Psi is a topic that comes up in my conversations with various people from time to time, so I’ve decided to make a brief webpage summarizing my perspective.
By “psi” I mean what is sometimes known as “paranormal or psychic or anomalous phenomena” — ESP, telepathy, psychokinesis etc.
This is a topic on which an awful lot of nonsense has been written, both by charlatans claiming psychic powers they don’t have, and by anti-psi “skeptics” overzealously casting false accusations at serious scientific researchers.
I wrote an H+ magazine article on Daryl Bem’s 2010 psi publication, which summarizes a few aspects of my views on the topic. (Since that point there have been many attempted replications of Bem’s experiments. At this time (April 2013) Bem is preparing a meta-analysis of the successful and failed replications. From the preliminary meta-analytic inklings I’ve seen, the replication efforts seem to have overall been successful.)
My general attitude toward psi is one of guarded positivity — based on fairly carefully reviewing the scientific evidence, I think psi almost surely does exist, though it’s a strange and finicky phenomenon and nobody really understands it very well yet. Obviously there are a lot of fakers out there pretending to have psychic powers that they don’t actually have, but this doesn’t weaken the scientific data about psi, any more than myths about bug-eyed aliens weaken the evidence that humans went to the moon.
I have witnessed some phenomena personally that would be difficult to explain without invoking some kind of psi. However, if not for the fairly compelling corpus of scientific data on psi, I’d probably be willing to write these off as incredible coincidences or part of the inexplicable mystery of life or whatever.
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 (which I’ve developed further since that linked article), but these aren’t particularly relevant to why I think psi is probably a real phenomenon.
I have very little interest in arguing about psi with folks who aren’t familiar with the scientific literature on the topic. If you 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
- The Evidence for Psi, Edited by Damien Broderick and Ben Goertzel
- Basic Research in Parapsychology, by K. Ramakrishna Rao
- The Varieties of Anomalous Experience, Edited by Etzel Cardena and Steven Jay Lynn
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.
These are by no means the only good books on psi out there, just three that I think are particularly useful as an intro to the field.
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.
Having ingested all that information, you will be prepared to discuss the science of psi in a well-informed and rational manner!
Having ingested all that information, you will also be prepared to dig into some even more confusing information, regarding apparent evidence that some aspects of the minds of dead people may in some sense either survive or be re-animated. In this vein, see Varieties of Anomalous Experience, mentioned above, as well as
- Immortal Remains, by Stephen Braude
- Mediumship and survival: a century of investigations, by Alan Gauld
Immortal Remains is a fascinating, analytical-philosophy-style discussion 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.” I have my own alternate view on this which I’ll write up eventually.