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Parapsychology: Science or Magic?

Alcock, J.E.

Oxford, 1981 [AJ]

[AJ 13] Psychologists and psychiatrists interested in the study of religion as a belief system and social system have typically focused on the ways in which magico-religious belief might satisfy the psychological needs of the individual.
(a) Dependency needs. In one of his discussions of the origins of religion, Sigmund Freud (1928) attempted to explain the concept of a god as the outgrowth of the child’s dependency needs. The child, who relies on the parents for protection and nourishment, comes to view them as omnipotent and capable of exerting invisible control over him. When the child realizes that he is mistaken about his parents’ and particularly his father’s powers, he feels shorn of protection and support. He then invents the concept of God to embody both the omnipotent invisible power and the source of support that the father once seemed to provide. This happens to be functional for society, Freud added, since it makes more acceptable society’s pressure on the individual to renounce or control personal needs so as to further the goals of the group, because the pressure seems to come from God.
[AJ 14] Freud’s idea is interesting but not very useful in understanding religion, since many peoples have never developed “high gods” (i.e. a single god or a small number of very powerful gods that might reflect the power once symbolized by the parents) (Swanson, 1960). Moreover, most people begin to acquire religion long before they are disabused about the omnipotence of their parents.
However, there is some evidence that the treatment of children by their parents and beliefs about the nature of the gods are related. In a study of sixty-two cultures, Lambert, Triandis, and Wolf (1959) found that societies which view supernatural beings as being primarily malevolent and aggressive are much more likely to employ punitive and harsh childrearing practices than are societies in which the gods and spirits are viewed as being primarily benevolent. This does not imply that there is a causal relationship between childrearing practices and the attributes given to the gods, however.
(b) Need for meaning and purpose. Carl Jung was fascinated by people’s apparent need to believe in metaphysical ideas, and he believed that the need to find meaning in life was one of the principal factors in the development of religion. It is normal to wonder about immortality, and abnormal to have no questions about it, Jung ( 1938) said. If a man ceases to exist at death, how can life have meaning? But if people continue to exist in some form after death, does not that imply that there must be a world of spirit-beings? These questions come naturally to human beings, in Jung’s view. Jung also saw religion, particularly the belief in immortality, as being functional for a society: Societies or individuals with strong religious beliefs would draw strength from them in times of adversity, and thus might be expected to struggle longer and harder, eventually vanquishing enemies who do not have religion to sustain them.
(c) Reduction of fear and uncertainty. William James and Wilhelm Wundt, two prominent nineteenth-century psychologists, both emphasized the importance of emotional reactions such as fear in the development of religious belief. Uncertainty about how to react in unusual or dangerous circumstances creates stress and fear. Primitive peoples may attribute god-like qualities to aspects of nature that produce fear, thus allowing them to deal with a “known” fear, which is generally easier to cope with than an unknown one.
Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski argued that both supernatural and magical ideas arose in order to deal with situations which were anxiety-provoking and in which no natural course of action was efficacious. Where there is no anxiety, there is no magic, he contended. He supported his argument with evidence from his study of the Trobiand Islanders (Malinowski, 1948) in which he observed that fishermen who fished on an inner lagoon, where there was little danger, had no magical rites to protect them, unlike the ocean-going fishermen, who were steeped in magic to protect themselves from the perils of the open sea. Illusory control was preferable to no control. Religion, he said, not only counteracts the forces of fear, dismay, and demoralization, but also provides the most powerful means for the reestablishment of the morale and solidarity of a group shaken by crisis.
[AJ 15] Malinowski’s ideas were heavily criticized. Contrary to what Malinowski suggested, some primitive groups lack supernatural explanations for spectacular and dangerous events, such as storms, and yet employ them for more prosaic events (Swanson, 1960). The Eskimos face much more danger than do the Trobiand Islanders, but have much less magic, and the Polynesians must deal with the same amount of danger as the Trobiand Islanders, but have less magic (Jahoda, 1969). The Karok and Yurok Indians of California suffer little anxiety, having plentiful food and no enemies or serious disease problems, yet they are steeped in magic (Kroeber, 1963).
Another problem with the anxiety-reduction hypothesis is that it cannot account for the fact that people in many cultures have created supernatural beliefs that serve to actually increase anxiety. Furthermore, is it not odd, if religious belief was invented to give comfort in times of stress or in face of death, that the “life after death” promised by many religions is not particularly attractive? If people were really inventing beliefs in order to assuage their anxieties, would they not invent more appealing fantasies? Why do some primitive peoples view “afterlife” as grey and disinteresting (Swanson, 1960)? Why do Christians fear terrible punishment after death if they lead a “bad” life, and yet hope to go to a heaven which judging by many Christian descriptions is far from idyllic, should they lead a “good” one?
[AJ 15] Nonetheless, the importance of anxiety reduction as a [AJ 16] function of religion should not be dismissed. With the promise of some sort of immortality, religion no doubt helps to make life meaningful and assuage the fear of death or sorrow of bereavement for many people. Perhaps it is because of this that people seem to deepen their interest in religion and belief in immortality after the age of 60 (see Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, 1975). While they may very well increase anxiety in some situations, it is also very likely that magico-religious beliefs do help many people cope in times of crisis and social and personal disorganization. Such crises may make religion more appealing. Stress and anxiety tend to make people more suggestible and more willing to accept explanations that they might readily reject in other circumstances. Heightened suggestibility might in fact lead people to accept, to “convert” to, magico-religious interpretations of events (Sargant, 1973). In this vein, it has been observed that soldiers who have faced death under enemy fire are more religious than they were before such experiences (see Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, 1975).

[AJ 16] Operant conditioning and magico-religious belief
...when expressions such as “need reduction” or “escape from fear and anxiety” arise, it is difficult for an experimental psychologist not to think immediately of “operant conditioning”: When an organism produces or “emits” a behaviour which is followed closely in time by something instrumental to its well-being (i.e. food if it is hungry, water if it is thirsty, escape from pain and suffering) it is more likely that the organism will repeat the behaviour pattern the next time similar conditions occur. The reduction of the organism’s need is a “reinforcement”, increasing the likelihood that the response will be repeated the next time the subject is hungry, thirsty, or in pain. In all likelihood, the same kind of conditioning underlies the development of belief in magic and religion, although the actual circumstances which give rise to such belief may vary enormously from culture to culture.
[] Before exploring in greater detail this approach to the origins of magico-religious belief, it is important to note that if a behaviour which at one time was followed by reinforcement is performed a number of times without being reinforced, the behaviour will tend to die out, or “extinguish”. However, such behaviour will be considerably more resistant to extinction if it has been reinforced intermittently rather than on every occasion.

[AJ 17] The reinforcement need not be causally related to the response. All that is required is that the reinforcement follow the response closely in time.

[AJ 19] ... magico-religious belief may be particularly responsive to operant conditioning because the human mind is fertile ground for it. One of the most important factors in the development of belief may be, as Professor Barnard Gilmore has put it, the normal, inevitable, magical psychology that all of us construct as we pass through three years of age and which rules us until we are approximately seven or eight years old.... Our unconscious remains confidently magical to this day. (Gilmore, 1980.)
The human mind is not born to logic; it learns it, just as it learns about cause and effect, what is “rational” and what “irrational”.

[AJ 22] How could educated people of the nineteenth century who grew up with deeply held religious beliefs react to such compelling challenges to their faith as those implied by both Darwinian and Freudian theory? They would have found it difficult to summarily dismiss the evidence which supported Darwinian evolution. If the Biblical account of creation is incorrect, can one trust the rest of the scriptures? Promised immortality by their faith, but led to doubt this by their logic, many people must have experienced considerable conflict and emotional turmoil. It was precisely such conflict that historian Lawrence Moore (1977) argued was responsible for the spectacular interest shown in spiritualism beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, an interest shared by people from all walks of life. Both spiritualism and the psychical research which grew out of it offered people, in Moore’s words, “a 'reasonable’ solution to the problem of how to accommodate religious and scientific interests” (p. xii). The popularity of spiritualism was one of the dominant cultural [AJ 23] phenomena of the latter part of the nineteenth century, both in North America and in Europe.
[AJ 23] ... spiritualists were careful to argue that they were not basing their beliefs on a religious faith. They were dealing with observable phenomena, they claimed, and they rejected supernaturalism. They believed in the immutability of natural laws, and emphasized the importance of empirically derived knowledge.
[AJ 23] Spiritualism shared, with most other “religions” that developed from the nineteenth century onwards, the conviction that it could be validated empirically and objectively. Moore (1977) observed that virtually every new American religion in the nineteenth or twentieth century—Mormonism, Christian Science, Scientology, Transcendental Meditation—has claimed to have an objective basis for its beliefs.
By the time spiritualism began to wane near the end of the nineteenth century, it had generated enough interest among some scholars to lead to the formal pursuit of psychical research, research dedicated to examining empirical evidence for the existence of spirits, thought transference, and other related phenomena. In 1882 a small group of British scholars formed the Society for Psychical Research, which at heart was concerned with the scientific investigation of phenomena associated with seances and spiritualism.

[AJ 24] Many modern parapsychologists have been drawn to parapsychology for similar reasons. Impressed with the power of scientific methodology as a means to knowledge, yet unable to accept either a mechanistic world view or the alternative offered by traditional religious belief, these men saw in parapsychology an attractive alternative—the scientific study of spirituality.

[AJ 24] Thus, one root of psychic research is the desire to refute the increasingly prevalent materialistic, mechanistic, atheistic, scientific worldview by proving scientifically that the soul survives the body.

[AJ 28] Salvatore Maddi (1971), a psychotherapist, reported that the most frequent complaints brought to the psychotherapist’s office are feelings of meaninglessness, apathy, and aimlessness. Distress over a failure to find meaning in life is rampant, he said. Fear of death by radiation, fear of cancer from pollution, fear of annihilation by atomic war or fear of violent social unrest is exacerbating the distress people feel. Separation and divorce, high mobility, and the decline of religion as an organizing force have served to rob many people of sources of social support (i.e. family, community, and the Church) during times of stress (Klerman, 1979).

[AJ 29] ... simply put, the religious void hypothesis suggests that science has on the one hand produced rapid change which has increased existential anxiety, while on the other hand it has weakened religion to the point where it is of little help in dealing with this anxiety. People have been left without a system of values to guide them in this period of extraordinary technological and social change. They turn to occult/paranormal belief which may allow them, among other things, to believe that there is a harmony in the universe of which they are a part, that each individual has hidden inside him undeveloped powers of potentially staggering magnitude, that the soul survives death. Evans expressed this viewpoint bluntly. The weakening of the appeal for traditional religion has, he said, left the field wide open as never before for stop-gap, pseudo-scientific philosophies, quasi-technological cults, and new messiahs which can assuage the existential anxieties that lie within most people (Evans, 1974).
However, one problem with blaming the apparent resurgence in paranormal belief on a religious void is that it is not clear that traditional religious belief has really declined. Organized religion certainly does seem to be losing its power and influence. ... and there has been a sharp decline in church attendance in recent years. Yet at the same time, basic religious belief still appears to be very strong...

[AJ 31] Ironically, at the same time that the movement away from organized religion has seemed to be so evident, there is also a movement towards two forms of religion: the fundamentalist churches and the new cults.
Fundamental religion is currently attracting large numbers of followers. The tremendous success of new-style religious “talk-shows” on North American television and the conversion of several leading entertainment figures such as folksinger Bob Dylan to “bornagain” Christianity attest to the widespread appeal of fundamentalism. This kind of resurgence of fundamentalism is not new. During economic or social upheavals in the past in North America, similar movements away from traditional churches to fundamentalist ones have occurred (Sales, 1972). Paraphrasing Fromm (1941), alienation and dehumanization can result from too much political or social or ethical freedom. Some people escape this alienation by taking refuge in authoritarian social groups, which might be of a religious or political nature depending on the kind of freedom that is troubling them.
The new cults, like fundamentalist Christian groups, are typically highly authoritarian in nature. The rigid structure they provide for their members may help to reduce existential anxiety by removing the need to make moral/ethical decisions.

[AJ 31] The religious cult provides them with a raison d’être — a collection of ideas and values which seems reasonably coherent — and a sense of belonging to a community: “Alienation, demoralization, and low self-esteem are at least temporarily, but unequivocally alleviated or eradicated; their needs have been fulfilled.” (Levine, 1979, p. 594.)
Levine’s examination of such cults as the Hare Krishna, the Unification Church (“Moonies”), the Church of God, the Jesus People, the Process and Foundation churches, and Scientology led him to conclude that, "The particular content of the theology is never as important as the trappings, and certainly not nearly as significant as believing and belonging, and the increase of self-esteem . . . they all give simple answers to the complexities of modern life; there are no longer any existential dilemmas; life becomes secure and comfortable." (pp. 594-595.)
Greeley (1970) observed that the new “faiths” have several characteristics in common:
1. They are non-rational, if not explicitly anti-rational.
2. They stress the basic “goodness” of human nature: If one is “oneself ”, if one can get in touch with one’s feelings, if one can escape the chains of materialistic, technological society, then one can do no wrong. [AJ 32]
3. They are salvationist: “The hippie, the sensitivity enthusiast, the expert with horoscopes, has not the slightest doubt that he has found the answer for himself and for anyone who has the good faith to be willing to listen to him” (p. 209).
4. They are “millenialistic”: cultists believe they can create a wonderful, new world in which people are “open” and “honest” with each other.
5. The leaders, gurus, trainers, and experts are usually highly charismatic.
6. They are liturgical: ritual, “sacred” instruments, and vestments, words, and phrases are of extreme importance.
Greeley suggested that the “new” sacralization is simply the reappearance of the old “tribal gods” of ecstatic emotion, superstition, and tribal consciousness dressed in new garb. While the tribal religions may never capture a large segment of the population, Greeley added, they will be around for a long time.

[AJ 32] Beginning in the 1960s, the interest in self-exploration, “getting in touch with your feelings”, communing with nature and the like mushroomed dramatically. A concomitant of this movement was an open distrust of rationality and science in many quarters. Science seemed to many to be “out-of-tune” with nature; pollution, defoliation, resource depletion, overpopulation, the threat of thermonuclear war were seen as the products of a society dominated by scientific thinking and crazed by technology. Science and technology came to be viewed as the enemy of individuality, of feeling, of human emotions. As Greeley (1970) said, “There are few better ways of rejecting science than turning to astrology; few more effective ways of snubbing the computer than relying on Tarot cards . . .” (p. 206). For people with this negative view of science, parapsychology offers a world of psychic powers which need not follow the limiting “laws of nature” which science presents. Science suggests men are but skin and sinew, blood and bone, fleshy automatons with the illusion of free will; parapsychology offers realms which defy definition.

[AJ 79] ... subjects who believed that being in an “alpha” state (characterized by higher than normal alpha wave activity in the brain) can lead to ecstatic experience reported highly moving and “meaningful” experiences when they believed (erroneously) that they were in such a state (Lynch, 1973). One researcher (Doxey, 1976) personally experienced the power of this kind of set: When testing his equipment with himself as subject, he saw the equipment signal that he was in an alpha state and experienced what he described as “near ecstasy”. Later analysis of brain-wave recordings of the experience showed that he had not been in an “alpha state” at all. There had been an equipment malfunction, and the signal he had received was erroneous.

[AJ 79] Benson (1975) studied practitioners of transcendental meditation and found that, while meditating, they demonstrated a marked decrease in rate of metabolism as measured by [AJ 80] oxygen consumption. While during sleep, oxygen consumption decreases slowly over a period of 4 to 5 hours to a rate about 8 percent lower than during the waking state, the meditators were experiencing between 10 and 20 percent reductions, and these occurred within the first 3 minutes of meditation. In addition, brain-wave activity showed an increase in alpha waves, which usually occur when people feel relaxed, while heart rate and respiration and blood lactate level (which seems to be linked with feelings of anxiety) all decreased significantly shortly after meditation began. Yet, Benson found, meditation is neither a form of sleep nor a substitute for it.
Benson began to experiment, and discovered that these changes were in no way unique to transcendental meditation; rather, they were part of an integrated response opposite to the “fight-or-flight response”. Whereas in the fight or flight response, autonomic nervous system activity prepares the body for danger adrenalin flows into the blood stream, heart rate and respiration increase, surface blood vessels contract this other response, this “relaxation response”, leads to opposite reactions. It can be considered to produce an altered state of consciousness, a state that is not commonly experienced because it does not occur without being deliberately invoked. Mystical experiences and feelings of transcendence can accompany the relaxation response, and Benson suggested that the relaxation response has been experienced throughout history, and that the methods used by mystics and monks to achieve feelings of transcendence are precisely those which should elicit a relaxation response. There are four necessary components to bringing about the response; (a) a quiet environment, so that there will be no distractions; (b) a comfortable position, so as to eliminate muscular tension; (c) a mental device — by repeating a constant stimulus, word, or phrase over and over, or by staring at an object, or by focusing on one’s breathing, one can avoid or interfere with the train of distracting thoughts; (d) a passive attitude — one should not worry about distractions should they occur. The relaxation response must be allowed to happen; it cannot be actively pursued.
[] The importance of Benson’s work in the present context is that we seem to have a natural propensity to bring about an altered state which for some people is accompanied by feelings of ecstasy. This ecstasy will be interpreted in terms of the circumstances which brought it about. Because our social learning history does not prepare us for what appears to be quite a natural experience, it is not surprising that it is often imbued with profound metaphysical importance.

[AJ 144] It has taken a very long time to overcome the myriad metaphysical explanations for natural phenomena that grew out of the ignorance and magic of our ancestors; no thoughtful scientist is about to admit into the fold of science an approach or a belief system which argues for the existence of the miraculous while at the same time pleading the necessity for a special relaxation of the rules of evidence.

[AJ 188] The general public is by and large being misled by the media with regard to the world of the paranormal. The problem is not that people might begin to believe in telepathy or ghosts or survival of the “soul”. The problem is that much of parapsychology, and much of the new wave of Eastern philosophy-religion-psychotherapy, teaches people to abandon critical thought, to consider the scientific method as too restrictive, passé, incapable of reaching [AJ 189] ultimate truths, and to view the individual and the world in magical terms.


For comments: Dolf Hartsuiker