Across the Great Divide

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