Etzel Cardeña, Professor of Parapsychology at Lund

i-4606ba0eebcf34b0ad2626f99b964c6c-etzelcardena.jpgI entered into organised skepticism because of anti-science tendencies in academe. Though a member of the Swedish Skeptics since 1997 and co-editor of the society's journal since 2002, I've never been much of a skeptical activist outside academic archaeology. I've written articles and a few letters of protest. But I've visited no spirit mediums, gone to no New Age fairs, crashed no fundie revivals. I have engaged with Teh Woo only in the manner of a sniper. In fact, I hardly ever meet any true believers apart from my New Age mom. But last night I had two such encounters: first one that was planned, polite and academic in tone. Then one that was unexpected, hostile and decidedly low-brow.

Not knowing really what to expect, it was with some trepidation I went to hear Professor Etzel Cardeña's lecture to the Swedish Society for Parapsychological Research. Cardeña is the first Thorsen Professor of Parapsychology and Hypnology at the University of Lund. Poul Thorsen was a Danish margarine tycoon who was interested in hypnosis and published a book on how to use it to have your way with women. The controversial endowment that bears his name spent four decades in limbo after Thorsen's death, until finally Lund accepted it in 2003 -- on one condition. They tacked the words "and Hypnology" onto the Chair's title, much to the true believers' chagrin.

Parapsychology is unique among the sciences in that no-one has been able to prove that the discipline's object of study, "psi", exists. While other sciences investigate the properties of their objects, parapsychological research tends to aim at demonstrating its object's existence -- so far unsuccessfully. Hypnology, on the other hand, investigates sleep and sleep-like mental states such as hypnosis. When the Thorsen Chair was announced, skeptics hoped that Cardeña would concentrate his efforts on the latter subject, which was what he had been doing before that date.

Last night, Cardeña spoke to an audience of about 35 people. The man who introduced him remarked that this was an unusally large gathering for the Society for Parapsychological Research, and us non-members were asked to raise our hands and be counted. We could become members as part of our entry fee if we wanted. Compared to the audience at a typical lecture event organised by the Swedish Skeptics, this one was markedly smaller, markedly older, and had a markedly more even gender ratio, though men dominated here too. Everyone was nice and quiet. As we waited for the talk to begin, I overheard an old guy behind me telling his none too enthusiastic friend about the Swedish Skeptics in appreciative tones, about how having thousands of members and a growing membership gives us a certain financial oomph, as evidenced e.g. by the Enlightener of the Year Prize of $3100.

Etzel Cardeña is a shortish, lively and likeable Mexican who honoured his audience by wearing a dark three-piece suit. I could see that his shirt collar caused the poor man some discomfort. He reminded me of Martin Sheen as the President in West Wing. Heroically, Cardeña gave his talk not in his native Spanish, nor much in his fluent English, but almost entirely in his recently acquired and decidedly patchy Swedish. But I could understand him well enough. He spoke for an hour and a half about "The relationship between anomalous states of conscience and parapsychology". Most of the talk concerned his research into hypnosis, with psi entering only at the end.

I learned four main things about Etzel Cardeña's beliefs. He thinks that:

  1. Hypnosis is real, in the sense that Cardeña believes himself able to place susceptible subjects in an anomalous mental state through suggestion, and they do not make up the experiences they describe to him.
  2. Psi, paranormal mental capabilities, is real and distict from hypnosis. Indeed, much of Cardeña's research in Lund aims at studying the relationship between the two.
  3. The world is not just physical matter. I asked Cardeña specifically about this after his talk, and he explained that though he is definitely not a philosophical materialist, he hesitates to call himself a dualist, preferring to speak of a "oneness".
  4. The mind, hypnosis and psi should be studied with scientific methods and test protocols: Cardeña notably uses EEG, questionnaires and statistics.Of these four core beliefs, at least two are extreme minority positions among the world's scientists. I'll leave it up to the Dear Reader to identify which one is not.

To understand Cardeña's mode of thought, one may ponder the fact that he called William James his hero and ended his talk with a quotation from Alan Gauld to the effect that mesmerism is underrated. (I kid you not!) In my opinion, Cardeña is using Thorsen's money to study the relationship between a certain fantasy-prone personality type and thin air.

Horror fans may also like to know that Etzel Cardeña has adapted and performed Edgar Allan Poe as radio theatre in Spanish and published it on the web!

During Cardeña's talk, somebody in Scania called my cell phone once and my home phone twice. Then, just as I got home at about 21:40, the persistent Scanian called my cell again and I answered. It turned out to be an irate Christian fellow who greatly admires professor of medicine Lennart Möller and his absolutely batty brand of Biblical pseudo-archaeology. Ostensibly, the caller wanted to learn about my opposition to Möller (which I have published in Folkvett 2004:2 and Skeptical Inquirer 28:6 (2004). But he hadn't read anything I had written, and the conversation soon turned into him ranting "Who do you think you are with yer fancy university degree, you haven't even been to the sites Möller writes about, you aren't even a Biblical archaeologist, Möller is a DNA researcher you know, I might just read something you wrote and say it's all blah blah blah". The caller pointed out that he had been able to build a small hydroelectric dam and save a lot of money despite the skepticism of his neighbours. And then he rattled off a long list of Christian Swedish celebrities, suggesting that this list in itself was an argument for the truth of his religion. The list ended, a bit confusingly I must say, with a woman whose name is known because she's spent decades in a US jail for her participation in a murder.

The cool thing about this is that either Lennart Möller himself is telling shocked rural congregations on his lecture tours about my satanic criticism of his pious attempts at Biblical archaeology, or there's a rumour about me among his fans. Luckily, most of them seem to be a bit more restrained than the guy I talked to last night, because this is the first time anybody's contacted me about Möller. To my knowledge, he hasn't responded in print to my arguments.

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Speaking of Biblical archaeology - now there's a subject I would love to read your thoughts about. (Didn't search your site for it, because it wasn't one of the tags at the end of the article so I figured you haven't posted much on it. So maybe you have posted on it and I don't know...)

ooops - my first comment above said " your thoughts about..." haw haw, not what I meant, but strangely apropos of this Cardeña post!

Horror fans may also like to know that Etzel Cardeña has adapted and performed Edgar Allan Poe as radio theatre in Spanish and published it on the web!

As a skeptic, a horror fan, a huge fan of Poe, a radio drama buff, and someone who's always trying to brush up my Spanish, I can't help but think that this sentence was written specifically for me.

It's like we have some kind of psychic connection!

And speaking solely as a horror fan, I am glad that there are such things as endowed professors of parasychology. Without them, who would the protagonists turn to for exposition? Biblical archaeologists? Don't make me laugh. They always get incinerated before the end of the second act.

Dveej, in my opinion (and that of most colleagues working in the Levant) large parts of the Bible are valuable historical sources, though they can't be used uncritically. But the early material such as Exodus is pretty much useless.

"Hypnosis is real, in the sense that Cardeña believes himself able to place susceptible subjects in an anomalous mental state through suggestion, and they do not make up the experiences they describe to him."

Now I've actually seen someone hynotyze someone else and get that someone to behave stupidly in public under hypnosis. That first someone gave it a shot with me as well, but I didn't go along with it, for some reason. I gather one has to be a bit more pliant and less stubborn, so I wasn't a good subject. So hypnosis is "real" in that sense. But I think the subjects do make up those experiences in the same sense that they "make up" dreams. They don't realize they're making the stuff up. It's unconscious. But I've heard people in such a state tell all sorts of dull details about previous lives, including some on Mars.

And as for early bits in Exodus, I've read that the pillar of fire by night and the pillar by day that some early Hebrews saw was called Ullikummi by some Hurrians and was a volcano on Thera. Plus, I know someone who thinks those four rivers delineating the location of "Eden" are referring to a little place at the bottom of the Black Sea, where the Danube, Don, Dnieper, and Dniester might once have come together. That doesn't quite fit Genesis, but that someone isn't too bothered by that. Somebody else wrote a book saying that the original Eden was on the island of Bahrain and was called Dilmun in Sumerian. Any thoughts?

By DianaGainer (not verified) on 30 Jan 2009 #permalink

IMHO it's useless to speculate in real-world explanations for early mythology like Genesis. You might as well try to find the real-world correlates for the Feats of Hercules.


You mean to say you and your colleagues aren't actively searching for a large boat that housed hundreds of thousands of animals for six months?

Maritin - I'm obviously not an archeologist, biblical or any other kind. But I don't think it's entirely useless to speculate about real-world explanations for mythical events. Just two examples: stories of a great deluge/flood in the general vicinity of Asia Minor; the story of the destruction of Atlantis. Obviously, the mythic versions will include details that have no connection to real events; but that doesn't mean there's no factual basis at all.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 30 Jan 2009 #permalink

Of course not. We found that in 1948 and moved it in pieces into a secret government storage facility. As Frank Black sang about one of the alien crash victims, it "ended up in army crates".

I disagree. The distance in time between the events and the earliest recorded versions of the mythology is too great. People make stuff up: deluges, sinking islands... Our memory is short. Ockham's razor advises us not to imagine any long-term continuities in traditions like these.

I like to think of it this way: why speculate on possible real-world explanations for Biblical events when we have no reason other than the Bible to suppose they happened in the first place? I remember reading a while ago that perhaps the star of Bethlehem was a rare convergence of Jupiter and Saturn or somesuch and thinking "Why are we looking for causes before we've found the effect?"

At best, it's a useless but perhaps interesting thought experiment.

At worst, it's Erich Von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods?

Well, I think it takes more than an invocation of Okcham to dismiss the notion that among other things, myths can embody descriptions of remote events in allegorical form.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 30 Jan 2009 #permalink

Just so you know, the Folkvett link is formatted as "mailto:"...

Hypnosis and parapsychology aside, margarine tycoon is probably one of the most awesome job titles ever.

By Björn Y (not verified) on 02 Feb 2009 #permalink

Ockham's razor advises us not to imagine any long-term continuities in traditions like these.

Does it really though? There is at least some evidence to indicate that certain elements of particular oral traditions (for example, the "rainbow snake" motif in Aboriginal Australia) can persist for surprisingly long periods. One should also consider that cultural inheritance is every bit as significant as genetic inheritance - there has never been a human culture which did not develop "organically" from a previous culture. There has never been a society founded entirely by feral children.

I see no reason why we shouldn't be able to reconstruct the development and dispersal of myth-forms in much the same way that we can reconstruct the development and dispersal of language groups.

And as for early bits in Exodus, I've read that the pillar of fire by night and the pillar by day that some early Hebrews saw was called Ullikummi by some Hurrians and was a volcano on Thera.

I've read that the pillar of fire/pillar of smoke was a flying saucer.

By Trin Tragula (not verified) on 03 Feb 2009 #permalink

An endowed professorship in parapsychology and hypnosis!?? That is beyond my comprehension. And yet you, Martin, WANT to get an academic job in your country :P

I really feel sorry of you, you should first ask somebody to hypnotize you, maybe sit down to meditate and read a little of physics and then you can speak about things that you have no idea about. You are an ignorant.

By Edel Pons (not verified) on 16 Sep 2009 #permalink

Physics? To find any mention of hypnotism in a purported physics paper, I'm afraid you'd have to move pretty far out on the nutty fringe.