I wish to ask two questions about the relationship between consciousness
1. Are there any paranormal phenomena? and
2. If there are, do they help us to understand consciousness?
For the first I would like to be able to provide
a fair and unbiased assessment of the evidence for psi, however briefly.
This is simply impossible. Many people have tried and failed. In some
of the best debates in parapsychology the proponents and critics have
ended up simply agreeing to differ - for the evidence can be read either
way (e.g. Hyman and Honorton, 1986). The only truly scientific position
seems to be to remain on the fence, and yet to do science in practice
you have to decide which avenues are worth pursuing. I do not think psi
My reasons are not an objective evaluation of
the evidence but more than twenty years of working in, and observing,
the field of parapsychology. During that time various experimental paradigms
have been claimed as providing a repeatable demonstration of psi and several
have been shown to be false. For example, it took more than thirty years
to show that Soal had cheated in his famous experiments with the special
subject Basil Shackleton (Markwick, 1978). The promising animal precognition
experiments were blighted by the discovery of fraud (Rhine, 1974) and
the early remote viewing experiments were found to be susceptible to subtle
cues which could have produced the positive results (Marks and Kammann,
The most successful paradigm during that time,
and the one I shall concentrate on, has undoubtedly been the ganzfeld.
Subjects in a ganzfeld experiment lie comfortably, listening to white
noise or sea-shore sounds through headphones, and wear half ping-pong
balls over their eyes seeing nothing but a uniform white or pink field
(the ganzfeld). Meanwhile a sender in a distant room views a picture or
video clip. After half an hour or so the subject is shown four such pictures
or videos and is asked to choose which was the target. It is claimed that
they can do this far better than would expected by chance.
The first ganzfeld experiment was published in
1974 (Honorton and Harper, 1974). Other researchers tried to replicate
the findings and there followed many years of argument and of improving
techniques, including the "Great Ganzfeld Debate" between Honorton
(1985) (one of the originators of the method) and Hyman (1985) (a well-known
critic). By this time several other researchers claimed positive results,
often with quite large effect sizes. Both Hyman and Honorton carried out
meta-analyses combining the results of all the available experiments but
they came to opposite conclusions. While Hyman argued that the results
could all be due to methodological errors and multiple analyses, Honorton
claimed that the effect size did not depend on the number of flaws in
the experiments and that the results were consistent, did not depend on
any one experimenter, and revealed certain regular features of ESP.
The ganzfeld reached scientific respectability
in 1994 when Bem and Honorton published a report in the prestigious journal,
Psychological Bulletin. They reviewed Honortons earlier meta-analysis
and reported impressive new results with a fully automated ganzfeld procedure,
claiming finally to have demonstrated a repeatable experiment. So had
My own conclusion is biased by my personal experience.
I tried my first ganzfeld experiment in 1978, when the procedure was new.
Failing to get results myself I went to visit the laboratory in Cambridge
where some of the best results were being obtained. What I found there
had a profound effect on my confidence in the whole field and in published
claims of successful experiments.
These experiments, which looked so beautifully
designed in print, were in fact open to fraud or error in several ways,
and indeed I detected several errors and failures to follow the protocol
while I was there. I concluded that the published papers gave an unfair
impression of the experiments and that the results could not be relied
upon as evidence for psi. Eventually the experimenters and I all published
our different views of the affair (Blackmore, 1987; Harley and Matthews,
1987; Sargent, 1987), and the main experimenter left the field altogether.
I turned to other experiments.
I would not be bringing up this depressing incident
again but for one fact. The Cambridge data are all there in the Bem and
Honorton review. Indeed, out of 28 studies included, 9 came from the Cambridge
lab, more than any other single laboratory, and they had the second highest
effect size after Honortons own studies. Bem and Honorton point
out that one of the laboratories contributed nine of the studies but they
do not say which one. Not a word of doubt is expressed, no references
are given, and no casual reader could guess there was such controversy
over a third of the studies in the database.
Of course the new auto-ganzfeld results appear
even better. Perhaps errors from the past do not matter if there really
is a repeatable experiment. The problem is that my personal experience
conflicts with the successes I read about in the literature and I cannot
ignore either side. I cannot ignore other peoples work because science
is a collective enterprise and publication the main way of sharing our
findings. On the other hand I cannot ignore my own findings - there would
be no point in doing science at all if I did. The only honest reaction
is to say "I dont know".
Since then the CIA have released details of more
than twenty years of research into remote viewing (Hyman, 1995; Utts,
1995), and the spotlight has left the ganzfeld. Perhaps the ganzfeld will
go down in history as evidence for psi - but I am left with my personal
doubts about this, as about other paranormal claims. I have had many experiences
of hearing about a new finding, spending a lot of time and effort investigating
it, and ending up disappointed - whether it be an experiment, a haunting,
an incredible coincidence or a new psychic claimant. Of course that is
no proof that psi is not there. I might really be a "psi-inhibitory
experimenter" and so be unable to observe the psi that is there,
or I might just have been looking in the wrong places.
This is why I cannot give a definitive and unbiased
answer to my question "Are there any paranormal phenomena?"
I can only give a personal and biased answer - that is, probably not.
But what if I am wrong and psi does really exist?
What would this tell us about consciousness?
The popular view seems to be something like this
- if ESP exists it proves that mental phenomena are non-local, or independent
of space and time - and that information can get "directly into consciousness"
without all that nasty messing about with sensory transduction and perceptual
processing. If PK (psycho-kinesis) exists it proves that mind can reach
out beyond the brain to affect things at a distance - that consciousness
has a power of its own.
I suspect that it is a desire for this "power
of consciousness" that fuels much enthusiasm for the paranormal.
Parapsychologists have often been accused of wanting to prove the existence
of the soul, and convincingly denied it (Alcock, 1987). I will instead
accuse them of wanting to prove the power of consciousness. In Dennetts
terms you might say they are looking for skyhooks rather than cranes.
They want to find that consciousness can do things all by itself, without
dependence on that complicated and highly evolved brain.
I have two reasons for doubting that they will
succeed. First, parapsychologists have yet to demonstrate that psi has
anything to do with consciousness, and second, there are theoretical reasons
why I believe the attempt is doomed. But note that by consciousness I
am referring to the really interesting aspects of consciousness, that
is subjectivity, or the "what it is like" to be something.
First, to make their case that psi effects actually
involve consciousness, experiments rather different from those commonly
done will be needed. Lets consider the ganzfeld. Do the results
show that consciousness, in the sense of subjectivity or subjective experience,
is involved in any way?
I would say no. There are several ways in which
consciousness might, arguably, be involved in the ganzfeld, but there
appears to be no direct evidence that it is. For example, even in a very
successful experiment the hits are mixed with many misses and the subjects
themselves cannot say which is which (if they could the successful trials
could be separated out and even better results obtained). In other words,
the subject is unaware of the ESP even when it is occurring.
The ganzfeld does involve a kind of mild altered
state of consciousness. Indeed Honorton first used the technique as a
way of deliberately inducing a "psi conducive state". However,
it has never been shown that this is a necessary concomitant of ESP in
the ganzfeld. Experiments to do this might, for example, compare the scores
of subjects who reported entering a deep altered state with those who
did not. Or they might vary the ganzfeld conditions to be more or less
effective at inducing altered states and compare the results. These kinds
of experiments have not been done. In the absence of appropriate control
conditions we have no idea what it is about the ganzfeld that is the source
of its success. It might be consciousness, it might be the time spent
in the session, the personality of the experimenter, the colour of the
light shining on the subjects eyes, or any of a huge number of untested
variables. There is simply no evidence that consciousness is involved
in any way.
Another example is recent experiments on remote
staring (Braud and Schlitz, 1989). It has long been claimed that people
can tell when someone else is looking at them, even from behind their
head. Ingenious experiments now use video cameras and isolated subjects
to test this claim. Results suggest that the staring and non-staring periods
can be distinguished by physiological responses in the person being stared
at. In other words, they are able to detect the staring - but not consciously.
These experiments may be evidence that something paranormal is going on
but whatever it is it appears to be unconscious rather than conscious.
In PK experiments the claim that consciousness
is involved is made explicitly. For example, a well-known paper is entitled
"The effects of consciousness on physical systems" (Radin and
Nelson, 1989). Yet, as far as I can see, there is no justification for
In these experiments a subject typically sits
in front of a computer screen and tries to influence the output of some
kind of random number generator (RNG), whose output is reflected in the
display. Alternatively they might listen to randomly generated tones with
the intention of making more of the tones high, or low, as requested,
or they might try to affect the fall of randomly scattered balls or various
other systems. The direction of aim is usually randomised and appropriate
control trials are often run. It is claimed that, in extremely large numbers
of trials, subjects are able to influence the output of the RNG. Is this
an effect of consciousness on a physical system?
I don't see why. The experiments demonstrate
a correlation between the output of the RNG and the direction of aim specified
to the subject by the experimenter. This is certainly mysterious, but
the leap from this correlation to a causal explanation involving "the
effect of consciousness" is so far unjustified. The controls done
show that the subject is necessary but in no way identify what it is about
the subjects presence that creates the effect. It might be their
unconscious intentions or expectations; it might be some change in behaviour
elicited by the instructions given, it might be some hitherto unknown
energy given off when subjects are asked to aim high or aim low. It might
be some mysterious resonance between the RNG and the subjects pineal
gland. It might be almost anything.
As far as I know, no appropriate tests have been
made to find out just what it is. For example, does the subject need to
be conscious of the direction of aim at the time? Comments in the published
papers suggest that some subjects actually do better when not thinking
about the task, or when reading a magazine or being distracted in some
other way, suggesting that conscious intent might even be counter-productive.
Perhaps this is not what is meant by consciousness
here, but if not, then what is intended? Perhaps it is enough for the
person to be conscious at all, or perhaps they have to be in an appropriate
state of consciousness. In any case, to identify that the effect is actually
due to consciousness, relevant experiments will have to be done. They
might compare conditions in which subjects did or did not consciously
know the target direction. Subjects might be asked on some trials to think
consciously about the target and on others be distracted, or they might
be put into different states of consciousness (or even unconsciousness)
to see whether this affected the outcome. Such experiments might begin
to substantiate the claim that consciousness is involved. Until then,
the findings remain an unexplained anomaly.
Some parapsychologists have suggested to me that
when they talk about consciousness affecting something they mean to include
unconscious mental processes as well. Their claim would then be equivalent
to saying that something (anything) about the persons mind or brain
affects it. However, if the term consciousness is broadened so far beyond
the subjective then we leave behind the really interesting questions it
raises and, indeed, the whole reason why so many psychologists and philosophers
are interested in consciousness at all. If we stick to subjectivity then
I see no reason at all why paranormal claims, whether true or false, necessarily
help us understand consciousness.
The second reason I doubt that the paranormal
power of consciousness will ever be proven is more theoretical. As our
understanding of conscious experience progresses, the desire to find the
"power of consciousness" sets parapsychology ever more against
the rest of science (which may, of course, be part of its appeal). The
more we look into the workings of the brain the less it looks like a machine
run by a conscious self and the more it seems capable of getting on without
one. There is no place inside the brain where consciousness resides, where
mental images are "viewed" or where instructions are "issued"
(Dennett, 1991). There is just massive parallel throughput and no centre.
Then there are Libets experiments suggesting
that conscious experience takes some time to build up and is much too
slow to be responsible for making things happen. For example, in sensory
experiments he showed that about half a second of continuous activity
in sensory cortex was required for conscious sensation, and in experiments
on deliberate spontaneous action he showed that about the same delay occurred
between the onset of the readiness potential in motor cortex and the timed
decision to act (Libet, 1985) - a long time in neuronal terms. Though
these experiments are controversial (see the commentaries on Libet, 1985;
and Dennett, 1991) they add to the growing impression that actions and
decisions are made rapidly and only later does the brain weave a story
about a self who is in charge and is conscious. In other words consciousness
comes after the action. It does not cause it.
This is just what some meditators and spiritual
practitioners have been saying for millennia; that our ordinary view of
ourselves, as conscious, active agents experiencing a real world, is wrong
- an illusion. Now science seems to be coming to the same conclusion.
Parapsychology, meanwhile, is going quite the
other way. It is trying to prove that consciousness really does have power;
that our minds really can reach out and "do" things, not only
within our own bodies but beyond them as well. Odd, then, that so many
people think of parapsychology as more "spiritual" than conventional
science. I think it could be quite the other way around.
With the welcome upsurge of interest in consciousness,
and the number of scientists and philosophers now interested in the field,
I look forward to great progress being made out of our present confusion.
I hope it will be possible to bring together the spiritual insights with
the scientific ones - so that research can reveal what kind of illusion
we live in, how it comes about, and perhaps even help us to see our way
out of it. As far as this hope is concerned parapsychology seems to be
going backwards - hanging onto the idea of consciousness as an agent.
This is the second reason why I doubt that evidence for psi, even if it
is valid, will help us to understand consciousness.
I will therefore answer my original two questions
with "probably not", and definitely "no".
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