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This page is based on a parapsychology FAQ that can also be found at the official website of the Parapsychological Association, an international professional society founded in 1957 and elected an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1969. The Wikiversity version of that FAQ will be edited here to become more comprehensive and reworked into an educational resource.
This FAQ was first compiled in 1995 by an ad-hoc group of scientists and scholars interested in parapsychology. Besides their interest in parapsychology, the authors of this FAQ had formal training (meaning advanced degrees) in physics, psychology, philosophy, statistics, mathematics, computer science, chemistry, anthropology, and history.
The majority of the authors of the original FAQ were members of the Parapsychological Association (PA). While not an official publication of the PA, the contributors included several past-Presidents and members of the Board of Directors of the PA. The authors' cumulative laboratory and field research experience with parapsychology was estimated to be over 400 years.
The authors aimed for consensus on each FAQ item, but as with many controversial topics, especially multidisciplinary domains like parapsychology, there were some disagreements. In spite of these disagreements, the authors believed that because of the lack of reliable information about this topic on the Web, and because of the many myths and distortions associated with this field, it was important to put some basic information on the Web.
What is parapsychology?
Parapsychology is the scientific and scholarly study of three basic kinds of unusual events, known as ESP or extrasensory perception, mind-matter interactions or psychokinesis, and survival of consciousness (terms are defined in more detail later). Parapsychology is based on human experiences reported throughout history, across all cultures, and throughout all educational levels.
The existence of these reports suggests that the strict subjective/objective dichotomy proposed by a common sense perspective of the world may not be quite as clear-cut as once thought. Instead, these phenomena may be part of a spectrum of what is possible, with some events and experiences occasionally falling between the purely subjective and purely objective. Such phenomena are sometimes called "anomalous" because they are difficult to explain within current scientific models. The presence of anomalies suggest the presence of a paradigm clash (as explained below).
Most scientists and scholars today who study parapsychological phenomena expect that further research will eventually explain these anomalies in scientific terms, although it is not clear whether they can be fully understood without significant advancements in our current state of scientific knowledge. Other researchers take the stance that existing scientific models of perception and memory are adequate to explain some or all parapsychological phenomena.
What is not parapsychology?
In spite of what the popular media often implies, parapsychology is not the study of "anything paranormal" or bizarre. Nor is parapsychology concerned with topics such as astrology, UFOs, searching for Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, paganism, Satanism, vampires, alchemy, or witchcraft. Parapsychology is limited to what can be studied through the lens of science and scholarship, and while scientific methods and scholarly analysis of virtually any topic are acceptable, in practice parapsychology tends to focus on experiences that are amenable to being studied under controlled conditions or through detailed case studies, and where the experiences are suggestive of extrasensory perception, mind-matter interactions, or survival of consciousness after bodily death.
Some scientists view parapsychology with suspicion because the term has come to be associated with a huge range of mysterious phenomena, fringe topics, and pseudoscience. Parapsychology is also often linked, again inappropriately, with entertainment as expressed by "psychic" entertainers, mentalists, magicians, and "paranormal investigators." In addition, some self-proclaimed "psychic practitioners" call themselves parapsychologists, but that is not what the scientific study of parapsychological phenomena is all about.
What is a paradigm and why is it important in understanding parapsychology?
When one encounters a controversial topic, such as parapsychology, it is important to understand the concept of a paradigm. A paradigm is essentially an underlying worldview. It can be thought of as a framework of beliefs or assumptions which are taken for granted and unexamined. Most people are not even aware they hold such assumptions. Paradigms help us make sense of the world around us, but more importantly, in terms of science, it not only determines what is true but how truth itself is determined.
There is an obvious catch to this. If one does not recognize the underlying assumptions one makes through a paradigm, it has the potential to limit our perception of the world, what we can discover, and how we can determine that knowledge.
A paradigm which many have held since the time of Rene Descartes in the 17th century, states that the subjective and objective worlds are completely distinct, with no overlap. Subjective is "here, in the head," and objective is "there, out in the world." The Cartesian paradigm presupposes that there are objective ways to define and measure the fixed external world--which the proponents of this paradigm would declare is the only world that exists.
The rise of general relativity and quantum theory in physics triggered a fundamental shift in our understanding of the physical world. Physicists began to realize that there is always some indeterminacy in our measurements, and that the very act of measurement itself can influence that which is being measured. Because of this, the experimenter may always be part of the experiment, and all our "objective" facts are, in fact, potentially influenced in unavoidable ways. While still a controversial concept, some physicists are now seeing the emergence of a new holistic paradigm, whereby the universe consists of a single whole where every "part" of thew whole is connected to every other part, beyond the conventional boundaries of space and time. This new paradigm does not "prove" that psi exists, of course. However, it is increasingly compatible with the possible existence of psi, and it may lead to a better understanding of these phenomena.
It should be noted that the conflicts between "classical" and "modern" paradigms is ongoing and unresolved. Because these belief systems are both widespread and deeply ingrained, topics that touch on these fundamentally different worldviews may give rise to bitter and violent debate, with little or no room for compromise. The lack of common ground between paradigms means that the question cannot be solved merely by discussion. Ultimately, the answer will have to be determined by which paradigm does a better job in answering the questions raised by further research.
Understanding the role that paradigms play in controversial topics makes it easier for advocates of competing worldviews to agree to disagree with mutual respect. Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a good resource for learning about this important sociological component of science.