Paranormality and the high priests of evidence

‘We’re in 2011. We shouldn’t be thinking about magical forces and pixies and so on. We should be just thinking in terms of science and technology.’

So saith that high priest of the cult of evidence, Richard Wiseman. He’s all over the media right now as he has another book to sell – and sell they do. He must appeal to that perennial feature of the human mind: puritanism. He doesn’t test by scriptural reference but by randomised trials, and yet he’d be quite at home in Calvin’s Geneva.

That said, I don’t have much desire to defend astrologers or out of body experiences either. What I dislike is the way the two sides take each other on and squeeze out the more subtle experiences of life that are not readily explained or understood, and yet are of significance. Here’s three cases in point.

First, psychokinesis. A case I was reading about recently concerned the physicist Wolfgang Pauli, one of the 20th century’s leading scientists. He was so well known for being present when machines and equipment broke and failed that his colleagues routinely talked of the Pauli effect. They’d even ask whether Pauli was nearby when something didn’t work, and report instances when indeed he was.

No doubt sceptics would say, put him in a lab and ask him to bend a spoon or crack a mirror. Moreover, there are, unfortunately, people who will say they can perform such tricks. But that misses the point of phenomena like the Pauli effect. They were random; beyond Pauli’s control. Lab tests miss what they seek to study, though by declaring them an illusion or void, put them off limits.

Second, meaningful coincidences – something that happens which seems uncannily prescient or relevant. Jung called it synchronicity – a term he forged with Pauli, as it happens (though interestingly for this discussion, Pauli resisted talking about his decades long work with Jung for fear of ridicule.)

Synchronicity means events that appear to happen without the usual relation of cause and effect. The debate is whether random things happen that are then interpreted as meaningful, or whether things happen that are not only meaningful but can’t be mere coincidence. It’s a debate that Pauli and Jung had. Pauli inclined to the former view, Jung the latter. However, both agreed that evidence won’t resolve the difference as meaningful coincidences can’t be studied statistically. They’re rare as events, but very big as experiences.

Third, mind reading. Again, this I don’t believe in, if you mean guessing what number you’re thinking of right now, or some such. However, I do have a strong sense that we live inside one another’s heads far more than a hectic, distracted lifestyle allows us to realise. So whilst I doubt whether specific snippets of information are conveyed that way, I don’t doubt moods and emotions are routinely shared.

I’ve come to this conclusion having participated over a couple of years in a kind of group therapy called constellations. It involves individuals in the group representing significance figures or issues in the life of the subject of the session. The representing individuals stand in a formation, or constellation, that meaningfully conveys the situation to the subject concerned. Conducted by a discerning therapist (discernment is crucial: again, this is not magic), what then happens is that the representatives find they experience feelings – joy, disgust, boredom, no interest – that are remarkably helpful in understanding what’s going on in the situation.

It’s very powerful; I’ve never yet attended a workshop at which participants did not find the process revealing. But how you explain it, I’m not sure.

It must have much to do with objectifying the situation in the constellation, and with what therapists know as transference and countertransference – though every so often something happens that seems to exceed even that. I was once representing someone’s dead father and felt nothing except my heart pounding. When I said so, the individual told me that their father had died of a heart attack so that made perfect sense.

But whatever the explanation, once again, I want to remain open to such subtler processes. Scientific puritanism and new age credulity alike don’t help.