The Magical World of Parapsychology
Parapsychology is a fruitless quest for "spiritual truths".
Posted Oct 10, 2012
Part 1 of this article discussed Daryl Bem’s studies on precognition and the failure of subsequent studies to replicate his results. This second part discusses reasons for the incompatibility of parapsychology with modern science and possible reasons why interest in this field persists in spite of its continued failure to establish its validity. Belief in the paranormal is commonly associated with magical thinking and mystical belief. Many parapsychologists seem to be motivated by a desire to establish the reality of a nonmaterial dimension of existence, and in particular that of the human soul.
Alcock (1987) has argued that there are two main views on what psychic phenomena (psi) might represent if real. One view is that psi will ultimately turn out to be something physical that will eventually be incorporated into an expanded version of the worldview of normal science. Other phenomena that were once regarded as inexplicable, such as the ability of bats to navigate in the dark, or of birds to navigate over thousands of miles, have eventually been explained in physical terms acceptable to modern science. In this view, psi will eventually be shown not to be ‘paranormal’ at all.
The other view is that psi is a manifestation of a nonphysical dimension of existence. In this view, psi represents a “radically different relationship between consciousness and the physical world” than is accepted as possible by modern science (Alcock, 1987). Therefore, disputes about psi represent a clash between two conflicting views about reality. The monistic materialistic view currently accepted in neuroscience regards mind as an emergent manifestation of brain processes. The view of many parapsychologists is the dualistic one that regards mind as at least partially independent of the brain. Parapsychology originally developed in the nineteenth century out of attempts to scientifically validate the concept of survival of consciousness/personality after bodily death, and this subject is still researched by parapsychologists today.
According to a survey 56% of parapsychologists believed that the results of parapsychological research indicate a non-material basis of life or thought, whilst 43% disagreed, and 1% had no opinion (Akers, 1987). This finding indicates that although there is diversity in what parapsychologists believe, the majority of parapsychologists do believe in a non-material dimension of reality, and hence believe in mind-body dualism. Many people feel that the existence of psi has important spiritual implications. According to Kennedy (2005), paranormal experiences are similar to mystical ones in that they result in an increased sense of meaning in life, interconnectedness, and spirituality. A survey of people who believe they have had paranormal or transcendent experiences found that 72% agreed that as a result of these experiences they believed that a higher power was watching over them.
Research has found that paranormal belief and experience, as well as mystical experience, are positively correlated with a number of psychological characteristics including absorption, magical ideation, fantasy proneness, creative personality, and manic experience (Thalbourne & Storm, 2012). The researchers argue that underlying all these tendencies is a psychological trait known as transliminality, “the tendency for psychological material (imagery, ideation, affect, and perception) to cross thresholds into or out of consciousness.” In other words, both paranormal and mystical beliefs are related to a propensity for imagination and fantasy.
As noted in a previous article, transliminality has also been used to explain why a substantial minority of scientists hold religious beliefs in spite of their commitment to empiricism (MacPherson & Kelly, 2011). MacPherson and Kelly found that religious scientists were higher than non-religious scientists in both self-rated creativity and in magical thinking, indicating greater acceptance of unconventional views of reality. Transliminality might be a factor in why parapsychologists persist in investigating paranormal phenomena in spite of the weight of evidence against psi. Alcock (1987) has criticised parapsychology as being incompatible with modern science because of its “anything goes, anything is possible” attitude. No speculation seems too wild for psi researchers. There seems to be no constraints on how psi is supposed to operate – it can work forwards or backwards in time, across thousands of miles of distance, or even between animals and objects. Psi operates like wishful thinking and no skill or knowledge is needed to make it work. Therefore, parapsychology might be attractive to people who are naturally prone to transliminality themselves. As noted in part 1, at least some parapsychologists believe that an experimenter’s attitudes to psi have can have a paranormal effect on their participants’ results (the “experimenter effect”). This is an outright appeal to magical thinking to explain inconsistencies in research findings. Kennedy (2005) has argued that psi is difficult to replicate because of its ‘capricious’ and uncontrollable nature. This hardly seems indistinguishable from saying that psi only occurs when God or some higher power decides so. From an empirical perspective, a phenomenon that cannot be predicted or replicated lies beyond the realms of science.
Some people have argued that although science has been successful in giving us greater control over our environment, it cannot provide a sense of meaning and purpose in life that has been traditionally provided through religion and spirituality (Kennedy, 2005). Although not all parapsychologists see psi as an indicator of a nonmaterial dimension of reality, spiritual motives do seem to be important for many of these investigators. This would seem to present a problem. A person seeking purpose, meaning in life and self-transcendence is hardly likely to find much help from parapsychology. Recent failed attempts to replicate Bem’s findings on precognition reflect a broader and repeated failure of the field to demonstrate the existence of psi, let alone that mind exists independently of the brain. Over a hundred years ago Frederic Myers argued that the duty of psychical researchers was “the expansion of science herself.” However, parapsychology seems to be incompatible with what is generally considered science and seems more akin to a fruitless form of mysticism. Former parapsychologist turned skeptic Susan Blackmore has described how she came to realize the futility of trying to prove that psi exists and her decision to move on to more productive research efforts. Sam Harris has argued that people can experience self-transcendence without necessarily believing in a non-material dimension of reality. This is an area that could be investigated empirically. Scientific research grounded in evidence is far more likely to produce insights into the nature of the relationship between consciousness and reality than the magical “anything goes” approach of parapsychology.
© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.
Parapsychology and Science by James E. Alcock - succinct explanation of major problems that have prevented parapsychology being accepted as a science.
Other posts about the psychology of religion and/or spirituality
Akers, C. (1987). Parapsychology is science, but its findings are inconclusive. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 10(4), 566-568.
Alcock, J. E. (1987). Parapsychology: Science of the anomalous or search for the soul? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 10(4), 553-643.
Kennedy, J. E. (2005). Personality and motivation to believe, misbelieve, and disbelieve in paranormal phenomena. Journal of Parapsychology, 69(2), 263-291.
MacPherson, J. S., & Kelly, S. W. (2011). Creativity and positive schizotypy influence the conflict between science and religion. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(4), 446-450. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.11.002
Thalbourne, M. A., & Storm, L. (2012). Has the Sheep-Goat Variable Had Its Day? Testing Transliminality as a Psi Predictor. Australian Journal of Parapsychology, 12(1), 69-80.