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ESP and Religion

Reality Check

Victor Stenger

Skeptical Briefs Volume 17.4, December 2007

In my recent book, God: The Failed Hypothesis—How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist, I frame various hypotheses that predict that the actions of God should be detectable to the human eye and the instruments of modern science. In one example, I argue that almost all religions posit an immaterial spirit or soul separate from the body. If this is the case, then this spirit or soul should manifest its existence in some phenomena that go beyond what we associate with the material world and describe by physical law.

Examples of such phenomena include extrasensory perception (ESP), mind-over-matter or psychokinesis (PK), provable out-of-body experiences (OBE), and near-death experiences (NDE) that are actual returns from the dead. Other related phenomena include demonstrated efficacy of distant intercessory prayer and the successful verification that humans have obtained revealed truths that they could not possibly know by natural means.

In several reviews and interviews, theologians and other commentators have noted that “No religion makes claims that humans possess ESP.” Now, I do not claim they do either. Nowhere do I argue, “ESP does not exist so therefore God does not exist.” I only hypothesize that some evidence for a spirit or soul should be found. This could be ESP, PK, OBE, NDE, prayers, revelations, or some other paranormal phenomenon that exceeds the capabilities of matter. I then take the fact that we see none of these to mean that a God who provided us with spirits or souls does not exist.

If we go back though the early history of psychic studies, which started in the mid 1800s, we see signs that most investigators were motivated by personal religiosity to find evidence for the soul or an immaterial force of some kind. After all, wireless telegraphy had been demonstrated; why not wireless telepathy? Let me just mention two early psychic researchers, each of whom held prominent status in physics and chemistry.

William Crookes (1832–1919) discovered the chemical elements thallium and selenium and invented the vacuum tube that was used to discover the electron. Sir Oliver Lodge (1851–1940) transmitted radio signals before Marconi (but after Tesla) and invented spark-plug ignition as well as the vacuum tube that was used in electronic circuits and other devices well into the mid-twentieth century. Ignoring what he must have known were the proper protocols of good science, Crookes performed poorly controlled experiments with fraudulent mediums that he felt confirmed his already held belief in a spirit world. Lodge also allowed his personal beliefs to override any natural skepticism he would be expected to exhibit as a competent scientist. His son Raymond had been killed in Flanders in 1915, and Lodge insisted that Raymond was communicating with his family from beyond the grave. Lodge also allowed himself to be bamboozled by phony psychics.

A third major figure in the history of psychic research was Joseph Banks Rhine (1895–1980), who made an honest attempt to do careful laboratory tests of paranormal phenomena at Duke University (although cheating by others did take place in his lab). Rhine coined the term “ESP” and founded the Journal of Parapsychology after his submissions to conventional journals were continually turned down. Rhine was a religious man and hoped his work would help reconcile science and religion by finding scientific evidence for a nonphysical component in humans. He clearly did not regard observation of spiritual phenomena as beyond the capabilities of science.

Today’s parapsychologists are usually very careful about denying that they are drawing any supernatural conclusions when they claim evidence for a paranormal effect. In this way, they are able to position themselves a little closer to the fringe of science where the widely accepted dogma holds that science can say nothing about the supernatural. I have strongly criticized this assertion (see “Supernatural Science,” Skeptical Briefs, March 2006, pp. 11–15).

Let us imagine what would happen if well-controlled experiments on ESP found evidence that passes the most stringent tests that science can provide, leading even the most skeptical to admit that the phenomenon is real, thus requiring James Randi to award his million dollar prize. Surely scientists of every stripe would initially seek to explain the results in terms of known natural processes and perform experiments that would test the hypothesis.

For example, the strength of the ESP signal would be measured as a function of direction and distance from the source. If it fell off with the square of the distance, then this would be evidence that ESP emissions are a form of energy and probably a natural phenomenon. Indeed, at the suggestion of Einstein, Rhine performed such an experiment. When he found no “distance effect,” he concluded that the phenomenon was not physical. He avoided the more obvious conclusion that the phenomenon was not real.

If that experiment was duplicated with a clear ESP signal that did not fall off with distance, then we would have evidence that ESP violates energy conservation and does not behave as expected for a material force. While it would undoubtedly be argued that this result could still be natural, energy conservation is such a fundamental law of matter that its violation would be strong evidence for a reality beyond matter.

I imagine that parapsychologists would be delighted to see such an empirical result. How much more important to have discovered evidence for the soul—for a world beyond matter—than just another form of physical communication! And you can rest assured that theologians would readily change their tune about whether established evidence for ESP is evidence for a human soul.

Victor Stenger

Victor J. Stenger was emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii and Visiting Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Colorado. He died on August 25, 2014. His final book was God and the Multiverse: Humanity’s Expanding View of the Cosmos, and his previous books include Not By Design, Physics and Psychics, The Unconscious Quantum, and Timeless Reality: Symmetry, Simplicity, and Multiple Universes, and The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: How the Universe is Not Designed for Humanity.