A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

Book Review

The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena

by Dean Radin
(HarperOne 1997)




part two

Chapter 1. What is psi?

Radin notes that people have been reporting “strange and sometimes profoundly meaningful personal experiences” in all ages and across most cultures. He believes that these “psychic” experiences “suggest the presence of deep, invisible interconnections among people, and between objects and people.” Most psychologists would probably agree with Radin. However, most would probably not agree that “the most curious aspect of psi experiences is that they seem to transcend the usual boundaries of time and space.” Most psychologists recognize that the kind of magical thinking that dominated our earliest ancestors’ thinking about themselves and the world they live in has been replaced by more reliable ways of understanding the world. In particular, most psychologists would probably note that magical thinking is a hindrance rather than a boon to mankind. For example, Zusne and Jones (Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking, 2nd edition,1989,  p. 13) define magical thinking as the belief that

(a) transfer of energy or information between physical systems may take place solely because of their similarity or contiguity in time and space, or (b) that one's thought, words, or actions can achieve specific physical effects in a manner not governed by the principles of ordinary transmission of energy or information.

To Radin, such thinking is admirable and to be pursued as an essential element of parapsychology. To most scientists in other fields, magical thinking is a throwback to pre-scientific times when rigorous scientific and logical methods had not yet been developed. Modern methods permit us to avoid some of the pitfalls that typically occur when trying to discover causal interaction

Oddly, Radin claims that scientists do not like anomalies and paradoxes because they’ve “built their careers on conventional theories.” I can think of nothing that could boost a scientific career more than finding and explaining an anomaly or paradox. Scientists love puzzles and solving problems. He calls anomalies “annoying challenges to established ways of thinking.” Anomalies are stimulating, not annoying, to a genuine scientist. When one considers how Radin defines ‘anomaly’, however, it becomes easier to understand why he thinks scientists don’t like them. To Radin, anomalies are psychic phenomena. He says that anomalies “fall into three general categories: “ESP … PK … and phenomena suggestive of survival after bodily death (SOC)” (14). In other sciences, an anomaly is a phenomenon that does not fit with the current paradigm or that seems to violate a law of nature.  To be sure, psychic phenomena are anomalies, but they are not the only kind of anomalies. For example, when William Hershel discovered the planet Uranus in 1781 by telescopic observation, it was also discovered that the new planet’s orbit was different from what it should have been according to Newton’s laws. The orbit of Uranus was an anomaly: a phenomenon that apparently did not fit with the Newtonian paradigm. Some scientists may have thrown up their hands and said: “See, Newton was wrong! Hah!” Others may have taken the anomalous orbit as proof of God’s hand in the workings of the universe. Uranus has a different kind of orbit than the other planets because God is working a miracle—suspending the laws of nature—to demonstrate his power. But most scientists set to work to solve the puzzle. The simplest solution was to posit another planet beyond the orbit of Uranus whose gravitational force was affecting the planet’s orbit. That was done and, in fact, another planet was discovered: Neptune. However, even though the existence of Neptune now made the calculations for Uranus fit with Newton’s laws, Neptune’s orbit was anomalous! This puzzle was also solved by positing another planet beyond the orbit of Neptune. The object known as Pluto gave astronomers the data to show that Neptune did, after all, orbit in accordance with Newton’s laws.

Radin is careful to note that there is no accepted theory of how psi works. Thus, when he gives definitions of key terms in parapsychology, the terms aren’t theory-bound, which is very different from any other science. Terms such as ‘gravity’ and ‘electron’ are rooted in deeply established theories. Terms such as telepathy, psychokinesis, and spirit have no such theoretical grounding. Thus, they can be a bit slippery. Different people might use the same terms in significantly different ways. Thus, Radin warns us not to take too literally the “mental radio” model of telepathy and reminds us that “we know that telepathy doesn’t work like conventional electromagnetic signaling (16).” His reminder that science does not deal in absolutes is also worth noting.

Radin claims that much of the controversy over parapsychology is due to confusion about the term ‘paranormal’, which is often taken to mean “anything bizarre, occult, or mysterious.” He gives his own definition of ‘paranormal’ as “beyond the range of phenomena presently accepted by most scientists.” He seems to mean by “beyond the range” not that the phenomena are outside of space and time, or that they transcend the boundaries of the natural world and therefore are outside of the range of phenomena considered appropriate for science to study. Rather, he seems to mean that the paranormal are things that are currently not explicable by science. Yet, many critics of parapsychology think that parapsychologists are trying to find things that are inexplicable. They are not trying to explain inexplicable things.

Radin is well aware that most scientists won’t study the paranormal. Thus, he is fond of pointing out that many “subjects now considered perfectly legitimate areas of scientific inquiry, including hypnosis, dreams, hallucinations, and subliminal perception, were relegated to the wackiest fringes of the paranormal in the late nineteenth century (18). The implication is that parapsychology may seem wacky to most scientists today, but like these other subjects, it will become legitimate with time.  Frankly, I don’t see the connection here. There are many reasons why the study of hypnosis and dreams, for example, had to wait until recently for serious scientific investigation to occur. Advances in knowledge and methods of inquiry played a large role.  There doesn’t seem to be any reason why parapsychology couldn’t have made the same kinds of advances as, say, psychology or neuroscience in the past 150 years if in fact there was something for parapsychology to discover.

Radin finds support for his definition of the paranormal in Marcello Truzzi’s claim that the term “was created to designate phenomena considered natural—not supernatural—and which eventually should find scientific explanation but thus far have escaped such explanations….” Truzzi may have been right about not confusing the paranormal with the supernatural, although many parapsychologists consider there to be an overlap here.

Radin seems to accept the notion that for the paranormal to be scientifically studied the phenomena must, by definition, exclude the supernatural, which he notes is beyond science and incompatible with science. That is, supernatural phenomena are beyond science if one assumes that the supernatural are things that transcend nature. That is the traditional meaning of the term supernatural. Radin, however, seems to agree with former astronaut Edgar Mitchell that “there are no unnatural or supernatural phenomena” (19). Radin says: “it is entirely reasonable to expect that so-called miracles are simply indicators of our present ignorance” (19). Thus, he doesn’t exclude the supernatural from scientific study, but he is open to the view that what we consider supernatural isn’t truly beyond nature; it is simply beyond our current knowledge of nature. As Radin points out, “a few hundred years ago virtually all natural phenomena were thought to be manifestations of supernatural agencies and spirits” (19).

Nevertheless, Radin claims that “most famous scientists wrote in terms that are practically indistinguishable from the writings of mystics.” However, his notion of mysticism is not clear. He says that mysticism is “surprisingly similar to science”—whatever that means. He gives no examples. Nor does he try to explain the similarities except to say that both involve “a systematic method of exploring the nature of the world.” The methods of mystics, however, bear very little resemblance to the methods of scientists except in a superficial way. Mysticism has no interest in how things work or in discovering how natural phenomena function. Mysticism is interested in withdrawing from the world of nature into a state that seems to me to be a preparation for death: a state of non-judgment, total silence, and lack of disturbance (contemplative mysticism). Or it is interested in achieving some sort of experience that lifts one out of a connection with this world into some blissful, orgasmic union with Spirit or Cosmos (ecstatic mysticism). Neither seems to me to have much to do with science.

Radin may be expressing agreement with the notion that ancient Hindu mysticism is just quantum physics wrapped in metaphysical garb. This idea seems to have originated with Fritjof Capra in his book The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism (1975). The book’s first two parts are excellent expositions of ancient religions and modern physics. The third part, which tries to connect the two, is an abysmal failure. Nevertheless, it has been this third part which has influenced numerous New Age energy medicine advocates who claim that quantum physics proves the reality of everything from chi and prana to ESP to applied kinesiology. The idea that there is such a connection is denied by most physicists but books like Capra's and Gary Zukav's The Dancing Wu Li Masters : An Overview of the New Physics (1976) continue to remain popular among alternative thinkers.

Radin finishes up his first chapter with a discussion of science. He says that science may be defined as “a well-accepted body of facts and a method of obtaining those facts” (19). Nothing is said about the role of theory, hypothesis, and the like. The only notion he takes up in any detail is the notion of scientific methods (plural). He notes that controlled and disciplined observation is important to science, but isn’t sufficient.  He also notes that careful measurement is important to science, especially independent and replicated measurements. He claims: “Scientists in the seventeenth century had not yet developed methods of clearly distinguishing between real effects and chance” (20). Yet, it seems that one need only look at Gilbert’s studies of magnets, Boyle’s study of gasses, or Newton’s experiments with moving bodies to see that scientists in the 17th century did have methods to distinguish real effects from chance. It’s true that they did not have the methods that modern statistics provides today’s scientists. But it is an exaggeration to say that 17th century scientists had no way of distinguishing chance events. And, while it’s true, as Radin says, that 17th century scientists were unable to study almost everything that is studied in the sciences today, it was not because of lack of method but because of lack of knowledge and technology.

While there are many methods of observation and measurement that scientists might use, Radin says that there is only one that seems essential to science: replication. As Radin says: replication has become “roughly equivalent to a test for stability” of phenomena (20). Replicability is a particularly sensitive issue in the field of parapsychology because of its history of researchers making extravagant claims about the results of some study only to be unable to replicate the results. Skeptics have usually attributed the inability to replicate to be due to flaws in the original study. Robert Jahn, whose lab at Princeton University did work on micro-PK for more than two decades, claims that psi is irreplicable because it is “sensitive to a variety of psychological and environmental factors that are difficult to specify, let alone control.” Another parapsychologist, J. G. Pratt, believed that psi is a spontaneous occurrence in nature and that “predictable repeatability is unattainable.” Charles Honorton, whose work on the ganzfeld studies is considered one of the more important contributions to psi research, maintained that psi phenomena are affected by whether those involved in the study are “in a relaxed state.” Freeman J. Dyson, however, believed that paranormal events occur only when people are under stress and experiencing strong emotions. Some believe that psychic functioning may be enhanced in altered states and hindered in normal states. Some parapsychologists maintain that the only thing that has been replicated repeatedly in psi research is that skeptics get negative results and believers get positive results (the so-called sheep-goat effect). Some maintain that psychic power diminishes the longer one is tested (the decline effect). Adrian Parker maintained that psi depends on novelty of design and the motivations of the experimenter. No other subject of scientific investigation seems to have as many variables as psi does that might affect replicability.

“If a phenomenon is highly unstable,” notes Radin, “we can’t be sure whether we are measuring a real effect, some other effect, or just random variations” (20). In short, it will be very difficult to have a science of psi if psi is highly unstable. Despite Radin’s insistence that there is an abundance of scientific evidence in support of the existence of psi, skeptics may be right in claiming that this evidence is an illusion. The reason psi remains controversial is either there is no such thing or there is but it is too unstable to be carefully observed and measured by scientific means. In any case, the only proper way to proceed is to take a look at the scientific evidence and let the data speak.

end of part two

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