From the archive: Professor Bernard Carr replies to Jon Wainwright on psi effects Bernard Carr The Skeptic

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

I’m grateful to Jon Wainwright for his interesting report of my recent APRU lecture. We may not see eye to eye on everything but his description of what I said is accurate and he makes many cogent points, some of which I would like to respond to.

I’m glad he picked up on my “tiger in the grass” analogy (originally derived from a talk by Peter Brugger). The importance of type I errors (seeing a tiger which isn’t there) and type II errors (not seeing a tiger which is there) is clearly crucial for anomalous cognition researchers. However, Jon must appreciate that the analogy cuts both ways: there is no doubt that people sometimes see psi when it isn’t there but the question is whether sceptics sometimes fail to see psi when it is there. We know that tigers exist but does psi exist?

In this context, it is important to stress that the issue of whether psi is real is completely distinct from the issue of why people believe in it. To a physicist like myself the first question may seem more fundamental but the work of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit demonstrates that the second question is equally interesting to a psychologist. However, even if it is true that people who experience psi have certain psychological characteristics (fantasy-proneness, divergent thinking, etc.), this neither proves nor disproves psi’s existence. Doubtless people who see imaginary tigers also share certain psychological characteristics.

As stressed at the outset of my talk, the challenge is to extend science to accommodate normal mental experiences as well as paranormal ones. This is a useful starting point because, whatever our different views on the paranormal, I’m sure Jon and I would agree that it’s legitimate to enquire whether science can encompass ordinary mental phenomena like memories and dreams. And I don’t just mean this in the sense that psychology studies mental states but in the deeper sense of whether consciousness and its contents can be part of the same sort of scientific theory which describes the material world.

Whether this hope can be fulfilled remains an open question – some people argue that subjective experience is intrinsically beyond the reach of science and Jon discusses this view in his report – but I don’t think sceptics will begrudge me the attempt.

However, I doubt that Jon is comfortable with the second step in my argument: that the type of science required to accommodate normal mental phenomena may also suffice to accommodate paranormal ones. That is one reason why I emphasized Dean Radin’s unification diagram of the different types of mental experience. This plots their rareness versus their profundity and suggests that there is a natural continuum going from the mundane through the psychic to even more exalted states.

I agree with Jon that measuring profundity might be problematic (and one should certainly be wary of self-reporting) but that doesn’t detract from the main point of the diagram – that any scientific theory which aspires to describe mental experiences must incorporate all of them because any experience is valid per se. However, I confess that it was my interest in psi which originally motivated me to construct my theory, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Jon saw my proposal as the thin edge of an unwelcome wedge!

One of my claims is that psychical research provides a bridge between matter and mind – a theme which I explore in greater depth in a recent SPR Proceedings (Carr, 2008). Jon is unhappy with the bridge analogy because he feels it could be a category mistake to assume that matter and mind are the same type of object. He argues that Foster’s wobbly Millennium Bridge would be a better analogy than Monet’s sturdy Giverny Bridge. I agree that my purported bridge is very rickety – it’s still under construction – and I myself considered using the image of the Millennium Bridge, so we’re not far apart here. But the crucial question is whether a bridge is possible in principle.

The problem is that Jon is an “unashamed monist and reductionist”; while he feels the bridge analogy presupposes a dualist view of the relationship between matter and mind. But I don’t really agree here because the problem with dualism is that it fails to account for how matter and mind interact at all, so this would also exclude a bridge. I would claim that my own approach – which invokes a higher-dimensional information space (viz. a “Universal Structure”) which amalgamates ordinary physical space and the space of mental phenomena – is neither dualist nor monist.

Although it is not materialistic, it does invoke an extended form of physics (extra dimensions being all the vogue in physics anyway) and in that sense it is scientific. Whether it is reductionist depends on what one means by this term. Mind is certainly not reducible to old-fashioned classical physics in this picture but it may be reducible to some new extended physics.

On the other hand, my Universal Structure goes beyond the usual one-level reality of materialism, which sounds rather mystical, so I don’t suppose this argument is going to win Jon over. While I concur with his dismissal of the “scurrilous philosophical scepticism which denies that we can have any access to objective reality”, my own theory predicts that consciousness can have access to an ever larger objective reality (i.e., I ascribe an objectivity to what is usually regarded as subjective) and I suspect he might regard this as even more scurrilous. Certainly my claim that there is a hierarchy of mental experiences related to a hierarchy of realities based on a hierarchy of extra dimensions will not appeal to most of my physics colleagues!

Jon worries about “serious ideas being wrenched from their original and highly mathematical context”. There is certainly a danger of this, as evidenced by some ‘new age’ presentations of quantum mechanics, which give the impression that – since quantum mechanics is weird – it can explain anything else which is weird! I also accept that some people may misuse my proposal for their own purposes without properly understanding it. Whether my fellow physicists will regard my use of extra dimensions in the same way is a moot point.

I am certainly a legitimate scientist in my professional life but it must be appreciated that I am going beyond my professional domain in these speculations. Certainly my proposal will not  be welcomed by M-theorists. They are already prone to the accusation that their ideas are too remote from experiment to qualify as physics, and their critics might regard my suggestion as demonstrating a reductio ad absurdum.

My talk emphasized the concept of paradigm shifts in physics and Jon questions this. It is true that there are technical disagreements among philosophers of science about what constitutes a paradigm shift but I don’t think anybody questions that our model of physical reality undergoes occasional and dramatic changes. He criticises people who latch onto gaps in the current paradigm in an attempt to denigrate science but this is mainly in the context of the intelligent design debate.

This is not a topic I touched on, but I do have an interest in the science-religion connection and I share his antipathy towards “polyfilla gods in retreat of advancing knowledge”. However, unlike the denigrators of science, I merely infer that the path of science is not yet complete and that the gaps in the current paradigm may give a clue as to what form the next one will take.

Of course, we cannot know in advance which bizarre ideas some future paradigm may eventually legitimize and one must beware of assuming that ‘anything goes’. On the face of it, nothing could be more bizarre than the notion that the Large Hadron Collider in probing higher dimensions may in some sense be probing mental space, but then some critics would argue that higher dimensions only exist in the minds of M-theorists anyway! It’s not so easy to anticipate which crazy ideas will turn out to be correct, which is why there will always be room for open-minded scepticism.


Carr, B. J. (2008). Worlds apart? Can psychical research bridge the gulf between matter and mind? Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 59, 1-96.

The post From the archive: Professor Bernard Carr replies to Jon Wainwright on psi effects appeared first on The Skeptic.

From the archives in 2011, Professor Bernard Carr replies to Jon Wainwright on psi effects and psychic experiences
The post From the archive: Professor Bernard Carr replies to Jon Wainwright on psi effects appeared first on The Skeptic.

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