A Third Approach to Parapsychology

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.

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Carlos Alvarado’s Author Interview with James Carpenter

Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation

In this, the second of the series of author interviews, I have the pleasure to interview Dr. James C. Carpenter, a clinical psychologist and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill, who has a long track record in parapsychology. I met Jim some time in 1983 when I was visiting, I think in the Summer, the Institute for Parapsychology, part of the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man (now the Rhine Research Center).

Dr. James C. Carpenter

Dr. James C. Carpenter

Jim has published over the years many important experimental studies of ESP exploring psychological variables. In this interview I focus on what is probably his most important contribution to parapsychology, his First Sight Model. This theoretical model has been briefly discussed in articles (here, here, and here) and in greater detail in the book referred to in this interview: First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012; to order the book go here). While there have been other psychological models of ESP proposed before, Jim’s is the most comprehensive one published and one that is well connected to the research literature of parapsychology as well as mainstream psychology.

Carpenter First Sight


Can you give us a brief summary of the book?

First Sight is a fairly big, densely packed book, but I can give a partial summary.  The first two sections develop a model of the mind and a new theory of psi – what it is and how it works and what it is for in everyday life.

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.

Our minds are always actively engaged with things, even when we are asleep or feel like we are doing nothing.  This engagement is both conscious and unconscious, and involves aspects of reality both within our sensory boundaries, and outside of those boundaries.  When the engagement is conscious and within the sensory boundaries, this is what we know as ordinary experience and action.  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 laptop.  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 much outside of 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).  Because 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.  Sometimes the inference is especially obvious, and we call it a psychic experience.  Some people are especially good at drawing these inferences, and we call them psychics or mediums or healers.

What is it that 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.

If all of this continuous, hypothetical psi is unconscious, is it of any use?  Yes, it is very useful!  It has the same sort of use that priming studies tell us unconscious sensory information has – it orients the development of experience and behavior.  It helps to prepare us to perceive and respond optimally to whatever is about to unfold.  Since psi goes on beyond the bounds of any possible sensory experience, it is the first glimmer we get of reality, the first step in all perceiving and acting.  We use it every moment.

Of course, there is more to the theory than this, but this is a central chunk of it.

One important implication of the theory is that psi is normal, a continuous part of our normal unconscious cognitive functioning.  This means that it must work smoothly and harmoniously with the other aspects of this unconscious processing, such as memory, creative problem solving, and perception.  It also means that psi should be affected by the same sorts of things that affect these processes in more or less the same ways.  There has been much more sophisticated research about these mainstream concerns than there has been about psi, so borrowing from the findings in these areas is permissible and useful.

In the next two sections of the book I examine this premise and attendant theoretical ideas, with fairly exhaustive reference to a lot of research in parapsychology, along with relevant research from mainstream laboratories, focusing on subliminal perception, various kinds of memory, creativity and openness, and the effects of fear and personality (especially extraversion) on both unconscious sensory processing and psi.  I think in the process I do demonstrate how psi fits into these other aspects of unconscious functioning, and also manage to clear up some long-standing problems and apparent inconsistencies in our psi literature.  The model works!

The next section of the book takes the theory beyond the research literature, and uses it as a framework to examine other problems, including why psi isn’t much evident in everyday life, how one can try to develop psi functioning, and how psi is expressed in the context of psychotherapy.  Then I discuss some prescriptions for further research, and some implications for the next developments in a science of psi.

Some other nice summaries of the book have been offered by reviewers, so your readers might want to consult those if they are considering reading First Sight.  For example, they can see Ballard (Ballard, 2014), Bem (Bem, 2012), Leary (Leary, 2012) and Pasciuti (Pasciuti, 2014).

What is your background in parapsychology, and with the topic of the book specifically?

 Rhine The Reach of the MindI’ve been actively involved in parapsychology since high school, when I carried out some sloppy studies in card guessing based on what I read in Reach of the Mind, by J. B. Rhine.  The results were good and fascinating so I got myself to Duke for college in order to find out more about it.  There I came to hang around the Parapsychology Lab quite a bit, helping out here and there and attending research meetings.  I did the only honor’s study the psychology department ever allowed on ESP, supervised by Gaither Pratt and Kay Banham.  I got to know Rhine well, and gained a remarkable band of life-

Dr. Joseph B. Rhine

Dr. Joseph B. Rhine

long friends about my age (in particular Chuck Honorton, Rex Stanford, Bob Morris, Dave Rogers, John Palmer, Ed Kelly and B. K. Kanthamani) who were also being groomed by Rhine to succeed him.  I was a little more skeptical about psi than most of the others, and I went to Ohio State for a PhD in clinical psychology, but I also kept up some research on ESP as I could find time.  I’ve kept the research up ever since.  My skepticism faded, but I remained frustrated that psi seemed to make so little sense in light of everyday experience.

 What motivated you to write this book?

The long-term motivation was a deep resolve to try to know if psi was real, and if so, how it works.  I’ve been pondering this for a long time, wanting to see what our research was telling us, and trying to imagine how it might fit in with all the rest of human functioning.  The more immediate spur happened when I was trying to raise funds for the Rhine Research Center and was frustrated with trying to convey to non-parapsychologists why I thought the field was so interesting and important.  In particular, I was vexed with the frequent experience of having a great conversation with some research psychologist, bringing psi up, and suddenly hitting an awkward wall of silence.  All of a sudden I seemed to be from Neptune.  This was extra confusing because I could see that the methods and findings of their field and parapsychology were so similar.  I thought, maybe I can develop a model in which I could pose a common language for parapsychology and mainstream psychology, and this could underscore our commonality and make our communication easier.  I thought I would work up a nifty little paper in a couple of months.  Several years later, I had the book.

 Why do you think your book is important and what do you hope to accomplish with it? 

 I may just be too close to it to see the gaping flaws, but I really do think that I am spelling out a lot about how psi works and where it fits in and how we should go about learning more about it.  This is important, but it’s quite different from the way we are used to thinking, and I want other people to get their heads around it.  Then I hope they will use it, criticize it, test it, improve it, build on it.  Right now, I want people to read the book.  If any of your readers do read the book I want to advise them to be patient and thoughtful with it.  People who read it carefully tell me that it takes them a while because it is full of somewhat unfamiliar ideas.  They say that it is worth it (of course these are the people who are still talking with me).  It’s somewhat densely written, but I think well written and quite understandable.  I want them to leave Chapter Two until the end, because it is especially dense.  Why should people read it?  Because I want parapsychology to have a future that is scientifically solid, not just more generations of intriguing odd ideas which appeal to the mystically inclined.  Research in any field that just consists of single cool ideas and findings always blooms briefly and then disappears.  What lasts is research that is programmatic.  We can’t have programmatic research unless we have an overarching model of how things should work and what questions we should ask, and some theoretical ideas to start with that can be pursued.  First sight gives this sort of model and theory.  I hope it’s true.  I hope it isn’t true.  I don’t care.  What I really hope is that it stimulates sustained research that builds toward a solid understanding of this largely hidden side of our nature and shows how it is not anomalous and aberrant.  It’s a solid, useful, potentially predictable but still largely mysterious, part of the amazing privilege of being human.


Ballard, J. (2014, January-February). Review of First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, pp. 59-60.

Bem, D. (2012, December 19). ESP is not a psychological anomaly: A review of First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life. PsyCritiques, Article 6.

Leary, M. (2012). Review of First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life. Journal of Parapsychology, 76. 373-376.

Pasciuti, F. (2014). Book Review: First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 28, 525–529.

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Parapsychology’s Experimenter Effect

The experimenter effect should not be any surprise to parapsychologists.  If any psi study is successful it is because a correspondence has been found between participants’ responses and the targets they aimed at.  But what are the targets?  From the point of view of the participant they are not at all available.  They are what they are because of the intentions of the experimenter.

I am speaking here from the point of view of my first sight theory, which holds that a psi target is never consciously perceived or consciously acted upon.  It is something we only engage unconsciously — as in fact (from this perspective) we engage virtually everything all the time!  Which of these countless engagements result in expressions in behavior or action that allude to the target is determined by the unconscious intentions of the participant in the context of his or her conscious and unconscious appraisal of what is of primary concern in the moment.  Part of this contextual appraisal has to do with the intentions of other important people in the situation.

We can say that the meaning of psi targets to the participant in an experiment is simply their meaning to the experimenter, the experimenter’s intention that these targets will be accessed by the participants.  The experiment is a social situation of interweaving intentions.  Probably most often, the participant intends to comply with the intention of the experimenter and succeed at the task.  For most experimenters who want to learn about psi and to avoid the pain of feeling their work is futile, their intention is that the participants succeed.  But what about the case where the intentions of the experimenter are negative, or partly negative?  What if the experimenter wishes, at least in part, for failure?  Then the nature of the targets is changed.  The targets become negatives of themselves, at least in part.  To succeed will then be to fail to comply with the explicit task in order to fulfill the secret one.  If the targets are only partly negated by mixed intentions on the experimenter’s part, participants must respond to this mixture, and surely give a desultory performance.

We may object to this characterization because we know the targets exist independently of the experimenter or anyone else, and we assume that it is these autonomous objects that the participants make reference to in their responses.  But why should we assume that?  The targets are not available to the participant.

If the participant were carrying out a study alone, aiming to respond to some unknown thing (the well-being of a distant person, the location of a lost item) then only the participant’s intentions define the concerns in the situation.  Only those intentions will channel the expression of psi.  In an interpersonal context other intentions become involved and contribute to the outcome.  Most things, most often, have an important interpersonal context

We all know what it is like to participate in interpersonal situations with their mixtures of intentions.  The intentions of the most dominant people will be most salient generally, and if one wishes to please them or defy them one’s behavior will be guided accordingly.  “Learn this algebraic rule,” says a beloved and impressive teacher, and the students tend to quickly learn.  If a weak or disliked teacher says the same thing, or if a normally decent teacher lacks any heart for it that day, the students will learn less well because their attention will drift to competing concerns willy nilly, following their own independent intentions.  The group loses cohesion, each student becomes an individual guided by private concerns, there is little group product.

In such ordinary learning, the dominant instructor sets the tone, the emotional, meaningful context, for the learning task.  This tone conditions all the learning.  This is not because the dominant instructor makes them learn.  It is because the students take the dominant person’s intentions as an important cue about what matters in the situation, and choose (unconsciously) to respond accordingly.  In a parapsychological experiment, the experimenter (and any other dominant figure in the situation) sets the tone, creates the context in which the intentions of the participants take shape.  The target that is to be apprehended in an ESP task, or produced in a PK task, is essentially an intention of the experimenter, positive, negative or mixed.

Some experimenters seem to get from their participants a much higher rate of successful results than others do.  Their characteristic intentions must be a major factor at work.  The most successful experimenters I know seem to be quite persistent in wanting good results and cheerful and optimistic about expecting them.  Their participants tend to feel that they are being invited to go along on a zany and interesting ride.  The less successful experimenters often convey moods of doubt, ambivalence, cynicism or pessimism, whether about parapsychology or other matters of importance to themselves.  So, let us tend to our unconscious intentions!  They do not create our results unaided, but they contextualize them.

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