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  Talking about Psychical Research: Thoughts on Life, Death and the Nature of Reality
Mary Rose Barrington

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What is the point of psychical research?

What, I ask, is the point of psychical research. Does it have agreed aims? And are those aims realisable? What amounts to progress? How do we tell whether we have failed or succeeded? Do we have an end goal, and, if so, what is it? And what do we say, on the one hand to indifferent outsiders, and, on the other hand, to disaffected colleagues and supporters who complain that in more than a century we have not got anywhere, and we are not getting anywhere? Where is that anywhere to which they think we should get?

What started me on this inquiry was finding that for some people we do indeed have an end goal, which is understanding and explaining how and why paranormal effects occur; and, bearing in mind that understanding and explanation usually lead to control, control appears to be the ultimate goal. If that is so, we are certainly not getting anywhere, are probably doomed to failure, and are in a state of regress rather than progress. All very bad news if explanation is truly a realistic and realisable aim and our measure of success. But I should like to enter a note of dissent.

First of all, I draw attention to the words inscribed in the SPR Journal, describing the proposed activities of the society. The founders set out to examine the phenomena now generally known as paranormal – psi in insider language. They saw their remit as investigating and reporting on their findings; this necessarily involved setting out their observations in an orderly manner, so taxonomy and classification are included in the task. One can reasonably say that theorising on the findings is a natural outcome of the examination, but two large words are missing from that statement of purpose – explain and control – the most ambitious of these being control. Explanation, then, let alone control, is not stated to be a primary objective. Nevertheless it remains a discomforting presence, and I should like to see it lifted off our collective shoulders. So let us cast a cold light on explanation, which comes in three main forms.

A. First, there is a straightforward explanation in terms of normal causality and current science; in other words, explaining away an effect that was, at first light, thought to be paranormal. Psi-deniers are, of course, pleased and vindicated when some promising item gets struck off the paranormal menu – and not only psi-deniers. I have known members of the SPR whose instincts are so grounded in the gut feeling that there must be a natural explanation for everything that the elimination, here and there, of a discredited item is seemingly greeted with a rush of endorphins at the restoration of normality to its primacy. It also saves one the trouble of having to pay the matter some attention, when attention is in short supply and the claims on it are huge, from the viewpoint of psi alone. But this sort of triage is not the point of psychical research, any more than weeding is the point of gardening; it is just a necessary chore.

B. At the other end of the scale there are explanations that depend on speculative theories, by which I mean ideas ranging from philosophical at the top end to free fantasy at the other. These theories are more or less personal to the proponents, who are, of course, delighted to share their ideas with all of you. There’s a lot of these floating around (I plead guilty myself), some more plausible than others. These are theories that are not susceptible to proof or, indeed, to falsification, and, at best, they can be shown to be compatible with a lot of paranormal phenomena; but they don’t actually explain anything in a testable way.

C. Moving away from the extreme ends, there are explanations that seek to show that certain paranormal phenomena are compatible with science as we know it, meaning the proponent’s interpretation of currently respected theoretical models of science, which tend to be, or at least to seem to the outsider, even weirder than the paranormal. As to this, the non-scientist can only wait in the wings to see if one of these theories turns out to qualify as a partial explanation. I say partial because they seldom seem to take account of macro-phenomena such as materialisation and poltergeist effects, for which there is substantial evidence.
We come to another three-way division, because, as I see it, an explanatory theory can establish credibility in three different ways.

1. The theory could explain how to produce a paranormal effect.

2. It could explain how to predict time, place, conditions and other circumstances under which a psi incident is going to happen or could be made to happen.

3. It could explain exactly, not just vaguely, why neither of these is possible.

How likely is it that an explanation of one sort or another will be forthcoming, and what would the world be like if this were to come about? The most probable would, I think, be an explanation of the third order, explaining exactly why paranormal phenomena, though indisputably real, cannot be produced to order or have their occurrence predicted.

This would be a very important and crucial theory and one that should impinge on the world outlook of every thinking person. However, I doubt whether, in practice, it would have that impact. For one thing, there would be no universal acceptance of the theory in the same way that scientists accept, as I understand it, Heisenberg’s principle that the velocity and position of an electron cannot be determined at the same moment. Psi-deniers would regard such a theory as an admission that there were no paranormal phenomena, and, on the other hand, there would be dissenters convinced that the apparently impregnable theory must be faulty and that there must be some way to explain and control the paranormal.

So what about being able to predict the circumstances under which a paranormal effect will take place, an explanation of the second order? Science can’t tell the incoming half-way tide to turn round and go out instead of coming in, but it can tell you that in three hours time this is what it is going to do. Plain observation can also tell you this, but science can go further and say why this happens with such unfailing regularity. Without being able to control planetary movements, scientists can predict those movements. Can one realistically imagine being able, in a similar way, to predict an incident of crisis telepathy?

Could you say, there is an old lady about to die in Australia who has never seen her English grandchild; her mother was a medium, her daughter has been known to see apparitions, it is the seventh day of the seventh month, the moon is full, sidereal time is optimal – the child will almost certainly report next morning that she was briefly visited by a strange old woman that night? Or here is a family where the father drinks, the mother is depressive, the son is in prison, the daughter is pregnant, the rent is unpaid, the boiler has broken down; when they find that the football match scheduled to be shown on television has been cancelled there is going to be a poltergeist outbreak in which light bulbs are thrown around and there will be thunderous knocks on the floor. Even now we might say that this is the sort of family where you might expect a poltergeist but can you imagine turning up with your video just in time to catch it?

Here, as with many other areas of the paranormal, there is no useful analogy with the regularities studied by science – or if there is any analogy, it is rather like trying to predict the weather on this day next year. In the realms of normal life, effects whose causes are well defined can be predicted with such a high degree of probability as to amount to virtual certainty, whereas in the realms of the paranormal the ability to predict will always have such a low probability of success as to amount to a virtual nil prospect.

However, predicting the conditions under which an experimental procedure will succeed is a more plausible concept. And, of course, if you can predict when an experiment will be successful then you are on the way to being able to produce that result to order. Success to order does not mean that if you carry out the procedure 100 or 1000 times you will, or may, find that your results are somewhat better than chance expectation – and you may find that you have to do it 10,000 times or more to be sure of that outcome. That is not what is meant by predictable, nor is it what is meant by demonstrate.

Success could be on a modest statistical scale: you might say that you could guarantee that at that time and place, and using percipients of a selected but not unusual class, then on every trial your demonstrators will score above chance level every time. As a convincing demonstration of the paranormal that would not be too much to ask. And if your theory about experimental conditions is strong enough to ensure that under your specified conditions you will always get a better than chance result, you would have an explanatory theory. And assuming that your faculty of prediction was not limited to some very rare conditions, or very unusual participants, you could claim to produce a paranormal effect to order.

The production of psi to order, independently of any predictions about circumstances or conditions, has occurred from time to time, but in demonstrations by extraordinary psychics, persistently and famously by Alexis Didier (Méheust 2005) and Stefan Ossowiecki (Barrington et al 2005), and occasionally by lesser known psychics. But these demonstrations have not changed the world, because people who have not personally encountered the psychics in question find it easier to disbelieve reports on them and treat their death as further reassurance that witnesses to their prowess were unreliable. ‘Show me’ they say, when it’s too late. The exploits of these two exceptional clairvoyants will figure in later articles.

But a practical technique for controlling demonstrations of the paranormal to order by a wide range of moderately gifted citizens – say, as many as are capable of reading music – that could change the world. From the viewpoint of psychical research and its place in public esteem, things would take a very happy turn. Universities would all have their psi faculties with tenured professors, and any reasonably able student would be able to secure a degree in ESP or PK. The Times would carry advertisements from the Ministry of Defence inviting applications from suitably qualified psychics to keep watch on the international scene, block scrutiny from abroad and give warning of hostile thoughts. The paranormal would finally be a respected and very well funded science. That would indeed be progress. No one could say we hadn’t got anywhere.

We would actually have transformed a world of regularities into a mixture of Hogwarts academy and virtual reality. Newspaper science journalists would explain the paranormal in terms the layman could understand and apply. Brawling youths would practise their psychic stoning of windows or frighten old ladies by turning off the lights and change countryside TV programmes to gangster movies. People would be queueing to emigrate to another planet.

How would we have arrived at this goal? Would it be because some extraordinary gifted psychic had found a way to pass his techniques to other psychics by teaching them how to operate? Ossowiecki says that an old man called Froebel taught him how to be a clairvoyant, but Froebel started from the base-line that he instantly recognised in Ossowiecki a natural psychic who had so far used his powers only to entertain his friends by displays of PK (moving furniture around to amuse and astonish). Ossowiecki is one of several high calibre psychics who did in fact describe how he set about reading the past (not his own past) or divining the contents of sealed packages, but that hasn’t helped to produce other master psychics. Why should we be surprised? Mozart had pupils, but they did not turn into great composers.

Control is always the point and the aim of science, so, if we arrived at the point of control, or even partial control, over the paranormal it would surely be through the route of science, meaning, inevitably, a greatly expanded science, whether based on quantum mechanisms, strings, implicate orders or something entirely beyond current thinking. If it comes to an expanded science it seems more likely that some of the physical aspects of the paranormal will prove to be related to physics as understood by physicists, and that is an exciting prospect. Indeed the slotting of the whole of the paranormal into super-science is, I think, the Mecca that some of our colleagues feel to be the only destination that could satisfy their hopes and justify their striving.

It is a noble aim, though I have to say that I don’t feel at all confident that it’s going to happen. I realise that I am articulating the viewpoint of an Edwardian who, a mere 100 years ago, could not imagine airflight and television, let alone nanotechnology and the internet. In another fifty years the world may indeed be unrecognisable. But extrapolating to a physics that embraces the paranormal, assumes that there is a slot within the scientific model into which the paranormal can be fitted. That, I suggest, is not necessarily so. The paranormal, when it erupts, seems to ride roughshod over the regularities of science, which makes it, to my mind, far more likely that our ordered existence fits into a slot of the paranormal reality, a reality that is usually inaccessible to us. If this is so, then the quart is never going to fit into the pint pot, and, to continue the metaphor, it’s no use crying over spilt milk. The paranormal exists and therefore fits into something, which one may as well call the greater science, but, if the paranormal is less graspable than the normal, and the normal is mind-bogglingly complex, how way out must be the greater science that encompasses the paranormal.

An aspect of psychical research that has, so far, been left out of consideration is the survival of personal consciousness after death. Even if one can imagine explanations or partial explanations of paranormal cognition and anomalous physical effects, the question would still remain as to how we should interpret phenomena such as phantom materialisation, ostensible communication from the dead, or apparent reincarnation or other cases where living people seem to be influenced by people from a past time. That question will surely always remain open to individual assessment, and it is difficult to see how interpretation of the data could ever be the subject of determination by a scientific theory. When one takes into account the whole picture – the relevance of the paranormal to consciousness, identity, survival, the persistence of the past and foreknowledge of the future – a comprehensive explanatory theory is rather like explaining the purpose of the universe and the meaning of life on earth. I suppose we should all like to know that, but it is, in fact, an ideal rather than a realistic objective, because, while we are all free to speculate about these imponderables, it may be categorically impossible for anyone to advance a provable theory that would amount to a comprehensive explanation. This limitation is surely to be expected and accepted.

There are aims worth pursuing that are, in my view, more realistic and, therefore, more valuable, and nothing strikes me as more important than attempts to reduce segments of our vast and disorderly accumulation of material to order and meaning. It is a fine thing to produce bricks, but, when you have more bricks than the brickyard can accommodate, what really matters is to use them to create meaningful structures. With enough structures you begin to see the outline of possible conclusions, even theories. My idea of failure is not the absence of theory, but the failure to make good use of the goldmines locked up in the vast literature of the past.

Viewed as a science, psychical research can be seen blundering around lamenting its lack of explanatory theories; but viewed as historical ontology, a chronicle of non-conforming facts, it is a treasure of accumulated experience. History has no end goal, so there is no question of history failing. Like history, the chronicles of psychical research record things that happen, whether naturally or by inducement, things that signal a dimension of reality that has the widest possible implications for humankind. The careful examination of those things that have accumulated for our benefit, and continue to accumulate, give us grounds for realising that ordinary things are not quite as they seem to be, and provide reliable material enabling us to speculate rationally and imagine other sorts of reality based on hard evidence. And, in so far as anything in this unsatisfactory world has a point, that, as I see it, is the point of psychical research.

Publisher: White Crow Books
Published April 2019
Size: 229 x 152 mm
ISBN 9781786770653
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When Skeptics Attack: Skeptical Organizations and Websites by Craig Weiler – If you really want to get to the heart of skepticism, the best way to do that is to look at the organizations that skeptics create and see how they operate. The behavior of these organizations is the behavior of the individuals, writ large. There are two national organizations worth considering: the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI). Read here
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