Exploring the Reality of Psi
Psi — aka the paranormal, aka anomalous perception or causation — is a topic that has fascinated me since childhood, when I first encountered it in various SF stories and novels. At that stage I was open-minded but skeptical about the reality of the phenomena, though also wondering if — even if psi didn’t work right now — it could potentially be engineered in future once we understood space, time, mind and energy better.
Decades later I became involved with someone who had clear demonstrations of psi capability — I witnessed events that were more easily explainable using psi than using conventional means … and I started to wonder whether “explaining away” apparent psi using complex alternative stories was actually such a rational and reasonable thing to do. Which nudged me to dig into the empirical data regarding psi, something I’d done only quite briefly and casually before.
Damien Broderick’s book Outside the Gates of Science was my initial guide to the psi literature — I followed up quite a few of the references at the end of the book, looking at the experimental designs and data tables and statistical analyses. I came out of this study pretty strongly convinced that at least some psi phenomena are as real as electromagnetism or the water in the ocean.
Impressed by Damien’s book (and enjoying some of his other works as well), I got to know him a bit and we ended up editing The Evidence for Psi together.
I also gradually started digging further into the empirical support for other “out there” phenomena like reincarnation or survival after death — and what I found there was quite a lot of evidence that something significantly resembling these phenomena actually does happen. I’m not convinced currently that any of the traditional stories regarding survival or reincarnation are fully on-target — but they are responding to phenomena that can’t concisely be explained using ordinary physics nor using standard psi phenomena like precognition, ESP or psychokinesis. There is some sense in which the individual mind associated with a human body has an existence that is not spatiotemporally tied to that body — i.e. a person’s mind can have causal effect, and be interacted with, by things existing in our universe at times when the body whose brain patterns correlated with that mind is dead.
My main goal in this post is to summarize some of the readings on psi that I consider interesting enough to pass along to curious individuals — whether you have intuitive faith that psi is a real phenomenon, or whether you’re an open-minded skeptic who’s willing to set prejudices aside and think about the evidence, or something in-between.
Navigating the Nonsensical and the Mercurial
An awful lot of nonsense has been said and written about psi — both by charlatans claiming psychic powers they don't have, and by anti-psi "skeptics" overzealously casting false accusations at serious scientific researchers. But the presence of this nonsense doesn’t detract from the reality of the underlying phenomena, it just serves as a sort of disinformation campaign, making it a bit more of a challenge to sift through the BS out there and find the real and relevant information.
A vaguely analogous case might be inefficiencies in financial markets. There is an awful lot of nonsense written about trading, and a lot of people fooling themselves that they have the secret to beating the markets, and a lot of people fooling others about this (some of whom believe their own BS and some don’t). As in the case of psi, in financial modeling one is often dealing with weak evidence and needs to be inordinately careful with data handling and statistical methods. Yet when you parse through all the confusion and garbage and dishonesty, you do find that some individuals genuinely have methods for exploiting inefficiencies in financial markets.
In finance as in psi, things that once worked well can suddenly stop working for seemingly mysterious reasons — in finance one calls this a “regime change”, but the rigorous definition and identification of regime changes is somewhat of a black art. But in both cases, this mercuriality doesn’t remove the reality of the phenomena.
The Struggle for Theoretical Understanding
It's frustrating that we don't have a good scientific explanation for psi at the moment, but on the other hand, nobody claims that our current theories of physics are complete (they can't be, since they're not even mutually consistent). I have my own speculations on how current physics might be tweaked to account for psi, and my own attempt at a broader model of the universe in which psi and physics can be seen to co-exist as particular pattern-complexes within a broader trans-spatiotemporal pattern network.
However, these efforts at modeling aren't particularly relevant to why I think psi is probably a real phenomenon. I think psi is probably real because of personal experiences and scientific data. As an inveterate seeker of world-understanding, it’s of course interesting to me to think about what sort of model of the universe might sensibly encompass these experiences and data.
Similarly, in the finance analogue, it’s interesting to think about what sort of model of financial time series and markets might explain the success of a small set of savvy traders at finding and exploiting inefficiencies. Current models using stochastic processes or other mathematical structures don’t quite capture all that needs to be captured (in financial modeling terms, the “stylized facts” as commonly agreed and formulated are not sufficiently explanatory). However, the modeling challenge doesn’t need to be surmounted in order to validate the reality of the phenomena. Rather the quest to form explanatory models and the accumulation of relevant data can proceed largely in parallel.
It’s true that some level of theoretical understanding is needed to even form a dataset or interpret its analysis. However, in both psi and finance, a fairly crude level of theoretical analysis seems enough to cover many key aspects of data analytics. E.g. one doesn’t need a terribly rich theory of psi phenomena to understand that remote viewing experiments are showing us something anomalous that goes beyond physics as commonly understood.
Though the intersection between theory and data analysis gets tricky when one considers, say, the hypothesis that apparent reincarnation might actually be ESP that reaches backwards in time (the apparently-reincarnated person could be reaching back in time and reading the mind of the dead person they are apparently reincarnated from, see Braude’s Immortal Remains). Or when one considers the reality of experimenter effect, or the data-analyst effect, in which the person running a psi experiment or crunching the psi data afterwards could be using their own psychic abilities to make the experiment work (Bancel’s analysis of the Global Consciousness Experiment is a masterful example of detecting experimenter effects where other forms of psi initially seemed to be more salient).
A Brief Psi Reading List
If you’re a relative novice to the topic and are are seriously interested in exploring psi further, I'd suggest you to start by reading the following books (not listed in any particular order):
Outside the Gates of Science, by Damien Broderick
Randi's Prize, by Robert McLuhan
Extrasensory Perception, a 2016 edited volume by Ed May and Sonali Marwaha
The Evidence for Psi, Edited by Damien Broderick and yours truly
Basic Research in Parapsychology, by K. Ramakrishna Rao
The Varieties of Anomalous Experience, Edited by Etzel Cardena and Steven Jay Lynn
Project Star Gate Archives, Edited by Ed May and Sonali Marwaha
The first two are popularizations, though carefully written and rigorously researched.
Rao's book is an edited volume of academic papers, some historical and some reasonably recent, but leaving out the last decade of psi research.
Evidence for Psi is a book I myself co-edited -- some of the papers are more lightweight, some are more statistics-focused and academic-ish.
Varieties of Anomalous Experience covers a very wide ground with rich referencing into the scientific literature.
Project Star Gate was a long-term US government psi project focused on remote viewing, with quite a number of dramatic successes — Ed and Sonali’s curation of the archives provides an in-depth view.
These are by no means the only good books on psi out there, just a few that I think are particularly useful as an intro to the field.
Randi’s Prize verges heavily into survival-after-death as well as psi per se, and Varieties of Anomalous Experience touches the topic as well. If you’re curious to think about the evidence in this regard, I’d recommen
Immortal Remains, by Stephen Braude
Mediumship and survival: a century of investigations, by Alan Gauld
Surviving Death by Leslie Kean
Leslie Kean’s book is extremely accessibly written and compelling; I wrote an in-depth 20-page review summarizing the ideas and giving my reactions and interpretations.
Immortal Remains is far more academic in nature but is an incredibly fascinating book if you’re into careful analytical-philosophy style analyses. Braude parses extremely artfully the question of whether the apparent evidence for reincarnation, mediumistic channeling, possession and so forth is best explained as a result of psi phenomena or as a separate sort of "survival of the mind after death."
Once you finish those, you may want to peruse the psi-related papers to be found on the websites of some excellent psi researchers such as Ed May, Dean Radin, Jessica Utts and Daryl Bem. (Again, there are many other excellent psi researchers out there, this is merely an unsystematic list of a few researchers whose work I've found especially interesting.)
In early 2013, Dean Radin put up an excellent web-page listing some high quality psi research papers. It is very incomplete and somewhat Radin-focused at this point, but still is a valuable resource.
An older (2003) well-written annotated bibliography pointing to a sampling of some solid scientific papers on psi is here.
I wrote an H+ magazine article on Daryl Bem's landmark 2010 psi publication Feeling the Future. Since that point there have been many attempted replications of Bem's experiments. See the paper
Feeling the future: A meta-analysis of 90 experiments on the anomalous anticipation of random future events by Bem, Tressoldi, Rabeyron and Duggan, which summarizes them all as of 2016 and presents a meta-analysis.
Having ingested all that information, you will be prepared to discuss the science of psi in a well-informed and rational manner!
You’ll also have some additional motivation for thinking about the more unconventional aspects of my “euryphysics” model of the broader universe encompassing and transcending space, time, matter and mind as commonly understood. Part of my motivation for outlining the Euryphysics model of life, the universe and everything was to come up with a coherent, fairly clearly describable, rationally understandable world-model in which ordinary physical phenomena, psi phenomena and things like reincarnation and survival would all make perfect sense.