Roberts, F.S. (1999). A Possible Line of Progress in Psychical Research. The Paranormal Review: 12, 29-30.
Reproduced with the kind permission of Peter Roberts.
List of papers by the author; archived at

A Possible Line of Progress in Psychical Research

 F. Somerville Roberts

 A LARGE PART OF the investigations in psychical research are in two directions; namely experiments to prove beyond all doubt the existence of the paranormal (still very much needed) and the equally determined efforts by sceptics and materialists to show that it does not exist. This situation has existed for decades and, within the present range of experimental work, is not likely to progress in either way.

The reasons for this are, firstly, that work undertaken to disprove the existence of the paranormal can never be successful. No matter how many experiments are carried out, or psychical experiences or experiments are shown to be invalid, no such result constitutes proof. The situation is similar to the old philosophical argument about the blackbirds: observation of a million blackbirds will not prove that all blackbirds are black, but just one white one is sufficient to prove that they are not. Secondly, from this argument it follows that, if one observable and repeatable experiment can be shown to meet the definitions and conditions of paranormality, then unless it is eventually invalidated, it must remain an accepted example (and therefore proof) of the paranormal. However, it is widely but mistakenly accepted that no such example exists.

There are, in fact, several situations which meet these conditions, some of which have already been described (Somerville Roberts, 1993). Such cases can be investigated as and when required and the surprising point is that so little research has been done on them. It has even been suggested that, because they are readily available for investigation at any time, they cannot be classed as truly paranormal, as the essential base of paranormal phenomena is that they are transient. There are good reasons suggesting that the most advantageous line of future psychical research would be the study of the anomalies of consciousness. However, this area has been the subject of extensive work from a philosophical, physiological and psychological point of view, but it appears that very little attention has been given to the psychical aspect, although this is capable of producing some of the strongest evidence or even actual proof of the existence of the paranormal. A couple of such examples will be described below.

Work in this area requires a precise definition of what is meant by the term 'paranormal'. It will be defined here as an event or situation which cannot be explained by our present knowledge of the physical world, or its laws, and which it appears could never be explained in the future, or which demonstrably contravenes the accepted laws of physics. It will be seen that this embodies the qualification for paranormality as adopted by the SPR.

As already mentioned, the basis of this approach is an assessment of the well-known anomalies of visual perception. It is a common observation, of course, that every human is different from every other. Whilst we all possess the same physiological structures, general shape, limbs, features, organs and so on, they all differ in detail: fingerprints, mode of speech, writing, thinking, style of walking, physical strength, and so on. If a large mixed group of all ages, races, genders etc.. were asked to write exactly the same sentence, the handwriting in each case would be different from all others, because of mutational cerebral and muscular differences. This is normal, it is expected, and is fully explicable in physiological terms. Now, assuming the same group has unimpaired eyesight and they are all asked to look at the same object such as a full moon and paint exactly what they see, they will all paint an identical picture. If this were not so, we would certainly have some extraordinary situations in daily life.

What we are seeing is the image created by consciousness from a configuration in the visual cortex. On a physical basis, this implies that the retinal-induced pattern in every participant's cortex is identical in the most minute detail. Obviously, this situation is not limited to the selected group; it means that everybody in the world has an identical visual perception system to everybody else. The electro-chemical and electro-neural reactions in the retinas of everybody are absolutely identical, as must be the construction and functioning of the optic nerves and the pattern created in the visual cortex. Even any DNA constituent in the visual function would have to be identical in six billion people, which anybody acquainted with the nature of DNA would find impossible to accept. The implications of this situation go much further.

In every group that is painting the same picture, there will be octogenarians and adolescents and they will all paint identical pictures, because the images in their consciousness are all identical. It follows that the mechanism creating these images does not change with the passage of time, it does not grow old and apart from violent destruction, will live forever, thereby providing a possible explanation for the numerous anecdotal accounts on record of survival.

It is virtually impossible to explain these situations on a physical basis. To do so, the materialist has to explain, for example, how the extremely complex function of visual perception can be identical in billions of people whilst every other physiological function differs between every two people; how such a faculty came into existence through the normal channels of evolution, which is dependent on mutational change; how the cells involved in the various aspects of visual perception remain unchanged in every way after fifty years of constant daily use; and what is the nature of the active agent in the visual system which prevents the normal ageing agents from being effective? There are many others, but these will suffice to illustrate the position.

At the present time, these situations and other similar examples fully meet the definitions laid down for the acceptance of paranormality and until the materialist can give a rational explanation for this situation his claims that he can refute the validity of parapsychology are utterly worthless. But the difficulty is in getting him to realise this simple fact. Blind prejudice always overrules logical reasoning.

Perhaps one way of putting this right is for every time a well-known sceptic should claim that their work shows that the paranormal is to use the sceptical description just bunk, they should be publicly and vigorously challeneged to explain the foregoing examples. If they cannot, they should be told in no uncertain terms that their protestations just make them appear extremely ridiculous. Such an undertaking cannot, of course, be the work of one individual; to be effective it requires the support of unbiased authoritative institutions such as the SPR. Acceptance of perceptual anomalies as sufficient evidence of paranormality would avoid the necessity of psychical investigators having to build into their research work the restrictive precautions against claims of fraud and deception which are now necessary, and instead enable them to concentrate solely on research into the nature and behaviour of the paranormal manifestation under review.


Somerville Roberts, F. (1993). Universal perception: A challenge to materialism. JSPR, 59 (833), 293-298.