When science takes the supernatural seriously

<i>Lives of the Psychics: the shared worlds of science and mysticism </i>by Fred M Frohock (University of Chicago Press, &pound;18.99)
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The Independent Culture

Can there be any concurrence between psychic phenomena and science? Most scientists would say not - but Fred Frohock, professor of political science at Syracuse University, believes that we should not be too hasty in assuming an irreconcilable gulf between subjective and objective, spiritual and material, the experiential and rational dimensions.

Can there be any concurrence between psychic phenomena and science? Most scientists would say not - but Fred Frohock, professor of political science at Syracuse University, believes that we should not be too hasty in assuming an irreconcilable gulf between subjective and objective, spiritual and material, the experiential and rational dimensions.

The subtitle of Lives of the Psychics is a better reflection of its content. Frohock aims to "introduce and evaluate a set of disparate arguments on the supernatural, and to enliven these arguments with events that may or may not have happened in the way that they are described by those on either side of the divide over experiences beyond the conventional boundaries of nature". If that sounds heavy - well, some of it is. This is an academic enquiry into the seeming disjunction between two quite different worlds.

Books on the philosophy of science are hardly bedtime reading. But the theory is enriched both by historical accounts and interviews with psychics about assorted phenomena, from healing to prophecy to out-of-body and near-death experiences. Some of these are quite fascinating. How, though, can they be tested scientifically?

Frohock discusses the theoretical and practical problems of investigating psychic phenomena, both ESP (clairvoyance, telepathy) and psychokinesis (PK): the ability to affect the physical world through the power of the mind. The theoretical problems include our limited scientific understanding of consciousness and perception. Practically, how do you set up controlled experiments to test psychic powers so that "the relevant variables are isolated and effects are attributable to causal influences, not extraneous events"? How can we know for sure whether someone identifying the wavy lines on classic Zener cards is using ESP to "read" them, or PK to influence the supposedly random selection of cards?

Then there's the difficulty of setting up falsifying tests - essential, since Popper, in any enquiry worthy of the term "scientific". Many psychic occurrences are spontaneous, anecdotal. How can a lab test the foretelling of disasters or sightings of ghosts?

Investigators tend to see what they want to see. Believers are predisposed to observe and interpret psychic phenomena; sceptics equally predisposed to dismiss them out of hand. As in religion, lack of belief is a form of belief in itself. Because sceptics start from the assumption that something that bucks the laws of science cannot happen, nothing will persuade them that, perhaps, something did. Frohock quotes Thomas Kuhn: "the Western scientific paradigm has assumed the standing of a theology, blocking alternative ways of understanding reality with a dense assortment of categories that trade on polarities such as real/unreal, exists/does not exist, objective/subjective."

In science, says Frohock, a new scientific statement is only accepted if it either agrees with established statements, or "displaces rival statements with superior evidence and theory". Psychic phenomena clearly don't fit the first, and have not yet succeeded with the second. Frohock argues that "we need a better framework than experimental science to examine claims for psychic experiences."

Does science rule out the psychic or spiritual realms? Frohock puts such arch-sceptics as Richard Dawkins in their place: "The logic of scientific inquiry must always allow for the possibility that the data are incomplete, or the covering laws are wrong." He argues for a methodological pluralism, which "may be more acceptable on the recognition that a strictly material universe died a natural death long ago (though the philosophers who continue to defend materialism have not yet accepted the death certificate)".

This is a serious study and, simply by its existence, a significant contribution to the debate. Frohock does not come up with any startling answers, but one wouldn't expect him to. What is most valuable is that he makes a convincing case that we should at least be allowed to ask the questions.

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