From the archive: Can Science Accommodate Psychic Experience? Jon Wainwright The Skeptic

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 22, Issue 1, from 2011.

As someone who has only recently had their sceptical consciousness raised, I have the impression that this is an unusual question for anyone to ask, let alone a physicist. So, it was fascinating to hear Professor Bernard Carr talk on this subject in March 2009 at Goldsmiths, University of London, as one part of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit’s Invited Speaker Series. I cannot do justice in this article to either the scope of the lecture or the illustrations that accompanied it, but I do want to draw out one or two salient issues for discussion.

Bernard began by acknowledging something that I think we would all agree with: psi is a genuine experience that many people report. He admitted that his long-standing interest in psychic phenomena had not always sat comfortably alongside his day job as a professional physicist specializing in cosmology. For some of his colleagues, even a glance in the direction of psi is intellectual adultery, no matter how rigorous and sceptical the approach. While physicists by and large have steered clear of psi, psychology departments have found it much easier to accommodate psi within respectable research programmes. Whatever the ultimate explanation, there are real people with real – if not necessarily true – beliefs to study.

Like most scientists, Bernard rejected any kind of supernatural explanation: if psychic phenomena are real we should assume they obey natural laws, and since the study of natural phenomena is the undisputed domain of science, psi must therefore be amenable to scientific investigation. (However, I agree with Victor Stenger, 2003, in thinking that the naturalism of science is methodological and not necessarily ontological – even if there are supernatural ‘forces’ out there, our methods should be able to detect their effects on the natural world.)

Having answered his original question in the affirmative, Bernard then seemed to take a step back, by asking: Can science deal with mental experience? If science can deal with psi, surely it can deal with the more mundane category of mental experience? Jumping ahead to the more speculative conclusion of the talk, he asked another challenging question: Is psi an experiential glimpse of the holistic fabric of reality?

Are Psychic Phenomena Real?

First things first: We know that we make errors in perceiving the world around us. Is that a tiger in the grass? A type I error is seeing a tiger that is not there, a false positive. We waste some energy running away from a non-existent threat and need a bigger lunch. A type II error is not seeing a tiger that is there, a false negative. We are lunch. The cognitive mechanism at work here is the hypersensitive agency detection device (HADD), which “scans the environment for intentional agents and their activity” (Barrett, 2007, pp. 67–68). The evolutionary strategy is simple: better safe than sorry. And in the modern world, where threats to survival from intentional agents have been reduced to almost zero for many people, we’re still lumbered with our error-prone HADDs (What’s that spooky creak? Someone’s there!).

The anthropologist Pascal Boyer and the psychologist Justin Barrett explore the fascinating possibility that our HADDs are involved in the construction of religious concepts (Boyer, 2001). Could they also be involved in the construction of paranormal concepts? While we’re good at detecting traces of agency in our lives, we’re also generally good at discarding false positives. Once we’ve run away from the tiger that wasn’t there, we forget about it. Non-existence is usually, cognitively, not very interesting. Only when such over-detection is maintained and becomes a stable trait over time can this lead to the formation of supernatural concepts, which in turn generate their own complex inferences (Boyer, 2001).

If we can make errors in perceiving the world around us, why shouldn’t we make errors in perceiving the world within us? Is this a different kind of world, made of different stuff, obeying different laws? There is a scurrilous kind of philosophical scepticism which denies that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality outside ourselves, that we should instead be true to our own natures (Frankfurt, 2005, pp. 64–67). Cogito ergo sum is a famous confusion, suggesting “that thinking, and awareness of thinking, are the real substrates of being” (Damasio, p. 248).

Being certain of one’s own mind and sceptical of the minds of others is a tricky cul-de-sac for some to reverse out of, it seems, even after Darwin. “We have no direct, conclusive evidence to support the belief that people are intentional agents with minds. Minds cannot be directly observed. We have no empirical evidence for their existence” (Barrett, 2007, p. 69). While Descartes may be excused his lack of evolutionary perspective, it seems incredible that in the same article in which he writes so well about HADDs, Barrett cites Alvin Plantinga in support of this sceptical position.

A more balanced approach is to admit that, just as we can be mistaken about the world out there, so too do we have imperfect self-knowledge and underprivileged access to ourselves. We are far from perfect conscious introspectors. No wonder we are tempted, as Daniel Dennett suggests, to “exploit the cognitive vacuum, the gaps in our self-knowledge, by filling it with a rather magical and mysterious entity, the unmoved mover, the active self” (Dennett, 1984, p. 79).

Returning to the question – are psychic phenomena real? – let’s cut to the chase. When we see a woman sawn in half, we marvel at the trick, even though we have no idea how it’s done. Having paid to see a magic show, we’re unlikely to conclude that psychic powers were involved. In a different context, however, a naturalistic explanation might not be so readily available.

Still, while I don’t believe psi is real, like many of us drawn to this magazine’s brand of scepticism, I’m interested in belief formation, and how throughout history various characters have gone around claiming to be able to access a higher power, often gaining power and status as a result of being able to convince other people of their abilities.

The Varieties of Human Experience

One of the themes of Bernard’s lecture was that parapsychology was more interested in experiment than experience, that there is a general discomfort with spirituality and mysticism, and that we should focus more on experience. He displayed a graph of ‘Rare versus Profound’ experiences (see Figure 1) and toward the lower left of the graph, in the armpit of the axes, lurked gut feelings, just below telepathy and ‘distant healing’, while soaring in the clear blue sky of the upper right floated mystical union.

While rarity of report is probably a variable most observers can agree on, more difficult to determine is the profundity of an experience. This will inevitably involve a value judgment, and may even be flatly contradicted by other individuals. For example, would a Christian agree to have their experience of the healing power of Jesus placed slightly lower on the grid than a Bodhisattva’s experience of enlightenment, or vice versa? There is a subjective dimension to our experience of profundity.

In making the distinction between experiment and experience Bernard pointed up the contrast between third- and first-person reporting. Third-person is the realm of no-nonsense science, while first-person would seem to be beyond measurement (forget about those fancy new fMRI machines) – but obviously not always beyond description. Bernard went back to the graph of first-person experiences and characterized the ‘lower’ experiences (those rooted in our bodies, e.g., gut instincts) as capable of transforming the individual only, while the ‘higher’ experiences (those involving the spirit, however this emerges) as capable of transforming the world.

An interesting aspect of this characterization of purely first-person experiences is to what extent it is open to third-person scrutiny. Because of what happened to him and what he achieved, Gandhi tends to be believed when he claims profound contact with a higher reality: he got involved with a political movement that affected the destiny of a whole subcontinent. If someone claims a gut instinct lay behind some decision, we tend to believe them, and we don’t request objective evidence for their experience. Gut instincts are also key to falling in love – and while your best friends might not agree you’ve fallen for the right person, they will take your self-report at face value. In our personal lives, such ‘low’ instincts – butterflies in the stomach and a rapidly beating heart – can have profound repercussions.

Now take the case of David Shayler, who announced that he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ at Glastonbury Town Hall (Wilson, 2008). Even the most credulous person in Britain might furrow their brow at this announcement and for a fraction of a second become an absolute sceptic. David Shayler would have to change the world in a pretty amazing way for us to even begin to believe that he was self-reporting accurately a real state of the universe and not just a really, really anomalous mental state.

Intuitive Dualism

To illustrate his point that parapsychology is the bridge between matter and mind, Bernard showed a slide of Monet’s Bridge at Giverny, the one with lots of lilies and the sort of garden we’d all love to spend a lazy summer afternoon in. Bernard could have chosen the Iron Bridge in our own lovely county of Shropshire, but I fear that the weight of that massy structure would have broken the back of his metaphor. While we are all “natural-born dualists” (Bloom, 2004, p. xiii), I believe dualism to be false.

Gilbert Ryle was right to expose the “official doctrine” that “every human being is both a body and a mind”, and right to ridicule the “dogma of the Ghost in the Machine” (Ryle, 1949, pp. 13, 17). It is a category mistake to suppose that matter and mind are the same kinds of entities between which a bridge, however metaphorical, can be built. Bernard did not address this question, and this is where his metaphor began to wobble like the original Millennium Bridge.

Intellectual Trickle Down

What to make of Bernard’s suggestion that the bridge has something to do with higher dimensions? This was a novel idea to me, but such talk can pop up in unexpected places. In his recent excellent book on the Dover trial to keep intelligent design out of the science class, Matthew Chapman included part of an interview with a local called Scott Mehring, who had this to say: “Now if you believe in physics, you got the eleventh dimension… and inside the eleventh dimension they say there’s an infinite number of universes. So my take on that is that if you die on this earth, we just hop over to the eleventh dimension… So that means the bible could be right with everlasting life after we die” (Chapman, 2007, p. 252).

The intellectual trickle down effect at work! And who, precisely, are “they”? Legitimate scientists like Bernard Carr, whose ideas get reported and simplified and passed on down the food chain till they’re recycled in the most surprising ways. People attracted to quantum woo of the Deepak kind are unlikely ever to have solved Schrödinger’s equation, and even erudite philosophers can come over all confused by the simple metaphor of the ‘selfish gene’. Here we have serious ideas being wrenched from their original, and probably highly mathematical, context and plunked into the brains of middle-aged men in Pennsylvania. What kind of psychological anomalies is that going to provoke? The kind on peacock-strutting display in a Pennsylvania courtroom.

As Chapman puts it, here was the whole ID debate in its most naked form: an auto repairman – a biblical literalist without a shred of knowledge – deciding which books the kids should learn from, helped along by a woman who had no curiosity about anything and would happily lie in court to promote her religion (Chapman, 2007, p. 236).

At the other end of the intellectual spectrum, at least in terms of qualifications, was Steve Fuller, drafted in at the last minute for the defence and now, in Professor John Worrall’s phrase, “wanted for crimes against truth and rationality”. (This is how Worrall began a recent talk at the Conway Hall in London: a photograph of a smiling Steve Fuller with this as a caption.)

Pushing the boundaries of science is not what comes to mind when contemplating the inanities of the ID crowd, but, according to Fuller, that’s what was at the intellectual heart of the case. Patrick Gillen, lead attorney for the defence, in his summing up claimed that ID was a new scientific theory that Fuller “believes may well open a fascinating prospect to a new scientific paradigm.” Indeed, Fuller argued that ID was science, that it was not religious, and that it was as testable a theory as evolution. All it required was a scientific revolution, because at the moment there was a ‘dominant paradigm’ which stood in its way. ‘Paradigm’ may once have been triple-A scientific jargon but its status is now more subprime (even its best-known advocate Thomas Kuhn had his doubts). Is this crying in the wilderness for a new paradigm the secular version of turning to god to explain the gaps in our knowledge?

Polyfilla Paradigms?

So I was intrigued to hear Bernard Carr say that “there are gaps in our current paradigms”, not just gaps in our knowledge. Is this a kind of supercharged agnosticism? Or are paradigms overrated, more rhetorical devices than serious research tools? While polyfilla gods are in constant retreat before advancing knowledge, the Newtonian paradigm is still immensely useful in the snooker hall and when flying to the moon.

The study of consciousness is another fertile area for those with a taste for mystery – there are plenty of gaps in our understanding, but also that special additional peculiarity that while thinking about the problem, you’re actually in the middle of it. It’s not remote like the Cambrian explosion but by definition (so long as you’re not asleep on the job) real and present.

As an unashamed monist and a reductionist, and insofar as I understand the issues from my amateur perspective, I’ve tended to side with optimists like Daniel Dennett in rejecting the argument that consciousness is a special case, an exception to the reductionism that has been so successful elsewhere in the sciences. The optimists believe that the mysterians have sold reductionism short. So what to make of someone like Jonathan Miller (whose scientific and atheist credentials are impeccable), who describes himself as an agnostic materialist and recently dismissed naive reductionism as involving a fundamental category error? For him, consciousness is not like any of the problems that neuroscience is proving successful at investigating, and, during a lecture at the Royal Institution, he rather mischievously characterized the Churchlands as naive West Coast reductionists (Miller, 2009).

Plus Ultra

Whoever is right, and whatever new paradigms lie in store, one paradigm that isn’t going to change anytime soon is that scientific progress rests upon the observation of uniformity in the course of events and the application of past experience to new circumstances. According to William Clifford (1999, p. 7), this is the aim of scientific thought: to gain “information transcending our experience”.

There is a strong temptation, however, even among some scientists, to go along with Stephen Jay Gould’s separation of science and religion into ‘non-overlapping magisteria’, each competent within its own field of expertise. There isn’t space here to explore this issue, but Bernard Carr alluded to a similar idea by quoting Price (1955): “We inhabit two worlds simultaneously, the world of common experience governed by physical laws and another space quite as real which obeys other laws… continuous dream life goes on throughout our waking hours and occasionally we may catch a glimpse of it.”

Such fanciful talk reminds me of an example Clifford (1999, p. 5) used as a warning about what counts as legitimate inference: “Now suppose that the night before coming down to Brighton you had dreamed of a railway accident… the result of which was that your head was unfortunately cut off, so that you had to put it in your hat-box and take it back home to be mended. There are, I fear, many persons even at this day, who would tell you that after such a dream it was unwise to travel by railway to Brighton. This is a proposal that you should take experience gained while you were asleep… and apply it to guide you when you are awake… in your dealings with a real railway. And yet this proposal is not dictated by scientific thought.”

Clifford was writing in the 1870s, but many people would still hesitate at London Victoria after having such a dream.

Can Science Deal with Mental Experience?

Heterophenomenologically speaking, yes. (On a good day and with a fair wind, I can even pronounce this word.) What Dennett is proposing is that we neither challenge nor accept as entirely true the assertions of subjects, but rather maintain “a constructive and sympathetic neutrality, in the hopes of compiling a definitive description of the world according to the subjects” (Dennett, 1991, p. 83).

Just as I’m sceptical of the dreamer who doesn’t want to take a train, I’m not convinced that religious visionaries have, even temporarily, a special ability to discern aspects of reality that ordinary experience can’t disclose. Some think that religious people are generally pretty trustworthy, but as the Dover trial judge (a Republican Bush appointee) pointed out in his summary, as well as wasting time and resources, those Christians who had brought the case had lied for God (Chapman, 2007). One of the witnesses for the defence self-reported feeling under great pressure during a meeting. On listening to the tape the judge said, “You didn’t look like you were very pressured to me. Is there something in that tape that suggests to you that you were feeling pressured at the time?” The Christian replied: “I can’t help how it looks… I’m telling you I felt pressured at the time.” (Chapman, 2007, p. 221).

The World As Other Than It Is

Can science accommodate psychic experience? Can science explain the mind? The original question has broadened and become rather more personal. We’re used to a little privacy inside our skulls. Even those pioneering male Victorian scientists who delighted in lifting the skirts of nature might have baulked at having their own breeches pulled down. Dennett (2003) reports that scientists, from the outside, using their third-person methods can tell you things about your own consciousness that you would never dream of. So, we may not even be experts on ourselves. Perhaps that will be a good thing: humanity’s never been short on hubris.

Finally, let’s not forget that other bridge, between the world as it is and the world as other than it is, between the real world and the world of the imagination. The normal human mind is an engine of the imagination as well as an information processing machine. We’re always transcending humdrum reality, weaving our own holistic fabric by picking up a Harry Potter book, going to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or just wondering what to have for tea. Perhaps psi is yet another imaginative exercise with which to engage the mind, simply one more view from the bridge?


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The post From the archive: Can Science Accommodate Psychic Experience? appeared first on The Skeptic.

From the archives in 2011, Jon Wainwright reflects on whether a paradigm shift within physics could explain psi and psychic experiences
The post From the archive: Can Science Accommodate Psychic Experience? appeared first on The Skeptic.