Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Scientific Theories of Psychic Phenomena Part 1

A previous post, Karl Popper on Falsifiability, discussed the philosophical basis for confirming a theory with empirical evidence. That post explained that for a theory to be scientific it must be supported by evidence and to be considered supported by evidence a theory must pass a test that failing would prove the theory false.

Having explained this criteria, the next step will be to examine a few paranormal theories and see if such a test can be devised and if those theories have passed such a test. In this way it will be shown that certain paranormal theories are not just scientific, (ie supportable by empirical evidence), but also actually supported by empirical evidence.

There are three phenomena that I will discuss. Two of these phenomena have been discussed in previous posts. They are the mediumship of Mrs. Piper which I discussed in: Mrs. Piper: Evidence for Survival After Death and crisis-apparitions which I discussed in: Studying Personal Experiences . The third phenomena will be the filter theory of consciousness.

Belief in survival of consciousness after death.

Several tests of the theory of the survival of consciousness after death come from Richard Hodgson's investigation into the mediumship of Mrs. Piper. This research is described in:

A Further Record of Observations of Certain Phenomena of Trance by Richard Hodgson L.L.D. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research Vol. XIII. 1898, p 284 - 582:

In his investigation, Hodgson observed "communicators" that would communicate through Mrs. Piper while she was in a trance. There were different hypotheses proposed to explain them. They included deliberate fraud, alternate personalities, telepathy, and spirits.

Tests for the hypothesis that the communicators were spirits included:

  • Communicators should have knowledge that is unknown to the medium and the sitters.
  • Communicators should have knowledge that the person they claimed to be had while living.
  • Communicators should demonstrate mannerisms and patterns of speech of the person they claimed to be.
  • Characteristics of the communication should vary with the communicator independently of who the sitters are.

Failure at any of these these tests would rule out the spirit hypothesis as an explanation Mrs. Piper's mediumship.

In fact, the mediumship of Mrs. Piper passed all of these tests.

The details of the investigation are in the Proceedings. Hodgson found that the communicators were not a result of fraud, and that they had knowledge unknown to the medium and the sitters. The communicators exhibited gestures, patterns of speech, and personal knowledge of the person they claimed to be. ( Communicators also showed an interest in living friends and relatives, and demonstrated that they maintained current knowledge about them.) Characteristics of the communication varied with the communicator not with the sitters. Spirits communicating shortly after death had difficult communicating. Spirits that suffered a long illness or mental turmoil before death had more difficulty communicating. Spirits who were communicating for the first time had difficulty coming through but learned after a few attempts and could be assisted by other spirits. Some spirits were never very good at communicating. Other spirits were particularly good at communicating names. These variations in characteristics of the communicators were unaffected by who the sitters were.

Based on this evidence, Hodgson believed the communicators were spirits.

If communicators knew only what the medium knew, the spirit hypothesis would be falsified. If the communicators did not demonstrate personal knowledge and characteristics of the person they claimed to be, the spirit hypothesis would be falsified. If characteristics of the communication were found to vary with the sitters, for example if some sitters always brought through strong communicators and other sitters always brought through weak communicators, then the theory that the communicators were independent entities would be falsified.

Based on this empirical evidence one can see that belief in the afterlife is supported by empirical evidence, it has passed several tests that could falsify it and therefore belief in the afterlife is scientific.

To be continued...

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