Friday, January 16, 2009

Heath’s on qualitative accounts of PK

As discussed in my previous post, I am reviewing Heath’s book with more depth. This post will be focussing on qualitative accounts of PK, and on some epistemological issues related to qualitative accounts.

In the first part of her book, Heath proposes a review of PK in various religions and cultures, to include miraculous feat such as levitation, stigmata, inedia (surviving without food), teleportation, bilocation (to be seen at two locations at the same time), fire immunity, luminosity, physical mediumship, anomalous healing, “ki” related super performance in martial arts, and poltergeists. To this list, it would have been interesting to add tulpas from the Tibetan tradition, as they have often been associated with non-ETH explanations of UFO sightings. Without going in detail for each of them, it is clear that such feats were recorded in many cultures and across time periods; very much like UFOs and like UFOs were interpreted differently according the local culture. One of the common themes found in these accounts is that strong beliefs and religious fervour seem to play an important role. Another one is the role altered states of consciousness as being an important enabler. This is certainly consistent with findings of modern parapsychology.

Qualitative research in PK research – A work in progress

An interesting opening statement by Heath is that “unfortunately, the database of qualitative studies is still a small one. [...] It is only in the last few years that we have started to see phenomenological studies and surveys of what PK performers say about their experiences (Barrett 1996; Gissurarson 1997a; Heath 1999). Clearly there is a great deal of work yet to be done in this area, as well as unexplored directions of research.” (p. xxvi).

This statement by Heath can be put in parallel with the work done by one of the pioneers of non-ETH ufology, Dr. Alex Keul. As stated by KWC Phillips, “Dr. Keul slowly began to work on the missing element in all the various and contradictory reports which came to his attention and, in so doing, came to the somewhat shocking conclusion that the missing factor was the human witnesses: that is, we knew next to nothing about them, let alone the enigmatic UFOs they were to report in large numbers. Even more fundamentally, we knew nothing of the void between the witness and the object perceived.” (Phillips, KWC. (1993). “The psycho-sociology of ufology”. In D. Barclay and T. M. Barclay, UFOs, The Final Answer? Ufology for the 21st century. London: Blandford, 40-64, p. 44.).

The state of research in PK and in the study of UFOs is in many ways similar. Although Keul’s efforts were very innovative, the dominance of the ETH approach had the effect of pushing his ideas under the rug. Given that one of my working hypotheses is that UFOs have a substantial PK component, then any advance in parasociology could be beneficial to parapsychology as well.

In spite of Heath’s innovative standpoint of working outside the usual parapsychological box (i.e. focussing on qualitative approaches), it is also clear that the author is still battling with the ambient positivist attitude in parapsychology. For instance, the author warns the reader that “accounts of miracles tended to mirror the needs and social beliefs of the age. [...] These stories may thus reflect cultural bias, rather than an accurate picture of either PK or fraud.” (p. 1). As a sociologist of science, I would not hesitate a second to turn the table and say that parapsychological accounts (i.e., articles in academic journals) tend to mirror the needs to prove the existence of psi according to the social belief that quantitative and positivist science is the only way to reach the “truth”. The exclusion in parapsychological accounts of the non-quantifiable reality of psi reflects a cultural bias, rather than an accurate picture of what constitute psi or fraud...

This bias is also found when she discusses “Spontaneous Nonrecurrent PK” (pp. 94-105). She clearly states that spontaneous cases of PK “are important not only because they allow us to learn about the range of what is possible, but also because, as Beloff noted, ‘it is the persistence of such spontaneous phenomena that has kept alive interest in the field among the broad public” (p. 94). Yet, in the same breadth she states also that “nonrecurrent spontaneous PK is impossible to study in the laboratory since it is (by definition) a solitary, uncontrolled event. Thus, it can only be speculated about in anecdotal and case study literature” (p. 94). This is a nice example of positivist epistemological bias from someone who is coming from North American psychology. Political science, sociology and anthropology, to name a few, also deal with solitary, uncontrolled events such as a coup d’état, the emergence of a new social movement, or cultural manifestations of all kinds. Archaeological findings and physical anthropology findings also fall into the same category, as a dig occurs only once, and what is declared as being observed can only be accepted if someone trusts the archaeologist or physical anthropologist. Does it make these sciences less scientific, and their objects of study less worthy of our research efforts? Or rather, it is the psychologists’ definition of science that is problematic? Other disciplines have developed extensive methodologies to handle “solitary and uncontrolled events” and developed knowledge that is not speculation about anecdotes. Once again, I would turn the table and say that parapsychology is suffering from an inferiority complex and thus it tries to be more scientific (i.e. positivist) than everybody else. In spite of great research efforts (like Heath’s book) Parasociology will have to be careful in dealing with parapsychologists and their epistemological bias.

Teleportation and alien abduction

Among the older qualitative accounts, teleportation seems particularly pertinent to the study of UFOs. It is a rare spontaneous event (although there are claims of people who mastered it), and appears to be more common among secular individuals, especially children (here read teenagers like in poltergeists phenomenon) (p. 37). People spontaneously disappear from one place and found themselves somewhere else without any memory as to how they got there. Altered states of consciousness and visions of angels were associated with such events. It was also interpreted as a sign of demonic infestation. This pattern clearly resembles cases of “alien abduction,” like the well-known story of Betty and Barney Hill. Heath, however, does not make the connection.

Several of the accounts proposed by Heath about teleportation are drawn from: Rogo, D. Scott. (1982). Miracles: A parascientific inquiry into wonderous phenomena. New York: Dial Press.

Poltergeists and Close Encounters of the Third Kind

It is interesting to note that older accounts of poltergeist activity include more than noise and objects moving violently in the air. Apparitions of various entities are also reported. Heath notes that “St. Paul of the Cross (1694-1775) was similarly said to have been assailed by explosions like pieces of artillery being discharged, vision of grotesque animals, the opening and shutting of the warming pan in his room, and being struck and bruised.” (p. 92). Heath also points out that the content of poltergeist events tend to be influenced by idiosyncratic cultural beliefs, “poltergeist agents vomited pins and manifested ’animal familiars’ in culture where witchcraft traditions exist, while in other cultures the agent created apparent demonic manifestations in conformance with their local customs and beliefs. If this is true, it makes an interesting comment on how we feel about technology, given recent poltergeist activity with telephones and electrical appliances going haywire”. (p. 93). Once again, Heath does not make the obvious connection between the space age, encounters with “aliens” from outer space, and the cultural component of poltergeists.

Spontaneous human combustion, balls of light and UFOs

Heath introduces the controversial notion of spontaneous human combustion (SHC). She provides a good tour of what is known about the phenomenon, and some of the possible explanations. One of them is the role of balls of light. This phenomenon “is capable of floating gently along, squeezing through keyholes and chinks in window frames, or down fireplace chimneys, and has even been said to be able to materialize inside rooms or airplane cabins. Furthermore, this natural phenomenon (which is thought to be electromagnetic plasma) can be small as a pea, or as large as a house, and may be violet, red, blue, or yellow, and may even change colors during its brief life”. (p. 100).

The explanation about balls of light is not sufficient to explain some of the more psychological characteristics associated with SHC. “Considering the similarity to the sudden and complete destruction of items by poltergeist fire, the possibility of an ASC [altered state of consciousness] involving a lack of pain, and the correlation with depression, we must consider the possibility of a mind-matter interaction.” (p. 101) But she recognizes that “it is possible that some individuals have a mind that is capable of triggering the combustion, perhaps by materializing or attracting ball lightning, through an electrical discharge of some sort, or even a form of nuclear radiation” (p. 101). Once again, if we link Michael Persinger’s research on the influence electromagnetism on perception and psi abilities, with some of the findings of Albert Budden on electric UFOs, and these comments from Heath about the PK dimension of SHC and balls of light, one can see a pattern of explanation emerging. Yet, once more Heath does not make the connection with UFOs.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

No comments: