ESP & The Mind
(Investigator 68, 1999 September)
Some people believe we are exclusively material beings living in an
exclusively material Universe. Others believe we have a spiritual or
paranormal component to our material bodies, and the Universe is
dualistic — it possesses physical and paranormal dimensions. Many
proponents of dualism claim their beliefs are proved by experiments in
extrasensory perception, or ESP. Proponents of paranormal phenomena, of
which ESP is an example, appear to be claiming those paranormal events:
"... demonstrate powers
of disembodied minds, are associated with some kind of consciousness,
and occur without physical force or material stimuluses."
(The Oxford Companion to the Mind, page 577)
The purpose of this article is to inquire if it is possible for human
beings to possess abilities that transcend the limitations of matter —
abilities that would prove there is a paranormal dimension to our
What is ESP?
ESP can be broadly defined as the ability to perceive events using
senses unknown to science, and can he divided into two categories:
(l) Clairvoyance — the awareness of remote events. For example, being aware of a house fire many miles away.
(2) Telepathy — the ability of one mind to communicate
with another. For example, being able to broadcast ones thoughts like
radio waves, and have another person receive them.
Is ESP possible?
In my opinion, the answer to this question hinges on the nature of
mind. We know that matter exists independently from mind, however, can
mind exist independently from matter? I shall now address this
The Nature of Mind
For many people, the human mind is regarded as a paranormal entity that
dwells within the physical body. For people in technologically advanced
societies, this belief is probably based to some degree on the
knowledge that the Universe is composed of non-conscious physical
particles, and therefore they find it difficult to believe a purely
material Universe could produce conscious, free, and rational beings.
Thus, many people may come to see themselves as beings that can be
divided into two distinct and contrary parts: physical (body), and
non-physical (mind/soul). The question is: are minds and bodies
distinct and separate things? If the answer is yes, then ESP might be
possible, for mind would be a separate immaterial entity operating on
different principles, and might not be bound by material constraints.
In the past many biologists and philosophers were of the opinion that
the phenomena of life could not be explained by reference to purely
physical processes. This belief led them to postulate the existence of
an "elan vital" which, according to them, was necessary in order to
animate inert and lifeless matter.
However, we now know life is totally explicable in terms of complex
biochemical reactions that are fundamentally material in nature, and
that matter has intrinsic properties which are conducive to the
evolution of the Universe, life and conscious beings. In view of these
facts, the postulation of a paranormal dimension to reality is
superfluous to our understanding of the cosmos — the human mind is the
product of a material Universe, and there can be no paranormal
component to it because its cause lies in the physical nature of the
"Just as the liquidity
of the water is caused by the behaviour of elements at the micro-level,
and yet at the same time it is a feature realised in the system of
micro-elements, so in exactly that sense of 'caused by' and 'realised
in' mental phenomena are caused by processes going on in the brain at
the neuronal or modular level, and at the same time they are realised
in the very system that consists of neurons... Nothing is more common
in nature than for surface features of phenomena to be both caused by
and realised in a micro-structure, and those are exactly the
relationships that are exhibited by the relationship of mind to brain."
(John Searle: Minds, Brains & Science, pages 22-23.)
In view of the above facts the mind is merely a word we use to describe
those physical events occurring in the brain that cause all aspects of
our mental life. Indeed, the fact that brain injury and chemicals can
effect our ability to think is good evidence for the material nature of
By contrast the proponents of ESP appear to be assuming that mind is a
non¬physical force and can be projected beyond the physical
constraints of the body, discern aspects of the material world and
other minds. This is not possible. Firstly, there are no organs within
the human body that could generate a paranormal force to power ESP
phenomena. Secondly, because we are material beings our abilities are
determined by the laws of nature, and in order for our bodies to
possess an energy unknown to science, we would need to be composed of
matter unknown to science. The reason — energy depends on matter for
its ¬existence. In other words, in order for paranormal abilities
to exist there would need to be such a thing as paranormal matter.
However, we do know that our bodies are not constructed from it, and
this fact alone is, in my opinion, sufficient to rule out the
possibility of ESP.
Although ESP is impossible in principle, many proponents claim that
parapsychological experiments provide proof of the phenomena's
existence. However, the weaknesses in research methodology undermine
"There are four basic
weaknesses in parapsychological research. The first, and the most-often
mentioned even by leading parapsychologists, is the failure so far to
repeat the results of major experiments. Then there is the lack of
theoretical foundation for the alleged phenomena — a fact that plagued
J. B. Rhine, the father of modem parapsychology, to the end of his
life. There is a lack of professionalism among some researchers, who
seem to welcome and support any evidence that is dredged up. A lack of
rigorous controls in experimentation has often been the target of
(H. Gordon: Extra Sensory Deception, page 9)
After a century of parapsychological research there is still no
conclusive evidence for the existence of ESP. Those experiments that
have yielded positive results can be grouped into two categories:
1. Positive results that cannot be independently confirmed, and therefore might be due to forgery.
2. Positive results that are
undermined by poor experimental design, and therefore might be due to
errors or deliberate trickery.
Belief & Probability
If there is no evidence for the existence of ESP, then why do so many
people believe that there is such a thing? One possible explanation may
lie in the way people look for connections in chance and probability.
Most people appear to believe in paranormal phenomena because of a
personal experience, or because they consider the experience of others
as proof of the phenomena's existence. This 'evidence' often takes the
form of a feeling. The person "knew something was going to happen, and
it did". Moreover, the event was "far too unlikely to have been just a
coincidence", and therefore "natural explanations can be ruled out".
The conclusion that an event is paranormal appears to be based on a
probability judgment, and psychologists have discovered that people use
a range of heuristics rather than sound mathematical procedures when
attempting to guess probabilities. Naturally, this method is far from
accurate, and often results in fallacious conclusions concerning the
likelihood of an unusual event.
For example, many people have had dreams in which a friend or relative
dies, and the following day they hear of this person's death. Is this a
paranormal event? How likely is it that such a dream will come true
purely by coincidence?
Christopher Scott has analysed it this way. There are about 55 million
people in Britain and they live about 70 years each. If each has one
such dream in a lifetime there should be 2000 every night. Also about
2000 people die in each 24 hours. So there will be 4 million
coincidences among 55 million people. In other words such an "amazing"
coincidence will be expected about once every two weeks." (Susan
Blackmore: The Lure of the Paranormal, New Scientist 22 September 1990,
Most people who reject the coincidence explanation probably do so
because of two factors: Firstly, the paranormal explanation is more
meaningful to them — it reinforces the traditional dualistic view of
human nature. Secondly, very few people would have the inclination or
the skill to calculate the probability of the event being due to chance
ESP is impossible. The material nature of our being prevents us from interacting with the world through non-material means:
"...every influence we
have upon the outside world has to begin with physical changes
occurring at our body surfaces... That any further impressions we make
on our surroundings can only be a secondary effect of these poor
causes. That when and if our bodily activity is inadequate to have the
secondary effects we may desire, there is precious little we can do
about it. That we can achieve nothing at all external to us by means of
purely inner unexpressed mentation. That thoughts without causally
sufficient action by the body must inevitably fail in their ambitions."
(Nicholas Humphrey: Soul Searching, page 218)
Given that mind is dependent on matter, and is therefore bound by the
laws of nature, ESP will probably remain nothing more than wishful
Blackmore, S. The Lure of the Paranormal, New Scientist 22/9/90, IPC Magazines Ltd, London, 1990.
Gordon, H. Extrasensory Deception, Macmillan of Canada, Canada, 1988.
Humphrey, N. Soul Searching, Chatto & Windus, London, 1995
Randi, J. James Randi: Psychic Investigator, Boxtree Limited, London, 1991
Searle, J. Minds, Brains & Science, Penguin Books, London, 1984.
The Oxford Companion to the Mind, University Press, New York, 1987.