The Paranormal Equation, by James D. Stein

Despite not having any kind of background in psychical research, mathematician James D. Stein in his The Paranormal Equation: A New Scientific Perspective on Remote Viewing, Clairvoyance, and Other Inexplicable Phenomena (2013) purports to cast new light on our understanding of a range of psychical phenomena.  Unfortunately, his painful lack of knowledge of the field, and the serious research being carried out in it, tells against him.

An immediate problem is that he uses the terms paranormal and supernatural interchangeably (usually together, as if they are synonyms) when they are completely different: what are considered paranormal phenomena may eventually be brought within a scientific framework, whereas the supernatural will remain outside science.  He also uses the term believer, to be fair a common problem, whereas for psychical researchers it is a question of evaluating evidence, as one would in any branch of science, not of belief.

Another problem is that he lumps together a range of disparate topics – reincarnation, telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, out-of-body experiences – as part of the paranormal (or supernatural of course) without delving much into the evidence for any of them.  He makes a division, relying on a point by Paul Kurtz (not the best arbiter if one wants to conduct a dispassionate enquiry) between paranormal phenomena and what he refers to as ‘weird stuff’, such as UFOs, alien abductions, spontaneous combustion and ghosts, among others (left unspecified).  He says he is not going to talk much about life after death, though that seems to be down to personal feeling rather than on any rigorous basis.  What he includes feels arbitrary, as if they simply came to mind when he was jotting down notes.

Assessing those bits he is interested in, he divides reality into three parts: the known; the unknown; and the unknowable.  He claims that, in an infinite Universe, there are rules which are true, but which we cannot deduce and which lie outside the power of science to analyse and explain.  The assumption allows a window for paranormal phenomena: if some aspects of reality are unknowable, why not those aspects we currently consider to fall within the paranormal?  As he puts it, in an infinite Universe, ‘there would be physical theories that we might guess or surmise, but never prove.’

However, Stein may consider them ‘inexplicable’, but there are many who have studied the field more extensively and would disagree.  Clearly, by eliding the supernatural (falling outside the scope of science) and the paranormal (which a sizeable literature argues does not), he is able to confer the characteristics of the former on the latter for the purposes of his pseudo-argument.  And of course, as he points out, ‘The supernatural falls into the category of the unknowable.  If we knew it, it wouldn’t be supernatural, would it?’

Stein’s approach feels pessimistic, but it is entirely possible the subject matter covered by psychical research, or at least some part of it, will eventually be explained and brought within a broader framework, whether or not the Universe is infinite.  To do so will require much more practical work, rather than listening to the efforts of armchair theorists, who think they have had a clever idea, telling those within the discipline that science may never be able to explain the phenomena they study.

As an indication of Stein’s superficial study, the bibliography is pathetic, containing five items dated 1980, 1981 (x2) and 2004 (x2).  He has not bothered to study the subject in any depth and few parapsychologists are cited (one of those he manages to misspell, Randall instead of Russell Targ; he also writes medium George Valiantine’s surname as Valentine), though as well as Kurtz there are references to Richard Wiseman, Martin Gardner and James Randi, indicating with which literature he is more familiar.  He is not averse to setting up a straw-man naive view of the paranormal he can then critique as ‘baloney’.  The general science content is accessible and informative for the general reader, but it is wasted here, and the book’s rambling structure, peppered with personal anecdotes, does not help the clarity of his thesis.

Rather than analyse what psychical research has found over the last 140 years, he has attempted to develop a theoretical approach from first principles.  It is nice to see someone from the outside with scientific credentials tackle what is often considered taboo, but the result will not sway either psychical researchers or mainstream scientists, both of whom are likely to consider the implications of an infinite Universe irrelevant to the here and now.  Until we have further evidence to support Stein’s position, if that ever becomes possible, it is better to ignore the inexplicable in his subtitle in favour of unexplained, and carry on as usual.


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