in potential to account not simply for the results but for the history, not simply of such research but of broad reaches of science conducted in rigorous (conscious) insulation from such considerations. To unscramble this mess—to reassess what we thought we understood and how, in light of grasped discovery—will require so deep a reconstruing of our relation in the world that it's no wonder we flinch from the task, collectively conjuring the blank cul-de-sacs, the water's freedom from our fingers.

         As for catching the fly on the fly, the pun again is dual in depth. We are running to catch a ball in flight, changing even as it changes in trajectory and substance; we are the stolid scientist in a Gary Larson cartoon, staring through a microscope at a wriggling fly while our colleague taps us on the shoulder in consternation, pointing to the mosaic floor of our lab, the hexagonal tiles of an immense faceted eye. To account consciousness and intention, or not, in our equations? The divide cannot be escaped. From one side, insular reaction; toward the other no calculus so far, no public one at least.

late 2000


ADDENDUM, from a note to Jack Sarfatti:

        "Implicitly, my observations predict that the Tantalus Effect will manifest in your present enterprise, as in those yours draws on and connects -- and so, in further implication, propose that such enterprises of verification take this integrally into account in their conception and execution. It is not too late for those attending this conversation to speculate about how it may come to display the Tantalus Effect, and to explore the Effect's predictive values. In the narrow case of statistical experiments with highly significant early trials, it seems possible to specify the degrees of decline in significance of further trials, and of independent sequences of trials, that will be necessary to manifest the Effect. (Those following this reasoning closely will observe that I am proposing an analogue of Bell's Theorem of Non-Locality, applying not to physically-coupled particles in space but to conceptually-coupled material experiments in time; and suggesting that constraints analogous to spin-cancellation may operate on such coupled ensembles.) In the florid case of your experiment in inducing reverse engineering, it is harder to gauge the species of noise necessary to cancel a significant signal, but useful to try."


Response from one conversant, Larry Koss :

        "One thing I HAVE noticed particularly in the UFO/ET arena is that as soon as an individual thought that h/she had the "key" - the smoking gun, the best sighting, the definitive answer - something occured to bring h/her down.  It's amazing.  Some of the most credible people rose to a peak, then had the rug mysteriously pulled from under their feet. Curiously, those who seemed to have survived with greater credibility have been those who have not made much ado of themselves in the process of their inquiry, recognizing perhaps that "what" they were studying is more important than anyone's individual image."



        In his excellent survey of the nature and significance of psi research (Entangled Minds, Paraview Pocket Books, N.Y., 2006), the brilliant researcher Dean Radin touches on this subject (pp. 231-236). He quotes distinguished researchers from William James ( "... I confess that at times I have been tempted to believe that the Creator has eternally intended this department of nature to remain baffling, to prompt our curiosities and hopes and suspicions all in equal measure, so that although ghosts and clairvoyances, and raps and messages from spirits, are always seeming to exist and can never be fully explained away, they also can never be susceptible of full corroboration." [1909]) to Jahn and Dunne ("At the end of the day, we are confronted with an archive of irregular, irrational, yet indissmissible data that testifies, almost impishly, to our enduring lack of comprehension of the basic nature of these phenomena. [2001]")

        Such quotes confirm that I'm far from the first to have noticed what I term a certain meta-pattern of "malignant intentionality." James chalks it up to God, Whose intentions must of course be benign; Jahn and Dunne can't venture more than "almost impishly." Yet curiously, after emphasizing such provocative views, Radin fails to explore or even speculate about their disturbing lead. Instead, he collapses this inquiry towards his main goal-line: "I believe that a rationally satisfying explanation .... is emerging, an explanation borne from physics. ... I propose that psi is the human experience of the [quantum-]entangled universe." He may well be correct in the latter assertion, and even possibly in the former, of rational satisfaction. But I'm disappointed to see him dodge the intermediate issue, of whether and how a coherent "force" of intentionality beyond our conscious selves may continually confound research in this domain. As I suggest, this issue is (at least in a fledgling way) susceptible to scientific inquiry. If it is not illusory, it is fundamental.


        This line of inquiry is extended in the first three sections of "To Measure the Lifted Skirts of Mystery." "

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