Saturday, February 14, 2009

Review of François Favre’s Psi and Intentionality

This post is a review of a text by François Favre in French, entitled Psi et Intentionalité (Psi and Intentionality), available on his website at:

François Favre is a psychiatrist who wrote about psi and parapsychology since the 1970s. He approaches parapsychological topics from a philosophical point view. What I mean here is that he is asking tough questions about how parapsychology conceptualizes its own field of research, and tries to show the consequences of some serious logical flaws in parapsychological research. Favre, however, goes beyond critique and proposes some answers. In his text, Favre proposes a serious critique of parapsychology, but not the one that people are used to. He does not attempt to deny the existence of psi due to some alleged methodological flaw. Favre has no problem with the existence of psi. His problem, and I agree with him, is that parapsychology has no real definition of what psi is, and thus without having its central concept fully defined it cannot be fully effective in studying it.

Rhine’s terminology at the source of the problem

Without using the word, Favre bases his critique upon the notion of phenomenology. Reality, at first, is what I am feeling and it is what I project my mind into (this is the concept of intentionality from Immanuel Kant). In other words, reality is what I am aware of, and to be aware of something I have to focus on something (i.e., to intentionally projecting my mind on something). This starting point for the study of psi may seem trivial, but it has important consequences for parapsychology.

If psi, as defined by Rhine, is the acquisition of information without any known physical means (ESP), and affecting matter without any known physical means (PK), then psi is simply a “meaningful coincidence”, as Favre underlines in his text. For instance, if I think about a table levitating, and I see a table levitating by itself, then it is a meaningful coincidence without a known cause. For Favre, this way of conceptualizing psi can only lead to a dead end. The underlying dynamics remain unknown, and cannot be known if it is only construed as meaningful coincidences. One can use Zener cards forever, collect tons of statistically significant data, and still not have a clue of what psi is. For Favre, this is a waste of time.

In the same vein, Favre considers that the notion a-causality is also flawed, and this is one of the key issues in parapsychology. Considering these meaningful coincidences as a-causal (i.e., simultaneous but without a direct cause and effect process) like Jung and many parapsychologists would say, is simply compounding the problem. For Favre, psi is instead “anti-causal”. What he means is that the intention of having the table levitating is fully realized in the mind of the individual before it actually occurs, and it is only after that the table “finds a way” to levitate. This is the exact opposite to cause and effect, because the effect comes first (in the mind of the psi agent) and then the cause is found afterward, hence his choice of anti-causal rather than a-causal.

Another point in his critique of the parapsychological definition of psi is that time is not something fixed and imperturbable, but something coming out of the imaginary. What he means is that for us (the humans), from a phenomenological standpoint, time can only be perceived if we have a past, a present and a future. Otherwise, we would be in the eternal present, and therefore we would never notice the passage of time. The past is always gone, by definition, and so we can only imagine it with the help of our memory; the future has not occurred yet and so we can only imagine it, based on what we know; on our experience. Furthermore, the notion of present is also quite problematic, as it is something that lasts just a fraction of a second (as short as the human mind is able to handle it). The implication is that we are always using our imagination to catch up with the present. The present, that fraction of second where we project our mind on something, is guided by our memory of the previous factions of seconds. This same use of imagination of the past is itself projected into imagining the future of what we want to accomplish. In other words, when one takes a phenomenological perspective about time, one can see that our imaginary capabilities are constantly used.

The consequence of this critique is that psi, given that it is anti-causal, it must be construed as an act of imagination, or more properly as an act of creation. Furthermore, as noticing the passage of time requires that the human mind is constantly using its imaginary capabilities, then human beings are constantly creating. From that point of view, therefore, psi has nothing paranormal, because ordinary human life is all about creativity. A mundane action or project is conceived in the mind first, and then we find a way to make it happen, and we constantly use our memory from the past (or experience) to project into the future what we are imagining as the end state of the action or project. Psi, therefore, is no different from any other mental processes. What we call psi effects, then, is something that we can imagine as possible (and truly believe it can be done at the unconscious level). This explains why psi is more common when people believe deeply in magic or the paranormal, and when they are in an altered state of consciousness (because it suspending our normal ways of thinking, and thus more is possible). For Favre, psi is simply a normal act of creation but with an outcome that is rare.

What Favre does not discuss, however, is why psi is rare. Based on my previous posts on the social nature of the human unconscious, it appears clear to me that any belief about what is possible and what is not depends on factors that are sociological in nature. In the so-called primitive societies, magic was not that rare because people were socialized to believe in it. It is rarer in our rationalist societies because we learn from a very young age that these things are not possible. So, psi can be redefined as an act of creation that transgresses Western social conventions. If there is no transgression of social conventions about what is possible and what is not, then it ceased to be construed as psi, and becomes something “normal” or “natural”. This also implies that if social conventions change, then what is psi will change also. An example that Favre gives that can easily be linked to the social dimension of psi is the issue of psychosomatic diseases and healing. Before the 19th century, in the Western world, it was caused by some curse or by miraculous healing. It was a mysterious form psi (to use nowadays terminology). In the 19th century, until quite late in the 20th century, it was a form of pathology (and thus no psi). In the end of the 20th century and early 21st century, the power of the mind over the human body is increasingly recognized by the medical sciences and could become recognized as a non-mysterious form of psi, and ultimately ceased to be seen as psi, but as normal aspect of the human mind. The key here is that the concept of psi in parapsychology is far from being objective and neutral. It is quite specific to our time and to the Western scientific culture.

This broader definition of psi also means that avant-garde artistic creations, which transgress social conventions by definition and express yet unperceived emotions, are also a form of psi. From that point of view, this provides also further justifications for considering the arts as the social-level counterpart to remote-viewing. It can be further linked to the notion that psi is something to be understood within the realm of trickster archetype, as proposed by Hansen (2001). Psi is about transgressing social norms, and it is exactly what the trickster does. This explains in great part the ongoing difficulty of parapsychology, psychic sciences, and paranormal research to be considered as “respectable” in spite of their most meticulous efforts to produce high quality data.

Further critique of parapsychology

Favre is also critical of the concept of ESP. For him, it is none sense to talk about perception with having sensations. What we call ESP is just the reverse of the usual perception process. The brain is sending the signal to the senses, rather than the opposite. It is even possible to go further and say that the brain is always sending a signal to the senses to make sense of what is perceived. I see something strange (signal from the senses to the brain); the brain sends a signal to the senses it is a shadow; the senses sends another signal to the brain about a seeing shadow. What distinguishes psi is the order in which it is done, and once again if it is transgressing social conventions or not. After all, what is the difference between a hallucination (e.g., I feel a presence but there is no one) and a psi effect (e.g., I feel a presence AND there is someone). Let’s repeat the same example in a society like China where the cult of the ancestors is still quite strong. Then both would be amalgamated into the same experience (I feel the presence of an ancestor; I feel the presence of a living person). If we add also the notion that time is, from a phenomenological perspective, part of the imaginary, then the act of creation (feeling a presence) can occur in any portion of the imaginary (the presence may be in the past or in the future). The lack of an actual person in the immediate is no proof that there was no psi effect in the example above, once we accept that psi is creative act with the imaginary realm that transgresses social conventions. It is certainly a key issue in remote viewing, as the images seen are not necessarily about today. The creative act of knowing about a place that is “impossible” to know about is also done in a context of drawing into the imaginary of time. As one can see, this view of psi can have immense methodological implications from parapsychology.

Favre considers that there is no communication of information in ESP, but it is rather symbolic intentions that are exchanged within the imaginary timelines discussed above (hence, it could be instantaneous, or be done across centuries). Instead of communication, he prefers to use the notion of communion where symbolic intentions are shared. I would add that this is very close to the notion of people being “in tune” with the social unconscious discussed in the previous post. Furthermore, he considers that telepathy is when the symbolic intentions of one person are not defined yet, that they are in a state of flux, and thus available for accepting someone else symbolic intentions. This notion is also applicable to collective ESP, according to Favre. When many individuals are lowering their individual symbolic autonomy, voluntarily or involuntarily (e.g. when they are sleeping), then they can be involved in a larger communion of symbolic intents.

Favre proposes also a critique of PK based on a similar analysis. For him, the notion of action at a distance is profoundly misleading because from a phenomenological perspective PK requires that the muscles be involved. For Favre, PK is actually a signal from the muscles to the brain, which is the reverse of “normal” action over matter, as the brain sends a signal to the muscles to act upon matter. In PK, this signal is what brain use to act creatively and essentially feel “as if” it is moving the object. Once again, the psi effect will occur if the social conventions about what is possible or not can be transgressed by the individual within the imaginary realm. This explains, again, why PK was described as something more common in certain cultures and eras. This view of PK implies, as discussed above, that it is not different from the normal process of psychosomatic diseases and cures, and therefore it is part of the normal functions of the human mind. Favre also sees PK as expressing symbolic intentions on physical systems. Although he does not state it as such, physical systems, as physicists are now aware, are also made of information not just energy and matter, and information is something symbolic.

Favre also considers that materialization and dematerialization is a form of PK when an object is symbolically taken from the imaginary realm (materialization) and conceptualized in the present time, or taken from the imaginary out of the present time (dematerialization) and moved away into a different time in the imaginary realm. Hence, there is no materialization or dematerialization per se, but a standard PK movement accompanied with a shift in the imaginary timeline. Metaphorically, it is similar to the cinematographic tricks done to simulate materialization/dematerialization in movies.

Some Comments on Favre

Of his own admission, some of his ideas are speculative, but they are logically consequent with his definition of psi and time, and they can explain quite a few problems with respect to understanding psi. At a minimum, this gives interesting working hypotheses to redirect some parts of parapsychological research. An obvious application of Favre’s analysis to UFO and UFO waves is to explain the cultural and social dimensions of the phenomena, and the “premonitions” of future, but yet imaginable, technologies. Another one is that it allows for collective and even social psi to occur. However, it implies also that there is psi agent(s) that are projecting the creative power while many others are allowing themselves to participate.

An interesting hypothesis would be to look at how the UFO “buffs” and the UFO “sympathizers” are interacting. This same hypothesis could also be tried on the same arrangement found between “ghost hunters” and “ghost hunting sympathizers”. Furthermore, one can construe the social role of UFO buffs, and ghost hunters as redefining what is possible from what is impossible, and hence easing psi effects to occur. If strange things in the sky are understood as aliens from outer space, it is much more acceptable (ironically) than construing it as PK materialization. The ETH, although there is absolutely no evidence of alien life, is easier to accept than PK materialization in spite of the existence of a wide array of evidence and sound research on PK. Same story for ghosts, it is much easier to accept (ironically too) to see the spirit of dead people than accepting that one’s own mind is behind the phenomenon. These assumptions are quite obvious to me when I look at the “paranormal culture”.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

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