I was recently sent a review copy of a new book titled The Man Who Could Fly: St. Joseph of Copertino and the Mystery of Levitation. The accompanying press release included the following summary: “St. Joseph of Copertino [1603-1663] began having mystical visions at the age of seven, but it was not until he began practicing his faith as a Franciscan priest that he realized the full potential of his mind’s power over his body-he was able to levitate. Throughout his priesthood St. Joseph became famous for frequent levitations that were observed on hundreds of occasions and by thousands of witnesses, including many skeptics. Michael Grosso delves into the biography of the saint to explore the many strange phenomena that surrounded his life and develops potential physical explanations for some of the most astounding manifestations of his religious ecstasy. Grosso draws upon contemporary explorations into cognition, the relationship between the human mind and body, and the scientifically recorded effects of meditation and other transcendent practices to reveal the implications of St. Joseph’s experiences and abilities.”
I have investigated levitation claims only in passing-and typically in the context of other “miraculous” and Fortean phenomena–but have read several interesting books trying to make the case for miracles from many decades or centuries ago, including that of stigmatic Padre Pio, holy man and fraud Sai Baba, magician Uri Geller, and others.
In the book Grosso acknowledges that “Anyone inclined to suspend judgment on the factual basis of the levitation claims would be justified on two grounds. The first is that the events described occurred in the seventeenth century and exaggerations, distortions, and outright fabrication cannot in general be entirely ruled out. The second is that no matter how compelling the accounts may appear, the utter rareness and elusiveness of such phenomena today may for many serve as grounds for suspending or refusing belief” (p. 69).
This refreshingly skeptical preface is, however, immediately followed by: “Nevertheless there is a large quantity of eyewitness documentation of Joseph’s reported phenomena… If even a fraction of such accounts are well founded, there is a great deal to think about with respect to the nature of the mind.”
My skeptical mind automatically focused on the phrase “large quantity of eyewitness documentation,” with an emphasis on large quantity (as in, “the plural of anecdote is not evidence”) and eyewitness. I was immediately reminded of a well-worn (and precisely identical) argument made for the existence of Bigfoot. Indeed there is a vast quantity of evidence for Bigfoot: thousands of eyewitness accounts, hundreds of blurry and dubious photos and videos, hundreds of alleged tracks, and so on. I will be the first to admit that there is an enormous amount of evidence, including “a large quantity of eyewitness documentation,” for Bigfoot.
The problem is that in science, quality of evidence is what’s important, not quantity of evidence. Just as you cannot combine ten cups of weak coffee into one cup of strong coffee, you can’t just point to stacks of dubious reports as if their sheer number is evidentially meaningful or scientifically convincing. In science one anecdote is as good as the next, and a dozen rigorous studies are more valuable than a hundred flawed ones.
Grosso’s claim that “if even a fraction of such accounts are well founded, there is a great deal to think about with respect to the nature of the mind” is quite true: If–after careful, thorough, science-based analysis–some of the accounts of any paranormal phenomena (ghosts, alien abductions, miracles, etc.) are real, then of course that means the whole phenomena is real. This is why it only takes one unequivocal Bigfoot body to prove that the creatures exist; one demonstrably extraterrestrial spacecraft to reveal the presence of interstellar space-traveling aliens; one proven, documented miracle to prove they exist, and so on. This is why it’s so important to carefully examine all the claims and hold the evidence to a high standard–to not merely lump them all together but judge each on its own evidentiary value.
As I looked over Grosso’s book I was reminded of another book about similar seemingly miraculous events attested to by hundreds of seemingly sober and sincere eyewitnesses centuries ago: The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick: How a Spectacular Hoax Became History, by Peter Lamont (2004, Abacus Books). It’s an excellent historical examination of a world-famous illusion sworn as true by generations. Lamont explains that the idea (seemingly endorsed by Grosso in the book) that eyewitnesses to these miracles must be either telling the truth or lying is a false choice fallacy. Lamont explains in convincing detail how sincere people could and did see these seemingly impossible miracles occur. The books have much in common, including the levitation claims of medium D.D. Home.
Though Grosso’s book is indexed and contains hundreds of references, skeptics are conspicuously absent, a predictable but unfortunate omission that might have better grounded his discussion of levitation. The book is also undermined by its endorsement of a hodgepodge of dubious and discredited phenomenon ranging from Ted Serios (ably debunked decades ago by James Randi and others) to inedia (claims that people can live without eating through meditation and focus) to reincarnation. Though Grosso avoids the common New Age trap of throwing everything in but the kitchen sink, he comes close, with discussions of near-death experiences, ghosts, demonic possession, out of body experiences, astral travel, ESP, consciousness, and so on, most of which have only the most tenuous connection to levitation.
In fact only the first hundred pages or so deals with levitation specifically; the remaining 150 or so are spent speculating on what forces might account for (or be somehow related to) it. To me this was a clear violation of the skeptical principle that before trying to explain why something happened, be sure it did happen in the first place. In other words, I felt that Grosso should have spent more time exploring and ruling out alternative explanations for the phenomena (if at all possible) before assuming that the extant documentation and evidence was adequate to proceed with the assumption that levitation is real.
It reminded me of many Bigfoot books I’d read that filled pages of detailed speculation about the animals’ diet, hygiene, social order, and so on–neglecting to inquire too deeply into the question of whether they actually exist or not. What the authors should be trying to prove is simply assumed (without sufficient evidence, skeptics would argue), akin to pseudoscholarly disagreements by learned men regarding how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Reviewing the press release and the book itself, I was struck by several things that jumped out to me as a skeptic. For example Grosso places great confidence in eyewitness testimony-and centuries-old eyewitness testimony at that. I asked him about the possibility that the eyewitnesses could be wrong in their reports of Copertino’s levitation, and he replied: “A hundred and fifty people, all deluded, all deceived, all making up stories? No, I don’t believe it. And moreover I’m quite certain that far more than 150 people witnessed this…”
I pressed him on his seemingly credulous acceptance of eyewitness accounts: “For example, as you know-and just to draw a parallel-there was also testimony in the Salem witch trials, people who claimed to be witnesses to witchcraft and Satanic activity. Do you think those were true and valid?” MG: “Do I accept all the claims of witchcraft? Certainly not…. But as to the objective reports of levitation, it’s possible in some instances there were misinterpretations, delusions, all kinds of possibilities. I’m not claiming that every report should be taken as valid. But I’m very discriminating in what I count as evidence. In the case of Joseph, to me, the evidence is overwhelming…”
Regarding the question
of whether consciousness can exist outside the brain, he says, “I would agree with William James, who wrote an essay on this subject back in 1898 pointing out that since we cannot explain consciousness in terms of the brain it’s quite reasonable to assume that consciousness pre-exists the brain, and the brain, rather than produce consciousness is a vehicle through which consciousness is revealed and experienced. Now, that idea is not mainstream, but it’s logically consistent with the facts.”
I was slightly surprised that he was reaching back to a philosophical treatise from 120 years ago, instead of from modern physicists, to bolster his point. But there was a bigger issue: “But doesn’t that violate Occam’s Razor?” I asked him.
MG: “Why? Why does it violate Occam’s Razor? In what sense does it violate Occam’s Razor?”
BR: “Well, if consciousness can be explained in principle as brain activity then why do you-”
MG: “But that’s the point. What I’m arguing is that it cannot, no one has come up with a viable theory. I have quotes in my book from materialists who admit this, but they don’t want to push the point as far as I am prepared to push because they’re not open to the reality of these paranormal phenomenon… I don’t see that there’s any violation of Occam’s Razor… I don’t agree with you that it applies in this case.”
I took issue with his seeming reliance on eyewitness testimony about levitations, and he replied, “If you know anything about the history of mediumship, it’s not all frauds, and some of it is quite carefully studied and analyzed. There are lots of reports of partial levitations, of objects for example, table-tipping experiences… They’re not all as dramatic as Joseph’s full-body levitations.”
I replied, “To be fair, in many of the early mediumship events that were investigated by Harry Houdini, Harry Price, and others, they were under far from controlled conditions. These were done in the dark, in the medium’s studio, so these were not exactly double-blind studies, as I’m sure you know.” MG: “I agree, I completely agree with you about that, but what I am saying is that there are cases where there was careful controls. I cite some of them in my book… I agree with you about the fraudulent cases, but they’re not all fraudulent.”
Indeed, Grosso mentions several experiments by William Crookes in the 1870s–with, for example, mediums such as Eusapia Palladino and D.D. Home, both of who are widely acknowledged to have faked phenomena, including levitations. (For information on the hoaxed levitations of Home see Milbourne Christopher’s 1970 book ESP, Seers & Psychics, whose complete absence from Grosso’s book is inexcusable if he’s going to cite those events as evidence.)
I moved on to his section on quantum physics. I’m not a physicist but I’ve read the work of many people who are, and I was having difficulty reconciling Grosso’s depiction of quantum physics as a plausible mechanism for levitation with what I’d read. For example, in his Skeptical Inquirer article “Stop Heisenberg Abuse: Three Outrageous Misappropriations of Quantum Physics” (May/June 2014 issue, pp.40-43), physicist and mathematics teacher Dale DeBakcsy explains that “Simply put, quantum effects stop being observable when the particles involved rise above a certain size… When it comes to day-to-day existence, we’re really talking only about particles around the mass of an electron exhibiting anything like the finickiness toward measurement that we come to expect from quantum mechanics.”
So I asked Grosso, “In chapter 8 you discuss quantum physics. I’ve seen quantum physics invoked in various ways to explain paranormal phenomena. If you actually look at quantum physics it only operates on the quantum scale. Do have some reason to think that quantum physics applies on a human scale?”
MG: “Well yes, the quantum physicists themselves. It’s a very controversial subject, as I’m sure you know… It might very well serve to explain the phenomenon….So I don’t think that this point you make is agreed upon by all physicists. I got an e-mail from Hal Puthoff, another very serious physicist, who said, ‘You’re on the right track with all this speculation, even though they are still speculation, it’s certainly worth talking about.'”
I moved on to the practicalities of levitation: “From my understanding of basic physics, if a person is truly levitating, they should move horizontally because of course the Earth is rotating under the person. But I didn’t see any reference to that in your descriptions… did you find that?”
MG: “No. No, I didn’t see anything like that. I’m not even sure what you mean by that. But the levitations took many forms, sometimes when [Joseph] was saying mass he would levitate a few inches, other times he’d go thirty feet into the air and moved around like a bird. So it’s a quite variously expressed phenomenon.”
I pressed him to explain why levitation, if it exists and is a function of human psychology (for example ecstasy or mental powers) and/or natural, known processes (for example quantum physics), is so vanishingly rare: “On page 58 and elsewhere you talk about how levitation is undoubtedly rare. My question is, why would that be? We have so many people attempting higher states of consciousness, particularly with New Age and religious activity elsewhere. If there truly is a connection between the ecstatic state and levitation, why wouldn’t it be much more common, especially over the past 350 years?”
He responded, “Well, that’s a perfectly good question and I don’t know the answer to it. Ecstasy in no way is a guarantee of levitation. It’s only certain cases, and it may be a matter of belief…. At this point it is a mystery, and you’re right. On the other hand the type of ecstasy that seems to be related to these more unusual phenomena is something much more extreme, it’s physical as well as a passing excited state. That’s not what’s going on with individuals such as Joseph of Copertino. Their ecstasy is much more radical, and it’s much more physical, based on fainting and doing things to the body. That’s why I’m convinced there’s a physical aspect to the levitation, or a physiology to levitation that we simply have not studied because there’s a ban so to speak on studying these subjects scientifically.” (See my article “Do Scientists Fear the Paranormal?”)
BR: “Are there any more recent reports of this happening? I mean, we’re basically talking 380 years ago for Joseph.” He replied, “these things have continued into modern times… the reports are there, they’re hard to find… We are dealing with a rare phenomenon that takes a variety of shapes and forms… On one hand the rare manifestation throws us for a loop but if you look at it as part of a large pattern of mind-body interactions it becomes a little less shocking to one’s intellectual sensibility, at least that’s how I view it.”
I’m not sure that human levitation exists–much less that it’s attributable to a mind-body connection (or quantum physics)–but overall I enjoyed speaking with Grosso and reviewing his book. He clearly put a lot of time and effort into his research, but I can’t help wishing it was more grounded in science and evidence. But perhaps that’s too much to ask from a book on levitation.
A longer version of this piece will appear in the Skeptical Briefs newsletter later this year.