Public Parapsychology 

A Catch-22 : Psi and Explanation


Posted: 08 Nov 2008 12:29 PM CST

When it comes to evaluating parapsychological phenomena, a Catch-22 situation emerges: if fraud or fluke can’t account for the phenomena, then some other theory must be employed. However, mainstream science will not accept psi until it is explained, yet psi is unlikely to be fully explained until it is incorporated into more inclusive scientific problem-solving. Therefore there is a tension between the apparent evidence for psi and lack of a working explanation for the phenomena. In a paper presented at the 51st Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association, Dr. Hannah Jenkins of the University of Tansmania focused on the explanatory history of psi in an effort to reduce the tension and resolve the Catch-22 situation.

Dr. Jenkins presented two arguments: the first argument is based on an assessment of the publication of prominent psi literature in relation to the dominance of the covering law theory in philosophy of science during the 1940-1960’s. According to the covering law theory, a (general) law of nature is required for any acceptable scientific explanation. However, putative psi phenomena appear to challenge these laws of nature and are only apparent when all other ‘normal’ explanatory avenues have been ruled out. The situation obtained under the covering law theory cuts psi out of consideration, but according to Dr. Jenkins, a re-evaluation can be legitimately called for on the grounds that covering law theory is out-modeded and that newer explanatory models in the philosophy of science since the 1970’s might be more accommodating.

The second argument is that the limits of science were formed when a substantially different explanatory scheme was assumed. At the time that the modern world view was founded, psi-like events were placed in the supernatural category of explanation. The scope of science at that time was set to deliberately exclude psi-like phenomena because scientific theory was limited by mechanistic explanations. This background still informs the assessment of psi today. In the current world view, psi is relegated to the unexplainable, paranormal (rather than supernatural) category, but it is still considered beyond the scope of science. Dr. Jenkins’ historical account suggests that if the body of evidence for psi is legitimate, it is pertinent to look at the limits of scientific explanation in order to discover how best to approach explanation of the phenomena as natural.


Summarized by,

Renaud Evrard
University de Rouen, France

Jenkins, H. (2008). A Catch-22 : Psi and Explanation. The Parapsychological Association 51st Annual Convention, Proceedings of Presented Papers, August 13-17, 2008, Winchester, pp. 97-110.