130 years of investigations and research into parapsychology
The study of events for which the scientific method is not applicable
As noted in the section on mediumship, the so-called paranormal phenomena actually occur and can be considered as anomalies that are difficult to frame within the current scientific knowledge, so much so that we have seen how even today skeptics prefer to deny their existence rather than recognize that occasionally events may occur that do not fit into the more accredited knowledge framework. We are therefore faced with a kind of information that is still waiting to be successfully decoded, without neglecting a more in-depth investigation of the instruments by which this information is processed and transmitted.
In his book La ricerca psichica (Psychical Research) published in 2004, Massimo Biondi, one of the most well-trained Italian researchers in this field, traces the history of psychical research and the various ways in which paranormal phenomena have been classified in various eras. It should be remembered that in English under the term psychic are already included those phenomena that are out of the ordinary manifestations of the psyche. For this reason in Italy it is preferable to use the most generic term of parapsychology to indicate the investigation and the study of all those paranormal phenomena that were, until some time ago, classified under the term of metapsychic, a word successfully introduced by Richet and still used today by some researchers. Here is a quote from Biondi's book, which illustrates very well the field of experiences and investigations of parapsychology.
«Psychical research deals with a series of subjective and objective manifestations that draw the attention both of those who experience them and of possible witnesses for an intrinsic character of strangeness and oddity in relation to the ordinary circumstances of daily life. These experiences appear to be independent of the constraints of contiguity (spatial, temporal, physical) and seemingly do not correlate with the psychic and physical context of those who have the chance to live them. They occur autonomously, suddenly breaking into the life of an individual, usually in the absence of prodromic signs; usually last for short periods, often associated with a state of alteration of the individual's consciousness; and end so suddenly as they began. In the whole, they are denoted by the expression of "spontaneous cases", which counteracts that of "experimental events" applied to attempts to reproduce or simulate them under controlled conditions».
«Although many proposals have been made to systematize the field of parapsychology, the allocation of spontaneous experiences into homogeneous classes is still imperfect, as it suffers from the lack of an unanimous agreement on the inclusion criteria to be followed. In the personal terms of those who experience them, the single events may also be – and usually are – ascribed to one or the other reference category, but on an objective plan it is easy to apply alternative interpretations to the same events, as to note the existence of complex manifestations that escape the effort to bring them into rigid reference models. Nevertheless, the whole field of parapsychological experiences can be divided into three distinct areas: the one of anomalous knowledge, that is, the experiences that seem to highlight remote coincidences (in time and space), with the acquisition of new cognitive elements in unusual ways; that of the so-called apparition experiences, consisting in the pseudo-perception of the presence, or of the effects of the intervention, of individuals who are physically elsewhere; that of the telekinesis, which seems to consist of incongruous, sporadic or repeated physical movements or events. Experimental research has dealt with all these various psychic processes, trying to reproduce them under controlled conditions and to study their dynamics and features».
«For this purpose, various kinds of investigation have been followed, based on laboratory techniques designed to reconstruct conditions that are very close to natural ones, although the complexity of real life situations has always placed strict and insuperable limits on a perfect simulation of spontaneous contexts. There are no clues that there must be a link between the various parapsychological experiences, nor that the same explanations should be valid for all of them. In the current survey, as well as in theoretical evaluations and in the management of the resulting problems, it is used to deal with the individual phenomenal classes separately, without seeking any links and dependencies. To solve their specifities through a unitary theory is a task that may have some probability of success when and if we will know better all the spontaneous phenomena and each of them. It must be borne in mind, however, the possibility that such a stage will never occur, because of intrinsic difficulties in the theoretical elaboration or for an irreducible mutual extraneousness of the experiences investigated by parapsychology».
In this technical and accurate way of expressing, due to the methodological approach adopted by the author, there is a substantial aknoledgement of the reality of the phenomena studied by parapsychology, although the need for a predefined classification of the experiences leaves insufficient room for the complexity of some of the phenomena already examined in the section on mediumship.
The beginning of psychical research
The beginnings of psychical research, as an activity aimed at investigating and studying particular non-ordinary phenomena, can be traced back to the last twenty years of the nineteenth century. However earlier in 1766, an interesting and stimulating booklet was published by Immanuel Kant, Träume eines Geistersheres (Dreams of a Spirit-Seer), in which the philosopher examined critically, but not without interest, the descriptions of the spiritual world referenced by the Swedish physicist and engineer Emanuel Swedenborg, who was also the protagonist of some remarkable clairvoyance episodes (see the page dedicated to Kant and Swedenborg). In 1882, three members of Trinity College Cambridge (Edmund Gurney, Frederic W. H. Myers and Henry Sidgwick) founded in London the SPR (Society for Psychical Research) together with other scholars such as William F. Barrett and Edmund D. Rogers. The purpose of the new society was to investigate the faculties and phenomena commonly defined as psychic or paranormal in an objective, impartial, prejudicial manner and according to criteria considered scientifically valid. In over 130 years of activity, the SPR (still operative and vital) has been able to include among its members distinguished scientists and eminent scholars from all over the world. The value and relevance of the studies carried out and published both in the Proceedings and in the Journal constitute up to date the most important and reliable corpus of information to which each person interested in this field of investigation can draw.
Following the example of the SPR, in 1885, the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) was founded in the United States, also in this case by a group of academics and scientists among whom stood out William James, the famous psychologist and professor of philosophy at Harward. The American Society had alternate vicissitudes, due to the contrast between a spiritualistic current and another openly adverse to spiritism. In 1925 there was a splitting by the spiritualist oriented component, who founded the Boston Society for Psychical Research, while the ASPR headquarters remained in New York.
In 1919 was founded in Paris – by a wealthy tradesman, Jean Meyer, and two scholars, the phisycian Gustave Geley and professor Rocco Santoliquido – the IMI (Institut Métapsychique International), with similar purposes to SPR. Thanks to Meyer's economic support, the IMI was able to equip itself with a large conference room and a library, and also a laboratory where experiments were carried out to verify and validate the phenomena investigated. Starting from 1921, the Revue Métapsichique was edited, whose publications were interrupted in the early 1980s. IMI's activity has continued to this day, and can be followed on the Institute's website.
With an asserted scientific purpose, in 1957 was formed in the United States, especially on the initiative of university researcher Joseph Banks Rhine, the PA (Parapsychological Association), which is also a kind of professional register of academic figures and researchers working in the field of parapsychology. Since 1969, the PA has been accepted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which has also recognized the legitimacy of psychical research in the scientific sphere. The PA publishes the Journal of Parapsychology.
Complexity of the psychic dimension
I do not expose here an account of all the investigations carried out on the various phenomena studied by parapsychology, with the exception of some aspects of hypnosis and mediumship. Those interested in deepening the topic may refer to the extensive specialized literature or to various sites on the Internet (some of which are listed on the links page). Instead, I prefer to emphasize the role played by paranormal phenomena in highlighting new and significant aspects of the human psyche, which confirm and strengthen the autonomy of the psychic dimension with respect to our knowledge of the evolution of life. In fact – as has been said – the paranormal phenomena seem to alter and deform the framework of natural laws discovered and elaborated by that particular aspect of the psyche that manifests itself in scientific knowledge. For the reasons already stated, I think that the attempts to inclose paranormal phenomena in a research carried out using scientific methods can not be successful: they have in fact led to poor results, so that even today the very existence of paranormal phenomena continues to be considered with unconcealed irritation by the scientific establishment. In fact, science can only investigate objective phenomena that manifest themselves in a regular manner, and where hypotheses are suggested that can not be verified experimentally, it goes against obstacles that undermine its prestige. This has already been seen with regard to the theories about the origin of life or about the relationship between consciousness and brain functioning, destined to remain unproven hypotheses until verifiable experiments can be carried out to validate them.
So, in relation to the most significant paranormal phenomena, we do not have a scientific theory today that will allow us to explain them, even just roughly. Why are certain physical effects produced through mediums? Which forces intervene in the phenomena of RSPK (the so-called poltergeist)? What energies are used for remote transmission of mental events? Is there really a possibility that the mind can exert a direct influence on the physical world? And how is this influence related to brain activity? All the hypotheses advanced by scholars of parapsychology, although showing in some cases their inductive consistency, still lack scientific reliability and experimental validation. In the field of psychical research we have to deal with information of indecipherable quality, whose characteristics may question even its reliability. The same phenomenon can sometimes occur and sometimes no, a psychic sometimes succeeds and sometimes fails, and in the cases of the so-called miraculous healings, one can not understand what the cause of the phenomenon is and why they only occur in one out of thousands cases. It becomes then understandable how the very nature of the information contained in this kind of messages can induce us to believe in the existence of forces endowed with their autonomy and even with autonomous personality.
A still open debate
Some pages of this section are devoted to the psychological conflicts that have emerged on several occasions during the debate that has lasted for over a century in the field of parapsychological research, among the supporters of the thesis for which there are dimensions different from those we know in this life, and those who are determined to deny this possibility, preferring to bring everything back to the mental (normal or exceptional) resources available to human beings – or at least to some of them – due to the development and functioning of the brain and to the psychic tunings activated by this organ.