Psi and the Limits of Science

This piece was written for The Idler.

The modern world swears by science. If your intervention or idea is not evidence-based, you risk instant dismissal. So it’s odd when the same mindset refuses to acknowledge phenomena supported by way more evidence than, say, intergalactic dark matter or the chemical soup theory for the origins of life.

I’m talking about psi – the mental happenings that range from psychokinesis to precognition, from telepathy to synchronicities. My friend, Rupert Sheldrake, never tires of saying that such experiences are widespread in the population. He’s documented hundreds of cases of individuals anticipating when someone is about to phone, as well as pets who know when their owners are coming home. (If you want a lockdown treat watch his YouTubes on the telephone telepathy enjoyed by The Nolan Sisters and, to be truly amazed, Nkisi the apparently psychic parrot.)

Scientists are generally allergic to investigating these everyday occurrences, fearing ridicule, and the amount of money allocating to funding research is small. But enough brave individuals have done the work and proven that psi happens.

Consider the witness of just one, Jessica Utts, who is significant because she was the president of the American Statistical Association: if there is anyone who knows how to assess the evidence, it’s her. And this is what she’s said: “Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well-established.”

In fact, because of the aversion with which the establishment reacts, psi experiments are often better designed and more robust than other trials. If you want to know about controls or double-blind protocols or replication, ask a psi researcher.

A longstanding player in this field is Jeffrey Kripal. His new book, The Flip, is an ideal, up-to-date primer. It’s well written, wide ranging, and doesn’t hold back on implications and insights. He is a psychologist, known for his work on religious ecstasy, UFO encounters, near death experiences, and the many and varied links between sci-fi and psi.

In this book, his aim is straightforward: to show that many people who otherwise prefer to stick to the world as described by scientific materialism find themselves “flipped” by inexplicable and unignorable events. The stories of the well-informed and intelligent are particularly striking.

Mark Twain dreamt of his brother’s death. He saw him in a metallic coffin, garlanded with white and red roses. A few weeks later, his brother died suddenly and Twain witnessed what he had seen, unfolding before his eyes.

Barbara Ehrenreich was raised a passionate atheist. Then, one day, whilst walking home in a little town called Lone Pine, she had an epiphany of the cosmos flaring into life. It completely upset her worldview. She has subsequently speculated that we might be living symbiotically with psychic creatures who cohabit with us, much as bacteria do biologically in our gut.

Personally, my experience of psychotherapy convinced me of the presence of everyday, humdrum synchronicities. I’ve learnt to trust them as winks and nods, much like I’ve learnt to trust dreams. Sometimes they seem relatively inconsequential, like the time I was leaving a talk about the mischievous spirits known as djinns, immediately to see passing a delivery cyclist working for a company called Djinns.

At other times, I wonder where they might lead me, like the time I was reading a book by the angel seer, Lorna Byrne. She advises asking your guardian angel to show itself to you, which I decided to do. Then, I left the house to catch a bus. At the bus stop, I took out her book to carry on reading, and flicked through to find the page. The first words I read were: “you may be at a bus stop”.

I got interested in angels because I started to take seriously what some of the greatest minds in human history said about them. Consider Socrates. It’s well attested that he was accompanied through life by a daemon, the ancient Greek name for go-between spirits. Of course, he lived in different times to ours. The world was assumed to be enchanted back then. But our ancestors could also discern between mental ill-health, superstitious fears, and ethereal entities. I’ve concluded that it’s our times which are foolish to dismiss them.

Just how we might re-engage them is a fascinating question, and Kripal can help here, too. He applies theories of human perception to his investigations, as it’s clear that how we perceive the world is profoundly shaped by what’s already in our minds. This is why Catholics have visions of the Virgin Mary and Hindus, the goddess Siva. He has also concluded that this is why hundreds of thousands of people in the US see flying saucers. American culture is saturated with stories of space as the final frontier, seeking out new civilisations, and boldly going where no-one has gone before.

We experience what’s otherwise beyond comprehension through the myths available to us, which is not to say that we aren’t experiencing something real. And this is why it matters. As Plato taught: human beings desire to become consciously aware of all levels of reality – physical, psychological, ethical, social, intellectual, cosmic, spiritual, divine. If we cut out parts of reality, we cut off parts of ourselves. Doing that precipitates compensatory excesses, from substance abuse to runaway consumerism.

In short, it’s worth finding a place for psi as part of the remedy for modern despair or, to put it the other way around, psi phenomena are the evidence that there’s more to life than meets the scientific eye. “Whatever they are (or are not), such flips appear to be scripted as goads and inspirations not as blocks and trips,” Kripal writes. “They appear to be pointing us to the new real and to the future of knowledge.” I agree. Let’s follow them.