Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Some particular methodological challenges about psi

Welcome back to all. I hope you all had a great summer.

This post is based on an older but interesting article about researching psi, which provides interesting suggestions that I find useful for the study of UFOs and UFO waves. The article is:

Shewmaker, Kenneth L. and Carlton W. Berenda. (1962). “Science and the problem of psi”. Philosophy of Science 29(2): 195-203.

Psi as a human phenomenon

The article raises an important question about the notion of psi, which is still incompletely answered by present-day parapsychology: Can psi be studied scientifically? The real challenge with this question is, in fact, not about what psi is, but how one defines science. If science is defined as developing an organized body of knowledge about the fundamental dynamics of the universe (broadly defined), then psi can be studied scientifically. But if the study of the fundamental dynamics of the universe requires repeatable experimentation (i.e. at will) as a sine qua non condition, then psi cannot be studied scientifically because it is too elusive and unpredictable for experimentation. If this last and very narrow view of science is accepted, then not only parapsychology is in trouble, but also sociology, political science, anthropology, etc.

Most scientists now agree that the crux of the matter is not about experimentation, but about ontology (i.e. what are we dealing with). When one is dealing with humans, then there are a number of additional challenges not found in natural sciences that come up. Humans are creative and find innovative solutions that cannot be predicted; they self-define they own reality and therefore their behaviour is not easy to predict; human situations are always found in an open environment so that variables cannot really be controlled, or even all known; humans have unconscious mental processes that are hard to investigate but that have a lot of impact on their behaviour, preferences, etc. These additional challenges make experimentation almost useless when it comes to humans and thus other methodologies are required.

The point here is that psi is a human phenomenon and it should be studied by using the methodology of the human and social sciences rather than the one from natural science. The consequence of this is that those who have a narrow view of science will never be satisfied because they need experimentation or quasi-experimental setting to study any object of inquiry. If the object does not fit this mould, then they simply ignore the research done on the topic. It goes without saying that this issue is of paramount importance for the study of UFOs and UFO waves as psi effects. ETH ufologists, by definition, consider UFOs as physical objects that should be studied using the natural science approach. They tend to have a narrow (not to say naive) view of science, and therefore use that the experimentation criteria to reject other approaches (while themselves cannot produce any experimental data worth that name...). In other words, the centrality of the human dimension is usually completely ignored. As well, most ETH ufologists are not interested in understanding the ontological challenges linked to the UFO phenomenon (do they even know the existence of the word ontology?). Hence, it is further reason to accept that there is no point in trying to engage ETH ufology.

Some methodological suggestions

Shewmaker and Berenda take notice of some key issues about the study of psi. Psi cannot be produced “on demand” for very long (the well-known declining effect of psi first noticed by J. B. Rhine). The same problem exists in social psychology (e.g. one cannot repeat the same focus group experiment too many times with the same group, people get sick of it). Almost all ostentatious psi effects are unique events (like most social, political, and cultural events). As well, these psi effects tend to be spontaneous. Most parapsychologists think that it is because psi effects are dependent on unconscious mental processes that cannot be monitored simultaneously to the production of the effect. Spontaneous psi effects tend to have a symbolic content that cannot be interpreted objectively; it requires an in-depth understanding of the producer’s psyche and unconscious thoughts. Lastly, a number of parapsychologists consider that ESP effects, in particular, are constantly occurring, where psi-gathered information, normally gathered information, innovative thought and fantasy are always mixed up, which makes psi almost impossible to insulate from other variables and influences.

To deal with such challenges, they offer a number of solutions that are relatively closed to what has been proposed for parasociology so far. First, they proposed to use what they call “nondiscursive symbolism [which] has been used in the discussion of various art forms and for communicating the psycho-dynamics of individual patients in the psychological clinic” (p. 200). What this means is that the methodologies found in the symbolic interpretation of arts and dreams can be quite useful in understanding the uniqueness of a psi event. This has been already discussed about UFOs and UFO waves on this blog, and it is further arguments to continue to do so.

When it comes to individuals, they propose something that few parapsychologists have done so far (even in the case of poltergeists). “The course to pursue would seem, therefore, to be a truly intense psychological study of the person or persons involved in any reported incident of psi, not simply to determine the personality type but rather with the intent of a presentational understanding of the unique persons and the unique event. This is to suggest that clinicians “gang-up” on one reported psi incident, as soon after the fact as possible, making use of any or all clinical devices at their command. Special attention might be paid to such questions as: ‘What psychological meaning did the psi event have for this particular person at this particular time? What were the conditions of the interpersonal relationships at the time? What function did the psi event appear to serve for the persons involved?” (p. 201).

This suggestion is quite interesting and brings back to the forefront the case of Barney and Betty Hill, as they were the object of an intense psychological study by Dr. Simon and a significant portion of the data was made public in Fuller’s book. As shown in the previous posts about the Barney and Betty Hill case, the questions suggested by Shewmaker and Berenda are not only relevant, but most of them can be answered with the existing data from the Barney and Betty Hill hypnotic investigation! It is clear that true Close Encounters of the 3rd type (CE3) (i.e. involving BOTH seeing an object up close and their perceived passengers), as well as the so-called CE4, can be best studied through the approach proposed by Shewmaker and Berenda. The key, however, is to change the central question from “what can I learn about aliens and their spaceship” to “what can I learn about the people (and their deep mental processes) who can create macro psi effects”. This last question is a true scientific question, but about unique and spontaneous human phenomena.

Implications for parasociology

The questions proposed by Shewmaker and Berenda can be applied to social-level psi effects as well, although it would sociologists and anthropologists who should “gang up”. The questions would become: What sociological or cultural meaning did the psi event have for this particular society at this particular time? What were the conditions of the inter-group relationships at the time? What function did the psi event appear to serve for the society involved?

To offer some concrete illustration of this approach, the new case of seeing mermaids (yes, mermaids) in Israel will be used. The mermaid “wave” info can be found at: http://www.cryptomundo.com/cryptozoo-news/israel-mermaid/

This is an interesting variation to the UFO wave phenomenon. Inter-group relationships: there are a lot tensions in Israel about the Iranian nuclear programme, and the unclear plans of the West on how to deal with it. At the time of the sightings, there was not much talk about it in Israel (vacation season), but it was probably "cooking" in the collective unconscious. Sociological or cultural meaning: the symbolism is also interesting, as mermaids (like the devil) mislead people in the wrong direction while being attractive or inviting. What function: I think many people in Israel are coming to accept unconsciously the tempting yet dangerous notion that further diplomatic talks with Iran is a waste of time, although diplomatic talks appear to be the "righteous" way. Concretely, Israel might be getting the resolve to deal with the Iranian threat with or without Western support (with all the very serious consequences this might create for the Middle East and the world in general).

This is only a short illustration, but it shows that a parasociological approach can be used on a number phenomena.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

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