Academic journal article The Journal of Parapsychology

Psi and the Nature of Abilities

Academic journal article The Journal of Parapsychology

Psi and the Nature of Abilities

Article excerpt

Lately I've been giving a great deal of thought to the nature of human (and other organic) abilities. In part, this is connected to my recent research into multiple personality and the need to explain, not only the partitioning of abilities and skills among alternate personalities, but also the enhanced levels of functioning that some of them exhibit (and for that matter, the exceptional performances of "nonmultiples" in hypnotic and other sorts of dissociative states). My interest in this topic is also connected to my ongoing study of savants and prodigies, who apparently have much to teach us about the limits (and perhaps also the latency) of human abilities. At bottom, I suppose, it connects with my general and long-standing concern with problems of psychological explanation, particularly in light of the gross inadequacies of trendy computational theories of the mind.

I have also begun to consider how understanding human abilities is vital to our assessment of the evidence for survival, and that has prompted me to review the relevance of this topic to the data of parapsychology generally. Before launching into my talk, however, I must emphasize that my thinking about much of this is quite preliminary; so what I shall present to you now is by no means a comprehensive and systematic philosophic program. Instead, it is a kind of conceptual stew, a mere progress report of loosely connected thoughts about the nature of human abilities and parapsychology. I shall begin with some relatively straightforward (if not downright simple-minded) observations, and then move on to issues of increasing complexity and importance.

Is Psi an Ability?

The term "ability," like most ordinary language expressions, has no single and preferred--much less clear and unambiguous--meaning. In one quite appropriate and also quite general use of the term, it can stand for almost any kind of organic capacity or disposition. For example, we can speak of someone's ability to laugh, experience fear, or merely breathe, blink, or move the muscles in one's arm. In this sense of the term, "ability" does not imply the manifestation of any sort of proficiency or skill. At other times, however, "ability" is nearly synonymous with "skill." Thus, we might speak of a person's ability to play tennis or write poetry, and we would not attribute that ability to just any person capable of swinging a tennis racquet or taking pen or computer in hand. In this sense of the term, abilities are neither identical with nor merely a function of some set of initial organic endowments, that is, the dispositions, capacities, or other properties one has at birth. Indeed, otherwise functionally impeccable organisms may not possess them. That is because abilities in this sense involve a mastery or conscious development of some set of more rudimentary attributes. These might be familiar sorts of capacities, such as being able to move one's limbs or being able to track moving objects; but they could also be unique or exceptional endowments. For example, the possession of a third arm or extra fingers might lead one to develop a novel and extraordinary skill at playing musical instruments.

There seems also to be a third relevant sense of "ability," falling between the two already mentioned. It is in this sense of the term that we usually speak, say, of musical or athletic abilities. Compared to the sense of the term in which eyesight and a sense of smell count as abilities, in this sense of "ability" we tend to pick out somewhat higher-order traits. Virtually every functionally intact human organism has a similar range of quite rudimentary capacities, such as being able to breathe, utter sounds, digest food, and eliminate waste products. But even persons with a reasonably full complement of lower-order capacities may lack higher-order musical, athletic, literary, or mathematical abilities (to name but a few). In that respect, this sense of "ability" is similar to that in which it is roughly synonymous with "skill. …

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