Shall We, Can We, Should We?

I learned about experiments from books and professors I remember dimly, but I was taught to do experiments by Gaither Pratt.  He advised my Duke honor’s undergraduate project.  The subject was ESP, but it could have been pigeon pecks or the aggressive acts of kindergartners, which I studied soon after.  I learned some scripts of objectivity with which I could avoid deceiving myself and misleading others.  I observed the actions of others, took numbers from them which I whacked to dust with mechanical calculators, and then sifted the residuum statistically to see what I learned.  I learned a good lesson – that ideas that seem and feel entirely true can be seen to be false in the sunlight of a good method.  I learned the skill of distrusting my own rhetoric. This disappointment was the first seed for me of what a later professor called the scientific superego. I learned some techniques of objectivity, a kind of dissociation with which I can separate myself from my own wishes and also from those fellow humans I observe.  They become subjects, seen through lenses, and their many wishes and my splendid ideas are held in abeyance.

We all build up such skills and understandings, bricks in the conceptual building we construct and use and inhabit.  We forget about most of this structure as we busily use it.  Frequently enough, things come along that surprise or distress us, and we must search down, pull out some brick and examine it.  As George Kelly said (Kelly, 1955), we reconstrue.  This goes on as long as we can think.  The results of all the work accumulate into what we call wisdom.  Then even wisdom bears revision.

I have never needed to turn against my scientific superego or scientific method (the roles, the attitudes and hypotheses, the measurements and analyses).  I remain grateful to Pratt for these big lessons.  However, Pratt taught me other things by implication, and some of them seem to bear examining.  I learned that this kind of observation is generally desirable, and that it is possible, and that the results of carrying it out are to everyone’s good.  Did he question these things?  He might have, he was a thoughtful man.  But I expect that he put such questions off to some future time when we might be more certain of the sheer existence of psi, and have some ideas about how it works.  Time enough then to worry about these other things.  Time now.

Personally, I am now sure enough that the construct of psi refers to real things in nature, and I believe that we have already learned more about how it all works than we have appreciated (see my book First Sight (Carpenter, 2012) for an extended discussion of this).  So, Dr. Pratt, let us consider some other questions.

Should experimenters scientifically observe participants?

In the standard model, one group of people, the Subjects or Participants (Ss or Ps, I’ll stick with Ps from here on) produce some measurable behavior and another group, the Experimenters (Es) observe it and measure it and count it.  In the parapsychology study, the Experimenter is to observe possible evidence of psi, the Participant is to produce it.  These two distinct roles assure our objectivity and keep us honest.  They are also obviously artificial and arbitrary.  For one thing, I know of no E in our field who has not been, and sometimes still is, a P (at least in her own private musings).  After all, there are two general ways to explore some confusing area of mystery and potential order.  We can use the toolkit of science and ask highly structured questions, or we can hold the questions up before ourselves in the loose-knit laboratories of our own lives, and see where they take us.  Do we wonder if dreams can be precognitive?  We can note our dreams for a while and compare them to subsequent events as they unfold in daily life.  This is a loose and informal sort of investigation, but it is serious.  It’s the method we use to test all of the ideas with which we try to guide ourselves.  Do I imagine that smiling more will evoke more friendliness from other people, or that investing in the stock market will lead to wealth?  I try such things out and see.

Lots of people are interested in parapsychological questions, but almost all of them use only the informal methods.  Some of these people seem to get very good results and develop complex and apparently useful ideas.  We think of them as psychics or clairvoyants or mediums or healers.  From the point of view of the pure E, they are still Ps, but they are Ps that can be tested by Es, and then we seem to have the standard model working just fine, perhaps sifting high-grade ore.

But there is an implicit side of this, to do with power.  Listen to the pure E and you will catch the little sniff of aristocracy.  Spend time with the pure P and you will feel a restive edge of rebellion.  Questions flow down from Es and information flows up from Ps.  We know that this is the structure of hierarchical power (Boulding, 1989).  It instills order and causes trouble.

It seems less orderly but it causes less trouble to soften these roles, to acknowledge that every E shelters a P within, and every P wants clear truth and in some way aspires to be an E.  In fact, these roles are already mixed up in our work.  One of the most astute people I know in discussions of parapsychological theory and method is also one of our most highly acclaimed psychics.  At our last convention, two scientific papers were authored by people who also participated in the generation of psychic data as “special” Ps (Black, 2014; Katz, 2014).  Similarly, in one of the most meaningful projects for which I was an E, I was also one of a group of Ps (Carpenter, 2012).  It left me with great data, but also with a permanent shift in what I expect of my own experience.  I think it will be healthy to embrace this trend consciously and explicitly.  If this were the business world, I would say we need a flatter organization. We all have different gifts and will tend to specialize, but let Es and Ps theorize together, plan studies together, ponder results together.  I think again of Dr. Pratt.  He was an E for sure.  One weekend the Duke laboratory staff acted like a bunch of Ps when Timothy Leary visited with his LSD-25 and his vague enthusiasm about psi.  While everyone else tripped, Gaither stayed stone sober, moving about taking notes untainted with hallucination.  We always need people like him.

There is another kind of pure P whose wishes we need to consider.  These are the people who believe that they have much more psi than they want.  They write us emails complaining about the voices that tell them other people’s thoughts, the expensive electronic equipment that breaks from being in their presence, the strange sounds and drafts in the newly rented condo.  They do not doubt psi, but they may wish to be rid of it.  Some of us have broadened our purview lately to declare an official interest in these “experiencers.”  We may never be sure that they are or are not dealing with psi as we know it in the laboratory, but they hope that there is some important way that we can understand them and we hope so too.  Some experiencers, especially the ones who are persecuted or angry or apparently delusional or grandiose, create discomfort in others who listen to them.  Few want to.  Even psychiatrists rarely listen any more.  They focus their eyes on the prescriptions pads, and avoid the searching eyes that face them.  We may never become Es with some Ps.  Roles that are a bit blurry can help here too.  If we wear the hat of pure E, such people seem noisy and confusing.  As fellow humans given to mystery, we can take in the stories with respect, say what we know, then send them on as best we can to knowledge or help.

Can Experimenters observe Participants objectively?

It doesn’t take a lot of reflection to realize that, given the constructs we work with, it is easier to separate Es and Ps in the social script of an experiment than it is in the unconscious Somewhere in which psi does its work.  What is a target in an ESP experiment?  Is it a piece of hidden cardboard, or an unplayed video clip, or a number latent in a software queue?  I think it is basically an intention of the experimenter.  Specifically, it is an intention of the E that the P will make some particular response.  Perhaps P wishes to cooperate.  In the Somewhere, our wishes commingle.  If psi is always going on, as I believe, this must be true of all of our situations.  Then can E study P’s psi, without the psi of E confounding the situation?  I don’t think so.  Can we tease them apart and make meaningful conclusions?  I think we can, but this is a work in progress.  Some believe that most of our findings are really due to the power of a few secretly psychic stars wearing lab coats and pretending to be Es.  Certainly E is in a privileged position.  A P in a ganzfeld study can use psi to guide one data point, her own response.  E can pick the method of randomly determining targets, which if done propitiously and psychically, can influence in one fell-swoop all of the correspondences between responses and targets.  Personally, I work with the assumption that everyone uses psi all the time (first sight, again), so I don’t think that the Ps will ever have any less access to the psychic Somewhere than the Es.  But we have tended to design experiments that give Es more potential influence.  I don’t know how to clear this up, but I am glad that many of us are now thinking about the problem.

Should our scientific work on psi succeed?

An odd question, maybe, but I have been worrying about it since the 1970’s.  I had done a series of studies trying to predict ESP scoring of unselected Ps, while using their work in a repeated-guessing design to try to increase the efficiency of the overall output.  I was slated for a AAAS presentation, and decided to try to do a demonstration project in which I would use this technique to retrieve some Morse-coded verbal information, and show that a laboratory-based experimental procedure could serve as a practical means of communication.  I picked the word PEACE for sending and retrieving.  One hundred and ten UNC students volunteered to guess several sets of randomly-shuffled columns of +’s and O’s while filling out mood checklists, not knowing that they were guessing at the same targets repeatedly or that a coded message was involved.  I used their moods to predict their ESP performance and rendered the data into a final list of dots and dashes.  The damned thing worked!  I remember a feeling of awe when the last letter fell correctly out of the calculations.  Out of thin air, and from the effort of those students, fluttered the word PEACE.  In my elation, an association popped into my mind: Alexander Graham Bell calling out to his assistant on the first telephone.  Predictably, right after grandiosity came fear – what harm could psi technology do?  I reported the study, but the fears lingered too – so much that I declined any more formal report for over 15 years. (Carpenter, 1991)

According to J. Robert Openheimer, (Bird & Sherwin, 2006) right after the first atomic bomb detonated, he thought of the legend of Prometheus, who was punished by Zeus for giving humans fire, and right after that he thought of the wish of Alfred Nobel, that dynamite might end wars.  He remembered the time before the test as “heavy with misgiving.”  We might sympathize.  Our own efforts have been dotted recently with efforts to apply psi – mostly in predicting markets.  If we are learning some of the important variables in the operation of psi, building experimental machines made of people for its application is not far off.  This will be as different from the development of an individual’s psychic gifts as constructing airplanes is from training good high jumpers – even though both get a person off the ground.  Some of our colleagues believe that psi can never be made reliable by the nature of things.  We might hope they are right.  I think the evidence so far is against them.  If they are wrong, what will we unleash?  Let us try to look ahead.  The ethics of science must include concern with the consequences of success.  I don’t think success will be stopped.  Nature is there, and we will continue to learn.  As Oppenheimer said, “There are no secrets about the world of nature.  There are secrets about the thoughts and intentions of men.”  We hear his agony over seeing people of power (the generals, the politicians) taking everything away from people of knowledge.  He was tortured by secrets, but he could count on them.  We all count on them, our opacity to one another, to keep the world as we know it to be.  But what if we untie the secret, as Oppenheimer untied the atom?  What then?


Bird, K., & Sherwin, W. (2006). American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Black, C. M., & Carpenter, J. C. (2014). A self-study of the role of mood on ostensible PK. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Parapsychological Association. Concord, CA.

Boulding, K. (1989). Three Faces of Power. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Carpenter, J.C. (2012a). First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Carpenter, J.C. (2012b). Spontaneous social behavior can implicitly express ESP information. Parapsychological Association. Durham, NC.

Carpenter, J. C. (1991). Prediction of forced-choice ESP performance: Part III: three attempts to retrieve coded information using mood reports and repeated-guessing technique. Journal of Parapsychology, 227-280.

Katz, D. L., & Beem, L. W. (2014). Explorations into remote viewing microscopic organisms (“The Phage”) and the effects of biological scientists’ exposure to non local perception within a multidisciplinary approach. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Parapsychological Association. Concord, CA.

Kelly, G. (1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs. New York: Norton.

 Reprinted from Mindfield, 6.3, 2014, with permission

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Some Gist of First Sight

Here’s a big part of the gist of first sight theory.  First of all, psi is always going on.  That is, every person is always actively engaged at an unconscious level, with an indeterminately huge amount of reality.  This engagement has an active, expressive side, and a receptive, becoming-aware-of side.  When the engagement has to do with chunks of reality that are outside the ordinary sensory boundaries of the person, we call this engagement “psi.”  The active, expressive aspect of this we call “psychokinesis,” and the receptive, coming-to-know side we call “extrasensory perception.”

Think of it this way, focusing just on the familiar stuff, the engagements that are within the sensory boundaries.  I sit here with my beautiful Lenovo laptap.  If I engage it actively, I peck at the keys.  We call this “action” or “intentional behavior.”  If I gaze at it in appreciation or consternation (depending upon how well it is working) we call this “seeing” or “taking in.”  In one case I’m physically doing something to the computer, in the other I am taking in an awareness of it.  Still staying inside the sensory boundaries, we know that “action” and “taking-in” go on unconsciously as well as consciously.  I do many things without clearly knowing why I am doing them, or even exactly that I am doing them (say, keeping my balance as I walk to another room).  Such actions are automatic, not clearly conscious, but still intentional.  On the receptive side, I am constantly bombarded with sensory impressions that are too faint to register consciously, or too outside my focus to get my attention.  Even though these impressions are unconscious they can still act as unconscious primes and influence my experience in various ways.  So, okay, let’s agree about this:  within the sensory boundaries, action and taking-in go on both consciously and unconsciously.

First sight theory adds to this picture by saying that unconscious action and taking-in also go on with reality that is ongoing beyond the sensory boundaries.  Like what goes on within the boundaries, this out-of-bounds action has both an active and a receptive side, is always going on, and is always guided by our unconscious goals and intentions.

Unlike the sensory engagements, psi engagements are always unconscious.  This is a kind of action and a kind of taking-in that is never conscious.  Why?  Because consciousness comes from sensation.  Without sensation there is no consciousness.  As the phenomenologists say, to be aware is always to be aware of something.  The something is always some kind of sensory engagement (even if it is only an “inner” sensation of memory or imagination).  Since psi is beyond the sensory system, it can never be conscious (or remembered or imagined).  We can only know about it by inferences we can draw from its effects.

What guides our unconscious transactions with reality, both sensory and extra-sensory?  It is our unconscious intentions.  Where do our unconscious intentions come from?  They primarily come from our conscious intentions, especially the ones that we are strongly holding at the moment, or that we hold habitually.  Our goals, our sense of our needs, our deepest wishes, our longings – these things all take up residence within our unconscious functioning and guide it.  They guide our sensory transactions and they guide our extrasensory transactions.

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Skeptical about Skeptics

As someone who has never had enemies, it took me quite awhile to understand that as a parapsychologist, I have enemies.  As a psychotherapist who sometimes works with people beset with paranoid delusions, I have to say that this band of enemies would merit inclusion in the Delusional Hall of Fame — except for the fact that it really exists!

A couple of years ago I gave a reading of my book, First Sight, at a local bookstore.  The little audience was made up of perhaps 20 people who seemed interested and congenial.  When the time for questions came, the first several were intelligent, somewhat skeptical, genuinely curious.  Then a flood of others started, from about 7 or 8 people scattered through the audience.  The first man asked why I had written a book defending creationism.  This set me back, since my book has nothing to do with creationism, but I tried to respond thoughtfully.  Then I was scolded for not understanding scientific method.  I pointed out the large body of scientific work that my book treats.  I was told that J. B. Rhine cheated in his research and was careless to boot.  I gave personal stories about Rhine (I knew him fairly well) illustrating his remarkable honesty and self-critical integrity.  I was told that I did not understand the mind’s capacity to deceive itself by seeing illusory pattens in random data.  I pointed out places in my text in which I dealt usefully with just that possibility.  And so on it went, all from people who clearly had not read a word in my book and had no idea what it contained.  After the reading was over, one man, a physicist from a nearby university, lingered and chatted about this and that in regard to the possible physics of psi if it should exist.  As he was about to leave, he said “A lot of us came tonight, you know.”

Who came?”

“The Triangle (Research Triangle) Atheists.  We were hoping to make a fool out of you.”


I checked the group’s website later and found that they had indeed organized a gathering at the reading for the sport of exposing the foolishness of a woo-woo peddler.  A couple of desultory remarks that followed up confirmed my impression that their fun was spoiled by my responses, which I believe were well-informed, thoughtful and consistently kind and courteous.

Thus I discovered first hand a local “chapter” of an international group.  They often refer to themselves as Militant Atheists or Guerrilla Atheists.  They are intensely motivated to attack religious belief, superstition, and what they consider pseudo science — which by definition includes everything about parapsychology.  No matter how rigorous the parapsychological research may actually be, it simply must be attacked relentlessly.  Ridicule and slander are favorite tools.  There are no compunctions about being uninformed.

This group has astonishing control of how parapsychological work is presented in the media, and in the online resource, Wikipedia.  For an account of the truly operatic pitch of this drama, see Craig Weiler’s book Psi Wars:  TED, Wikipedia and the Battle for the Internet

Now a fine new resource has come upon the internet for those who wish to have some perspective about this brand of zealous “skepticism.”  It is called “Skeptical About Skeptics.”  

The designers of this site have done their homework.  Their elucidation of this odd group of people and their somewhat puzzling motivation (why do they care so much?) is fair and enlightening.  Science is an inherently skeptical enterprise, and this is a natural and generally productive thing.  This skeptical instinct can be hijacked by ideologues, however, and when this happens, scientists and all the rest of us need to be informed about it.

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