A discussion group with which I am involved has been in something of a debate lately about dividing parapsychologists into two groups based upon their points of view about the nature of the world and of a human being, and about which is better and more useful for the study of psi. The two groups are roughly characterized as dualists vs. materialists. Dualists (in this context) think that the mind is separate from and different than the body and the mind may survive the body after death, and they tend to be particularly interested in spontaneous experiences implying things like extrasensory perception and near-death experiences and transpersonal experiences of cosmic connection, and incorporate all of that into belief structures that we could call spiritual or religious. The materialists suspect that these spiritual beliefs are unjustified and anti-scientific and unproductive. They think that the brain produces psi as it produces all human experience, and they are most interested in scientific questions about how this production might go about. They think that careful experiments are much more instructive than reports of spontaneous experience, and they hope that psi can shed light on some deep questions of physics. This discussion that has gone on has generally assumed the existence of these two groups, and assumed that all parapsychologists can be classified into one or the other.
To find a place for myself, there needs to be three groups. In terms of what are presumed in the discussion to be defining characteristics, I lean more to the hard-headed side, with more trust in experiments and data and less sure of the utility of ideas like reincarnation and psychedelic insight and religious experience (although I have had my share of this and value it in a personal way).
The main issue driving this debate among my colleagues seems to be metaphysical. I think some in the group are oriented to a dualistic metaphysics, and some to a reductionistic, physicalist metaphysics. I’m not happy with either one. I prefer an existential, phenomenological metaphysics that is not dualistic, nor does it try to reduce one side of a dualism to a material monism. I see no need to assume a dualistic split to begin with, and I think of this assumption as a matter of choice.
This group has also been debating the contributions of Martin Heidegger lately (in a separate but implicitly related thread). At the outset, I must say that while I have long appreciated some things about Heidegger, I could never actually penetrate his writing. I never got through Being and Time although I tried for awhile. I gave up and instead read some books about Heidegger. Through that I got a drift. It was a difficult mind-shift, a radically different perspective. I understand the impatience many people feel with Heidegger’s eccentric and torturous language. And then there is the revelation of his Nazism and anti-semitism! This makes it hard to appreciate anything at all about Heidegger now. I have been influenced a lot, though, by people who said they drew critically important things from Heidegger, so I have credited their appreciation. People like Ludwig Binswanger and Medard Boss in psychiatry/psychology, Walter Kaufman and Sartre in philosophy, even the passionate anti-Nazis Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Buber in theology. And also a later generation in psychology, people like Rollo May and R.D. Laing and Fritz Perls (mainly by way of Laura Perls and Paul Goodman), and thence to parapsychology’s own Stan Krippner and Charlie Tart with their wonderful contributions to humanistic/transpersonal psychology. Certainly like all of us I found Heidegger’s Nazism and anti-Semitism horrifying when I first read of it. Still, in spite of his aristocratic, authoritarian bent, he apparently did bring a basic metaphysical reorientation into focus that resonated with many others (which suggests that someone else would have made the same contribution if he hadn’t gotten there first, as perhaps he did). To throw out an existential metaphysics along with the nasty side of Heidegger would be unfortunate, since none of the people I just listed had any sympathy with Nazism but found his philosophy essentially important.
From an existential point of view, human life is a project, not a product. Lives are intentionally chosen, not generated by material conditions. In the realm of psychotherapy, psychiatric disorders have meanings but not causes. In the realm of parapsychology, psi is something people do, not something that is produced in their brains by stimuli. In the realm of science on humans, a model of the human being that is neither dualistic nor reductionistically material is needed for scientific work to not make a mockery of its subject matter.
I understand that this point of view has not gotten much traction in contemporary science. The reductionistic project is simply too successful and too popular and holds the investment of too many people to trouble much with what must seem like quibbling. It has not even gotten much traction in psychology lately, with humanistic/transpersonal psychology never having developed very far as an experimental science. instead, it has been content to be largely reactionary and anti-scientific. I think this is a big shame, and points to much that should be developed. Still, there have been exceptions — think Gardner Murphy, Irvin Child, Robert White, Gertrude Schmeidler, Jerome Singer.
I think parapsychology raises the same metaphysical issue that Heidegger did, and can’t really be successfully accommodated with either dualism or reductionistic materialism. It is sensible, though, thought of existentially. This approach can also be scientific, in the sense of experiments and data. I wasn’t surprised when I first learned that Heidegger experimented with something like remote viewing (as did Medard Boss, who also discussed telepathic dreaming). If you consider some challenging psi story existentially you think “why not” instead of appropriating it into a spiritual structure (dualism) or thinking “mustn’t be” (materialism). Why not, and let’s explore, and let’s see how such things might happen and how they might work. Let’s use scientific method to try to do that.
These metaphysical differences have practical consequences. As a psychotherapist (my day job) I have great appreciation for reductionistic approaches to mental illness because whenever I meet a patient who has been working with someone from the reductionistic camp (almost all younger psychiatrists nowadays, and even most young psychologists whose training has been so eager to imitate biological psychiatry) I look like a glowing genius even on my most mediocre days. After a few minutes it dawns upon the patient that I am listening to them and taking them seriously and acting as if their experiences have meaning, and their brains are probably just fine, and their ideas about their circumstances probably have a lot of validity. They conclude that I have amazing insight and they grant me a whopping placebo effect at that moment. Then they tend to go on to feel better and stronger and stop hurting themselves and others so much and work toward no longer being patients.
As a parapsychologist, I find that if I think of psi as something people do (mostly unconsciously) for good reasons then all our findings make a lot more sense and a flood of good questions to explore experimentally pop up easily. This is the point of view I work at elaborating in First Sight, and I don’t think I could do that dualistically or materialistically. At least I can’t see how. So I want a third group. I think a number of other parapsychologists implicitly do too.