The 2013 Annual International Conference of the Society for Psychical Research: Part I

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The 2013 annual conference of the Society for Psychical Research took place at Swanea University in Swansea, Wales, UK from September 6-8. This was one of the most interesting conference I have attended, since my primary interest in psychical research is the survival issue, and many of the papers dealt with survival. I was able to attend most sessions; I wanted to see the ruins of Oystermouth Castle when I was there, so I missed some sessions to walk to Mumbles. It was a grand site, well worth seeing.

 Alan Murdie did a fine job as Chairman of the Program Committee and MC. He is a worthy successor to Bernard Carr, who has done a splendid job the past thirty years in the same role. The first paper, by John Poynton, was entitled “Different Vibrations or Different Spaces? A Basic Question in Psi Research.” As I listened to this fascinating paper, my mind wandered back to Sunday School class when I was in high school. The teacher, Ken Schott, said that Heaven “could be in this very room, but in a different dimension,” and since then I have been intrigued with that idea. Professor Poynton surveyed possible locations of OBE survival, dividing the options into:

 (1) single field theories, in which there is one single physical space (this he called “the common view” and

 (2) many field theories, in which physical and OBE bodies occupy two different spaces of some kind (which he stated is the more common view in scientific settings).

 Problems with single field theories include:

 (1)   How can the OBE body displace matter—“Kant’s Problem.”

(2)   OBE space does not seem to be wholly isomorphic with physical space.

(3)   OBE experiences are of a different quality than experiences in physical space.

(4)   The theories are illogical—they seem to posit an outdated medieval world which Heaven and Hell are literally above the physical world.

 In many field theories, different spaces may be viewed simultaneously—this can easily reduce to the single field idea. There are two many field alternatives to single field theories:

(1)   Unnested—different spatial fields/worlds.

(2)   Nexted—different superimposed spatial fields with a different hyperspace with faster vibrations.

 Stevenson and Whiteman seem to assume non-nested spaces.

The nested view is held by the spiritualists—it holds there is an objectively real spirit world in the same space as we exist, but the matter vibrates more rapidly.

There may be a hierarchy of spaces, such as physical space, the space of paranormal experiences, and the space of mystical experiences.

Theorists suggest two ways layers may be organized:

(1)   Like layers through a cake (Carr, Smythes)

(2)   Like a Russian doll (Findley)

Prof. Poynton raised the important issue of whether human beings are capable of experiencing a four-dimensional world. Kant denied that we could [for Kant, space—as well as time—are forms of sensibility that structure our sense experience and are necessary and universal forms in the mind that we impose on the world. Kant believe the form of sensibility that is space to be three dimensional by necessity]. Prof. Poynton mentioned a fascinating account of an NDE by the Roman historian Plutarch in which the NDEr could see in four directions at once.

Prof. Poynton also raises the interesting Aristotelian point of how much do we know what fundamental processes (potentiality and actualization of potential)  that underlie the manifestation for an observer of any spatial world and the object experienced? How much do (and can) we know about the constitution of non-physical objects.

 Michael Whiteman uses words like “light” or “noetic” space. [Here I would point out that a medieval thinker overlooked in many discussions of psi is Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253), who believed that all was made of light and that light is the medium between matter and spirit]. Jean-Pierre Jourdan prefers to posit a “fifth dimension.”  Bernard Carr prefers the term “hyperphysics.” His position is that the extra dimensions are time-like—different levels of the “specious present” but in the same space.

Professor Poynton’s paper was one of the most interesting at the conference. It was, by nature, highly speculative, but the speculations on multiple spaces (or times) seem reasonable and hopefully can generate further research that can aid in our understanding of OBEs, NDEs, and a possible “afterlife world.”

The Unexplainable

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To prevent audio contamination, a digital voic...

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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.”