Paranormal or Normal?

John Kruth, Executive Director of the Rhine Research Center, which has been at the forefront of laboratory research into anomalous perception since its founding in 1935,  pointed out an interesting correlation between psi research and hypnosis:

“For decades, hypnosis was considered by many to be unproven and an illusion because there was no definitive mechanism provided to describe how it worked. Still there is no definitive mechanism that identifies the mechanics of hypnosis, but since there are practical applications in psychology and medicine, it has become an accepted practice.

Today, many people reject PSI phenomenon because no mechanism has been “proven” in the laboratory despite the years of “proof-oriented” experimental evidence for all aspects of PSI. Hypnosis was accepted because it has practical applications. Will the same thing happen with PSI in the coming years?”

One of the researchers helping to guide the field into more applicable areas is Jack Hunter, the Editor of the Paranthropology Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal.  Hunter’s investigations into anomalous phenomena use insights gained from the fields of anthropology, specifically ethnographic approaches, that highlight participatory and experiential elements of the phenomena rather than laboratory findings.

As he points out in a recent article on Reality Sandwich:

“The term ‘paranormal’ was first introduced in the early twentieth century to replace the more loaded term ‘supernatural,’ originally used in its Latin form supernatural is by theologians in the thirteenth century to refer to the miraculous events documented in the Bible (Bartlett 2008). Miracles, such as Moses’ vision of the burning bush, and Jesus’ transformation of water into wine, curing of the sick and resurrection of the dead, for example, were interpreted as manifestations of the power of God, with the aim of producing faith in those who bore witness to them.

This association with the direct action of God, and the idea that such phenomena were somehow separate from nature, did not appeal to those who sought to investigate similar claims (such as visions, apparitions, telepathy and psychokinesis), using scientific methods in the late nineteenth century. By implementing the term ‘supernormal,’ and later ‘paranormal,’ defined as referring to phenomena beyond the scope of current scientific understanding, as opposed to ‘supernatural,’ which implies phenomena firmly beyond the laws of nature, researchers were attempting to demonstrate that paranormal occurrences, if real, were as much a part of the natural world as anything else, and as such were amenable to scientific investigation (Hansen 2001:21).

Anthropological fieldworkers, immersed in the lifeways of different cultures, have regularly highlighted the inadequacy of Western distinctions between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’ when addressing the beliefs of their informants. In considering Sudanese Azande beliefs in witchcraft, for example, E.E. Evans-Pritchard noted that:

To us supernatural means very much the same as abnormal or extraordinary. Azande certainly have no such notions of reality. They have no conception of ‘natural’ as we understand it, and therefore neither of the ‘supernatural’ as we understand it. Witchcraft is to Azande an ordinary and not an extraordinary, even though it may in some circumstances be an infrequent, event. It is a normal, and not an abnormal happening (Evans-Pritchard 1976:30).

Such distinctions are, therefore, culturally constructed and, as such, are in no way universal. Phenomena that we would classify as supernatural, or paranormal, are not necessarily conceived of in the same way in other cultural, and sub-cultural, systems. Indeed, the founding sociologist Émile Durkheim highlighted precisely this issue when he noted that the modern notion of the supernatural is a recent one in the history of human thought, coinciding with the rise of enlightenment science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”

Read more about Jack Hunter’s paranthropological approaches to anomalous phenomena at Reality Sandwich.