Thursday, February 26, 2009

Reading Notes – Psi in the Sky

This post is reviewing some of the ideas found in Keith Partain’s Psi in the Sky. This book had a promising title, but I am a quite disappointed. The notion of psi is studied in an interesting way, but it is applied in framework where UFOs represent manifestations of non-human entity than does not add up. The full notice is:

Partain, Keith L. (2001). Psi in the Sky: A new approach to UFO and psi phenomena. Philadelphia: Xlibris.

The biology of psi

Partain is a biologist by training, and it is interesting to see someone trying to understand what could the biological basis of psi phenomena. He is using biology jargon throughout his book, and makes no apology about it in order to preserve the scientific quality of his analysis. Unfortunately, his arguments are based on speculations. To start with, he takes one theory in biology that implies that humans evolved from swimming monkeys. These monkeys were eventually separated from mainly Africa and lived on an ancient island that was located where the present-day Arabian Peninsula and Red Sea are. In order to survive, those monkeys became fish catchers and developed special means to catch and detect fishes while being under water. These special means became linked to the development of psi abilities. The problem is that the theory of the “swimming monkeys” as the famous missing link is speculative at best, as there is no serious evidence to support it.

Then, he links the psi capacities on the development of the pineal gland, and he considers that the notion of “third eye” found in a number of Asian mystical traditions is actually the pineal gland. The pineal gland, in turn, is activated by different biological mechanisms, some of which are clearly linked to magical practices found in many cultures. In particular, the gland is activated by breathing exercises similar to what people do when they dive in water for longer time periods (and this is how he links the swimming monkeys to the development of psi capabilities). These breathing exercises are also found in various forms of meditation techniques (including the Tibetan tradition discussed in the previous post). As well, the gland is also activated by melatonin, which is produced by the brain when there is ambient darkness. Dime light is often a key prerequisite for many psychics, and it was an important enabler in the age of psychic research in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Once again, it is an interesting theory that can be linked to other notions, but the empirical evidence is not there. Hence, science cannot be leveraged here.

Linkages with parapsychology are also difficult to make if one takes this biological approach. For instance, it is known that psi events occur in broad daylight and when people are not in any form of meditative or altered state of consciousness. RSPKs, UFOs, and hauntings can be cited here. To have a theory with at least some internal validity would require showing that the pineal gland is activated in these occasions too. But how can one do that in these relatively rare and spontaneous events? In a nut shell, it is not testable.

On the other hand, his speculations about the pineal glad have the merit to move away from the electromagnetic theory of psi. Psi is not a form of electromagnetic wave, although Partain recognizes that EMFs have an impact on the brain, and therefore they could be in some circumstances an important enabler. This is in line with what is known about psi.

The physics of psi

In a way similar to his discussion about the biology of psi, Partain uses speculations from modern physics to build his cases, and uses extensive jargon. He is attacking the Standard Model in physics that emerged from Einstein’s physics, and focuses on some theories in quantum physics such as the “quantum void”, and the “zero point energy”. These theories can provide an explanation for the energy required to do various forms of PK, which can be in turn linked to some parts of the neurological system that could, in theory, produce these quantum effects. Unfortunately, these theories remain to be empirically validated. The validation of such theories is very problematic as it requires a recreation of the physical conditions found in a black hole, which presents very serious practical challenges. Even the new research accelerator at the French-Swiss border, which was at the centre of a controversy a few months ago, will only able to tackle a very small portion of those theories by creating mini and very short-lived black holes. The bottom line is that these theories are beyond proof and disproof.

Partain’s focus on biological and quantum speculations also poses a series of problem as they require an active agent. In other words, he cannot explain persistent phenomena that acquire a life of their own, like the ones discussed in the previous post about tulpas and haunting. This explains why he prefers to attribute these persistent phenomena to non-human entities. This how he developed the idea that UFOs and aliens are psi phenomena, but produced by non-human entities. The author, hence, has the same ontological assumptions found in the writings of Vallée, Keel and Brunstein, which are commonly called the Paranormal Hypothesis (PNH). Once again, any research on non-human entities leads, by definition, to a similar problem than the one found in his esoteric biological and quantum physics speculations; there is no way to prove or disprove such reality because their deep inner dynamics is beyond our reach. Ironically, in taking such a materialistic and allegedly scientific approach to psi, he ends up producing a theory that is essentially animist and non-scientific.

No social sciences here

Partain, in spite of trying to be conciliatory about research on psi (i.e., people should try to work together instead of fighting each others), is quite parochial in his own approach. As discussed above, he used jargon extensively and he stated in several instances that he is a trained natural scientist. It is clearly one of those well-known forms of rhetorical strategy to give one’s words more value, which in turn may be useful to mask that his approach is entirely based on speculations. After all, it was not terribly reasonable to expect that experts in biology and physics would be interested to read such a book and engage in a debate with him. The, what would be the purpose to write in such a way? It is also interesting to note that in many occasions he states that we need to have a “high resolution” approach to study the phenomenon if we want to understand it (hence, another justification for his use of jargon). High resolution meaning here that the analysis needs to be at the expert level using as much detailed empirical data as possible. Unfortunately, he does not apply the same standard when it comes to the social sciences.

According to him, those psi-using ETs are supposedly guiding the evolution of humanity, and he gives the example of psi events (perceived as religious) that changed the course of humanity. One of them is the story of Ezekiel who created the notion of a Jewish nation. Well, this conclusion can only be reached if one uses a “low resolution” approach which essentially confuses causes and effects. Psi phenomena, like in the case of individuals, are rather a symptom of profound social tensions. In liminal situations (i.e., between two forms of social order, the old and the new one to come), societies are more amenable to change and this is when new collective identities are formed. That a major psi effect has a profound religious or spiritual impact is no proof that there is non-human intervention. It is only an indicator that a society was ripe for change. A well-known example is the rise of fascism in Germany during the interwar period propelled by the Great Depression. The tragic events that followed are also too well known, but they eventually led to the victory of social liberal and democratic values in Germany. In many ways, this period was a liminal one for Germany where drastic shifts in the collective identity occurred. Does one need ETs to explain what happened? No. So, there is no reason to involve non-falsifiable ET theories about social change in ancient and pre-modern societies either. In taking a higher resolution approach that looks at the economic, social, demographic, and political conditions of a society one can see how social change occurs. These dynamics are pretty consistent across history.

It is unfortunate that this book, which had an interesting idea to start with (“psi in the sky”), is more a sophisticated form of von Daniken-type of speculations. This, in turn, reinforces the notion that the study of paranormal phenomena needs badly the involvement of the social sciences. It is certainly the role given to parasociology to fill such a gap.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

No comments: