Parapsychological Phenomena as Examples of Generalized Nonlocal Correlations – A Theoretical Framework



Harald Walach et al., 2014

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Scientific facts are constituted as consensus about observable phenomena against the background of an accepted, or at least plausible, theory. Empirical data without a theoretical framework are at best curiosities and anomalies, at worst they are neglected. The problem of parapsychological research since its inception with the foundation of the Society of Psychical Research in 1882 was that no sound theoretical basis existed. On the contrary, the proponents of the SPR often indulged in a theoretical model that ran contrary to the perceived materialism of mainstream science, and many tried to use the data of parapsychological research to bolster the case of “mind over matter,” yet without producing a good model of how such effects could be conceptualized. In general, parapsychological (PSI) research has been rather devoid of theorizing and, if anything, assumed a tacit signal-theoretical, local-causal model of some sort of subtle energy that would be vindicated, once enough empirical data were amassed. History, and data, proved this stance wrong. We will present a theoretical approach that chal-lenges this local-causal, signal-theoretical approach by proposing that para-psychological phenomena are instances of a larger class of phenomena that are examples of nonlocal correlations. These are predicted by Generalized Quantum Theory (GQT) and can be expected to occur, whenever global descriptions of a system are complementary to or incompatible with local descriptions of elements of such a system. We will analyze the standard paradigms of PSI-research along those lines and describe how they can be reconceptualized as instances of such generalized nonlocal correlations. A direct consequence of this conceptual framework is that misrepresentations of these phenomena as local causes, as is done in direct experimentation, is bound to fail long-term. Strategies to escape this problem are discussed.



What Is a Scientific Fact and Why Parapsychological Data Are No Such Facts

One of the biggest misunderstandings of science by popular writers and indeed empirical researchers is the assumption that a scientific fact is exclusively constituted of trustworthy and replicable observations by competent observers (Dawkins 2006, Loughlin, Lewith, & Falkenberg 2013, Martin 2004, Sheldrake 2013). One could not be more mistaken, and readers, as well as authors, of this Journal are among those who have experienced this truism (Gernert 2008, Martin 1998). This view has been haunting science since the heydays of neopositivism at the beginning of the 20th century in the Vienna circle, when philosophers of science thought that the kernel of science is observation, and that many observations are joined together to arrive at theories (Smith 1994). This crudely and purely inductive view of science has since proved plainly wrong (Suppe 1977). Hanson showed that each and every observation is theory-laden, and that no such thing as naïve, objective observation exists. Popper argued that only a deductive way of reasoning, starting from theory, or at least a hypothesis, a daring conjecture, would enable science to progress, because every inductive model of science would not be able to solve the Humean problem (Popper 1976). This consists of a circular argument: Each inductivist model has to stipulate at least one non-empirical sentence, the induction principle itself, in order to be able to use inductive observation in the first place. More historical and pragmatic approaches to science proved Popper insufficient (Kuhn 1955, Putnam 1975, Laudan 1977), and if there is any consensus among Science and Technology Study scholars at all, then it is a historical social consensus about how science operates (Toulmin 1985). It is a largely social enterprise, within which those observations are counted as facts that can be communicated well, because they are made against the background of an accepted theory, have been shown to be reasonably robust against modifications, and can be replicated by competent observers. Social– historical studies, like those of Bruno Latour, have shown that consensus about theories and observation is only a minimal requirement (Latour 1999, Latour & Bastide 1986). A scientific agent needs to be able to also draw on the benevolence of important communicators and political agencies. In the examples studied by him these were elite groups such as the French National Academy, or political decisionmakers, or important newspaper editors.


In our day, these opinion leaders outside the scientific community proper are powerful science editors of journals, newspapers, and TV magazines, funding agencies, and political decisionmakers (Emerson, Warme, Wolf, Heckman, Brand, & Leopold 2010, Henderson 2010, Lee, Sugimoto, Zhang, & Cronin 2013, Ritter 2011).


A successful scientific theory for any class of phenomena thus consists of at least of three components:

  • There is a good theoretical model that is accepted by a majority of scientists active in the investigation of these phenomena.
  • There is a repeated and replicable observation that can be shared by competent observers and replicated within reasonable limits by them.
  • There is a communicative consensus within the scientific discourse and among those who wield the wands of power therein. This consensus has to pertain both to the acknowledgement of the observations and the acceptability of the theoretical model.

1) without 2) and 3) is only a toy model, interesting to play with, but without consequences. 2) without 1) and 3) is an anomaly at best, but normally just a nuisance. 1) and 2) without 3) constitutes a scientific fringe culture.


Parapsychology (PSI), since its inception which can be dated to the foundation of the Society of Psychical Research in 1882 (Society for Psychical Research 1882), is at best such a scientific fringe culture, without, however, really agreeing on a good and accepted theoretical background. If there was any commonality among the founders of PSI-research then it was a tacit opposition against what was perceived as the crypto-materialism of the mainstream scientific model. However, 130 years of research, some at high-profile university institutions, have not really brought us any further toward some acceptance by the mainstream. The reasons for this are debatable. Mainstream science is not convinced by a vague and undifferentiated rejection of materialism.


Moreover, critics normally point to the fact that a lot of the evidence is purely anecdotal and some of the experimental evidence fails some crucial tests, such as independent replicability and stability of observations under changed framework conditions (Alcock 2003, French 2003, Milton & Wiseman 1999). Although meta-analyses of experimental models in PSI research are generally positive overall, with stunning odds, even though effect sizes are sometimes small (Mossbridge, Tressoldi, & Utts 2012, Schmidt 2012, Schmidt, Schneider, Utts, & Walach 2004, Storm, Tressoldi, Di Riso 2012, Tressoldi 2011), it cannot be denied that some decisive replication studies have failed spectacularly, pouring water on the mills of critics (Jahn et al. 2000, Milton & Wiseman 1999, Ritchie, Wiseman, French 2012, Schmidt, Erath, Ivanova, & Walach 2009, Schmidt, Tippenhauer, & Walach 2001).


Apart from this, very little attention has been paid to the theoretical background models that might hold for parapsychological effects. After some popularity of observational theories in the 1970s, most researchers seem to have turned back to a tacit local, signal theoretical concept of PSI-effects.

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