Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Resea...

I just returned from Sheffield, UK, where I presented a paper at the annual meeting of the Society for Psychical Research. That organization dates back to 1882, when Henry Sidgwick, his wife Elenore, Frederic W. H. Myers, Edward Gurney, William James, and other intellectuals decided to investigate both survival after death and extended powers of the mind (psi) using scientific techniques. These scholars were disturbed at the cold, mechanical, Newtonian world of modern science, especially after such a Newtonian view was applied to biology in Charles Darwin‘s and Alfred Russell Wallace‘s theory of evolution by natural selection. The world of nature seemed, as Alfred, Lord Tennyson put it, “red in tooth and claw,” as cold and uncaring as the ocean waters surrounding sailors trapped on a dingy after their boat capsized. Christianity seemed hard-pressed to deal with the empty, heartless universe of science.  Some scholars, such as Wallace, believed that empirical evidence could be found to justify a more spiritual conception of the universe. Incidences of apparent telepathy (mind-to-mind communication), clairvoyance (gaining information from the environment) and various stories of hauntings and ghosts as well as readings from mediums were studied, and some useful case studies can be found, for example, in Edmund Gurney‘s and F. W. H. Meyers’ Phantasms of the Living. Many cases involved a recently dead person not known by family to be dead appearing to a family member. Mediums, such as Mrs. Leonora Piper, gave information about those who have died that was so accurate that it is difficult to explain by her own psychic abilities alone.

Although after the work of J. B. Rhine at Duke University psychical research (now called parapsychology) became more experimental in approach. But the Society for Psychical Research highlights a broad spectrum of studies. At this years’ annual meeting in Sheffield, there were experimental papers, theoretical papers, including a few oriented toward philosophy, and field studies. Topics ranged from telephone telepathy to appearances of black dogs, from ganzfeld experiments to survival of death. The variety of papers and viewpoints was impressive, as was the high level of scholarship. To say that psychical researchers/parapsychologists are not using a scholarly approach is sheer ignorance. I was part of some of the best intellectual conversations I have ever experienced.

I strongly support continued research in the traditional areas of parapsychology, including conceptual and philosophical papers. Extreme, “fundamentalist skeptics” have aggressively attempted to halt parapsychological research, and have to a large degree succeeded. But the Society for Psychical Research continues its mission, and I hope to submit a proposal to next year’s conference.