The Political Economy of Preternatural Parapsychology
Man’s longing for the marvelous: the underground of the human psyche finds its counterpart in the meanderings of a mythical labyrinth, the subterranean meetings by candlelight, secret passages hidden within the double walls of castles, treasures concealed in gullies.—The Chemical Weeding, 17th century Rosicrucian novel
In my two-part article on neoliberal psychology (From Primal Scream to Collective Unconscious and From Barbie Dolls to Hook-Up Sex), I named three orientations to the self. The first was realistic neoliberal psychology which is mainstream and results in the development of an “entrepreneurial self”. Then I discussed two types of rebellious romantic psychology that developed in the 1970s through the 1990s. The first type came out of the human potential movement and gave birth to what I called the “expressive self”. Then in the early 1980s, as part of a conservative reaction against the 1960s movement, an upper-middle and upper-class form of psychology coalesced around the work of Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell. This resulted in what I call a “mystical self”.
The discoveries of modern science can appear to be either deterministic...or the individuals are thought to be subject to chance probabilities. Neither of these supports a notion of individual freedom so dear to Yankees - using parapsychology is adventurous and restores the individual’s sense of freedom.
But what was also a big part of a romantic reaction against neoliberalism was an interest in the paranormal or parapsychology, which straddled the boundary between psychology and the occult. For example, where does reading other people’s minds (telepathy) fit within neoliberalism? What about those who claim to see into the future (clairvoyance)? What about psychics who claim to move external objects with the power of their minds (psychokinesis)? What about those who claim to have astral bodies which exist outside the physical body? How do we make sense of an increased interest in ghosts who inhabit haunted houses?
What about paranormal phenomena whose advocates claim that alien spaceships have landed on earth? Or authors who claim that extraterrestrial civilizations built the Egyptian pyramids? Or Hoagland’s “Face on Mars” claim? I call the interest in parapsychology or paranormal events the preoccupations of an “adventurous self”. The purpose of this article is neither to debunk parapsychological or paranormal claims nor to attack the individuals who believe in them. Rather it is to ask:
- Why do these beliefs continue to exist despite being dismissed by scientific methodology time and again?
- What political and economic conditions might have existed in the United States between 1970 and 1990 that might make these beliefs especially appealing?
Natural, supernatural and preternatural
In Western history, according to Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park in their book Wonders and the Order of Nature, St. Thomas distinguished between three kinds of physical occurrence. The first is events in nature which are predictable and subject to natural laws. These natural laws are formulated and studied by scientists. At the other extreme, there are physical events which are deemed “supernatural” or miraculous, divine events caused by God, without physical intermediaries. But in between these poles are “preternatural” events such as marvels or wonders which are anomalies within nature and science and might be subject to control through intermediary forms. The intermediaries are claimed to be either humans performing magic or demons thought to control nature through physical intermediaries such as the elements or vapors.
While natural events are predictable, supernatural or preternatural events are not, but for different reasons. Further, those events which are subject to natural law occur frequently and are part of everyday life. Both preternatural and supernatural events are rare and, in some way, they occur beyond the world of everyday life. Copernicus’ description of the relation between sun and planets is part of a natural law. The claim by Catholics of God’s intervention at the healing sites of Our Lady of Fatima are considered miracles. Claims for ESP or telepathy are considered to be natural wonders. Medical diagnoses based on astrology and the use of correspondences are examples of preternatural events.
Paranormal and parapsychology fall under the category of preternatural. While supernatural religion appeals to some kind of divine intervention that keeps us passive and awe-stricken, interest in the paranormal requires actively probing an unseen world using our supposedly unexpected powers which come out of a sense of wonder. This is why I call people who have an interest in the paranormal or parapsychological processes “adventurous selves.”
Who believes in paranormal phenomena and parapsychology?
In their book, How to Think About Weird Things, authors Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn give the following statistics about people in the United States:
- 55% believe in psychic or spiritual healing.
- 41% believe in ESP.
- 32% believe that ghosts or spirits of dead people come back in certain places and situations.
- 31% believe in telepathy or communication between minds without using the traditional five senses.
- 24% believe that extraterrestrial beings have visited earth at some time in the past.
- 26% believe in clairvoyance, or the power of the mind to know the past and predict the future.
- 21% believe that people can hear from or communicate mentally with someone who has died.
- 25% believe in astrology, or that the position of the stars and planets can affect people’s lives.
- 21% believe in witches.
- 20% believe in reincarnation, that is the rebirth of the soul in a new body after birth.
The right-wing political and economic setting mid 1970s to 1990s
When social life is relatively prosperous and the economy is expanding, people in the middle and upper-middle classes tend to gravitate to the moderate or liberal spectrum of their religion. However, in the hard economic times beginning in the 1970s and to the 1990s, when the economy is contracting and there is some kind of ecological and/or political crisis, the traditional religions are implicated, the center does not hold and people are scattered into the left or right wings of fundamentalist religion, cults or parapsychology. There are at least four possible reactions:
- The working-class joined a more fundamentalist religion as happened in the Christian churches in late 1970s.
- The upper-class and the upper middle-class who were established professionals were drawn to the conservative psychology of Carl Jung, the esoteric religion of Eliade or the mythology of Joseph Campbell. The results of these involvements culminate in what I’ve called a “mystical” self.
- Those in the middle-class and upper middle-class who have not found a satisfactory professional position or have been by-passed in their professional life, those who have status anxiety, often strike out on their own and become interested in parapsychology and paranormal phenomenon. These folks maintain their individualism by not attaching themselves to traditional religious or scientific organizations. They may even start their own organization.
- Those middle-class and upper middle-class people who are hypercritical thinkers and who criticize all the world’s religions are drawn to social spiritual movements that want to create a revolutionary life on earth. These people have been burned by organized religion, think in terms of conspiracies but want to be part of a new spiritual community. They will likely be drawn to cults.
Adventurous vs the mystical self
Like the mystical self of the Jungians, the adventurous self has an anti-modern view of life. Those who believe in parapsychology often imagine that modern life has dulled their natural psychic abilities and they imagine that people in tribal or ancient civilizations were able to read minds or move objects without touching them. The Jungians are more straightforward about being anti-science. Jung never tried to make his concepts like the collective unconscious, or his archetypes scientifically verifiable. Followers of ESP and psychokinetics, however, do make attempts to test their participant’s ability by using scientific methods. As we shall see, parapsychologists do a very bad job of it, but they do try. Both Jungians and parapsychologists are opposed to organized religion. Jungians explicitly reject patriarchal religions for pre-Christian, pagan traditions. Those who investigate parapsychology are more individualistic and critical of all religions. Many see any kind of spirituality as attempts to repress the exploratory powers of human beings.
By why are Jungians and those who are interested in the paranormal not able to appeal to a more popular audience? Some smug Jungians claim that their knowledge is esoteric and is not fit for popular consumption. However, those interested in the paranormal are not just critical of organized religion. They tend to believe that political and scientific elites intentionally get in the way of cultivating paranormal skills. After all, if people could produce altered states of consciousness themselves the religious authorities would be out of work. In the case of UFO enthusiasts imagine that the US government is hiding secrets of UFO visitations. Both Jungians and parapsychologists are anti-intellectual and trust their intuition more than their reason, although parapsychologists make some attempts to use rationality in their attempts to set up experiments.
People interested in paranormal phenomenon will rely on groups, attend conferences and form clubs for emotional support. These groups will often support and even create collective experiences through UFO conferences as people in attendance may even report seeing UFOs if these conferences are held in the open air. The class origins of the two groups are different. The Jungians consist of upper middle-class and upper-class people who have established themselves professionally and are looking for a worldview that simply supports their achievements and gives them serenity. Those interested in parapsychology are usually young, and as Zusne and Jones say in their book Anomalistic Psychology, have either not established themselves in a profession or have been rejected professionally in a particular field. They are attempting to find a place for themselves in a new field with fewer professional demands. For example, Madame Blavatsky’s followers and the followers of the Society for Psychic Research were disproportionately upper-class women looking for activities to fill their time.
Jungians and their followers tend to be very well educated and have at least master’s degrees. Followers of parapsychology tend to be self-educated and get their reading lists from occult bookstores located in large cities. The leaders of parapsychology may or may not have their degrees in psychology and have found their way to parapsychology by doing their own reading. It is not possible to receive advanced degrees in parapsychology in the US. The major players in archetypal psychology are Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell. In parapsychology the leaders have been Charles Tart, Stanley Krippner, and Uri Geller, and for alien abduction, the psychiatrist John Mack. Their historical influences have been Mesmer, Madame Blavatsky and William James. Please see Table C for a fuller contrast between the mystical and the adventurous self.
Limitations of parapsychology in using the scientific method
There are many, many reasons why parapsychology does not measure up to scientific standards. First, we will examine why they don’t and then we’ll discuss why people continue to believe in parapsychology and paranormal phenomenon anyway. To begin, the evidence given for paranormal experience is not statistical nor have double-bind tests been undertaken. Instead, anecdotal evidence is offered such as case studies, testimonials and celebrity endorsements. Parapsychologists take advantage of the evolutionary biases for stories over statistics to sway people.
Secondly, the quality of sense data is usually nebulous. Imagining seeing a UFO or a face on Mars usually occurs when visual conditions are cloudy. In good science, the sense data is crystal clear and is verifiable.
Thirdly, in parapsychology, different types of data are thrown together eclectically without the recognition that some data might contradict others. Good science dialectically criticizes and eliminates contradictions within the data so all the evidence is logically connected. Another problem with parapsychology is that it violates the principle of conservatism. In providing a theory which explains one thing, parapsychological theory, it throws into question what is already known. This means that you solve one problem but you’ve created new problems. Science at its best, has theories which explain new phenomenon while keeping in place all the knowledge about the past.
In good science, one of its major expectations is that you state the conditions under which you will admit that you are wrong. This is called falsifiability. A scientific theory that is proven wrong is better than a theory that is not provable because failures allow science the opportunity to eliminate one theory from the field. With parapsychology, what is being measured does not usually lend itself to quantification so that it cannot be proven right or wrong.
In order for a scientific theory to be testable, it has to be able to be replicated in order for other scientists to test the phenomenon and see for themselves. In parapsychology, phenomenon often happen spontaneously or under conditions not likely to be replicated. This means the theory cannot be solidified and stabilized by other scientists. Another vital characteristic of a scientific theory is that it keeps its assumptions realistic and close to the surface of the data. Too often in parapsychology, their theories are so complex that you would have to provide more empirical data to support all the assumptions in between the surface data. So, for example, if you believe that there really is a face on Mars instead of just weird topographic sand configurations, then you have to explain what kind of civilization did this, what tools they used and for what purpose. Weird sand configurations are far more down to earth.
In parapsychology it is very common for experts in one field to use their expertise in one field to claim authority over a field in which they have no special knowledge. For example, imagine a medical doctor using their position to speak authoritatively about the relationship between quantum physics and consciousness. In legitimate science an expert in one field sticks to their field and doesn’t claim expertise in another field.
Typically, before a scientist publishes a book, the manuscript goes through peer review. Because parapsychologists mix together many fields, a peer review of their work is not easy to come by. Unfortunately, cultivating scientific generalists is not supported by corporations or federal governments. In any event, those claiming unusual theories, instead of finding peers to evaluate their work, go directly to the media in the hopes of directly reaching the public. Because parapsychology theory is exotic and not too technical, it has mass media and public appeal. This is what happened with Velikovsky’s book Worlds in Collision, published in 1950. The problem then, is that skeptical scientists are left wasting their time doing control damage and refuting theories with no scientific foundations.
There are pros and cons to being affiliated with an organization. For one thing, a scientist’s real research interests might not have trouble being funded. But at the same time, working for an organization requires that people keep their feet on the ground because the reputation of the institution is on the line. Unconventionality is looked on with suspicion. Parapsychologists are most often not affiliated with a respectable, established organization. Some parapsychologists who are wealthy or know how to tap wealthy donors may start up their own institutions. If not, in classical romantic style they call themselves “independent researchers”. This is a sign they are free-floating. They also present themselves as “heroic mavericks” whom no institution could contain.
Another tendency of parapsychologists is to imagine established scientists as stodgy old people set in their ways who feel threatened by parapsychologists’ “revolutionary findings”. This is a very unfair characterization. Most working scientists have a mixture of creativity and prudence. There is a field of psychology called “anomalous psychology” which explains extraordinary happenings by known psychological causes. In the best of all possible worlds, parapsychologists would be familiar with all the current anomalous psychological explanations before coming up with a new theory.
Often times, for example, UFO buffs are not familiar with the various accounts by scientists as to why people see UFOs. In other words, UFO enthusiasts should exhaust all scientific explanations before introducing a parapsychological explanation. Most often these enthusiasts don’t know what the range of scientific explanations are.
In addition, parapsychologists imagine that the authorities are out to get them. They can only imagine it is because their discovery would threaten the “powers that be”. They don’t consider the reason their theory is not paid attention to is they haven’t played by the rules of the scientific method. Unconventionality is not always a virtue. More times than not, it be a sign of incompetence.
Parapsychologists often have a romantic notion that scientists are lonely geniuses who struggle in isolation apart from everyone. But working scientists participate in a community of scientists where peer review doesn’t hold them, back but rather it actually improves their work. Because parapsychologists often don’t have institutions to answer to, there is little at stake if their theory doesn’t hold up. For practicing scientists, they have invested a great deal of their careers developing or protecting a theory. It is natural that they would have more to lose if they were wrong. It makes sense why they would be slow to incorporate a new theory, especially if it played fast and loose with the scientific method.
Parapsychologists are often anti-modern. They like to refer to the “ancient wisdom” of tribal or agricultural civilizations as if something that’s old assumes something inherently good about it. In critical thinking, parapsychologists commit the fallacy of “appeal to tradition”.
Most working scientists are modernists and think that modern science has made advances based on what people in the ancient world developed.
If you notice the claims and tones of parapsychologists, they are usually dramatic, quick, simple and painless cures for our problems. Scientists, on the other hand are very careful about making promises. They proceed by trial-and-error, working slowly and claiming no more than probability for their hypothesis. Parapsychologists usually do not use neutral language. Their language is loaded with virtue words like “holistic, balanced, right-brain and intuitive”. Vice words are “mechanistic, dualistic, left-brain, linear and intellectual”. The problem is this vocabulary does not make it easy to be objective and to weigh things in such a way that the language doesn’t give away which side you are on. Lastly, parapsychologists see themselves as open while scientists are depicted as closed, smug and cynical. Scientists usually see themselves as Carl Sagan did, combining skepticism and wonder. They see parapsychologists as gullible and sensationalistic.
But all these criticisms of parapsychology don’t seem to stop people from flocking to the latest book party, movie or media event of a parapsychologist. In the next section we turn to the political, social and psychological reasons why interest in paranormal events and parapsychology persists.
Decline of living standards in Yankeedom: parapsychology as a psychology of reactance
“Reactance theory” is a psychological response to a perceived loss of freedom to act and to think. The discoveries of modern science can appear to be either deterministic constraints on individuals or the individuals are thought to be subject to chance probabilities. Neither of these theories support a notion of individual freedom so dear to Yankees. Becoming interested in preternatural phenomenon or using parapsychology to find out about it is seen as adventurous and restores the individual’s sense of freedom.
Economic, political and ecological life in the United States seems to be falling apart and it is difficult for people to understand why.
As a socialist, I have an explanation for why things are falling apart but most people do not have the will and the patience to really study systems analytically in order to make sense of them. Yet people don’t want to give up. Believing in the existence of ESP or clairvoyance gives people hope and an escape from difficult material circumstances. The paranormal world restores a mystery to life that has been lost by the commercialization of ritual and myths. Paranormal psychology, with its foundation in a psycho-physical unity, gives people a structured explanation of why things are as they are. At its worst, parapsychology is running away to other worlds instead of facing and dealing with the real world and its problems.
Though most people interested in parapsychology are upper-middle and middle-class who are represented by both political parties, there is a sense that the political system has nothing to do with what they were taught about democracy. They believe that the world is run by people behind the scenes.
This leads to a sense that appearances can be deceiving. If the state can lie about what is going on in politics, it can also lie about what it knows about paranormal UFOs. Generally, there is a consensus among parapsychologists that what’s on the surface can be deceiving and the official authorities cannot be trusted on any level. This leads to a paranoid, conspiratorial mindset. At its worst, everything the authorities do is a conspiracy and there is no room for coincidences or ruling class incompetence.
Science has not delivered on its promise to make a better life for all.
Because most people do not understand the capitalist nature of science, those interested in the paranormal see science as a separate field which they judge negatively. Instead of criticizing the capitalists’ use of science, paranormal proponents blame science as a field for the failure to make a “better living through GE.” This leads among those interested in the paranormal to an anti-science romanticism. According to this way of thinking, science is mechanistic, cold, mathematic and too hard to understand. A mystical occult framework is hopeful, emotional and has definite answers (rather than probability) to the big questions. They fail to notice that science in the 20th century from quantum physics to relativity theory, from General Systems theory to complexity theory is anything but mechanical and dead.
There is an increasing sense of our personal lives being out of control with an unpredictable work-life and growing debt.
This leads to a completely understandable sense of wanting to have control over our personal lives. Some paranormal philosophies suggest that we “create our own reality”. Our mind can heal our physical problems and we can travel to other times and places through past life experience or astral projection. These are compensations for a perception that our lives are not in our control.
Cross-cultural surveys of happiness show people in the United States are not very happy.
Especially since most people interested in the paranormal are economically comfortable, if not wealthy, there is a sense that resources and money are not the only things in life. This drives them into parapsychology. It is common to hear testimonials of people who are “born-again” CEOs renouncing their former materialism and seeking to find meaning in ghost-hunting, extraterrestrial conspiracies or talking to their dead relatives.
Lack of security and unity in personal life and with the family.
It is no secret that Yankee family life is in shambles. The demands of work scatter families all over the country and leave scant time for connecting. Even before children mature and move out, family life is characterized by lack of quality time together, overwork, school debts and drugs to cope with anxiety and depression. It is no accident that stories of people talking to the dead have the same scenario. Who doesn’t want to hear from a psychic that their dead family members are happy on the other side and waiting for them with open arms? Funny how no psychic reports that the other side is about the same as this one or, even worse, as they find out your family is still upset with them for marrying who they married. It’s very clear and sad that people have to imagine another world in order to have conversations with their family that they couldn’t have in this one.
Difficulty finding adventure and mystery in current work life.
People want adventure and mystery in everyday life and want to have fun. Because they don’t understand that the scientific process of discovery is full of wonder and adventure, they seek it in other worlds. ESP, telepathy, clairvoyance and ghosts give some sense of mystery and hope that is missing from work that is either meaningless or, if it is meaningful, is dulled by the difficulty of working in a corporate culture. It makes complete sense that the popularity of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter is partly due to the championing of rebellion against the muggles and their deadening life.
People in the US seem so passive compared to people in other countries and are willing to put up with anything.
The box office blockbuster, TheHunger Games shows how rebellion is not far from people’s minds. Today of course, there is a current uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement, so rebellion is on the table. But during the 80s and 90s rebellion was hard to imagine. Feeling they are part of a secret society, a UFO organization or a spiritual organization helps people to feel they are not passive automatons. They know what is going on and they are active in doing something about it, if not in the political economy, at least in their private lives.
Fear of death, clinging to life.
People interested in paranormal phenomenon or in developing parapsychological skills want answers to the big questions. If we believe in past lives and reincarnation the belief is that we will never have to face dying. Unsatisfied with the answers religion gives about life after death, those interested in parapsychology want to find out for themselves. Is there life on other planets? Not satisfied with science’s answer of “no, not yet”, they wonder if the state and the scientists would tell us if they had gotten an extraterrestrial signal? Maybe extraterrestrials have already come here?
Personal troubles don’t seem to have a single cause. Multiple causations and chance are unsatisfying answers.
All the movies referred to (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, the Hunger Games) have characters that are clearly malevolent and help to explain the main character’s difficulties. As strange as this may seem, having malevolent characters is better, imagining that chance might be operating. At least you can see the contending forces fighting and at the end you will know who won, who lost and why. Unlike personal life, where there are too many variables to track, imagining your life like these movies can be a relief. Scapegoating, believing in ghost possession, believing in sorcery for good or bad and conspiracy theories gives life drama, hope, and clarity.
Lack of universal health insurance makes hospital care brief and gives doctors scant time to visit with patients.
In the light of the pharmaceutical industrial complex, it is understandable that people are drawn to alternative medicine such as homeopathy or acupuncture.
Both these alternatives seem to bypass the hospital bureaucracy, the impersonal switching of doctors and medication where the side effects are often worse than the illness. Hospitals are divided into specialists, many of whom do not consult with other specialists so that the patient feels like no one is driving. The benefit of holistic medicine, apart from whether it works or not, is the fact that whoever you work with seems to have the big picture in mind and you can understand the general principles of what they are trying to achieve just from reading a book or two.
There are many psychopathological reasons why people might believe in parapsychology. My purpose is not to tear people apart, but rather to try to explain the logical reasons why people are drawn to parapsychology. Their motives are expressions of the deep unhappiness that people feel about life under declining capitalist societies during the 1980s and 1990s.
The bottom line is this. Good science develops slowly, accumulates information by trial-and-error, is very careful in its claims, its evidence and its method for proving hypothesis. It makes no promises for happy endings, continuous adventures and razzle-dazzle. Its best claims are matters of probabilities. Scientists will happily admit when they don’t know something, often being able to suspend judgements for the present. But for those living in economically unstable times, governed by decadent political parties, in debt, with insecure professional job prospects, a fractured family life, and a chaotic health care system, the promise of science is weak medicine. These people need something dramatic, hopeful, mysterious, quick, comforting and thrilling. Paranormal phenomenon and parapsychological claims fit the bill and are a stronger remedy in darkening times.