Among the too few scientifically trained and inclined people doing parapsychological research, there is some ongoing tension between the folks (a) who, on the one hand, have advanced training in the material sciences, physics, e.g., and who aim for what we might call “pure” science by the standards of the successful material sciences, and (b) those of us who see paranormal phenomena not only as a stimulating challenge for expanding physics, but as important aspects of our human nature, including whatever our spiritual nature might be. Some of you might be interested in this bit of an exchange I had with a colleague recently.
My colleague noted that he suspected a common quality in my and a few other parapsychologists, affecting our understanding and action, was “spirituality” or “religion.” To my mind, he had often characterized “spirituality” or “religion “ as largely, if not totally, nonsensical in earlier discussions. This association was undesirable from his pure science point of view, as I and these others were well known to the public, giving what he considered an unscientific picture of parapsychology.
I replied to him that I was honored that he would include me as one of the “most influential people” in our field, but while he was not totally direct about it, I worried that he had mistakenly characterized my overall approach.
First, a basic: To the best of my knowledge, psi — telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and psychokinesis, to mention just the basics — is not merely a weak, evanescent anomaly in laboratories, it also happens in ordinary human life, is sometimes very strong, and has powerful effects on what people believe is the nature of reality and consequently how they act. As a transpersonal psychologist, people’s beliefs and their effects on behavior are very interesting and important. As a parapsychologist (what I see as a specialty interest within the wider field of transpersonal psychology) I want to learn as much about psi in a scientifically useful and valid a way as is possible.
Secondly, I’m not “religious.” “Religious” is usually a negative word in our discussions, indicating a fixed belief about the “supernatural” that often flies in the face of both common sense and the current accumulated body of scientific findings. While raised in a conventional religion, I long ago left those beliefs behind, to my conscious knowledge. (And I’ve spent a lot of time studying my own psychology looking for less conscious biases).
I am “spiritually” inclined. Not that I’ve had any great spiritual experiences, but I’ve studied them in others, I know their value for people. I think of spiritual experiences as the “data,” and “religion” as the theories created to explain them (and give certain people more social power, etc., all that negative stuff). Some “spiritual experiences” are undoubtedly explicable in ordinary terms, some are expressions of psychopathology, but some are probably insights into something “real,” and so should be studied to discriminate and refine what knowledge might be available.
Some “spiritual experiences” sound like they involve psi, and the demonstration of psi effects in the lab, even in weak form, gives a reason to consider that some spiritual experiences are indeed about reality, not just subjective. That’s what my last book, The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together, was about.
I’m proud of my openness to studying spiritual experiences, although, like my interests and work in parapsychology, it’s hindered my career in terms of ordinary social rewards due to materialistic prejudices in the academic and scientific social worlds.
I have observed with interest a strategy, I don’t know how conscious it is, among colleagues in parapsychology to try to get more acceptance of psi from the scientific Establishment by talking/thinking about psi as nothing but a minor anomaly of only intellectual interest, certainly not as something of spiritual or religious significance. I’m sure there are short-term gains from this approach, but it can distort long-term understanding. And I don’t think it fools Establishment people who have emotional problems with religion and spirituality, they know parapsychological results are threatening to them, even if the knowledge is unconscious.
I’m happy to theorize/speculate about spiritual implications of psi — and I carefully distinguish these from more basic data findings. I wish more of us would do so…
Illustration: John-Forrest Bamberger, Greetings World