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.

Accreditation and the Tyranny of the Social Sciences

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Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa...

College and university accreditation and re-accreditation has become a nightmare. Accreditation agencies demand “continuous quality improvement” to be documented by quantifiable data. Following a model that has wreaked havoc with teachers in the public school system, specific departments at a university and the university as a whole must not only form a mission statement, but formulate a series of goals and objectives to meet those goals. The objectives must be measurable in a quantitative way. Some departments require not only a list of goals and objectives for the course, but also for each week of the course. Standardized group final exams are becoming more common in certain fields, such as the physical and social sciences. The comprehensive portion of the final exam may have some of the same questions year to year so that a department can track “improvement” in students’ ability to answer certain questions covering key goals of the course.

Such a social science oriented quantitative approach to education works neither in the physical sciences nor in the humanities, and I doubt it works in some social sciences either. Science involves critical thinking, something that is more than a quantifiable measure and often involves “abduction,” an inference to the best explanation that is as much an art as it is a science. The “social science approach,” a fortiori, does not work in the humanities. Students must do some memorization of facts in the humanities as in any other field,  and they can be “objectively” tested over such facts. The humanities, however, are about critical thinking, forming a world view, interacting with the great events and texts of history, reading Plato, Aristotle, and other great philosophers who sought wisdom. Wisdom uses knowledge, but refers to the practical wisdom (prudence, or what Aristotle called phronesis) to make the best decision about how to live the good life in a specific situation. A conception of the good life implies a world view, a vision of how all things fit together into a whole. World views are by nature qualitative, not quantitative. They demand weighing different and sometimes contradictory perspectives. That is why it is important in philosophy to allow faculty to use the textbooks and the approach they choose, rather than having a “cloned” approach to teaching a course. The trend toward conformity in academia has been accelerated by pressure from aggressive accrediting agencies.

There is a line of thought in the social sciences, which is also present among some scientists who work in the natural science, that nothing is real unless it is quantifiable, including knowledge (I doubt that this line of thought has room for “wisdom”). Many psychologists, especially, take a totally quantitative approach to what they are studying. As the most conservative of sciences, psychology tends to fit better into nineteenth century though rather than into twentieth and twenty-first century thought. The situation seems like the revenge of Jeremy Bentham‘s often criticized “hedonic calculus” that tried to quantify an exact measure of pleasures and pains. The basic idea of quantifying everything has been broadened to the idea that one can operationally define any learning task and test to determine whether students have actually learned. Can Plato’s view of the Forms be operationally defined? What about the significance of World War I in the development of interwar continental philosophy? Can wisdom be operationally defined? What about truth, beauty, and goodness? The accrediting agencies are attempting to destroy what is most valuable about education–becoming wiser, with a better ability to think critically and to make judgments, exposure to different world views, the privilege of discussing differing positions with a professor. To say that qualitative measures are allowed is disingenuous since even those “must be measurable”–how? There must be a quantitative rating scale. Hopefully college and university faculty will encourage accreditation agencies to re-examine this current trend toward a bad social science model of evaluating educational quality.