James C Carpenter. First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life. Rowman and Littlefield, 2012

James Carpenter, a clinical psychologist and a board member of the Rhine Research Centre, argues that most ‘ESP’ is unconscious and pervasive, only a small fraction coming to consciousness as anomalous experiences. He furthermore argues that what is involved in psi occurrences is not so much the acquisition of knowledge but a kind of apprehension of things. He also queries whether it involves ‘abilities’ in the same manner as musical or athletic abilities. He sees it at an unconscious level as guiding and programming much of our everyday lives without us being aware of it. He examines its similarity to memory.

He bases his views on a wide ranging survey of the laboratory evidence, and to a lesser degree on spontaneous cases, and experience of psi in psychotherapeutic conditions. His survey of the laboratory evidence is wide ranging and includes some material which does not feature in most of the popular accounts and should be of value to anyone researching parapsychology.

I am not so sure that he is actually developing a truly scientific theory; as with many parapsychological theories there is a kind of ad hoc quality at times, and the sense that one is dealing with a catch-all theory that it would be very difficult to falsify. Critics are likely to point out that invoking all-pervasive unconscious processes to explain things tends to violate Occam’s Razor.

There are some interesting sidelights, for example J. B. Rhine’s introduction of terms such as ‘hit’ and ‘miss’ may have been influenced by the fact that he was an expert marksman. He was certainly a charismatic figure. Charismatic figures seem to get the best results, and it is notorious that ‘believers’ get better results than sceptics, even when they work together. Carpenter would argue that in both cases the participants want to please the investigator, in one case by hitting and in the other by missing. The trouble with this is that some believers like John Beloff or the young Susan Blackmore never got positive results though they desperately wanted to do so. Of course Carpenter could argue that though consciously they both wanted to succeed, unconsciously they both wanted to fail, but that line of reasoning takes into realms where there is an answer for everything and we are back with unfalsifiable catch all theories.

If Carpenter has tried to exorcise ‘ability’ from the test subjects, he reintroduces it through the abilities of experimenters, whose abilities may vary as much as those of used car salesmen (Carpenter’s own analogy). Cynics might argue that if you are working for a boss like Rhine - who in the words of his colleague Gardner Murphy made “rugged force” of demands on his co-workers and subjects and drove them with “glowing intensity” - whether the boss be a parapsychologist or owner of a used car lot, the temptation to impress the boss (and keep you job) by inflating the test scores or the sales figures must be there..

This is an interesting approach, though I suspect it will make little dent on sceptics, but I am not clear that by simply getting rid of awkward words such as ‘knowledge’, ‘information’, ‘ability’ or ‘dualism’ Carpenter has actually made the problems they represent go away. Nevertheless it is a work anyone interested in parapsychology should read. -- Peter Rogerson

1 comment:

  1. "This is an interesting approach,though I suspect it will make little dent on sceptics,..."
    Get real. No approach, and no amount of evidence, will make any dent on sceptics. That should be clear by now.

    Interesting review, though. I always enjoy your work.