Saturday, January 31, 2009

Psi, Liminality, Reality and UFOs

After reviewing quite a few texts, it is time for some reflecting. One of the greatest difficulties in dealing with a subject like parasociology is that a common notion such as reality cannot be taken for granted, which in turn raises a series of question about how proof can be established. What constitutes reality and what does not is the key question of ontology.

Phenomenological reality

The approach taken by a few parapsychologists (King 1996) is to define reality in a psychological way by emphasizing the notion of consciousness from a Kantian perspective. This approach implies that what is real is what the consciousness is aware of. Such an approach is not concerned, at first, as to whether what is perceived by the consciousness of one person (subjective reality) would be also perceived by others (objective reality). In fact, Immanuel Kant, rejected the idea that there is a strong distinction between subjective and objective reality. After all, for others to perceive something, they also need to perceive it subjectively at first, and then they must be able to communicate it to others. Furthermore, they also need to agree collectively that indeed something was perceived (and only then it becomes objective).

In the 20th century, other thinkers like Berger and Luckmann, went further and showed that reality is actually a social construct. This means that objective reality is only possible if people have similar prior socialization, norms, values, training, etc., so that they can agree that something is real. In other words, objective reality is a matter of pre-established social conventions. For instance, the rules for scientific validity in a discipline like chemistry will differ greatly from the rules found in cultural anthropology. These rules are based on the internal conventions respective to each scientific discipline. In turn, this means that science is itself a social construct where the notion of what constitutes reality is essentially based on a social convention. When the convention changes in a radical way, then we have a scientific revolution as described by Thomas Kuhn.

Sociologists of science like Bruno Latour, have shown also that the scientific conventions about reality are actually the ongoing stake of bureaucratic, institutional, political, and rhetorical debates and conflicts in and around the scientific community. Therefore, what is accepted as objective reality is also a matter of who is powerful and who is not (for instance having the support of large private enterprises, official recognition by the state, formal status in academia, etc.). The clear example of this is parapsychology, which has shown, using the rules and conventions found in many natural sciences, that psi as a statistically unexplainable deviation from chance is real. Yet, it is not a scientific community with powerful allies, so the objective status of its findings is constantly challenged. As one can see, the question as to what constitutes reality (implicitly understood as objective reality) is not a simple one to answer, and there is no consensus as to how reality should be approached.

To take an example closer to the project, typical UFO cases can easily explained by these concepts. For instance, someone sees a strange object in the sky. It is a subjective reality. Then, that person shares the story with several close friends, and they all agree that it must be true because the witness is someone trustworthy and not into telling tall tales. So it becomes objective reality. Then, a sceptic arrives and states that it must have been a plane because the sighting was made in the direction of an airport. It becomes a subjective reality. Then, an ETH ufologist comes along, and does some verification and found that there was no recorded plane in the sky at the time of the sighting. The overall status of the sighting is now fully contested, and no one can truly claim whether the UFO was an objective reality or not. Within the sceptic community, it is declared a misperception. In the ETH ufology community, it is declared a genuine UFO sighting (that could only be of extraterrestrial origin, of course). In the end, the witness remains alone with his/her sighting.

It is for this reason that a phenomenological approach is useful, as it tries at first to see the world from the point of view of the witness, before attempting to incorporate the sighting into a more objective explanatory structure. To approach reality through the idea that what is real is what the consciousness is aware of, is called phenomenology. This choice of using a phenomenological approach is even more necessary if one suspect that what was perceived was in part the product of a psi effect.

To continue the example above, if it is discovered that the witness was in an altered state of consciousness during the sighting, then what he/she saw might not have been seen by others, but he or she was not lying either. If the description of the object also seems to match symbolically an event happening a few days after the sighting, then the witness was exposed to some sort of external stimulus. Then, to declare the sighting either subjective or objective does not make any sense, as it was both objective and subjective. Without looking at world from the point of view of the witness (altered state of consciousness, symbolism in the sighting), then important elements of the explanation would be missed. Most sceptics and ETH ufologists fall in this trap of having only subjective or objective reality (this is known as ontological dualism in philosophy).

Psi and the paranormal as liminal events

An important concept often associated with phenomenology is the one of liminality. Liminality is an abstract concept to describe situations that are “out of time”, “out of the normal”, where everything seems temporarily indeterminate. Liminality implies also that such situations are at the threshold between two “normal”. Anthropologists have used this concept to describe rites of passage in tribal societies. There is the “normal” reality of an individual being a child in the tribe, and then there is the liminal reality of the rite of passage, and finally the “new normal” of being an adult within the tribe. A rite of passage is a short moment out of the normal time, oftentimes with members of the tribe performing rituals which give them a persona completely different from their “normal” life. As well, the individual going through the ritual has for a short time period an indeterminate social status (neither a child nor an adult).

Most paranormal and psi phenomena can be described as liminal events. They are “parallel” to normality because something “weird,” unusual, supernatural, etc., has occurred. Without the strange, “out of this world” qualities of the event, nothing could be noticed as there is no change to normality. Furthermore, after the event, the status of reality has to be changed so that the paranormal is now integrated into the new normal (e.g., a house becomes a haunted house, an object in sky becomes an extraterrestrial spaceship, some of my feelings are now telepathic impressions from people close to me, etc.). Otherwise, if the old normal is reinstated then no paranormal event occurred (e.g., construed as an illusion, misperception, dream, etc.), and this is independent from whether the person believe in the paranormal or not, as not all strange events are necessarily perceived as paranormal by believers.

In the case of psi effect, an additional form of liminality has been noticed by parapsychologists. Psi seems to be generated through the unconscious parts of the human mind. But to be noticed, it has to reach the conscious mind, otherwise we would never notice. Hence, a psi effect from a phenomenological perspective is something that occurs at the very moment when it reaches the conscious mind. It is intimately associated with this liminal zone between the unconscious and consciousness. Once it reached the consciousness, then it is no more psi; it is either information or a completed effect on matter. This explains why it so difficult to do remote viewing because it is essentially a difficult and exhausting balancing act between the raw information received unconsciously and the efforts of consciousness to make sense of it. This explains also why altered states of consciousness, which is a state liminal between the unconscious and consciousness, is such an important enabler to psi effects.

Liminality of social psi

If my theory about the fractal arrangement of the individual and collective unconscious is correct, then there should be something like liminality between the collective consciousness and the collective unconscious where social psi occurs. Certainly, anthropologists found liminality in small societies, particularly during rites of passage, which incidentally are also moments where magic is being performed by the shaman or sorcerer for the benefit of the entire community. But this is for small communities. What about large complex societies?

One can think of the Global Consciousness Project, where several random number generators (RNG) located across the planet are linked together and monitored by a network of computers to see if there are moments when there is sustained statistical deviations from chance. Such moment occurred when the verdict for O.J. Simpson was read live on TV during the criminal trial for the murder of his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Having so many people waiting for the verdict could have created a liminal moment, where a psi effect could be measured on a social scale. Yet the same effect was noticed by the Global Consciousness Project eight hours before 9/11 (Radin 2006), but there was no liminal moment associated with the event. Once again, the Global Consciousness Project is important and useful to understand social psi, but it is still articulated on the assumption that social psi is an accumulation of individual psi affecting RNGs (i.e., it remains based on psychological reductionism).

To be more effective, social liminality must be understood in sociological terms. Ginach’s text (2004), based on Zizek’s original idea, offers more interesting opportunities to identify social liminality. To borrow from Kottemeyer (1996) and Viéroudy (1977), but also implicit in Vallée (1992), such moments seem linked to shared feelings of insecurity, often perceived to be in relation to matters of national security. In such situations, collective identities are threatened.

For instance, the October 1973 UFO wave in the United States came at the conjunction of three important social events. The defeat in Vietnam was at that point consummated. The troop reduction was near completion and even the capacity of the United States to defend South Vietnam with aerial bombings in the North was denied by Congress in June 1973 with the Case-Church Amendment. The US was clearly a country that could be defeated by a smaller one. Then, of course, October 1973 was the Yom Kippur War where the Arabs had their first military success against Israel (Egypt in the Sinai), and this war was linked to the peak oil price, threatening the car-based American way of life. Finally, there was 20 October 1973, also known as the “Saturday Night Massacre”. President Nixon ordered the dismissal of independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox who was investigating into the Watergate Scandal, which also led to the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus. For many Americans, their democracy appeared to sink into dictatorship.

From a sociological standpoint, this can be construed as a liminal moment. Fundamental social representations such as “the nation chosen by God to lead the Free World”, “the American Way of Life”, and “America the Mother of all Democracies” where seriously challenged, and where no more the same after the events of October 1973. A new normal came into force afterward, particularly perceptible in the arts with a much more cynical outlook about the American society, best illustrated by a string of movies like Three Days of the Condor (1975), and All the President's Men (1976). The hedonistic disco era emerged into the mainstream in full force around the same time as well. Although it is not to be construed according to the positivist epistemology with the naive hope of leading to a mathematical type of proof, sociological liminality can be shown through a social constructivist epistemology.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet


IQXS said...

Thank you for this excellent post.

It has been Twittered at:
for the Internet UFO community. IQXS: The latest UFO News and
Views at the speed of Twit.

Eric Ouellet said...

Thanks for the comment.


Joseph Capp said...

Please when you make comments please do your research. Since when does an unidentified report in the UFO community accepted straightforward as ETs. You have never been to a MUFON conference, that's for sure. This is what bugs me about some like you on the metaphysical side who just try to prove that UFOs are all paranormal. You seem to paint all of us in UFO community as fools. You in particular just lump us all into "ET with no argument" basket , like we were all cloned. When you do that you not only you dismiss a great deal of effort on the side of honest research on this subject (Most MUFON people are voleenteers), you also demean some of the witnesses who took great risk to come forward. If want to provoke thought on this topic stick to the facts as you know them and stay away from stereotypical remarks
Joe Capp
UFO Media Matters
Non-Commercial Blog

Eric Ouellet said...


Thank you for your comments.

I assume you did not like the example in the post. It was, unfortunately, an example drawn from reality, and the ETH ufologists were part of the largest ufological association in the jurisdiction (but it was not MUFON). The example was selected because it highlights a pattern about epistemic communities, but I agree that it does not represent the behaviour of all ETH ufologists. It does not represent the one of all sceptics either (who are, from my experience, more open minded that most ETH ufologists would admit).

Also, it is unfortunate but I did attend MUFON conferences, and I was even a MUFON consultant at one point. My experience with MUFON had a lot to do with my interest in the “metaphysical side”, and leaving behind the ETH.

Lastly, I must point out that your own comment is interesting, when you wrote “Since when does an unidentified report in the UFO community accepted straightforward as ETs”. Any report that does not prove the ET origin of any UFO should not be accepted as of ET origin. I fully agree. But that’s where the problem is. There is no proof of any UFO being of ET origin, to this day. Yet, if you read or hear ETH ufologists, MUFON included, this is not the message that one gets. In the end, the behaviour of the epistemic community as a whole is as described in my example.