Stephen Strauss wrote articles, columns and editorials about science and technology for the Globe and Mail for more than 20 years. He has also authored three books, several book chapters, and for his efforts received numerous awards. Through all his time in journalism, he still remains smitten by the enduring wisdom of the motto of Austrian writer Karl Kraus. Say what is.
Several decades ago I spent a strange week in Fairfield, Iowa - as unlikely a locale as you can imagine for people dedicated to showing that meditation can not only make you feel good, but if strongly focused, higher consciousness could change the physical world.
Scientists at the Maharishi International University showed me their studies indicating that when large groups of meditators congregated, traffic accidents came down, crime rates lessened and, generally, the world became a more benign place.
But I was less taken with indirect proofs of the mind's power, than with what purported to be direct evidence of how yogic consciousness could trump physics: if you reached a high enough state of mind, I was told, you could fly, and flyers in training were already on the campus.
Groovy, I said, let's see them take off. And I was taken to a room where one and then another fairly athletic young person bounced up and down on thick rubber mats. Bounced high, I have to admit, but only bounced, and rebounced, and then bounced again.
Oh, I was told, don't judge yogic flying by what you see. That is only the first stage of consciousness. Fully conscious people can fly about the room sort of like birds whose wings are the happy flappings of their minds.
Where are the true flyers, I asked hopefully. We haven't reached that level yet. But it should only be a few years until we get there, I was told.
The experience imprinted itself on me because I realized as I slouched, not bounced out of the flying room, that I was the sort of skeptic who would only believe in higher consciousness until flight trumped bouncing.
Which brings me in a kind of circuitous way to the Global Consciousness Project. Like the transcendental meditating followers of the Maharishi, the Global Consciousness Project believes that consciousness isn't a state but a force.
Initially started at Princeton University by clinical psychologist Roger Nelson in 1998, its advocates, too, are talking about flying, but they present bouncing. The bounce occurs in what they term Random Event Generators, or REGs. These are small - roughly the size of a couple of packages of cigarettes - machines that use statistical noise to randomly generate a zero or a one at a rate of roughly 12,000 a minute Think of it as a computerized coin flip.
If truly random, event generators should produce the same amounts of heads as tails. Only, report GCP initiators, sometimes the machines take off. Many, many more ones than zeros, or zeros than ones, occur in a certain time frame. To explain this the leaders of the project, who have placed 91 REGs in 41 countries - there are four in Canada - point to world consciousness events that coincide with the aberrations.
The bombing of the World Trade Center, the tsunami in Asia, Y2K, the funeral of Princess Diana, New Year's Eve. They all were coincident with the numerical bounces. Ergo, everyone thinking about the same thing creates a psychic field that turns the random in the regular.
Well, maybe. There are a number of problems with the correlation, chief of which being that something supposedly BIG is always happening on Planet CNN/Google/e-mail. It used to be that an event of global reach would happen and it would then take days, weeks and sometimes months before people elsewhere were aware of it.
Now dumb-head news - Paris Hilton's hacked mobile phone, Janet Jackson's nipple, fake cloned Raelian babies - traverses the globe instantaneously. Global media today generate a million leagues more global consciousness than likely over all the 19th century. If consciousness does change random physics, then there should be obvious signs of strange coincidences happening more and more regularly.
Things like, well, I don't know really. Nobody anywhere buying coffee on a given Tuesday. Everyone laughing at once.
What I am saying is that if the effect is real and not what GCP's critics such as American physicist Robert Park scornfully characterize as an indication that "some people can't be happy with a universe that pays no attention to us," then undeniable real stuff should be happening.
And as far as I can tell, all that is occurring is statistical hopscotch and post hoc explanations extraordinaire. Worse, sometimes the surges occur before the events - 9/11 is a classic example - forcing GCP advocates to argue that consciousness exists in advance of the events that focus consciousness. And conversely they have to explain away how obvious global events - a solar eclipse was a recent example - didn't toggle REGs.
I say all of this and confess at the same time to a certain softness for the entire consciousness-measuring enterprise. It seems to me that if there is a big, big mystery in the world it is how awareness came into being. What could drive it to higher levels? How does it fit in with the other physical forces in the universe?
Consciousness does feel somehow like it should be a physical thing and not an "a-ha, I get it" thing. It feels like that and yet all we get is bounce, bounce, bounce and a disappointed Stephen Strauss still slouching out a door marked My Own Much Lower Consciousness.