Consider a fictional woman named Susan. She is twenty years old, with one son. She is employed happily enough and married happily enough, dark blonde hair, medium height. Pay attention to her because in a moment she will become a metaphor for parapsychology.
Susan was abandoned by her parents at birth. She doesn’t know the story, or even who the parents were. Her adopted parents were loving and well-meaning, and although their temperaments were not in sync too well with Susan’s, because of the dice roll of adoption, they all get on together, and love and respect each other. Recently she has become curious about the parents that abandoned her. She wonders who they were, and what their natures are. Are they as intelligent and wayward as she is, as quick to ask the uncomfortable question? Her adopted parents always had trouble understanding those things. And she wonders if the original parents ever have wondered about her. Did she mean anything to them? Why did they give her up? Were their circumstances too dire for a child? Or did they realize that she was too odious to love? What if she found them and contacted them? Would she only be rejected again? Would her existence cause them great turmoil? Perhaps her father has gotten on well with another family who never knew about her. If they found out, would he lose his wife and children, or his mind? Is her mother deranged or chronically irresponsible? If Susan found that woman, would it only lead to trouble? Susan doesn’t know what to do, but she feels a growing need to do something.
If facts are the children of science, parapsychology is an orphanage of abandoned children. Like someone known to be an orphan, parapsychology is defined by the parents it doesn’t have. Rhine and Pratt (1957) pointed to physics as the progenitor when they said that for a fact to be parapsychical, it must have “been shown by experimental investigation to be unexplainable wholly in terms of physical principles” (p. 6). Gardner Murphy (1961) explicated the situation more generally and perhaps more carefully, when he remarked: “Psychical research, or parapsychology, consists of observations recorded in a form which aims at order and intelligibility, but which cannot by any stretch of the imagination be subsumed under the science of today” (p. 1). In other words, these are facts as science knows them inasmuch as they are patterns of observation that have been gathered systematically, following the rules of scientific method. Yet once gathered, what can be done with them, who will claim them? Murphy goes on to say that it is the problem of accepting something that cannot be assimilated. And he goes further: “The issue is an old one. When Aristotle discussed dreams which seemed at times to foretell the future, he felt that it was his business to consider the evidence, but neither to include the evidence as a part of the texture of his treatise on Psychology, nor on the other hand to reject the narratives as inherently unworthy of attention.” Like children, these facts exist and have a right to live it seems. Like Aristotle, we can choose to keep them alive, but not give them a home.
It may be bracing to be in the company of Aristotle, but it is disheartening to think that we have gotten no further in solving the problem. That we haven’t, is suggested by a more recent authority, Dean Radin, (1997) who said that the facts of parapsychology, or “the paranormal,” belie the common sense distinction between subjective experience and the objective world “out there.” Physics and the other sciences draw a strict dichotomy between what is inside a person and what is outside, he implies, but: “Psi phenomena suggest that the strict subjective-objective dichotomy may instead be part of a continuous spectrum, and that the usual assumptions about space-time are probably too restrictive” (p. 14). Despite their usual segregation, in paranormal phenomena inward and outward realities seem to have far too much to do with each other. At the same time, the limiting features of space and time seem to count for too little. Our sense of reality can seem shaky in the face of these phenomena, and our powerful theories about reality can seem to be in danger. Facts gathered about these phenomena are anomalies, Radin says, oddities that current science cannot accommodate and even needs to fight to preserve itself.
Orphans still. Parapsychologists who personally identify with these abandoned facts can feel this abandonment personally. It is an ambivalent status, the realm of “para.” Webster catches this ambivalence by saying that it implies “beside, near and issuing from,” but also “against and contrary to.” So close. So far. Yet many orphans thrive well enough when adopted.
Our facts have been adopted too – by the popular culture. It is a difficulty faced by parapsychologists nowadays that our facts are not so little understood, but that they are understood too well. They are ubiquitous in the entertainment media, and everyone knows about them and what they mean. We no longer face the open-mindedness that is awakened by a fresh miracle. Of course these understandings vary wildly, but this does not bother anyone very much. Mindreading is a hoax practiced by criminals upon gullible people, or it is evidence of a vast spiritual reality that organized religion has almost lost sight of, or it is a cognitive distortion that is one more symptom of our pathetic tendency to deceive ourselves. Objects that move about without normal physical cause are expressing demonic agencies that wish to harm us – or they are lapses in memory and poor observation – or they are signs that the entire universe is tied together into a cozy, quantum wholeness. People who hold any of these ideas tend to be pretty sure that they are true, so they cannot be too interested in our experiments which always want to begin innocently with ignorance, and end by claiming only a little.
Parapsychology has stayed alive in the para-zone, beside science, adopted by popular understandings and sometimes given sustenance by them. It has even modestly grown and matured. We know considerably more now than people did in Aristotle’s day, or even in Rhine’s and Murphy’s. In fact, parapsychology has matured enough that it has grown to wonder more seriously about its “true home,” like the imaginary Susan described above. And it would like to find an entry into that home.
But which home? Here is where my analogy breaks down. A child has only one pair of biological parents. If we define a fact as a pattern of observations systematically gathered and construed within some scientific, theoretical context, then we immediately see that there are many potential contexts. So this is a question partly of where parapsychologists would like their facts to belong. Most of the homes we seek seem to be in some domains of physics, biology and psychology.
That these potential homes have not gone looking for us by opening wide and friendly doors is indicated by how little they refer to our facts and how much they resist when we knock. This is not for lack of knocking. In fact, it seems to me that what unites us most nowadays is pressing for this inclusion into the mainstream.
We imagine that we will offer a lot more than noise and anomaly. In fact, we think that our facts could help solve many pressing problems. Physics struggles with the measurement problem in quantum mechanics (the transition from the evolution of subatomic particles to the results observed in experiments), and the philosophy of mind is confounded by what is called the “hard problem” of consciousness (how physical brain processes can produce conscious experience). If mind and matter are empirically linked in the way parapsychologists seem to have demonstrated, then our errant facts could represent an experimental field in which these problems can be empirically pursued and perhaps ultimately solved. Some physicists seem to be coming part-way toward us. Hameroff and Penrose (2014) have proposed a theory in which consciousness emerges in the brain as a function of a kind of quantum computing dependent on quantum entanglement. This is at least in harmony with the ideas proposed by Dean Radin (2006). Retrocausality is a concept that is advanced in certain areas of theoretical physics, but its empirical demonstration in everyday events at the macro-level seems beyond the pale. Yet the phenomena of precognition, presentiment and pre-stimulus implicit behavioral response may imply a kind of macro retrocausal phenomenon (Bierman, 2010; Shoup, 2011.) On the other hand, a better understanding of these phenomena may be offered by imagining a kind of unconscious, holistic assessment of a vast field of probabilities. In that case, all of our pre-stimulus phenomena may be responses to the probabilities of the future. For this to be so, we might need to imagine a foundational level of reality that is essentially probabilistic in nature, a field that is made up somehow of meaning more than matter, and that is available as a potential source of information. Models congruent with this possibility have been proposed in physics by Bohm and Hiley (1993), and by Stapp (2007). While these approaches are not particularly influential in physics currently, it has been argued that pointed work invoving parapsychological phenomena might make them more fruitful (Williams, 2014). In a similar manner, Jahn and Dunne have proposed a theory of consciousness and information as ontologically equal to matter and energy (1986), and Barad (2007) and Josephson (2012) find a central place for an agent in the structure of physical reality.
A very hot area of biology these days is neuroscience. There, fascinating findings roll out daily about the complex neurophysiological processes that accompany our consciousness and produce our behavior and generally put us together as organisms. Authorities there tend to maintain a strict vigilance against anything hinting of the paranormal. It does not trouble them, if they know it, that their field of study really began with the work of one man who was interested in developing methods for studying telepathy. Hans Berger, when a young man, experienced a moment in which he was sure he was about to die. At the same time, his distant sister (they were very close) felt great distress for him and insisted that their father telegraph him. Berger lived, but remained intrigued with this remarkable occurrence for the rest of his life. He wondered if the electrical activity of his brain might somehow have reached his sister, and if this could explain other telepathic stories. Many years of hard work led to his development of the electroencephalograph (EEG) (Berger, 1940). Berger did not solve the problem of telepathy, and this side of his work is now scarcely mentioned in the textbooks. If he could know it, his disappointment might be tempered by the fact that he began a very vital new branch of study, a darling of NIH, with huge clinical and scientific ramifications. Some of our number now believe that it is high time that parapsychology reclaim Berger’s parentage and pick up the quest with the wonderful armamentarium of contemporary neuroscience (for example, Mossbridge, et al, 2014). That Berger’s original plan involving the EEG turns out to not have been such a dead end can be seen in many later studies, such as the ones by Tressoldi, et al (under review), in which bonded pairs, sure enough, show correspondences in their EEG tracings that look a lot like telepathy.
Another perpetually hot area of biology is medical science. It is a commonplace now to think the mind has healing powers, but few think of those powers as at least partly paranormal. The claims of shamans and faith-healers are set aside as archaic fancies, even as the placebo response (Walach, & Jonas, 2004) and hypnosis are studied with increasing sophistication. Some of us bridge this gap, however, to claim or reclaim a place for psi in the phenomena of healing (Dossey, 2000). If we wish to be relevant to the general needs of humanity, there might be no better place to work.
And then there is psychology, the field that our name suggests we are most intimately “para” to. We can find evidence of eminent paternity there, too. William James was perhaps the paramount founder of the science of psychology, and he worked very hard at studying the problems of psi and the possible survival of some aspect of the psyche after death. On the clinical side, Freud was intrigued and troubled by telepathy his whole life, while Jung seemed to swim in it daily. Of course, students today learn little about the psi work of these father-figures. Another, less acknowledged father of psychology F. W. H. Myers, made the paranormal his primary concern (Kelly & Kelly, 2009).
I can see two main ways that we are now pressing for entry into mainstream psychology. I will deal first with my favorite one, which is my own. I have developed a model for understanding psi and a theory for trying to predict it, called first sight (Carpenter, 2012). Part of the impetus for building this point of view was to make a language by which our re-entry into psychology could be facilitated. I argue that psi is intrinsically unconscious, and that it is perpetually going on for everyone. It stands behind every bit of experience, every neurophysiological response, every behavior chosen and spontaneous. It is the first line of apprehension of a vastly extended universe of meaning. It functions essentially the way that other unconscious psychological processes do. This includes memory, subliminal perception, implicit learning and motivation, and implicit affective response. The concepts of unconscious intention (direction and consistency), and unconscious contextual appraisal figure prominently in the theory. Psychology has rediscovered the unconscious, but it is not the Shakespearean drama of a Freudian unconscious, it is a psychoneurological, cognitive and affective unconscious. Psi is a part of that, according to first sight, and will best be studied in that context. I argue at some length that psi, understood in this way, already fits right in with what is being learned about normal unconscious processing, and I deal with a large chunk of our published experimental literature in doing this. I think that I make a good case, but of course I want others to consider the argument and make up their own minds. I think that parapsychology might consider folding itself into the study of unconscious psychological processes – focusing upon the part of those processes that involve reality beyond the sensory boundaries of the organism.
The other avenue into psychology does not focus so much on psi as a presumably real process implied in unusual experiences (or in continuous unconscious exchange, as in first sight), but rather on the unusual experiences themselves. Psychologists study experiences and at least some of them have an interest in exotic experiences. Parapsychology might find a home here, as the branch of the family that holds open the possibility that something like psi might actually be at work in some experiences, but that believes in any case that the experiences are fairly widespread, of great interest to people, and often make a great deal of difference for good or ill in people’s lives. From this point of view, parapsychology is the study of certain classes of experience, what characterizes them, what leads to them, what effects they have upon people who report them. While my first sight approach to a rapprochment with psychology presumes the reality of a psychic connection, this other approach is not so sure. Our own membership is not entirely sure that psi is a real thing, in that about 15% of us recently expressed less than a mid-level of certainty about it (Irwin, 2014). Skeptical doubt has always been one of the twin pillars of this field, it seems to me, along with “gee whiz” fascination with the extraordinary. If we wish to join forces with mainstream psychology, let us remember our heritage of doubt, since psychologists doubt the reality of psi more than any other academic discipline.
This focus on experience is actually not a unitary position. There are different flavors that tend to contain different presumptions, even though the terms used to describe them seem almost synonymous.
• Anomalistic psychology defines itself as leaning toward the skeptical side as regards the reality of psi. The systematiclly skeptical Wikipedia defines the field as: “. . . the study of human behaviour and experience connected with what is often called the paranormal, with the assumption that there is nothing paranormal involved.” The subject matter is essentially the odd attributions people make about their apparently unusual experiences, and goes beyond ESP, PK and survival (our old stand-bys), to include belief in Big Foot, experiences of UFO abduction, possession by demons, and so on. These attributions are presumed to be cognitive errors, and the study of cognitive errors is a popular area for psychologists right now. That there can be a softer side to “Anomalistic Psychology” is indicated by an introductory text in the field (Holt, Simmonds-Moore, Luke, & French, 2012) that contains chapters that are open to the reality of psi. This is surely because three of the four authors are active psi researchers who study psi as if it might be real. If this text becomes widely used, or if more of our number identify themselves with this field, this softening influence may be extended. Otherwise, the definition of Wikipedia will be the one students learn .
• The Psychology of Anomalous Experience, as Etzel Cardeña is using the term at Lund University in Sweden, is more neutral about the reality of psi, but his own research shows that it is understood to be a possibility worth considering. It also includes some categories of experience often thought of as “belonging” to psychiatry, such as altered states of consciousness and dissociation.
• The Psychology of Exceptional Experience, or some other close equivalents, also casts a bigger net than traditional parapsychology, but as this area is defined in practice by people such as David Luke, Charles Tart and the late Rhea White, it leans toward a presumption that experiences interpreted as psi may in fact often involve something real and paranormal. Altered states, psychedelic drug experiences, meditation, religious ecstasy, anomalous psi-implying events in psychotherapy, and “spiritual emergencies” are also gathered into the fold here, in a context that has the coloring of humanistic, transpersonal, and sometimes psychoanalytic psychology. From this point of view, psi may be real and it may be reflected in some unusual experiences, but this may not be the most important thing. The power of some experience to emotionally or physically heal, or to contribute to psychological growth and better relations with others, may be more important – and certainly worthy of study.
While some of us seek one or the other of these mainstream families for our field, others may decry them. Physics is the king of the sciences, and admission there is to the royal court. If the facts of parapsychology could be profoundly helpful in advancing theoretical physics then few could doubt that our facts matter. On the other hand, some see our phenomena as irreducibly human or even spiritual. If parapsychology becomes a branch of physics, it may tend toward a de-humanizing, de-spiritualizing reductionism that cuts the heart out of the mysteries that we may love. On the other hand, it might somehow bridge the gap between the material and the spiritual as some visionaries believe.
Similar things could be said about a home in biology, neuroscience, and medicine. To contribute in an important way to these obviously exciting fields will be delightful for many of us. But it would also redefine our facts and thrust them in new and unpredictable directions. We may imagine that, as outsiders, we are perpetually innovative, but in fact we become as crusty and defensive as everyone else.
Placing ourselves within the psychology of unconscious processes, as first sight would have it, has the virtue of joining close relatives who are finding out exciting things every day about the hidden side of the mind – and they don’t dream yet of all that we will spring on them! But this might seem a loss to those who think of parapsychology as being about consciousness, not unconsciousness, or who fear the possibility that the grand problems of physics or spiritual transformations, might be de-emphasized.
Anomalistic, anomolous, or exceptional psychology looks like a good home inasmuch as we are concerned after all with experiences reported by people that they take to be significant, and sometimes troubling. Some other psychologists could join our work in good conscience, if with some skepticism. We tend to like skepticism if it is honest, and not too pathologizing, so that would be no problem. And this move could help some employment prospects, and might give us more of substance to say to those people who want us to shed light on their perplexing experiences. On the other hand, focusing too much on the experiences people have might seem to threaten to take us away from what has been our core concern: understanding how psi phenomena work.
Whatever the pros and cons, these are directions in which we are pressing. We have been left out long enough, and our adopted home in the popular culture has become boring and confining. We press in all of these directions. We continue to set a high standard with the use of sophisticated methods of analysis, reporting null as well as significant results, and registering studies before conducting them (Watt & Kennedy, 2015). Will someone take us in? Some already are, report by report, conference by conference. When we are included, it will still be clear that we are shockingly different. Joining our original families will be convulsive and enriching.
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Reprinted with permission from Mindfield, 7.1.