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Steven TaylorDr Steve Taylor is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, and the author of several best-selling books on psychology and spirituality. For the last three years he has been included (this year at no. 31) in Mind, Body, Spirit magazine?s list of the ?100 most spiritually influential living people.? His books include Waking From Sleep, The Fall, Out of the Darkness, Back to Sanity, and his latest book The Meaning. His books have been published in 16 languages, while his articles and essays have been published in over 40 academic journals, magazines and newspapers. Steve completed his PhD in Transpersonal Psychology at Liverpool John Moores University.. Follow Steve on Facebook and on Twitter

Keeping the
Account Open

Seven Reasons Why I Accept the
Existence of (Some) Psychic Phenomena

Steve Taylor

One of the main reasons why I believe in the possibility of some psychic phenomena is because I do not believe that we can, in William James' phrase, 'close our accounts' with reality.

There has been some debate on this site about psychic phenomena recently, which has led me to consider my own views on the subject more deeply. My fellow psychologists and academics are sometimes surprised when I tell them that I 'believe' in psychic phenomena such as telepathy and pre-cognition (that is, that I think there is a strong possibility that they exist). Like many intellectuals, they see the 'paranormal' as superstitious nonsense, part of an irrational view of the world which has been superseded by modern materialistic science. Here I will explain my reasons for believing that some 'paranormal' phenomena are genuine. I'm going to discuss two phenomena in particular, telepathy and pre-cognition, since these are the ones I feel there is most evidence for, and which I have experienced myself. (There are other types of psychic phenomena—such as mediumship, ghosts or faith healing—which I'm more doubtful about, and therefore won't be discussing.)

1. Philosophical Reasons.

William James
William James

One of the main reasons why I believe in the possibility of some psychic phenomena is because I do not believe that we can, in William James' phrase, 'close our accounts' with reality. Many materialistic scientists operate on the assumption that our present vision of reality is fairly reliable and objective. They like to believe that the world as we perceive it roughly corresponds to the world as it is in itself, and that there are no forces or phenomena or natural laws beyond those were are presently aware of. But I believe this is foolish and arrogant. Every animal has a limited awareness of reality. Think of our awareness of reality compared to a sheep's, for instance. We are aware of many phenomena and concepts which a sheep is not aware of e.g. the concept of death, of the future and the past. And although we may have a more intense awareness of reality than other animals, it is extremely unlikely that our awareness is complete. One day living beings will exist who have a more intense awareness of reality than us, in the same way that we have a more intense awareness than other animals.

No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question—for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.
—William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

In addition to being limited, our awareness of reality is mediated and filtered by our own psychological structures. Almost 400 years ago, Francis Bacon (2014) warned against the 'na´ve' view of believing that the world as we see it is the world as it is, describing how our 'own nature' conditions and distorts our vision of the world:

For it is a false assertion that the sense of man is the measure of things. On the contrary, all perceptions as well of the sense as of the mind are according to the measure of the individual and not according to the measure of the universe. And the human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it (Bacon, 2014).

Kant (2007) also argued that we don't simply see a world 'out there'; our own minds co-create our vision of reality, with their innate categories and forms. Husserl's concept of intentionality is based on a similar 'co-creative' aspect of the mind. It emphasizes that consciousness is always directed towards an object; it is always 'of' or 'about' an object. And at the same time, this suggests that consciousness has a co-creative role in perception, that 'to see' or to be 'conscious of' is an action in itself. The mind does not simply passively perceive a world which exists independently of us—Husserl (1982) called this 'naive' view the 'natural attitude.' The mind 'reaches out' to perceive the phenomenal world.

In other words, the universe should not, as Bacon also put it, 'be narrowed down to the limit of our understanding' (Bacon, 2014). It is irrational to believe that our present understanding of the world is even close to absolute or objective. There are almost certainly forces, energies and phenomena in the universe beyond those which we can presently perceive and understand, or even detect. We may be aware of the effects of some of these phenomena, without being aware of the phenomena themselves—in the same way that, for example, an insect may be able to sense the heat of the sun without being aware of the sun as an entity in itself. And this may include phenomena or energies which generate—or would explain—telepathy and pre-cognition.

2. Consciousness.

According to materialist scientists, consciousness is produced by brain activity, or is an epiphenomenon or illusion produced by cognitive activity. There is no hard evidence for this—it's simply an assumption. After many years of intensive research, scientists are no closer to working out how the brain might give rise to consciousness, while philosophers have doubted whether it will ever be possible to solve the 'hard problem' (Chalmers, 1996) of how neuronal activity might give rise to subjective experience. (The philosopher Colin McGinn [1991] has memorably compared this to trying to explain how the 'water' of the brain produces the 'wine' of consciousness.)

Such difficulties have led some theorists to propose a different model. This is what might be described as the 'radio' model of the brain, or the 'fundamental property' theory of consciousness. It suggests that the function of the brain is not to produce consciousness, but to 'receive' a consciousness which exists outside us. This theory sees consciousness as a fundamental properly of the universe, which is potentially everywhere and in everything. The brain's function is to 'pick up' consciousness around us and to 'canalise' it into our own individual being. (Robert Forman [1998] has suggested this theory, for example, while David Chalmers' [1996] view of 'experience' as a fundamental property of the universe is similar.)

This is my preferred way of explaining consciousness. And this model is consistent with telepathy, since it suggests a fundamental connection between living beings—a shared network of consciousness through which information could be exchanged from unit to unit. The 'radio' model also fits with an argument which is often used in favour of the idea that consciousness is produced by the brain: damage to the brain would still affect or impair consciousness, just as damage to a radio would impair its transmission.

3. Modern Physics.

Materialists sometimes say that phenomena such as telepathy and pre-cognition cannot exist because they contravene the laws of physics. If they really existed, so they say, we would have to completely revise our understanding of how the universe functions. This might be true of traditional Newtonian macrocosmic physics (although even this is debatable), but not necessarily of modern physics.

For example, in relation to the possibility of precognition or presentiment, modern physicists tell us that we should think of the universe as existing in four-dimensional space-time, and that in these terms the idea that time flows from the present into the future makes no sense. Rather than flowing, time is just there, in the same static way that space is. In other words, the whole of the past and the whole of the future are here now, existing side by side with the present. In four dimensional space-time, the concepts of past, present and future are meaningless. According to Roger Penrose, 'The way in which time is treated in physics is not essentially different from the way in which space is treated ... We just have a static-looking fixed 'space-time' in which the events of our universe are laid out!' (1999, p. 574). Penrose goes on to suggest that our linear sense of time passing forwards is illusory, creating by our minds in order to impose upon our experience. (This is similar to Kant's suggestion that time and space are not innate aspects of the world, but 'categories' created by the human mind.) The idea that time passes, or that there is a past and a future divided by a present, has never been verified by any physical experiments. As another physicist, Paul Davies, noted: 'As soon as the objective world of reality is considered, the passage of time disappears like a ghost in the night.' (1977, p. 221).

And even if, for argument's sake, we accept the idea that time flows, there's nothing in physics to say that it has to flow in a forward direction. It makes no difference to the laws of nature which direction time goes in; they work just as well whether it's going backwards or forwards. Stephen Hawking notes that 'the laws of science are unchanged' when particles are changed to anti-particles, when their 'left' and 'right' sides are swapped, and when their motion is reversed (in other words, when they move backwards in time) (Hawking, 1996, p.126). The space-time diagrams which physicists use to picture the interactions of particles can be interpreted either as showing positrons moving forward in time, or electrons moving backwards in time. Both interpretations are equally valid, and identical from a mathematical point of view.

And the idea that telepathy and precognition break the laws of physics is empathically not true of microcosmic quantum physics. I don't necessarily believe (as some theorists do) that telepathy can be explained in terms of quantum physics, but the vagaries of the quantum world certainly do allow for both telepathy and pre-cognition. For example, there is the phenomenon of 'quantum entanglement', whereby seemingly 'separate' particles are interconnected, reacting to each other's movements, so that they can't be treated as independent units but only as a part of a whole system. That suggests that, on the microcosmic level, all things are interconnected—which would also offer the possibility of an exchange of information via telepathy. (Of course, this could also be linked to the shared 'field' of consciousness I have just described. Perhaps this is what allows particles to be interconnected or 'entangled').

And in terms of time, the phenomenon of 'backwards causation' (or retro-causation) is certainly compatible with pre-cognition, since it suggests that, under certain circumstances, cause and effect can be reversed, so that an event can literally take place before its cause. As the physicist Sheehan (2006) notes, 'It seems untenable to assert that time-reverse causation (retrocausation) cannot occur, even though it temporarily runs counter to the macroscopic arrow of time' (Sheehan, 2006, p. vii).

Werner Heisenberg—originator of the 'uncertainty principle'—also noted that within elementary particles space and time are so undefined that concepts of the future and the past become meaningless, so that 'When experimenting within very small space-time domains, one should be aware that process could run in a timely reverse order' (in Gebser, 1970, p. 13). In other words, in the quantum world the normal forward flow of events sometimes runs backwards. Heisenberg noted that, when an explosion takes place inside an atomic nucleus, sometimes it is followed by the cause of the explosion, rather than the cause happening first.

In view of this, it's not surprising that many physicists have been open to the possibility of psychic phenomena. After noting how the normal sequence of events is sometimes reversed in the quantum world, the physicist Pascual Jordan (one of the founders of quantum physics alongside Heisenberg and Max Born) remarked that: 'This has enormous implications for psychology and parapsychology, since such reversal of the cause-and-effect sequence are proved possible and philosophically valid' (1957, p.16). Although he was not convinced by some of the experimental evidence for psychic phenomena available during his life time, even Einstein was aware that it was not possible to reject them on the basis that they had no place in science. As he remarked, 'We have no right to rule out a priori the possibility of telepathy. For that the foundations of our science are too uncertain and incomplete. (in Ehrenwald, 1978, p. 138).[1]

And at the very least, quantum physics supports my first argument—that the world is infinitely more complex than it appears to our normal awareness, and there are phenomena in existence which we presently cannot understand, or even conceive of.

4. Empirical Evidence.

There have been a large number of empirical studies which appear to offer convincing evidence of telepathy and pre-cognition. For example, three years ago, the social psychologist Daryl Bem published the results of 9 experiments, involving more than 1000 participants, eight of which showed significant statistical evidence for precognition and premonition (Bem, 2011). Since they were published in a highly respectable academic journal, Bem's results caused a great deal of controversy, including a great deal of criticism from Skeptics. However, Bem's experiments have been successfully replicated a number of times (although other replications have been unsuccessful, and skeptics have emphasized these). In fact, a meta-analysis of 90 attempted replications of Bem's experiments was recently published, showing a highly significant positive result (Bem et al., 2014).

In addition, Honorton and Ferrari (1989) analysed the results of 309 'forced choice' precognition experiments published between 1935 and 1977, involving more than 50,000 participants. They found a highly significant success rate, which far outweighed any possible bias due to selective reporting. A meta-analysis of more recent presentiment experiments (between 1978 and 2010) found an even more significant positive result (Mossbridge, Tressoldi, & Utts, 2012).

Looked at objectively, these results are difficult to explain away. It is possible that some (perhaps even many) of these results could be explained in terms of flawed methodology or fraud, but if you are open-minded to the possibility of phenomena such as telepathy and pre-cognition, then it's easy to take them as evidence that 'something' is going on.

When psychic experiments produce positive results, one argument frequently used is that these results count for little unless the experiments can be successfully replicated—and generally, so the argument goes, psychic experiments are not reliably replicable. Skeptics sometimes complain that psychic investigators have not yet created an experiment which is completely predictable and can be repeatedly replicated with 100% success. However, this is unrealistic and unfair. In every area of science, replication is a thorny issue. In other areas, research is often given tacit acceptance without repeated successful replication. In fact, in a lot of cases, replication is never even attempted, and when it is, there isn't usually a 'one strike and you're out' policy. One unsuccessful replication does not invalidate the original research findings. Across the whole of science, rates of successful replications are relatively low. According to one 1994 survey, the success rate for replication across all social and physical sciences was only 41%. In other words, it appears that the replication criteria applied to ESP experiments are unduly harsh.

Another important point here is that psychic phenomena are not, by their nature, completely constant or reliable. Testing for telepathy or pre-cognition is not comparable to testing 'standard' psychological phenomena or processes such as attention, perception or memory. If they exist, psychic 'abilities' vary from person to person. In some people, they don't appear to exist all, whereas others may possess them to a high degree. Psychic abilities may also be situational; even with a person who normally demonstrates them to a high degree, there may be some circumstances when they fail—for example, when they are nervous or stressed.

In this sense, you could compare ESP abilities to creative abilities like painting or writing poetry. Some people have very little ability in these areas, perhaps none at all. Some people might be able to do them passably, and some people—perhaps the smallest group—are very skilled in them. And whether people do demonstrate their creative abilities is situational. Even a very skilled creative person may not be able to demonstrate his or her creativity in an uncongenial environment, in which they feel uneasy. Both ESP and creative abilities worked best in states of calm and relaxation.

As a result, it's not surprising that sometimes psychic experiments are not successfully replicated. To expect otherwise would be like expecting all human beings to reliably demonstrate poetic abilities in laboratory experiments.

5. Personal Experience.

Throughout my life, I've had a number of psychic experiences which I think were too significant to be explained as coincidence or chance. Most of these have been experiences of pre-cognition, usually in dreams.

Here's one example. In September 2001, England played Germany at football, in a World Cup qualifying match. I had arranged to watch the match at my friend's house, together with his German girlfriend. The night before the match I had a dream in which I was sitting in my friend's living room watching the match, which was still in progress. The score on the TV screen said 'England 4, Germany 1.'

The dream was in my mind when I woke up in the morning, and I remember thinking 'England 4, Germany 1—that's impossible!' England had only beaten Germany at football once in 35 years—in June the previous year, when they had sneaked a 1-0 victory. A 4-1 lead to England was an extremely unlikely possibility. But as it turned out, England outplayed Germany and after 66 minutes, they scored their fourth goal, to take a 4-1 lead. I had been thinking about my dream all the way through the match, and as the screen switch to the same score I had dreamt on the screen, I was filled with a very eerie feeling. About 10 minutes later, they scored again, and the game finished 5-1. The score was 4-1 for those 10 minutes or so, and it seemed logical to conclude that I had somehow 'caught a glimpse' of a moment during that period. (Just to get the scoreline into perspective for those who aren't familiar with the world of soccer, it was the first time in 45 years that any team had scored 5 goals against Germany.)

I have had two other precognitive experiences involving sports matches (most recently a dream in which I saw score of a cricket match between England and Australia in a newspaper.) If I regularly dreamt about sports matches, you could put this down to coincidence, but I've only had such dreams five times in my life (at least dreams which I have remembered.) There have been two occasions when I've dream about sports matches and have got the results wrong.

6. Anecdotal evidence.

Scientists are rightly mistrustful of anecdotal evidence, and I wouldn't suggest that anecdotal evidence should be seen as 'proof' of anything. However, it can serve as a 'supporting argument', in conjunction with other, more solid evidence. This is particularly the case with psychic phenomena, because there are such a vast number of reports of psychic experiences, which continue to be reported all the time. If psychic phenomena do not exist, it is difficult to explain why reports of telepathy, pre-cognition and clairvoyance have been so remarkably common amongst people over centuries in different cultures.

7. Scepticism of the Skeptics.

Without wishing to be personal, I often find myself distrusting the motives of the fervent materialists who spend their professional lives debunking paranormal phenomena. I certainly don't mean that these people are corrupt, only that they have unconscious psychological motives. To be able to 'explain' human life and the world is a powerful human need. You can see this in religions, which provide a strong 'explanatory framework' which makes sense of the individual's position in the world, and their life. In my view, the materialist worldview provides the same function: it provides a narrative which makes sense of the world. It provides 'narrative coherence' which gives the individual a sense of orientation.

Perhaps there is an issue of control too. As Francis Bacon also wrote, 'Knowledge is power.' To be able to explain the world brings a satisfying feeling of control—to feel that nature is 'under our thumb', that it is in thrall to us. To admit that there are phenomena which we can't fully understand or explain, and that the world is stranger than we can conceive, weakens our power and control—which may be another reason why sceptics are reluctant to accept psychic phenomena.

As a result, from a psychological point of view, it is extremely important for materialists to defend their worldview. Unsurprisingly, they react in a very hostile way to any phenomena which seems to invalidate it, just as religious people react in a hostile way to evidence against their beliefs. This creates 'cognitive dissonance', and believers will go to almost any lengths to explain away contradictory evidence.

Attesting to this, there are many cases of skeptics bending over backwards and performing strange theoretical contortions to try to explain away positive results. In 2005, researchers at Notre Dame University conducted a series of 8 ganzfeld experiments, which found a highly significant overall 'hit rate' of 32%. The researchers admitted that, as Skeptics, this result made them feel 'uncomfortable', since it came "precariously close to demonstrating that humans do have psychic powers" (Delgado-Romers & Howard, 2005, p. 298). Seemingly panicked by this, the researchers quickly developed a further ninth experiment, where they matched individuals who had 'hits' during the previous 8 experiments. For some strange reason, these pairs produced the highly significant negative result of a 13% hit rate (significantly lower than the 25% chance rate). Encouraged by this negative result, the researchers claimed that it invalidated the previous 8 experiments, and indicated that telepathy did not exist (Delgado-Romers & Howard, 2005).

Similarly, there was a great deal of controversy when Richard Wiseman attempted to replicate one of Rupert Sheldrake's experiments with a dog which he believed could sense when its owner was travelling home. In a long series of experiments over two years with a dog called Jaytee, Sheldrake found that it would sit by the window for a significant proportion of the time that her own was on her way home—55% of the time, compared to just 4% during the rest of her absence. (The difference is highly statistically significant, with odds against chance of over 10,000.) Judged by that criterion, Wiseman's 4 experiments actually yielded an even more positive result than Sheldrake's—Jaytee sat by the window 78% of the time that her owner was travelling home, compared to 4% during the rest of her absence. (Sheldrake, 1999, 2000).

That would seem to be an incontrovertible successful replication of Sheldrake's experiments. However, Wiseman chose to ignore this data, and instead to use a different criterion of success: Jaytee had to go to sit by the window at the exact moment that her owner set off home. If Jaytee went to the window before this, this would mean that she had 'failed.' And not surprisingly, by this criterion, the experiments were judged to be unsuccessful and bizarrely presented as 'proof' that Jaytee (and dogs in general) do not have 'psychic powers' (Wiseman et al., 1998; Sheldrake, 2000).

To continue the parallel between religion and materialism suggested earlier, these contortions remind one of the attempts made by some creationists to explain the existence of fossils: that they were put there by God to test our faith, or by Satan to tempt us into unbelief. It's always possible to explain away evidence if you don't like it.

The Enlightenment Project

At the same time, I feel sympathy for skeptics, because they see themselves as a part of a historical 'enlightenment project' whose aim is to overcome superstition and irrationality. The 'enlightenment' was originally a process of liberation from the hegemony of the church and monarchy, replacing dogma and myth with scientific knowledge. There is no doubt that this project has been massively beneficial to the human race—medicine, technology, freedom from social and intellectual oppression, a more truer and more evidence-based concept of reality. The Skeptics identify themselves with this laudable project, as 'guardians of reason', battling against 'the enemies of reason' such as organized religion. But the problem is that they have made the 'category error' of seeing phenomena such as telepathy and pre-cognition with 'irrational' phenomena such as fundamentalist Christianity or Islam. They have a blanket opposition to the 'irrational', ignoring the massive distinctions between the hosts of different phenomena which don't appear to make sense according to their paradigm of reality.

In fact, Wilber's pre/trans fallacy can be applied here. Fundamentalist religion can be categorized as a 'pre-rational' phenomenon, since it wilfully ignores the evidence of science (with respect to evolution and the origins of the universe, for example) and clings to a mythic view of reality. But phenomena such as telepathy and pre-cognition—for which there is some empirical evidence and which do accord with some interpretations of quantum physics and theories of consciousness—are better seen as 'trans-rational.' That is, they aren't related to ignorance or superstition, but to unknown phenomena or forces which are—at least at present—beyond the limits of our awareness. They are not beneath us, but beyond us. But materialists make the error of interpreting the 'trans-rational' as 'pre-rational', because of the superficial similarities between the two.

In fact, with a sad irony, the materialists who rigidly hold to their particular paradigm of reality have become their own enemies. Their reluctance to consider evidence against their beliefs, and to be open to the possibility that there must be more phenomena in existence than we are aware of, is in itself irrational. It has more in common with the dogmatism of religious fundamentalists than the curious, open-minded approach which scientists should ideally follow. And as just mentioned, in psychological terms, both worldviews are closely related, partly springing from the same need for 'narrative coherence' and a sense of control.

In fact, to my mind, there is nothing 'irrational' about telepathy and pre-cognition at all. Perhaps the most irrational approach is to assume that human beings have an objective and complete awareness of reality, and that there are no natural laws or phenomena or forces beyond those we can presently detect or conceive of. In that sense—and in view of the support for their existence I have described above—it would be surprising if phenomena such as telepathy and pre-cognition did not exist.


[1] Many other prominent physicists were (and are) open to the possibility of ESP, including several Nobel prize winners such as Marie Curie, Pierre Curie, Wolfgang Pauli, Joseph Thomson, Eugene Wigner and Arthur Compton and Brian Josephson.


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