Harald Walach and Stefan Schmidt
Repairing Plato’s Life Boat
with Ockham’s Razor
The Important Function of Research in Anomalies
for Consciousness Studies
Abstract: Scientific progress is achieved not only by continuous accumulation
of knowledge but also by paradigm shifts. These shifts are often necessitated by
anomalous findings that cannot be incorporated in accepted models. Two impor-
tant methodological principles regulate this process and complement each
other: Ockham’s Razor as the principle of parsimony and Plato’s Life Boat as
the principle of the necessity to ‘save the appearances’ and thus incorporate
conflicting phenomenological data into theories. We review empirical data
which are in conflict with some presuppositions of accepted mainstream science:
Clinical and experimental effects of prayer and healing intention, data from
telepathy, psychokinesis experiments and precognition, and anecdotal reports of
macro-psychokinesis. Taken together, the now well documented possibility of
these events suggests that such phenomena are anomalies that challenge some
widely held beliefs in mainstream science. On the other hand, scientists often
fear that by accepting the reality of these phenomena they also have to subscribe
to world-models invoking ontological dualism or idealism. We suggest accept-
ing the phenomena as real, but without questionable ontologies commonly asso-
ciated with them. We outline how this might work.
The Scientific Process and Two Regulative Principles
The sociology of science and the importance of anomalies
Since Kuhn’s influential analysis of the scientific process (Kuhn, 1955) we know
that science does not progress in a continuous stride by accumulating truths.
Every now and then, anomalous data force scientists to give up on widely held
Journal of Consciousness Studies,12, No. 2, 2005, pp. 52–70
Correspondence: Dr. Harald Walach & Dr. Stefan Schmidt, University Hospital Freiburg,
Samueli Institute European Office, Hugstetter Str. 55, D-79106 Freiburg, Germany.
Email: email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
beliefs and change scientific theories. Kuhn showed that such a process of theory
change is discontinuous and resembles more a revolution than a smooth prog-
ress. Such paradigm changes only take place when enough anomalous data have
accumulated so that old scientific models cannot give satisfactory explanations
for them any more. Kuhn made a strong point in arguing that the underlying pro-
cess is not rational but involves many seemingly irrational aspects from sociol-
ogy and psychology of science (Feyerabend, 1976). In his analyses, Kuhn was
foreshadowed and had also partially borrowed (Toulmin, 1985) from two impor-
tant writers: Robin Collingwood (1998) and Ludwik Fleck (1980).
Collingwood had already pointed out in 1940 in his philosophical analysis of
the scientific process that science necessarily rests on what he called ‘absolute
presuppositions’. These absolute presuppositions are necessary for the regular
conduct of science. They are assumptions, for instance, about the ultimate con-
stituents of the world, about how one should proceed in methodology, about val-
ues in science, and so forth. It is because new scientific models normally not only
question an isolated theory but also those underlying presuppositions that the
fight for a paradigmatic shift in science is at times harsh and not rational.
Fleck could show that what is called ‘a scientific fact’ is the result of a complex
social process of scientists interacting, finding a consensus, being trained in a
similar way and thus observing and seeing similar things. ‘A scientific fact is due
to the consensus to stop thinking’, he says (Fleck, 1980).
The importance of the complex social, political and professional networks sci-
entists are part of is described brilliantly by the actor-network-theory put for-
ward by Bruno Latour and others, based on their empirical work (Latour, 1999;
Latour & Bastide, 1986). From these analyses of recent scientific work in differ-
ent areas of research emerges the picture of scientists interacting with col-
leagues, other human and non-human participants of the scientific enterprise,
political and societal stakeholders, interest groups and funders. A scientific fact
and the respective theories describing it are not a simple description of a reality
out there, but a highly constructive process which results from the interaction of
scientists with each other, the world and society at large. Hence, what part of our
world is attended to is determined by the interest of groups and individuals in
power, such as economic and political forces (Habermas, 1973), by competition
for limited funds and social processes of communication within the scientific
community and towards society.
The common denominator of these four intertwined ideas of the scientific pro-
cess is recognition
(i) that scientific models rest on presupposition that are not themselves
amenable to scientific scrutiny, except post-hoc in historical analyses,
(ii) that those presuppositions are not necessarily rational, but rather reflect
the social consensus of a time,
(iii) that they are resistant to change because of their somewhat unreflected
nature of silent collective consensus, and
(iv) that it is less a matter of what is ‘real’ than of what is socially acceptable
and scientifically communicable that determines what counts as fact.
REPAIRING PLATO’S LIFE BOAT WITH OCKHAM’S RAZOR 53
Anomalies that do not fit into existing models play an important role in this
process (Laudan, 1981; Laudan, 1977): They point to blind spots and deficien-
cies in existing theories. Since our perception is normally geared to giving pref-
erence to information that is consonant with existing expectations, both
individually and collectively, anomalies are prone to be overlooked, neglected or
marginalised in their importance. Historically, two regulative principles that
complement each other have been and ought to be employed to deal with an
apparent anomaly within the context of a given scientific world model: The prin-
ciple of parsimony, named Ockham’s Razor, and the principle of taking phenom-
ena seriously, which we call here Plato’s Life Boat. We now turn our attention to
those two regulative principles.
Ockham’s Razor and Plato’s Life Boat
Ockham’s Razor is a well known methodological principle in science. It is
named after the Franciscan friar William of Ockham (1285–1349?) who was
renowned in his days for his trenchant criticism of traditional philosophy, theol-
ogy and Aristotelian science (Leff, 1975; McCord Adams, 1987a; 1987b).
Thereby he laid the foundations for the success of much of modern science
(Crombie, 1953). The principle named after him as ‘razor’ is his principle of
parsimony. It can be found in several places and varieties, one of which is
‘pluralitas non est ponenda praeter necessitatem — entities should not be pro-
posed beyond necessity’ (Wilhelm von Ockham, 1982, p. 59). He assumed this
axiom-like principle as a rule against the scholastic theory of knowledge, which
was derived from Aristotle, had been adapted by Thomas Aquinas and refined by
Ockham’s fellow friar and predecessor John Duns Scotus (Böhner, 1943;
Brampton, 1965; Day, 1947). Briefly, the Aristotelian-scholastic theory of per-
ception necessitated that the sense organs abstracted something from the per-
cepts (Oeser, 1969), called a ‘species sensibilis — a sensible specimen’ which
was a kind of template, which again was transformed by the intellect into a ‘spe-
cies intelligibilis — an intelligible specimen’. This, in the end, was the raw mate-
rial the intellect worked with. This precluded any immediate kind of knowledge,
either of sensible objects or even of inner states of the mind itself. Ockham
opposed this view, criticizing the ‘species’ as unnecessary additional entities and
thus stating his axiomatic principle of parsimony. Ever since Ockham’s days it
has been an axiom of scientific methodology to prefer more parsimonious mod-
els over more complex ones, and to be reluctant in adopting theoretical, invisible
and derivative entities, like angels, forces, fields, or virtual particles, to name but
a few candidates.
The methodological principle of parsimony, known as Ockham’s razor, has a
complement in what we would like to dub Plato’s Life Boat. This is the principle
stemming from the Platonic school of astronomy, probably introduced by
Eudoxos of Knidos, stating that a theory has to be complex enough to ‘save the
appearances — swzein ta fainomena’, which was a phrase pertinent to the Pla-
tonic academy (Duhem, 1965; Mittelstrass, 1962; Simplicius, 1893). Its original
54 H. WALACH AND S. SCHMIDT
meaning was that any astronomic theory should be able to explain the apparently
strange behaviour of the planets. Thus, from a model-fit point of view, a refined
Ptolemaic astronomical model fitted the data better — saved the appearances —
than the circular heliocentric model of Aristarch of Samos, or later of Copernicus
(Oeser, 1979a,b). It was only the elliptic model of Kepler which did both:
explain the data better and more parsimoniously. Kepler’s model, then, was one
which both applied Ockham’s razor successfully — put away with all the cycles
and epicycles of the Ptolemaic model — and used Plato’s Life Boat principle —
saved all the appearances. It is interesting that this was only possible after the
intermediate steps of
·Copernicus digging out or reinventing the old heliocentric model of
Aristarch of Samos
·Galileo providing new, conflicting data by observing the moons of Jupiter
·Tyho Brahe’s careful observation and data collecting of the planetary posi-
tions published later by Kepler in the Rudolphine Tables, the Tabula
Rudolphina, including the ones that were at odds with any of the known
Observing and taking in account all data, especially data conflicting with
accepted models, represents Plato’s Life Boat, the principle of rich observation,
as we might also call it. Finding a theoretical structure, which explains and
understands all data, even conflicting bits of information, without taking refuge
to unnecessary entities and thus applying Ockham’s Razor, is the high art of the-
oretical modeling. It is accomplished by using both, Ockham’s Razor, the princi-
ple of parsimony, and Plato’s Life Boat strategy, the principle of taking
conflicting data into consideration. Rich observation and wild speculation alone
would lead to speculative theories postulating superfluous entities. Ether wind,
phlogiston, animal magnetism, or N-rays are examples of entities postulated by
violating the principle of parsimony (Alcock, 2003; Silver, 1997). On the other
hand, an overemphasis on the principle of parsimony always bears the danger of
overlooking important bits of information, because they do not fit well with
existing ‘parsimonious’ models. Thus, both principles require each other
mutually, and in good science are embraced with equal right.
Since the rise of modern science and the era of Newton onwards there cer-
tainly has been a bias towards parsimony, mostly through the success of
reductive explanatory strategies (Agazzi, 1991). Normally, we distinguish
between reduction of theories and reduction of phenomena. By reduction of the-
ories we mean that higher level theories can be reduced to more fundamental and
simpler theories, like biology to biochemistry, biochemistry to chemistry, and
chemistry to physics with the goal to ultimately reduce all theories to physics.
This program has, on a grand plane, certainly failed (Mayr, 1988; Primas, 1991),
and is only operative within certain subdomains of scientific theories. Reduction
of phenomena, however, is still well and alive and a prime motor of scientific
discovery. By this we mean that apparent complex and puzzling phenomena can
be explained as instances or examples of generic scientifically explainable
REPAIRING PLATO’S LIFE BOAT WITH OCKHAM’S RAZOR 55
categories, by mapping of diverse and seemingly unrelated observations onto a
common structure. Thus, light, lightning, magnetism, electric phenomena and
nerve signalling all have been discovered to be instances of one underlying
process, electromagnetism, and thus covered by one ultimate theory.
The modern scientific enterprise, using mostly Ockham’s Razor, has been
very successful. However, it runs into the danger of neglecting data and evidence
not fitting into current models, by overly relying on the principle of parsimony.
We would like to point out in this paper some areas of research and what we see
as data conflicting with mainstream scientific models which have been cut out of
the modern world view by applying Ockham’s Razor. We opt for the alternative
of taking this information and data seriously without falling into the trap of buy-
ing implicit interpretations which often accompany the data. Our argument will
be that it is possible, rational, and even necessary to take these data into the focus
of scientific scrutiny, that is to employ Plato’s Life Boat strategy, without having
to resort to animistic, dualistic or other purportedly ‘unscientific’ world models.
It is our suspicion that an unwarranted marriage of scientific methodology with a
particular world hypothesis — for most cases with a materialist-mechanistic
hypothesis — has on the one hand created false preconceptions of what kind of
phenomena merit attention as possible objects of scientific research, and on the
other hand has hindered scientific progress towards a more encompassing world
II: Implicit Elements of a Modern Scientific World View
We suggest some implicit presuppositions of a modern scientific world view,
underlying most of today’s successful mainstream research being as follows:
·Single elements — like atoms, fundamental particles, molecules, genes,
individual subjects — are primary. Complex systems — like atoms, mole-
cules, cells, organs, humans, societies — can be analysed in terms of, and
broken down into, its constituents without losing much information. This is
the atomist hypothesis (Whitehead, 1978; Whyte, 1961).
·Changes are usually brought about by local impact of material parts, that is
by efficient causation. Switching on the light, for instance, can be analysed
in terms of a finger hitting the switch and starting a flow of electric current.
This movement can be analysed in terms of muscle contractions, molecule
movements and neuron discharges in the organism. What still defies this
type of explanation is the question whether my conscious will is something
distinct from this causal chain, or, eventually, will be discovered to be part
of it. This is the mechanistic hypothesis. Another way of putting this is say-
ing that causes have to be local causes (locality hypothesis), operating
within a framework of signal transmission (Reichenbach, 1957). This
locality assumption complicates the debate about the status of anomalies
such as in parapsychology (see for instance Alcock, 2003, or Jeffers, 2003).
56 H. WALACH AND S. SCHMIDT
·Another tacit hypothesis, which often comes in line with these two, states
that matter is primary and consciousness secondary to, derivative of, or
supervenient on matter (materialistic hypothesis).
·Time is irreversible and ordered in sequence, progressing from past to
future, with the future being partially open and the past fully determined.
This hypothesis is a direct result of the second law of thermodynamics
(time irreversibility hypothesis).
These four elements of a modern scientific world view seem to be, among others,
the most basic common denominators subscribed to at least implicitly by most
We are not suggesting that these world hypotheses or presuppositions are
wrong. It would not be meaningful to use the categories of truth and falsehood
for absolute presuppositions. But this does not mean they are never to be ques-
tioned and their usefulness debated. If a different type of science, which necessi-
tated the adoption of other presuppositions, was as successful as existing
approaches in explaining the phenomena they can account for, and in addition
could explain currently anomalous data, the pragmatic success of this new type
of science would be a sufficient test for its acceptance. Thus, it is not useful to
discuss these absolute presuppositions without recognizing their status as pre-
suppositions (and not scientific truths), and their relative merits and limitations
compared with other presuppositions. It is data which are the final arbiter of
hypotheses. The point at which a corpus of data is strong enough to overthrow
the validity of an existing hypothesis is largely a matter of temperament. Exist-
ing theories and paradigms have the tendency to remain in power until a better
explanation for conflicting data turns up (Lakatos, 1978). This more encompass-
ing theory cannot be found, however, as long as conflicting data are being
ignored (Laudan, 1977).
We now turn to some anomalistic data, which we suggest should not be
ignored in order to advance scientific understanding of nature at large and of
consciousness in particular.
III: The Life-Boat Strategy: Anomalistic Data Taken Seriously
A direct consequence of the tacit presuppositions one and two described above is
that a direct,unmediated interaction should not occur between one mind/brain
system and another distant mind/brain system, or between a mind/brain system
and a distant physical system. Action at a distance is a scientifically difficult
notion, as was already realized by Newton (Stapp, 1990), albeit for completely
different reasons. For Newton, who in the depth of his heart was still very much
aligned with the alchemist tradition of science, the immaterial agent that medi-
ated forces was of a spiritual nature, and the whole concept of gravitation was
modeled along the lines of alchemist teachings of attraction and repulsion
(White, 1997). This concept thus worked through the mediation of (spiritual)
forces, and established locality through interaction of spiritual forces with mat-
ter. Although Newton was very secretive about his own reading of gravitational
REPAIRING PLATO’S LIFE BOAT WITH OCKHAM’S RAZOR 57
forces, this can nowadays clearly be seen in a letter he wrote to Bentley, his clos-
est friend and correspondent who he entrusted with his inner ideas. In 1692 he
wrote to him that:
It is inconceivable that inanimate brute matter should, without the mediation of
something else which is not material, operate upon and affect other matter without
mutual contact … That one body may act upon another at a distance and through a
vacuum without the mediation of anything else by and through which their action or
force may be conveyed from one to another is to me so great an absurdity that I
believe no man who has in philosophical matters any competent faculty of thinking
can ever fall into it (Newton in Turnbull, 1961, p. 253f).
In modern science, this problem is partially solved by introducing virtual parti-
cles, e.g. gravitons in the case of gravitation. But action at a distance between
mind/brain systems or between a mind/brain system and a physical one without
intermediate exchange particles is considered unscientific.
There are several strands of data strongly suggestive of the possibility of such
an action at a distance. Before reviewing these in more detail, let us pause for a
moment to consider the theoretical challenge. Absolute presuppositions implic-
itly follow an all-exclusive system: Either the suppositions 1 and 2 are applica-
ble, and no such thing as direct interaction between mind/brain systems and
physical or other mind/brain systems at a distance occurs at all. Or, if one single
instance of such an action at a distance is documented, we at least know that these
presuppositions do not encompass the whole story about nature. One single
observation of action at a distance can refute a proposition (the locality hypothe-
sis) that denies this possibility in general (Popper, 1976).
Thus, if we find empirical evidence for an occurrence of such a distant inter-
action, we have data which should be put into Plato’s Life Boat and saved for an
amendment of scientific world models. It should be noted in passing that finding
a theoretical structure which encompasses both old theory and data plus new data
conflicting with old theories is not a trivial task. But as soon as the Life Boat con-
tains anomalistic data, it is a task that is certainly worthwhile, and is arguably a
1. Efficacy of prayer and distant healing
At least two studies have been reported recently in the medical literature sugges-
tive of the effects of distant healing or prayer, along with some negative ones. In
one of the studies (Sicher et al., 1998) 40 AIDS patients with progressive disease
development were randomized in a matched pairs design to either receive distant
healing or not. Distant healing was provided by different healers, each operative
for one week per patient, over 10 weeks. Follow-up was after 6 months. The
patients designated for healing were not aware that they were in the treatment
group, and controls were not certain about not being in the healing group. Heal-
ers were located all over the United States, had no contact with the patients, and
had only a photo of the healing subject available. Thus, personal contact was
completely precluded. After follow-up patients in the treatment group had
58 H. WALACH AND S. SCHMIDT
significantly fewer and less severe AIDS defining diseases, fewer days in hospi-
tals, fewer visits to the doctor and better well-being. Also, a multivariate mea-
sure of combined results was significantly better in the treated group. Since this
study was rather small and thus bias could still play a role in distributing prog-
nostic variables unevenly by chance among groups, this result should not be
taken as definite. Bias, however, cannot be an explanation for the next study
(Harris et al., 1999), which was a positive replication of a predecessor study
(Byrd, 1988), and thus carries more weight. In this study 990 patients in an acute
coronary care unit, mostly after acute myocardial infarction or severe coronary
artery disease, were randomly allocated to a prayer group or not, without them
knowing that they were in a study and being prayed for. Thus, no effects of con-
scious expectations could have operated. Those in the prayer group were prayed
for by a group of 4 to 6 prayers who knew nothing about the patients except the
name and the condition, had no contact and prayed for them over the course of 28
days daily. Patients were monitored by a series of clinical parameters relevant for
cardiac patients, which were combined into one single summary score. Patients
in the prayer group had a significant clinical improvement of 10% compared
with the control patients, with length of stay being the same. This study shows
that prayer can have an independent and clinically relevant effect which cannot
be explained by psychological variables or bias. Another replication study found
only a small, non-significant effect which would have taken 3000 patients to sta-
tistically verify (Aviles et al., 2001).
Although the evidence for the efficacy of healing and prayer is not uncon-
tested (Abbot et al., 2001; Harkness et al., 2000), there are enough positive
results making the efficacy of healing a possibility (Abbot, 2000; Astin et al.,
2000). Let us be clear here that for theoretical purposes it is not necessary to
demand that healing at a distance is an intervention of uncontested efficacy
(which is rarely the case for most mainstream medical interventions anyway). It
is only necessary to demonstrate that there is at least some evidence which is
clearly and undebatably positive. Thus, we contend that at least in some
instances action at a distance between mental and physical systems occurs and
has been documented with sufficient methodological rigor to warrant this data to
be conveyed to Plato’s Life Boat.
2. Direct mental interaction between living systems
An experimental laboratory paradigm in experimental healing research is set up
in the following way: Two subjects each are seated in two electromagnetically
and acoustically shielded chambers, usually separated by a reasonable distance
to preclude cheating. One of them, termed the receiver, usually relaxes for some
30 minutes, while his or her electrodermal activity (EDA), as a measure of auton-
omous arousal, is monitored. The other, denoted as sender, watches a computer
screen which normally feeds back the EDA of the receiver in real time to the
screen. He or she has the task of intentionally or mentally influencing the arousal
level, as reflected by the EDA curve, towards a more relaxed or more aroused
REPAIRING PLATO’S LIFE BOAT WITH OCKHAM’S RAZOR 59
state. Short intervals of the different directions of the intentional influence
(either to calm or to excite) are arranged in a random and counterbalanced
sequence, interspersed with rest periods. There is no direct, local way of influ-
encing the receiver, and if a change in the receiver’s arousal is noticed between
activation and calming epochs this can only be an intentional interaction. A
recent meta-analysis improved on the methodology of an earlier review (Schlitz
& Braud, 1997), which had methodological shortcomings (Schmidt & Walach,
2000), and included new and so far unpublished material. It found significant
results (Schmidt et al., 2004). Forty studies were retrieved and weighted for their
methodological quality. The mean effect size is d=0.11(p= .001). This analysis
shows that even using a sceptical approach, a small but significant effect can be
found. We conclude that there are enough results fulfilling the requirement of
having shown that such effects are possible.
3. Interaction between intentionality and random number generators
– micro PK
Ever since the beginning of parapsychological research there has been the ques-
tion whether random events in the material world can be changed by human
intention, without direct manipulation. Since the advent of random number gen-
erators from electronic or radiation sources there have been numerous studies
addressing this question. Part of the database has been summarized by a
meta-analysis (Radin & Nelson, 1989). Different sources of random events have
been used, mostly radiation sources or zener-diodes creating true random noise,
and in diverse protocols which include the intention of achieving upwards and
downwards deviation from chance expectations, small but robust effects have
been found which are statistically highly significant. These effects are exceed-
ingly small – r= 3*10-4 – , but accumulated over millions of trials they testify at
least to the possibility of direct interaction between mental systems – intentions –
and physical systems. A recent analysis of experiments conducted since the pub-
lication of the meta-analysis strengthens this result (Radin & Nelson, 2003)
while a different meta-analytical approach yielded conflicting results (Bösch et
al., 2004). It is not at all clear what actually drives the effect, since a recent large
scale replication using traditional statistics was totally negative (Jahn et al.,
2000). Yet, even from that database, using refined statistics, anomalous devia-
tions from randomness have been demonstrated (Atmanspacher et al., 1999;
Pallikari, 2001). Thus, it is plausible that at least sometimes such direct mental
influences of human intention on random processes are possible.
Precognitive events have been documented throughout the written record of
human culture (Braude, 1987; Zohar, 1982). By precognition we mean that
events to happen in the future can be fully or partly known beforehand, either by
visual images and dreams or by intuitive action (Burns, 2003). This is a strong
challenge to the time-irreversibility assumption of modern science. Precognitive
60 H. WALACH AND S. SCHMIDT
dreams form large samples of both American and European case collections of
extrasensory perceptions (see e.g. Irwin, 1999, chapter 3, for an overview;
Krippner et al., 1971, for an example of an empirical study). There have also
been enough experimental studies to warrant a meta-analysis. In these studies
people were forced to choose between a series of forthcoming events, e.g. in
card-guessing experiments before a card had been turned. A meta-analysis of
such forced-choice precognition experiments (Honorton & Ferrari, 1989)
showed a clear and significant effect. Three hundred and nine studies with more
than 50,000 subjects and nearly 2,000,000 trials yielded a small but reliable
effect of r= .02. The according Stouffer’s Z is z= 11.41 (p=6.3x10
-25). In an
ingenious protocol Radin (1997), using subjects as their own control, showed
them highly arousing and emotionally relaxing pictures from a large database in
random sequence on a computer screen. He measured EDA as an indicator of
autonomous arousal. This measure reflected, as expected, a strong effect of
heightened arousal after presentation of the emotionally disturbing pictures, and
a much smaller one after emotionally soothing pictures. What was totally
counterintuitive, however, was the fact, that the EDA-curves showed a distinct
and reproducible peak before the actual physical onset of the disturbing — but
not before relaxing — pictures. This seemed to be something like a precognitive
orienting reflex. Bierman (2000) also examined databases of conventional
experiments, such as a gambling experiment to discover subconscious concept
formation (Bechara et al., 1997), subjects’ reactions to phobic stimuli and other
types of psychophysiological data and could also find evidence for the same
The database is thus broad enough to establish precognition as something
which does sometimes occur, and in our view this is sufficient warrant for its
being taken up by Plato’s Life Boat.
5. Telepathy: Research in the ganzfeld
One of the most prominent parapsychological experiments are the so-called
ganzfeld studies (Utts, 1991). These experiments have been described and dis-
cussed recently (Palmer, 2003; Parker, 2003). In such telepathy experiments,
two participants are placed in different, usually electromagnetically shielded
rooms in the laboratory, thus precluding all ways of conventional information
transfer. One person, called the receiver, is placed in a field of homogenous
vision and sound of mild sensory deprivation, the so called ganzfeld. The other
person, called the sender, watches repeatedly a short video clip or a static target
image while he or she is able to listen to the verbal mentations that are produced
by the receiver in the ganzfeld state. Then four stimuli, one target and three
decoys, are presented to him or her and the target has to be identified. Tests are
against the chance expectation of 25 % hit rate.
The methodological rigour of ganzfeld experiments was subject to a debate
that ended with a joint communiqué proposing guidelines to guarantee high
methodological quality in future studies. Studies according to these guidelines
REPAIRING PLATO’S LIFE BOAT WITH OCKHAM’S RAZOR 61
have been performed by Charles Honorton (Bem & Honorton, 1994). In 10 stud-
ies with 329 sessions, they obtained an average hit rate of 32% (z= 2.89, p=
.002; chance expectation would be a 25% hit rate), the corresponding effect size
being r= .22. Exceptionally an artistically gifted sample of 20 students from the
Julliard School in New York showed a hit rate of 50%.
However, a meta-analysis of new experiments since 1987 showed no overall
effect (Milton & Wiseman, 1999). This result was disputed, since with some
methodological fine tuning a significant effect can be shown (Milton, 1999;
Schmeidler & Edge, 1999). The latest meta-analysis of all studies since the joint
communiqué in 1987 demonstrates again a significant finding (40 studies, hit
rate 30.1%, effect size r= .05, p= .005), because another very large study has
been conducted since the last meta-analysis (Bem et al., 2001).
From the current state of our knowledge it is hard to establish ganzfeld telepa-
thy as a fact. Nevertheless, there are too many studies with positive findings to
negate the fact that at least sometimes this type of telepathy is possible. We think
the data are challenging enough to place ganzfeld telepathy into Plato’s life boat
6. Macro psychokinesis, spook and poltergeist phenomena
The aforementioned phenomena have in common that they have been investi-
gated using sound methodology and quantitative methods, and have shown some
replicability. On the other hand, the effects are rather small, and it is difficult to
envisage any practical implication, except in the case of intentional healing.
Thus, they are mainly interesting from a theoretical point of view as fostering
instances of phenomena which should not happen by the standards of the modern
world view but still do (Braude, 1978; 1986). Apart from that there is a category
of events which are much more impressive, in that they are really obvious in the
macro-world, have direct impact, but are less replicable and reliable, and highly
elusive. These are instances of macro-psychokinesis (macro PK), often termed
spook or poltergeist phenomena, or other forms of spectacular singular episodes
of paranormal information transfer. They do not seem to obey any laws or dis-
cernible structures, and by that token they are the most elusive of all paranormal
phenomena, where elusiveness is the hallmark of these phenomena anyway
(Parker, 2003). Moreover, public attention has sometimes lured subjects
involved in such cases into fraud if the phenomena were not operating at the
command of the media or other witnesses. This has discredited the whole area of
research. While it is certainly necessary to remain highly alert to the possibility
of fraud and faking in many cases (Wiseman & Morris, 1995), there still are
some cases which do not seem to lend themselves to such explanations. The
Freiburg Institute of Frontier Areas of Psychology and Psychohygiene (IGPP)
collected many hundreds of such reports under its late director Professor Bender
(Schellinger, 2000). There even seems to be a uniform phenomenology
(Lucadou, 1995; Moser, 1980).
62 H. WALACH AND S. SCHMIDT
It is in the very nature of these cases that they can never overcome their status
of being anecdotes or lore. But anecdotal accounts vary in credibility and in this
instance it is worth recalling that the eminent German physicist Wolfgang Pauli
was a notorious source of such macro-PK events. It is not uncommon for such
phenomena to become attached to the names of a number of celebrities by way of
‘urban myths’, but in Pauli’s case the occurrences are well documented by credi-
ble living witnesses who knew him personally, and he himself took his so called
‘Pauli- Effect’ very seriously (Pietschmann, 1995; Enz, 1995). Pauli himself felt
that these macro-PK effects were probably due to his inner psychological con-
flicts. Through the realization of his personality problems and their solution
Pauli developed a strong conviction that physics would only be complete if it
took into consideration consciousness as a part of reality (Meier, 1992; von
Meyenn, 1996; Pauli, 1954). Therefore he stated the necessity of accounting for
mentality in a physical theory (Pauli, 1952). It seems to us, therefore, that the
occasional possibility of macro-PK should at least also find a place in Plato’s
The phenomena recounted so far are all instances challenging basic tenets of
prevailing modern world views. Thus they fulfill the criterion of being anomalis-
tic data which are not incorporated in modern theories (Alcock, 2003), and
which might give rise to more complete theories, just as much as, for instance,
the anomalies in the planetary orbit of Neptune gave rise to the discovery of
Pluto, or the anomalies of the precession in Mercury were covered by relativity
theory. The difference is, however, that these phenomena are not only anomalis-
tic, but that they also seem to belong to different categories.
The reluctance of modern scientists to accept such anomalistic phenomena as
real is not only that they do not fit into a prevailing world picture, but also that
they seem to come with a theoretical framework in tow, namely ontological dual-
ism or parallelism (Beloff, 1987) which is considered outdated. We make a plea
not to overlook the data for fear of buying an unwanted theory. And this is where
Ockham’s Razor might repair Plato’s Life Boat.
IV: Repairing Plato’s Life Boat with Ockham’s Razor
— A Place for Macroscopic Non-Locality
Taking phenomena seriously is one thing. Using them as a ‘proof’ to support
certain world hypotheses is quite another. What should have become clear by
now is that we argue for the first alternative, and opt for a critical evaluation of all
world models. It is a hallmark of mature and postmodern science, after all, to
realize that there can be a multitude of theoretical structures mapping a given
array of data, and that the criteria by which to choose a model are ultimately
subject to many influences (Collins & Pinch, 1993; Feyerabend, 1976). None of
the above mentioned phenomena entail, for instance, a dualist ontology, proving
consciousness to be a separate ontological entity, although this is a possible
option, too. But all potential models would have to account for a direct, i.e.
REPAIRING PLATO’S LIFE BOAT WITH OCKHAM’S RAZOR 63
nonlocal interaction between different mind/brain and physical systems. For this
is the commonality of most of the above mentioned phenomena.
On the other hand, it seems obvious that none of these phenomena can be
explained within a completely reductionistic, materialistic monist ontology. One
might argue that such phenomena could arise through emergence (see e.g. van
Gulick, 2001). For if consciousness is emerging in some unknown way from
physical processes so might Psi. Thus emergentist theories might be the most
parsimonious Life Boat conceivable. While this approach sounds promising and
fruitful at the first glance, we do have some objections. First, explaining the
unknown (Psi) by a process that in its details is itself unknown (emergence) is
neither an explanation nor parsimonious. Our second objection is that emergence
cannot solve the most prominent feature of the reported Psi phenomena, i.e.
nonlocality. While there might be a solution for the mind/brain interaction and
the pending problem of downward causation within one mind/brain system this
would not explain interactions between systems that are distant in space (or
Thus these phenomena demand as a common denominator a place for
non-locality between macroscopic systems, and an equality — in the sense of
non-reductive equality and ontological reality — between material and mental
systems. What would save a monist ontology would be the hypothesis that the
basic stuff of the universe is neither matter nor consciousness after all, but some
transcendent element which is basic to matter and mind at the same time and in
the same way. This world model is, as we see it, at the base of the neoplatonic
philosophy of Plotinus, if understood correctly and not in an idealist interpreta-
tion. It was again brought forward by Spinoza, used by Jung, and has been
endorsed in the modern era by several authors (Atmanspacher, 2003; Elitzur,
1991; Fahrenberg, 1979; Feigl, 1958; Kirsch & Hyland, 1987; Velmans, 2002;
Walach & Römer, 2000). We need a model, in sum, which takes consciousness
not as a derivative of matter, but as an entity equal in ontological status to matter,
but not necessarily by way of an ontological dualism, but certainly as a
phenomenological dualism, as recently expounded by Chalmers (1996). Such an
approach would not necessarily demand exotic kinds of energy or unknown
types of fields, although even this could be the end of the story, if empirically
validated. But what would indeed be required as a minimum common denomina-
tor is a formalism which allows for non-local correlations between any kinds of
systems independent of time and localization in space, of make-up and size.
Quantum non-locality as exhibited by EPR-like correlations or quantum entan-
glement (Cushing & Mcmullin, 1989) could be an instance of a more generic
type of non-locality that may be a good candidate to meet the requirements.
We have outlined such formalism elsewhere as Generalised or Weak Quantum
Theory (WQT) (Atmanspacher et al., 2002). Briefly, WQT employs an algebraic
axiomatic approach which uses only the most basic and general formal structures
characteristic of quantum mechanics, while omitting more specific definitions.
For instance, it does not provide a definition of addition and subtraction and thus
cannot make precise probabilistic predictions. However, it defines
64 H. WALACH AND S. SCHMIDT
multiplicative operations, both commutative and non-commutative, and hence
accounts for the most central feature of quantum mechanics, namely its
non-commutativity, which is the algebraic expression of complementarity (Kim
& Mahler, 2000). A natural consequence of complementarity is entanglement
between sub-elements of a system (Zeilinger, 1999). More precisely, whenever
complementarity between global and local observables of a system holds, entan-
glement between the elements described by the local observables ensues. While
in quantum mechanics proper the amount of non-commutativity, and hence the
degree of entanglement, is defined by Planck’s constant, no such definition and
restriction is provided by WQT. The formalism of WQT could in principle be
used to describe other than quantum systems, and quantum mechanics proper
can be recovered from WQT, if some restrictions and definitions are introduced.
Hence, WQT is one example of a theoretical structure that is able to account
for non-local processes such as those observed in the phenomena described
above, without making additional assumptions, postulating strange entities,
unknown fields or occasional violations of natural laws. On the contrary, it uses
one of the strongest theoretical structures available, namely quantum theory, and
maps the phenomena in question on this structure. The only assumption made
hereby is that the formal structure responsible for entanglement within quantum
mechanics proper, namely non-commutativity or complementarity of global and
local observables, can be meaningfully applied to other systems also and would
then account for a generalized form of entanglement. This is a theoretical predic-
tion made from WQT, which, however, could eventually explain the anomalistic
data in question and thus lead to a positive definition, the lack of which is one of
the reasons for skeptics to sink the life-boat completely (Alcock, 2003). At the
moment, this is only a theoretical option, which needs experimental verification,
although some positive hints have been provided (Wackermann et al., 2003;
2004), and it is by no means implied that WQT is the only theoretical option,
another example being the Model of Pragmatic Information (Lucadou, 1995)
which places more emphasis on the informational content of a system.
However, what is implied is that any theoretical concept needs to take into
account the non-local nature of the phenomena in question. WQT and general-
ized entanglement is just one way to go about the task that uses both Ockham’s
Razor and Plato’s Lifeboat, saves the phenomena while at the same time con-
necting the attempt to mainstream theorizing. Such a non-local approach that
treats those phenomena as instances of a generalized form of entanglement
would at the same time also account for the proverbial elusiveness of those phe-
nomena and the lack of robust replicability: Any phenomenon based on entan-
glement, proper or generalized, cannot be used to transmit a causal signal, except
in special instances, where a parallel classical channel of information flux is
established, like in experimental models of quantum teleportation or encryption.
Hence, any experimental model that does not give proper consideration to this
fact will be doomed to failure, except perhaps on a large statistical basis, and
hence convey the image of irregularity (Alcock, 2003). We probably have to
REPAIRING PLATO’S LIFE BOAT WITH OCKHAM’S RAZOR 65
introduce an analogue to Eberhard’s theorem (Eberhard, 1978) that prohibits
signal transmission by entangled quantum systems (quoted in Burns, 2003).
What needs to happen for this theoretical strategy to find broader acceptance,
apart from a solid experimental data base? Researchers and writers need to
become aware of the implicit presuppositions, namely their bias for local expla-
nations. Those phenomena will never be successfully explained by local theo-
ries, except in a reductive way (Brugger et al., 1994; Persinger & Makarec,
1987), simply because the phenomena do not seem to be local. However, local
thinking is deeply entrenched, and many people cannot even conceive of a con-
cept of causality or regularity apart from the restricted notion of local causality.
In strict analogy to quantum theory such non-locality does not have to involve
signals, energy transfer, violation of symmetry principles or invariances, but can
work in a totally correlational fashion without postulating a new, different or
exotic mechanism for it to occur. Thus the task is to find theoretical structures
incorporating the phenomena without automatically subscribing to the implicit
world hypotheses which are normally associated with them by advocates of
anomalistic phenomena, who very often also subscribe to localist ontologies.
Again Ockham would be a good guide. He already postulated a notion of causal-
ity which was not essentialist in the sense of Aristotle’s notion of efficient cau-
sality, but purely correlational in the sense that smoke is a signal for fire (Goddu,
1984). His axiomatic definition of cause is the following: ‘This is a cause of a
thing or event: If it is not present, while everything else is present, the thing is
not. If it is present, the thing or event is.’ (William of Ockham, 1957, p. 629f;
Translation ours; we have translated the Latin noun ‘res’ as ‘thing or event’,
since res is more than just a thing.) This led him to accept action at a distance, or
macroscopic non-locality in our terminology, as a more sober proposition than
the scholastic notion of intermediate species, or the modern view of locality for
that matter. In the same vein we propose to let go of the obsession with preju-
dices like locality, and to let the phenomena speak. A model combining both
strategies, like WQT, saving the phenomena and being parsimonious at the same
time needs to adopt macroscopic non-locality as a hypothesis and work on it.
Ockham would have liked it. And it fits the data best.
Harald Walach receives a grant from the Samueli Institute for Information Biol-
ogy, USA. Stefan Schmidt was supported at the time of writing by the Institut für
Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene (IGPP – Institute for Frontier
Areas in Psychology and Psychohygiene), Freiburg, Germany and is now funded
by the Samueli Institute for Information Biology.
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