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Can the Paranormal Ever Become Intellectually Reputable?

John Paul is a recently retired academic with a background in psychology and philosophy.

Is the paranormal an academic subject?

Is the paranormal an academic subject?

What Is Considered 'Paranormal?'

The term ‘paranormal’ covers a wide range of phenomena: from psi—which includes extrasensory perception (telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition) and psychokinesis—to levitation, bilocation and out-of-body experiences, poltergeists, apparitions of the living and the dead, reincarnations, mediumship, mystical raptures, shamanism, demonic possession, and more.
According to a poll conducted in 20181, 58% of Americans believe that places can be haunted by spirits, and a number of surveys conducted earlier in this century2 suggest that up to 50% of the general population claims to have experienced at least one paranormal event.

It thus appears that the paranormal—whether real or imagined—is alive and well in the minds and lived experiences of people. Yet, with important exceptions, the attitudes of the guardians of the cultural order toward this class of phenomena are largely hostile. Overall, academics, in particular, are mostly dismissive of the reality of these phenomena, no matter how seriously and rigorously investigated.

Hubert Pearce with the parapsychologist J. B. Rhine experimenting with Zener card (1934)

Hubert Pearce with the parapsychologist J. B. Rhine experimenting with Zener card (1934)

Precognition and the Academy

One noteworthy example of the animosity generated even by the best-documented findings in this field is the reception accorded to the work of one leading experimental psychologist, Daryl Bem of Cornell University. In 2011, following several years of extensive experimentation involving more than a thousand participants (mostly undergraduate students) in nine large experiments, Bem published his findings in one of the leading academic psychology journals3. His results provided evidence that an individual’s cognitive and emotional responses can be unconsciously influenced by the anticipation of future events whose occurrence cannot be known by any ordinary means. The term ‘precognition’ is commonly employed to refer to this sort of putative occurrence.

One of the several methods Bem used in his research consisted of briefly displaying on a computer screen the image of a pair of curtains, one only of which hid the view of another image. The observers’ task was to indicate which of the two curtains occluded the image. The latter could depict emotionally neutral scenes, or arousing erotic events. On each trial, the picture—whether neutral or arousing—was randomly allocated to one of the two curtains. This experimental paradigm is used in many experimental settings. What made this particular application of it unusual was the fact that the random allocation of the picture occurred after the observer had already made his or her choice. The data showed that the location of the erotic pictures was correctly identified at a level modestly yet significantly higher than chance, whereas the hit rate of the neutral pictures did not exceed the expected chance level. Eight of the nine experiments using different research methods produced statistically significant results. Dem’s findings—preceded by a long history of similar studies—are clearly in agreement with the results of earlier ‘presentiment‘ experiments, pioneered by parapsychologist Dean Radin4. In these studies, various physiological measures of the participants’ emotional arousal were taken. They included fMRI, and the monitoring of electroencephalographic brain activity, electrodermal sensitivity, heart rate, blood volume, and pupil dilation. Such measures were taken while participants viewed a series of pictures on a computer screen, most of which were emotionally neutral. However, a highly arousing negative or erotic image was displayed in randomly selected trials. As expected, strong levels of emotional arousal occurred only when the latter images appeared on the screen. But the arousal took place a few seconds before the computer had even selected the picture to be displayed.

Why should humans possess such an ability, if it is indeed real? Dem and others suggest it would offer a clear survival advantage: for instance, by anticipating sexual opportunities and by enabling the avoidance of dangers (simulated by the use of erotic and violent scenes in these studies).

Our Science Is Broken!

Although Dem’s work had been preceded by many comparable studies, it turned out to be especially influential, because was published in a top research journal and conducted by a highly regarded mainstream researcher who had employed all the canonical experimental methods and statistical analyses in use for the investigation of ordinary human cognition and behavior.

Which makes the response to it all the more remarkable. The author had hoped his findings would help establish research on psi abilities as a legitimate area of psychological inquiry. What happened instead was that for many mainstream researchers, since all the standard methods had been correctly deployed in this research, and had produced results pointing to the reality of precognition—and of psi more generally— only one reasonable conclusion could be drawn: that psychological science was broken!5

ESP is impossible, the reasoning went. Therefore, if the standard methods of research in psychology and allied disciplines can generate impossible results the fault must reside within the methods and data analyses themselves. Thus, ESP issues aside, the validity of most empirical findings in psychology became questionable. This alarming conclusion generated a flurry of studies, and attempts to replicate several major general findings in psychology led to decidedly mixed results. Ironically, including Dem’s own study, within 3 years of its publication, a total of 90 experiments using thousand of participants from 33 different laboratories located in 14 different countries collectively provided statistically decisive confirmation of the reality of these effects.

This story exemplarily displays the unwillingness of many influential representatives of the academic establishment—psychologists far more so than all other researchers, as shown by various surveys—to accept the legitimacy of scientific research in the paranormal.

The uneasiness induced by the paranormal transcends academia’s formerly ivory towers. As George Hansen noted, ‘the paranormal and supernatural are ambiguous and marginal in virtually all ways: socially, intellectually, academically, religiously, scientifically and conceptually.’6

It seems that even some exceptional individuals who directly experienced the paranormal entertained a conflicted, ambiguous relationship with it. For instance, it is reported that Gautama Buddha was once met by a river an ascetic who proceeded to demonstrate his ability to reach the other side by walking over the water, a skill which he had spent many years to perfect. Buddha, who was also said to have developed extraordinary psychic capabilities, pointed out to the man that the skill to which he had sacrificed his life was worth no more than the few coins it would take to be ferried across the river by boat.7

Saint Teresa of Avila, (1515-1582), a Doctor of the Catholic Church, and one of its greatest mystics, was reportedly observed to levitate while in a state of rapture. As she writes in her autobiography8, while enraptured ‘it seemed that I was lifted up by a force beneath my feet so powerful that I know nothing to which I can compare it . . . and I felt as if I was being ground to powder’. Not something she was keen on experiencing, for it ‘produced great fear—at first a terrible fear.’ Though acknowledging that these were favours granted by God, she prayed to be spared by ‘favours' such as these that ‘had visible and exterior signs’, especially when she was not alone, feeling greatly embarrassed and even humiliated by them.

These two cases, among many others, instantiate the uneasiness induced by the paranormal, whether understood as ultimately natural as in Buddha’s case, or as supernatural, by Theresa.

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Saint Theresa of Avila, portrait by Paul Rubens, ca. 1615

Saint Theresa of Avila, portrait by Paul Rubens, ca. 1615

The Paranormal Is Intrinsically Irrational . . .

Why, then, such a generally negative attitude toward the paranormal? Hansen offers a plausible answer: because it does not fit in the rational world. Because paranormal phenomena challenge fundamental, well-established distinctions, categories, and classifications. Because they cross boundaries assumed to be impassable. For instance, telepathy— unmediated mind-to-mind communication—violates the expected boundaries between mind and mind. Similarly, clairvoyance—the mind’s direct perception of an object or an event— crosses the boundary between mind and matter. As does psychokinesis, the ability to influence physical matter by mental means alone. Precognition, the ability to foresee the future thus potentially enabling it to influence the present, bypasses the limitations of time; spirit mediumship, ghosts, and reincarnations challenge the barrier between the living and the dead. The paranormal, continues Hansen, ‘blurs the distinctions between imagination and reality, between subjective and objective, between signifier and signified, between internal and external’ 9.

This is the reason why the paranormal is so dangerous and destabilizing. As such, it has been often forcefully repressed in the past; and defused in our time, I may add, by relegating it to the precincts of fantasy fiction and movies. And the people with their beliefs and experiences be damned. And never mind that, Hansen argues, there is overwhelming evidence that at least some paranormal phenomena are real.
For Hansen, irrationality is such an intrinsic aspect of the paranormal that it cannot possibly be rationalized. And this presumably implies that it will never be admitted into any mainstream rational view of the world.

Is It Really Irrational?

Is it indeed the case that the paranormal is in principle unamenable to any rational account, or is it more likely—as I tend to believe—that it could in fact be accommodated within a broader view of reality that transcended the strictures of an outdated, materialistically interpreted science?

With some noteworthy exceptions, psychology, the neurosciences, and biology still implicitly operate within a conceptual framework heavily wedded to classical physics. This framework has been long discarded—if not in its pragmatic worth—in its fundamental­ conceptual foundations with the advent of the revolution brought about by general relativity, quantum mechanics (QM), and cosmology in the twentieth century. Within this cultural context, phenomena like telepathy and precognition begin to lose at least a bit of their seemingly unique, outrageous, and ‘impossible’ characteristics. For instance, telepathy (a term coined in 1882 by Cambridge scholar Frederic Myers by combining the Greek words tele - distant -, and pathos - feeling, passion), is deemed to occur most often in highly charged emotional situations involving individuals closely ‘entangled’ with one another, as in the many reported cases of mothers sensing that something dreadful is happening to their physically distant children who are actually enduring a life-threatening event.

Consider now the physical phenomenon of entanglement, one of the fundamental traits of QM. In the simplest case, two individual subatomic particles brought into some form of interaction become perennially ‘entangled’. Any action, such as an observation or measurement of one of these particles instantaneously affects the state of the other particle regardless of the distance separating them, even when measured in light years. Note that entanglement is by no means limited to this simplest interaction, and research increasingly suggests that it can 'scale up' into the macroscopic world10. The analogies between these two otherwise vastly different phenomena are not difficult to notice, and it is amusing to recall that Einstein famously described particle entanglement as ‘spooky’. Of course, nothing much should be made of a vague analogy, and certainly invoking the quantum phenomenon as an ‘explanation’ of telepathy is misleading. Nevertheless, the analogy is tantalizing, and at a minimum helps render the concept of a telepathic link between ‘entangled’ individuals less uniquely ‘impossible’.

As for the impossibility of precognition, in which the order of causality can be seemingly reversed in time, note that the fundamental laws of physics are time-symmetric. That is to say ‘They formally and equally admit time-forward and time-reversed solutions . . . Thus, though we began simply desiring to predict the future from the present, we find that the best models do not require—in fact, do not respect—this asymmetry . . . [Therefore,] it seems untenable to assert that time-reverse causation (retrocausation) cannot occur, even though it temporarily runs counter to the macroscopic arrow of time’11. This, from the proceedings of an interdisciplinary conference of physicists and psi researchers sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest scientific body in the world, which took place in June of 2006 to debate the physics of time and retrocausation. In this case, as well, key scientific tenets do not appear to make it in principle impossible for retrocausation to occur, nor are physical tests of this phenomenon lacking12. If so, and given the substantial evidence provided by many rigorous psychological studies, on which basis should human-mediated retrocausation or precognition be denied in principle?

An HDR image of the Multiverse LED light sculpture, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

An HDR image of the Multiverse LED light sculpture, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

‘Somewhere Something Incredible Is Waiting to Happen’

Could it be that we are moving (however hesitantly) toward a worldview that is increasingly crossing the boundaries that classical physics—to which traditional materialism is heavily wedded—established?

Astonishingly, more than 120 years since the start of the discoveries that led to the formulation of QM, the interpretation of the nature of the physical reality it points to remains controversial. Importantly, one of the major competing views assigns a key role to the observer—including its consciousness—in the co-creation of the physical events under observation and measurement. So much for the categorical distinction between subject and objects, matter and mind13 . . .

It is also worth recalling that several of the leaders of the QM revolutions (e.g., Pauli, Schroedinger, Heisenberg, and Bohr) contemplated philosophical views far removed from traditional materialism, including those in which consciousness played a fundamental role. Recent developments in the philosophy of mind suggest an increasing openness to the search for alternatives to materialism—the view that everything in nature is ultimately physical—including idealism, panpsychism, panentheism, cosmopsychism, dual aspect monism, to name but a few. Although materialism remains the majority view, by at least one significant measure it can be considered waning. From the second half of the past century to the present, a majority of leading philosophers have increasingly expressed either explicitly antimaterialistic views or fundamentally doubted that materialism will ever be able to adequately address the crucial mind-body problem.14,15 Regarding the latter more specifically, the persistent inability of materialistic ‘production‘ models to account for mentation and consciousness as derivative byproducts of brain activity has brought renewed consideration to ‘transmission’ models of the mind-body nexus. In such models, the brain, rather than being the ‘producer’ of the mind, acts as a medium that transmits, filters, and reduces an independently existing consciousness. Of course, transmission models make it more ‘possible’ to accommodate paranormal phenomena which clearly suggest the non-local—that is, not intrinsically brain bound—manifestations of mind in some circumstances.

While any consensus about the kind of reality QM points to is yet to be reached, some believe that, regardless, QM is not likely to have the last word. Physicist John Bell, whose theorem famously proved the reality of entanglement which had so offended Einstein’s ‘classical’ sensitivities, argued that QM will eventually lead beyond itself. He wondered whether along the way we would encounter 'an unmovable finger obstinately pointing outside the subject, to the mind of the observer, to the Hindu scriptures, to God, or even only gravitation? Would that not be very, very interesting?’ Indeed. Another leading theoretical physicist, John Wheeler, who coined the terms ‘black hole’ and ‘wormhole’, came similarly to expect that 'somewhere something incredible is waiting to happen’.

If yet another and even more astounding conceptual revolution in the foundations of physics—the basis of all natural sciences— could come into being in the not too distant future, it is conceivable that it may fully integrate consciousness into the overall fabric of the universe. Under these conditions, the paranormal might be approached by an intellectual community prepared to accept its possible existence, thereby finally legitimizing the ongoing attempt to address it scientifically16.

More broadly and in sum: there are reasons for entertaining the possibility that a richer, more fascinating, and surprising view of human nature—and of the profoundly mysterious universe(s) of which it is part—may eventually ascend after the long, grey, dispiriting interregnum of a slowly waning materialism. In a scientifically re-enchanted new world.


Notes and References

1. Paranormal America. Chapman University Survey of American Fears. chapman.
2. See, e.g., Hansen, G. P. (2001). The Trickster and the Paranormal. Xlibris.
3. Bem, D. J. (2011). Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 407–425.
4. Radin, D. I. (1997). Unconscious Perception of Future Emotions: An Experiment in Presentiment. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 11, 163–180
5. Engberg, D. (2017). Daryl Bem Proved ESP is Real. 6. Hansen, Ibid., p.19.
8. The Life of Teresa of Jesus. (1960). Image Books. p. 191.
9. Hansen, Ibid., p.26.
10. See Radin, D. (2006). Entangled Minds. Paraview Pocket Books.
11. Sheehan, D. P. (Ed.) (2006). Frontiers of Time: Retrocausation - Experiment and theory. AIP Conference Proceedings (Vol. 863), p. Vii. San Diego, California. Melville, New York: American Institute of Physics. Quoted in Bem (2011), see above.
12. See Wargo, E. (2018). Time Loops: Precognition, Retrocausation, and the Unconscious 2nd. Edition. Anomalist Books.
13. See Rosenblum B., and Kutter F. (2008). The Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness. Oxford University Press.
14. R. C. Koons and G. Bealer (Eds). (2010). The Waning of Materialism. Oxford University Press, 2010.
15. Nagel, T. (2012). Mind and Cosmos. New York: Oxford University Press.
16. There is also some evidence of a slow yet significant change of attitude among anthropologists toward the acknowledgement of the possible reality of some paranormal phenomena See, e.g., Luke, D. (2010). Anthropology and Parapsychology: Still Hostile Sisters in Science? Time and Mind, volume 3, Issue 3, pp. 245–266.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 John Paul Quester

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