Friday, October 02, 2009

Psychic phenomena: Persistent paradox

Here is an interesting old paper by Robert G. Jahn, in the Proceedings of the IEEE (Vol. 70, No. 2, February 1982), "The Persistent Paradox of Psychic Phenomena: An Engineering Persepective." Abstract:
Abstract-Although a variety of so-called psychic phenomena have attracted man's attention throughout recorded history, organized scholarly effort to comprehend such effects is just one century old, and systematic academic research roughly half that age. Over recent years, a sizeable spectrum of evidence has been brought forth from reputable laboratories in several disciplines to suggest that at times human consciousness can acquire information inaccessible by any known physical mechanism(ESP), and can influence the behavior of physical systems or processes(PK), but even the most rigorous and sophisticated of these studies display a characteristic dilemma: The experimental results are rarely replicable in the strict scientific sense, but the anomalous yields are well beyond chance expectations and a number of common features thread through the broad range of reported effects. Various attempts at theoretical modeling have so far shown little functional value in explicating experimental results, but have served to stimulate fundamental re-examination of the role of consciousness in the determination of physical reality. Further careful study of this formidable field seems justified, but only within the context of very well conceived and technically impeccable experiments of large data-base capability, with disciplined attention to the pertinent aesthetic factors and with more constructive involvement of the critical community.
Mario Beauregard and I talk a bit about this in The Spiritual Brain.

The basic problem is that there are two confounding factors in the study of psychic phenomena. One is Madam Rosa the Psychic, who allegedly uses occult powers - for a fee - to help a lonely woman find a tall, dark, and handsome man. The good thing about Madam Rosa is that she doesn't even pretend that what she is doing is science, which clears at least some rubbish out of the public's way.

Then there are the materialist atheists, who need to discredit any psychic effects because their theories require the mind to be an illusion with no power to cause anything to happen.

In principle, an atheist could accept psychic effects. Not believing in God is not at all the same thing as not believing in the existence or causal power of the human mind. But a materialist atheist can't accept such a solution. So he will forever be finding some reason to discredit any findings regarding psychic effects. Even one such finding would be fatal to his case.

The ongoing problem isn't with finding a critical community, but with finding one that can offer constructive criticism as opposed to simple denunciation.