I finally have the time to continue my report of the 2013 SPR Conference in Swansea. The second paper offered a fascinating account of a sad chapter in the history of parapsychology, Dr. Soal’s falsification of data that rendered all his findings suspect. In their paper, “Dr. Soal: A Psychic Enigma,” Donald West and Betty Markwick studied Soal’s later research findings which had not been considered in earlier studies documenting fraud. Unfortunately, they found clear evidence of fraud in Soal’s later studies in the form of answers being altered in order to raise ESP scores. They suggest that perhaps Dr. Soal believed in psi so much that he felt he had to offer conclusive data to convince other scientists to accept psi. Unfortunately, Soal’s fraud increased skepticism of psi among scientists, even though it was parapsychologists themselves who discovered and publicized the fraud. Who know what motivated Dr. Soal—what we do know is that the damage he did to parapsychology has not fully been repaired.
My own paper, “The Principle of Credulity and Testimonial Evidence for Psi,” appeals to Thomas Reid’s notion that one should trust another person’s purported testimony unless there is good reason to think otherwise. I discuss the use of the Principle of Credulity in philosopher Richard Swinburne’s discussion of the evidence for miracles. Swinburne defends the general trustworthiness of people’s claims that they have experienced a miracle, arguing against David Hume’s thesis that natural explanations for purported miracles are always stronger than supernatural ones. I defend the Principle of Credulity from attacks by analytic philosophers such as Quine and from the postmodern critique of philosophers such as Derrida and Foucault. I argue that in general people’s claims of having experienced psi should be trusted unless there are very strong reasons to think otherwise.
David Vernon’s paper, “Exploring the Possibility of Precognitive Priming,” taking off, of course, from the work of Daryl Bem and his colleagues. After I heard the paper, the evidence for precognitive priming does not seem to be consistent across researchers, and it seems to me that the experimenter effect may be playing a role in the different results arising from similar studies.
The always entertaining and colorful character Sean O’Donnell presented a paper entitled “Awkward Questions Revisited: Ameliorations Proposed.” He strongly defends the notion that psi is a learned skill and that a person can improve over time by extensive practice. This is a claim also made by many of those involved in remote viewing studies. It seems reasonable that people may differ in how much they might accomplish through practice, just as not everyone can play the violin with equal skill. If practice is essential for improving psi, then for me this raises the question whether psi can be understood on a craft-like model in which practice makes the ability to access psi “second nature” in the Aristotelian sense.
David Wilson’s paper, “The Spiritualist Development Circle as Laboratory: Some Reflections on Methodology Arising from Apprentice-Participation” was fascinating in that Professor Wilson is both an academic parapsychologist and a practicing medium. His account of the Spiritualist Development Circle illustrates that mediums take their craft seriously and work hard to improve their abilities. He also noted the differences between various Spiritualist groups, with some being more traditionally religious (“Christian”) than others.
Rachel Browning presented a paper on “The Relationship Between Physical Phenomena and Electronic Voice Phenomena Reported in Séances with a Physical Circle from 2008 to 2013.” Electronic voice phenomena fascinate me, especially since when I go on investigations I pick up more voices than anyone else in the group—40 vs. 0 or 1. Why that is the case is mysterious—is it my own psychokinesis or am I a medium of some kind. Unfortunately, much EVP evidence is not that strong, with voices saying short phrases, the identity of which very few people agree. I was not impressed with the quality of voices played, though it would not surprise me that EVP would be detected in an attempt to elicit physical phenomena.
Ross Friday’s paper, “I Hear Dead People: Individual Differences in the Perception of Anomalous Voices in Ambiguous Electronic Audio Recordings” focuses on the problem of interpreting what a voice in a particular EVP says. Some sounds that are not voices at all are interpreted as voices. Even when a voice is present, it is rare that, without “priming” from the person who heard the EVP and thinks he knows that it says, that any two people agree on the content of the EVP. The examples from the presentation confirmed the difficulty.
Ann Winsper presented another paper on EVP, “The Psychology of Alleged Electronic Voice Phenomena.” She believes that EVP evidence thus far is weak, and those involved in EVP research must consider ways out of the difficulty of interpreting EVP, especially given the human tendency to hear voices even when all that is present is noise.
Responding to a lack of studies on near-death experiences in Japan, Mika Iwasaki and Tatsu Hirukawa presented a paper, “Near-Death Experiences and their After-effects: 18 Cases from Japan.” They note that the elements of various NDE scales such as Ring’s are present in Japanese NDEs. Their experiences lack the Christian imagery of NDEs in countries where Christianity is the dominant influence, but this is no surprise given the Shinto-Buddhist nature of contemporary Japanese religion. NDEs are interpreted through cultural filters; however, some elements remain stable—the feeling of peace, a bright light, in some cases dead relatives (or the god of the dead). Iwasaki and Hirukawa’s study fills a major gap in NDE research in Asia.
Although Peter Fenwick spoke last due to his busy schedule as a physician, I will discuss his talk now in the order of the original program. His talk was, “Do End of Life Experiences and Cardiac Arrest OBEs Contribute to Our Understanding of Survival?” Those who know Dr. Fenwick’s work will not be surprised that he does believe that such experiences best support a survival explanation. As a philosopher I wish to make two points: (1) clinical death is not death—it is a “near-death” state, and when Dr. Fenwick as well as Dr. Parnia refer to cardiac arrest as actual death they are being philosophically sloppy. Death is a state from which one does not return absent a miracle of God. Now near-death experiences may not be explainable in terms of brain processes, which would mean a paranormal experience is taking place, and it is also possible that the experience can support a minimally survalist life after death. Super-psi is another issue NDE researchers ought to consider—could the events, or at least some of the events, in an NDE be explained by the experiencer’s super-psi or someone elses.
I wanted to sightsee in Swansea, so unfortunately I missed three presentations on precognition; below are their titles and authors:
Suschat Meshram, “Precognitive Dreams – A REM Sleep Fourth Dimensional Consciousness”
Fernando de Pablos, “The Arrows of Time, Precognitive Dreams and the Human Brain”
Fergus Hines, “A New Approach to Precognition.”
Professor de Pablos kindly gave me a copy of his book, and if he is reading, yes, I still plan to review it! When I first began to study parapsychology, I was surprised by the strong evidence for precognition. There are possible implications for the nature of time and for our experience of time, some radical. What if time itself is fluid? What does that do to the stability of our lives?
I caught the tail end of Carolyn Watt’s paper, “Dream Precognition in the Sleep Laboratory.” It would be no surprise if such precognition is found because of the results of the Maimonides study. Dreaming is probably the state in which most people claim to have precognitive experiences—when the sensory stimuli are mitigated and other powers of the mind can come through.
Neil Spring’s paper, “The Ghost Hunters. What might have happened at Borley and Price’s Laboratory” offers a fascinating account of the equipment Borley and Price had and the methods they used to “hunt ghosts.” Harry Price, not to be confused with the philosopher H. H. Price, was one of the first people to market himself as a ghost hunter—and he did an excellent job of self-promotion. While questions arose concerning his claims he made, he remains the intellectual father of the “ghost hunting groups” that are so popular today.
Tony Percy’s paper, “The Selection and Use of Instrumentation in the Investigation of the Paranormal,” is an approach by a ghost hunter on which equipment to use in an investigation. He brought several items—cameras, video cameras, etc., and focused on those he found most useful in his studies.
Steven Parson’s paper, “It’s not Rocket Science!” offered what Parson describes in his reply below as “a personal observation and was aimed squarely at the frequent failures by Psychologists and Parapsychology when it comes to making to objective measurements of physical variables such as Temperature, Electromagnetism or Infrasound and a call for an adherence to the existing measurement standards such as those by the ISO etc. To illustrate this my presentation used the Radin & Rebman Psychomanteum and the French Haunt Project as examples.” I suggest that those who read this post also read Steve Parson’s full response below, including a conference abstract and a reply to comments I had earlier on this post regarding the Parascience website. As anyone working online knows, it is easy, without the nuances of speech, to always communicate what we really mean in an online format, and I appreciate Parson’s efforts to correct any errors I have made and any misunderstandings anyone might have of his work.
A phenomenological approach to paranormal experiences is valuable in bringing out what people subjectively perceive when they experience a paranormal event. Aaron Lomas presents such an account in “Phenomenological Aspects of the Apparitional Experience: A Current Study of How Individuals Have Experienced Such Anomalies.” Those familiar with the literature on apparitions would know that most, though not all, apparitions appear to be ordinary people, though in some cases they appear to be transparent. Lomas’ account showed the unity and diversity of apparitional experiences.
SPR members know that David Luke will present a paper with an interesting title, and 2013 was no exception. His paper, “The Men (and Woman) Who Stare at (Sheep and) Goats: Beliefs, Expectations, Experiences, Neurology and Gender in Haunt Site Vigils” reveals the role that expectations play in a person’s experience of an alleged haunt site. It is a well-know phenomena in psychology that expectations play a role in human experiences. Beliefs help focus the ways that human beings interpret experiences of all kinds, not just paranormal experiences. That such factors play a role in a person’s experience of a haunting site is no more or no less than the way human beings access experience in general.
Cal Cooper’s paper, “Helpful or Harmful? Anomalous Experiences in Bereavement,” affirms that in most afterdeath experiences by the bereaved, the effect is positive, though there are rare cases in which the effect is negative. If there was a bitter relationship between the deceased and a particular relative, if the deceased were to communicate, the result might not be a friendly greeting. However, most people find such experiences positive, and they aid in the grieving process.
Overall, this was one of the best SPR conferences I have attended and hope I can say the same about the upcoming September 2014 conference.