Intensity and Extensity

Alas 'tis true I have gone here and there,
And made myself a motley to the view.

 William Shakespeare, Sonnet CX

     Over a lifetime, my aim in choosing problems for investigation has not been a single‑minded one. Men of great scientific achievement have nearly always concen­trated their efforts. Out of a welter of problems accessible to their expertise, they choose a key one. They are not to be deterred by difficulties, but they require a reasonable possibility of success. As Popper has pointed out, the method of work always involves playing hunches. Once a key solution is obtained, once a piece is fitted into a focal place in the jigsaw, then other pieces, single or articulated, fall naturally into place. More of the total picture emerges; and new problems then show themselves, whose very existence till that time had not been guessed.

    The danger of the single‑minded approach is that the hunch may fail; it may lead into a blind‑alley, in which a lifetime of work can be spent in achieving nothing. That was not a risk I ran. The concentration and the heroism of the true professional scientist have not been within my powers. Cyclothymia, neurosis, schizophrenia, hysteria were taken up and dropped in turn when I did not know what was the next step to take. If now, casting an eye over the whole, one can see any unifying design, that does not come from any deliberate planning. If a restless curiosity led to probing attacks at any point where the defences of the unknown might offer a soft spot, that could be regarded as a pragmatic policy. It had also its romantic side. It was probably more important for me to enjoy the work I was doing than to be secure in the knowledge that, if it succeeded, something of fundamental importance would be learned. Many of the professional jobs done have been of trivial signifi­cance; and in my leisure time uncounted hours have been spent on labours which one can only call piffling. [1]

    I have worried myself over a number of questions for which I had to find an answer, valid for myself if not for others. Once I had the answer, right for me, and had got it off my chest, it nagged me no longer; and the chances were that I would never return to it again. Is there such a thing as extra‑sensory perception? If there is, then surely the what and the how of it are more important and more fundamental problems than any others to be dreamed of in our philosophy. I gave a lot of reading time, and quite a lot of thought, to this question at two periods, separated by many years. After the first, I came to the conclusion that the workers in this field were not serious, i.e., they did not attempt to set up rigorous conditions; perhaps there was something in it, perhaps there was not. This was most unsatisfactory. A second period of questioning led me to a conclusion, a negative one. [2] As far as I am concerned, the matter is finished; and I can't even be bothered to read of the latest work. Let other sceptics spend time looking into it; it is not for me.


[1] For instance, I spent a lot of time analyzing the results obtained in international chess tournaments to see whether there was such a thing as a best chess opening, as according to games theory there ought to be.

[2] See the review on ESP (126) that occasioned lively rejoinders in the correspondence columns of the British Journal of Psychiatry. ‑ Ed.