Academic journal article The Journal of Parapsychology

What Have We Learned about Psi? Reflections on the Present of Parapsychology

Academic journal article The Journal of Parapsychology

What Have We Learned about Psi? Reflections on the Present of Parapsychology

Article excerpt

Saint Augustine, the celebrated theologian of the Catholic Church, tells us that, as he was walking on the shore of a beach meditating on the mystery of the Holy Trinity, he saw a child playing with a nutshell. Saint Augustine got close: "What are you doing, little one?" he asked the child. "I am trying to collect all the water of the ocean in this nutshell," he answered. The theologian, looking at him with surprise but with compassion at the same time, asked, "But how could you pretend to collect all the water of this immense ocean in this small nut?" With plain candor, the child responded, "And how do you pretend to understand the marvelous mystery of God with your tiny head?" (Brown, 2000, p. 213). It's the same as it was for Saint Augustine: For those of us who work in parapsychology, psi escapes our comprehension and control. We parapsychologists confront one of the greatest problems of human nature: Is psi an ontological dimension (related to being), and as a consequence, still basically unexplored?

In my judgment, one of the great merits and achievements of modern parapsychology is to have applied the rigor of the scientific method to the exploration of phenomena which, even today, continue to attract great popular interest. These subjects always generate much metaphysical speculation. However, their study also comes accompanied with feelings of rejection, scorn, or direct negation on the part of the rest of the scientific community.

The systematic study of spontaneous cases--such as reports of psi experiences and poltergeists; the problem of the survival of the human personality after the death of the physical body in the form of memories of past lives by children; spirit identification employing sophisticated codification of messages; apparitional encounters, the investigation of anomalous experiences which for centuries have traditionally been the patrimony of occultism, spiritism, and folklore ("astral trips," luck, detection at a distance, healing by faith, psychic reading); and the therapeutic treatment of traumatic anomalous experiences--all show the creativity in the designs of the parapsychologists, often surpassing what one encounters in other social sciences. Of course, many of these experiences have also been explored in attempts to identify the positive and significant correlations of psi with psychological, physiological, physical, and even geomagnetic variables.

But this conquest has also had a high cost in terms of the comprehension of these phenomena and experiences. The scientific method guarantees us security, control, and dominion, but at the same time it limits us, it narrows us, and it subjects us to a partial vision of the nature of psi phenomena. Its negative counterpart, a suffocating obsession for the scientific method, may work against psi performance if we were to take seriously into account all the recommendations of the skeptics to accommodate ourselves to their (pre)judgments. Social scientists with weak and immature scientific training can easily become prey to this "irrational" rationalism and mitigate their interest in the exploration of these incompletely understood human experiences, no matter what their ultimate nature may be. They compel us to adopt an absolutely conceited position like the one the skeptics attempt to construct for us with their arguments.

Even so, it is not as if we are trying to reject the scientific method (Feyerabend, 1988), fight the skeptics, or burn in a bonfire our parapsychology laboratories. It is notable that, in many studies carried out by the pioneers of psychical research, some of them ended up asking themselves about the nature of psychic experiences. Positivist scientists, like the French physiologist Charles Richet, were themselves convinced by their discovery of much of psychic mechanics, although the "explicative theories" proposed by these pioneers did not totally negate their previous vision of the world. …

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