The evidence in support of Extra Sensory Perception (ESP) is such that, were it any other field of study, it would long ago have been considered proven, yet it remains controversial. It tells us we all have the ability to predict otherwise random outcomes beyond chance, some of us better than others – the turn of a card, say, or the roll of die. It’s just that in practical terms, since it’s not a reliable phenomenon, it’s not much use on a day to day basis, at least not for the majority of us, so whether we believe in it or not, we tend to ignore it.
Psychokinesis is another controversial topic, yet also well supported by the evidence. It tells us we can affect outcomes by thinking about them, such as interfering with the workings of sensitive machines. But like ESP, the effect is mostly too weak to be of any practical significance – you have bore deep into the statistics of a large number of trials in order to detect it. It’s like radio signals from a galaxy on the edge of the universe – sure, you know it’s there all right, but you’ll never see it with your own eyes.
Then there’s precognition, the evidence suggesting we can tell in advance when something is going to happen, either through a gut feeling on the spot – and then it happens – or we might dream of an event which subsequently happens days, weeks or even years later. Again it’s not a reliable phenomenon, not something we can call upon at will. Most of us I think have experienced a few spontaneous instances of precognition, but if we try to call it up at will, we find we’re wrong more times than is useful and we look stupid so we discount it from our every day approach to life. Statistically speaking though, it’s pretty well established that we can sometimes see around corners.
But forget the statistics, forget the practical usefulness of these non-superpowers. It’s the existence of the phenomenon that’s the essential thing, because it tells us the mind is more than a product of the brain, that some aspect of consciousness is not confined to the physical body, that it extends out into the world. And cases of precognition tell us it is not confined in time either. The implications for our world view are profound, the science underpinning it as yet unknown and extremely challenging, yet I have no problem accepting any of this, but if we go the whole hog and accept a return to philosophical dualism, then what?
There are other anomalous phenomenon pointing in this direction – stuff I’m less comfortable with, yet for which the evidence is growing. One of these is the study of near death, where people are resuscitated after suffering life threatening injury, or heart attack. The brain is starved of oxygen and effectively dies, flat-lining on the EEG, yet during this supposed dead period, rather than reporting oblivion, people, upon resuscitation, give us accounts of an intensification of conscious awareness, of visiting highly realistic realms, of speaking with other beings, with dead loved ones. The accounts are broadly consistent, across all cultures and are not confined to those of a religious bent. Such events are life changing for those who experience them.
And then we have the reincarnation studies, which I find even more disturbing to my worldview – in particular the work of Ian Stevenson, and more lately Jim Tucker, in which very young children report veridical details of a past life. Again, whilst controversial, this research is painstaking, and the evidence is very persuasive.
Yes, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of reincarnation because it doesn’t make sense to me, but having weighed the evidence I’m finding it’s something I must at least reckon with as a possibility. Indeed in any other field of scientific endeavour the case would by now be considered robust. That it isn’t, isn’t surprising to me, and I’m not expecting it to change any time soon. My own reluctance to accept such things perhaps speaks of a broader unease, because if they’re true, then what?
All of these phenomena are dangerous in that they threaten the underpinnings of both science and religion. If it were no longer controversial that the essence of the personality was an indestructible, non corporeal entity, unrestricted by the bounds of space and time, recycling itself through various incarnations in a more restricted form in the material world,… well,… yes,… indeed: Then what?
Perhaps it’s easier not to ask the question.