Science and the Paranormal

2018-02-19T18:30:35+00:0019/02/2018|

by Leonard Lewin, D.Sc. 1979

THE AUTHOR

Leonard Lewin was born in 1919 in Essex, England. During World War II he worked at the British Admiralty on radar. In 1946 he joined Standard Telecommunications Laboratories (now Nortel), and became head of the Microwave Department. He is author of 40 patents and some 200 publications, including 12 books. One of these, The Diffusion of Sufi Ideas in the West, won an award from the UNESCO 1972 International Book Year. In 1991 he was an invited speaker to the International Conference of Mathematicians, Kyoto, Japan. He is currently a Professor Emeritus at the University of Colorado.

Science and the Paranormal

I would first like to show how the basic methods of science can be properly applied to certain classes of phenomena, and the distinctions that can be made between “scientific” and other more general investigations of a thorough and scholarly character. I would also like to indicate how it may be possible, through an over-enthusiastic debunking attitude of some of the more far-out and nonsensical paranormal claims, for perfectly sensible aspirants for serious study to slip through our fingers and be lost. Indeed, hidden prejudices can colour our attitudes to such an extent that we are usually quite unaware of the way we unconsciously introduce bias into the arena. To illustrate, I would like to offer the following cautionary tale.

It is concerned with the woman whose daughter invited her to her wedding in some far-away country. The mother was delighted to hear that the girl was getting settled at last, and also, as she understood from a long-distance phone call, that it was to be such a suitable match. She sent her blessing and hurried to the spot.

To be married ….

As soon as she got to the jungle clearing where the preparations for the marriage were warming up, she seemed rather distraught, however.

“What’s wrong, Mother – you told me you were delighted?”

“I did – but why didn’t you speak up: I thought you said a RICH DOCTOR!”

People hear what they want to, imagine what they hope for. If the goal is to be objective, one must be on guard against such influences stemming from one’s own predispositions. Perhaps, therefore, I should begin by exposing my own prejudices, such as I know them, in relation to science and scientific methodology. I don’t think my point of view is in any way novel, though the emphases I may indicate need not necessarily be shared identically by others.

By “science” I mean the word as it is currently used in contemporary Western culture: the process of combining observation, experimentation under repeatable conditions, formation of a theoretical hypothesis compatible with the observations, and testing the predictions of the theory by further experiments. Abandonment or refinement of the theory follows this last step, until the investigator is satisfied with the concordance of the theory, measurements and observations. This brief explanation is, of course, a very condensed outline.

The possibility of replication of experiments under controlled and repeatable conditions is clearly crucial to the process. It is assumed that the relevant conditions are known, or can be determined, and that they can be repeated. If the experimental results do not repeat, the first question to ask is whether the conditions were replicated sufficiently well, or whether there were unsuspected but important conditions that had not been taken into account. “What has changed?” is the normal question to ask if results don’t repeat. It is also assumed that the experimenter has no influence on the results, and that any experimenter (or at least anyone with the requisite training and background) can – in principle – repeat others’ results. This is the ideal situation through which, as I understand it, today’s scientific self-supportive corpus of knowledge has been built up, and forms the basis of current Western technology.

In my limited experience scientists, or at least those that have bothered to give much thought to it, tend to fall into one of two categories. The first believes that given enough time and effort, the scientific method can, in principle, discover everything of importance about the universe and its contents. The second is either unsure or believes that there are some things that, in principle, can not be validly or usefully investigated as part of the scientific process.

As I see it, all essentially non-repeatable events (such as history, individual development, developmental or evolutionary sequences of a unique character) are, as totalities, necessarily outside the sphere of science, though scientific knowledge can throw much light on the forces interacting therein. The non-repeatable character of such events removes them (as totalities) from the replicability requirement, though it does not necessarily remove from study either identifiable substructures of a more elementary character, or a consideration of the interaction of such parts. But unless an exact replica of the original can be eventually synthesised in this way, the scope of scientific enquiry is necessarily limited, albeit it is nonetheless valuable so far as it goes.

This assertion is not meant to imply that speculation is inappropriate, or that formulation of theories, such as Darwin’s theory of evolution, (with its more modern refinements) cannot be good approximations to the truth. (Far from it; and experiments can be designed to test theoretical predictions in restricted spheres.) But speculation must be compatible with the existing corpus of knowledge, at least so far as it is understood to be applicable. It is this which rules out, for example, Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision fantasy, and other “far-out” theories.

An excellent book review of “Scientists Confront Velikovsky” in The Skeptical Enquirer deals with this aspect, and includes the following brief quote “Of course scientists do make mistakes. Of course there is always debate at the frontiers of knowledge. Even unexpected ideas (such as continental drift and meteorites falling from the sky) sometimes turn out to be right. But new advances in science do not negate well-established laws and principles in the regions in which they are known to apply.”

Perhaps it should be indicated that this compatibility requirement – with which I am indeed in full agreement – is based on faith in the uniformity of applicability of scientific laws, and is not really something that can be absolutely proved to hold irrespective of circumstances. This possibility is, of course, invariably a cop-out for someone who wishes to claim otherwise.

And although highly unreasonable, we should perhaps always have it at the back of our minds as a rather remote possibility (Olaf Stapleton once wrote a science-fiction work in which the consciousness of a highly developed society affected the earth’s gravitational pull on the moon. Highly unlikely though we may choose to think such a scenario to be, the law of gravitation has never been tested under such conditions, so we don’t know for sure whether this might not turn out to be one of the conditions affecting gravity).

But hypotheses are “a dime a dozen” and the arbitrary introduction of unprovable and unnecessary hypotheses is to be strongly deprecated. The principle of parsimony – Occam’s razor – is the main corrective here. Without it, fantasy imaginings could proliferate unreined.

The way in which science attempts to come to grips with non-repeatable events is three-fold. In the first the situation is analysed into sub-systems, these into their respective parts, and then again into smaller parts, perhaps right down to the molecular level. Parts that have repeatable properties are obtained in this way, and these properties can be examined and investigated.

Then the parts have to be put together again, and their mutual interactions discovered, and this involves not only knowing (perhaps by intuition) how the parts relate, but perhaps using systems theory to build up a hierarchy of interactions. This becomes very difficult for large complicated systems, and it is impossible to know for certain whether important features have been overlooked.

The second method is via probability and statistical processes. (At the atomic level, the use of probability is essential anyway, because of the basic limitations of the Uncertainty Principle.) A large assembly, taken to be more or less identical to other assemblies, is examined for average properties, and the law of large numbers, where applicable, assures that the results will hold between certain limits with a certain degree of confidence. This process works well for things like telephone traffic, marketing, polling, etc. It provides useful information on, say, voting trends, but cannot say what an individual voter will actually do.

The third way involves attempting to replicate what are believed to be the essential features of an event. If an experiment destroys or irrecoverably changes the object, then a near-identical object can be used for a subsequent experiment. To what extent the second object actually is close enough to the first becomes a matter of speculation, or, indeed, almost of faith. Thus, a biological experiment involving the death of the experimental animal obviously cannot be exactly repeated. Science tries to deal with this by utilising pure-bred strains, thus removing at least the genetic variability. Some experiments in the field of human psychology may be of more doubtful validity.

If an individual’s response to, say, a question, is determined by what went before, the response to the same question second time around is basically affected, and the experiment cannot be repeated exactly. It can, of course, be repeated on another subject, and a statistical approach on an assembly of individuals emerges; but the individual response cannot be investigated in this way.

Nevertheless the statistical approach can yield much valuable insight as to what is happening, and the results can be applied to individuals in a general way. Everybody has a liver or a kidney, which function in much the same way as similar organs elsewhere; but there are individual differences, too. The same holds true for the brain and for mental functions, except that here the individual differences in some areas are so vast that it is a moot point as to what is primary and what is secondary. I suspect that it is in the deeper levels of individual psychology that the individual’s uniqueness becomes paramount, and attempts at “scientific” investigation become almost valueless.

I do not mean to imply by this that investigation is not possible; only that certain methods that have been very successful elsewhere do not apply here. True, a lot of ingenious experiments have been designed to try to circumvent both the non-repeatability aspects, and also the unavoidable part the experimenter plays in affecting the outcome, but the process does have its limits.

If the above ideas are correct, the attempt to force the application of scientific ideas and methods in certain areas may be misguided. Science is certainly successful when applied in some definite domains. These are the domains to which its methods apply; that is, repeatable conditions, and uninfluenced by the experimenter. However, no conditions are strictly repeatable. It is of interest, therefore, that science works at all; it is successful where it is successful! If we are not to be left with a useless tautology we can, with Bertrand Russell, put this another way: it is of the nature of the universe that at least some aspects of it are subject to the scientific method.

The success of the scientific method when applied, for example, to purely mechanical situations, tells us something of the nature of the universe; it has a mechanical aspect. This is not to say that all in the universe is of this character. By utilising the scientific method, we search out the mechanistic features. Applying the scientific method to humans or to society discovers only the mechanistic aspects of operating therein. But to assume that everything (in principle at least) yields to this method amounts to treating man or society as purely mechanical. There are indeed many who believe that this is so; and it has to be said that by treating people as machines, they do tend to become machines – thereby “proving” the assumption.

The non-scientific aspects of the universe (if any) just cannot be investigated by the scientific method. Another tautology; perhaps we can phrase it more constructively by positing that those events involving an individual’s presence as an essential element, and/or which are of an essentially non-repeatable character, require for their full understanding a method of investigation different from standard scientific procedures, which can, at most, select out the mechanistic features for study.

Take the case of ESP, for instance. Popular belief in ESP goes back to long before Uri Geller’s spoon-bending exploits, or Rhine’s attempts to put ESP on a systematic basis with his Zener card testing sequences. It is certainly easier to investigate something if it can be repeated in a handleable form in the laboratory: but lack of such replication surely doesn’t remove it from the realm of legitimate investigation. Ball lightning is accepted as a valid phenomenon though we know little about it, and it certainly can’t be (yet) produced in the laboratory. The same can be said for falling meteorites, which appear on the scene at unpredictable intervals, not when we choose to call on them. It may be that at some future time genuine ESP can be demonstrated reliably in a controlled setting; but if this can’t be done now, that is surely no reason for discounting it or writing it off as “history or law”.

However, if the outcome of a psychic performance can be replicated by a stage magician, or others using ‘ordinary’ methods, then it should be presumed to be the result of trickery, even if actual cheating was not detected. An excellent piece28 “The Non psychic Powers of Uri Geller” by Marks and Kammann describes just such a comparison of Geller’s results with those of college students and others. Their conclusion: “Parsimony dictates the choice of normal explanations for the phenomena described here. Geller’s procedures allow him to use ordinary sensory channels and ordinary motor functions. While we cannot with our data refute the Stanford Research Institute experiments, we question whether it is credible that Geller uses normal sensory-motor means outside the laboratory but switches to paranormal means inside it.”

And it is only a small step to take this a little further and claim that even if you don’t know how it’s done, it should still be presumed to be by some sort of trickery. After all, how many, including other magicians, know how a particular stage trick is performed? And most scientists are unaware of the ingenious procedures of the professional trickster, and so can be easily caught out, particularly if they are one of those who subconsciously want to believe.

Let us consider a sort of ‘hypothetical hypothesis’ along the following lines: “ESP can operate through those individuals characterized by their being in a ‘selfless’ condition.” This bald statement clearly calls for further elaboration. The selfless condition could be either of a permanent character, or perhaps of a temporary nature brought on by unusual or pressing circumstances. The word ‘selfless’ is used to indicate an absence of such traits as hypocrisy, dishonesty, untrustworthiness, or a pathological need to seek publicity, self esteem, or to draw attention to oneself. More positively, it would likely be characterized by such qualities as love, generosity and humility.

Such an individual would probably be a doer of good deeds in the community (but a good-doer, not a do-gooder). There is an acknowledged descriptor for such a person; and if I can use it without its being off-putting to some readers, it is saintly. Not in the religious sense of canonization, but simply in the sense of being completely reliable, trustworthy and good. Such an individual would not cheat, would not be tempted to use ESP powers for personal gain or other improper purposes, and would exhibit the integrity of character such that questions like these would not even need to be asked. If there is a widespread belief that someone with genuine ESP powers would necessarily be expected to use them for personal gain, this merely indicates that most people would not fall into this selective category. Of course, there are such ‘good’ people, but they are probably few and far between, and perhaps not that much in the public eye.

What can we usefully do with such speculative arguments? If we drop the ‘hypothetical’ and treat the suggestion as an actual working hypothesis, it might indicate a necessary condition for success in enquiring about the nature of ESP. However, such a special individual, when located, might turn out to be quite unwilling to be caught up in scientific experimentation. If it should be the case that telepathy, say, has some sort of a spiritual basis, it is conceivable that an individual able to operate in that mode would be reluctant to engage in “worldly” scientific experiments, with the very real fear of catastrophic misuse as a possible eventual outcome. (Many people feel this way today with the results of “ordinary” contemporary science.)

Perhaps a good rapport with a particularly candid and honest experimenter would also be a pre-condition; an experimenter motivated by a genuine altruistic interest and concern, and not out for personal prestige, publications, grant money, and the rest. If the experimenter’s character and mental attitude should turn out to be critical in this respect, what becomes of our earlier requirement of the scientific method that the experiment should be capable of replication by anyone? Well, I circumscribed this a little by requiring that the experimenter should have the necessary background and training – perhaps the training (for ESP experiments) can legitimately include the capacity to present a suitable psychological state in relation to the experiments.

After all, if ESP is to be seen as a manifestation of a mental phenomenon, then requisite needs in that area should not be too surprising. If an experimenter is, say, too eager or excited, this could conceivably distract the subject in the experiment. All of this is speculative, of course, but it is not inherently unreasonable. It does point to the need to consider the characters of the subject and the experimenter as possibly essential elements in the enquiry. And unless these are known and controlled we cannot, in any case, claim that conditions for an experiment can be properly replicated.

Quite apart from being put off by widespread fraud, there is another reason why most scientists are unwilling to give credence to ESP – they don’t see “how it can work”. From one point of view this is almost a priori reasoning against ESP. It used to be the case that a scientist would investigate a new phenomenon and only later discover the mechanisms operating therein. To ask for the mechanism first is like putting the cart before the horse. Even so, let us not completely avoid this issue since, once raised, it clearly calls for attention. Einstein, for instance, while willing to be persuaded by adequate evidence, had reservations about ESP because, among other things, of the apparent invariance of the effect with distance.

Physical forces with which we are familiar decay with distance, but ESP apparently does not. One suggestion I have heard to get round this supposes that brain currents produce extremely low frequency radio waves that propagate in the earth/ionosphere as a waveguide with a negligible attenuation. The low frequency would also ensure penetration through metallic shielding, another presumptive requirement.

Ingenious though this proposal may be, I don’t believe that it can really stand. Brain currents are minute in any case, and a body-sized antenna would be extremely inefficient in coupling out to the distance of the ionosphere; and the waves would certainly be subject to inverse distance effects prior to that. Rather than pursue this line of reasoning further I think it might be constructive to note that a proper distinction can be made between the physical principle on which a phenomenon operates, and the effect produced.

For example I can transmit intelligence by talking, but those at the back of the room can understand me just as well as those in front, even though the sound of my voice is much weaker at the back. I can make a transatlantic telephone call just as effectively as one across town. So long as the net effect at the receiver is sufficiently above the noise threshold the intelligence gets through no matter what the weakening with distance of the transmitted forces.

If we suppose that extra-sensory perception might be of the nature of a universal human potentiality, then it may be that the threshold for awareness is impossibly high in “noisy” persons, people so full of themselves that their attention is fully absorbed in themselves to the exclusion of other possible low level inputs. “Mental quietness” then becomes a prerequisite for ESP to operate. It can be seen as a matter of access; if the brain is too busy, weak signals just don’t get through to our attention.

All this doesn’t get at the nature of the supposed forces, however. I think that there is a real mystery here, but I believe that the mystery is not so much at the ESP end as at the much more familiar junction of ordinary awareness and action. We can understand how nerve impulses are transmitted from the eye to the brain, or from the brain to the muscles, but how does this account for our awareness, our consciousness, of sensory inputs, or our ability, at will, to move an (unparalyzed) arm? We are so used to these things, and they are so very close to us, that we normally do not give them a second thought. However, I think it is to here that the emphasis should be directed if we are to make progress. Dr Jule Eisenbud is heavily into many aspects of ESP and goes very much further in his willingness to accept ‘far-out’ claims than I am, but on this question of awareness and ESP he has put the case so very succinctly that I don’t think I can do better than quote him on the matter.

“Our consciousness …. seems qualitatively different from the gross objects which occupy space, yet it is able to become aware of these objects. How can this occur? …. An enormous amount of sophisticated work has been concerned with how physical emanations of various sorts affect our senses, and with how our brains monitor what happens from there on. But we know nothing about how any of this brings about awareness of ourselves and of the world we perceive as external to us…. the difficulty we have in comprehending sensory perception is itself seemingly insurmountable. Confronting the possibility that our minds can obtain information through other minds or directly from things and events without the intermediation of the known senses, that is, telepathically or clairvoyantly, leaves us hardly worse off than we were before. Physical space has as little to do with one situation as with the other. We are just more familiar with one mode than with the other.

Indeed, it has been suggested that so long as we have in both cases to regard what happens as basic unexplained facts of experience, there might be some advantage in approaching the problem of how things get into awareness if we simply assumed that we are capable of becoming clairvoyantly aware of everything that exists (Moncrieff, 1951), and that the chief function of the brain, as Bergson (1950) long ago conjectured, is not to apprehend the external world but to filter out those parts of it for which we have no immediate use …. As in the case of ESP, the data of PK add no fundamental complications to the problems that already exist in the realm of voluntary or even involuntary initiation of bodily movements by something that could be called a mental act. Here again, for aught we know about the fundamental process involved, we might think of the ordinary or at least familiar influence of the mind or the will on the body as merely a special case of a more general faculty …. The one problem posed by ESP and PK, one might therefore say, is not their categorical difference from ordinary modes of cognition and initiation of motion, but their ostensible rarity ….”

This is a shortened version of a longer monograph written for the Institute for Cultural Research and available for download here. http://www.i-c-r.org.uk/publications/monographarchive.php#M17