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Statement on the Recent TED/Psi/Consciousness Controversy

Ben Goertzel
By Ben Goertzel

Posted: Apr 20, 2013

There has been a minor kerfuffle recently regarding the TED franchise’s decision to remove from their main video site, TEDx conference talks given by scientists promoting psi research and the exploration of non-reductionistic approaches to consciousness.

Due to my role in the recently-formed Society for Consciousness Studies, I was asked to contribute a statement to a Huffington Post article on the topic, and I did so; but for some reason (perhaps a simple oversight or clerical mishap) my statement was not included in the article….   So, I am posting the statement I wrote for that article here, in case anyone is interested.

I have spoken on my AI and bioinformatics work at multiple TEDx events, and up till now I’ve had nothing but praise for the wonderful work of the TED organization.

For this reason, I was rather disappointed to observe the recent actions on the part of the TED administration, removing TEDx conference talk videos by Rupert Sheldrake, Russell Targ and others, due to criticisms by certain self-appointed “skeptics” and accusations of “pseudoscience.” Apparently the issue is that their work touches on psi phenomena, commonly known as the “paranormal.”

In my own view, as a scientist with 25 years professional experience in multiple scientific disciplines, the work of these individuals is absolutely not pseudoscience, and would be better characterized as “frontier science.”   Yes, their work  is controversial and in some respects speculative.  But it is based on carefully gathered experimental data, analyzed thoroughly by thoughtful and educated people.  It might prove wrong in the end, but it’s not pseudoscience.

It is noteworthy that the “skeptics” who have prevailed upon the TED administration to call these scientists’ work pseudoscience, consistently refuse to engage in any detail with the actual data gathered by these scientists, or others working on psi and other frontier aspects of mind-matter interaction.

I wonder if the TED administration is aware that  there is a substantial community of serious scientists — including many, like myself, who have contributed to TED events — who

1) disagree with the evaluation of the work of Sheldrake, Targ etc. as pseudoscience, and believe the removal of their videos was a suboptimal decision

2) believe it would be to the benefit of TED and the world at large, if wide-ranging scientific explorations into the nature of consciousness and its relation to the world, were among the permitted topics at TED conferences

My respectful request to the TED administration is that they rescind their decision, and open their minds and their conferences to scientists exploring the relationship between mind and matter.  The scientific data regarding psi is complex and, confusing — I know, because I have looked at it thoroughly myself.  But I believe there is very likely something valuable there, amidst all the confusion.  And I submit that providing an arena for the discussion and debate of controversial, tricky issues with potentially dramatic impact, is very much in the spirit of TED.

Ben Goertzel Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, and founder and CEO of two computer science firms Novamente and Biomind, and of the non-profit Artificial General Intelligence Research Institute (
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Science is a method.  It is what Scientists do.  It is not a beleif system.  They can believe that Manchester United are a better team than Manchester City, it won’t make them less professional generally speaking!

The concern of many is that some science advocates, with New Atheist labeling, make a hubristic case, that can not be sustained, that their belief system (“Scientism”) trumps all other belief systems. Indeed it is a fundamentalist position that excludes other beliefs that are not necessarily in conflict with science.

Some within their cadre actively promote mocking, militant and aggressive behavior, seeking to censor and prevent other voices being heard other than their own shrill illogical positivism.

In the Huffington post article about the TED censorship this point is made…

“Dawkins, who has a close association with TED, gave a TED talk in 2002 where he said the following:

‘It may sound as if I am about to preach atheism. I want to reassure you that that’s not what I am going to do. In an audience as sophisticated as this one, that would be preaching to the choir. [scattered laughter] No, what I want to urge upon you is militant atheism.’”

The point is preaching, choirs and evangelical atheism is old Church rhetoric. TED should avoid becoming the pulpit of the “Church of Scientism.”

It’s unfortunate that there’s this black and white perception of science and spiritualism in the face of frontier science such as consciousness research, new physics, cosmology, etc. I think it was Richard Tarnas who called the emergence of this stark dichotomy a development of ‘‘two faces’’ - those faces being of discovery/progress and of disaster/fall - both being born out of the same interests. But with a westernized world view we are incapable of processing the new research as an intertwined version of both positive and negative faces (as I believe it, like everything else, actually is in reality). I think it’s extremely relevant to the way the public is reacting to consciousness studies. As a young consciousness/cognition researcher (starting graduate school this fall!), I hope that this discourse evolves to a place that is recognizing the inherent interconnectedness of not only the subject matter but the means of study. I hope that TED and groups like it hear voices like Goertzel’s and, as he said,  “rescind their decision”. We may not even be close to the mark in understanding qualia, as the complexity of this study can not be emphasized enough, and as a scientific discipline it’s in it’s infancy. But, we’re never going to make progress if we allow the fearful and the cognitively dissonant to persuade us into silence. This should be OBVIOUS to scientists, with history consistently telling this same story.

@martinchoops: Are you suggesting that the Church has a monopoly on evangelizing behavior, or that evangelizing is somehow inherently Churchlike?

Totally agree with you there Ben. Keep on doing what you are doing and fighting for consciousness.

Good move, Ben.  A few years or so back, I mistakenly would up in a Rupert Sheldrake program at Yale (I thought the film scholar David Bordwell would be speaking at the location.)  He was reporting on animal awareness research and on an African Gray parrot named N’kisi.  I admit to some “prejudice”— we had a great rapport, particularly talking about Mahamudra and Dzogchen (his wife practices the latter).  But I’m very intrigued by his “citizen science” movement.  Amateur astronomers make great contributions.  I see no reason that amateur ethnologists, etc. can’t be trained to record behaviors, or to become amateur psychologists, running simple experiments.

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