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What is Parapsychology?

Introduction to Parapsychology, Psychics, and the Paranormal

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Psychics and the Paranormal

Psychics and the Paranormal

Photo: Iconica / Getty

Defining parapsychology is not an easy task. The researchers who would have been expected to clarify things have actually contributed to the problem. Most definitions of parapsychology tend to emphasize negative aspects, defining it according to what it is not rather than what it is. The absence of a substantive definition is one of the things that prevents parapsychology from being taken more seriously.

Parapsychology involves the study of the alleged evidence for psychological phenomena that are inexplicable by science. Other terms which have sometimes been used interchangeably with parapsychology include paranormal, parapsychical, psychic phenomenon, and psychical science. For most of the twentieth century, however, parapsychology has been used almost exclusively for the attempted scientific study of such phenomena.

The term “parapsychology” appears to have been coined by psychologist Max Dessoir sometime around or before 1889, and it first appeared in an article written by Dessoir, “Die Parapsychologie. Eine Entegegnung auf den Artikel “Der Prophet,”” which appeared in June 1889 (translation: Parapsychology. A Response to the Article “The Prophet”). Researcher J.B. Rhine probably did the most to popularize the term parapsychology in English and he was one of the first to engage in large-scale, organized study of the subject.

Parapsychological phenomena can generally be broken down into three general categories: telepathy, clairvoyance or precognition, and telekinesis. Telepathy is the ability to communicate information across space by the power of the mind alone. Telekinesis is the ability to move objects by the power of the mind alone. Clairvoyance or precognition is the ability to learn about future events which have not yet actually occurred.

Closely related to all three is spiritualism, the alleged ability to speak with spirits of the dead which is often accompanied by moving objects and predictions of the future. In fact, what is today considered parapsychological research originally grew out of attempts to scientifically investigate the performances of spiritualists and mediums.

More materialistic scientists broke away from traditional spiritualists: while the spiritualists insisted that their activities proved the existence of an afterlife and immortal soul, the scientists insisted that their activities were actually evidence of previously unknown powers of telepathy, telekinesis, and clairvoyance. Even today this split between the two remains, despite their common origins.

Much of what lies behind parapsychology is the belief that the mind is independent of the body and that the field has the means of proving the truth of a nonmaterialistic conception of life and the universe — the same premise that drives spiritualism. James Alcock writes:

    “Psi has been postulated not because normal psychology is incapable of accounting for people’s apparently psychic experiences, nor because of inexplicable findings in physics or chemistry; nor is it the logical outgrowth of some compelling scientific theory. Rather, the search for psi is now, as it has been since the formal beginning of empirical parapsychology over a century ago, the quest to establish the reality of a nonmaterial aspect of human existence — some form of secularized soul.”

What is interesting, and what makes parapsychology and so-called psychic phenomena so difficult to research, is that each of these is essentially defined in a negative fashion. All three are defined as the ability to perform some act or acquire some knowledge in the absence of any known scientific laws or means.

When people talk about things occurring “by telepathy” or “by telekinesis,” it sounds a lot like we are saying something similar to an event occurring “by a chemical reaction” or “by photosynthesis” — but that isn’t the case. Instead, it is more like saying that an event has occurred “by some mechanism that is unknown to current science, which is improbably according to the laws of chance, and which doesn’t seem compatible with any known models of how the world works.”

Curiously, one by-product of these negative definitions is that if any psi phenomena could be proven to exist, they would not longer be a part of parapsychological studies. They would lose their negative definitions and would become part of the fields of biology and physics. By its very nature, parapsychology is a shrinking field, always destined to losing its topics to other fields as soon as any naturalistic explanations become available. So long as the possibility of some known scientific or normal means exists, parapsychological phenomena have (by definition) not been proven.

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