Facing Down The Facts

John Poynton, Honorary Secretary of the SPR

This article first appeared as a Halloween Essay in VARSITY, The Independent Cambridge Student Newspaper on Friday 30th October 2009.

Halloween has long associations with festivals of the dead and with occult practices. Also, it is associated with tricks and pranks. The two tend to go together in the popular mind: experience of visits by the dead and other occult phenomena are thought to be the result of deliberate trickery or of being tricked by one’s senses. Despite this, people who have had direct experience of what may be called the paranormal do not find the idea of being tricked either by themselves or by others very convincing. Whether the experience was direct mind-reading, prophetic dreams, or witnessing an apparition, it felt very much a true part of their reality. Identical twins will probably know what I am talking about, like a hospital worker who unaccountably felt sudden pains in her left leg and had bruises developing on the left side of her body. It turned out that her twin sister was involved in a car accident at the same time some 400 miles away, and was injured along her left side in the same places. This kind of happening has been carefully studied by G. L. Playfair in his Twin Telepathy, The History Press, Stroud, 2008.

As people with such experiences generally seem good observers and of reasonably sound mind, their reports tend to be quite convincing even to others who have not had their own direct experience. The feeling may arise that serious attention should be given to the ostensible phenomena. Among groups of people having had this feeling was a small collection of scholars centred in Cambridge around the 1880s. To give serious attention to such phenomena, a Society for Psychical Research was launched in London under the presidency of Henry Sidgwick, then Praelector of Moral and Political Philosophy at Cambridge. Reviewing the new society’s research agenda in 1883, which included thought-reading, clairvoyance and ‘obscure phenomena commonly known as Spiritualistic’, Sidgwick considered it a ‘scandal’ that there was a ‘dispute as to the reality of these marvellous phenomena.’ The Society’s aim, he suggested, was to ‘kill’ the prevailing ‘attitude of incredulity’ by ‘burying it alive under a heap of facts.’ A sizeable heap rapidly began to accumulate, and continues to grow with increasingly greater sophistication. There are some eight universities in the UK where courses are currently given, usually under the term parapsychology, and the peer-reviewed research literature is huge. Yet the ‘scandal’ persists.

Why the persistence? Attempts to find an answer lead to complexities about what determines conventional thinking, both in and out of science. For a start, is conventional thinking as readily killed by a heap of facts as Sidgwick hoped? A later president of the SPR pointed out that scientists are a priori theorists at heart; while psychical research continues to amass evidence, several standard ideas and theories are currently set against accepting the evidence. There is the background power of pervasive materialism, and a more proximate power of ideas such as from neuroscience, which, with the philosophical laxity prevalent in standard science, rules out the possibility of mental events operating independently of the brain.

It is not difficult to show flaws in philosophical materialism and in neurological determinism or reductionism, but that is not really what matters. The reality is that materialism and reductionism form a set pattern of thinking, or ruling paradigm, that will proof itself against all conflicting evidence and ideas, a paradigm that may be dislodged only by the kind of mental switch identified in Kuhn’s study of the structure of scientific revolutions. Kuhn saw the history of science as a succession of tradition-bound periods punctuated by revolutions, each revolution replacing one set of theories and procedures by another. The revolutions tend to be messy and irrational, with people of one paradigm clinging to it regardless of facts for the sake of intellectual security and professional standing — and one might add, also for sentimentality, since the materialistic paradigm has been hard-won, emerging as it did from the revolution of the Enlightenment.

It is not often acknowledged — or even fully realised — that some basic notions of the Enlightenment were undermined early in the last century by the development of relativity and quantum theory. The materialistic view generated during the Enlightenment holds that reality subsists only in objects located precisely in the physical world; everything else is either imaginative or abstract and so lacking ‘reality’. Yet quantum theory showed that waves, or other structures controlling probability, are beyond the scope of physical observation, and cannot even be physically located. Against the standard view that ‘reality’ is an exclusive property of actualities in this world, the idea of potentiality developed by Heisenberg and others saw ‘reality’ to reside at least as much in causal structures and processes which are not contained in the same level as are the resulting actualisations. This does not fit the ruling one-level materialistic paradigm, yet the paradigm proves to be impervious to the full implications of quantum theory, and resolutely survives.

In its dealings with a multi-level ontology, quantum theory is highly relevant to attempts to make sense of paranormal phenomena, even if it cannot successfully be used to ‘explain’ these phenomena (although some say it can). Psychical research may be seen to continue undermining materialism in essentially the same direction as quantum theory by demonstrating the multi-level nature of what exists, nonphysical as well as physical. Attempts to explain psychic phenomena in physical terms fail: how can one physically account for the experience of the hospital worker with a sore left side? At least something analogous to nonlocal interaction in quantum mechanics seems to be operating, some resonance that operates nonphysically. Failure or refusal to see this continues to put psychical research beyond the conventional pale, and gives rise to the ‘attitude of incredulity’ that Sidgwick protested against. It is still very much with us despite the mountain of facts documented in a vast literature on psychical research.

Some idea of the scope and current activities within the field of psychical research may be found in the website of the Society for Psychical Research, www.spr.ac.uk. The term ‘psychical research’ has tended to be equated with ‘parapsychology’, but this now seems restrictive. If ‘psychology’ may be thought to include the study of claimed paranormal beliefs and experiences without making any presumptions about the existence of ‘the paranormal’, then ‘parapsychology’ could be thought to take a step further by considering whether these beliefs and experiences may be based on nonphysical events and processes. The study of such occurrences could be separately identified and termed ‘paraphysics’, which is where thinking in terms of multi-level systems becomes necessary. Finally the term ‘paracosmology’ could refer to the broadest study of the manifestation of any world and its objects on any occasion of observation in a variety of states, such as recorded in out-of-body and near-death experiences. The latter involves the scientific study of nonphysical worlds which several far-thinking authors have called for. Such is the scope of psychical research, seen from a twenty-first century perspective. And if something funny happens to you on Halloween, compose yourself with thoughts of multi-level ontology, and see if you can add something to the heap of facts.