Sunday, February 15, 2015

Experience . . . Statistics

Personal experience, by and large, cannot be contradicted by the person who has it. You lived it and therefore you know that it is true. I added the phrase “by and large” because I’ve encountered reports, here and there, of a handful of people who had paranormal experiences but, being ideologically convinced that such things can’t be true (and never mind the experience), have managed to explain them away. All paranormal research begins with personal reports, of course. Even at the very beginning of such research, most notably in 1882 with  the foundation of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in England, attempts were made to exract salient elements of such experiences and then to examine them statistically. Thus in this field—which aspired to be viewed as science—virtually all surveys feature statistical analyses showing that results obtained varied from results obtainable by chance.

The first notable survey of this kind, on thought-transference, was called Phantasms of the Living. By then, already Frederic W.H. Myers, one of SPR’s founders, had renamed thought-transference “telepathy.” The authors of the book were Edmund Gurney and Myers, both founders of SPR, and Frank Podmore, associated with the Fabian Society. The book is strangely named. It should’ve been called Thought-Transference or Telepathy, but telepathy was then imagined to operate like a communications system, e.g., telegraphy, with a sender (agent) interacting with a receiver (percipient). Electromagnetism had been discovered already (in 1973), but the concept of a field had not yet wandered into areas like psychology. In Gurney et al’s conceptualization, the message itself was an apparition, image, or other unreal (read immaterial) something—hence, from Greek, a phantasm.

In this work, which also features a brief statistical analysis of the results of card-guessing experiments, the bulk of the evidentiary presentation consists of longish anecdotes collected as letters; the first tells the story; others confirm its legitimacy. The authors classify these cases by type but do not apply statistics to the results. Thus we have a spectrum present here: personal experience is one pole, statistics at the other; the middle is a dense survey of anecdotes.

I’ve read multiple modern works of this type. They usually feature the briefest of extracts from anecdotes and masses of statistics. Reading Phantasms it occurred to me that the book makes the best case for the phenomenon. It relies on the reader’s patience to absorb what ultimately becomes a somewhat tedious mass of cases. In that slow digestion, not on the bare fact (this woman knew that her sister had just died 300 miles away at exactly 10 to 9 pm) but endless other details showing the life situation of the “agent” and of the “percipient” are rubbed in, you might say—along with pages and pages of cautionary notes on the believability of the claims made. The statistical sense slowly grows as this reading progresses. Thus one obtains the nearest thing to a “collective experience”; the endlessly repeated details make it ever more real.

I came to feel more and more, while reading, that a telegraphic one-to-one model does not accurately characterize the underlying phenomena. We seem to be dealing with an invisible linkage between people known to one another. A very few actually experience this linkage in certain rare case: when the agent is in deep trouble (drowning, say) and the percipient is relaxed (going to bed, reading, even asleep). The number of such cases—and the ordinary characteristics of agents and percipients—forces the conclusion that all of us are potentially capable of feeling this link. But the vast noise of ordinary waking thought blocks it most of the time. Rupert Sheldrake once wrote a book entitled Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home. Phantasms could have been entitled People Who Know When Their Loved Ones Are Dying. The preponderance of cases are of this kind.

All those tables of statistics are mildly interesting in other works, but nothing like the feeling of overwhelm one experiences reading the cases in Phantoms. Real life is captured by statistics. But when I go shopping, I almost never think about the GDP.

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