Saturday, September 20, 2008

Paranormal or Psi?

In my previous post, I have used the words “paranormal” and “psi” interchangeably to ease the presentation of parasociology. However, it is now time to provide some clarifications. In the context of parasociology, the word paranormal is used as a descriptor for those phenomena that are outside the norm, and that defy conventional explanations, such as UFO, ghosts, telepathy, etc. The word “psi” is used in the same way as it is used in parapsychology, i.e. it describes a human faculty that is at the origin of paranormal phenomena.

Psi instead of psychic phenomena

This above statement leads to a second core hypothesis of parasociology, and constitutes by the same token a key ontological assumption: paranormal phenomena are objective products of the human mind. From this stand point, although studies done under the auspices of psychical research may yield interesting results, the assumption that some paranormal phenomena are the product of non-human entities (e.g., aliens, ghosts, demons, etc.) is not retained. Hence, parasociology formally builds on parapsychology, as it shares the same ontological assumption. Many would argue here that research requires to keep an open mind and to let facts speak for themselves. This is a simplistic and inaccurate view of scientific work.
Keeping an open mind: what does it mean?

If one really wants to keep an open mind as implied by many, then he or she has to take into consideration the entire universe while researching. For instance, if one studies an alleged UFO landing, then he or she has to take into consideration what is the preferred meal of the witness, what the mayor of his/her hometown did that day, what was the name of his/her first girlfriend/boyfriend, etc, etc. Obviously, this does not make any sense. Why? Because people take only into consideration what they think of as “relevant” facts, otherwise it would lead simply unmanageable research. Any research actually keeps only a tiny amount of facts from that standpoint. The key questions are which facts are kept and which ones are discarded, and more importantly why? Real research requires that key assumptions are made very explicit and transparent so that others know how and why certain facts are included and excluded. The assumptions may turn out to be wrong, but because they were explicit from the onset it is possible to go back and find out where is the problem.

The other issue is that facts don’t speak for themselves. Facts are constructions that attempt to make sense of our surroundings. How they are constructed has also a lot of impact on “what they say and don’t say”. This is because when facts are collected, to be facts, one has to define what he or she is collecting. For instance, it is well-known that many ufologists collecting facts on a sighting (i.e. interviewing witnesses) tend to not take into consideration elements of the testimony that give the impression that the “craft” was not all that solid. Hence, the facts collected are overwhelmingly about “solid crafts”, and surprise-surprise, the same ufologists let the facts say that indeed UFOs are solid objects. Such ufologists cannot claim they were open-minded. They should rather say that they are pursuing the so-called “extra-terrestrial hypothesis,” and for now exclude any other facts. This way of doing research provides to others the possibility of understanding where you are coming from, where you are going, and how you plan to get there. By doing so, by being transparent, one opens himself/herself to constructive criticism and therefore can improve his/her work. This is what having an open mind is all about. To keep an open mind, therefore, is to take one’s assumptions for what they are: tools to help us to distinguish between the “noise” and the “signal”, and accept that these tools are imperfect and may require change or tune up along the way. What is to avoid is take assumptions for beliefs. Beliefs is for believers and people engaged in religious or spiritual endeavours, not for scientific research.

Why parapsychology and not psychical research approach?

Modern parapsychology has a large body of quality research already available on the paranormal and the research is continuing. There is no point to reinvent the wheel with the limited resources that a researcher like me can put on parasociology. The choice is essentially a pragmatic one.

The psychical approach is not retained for reasons that are more epistemological in nature. As stated above, studies in psychical research have provided useful studies, but the interpretations and conclusions they contain are not kept if they imply that paranormal phenomena are the product of non-human entities. The reason being that such assumption makes scientific research impossible. Sociology, and therefore parasociology, are possible because we can study human beings. They can be studied in an experimental way, by creating conditions similar to laboratory where variables can be more or less controlled. More often, however, human beings are studied in situ, i.e. in their normal environment. To do so, a good dose of interpretation is required to understand why communities and societies are behaving the way they do. It can be done because the researcher as human being too is able to understand other human being, and is able to engage in a dialogue with humans. This second approach, less known to people who never studied social sciences, is actually the most common one and it is well established. For more, one can look to the classical analysis of Max Weber on interpretative understanding, Berger and Luckmann’s famous book on the social construction of reality, Goffman’s studies in symbolic interactionism, or Habermas’ work on communication (to name a few).

If one is studying non-human entities that appear to call the shots as to when and how they manifest themselves, then it is impossible to study such phenomena. The experiment is not possible given their capacity to avoid human if they want to. As well, given that they are not human they constitute true otherness, and therefore their motivations and intents are simply incomprehensible, and thus prevent meaningful in situ research.

Copyright © 2008 Eric Ouellet

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