Let These Waters Pour Back to the Ocean: Rethinking the Psi Debate
"I know from my own direct experience, backed up by stories and anecdotes told by many people I know and trust, that human beings have tremendous, untapped psychic abilities. I know that there are still skeptics and "experts," such as Richard Wiseman, who argue against the existence of psychic powers and firmly believe that consciousness is entirely brain-based. I find the arguments made in the opposite direction far more powerful and convincing -- such as those of Dean Radin in his book, The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. And in any case, at this point I don't need scientific verification as I have had, repeatedly, and in all sorts of circumstances, direct experience of 'psi' for myself. " -- Daniel Pinchbeck
"There is no other discipline that I know which engages at the same time a person's critical faculties and his imagination and then stretches them both to a comparable extent." -- John Beloff, The Study of the Paranormal as an Educative Experience.
A few years ago I was fortunate enough to become friends with Bill Sweet, whose work with Spindrift Research in the 1970's presented some of the first contemporary experiments with conscious effects on the growth and health of plants. My end of our initial conversations was usually tinged with a bit of skepticism and a lot of scholasticism, I was able to quote sources, but had lingering doubts as to the reality of what we were talking about.
Despite having had personal experiences that would lead me to believe there was something more going on than wishful thinking, I hadn't personally encountered very many people who I could trust with even a well thought subjective stance on the issue, let alone experimental verification. The massive heap of garbage that the mainstream media has propagated under the name of psychical science didn't lead to much assurance that there were answers to be had.
There is a tendency in some of the more available media to swing the pendulum too far towards acceptance and easy answers. This never sat well with me, but neither did the cherry picking that goes on in skeptical circles to choose the most unsuitable subjects for study. Does testing a television psychic really provide a decent picture of anything? That seems to me like critiquing Christian theology based on televangelists, or making assumptions about the whole worth of contemporary literature by reading the Oprah book list. Psi exists on a spectrum, and as Aldous Huxley points out in his writing, traditionally the most powerful examples come from folks who've developed themselves over a long period of time, through arduous trials, and who have come face to face with both the beneficial and the malefic aspects of these areas of human potential. Ever the elusive subject, powerful examples also exist on the margins, but it is rare to find these examples in the mass mediated environment of contemporary life. In all cases where strong psi occurs there is usually a shadow side to the experience, a deep and unnerving change that happens when faced with phenomenon that moves so far outside of what we have been taught to expect.
One of the things that impressed me about Bill was that he wasn't afraid to admit the shadow side of psi. The pastel picture of a harmonious potential, all angel wings and gold lamé, didn't mesh with my years studying folk magic and witchcraft. Whatever positive effects exist, there is still the fact of maleficia, and one of the first signs of a limited perspective is some wide eyed medium singing the praises of unmeasured contact with the unknown.
Bill isn't wide-eyed. Spindrift Research currently exists as a loose collective, its founders, Bruce and John Klingbeil, a father and son team, both committed suicide after years of harassment from the Christian Science community they had sought to invigorate with their research, and from the skeptical scientific community that saw their work as delusional. They thought what they were doing would bring value to all sides, but they were ahead of their time.
Living in the shadow of these events Bill has a very realistic view of the consequences that come with stepping out into a question with no easy answer. Due to his work with intentional effects he also saw that there were deeper issues at hand in the Klingbeil's actions, years of negative attention had taken its toll. In a very real way they had been cursed by the people they had sought to enlighten.
As our discussions drifted around these topics I asked Bill if they had ever done active experiments with these negative effects. Everything he had described up to this point was based on research into positive intention and it's measured ability to affect plant growth, but what about the opposite end of the spectrum?
He admitted that they had debated it, but even limited engagement along these lines in their research with plants had led to psychological repercussions on the participants. Going any further with it, based on the initial tests, would not be ethical on more advanced subjects, and would likely cause the participants more problems than it was worth. It seems that negative intention leads to a diseased psyche.
While teaching the history of witchcraft and folk magic, Dr. Jo Ann Scurlock would always preface the semester with a warning to new students:
"What we are going to discuss has never been proven by science, however it works. I can't say how it works, or why it works, and I don't believe in it, but it works. Every anthropologist who has studied it honestly has encountered things that they can't explain. Every culture in history has beliefs, and records events, that have a similar basis in what people call magic. People have died from it, people have been committed to mental hospitals from dabbling in it. If you believe in it there are remedies that can help you, if you don't believe in it then it doesn't work on you, but if you aren't sure where you stand I suggest that you leave now and consider signing up for a different class this semester. You've been warned, if you choose to stay then you're in for a treat!"
There is a very personal element in any investigation into psi phenomenon. When Bill introduced me to George Hansen, author of Trickster & the Paranormal and former associate of the Rhine Research Center in Durham, North Carolina, one of my first, naïve, questions was "George, seriously, is this stuff real? I mean, has all this testing really lead to any results?"
His answer, paraphrased as I can remember it, was simple, "Yes, but everyone who has been seriously involved has paid a high price."
For those who were fortunate enough to be involved in the government experiments with psi there was the shadow of the Cold War, of the intelligence agencies, and political maneuvering that was required to get funding. For those at the university labs there was the loss of academic credibility, the public shaming, in the case of John Mack, the Harvard psychologist who took the time to seriously consider abduction phenomena, there was even a tribunal held to judge the viability of his tenure at the university. For those, like John Keel, who traveled the road outside of institutional support as a journalist and observer, paranoia and isolation becomes a constant companion.
"Belief in paranormal phenomena is still growing, and the dangers to our society are real ..." -- Ray Hyman, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Oregon
Hansen is a specialist in the trickster phenomenon that surrounds anomalous phenomena, that untraceable link between fact and hoax, between imagination and reality. One of the aspects of this is the destabilizing nature of anomalies. They break through assumptions and give lie to the safe and easy laws erected to maintain cognitive order. Structured systems are not kind on destabilizing components, or those that herald the discovery of such subversive elements.
Destabilization of a system can be described in benign terms, but it requires a death of the former structure in order to accomplish its goals, and the accomplishment is not guaranteed. Initiation in the traditional sense has the very real chance of killing the initiate before they reach the end of their path, in alchemical terms a failed transmutation cracks the vessel before the golden essence is isolated.
Skepticism is a protective factor for the status quo, the reflex to pull your hand out of the fire before it starts to burn. It is very telling that skeptical language often plays on a sense of danger, or threat, when it comes to anomalous phenomena. Couched in the peril of irrationality, the language used invokes a sense of physical risk as well, or at least a physically manifested reaction, when critiquing parapsychology and attendant disciplines.
A system is a construct, not an innate organism, and it seems, if some of Jacques Vallee's theories are close to the mark, that anomalous phenomena and psi phenomena can act as agents of change and organic growth within a system when it gets too close to unhealthy stasis. Mysterious events are cracks in the wall that let the light shine through. One must realize, though, that the light can be blinding.
American adults -- about 75%, according to a 2005 Gallup poll -- believe in at least
one paranormal phenomenon. Forty-one percent believe in ESP. Fifty-five percent
believe in the power of the mind to heal the body. One doesn't need to be
psychic to know that the majority of believers in psi have come to their
beliefs through experience or anecdotes, rather than through studying the
scientific evidence (Dean) Radin puts forth in his book (The Conscious
Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena)." --Robert Todd
Carrol, What if Dean Radin
At this point everywhere you look signs of unhealthy stasis are rampant, and the cracking has begun in earnest. Biased skeptical positions are largely based on smooth rhetoric, which works well when the funding is on your side, or you can convince the power players that it's in their best interest to support your party line. With the way the economy is developing this is rapidly changing, and hollow, repetitious hounding of Occam's Razor doesn't cut it anymore.
Dean Radin has worked for decades to bring Psi research into the public consciousness. As the Senior Scientist at the Institute for Noetic Science, Radin's experiments have continuously supported the development of a scientifically plausible examination of the data on psychic phenomena.
As Radin puts it in The Conscious Universe:
"While the idea itself is ancient, it has taken more than a century to conclusively demonstrate it in accordance with rigorous, scientific standards. This demonstration has accelerated Stage 2 acceptance, and Stage 3 can already be glimpsed on the horizon. The idea is that those compelling, perplexing and sometimes profound human experiences known as 'psychic phenomena' are real. This will come as no surprise to most of the world's population, because the majority already believes in psychic phenomena. But over the past few years, something new has propelled us beyond old debates over personal beliefs. The reality of psychic phenomena is now no longer based solely upon faith, or wishful thinking, or absorbing anecdotes. It is not even based upon the results of a few scientific experiments. Instead, we know that these phenomena exist because of new ways of evaluating massive amounts of scientific evidence collected over a century by scores of researchers."
We have had a chance to consider the argument, and Occam's Razor turns out to be a double edged sword. Ray Hyman and Robert Todd Carrol represent those stalwart skeptics who maintain that belief in psychic phenomena, which they admit is based in part on personal experience, and at times have admitted holds up to statistical analysis, is irrational and dangerous to a coherent society. However, if we consider their arguments, what they are basically saying is that a statistically verifiable phenomenon, which is experienced by, or admitted by, nearly 75% of the population, does not exist. Where does the irrationality lie?
Carrol goes on to say that, "in 2005 the Nobel Committee once again passed over the psi scientists when handing out awards to those who have made significant contributions to our scientific knowledge." Yet Henri Bergson, a Nobel Laureate, was a one time president of the Society for Psychical Research, and another Nobel prize winner evinced that:
"As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Spirit. This Spirit is the matrix of all matter."
These are the words of the Father of Quantum Mechanics, Max Planck, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics, from his 1944 speech (Das Wesen der Materie -- The Essence of Matter), held in Florence. This passage was related to me by an Italian alchemist that I am acquainted with in correspondence during a discussion of the possibilities of science, and the danger of short sighted obfuscation.
It really doesn't matter if some self professed medium fails the Randi Challenge, anyone who has had a serious encounter with the unknown realizes that these things aren't able to be so easily codified. If a person is claiming some straight forward metaphysical map for what is occurring they've already failed the test of the mysteries, let alone some strenuous laboratory con game. As Dale E. Graaf, physicist and a former Director of Project STARGATE, points out in an article titled Resistance to Psi:
"These phenomena are referred to as "psi" -- the 23rd letter of the Greek alphabet (Y), meaning "unknown." This neutral label helps minimize judgments about explanatory mechanism and cultural biases that might be associated with some of the older terms."
One of the things that struck me in talking to Bill and George was that there really were quite a number of authoritative supporters of psi phenomena, I'd just never put it together properly. The sheer weight of intellect was on the side of weirdness, as so many have found there was no way that this much funding, this much thought, and literally centuries of anecdotal, empirical and historical evidence could all be chalked up to mass hysteria, psychological suggestion and hoaxing.
Nobel prizes aside, if we are going to play a rhetorical game of who has the bigger stick, we can look at David Bohm, Arthur Young, Karl Pribram, or any number of forward thinking and "valuable" scientists, for models of consciousness and physics that support the possibility of psi. Jack Parsons, instrumental in the discovery of solid state rocket fuel, and on hand during the founding of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Palo Alto, California, not only believed in psi, he was a practicing ritual magician and alchemist.
Keeping things to the 20th century is tying one hand back during a fight; Isaac Newton, Gottfried Liebnitz, and Johanne Wolfgang von Goethe all held onto a world view that today's skeptics would consider revolting. James Randi won't even conscience alchemy as anything other than the foolish search for turning lead into gold, and yet Newton's achievements were all based on magical thinking. Show me how I can touch gravity.
Skeptics seem to forget that Dean Radin himself, during his time at Bell Labs and GTE, worked on projects that laid the groundwork for our current influx of advanced communication technology. In fact it would be arguable that those on the side of psi have provided much more to society than any skeptics have beyond their own grandiose self-imaginings.
What I had misunderstood was that it was literally everywhere I looked; there was no central point of validation because from the creative arts to the most profound and rigorous scientific inquiry, anomaly abounds. These experiences exist under a myriad of different names, they can never truly be codified, and they cannot be contained.
"The survival hypothesis in psychical research is similar to the extraterrestrial (ET) hypothesis in ufology. Both have served to establish paradigms and theoretical constructs, and both lead to (premature) invention of taxonomies and, unfortunately, limited ranges of inquiry. Such structures obscure similarities across a range of phenomena and lead to the ignoring of relevant cases." --George Hansen, Demons, ETs, Bigfoot, and Elvis: A Fortean View of Ghost.
Skeptics have had the golden key to social reality, they have firmly convinced the folks with money that these issues are to be left alone, they are masters of getting the news out about their opinions (see the latest pieces in the Guardian UK that are critical of Daryl Bem's peer reviewed experiements) and they have geared all of the questions to things like "Do ghosts exist?" or "Do people have psychic powers?" What is a ghost? What is a psychic?
After doing so they are also masters of the very thing they accuse psi supporters of doing, infiltration and dissemination. By supporting anti-psi secondary material, and providing a host of resources that frame the debate as they need it to be framed, they are able to draw attention away from what is actually there. To the point that the media can make us disbelieve our own day to day experience.
It is in the best interests of corporations and control groups to limit the amount of development allowed outside of easily marketable means and media, and to tie every experience into an easily commoditized terminology that can be tested and replicated. We often hear about the occult roots of the Nazi regime, and rarely see major media that exposes the fact that the Nazi regime targeted mystics, Masons, psychics and occultists with the same vehemence it did all other groups it saw as destabilizing to a healthy society.
This happens on the other side of the argument as well, with tightly held beliefs about the origin of occurrence clouding a deeper interpretation of experiential manifestation. In the same way that the religion vs. science debate centers on the extreme views of intelligent design and materialist evolutionary theories, neither of which represent a mature view of religion or science, so too the psi debate centers on biased believers and skeptics verbally assaulting each other with their speculative metaphysical assumptions and childish language games.
When more amorphous research and focus has been able to seep through this conflated set of snares it's been based on funding from individuals who had enough social clout to withstand criticism, and enough financing to push forward. One of the best scholarly journals on anomalous phenomena, the Zetetic Scholar, was an example of this. However this kind of funding is not easy to come by, and it waxes and wanes with the economy and focus of the individuals involved.
One of the most profound examples of how slippery psi phenomenon can be was pointed out to me by Daniel Pinchbeck when he recommended I look into the story of Elizabeth Targ, daughter of the well know remote viewing expert Russel Targ. What I found was a perfect example of how even when the skeptics seem to get the upper hand in the argument, psi's scorpion side gets in one last sting.
Elizabeth Targ's research focused on remote healing of AIDs patients, and her initial studies were successful enough to warrant significant funding from the National Institute of Health towards further research, significant to the amount of 1.5 million dollars. As the peer review process on this research progressed skeptical scientists investigating the initial research were able to show that there were problems with how the results were interpreted.
This lead to a well-publicized dismissal of her work by skeptics such as Martin Gardner and others associated with CSI (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry). Even some of the scientists who initially had accepted the results of her research during the first session of peer review started to reassess the findings. Skeptics saw the NIH's funding as a sure sign that science was being 'infiltrated' by irrational forces.
"The rise of Elisabeth Targ's distant healing studies is not a mere example of defective science leaking into medicine . . . it is a leading wedge of a nascent mystical movement that has been gathering tremendous steam in recent years. The parapsychological enterprise has taken on a new life in its alliance with alternative medicine and the consciousness movement. What we have is a very productive alliance of parapsychologists, old-fashioned mystics, new-fashioned mystics, and psychedelic mystics that has gotten a major foothold in medicine." --Patrick Curry in a letter quoted by Martin Gardner in Notes of a Fringe-Watcher: Distant Healing and Elisabeth Targ
Written in 2001, Gardner's piece was a damning critique of what is commonly held to be fringe science, however a few years later the tables would be turned in a way that no one could have suspected. 4 months after she received the NIH funding to conduct additional studies, one on remote healing and AIDs, and another on remote healing and glioblastoma multiforme, a rare form of brain tumor, Targ began showing signs of mental deterioration, and as cited in Psychology Today:
"A high-resolution MRI revealed that she was suffering from a rapidly growing grade 4 glioblastoma multiforme brain tumor. Word of the horrific diagnosis spread, and healers began calling, visiting and praying from a distance -- in a truly eerie echo of her newly funded study. But they could not save her. Targ died at 11:11 p.m., 111 days after her diagnosis."
Here is a perfect example of not only the trickster at play, but also of the narrative nature of psychic phenomena. On one hand we can look at Elizabeth Targ's story as a sad reminder that there is a very serious, and often deadly, side to anomaly. However, the strange coincidences that attended Targ's death, and the continued anomalies that her husband, the physicist Mark Comings, experienced afterwards show that the issue is not as simple to denounce as skeptics would like us to believe.
The current glut of media on paranormal topics, even the most trivial, is building a climate of acceptance that can eventually support actual growth in our understanding of these phenomena. Most of it has been, and is, fairly tawdry, adding to the ill repute of anyone inquiring into the unknown, but after years of this slow popularization we are seeing things develop that have a deeper focus. Public debate, recorded across a multi-media landscape, shows how skeptical refutes are repeatedly torn apart by events as they develop.
Things like the Evolver Intensives or Rupert Sheldrake's interactive website, are realizing the goals he wrote about in the 80's when he asked for science to be funded by the people that it sought to serve. In a way what skeptics fears that the public interest would grow to the point that psi phenomena can no longer be easily dismissed is coming to fruition. There are many examples of projects that are utilizing today's connective technology to bring individual scientists, philosophers, creatives, public servants and the interested public together to explore areas that have been left untouched due to the skeptics' death grip on the funding mechanisms of our society.
Reading a recent article on Robert Mcluhan's Paranormalia website discussing the current state of the skeptical debate, I realized that what we are seeing is a way around the places that biased skepticism has built strongholds. They can have the academic institutions, we'll build new schools online, and in the streets, where true study can happen, they can have their doubtful expertise, we'll encourage an array of amateurs who are more passionate, more interconnected and more focused on the benefits of true wisdom.
Mcluhan mentions, via Caroline Watt of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit, that in terms of departmental focus, and individual academics, parapsychology is at an all time low since it's beginnings in the late 19th century. However, parapsychology has always been a decentralized and disparate field. This is what makes Robert Todd Carol's specificity in choosing a single year where "psi scientists" don't win Nobel recognition even more misleading. Judging it based on the centralized standards of academic specialization, and weighing the argument with verbal misdirection, doesn't take into account that the study of consciousness and psi is, by its very nature, an interdisciplinary area of study. How else can one attempt to engage the very movement of existence, than through all the means possible for such engagement? Current economic models that are being built on shared responsibility, local interest, and multi-layered funding are perfect to support initiatives in this area, because they mirror the very nature of the phenomenon itself.
"(Caroline) Watt...points out that parapsychology hardly exists as a discipline: there are fewer than 100 researchers working full time in the world, and many of those study not psi itself but other areas such as paranormal belief. (Chris) Roe, a psychology lecturer and psi-experimenter at the University of Northampton, adds that at least 16 UK universities have academic staff whose doctoral training is in parapsychology. Parapsychology has featured regularly at conferences organised by the British Psychological Society, and he personally has had papers accepted by its annual conference. Interestingly, the largest of the A-level (the standard pre-university qualification) examination boards for psychology includes 'Anomalistic Psychology' in its specification, including elements on testing of ESP and PK. This means, Roe says, that 'future undergraduates will come to university with a grounding in parapsychology and an expectation that the subject will be represented on any comprehensive undergraduate syllabus' -- hardly characteristics of a subject confined to the fringes. "
Whether they would like to admit it or not, every time a skeptic comes home to their dog inexplicably waiting for them, Rupert Sheldrake's research on telepathy in animals is confirmed. Every time a skeptic watches a movie, a play, a television or internet show, or listens to music, they are most likely encountering the results of some anomalous inspiration as can be seen by the current research into the narrative nature of the paranormal and the interstices of culture and psi. The last bastions of skeptical security, the corporations and mainline academy, are falling under their own weight and irrelevance, watching as more agile innovation is occurring in the private sector and through loose collaborations. This has always been the case, the largest collective project in the history of the United States, the Manhattan Project, was conducted through a loose knit group of amateurs, academics and industry leaders operating under the guidance of an ideal, not a corporate mandate.
Bill and George's experience with negative psi effects can shed some light on how such strongly held animosity has for so long caused pains for honest researchers into psychic phenomena; the skeptics are throwing unconscious curses, and curses come back if they're not imparted with a pure heart. There is nowhere left for the skeptic to find a hedge against the inevitable resurging recognition of life's every day mysteries.
"He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it; and whoso breaketh a hedge, a serpent shall bite him." --Ecclesiastes 10:8
Close kept streams of thought and mental culverts are cracking, the waters of experience are pouring back into the ocean, there is no refuge left for the stale minded, the static status quo, everything is in motion and the veil is lifting. As Daniel Pinchbeck suggests in the opening quote taken from a recent reflection he posted on Facebook, we can't deny our own experiences and the experiences of those we know and trust, even if the skeptics insist that it's irrational to engage with existential truths and believe what we ourselves encounter first hand.
Honest scientific inquiry has no fear of being brushed aside, however that dead eyed, smug and sickening attitude that all too often accompanies biased critique is going to find it very difficult to survive in a climate decided by self evident experience and popular support. Rhetorical and financial coercion are losing their power for motivation, the same can be said for the cultic behavior of uncritical belief which does not hold up to the light of thoughtful investigation.
"Virtually all scientists who have studied the evidence, including the hard-nosed skeptics, now agree that there is something interesting going on that merits serious scientific attention." --Dean Radin, The Conscious Universe.
Psi phenomena, synchronicity, and all manner of mysteries are no longer socially unacceptable. What is at stake in this debate is not a mere matter of rationality vs irrationality, it is the opening or closing of the gates through which we are free to encounter the very depth of our consciousness, and our potential as human beings to be more than meager carriers for market messages and base commodity.
Psi is the unknown factor that gives room for rebirth, the very seat of possibility and change. The clock is striking the hour, and the time, the door is open. Let's leave the skeptics to their gnawing solipsism, the true believers to their phantasms, and follow the forerunners as we step back into reality. These candles are lit with an invisible flame, we can see it now: Sanctitas, Scientia et Sapientia, sanctity comes through science and wisdom.
Image by Argonne National Laboratory, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet