Monday, 11 November 2013

Parapsychology, and Science

Why Do Some Treat Parapsychology as a Science?

    Is parapsychology a science, a pseudoscience, or something else? Supporters and practitioners insist that parapsychology is a valid scientific enterprise, but those involved in more mainstream fields often have little more than derision for it. Parapsychologists act like they are involved in science, but they exhibit few of the standard characteristics in terms of how science operates. To many, parapsychology qualifies as a legitimate science. After all, the Parapsychological Association has been accepted as an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (something which happened in 1969 through the efforts of AAAS president Margaret Meade, a big believer in psychic powers). There are also several professional bodies of parapsychologists that ostensibly serve to monitor research and ensure that high standards are met. In addition, students can take courses in parapsychology at several dozen universities across the United States and around the world. There are even a couple of Ph.D. programs available. There are numerous journals that publish papers on the subject, exhibiting research from laboratories all over the world. Despite this, however, it is not clear that parapsychology is truly scientific. Most of mainstream science completely ignores parapsychology, at least when not criticizing it. It’s almost unheard of for mainstream science journals to publish peer-reviewed papers on parapsychology. Funding for research doesn’t come from the usual sources — parapsychologists must rely upon private donors or from other institutions already in the field. Claims of psychic powers present a problem for traditional science because they imply the existence of powers which are not merely unknown to science, but which in fact contradict well-established scientific laws and understandings of how the universe works. This does not mean that claims of psychic powers are necessarily false, but rather than their existence is a priori unlikely. What sorts of scientific principles would parapsychology like to overthrow? They include:
    1. Future events cannot affect the present before they occur.

    2. A person’s mind cannot affect the material world without the mediation of some physical energy or force.

    3. One person cannot know the content of a second person’s mind except through the observation of speech or behavior.

    4. A person cannot obtain knowledge of a distant point in space without sensory experience of that point or the transmission of energy.

    5. A person’s personality and memories are dependent upon the existence and proper functioning of their physical brain.
This creates significant empirical consequences. If the acceptance of the existence of psychic powers and phenomena requires a reworking of the most fundamental laws of physics and our understandings of matter and energy, then a great deal of empirical evidence is necessary. We already have a tremendous amount of empirical evidence which indicates that our current understandings are correct — thus, better evidence is necessary in order to conclude that they are incorrect, or at least woefully incomplete.

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