The Concsious Universe, Dean Radin
The Conscious Universe
The psyche’s attachment to the brain, i.e., its space-time limitation, is no longer as self-evident and incontrovertible as we have hitherto been led to believe…It is not only permissible to doubt the absolute validity of space-time perception; it is, in the view of the available facts, even imperative to do so.
–Carl Jung, Psychology and the Occult
In science, the acceptance of new ideas follows a predictable, four-stage sequence. In Stage 1, skeptics confidently proclaim that the idea is impossible because it violates the Laws of Science. This stage can last for years or for centuries, depending on how much the idea challenges conventional wisdom. In Stage 2, skeptics reluctantly concede that the idea is possible but that it is not very interesting and the claimed effects are extremely weak. Stage 3 begins when the mainstream realizes not only that the idea is important but that its effects are much stronger and more pervasive than previously imagined. Stage 4 is achieved when the same critics who previously disavowed any interest in the idea begin to proclaim that they thought of it first. Eventually, no on remembers that the idea was once considered a dangerous heresy.
The idea discussed in this book is in the midst of the most important and the most difficult of the four transitions—from Stage 1 to Stage 2. While the idea itself is ancient, it has taken more than a century to demonstrate it conclusively in accordance with rigorous, scientific standards. This demonstration has accelerated Stage 2 acceptance, and Stage 3 can already be glimpsed on the horizon.
The idea is that those compelling, perplexing, and sometimes profound human experiences known as ‘psychic phenomena’ are real. This will come as no surprise to most of the world’s population, because the majority already believe in psychic phenomena. But over the past few years, something has propelled us beyond old debates over personal beliefs. The reality of psychic phenomena is now no longer based solely on faith, or wishful thinking, or absorbing anecdotes. It is not even based upon the results of a few scientific experiments. Instead, we know that these phenomena exist because of new ways of evaluating massive amounts of scientific evidence collected over a century by scores of researchers.
Psychic or ‘psi’ phenomena fall into two general categories. The first involves perceiving objects or events beyond the range of ordinary senses. The second is mentally causing action at a distance. In both categories, it seems the intention, the mind’s will, can do things that—according to prevailing scientific theories—it isn’t supposed to be able to do. We wish to know what is happening to loved ones, and somehow, sometimes, that information is available even over large distances. We wish to speed the recovery of a loved one’s illness, and somehow that person gets better quicker, even at a distance. Mind willing, many interesting things appear to be possible.
Understanding such experiences requires an expanded view of human consciousness. Is the mind merely a mechanistic, information-processing bundle of neurons? Is it a ‘computer made of meat’ as some cognitive scientists and neuroscientists believe? Or is it something more? The evidence suggests that while many aspects of mental functioning are undoubtedly related to brain structure and electromechanical activity, there is also something else happening, something very interesting.
This Is for Real?
In discussions of the reality of Psi phenomena, especially from the scientific perspective, one question always hovers in the background: You mean this is for real? In the midst of all the nonsense and excessive silliness proclaimed in the name of psychic phenomena, the misinformed use of the term ‘parapsychology’ by self-proclaimed ‘paranormal investigators,’ the perennial laughingstock of magicians and conjurers…this is for real?
The short answer is, Yes.
A more elaborate answer is Psi has been shown to exist in thousands of experiments. There are disagreements over how to interpret the evidence, but the fact is that virtually all scientists who have studied the evidence, including hard-nosed skeptics, now agree that something interesting is going on that merits serious scientific attention. Late we’ll discuss why very few scientists and science journalists are aware of this dramatic shift in informed opinion.
The most important indication of a shift from Stage 1 to Stage 2 can be seen in the gradually changing attitudes of prominent skeptics. In a 1995 book saturated with piercing skepticism, the late Carl Sagan of Cornell University. Maintained his lifelong mission of educating the public about science, in this case by debunking popular hysteria over alien abductions, channelers, faith healers, the ‘face’ on Mars, and practically everything found in the New Age section of most bookstores. Then, in one paragraph among 450 pages, we find an astonishing admission:
At the time of writing there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators; (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images ‘projected’ at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation.
Other signs of shifting opinions are cropping up with increasing frequency in the scientific literature. Starting in the 1980’s, well-known scientific journals like Foundations of Physics, American Psychologist, and Statistical Science published articles favorably reviewing the scientific evidence for psychic phenomena. The Proceedings of the IEEE, the flagship journal of the Institute for Electronic and Electrical Engineers, has published major debates on Psi research. Invited articles have appeared in the prestigious journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. A favorable article on telepathy research appeared in 1994 in Psychological Bulletin, one of the top-ranked journals in academic psychology. And an article presenting a theoretical model for precognition appeared in 1994 in Physical Review, a prominent physics journal.
In the 1990s alone, seminars on psi research were part of the regular programs at the annual conferences of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Psychological Association, and the American Statistical Association. Invited lectures on the status of psi research were presented for diplomats at the United Nations, for academics at Harvard University, and for scientists at Bell Laboratories.
The Pentagon has not overlooked these activities.
From 1981 to 1995, five different U.S. government-sponsored scientific review committees were given the task of examining the evidence for psi effects. The reviews were prompted by concerns that if psi were genuine, it might be important for national security reasons. We would have to assume that foreign governments would exploit psi if they could.
Reports were prepared by the Congressional Research Service, the Army Research Institute, the National Research Council, the Office of Technology Assessment, and the American Institutes for Research (the latter commissioned by the Central Intelligence Agency). While disagreeing over the fine points of interpretation, all five reviews concluded that the experimental evidence for certain forms of psychic phenomena merited serious scientific study.
For example, in 1981 the Congressional Research Service concluded that ‘Recent experiments in remote viewing and other studies in parapsychology suggests that there exists an ‘interconnectiveness’ of the human mind with other minds and with matter. This interconnectiveness would appear to be functional in nature and amplified by intent and emotion.’ The report concluded with suggestions of possible applications for health care, investigative work, and ‘the ability of the human mind to obtain information as an important factor in successful decision making by executives.’
In 1985 a report prepared by the Army Research Institute concluded that ‘the bottom line is that the data reviewed in [this] report constitute genuine scientific anomalies for which no one has an adequate explanation or set of explanations…if they are what they appear to be, their theoretical (and, eventually, their practical) implications are enormous.’
In 1987 the National Research Council reviewed parapsychology (the scientific discipline that includes psi) at the request of the U.S. Army. The committee recommended that the army monitor parapsychological research being conducted in the former Soviet Union and in the United States, suggested that the army consider funding specific experiments, and most significantly, admitted that it could not propose plausible alternatives to the ‘psy hypothesis’ for some classes of psi experiments. Dr. Ray Hyman, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon and a longtime skeptic of psi phenomena, was chairman of the National Research Council’s review on parapsychology. He stated in a 1988 interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education that ‘Parapsychologists should be rejoicing. This is the first government committee that said their work should be taken seriously.’
In early 1989 the Office of Technology Assessment issued a report of a workshop on the status of parapsychology. The end of the report stated that “It is clear that parapsychology continues to face strong resistance from the scientific establishment. The question is—how can the field improve it chances of obtaining a fair hearing across a broader spectrum of the scientific community, so that emotionality does not impede objective assessment of the experimental results? Whether the final result of such an assessment is positive, negative, or something in between, the field appears to merit such considerations.’
In 1995 the American Institutes for Research reviewed formerly classified government-sponsored psi research for the CIA at the request of the U.S. Congress. Statistician Jessica Utts of the University of California, Davis, one of the two principal reviewers, concluded that ‘The statistical results of the studies examined are far beyond what is expected by chance. Arguments that these results could be due to methodological flaws in the experiments are soundly refuted. Effects of similar magnitude to those found in government-sponsored research…have been replicated at a number of laboratories across the world. Such consistency cannot be readily explained by claims of flaws or fraud…it is recommended that future experiments focus on understanding how this phenomenon works, and on how to make it as useful as possible. There is little benefit to continuing experiments designed to offer proof.’
Surprisingly, the other principal reviewer, skeptic Ray Hyman, agreed: ‘The statistical departures from chance appear to be too large and consistent to attribute to statistical flukes of any sort…I tend to agree with Professor Utts that real effects are occurring in these experiments. Something other than chance departures from the null hypothesis has occurred in these experiments.’
These opinions are even being reflected in the staid realm of college textbooks. One of the most popular books in the history of college publishing is Introduction to Psychology, by Richard L. Atkinson and three coauthors. A portion of the preface in the 1990 edition of this textbook reads: “Readers should take note of new section in Chapter 6 entitled ‘Psi Phenomena.’ We have discussed parapsychology in previous editions but have been very critical of the research and skeptical of the claims made in the field. And although we still have strong reservations about most of the research in parapsychology, we find the recent work on telepathy worth of careful consideration.”
The popular ‘serious’ media have not overlooked this opinion shift. The May 1993 issue of New Scientist, a popular British science magazine, carried a five-page cover story on telepathy research. It opened with the lines, ‘Psychic research has long been written off as the stuff of cranks and frauds. But there’s now one telepathy experiment that leaves even the skeptics scratching their heads.’ And in the last five years, Newsweek, the New York Times Magazine, Psychology Today, ABC’s Nightline, national news programs, and television and print media around the world have begun to moderate previously held Stage 1 opinions. They’re now beginning to publish and broadcast Stage 2 stories that take scientific psi research seriously.
If all this is true, then a thousand other questions immediately bubble up. Why hasn’t everyone heard about this on the nightly news? Why is this topic so controversial? Who has psi? How does it work? What are its implications and applications? These are all good questions, and this book will attempt to answer them through four general themes: Motivation, Evidence, Understanding, and Implications.
Theme 1: Motivation
Why should anyone take psychic phenomena seriously? The answer rests on the strength of the scientific evidence, which stands on its own merits. But to appreciate fully why the scientific case is so persuasive, and why any scientific controversy exists at all, we have to take a slightly circuitous route.
That route will first consider the language used to discuss psi, since much of the confusion about this topic comes from misunderstood and misapplied words (chapter 1). This is followed by examples of common human experiences that provide hints about the existence and nature of psi phenomena (chapter 2). We will then consider the topic of replication, where we will learn what counts as valid scientific evidence (chapter 3). And we’ll end with meta-analysis, where we will see how replication is measured and why it is so important (chapter 4).
In sum, the motivations underlying this scientific exploration can be found in mythology, folktales, religious doctrines, and innumerable personal anecdotes. While sufficient to catch everyone’s attention, stories and personal experiences do not provide the hard, trustworthy evidence that cause scientists to accept confidently that a claimed effect is what it appears to be. Stories, after all, invariably (wrong) reflect subjective beliefs and faith, which may or may not be true.
Beginning in the 1880’s, and accumulating ever since, a new form of scientifically valid evidence appeared—empirical data produced in controlled, experimental studies. While not as exciting as folklore and anecdotes, from the scientific perspective these data were more meaningful because they were produced according to well-accepted scientific procedures. Scores of scientists from around the world had quietly contributed these studies.
Today, with more than a hundred years of research on this topic, an immense amount of scientific evidence has been accumulated. Contrary to the assertions of some skeptics, the question is not whether there is any scientific evidence, but “What does a proper evaluation of the evidence reveal?” and “Has positive evidence been independently replicated?”
As we’ll see, the question of replicability—can independent, competent investigators obtain approximately the same results in repeated experiments?—is fundamental to making the scientific case for psi.
Theme 2: Evidence
Theme 2 discusses the main categories of psi experiments and the evidence that the effects seen in these experiments are genuinely replicable. The evidence is based on analysis of more than a thousand experiments investigating various forms of telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psychic healing, and psychokinesis (presented in chapters 5 through 9). The evidence for these basic psychic phenomena is so well established that most psi researchers today no longer conduct “proof-oriented” experiments. Instead, they focus on “process-oriented” questions like, What influences psi performance? And How does it work?
Also presented are experiments exploring how psi interacts with more mundane aspects of human experience, such as unusual physical effects associated with the “mass mind” of groups of people (chapter 10), psi effects in casino gambling and lottery games (chapter 11), and applications of psi (chapter 12).
Theme 3: Understanding
The wealth of scientific evidence discussed in theme 2 will show that some psi phenomena exist, and that they are probably expressed in more ways than anyone had previously thought. The vast majority of the information used to make this case has been publicly available for years. One might expect that the growing scientific evidence for genuine psi would have raised great curiosity. Funding would flow, and researchers around the world would be attempting to replicate these effects. After all, the implications of genuine psi are profoundly important for both theoretical and practical reasons. But this has not yet been the case. Few scientists are aware that any scientifically valid case can be made for psi, and fewer still realize that the cumulative evidence is highly persuasive.
In theme 3 we consider why this is so. One reason is that the information discussed here has been suppressed and ridiculed by a relatively small group of highly skeptical philosophers and scientists (chapter 13). Are the skeptics right, and all the scientists reporting successful psi experiments over the past century were simply delusional or incompetent? Or is there another explanation for the skepticism?
We will see that because scientists are also human, the process of evaluating scientific claims is not as pristinely rational or logical as the general public believes (chapter 14). The tendency to adopt a fixed set of beliefs and defend them to the death is incompatible with science, which is essentially a loose confederation of evolving theories in many domains. Unfortunately, this tendency has driven some scientists to continue to defend outmoded, inaccurate worldviews. The tendency is also seen in the behavior of belligerent skeptics who loudly proclaim that widespread belief in psi reflects a decline in the public’s critical thinking ability. One hopes that such skeptics would occasionally apply a little skepticism to their own positions, but history amply demonstrates that science progresses mainly by funerals, not by reason and logic alone.
Understanding why the public has generally accepted the existence of psi and why science has generally rejected it requires an examination of the origins of science (chapter 15). In exploring the clash of beliefs, we will discover that the scientific controversy has had very little to do with the evidence itself, and very much to do with the psychology, sociology, and history of science.
Discussions about underlying assumptions in science rarely surface in skeptical debates over psi, because this topic involved deeply held, often unexamined beliefs about the nature of the world. It is much easier to imagine a potential flaw in one experiment, and use that flaw to cast doubt on an entire class of experiments, than it is to consider the overall results of a thousand similar studies. A related issue is how science deals with anomalies, those extraordinary “damn facts” that challenge mainstream theories. As we look into the nature and value of anomalies, and how scientists react to them, we will also explore the role that prejudice, in the literal sense of “prejudging,” has played in controlling what is presumed to be scientifically valid. Other issues, like how scientific disciplines rarely talk to one another, and the historical abyss between science and religion, make it abundantly clear that if psychic experience were any other form of curious natural phenomena, they would have been adopted long ago by the scientific mainstream on the basis of evidence alone.
Theme 4: Implications
The eventual scientific acceptance of psychic phenomena is inevitable. The origins of acceptance are already brewing through the persuasive weight of the laboratory evidence. Converging theoretical developments from many disciplines are offering glimpses at ways of understanding how psi works (chapter 16). There are explorations of psi effects by major industrial labs, evaluation of claims of psychic healing by the Office of Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes for Health, and articles about psi research appearing in the ‘serious’ media.
As acceptance grows, the implications of psi will become more apparent. But we already know that these phenomena present profound challenges to many aspects of science, philosophy, and religion (chapter 17). These challenges nudge scientists to reconsider basic assumptions about space, time, mind, and matter. Philosophers will rekindle the perennial debates over the role of consciousness in the physical world. Theologians will reconsider the concept of divine intervention, as some phenomena previously considered to be miracles will probably become subject to scientific understanding.
These considerations are long overdue. And exclusive focus on what might be called “the outer world” has led to a grievous split between the private world of human experience and the public world as described by science. In particular, science has provided little understanding of profoundly important human concepts like hope and meaning. The split between objective and the subjective has in the past been dismissed as a nonproblem, or as a problem belonging to religion and not to science.
But this split has also led to major technological blunders, and a rising popular antagonism toward science. This is a pity, because scientific methods are exceptionally powerful tools for overcoming persona biases and building workable models of the ‘truth.’ There is every reason to expect that the same methods that gave us a better understanding of galaxies and genes will also shed light on experiences described by mystics throughout history.
Now let’s explore a little more closely what we’re talking about. What is psi?
Theme 1: Motivation
What is psi? What does it mean to study the scientific evidence for psi? What counts as scientific evidence? How do we evaluate that evidence?
To answer these questions, we’ll begin by considering what is meant by psi, to help distinguish it from the wild, wacky world of the paranormal. We’ll reflect on how some doubts about psi can be traced to confusion over related words like “supernatural,’ and we’ll consider what science is and how it fits into the study of psi.
Next, we’ll ready some case studies that provide the motivation for studying whether what seems to be happening in psi experiences is really happening. Can the real-life anecdotes about psi be confirmed under controlled conditions? Then we’ll cover two very important topics—replication and meta-analysis—that will allow us to make sense of the scientific evidence presented in theme 2.
What Is Psi?
Many errors, of a truth, consist merely in the application of the wrong names of things. Baruch Spinoza
Since primeval times, people have spoken of strange and sometimes profoundly meaningful personal experiences. Such experiences have been reported by the majority of the world’s population and across all cultures. In modern times, they’re still reported by most people, including the majority of college professors. These experiences, called “psychic” or psi, suggest the presence of deep, invisible interconnections among people, and between objects and people. The most curious aspect of psi experiences is that they seem to transcend the usual boundaries of time and space.
For over a century, these very same experiences have been systematically dismissed as impossible, or ridiculed as delusionary, by a small group of influential academics and journalists who have assumed that existing scientific theories are inviolate and complete. This has created a paradox. Many people believe in psi because of their experiences, and yet the defenders of the status quo have insisted that this belief is unjustified.
Paradoxes are extremely important because they point out logical contradictions in assumptions. The first cousins of paradoxes are anomalies, those unexplained oddities that crop up now and again in science. Like paradoxes, anomalies are useful for revealing possible gaps in prevailing theories. Sometimes the gaps and contradictions are resolved peacefully and the old theories are shown to accommodate the oddities after all. But that is not always the case, so paradoxes and anomalies are not much like by scientists who have built their careers on conventional theories. Anomalies present annoying challenges to established ways of thinking, and because theories tend to take on a life of their own, no theory is going to lie down and dies without putting up a strenuous fight.
Though anomalies may be seen as nuisances, the history of science shows that each anomaly carries a seed of potential revolution. If the seed can withstand the herbicides of repeated scrutiny, skepticism, and prejudice, it may germinate. It may then provoke a major breakthrough that reshapes the scientific landscape, allowing new technological and sociological concepts to bloom into a fresh vision of “common sense.’”
A long-held commonsense assumption is that the worlds of the subjective and the objective are distinct, with absolutely no overlap. Subjective is “here, in the head,” and objective is “there, out in the world.” Psi phenomena suggest that the strict subjective-objective dichotomy may instead be part of a continuous spectrum, and that the usual assumptions about space and time are probably too restrictive.
The anomalies fall into three general categories: ESP (extrasensory perception; PK (psychokinesis, or mind-matter interaction), and phenomena suggestive of survival after bodily death, including near-death experiences [NDE], apparitions, and reincarnation…Most scientists who study psi today expect that further research will eventually explain these anomalies in scientific terms. It isn’t clear, though, whether they can be fully understood without significant, possibly revolutionary, expansions of the current state of scientific knowledge.
What’s In A Name?
In popular usage, psychic phenomena may be defined as follows:
telepathy Information exchanged between two or more minds, without the use of the ordinary senses.
clairvoyance Information received from a distance, beyond the reach of the ordinary senses. A French term meaning “clear-seeing.” Also called “remote viewing.”
psychokinesis Mental interaction with animate or inanimate matter. Experiments suggest that it is more accurate to think of psychokinesis as information flowing from mind to matter, rather than the application of mental forces or powers. Also called “mind-matter interaction,” “PK.” And sometimes, “telekinesis.”
precognition Information perceived about future events, where the information could not be inferred by ordinary means. Variations include “premonition,” a foreboding of an unfavorable event, and “presentiment,” a sensing of a future emotion.
ESP Extrasensory perception, a term popularized by J.B. Rhine in the 1930’s. It refers to information perceived by telepathy, clairvoyance, or precognition.
psi A letter of the Greek alphabet used as a neutral form for all ESP-type and psychokinetic phenomena.
OBE Out-of-body experience; an experience of feeling separated from the body. Usually accompanied by visual perceptions reminiscent of clairvoyance.
NDE Near-death experience; an experience sometimes reported by those who are revived from nearly dying. Often refers to a core experience that includes feelings of peace, OBE, seeing lights, and certain other phenomena. Related to psi primarily through the OBE experience.
reincarnation The concept of dying and being reborn into a new life. The strongest evidence for this ancient idea comes from children, some of whom recollect verifiable details of previous lives. Related to psi by similarities to clairvoyance and telepathy.
haunting Recurrent phenomena reported to occur in particular locations, including sightings of apparitions, strange sounds, movements of objects, and other anomalous physical and perceptual effects. Related to psi by similarities to psychokinesis and clairvoyance.
poltergeist Large-scale psychokinetic phenomena previously attributed to spirits but now associated with a living person, frequently and adolescent. From the German for “noisy spirit.”
Mistaking the Map for the Territory
Though the terms listed above are in common usage, scientists who study psi try to think about these phenomena in neutrally descriptive terms. This is because popular labels such as “telepathy” carry strong, unstated connotations that cause us to think we understand more than we actually do. As psycholinguists often point out, it’s very easy to mistake the name of the thing for the thing itself. And when we are not clear about what “the thing” is, mistaking the map for the territory can lead to enormous confusion.
Some names also carry hidden theoretical assumptions. For example, some people have imagined that telepathy may literally be a transfer of mental signals from one mind to another. This commonly provokes the image of “mental radio,” which has been proposed by various people over the years, including the author Upton Sinclair, who wrote a famous book by that title.
The concept of “mental radio” naturally suggests that telepathy is based on something like electromagnetic signaling. Brain-wave signals, however, are exceptionally weak, and in cases of telepathy where the “receiver” and “sender” are many miles apart, it is difficult to imagine that anything could detect the infinitesimally tiny signals “broadcast” from the sender. Still, because psi does not fit easily into conventional theories, researchers have repeatedly put the “electromagnetic” theories to the test. The results show that when telepathic receivers are isolated by heavy-duty electromagnetic and magnetic shielding (specially constructed rooms with steel and copper walls), or by extreme distance, they are still able to obtain information from a sender without using the ordinary senses.
So we know that telepathy doesn’t work like conventional electromagnetic signaling. And yet, because the metaphor provides a powerful way of thinking about telepathy, many people still imagine that telepathy “works” through some form of mental radio.
Besides the problems that can arise from taking labels too literally, the strength of the evidence for various categories of psi varies widely. Simply labeling an effect without qualifications tends to give the false impression that all these phenomena stand on equally firm scientific ground, and this is not the case.
Keep in mind that the names and concepts used to describe psi say more about the situations in which the phenomena are observed than about any fundamental properties of the phenomena themselves. This is always true in science but is often glossed over for the sake of simplicity. Depending on what we wish to measure, a photon can be either a wave or a particle. We may call it one thing or the other, but that does not change what it “really” is, something that is neither a wave nor a particle, but apparently both at once.
In addition, in scientific practice many of the basic terms for psi effects are accompanied by strings of qualifiers such as “apparent,” “putative,” and “ostensible.” This is because many claims supposedly involving psi may not be caused by psi, but by normal psychological or misinterpreted physical factors. Here we avoid the repetitive use of qualifiers because they can become monotonous. But it is useful to remember that science deals with hypothesis, theories, and models, and not with absolutes. Every scientific concept carries some qualification.
What Are We Talking About?
Psi research continues to be controversial partly because of confusion about the term ‘paranormal.’ The common view of the paranormal especially as reflected in popular media, is of anything bizarre, occult, or mysterious. In this view, ESP, telepathy, and precognition are lumped together with ‘bleeding’ statues, alien abductions, and five-headed toads.
Other terms commonly used to refer to all things strange include supernatural, psi, psychic, parapsychological, mystical, esoteric, occult, and for some unfathomable reason, ‘PSI,’ pronounced letter by letter, p, s, i, as though that meant something (it doesn’t in this context). The indiscriminate mixing of these terms has led to vast misunderstandings. There really is a difference between the scientific study of psi phenomena and say, the belief that Elvis has reincarnated into a forty-pound zucchini that bears a striking resemblance to the late King of Rock and Roll. To clarify precisely what is meant by the phrase ‘scientific study of psi phenomena’ and to prepare for the concept of replication in science, we mus briefly consider five concepts: paranormal, supernatural, mystical, science, and the scientific method…
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines paranormal as ‘beyond the range of scientifically known phenomena.’ Note that this definition does not specify psychic phenomena per se, so paranormal can be used to refer to any unexplained, but potentially explainable, phenomenon. Also note that the definition uses the phrase ‘scientifically known,’ which itself raises a rather complicated issue involving the scientific method and the nature of evidence and proof in science. For now, let us take paranormal to mean something like ‘beyond the range of phenomena presently accepted by most scientists.
Many subjects now considered perfectly legitimate areas of scientific inquiry, including hypnosis, dreams, hallucinations, and subliminal perception, were relegated to the wackiest fringes of the paranormal in the late nineteenth century. A few hundred years before that, topics like physics, astronomy, and chemistry were so far out that those who merely dabbled in them risked accusations of heresy, or worse.
This simply points out that science, like most other things, is part of an evolutionary process: odd events considered paranormal eventually become normal after satisfactory scientific explanations
are developed. In this sense—although some scientists would probably shudder at the analogy—virtually all cutting-edge, basic research can be viewed as the systematic practice of probing and explaining the paranormal.
Curiously, many effects that science cannot explain are generally not regarded as paranormal. In psychology, for example, there are some remarkable but completely unexplained phenomena such as photographic memory…lightening calculation in autistic savants…extraordinary musical aptitude in prodigies who seem to spring from the womb ready for Carnegie Hall, and so on.
Perhaps the most widely accepted, yet totally baffling phenomenon is conscious awareness itself, but this too is not regarded as paranormal. Thus in general usage ‘paranormal’ has taken on a connotation of the eerie, bizarre, or ominous in addition to its dictionary meaning. As Marcello Truzzi, a sociologist at Western Michigan, says:
‘The term paranormal was created to designate phenomena considered natural—not supernatural—and which eventually should find scientific explanation but thus far has escaped such explanations…Unfortunately, many critics of the paranormal continue to equate anything purportedly paranormal with the supernatural. This is particularly ironic since those who truly believe in the supernatural (such as the Roman Catholic Church when it speaks of miracles) have long understood that a paranormal explanation precludes a supernatural one.’
Supernatural has several meanings; the usual is ‘miraculous; ascribed to agencies or powers above or beyond nature; divine.’ Because science is commonly regarded as a method of studying the natural world, a supernatural phenomenon is by this definition unexplainable by, and therfore totally incompatible with science.
Today, a few religious traditions continue to maintain that psi is supernatural and therefore not amenable to scientific study. But a few hundred years ago virtually all natural phenomena were thought to be manifestations of supernatural agencies and spirits. Through years of systematic investigation, many of these phenomena are now understood in quite ordinary terms. Thus, it is entirely reasonable to expect that so-called miracles are simply indicators of our present ignorance. Any such events may be more properly labeled first as paranormal, then as normal once we have developed an acceptable scientific explanation. As astronaut Edgar Mitchell put it:
‘There are no unnatural or supernatural phenomena, only very large gaps in our knowledge of what is natural, particularly regarding relatively rare occurrences.’
Mystical refers to the direct perception of reality, knowledge derived directly rather than indirectly. In many respects, mysticism is surprisingly similar to science in that it is a systematic method of exploring the nature of the world. Science concentrates on outer, objective phenomena, and mysticism concentrates on inner, subjective phenomena. It is interesting that numerous scientists, scholars, and sages over the years have revealed deep, underlying similarities between the goals, practices, and findings of science and mysticism. Some of the most famous scientists wrote in terms that are practically indistinguishable from the writings of mystics.
Science may be defined as a well-accepted body of facts and a method of observing these facts. Scientists are quick to disagree, however, over what ‘well-accepted’ means, what ‘facts’ mean, what ‘methods’ mean, what ‘mean’ means, and even sometimes what ‘and’ means. As a result, the definition of science depends to a large extent on whom you ask. We are not too far off the mark by repeating the pithy phrase ‘science is what scientists do.’ In any case, most scientists would probably agree that what made science great is the scientific method. So what’s this method, and why is it so great?
If scientists cannot easily agree on what science is, then it seems unlikely that they can agree on something more complex like ‘the’ scientific method. Psychologists Robert Rosenthal of Harvard University and Ralph Rosnow of Temple University maintain that ‘scientific method’ is difficult to define because “the term ‘scientific method’ is itself surrounded by controversy, and is a misnomer to boot, since there are many recognized and legitimate methods of science.”
A common element among most varieties of scientific method is the use of controlled and disciplined obvservation. However, observation alone is insufficient. As philosopher Jerome Black wrote, “Neither observation, nor generalization, nor the hypothetic-deductive use of assumptions, nor the use of instruments, nor mathematical construction—nor all of them together—can be regarded as essential to science…
The specialness of the scientific method can be illustrated…by comparing it with earlier, prescientific methods of pursuing knowledge. As L.L. White explained, “About 1600 Kepler and Galileo simultaneously and independently formulated the principle that the laws of nature are to be discovered by measurement, and applied this principle in their own work. Where Aristotle had classified, Kepler and Galileo sought to measure.
In addition to careful observation and measurements, a fundamental strength of the scientific method is its reliance on public, consensus, agreement that the measurements are in fact correct.
This differs dramatically from earlier approaches to knowledge, such as the logical arguments favored by philosophers, or the dogmatic acceptance of scripture demanded by religious authorities.
The idea of public agreement about measurements has led to the strong requirement in science (at least in the experimental sciences) that phenomena must be independently and repeatedly measurable to allow this consensus to form. In other words, the idea of repeatability, or replication, has become roughly equivalent to a test for stability.
If a phenomena is highly unstable, we can’t be sure whether we re measuring a real effect, some other effect, or just random variations. With this sort of confusion, no consensus can be reached and the existence of the effect in question remains in doubt. Scientists in the seventeenth century had not yet developed methods of clearly distinguishing between real effects and chance, so they were forced to bypass many interesting physical, biological, and psychological phenomena—in fact, almost everything studied in sciences today. Fortunately, some physical and astronomical effects were stable enough ( or were precisely periodic) that early attempts at measurement were successful. Without such stable effects, science as we know it would have failed miserably and we would still be arguing as in Aristotle’s time. Such philosophical debates typically went something like: Yes, it is so. No, it is not so. Yes, it is. No it isn’t. Tis! Tisn’t…