Carlos S. Alvarado Ph.D.

Carlos S. Alvarado Ph.D.

Past president (1995) and President-Elect (2002-2003) of the Parapsychological Association. Conducted research on the psychology and the features of OBE experiences (and other parapsychological phenomena) in Puerto Rico, Scotland and in the US. Alvarado is also known for his reviews of the historical literature of the field. He is currently working at the Parapsychology Foundation, where he is the Chairman of Domestic and International Programs, the series editor of the Foundation's Parapsychological Monographs and the Associate Editor of the International Journal of Parapsychology.

Reflections on Being a Parapsychologist

 - Carlos S. Alvarado Ph.D. -

7. Why are we in Parapsychology?

In the face of all these unpleasant experiences one may ask why some of us stay in parapsychology. Obviously many of us must obtain something from the field or have specific motivations if we stay in it though faced with so many difficulties. In a recent paper James Carpenter (2002) listed three reasons: to explain unexplained phenomena, to eventually make practical use of the phenomena, and to learn more about human nature. In an international survey published in Spain by Francisco Gavilan Fontanet (1978), the proportion of the most frequently endorsed reasons given for interest in parapsychology were: 31% to explain phenomena through the use of the scientific method, 24% to answer questions about the nature of man, and the meaning of life, death and the beyond, and 23% personal experiences or the experiences of others.

For some, involvement in the field is certainly a scholarly pursuit of the first magnitude due to its great intellectual challenge. Perhaps this is why such philosophers as C. D. Broad (1962) have been concerned with the field. Several writers have stated that the intellectual and methodological difficulties of parapsychology make the field particularly challenging, especially as regards critical thinking. F. C. S. Schiller (1927) argued that for anyone "who wished to apprehend the real method of science and to appreciate its real difficulties, there is no better training ground than Psychical Research" (p. 218). J. B. Rhine (n.d., p. 3) commented on the value of parapsychology as a discipline in which to learn to evaluate new claims and criticisms, a context that provides an excellent opportunity to develop a scientific mind. Similarly, years later John Beloff referred to the educational value of parapsychology in this way:

It teaches us ... how difficult it is to arrive at any definitive conclusions about it. It raises for us, in its most acute form, the eternal question: 'What can I believe?' ... At one instant it will open up for us exciting vistas of new worlds to be conquered; at the next, it will cause them to vanish again in a haze of doubts. It forces us to reckon with the almost bottomless duplicity of our fellow creatures, and yet it forbids us to take refuge in any easy cynicism no matter how fantastic the case under consideration. In a word, it plays tug-of-war with us so that we can enjoy neither the peace of mind of the committed believer nor the complacency of the skeptic (Beloff, 1990, p. 55).

However, there are other reasons. For me it is a question of reminding myself, and others, of the potential of humankind. It is greatly satisfying to participate in research as well as to teach students about what may be the most exciting possibilities of the human mind. It does not matter if we are talking about ESP scores in the lab or reports of spontaneous cases. Regardless of the final explanation we will be learning something about the abilities of the mind to process information in what now seem to us to be unconventional ways. This will certainly extend our current knowledge. Furthermore, I see parapsychology as part of the emerging field of positive psychology, a psychology devoted to growth and strengths, to positive abilities. Unfortunately, however, like other related areas of psychology, those who identify with positive psychology do not acknowledge the contributions of parapsychology (e.g., Aspinwall & Staudinger, 2003).

Probably one of the most frequent motivations to be in parapsychology is the search for different forms of transcendence of physical limitations. The question here, and one for which such critics as James Alcock (1987) take us to task, is the use of parapsychology to demonstrate or to suggest that human beings have a component beyond our material constitution. There is no question that this has been a driving force in parapsychology. In his seventeenth-century work Saducismus Triumphatus Joseph Glanvil (1682) saw poltergeists, apparitions, and other phenomena as evidence of a spiritual world. In his Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, Myers (1903, Vol. 2, p. 257) concluded that psychic phenomena "prove that between the spiritual and the material worlds an avenue of communication does in fact exist." Others such as William McDougall (1911), J. B. Rhine (1947), Joseph Gaither Pratt (1964), Charles T. Tart (1979), John Beloff (1990), and Ian Stevenson (1981) have emphasized how ESP and other phenomena are indicative of the existence of the mind independent of the body. In J. B. Rhine's words: "The psi researches show the natural human mind can escape physical boundaries under certain conditions ... Accordingly a distinct difference between mind and matter, a relative dualism, has been demonstrated by the psi experiments ..." (J. B. Rhine, 1947, p. 205). More recently, Charles Tart (2002) argued for the importance of the spiritual implications of parapsychology.

However, not everyone is in parapsychology to provide support for dualism or spirituality. Some have had a physicalistic outlook that does not emphasize the mind, the spirit, or any form of transcendence. Italian Ferdinando Cazzamalli (1954) was highly critical of Rhine's emphasis on nonphysicality, preferring to follow the old psychic force model prevalent in the spiritualistic and some of the psychical research literatures. Such Soviet scientists as Dubrov and Pushkin (1982) also upheld physicalistic assumptions. Others, like Dick Bierman (1996), have been critical of dualism, assuming that physics will eventually explain psi. For Irvin Child (1976), the fact that parapsychology shows the independence of the mind from the body was not proved. In his words: "We may eventually arrive at an understanding of paranormal phenomena that is just as dependent on physics and chemistry as our understanding of color perception" (p. 117).

Next part: 8. Approaches to Parapsychology


Parts 1-12 of "Reflections on Being a Parapsychologist"


 Abstract and Introduction
 Parapsychologists and their Accomplishments
 Personnel in Parapsychology
 The Variety of Members in the Parapsychological Community
 Education and Training in Parapsychology
 How Does it Feel to be a Parapsychologist?
 Why are we in Parapsychology? (current page)
 Approaches to Parapsychology
 Legitimation Strategies of Parapsychologists
 When Parapsychologists Harm Their Cause
 Concluding Remarks

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