Articles - Deb > New Thought and Parapsychology



by Deb Whitehouse, Ed.D.

Presented at SSMR session, 2004 INTA Congress

Parapsychology is unquestionably the most controversial of the sciences. Its critics seek to dismiss it as a pseudoscience; its supporters include some of the finest minds of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It studies phenomena that prevalent philosophy and most modern science and religion are unable to deal with and therefore mostly deny or ignore, yet such phenomena are at the heart of New Thought, which at the same time has always sought to harmonize with the best of contemporary science. It has been plagued with fraud to a far greater degree than other sciences, partly because by its very nature it lends itself easily to various sorts of chicanery.

What, then, if any, findings of parapsychology are useful to New Thought? To answer this question, we must look briefly at the history of parapsychology and its areas of inquiry. We need to understand the different mindsets that people bring to the study of parapsychology and how they affect any conclusions that people may draw. And we need to be aware of the parameters of most widely accepted modern philosophy and what they bring to bear upon people’s mindsets, especially with respect to science. Then we will be in a position to point to the useful contributions that parapsychology can make to New Thought.


In his seminal work, The Discovery of the Unconscious, H. F. Ellenberger tells us that parapsychological research originated in England in the 1870s

at Cambridge University to explore the depth of the unknown mind and particularly the facts of clairvoyance, foreknowledge of the future, and purported communications with the deceased. After a long period of informal association, the Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882 by a physicist, William Barrett; a clergyman, Reverend Stainton Moses; a philosopher, Henry Sidgwick; and a young classical scholar, Frederick Myers, who was to play the major role in the first twenty years of the Society. The basis of Myers’ thinking was the philosophical question: "Is the Universe friendly?" A satisfactory answer to this, he thought, could be given only after answering a preliminary question, "Does man’s life have any continuity beyond the grave?" in order to secure further development and fulfillment. The problem of survival after death was thus set in the foreground of parapsychological research. . . . Myers was thus not only a parapsychologist, but also one of the great systematizers of the notion of the unconscious mind. (Ellenberger, 1970, p 313-14).

Ellenberger later mentions that Freud, who was long skeptical in regard to parapsychological phenomena, became a member of the Society for Psychical Research in 1911 (534), having encountered some research on ESP that he could not refute. Ellenberger also notes that "in England the interest in hypnosis was linked to problems of parapsychology. Myers . . . made a careful study of hypnosis and what he called the subliminal self as a preliminary stage in parapsychological studies proper." (755) This is of particular interest for New Thought because of the connection between hypnosis and the work of the father of New Thought, P. P. Quimby.

David Ray Griffin, upon whose book Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality I shall chiefly rely in this paper, adds,

"Parapsychology" was originally coined to refer only to the portion of psychical research that is carried out under scientifically controlled conditions, usually in a laboratory. . . . Parapsychology or psychical research is sometimes defined as the scientific study of a certain class of events, now widely called ‘paranormal’. These are events in which paranormal influence occurs. (p 10)

Griffin accepts the common division of paranormal events into three major types. The first is extrasensory perception (ESP), "events in which a psyche receives influences that are not mediated through its physical senses", its two main forms being telepathy "(‘feeling at a distance’), in which one receives influence from inside another mind"; and clairvoyance "(sometimes now called ‘remote viewing’), in which one receives influences, sometimes resulting in sensorylike images, relating to the outer characteristics of things." Griffin believes that a third form of ESP, precognition, "is better explained in terms of other forms of paranormal influence involving no [unintelligible] ‘backward causation’ from the future to the present". The second type of paranormal event is psychokinesis (PK), "events in which a psyche produces effects in the world beyond its physical body without using this body to bring about these effects". The third type is "experiences, such as messages from mediums and near-death-out-of-body experiences, that are suggestive of the existence of psyches apart from their physical bodies". (11-12)

Scholar Ruth Reinsel (Grim 1990), summarizing documented work in parapsychology "rather than the merely anecdotal cases and merely rumored tests that abound as popular lore" (9), reminds us, "Although the historical roots of scientific parapsychology are tangled with nineteenth-century spiritualism, the history of parapsychology is to a large extent the story of its struggle to disassociate itself from the occult" (187). She continues,

The occult and parapsychology can be distinguished both in the choice of methods and in the choice of subject matter. The occult relies on traditional bodies of arcane lore interpreted with a healthy dose of personal intuition. . . . Parapsychology, on the other hand, relies heavily on objective evidence, quantitative evaluation, and the experimental method. The occult includes topics of popular appeal, but of questionable validity, such as astrology, numerology, and magic. Parapsychology, on the other hand, restricts itself to the study of ways of gaining knowledge or affecting the world around us that do not involve the five normal senses. . . . These abilities are termed "paranormal". (187)

New Thoughters will recall Unity co-founder Charles Fillmore’s famous dictum, "Do not dabble in the occult." He had explored the occult and rejected it as not useful for New Thought purposes (Freeman, 1951, 56-57). This is not to say that individual New Thoughters should not or will not continue to be interested in various aspects of the occult, but simply that they are not useful in developing the New Thought spiritual mission of "practicing the presence of God for practical purposes" or habitual, God-aligned mental self-discipline". What is important for New Thought about parapsychology is indicated by Griffin’s comment, "Pervasive of the literature is the presupposition that what is distinctive of the category of the paranormal is the idea of influence at a distance to or from minds. Both parts of this definition—"action at a distance" and "to or from minds"—are necessary to account for what is distinctive about paranormal events. . . . The presupposition behind this characterization of paranormal influence, obviously, is that "normal" causal influence occurs only between contiguous events or things, at least if minds are involved."

The aims of the study of parapsychology, according to Griffin, are to determine whether these paranormal events are genuine, and if so, how they occur, both in terms of a philosophical understanding of their nature and a scientific understanding of any laws that they may reflect. (12) Such study is carried out by examining spontaneous events and by conducting experiments for ESP or PK ability under controlled conditions.

As Griffin points out,

Many people may wince at the use of the term "scientific" for this study. The still-dominant image seems to be of a bunch of "kooks and crackpots" studying phoney mediums in dark séances. A lot of this certainly has gone on. As with other fields, however, we should evaluate psychical research in the light of its best, not only its worst, moments. (12)

He gives a list of "well-known people who have become convinced that paranormal events do happen, some of whom were directly involved in psychical research, includ[ing] many otherwise reputable figures" from philosophy, psychology, physics, astronomy, biology, literature, and politics, ranging from Henri Bergson and William James through Nobel prize winner Alexis Carrel and Aldous Huxley, "hardly a list of ‘kooks and crackpots’". (12-13)

Why does the widespread skepticism concerning parapsychology persist? Partly from general ignorance of the enormous amount of powerful evidence that remains even after the fraudulent has been eliminated, but even more important, according to Griffin, is that "the modern worldview . . . does not make room for paranormal influences. It rules them out a priori." (15)

The modern worldview began in the seventeenth century and continues to the present day. Griffin elaborates, "By the ‘modern paradigm,’ I mean a set of basic beliefs that came to be dominant in connection with the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. This set of beliefs was associated with the paradigmatic achievements of Descartes, Galileo, Boyle, and Newton, and it was articulated further in the works of Locke, Hobbes, and the eighteenth-century philosophes." (15) Thinkers are becoming increasingly aware that a paradigm shift is occurring to one of two major postmodern worldviews, one destructive, the other constructive. The destructive view supplies nothing in its place; the constructive view, which Griffin espouses, supplies a rational philosophical explanation for nonsensory paranormal phenomena, one which allows science and religion, which had separated beginning with the rise of the modern worldview, to rejoin on a common philosophical foundation. This constructive postmodern worldview is known as process-relational thought. Incorporating quantum physics, it holds that nature at bottom is not lifeless, but alive. It concludes that only an actual, immanent and transcendent, loving, dependable Ultimate Reality can account for the novelty in the world, an Ultimate Reality that seeks the utmost good for all commensurate with free will; hence, it does not cause evil but mitigates it. My purpose today is neither to describe this worldview in any detail nor to go into detail about the findings of parapsychology, but to show that parapsychology supports this new constructive worldview and hence is of value for New Thought not so much in its specifics, as in providing a sound philosophical and psychological foundation for New Thought practices.

Types of Thinkers

To understand why after more than a century of parapsychology, it is so little known or understood, and why a constructive postmodern worldview has not yet been more widely accepted, Griffin describes three types of people: paradigmatic thinkers, data-led thinkers, and wishful thinkers.

Paradigmatic thinkers, or rationalists, are ones for whom the primary consideration is what they consider, on the basis of their general paradigm or worldview, possible and impossible. Their interpretation of, even their interest in, empirical data is largely determined by their prior judgment of what is possible. If their worldview or paradigm says that some alleged phenomenon, such as telepathy, is impossible, no amount of empirical data will change their minds. . . .
Data-led thinkers, or empiricists, by contrast, wear their paradigms lightly, being ready to change them as soon as the data suggest their inadequacy. For such thinkers, what is possible is settled by what is actual, not vice versa, and, as with the paradigmatic thinker, wishful thinking plays little role in the determination of belief. . . .
The difficulties become even more manifest once we bring in the third type of mind, the wishful-and-fearful thinker. For this type, "the wish (or the fear) is the father of the thought." This dynamic can apply to the question or possibility: Such thinkers may construct, or adopt, a philosophical worldview guided primarily by their hopes and fears. (26-28)

To further complicate matters, Griffin notes, "In some individuals, two of the three factors share dominance", giving us "wishful empiricists" or wishful rationalists" (31).

Let us return to the modern worldview in light of the three types of thinkers. It was important to late seventeenth-century thinkers to exclude the possibility of action at a distance, because "Hermetic and other ‘magical’ philosophies, which allowed influence at a distance", were challenging the Church’s interpretation of miracles as a sign of God’s endorsement of Christianity. "This view threatened not only the authority of the church but also the stability of the whole social order, insofar as this stability was based on the close relation between church and state" (21). Further, there was "the major social problem of the era", the "witch craze". "One of the positive effects of the [modern] mechanistic philosophy was that, by discrediting the idea of causal influence at a distance, it undermined the thought-world in which the witch craze had flourished." Other considerations, involving the proper interpretation of gravitation and the idea that the physical world was "totally inert, devoid of any capacity for self-motion" (22). Griffin explains,

The desire to support this supernaturalistic view of God was, in fact, evidently (along with the desire to defend the immortality of the soul) the primary motivation behind the adoption of the mechanical philosophy in the first version of the modern worldview. In any case, this early modern worldview ruled out what we now call paranormal influence, because it is part of the very meaning of "paranormal" that the causal power is a natural, if somewhat extraordinary, power inherent in the finite processes themselves, not a supernatural power lodged in an external deity.
In the late modern worldview, by contrast, the kinds of events in question simply cannot happen. Insofar as the dualism [the belief that mind and matter are equally real] of the early modern worldview, by placing the human mind somewhat outside of (mechanical) nature, provided at least a window of opportunity for paranormal events, this window was closed by the transmutation of dualism into the materialism of the late modern worldview, in which the mind is merely a function of, perhaps even identical with, the brain. . . . The supernaturalistic theism of early modernism transmuted into the naturalistic atheism of late modernism. (22-23)

Returning to our three types of thinkers, it easy to see that the paradigmatic rationalists, having solidly adopted this late modern worldview, would refute or refuse to examine the evidence of parapsychology for nonsensory perception, or action at a distance. Nor would they be open to a constructive postmodern worldview that can provide a rational explanation for what seems to violate the laws of nature. And so science and religion have continued to battle each other or ignore each other, unaware of a third ground on which they might meet.

Nonsensory Perception

One of the most central—and most startling—tenets of process-relational thought is that it is nonsensory awareness, not the evidence of our physical senses, that is most basic. Alfred North Whitehead, the principal architect of process thought,

does not believe that sensory perception is our only, or even our primary, means of receiving information about the world beyond ourselves. Rather, he says, "sense-perception, despite its prominence in consciousness, belongs to the superficialities of experience". What is primary is a nonsensuous perception of the surrounding world, which Whitehead coined the term "prehension" to express. (38).

The term prehension replaces a paragraph of explanation. It means to take in, to grasp, to understand, for it encompasses the meanings of apprehend, comprehend, and even the prehensile, grasping tail. Most importantly for religion, it explains how God can be in us and we can be in God (Acts 17:28), by telling us what in means in this context. God prehends us, and we prehend God. Here is a philosophical description of action at a distance.

Parapsychological Support for the Spiritual Journey

Griffin concludes his book by discussing "ways in which parapsychological evidence supports the various presuppositions for a life understood primarily as a spiritual journey, involving both self-discipline and adventure [and how] in doing this, it simultaneously supports a naturalistic rather than supernaturalistic understanding of the Holy Power of the universe". These include

1. The reality of the self-determining soul, "an experience that is not simply the brain or an important byproduct thereof. . . . Extrasensory perception occurs and cannot be understood merely in terms of physical fields." (272)

2. The power of the soul: "thought-transference and psychokinesis show that the soul’s power can be exerted directly on actualities beyond one’s own body, both ‘physical’ things and other souls." (273)

3. The reality of God: "there are values in terms of which the soul should be disciplined and ...the soul has access to these values. . . . the capacity for nonsensory perception, which parapsychology supports, provides a necessary presupposition of access to such values." Griffin shows that naturalistic, as opposed to supernaturalistic, theism is not opposed to Hindu and Buddhist notions mistakenly considered atheistic. There is widespread agreement that objective values "can exist only as entertained by something actual, by a mind. . . . We do not . . . with our nonsensory perception simply prehend these values directly; we prehend them by prehending God." Naturalistic theism, also known as panentheism, portrays God as the soul of the universe, relating to it somewhat as we relate to our bodies. (273)

4. The power of God: "Psychokinesis supports, beyond the bare existence of a Universal Soul, the idea that this Soul is the creator of the universe, thereby the supreme power of the universe toward which our religious life is naturally attracted". Process thought, however, suggests the notion of "continual creation", with divine influence moment by moment. God created the world not ex nihilo, but by bringing order out of chaos. Although there may have been a "big bang", there is no sense in which "life and consciousness, including the Beethoven piano concertos and the Sermon on the Mount . . . [were] implicit in those early particles and laws. . . . that kind of big-bang deism is not only incoherent but also unnecessary." Modern philosophy has had to wrestle constantly with the mind-body problem. "Parapsychological evidence helps overcome this centuries-old problem by giving additional support to a panexperientialist view of the universe". (Panexperientialism is a revised form of idealism, which New Thought has traditionally embraced. It holds that the basic building blocks of the universe are living experiences, each with at least a tiny bit of freedom to choose or reject the possibilities offered to it by God. These experiences are hierarchically arranged, with governing experiences—you and me—having vastly more freedom than the experiences that constitute a chair leg.) Psychokinesis also undermines the notion that God’s power is overwhelmingly coercive. Paranormal events occur in virtually every time and place, so that no one religion has a claim to exclusivity or special favor. God’s power is seen as lovingly persuasive: "Loving persuasion could not in six days have turned chaos into an atom or an apple, let alone an Adam and an Eve". But the six days is now seen as more like 15 billion years, which would be long enough to get the job done.

"Parapsychology, by helping to overcome the supernaturalistic form of theism, aids the cause of theism itself. . . . By helping undermine the idea of divine omnipotence, parapsychology helps us reconcile theism with the fact of genuine evil, a fact that no one can consistently deny", and to do this without compromising the perfect goodness of God. "With a naturalistic theism, we can affirm without qualification the two dimensions implied in our idea of a Holy Reality: perfect in goodness as well as supreme in power". (276)

5. Our experience of God and values: "the major sociological, anthropological, and psychological theories of religion in late modernity . . . have been based on the assumption that all so-called religious experience must be inauthentic". Extrasensory perception helps explain why people in every time and place have been religious.

Parapsychology, by giving evidence of nonsensory perception, sometimes quite dramatic evidence, provides scientific disconfirmation of the sensationist theory of perception, which has been one of the two major bases for assuming that we can have no perceptual knowledge of values (the other basis being the assumption that values have no objective existence in the nature of things). Parapsychology thereby proves itself to be not only, as J. B. Rhine suggested, religions’s science, but ethics’ science and aesthetics’ science as well. (285)

William James famously stated that it takes only one white crow to prove that not all crows are black. Even if only a tiny fraction of the research in parapsychology were to survive close scrutiny, we would still have a flock of white crows. (283)

6. Our continuing journey: "by undermining the reasons for holding a supernaturalistic form of theism, we have already undermined at least most of the objections that have been voiced against either the idea of life after death as such or the belief in it". (290) Parapsychology has contributed a huge mass of evidence for life after death, most recently through the study of near-death experiences. Bill and Judy Guggenheim, in a seven-year research project described in their book, Hello From Heaven! (1995) list thousands of examples of what they call After-Death Communication in twelve different categories. For each of the hundreds of examples in the book, there are at least two more similar examples in their files, again pointing to an abundance of white crows.

Parapsychology and New Thought

How does parapsychology relate specifically to New Thought? As a philosophico-religious movement, it benefits from a sounder philosophical basis, which parapsychology can help to establish. Because more than most religions, it has always shown an interest in and desire to harmonize with and utilize the findings of science, it benefits from the discrediting of the error-laden modern philosophy that has hobbled both science and religion and driven them apart. But what about New Thought principles and practices?

New Thought began in mid-nineteenth century New England as a method of healing ills of both mind and body. P. P. Quimby made specific use of action at a distance in much of his healing, numerous times "going to" a patient in thought at a prearranged time. There are eyewitness accounts of literal healing at a distance in this fashion. Although he sometimes touched patients or poured water on their heads as an attention-centering device, his principal approach was what he described as "mind acting upon mind", a process in which he disputed with the mind of the patient the need to be ill, causing him or her to cease to believe the toxic ideas planted by those whom Quimby referred to as "priests and doctors". The whole point, then as now, was to get people to change their thinking.

Although spiritually based, Quimby’s work foreshadowed clinical hypnosis, which eventually managed to separate itself, as did Quimby, from the inaccurate theories of mesmerism, which sought some sensory explanation for its results. Hypnosis is simply a form of concentrated attention, whether self- or other- induced. Altered states of consciousness, from slight to extreme, are the basis for religious experiences as well as approaches to healing.

Expanding from healing of body and mind to healing of pocketbooks and relationships does not change the basic New Thought approach, which is to learn to discipline one’s thinking in a God-aligned way, in line with universal principles given by God, which we have discussed briefly in summarizing Griffin’s discussion. Thinking is utterly nonsensory. Griffin points out that much of science is based on nonsensory perception: mathematics and logic. Praying for someone else is an attempt at action at a distance. Early modern theology held that one had to plead to God to intercede in someone’s behalf; only after New Thought had set an example did healing movements in the modern world spring up in some other Christian churches.

Parapsychology’s chief contribution to New Thought, then, is to offer support for what it has been doing all along: making use of the God-aligned human mind. New Thought’s idealism began the task of distancing New Thought from the ravages of modern philosophy; the findings of parapsychology can encourage it to update its idealism into panexperientialism. Most New Thoughters believe in life after death, perhaps even a series of lives; parapsychology reinforces us in this belief. Without being distracted by spoon-bending or card-reading, we can use the findings of parapsychology to reinforce our underlying philosophy and our faith in the goodness and constancy of God.


Ellenberger, H. F. (1970). The discovery of the unconscious: the history and evolution of dynamic psychiatry. Basicbooks.

Griffin, D. R. (1997). Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Grim, P. (Ed.) (1990) 2nd Ed. Philosophy of Science and the Occult. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Freeman, J. D. (1951). The Household of Faith: The Story of Unity. Lee’s Summit, MO: Unity School of Christianity.

Guggenheim., B and J, Guggenheim. (1995). Hello from Heaven! New York: Bantam Books.

Deb Whitehouse