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The Paranormal: Fact or Fiction?

a discussion

psiTest - online test of psychic ability

By "paranormal" I refer to those events and abilities that defy explanation by the currently accepted laws of science. Phenomena falling under this heading include:

  • Clairvoyance - knowledge of events distant in time and/or space obtained by means other than the physical senses.

  • Telepathy - the direct transmission of information from one mind to another without the intervention of any physical medium.

  • Psychokinesis (pk) - action-at-a-distance of mind upon inert matter.

  • Precognition / divination / premonition - the prediction of future events to a greater degree of accuracy than could be achieved by the use of conventional knowledge.

  • Spiritualism - communication with disembodied spirits of the dead.

  • Reincarnation - the concept that a spirit or soul undergoes numerous earthly incarnations.

In this article I aim to show that such phenomena are not incompatible with current scientific knowledge and to examine some of the evidence in support of their existence. A key argument in any debate on the existence or nature of the paranormal is the consideration of whether the universe is materialistic or dualistic in nature. A materialistic universe would consist solely of matter and energy, all phenomena within would be functions of these components. In contrast, a dualistic universe contains something other than matter and energy; e.g. mind or spirit.

Science is concerned with the understanding of the material universe, its tools and methods are well suited to the probing of the physical world. If the universe were truly materialistic it would, in theory, be possible to fully explain its every facet in terms of science. However the non-physical component of a dualistic universe will never be fully accessible to the methods of physical science, and indeed would offer only a partial glimpse to its nature as a result of its interactions with the physical.

I would suggest that the four-dimensional universe of space-time is but a fraction of all reality, co-existing alongside other realms including those of soul or spirit. Life is an ephemeral union between a distinct soul and a physical body; the ongoing struggle of the spiritual to establish and maintain an influence upon the physical.

The classical theories that had governed scientific understanding from the days of Newton were based on the concept of determinism, (i.e. the future is completely determined by the past and present). This all changed with the acceptance of quantum theory in the early 20th Century.

Quantum theory suggests that the fundamental components of the universe sometimes behave as particles and sometimes as waves depending on the mode of observation. The act of observation inevitable alters that which is being measured. Bohr suggested the principle of "complementarity" which states that certain pairs of variables (e.g. position & momentum, time & energy) cannot both be accurately known simultaneously, since the process of measuring one disturbs the value of the other. The equations of quantum theory no longer predict the outcome of experiments, only the probabilities of different possible outcomes.

The new situation may be summarized as "You can't predict the future. You can only state the odds." [1] Of course at the observable level reality is still deterministic for all practical purposes, due to the vast number of probabilistic micro-events which form even the smallest observation.

This probabilistic behaviour is clearly illustrated by the "two-slit interference" experiment. A beam of light is directed at a screen with two slits very close together. Unsurprisingly, the light exhibits the typical interference pattern on the surface behind the screen, as predicted by wave theory. However, if we can arrange to release the light just one photon at a time "we find that half the particles appear at the upper slit and half at the lower one, but we find also that there is no way to predict for a particular particle which slit it will choose. ... The behavior is intrinsically unpredictable." [1].

Roger Penrose in his essay "Minds, Machines and Mathematics" [2] states that "It seems to be the case that single quantum events can be responsible for the triggering of nerve impulses".

Sir John Eccles, in his essay "Brain and Mind, Two or One" [2] quotes quantum physicist Henry Margenau in support of his position of dualist-interactionism. Margenau states that the components of the brain "are small enough to be governed by probabilistic quantum laws" and are "always poised for a multitude of possible changes, each with a definite probability". Further, Margenau believes that such changes may be influenced by the mind, which "may be regarded as a field in the accepted sense of the term. But it is a nonmaterial field... And so far as present evidence goes it is not an energy field in any physical sense, nor is it required to contain energy in order to account for all known phenomena in which mind interacts with brain."

Sir Arthur Eddington [3] considered the logical conclusions of quantum theory to be that "The future is never entirely determined by the past, nor is it ever entirely detached", and "it is no longer necessary to suppose that human actions are completely predetermined". Eddington further conjectured that the " 'conscious unit' does in fact differ from an inorganic system in having a much higher indeterminacy of behaviour - simply because of the unitary nature of that which it represents, namely the ego".

I would further suggest that when not subject to external influence quantum events are statistically neutral, however the action of a nonphysical intelligence upon these events (typically within the brain of a living organism) would be sufficient to influence them to the degree required to manifest as the free will of that organism.

Experimental evidence to date supports the validity of quantum theory. "Exceedingly delicate atomic experiments have confirmed the existence of subtle quantum effects to an astonishing degree of accuracy. No known experiment has contradicted the predictions of quantum mechanics in the last 50 years...... (Quantum theory) correctly describes the world to a level of precision and detail unprecedented in science" [4].

The so-called Copenhagen interpretation of the theory put forward by Bohr suggests "it is meaningless to ask what an electron 'really' is." Further, "uncertainty and fuzziness are intrinsic to the quantum world and not merely the result of our incomplete perception of it" [4]. Of course the 'quantum world' is the whole world. The Copenhagen view remains the orthodox interpretation of quantum theory and the Aspect experiment of 1982 "seemed to contradict once and for all Einstein's belief that God does not play dice with the universe" [4].

The classical approach had made objectivity the dominant partner in the objective-subjective relationship, mental or spiritual events were a mere function of physical reality. This situation has been reversed by quantum theory, while not denying the existence of an independent objective reality, the nature of such a reality is shaped by those entities that perceive it. Quantum theory suggests an inter-connectedness or wholeness to the universe reminiscent of the teachings of mysticism.

Quantum theory in itself does not postulate the existence of soul or spirit; it does however provide a mechanism in which nonphysical entities such as spirit (or indeed God) could exert their Will upon the physical universe, by slightly shifting the probability distribution associated with individual quantum events. It is, I believe, somehow more plausible and satisfying to consider the self-organizing complexity of the observed world as resulting from the action of some intelligence, rather than a freak occurrence emerging from a multitude of chaos.

The sheer volume of reports of paranormal phenomena provides strong evidence for the existence of a reality beyond the material realm. Descriptions of hauntings, poltergeist activity, premonitions, spontaneous telepathy, spirit healing, out-of-body experiences etc. would fill many volumes. Of course coincidence, hallucination or deception may explain many of these cases, but it would take just one genuine case to show the existence of a nonphysical reality.

Interesting as they are, spontaneous paranormal events can never provide the rigorous proof required (except perhaps to those who experience them) to become recognized as fact. There have, however, been numerous scientific parapsychological studies which have yielded statistically significant evidence for the ability of the mind to receive information or produce physical action by nonphysical means. I would refer the reader to the article "An Assessment of the Evidence for Psychic Functioning" by Professor Jessica Utts, Division of Statistics, University of California, Davis which states: "Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well established. The statistical results of the studies examined are far beyond what is expected by chance. Arguments that these results could be due to methodological flaws in the experiments are soundly refuted."

The document "Frequently Asked Questions about Parapsychology" (ed. Dean Radin, Dec 1995) states that "ESP exists, precognition exists, telepathy exists, and PK exists. ESP is statistically robust, meaning it can be reliably demonstrated through repeated trials" where the definition of existence is "that the presently available, cumulative statistical database for experiments studying X, provides strong, scientifically credible evidence for repeatable, anomalous, X-like effects." This document was produced by a group of scientists and scholars from the disciplines of physics, psychology, philosophy, statistics, mathematics, computer science, chemistry, anthropology, and history, hardly a group prone to the excesses of imagination.

The overwhelming argument supporting the existence of some nonphysical spirit is the impression that we all have of our own personal free will. This can result neither from the now discredited determinism, nor the fundamental randomness of pure quantum theory. It is explainable only by the conscious and intentional intervention of some nonphysical entity external to the system that it influences.

Even Max Planck, a firm believer in determinism, conceded "...we have our most direct and intimate source of knowledge, which is the human consciousness telling us that in the last resort our thought and volition are not subject to this causal order", quoted in [3].

Now, if we accept the existence of some nonphysical spiritual realm it is a logical assumption that the phenomena within are subject to the laws of this realm (as physical phenomena obey the physical laws). In this model a living being, having both body and spirit, has a foothold in both realms.

The mind-to-mind communication of telepathy could occur solely across the spiritual realm without need for physical media.

The clairvoyant seeing-at-a-distance would involve some part of the spirit realm reaching out across time and space.

PK, or mind-over-matter, occurs constantly as each spirit "drives" its allocated body, it does not require too great a leap in imagination to extend the effect to inert matter.

Spiritualism requires only that the spiritual part of the living be able to communicate with other parts of the spiritual realm.

If a soul is capable of making the journey of earthly incarnation on one occasion, then it is capable of repeating this journey as required by reincarnation.

The model does present a problem with foreseeing the future, since freedom of the will combined with a fundamentally indeterministic nature means that the future is not predetermined and does not exist until it arrives. However a limited form of precognition may be possible by using clairvoyance to gain a better picture of present conditions, and hence the ability to make predictions with a greater than usual degree of accuracy. PK may also be used to make the predictions more likely to occur i.e. the self-fulfilling prophecy.

During earthly existence the spiritual or so-called psychic abilities possessed by all can be obscured by the day-to-day needs of physical survival. Such abilities appear to be stronger in some individuals than in others. It is also possible for all to develop their abilities to some degree by appropriate mind training techniques.


[1] Space, time and quanta: an introduction to contemporary physics. Robert Mills, pub Freeman 1994.

[2] Mindwaves: thoughts on intelligence, identity and consciousness. ed. Blakemore & Greenfield; pub Blackwell 1987.

[3] New Pathways in Science. Sir Arthur Eddington MA, DSc, LLD, FRS; pub Cambridge University Press 1935.

[4] The Ghost in the Atom. ed. P.C.W. Davies & J.R. Brown; pub Cambridge University Press, 1986.

See also Parapsychology on the Web | Paranormal Phenomena on the Web

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