Friday, February 1, 2008

A Book about Psi that Everyone Should Read

The time slipped away from me again! I am doing too many things, I guess, and those that bring in income have to have top priority. I'll try to write here more often. For now, here is another book review: Parapsychology and the Skeptics by Chris Carter.

This fine book fills a pressing need: it's an up-to-date source that can be wholeheartedly recommended to people who are under the impression that belief in so-called "paranormal" phenomena is contrary to science -- both those who are dogmatically convinced that it is, and those who do believe in the existence of psi but feel they should be apologetic about it. I am acquainted with some of each, and I will waste no time in suggesting that they owe it to themselves to read what Chris Carter has to say.

In relatively brief but clear and well-documented chapters, Carter covers the history of psi research, the experimental evidence for psi phenomena, the reasons why skeptics reject this evidence, and the principles of contemporary science with which it is compatible. His discussion is wisely limited to extrasensory perception (telepathy, precognition, and clairvoyance) and psychokinesis (PK, the action of mind on matter). Future books dealing with other, less firmly established, phenomena are planned; separating them not only keeps the coverage within manageable length, but avoids the possibility that aspects of research not dependent on each other will be will judged as a whole, causing some readers to doubt even the unassailable facts of what is now known.

Carter's emphasis on the philosophy of science, and his analysis of modern skeptics' determined resistance to acceptance of evidence that in any other area they would consider conclusive, is particularly valuable. I myself suspect that this resistance goes somewhat deeper than he suggests; my own view, expressed in my fiction, is that it is based not merely on commitment to an obsolete conception of scientific principles that would be upset by recognition of psi, but on an underlying unconscious fear. However, that is simply my personal hypothesis. As the book is about science, it rightly focuses on demonstrable facts and scientific considerations rather than speculation about psychological factors.

My only reservation about this book as an introduction to psi for the uninformed reader is that it fails to make clear the distinction between experimental evidence for psi and psi as it operates in the real world. Although it briefly covers historical reports of real-world psi, the fundamental reason why equally spectacular results are not, and can never be, obtained through controlled experiments may not be grasped by readers whose impression of psychic powers has been gained from pop-culture media. Carter does mention that many people feel that laboratory psi is "somehow different" from real-life psi, but surely that is an understatement. It is generally acknowledged that spontaneous psi experiences are strongly dependent on emotion. That psi exists can be demonstrated scientifically, but its role in human affairs can no more be investigated in a lab setting than can that of love. Furthermore, the extent to which psi occurs spontaneously on an unconscious level, which I believe to be a major factor in that role, cannot be revealed by scientific research of the kind now possible. Whereas these considerations are beyond the scope of the book, I do fear that some readers may be given the impression that the data obtained in laboratories is fully representative of the human mind’s “paranormal” capabilities. The absence of a more detailed description of the very real evidence for controlled clairvoyance obtained through military use of remote viewing (a term not even included in the index) is also unfortunate in this regard. But these omissions do not detract from the overall importance of the book as a refutation of the claim that science rules out psi phenomena. It is indispensable for that purpose and should be required reading for everyone with an interest in the nature of reality.