Culpable Ignorance


In an otherwise excellent book by Shaun Nichols and Stephen Stich, Mindreading (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), Nichols and Stich dismiss telepathy as a “supernatural” ability. Later, they mention “mystics” saying they have telepathic ability. The term “mystic” seems to be used in a pejorative sense, in which “mystical” means “anti-scientific.” These claims amount to ignorance that approaches being culpable. No one who has read the literature of parapsychology would hold that they claim that psi, including telepathy, is a “supernatural” ability. It is considered to be a natural power just as other powers of the organism (circulation, respiration, the five senses, etc.) are natural powers. Although some parapsychologists are Cartesian dualists (J. B. Rhine and Charles Tart approach Cartesian dualism, though with qualifications), even in those cases the soul is not considered to be a supernatural entity. There are theories of psi based on quantum physics (Dean Radin) and there are evolutionary theories of psi (James Carpenter) which do not even imply the existence of a spiritual realm.

To make the claim that psi is a supernatural ability, Nichols and Stitch require evidence. Instead of actually reading the parapsychological literature, they allow their personal biases to get in the way of objectivity. The only way a philosopher can make such broad and misinformed claims is failure to read the appropriate scholarly literature. Now if one has an a priori bias against psi to the point that one assumes that any putative scientific work on psi is “unscientific” (unless it is to “refute” psi), then one will fail to read the relevant literature. This an emotional, not a reasoned, reaction. I can respect a critic’s statements opposing the reality of psi if the person has done the appropriate reading and research. What I cannot respect are broad claims made from ignorance–and to dismiss an entire phenomena as non-science is both a claim from ignorance of the literature and is an ignorant claim. Philosophers surely can do better than this.

The 2013 Society of Psychical Research Conference, Part II


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.

36th International Conference, Society for Psychical Research, 7-9 September, 2012


Corporate logo of the University of Northampto...

Corporate logo of the University of Northampton (400×102 px, 7,573 bytes) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Parapsychology, Hauntings, and Reductionism

1 Comment

Ghost fear

Image by doug88888 via Flickr

Haunting phenomena are familiar: rappings, strange lights, apparitions of the dead (usually, but not always engaged in repeating the same action) that are associated with a particular place. There are six main explanations for hauntings: (1) fraud, (2) mental illness, (3) materialistic (EMF radiation, geomagnetic energy); (4) ESP and/or psychokinesis from the living, (5) the “residuals” or “psychic footprints” hypothesis, which holds that emotionally significant events may be “stored” in a particular place, or (6) in the case of hauntings in which there is evidence of intentionality (“intelligent hauntings”), a spirit of a person who has died. Although fraud and mental illness explain some cases of haunting, there are others that involve neither. Of the explanations parapsychologists propose for the latter class, a popular one among contemporary parapsychologists is (3), a reductionist materialist explanation. Among those holding this position are William Roll and Michael A. Persinger. They summarize their position on hauntings (and on poltergeists, on which I shall not focus here) in their chapter, “Investigations of Poltergeists and Haunts: A Review and Interpretation,” from the book, Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Houran, Lange, and Beloff (McFarland Publishers, 2001). They argue that since all phenomena associated with hauntings can be adequately explained as being due to the effects of electromagnetic and geothermal radiation or of a high level of positive ions, then those factors are what cause hauntings. All three factors can cause changes in the brain associated with hallucinations, and all three can cause the physical effects associated with hauntings (although Roll and Persinger go through many “mays” and “mights” to show how the process “might” work). Even pets may be affected by such factors; thus, the common argument that pets can detect haunting phenomena is no proof of its objective reality–the only objective reality is the physical cause or causes of hallucinations, of objects falling on their own, and of elecrical disturbances. Even a case that seems to make a convincing case for the paranormal, the Gordy Case in Georgia, in which a young girl had visions of three people who had died in the area whom she had not previously known and had long conversations with one of them (the information was verified) is explained in terms of a high level of positive ions.

Are all hauntings associated with the three factors Roll and Persinger discuss? If not, then how would they explain the negative findings? If so, a spirit may require a certain amount of energy to manifest and may use the positive ions or geomagnetic or EMF radiation to communicate. In the case of a nonintelligent haunting, the energy required to manifest a residual may be so great that strong fields of energy are required. These are “mays” too–but who has the stronger arguments? Even if Roll and Persinger could explain some hauntings, others, such as the Gordy case, must at least involve a level of paranormal explanation. If Roll and Persinger appealed to Occam’s Razor to claim that their explanation is the simplest, my answer would be that how can one even judge complexity and simplicity in the case of explanations for hauntings? What kind of simplicity? Simplicity of the theory? Roll’s and Persinger’s seems very complex. Simplicity of number of entities required? How do you count the entities required? By individuals of the same class? By classes of entities? Simplicity or parsimony will not help here.

There is a very telling quotation in the last paragraph of Roll and Persinger’s article: “Descartes extracted the ghost, divine and demonic, from matter and delivered [emphasis mine, M.P.}] science from theology. Science has now retruned the ghost, in the form of living human minds, to material objects.” Roll and Persinger are philosophical materialists. They accept the Enlightenment position that science has been “delivered” from theology, and thus an explanation of hauntings in terms of the matter/energy framework is required. Even when they admit psi into the equation, as they do with poltergeists, such psi is only of the living and can ultimately be explained in terms of current laws of physics, matter, and energy. Reductionist parapsychologists do not realize the extent to which world view is important for how a person interprets paranormal phenomena, sitting, as they do, on the edge of science, philosophy, and theology. In that sense they are as blind as the radically materialists critics of psi, and also hold just as naive view of science as the only adequate source of the explanation of phenomena in the world.

Fear of the Paranormal and EVP


Soldiers National Monument at the center of Ge...

Image via Wikipedia

I learned a valuable lesson today–that an area that fascinates me may be frightening to other people. I often go “ghost hunting” for fun although I am neutral on whether such entities exist. It is more a part of my being an overgrown child in some respects–I love going out in the dark, taking photos, recording sounds, wondering if the group with which I am working that night will find anything interesting. One interesting thing that I constantly record on my DVR is electronic voice phenomena (EVP). When no one else in the group records a voice, or only records one or two, my recorder will pick up thirty or forty, most Class Cs (unclear, one cannot make out the words), but some Class Bs and now and then a Class A (clear as a bell). Voices have called my name (more than once), and some have a sense of humor. At Gettysburg National Cemetery, near the burial place of a number of unknown soldiers, I asked, “What is your name?” When I played back the recording, a voice replied “Guess.” At the Lake Lure Inn someone in my group said, “I found you!” On playback, a clear voice replied, “Not yet!” At Cross Creek Cemetery in Fayetteville, NC, I addressed the deceased by the name on the tombstone; a polite Southern female voice replied, “How do you do?” One of the strangest EVP I have recorded is when I asked, “Do you reproduce, do you have sexual intercourse where you are?” A female voice answered, “F..k you! We do!” This was from a private home in Autryville, NC. But the scariest EVP was from a cemetery in Fairview, TN, in Williamson County. I addressed the deceased (a teenager) by name, and a voice replied, “Michael…. Michael…. I killed her.”

Now these voices do not bother me in the least. I do not know what causes them, and I am neutral regarding theories. Perhaps my own mind encodes the DVR through psychokinesis, or some other living person’s mind does. Perhaps there is a ghost of some kind communicating. Perhaps an angelic or demonic entity is speaking. Perhaps there is a field of information from which the recorder “draws.” Or perhaps every EVP, even those that yield meaningful answers to questions, is just a stray radio, television, or communication broadcast that happens to arrive at the “right” time. The right answer is a mystery, and I do not see how this issue can be resolved.

Today I decided to play some of my best EVP to my classes–I thought it would be a fun break before we got into the real business of class. Many students were entertained and fascinated. But others were frightened, which was not my intention at all. (Note to my Asperger’s self: Do not assume that another person will feel the same way as I do about EVP or anything else). But why is the paranormal so frightening?

I think it is because if paranormal experience has its roots in actual reality, the world suddenly becomes much bigger than before. Something, perhaps spiritual, perhaps something in the matter-energy framework, comes through that cannot be explained, is unique, a “surd,” as philosophers like to say. Perhaps there is a supernatural realm populated with real supernatural entities who can communicate with us. Fundamentalist Christians may fear that EVP are evidence of contact with demons. Secularists may fear that there might be something to the religion they despise. Or perhaps there is fear of something appearing in the night or whispering into one’s ear at three a.m. The paranormal, including EVP, can literally turn one’s world view upside down, especially if a person interprets them as voices of the dead. A person lives his life according to his worldview–changing that worldview is almost as painful as attempting to change one’s entire personality–the world is ordered in a different way that before. Atheists fear the paranormal and desperately try to find naturalistic explanations–some atheists would not believe in the paranormal if a putative ghost kicked them in the a.. But however one resolves, for instance, the problems with EVP, a person should be true to the evidence that is present, even if it goes against one’s worldview. But that is too frightening to some people, and that means those who have experienced the paranormal should be sensitive to those fears, as I should have been more sensitive in this morning’s classes.

The Freedom of Christian Orthodoxy


Anglican Catholic Church

Image via Wikipedia

Over and over I hear opinion leaders say that traditional religion is constricting, and I will admit that some forms of traditional religion are. Radical Islam, radical Fundamentalist Christianity, and other fringe movements have given traditional religion a bad name. But I found since entering the Anglican Catholic Church in 1989 that orthodox Christianity is freeing, not binding.

All my life I have been a thinker, a philosopher, someone who wonders at the hows and whys of the world. Growing up in Fundamentalist Christianity was not healthy for that kind of thought. But neither was my short stay in liberal Protestantism. For liberal Protestantism, there is no place to set one’s feet. Sands shift, opinions blow in the wind, and the only heresy is orthodoxy. Speculation without some foundation from which to speculate turns into anarchy, which is every bit as imprisoning as Fundamentalism. Contemporary liberal Protestantism reduces Christianity to a distortion of social justice, with the mantra of “race, class, gender” the only words that its brainwashed adherents can speak. To say that there is anything about Christianity that is important other than the political will get you excommunicated from liberal Christianity. I felt like a puppet on a string–I had more intellectual freedom in Fundamentalism.

When I discovered orthodox Anglicanism, I discovered the richness and breadth of the Catholic tradition. Within the boundaries of the great Creeds–the Apostle’s, the Nicene, and the Athanasian–and under the teaching of the bishops on moral and theological matters I could speculate to my heart’s content as long as such speculation did not become an idol. Within Christian orthodoxy, I can accept any metaphysics compatible with the basic teachings of Christianity. I am a Thomist along the lines of the late Fr. Norris Clarke of Fordham University, but I could hold many other metaphysical frameworks and still remain an orthodox Christian. There is even room for psychical research and parapsychology–even the most traditional Anglicans have been generally open-minded about psychical research in England, and European Roman Catholics, including Pope Pius XII, had no problem with research on electronic voice phenomena. If someone at the Rhine Center or SPR asked me how I could be such a traditional Christian and still accept psi and be open to the existence of ghosts, I would ask that person, “Why not?” Orthodox Christianity has boundaries, of course, but knowing those boundaries makes me comfortable in exploring what I can within those boundaries. The world remains full of wonder, and like a child I can explore it to my heart’s content as long as I remain within the limits God has set. I am grateful for that.

Science and Politics

Leave a comment

Photograph of Alfred Wegener, the scientist

Image via Wikipedia

Most people probably have not heard of Alfred Wegener. Wegener (1880-1930) was a German scientist who worked in meteorology and astronomy. But he is most famous today for being the first scientist to propose (in 1913) the theory of continental drift, the position that continents do not remain in one position but move vast distances over geological time. Continental drift is universally accepted today, but Wegener’s theory was ridiculed and his reputation suffered during and after his lifetime. Professional geologists did not believe a non-geologist could come up with an good theory. I remember reading a children’s book on science when I was a child–the book said that Wegener’s theory of continental drift had no real evidence in its favor. Wegener died a broken man because of the dirt heaped on his reputation by the scientific establishment.

But in the late 1950s and early 1960s, more and more scientists accepted continental drift due to advances in developing a theory behind it. Eventually plate tectonics, the view that continents float on semi-molten plates that can move vast distances over millions of years, was accepted. Wegener, who was long dead, would have been proud. But why would scientists, who are supposed to be open-minded, reject Wegener so strongly?

The reason is that science is not nearly as objective as it claims to be. It is, to a large extent, a political enterprise. Some theories are “in”; others are “out” in the political circles of the scientific establishment. Today, with millions of dollars of government grants at stake, few scientists are willing to question the establishment, lest they get ostracized, lose grant money, and fail to receive tenure due to lack of publications if they work in higher education. The pressure on an innovative scientist can be enormous.

More cases could be named: the failure of most psychologists to accept the existence of seasonal affective disorder despite strong evidence that it is a real entity. Another example is the failure of oceanographers and meteorologists to accept the existence of single large waves that sometimes occur in fair weather and topple ships. This was thought to be a sailor’s myth until the existence of such waves was revealed in a satellite photograph. The existence of psi (ESP and psychokinesis) has overwhelming evidence to support it, but the majority of psychologists claim that parapsychology is a pseudoscience. This is not because they examine the evidence fairly, but because they have a prior philosophical bias against the existence of these abilities. These psychologists then use their political influence to stop funding for psi research. An examination of much of the skeptical literature of psi reveals a selective reading of parapsychological literature. Some skeptics present such a distorted picture of parapsychology that the only reasonable conclusion is that they are either self-deceived, or worse, they lack integrity.

In the life of the state, there is often a battle between politics and truth. This is the same with science. The scientific community is like a new priesthood, declaring what is heretical and what is orthodox. The problem is that many of scientific heretics have been right.