The 36th International Conference of the Society for Psychical Research took place from September 7-9, 2012 at the University of Northampton, UK. This year also marks the 130th year of the existence of the SPR, which was founded in 1882. The conference was a great success, and the quality of the papers outstanding. The first paper, by John Poynton, proposed narrative, specifically novels, as a way to show (rather than to tell) the public that the mechanistic view of nature is bankrupt. This is something he has attempted to do in his own novels. Given the contemporary emphasis in narrative approaches to philosophy and other fields, Carr’s view offered a corrective to an over-emphasis on discursive telling in science and philosophy.
Mary Rose Barrington has been in the field of psychical research for many years, and I am always impressed with the quality and wisdom of her papers, She proposed that psychical research does not deal with replicable phenomena and that this should not stand in the way of continuing to do such research. I found her talk intellectually stimulating. It raised issues concerning the definition of science and whether psychical research is a science. Given that science does deal with some non-replicable phenomena (the big bang, the course of biological evolution, which seems to be contingent), this should not preclude the scientific nature of psychical research. Even if it is an independent discipline more closely related to history, that does not prevent its discovery of truths.
Julie Rousseau’s paper concerned Galileo’s critics, and she offered a sympathetic account of the issues dividing Galileo from his critics. She correctly notes that at in Galileo’s lifetime, the evidence could not determine whether the Ptolemaic or Copernican theory of the solar system was correct. This underdetermination of the solar system controversy by the evidence shows that the notion of the rational Galileo fighting an irrational church is oversimplified. She then applies the paradigm shift from Ptolemy to Copernicus to the current paradigm shift toward less mechanistic explanations in the sciences. This process, she argues, requires a broad-based approach that recognizes that a radical paradigm shift involves a shift in intellectual commitments that involve philosophical as well as scientific claims.
Christopher Laursen’s paper was a unique contribution dealing with how psychical researchers from World War II to around 1990 dealt with those who wrote to them who also had obvious mental problems. Approaches ranged from avoidance to referral to a mental health care expert. Such cases bring up a serious ethical dilemma in what to do in such cases, and such dilemmas have generally been an unexplored area of psychical research.
Paul Rogers’ paper on how various parenting patterns, especially overprotectedness, can influence later beliefs in psi is interesting from a psychological perspective. It is important to note, however, that such psychological factors have nothing to do with the reality or unreality of psi.
David Luke’s paper concerned whether eating San Pedro Cactus would improve psi ability. He used himself as the research subject. An interesting aside is that the Nuremburg Code allows for risky experimentation on human subjects if the subject is the investigator. He found that for him, San Pedro Cactus helped with psi abilities. An expansion of this study in an ethical way would be difficult since it would be ideal to have non-psychedic users involved to remove the confound of the influence of other psychoactive substances. However, those unfamiliar with psychedelics can have an uncomfortable experience of loss of control after taking a psychedelic substance. There is also a risk of a “bad trip.” One could try a comparative study of users and non-users of a particular psychedelic drug in a similar population and test both for psi ability, but the conclusions of such a study may not have the force that researchers may desire. In any case, Professor Luke’s paper was among the most interesting of the conference.
Sonnex, Roe, and Roxburgh are in the process of examining distant mental influence on non-whole human samples by examining studies that focus on DNA, bacteria, plants, or non-human animals. These studies seem to have more support than studies involving whole human beings.
Roberts and Hume did an interesting study of pairs (friends, strangers, siblings, and romantic couples) to determine whether a particular kind of pair had better psi scores than others. Surprisingly, strangers had the best hit rate. There was a slight predominance of psi hitting, but that was not statistically significant. The authors suggest that individual and interpersonal variables may be more valuable than the degree of relation regarding psi scoring. This makes sense—some romantic partners may be at a stage in their relationship that is not close at the time of a study, and some friends may be closer emotionally than romantic partners. Regarding the higher scores with strangers, perhaps there was strong motivation by some of the strangers to impress their partner.
There followed papers by Broughton and Zycowicz as well as by Chris Roe and his colleagues and students that were statistical, process-oriented studies of psi. As a philosopher, it was easy for me to get lost in the data, but such studies are essential for exploring the correlational patterns of relationships, personality, and other factors in psi research. Roe and his colleagues/students had another paper attempting to replicate Bem’s precognition task, one of the most interesting psi studies of the last decade, and one whose results were published in a mainstream psychology journal. My hope is that more researchers will attempt to replicate Bem. At the Rhine Center I participated in an informal version of the experiment that Bem administered to the audience. The fact that I and most others scored higher using “study words” given to us after we took a test was a fascinating result.
Donald West’s paper, “Awkward Questions,” notes that the best psi cases are the few extraordinary cases. He suggests, rightly I think, that more emphasis should be given to strong spontaneous cases of psi rather than larger scale studies that may have only limited validity. My own view is that a good spontaneous case is better evidence for how psi functions than laboratory studies that may be limited in validity due to the experimenter effect. Stephen Braude has noted that to study a football quarterback’s ability, one must see the quarterback in action during a game, not study him in a lab. I agree with Professor Braude that the situation with psi is analogous.
I had been looking forward to Chris Bratcher’s talk on H. D. Lewis’s contribution to psychical research, but unfortunately Mr. Bratcher was unable to make it to the conference. Another speaker, James Beichler graciously agreed to present a paper instead. His paper offered a fascinating theory explaining paranormal phenomena in terms of a five-dimensional geometry and involving a physical (though not necessarily materialist) view of apparitions. As with many such broad-based theory of physics, it awaits empirical evidence supporting its major tenants, and if his theory is one of several that account for the data of psi, then all those theories will be judged via epistemic virtues such as explanatory power, simplicity, and beauty.
Michael Potts’ paper was a comparison between James Carpenter’s “first sight” theory of psi and the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus’ (1265-1308) theory of intellectual intuitive cognition. Both hold that psi is “first sight,” but in different ways. Duns Scotus’ theory is one possible way to overcome the epistemological gap between mind and thing through direct cognition of the existing object. Carpenter adds the value of psi in meeting the needs of organisms, including the basic need of survival.
Wim Kramer offered an interesting history of one of the forgotten researchers in parapsychology, Floris Jansen, who developed a lab to explore psi in Amsterdam in 1906 that, sadly, closed in 1908 due to lack of funding.
Erlender Haraldsson, one of the towering figures of contemporary psychical research, presented a paper based on a recent book containing the results of a survey he conducted of afterlife encounters in Iceland. Such a survey was badly needed—Phantasms of the Living dates to the nineteenth century, and recent works of afterlife encounters usually give only anecdotes without full survey data. This work marks another masterful contribution to survival research from a giant in the field.
David Rousseau argued that veridical near-death experiences offer a way beyond the impasse of the survival vs. superpsi debate in favor of survival. If his work finds a way out of the impasse, as I think it will, this will mark a key contribution to survival research.
Callum Cooper presented an interesting historical paper on apparitions and survival in Egypt, both in ancient times and in the present day.
Richard Broughton’s after dinner talk dealt with his long career in parapsychology. It was fascinating to hear his accounts of the major figures in the field from around 1970 to the present day.
Deborah Oakes shared a fascinating account of non-linear modeling as it relates to rogue waves on the ocean, and argues that psi also requires such non-linear modeling. I have a long-time interest in chaos and complexity theory, and I would hope in her future work that Ms. Oakes would mention some specific examples in which psi fits into a non-linear, rather than into a linear, pattern.
Steven Parsons’ paper concerned paranormal researchers and whether infrasound could cause paranormal-seeming events. By this stage, jet-lag was getting to me, but if I understood his results, they seemed to discount most influence from infrasound while not leaving out a role for infrasound in psi phenomena.
Simon Sherwood’s paper concerned the characteristics of people who experience “ghostly phenomena.” Again, such studies are valuable unless they argue for psychological reductionism, which would commit the genetic fallacy and go beyond the available evidence. I do not think that Sherwood’s paper made that mistake.
Alan Murdie focused on Andrew Green, a UK ghost hunter who did not believe in ghosts.
Ann Winsper focused on Teresa Helena Higginson and various paranormal events associated with her.
Paul Cropper’s fascinating study of the poltergeist in Asia included a film of a bullet flying “on its own” through the air into a wall at high speed. As poltergeist phenomena are notoriously difficult to photograph or film, that clip provides a strong, but not conclusive, case for the reality of poltergeist phenomena.
I had the blessing of talking to many of the psychical researchers at the conference. The food was excellent, and the area surrounding Northampton is among the most beautiful in England. This was one of the most interesting SPR conferences I have attended. As usual, Bernard Carr and the other members of the program committee as well as Peter Johnson’s hard work in dealing with practical matters of room and board, are greatly appreciated.