Leaps of Faith

Basic Books, 1996

How many of us believe in telepathy? Or in ghosts? Or the power of prayer? In this provocative and disturbing book Nicholas Humphrey discusses why so many people still cling, like children seeking reassurance, to belief in supernatural forces: an immaterial soul, universal connectedness and life after death.

Using a novel approach, the 'Argument from Unwarranted Design', Humphrey mounts a devastating critique of the existing evidence for the paranormal, ranging from miracles to the laboratory evidence for extrasensory perception. He asks why so many sensible people nonetheless refuse to give up the search, and especially why certain exceptional individuals may still become convinced they themselves have supernatural powers. He explains the psychology of what he calls "paranormal fundamentalism" — the unshakable belief that, whatever the evidence, "there must be something there", and traces this to our deep-seated attachment to a mind-body dualism.

In the end, Humphrey argues, it is not only the facts of science but the laws of logic that rule out the truth of most paranormal claims. Yet does this mean the real world we live in is poorer than it might be? Far from it. In a surprising twist, he concludes that the world as it is, governed by natural laws without the possibility of psychic powers or supernatural intervention, has been and is the best cradle for human development.

Leaps of Faith is a witty, philosophical, shocking, and thoroughly absorbing look at our most closely held beliefs about religion, nature, and each other.


The purpose of Humphrey's elegant and literate deconstruction of paranormal belief is to lead his readers gently into the light of reason. . . This is an intelligent and highly readable book, which grinds its own axe quietly. Never does Humphrey suggest that people are gullible or stupid, only that a rather primitive instinct continues to resist -- however feebly and illogically -- the idea of a knowable universe. . . Excellent.

Lynn Truss, The Times

A superbly pithy, readable philosopher who illuminates his points with great imagination and verve, Humphrey embarks on the challenging task of tackling the idea of individual paranormal powers with the blunt, cold tool of logic. Constructing a masterly analytical framework that demands at the very least enormous respect, he attempts to debunk the ancient dualist notion that mind and body are governed by separate rules, and in doing so to prove that the concept of "soul" is not only useless but harmful.

Rosemary Goring, Scotland on Sunday

An urbane. original, convincing rebuttal of paranormal and supernatural notions. It should be read by all religious persons, by anyone who believes in horoscopes or paranormally bent cutlery, and by sceptics who support Richard Dawkins's biology-based atheism, but dislike his abrasive style.

New Scientist

This is a book that it should not have been necessary to write, whose subject is why it has been. . . In his rivetting history Humphrey explains not merely why [people who believe in the paranormal] are wrong but why they so much need to believe they are right.

Andrew Billen, The Observer

Very different and much more radical than what we have come to expect from most sceptics... Humphrey knows how to write. He is erudite without being ponderous and witty without being frivolous... Whether you regard yourself as a "soul-searcher" or as a soulless automaton, you would do well to read this book.

John Beloff, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research

A very thoughtful and instructive book. Humphrey has marshalled his arguments carefully and illustrated them well. It is the kind of book that both skeptics and believers would do well to read, and it holds a unique place in the literature for that reason.

Gordon Stein, Skeptical Inquirer

In this urbane and clearly argued book, Humphrey looks into the current vogue for the paranormal... [He provides] a welcome challenge to the trivial obsession with the miraculous and with immortality that holds much contemporary religion in thrall.

Karen Armstrong, New Statesman and Society

An accessible and stimulating book. It avoids trying to find evidence of fraud, illusion or coincidence in every report of supernatural events. Humphrey tries instead to develop a general theory. . . Humphrey asserts that no reported example of the paranormal passes his test. Believers may disagree; or they might object that his scientific approach is inappropriate to paranormal phenomena. But Humphrey is right: we must use reason to decide.

Max Wilkinson, Financial Times

A lively, entertaining book with pointed quotations from literary and scientific sources. . . Humphrey has set himself a larger task than simply explaining why people believe in parapsychology: the task of explaining why it is irrational to believe in it.

Tim Crane, Nature

Professor Humphrey accepted a Fellowship specifically set up to "investigate the existence of supernormal powers of cognition and action in human beings", and has used his psychological background in perception, consciousness research and animal behaviour to rubbish the subject. . . It is interesting to have such an elegant and eccentric attack.

Rosemary Dinnage, Times Literary Supplement

Humphrey doesn't pull any punches, he doesn't miss any targets at all. All power to his elbow, he's been very brave, and he deserves success.

John Gribbin, speaking on BBC: Science Now