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Responding to the Debate – Psi Research at a Tipping Point

by Cassandra Vieten

So, I posted this article on my Huffington Post blog Friday morning and by Friday evening it had received nearly 1000 views and 250 comments. It spent several days in Huff Po's “Most Popular” section…

It’s been so interesting to read the comments – now nearly 900. I don’t think I’ve ever been flamed by so many strangers! But for the most part, I’m enjoying the debate.

People loved it when they correctly chose the running man in the guessing game at the beginning but many pointed out that the game seemed a little rigged – saying that people are in general more likely to choose an option with a human in it, or the third option, or something that is moving rather than static. As one reader pointed out, it was meant to be a thought experiment, not a rigorous psi test, but the critique is fair enough.

Other critiques were harsher – calling the post, my “claims,” and the entire concept of psi everything from silly to crazy to wishful thinking to one tweet sent to my personal account letting me know that I’m “no better than other religious fraudsters” and should be ashamed of myself. These comments were represented well by this one: “Hogwash. As I read this, I just felt like I was reading something by someone who does a lot of wishful thinking, but does not know what science is, and knows very little statistics and probability.” Ouch! Another said reading the first paragraph actually made them physically ill!

The vehemence with which people responded to the post has been fascinating – mostly falling into the categories of “pro” psi and skeptic. The “pro” responses were things like “psi definitely exists and there is no need to study it to prove it,” and the skeptical responses were basically, “this is crap, it always has been crap, and it always will be crap.” Neither of which I think forwards our understanding of our capabilities or the nature of reality.

If you read the post, you’ll see that my main “claim” is not that this one paper proves the existence of precognition or retrocausation. It’s the idea that “psi” should no longer be a taboo field of study. It deserves the same kind of rigorous examination, thoughtful inquiry, and critical debate that other topics receive.

There have already been (several months before publication) at least one quasi-replication and one reanalysis that claim to refute the Bem paper, some harsh critiques, and a thorough response from Bem, and some commentary. There will likely be more replications conducted, more critiques and responses, and more commentaries. This is all a good thing. However, unwavering faith in any perspective that does not allow itself to be disproven or modified by new data is not. It would be great if the debate could go beyond the same stagnant polarization and ad hominem attacks that have characterized it historically…

But I’ll put my cards on the table – given all that I’ve read – scientific studies yielding evidence both for and against, theories for and against, and data from the thousands of people I’ve surveyed and interviewed about their noetic (subjective) and psi experiences, combined with recent discoveries in serious physics that provide possible underlying theories - there are enough data to warrant a much closer look at experiences that seem to transcend the currently understood boundaries of time and space.

I think I agree with what English astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington said (in reference to the uncertainty principle in physics) in 1927: “something unknown is doing we don’t know what.” And whatever it is, I think like the Facebook relationship status: "it's complicated." My proposition here is that we work to figure out what. Let’s take the lid off of the box and use the power of science, reasoning and systematic observation to explore this realm of our human experience. Why? Because experiences of “psi,” real or imagined, have profound influences on people’s lives. Because it’s possible, in fact quite probable, that our current ideas about the structure and function of reality are probably not complete. And, because it’s totally fascinating – at least to me and, it appears, many others.

  • 12 Comments
  • Anonymous Icon

    craigw Dec 27, 2010

    It is my observation that the comment section of pretty much any on line article has become a sort of informal peer review. I think that researchers of psi should take them very seriously because scientists are undoubtedly reading these popular articles. It is important to not subscribe to the myth of the objective, rational scientist in this case: these are people and they have the same emotional responses as everyone else.

    This directly relates to skeptical comments and their underlying narrative. Their message is this: If you believe in psi you are not rational. (i.e. woo woo) The more sophisticated narrative, -that psi has never been proven, (because the researchers aren't rational) springs from that.

    For most people, this is not a problem. Their careers and the perceptions of their peers are not adversely affected if they are viewed as somewhat irrational so believing in psi is not a problem. For a scientist though, this is the kiss of death, they depend on being perceived as rational and their jobs are at stake, so they are going be far more sensitive to the skeptical message than regular folks.

    This fear of being perceived as irrational prompts scientists to be extremely conservative in approaching this subject, giving a ridiculous amount of weight to skepticism, no matter how frivolous. From their perspective, there is no harm in being conservative, but a lot of harm in being thought to be irrational.

    This new study mentioned in the article, indeed any new study, class of studies, even if they are replicated a million times are not going to change this mindset of other scientists. This fear of irrationality is an emotional issue and it is immune to evidence.

    So how do you go about changing this perspective? (You won't like this answer) By making scientists pay the price for being skeptical in the face of obviously overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This can be done rather easily in the comment section of popular articles. Making skeptics look like idiots will, by extension, make the scientists who agree with them look like idiots. No direct confrontation necessary. It's not very scientific, but then neither is the skepticism you're facing.

    Do not underestimate the skeptics and the power of fear that they wield. I'm sure you're aware of the detrimental effect this has on psi research funding.

  • Anonymous Icon

    lynnoconnor Dec 28, 2010

    Cassi, this is a brilliant article (huffington post) and the response wild and fabulous (whatever side people are falling on, they are sure interested). I too read the story about the diminishing effects found in repeated studies of phenomenon --only about a week ago-- and I am pondering it still. As you know I've been studying Tibetan Buddhism for some years now --why? Because I am convinced that there is something in their methods that warrants attention, that has escaped our "scientific" world-view, i.e., there is something missing in our science, in our scientific method. We are too often on the wrong track, so many studies are utterly boring because they mean nothing, and who knows what percent of research is what we can only regard as "hack research."

    That said, I have had a huge problem with the anti-depressant witch hunt because I have seen antidepressant agents work so effectively --if someone gets the right one. If someone has a dopaminergic depression, they need a dopaminergic agonist. If someone has a serotonergic depression, they need a serotonergic agnoist. Most of those questionable studies put everyone on an SSRI and then make claims about their effectiveness. Therefore, I think you err in your comments about the questionable effectiveness of anti-depressant agents. What I am saying here is that your focus on "noetic" (subjective) science is --in my opinion-- on the right track, a part of "case specificity" in the clinical world. We really are the most skeptical scientists I know, and something leads us in the direction of looking for what science has failed to notice.

    Thanks for that really brilliant piece in Huffinton's Post.

    Lynn

    Lynn E. O'Connor, PhD
    Professor, Wright Institute
    Director, Emotion, Personality & Altruism Research Group (EPARG)
    URL: http//www.eparg.org
    E-mail: loconnor@wi.edu
    E-mail: lynnoc@aol.com

  • Anonymous Icon

    shannonake Jan 02, 2011

    Craig W: I agree that making skeptics look like fools to take the stigma out of researching psi could be effective, but I also think humiliating others to shut them down is bad karma. I think it would negate the dignity, beauty, and natural-ness of the theories and the work.
    I also know that having a skeptic in the room during any psi investigation or experiment is as good as a wet blanket on a smoldering fire. the psi energy gets cancelled out.
    I think the only positive solution is to keep introducing these ideas into the mainstream and educating people that its not 'mind control' or people reading your mind and discovering all your secrets or any of the other scary notions people have. The average person that has an interest can tell their friends and family they have an interest without shame and help dispel some of the myths.
    I believe, as many others do, that these thoughts and theories are gaining more acceptance and the breakthrough is coming. Its only a matter of time before it reaches critical mass and the majority of people on the planet will accept that psi is real and should be studied.

  • Anonymous Icon

    naneki Jan 02, 2011

    I, too, was attracted to the running man image.

    I also feel that we are close to critical mass. The "new science" is having impact.

  • Mindlink0 Jan 08, 2011

    I think that it is time to stop debating Psi phenomena and to focus our energies on helping people to develop and apply their Psi abilities in positive and constructive ways. Current social and economic trends indicate that we are going to need them in the near future. I have been having Psi experiences all my life since I was a babe-in-arms, before I learned any vocal language, and I have spent a great deal of my life trying to negate or get explanations for them. But I couldn’t deny what I knew was true from my own experiences, and the closest I got to satisfactory explanations were those given to me by Edgar Mitchell and his highlights of quantum physics theories. Let me summarize some of the things I have found out about Psi abilities:

    • Psi abilities are perfectly normal and natural characteristics of all living entities.

    • Everybody is born with Psi abilities. All it requires to activate them is awareness of their existence and belief in their applications.

    • As with any other ability (eg, artistic, sport, linguistic) some people are more adept with some abilities than with others.

    • You can’t read other people’s minds. The thoughts, feelings, images and intentions of another person can influence you, but everything that your brain brings to your awareness is filtered and interpreted through your personal and unique background and conditioning. One must remain conscious of this condition.

    • Your Psi abilities cannot influence another person to think or do anything that they don’t want to think or do. (Although it is sometimes startling to discover what some people are willing to think or do.)

    • You have the ability to assess existing probabilities and predict future events but, as with any other memory-based information system, you only have access to information about past events.

    • As with any other memory-based information system, any memory still in existence can be accessed at any time and in any order. You live in a timeless environment.

    • The only “power” your Psi abilities give you is the power to harmonize your thoughts, feelings, images and intentions with other entities and, together, influence future phenomena. Psychokinesis is a co-operative endeavour.

    • The use of your Psi abilities significantly enhances your confidence, esteem and interdependency with others and creates a mutual environment of peace, happiness and fulfillment.

    You will be doing a great kindness to people to focus your energies on helping them to become aware of their Psi abilities, instead of focusing on debating the existence of the abilities.

  • Anonymous Icon

    Sky Walker Jan 10, 2011

    First of all I wish to thank you for the work you do in researching about psi, inspite of the four-dimensional paradigm imposed by "modern" science, and the "rationalists" alike.

    It is my strong belief that science will have to face the facts related to psi and awareness in general in the coming years, more so than before. The people who have experienced psychic abilities do not come front in revealing them, thanks to the fear mongering public who are different from them, and the outright rejection they would have to face in front of "modern" science. I find it arrogant when scientists say that psi doesn't exist, when the real answer should be "we just don't know whether it exists or not, as we haven't investigated it thoroughly".

    The existence of psi has been accounted across ancient cultures all over the world. The "siddhis" or powers have been listed clearly in the ancient Indian scriptures as well. In India, the third eye that has been associated with psi, is considered to be a symbolic reference to the pineal gland which has rods and cones just like eyes. There are many seekers out there, who wish to activate their third eye so as to experience psychic abilities. And the market for these "activation" products are also emerging.
    The third eye has been associated with "astral" travel, and other different realms. There are people who jump directly into these out of sheer curiosity without any kind of guidance and safeguards. It is time that science truly become the "facts-only" observer and determine the principles and laws that govern these dimensions, so as to prevent charlatans from exploiting the curious cats out there.

    People with psi seem to be experience a kind of energy that is at a level higher than electro-magnetic forces ( atleast it seems to be). Some psi is associated with a flowing energy, that flows within their body. Some are able to "feel" it, as a tingling sensation within them. Anyone who has done any kind of internal arts, such as yoga/qi-gong/tai-chi for a small period are able to experience these subtle energies within themselves. I can stand testimony to that myself. It seems that science haven't yet done the comparison studies of these subtle energies with the ancient traditions which has elaborately described them through the ages ( chakras, nadis, chinese meridians etc). How much of these subtle energies can be related to psi, i don't know. But its existence have been acknowledged in the ancient traditions across the world. Kundalini have been represented in all these traditions through different terms, and is indeed a real phenomenon ( you can find youtube videos of people showing kundalini symptoms such as involuntary body jerks or kriyas). Many have also attributed kundalini to psi.

    Contd below ..

  • Anonymous Icon

    Sky Walker Jan 10, 2011

    In my opinion, psi is barely scratching the reality it is pointing to. If one is able to experience a functional non-local consciousness, then what does it mean to be a human being? Is one then limited to just the body ? What would a control structure such as government mean in such a context ? Is there more to our consciousness than it seems ? Are we more than our collection of thoughts, conditionings imposed upon us , or the ideas we hold dear to ?

    It is known, even in these times, that spiritual traditions all over the world point to a state of consciousness known as non-duality, where the identity of the human who experiences this, cease to exist. And it is no surprise that there are many on this planet who are living in this "non-dual" state of awareness. There many who have claimed that this non-dual state of awareness as one's true nature. My question is, why haven't science investigated their consciousness using the measurement techniques available in its hands, to see if there is any kind of validation or information that can be obtained through the scientific mechanism ? Where is the child's curiosity of science in scientifically looking into the consciousness of the "awakened" ones ? It is a fact that many experience serious consciousness shifts and thoughtlessness in the presence of these realized masters and enlightened beings. Why aren't they scientifically investigated to find the clues within the brain of realized beings that can point to what they are claiming to be the non-dual nature of a human being ?

    These questions are legitimate. Very few have raised to the occasion to answer them honestly. And their answers have drowned in the skepticism by those who favor "modern" science, and those who are arrogant enough not to admit even the possibility of the question citing the prevalent paradigm; forget even answering it.

    Perhaps such an investigation would blur the lines of religion and science in a vague sense, as almost all of the religions in the world point to this non-dual state indirectly ( inspite of the control structure they wish to impose on the most basic of human rights in some cases citing accessibility), and to give science an opportunity to investigate this state of non-duality could possibly result in science affirming its mortal enemy of religion. Or maybe , in the most optimistic sense, the emergence of a single stream of knowledge, which would get the best of religion, and the best of science, that could point to the facts as it is. I dream of a day when a fact can stand on its own legs, as a fact.

    A purely objective science should be willing to state the facts as it is. When they don't it is tantamount to not stating facts, but opinions which do not agree with the facts. It won't be saying facts. Fact is they don't know whether psi exists. Fact is, direct investigation of the consciousness of those residing in non-dual awareness haven't been done to date. That fact saddens me.

  • Anonymous Icon

    Sky Walker Jan 10, 2011

    Contd from above:

    I wish to thank you once again for the thought provoking article you were willing to post in huffingtonpost. I hope for a day when research from psi would develop into an effort of investigation of non-dual consciousness, that would begin with those who are already enlightened, and fruition into a mechanism backed by science, that will enable the general populace to experience the same state of consciousness as these realized beings do, which IS the Holy grail of science.

    P.S - Sorry for the long comments :) But once I started I felt strongly to continue on to put forth my ideas.. Thank you for reading them ..

  • Michael Austin Jan 27, 2011

    Thanks for your research and intentions, Dr. Vieten. I was checking in to the IoNS page to see what's new, and noticed the tagline of your article here. For whatever it's worth to your informal polling on this, I'm someone who's had scientifically inexplicable, repeatable experiences and abilities all his life. My life is much easier by simply observing that my psi experiences are quite real, and I don't try and convince anyone else that they are. But I'm mindful of those who don't share my beliefs, and if I'm going to upset their apple cart I remain quiet.

    But I have, for example, successfully conducted an informal salon of intuitives, and met and know many good, professional intuitives, including some with the best reputations recorded. I live simply within the repeatable bounds of my experiences. I'm not obligated to convince anyone of anything, or change anyone's paradigm. In the same fashion you don't have to justify your occupation, choice of places to live or romantic interests. Those are yours and no one else's business unless you choose otherwise.

    I think it was my friend Stephan A. Schwartz who mentioned in a conference presentation at the 2007 International Remote Viewing Association, that humankind's up to around 4,000 good scientific studies which demonstrate various aspects of psi phenomena. And in Dean Radin's book, Entangled Minds, which Stephan recommended as the best written explanation of the physics of psi phenomena, makes a similar point.

    Personally, I think it's much more productive to use psi gifts in a responsible fashion, rather than go about trying to prove them. Trying to prove them would be - to me - like trying to prove climate change to a Tea Partier. You'll never reach agreement, but you will be put on their list of wackos, when in fact it's their attitudes which are absolutely unscientific.

  • Anonymous Icon

    sunsinger Feb 03, 2011

    Psi, in all it's forms from totally spiritual to totally secular appears to sweep through our public consciousness in cycles. Sometimes it's labeled "new age" and sometimes it's labeled as "part of that quantum business" and sometimes it's labeled as "the real stuff that mainstream religion is missing."

    Those who have been around a while will remember the Transcendental Meditation fad, the Silva Mind Control Fad and "The Secret" fad along with various Gaia fads, and now (long after the Seth material about the multiverse has come and gone) we are seeing Quantum Jumping. Others remind us variously that the Rosicrucians, Napoleon Hill and James Allen said all of this a long time ago.

    Each fad goes viral and the enthusiasm generated by the primary thought leaders and researchers becomes very contagious, and it carries the curious and the devotees along with it, and then in time, it invariably fades away. While the fad is on going, individuals experience results or hints of results. But they have been promised more than hints. They end up disappointed. They end up saying it was all smoke and mirrors and snake oil.

    What's happening here? Are the methods and practices oversold? Do they draw people too far outside themselves where they shouldn't be looking? Do they create a guru-and-hero-worship scenario that can't deliver when people go home and listen to the tapes and read the books and practice and practice and practice and then slowly give up thinking "it's all BS" or "I'm one of the unlucky few who can't master the techniques"?

    Our enthusiasm, and the counter-culture-cult status that so quickly attaches to it, is--I think--both our greatest way of spreading the word as well as our greatest curse. "We" say "it" is so easy and requires no brute-force, rote methodology; we say children can do it and then get brainwashed to think they can't. Sometimes people ask why "it" doesn't work for them when they're promised that it will.

    Here's where the thing falls apart. They are often told that "it" isn't working because "the universe isn't in accord with what you are trying to do" or "it" isn't working because "you" really don't believe in "it" or in what you say you desire.

    If we sold toasters this way, nobody would believe in toast. Can you see Sunbeam or General Electric explaining to unhappy customers that they didn't get toast because they didn't believe they would or that the universe preferred to teach them a lesson that was more important than getting a slice of toast?

    It's a shame, really, to see all the effort and excitement come to nothing again and again during the short tenure of each incarnation.

    Malcolm

  • Anonymous Icon

    SciFiShrink Feb 05, 2011

    The Gospel of the Church of Scientific Materialism: Psi cannot, must not, and will not exist.

  • JeremiahStanghini May 08, 2011

    I'm not sure where I heard this, but I think it was in the documentary, "Something Unknown Is Doing We Don't Know What," where one of the scientists interviewed (I think it was either Radin or Tart) and they were explaining that some scientists are no longer testing to see whether or not there is psi, instead, testing to see how psi works. In this reference, he was talking about Rupert Sheldrake and the telephone telepathy experiments that he's doing.

    With Love and Gratitude,

    Jeremiah

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