Carol Zaleski, Smith College, author of The Life of the World to Come
John E. Mack, M.D., Harvard Medical School, author of Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens
Robert Ellwood, author of Mysticism and Religion
Q. You're a professor of political science, yet you've written a book on alternative medicine (Healing Powers) and now one on Lives of the Psychics. How did you first become interested in studying psychic phenomena? Would you call yourself a skeptic or a believer?
A. I have always been interested in psychic phenomena. I grew up in Key West, Florida, and my mother's side of the family is Cuban. Latino culture in that time and place was dense with beliefs in mysticism, alternative realities, and psychic phenomena in general. (It still is to some degree.) I was raised with the paranormal as a part of ordinary life, so much taken for granted that psychic experiences were regarded as the normal state of affairs. So I was a believer, by birth and nurture, until the right critical thinking permanently insinuated itself into my intellect in college (to be joined later by a return to spiritual convictions).
It may be this background that blinds me now to any conflict between my work in political theory and the explorations I seem drawn to in the worlds of psychic phenomena. I am writing a book right now on religion and politics. Unless I am missing something, the research I did for Lives of the Psychics feeds into understandings of religious sensibilities, at least those that rely on transcendent or alternative realities.
Q. In Lives of the Psychics, you mention two "supernatural" experiences in your own lifeyour daughter's prophetic dream of a plane crash, and your remote sensing of your mother's death. Can you describe those experiences for us, and tell us how they have affected your life and work? Has personal experience with psychic phenomena reinforced your interest in studying the supernatural?
A. My younger daughter woke up in tears one night after she dreamed that a plane I was on would crash. The plane I flew to Spain did crash on its return flight to New York after I left it in Madrid. I must say that the news of the plane crash just reverberated through me when it reached our hotel in El Escorial. I remember my senses opening up to new levels, the pure relief at being alive going over the top in intensity. But the feeling of my mother's death, when I sensed her passing in New York at the moment that she died in Florida, seemed perfectly normal to me, a quiet part of our sensing powers in a human community.
Again, and not to belabor the point, a general acceptance of experiences like these, by which I mean the supernatural, has always been a part of my life. My earliest memories contain preoccupations with a life after death, the possibility of alternative realities, planes of experience beyond the range of the five senses and the intellectthe usual metaphysical items. So these later events were never conversion experiences, just confirmations of longstanding beliefs. A sociologist might say that my Catholic upbringing accelerated these expectations, since in Catholicism the human community consists of both the living and the dead. Maybe so, but the preoccupations preceded the Catholic education I received in grammar school.
Q. Are psychic phenomena real? How can we tell? How can one objectively research phenomena that depend in part for their efficacy on the faith of the subject/investigator, or that only work some of the time?
A. Some psychic phenomena are real. The problems of confirmation I elaborate in the book can be traced to a flawed understanding of objectivity, one influenced by the material and scientific cultures in which we live in the West. In testing the supernatural we seem to be preoccupied with an odd need to elevate the controlled experiment to iconic standing, where the only truly reliable conclusions must be measured against the gold standard of laboratory conditions, and experiments replicable by anyone repeating a critical test.
I argue in Lives of the Psychics that a more robust version of science, one that addresses spontaneous experiences outside the laboratory, is needed to assess the supernatural. Unseen worlds are part of human cultures from antiquity to the present, and we need research methods that can negotiate these experiences successfully, attending to their limits and validity even when they are spontaneous. Research on the human brain (the instrument needed for all experiences) may provide new and effective understandings of the grounds for psychic phenomena, in part by forcing us to abandon distinctions between the spiritual and the material in experience.
Q. You discuss a wide range of psychic phenomena in your book, from out of body experiences to faith healing. For which phenomena did you find the most credible scientific evidence?
A. Near death experiences. They often occur in clinical settings (though they cannot be replicated in controlled experiments), and the reports given by survivors independently converge toward a generalizable model, without any convincing evidence that people are simply repeating known narratives. Yet even these events admit explanations that may falsify them as proof of a life after death. The interesting thing about all of these experiences is that both material and spiritual explanations can accommodate the descriptions. So of course we need just a little bit of faith beyond the evidence to move in either direction, toward belief or skepticism.
Q. Part of the research described in Lives of the Psychics involved asking professional psychics to make predictions about your own life and family. Ten years later, most of these predictions turned out to be "spectacularly wrong in all important respects," as you write in the book. Does that mean we should never trust psychic predictions?
A. Trust. I would not bet the farm (or the house) on the predictions of most psychics. But we cannot let the testing of hypotheses always rule our lives. Lookwe are all psychic in some way to various degrees, and many predictions thrust on us from within may be experiences that we can seek or avoid.
Some years ago, when I was just starting my life of teaching and research, I received a postdoctoral fellowship to study philosophy in London. My wife and I lived in London for that year, taking our three-month-old daughter with us. I worked mainly at the British Museum and the London School of Economics, but almost every week I would travel to Oxford for a seminar. Sometimes I would drive the 124 Fiat sports coupe that we had purchased soon after arriving in England. On a particular stretch of road outside Oxford I would take this car to speeds in excess of 110 miles an hour (my craziness knew no limits then).
One evening before a trip on the following day I was eating dinner with my young wife and infant daughter when I had an intense vision of the car turning over on that stretch of road, the black pebbles on the road surface coming up to my face with disturbing speed. Hmm, decision time. I could have taken the drive in the usual way the next day, determining if the vision was a true prediction. If true, I would have left a wife and daughter in dramatic circumstances, and I suppose that they would have had an intriguing story to tell a future husband and stepfather. If false, I would have dismissed a vision obviously too puny to foretell events. I chose to stay home and spend a wonderful relaxed day in London with my family.
The points are a) predictions do not always require a commercial psychic to be revealed, and b) sometimes we may want to avoid a test that might reveal the truth of even a very interesting prediction.
Q. In the last chapter of Lives of the Psychics, you write that the existence of other forms of life in the universe and multiple alternative realities "are consistent with current science and its conjectures." Can you say a bit more about this?
A. More than a few scientists are concerned to find evidence of other forms of life in the universe. Scientific inquiries are consistent with discoveries of the unusual, and in fact look for the counter-intuitive in experience. The highest science is, finally, an inquiry into the best and most important conjectures of the day.
There are several important research projects currently that rank among the more fundamental inquiries in historythe human genome project, for exampleand the question of life elsewhere in the universe is one of these. Nothing will reveal our standing and identity more completely than an answer to the ancient question of whether we are alone in the universe, or part of a universe occupied by other forms of life. Science will provide the way in which contact with other life forms is made, though if we do make this discovery I am sure that human science will be transformed as a consequence.
Q. Who's right, the absolute skeptic or the true believer in psychic phenomena?
A. Neither. The cautious and critical believer is right.
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Fred M. Frohock
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