Book review by David Lorimer
This comprehensive volume updates the original Handbook that was published back in 1977 – so nearly 40 years ago. During that time, more research has taken place, but we have also seen the rise of organised scepticism with continuing vigorous attempts to debunk the whole field, part of which is manifest in the control by guerrilla sceptics of the Wikipedia parapsychology pages, including the Society for Psychical Research, where readers will find that about one third of the entry is devoted to fraud. It is also interesting to reflect that the original Handbook was published only two years after Raymond Moody’s Life after Life introducing the term near death experience. Going further back, the SPR and ASPR have been conducting systematic research since the 1880s, but one still hears the rhetorical refrain that no progress has been made in the intervening period. It is also worth remembering that the Journal of Consciousness Studies has been published continuously since 1994, and that the phrase a science of consciousness has become much more widespread. Also on historical note, Ed Kelly rightly observes that psychology took an immense detour through behaviourism after the death of William James, who was a scholar in philosophy and psychology as well as psychical research.
The book is structured in nine parts: basic concepts, research methods and statistical approaches, psychology and psi, biology and psi, physics and psi, psi phenomena in terms of anomalous cognition, perturbation and force, research on survival, practical applications, and finally a summary of the volume. In all, this makes 31 chapters with extensive references after each one. It is worth noting that the use of the word anomalous relates to the predominance of scientific materialism, a framework that can make no real sense of the data presented here. Among the specific topics are macro and micro PK, meditation, drugs, quantum theory, ganzfeld, remote viewing, pre-sentiment, distant intention, mental mediumship, reincarnation, ghosts and electronic voice phenomena, animal telepathy, and exceptional experiences in clinical psychology. This gives readers many points of entry, depending on their particular interests. In this relatively short review, I will confine myself to a few points.
The third chapter is the case against psi by Douglas Stokes, who has written widely in the field over many years. I read to his earlier books, The Nature of Mind from 1997 and The Conscious Mind and the Material World from 2007. I remember one of the main points being that there was no really adequate theory to account for psi, a point repeated here. To begin with, he remarks that many parapsychologists contend that spontaneous cases may be explained by normal processes, but he himself finds this dismissal premature. He discusses a priori scepticism, experimenter fraud with reference to science in general, data selection and the repeatability problem. In answering the question does psi exist he states: ‘the pattern of experimental results is exactly what would be expected if there is no psi and quite different from the pattern that would be expected if psi exists. Fraud at rates known to occur in other disciplines is a much more parsimonious explanation of the data that is the postulation of mysterious and inexplicable psi powers.’ On this basis, he concludes that psi does not exist, and, by implication, that psi-conducive experimenters must be fraudulent. The argument may be logically parsimonious, but it is contradicted by data analysed in most of the rest of the volume, and I was surprised that there was no refutation of this viewpoint in other essays apart from a brief editorial comment at the end.
However, an interesting point arises from this, namely the nature of the experimenter or sheep-goat effect where some experimenters get positive results that cannot be replicated by others. On one level, this may be explained by the prior attitude or expectation of the experimenter, as in two staring experiments on the same subjects by Marilyn Schlitz and Richard Wiseman. It turns out, though, that the third series of experiments was insignificant for both experimenters. I have often discussed this topic with Rupert Sheldrake, and we wonder if, in fact, the phenomenon is more widespread in psychological research generally. If so, this fundamentally undermines the simple conception of scientific objectivity, which, one should also remind oneself, is in fact a form of intersubjective consensus. There is a whole chapter devoted to experimenter effects in parapsychological research where the phenomenon is divided into two hypotheses, the experimenter behaviour hypothesis where certain experimenters are better than others at putting participants at these, and the experimenter psi hypothesis where the experimenter influences the outcome of experiments by imposing their own psi. This whole area would make more sense within a participatory worldview where there is a less clear-cut distinction between subjective and objective.
The work of Ian Stevenson’s carefully reviewed, as are possible explanations of the cases; Antonia Mills and Jim Tucker conclude that the evidence is now stronger than it was with Stevenson’s original 1977 paper, although it is still true that mainstream psychology has not incorporated this body of data. Rupert Sheldrake provides an extensive account of natural history of psi, including the various experimental avenues he has pursued. He takes on sceptical claims, particularly by Richard Wiseman, showing that a reanalysis of his data does not lead to the conclusion stated. One interesting line of research that I had not yet read about was thinking of someone one has not seen for years then suddenly meeting that person totally unexpectedly. Rupert makes the overall point that such experiences are in fact common, natural and normal – they are only paranormal through the lens of current orthodoxy, and he is right in maintaining that the dogmas of materialism have severely inhibited research in this area.
It is clear the end of the book that there are many fruitful research questions and avenues to pursue, and indeed specific recommendations are made throughout the volume. In addition to those mentioned, more cross-cultural research could be fruitful, as the work of anthropologists like Natalie Tobert have demonstrated – an anthropological approach allows questions to be opened up in a nonthreatening manner. It would also have been good to have seen a contribution from K. Ramakrishna Rao, who integrates parapsychology into the wider tradition of Indian philosophy. The volume will stand as a landmark for many years to come, and the editors are to be congratulated on bringing it together – a real tour de force.
Buy Parapsychology – A Handbook for the 21st Century here.