Saturday, August 21, 2010

TCI – SP5 – Eric Ouellet – Actualizing Parapsychology

Before actualizing parapsychology, I would like first to ensure that it is done from a common understanding for all our readers. There are a lot of misunderstandings about what is parapsychology. If you are well aware of what parapsychology is all about, then please jump directly to the section Actualizing parapsychology.

What is parapsychology?

Parapsychology is a scientific sub-discipline of psychology. Although many people think of the characters in the movie Ghostbusters to identify what is parapsychology, or alternately associate it with New Age books on the shelf "Parapsychology" of a bookstore, it has little resemblance to both of these perspectives.

Most agree that the founders of modern parapsychology are Joseph Bank Rhine (1895-1980) and his wife Louisa Ella Rhine (1891-1983). Joseph Rhine had a Ph.D. in botany and started to work as a professor at Duke University in 1927. He quickly developed an interest in abnormal psychology. This interest eventually led him to develop the basis of parapsychology in the 1930s. Louisa had also a Ph.D. in biology and conducted her own research in parapsychology, as well as in conjunction with her husband. They created what will be known as the Rhine Research Center, based in Duke University, the peer-reviewed scholarly journal The Journal of Parapsychology, and the scientific society the Parapsychological Association.

The Rhine wanted to study the paranormal in a scientific way, and within the institutional realm of scientific research. This constituted a major breakaway from the previous type of research, often referred to as “psychical research.” For the Rhine, if the paranormal can be studied seriously by the scientific establishment, it had to remove itself from the legacy of psychical research which was perceived as amateurish; many psychical researchers had no substantial scientific training, the experimental conditions were rarely rigorous (to avoid fraud), data were gathered in an anecdotal way and without common referents.

However, the most important distinction between parapsychology and psychical research was that the former rejected the notion that non-human entities (ghosts, spirits, etc.) were involved in paranormal phenomena. Parapsychology developed the concept of “psi” to describe paranormal phenomena, and assumes that any human being has some sort of psi ability. This last assumption led the discipline to emphasize larger studies involving many subjects under strict control conditions in laboratory, and the results being submitted to statistical analysis in order to prove the existence of psi as an unexplainable deviation from chance.

Parapsychology tends to divide psi into two types of effects. The first is known as Extra Sensory Perceptions (ESP), where there is communication of information without known physical means (such as telepathy, clairvoyance, premonition, etc). The second is known as Psychokinesis (PK), where mental intentions affect matter without known physical means (such as affecting dice rolls, bending objects, levitation, etc.). There are some debates in parapsychology as to whether ESP and PK are actually different forms of psi, as affecting matter can also be construed as affecting the information about matter.

The hard and painstaking work of the Rhine, and many others who followed them, eventually paid off when parapsychology was formally accepted as a scientific discipline by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1969 (a necessary requirement to receive research grants). As Dean Radin have eloquently showed in last decade, the existence of psi is beyond any rational doubt, and it is time to study how it works. Among the present-day pressures on the discipline to move beyond from its original goal is the need to connect better with the wider public. Paranormal experiences are first and foremost exceptional and spontaneous events, not obscure deviations from chance only visible through detailed statistical analysis. Many are asking and some are even venturing outside the laboratory to study macro-level spontaneous psi effects like ghosts and haunting. But this will be a long road. The Parapsychological Association still states that it is not studying UFOs, for instance.

Actualizing parapsychology

The most important question, however, is about the central notion of “psi” used to describe paranormal event. What is “psi”? Some proposed it is some sort of energy, but the empirical proof is lacking to support this view. The implicit consensus seems to edge towards: it is “something” having to do with emotions and intentions. The most interesting proposal is that it is actually information, understood in its broadest meaning (including both the cognitive and the affective components). The German Walter von Lucadou, based on his extensive research on poltergeist phenomena, is proposing that psi in itself is nothing, but it is rather the outcome of non-local correlations of information. This notion is borrowed from quantum physics where information about the spin of two particles going through a splitter is correlated without any direct observable mean. In the case of ESP, there is non-local correlation of information between people, and this may occur between people living in different time frame (time is just one coordinate with the other spatial ones, and thus providing a quite different perspective about so-call reminiscence of past lives). For PK, the information is correlated non-locally between an individual and material objects. Notions like the Jungian synchronicity would become a wider array of information correlated non-locally among people and material objects, at different points in time and space, all guided by unconscious intents. Although much more research is needed to confirm all this, under such a light the notion of “psi” becomes much more meaningful.

The ramifications of this approach to psi can be staggering. It implies that notions like time and space are plastic, and can be modified at will if we know how to go about. Such enthusiasm, however, should be tempered because it is not the human experience to have reality modified at will. Rupert Sheldrake, in my opinion, provides the answer to this paradox with his notion of morphic field. Once something is put in place and it is use or effected over and over, it becomes very difficult to change it. Like a tenacious fold on a shirt (especially cotton golf shirts), it is extremely hard to get rid of it. In these conditions, psi effects can only occur in the margins of what already exists or in the early days of something new or innovative. Experience shows that psi effects, indeed, occur essentially in the margins of consciousness, perception, or social settings.

It is in this context that I see a need for actualizing parapsychology beyond individual psi events. Collective psi effects have been studied by a few, and they have shown that a small group of people can produce more ostentatious effects, the Philip Experiment being the best known of those studies. Then, what about a social group of thousands or millions of people? This is where parasociology can push parapsychology further. In the margins of social consciousness, perceptions, and dynamics could there be non-local correlations between many people and something else? The UFO phenomenon, for many reasons that I already explained on blog, start to make sense when understood under this light. It is also possible to push further when thinking about social synchronicity. Could we, collectively, through our shared unconscious intents make certain social events occur in a certain way rather than another by playing on the margins? An example of what I mean here is the number of male birth higher than the normal statistical probability in France and Germany after WWI. Were the French and German, as politicized nations, unconscious looking for being ready for another fight? They certainly got their second fight.

It is also possible to push this perspective on psi towards more mystical reflections on whether the entire universe might not be the outcome of a particular will. Even physicists are now aware that for our universe to exist, we cannot play too much with the basic variables like the four forces of physics. Are reality and the universe simply a mega-synchronicity born out of someone’s will? Out of this question another one even more mystical in nature can be asked: if time and space are just “ordinary” variables in this vast equation, could it be possible that we, the humans, somewhere in time, are the ones who intended such mega-synchronicity? These questions are obviously without answer, but it illustrates that parapsychology might have put its fingers on something “big”, but it will have to be a bit more audacious if it wants to find out.

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