The ESP Enigma: The Scientific Case for Psychic Phenomena

By Watt, Caroline | The Journal of Parapsychology, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

The ESP Enigma: The Scientific Case for Psychic Phenomena


Watt, Caroline, The Journal of Parapsychology


THE ESP ENIGMA: THE SCIENTIFIC cASE FOR PSYCHIC PHENOMENA by Diane Hennacy Powell. NewYork: Walker, 2009. Pp. 280. $25.00 (hardcover). ISBN13: 978-0-8027-1606-4.

The inside sleeve of this book establishes the scientific credentials of author Diane Hennacy Powell: trained in medicine, neurology, and psychiatry; former member of Harvard Medical School's faculty; published articles in neuroscience and psychiatry journals. Perhaps since those early days she has become less interested in mainstream medical practice, as her website biography states she currently "has a solo practice in Medford, Oregon and incorporates psychotherapy, psychopharmacology, and pet therapy into her compassionate healing of people who want personalized care" (www.dianehennacypowell.com). She is a peace activist (it runs in the family, as she is great-niece of Ammon Hennacy) and is also active in human rights.

The brief introduction argues for taking psychic phenomena seriously--this is to be expected given the book's subtitle. Powell claims that "if one wants to prove whether or not telepathy can exist, one strong convincing case for its existence should be sufficient" (p. 5). With apologies to William James, this is a naive claim. Although such a "white crow" argument may be true in the so-called "hard" sciences, in research with human participants (who come into the lab with varying expectations, moods, personalities, and hangovers), and when we are dealing with phenomena that appear to have small and inconsistent effects under laboratory conditions, we have to use inferential statistics and rely on an accumulation of consistent findings to build a convincing case.

Toward the end of the introduction, Powell describes a life-changing experience when a patient claiming to be psychic told her several accurate details of her life and made predictions that (eventually) came true. This stimulated Powell's interest in the paranormal to the extent that she "decided to systematically investigate psychic phenomena" (p. 8), and it seems that she has been doing this for the past 20 years. Oddly, given her two decades of systematic research, if Powell has published any of her work in peer-reviewed journals, she does not reference it in her own book.

Chapter 1 ("Consciousness and the Brain") sets the context by, again briefly, introducing different philosophical models of consciousness: monism versus dualism; materialism; and the so-called "hard problem" of consciousness. The hard problem was introduced by philosopher David Chalmers (1994) and is paraphrased by Powell as "how something as nonmaterial as consciousness could arise from the brain" (p. 19). This paraphrasing makes rather more assumptions than the more prosaic phrasing more commonly associated with Chalmers: "how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience." But Powell does not explore her assumptions or indicate to the reader that the hard problem may be differently conceptualized.

Chapter 1 closes with a line of reasoning so naive that I was left gaping: "The brain is composed of atoms and therefore the principles of quantum physics are operating in out brains" (p. 24); the same goes for all other particles in the universe, if quantum physics is correct. Powell seems unaware that different levels of explanation are appropriate for different physical systems. Most physicists do not take seriously the idea that the quantum level is the most appropriate for psychological or neuroscientific questions. Powell then makes another giant leap in the following sentence: "A model that recognizes that quantum physics also operates in out brains might explain many of consciousness's 'unsolved mysteries'" (p. 24). Because a rationale for this line of reasoning is absent from the chapter, the reader is left hoping that all will be revealed in subsequent chapters.

Next, a large chunk of the book consists of six chapters providing a selective review of the parapsychological literature: telepathy, identical twins and "coupled consciousness," clairvoyance, precognition, PK, and OBEs. …

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