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parapsychology

Across the Great Divide

February, 2013

“What does science have to fear from parapsychology?”

Last month we discussed some interesting points about science and the unanswered questions raised by parapsychology; a noted professor even attempted to explain some of the principles studied by researchers through the application of mathematical reasoning.

However, the underlying question remains: just why, more than 100 years later, does mainstream science still laugh off members of the field as one would their wacky uncle at Thanksgiving dinner?

The clichéd question many skeptics like to use is that if psychics are real, why do none of them ever win the lottery?

In “Science & Psychic Phenomena: The Fall of the House of Skeptics,” Chris Carter contends that psychic powers have not been conclusively proven because scientists are either blissfully ignorant of the available research or they simply refuse to take what is published seriously.

Why? Just what do they have to fear from opening their minds to new possibilities? Isn’t that what science is supposed to be all about?

The hardline opponents most often refuse to acknowledge the existence of paranormal phenomenon because to do otherwise would cause a paradigm shift in how the universe is viewed through the collective mind of humanity’s adolescent intellectual level.

Skeptics and scientists are as deeply committed to maintaining the status quo of their belief structure as anyone else is. There’s a psychological defense- a certain comfort level- involved in the avoidance of a possibility, however improbable, that they could be wrong.

This belief results in closed minds, but this adherence to the status quo only applies to theories presented by members of the study of parapsychology; in mainstream scientific circles a theory that could shatter long-standing laws of physics isn’t laughed off so readily.

In September 2011, news shot around the world that Italian physicists had measured particles traveling faster than light. If validated, it would have violated the fundamental laws of physics and completely change our understanding of the Universe.

The reaction from the scientific community to the news was not one of ignorance- they didn’t brand the scientists hoaxers and quacks; they didn’t shout, “Blasphemy, ye witch! Burn!”

Instead, they did what any reputable scientists does when confronted with such a challenge: they took a closer look and tried to replicate the research. As it turned out, the anomaly was caused by measurement and mechanical errors in the original experiment.

Such scientific brotherhood is not generally the case when it comes to theories presented by psychical research; every now and then, though, an exception is made.

A study published in a 2011 edition of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Cornell professor Daryl J. Bem claimed to have found strong evidence for the existence of psychic powers such as ESP; it quickly made headlines around the academic world for its implication that psychic powers had been- finally- scientifically proven.

Bem’s claim wasn’t ridiculed or ignored; instead it was taken seriously and tested by scientific researchers; replication, being the benchmark of any valid scientific research, should be able to replicate the findings. If not, then the findings could be summarily written off as random variations and errors.

So, a team of researchers set out to replicate Bem’s experiment and found no evidence for psychic powers. Their results were published and Bem publicly acknowledged that the findings did not support his claims and wrote that the researchers had “made a competent, good-faith effort to replicate the results of one of my experiments on precognition.”

While this was a heartwarming exception to the “black-sheep-of-the-family rule,” the reason that research looking into psychic powers and hauntings are rejected by the scientific community is simply because there hasn’t been that jaw-dropping discovery to make the world scream in unison, “Holy crap! Sorry, dude, we were wrong. Our bad.” (Yes, some major players in the scientific community do talk like that- they aren’t all stiffs with accents and bow ties)

The evidence for psychical phenomenon, like anything else, rests solely on its own merits. Better research follows with better evidence; and as technology readily catches up with the theories that began over a century ago, the answers may finally come. So we patiently await that Nobel prize moment that changes the course of human understanding. It may not be tomorrow, next week, or next year, but the possibility, however slight, should not rule out the quest for it as absurd or wasteful.

There’s no reason that science should fear or dismiss the study of the unknown. That’s the one thing that unites us all- our insatiable desire to question everything and the adventure essential to the quest.

 

© 2013 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Across the Great Divide

February, 2012

Do We Need Parapsychology?

When one speaks about a topic which is controversial it is important to understand the concept of a paradigm, or underlying worldview. It can be thought of as a framework of beliefs which are so taken for granted that most people are not even aware they have made any assumptions. A paradigm helps us to make sense of the world around us. In terms of science, it not only determines what is true, but how truth itself is determined. There is an obvious “catch 22” to this. If one doesn’t recognize the underlying assumptions made with a paradigm, it has the potential to limit our perception of the world, what we can discover, and how we can determine that knowledge.

The old paradigm, which many have held since the days of Descartes, states that the subjective and objective worlds are completely distinct, with no overlap. Subjective is “here, in the head,” and objective is “there, out in the world.” The Cartesian paradigm presupposes that there are objective ways to define and measure the fixed external world, which the followers of this paradigm would say is the only world that matters.

Writer and philosopher Elbert Hubbard (1857-1915) eloquently quipped that “the supernatural is the natural, just not yet understood.”

The formal scientific study of paranormal phenomena began in 1882 with the foundation of the Society for Psychical Research in London, England. Early efforts attempted to dissociate psychical phenomena from the pop culture trend of Spiritualism and superstition, and to investigate mediums and their claims of evoking spirits or apparitions.

But 100 years later most people still think that paranormal research is either a group armed with night-vision tech stumbling around buildings in the dark in search of ghosts and fame, or simply the study of any subject that is weird or bizarre (i.e. Bigfoot and UFOs/aliens). Parapsychology is, and has always been, so much more than the former, and has nothing at all to do with the latter.

Paranormal research does NOT concern itself with UFOs, urban legends, vampires, witchcraft, or mythical creatures (a study known as cryptozoology). What parapsychology DOES study is the seemingly abnormal qualities of the physical universe in a scientific quest to find order and meaning in life. It is the ultimate exploration of the human condition and the discovery of all that the brain is capable of becoming; some of these concepts the legendary Carl Jung touched on with his theories of the collective unconscious and synchronicity.

A lot of people inappropriately use it as a synonym for “paranormal investigators,” such as when referencing the cast of Ghost Hunters or Paranormal Adventures; what’s more, parapsychologists have also been linked with “psychic” entertainers, magicians, and illusionists. Some self-proclaimed “psychic practitioners” even falsely claim to be parapsychologists, going so far as to wave about bogus doctoral credentials.

This is not to say that all psychics are that way. I am personally acquainted with a few very adept and talented psychics here in the Detroit area. Life, however, is rarely as glamorous as Hollywood portrays for them. At best they are ignored or written off as delusional; at worst they are harassed and fired from work. Often psychics are exploited by mainstream media for fluff pieces in October, and mocked by the same the other 11 months of the year.

There are the inevitable frauds, scammers, and crooks. This is an unfortunate truth, and a few bad apples have spoiled it for everyone else. It is inexcusable that these charlatans con money out of vulnerable and naïve people. This is why no respectable group ever charges for its services.

It should be noted that many parapsychologists take an empirical, data-oriented approach to psi phenomena. However, some researchers regard the current findings of parapsychology as having a wide variety of important implications about the spiritual, physical, and psychological nature of humankind.

Parapsychology is fascinating because of the implications it places on society, science, and how we understand the very nature of existence. Psi phenomena suggests that what science knows about the nature of the universe is incomplete; that the accepted limitations of human potential have been underestimated; that western assumptions and philosophical beliefs about the separation of mind and body may be incorrect; and that religious assumptions about the divine nature of miracles might have been misguided.

Physicists have an interest because of the proposition that we have a misunderstanding about space and time, and the transfer of energy and information.

Biologists are interested because psi implies the existence of non-physical methods of sensing the world.

Psychologists are interested in the theories regarding the nature of perception and memory.

Philosophers are interested because psi phenomena specifically address many age-old philosophical debates concerning the role of the mind in the physical world, and the nature of the objective vs. the subjective.

Theologians and the general public tend to be interested because personal psi experiences are often accompanied by feelings of profound, deep meaning.

A cornerstone of the current scientific worldview is that human consciousness is nothing more than a result of the functioning of brain, body, and nervous system. No matter how different the mind may seem from solid matter, it is generated solely by electrochemical functioning and so it is absolutely dependent on it. When the brain dies, so does consciousness.   From this perspective, claims of the survival of bodily death and the resulting apparitions are mere wishful thinking. Furthermore, the limits of material functioning automatically determine the limits of mental functioning, thus ESP and PK are impossible, given the establishment’s understanding of how the world works.

Still, psi phenomena have occurred in all cultures throughout history, and continue to occur; and some of the reported phenomena have been convincingly verified using scientific methods. Because psi seems to transcend the assumed limits of material functioning some interpret psi as supporting the idea that there is something more to the mind than just the firing of neurons and electrochemical reactions.

This “non-physical” aspect, which is not restricted by space or time, might survive bodily death. If so, there may be important truths contained in some spiritual ideas and practices.

The research in parapsychology may have implications for spiritual concepts but parapsychologists are not driven by some hidden spiritual agenda. Some critics of parapsychology seem to believe that all parapsychologists have hidden religious motives, and that they are really out to prove the existence of the soul. This argument is as absurd as claiming that all chemists have a secret agenda in alchemy, and the quest to attain riches by turning lead into gold.

Despite all its claims, there are just some things that mainstream science can’t explain about the universe. Parapsychology really acts as the center of scientific doctrine and theory, with lines leading to and from every branch of the other sciences. Together they form an intricate web of knowledge and understanding that is only limited by the egotistical whimsy of those who think they know all there is to know about the nature of the universe based on their blind obedience to one limited train of thought.

© 2012 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Across the Great Divide

December, 2009

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Parapsychology Today

The scientific study of the paranormal has been established for well over 100 years and although the members of the field take experimentation and theoretical discussion quite seriously, it remains the subject of ridicule by many in the general scientific community and the public. While his formal education has been in mainstream clinical psychology, R. Wolf Baldassarro has been a participant in investigations and an ardent scholar of the latest theories and data since the mid 1990’s regarding the field of psychical research. Beginning in 2005 he returned to full-time paranormal investigations and in January of 2009 created the Paranormal Research & Information Society of Michigan (PRISM) to study, catalogue, and educate the public on paranormal phenomena. The personal experiences and scientific studies have provided Wolf not only with a wealth of knowledge but first-hand observations of paranormal phenomena.

In recent years the practice of ghost hunting has increased in popularity due to various reality television shows, prompting interest in all levels of groups from teenagers just looking for a good time and a cheap thrill to serious scientific inquiries and experimentation. Many of today’s so-called ghost hunters consist of teens and young adults sneaking into cemeteries and abandoned buildings at night with little respect for local law, citizenry, or the deceased. Some are simply worried about being taken seriously by landowners or lack the knowledge of how to go about obtaining permission and the necessary permits.  Concerned with the lack of integrity and sincerity in many of these groups and the need for better understanding of the theories and data-gathering equipment he wrote a comprehensive reference book that separates the facts from the fiction with regards to the do’s and don’ts of a proper and professional investigation called “A Ghost Hunter’s Field Guide”.

The specific genre and subculture of interest is still quite new in literary markets, with many books of the genre simply recounting narratives of case studies and displaying a limited understanding or amateur knowledge of the terms and tech. This concise field guide stands apart from so many others in the genre by providing not only a detailed history of parapsychology but the wide range of terms, theories, phenomena, tools, and technology used and encountered in parapsychological study in an unbiased manner through examining both the pros and cons of popular tools and analytical techniques. Being an experienced and practicing shaman he even delves into working with spirit communication and psychic shielding.  It also includes local legends of the Detroit area, such as the ghosts of Belle Isle, and a sample of investigations he has either been a part of or are of particular interest to further explore. Step-by-step instructions are given in great detail for a thorough and scientific investigation of paranormal claims by someone educated and actively participating in the field of study from the founder of Michigan’s premier ghost hunting and paranormal resource organization. As such, A Ghost Hunters Field Guide would not only be an indispensible aid to those in the field, but of interest to any fan of the paranormal or local history.

International interest in PRISM continues to grow and the group’s active participation on sites like Facebook and MySpace continues to draw attention and requests for information and investigations by other groups, fans, local businesses, and residents. With this rising international recognition of PRISM, a vast network of ghost hunting groups around the world, scientists and theorists in the educational community, and fans of such shows as Sci-Fi’s Ghost Hunters and Ghost Hunters International, the potential of major theoretical discussions and discoveries is immeasurable. The book is extremely well written and designed to make it a priceless reference while in the field by providing a working knowledge of everything you need to make your own investigation a success.

“The easy part was writing A Ghost Hunter’s Field Guide”, Wolf explains.  “The hard part is generating a buzz within the network of ghost hunting organizations around the world.”

Based on how popular the subject is today and confident that the information is not only correct, but to the point and as up-to-date as possible, the book and its topics are sure to stand the test of time along such international names in the literature of parapsychology as Loyd Auerbach and Hanz Holzer. The educational and practical applications of the material are sure to become models for paranormal study and the topics generated are clearly observed in the group’s tagline, “All possibilities are seen when looking through a PRISM”.

*Note from the author- Hello and greetings to the readers of Pagan Pages.  When not busy pursuing the mysteries of the afterlife with Paranormal Research & Information Society of Michigan (PRISM) I write novels, poetry, and blogs on various subjects. I have been a repeat guest of the Magick Taboo podcast and my literary accomplishments include having been twice featured in the Mused BellaOnline Literary Review, releasing 4 self-published books as well as art prints of selected poetry works, and I have been a special advisor on the Konxari card project by the IRM Foundation. It is my hope that readers of Across the Great Divide will experience enjoyable yet thought-provoking content.  Each month we will explore the mysteries of the unknown together as we discuss the world of the paranormal in entertainment and in science.  There will undoubtedly be controversial topics from time to time but they will be broached and discussed fairly and equally.  It is my hope that we all learn from each other and benefit from each others experiences and knowledge.  You are invited to submit questions, comments, and concerns to me at any time via my email at [email protected] In future columns I will present for the entire readership one question or comment from the mail bag for discussion.  For more information about me please visit http://www.deepforestproductions.com.