Satan, Pride, and the Denial of the Goodness of the Body

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Traditionally the fall of Satan was due to pride. Often this pride is portrayed as anger at God for granting such favor to human beings when the angels, according to Satan, were the only ones worthy of being God’s children. I would further speculate that Satan was jealous of God granting such favor to an embodied, material being. Matter could not possibly rise to the level of spirit, and Satan bristled at the prospect.

I have been reading some writings of Aleister Crowley, who was alleged to be a Satanist but who actually was more of a Gnostic. Like the ancient Gnostics and like some contemporary New Age writers, he constantly disparages life in the body, labeling it as an illusion that will be replaced one day by a higher spiritual consciousness without the body. I hear similar views at meetings of parapsychological groups, not as much from the scholars but from laypeople who support the field. While I believe parapsychology and psychical research to be legitimate, some of the people who follow the field are de facto or de jure Gnostic. They believe that one day human beings will transcend the physical body and ascend to the realm of pure spirit.

Now if Satan hates the idea of bodily life ascending to God, would it not be logical for him to disparage life in the body for human beings? Would it not be logical for him to deny the bodily resurrection of Christ and the general resurrection of all human beings? He may believe these things intellectually–after all, Satan is theologically orthodox, but in his temptation of human beings he would deny those beliefs. He would try to get them to deny the goodness of matter and the goodness of the body. He would try to get them to believe that only by rising to the realm of pure spirit can a human transcend bodily limitations. He would work to spread the notion that humans are pure spirit, part of God, and that matter will never inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. This is not to exalt human beings, for Satan knows that human beings are irreducibly bodily. But if he gets humans to deny that fact, he has them in his cloven hoofs–exactly where he wants them. When they are surprised after death at the resurrection of their bodies, then they will face the God who made them and loved them as body-soul unities, with the body just as essential to their identity as the soul. If they submit, perhaps God will save them by His grace. But if they refuse, following Satanic advice, and claim that they could not possibly live with a material body and be truly glorified, it is difficult to see how God could save them and let them go to Heaven. Denial of the goodness of matter–and of the body–is the fruit of Satan, not God.

Culpable Ignorance

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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.

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

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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 and Positivism

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Auguste Comte

Although “mainstream” psychologists may disagree, in its attitude toward science, parapsychology competes with psychology for being the most conservative of the sciences. Now there are parapsychologists who do not resemble the original positivists in the line of Auguste Comte or the twentieth century logical positivists in any respect. The late John Beloff was a good example. Today Allen Gauld is in that broad tradition of scientists open to philosophical insight. He appealed to the works of philosophers as well as those of scientists in his work, and he was among the most philosophical of professional parapsychologists. For the most part, I have seen little evidence of positivism among the members of the Society for Psychical Research in the U.K. This is a credit to that organization, which has traditionally held a “big tent” for not only scientists, but also for philosophers, theologians, and other scholars in the Humanities. I will not name them, but there are parapsychologists who believe that philosophy and theology should play no role in either truth claims or theories concerning the various aspects of psi. They desire that parapsychology should be respected as a science like any other field of science. In this respect they are similar to psychologists, who often believe the old-fashioned positivist view that science is the only path to knowledge of reality. Thus even metaphysical issues such as the existence of God, if not amenable to scientific study, cannot be about truth claims. That such a position is a philosophical position seems lost on some psychologists and parapsychologists. Organizations with this line of thought may, from time to time, publish historical studies in their journals, but philosophical papers are almost nonexistent, and all other papers take a quantitative psychological approach to parapsychology. For all the good work J. B. Rhine did to put experimental parapsychology on a firm foundation, his approach also tended to be narrower than the approaches of the Society for Psychical Research and of the American Society for Psychical Research. Some writers today distinguish psychical research from parapsychology, holding that parapsychology takes a more narrow approach to psi, focuses almost exclusively on a “scientific method” of procedure, and deals very little with the issue of survival after death. When I first became interested in parapsychology, I thought that this was inaccurate, and that currently psychical research and parapsychology are coextensive. As I talk with more people in the field, I find more philosophical materialists who also tend to hold that science is the exclusive source of reliable knowledge about reality. I wonder if F. W. H. Myers would be welcome to present a paper at some contemporary gatherings of parapsychologists.  By eschewing philosophical approaches, these parapsychologists may be blind to their own philosophical biases, biases that are present among scientists in every field of study.from physics to biology. I appreciate the open approach to the field taken at the University of Virginia. The research professors there do careful empirical research, but with a true interdisciplinary focus that takes account of the best work in, for example, the philosophy of mind. In a field that necessarily deals with phenomena about which many disciplines make knowledge claims, it is important for practitioners have an open mind and that they be well-read in a variety of fields. I would also encourage those psychical researchers who desire to revitalize psychical research in the United States to communicate with one another and perhaps organize to revitalize the field and keep it from being lost in a plethora of statistics.

2011 International Conference, Society for Psychical Research

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The 2011 International Conference of the Society for Psychical Research took place in the fair city of Edinburgh, Scotland, from September 2-4. As usual, the SPR is to be commended for including papers from a wide variety of perspectives, from traditional “hard core” laboratory research to philosophical studies to mediumship studies to contemporary “ghost hunting.” It was a pleasure to hear Daryl Bem speak concerning “feeling the future.” Dr. Bem’s careful research methodology has led to his being published in mainstream psychology journals, to to grudging respect from some of his psychological colleagues who do not accept the existence of psi. It was also a pleasure to hear Erlendur Haraldsson, one of the giants of the field. Before I was interested in parapsychology as such, I found his book with Osis on deathbed visions when I visited a flea market with my granddaddy in Tennessee. That book had a great deal of influence on me and helped stimulate an interest in the field that has only come to fruition in the last few years.

Matthew Colborn’s talk, encouraging more openness in parapsychology to reconsidering non-physicalist approaches to the mind-body problem, was a refreshing reminder that the recent upsurge in philosophical materialism among psi researchers does not end the debate over the nature of human beings. He did an excellent job of assimilating the latest philosophical thought on the mind-body problem into his talk. After he spoke, I had the misfortune of preceding Ed May’s incredible talk on the end of Stargate. This is like being the act preceding the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. But I was happy to share my view that Occam’s Razor does not play a useful role in deciding between the living agent and the spirit theories of poltergeist phenomena.

I must apologize for the rather obvious effects of jet lag as I sat in the audience–my body’s reaction was no reflection on the speakers–I was absolutely exhausted after the flight from America. But the facilities there were excellent–I was pleased with the rooms, and the food was superb. My wife, Karen, and I enjoyed the city–the Royal Mile‘s historic buildings. ghost tours underground and at Greyfriars Cemetery, and the Royal College of Surgeons Museum, which was, for me, one of the most fascinating stops in our journey. Visiting the Edinburgh Castle was a powerful experience, especially gazing at the very crown placed on the head of Mary, Queen of Scots, at her coronation. The rooms with paintings of all the monarchs of Scotland marked an incredible journey toward the room with the crown jewels.

All in all, the SPR conference was superb, and I could not imagine a better location–nor could I have imagined being blessed with such fine sunny weather. I hope future conferences are every bit as good as this one.

Orbs are Dust, Bugs, or Rain

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It amazes me that some individuals in the paranormal investigation field believe that “orbs,” those globes of light that appear on some night photos, are anything more than dust and bugs. On one investigation I took several photos by a pond with my digital cam (10 megapixel). They were full of orbs. At another investigation at a graveyard, the team was walking down a dusty path. The photos I took of the graveyard were filled with orbs. I suppose if I had looked closely long enough at any of the orbs, I would have eventually “seen” a face. The human mind is programmed to recognize faces, and a person can easily “see” faces when they are not actually present. Try looking at almost any surface for a few minutes, focusing on the same general area. How long does it take you to “see” faces? Try looking at the photo of orbs in this post. Zoom in. You will “see” faces before very long–but they are illusions.

There are also investigators who may not see faces in orbs, but still believe them to be ghosts. But digital cameras especially are prone to “interpreting” dust and bugs as orbs. Paranormal investigators often bring their own New Age assumptions into their interpretation of the evidence. Before long they find ghosts everywhere, even when the evidence does not support any paranormal phenomena. Most ghost investigation groups are not respected by parapsychologists (although there are groups who do a solid job at investigating, such as Tuscon Paranormal–but its head is married to a parapsychologist!). And parapsychologists are not often respected by other scientists and academics. The field has enough problems gaining respectability without people seeing a ghost in every particle of dust and in every mosquito in front of the camera.

Rain will also appear as bright orbs if a flash is used at night. I suppose hail, sleet, and snow would also cause orbs to appear. Again, there is no need for a paranormal interpretation of a normal phenomenon.

Could there be a case in which an orb is legitimately interpreted to be of paranormal origin? I cannot a priori rule that out. Suppose I saw a large orb without taking a photo, and it floated toward my ear and a voice that is not identifiable as a member of the team says, “Michael, I’m Granddaddy. Remember guessing car colors at the side of the Old Highway?” I would interpret that as paranormal. Until then, I will not waste my time with dust and bugs.

Survival Research and Culturally-Based Conclusions

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I have just returned from an excellent talk presented by Dr. Pamela Rae Heath, a medical doctor and leading researcher in parapsychology, at the Rhine Research Center in Durham, North Carolina. She spoke on a number of issues in mind-matter interaction (MMI) or what is also termed psychokinesis (PK). I was pleased that her talk, while containing some of her conclusions that go beyond current evidence, was for the most part based on the best current research in parapsychology.

However, prior to her talk, I browsed her book, Handbook to the Afterlife. The quality of her talk was a surprise given the loose extrapolation from the survival evidence I saw in her book. Basically, life after death is envisioned as a process of personal growth that parallels growth and development (at least mental and spiritual development) in the present life and which includes a reincarnation component. This goes way beyond the actual survival evidence and was based, to some extent, on “channeling.”

How could someone give a scholarly presentation to the lay public and yet have a book that would fit into any fluff-brained New Ager‘s library? I fear that Dr. Heath was guilty of the same thing of which she accuses religious interpreters of MMI–that they interpret their experiences in terms of their cultural expectations. Now if Dr. Heath said, “That’s okay–we cannot avoid cultural expectations when interpreting data,” I would have no problem. But she seemed to assume (and I may have misunderstood) that parapsychological lacks such cultural expectations when it examines the data. That is simply false, and when we are dealing with survival research, cultural assumptions are unavoidable.

Take Dr. Heath’s position on the afterlife. It fits well into the American idea of evolutionary progress which has continued, unlike in Europe, to heavily influence American thought. Europe has suffered through two World Wars on its soil; America has 9-11, which was but one attack, and the War Between the States, which is distant to most Americans. Thus Americans buy into the idea of progress–and a life after death of continual evolutionary progress fits into American culture. The notion of multiple reincarnations, which in Eastern religions is something to be avoided if possible, becomes a positive thing in American New Age thought. A Hindu or Theravada Buddhist would be horrified by the American New Age interpretation of reincarnation.

I will be the first to admit that I am biased against reincarnation. As an orthodox Anglican Christian, I cannot accept reincarnation unless the evidence for it were so overwhelming that only a fool would reject it. That is not currently the case, even with Ian Stevenson‘s research. Stephen Braude has pointed out serious methodological flaws with the Stevenson research (for which see his book Immortal Remains). The problem of super-psi also plagues survival research; it seems to me that the best mediumship evidence (Leonora Piper‘s readings, for example) and the best near-death experience cases support at least a minimal survival of death of the individual personality in some form. But this does not justify a specific picture of the afterlife, at least at this stage of the research. Current research would be incompatible with non-survivalists and with the “no-self” view of Theravada Buddhism in which only five aggregates survival with no survival of the self. Beyond that, the research paints a picture of survival that is compatible with some Jewish views, some Christian views, with Pure Land Buddhist views, and even with the American progressive view that Dr. Heath espouses. But the evidence does not clearly support one of those views over another. For me, the evidence is a preparation for faith–it removes a barrier to my acceptance of the full Christian revelation on life after death. For Dr. Heath, the evidence supports a more “secular” or “natural” developmental view of life after death in which we evolve to higher levels of human accomplishment, with reincarnation being a part of that process. My point is that both Dr. Heath and I, to some extent, interpret the survival evidence in terms of our own cultural expectations. To expect that anyone could do otherwise is naive.

Society for Psychical Research Annual Meeting, Sheffield, UK

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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.

Science and Politics

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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.

The Unexplainable

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Two years ago, a colleague and his wife started a paranormal investigation group. Since I have always been fascinated by the possibility of the paranormal and since I have read too many horror books, I decided to join. Later, I also worked with another group, the group with which I work now, PROOF of Fayetteville, North Carolina. To go out at night, look up through bare branches at the full moon and feel the chill of the air, or stay in a darkened room at a purportedly haunted house made me feel like a kid again. I knew that however careful we were in our investigations, we would never reach the rigor of a scientific field study. I was also skeptical of actually finding anything. At first, that skepticism seemed confirmed. I did not see anything that looked like a ghost, and my digital voice recorder picked up background noise and nothing more.

It was about the third investigation in which I was involved that my recorder picked up an EVP (electronic voice phenomenon). It was clearly a voice, although I could not make out the words. But I figured I could not rule out a stray television, radio, or emergency broadcast signal. But as I participated in more investigations, my recorder picked up more voices, many quite clear. Some voices were interactive; that is, they responded to my questions. Since the group had controlled for other people in the area, it seemed that the best explanation for such voices was paranormal. Because no one heard the voices at the time they were recorded, it is most likely that someone’s psychokinesis (PK) affected the recording portion of the digital voice recorder and whatever signal was encoded came through as a voice.

Later, I took a photo that I could not explain–behind me my friend shined a flashlight; I was in front of her and took a photo of a wall at an old jail cell. When we checked the photo at the screen on the digital camera, to our surprise we found a black figure with arms, hair, eyes, a nose and mouth, a dress, and legs extending from an almost three-dimensional blackness. Now it could be that the photo was a trick of the lighting in the room. But it seems unlikely. In another photo, taken at the Bell Witch Cave in Tennessee, my brother’s face was blurred while the rest of the photo was clear. Perhaps some bug or piece of dust caused the smudge, but it seems unlikely.

I do not know how to explain the things I have heard and seen. For those phenomena clearly paranormal (some of the EVP I recorded), no one can say whether the recording was caused by PK from the living or by some residual “memory” in the location or by PK from a personality surviving after death. These phenomena bring up interesting philosophical issues. Does “residual memory” in places make sense (Stephen Braude has argued that the notion of residual memory “recorded” by a place is incoherent)? If the living can affect a recording device via psychokinesis, how do they do this? What, if any, is the implication for the nature of consciousness and of the soul (assuming there is a soul)? If the phenomena reflect PK from personalities surviving after death, what is the nature of such survival? Is it wholly disembodied? It is embodied? Descartes denied that the body is essential for personal identity; Aristotle, Aquinas, and Merleau-Ponty sharply disagreed. If it is embodied, what is the nature of that embodiment? If not, how can a disembodied being affect the physical world?

Obviously there are skeptics who will deny that such experiences occur. As William James pointed out, this kind of evidence is convincing to the person having the experience, but is usually not convincing to others. Some philosophers will a priori rule out such experiences in advance. I do not have time for them. Others are more open-minded, but believe that the burden of proof should be on the one claiming such experiences. I agree–but it is difficult to specify the level of proof required.

Although as an orthodox Christian I believe in life after death (the resurrection of the body), I do not believe what I have experienced thus far is proof of the afterlife. Some evidence, such as the meaningful responses to questions, suggests survival of death. One could argue that the answers are PK from the living–but by what motive? If individual personality survives death, such personalities could have a number of motivations to communicate with the living–trying it out to see if it is possible, comforting family members and friends, or being mischievous. In one investigation I asked, “Do you have sexual intercourse where you are?” and a voice replied in a harsh whisper, “F… you! We do!” I played that to my students, who immediately laughed when they heard the “answer.”

So other than claiming that some of my experiences are paranormal, I cannot make any more specific determination of their nature. They may well be unexplainable–to me, the element of mystery in life is something that has brought back a childlike wonder and curiosity about aspects of reality that are currently unexplainable. Reality itself is, to a great extent, “an undiscovered country.”