On Other Ways of Knowing, part 2
Continuing on the subject of my doubts about the presence of ESP in human beings, I’ve come up with three basic categories that the various psychic senses fall under. Each one needs to be validated a little differently — if it can be validated at all — so I wanted to address them one by one.
ESP of the Commonly Accessible
Most claims of ESP seem to be of this sort. The psychic has access to additional information about something in the physical world that an average person doesn’t. Abilities that fall into this category include aura reading, precognition, psychometry, dowsing, and remote viewing.
This class of ESP is the most easily tested (and the most easily debunked) because a person’s individual senses don’t exist in a bubble, isolated from the others. I can perceive most things with all five of my senses and there’s usually a great deal of information overlap. How do I know an apple is rotten? Well, it will smell rotten. But it will also look wrinkly and blackened, as well as feel soft and mushy. I don’t know what a rotten apple tastes like but I’m sure “rotten” is what you’d conclude if you put it in your mouth. In this example, even though each experience is unique, four of my senses have all given me the same piece of information about an object: rottenness.
If someone has the ability to gain information about an object psychically, shouldn’t he be able to psychically ascertain that the apple is rotten? A person with no sense of smell could tell me the apple is rotten by its appearance. A blind person could tell me it’s rotten by touch. Why couldn’t a psychic do the same when his other five senses are taken away?
Perhaps this test is unfair. I doubt I could recognize the rottenness of an apple using only my ears, so maybe his particular psychic sense is also unsuited to the task. But certainly he could suggest a test that his sense is suited for.
The test that James Randi conducted on an aura reader in the previous post is an excellent example of a test that bridges the senses. A person’s physical location is information that’s available to both physical sight and psychic sight. It’s hard to even conceive of how someone could see an aura but not be able to pinpoint it in space. An aura reader should easily be able to determine the location of a person by the sight of his aura alone. Even the psychic being tested by Randi thought so.
Conclusive demonstrations of such abilities should be simple and straightforward for anyone who possesses them, and yet psychics routinely fail the tests for them — even in cases where passing guarantees them fame and fortune, as well as elevating the global psychic community to new plateaus of public esteem.
Until someone comes forward who can pass even a basic scientific test of his alleged abilities (a very meager demand), claims for this category of ESP have ceased to impress me.
ESP of the Exclusively Accessible
The next category of ESP is the perception of something otherworldly — something the average person has no access to whatsoever. Channeling falls into this category.
How can a channeler verify that the information he’s receiving is coming from a genuine source? Especially if that information pertains to inaccessible things like the metaphysics of the afterlife or the spiritual practices of beings living in another galaxy? The object of perception in this case cannot be seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted. How could the average person be convinced that there’s something at work here beyond the psychic’s imagination?
It might seem that this psychic sense exists in a bubble, but it doesn’t. A blind person could carry a paint swatch from the hardware store around with him for a day and ask sighted people at random what color it is. After hearing “blue” over and over again from family, coworkers, and strangers on the street, the reality of vision (if he had any reason to doubt it) would be personally confirmed for him. And at no point in this process would he need to know anything at all about the experience of blue. He has verified that a communally accessible perception called “blue” does exist despite having no grasp of what sensing blue is like.
Channeling works the same way. Even though I can’t experience what the channeler experiences, two channelers could independently receive the same information about this world or the next and I can compare what comes through. Via one medium an entity might introduce himself to me as “Hilarion” and tell me all about a civilization on a planet in the Vela constellation. If a different medium (who had never even met the first) opened with, “Hello again. This is Hilarion. I have more to tell you about the Velans,” I’d have pretty good confirmation that the mediums are perceiving something genuine, even if the sensation itself is inconceivable to me.
I’ve already written about devising tests for channeling and evaluating information from spirit guides, and again I have yet to encounter anyone who can give me verifiable — or at least mutually accessible — information via channeling that he couldn’t have easily acquired more mundanely.
ESP of the Solely Accessible
This category of ESP actually does exist in a bubble, and this is its undoing.
There are people who claim to have a personal connection to some supernatural entity or realm that’s shared by no one else on the planet. For example, through some sort of astral travel or shamanic dreaming a person might make regular visits to some other-dimensional plane where things obey different metaphysical laws and where the inhabitants communicate through a telepathy of raw sensation. He comes back from these trips reporting that these beings have given him insights into consciousness that are so profound that trying to reduce them to crude English would be like trying to push a bowling ball through a funnel.
There’s no way this person can corroborate this experience. Even if he could bring others on the journey, how could we compare descriptions of indescribable experiences? We outsiders have no choice but to trust — simply because he says so — that this experience has some external reality.
This is something I’m not inclined to do, because there’s nothing about his experience that distinguishes it from dream, delusion, or mental illness — even for him. As I’ve said before, experiences don’t necessarily correspond with events.
Does this person use drugs to facilitate his journeys? An experience like this one would sound quite familiar to the average psychonaut, but most psychonauts would agree that the source of the experience is his own brain. Does he use sleep deprivation or sensory deprivation to trigger the experience, akin to a vision quest? Or is he asleep when it happens and he’s having a lucid dream? Could he even suffer from some kind of latent schizophrenia which periodically thrusts him into alien realms?
These are details which are often left out in conversations with psychics who are reporting such experiences. You have to do some extra probing to uncover them. However, even if there’s no obvious hacking of the brain going on, the brain is completely capable of producing profound mystical experiences like this one given the right circumstances. Since our experiences don’t let us in on whether or not they have an external source, I’m not convinced that our subject can intuitively know that the beings he visits are real. Until we’re provided with some sort of evidence it’s prudent to not take on the belief that something special and otherworldly is going on here.
If our subject wants us to accept his claim he has some work to do. His perceptions must first be shown to fall under one of the previous two categories (with further exploration it’s possible for us to discover we were mistaken about this other realm being inaccessible to others), and then it must pass the appropriate tests. Otherwise, there’s very little that we outsiders can actually do with the ineffable, even if we wanted to.
This blog has so far been concerned with perceptions of the first two categories. This makes sense because only the first two categories can be tested, but I feel there’s still much more to be said about the third. A subject for future posts.
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- 04.30.09 / 9pm
- Belief & Knowledge