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.

Atheism, Agnosticism, and Psychologists

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A 2006 study in Sociology of Religion found that 50% of American psychology professors were atheists and 11% agnostic, making psychologists less religious than professors in any other field, including the other sciences. What is it about the field of psychology that lends itself to a non-theistic world view? The problem seems to be that psychology remains stuck in the nineteenth century, both in its overall world view and in its naive conception of science.

The nineteenth century non-religious intellectual usually rejected belief in God because there seemed to be no role for God in a Newtonian cosmos. Although Newton himself was a theist who believed that space is the “sensorium” of God, his followers generally saw no need for God in a mechanistic universe; as the French scientist Laplace famously said concerning God, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” A world of machines governed by deterministic laws could exist on its own without any God to sustain it in existence, a fact that the Irish philosopher George Berkeley recognized despite the problematic nature of his own idealistic metaphysics. The Newtonian world seemed to leave no room for “God, freedom, and immortality,” and Kant felt forced to accept at the level of phenomena a godless, deterministic universe, but affirmed God, freedom, and immortality to be postulates of practical reason. As Kant himself eventually realized (in his posthumously published writings), his view, at best, implies that human beings must act as if God, freedom, and immortality exist, but that these things belong to the unknowable realm of noumena about which we must remain agnostic.

After Darwin interpreted biology in terms of a Newtonian mechanical world view in his theory of evolution by natural selection, some intellectuals who hated the abrogation of any spirituality from the world turned back toward Descartes‘ dualistic philosophy in which mind is free, mind can exist after death, and with God being a great Mind, the fact that matter is determined by strict Newtonian laws does not oppose freedom and spirituality. Some of these intellectuals focused on alleged empirical evidence for mental powers above the physical and for survival of death by a mind, and thus the philosopher Henry Sidgwich and the classicist turned psychologist F. W. H. Meyers founded the Society for Psychical Research in London in 1882. Later, in 1885, the American Society for Psychical Research was founded, with the philosopher and psychologist William James serving as its second president. By studying phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, and mediumship, these intellectuals desired to discover an empirical basis for the mind having powers beyond the standard interpretation of Newtonian laws. Although influential for a time, the Society suffered from vicious attacks from defenders of the strict Newtonian paradigm.

In England and in the United States, idealistic (in England) and pragmatic (in the United States) systems of philosophy were overwhelmed by the early analytic movement in philosophy, including the logical positivists. The Vienna Circle in the 1920s and 30s supported the position that only empirically verifiable statements or tautologies such as those found in mathematics and logic were meaningful. In psychology, the earlier open-mindedness of William James was replaced by the dogmatic behaviorism of John Broadus Watson which was continued by B. F. Skinner. Watson, influenced by the Vienna Circle, excluded all considerations of consciousness and other “unobservable” behaviors from psychology, focusing only on observable behavior as shown in stimulus-response behavior in mice and other animals. These animal “machines” were thought to be appropriate models of the behavior of “human machines;” thus both non-human animals and human beings were considered to be “automata.” God, as an unobservable entity, could have no meaning in such a world view.

Later, the cognitivist revolution in psychology overwhelmed behaviorism, but even cognitive psychology uses mechanical models for human cognition and behavior. Computational models, connectionism, neural network theory, and even functionalism are all basically mechanical models of cognition. They have difficulties dealing with the first person perspective of consciousness and both qualia and intentionality. With such a mechanical model of nature, there is still no room for a deity. Even with the quantum revolution in physics, which seems to oppose both absolute determinism and a mechanical model of the universe, most psychologists have stubbornly held on to the Newtonian world view, leaving no room for belief in God.

Psychologists, with some important exceptions, accept a nineteenth century view of science that has its ultimate origins in the thought of Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century. The notion of one “scientific method” in which the scientist collects observations, formulates a hypothesis, and tests the hypothesis through observation has been discredited by both philosophers of science (Popper, Lakatos, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Laudan) and scientists (Kuhn was a physicist, as was Michael Polanyi, an important critic of the “received view” in the philosophy of science). Although physicists and chemists who actually do cutting edge research recognize that there are actually multiple methods in science, as well as some biologists (though some radical Darwinians are just as extreme as most psychologists), psychologists still retain an outmoded view of science and of the “scientific method.” They also tend to believe that science is the only reliable source of knowledge, ruling out knowledge via philosophy, religion, art, and literature. Scientists in other fields are not as closed-minded, and this leads to more openness to the possibility that a God might exist.

Psychologists need to move into the twenty-first century since most of them bypassed the twentieth century and stayed in the nineteenth century. They need to examine how changes in sciences such as physics have called to question the Newtonian world view and mechanistic model of the universe. They should read work in contemporary philosophy of science that challenges their naive hypothetical-deductivist system and take it seriously instead of merely dismissing it. They should be open to all empirical data, including actually reading articles on psi, instead of finding one or two “straw man” articles to attack in their introductory textbooks on research methods. Finally, they should be open to the possibility that there are other means of gaining reliable knowledge than a narrowly conceived “scientific method.” Only then will academic (mainly experimental) psychologists be open to other views than atheism and agnosticism concerning the existence of God.

Problems with Autism Studies

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Since I have Asperger’s Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism, I am interested in research studies on autism. Now and them I have bought both popular-level and middlebrow magazines on autism at bookstores. Unfortunately what I find is a hodgepodge of research, some well-grounded, some of dubious scientific value. There is also the implicit assumption among some so-called advocates of the autistic that no one has a right to criticize anyone else’s theory about autism, its causes, or its treatment. How did the current situation come about.

Historically, parents of autistic children have been frustrated by dubious theories of big names in psychology. Bruno Bettelheim is the most infamous, having argued that children became autistic due to a lack of affection and attention from parents–the parents were supposedly “distant.” This clearly false and destructive theory of autism did real harm to the parents of autistic children and held back advances in treatment. Some of the most successful autistic people, such as the animal scientist Temple Grandin, were helped not by the medical and psychological establishment, but by a dedicated mother who encouraged Temple and did not give up on her even while doctors did. There is a long tradition of parental activism in autism, as parents, frustrated by the scientific establishment’s inability to help their children, have taken matters into their own hands.

This is fine up to a point. Autism is a multi-faceted, spectrum disorder, and is different in every individual. There is no evidence that the same parts of the brain are affected in different autistic people. Treatments that work on one autistic child may not work for another, and some autistic children cannot be helped with current therapies (hopefully they can be helped in the future). If a method a parent or parents use to help their autistic child works, more power to them.

The difficulty is when the well-meaning defenders of autistic individuals make claims based on faulty research. An example is the claim that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative found in many vaccines, is at least one cause of autism. Intuitively this seems reasonable since mercury is a known neurotoxin, and vaccines have been admitted in some cases to cause brain damage. However, there is no sound scientific study supporting a causal link or even a correlation between thimerosal levels in vaccines and autism. One 1998 article in the prestigious UK medical journal The Lancet has since been retracted, and a recent study has shown that even babies exposed to much higher levels of thimerosal than children receiving vaccines are no more likely to have autism than other children. Many in the autism community are not convinced, or they appeal to a government conspiracy to hide the true data. But most conspiracy theories are irrational and are not based on sound evidence. I am far more willing to trust the many scientific studies showing no link between vaccines and autism. The greater number of cases of autism (and Asperger’s Syndrome) in the last thirty years is more likely due to broader diagnostic criteria and to a greater recognition of autistic symptoms among health care providers. And to claim that thimerosal causes autism does not make sense given that the vast majority of vaccinated children are not autistic. Causal claims, or even correlational claims, require more substantive evidence.

It is wonderful that so many well-meaning people are advocates for the autistic. However, they should realize that it only hurts their cause to oppose good science and spout conspiracy theories when there is no evidence of such. And in their own articles on successes with their children, parents should add the caveat that not all autistic children will benefit from the method they used. To their credit, many parents writing on autism do make this disclaimer. Let’s base advocacy on sound scientific research.

The Arrogance of Scientism

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The late American philosopher Paul Feyerabend once said that scientists were arrogant and need to be put in their place. I agree–with one caveat–I would say “many scientists” instead of “scientists.” Universal affirmative claims are very hard to justify.

No one would deny, outside of nutty postmodern relativists, that science has contributed greatly to our knowledge of the natural world. Science has also given us the wonders of modern technology, from electric lights to super-fast computers and the Internet. Science has also given us the atom and hydrogen bombs and other weapons of mass destruction, but even those terrible inventions reflected the knowledge physicists had gained about the atomic and subatomic worlds. Aside from the ethics of technology, then, what is the problem with many scientists?

The problem, especially in the United States and to a lesser extent in the United Kingdom, is that many scientists accept the doctrine of scientism. Scientism is the view that science is the only reliable source of knowledge about the world. So introductory science textbooks often downplay alternate sources of knowledge (although in my experiences there is a welcome improvement in this area) and portray scientists almost as a “new priesthood” (Feyerabend has made the same point). The claims of philosophy, theology, art, and literature to give us insight into the way the world words are dismissed, and only those who follow the “scientific method” can, it is claimed, gain knowledge of the world.

There are a number of flaws in the philosophy of scientism. First, the idea that there is only one effective scientific method is a myth. A study of the history of science reveals different methods at work, from primarily inductive methods before Newton, to primarily deductive methods after Newton, to experimental methods, to field study methods (used in anthropology and to some extent in sociology). The naive method of (1) collecting facts, (2) noting relations between those facts, (3) forming a hypothesis, (4) testing the hypothesis by a well-designed experiment(s), resulting in (5) either a confirmation or disconfirmation of the hypothesis is inaccurate in its very first claim. No scientist collects facts without some idea of what he is looking for. Usually a scientist already has a theory in mind he wants to test in order to know what facts to find. Any idiot can sit down and write thousands of facts about trees; but a scientist needs more than a collection of “bare” facts. And there are no “bare facts”–all facts are theory-laden; thus, if I identify an object as a “table,” I must have at least implicitly some low-level theory of what a table is in order to be able to identify it. This does not imply that there is no such thing as “facts” or that facts are arbitrary. The real world does constrain our selection of facts–and theories. But there is no sharp separation between theory and facts.

Those who espouse scientism frequently claim that empirical testability is what makes scientific knowledge the only valid form of knowledge. But what about string theory, which cannot be tested by current technology–the ability to adequately test high-level theories in physics, especially Grand Unified Theories, may be centuries away. How, then, do physicists decide between theories? They usually appeal to “epistemic values” such as simplicity, elegance, and beauty to make their decision.

But if someone who espouses the philosophy of scientism sticks to his guns and says that only scientific claims are empirically testable, what about his claim that science is the only reliable source of knowledge? Is that a scientific claim? Or, rather, is it a philosophical claim that has to be justified or refuted by the tools of philosophy? It is the latter; scientists are free to make philosophical claims as long as they admit they are such; but they have no right to call them scientific claims. In any case, philosophy does appeal to both experience and reason in its attempt to answer questions. Even theology, though authority-based to some extent, can appeal to experience and reason in order to better understand its faith commitments. To deny these fields their claim to give insight into the world without argument is an arrogant claim–and scientists who espouse scientism are arrogant–and wrong.