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. -

8. Approaches to Parapsychology

Our reasons for being in parapsychology may also inform our approaches to the field. Those interested in showing the existence of aspects which transcend the physical existence of human beings may conduct a type of parapsychological research designed to support those ideas. The studies of Alan Gauld (1968) and Silvio Ravaldini (1983) on the life and work of Frederic Myers and Ernesto Bozzano, respectively, offer us insights on the methods they followed to explore their passion for the survival issue. Both researchers conducted extensive bibliographical studies that attempted to combine different types and gradations of cases in away that would favor the survival perspective. In addition, Bozzano's (n.d.) desire to prove survival led him to develop his concept of psychic rapport which separated telepathy from spirit communication through mediums. In his view, telepathy worked only when there was some type of link between persons, such as an emotional link or an object in common. In mediumistic communications it was not unusual to find veridical cases with no links between the medium and living persons. In these cases, Bozzano argued, telepathy would not work and the case indicated discarnate agency. More recently, others have proposed other demarcation criteria between ESP from the living and survival-related influences (Schwartz, Russek, Nelson, & Barenstsen, 2001; Stevenson, 1974b). Regardless of the validity of these ideas, the point here is how different conceptual approaches in survival have guided work in the field.

J. B. Rhine's work is a reminder of the use of parapsychology for particular purposes. Anyone who has read J. B. Rhine's New World of the Mind (1953b) will remember that Rhine did not limit his work to a defense of a nonphysical conception of the human mind from the results of experimental psi research. He also attempted to extend the implications of his card and dice tests to religion, philosophy, and more practical issues such as an ethic of behavior and a rejection of communism.

Another more extreme example is the Catholicism-based parapsychology developed by Oscar González Quevedo, a Spanish parapsychologist and Jesuit priest living in Brazil. He argues that parapsychology allows us to arrive at particular demarcation criteria between the supernatural and the parapsychological (González Quevedo, 1996; see also Omez, 1956/1958). I believe most of us would agree that the concept of the supernatural (or the direct influence of God on the world) is a problematic one, especially in terms of the constant expansion of science. Furthermore, González Quevedo has argued that phenomena such as ESP are properties of the soul. Granted this, the powers cannot be manifested consistently through the human body because the body had lost the property (or state of grace) for channeling them ([González] Quevedo, 1969/1971, Chapter 36; see also Wiesinger, 1948/1957). Religious reasoning explains in part why this author postulates we should not induce nor develop psychic phenomena. Followers of this system do not conduct empirical studies, depending instead on analyses of published material. I have also been informed by one of our Brazilian PA members (Wellington Zangari) that members of González Quevedo's parapsychology group are not allowed to question his theoretical explanations and that only members of his inner sanctum are allowed to use his library, which is reputed to be rich in historical materials. So the religious influence (or mentality) extends beyond the conceptual into the structure of his organization and the social roles allowed to his followers. Fortunately for the future of parapsychology in Brazil, this archaic form of the field is rapidly declining. The last ten years have seen the rise of a new breed of scientific parapsychologists in Brazil, all PA members, who are changing the field (Zangari & Machado, 2001). The most prominent members of this group include Fatima Regina Machado, Fabio da Silva, and Wellington Zangari.

Another important conceptual issue which divides some parapsychologists from others is the current dichotomy between those who conduct work following unconventional or conventional explanatory models (see Palmer, 1986). For some the only real parapsychological work is that which is conducted using procedures that emphasize the interpretation of results as due to such new principles as novel forms of communication. This explains why parapsychology is defined in the glossary of the Journal of Parapsychology as the study of "certain paranormal phenomena," and in turn paranormal is defined as a phenomenon that "exceeds the limits of what is deemed physically possible according to current scientific assumptions" (Glossary, 2002, p. 427). Does this mean that to do parapsychology or to be a parapsychologist one has to focus only on research based on models or assumptions assumed to represent new forms of communication or new principles of nature?

If we agree to this view we will be defending the idea that it is proper to define a scientific field by a particular model or at least by a specific overarching concept. But this is unnecessarily narrow and limiting. Psychology, for example, has always been formed by a variety of concepts that have coexisted with other ideas and, on occasion, some have simply been more dominant than others (Robinson, 1986). While some practitioners define psychology by their preferred theoretical orientation it is clear that the field is more than particular models favored by some of us. For example, traditionally, hypnosis researchers have been divided between those who claim that hypnosis is an altered state or a form of dissociation and those who define the phenomena as social roles (Lynn & Rhue, 1991). No one will say that one perspective is "real" or "proper" hypnosis research over the other; what we have here are different ways of explaining phenomena. Psychology encompasses different views of the nature of the mind, or of human behavior, and the important overarching goal is to understand the subject matter through any conceptual framework that is helpful as opposed to defining and limiting the research enterprise to a single explanatory model.

In terms of parapsychology it would be more productive if we defined the field as the study of some phenomena that we do not understand but that may have a variety of explanations. One can be a parapsychologist and conduct research without assuming paranormality as previously defined. Parapsychologists study a group of phenomena science still does not understand by trying to learn more about the characteristics of the phenomena and their relationships to other variables. This work need not be limited to particular assumptions. The task of parapsychology is to understand the phenomena whether or not their final explanation is conventional or unconventional. This wider perspective was evident in the initial goals set by the SPR.

In the now classic Objects of the Society (1882) it was stated that to be in psychical research "does not imply the acceptance of any particular explanation of the phenomena investigated, nor any belief as to the operation in the physical world, of forces other than those recognised by Physical Science" (p. 4). There are different approaches one may take to try to explain psi phenomena. All are valid and necessary as long as they bring an understanding of the subject matter. This is why defining a whole field of study only on the basis of the paranormality of experiences (as previously defined) is short-sighted and may prevent progress along different fronts. While it is valid to prefer and to focus on testing specific theoretical models or processes, the tasks of parapsychology as a whole should be centered on understanding the phenomena whatever their nature may be and not in solely validating a single explanatory model. Our task as scientists is to follow the data wherever it takes us. Science in general has sometimes failed to do this when confronted with claims such as those of ESP. Parapsychologists should not make the same mistake in failing to follow alternative explanatory processes just because they are not paranormal.

Having said this, we also need to remember the importance of those theoretical views and approaches that challenge our worldviews and that seem unlikely to be explained by the usual sensory-motor mechanisms; in other words, the paranormal as defined before. It is precisely those ideas that may bring change and important discoveries by challenging the established paradigms. I am not arguing for the abandonment of such views, as long as they are kept empirical. Neither am I proposing a parapsychology based only on conventional explanations. What I propose is avoiding a definition of the field solely as a paranormal science, as above defined.

Next part: 9. Legitimation Strategies of Parapsychologists


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?
 Approaches to Parapsychology (current page)
 Legitimation Strategies of Parapsychologists
 When Parapsychologists Harm Their Cause
 Concluding Remarks

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