Psi Theories

For the Love of Theory: A Report on the Paris Workshop on Psi Theories

With funding from the Society for Psychical Research and other organisations, a special meeting held before the 2019 Parapsychological Association Convention sought to bring together twenty-nine invited speakers and participants from a diverse range of the sciences to address the problem of theory in psychical research.

Organised by the President of the Institut Métapsychique International, Dr Mario Marvoglis, together with Dr Peter Bancel and Dr Dirk Bierman, the opening session saw about twenty-three people in attendance, including SPR President Prof. Chris Roe and SPR Vice-President Prof. Bernard Carr.

Bancel gave the first presentation, outlining his vision of the ideal research programme: an input-output model revolving round the development and comparison of theories and models. He argued that it should not be a simple data to theory process, but should involve partial theories and what he called ‘big tent’ ideas that co-ordinate collaborative approaches under one roof. This last, he believed, was particularly important: ‘having a recognisable research programme is attractive from the outside’.

Afterwards, Walter von Lucadou argued that the variety of different theories in parapsychology creates a confusing appearance, but Bancel countered by saying that this could also be seen as exciting. Etzel Cardeña added that if we keep on just answering the critics, then we end up reinforcing the critics, instead we should keep on repeating that, yes, we have results. Someone else interjected ‘Ignore the damn sceptics!’ But, as I asked, ‘are we not also sceptical researchers?’ – because there is a danger in portraying this debate as ‘them vs. us’, especially as that is a strategy the extremist sceptics are using.

Then President of the Parapsychological Association, Dr Dean Radin, was next, taking the combative stance that one of the most reliable findings in psychology is that only half of psychological studies can be replicated – explanations include things like questionable research practices (QRPs) – and in recognising this, parapsychology is 25 to 30 years ahead of mainstream psychology. One important consideration is that failure of replication may not equal failure of the research because there is a difference between explicit and implicit knowledge. Here he used the example of a cookery recipe – anyone can follow the explicit steps, but the outcome often depends on implicit or tacit knowledge that is not overtly communicated. Another example he gave is that of the failure to replicate construction of the Transversely Excited Atmospheric (TEA) laser when there was no personal contact between the one attempting the construction and one who had already successfully constructed it – using only written sources always resulted in failure. A sociological study of this highlighted the role of tacit knowledge as a key determinant in the complex flow of information between those involved. Radin also considered Jule Eisenbud’s critique of laboratory-based experiments in parapsychology that highlighted the artificiality of the setting and the unsustainable assumptions behind it, notably that subjects will not use any psi abilities they may have until they are in the laboratory and instructed to begin, and that experimenters will not use any psi abilities that they may have.

Etzel Cardeña focused on the importance of meta-analyses: comparison of meta-analyses in parapsychology with other areas show that the findings are robust. For example, meta-analyses show that the ganzfeld method is better than other techniques and significantly better than no technique. He outlined seven strategies to increase data validity and/or reliability: 1) strengthen interventions, e.g., Ganzfeld exposure; 2) decrease intra-group variability by selecting participants; 3) increase N, although this may conflict with selectivity; 4) evaluate moderating/mediating variables; 5) use sensitive dependent variables, e.g., change scores; 6) develop paradigms that are closer to real-life psi; 7) evaluate different paths to psi. He added another, to move away from ‘significance’ judgements.

Jacob Jolij gave us an ‘Overview of Approaches from Neuroscience’, with the acknowledgement that ‘I’m kind of representing the enemy, as one of the fields most hostile to the phenomena’. He explained that in neuroscience ‘the idea that the mind is what the brain does is deeply engrained’. But Jolij was not really one of the enemy himself and looked at ways in which psi could be accommodated within neuroscience, touching on Bierman’s ideas of altered states, psi and brain coherence (alhpa waves) and Ed May’s multiphasic model.

Bancel returned to the front of the room to present an ‘Overview of Approaches from Physics’, asking, ‘if physics is the best explanation for the physical world, how does psi fit into this?’ Some psi effects are no longer forbidden in physics, he observed, such as retro-causation and time-entnglement. Physics and psi raise questions about consciousness, particularly, the observer effect in physics and intention in psi. Physics has long dealt with big anomalies, he argued, pointing to the Copernican revolution, the unification of optics and electro-magnetism and, of course, quantum physics. ‘Is psi the biggest anomaly, yet?’ he asked, and especially, ‘must psi fit with physics, or can psi violate physics?’

Varvoglis was next with ‘Psi Theories: Reaching Beyond Physicalism?’ ‘I have a very sophisticated approach, here,’ he said, somewhat ironically, ‘what I’m saying is that we have easy problems, pretty hard problems and very hard problems.’ The easy problems start with psychological questions, such as ‘why do they believe such crazy stuff?’ Pretty hard problems are informational anomalies, the issue of transmission (from here to there, or from then to now) and crypo-informational anomalies, such as past-lives, OBEs, NDEs, DMILS, Micro-PK and the experimenter effect. Very hard problems are spontaneous anomalies, such as presented by physical and mental mediumship. He argued that we should start with the very hard problems first: ‘if we find answers to the hard stuff, then the other stuff follows’, but ‘if we start with the easy problems, we still have the hard problems’. He referred to Joseph of Cupertino, credited with acts of levitation, the physical medium Indridi Indridason and Gustav Geley’s work with medium Franek Kluski.

During the discussion that followed a general debate on some points of quantum mechanics was cut short by Bancel as it threatened to dominate the evening. Harald Walach pointedly requested that ‘we need to hear from the real physicists in the room, not the ones who want to be physicists’. Ed May – a real physicist – argued that there was a tendency to over-mystify the phenomena. Walter von Lucadou then started arguing with him over the signal question – according to von Lucadou there is no signal – before Bancel once again stepped in, stating that they were arguing from different facts and that the question should be ‘are all psi effects fundamentally the same, or completely different?’

Chris Roe provided the hardest criticism by asking how the workshop had advanced beyond a similar conference on psi and quantum physics organised by the Parapsychological Foundation in 1974. It was a largely rhetorical question. Bancel forwarded that we now have a better understanding of entanglement, an implicit admission that physics had advanced but a physical understanding of psi had not. Back in 1974, a report on the conference now in the CIA’s Project Stargate archive stated that only speculative, incomplete and inadequate physical theories were presented (CIA-RDP96-00787R000200090021-0, p. 3).

One would have to agree with Roe, then, that we are still, essentially, at the drawing board, but perhaps not entirely at square one, as Roe explained the next day by considering Jim Caprenter’s ‘first sight’ theory and Psi-Mediated Instrumental Response (PMIR). His opening contention was against the lack of theory argument proferred by the critics: ‘the theory is that psi is a psychological function’. From this he argued that ‘psi is a real-world, lived phenomenon and research must be phenomenological’. After J.B. Rhine, research shifted to look at altered states of consciousness, e.g., the Ganzfeld, dreams, etc., leading to Honorton’s Noise Reduction Model that posits that psi is a continuous process. Research shifted again to unconscious processes, physiological responses to hidden stimuli that would elicit the fight-or-flight response, leading to work on the feeling of being stared at, etc. The model for this – PMIR – was developed by Rex Stanford in the 1970s, with ‘instrumental’ meaning that psi acted to modify behaviour towards practical, means-ends goals. Roe compared this to the ‘first sight’ theory, which he thought similar but still having novel features, including the role of pre-conscious processes and a phenomenological/existential model of consciousness. He concluded that this direction was worthy of further exploration.

Rupert Sheldrake spoke on ‘The Evolution of Psi’, looking at the phenomena from a biological point of view. He noted that for a hundred years or so, field theory has been developed in biology, beginning with the Russian scientist Alexander Gurwitsch, who first proposed the morphogenetic field theory. For Sheldrake these are probability fields working like a form of memory viewed within a conception of the laws of nature as something like habits in which self-resonnance underlies the continuing existence of everything. He talked about the flight pattern of a flock of birds as a field phenomenon and the way in which termites can rebuild their mounds so that the tunnels match exactly, even when curious scientists have put barriers between the two halves. He talked about the way in which wolves know the locations of other pack members in a way that is analoguous to quantum non-locality. This led him to argue that telepathy works best in bonded groups, which is why Rhine-type experiments with strangers are less likely to work. His talk also touched on human telephone telepathy, abandoned pets wo re-find their owners and homing pigeons’ ability to find their nest sites, crucially, not when the birds are moved (as is the usual case), but when the nest sites are moved. ‘I don’t think memory is stored inside the brain,’ he concluded, looking to collective memory.

Maaneli ‘Max’ Derakshani presented on the topic of ‘Time-Symmetry and Retro-Causality’, arguing that retro-causality is a number of theories, not just one, and that time symmetry does not necessarily imply retro-causality (it depends on the type of time symmetry). Hartmut Grote questioned the evidence for retro-causality, while Bierman thought that the argument sounded religious (the idea of fate being fixed). Carr countered with an alternative of the evolving block universe where the past is fixed and the future is free – Derakshani agreed that it could be a stocastic block universe based on evolving probabilities.

Bierman also presented on the theme of time symmetry, focusing on the so-called Observational Theories as being superior to any other because they predicted retro-PK. He argued that retro-causality must be part of any theory of psi. The main thrust of his talk was that one should try to explain psi using the current worldview before adding new theories. Retro-causality is not forbidden in physics, but we should go to any length to keep physcics intact and not rely on what he called ‘unsupported quantum oddities’, giving non-locality as an example.

Ed May came on after lunch with the ‘Multi-Phasic Model of Precognition’. He introduced himself as ‘a recovering nuclear physicist,’ adding ‘if I don’t have to change anything, I don’t want want to – I’m lazy.’ ‘That’s not lazy,’ said Bierman, ‘that’s science.’ May divided the psi process into two regions – inside and outseide the brain – and forwarded a signal-based model: ‘the five senses, all of them are signal based, so maybe psi is also a signal-based system.’ To sum up, he argued that ‘the psi thing has to be connected into the brain’s visual system at some point.’

Harald Walach and Walter von Lucadou presented on ‘Generalized Quantum Theory and Psi’. Explaining that he was ‘coming from homeopathy studies,’ Walach gave an overview of their methodology, arguing that ‘this formalism already predicts entanglement-like conditions.’ Von Lucadou followed with an indepth look at his Correlation Matrix Method (CMM). May asked ‘you use the word entanglement, do you mean quantum entanglement?’ Von Lacudou answered ‘I use the word as a metaphor’. Derakshani questioned the logical connection between parts of his argument. Hartmut was concerned about von Lucadou’s statistics: ‘high p-values usually do not stand up’. Bancel stated that there is a ‘deep problem with your data’. May came back to complain that the dicussion had gone too deep: ‘simple question,’ he asked, ‘what is the carrier?’ ‘There is no signal,’ replied von Lucadou.

Bernard Carr began by showing the pyramid model of the sciences, with physics as the foundation, arguing that ‘the physcial level is the most fundamental one… psi will not become a part of mainstream science until it has a theory and that theory must relate to physics.’ According to Carr, ‘physics may already be exotic enough to accommodate psi.’ He argued that because ‘mind and matter merge in QM observation’ – the observer effect – ‘we need a new paradigm that incorporates consciousness and all aspects of mind – normal, paranormal, transpersonal – and the transcendence of space-time in a grand unified theory of matter and mind.’ Carr focused on the core problem: ‘our experience of the world is the passage of time… the Einstein block universe has no passage of time – somehow you have to get the passage of time into physics.’ His solution was 4-dimensional ‘brane’ moving through a 5-dimensional bulk, concluding that this ‘extended space and time links matter and mind.’

The final roundtable discussion was dominated by a heated debate over the problems caused by the experimenter effect in parapsychology. Thomas Rabeyron argued that, because the experimenter could not be isolated from the experiment, there are no reliable results in parapsychology, hence the replication problem. This led him to conlcude that ‘the epistemological frame of research is not relevant for what we try to study’, i.e., that the classic scientific method will never prove the existence of psi in a scientifically acceptable manner. This debate moved beyond the workshop itself into a lengthy email exhange in the following days.

The Workshop may not have achieved everything it set out to do, but it certainly generated debate on some fundamental problems in psi research. Varvoglis, Bancel and Bierman are to be congratulated for having brought so many people together to try and resolve these and for pushing for this debate to continue.

Originally published as Leo Ruickbie, ‘For the Love of Theory: A Report on the Workshop on Psi Theories’, Paranormal Review, 91 (2019).