Psi’s Threat to Skeptics
This dialogue between Chris Carter and Bob Ginsberg is based on the book: Science and Psychic Phenomena: The Fall of the House of Skeptics
As you point out in Science and Psychic Phenomena, skeptics often totally ignore the significant scientific evidence of psychic phenomena. Why is the existence of such phenomena so threatening to the skeptics?
If this were any other field of inquiry, the controversy would have been settled by the data decades ago. However, parapsychology is not like any other field of inquiry. The data of parapsychology challenge deeply held worldviews, worldviews that are concerned not only with science, but also with religious and philosophical issues. As such, the evidence arouses strong passions, and for many, a strong desire to dismiss it. Briefly, the so-called skeptics find the evidence threatening because any evidence for the existence of psychic abilities such as telepathy threatens the materialistic worldview. This of course, raises the question as to why the so-called skeptics cherish the doctrine of materialism, and go to such extreme lengths to defend it against evidence that proves it false.
As I have described in my book, the ancient doctrine of materialism asserts that all events have a physical cause. It dates back at least to the ancient Greeks, and was thought to gain theoretical support from the physics of Isaac Newton. Materialism is one of the implications of taking classical physics to be a complete description of all of nature, including human beings (although Newton himself rejected this conclusion). It is essentially the idea that all events have a physical cause, therefore mind has no causal role in nature, and so in short, all that matters is matter. This view became prevalent during the somewhat arrogantly titled period known as the Enlightenment, which can be thought of as the ideological aftermath of the Scientific Revolution.
Considered as a scientific hypothesis, materialism makes a bold and admirable prediction: psychic abilities such as telepathy simply do not exist. If they are shown to exist, then materialism is refuted.
But materialism is no ordinary scientific hypothesis. It is the bedrock, the foundation of the ideological belief system known as secular humanism, which has an anti-religious, anti-superstitious agenda. There is a deep connection between the ideology of secular humanism and the so-called skeptical movement. For instance, the world’s leading “skeptical” organization, The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) was formed in 1976 at a meeting of the American Humanist Association. And many of its founding members – such as Paul Kurtz , James Alcock, Paul Edwards and many others – have openly expressed atheism and contempt for religion.
Essentially, as I argue in my first book, this debate is not primarily about evidence. Rather, the debunkers are defending an out-moded world view in which psychic phenomena and out-of-body experiences are simply not allowed to exist. It is essential to realize that most of the debunkers are militant atheists and secular humanists.
For various reasons, these people have an ideological agenda which is anti-religious and anti-superstitious. One of the main pillars of their opposition to religion and superstition is the ancient philosophy of materialism: that is, the doctrine that all events have a physical cause, and that the brain therefore produces the mind. If they conceded the existence of psychic abilities such as telepathy, and of the NDE as a genuine separation of mind from body, then this pillar of their opposition to religion would crumble. This, more than anything else, explains their persistent denial of the evidence that proves materialism false.
In other words, these so-called skeptics view themselves as heirs of the Enlightenment, guardians of rationality who must at all costs discredit any backsliding into religious fanaticism and superstition. Genuine skepticism plays an important role in science; but genuine skepticism involves the practice of doubt, not of denial, and so most of these so-called skeptics are not true skeptics, but merely deniers.
Can Psi phenomena by explained by current physics, or do all the established principles of science need to be rewritten?
The notion that” the acceptance of psi phenomena would require that the established principles of science be re-written” is the most fundamental fallacy in the materialist belief system. For instance, the prominent ”skeptical” psychologist James Alcock has written that the claims of parapsychology “stand in defiance of the modern scientific worldview. That by itself does not mean that parapsychology is in error, but as the eminent neuropsychologist Donald Hebb pointed out, if the claims of parapsychology prove to be true, then physics and biology and neuroscience are horribly wrong in some fundamental respects.”
In a similar vein, skeptical psychologist Ray Hyman has written that the results that parapsychologists seek “allegedly challenges all sciences, not just a particular theory within a given domain.”
But neither Alcock, Hyman, nor Hebb have ever bother to explain how the claims of parapsychology “stand in defiance” of science, or “challenge all sciences”, or how “physics and physiology say that ESP is not a fact.” At least Hyman qualified his remark with “allegedly”, meaning “supposed but not proven.” Indeed, it is rare for a skeptic to ever back up this criticism with specific examples. On those rare occasions they do – as documented in my book – they invariably invoke the principles of classical physics, which have been known to be fundamentally incorrect for almost a century.
For instance, the operation of psychic abilities seems to be unaffected by distance, and this would seem to violate the inverse square law: The intensity of an energetic transmission is proportional to the square of the distance between transmitter and receiver. In other words, if the distance between target and percipient is doubled, then the strength of the signal should be attenuated to a quarter of its original strength. But it does not appear that scores in psi experiments decrease with the square of the distance between target and percipient: Successful experiments have been carried out at great distances, reinforcing the popular notion that the operation of psi is independent of distance.
But a number of leading physicists such as Henry Margenau, David Bohm, Brian Josephson, and Olivier Costra de Beauregard have repeatedly pointed out that nothing in quantum mechanics forbids psi phenomena. Costra de Beauregard (1975) even maintains that the theory of quantum physics virtually demands that psi phenomena exist. And Evan Harris Walker has developed a theoretical model of psi based upon von Neumann’s formulation of quantum mechanics. (Walker, 1979)
Hyman’s argument (made in 1996 in the Skeptical Inquirer) that the acceptance of psi would require that we “abandon relativity and quantum mechanics in their current formulations” is thereby shown to be nonsense. Contrast Hyman’s statement with that of theoretical physicist Costa de Beauregard, who has written “relativistic quantum mechanics is a conceptual scheme where phenomena such as psychokinesis or telepathy, far from being irrational, should, on the contrary, be expected as very rational.” (1975, p. 101)
So we can see now that another reason why this controversy has continued is due to ignorance over the implications of modern physics which is of course quantum mechanics. Materialism does gain theoretical support from classical physics, which is deterministic, observer-independent, and which describes all influence in local, mechanical terms. It gains no such support from quantum mechanics, which is indeterministic, observer-dependant, and which allows non-mechanical, non-local influences. And by the way, these non-mechanical, non-local influences have been demonstrated not only at the microscopic level, but also over distances exceeding 10 kilometers. The entire universe appears to operate according to quantum mechanical principles, even if the effects are usually much too tiny to be noticed at our macroscopic level.
But even before quantum mechanics began to supersede classical mechanics in the 1920s, many physicists were much more open to investigating psi phenomena than most psychologists seem today. An astonishing number of the most prominent physicists of the 19th century expressed interest in psychic research, including: William Crookes, inventor of the cathode ray tube, used today in televisions and computer monitors; J.J. Thomson, who won the Nobel Prize in 1906 for the discovery of the electron; and Lord Rayleigh, considered one of the greatest physicists of the late 19th century, and winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1904.
Of course, for their efforts in investigating these and other unusual phenomena, these men were often criticized and ridiculed mercilessly by their colleagues.
The great psychologist Gardner Murphy (1968), president of the American Psychological Association, and later of the American Society for Psychical Research, urged his fellow psychologists to become better acquainted with modern physics.
“…the difficulty is at the level of physics, not at the level of psychology. Psychologists may be a little bewildered when they encounter modern physicists who take these phenomena in stride, in fact, take them much more seriously than psychologists do, saying, as physicists, that they are no longer bound by the types of Newtonian energy distribution, inverse square laws, etc., with which scientists used to regard themselves as tightly bound…. psychologists probably will witness a period of slow, but definite, erosion of the blandly exclusive attitude that has offered itself as the only appropriate scientific attitude in this field. The data from parapsychology will be almost certainly in harmony with general psychological principles and will be assimilated rather easily within the systematic framework of psychology as a science when once the imagined appropriateness of Newtonian physics is put aside, and modern physics replaces it.”
Much of the media would have us believe that most of mainstream science believes that telepathy is impossible – is this truly the case among working scientists?
Surprising, not at all. The so-called skeptics are really just a vocal minority within the scientific community. Surveys show that a large proportion of scientists accept the possibility that telepathy exists. Two surveys of over 500 scientists in one case and over 1,000 in another both surveys found that the majority of respondents considered ESP “an established fact” or “a likely possibility”: 56 percent in one and 67 percent in the other. (Evans, 1973; Wagner & Monet, 1979 )
These polls suggest that most scientists are curious and open-minded about psi. This however, does not seem to be the case in one field: psychology. In the former study only 3 percent of natural scientists considered ESP “an impossibility”, compared to 34 percent of psychologists. And many of the most prominent “skeptics” – such as Ray Hyman, James Alcock, Richard Wiseman, and Susan Blackmore – are psychologists.
As I said earlier, “skeptics” are a vocal minority of the scientific community, many of whom are psychologists with an ideological axe to grind, or militant atheists perpetuating the myth that the current laws of nature would be overthrown if these abilities were shown to be real.
In my first book I quote two leading skeptics from the 1950’s openly admitting that if this were any other field of inquiry – that is, one with results less threatening to a worldview based on 17th century science, less threatening to an ideology with its roots in an 18th century struggle between secular and religious members of society – then the experimental data would have carried the day by 1950.
You address the conflict that often arises between belief and evidence and refer to the term cognitive dissonance. Please give us an overview of the term.
Cognitive dissonance is a termed coined by the psychologists, and refers to an uncomfortable state of tension that people enter when faced with a conflict between belief and evidence. This uncomfortable state can only be relieved by changing one’s preconceptions, or by dismissing the objectionable evidence. Since our preconceived opinions are formed over a lifetime on the basis of our unique experiences, education, and personalities, changing them is rarely easy, and so it is easier for many simply to dismiss the evidence that challenges their preconceived ideas.
Several well-known “skeptics” have confessed having a profound fear of psi experiences. Susan Blackmore, for instance, had to face the fact that many psi researchers have reported positive experimental results. As I document in my book, one day Blackmore was asked to witness a telepathy experiment involving children. She described her experience this way:
“We observed for some time, and the children did very well. They really seemed to be getting the right picture more often than chance would predict. I began to get excited; even frightened. Was this really ESP happening right in front of my eyes? Or was there an alternative explanation?… Somehow I just couldn’t accept that this was psi, and I was to go on arguing about the method used in future years. Was it just perversity? A refusal to accept my own failures? A deep fear of psi? Whatever it was, it led me into constant confusion. I just didn’t seem able to accept that other people could find psi while I could not.”
Similarly, skeptical psychologist Elizabeth Mayer participated in a Ganzfeld experiment as a “receiver” – a subject trying to guess what image the “sender” is trying to send – and scored an apparent success. Her reaction was eerily similar to Blackmore’s:
“And at that moment the world turned weird. I felt the tiniest instant of overwhelming fear. It was gone in a flash but it was stunningly real. It was unlike any fear I’ve ever felt. My mind split… The feeling was terrifying. My mind had slipped out from under me and the world felt out of control.” [Extraordinary Knowing, p. 206-7]
However, unlike Blackmore, Mayer did not give up (Blackmore claims to have officially retired from parapsychology, complaining that “I am just too tired – and tired above all of working to maintain an open mind.”). Instead, Mayer created her own psychoanalytic theory of why so many “skeptics” dogmatically dismiss all evidence of psi: a Freudian theory of unconscious fear, in this case a fear that our beliefs may be wrong.
But there is another problem here with the attitude of many skeptics, whether they be psychologists or not. That is the problem of treating science as a closed set of beliefs, as opposed to an open-ended method of inquiry. The celebrated philosopher of science Karl Popper demonstrated that all our scientific “laws” are more logically thought of as tentative hypotheses, subject to falsification or revision at any time. At one time Newtonian physics was thought to be absolutely correct, but then relativity and quantum mechanics showed that it was not correct on any scale, but merely an excellent approximation to the truth. By the same measure, our present theories may themselves one day be replaced by an even closer approximation to the truth.
With the open-minded attitude this philosophy of science entails, there is no need for the fear, or for the cognitive dissonance that positive results from psi research creates in the minds of so many dogmatic skeptics. As I carefully document in my new book Science and Psychic Phenomena, the so-called skeptics have gone to the most extraordinary lengths to deny, distort, and even suppress the evidence in favor of psi phenomena.
Whenever I read articles or view TV segments that focus on telepathy, near death experiences or survival, it seems as if the same two or three skeptics are always interviewed as the “scientific experts.” Most of the time, the actual researchers that have amassed the evidence are never approached. Do you think that this is a case of bias on the part of the media, or are they simply unaware of the established evidence?
This has not always been my own experience, and I have seen balanced presentations where the phony-skeptics were not given undue exposure. However, I think there may be some truth to this. It seems to me there are several reasons.
First of all, conflict and controversy provide “juice” that make an article or TV program more interesting to many viewers. Second, producers seek to provide “balance”, and, partly out of ignorance regarding the strength of the actual data, also do not want to seem gullible or easily taken in by their peers in the media. Remember writers and producers tend to move quickly from project to project and topic to topic, and so most of them do not deeply understand most of the issues they cover.
One of my colleagues is parapsychologist Loyd Auerbach, who has been involved with all sorts of coverage of these issues since the 1980s, and whose father was a television producer. He told me recently:
“I’ve been involved with all sorts of coverage of psi since the early 1980s — and I essentially grew up around NBC. My father was a producer, and I got to discuss this with numerous newscasters over the years. This included Roy Neal, who had been the network’s science editor/correspondent for years and who continued to work with my Dad after both left NBC.
“But there’s another element for television that is extremely important to the producers/execs: Is the person being interviewed INTERESTING? Can he/she hold the general audience’s attention with his/her personality, if the information ends up being dry? Can he/she present the case with some degree of enthusiasm (and/or passion)? Can he/she describe the findings and concepts and research itself in easy to understand terms and in short sound bytes?
“Is the individual being interviewed willing to take a stand on his/her research, the phenomena, etc — even if it means separating one’s personal belief from scientific assessment of the research? The ‘skeptics’ are emotional, passionate, definitive in their opinions, and usually can hold an audience. They know the buzz words that a general audience understands.
“I’ve been told by many producers and production assistants (the ones who do the initial contact/feeling out of possible interview subjects) and newscasters that so many of the folks in our field are ‘hard to work with’ for a variety of reasons — but the ones that keep popping up are: ‘not interesting to talk with’ or ‘not able to explain concepts simply or in a sound byte’.
“As to the same two or three ‘skeptics’ showing up? I’ve asked that very question and the response is that many of the skeptics are also not good interview subjects (and that some are just ‘too rabid’). The ones we keep seeing have established their ability to hold an audience, without going too far over the top.” (Loyd Auerbach to Chris Carter, personal communication, August 10, 2012.)
What is the present state of skepticism as it relates to psychic phenomena?
Extremely impoverished. I think it’s safe to say that the so-called skeptics have utterly failed in their mission to convince most people that these commonly-reported abilities are an illusion.
And I can back up this claim with hard data. A British friend of mine named Guy Lyon Playfair looked into this, and came up with something startling. He wrote about it in an article titled “Has CSICOP Lost the 30 years War?” Here is an excerpt:
“Twenty five years after the founding of CSICOP a Gallup poll revealed a clear increase in belief in just about everything from haunted houses (up 13 percent on an earlier poll) and communication with the dead (10%) to psychic healing (8%) and reincarnation (4%). Then in May 2006 the 30th anniversary of CSICOP coincided almost the day with another nasty shock to the skeptical system – a new poll commissioned by Reader’s Digest in which more than 1,000 adults were questioned about their paranormal beliefs. This revealed remarkably high levels of belief in such matters as knowing when somebody you can’t see is staring at you (68%) and knowing who is calling you before you pick up the phone (62%). More than half (52%) reported instances of premonition, often in dreams, while nearly a fifth (19%) claimed to have seen a ghost.
“Worst of all for the skeptics was CSICOP’s own poll published in the Skeptical Inquirer (SI) (Jan./Feb 2006 issue). This focused on college students – 439 of them – because, the authors explained, ‘We assumed that higher education, as one of the few remaining bastions of critical thinking, would provide little room for pseudoscientific or paranormal beliefs’.
“What the CSICOP pollsters must have found particularly unsettling was the fact that as the students’ educational levels increased, so did their paranormal belief levels for all fourteen subjects on which they were questioned. Dividing the students into five categories from Freshmen to Graduates, percentages of those described as Believers rose steadily from 23 percent to 26, 27, 31 and finally 34 percent for the graduates. In other words, an American college education increases paranormal belief levels by nearly 50 percent. CSI/CSICOP has lost the 30 years war.”
In view of your extensive research, do you believe that telepathy utilizes any type of measureable signals that are exchanged between the sender and receiver?
No, for two reasons: one empirical, the other theoretical. First of all, as described in my book, all experiments that have attempted to block the operation of psi by blocking all possible electro-magnetic signals have failed. Second, all recent theoretical models – such as those created by physicists Evan Harris Walker and Helmut Schmidt – are based upon quantum mechanics, and incorporate non-local, non-mechanical influences that have nothing at all to do with classical signals.
Assuming that the survival hypothesis is true and death is not an end, do you think that the process by which communication with discarnates takes place is telepathy?
No, and the argument that communication with the deceased via human mediums must involve telepathy is a strange one, based on nothing more than a definition, and definitions are always arbitrary.
Here it is: telepathy is anomalous – that is unexplained – communication between minds that does not involve the use of our ordinary five senses. Communication with the deceased via human mediums is also unexplained and occurs between minds that does not involve the use of the five ordinary senses. Hence, by definition they are the same!
The fallacy here should be obvious: the fact that two phenomena are mysterious does not imply that they are identical. It reminds me of a story I tell in my book: when a Kalahari bushman killed an eland – regarded as a notable achievement – the camp immediately knew of it “by wire”, as one bushman described it, evidently under the impression that the white man’s telegraph also worked by telepathy. If we encountered an extra-terrestrial civilization that used a method of communication that we did not understand, the proponents of this argument would have to insist that by definition the mysterious method is telepathy.
The sorts of experiences that the term “telepathy” we originally meant to denote are nothing at all similar to the best forms of mediumistic communications. Telepathy is a Greek term, and literally means “distant feeling.” Common telepathic experiences resemble feelings and hunches, such as the feeling that one is being stared at, or the hunch that someone specific is calling us as the phone begins to ring. Laboratory experiences are similar; involving success rates – for instance, at guessing pictures – of about 35% on average, or reaching 50% with gifted subjects, when a success rate of 25% would be expected if chance alone were operating. Nothing in the experimental or anecdotal literature suggests that detailed messages of the sort that we see in the best mediumistic communications can be sent or received. As such, there is no reason to assume that the processes involved are identical.
By the way, I deal with this issue, and much more, in my third book which has just been released, titled Science and the Afterlife Experience.
Chris Carter is the author of Science and Psychic Phenomena: The Fall of the House of Skeptics and Science and the Afterlife Experience.