This image: From IMSI's MasterClips/MasterPhotos 202,000 © 1997 Collection,
1895 Francisco Blvd. East, San Rafael, CA 94901-5506 , USA

ESP & The Mind

Kirk Straughen

(Investigator 68, 1999 September)


Some people believe we are exclusively material beings living in an exclusively material Universe. Others believe we have a spiritual or paranormal component to our material bodies, and the Universe is dualistic — it possesses physical and paranormal dimensions. Many proponents of dualism claim their beliefs are proved by experiments in extrasensory perception, or ESP. Proponents of paranormal phenomena, of which ESP is an example, appear to be claiming those paranormal events:

"... demonstrate powers of disembodied minds, are associated with some kind of consciousness, and occur without physical force or material stimuluses."
(The Oxford Companion to the Mind, page 577)

The purpose of this article is to inquire if it is possible for human beings to possess abilities that transcend the limitations of matter — abilities that would prove there is a paranormal dimension to our existence.

What is ESP?

ESP can be broadly defined as the ability to perceive events using senses unknown to science, and can he divided into two categories:
(l) Clairvoyance — the awareness of remote events. For example, being aware of a house fire many miles away.

(2) Telepathy — the ability of one mind to communicate with another. For example, being able to broadcast ones thoughts like radio waves, and have another person receive them.

Is ESP possible?

In my opinion, the answer to this question hinges on the nature of mind. We know that matter exists independently from mind, however, can mind exist independently from matter? I shall now address this question.

The Nature of Mind

For many people, the human mind is regarded as a paranormal entity that dwells within the physical body. For people in technologically advanced societies, this belief is probably based to some degree on the knowledge that the Universe is composed of non-conscious physical particles, and therefore they find it difficult to believe a purely material Universe could produce conscious, free, and rational beings.

Thus, many people may come to see themselves as beings that can be divided into two distinct and contrary parts: physical (body), and non-physical (mind/soul). The question is: are minds and bodies distinct and separate things? If the answer is yes, then ESP might be possible, for mind would be a separate immaterial entity operating on different principles, and might not be bound by material constraints.

In the past many biologists and philosophers were of the opinion that the phenomena of life could not be explained by reference to purely physical processes. This belief led them to postulate the existence of an "elan vital" which, according to them, was necessary in order to animate inert and lifeless matter.

However, we now know life is totally explicable in terms of complex biochemical reactions that are fundamentally material in nature, and that matter has intrinsic properties which are conducive to the evolution of the Universe, life and conscious beings. In view of these facts, the postulation of a paranormal dimension to reality is superfluous to our understanding of the cosmos — the human mind is the product of a material Universe, and there can be no paranormal component to it because its cause lies in the physical nature of the human brain:

"Just as the liquidity of the water is caused by the behaviour of elements at the micro-level, and yet at the same time it is a feature realised in the system of micro-elements, so in exactly that sense of 'caused by' and 'realised in' mental phenomena are caused by processes going on in the brain at the neuronal or modular level, and at the same time they are realised in the very system that consists of neurons... Nothing is more common in nature than for surface features of phenomena to be both caused by and realised in a micro-structure, and those are exactly the relationships that are exhibited by the relationship of mind to brain."
        (John Searle: Minds, Brains & Science, pages 22-23.)

In view of the above facts the mind is merely a word we use to describe those physical events occurring in the brain that cause all aspects of our mental life. Indeed, the fact that brain injury and chemicals can effect our ability to think is good evidence for the material nature of the mind.

By contrast the proponents of ESP appear to be assuming that mind is a non¬physical force and can be projected beyond the physical constraints of the body, discern aspects of the material world and other minds. This is not possible. Firstly, there are no organs within the human body that could generate a paranormal force to power ESP phenomena. Secondly, because we are material beings our abilities are determined by the laws of nature, and in order for our bodies to possess an energy unknown to science, we would need to be composed of matter unknown to science. The reason — energy depends on matter for its ¬existence. In other words, in order for paranormal abilities to exist there would need to be such a thing as paranormal matter. However, we do know that our bodies are not constructed from it, and this fact alone is, in my opinion, sufficient to rule out the possibility of ESP.

Scientific Evidence?

Although ESP is impossible in principle, many proponents claim that parapsychological experiments provide proof of the phenomena's existence. However, the weaknesses in research methodology undermine this conclusion:

"There are four basic weaknesses in parapsychological research. The first, and the most-often mentioned even by leading parapsychologists, is the failure so far to repeat the results of major experiments. Then there is the lack of theoretical foundation for the alleged phenomena — a fact that plagued J. B. Rhine, the father of modem parapsychology, to the end of his life. There is a lack of professionalism among some researchers, who seem to welcome and support any evidence that is dredged up. A lack of rigorous controls in experimentation has often been the target of skeptics.
(H. Gordon: Extra Sensory Deception, page 9)
After a century of parapsychological research there is still no conclusive evidence for the existence of ESP. Those experiments that have yielded positive results can be grouped into two categories:

1.    Positive results that cannot be independently confirmed, and therefore might be due to forgery.

2.    Positive results that are undermined by poor experimental design, and therefore might be due to errors or deliberate trickery.

Belief & Probability

If there is no evidence for the existence of ESP, then why do so many people believe that there is such a thing? One possible explanation may lie in the way people look for connections in chance and probability. Most people appear to believe in paranormal phenomena because of a personal experience, or because they consider the experience of others as proof of the phenomena's existence. This 'evidence' often takes the form of a feeling. The person "knew something was going to happen, and it did". Moreover, the event was "far too unlikely to have been just a coincidence", and therefore "natural explanations can be ruled out".

The conclusion that an event is paranormal appears to be based on a probability judgment, and psychologists have discovered that people use a range of heuristics rather than sound mathematical procedures when attempting to guess probabilities. Naturally, this method is far from accurate, and often results in fallacious conclusions concerning the likelihood of an unusual event.

For example, many people have had dreams in which a friend or relative dies, and the following day they hear of this person's death. Is this a paranormal event? How likely is it that such a dream will come true purely by coincidence?

"Statistician Christopher Scott has analysed it this way. There are about 55 million people in Britain and they live about 70 years each. If each has one such dream in a lifetime there should be 2000 every night. Also about 2000 people die in each 24 hours. So there will be 4 million coincidences among 55 million people. In other words such an "amazing" coincidence will be expected about once every two weeks." (Susan Blackmore: The Lure of the Paranormal, New Scientist 22 September 1990, page 47)

Most people who reject the coincidence explanation probably do so because of two factors: Firstly, the paranormal explanation is more meaningful to them — it reinforces the traditional dualistic view of human nature. Secondly, very few people would have the inclination or the skill to calculate the probability of the event being due to chance alone.


ESP is impossible. The material nature of our being prevents us from interacting with the world through non-material means:

"...every influence we have upon the outside world has to begin with physical changes occurring at our body surfaces... That any further impressions we make on our surroundings can only be a secondary effect of these poor causes. That when and if our bodily activity is inadequate to have the secondary effects we may desire, there is precious little we can do about it. That we can achieve nothing at all external to us by means of purely inner unexpressed mentation. That thoughts without causally sufficient action by the body must inevitably fail in their ambitions."
(Nicholas Humphrey: Soul Searching, page 218)

Given that mind is dependent on matter, and is therefore bound by the laws of nature, ESP will probably remain nothing more than wishful thinking.


Blackmore, S. The Lure of the Paranormal, New Scientist 22/9/90, IPC Magazines Ltd, London, 1990.

Gordon, H. Extrasensory Deception, Macmillan of Canada, Canada, 1988.

Humphrey, N. Soul Searching, Chatto & Windus, London, 1995
Randi, J. James Randi: Psychic Investigator, Boxtree Limited, London, 1991

Searle, J. Minds, Brains & Science, Penguin Books, London, 1984.

The Oxford Companion to the Mind, University Press, New York, 1987.