The data of parapsychology challenge deeply held worldviews, worldviews that are concerned not only with science, but also with religious and philosophical issues.
About the Author
Articles in This Issue
Debating Psychic Experience: Human Potential or Human Illusion?
“[The] evolution of modern thought can be seen as emerging from a constant struggle between sacred-religious and secular-scientific beliefs.”
The following abridged excerpt is taken from the chapter entitled “Persistent Denial: A Century of Denying the Evidence” by Chris Carter, author of Parapsychology and the Skeptics: A Scientific Argument for the Existence of ESP (Sterling House, 2007). This excerpt, along with Dean Radin’s feature article, “Getting the Facts Straight,” represent our final words (for now) on the current storm of controversy over the anticipated publication of a report in a mainstream academic journal suggesting that psi phenomenon is real. Our purpose is to raise issues not so much of evidential validity but of ideology and belief in exploring the enduring passion of resistance to psi data. We suspect that this resistance is more ideological than methodological, and compromises most attempts at a reasoned and objective discussion of the research and its implications. And yet quite ironically, those opposed to evidence of psi make the same claims about its advocates.
The controversy over the existence of psychic phenomena, now commonly called psi, has been raging for centuries. But it is only in the last 100 years that psychical researchers, now commonly called parapsychologists, have been mostly confined to their laboratories in order to gather experimental evidence. The anecdotal evidence is easy to question and dismiss, and so the critics have demanded – quite reasonably – reliable experimental evidence for the existence of psi. Has such evidence been provided?
I argue that consistent, replicable evidence has in fact been provided. If this were any other field of inquiry, the controversy would have been settled by the data decades ago. However, parapsychology is not like any other field of inquiry. The data of parapsychology challenge deeply held worldviews, worldviews that are concerned not only with science, but also with religious and philosophical issues. As such, the evidence arouses strong passions, and for many, a strong desire to dismiss it.
We should be astonished that this controversy has continued for as long as it has. And in the minds of many, it continues with no end in sight. I am convinced that the key to a rational resolution of this matter lies in realizing that this controversy is not primarily about evidence, but rather about competing worldviews. This means that our analysis of the controversy must be broadened far beyond data sets and significance levels. The engineer George Hansen (2007), who has extensively researched the skeptical movement, recently wrote:
Professional parapsychology is currently dominated by psychologists and physicists. They are largely unfamiliar with the concepts, tools, and methods of analysis developed in the humanities and social sciences. As such, they fail to comprehend the extent of their predicament, and the reasons for their marginality. (p. 11)
It is impossible to fully understand this controversy without realizing that it has a strong ideological component. The ideology involved is a product of the unique history of Western civilization. Until the 18th century, the great majority of our philosophers and scientists took for granted the existence of psychic phenomena. Among educated men, all of this changed with the dawn of the Scientific Revolution, spanning the period between the birth of Galileo in 1564 and the death of Newton in 1727. During this period the universe came to be viewed as a gigantic clockwork mechanism, operating as a self-regulating machine in accordance with inviolable laws.
These views became prevalent in the 18th century, during what became known as the Enlightenment, which can be thought of as the ideological aftermath of the Scientific Revolution. Its most striking feature was the rejection of dogma and tradition in favor of the rule of reason in human affairs, and it was the precursor of modern secular humanism. Inspired by the dazzling success of developments in physics, prominent spokespeople such as Diderot and Voltaire argued for a worldview based upon an uncompromising materialism that left no room for any intervention of mind in nature, whether human or divine. The science of Newton, Galileo, and Kepler had given birth to a new metaphysics – philosophical assumptions about the nature of reality – which simply could not accommodate the reality of psi phenomena.
The horrors of the religious wars, the witch hunts, and the Inquisition were still fresh in peoples’ minds, and the new scientific worldview can be seen partly as a reaction against the ecclesiastical domination over beliefs that the Church had held for centuries. By 1700, many educated men and women considered such things as “second sight” to be incredible at best, and vulgar superstition at worse. Lingering widespread belief in the reality of these phenomena was considered to be the unfortunate legacy of a superstitious, irrational, pre-scientific era. The current counteradvocates of parapsychology are those who see themselves as heirs of the Enlightenment, guardians of rationality who must at all costs discredit any dangerous backsliding into superstition.
There seems to be a growing realization that ideological factors play a crucial role in several scientific controversies. The philosopher Tyler Burge (1993) has argued that the naturalistic view of the world is more like a political or religious ideology than like a position supported by evidence, and that materialism is an article of faith. More to the current point, the neuroscientist Mario Beauregard (2007) has written:
Materialists have conducted a running war against psi research for decades, because any evidence of psi’s validity, no matter how minor, is fatal to their ideological system. Recently, for example, self-professed skeptics have attacked atheist…Sam Harris for having proposed, in his book titled The End of Faith (2004), that psi research has validity. Harris is only following the evidence. But in doing so, he is clearly violating an important tenet of materialism: materialist ideology trumps evidence. (p. xii)
[And so] this debate is not primarily about evidence but about frameworks of understanding – or to be precise, about scientific and philosophic assumptions that cannot accommodate the reality of psi. One hundred years ago classical physics was widely assumed – with certainty – to be correct and complete. The dogmatism of the current counter-advocates is, in part, a legacy of this outmoded science, whose implications are contradicted by the existence of psi.
What, we may ask, are they afraid of? Their thinking must go something like this: If we admit to the reality of psi, then our scientific assumptions are shown to be false. If we admit this, what will then happen to society? If we open the door a crack, what will come through? The collapse of science? Prayer in schools, holy wars, religious persecution, even a theocracy? We simply cannot let that happen!
For my part, I am impressed by how many contemporary physicists and philosophers – especially younger ones – are rejecting the doctrine of materialism. (Whitehead (2004) has presented survey results that support a shift among consciousness researchers from materialist toward non-materialist views.) If my instincts are correct, then in the next few decades materialism will join fascism and communism on history’s ash heap of discredited ideas.
It seems fitting to conclude this essay with a quote from Charles Honorton (1993), pioneer of the Ganzfeld experiments [a form of research that relies in part on sensory deprivation]. Shortly before his sudden death at age 46 in 1992, Honorton wrote his classic article “Rhetoric over Substance,” which he concluded with these words:
There is a danger for science in encouraging self-appointed protectors who engage in polemical campaigns that distort and misrepresent serious research efforts. Such campaigns are not only counterproductive, they threaten to corrupt the spirit and function of science and raise doubts about its credibility. The distorted history, logical contradictions, and factual omissions exhibited not in the arguments of the critics represent neither scholarly criticism nor skepticism, but rather counteradvocacy masquerading as skepticism. True skepticism involves the suspension of belief, not disbelief. In this context we would do well to recall the words of the great nineteenth century naturalist and skeptic, Thomas Huxley: “Sit down before fact like a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly to wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.” (p. 214)
Excerpted from Debating Psychic Experience: Human Potential or Human Illusion?, Stanley Krippner and Harris L. Friedman, Editors. Copyright (c) 2010 by Stanley Krippner and Harris L. Friedman. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of ABC-CLIO, LLC, Santa Barbara, CA.
From Friday, April 1, through Sunday, April 3, Stanley Krippner will faciliate a workshop entitled "Your Soul's Story: Finding the Deeper Meaning of Your Life" at IONS' EarthRise retreat center on the IONS campus in Petaluma, CA. For workshop details, go here.
Beauregard, M. (2007). The spiritual brain. New York: HarperCollins.
Burge, T. (1993). Mind-body causation and explanatory practice. In J. Heil & A. Mele (Ed.), Mental causation (pp. 97-120). Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.
Hansen, G. (2007, October 23). CSICOP to CSI: The stigma of the paranormal. Retrieved on September, 23,2009, from www.paranormaltrickster.blogspot.com/2007/10/csicop-to-csi-stigma-of-paranormal.html.
Honorton, C. (1993). Rhetoric over substance: The impoverished state of skepticism. Journal of Parapsychology, 57, 191-214.
Whitehead, C. (2004). Everything I believe might be a delusion. Whoa! Tucson 2004: Ten years on, and are we any nearer to a science of consciousness? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 11, 68-88.