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From survival to transcendence: reflections on psi as anomalous.

MATLOCK, J. G. (1990). Past life memory case studies. In S. Krippner (Ed.), Advances in parapsychological research: Vol. 6 (pp. 184-267). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

NELSON, R. D., DUNNE, B. J., & JAHN, R. G. (1984). An REG experiment with large data base capability: III. Operator-related anomalies (Technical Note, PEAR 84003). Princeton, NJ: Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research, Princeton University.

PALMER, J. (1971). Scoring in ESP tests as a function of belief in ESP: Part I. The sheep-goat effect. Journal of the American Last year at about this time I was sitting in the audience, just as you are now, listening to my predecessor and good friend, Steve Braude, deliver his presidential address to our Association. I found what he had to say very stimulating because he talked about issues that are of great concern to me now or were of great concern to me earlier in my career. As I was listening to him, the wheels in my head started turning as I quickly tried either to formulate or to resurrect ideas about how I might respond to his points, including, of course, his "reprimand du jour" about parapsychology's alleged mechanistic ways. When I discovered that I was to be Braude's successor, I realized that I had been given a golden opportunity to reply to him in the most appropriate forum possible, and I decided to take advantage of it. Will this start a trend? Will Dean Radin step up to the podium next year and comment on what you are about to hear from me? That's up to Dean, and whatever happens is fine from my point of view. I'm just honored to have the opportunity to share with you my thoughts on some important intellectual issues that parapsychology faces in the nineties.

Part I


The first issue I want to address is actually a very old one; in fact, it is one of the issues that defined our field at its inception, and it is still unresolved in most people's minds. I am referring to the question of survival of death. This section of Braude's talk reminded me of the years I spent at Ian Stevenson's Division of Parapsychology at the University of Virginia, where I gave a great deal of thought to this issue. Particularly relevant to Braude's remarks was a somewhat obscure paper I wrote there entitled "Some Recent Trends in Survival Research," which was published in Parapsychology Review (Palmer, 1975).

In that paper, I advocated a position similar to the one challenged by Braude in his PA Presidential Address and related papers (Braude, 1992a, 1992b, in press). The context of this position is the debate between advocates of the survival hypothesis and advocates of the so-called "super-psi" hypothesis as providing the best explanation of certain relevant empirical facts such as the phenomena of trance mediumship.(1) According to the survival hypothesis, accurate information obtained by a medium about a deceased individual is treated as evidence for that individual's having survived death, especially when such information is not known to anyone present at the seance or sitting. According to the super-psi hypothesis, the reception by the medium of such information is more satisfactorily interpreted as simple ESP on the medium's part, with no implications for the survival of the deceased.

The typical survivalist response to this argument is that the magnitude or sensitivity of the psi in many of the better cases of mediumship is greater than in cases of psi that are clearly restricted to the living. Super-psi advocates reply to this argument in one of two ways. Either they deny the premise that psi in mediumship cases is superior, or, more commonly, they argue that we just do not know what the limits of psi among the living are. The latter retort is essentially an appeal to parsimony: In the absence of solid knowledge about the limits of psi among the living, we should accept super-psi as the best explanation because it is simpler in that it does not require the postulation of a new entity such as a surviving mind or personality.

The distinctions considered so far can be labeled quantitative. Ostensible communications from the deceased are of the same general type as ESP among the living, although superior in scope and accuracy. However, survivalists have more recently stressed what might be called qualitative distinctions. The prime example of this class of phenomena are skills. Survivalists argue that skills cannot be acquired simply by receiving information about how to do something; it is also necessary to practice the skill, as in riding a bicycle (Ducasse, 1962; Gauld, 1982). Writing in defense of the super-psi hypothesis, Braude contests the claim that skills always require practice, citing as examples child prodigies and savants. For the specific case of responsive xenoglossy, which has been particularly stressed by survivalists (e.g., Stevenson, 1974, 1984), Braude argues that practice is not really necessary for learning at least some new languages; all one needs is exposure to the language. He suggests that such exposure could be provided to the unconscious by ordinary ESP.

The validity of Braude's claim is subject to empirical resolution, and I will not pretend to be enough of an expert on language acquisition to pass judgment on it. However, Braude has made an important point, namely, that we cannot assume that the survivalist's argument necessarily applies to all skills. There may be some skills, including perhaps some language acquisition, where exposure to information is sufficient for the acquisition or development of the skill.

This caveat aside, why might the manifestation of certain skills provide better evidence for survival than does information acquisition? In the latter case, we assume that once the information is received, the capacities of the recipient's mind are quite sufficient to verbalize this information, which, of course, is how we verify that the information has been received. This is what happens in the garden-variety mediumistic seance where the medium reports the message he or she receives from the ostensible deceased communicator. In the case of skills, however, we must assume that for the skill to manifest, the information must be integrated with an aptitude that may not be present in the recipient's mind. To use a physiological metaphor, we would need to postulate not just new information coming in from the senses, but also a different neuronal network structure to process that information. To return to a dualistic metaphysics, in cases where the aptitude to demonstrate a particular skill was not present beforehand in the subject, the most straightforward solution would be that the subject's mind is replaced by a new mind. But where would this new mind come from? The most plausible solution here would seem to be that a surviving discarnate mind temporarily or permanently (as in reincarnation) possesses the subject's body. This line of reasoning suggests that, all else being equal, ostensible evidence of survival that seems to involve possession is likely to be more impressive than evidence seeming to involve telepathic communication with a discarnate entity.

From the empirical standpoint, it is necessary to demonstrate that the subject lacked the requisite aptitude before the ostensible possession took place, which in turn necessitates proving that the subject had never in the past undertaken the practice or had the experiences necessary to develop the skill. This criterion is often difficult to meet, particularly with adults, because there is no reason to investigate the aptitude until after the possession occurs, at which time it is too late. With young children this is somewhat less of a problem, provided that the skill is highly unusual for a child of a given age to possess. It is this discontinuity from the normal distribution of skills that suggests there is something in need of explanation.

Survival-related contexts. There is another factor that must be considered in evaluating the anomalous acquisition of skills as evidence for survival. In cases where survival is claimed, the skills customarily manifest in what I call a "survival-related context" (SRC). An SRC is a context in which the situation prima facie includes the participation of a discarnate entity. Such is obviously the case in a mediumistic seance, where the discarnate entity is presumably communicating either to or through a medium. Another example would be memories of a previous life, where the person with the memories has presumably incorporated the personality of a physically deceased individual.

The simultaneous presence of anomalous skills and an SRC provides a kind of convergent evidence on behalf of the survival hypothesis, much as specific brain wave patterns and verbal state reports provide convergent evidence for discrete altered states of consciousness (Stoyva & Kamiya, 1968). Such cases are stronger still when anomalous information acquisition, such as accurate past-life memories in a reincarnation context, is added as a third kind of convergent evidence.

Convergent evidence is most impressive when the skills are present only in SRCs, because that is the circumstance under which the convergence is strongest. It is in this respect that the child prodigies and savants discussed by Braude (in press) seem particularly damaging to the survival hypothesis, because they appear to show that exceptional skills can manifest outside SRCs. In this respect, therefore, exceptional skills seem to suffer from the same weakness as anomalous information transfer does.

If possession is not the answer, how else can we explain why child prodigies seem to have extraordinary adult-level skills at such an early age or why savants have them at all? Conventional science does not have a satisfactory answer to these questions. As long as this is true, some sort of reincarnation or possession hypothesis will still have a certain appeal in such cases, at least to anyone who is predisposed to entertain the survival hypothesis at all. Because of the absence of a strong covariance with SRCs, I certainly would not want to say at this point that child prodigies and savants provide evidence for survival. It might be fruitful, though, for researchers interested in the survival problem to study such persons to see if evidence of SRCs, such as previously undisclosed past-life memories, might be uncovered. If they succeeded, and especially if the memories could be confirmed, the foregoing conclusion might need to be reconsidered.

Near-death experiences. I have argued that survival evidence is most impressive when there is convergence between a survival-related context and psi, and the particular kind of psi is unique to the SRC. But why does the second element have to be psi? In near-death experiences (NDEs), for example, the convergence is between an SRC and a hallucinatory experience. One advantage for psi in this role is that it can be measured objectively, whereas knowledge of the hallucinatory experience depends on the subject's verbal report, just as the SRC usually does.

The most important issue for evaluating NDEs as survival evidence, however, again comes down to how unique the hallucinations are to survival-related contexts. I think they are at least as weak as ESP in this regard, if not weaker. The capacity to visually hallucinate is very widespread in humans, particularly in dreams. The overwhelming majority of such hallucinatory experiences do not occur in SRCs. The content of the experience may seem unique to NDEs, but this can readily be interpreted as one application of the general principle that the content of hallucinations is governed by the person's concerns at the time. When a person is near death, it is hardly surprising that the hallucinations have death-related themes, and the principle of wish fulfillment can explain why the hallucinations are generally positive in tone and reflect positive themes like unification with deceased relatives or beatific deities. Qualitatively, NDEs are similar to out-of-body experiences and lucid dreams, both of which occur frequently in the population and frequently in non-SRCs. I have never understood why so many survivalists see NDEs as strong evidence for their case; in my view, NDEs are very weak evidentially in both the relative and the absolute senses.

The source-of-psi problem. Another useful way to conceptualize the survival controversy, which has received scant attention, is to treat it as a special case of the source-of-psi problem. The issue here is clear-cut. Survivalists claim that in some instances the source of psi is a discarnate entity that either communicates with or possesses a mortal being. Anti-survivalists claim that the source of psi is always the mind of a mortal being.

J. B. Rhine (1960) argued that the survival problem will remain intractable until psi among the living is better understood. I do not take quite as strong a position as Rhine does. Although I agree that the kind of survival research undertaken up to his point cannot by its nature provide conclusive proof of survival, I think it can tilt the subjective probabilities for or against this hypothesis. However, I agree with Rhine to the extent of maintaining that better understanding of psi among the living could vastly improve the capacity of empirical research to solve the survival puzzle, at least to the degree that it is empirically solvable. My contribution to this discussion is to suggest that the particular problem within general psi research that needs to be addressed for this purpose is the source-of-psi problem. This problem is also highly relevant to the question of experimenter psi, which I have argued elsewhere (Palmer, 1989) is the most important research challenge facing parapsychology generally. This means that the source-of-psi problem is directly relevant to two major issues in parapsychology, the experimenter effect and the survival question.

Surprisingly little empirical research has been directed to the source-of-psi problem. The most relevant, obviously, is telepathy research. The largest body of telepathy studies is that which compares the results in telepathy (or, more precisely, GESP) and clairvoyance conditions. The implicit model here is similar to multiple regression in that a clairvoyance condition is compared to a clairvoyance-plus-telepathy condition. The clairvoyance effects should cancel, meaning that any excess effect in the GESP condition can be attributed to telepathy. However, this conclusion depends on the subject's being blind to the manipulation, lest expectations confound the results. This has not always been the case. Among the blind studies, results have been mixed but on balance tend to favor the telepathy hypothesis (Palmer, 1978).

Another group of studies has compared results between different telepathic agents. These studies have tended to show more success among agents known to and liked by the percipients, but again the trend is far from uniform (Palmer, 1978). If this latter methodological paradigm were to be expanded, it could provide data relevant to the survival question. Let me offer a specific suggestion that bears some resemblance to a recent proposal by Arthur Berger (1987) that we try to identify an ideal discarnate communicator. It also bears some relation to older investigations of ostensible post mortem communications by Frederic Myers (Piddington, 1908, 1910) and to suggestions by Gertrude Schmeidler (1977).

It would be a useful project in its own right to try to find "signatures" uniquely characteristic of specific telepathic agents, along the lines of what Robert Jahn and colleagues have done with micro-PK subjects (Nelson, Dunne, & Jahn, 1984). This approach could be particularly revealing in free-response ESP paradigms, where the opportunities for identifying such signatures are relatively rich. Let us say we could find an individual advanced in age who has talent as a telepathic agent; that is to say, when a wide range of percipients are paired with this individual, they tend to score better (in the broad sense of that term) than when paired with other individuals or with no one. Let us assume further that these percipients also score better in an idiosyncratic kind of way. The possibilities for such idiosyncrasies are limitless and would have to be discovered by retrospective analyses of session transcripts.

This project could become relevant to the survival question after the individual passes away. Briefly, a group of sensitive percipients who had no prior contact with or knowledge of the deceased would be asked to participate in the same type of free-response ESP study undertaken while the deceased was still alive. A randomly selected target picture would be shown to the agent prior to his or her death. Percipients would be told that the agent would be a deceased individual, but they would be given nothing else but that person's name. The transcripts would then be evaluated blindly for the presence of the same idiosyncrasies established previously.

Although this experiment involves ESP as the convergent measure, it could provide better evidence than most mediumistic cases involving communication with a proposed discarnate entity, provided, of course, that suitably talented subjects could be found. Although super-psi could not be conclusively ruled out (it never can), the continuation after death of a reliable empirical pattern clearly linked to the agent before death would surely lend plausibility to the survival hypothesis.(2) Possession cases would still be potentially stronger; but the standards of evidentiality in such cases are much harder to meet, simply because controlled experiments are more effective in eliminating conventional alternative explanations than are spontaneous cases.

Critique of Experimentation

This brings me to Braude's "reprimand du jour," a secondary theme of which was the superiority of spontaneous case or field investigations over experiments. Braude argues that "playing the psychic naturalist is about all we can 'ever' do with psi phenomena." The whole history of parapsychology belies this assertion. The repeated demonstration that psi can be convincingly detected under controlled laboratory conditions is by itself a significant accomplishment. It is true that this evidence has not been convincing to many orthodox scientists, but this conclusion applies even more strongly to spontaneous case investigations. Moreover, our greatest strides in understanding the nature of psi have come from process-oriented experimental research. Schmeidler (1988), for example, has recently summarized a large group of studies that collectively demonstrate that psi is correlated with various psychological variables in ways that make sense from psychological theory.

This is not to say that there is no process-oriented research on spontaneous cases, however. Louisa Rhine (1965) adopted a process-oriented approach in the study of her case collections, and Roll (1976) has addressed theoretical issues in his investigations of poltergeists. We are also beginning to see some process-oriented work in the area of past-life memories (Matlock, 1990). Exploring the psychological correlates of spontaneous ESP experiences, especially ones that seem likely to be genuinely paranormal, is a potentially fruitful area of psi research that we have only begun to tap.

Field studies clearly have an important role to play in understanding psi. By definition they are more directly relevant to psi as it occurs in the real world than are experiments. A good case study can often be more convincing than a mediocre experiment. However, on the average, experiments are superior because of their greater capacity to control against alternative interpretations. This capacity is central to what scientific investigation is all about. The essence of scientific understanding is to identify all the possible explanations of an observation and rule out all the possibilities but one. Experiments are generally better equipped than field studies to meet this challenge. Nonetheless, the ideal outcome is a convergence of evidence from both experimental and field studies, the former providing the control and the latter providing the ecological realism. Field studies can also provide ideas or hypotheses for more incisive experimental research.

Another distinguished member of our Association, Rhea White (1990), takes a more radical position than Braude does. Echoing Susan Blackmore (1988), White argues that all attempts to establish objectively that psi is "real," whether by experiments or by field studies, have been a failure and should be abandoned, although unlike Blackmore she leaves open the possibility that such attempts might be resumed at a later date. As the replacement, White appeals for a "person-centered" or phenomenological study of psi experiences for the purpose of understanding their subjective meaning to the experiment. We might say that the quest for an understanding of objective psi is to be replaced by a quest for an understanding of subjective psi. The latter is certainly a worthwhile goal, and I even suspect that research directed toward this goal would be more fruitful in a short span of time than the search for an understanding of objective psi has been. A better phenomenological understanding of psi experiences could also benefit traditional psi research. For instance, if we could better understand why psi experiences are meaningful to people, we could use this knowledge to create more psi-conducive contexts in the laboratory. I have felt for years that depth psychology has a potentially important role to play in the understanding of both subjective and objective psi, and I am beginning to incorporate it in my own research.

What troubles me about proposals like those of White and Blackmore is their exclusivity. Our progress in gaining an understanding of objective psi has indeed been frustratingly slow, and that makes it an easy target for attack. But the goal remains a legitimate and important one, and we should not abandon it, or even postpone it, just because it is hard to attain. Let's not emulate the proverbial behavioristic drunk who looks under a lamppost one night for the keys he dropped in the gutter because the light under the lamppost is better. If we were to accept White's philosophy in science generally, we might never find a cure for illnesses like breast cancer or the common cold. We must expect progress in such a difficult area as parapsychology to be slow at first, but slow does not mean negligible or nonexistent. White herself acknowledges that some progress has been made in understanding objective psi, as, for example, regarding the experimenter effect, and we can expect progress to accelerate as we focus more and more on process-oriented pursuits. Although phenomenological research has a role to play in this process, it does not provide an adequate substitute for attaining the kinds of understanding of psi that parapsychologists have traditionally sought.

Should the phenomenological study of psi experiences even be considered a part of parapsychology? I used to believe that it would be better to classify it as a subtopic of cognitive or transpersonal psychology. I changed my mind when I began thinking of this issue in relation to my proposition that parapsychology should be defined by its subject matter rather than by its theoretical or quasi-theoretical constructs (Palmer, 1988); the subject matter of parapsychology, of course, is psi events, and these events often have phenomenological components. I now believe that any form of inquiry about psi events should be welcomed into the domain of parapsychology.

The stage is now set for a discussion of the essence of Braude's "reprimand." He phrases his objection as the infatuation of parapsychology with mechanistic thinking, although his examples suggest that what he is complaining about can be more incisively labeled as reductionism. In particular, Braude cites the alleged deference of parapsychology to the methods and concepts of physics. Such an approach is reductionistic to the extent that it attempts to account for psi in terms of things like fields and subatomic particles. Another example of a reductionistic approach is brain research, including disciplines such as psychophysiology and psychopharmacology. Braude argues that such reductionistic methods are not appropriate to the study of psi.

To begin with, Braude overrates the degree to which parapsychology is reductionistic or mechanistic, at least as I use these terms. Most of the psychologically oriented theory and research in parapsychology use mentalistic constructs that have no direct, and in some cases not even an indirect, relation to brain structures or brain chemistry. Much of it, such as Rex Stanford's revised PMIR and conformance behavior models (Stanford, 1978, 1990), can best be labeled as teleological. Probably the most reductionistic of parapsychological research programs are the micro-PK studies and surrounding theory. But even in this domain the reductionism is far from complete. Helmut Schmidt (1975) treats psi as goal-oriented (Stanford, 1990), which is another example of teleological thinking. The observational theorists use consciousness as a causal construct (e.g., Walker, 1974), and consciousness is even more prevalent in the model of Jahn and Dunne (1987). The pragmatic information model of Walter von Lucadou (1984, 1988) has a very holistic emphasis derived from general systems theory, and such an emphasis also characterizes Roll's (1982) psychic structure theory. In most of these conceptions, the psi process itself is treated as primitive and unanalyzable.

Moreover, I see much positive value in some reductionistic research programs. A particularly neglected area in psi research is the possible effect of brain chemistry on psi. There are tantalizing anecdotes of hormonal imbalances or concussions being associated with strong psi abilities. With the possible exception of Bill Delmore (Kanthamani & Kelly, 1974), the two highest scoring card-guessing subjects in terms of effect size chronicled in the Journal of Parapsychology both had thyroid imbalances (Drake, 1939; Riess, 1937, 1939). Explorations in these areas could have much to tell us about how brain processes mediate psi, and they might also guide us in selecting gifted subjects or in enhancing psi ability. The point here, as Braude himself (1986, 1987) has noted on numerous occasions, including his Presidential Address (Braude, in press), is that the same phenomena can be profitably understood from a variety of conceptual frameworks. Some of these frameworks will undoubtedly be reductionistic.

A related charge that Braude makes in his address is that too many experimental parapsychologists accept the "small-is-beautiful" assumption. In this case the charge is clearly accurate; laboratory investigators do, by and large, study smaller magnitude events than do field investigators. This is particularly true in the case of PK. However, I believe the "small-is-beautiful" assumption can be defended. Experimental parapsychologists do not favor small effects because they are small, or because we feel a need to kowtow to physics, but because on the average small effects have proven to be easier to control than large effects, not to mention that it is easier to find subjects capable of demonstrating them. Because small effects are less dramatic, they also are less likely to attract charlatans and publicity-seeking magicians, along with the three-ring-circus atmosphere that inevitably accompanies them. But the main point is that the goal of science is conceptual understanding, and for that purpose controllability is more important than magnitude.

There is one more aspect of Braude's argument that I have yet to address, and I believe it is the most powerful aspect. It brings us back to the source-of-psi problem. Citing the seminal writings of Jule Eisenbud on this topic (e.g., Eisenbud, 1982), Braude suggests that conventional experimental methods are inappropriate to psi because the nature of psi precludes the application of standard experimental controls. His references make clear that the main thing that cannot be controlled is the source of psi. How, for example, can our research tell us anything reliable about a subject's psi ability when for all we know we are really measuring the experimenter's psi ability? I addressed this problem in a previous paper (Palmer, 1989), so let me just summarize my position here. If Braude is right that standard controls cannot be applied in psi research, then many conceptual questions about the nature of psi will never be answered. Ironically, this statement applies not only to laboratory investigations, but also to the field studies of interest to Braude. As we saw in the discussion of survival research, source-of-psi questions often enter into our attempts to interpret what is going on outside, as well as inside, the lab.

However, I am not as pessimistic as Braude. I believe that standard experimental methods creatively applied can deal with the source-of-psi problem, as illustrated by my suggested research project to address the survival hypothesis. Moreover, some lawfulness has been shown in psi data, as, for example, with the sheep-goat effect (Palmer, 1971). Such data support the notion that the world of psi is not as chaotic as the writings of Eisenbud and Braude might suggest it is, and this offers the prospect of further progress in the experimental arena.

Part II

Psi as Anomalous

Several years ago I authored a series of papers advancing suggestions for the reconceptualization of the psi controversy (Palmer, 1986, 1987, 1988). Briefly, I proposed that psi be redefined as a descriptive, atheoretical term and that the fundamental question anchoring the controversy be changed from "Does psi (in the theoretical sense) exist?" to "How can psi (in the descriptive sense) be best explained?" The question "Does psi exist?" has two unfortunate repercussions. First, it encourages proof-oriented rather than process-oriented research, whereas I strongly believe the latter is what we need to advance the field. Second, it has the unfortunate rhetorical consequence of allowing a failure to prove that "psi exists" to be interpreted as justifying the conclusion that "psi does not exist," or that the phenomena have adequate conventional interpretations.

In contrast, the preferred question, "How can psi be best explained?" defines psi neutrally as a phenomenon in need of explanation and thus encourages process-oriented research. Second, it allows for and encourages a distinction between inability to confirm paranormal explanations and success in confirming conventional explanations. In this connection, I noted that there are three alternative answers to the question "How can psi be best explained?": (1) Psi can be best explained by paranormal constructs; (2) psi can be best explained by conventional scientific constructs; and (3) psi at present cannot be adequately explained by either paranormal or conventional constructs. I opted for the third of these answers as the correct one for this point in time, and I associated this position with the label "anomalous." Specifically, I maintained that psi should be advanced by the parapsychological community as a genuine scientific anomaly for which science has as yet no adequate explanation.

I saw two principal advantages to this position. First, I thought it was the most intellectually valid way to describe the current state of the evidence. In the absence of an explanatory theory of psi that has sufficient empirical support to justify broad acceptance, there is no justification to conclude that the best explanations of our phenomena must be paranormal. We simply don't know what the best kind of explanation will prove to be, and we may not have considered all the possible alternatives. Second, I thought the anomaly position, if handled properly, would provide advantages in the rhetorical battles with our critics. The claim that our phenomena are anomalous is indeed more modest than the claim that they are paranormal, but it is also easier to defend. It is relatively easy for critics to argue that we have not proven that our phenomena require paranormal explanations, but much more difficult for them to argue that the phenomena can be explained satisfactorily by conventional science. When critics are forced to accept their fair share of the burden of proof, they must allow their own explanations of the phenomena to undergo critical scrutiny. Because these explanations are often implausible and blatantly ad hoc, they usually do not fare well under this scrutiny. Hyman, in his parapsychology chapter in the infamous National Research Council Report on techniques for enhancing human performance (Druckman & Swets, 1988), had to admit that there were no plausible conventional explanations for some of the better psi evidence, and this became a cornerstone of our response to the Report (Palmer, Honorton, & Utts, 1988).

Attacks by critics. I have been curious as to how critics would respond to my proposals. Would they accept the notion that the psi-as-anomalous claim is valid, thereby joining with conservative parapsychologists to form a powerful intellectual alliance that could define the scientifically acceptable position on psi? Or would they claim that psi has not even been established as anomalous, thereby radicalizing their own previous position? I suppose it should not be too surprising that what responses there have been have fallen into the latter category.

One of these responses was by James Alcock (1990). As I noted in a review of his recent book Science and Supernature (Palmer, 1991, p. 88), Alcock "sometimes writes as if anomalous is just a less offensive synonym for paranormal and then uses the standard arguments against the old claim to undermine the new one. For instance, he writes that 'even if paranormal were to be defined only in terms of anomaly, this would still lead to a dualism of some sort because of its independence from considerations of time and space'." The point of the term anomalous, however, is that it is theoretically and metaphysically neutral and thus does not require that the phenomena be independent of space and time or that we adopt a dualistic ontology.

The most substantial response to my thesis has been by Ray Hyman (Druckman & Swets, pp. 199-200), who makes two relevant points. First, he notes that psi cannot be construed as a single anomaly because the phenomena may have a number of different explanations. Second, he notes that anomalies in other sciences are more reliable and more precisely defined mathematically than psi is. My response to both points is: "So what?" Most parapsychologists already acknowledge that different psi phenomena may have different explanations when we distinguish between ESP and PK. Furthermore, we all would agree that some ostensible psychic phenomena have mundane conventional explanations. The key point is that because anomalous is an atheoretical term, distinctions having to do with the correct explanations of the phenomena are irrelevant to their classification as anomalous. One thing that unites psi phenomena in this category is that they lack any adequate explanation at present but are prima facie paranormal. Regarding Hyman's second criticism, the fact that psi phenomena are relatively unreliable and poorly quantified is also irrelevant to their being labeled as anomalous. Puzzles do not cease to be puzzles because they are hard to pin down. In short, Hyman's attempt to refute the claim that psi is a genuine scientific anomaly is extremely weak.

Attacks by parapsychologists. The anomaly construct has been challenged on much different grounds by some parapsychologists. The common theme is that by referring to psi as anomalous we trivialize it. In a guest editorial in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Theodore Rockwell (1989) wrote: "Those who would define psi phenomena as mere |italics added~ anomalies would by their action reduce parapsychologists to chroniclers of Forteana. From being a systematic attempt to explain certain widely experienced human phenomena, parapsychology would become merely a matter of cataloguing curiosities". In a book review in that same journal, Emily Cook (1991) wrote: "There are frequent debates in parapsychology today about the definition and scope of the field, with many parapsychologists defining it as the study of 'anomalous' or 'unexplained' experiences. Not surprisingly, as a result there are frequent criticisms that the field is defined negatively, that it has no theoretical basis, and that it exists only because scientists have so far failed to explain the phenomena and that it shrinks with each 'successful' explanation". Finally, Rhea White (1990) stated that "if we hope to understand the phenomena of parapsychology, it is wrong to call them anomalous because that places them in a context devoid of meaning".

Comments like these reflect a misunderstanding of what the term anomalous is meant to connote in parapsychology or the role it is supposed to play. To begin with, neither I nor anyone else I know of who uses this term is saying that psi should be indiscriminately lumped together with other mysteries of nature into a category defined solely by the "mysteriousness" of its content. Anomalous in parapsychology is always meant to be secondary to the term psi, which restricts our anomalies to the relatively small class of phenomena that parapsychologists study. There is some debate within parapsychology about the scope of the term psi, but most of us agree that it restricts our inquiry to those events that are prima facie examples of communication processes between minds (human or possibly subhuman, incarnate or possibly discarnate) and their external environment. Psi remains the fundamental label for our phenomena, and in most discourse it can be used alone without any explicit reference to the term anomalous.

Second, psi is negatively defined only if it is considered equivalent to paranormal, which is how it is understood in the traditional conceptual framework I am challenging. If, as I have suggested, psi is used descriptively to represent the actual phenomena that are thought to require a paranormal explanation, the definition becomes at least partially positive; that is, psi refers to a subclass of anomalous phenomena with specific properties that characterize them as communication-like interactions.

Third, although the term anomalous implies that there is as yet no adequate explanation for these phenomena, it does not preclude such an explanation, nor does it in any way discourage the quest for this explanation or deny that viable candidates are being systematically pursued. It merely says that the goal has not yet been reached. A noncommittal stance on the paranormality of psi in no way precludes process-oriented research based on the reasonable working hypothesis that any psi uncovered in a properly controlled investigation is paranormally caused.

However, all unexplained facts of nature are not called anomalous. Why do we need this term in parapsychology? The reason is that psi appears to be incompatible (or at least incommensurate) with widely accepted basic laws of nature. Rockwell thinks we make too much of this fact, and I agree. But, like it or not, there are many other people who think psi's incommensurability with other physical laws is very important. If our vocabulary is to be realistic, it must incorporate this fact, and that is why we need the term anomalous. We need a term like paranormal, which Rockwell and I also dislike, for the same reason. We must have a generic label for those alternative theories that do not mesh with our current ones, and unless we resort to a new term like my ill-fated omega (Palmer, 1988), paranormal is it. If we were willing to restrict ourselves to those potential explanations of our phenomena that are consistent with current scientific laws, as our critics would have us do, then we would not need terms like anomalous or paranormal. But we aren't willing to do that, so these terms are necessary in certain contexts.

I suspect that what underlies much of the antagonism toward the anomaly concept is that it concedes too much to our critics. But this concession is much less apocryphal than it might appear on the surface. First, the establishment of a genuine scientific anomaly is itself an important accomplishment. As Thomas Kuhn (1970) has pointed out, such anomalies have often been the springboard to important scientific advances. What more would be accomplished if in addition we could justifiably claim that paranormality has been established? We could rule out a class of explanations that we find relatively uninteresting theoretically, but where would that really get us? I submit, not very far. When we say that psi is paranormal we are saying what it is not, but the significance of our phenomena must be derived from an understanding of what psi is. To say what psi is, to put some meat on the bones, we need a positive theory of psi that directly explains it. But even most of those who would insist that psi is paranormal would agree that we have yet to establish a comprehensive explanatory theory of psi that demands broad acceptance. From the applied perspective, the paranormality of psi has no relevance at all because the issue there is what can be achieved, not what the explanation is. Finally, we can point out that when critics are unable to propose a plausible conventional interpretation of a given psi event, the likelihood that the event was paranormal is large, even if not conclusively demonstrated.

Process-oriented research. One important implication of the anomaly position is that the challenge facing our field is not to demonstrate psi but to understand it. The focus must be on theory development and testing, and on process-oriented research. This applies to field studies as well as to laboratory experiments. In the experimental context, this requires that we find ways to make psi data more reliable, because the subtle correlational effects that must be uncovered to sustain incisive theoretical interpretations of psi effects are likely to be obscured by the large components of error variance in the psi test scores we customarily work with now. These attempts to increase reliability are likely to be most successful if they are conceptually driven. Labeling psi as anomalous reminds us that its demonstration is only one step toward the important prize, and a step we have already achieved. Thus, if properly understood, the anomaly concept actually favors the kind of process-oriented research that those parapsychologists who criticize the term also seem to be advocating.

This same philosophy applies to psi applications. Increasing attention has been paid in recent years to the success of psi applications in the real world, particularly those involving police work (Lyons & Truzzi, 1991; but see also Hyman, 1992). More systematic research is still needed, but it is likely that, in at least a handful of cases, input from psychics may have been of positive benefit. However, the very newsworthiness of these possibly successful applications highlights how rare they are and how relatively small a role they play in solving the broader problems to which they are addressed. It is clear that the abilities of even our best psychic talents are only sufficient to make a small dent in the ubiquitous challenges of curing diseases and solving crimes. If psi is to make any real difference in the world, the level of functioning of its practitioners, impressive though it may sometimes be in a research context, must be substantially enhanced. If this is to happen, however, it will require the kind of understanding of the psi process that is the goal of basic, process-oriented research. Paradoxical as it may sound, basic research is as important and irreplaceable in the applied context as it is in the theoretical context.

Gaining Public Support

A final criticism that might be leveled at the anomaly concept concerns the mundane matter of salesmanship. We are all painfully aware of the precarious financial situation in which parapsychology now finds itself. It seems that almost all our institutions have either closed their doors or are in varying degrees of financial difficulty. It is vital for the continued progress of the field, if not its very survival, that new sources of funding be developed.

I agree that a conservative term like anomalous is unlikely to inspire a potential donor, but no one is proposing that we use this term as a cornerstone in our appeal for funds. On the other hand, I do believe that for reasons of intellectual honesty we must communicate the status of the evidence that the term implies; that we have exciting findings, but that we really don't know yet what they mean. I think that some modesty in our claims might actually be beneficial to parapsychology's image. I've never done a formal survey on this, but I have the distinct impression that in science generally the less exaggerated the claim, the higher the status of the individual making it or the status of the specialty he or she represents. In the medical field, in particular, it is customary to hear great caution expressed that such-and-such a finding is not yet a breakthrough and that more research, replication, and so forth are needed. In more "fringe" areas, the claims are sometimes more exaggerated, and the claimants often come across like used-car salesmen. I've seen examples of both kinds of claims in parapsychology, and I believe the more modest claims are more impressive because they are more credible.

Another advantage of more modest claims is that they highlight the fact that more research is needed. When I was working in California, I sometimes heard New Age aficionados argue that psi had already been proven scientifically so there is no longer any need for research. A rhetorical approach that emphasizes what still needs to be learned about psi can help overcome this kind of complacent attitude, which I doubt is restricted to New Agers. At the same time, of course, we must persuade these individuals that our research up to this point has made progress, so they will feel we have the ability to advance further. It is for this reason that our impressive meta-analyses (Utts, 1991) and other evidence that we have uncovered a genuine scientific anomaly must be successfully marketed.

An equally important but, ironically, a probably more difficult task is to persuade people that the scientific method is our best hope for achieving an understanding of psi. Practicing parapsychologists take this for granted, but many of the people we need to persuade do not. Parapsychologists are an anomaly of sorts in that we are exceptions to a trend I see in the population at large: namely, a negative correlation between an interest in psi and an appreciation of science. Ironically, this is where we need to mimic CSICOP by serving as cheerleaders for the methods and accomplishments of traditional science. To be sure, we object to the rigid materialism of traditional science and the way it has treated parapsychology, but the fundamental methods and epistemology of science are part of the very essence of our field. Without them, parapsychology would not exist. We must be positive advocates of them and what they have accomplished in other domains if we hope to justify our existence.

The implications of psi. All this is not enough to really inspire the public to support parapsychology, however. A key ingredient is missing, and that ingredient, I think, is a no-holds-barred discussion of the possible implications of psi. It is not an overstatement to say that these potential implications are monumental. Part of J. B. Rhine's success in gaining public support for parapsychology was that he was not afraid to openly discuss its implications in his popular books on the subject. Today we see less of this, and I think that is a major reason why we have attracted so little tangible public support. It is also bad for our own morale. I suspect that many of us sometimes get so caught up in the nuts-and-bolts of our specific research projects and other duties that we forget about the idealism that brought us into parapsychology in the first place. We are engaged in a very important enterprise for which many of us have made great sacrifices, and we should take time to pat ourselves on the back for choosing this path. Most important, we should continually remind ourselves of what this struggle is all about and draw energy from that realization in our day-to-day existence.

Yet, wouldn't talk about the potential implications of psi risk alienating members of the traditional scientific community whose support we also need? It is fashionable in neo-positivistic circles to look down on such discussions as unjustified breast-beating, despite that they are customarily required in grant applications to federal agencies. This criticism nonetheless has some validity, but only insofar as claims about the implications of a particular finding go beyond the data. However, this caveat does not preclude a discussion of what the implications might be, as distinguished from what they "are." Indeed, such cautious discussion of the potential implications of a research program can be considered a morally necessary way to provide those who would support the research program with an understanding of what their support might lead to down the road.

I would predict that even a very cautious public discussion of the implications of psi would enrage those scientists for whom the current scientific worldview functions as a kind of quasi religion, but these people are already hostile to our field and will continue to be so whatever we do. I think more important irritants among scientists generally are the exaggerated claims sometimes made for psi, sensationalism in the media, and the identification of the field with occultism. These are problems that we are already aware of and are dealing with as best we can. If we can place a discussion of the possible implications of psi in a context that projects a responsible attitude toward these other problems, the discussion may actually have a positive impact on many scientists. In addition, it would help for us to make a point that also has been stressed by Braude (1986), namely, that confirmation of a paranormal theory of psi would not mean that we must abandon existing laws of materialistic science, only redefine their boundaries. The opposite claim is often stressed by our critics, but it is silly to think that Newtonian mechanics, for example, would suddenly become invalid the day some scientific committee declared that paranormal processes are real.

So what are the implications of psi? They fall into two main categories, the applied and the conceptual. Let us first consider the potential applications of psi. I sometimes find it amusing to see these potential applications restricted to discrete subject areas like healing and crime-solving. The fact is that we are talking about the potential for a marked and broad-ranging increase in human capacity to interact with our external environment, both to acquire information about it (ESP) and to change it (PK). If the kinds of phenomena already demonstrated in our research could be maximized and brought under better control, the possibilities would be endless. If we can psychokinetically increase the rate at which a wound heals (Wirth, 1990), is it all that much of an extrapolation to suggest that someday we might be able to psychokinetically dissolve a brain tumor? If we can use precognition to learn the future behavior of a computer (Radin & Nelson, 1989), is it too much of an extrapolation to suggest that someday we might use it to forecast a devastating earthquake?

A serious discussion of such applications, of course, raises ethical issues. Any increase in human capacity, whether it be psychic powers or the benefits of education, can be used for either good or evil purposes. I tend to be an optimist in this regard. When one looks at the history of civilization, which embodies the increases in the capacities of human beings that help define our civilization, man's inhumanity to man has on balance decreased, despite the horror stories we still read about in the newspapers. Civilization has advanced in spite of its increased capacity for self-destruction. I think this is most importantly a function of education in the broad liberal sense. When I look at the world's great tyrants, people like Hitler and Saddam Hussein, I see people who are clever but not very well educated in this broad sense. I think that the more complete education that psychic means of information acquisition could provide on a grand scale would include an appreciation of humane moral values that would render the use of psi for evil purposes much less likely than it seems to be today. There inevitably would remain some people who would use their advanced psi capacities for evil purposes, but these capacities would be more than offset by the increased capacities of those with more virtuous motives to counter the evil.

This optimistic scenario is predicated on the assumption that human nature is basically good, and that evil motives arise primarily from ignorance. It also assumes that psychic abilities would be broadly based and not the sole province of some treacherous elite. These assumptions and the scenario that follows from them are, of course, debatable; but it remains that whatever stance one takes, there is much at stake in the potential fulfillment of psi research. If we choose to pursue these avenues, there are many who will be prepared to provide tangible support for our quest.

The potential conceptual implications of psi are also dramatic, but the ethical issues they raise, although existent, are not nearly so profound as those coming from the applied perspective. Moreover, the realization of these conceptual implications would not require the same strength of effect as would be needed to produce a tangible impact. The conceptual implications are more difficult to foresee, however, because they depend heavily on what theory of psi we ultimately adopt.

If the conventionalists are right, the implications of psi will primarily involve methodology in behavioral science. As Hyman and Honorton (1986) have pointed out, a "failed" psi research program could give us a better understanding of how subtle artifacts might compromise research findings in conventional scientific fields, particularly psychology. This, of course, is not the kind of implication most of us expect or desire, but it does illustrate that even in the worst-case scenario our labors would not have gone entirely for naught.

If psi, on the other hand, were to yield a paranormal explanation of some sort, the implications might be more profound. Let me just list a few of the more likely ones as I see them, beginning with scientific explanations. Our fundamental theories of physics would clearly require a mental component, such as we have already seen in the introduction of consciousness into quantum mechanics by some theorists (Walker, 1974). However, these mental constructs would need to be more refined to allow for probabilistic mathematical laws relating changes in mental state to the "behavior" of matter. The main point is that mind would be seen as the prime mover in nature.

We also must consider the philosophical and cultural implications if such paranormal theories of psi were to be confirmed. Here I am talking, not about scientifically verified theories, but about the impact of these theories on beliefs that are not strictly amenable to scientific proof. Ontologically, the physics just described would seem to favor dualism (Beloff, 1964) or Whitehead's panexperientialism (Griffin, in press), although materialism might survive if it could be shown that these mental effects require mortal beings. This of course brings us back to the survival question. Perhaps the most important intellectual implication of psi research will be its capacity to answer the question of whether our consciousness can transcend our mortality.

Any paranormal theory of psi would lend credibility to those religions that affirm or describe paranormal occurrences in their texts. On the other hand, some more fundamentalist religions might be undermined because events that were theretofore considered to be examples of supernatural or divine intervention would have to be reinterpreted as conforming to general scientific laws. However, religion in the broader sense would be enhanced, I think, because the notion of God is more compatible with a fundamentally mental universe than a fundamentally material one.

Finally, I believe that psi has the potential of lending credibility to the worldview of transpersonal psychology, particularly its notion of our interconnectedness. My bet is that the theory of psi we ultimately adopt will have as its basis a kind of collective unconscious, a universal mind that we all share. Ordinarily, we only have access to those contents of the universal mind that support our sense of individual identity. Psi occurs when we can break out of this identity long enough to access other information in the universal mind. I believe that the cultural consequence of such a metatheory, and particularly experiences that would arise from its application, would be a greater empathy with and respect for our fellow human beings. This is part of why my attitude about the moral implications of advanced psychic powers tends to be positive.

There is little if anything I have said in this speculative exercise that has not been said by others before me. My purpose is not so much to provide new insights as to remind us of exactly what is at stake in our research. Proper validation of a paranormal theory of psi would, like other major scientific theories before it, have enormous consequences for how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. If these insights could be applied for potential use, the consequences would be even greater. The primary accomplishment of our research to date has been to make the possibility of these consequences sufficiently great that they merit serious discussion. This is not an accomplishment that should be underestimated or undervalued.

The problem is that these potential consequences are not real to people. Surveys tell us that lots of people believe in psi, and television ratings tell us that lots of people are interested in psi. But I don't think many people really appreciate or have given much thought to the implications of psi, what could be at stake for them both individually and collectively. I submit that this is the major reason why this interest in parapsychology is passive rather than active, why it is something that is fun for party conversation and bedtime reading rather than something to get involved with and promote. Only if we can sensitize the public to these possible implications (even if it leads to some controversy), and only if we can then convince them that the scientific method is the way to find out if these potential implications are real, will we parapsychologists receive the kind of public support we need and deserve.

1 A third possibility is represented by the "psi structures" theory of William Roll (1982). According to this view, we do not survive as intact personalities but are represented as dispositions attached to objects or persons that we had prior interactions with.

2 A specific nonsurvivalist counterhypothesis for this experiment that involves retrocognition was suggested to me by Dr. Christopher Cooper after my oral presentation. I confess that I had not considered a retrocognition interpretation of my experiment, perhaps because parapsychologists hardly ever think about retrocognition at all. The hypothesis is simply that the agent could have undertaken the communication before death (perhaps unconsciously), with the information stored unconsciously in the percipient's mind until the free-response ESP trials.

I see no way to rule out this version of the super-psi hypothesis, although it might be weakened by introducing a long delay (say, six months) between the agent's death and the experimental ESP trials. The plausibility of this move would be increased if it could be shown that retrocognition among the living tends to atrophy as the time interval increases. This point illustrates how more knowledge about psi in general can help in solving the survival puzzle. I could further reduce the Zplausibility of the retrocognition hypothesis by not selecting the percipients until just before the ESP trials were to commence.


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Author:Palmer, John
Publication:The Journal of Parapsychology
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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