A Philosopher Stares at "Stares at Goats"

In the new movie The Men Who Stare at Goats, which opens today in the United States, George Clooney plays a former member of a secret sect of soldiers trained by the U.S. military to deploy a host of paranormal weapons against the enemy. Their deadly talents supposedly include the ability to kill a goat via psychokinesis—by staring at the beast they can make its heart stop with thought alone.

The movie takes some liberties in the name of comedy, but the program it's based on is real. During the Cold War, the U.S. military became convinced it was losing the "mind race" against the Soviet Union, and as recently as the late 1980s was investigating a range of paranormal phenomenon and their potential uses in espionage and combat, says Jonathan Moreno, a philosopher at the University of Pennsylvania who studies military applications of cognitive science.

For more details, Moreno referred me to a 1988 National Research Council report on enhancing human performance. According to the report, some military decision makers believed that extrasensory perception ("if real and controllable") could prove valuable for intelligence gathering, while psychokinesis could find an even wider range of uses, from jamming enemy computers or weapons, planting thoughts in individuals without their knowledge, or even killing enemies at a distance. And that's not all.

The report says: "One suggested application is a conception of the 'First Earth Battalion,' made up of 'warrior monks,' who will have mastered almost all the techniques under consideration by the committee, including the use of ESP, leaving their bodies at will, levitating, psychic healing, and walking through walls." This is the elite squad Clooney's character belonged to.

Moreno says that as far as he knows the military has abandoned its research into the paranormal. These days, he says, they're more interested in the fruits of neuroscience research—cognitive-enhancing drugs to keep soldiers sharp, for example, or brain-machine interfaces that could take over a plane if the pilot becomes incapacitated.

Meanwhile, The Men Who Stare at Goats seems to be earning mainly mediocre reviews in the United Kingdom, where it has already opened. Maybe this is one case where reality didn’t need any help from Hollywood.