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Updated: September 3, 2012 22:20 IST

Making sense of non-science

Ramya Kannan
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Seriously Strange — Thinking Anew about Psychical Experiences: Edited by Sudhir Kakar, Jeffrey J. Kripal; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 499.
Seriously Strange — Thinking Anew about Psychical Experiences: Edited by Sudhir Kakar, Jeffrey J. Kripal; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 499.

The thing about psychical experiences is that you are always called to take a side: Do you believe in them, or don’t you. Do you believe in mediums, and séances, amorphous presences, out of body experiences, Extra Sensory Perception, in the least? Do some people have special capacities to be aware of what goes beyond the regular touch and feel of the tangible everyday? Or, do you wonder what they have been smoking recently.

Both belief and disbelief in such ‘psi’ phenomenon can exist simultaneously. Whilst there is reasonable tolerance, even enjoyment at the appearance of the paranormal in literature and entertainment (mostly films) yet there is a deep-rooted scepticism of such ‘occurrences’ in daily life. Yet again, here, belief, and science have arrayed themselves on opposite platforms. This is where Seriously Strange comes in: it tries to set psi (short for psychical) on the same side as science, using the accepted tools of scientific research to validate the existence of the paranormal.

Psychical experiences

In Seriously Strange, “a group of nine intellectuals come together to shed light on the most baffling experiences on record — psychical experiences.” They set about to decode these events meticulously through rigorous scientific study. The volume, Helga Breuzinger says in the foreword, is the fruit of a symposium held at Wasan Island in Ontario, Canada in 2010. Further, in the introduction, Kripal says by telling their own tales and talking of the implications of their work, the authors think anew about ‘psychical experiences’ otherwise fraught with “tabloid connotations.” In the process, they draw out of Jung, Freud, brain function, computer-generated brain scans, statistical analyses, yoga, parapsychology, even quantum physics.

What would serve probably as a concise picture of the attempt of scientists to explain this field would be Kripal’s summation in his book Authors of the Impossible (quoted elsewhere in this anthology) “We might say the physical and the paranormal appear in that space where the humanities and the sciences meet beyond both, where mind and matter, subjectivity and objectivity merge in ways that can only violate and offend our present order of knowledge and possibility.”

As Dianne Hennacy Powel says in her chapter in Seriously Strange, a true scientist does not throw away data just because it does not fit one’s theory. She also advances the argument that during psi experiences, one can look at sections of time and space outside of the here and now. This suggests that our consciousness contains a far larger representation of the world than we have yet imagined in mainstream science.

Roderick Main delves into Jung’s narratives of such anomalous experiences, trying to explain them as Jung did — meaningful coincidences, or synchronicity. For Jung, Main concludes, these experiences occurred against a deep emotional background during critical junctures in his life. These experiences also transcend the categories of space, time, and causality — and are to be included as forms of numinous or religious experience.

Mikita Brottman points out how in creative contexts such phenomena are taken for granted. The author also goes on to argue that many clinicians, on the other hand, seem to fear that to express an interest in the paranormal would mean to abandon the medical model. The work of parapsychologist Jule Eisenbud in mapping the thoughtographs of Ted Serios, an elevator operator in Chicago is explained in detail in the chapter. Serios could, by holding a camera and focussing intently, produce dream-like images of his thoughts on to film. Brottman also explains the ridicule she had to face when she reviews an exhibition on the Eisenbud-Serios thoughtographs.

It is interesting that every author goes on to explain the set of events or experiences that drove them to delve into the paranormal and set about establishing scientific parameters, given that all of them are scientists or researchers, to record these events.

Thriller

Edwin C May’s chapter on PsiSpy, chronicling the experience of using extrasensory perception to gather information for the US military and intelligence communities, almost seems like a thriller on the big screen. Particularly where it talks of how remote viewing through ESP was successfully used to trace a young girl who had gone missing. The team’s primary task, however, was to use ESP to obtain information about potential threats from the Soviet Union, other Eastern Bloc nations, and China.

Ramakrishna Rao states his belief that there is unassailable evidence for the paranormal, and that it is a genuine inherent principle embedded in reality and accessible to human experience. However, there is certainly much resistance to psi research, stemming from an a priori assumption of the impossibility of psi. The data gathered so far by parapsychologists is considered suspect, because it does not fit into the categories of understanding we are familiar with. He is ready to admit that what we see in parapsychology is a “series of conjectures, at best suggestive hypothesis, without, at this time, substantial evidence to support them.” The challenge, then, is one of developing innovative strategies and research methods consistent with what appears to be the unusual nature of psi. That this situation continues after nearly a century of effort is ominous and makes him wonder if the field is indeed on the right track, if the experts truly knew what they were doing.

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