Koestler’s Secret School: Parapsychology and the Modern Skeptic
Among all the great minds who have labored over the questions of extrasensory perception, UFOs and the afterlife, perhaps none have brought quite the intellect to it that the Hungarian born political essayist and science writer Arthur Koestler managed to wring from the proverbial paranormal stone. His ideas were fully formed, as though achieved from the very outset, and yet he managed to be probing and questioning throughout his analyses in a way that sparked curiosity and, at times, betrayed his own natural wonder.
I first became aware of Koestler (pronounced “Kerstler” in parts of Europe, but more commonly adapted to sound like “Kestler” in the west) and his work through his essay on parapsychology called The Roots of Coincidence, which is well worth a first (or even a second or third) read. However, his analysis of the UFO enigma, as written in his essay “UFOs: A Carnival of Absurdity” (featured as an appendix in the print edition of his book Janus) examined the nature of the Condon Committee, and exposed a secret memo that betrayed the intentional misperceptions the famous Colorado UFO Project sought to cast over the ongoing scientific study of UFOs.
An excellent new biography of Koestler has been authored by Professor Michael Scammell highlights the life of this troubled “Skeptic,” as he is called, and probes the nature of his political writings, his many love affairs and sexual forays, and of course, the success of his now-famous anti-totalitarian novel, Darkness at Noon. But what is less often spoken about Koestler is this “double life” he lived, that not only involved parapsychology, particularly in his later years. If anything, from what we know of Koestler, his interests, and his life, the study of paranormal subjects may have consumed a majority of his interests in his final years.
Within the Psychology Department at the University of Edinburgh is a special research center known as the Koestler Parapsychology Unit, or KPU. As the name betrays, it was a unit formed around the interest and even philanthropic generosity of Koestler. Established in 1985, the KPU, according to its website, “consists of academic staff and postgraduate students who teach and research various aspects of parapsychology.” These include serious inquiry into the possibility that some individuals can produce extra sensory effects or psychic ability, as well as the psychological approach toward understanding belief in the paranormal and paranormal experiences, and the historical relevance of such studies.
While I had known that as an essayist and scholar, Koestler had been very gifted, I had not been aware that Koestler had actually left his estate for the formation of such a study unit, upon completion of a suicide pact with his wife in March of 1983, after being diagnosed with both Parkinson’s disease and terminal leukemia. The KPU site tells the story thusly:
The noted writer Arthur Koestler and his wife Cynthia in their Wills bequeathed their entire estate for the establishment of a Chair of Parapsychology at a British University. The declared intention was to further scientific research into “…the capacity attributed to some individuals to interact with their environment by means other than the recognised sensory and motor channels”. Most likely due to Beloff’s responsible approach to studying parapsychology, from the outset Edinburgh University was keen to host the Koestler Chair. John Beloff was appointed to the selection panel and was influential in ensuring that the appointment went to Robert Morris, an American widely respected by fellow parapsychologists and critics. In 1962 Koestler also founded what is now the Koestler Trust, which supports prisoners through the arts and celebrates its 50th birthday in 2012.
Amazingly, Koestler’s influence continues on today, due to his philanthropical attitude toward the study of the unknown, and all in addition to the intellectual contributions he made during his lifetime. Koestler was certainly fascinating, and thanks to his ongoing pursuit of the unexplained while on Earth, he helped ensure the future of parapsychological research in the lab, as well.