|LE "PARANORMAL", NOUS N'Y CROYONS PAS. NOUS L'ETUDIONS.|
From the outset of its history, the domain of psychical research has been characterized by three schools of thought, which diverge in terms of aspirations, basic ontological assumptions, epistemology, research programs, data reported and conclusions drawn.
The survivalist approach focuses on ideas, experiences, surveys and data suggesting the autonomous existence of the soul, and its post-mortem survival ; in some versions, it also explores the idea that spirits of the deceased can communicate with the living, through mediums or through various technical systems.
The parapsychological approach underscores experiences, experiments and data suggesting that living human beings, and more generally, biological organisms, possess means of perception, communication and action that go far beyond those described by current physics and biology. However it is not assumed that these « nonlocal » forms of interaction point to post-mortem survival or even to the independence of mind from biology.
Finally, the skeptical approach - when organized into a specific research programme - focuses on « normal » explanations for all apparently « paranormal » experiences ; it seeks to systematically demonstrate that any data suggestive of survival, or of living-psi, can - indeed must - be accounted for through error, misinterpretations, fraud, unintentional actions, data selection, erroneous data analyses, and so forth.
My focus in this paper will be on the common ground between survivalists and parapsychologists, as well as their divergences, from historical, epistemological and social perspectives. In particular, the main focus will be on the spiritualist version of survivalism, which seems particularly difficult to reconcile with parapsychological approaches. Finally, I will be mentioning some of the issues that need to be resolved, for a rapprochement to take place.
I am certainly an odd man out in this Congress. I have never been involved in research or scholarly inquiries on the question of post-mortem survival, much less Instrumental Trans- Communication (ITC). My background is in experimental psi research, beginning with ganzfeld-telepathy work at the Maimonides Hospital in New York, and then with ganzfeld and micro-psychokinesis experiments at the Psychophysical Research Laboratories of Princeton. I am currently pursuing similar research orientations as President of the Institut Metapsychique International of Paris, one of the oldest psi research centers of Europe .
Historically three different schools of thought have dominated scholarly discussions of psychical research : “hardcore” skeptics, “survivalists” and parapsychologists or psi-researchers. While it is always a bit artificial and risky to draw such hard distinctions, the fact is that the vast majority of analyses or studies of the « paranormal » grow out of one of these three frameworks.
Over the years, I have had my own dose of doubts about survivalist frameworks ; particularly when it comes to spiritualism and ITC, its modern variant, I have often wondered how much of what is reported is wishful thinking (or perceiving). Yet, I refuse to commit the error of hardcore skeptics, focusing just on the weakest investigations and data, and then dismissing all the rest through an all too rapid generalization.
A distinction must be made here : as a general attitude, skepticism is crucial to any scholarly effort in the domain of psychical research. The essence of true skepticism is skepsis - the Greek word for thought and reflection. It is obvious that we cannot approach the world of psychic phenomena just with our hearts or our guts ; we must constantly confront appearances with critical thinking, discernment and judgment. However, my own experience in the field of parapsychology has led me to the conclusion that the ‘hardcore’ skeptical position is outdated and irrelevant. In view of the overwhelming evidence in favor of at least certain psychophysical anomalies, any position based on an a priori rejection of their possibility seems reactionary to me ; it simply serves to slow down progress in this area. Thus, I will not be restricting my reflections here to the parapsychologist and survivalist positions.
Having attended this ITC congress, I feel more open to the possibility that there may indeed exist a number of true anomalies in ITC research, which merit the interest of parapsychologists and other researchers. This however leaves open the question of interpretation, and my focus here, is on parapsychological vs. survivalist interpretations of the ITC data.
More generally I examine the complex relationship between those investigating “living psi” and those investigating the issue of survival. Depending on how one frames the argument, it could either be shown that these two groups simply represent two orientations pursued within a single field, or, that they represent two distinct fields, driven by quite different worldviews, objectives, research methodologies and results.
As I will later argue, the divergences are especially obvious when it comes to a particular variant of survivalist thought : spiritualism. The one distinguishing characteristic of spiritualism is the idea that not only the afterlife exists, but that we can actually communicate with the discarnate souls that populate the “other side”. In the past, this communication was sought through the intermediary of mediums, gifted individuals who could go in trance and become the living vehicle of the discarnate entity, through speech, automatic writing, a ouija board, etc. Presently, in ITC, the vehicle is electronic - tape recordings, radio, computer, etc. Though this adds a level of sophistication - and, it might be claimed, objectivity -the basic principles are the same. ITC, as far as I can see, is a modern form of spiritualism.
Clearly, at their deepest philosophical and historical roots, survivalists and parapsychologists have important commonalities. As movements, they both emerged in the mid- to late- 19th century during the heyday of spiritualism, and organized around a single issue : the nature of the mind, or the soul. From the outset, psychical researchers questioned the growing grip of reductionism upon science, and shared interest in a dualistic conception of the mind, according to which the mind is qualitatively distinct from matter, and irreducible to the brain’s functioning.
Dualism, of course, is one of the few well-articulated ontological positions allowing for post-mortem survival. Consequently, even if not explicitly interested in the survival question, and more focused on “living psi”, dualist psi researcher adhere to a position that at least allows for the possibility of survival. As expressed by the father of experimental parapsychology J. B. Rhine argued that : "psi research shows the natural human mind can escape physical boundaries under certain conditions ... Accordingly a distinct difference between mind and matter, a relative dualism, has been demonstrated by the psi experiments ..." . In keeping with Rhine, numerous contemporary researchers and theoreticians have explicitly shown their affinity to a dualistic ontology or metaphysics, especially in Britain and the USA ; indeed it would seem that, at least until recently, this has been the dominant conceptual framework for psi researchers. This shared ontology has been one of the strongest bonds between survivalists and parapsychologists.
Of course, interest in a dualistic worldview is far from new or unique : it has been the claim of all western religions, and, some claim, of common sense. But in contrast to religion, and in keeping with their times, psychical researchers rejected an epistemology based on faith alone, or common sense, or purely philosophical approaches, and shared an interest in scientific methods to establish and defend the independence of the mind. In other words, whether inclined toward acceptance of post-mortem survival or not, psychical researchers all recognized the need for research and for independent confirmations, actively assessed counter-explanations, emphasized vigilance vis-à-vis faith, fantasy, error or fraud, and generally adopted empirical means to ensure the validity of conclusions.
This general orientation has also linked survivalists and parapsychologists in a somewhat unexpected way : they tend to face the same double-bind rejection : on the one hand, from “official science” (for accepting a dualistic vision of man) and, on the other hand, from monotheistic religions (for rejecting faith as sufficient means to establish the existence of the soul).
Not surprisingly that the two groups have co-existed, from the outset, in the same organizations, such as the British Society for Psychical Research (SPR). From its inception, in the late 19th century, the SPR focused both on “living psi” (e.g. experiments or case-studies involving telepathy or apparitions of the living) and on phenomena directly related to the survival issue (e.g., apparitions of the dead, mediumistic phenomena, etc.). Other organizations and researchers, in Europe and in the USA, followed suit, and even today, a number of psychical researchers have delved in areas dealing both with “living psi” and with phenomena traditionally associated with survival.
Given all these common points - philosophical assumptions, epistemological principles, institutional structures- it could plausibly be argued that the differences between survivalists and parapsychologists are minor, and that the two groups are essentially part of a single field of research. But the common ground begins to break down and give way to far more glaring differences when it comes to comparing parapsychologists to one specific variant of survivalism : spiritualists.
While modern survivalists - like Ian Stevenson or Erlendur Haraldsson -explicitly adopt the methodological requirements of science, such as systematic case-studies, cautious data analyses, evaluation of alternative hypotheses - spiritualists do not always play by the same rules. This does not mean that they do not apply critical thinking. As John Beloff  has pointed out, spiritualism was not just a religion based on faith : it brought back the age old question of survival in an empirically testable form, and its adherents sought to establish the reality of “other side” on the basis of concrete mediumistic evidence. Nevertheless, many, if not most spiritualists seem to have taken for granted that survival has been established quite early on. Consequently, they seem to have been less interested in rigorously proving its reality, than in seeking to reap the pragmatic benefits from dialogues with the “other side” - e.g., helping people who want to contact the departed.
In the eyes of contemporary parapsychologists, this approach is way premature and tends to obscure the line between faith and science, it also seems to rely too much on revealed (or channeled) knowledge, rather than the gradual theory building associated with empirical research. The mixing of different levels is compounded by understandable emotional factors - the existential importance of the question of the afterlife, the obvious clinical or therapeutic aspects of mediumship and ITC (helping people deal with the loss of loved ones), generally the intense personal investment manifest in spiritualist circles.
On a more substantive level, the central point, dividing spiritualists from most contemporary parapsychologists is methodological - or, rather, epistemological : How do we know whether accurate mediumistic information about a deceased individual is truly coming from the spirit of that person, rather than from the medium’s own “super-psi” abilities - clairvoyance, telepathy or precognition ? This is far from an easy issue to resolve. As J.B.Rhine stated, until we have a better understanding of living-psi and its limits, survival research may have to be «put on the shelf », i.e., postponed.
“Super-psi” is not a recent notion ; it came into focus quite early in psychical research. as an alternative to spiritualistic explanations. At the turn of the century, for example, Mrs. Piper - certainly one of the greatest mediums of all times, stated When I read over the reports of the SPR, it all seems to me that there is no evidence of sufficient scientific value to warrant acceptance of the spiritistic hypothesis. I must truthfully say I do not believe that spirits of the dead have spoken through me when I have been in a trance state. The theory of telepathy strongly appeals to me as the most plausible and genuinely scientific solution to the problem .
Such statements created quite a storm at the SPR, and numerous members quit or threatened to quit the organization upon hearing of this. The psychical researcher Hodgson later labeled Mrs. Piper’s confession a passing mood ; but it is clear is that her statements pointed to a fundamental - and highly charged - divergence of interpretation.
Going back even earlier, we can trace the divergent viewpoints in the very roots of psychical research : Mesmerism. The mesmerist movement- particularly influential on the Continent - promoted a very different philosophy from spiritualists. The foundational concept, as first presented by Franz Anton Mesmer, is that of an all pervasive life force that certain individuals can access and channel, thus producing extraordinary feats of “magnetisme” (bio-psychokinesis or healing) or “lucidité” ( clairvoyance, in modern terms).
The stars of the mesmeric movement produced feats as powerful and convincing as any medium ever did [Alexis Didier. (...)">5]. But instead of evoking a world of discarnate entities to account for these feats, they claimed to operate within an expanded Naturalistic framework of forces and energies. Their ontology was more akin to an organismic worldview, rather than the strong dualism implied in postulating an afterlife, and they identified far more closely with an “enlightened science”, than with quasi-religious concepts.
Despite much academic resistance to the mesmerists, their influence was, in fact, profound ; they “invented” hypnosis and many of its practical applications, and sensitized generations of clinicians and physicians to the psychosomatic nature of illness and the role of suggestion. In the field of psychical research, the influence of the mesmerists was most evident on the continent, particularly in France. When the Institut Metapsychique International (IMI) was founded by the spiritualist Jean Meyer, the IMI researchers explicitly asserted the primacy of scientific observation over channeled philosophies (such as those of the spiritualist Allan Kardec), and challenged the idea that mediums were mere bridges to the other world. Of course, Gustav Geley, the first director of the IMI, was very much sympathetic to the cause of spiritualism. Yet even in his earliest work, focused on the famous ectoplasmic productions of the medium Franek Kluski he distanced himself from traditional spiritualistic interpretations Geley and spoke of organic, social and psychological dynamics. He states, for example : In ectoplasmic manifestations the appearance of the phenomena is necessarily induced by a dynamic and material externalisation of a portion of the organism of the medium. “...Mediumistic investigations belong to the class of "collective experiments," for the phenomena are the results of subconscious psycho-physiological collaboration between the medium and the experimenters. Unless this fundamental idea is consistently kept in mind scarcely anything will be understood of mediumship either theoretically or practically. ... In the intellectual type of mediumship at least two psychisms in collaboration are required for the active manifestation of supernormal faculty ; and physical mediumship also needs association of such psycho-physiological forces as the conditions of the séance may permit. Therefore in both cases, though the medium is the originating focus of the manifestations, he is not their only cause [Clairvoyance and (...)">6].
When Geley died in a plane accident, his chosen successor, Eugene Osty, distanced himself more explicitly from spiritualistic pursuits ; in an open letter to the IMI founder, Jean Meyer, he stated that he would accept the position of director of the IMI only if he was assured full liberty to pursue hypotheses which were independent of - or even contradictory to - spiritualistic philosophy. To his honor, Meyer unhesitatingly accepted Osty’s terms ; but the point is that in the mind of early psychical researchers, there was a felt tension between scientific approaches and what they perceived as a predefined religious worldview.
Nobel-prize winner Charles Richet, who was to later become president of the IMI, and was one of the leading figures of French psychical research, was similarly opposed to spiritualism. A leading neurophysiologist, steeped in an organismic view of mental function, he viewed post-mortem survival as highly improbable. In the very first issues of the IMI’s Revue Metapsychique, Richet got into a debate with Oliver Lodge and Ernst Bozzanno - a debate which could easily have taken place today .
Richet states :
I cannot accept spiritualist theory, though I cannot give a convincing alternative. I don’t condemn spiritualist theory. For sure, it is premature, probably it is in error. But it has great merit in launching experiments. It will have served as a working hypothesis, which Claude Bernard considered so fruitful.
Lodge’s response :
It seems sufficient to Richet to study the phenomena (of metapsychique) without a theory. He vaguely attributes to supernormal lucidity, a kind of omniscient clairvoyance, whereby the subconscious accesses knowledge of things ignored or longtime forgotten, and can discover the sources of information that is normally inaccessible.
This exchange captures, in a nutshell, the essential epistemological issue dividing the two camps. Lodge accuses Richet of having no plausible theory for the phenomena observed, and implies that the concept of discarnate entities, as agents of the phenomena observed, is far more parsimonious than the vague idea of “omniscient clairvoyance” - what we call, today, “super-psi”. Richet on the other hand, rejects spiritualist ideas, which seem too implausible to him, and insists that accepting the reality of mediumstic phenomena need not lead to acceptance of spiritualistic interpretations.
This whole debate also reflects the way in which each side thinks of its relationship to science as a whole. To what extent is it conceivable that psychical research can eventually be integrated within “normal” academic science ? To what extent do we consider that it must always remain “paranormal”, beyond the reach of science ?
For spiritualists - indeed, for survivalists in general - integration into current worldviews must look like a lost cause, right from the start. There simply is no conceivable extension of modern physics, chemistry or biology that would allow for discarnate entities ; were post-mortem survival to be established, it would demand radical revisions of our scientific worldview, not mere adjustments. Consequently, spiritualists have little to lose in drawing a hard line between their position and that of contemporary science as a whole.
Parapsychologists, on the other hand, are increasingly open to, and hopeful of, reconciliation with their peers in other domains. This manifests, or course, in their constant preoccupation with methodological rigor, in their engagement of skeptics in open debate, in their efforts to publish in conventional interdisciplinary journals. It also manifests in their increasingly academic approach, with a narrow focus on delimited issues, rather than a panoramic, transdisciplinary reflection on “big” metaphysical questions. Most importantly, parapsychologists are gradually retreating from the claim that psi phenomena establish the independent reality of the mind or soul : “strong” dualism. While some theoreticians - like the late John Beloff - did remain loyal to the dualistic framework, most no longer insist on its being the only one compatible with psi phenomena. Indeed, many are open to reductionistic or emergentist views of the mind, impressed by the accomplishments of the neurosciences and by the theoretical speculations of quantum physics.
With this background, let us return to ITC. First, a personal impression. Quite frankly, some of the papers at this congress struck me as case-studies for gestalt psychology - they demonstrate our mind’s uncanny ability to look for and find patterns in “noisy” visual or acoustic data. On the other hand, some papers did present data that certainly looks “paranormal” (assuming that the data was indeed collected as reported). So, the question remains whether these possible anomalies are evidential of discarnate agents, or of “living psi”.
By now it should be apparent that my own inclination would be to see these as instances of “super-psi”, rather than spirit communications. The basic reasoning here is double. First, the “a priori probability” argument : survival would be far more difficult to integrate into science than some sort of all-pervasive interconnectedness, independent on space-time. Second, and more importantly, a considerable number of cases have been documented, over the past century, which are as strong as ITC type data, yet clearly involve nothing more than “living psi”. Some examples :
1. Accuracy of information in “paranormal” communications : In clairvoyance and precognition experiments initiated by the U.S. military (the Stargate program) numerous examples can be cited in which a small number of selected subjects produced extraordinarily precise information about distant sites or future events ]. Similarly, in telepathy protocols with “normal”, unselected subjects who are in a mildly altered state of consciousness (the Ganzfeld experiments) there is an abundance of cases in which the “receivers” obtained highly precise information about a distant target . In these latter experiments, success has been systematically associated with specific personality or mental characteristics (e.g., extroversion or creativity), thus reinforcing the impression that this has nothing to do with external spirits, but rather with the individuals themselves.
2. Large-scale physical phenomena : On several occasions, phenomena which were once associated with spirits, have come to more likely be seen as the product of living individuals. Thus “poltergeists”, involving large scale physical anomalies analogous to those we find in “hauntings” can now plausibly be seen as a form of macro-psychokinesis, associated with psychologically troubled adolescents. In other contexts, phenomena attributed to spirits may in fact be due to no one individual but rather to a form of collective psi. Long-term group-experiments, undertaken by Batcheldor [PK Induction from (...)">10] and Brookes-Smith [PK Phenomena." (...)">11] in England, or by the “Philip” group  in Canada reinforce this interpretation. The converging evidence from these group experiments suggests that certain psychological and interpersonal dynamics - coupled with much patience and persistence - can lead to large-PK phenomena and quite “intelligent” communication with spirits (through raps, table movements etc) - except that no spirits can plausibly be evoked in these cases.
3. Imprinting of images on tape. Over the course of several years, the Ted Serios “thoughtography” experiments have given consistently striking demonstrations of a capacity to voluntarily imprint mental images on photographic film and video . This suggests that certain individuals, at least, can influence electronic media to produce a given message or image, in ways that quite parallel the ITC cases. As elsewhere, there is much auxiliary evidence suggesting that thoughtography is specifically associated to the mind and personality of the individual, and not to discarnate spirits ; for example, Serios was far more successful when drunk than when sober !
4. The investigator as agent. One of the most troubling and challenging findings of parapsychology is the strong, increasingly widespread finding that laboratory psi results are largely a function of the investigator’s hypotheses, expectations, state of mind, etc. . Numerous examples can be cited in which a particular experimenter confirms one of his pet theories - through well controlled, double blind, protocols - but others simply do not replicate these findings. As a result, parapsychologists are less and less inclined to call any effect “real” - i.e., independent of the experimenter’s theories and dispositions - unless it is independently replicated, over and over again.
It seems highly unlikely that the phenomena reported by ITC researchers are immune to this psi-mediated “dependency” on their traits and expectations. It could well be that the few who obtain strong, unambiguous ITC phenomena, are those who, over years of isolated research, have become very good psi subjects - whether they are aware of it or not. Indeed, parapsychological work would lead us to expect that ITC investigators would be particularly strong psi agents given their mental, emotional and physical investment in their work. The personal commitment and motivation driving ITC investigators ; their awareness of the impact that discarnate communications have on those who have lost a loved one ; the long, solitary hours spent looking for a “signal” amidst the noise ; all this would seem to create a favorable context for the emergence of unconscious experimenter psi.
It could be argued that the principal task of ITC investigators is to continue their work, collecting more and more evidence for the reality of the afterlife. In this view, they not be need not be too concerned about their standing with the outside world - including parapsychologists. After all, the claim of communication with the “other side” has always provoked great unease, and will probably continue to do so for a long time to come. To the extent to which spiritualist ideas are incompatible with modern frameworks, acceptance within the larger scientific community may simply not be an option, no matter what the methodological or technological advances. Moreover, ITC investigators could question whether it is even desirable to reconciliation with science. They could argue - with some justification - that parapsychologists are hardly a good role model : they have pursued such reconciliation for decades without complete success, and have in the process become too cautious in their research, too concerned with external approval, too accommodating of existing worldviews.
Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that parapsychology is slowly gaining ground, both methodologically and in terms of integration into “normal” science ; by contrast, ITC remains quite isolated and virtually unknown. It cannot, under such circumstances hope to ever have a fair hearing from a larger public. If there is one group of external scientists who are likely to lend a sympathetic ear, and who can serve as a kind of a bridge to a larger scientific audience, it is the parapsychological community. I admit that up until now, like many of my colleagues, I have been quite unfamiliar with ITC work and dismissive of it ; the presumed phenomena either sounded too fuzzy to be real, or too good to be true. But as I familiarized myself with certain reports, including some of those presented in this congress, I came to see this position as unfair. I now think that parapsychologists seeking to truly examine the survival hypothesis should keep their ears and eyes open to ITC findings ; if validated, the phenomena reported here could show the limits of the super-psi hypothesis and give the survival hypothesis much more weight . Here are some recommendations which, I think, could help reinforce the ITC position and launch a real dialogue with other domains of research.
1. Parapsychologists have spent much time and energy fine-tuning their protocols in order to ensure the “solidity” of their data. Though not all of these methodological improvements are necessarily adaptable to ITC research, it may be worth reflecting upon - and adopting - those which are pertinent (e.g., double-blind procedures, inter-laboratory replication, meta-analytic assessments, etc).
2. As mentioned earlier, several lines of psi research suggest that certain individuals are capable of extraordinary levels of psi ; it seems important for ITC investigators to familiarize themselves with this research and its implications for their own investigations.
3. It would be equally desirable for ITC investigators to thoroughly understand the issue of unintentional investigator effects, so as to better develop strategies for dealing with these (e.g., through coordinated inter-laboratory replications and meta-analyses)
4. As a whole, most outsiders feel that the ITC community is motivated by a strong a priori engagement to the survival hypothesis, rather than remaining open to different hypotheses concerning their data. From an “image” perspective, it would be useful if researchers clearly and systematically discussed and evaluated hypotheses other than those of discarnate spirits.
5. Over the past century or so, a number of criteria have surfaced which, if met, would give the survival hypothesis more weight against the super-psi hypothesis . If we assume, with spiritualists, that discarnate entities can communicate via some medium - whether it is the automatic writing of a gifted individual, or some electronic medium - then the communications obtained would be more convincing if :
rather than a static image or video, the communicating entity produced information - e.g., facts about the deceased - not available to any of those present
beyond factual knowledge (i.e., names, dates, objects) the entity showed skills or know-how specific to the deceased (e.g., mastery of a certain linguistic or mathematical skill, use of a particular handwriting style)
communications came from so called “drop-in communicators” - ‘spirits’ or ‘souls’ who have not been invited, and are not known by those present, but whose existence can be subsequently confirmed, along with the details they provide.
To conclude, I would like to express my sincere thanks to Anabela Cardoso and David Fontana, the organizers of this congress, for their efforts to open up and share this intriguing area of investigation with others.
Mario Varvoglis, Ph.D. Président de lInstitut Métapsychique International
 For an overview of the IMI’s activities, see : http:://www.metapsychique.org
 J.B.Rhine (1937). New Frontiers of the Mind. New York : Farrar & Rhineheart.
 Beloff, John (1993). Parapsychology a concise history. Authone Press
 Rinn, Joseph (1950). Sixty Years of Psychical Research. New York : Truth Seeker Company.
 See : Meheust, Bertrand (2003). Un voyant prodigieux Alexis Didier. Paris : Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond/Le Seuil
 See the Introduction to : Geley, Gustave (1927). Clairvoyance and Materialisation : A record of experiments. London : T.Fisher Unwin Ltd
 For a full review of the exchanges between Charles Richet and Oliver Lodge, see the first three issues of the Revue Métapsychique 1922.
 The reference scientific article on the US-government funded RemoteViewing research is by Jessica Utts : An assessment of the evidence for psychic functioning. It can be obtained at : http://anson.ucdavis.edu/ utts/air2.html. For a more qualitative overview of the kinds of correspondences obtained in RV sessions, see <html>[<a href="#nh9" name="nb9" class="spip_note">9</a>" class="spip_out">http://www.metapsychique.org/Le-Remote-Viewing-ou-vision-a.html