Toward a “Parapsychological Synthesis” – Proposals for Integrating Theories of Psi

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Michael Nahm 
Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health (IGPP)
, Freiburg, Germany 

Background: Throughout the history of parapsychology, complaints about a lack of a reasonable theory that could explain psi phenomena have regularly been advanced. It has been argued that this lack of theory would hamper the scientific progress and acceptance of parapsychological research among scientists. In this presentation, I argue that the notion that there is a lack of theory in parapsychology is mistaken. By contrast, parapsychologists have already developed numerous approaches that may count as a theory (May & Marwaha, 2015; Kelly et al., 2015). Nevertheless, there are reasons that may give rise to the notion that there is a lack of theory in parapsychology. Two important reasons are the following:  

  1. Some seem to hold the opinion that parapsychologists must a) be able to develop a theory that is roughly as robust as theories in classical physics in terms of allowing the performance of successfully replicable experiments, and that b) the observed phenomena must follow efficient causation and must therefore be fully explicable by using our rational, i.e., logical thinking.  
  1. The existing parapsychological theories stand largely separate and are sometimes even regarded as incompatible with each other.  

In this contribution, I suggest that these problems could be overcome by trying to develop an overarching theoretical framework that might be termed the parapsychological synthesis, by reference to the evolutionary synthesis that was developed by biologists between 1930 and 1950 by integrating results of several seemingly incompatible branches of research into a coherent and widely accepted theory of evolution (Mayr & Provine, 1980). Instead of promoting several different theories of psi, a majority of parapsychologists could arrive at the formulation of one synthetic theory in which several sub-theories are harmoniously linked with each other, each covering specific aspects of psi.  

Proposals: The possible parapsychological synthesis must rely on certain core assumptions. The following are essential: 

  1. Parapsychology’s “Big Four” exist: telepathy, clairvoyance, pre/retrocognition, and (macro-) psychokinesis.  
  1. The world in itself is not perceptible and comprehensible for us. There is a background reality beyond the world we can perceive, measure, and explain using logical thinking. Our rationality was developed in the course of evolution as an adaption to cope with the excerpt of reality that we apprehend as a seemingly objective environment in a four-dimensional spacetime. In the world in itself, however, time, space, and causality don’t exist in the way they appear to our senses and rational minds. 
  1. Psi phenomena are rooted in this background reality and entail different modes of causation than efficient causation. They entail top-down principles as exemplified by concepts such as synchronicity, wholeness-causality, or final causation (Nahm, 2021). 
  1. The world we perceive can be regarded as being composed of epistemically differing layers or realms. Following previous philosophical concepts, distinguishing superimposed realms of matter, life, and non-physical realms, such as soul and mind, appears suitable (Hartmann, 1940). 
  1. Our rationality is best adapted for understanding the realm of matter. But the rational mind can, in principle, never fully understand itself or mind at large. Nevertheless, the mind is indicative of a fundamental aspect of reality that is at least of equal importance as the epistemic realm of matter.  

Building on these core assumptions, the foundations of reality can be framed in terms of idealism, dual-aspect monism, neutral monism, panpsychism, panexperientialism, or panentheism. Depending on how exactly these “-isms” are conceptualized, there are many overlaps between them. Regarding theories for psi, parapsychologists should try to integrate promising candidates, such as the model of first sight (Carpenter, 2012), the general quantum theory (Atmanspacher et al., 2002), the model of pragmatic information (Lucadou, 2015), and hyperspatial models (Carr, 2015) into this general framework. Potential conflicts between aspects of these sub-theories could be addressed in specific forums to elaborate ways to resolve these conflicts and to create a joint parapsychological synthesis.  

Conclusion: Striving to formulate one explicitly synthetic theory instead of presenting seemingly unconnected partial theories would benefit our field. Parapsychologists should furthermore highlight the fundamental non-physical nature of the world we perceive and openly address the resulting inherent limitations of our biologically conditioned rationality for explaining psi phenomena in their entirety. Trying to comply with mainstream approaches that focus merely on the epistemic realm of matter won’t work with psi. But this is no reason for regret. Rather, the exceptional significance of parapsychological research lies in providing direct empirical evidence for the non-physical foundation of existence. Therefore, as highlighted already by Jacques Vallee (2018) and Gerhard Mayer (2022), psi research should lead, not follow.  

Atmanspacher, H., Römer, H., & Walach, H. (2002). Weak quantum theory: Complementarity and entanglement in physics and beyond. Foundations of Physics, 32(3), 379–406.  

Carpenter, J. C. (2012). First sight. ESP and parapsychology in everyday life. Rowman & Littlefield.  

Carr, B. (2015). Higher dimensions of space and time and their implications for psi. In E. C. May & S. B. Marwaha (Eds.), Extrasensory perception. support, skepticism, and science (vol. 2, pp. 21–61). Praeger.  

Hartmann, N. (1940). Der Aufbau der realen Welt: Grundriß der allgemeinen Kategorienlehre. De Gruyter. 

Kelly, E. F., Crabtree, A., & Marshall, P. (Eds.). (2015). Beyond physicalism: Toward reconciliation of science and spirituality. Rowman & Littlefield. 

Lucadou, W. v. (2015). The model of pragmatic information. In E. C. May & S. B. Marwaha (Eds.), Extrasensory perception. support, skepticism, and science (vol. 2, pp. 21–61). Praeger. 

May, E. C., & Marwaha, S. B. (2015). Extrasensory perception. support, skepticism, and science (2 vols.). Praeger.  

Mayer, G. (2022, February 25). Open up the field: Broaden the horizon. Address for the Outstanding Contribution Award of the Parapsychological Association [Online presentation].  

Mayr, E., & Provine, W. B. (1980). The evolutionary synthesis: Perspectives on the unification of biology. Harvard University Press. 

Nahm, M. (2021). Ganzheitsbiologische Strömungen im Umfeld der Philosophie von Hans Driesch. In S. Krall, M. Nahm, & H.-P. Waldrich (Eds.), Hinter der materie. Hans driesch und die natur des lebens (pp. 143–201). Graue Edition. 

Vallee, J. (2018, August 4). The Software of Consciousness. Intriguing Lessons and Lingering Puzzles on the Far Side of StarGate. J. B. Rhine Address at the 2018 Convention of the Parapsychological Association, Petaluma, CA. 

Course Instructor

Michael Nahm
Michael Nahm Author

Dr. Michael Nahm is a biologist at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health (IGPP) in Freiburg, Germany. His research interests include 1) the links between unsolved mysteries in biology and parapsychology, and 2) unusual near-death phenomena. Nahm has published four books and more than 100 scientific articles.

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