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Actions at a Distance: Parapsychology or Metaphysics

Updated on January 31, 2016

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Actions at a Distance:

Parapsychology or Metaphysics

H. P. Loveboat

Temple University

Manuscript submitted for review.

H. P. Loveboat


The occurrence of actions at a distance or “paranormal phenomena” fall under the category of parapsychology when examined scientifically, despite having once been the focus of physicists. Upon reviewing the history of parapsychology’s development, the results of parapsychological research, and the claims made by various occult practices that study the same phenomena it becomes apparent that, if actions at a distance are not to be taken as tricks of the mind, then the field of psychology is not equipped to study them properly. The nature of the medium through which actions at a distance occur is such that the subject must return to the realm of physics to be studied properly as psychologist have little or no education in the quantum mechanics that are likely at play. Actions at a distance must still be evaluated psychologically as well, however, to better understand the role of willpower in causing such actions to occur.

Actions at a Distance: Parapsychology or Metaphysics

The field of parapsychology is the result of the merger of occult beliefs that have existed since the dawn of man and the modern scientific method that humanity has embraced to help understand the world. For the purposes of this paper, parapsychology is defined as any scientific study of phenomena that occur as a result of will power via means that are as of yet unknown to the scientific community and that may be in contradiction to commonly accepted laws. A common phrase used to describe psychic phenomena is “actions at a distance,” which, for this paper, will be defined as any action one performs on something without being in close enough physical proximity to have done so according to the traditionally accepted rules of science (e.g. moving an object, communicating with another person, observing a situation).

Another field that studies the phenomenon of action at a distance is metaphysics. This term is used to refer to all forms of psychic phenomena but with an emphasis on that which is not necessarily able to be studied in laboratory conditions. In other words, metaphysics, as it is commonly understood today, does not need to operate under the scrutiny of science. Finally, the term “paranormal” will appear throughout this paper. This word is to be understood mostly as meaning anything occurring outside of natural science. Some are of the opinion, however, that the phenomena many consider to be paranormal are quite normal and are a natural part of the universe, hence the word should more specifically be understood to mean anything that operates on principles outside of those known to modern science.

At one time metaphysics was much like the field of parapsychology, using the best scientific methods at the time to attempt to objectively study paranormal occurrences (Raia 2007). Metaphysics has, since ancient times, claimed that the realm known to humanity as the “paranormal” is vast and far beyond human comprehension. Even the scientists who studied metaphysics as an extension of physics and chemistry came to the conclusions that psychic phenomena require forces that are outside of the mind, though certainly are linked with the mind. It is confusing then that in modern times, the study of paranormal events falls under the realm of psychology, despite the fact that far greater, more universally applicable forces than the human mind are at work. Despite this fact, practitioners of psychic phenomena unanimously agree that willpower and intent are vital to human beings interacting with the paranormal world, which allows for a psychological factor (McMoneagle 1997). It is this paper’s hypothesis that psychology alone is inadequate for studying actions at a distance and must be coupled with quantum mechanics to make any new breakthroughs in the field of parapsychology.

History of Parapsychology: The Shift from Metaphysics

The first researcher to coin the term “actions at a distance” was a prominent physicist of his time, Oliver Lodge (Raia 2007). Along with this term came an implication; it begged the question “What is doing the ‘acting at a distance?’” The obvious answer being the mind, Lodge focused his intention instead of the medium through which the mind interacted with matter. This implication of the mind’s significance in actions at a distance, though not looked into in Lodge’s time, would be revisited later by those wishing to remove metaphysics from scientific study. This link with the mind was the first step toward merging metaphysics with psychology, the study of the mind.

Lodge believed that paranormal occurrences were not truly paranormal, but instead were quite a regular part of the universe. Lodge scoffed at criticisms of his beliefs and retorted by pointing out that the fact that people do not believe in actions at a distance “is simply a statement of the conviction of mankind that all attempts in this direction have turned out failures.” Instead, he proposed the scientific theory that there is a substance permeating the universe through which thoughts can be transmitted, but that can also affect physical matter. The substance he referred to was known as ether, and it was a preexisting idea used to explain how light travels through space. When it was discovered in 1802 that light was in fact a wave, this begged the question: through what is the light wave conducted? Ether was the proposed answer. Oliver Lodge took this theory a step further by adding his belief in ether’s ability to interact with the mind, and its ability to carry not only waves of light, but waves of thought. (Raia 2007)

Here the first piece of evidence is presented for the notion that parapsychology may not just be psychology, but rather an interdisciplinary field requiring knowledge in both psychology and complex physics. (Leder 2005) If Lodge’s model were to be taken as true, than the mind’s interaction with ether is no different than the mind’s interaction with anything else. To claim that perceiving information across distances (ESP) through ether falls under the category of psychology rather than physics would be like claiming that perceiving a comet falls under the category of psychology and not astronomy. Science is the way humans understand the world around them; therefore psychology is technically present in all fields because it is the science of how humans understand things, but to claim that each field is truly psychology would be absurd. The only thing psychological about ESP is the observation process involved. The medium through which the information travels is something very different.

During the same era that Oliver Lodge was studying paranormal activity from a physical scope, James Braid was building a name for himself by popularizing the method of hypnosis. Operating from the discoveries of Franz Mesmer of the previous century, Braid had managed to reproduce the effects of the deceased healer using the power of suggestion. Whereas Mesmer’s theory had been that humans could be affected by an ethereal medium for their benefit, Braid operated on the belief that these effects were psycho-physiological in nature. This was the scientific climate that paralleled Lodge’s work: a growing scorn toward or ignorance of any kind of ether theory. It was sentiments like this that left the field of psychology as the only place to turn once the study of metaphysics was shunned by other disciplines. Psychology was young and open to many ideas, but was still struggling to validate itself in the scientific climate, and as a result of this switch to psychology, paranormal investigation lost much of the open mindedness needed to properly be studied. Like Braid and others had done to Mesmer’s work, parapsychology altered the work of Lodge by attempting to demonstrate the phenomena as deriving from the mind. Even researchers who believed in the validity of psychic activity, somehow altered it to a belief that it was generated by the power of the human brain.

The switch to psychology was actually aided by Lodge himself, though it was probably not his intent. In an address to his colleagues, he urged them to “trust consciousness, which has led us this far.” To Lodge, consciousness was the key to bridging the gap between the physical and the metaphysical. Lodge believed that human consciousness was a combination of the mental field and the brain. It exists in both worlds and therefore is integral to demonstrate any interaction between those worlds (Raia 2007). When Lodge recognized the importance of consciousness in understanding metaphysics, he realized that he would require an understanding of the human mind to the deepest level. He called for the objective study of things such as “intuition, precognition, religious inspiration, telepathic communication, and the continuance of human consciousness after bodily death” (Raia 2007, pg. 41). This profound realization primed the field to be assimilated into psychology in the twentieth century.

Finally, despite Oliver Lodge’s resilience to criticism and undeterred research, after his death the general scientific community turned away from the study of metaphysics, considering it to be archaic. The growing materialistic worldview pushed out theories like Lodge’s for what was considered more rational explanations, placing people like him on the fringe of science despite having once been the center (Raia 2007). To the emerging sciences, actions at a distance were going the way of alchemy and witchcraft.

The field of psychology too received ridicule from the early scientific community, and even today is not considered by most to be wholly objective. The scorned field of metaphysics found a home in the fringe science of psychology in part because of the fact that psychology was not as well established as other sciences and was therefore more open, and in part because of the importance of the mind in understanding paranormal activity as indicated by Lodge.

Cases Against Parapsychology Being Psychological

The realm of paranormal investigation has been since its inception part of the science of physics. But like religion and mysticism, it has come to be regarded as a trick of the mind. It is considered quite an amazing and complex trick, but a trick nonetheless. The fact that the human mind is then viewed as the epicenter for the psychic illusion makes it something to be studied psychologically. But not all facets of the old belief died when it was rejected from mainstream science, and many researches in the resulting field of parapsychology still believed that paranormal factors might be at play. They continued to study the phenomena as Lodge and other metaphysicists did, but without the qualifications to do so. Neuropsychology constitutes the furthest depth to which psychology has plunged with regards to viewing the microscopic events that form thoughts. Biochemistry is where psychology bottoms out, and no researchers in the field are qualified to analyze the particle physics that must be involved in ether theory, should such a thing exist. The result of this misguided attempt at research is a group of psychologists who genuinely believe in psychic phenomena but have no way to prove it exists.

Few people claim that psychic phenomena are the result of brain waves leaving the nerve tissue and travelling by force outward from a subject’s head. Almost all practitioners of psychic phenomenon agree that there is something more universally applicable going on during psychic experiences, be it an ether theory or not. Besides ether, there are three other predominantly mathematical explanations for what could cause actions at a distance, and all of them require some education in advanced physics to understand.

The first is Path Facilitation, an idea first proposed by Albert Einstein. Einstein is most famous for demonstrating that matter and energy are one and that space and time are one, but in his more advanced theories, he sought to show that matter-energy is not resting within space-time, but rather is one with space-time. He wished to unify all four of these concepts into a unified field theory. Einstein helped complete Isaac Newton’s work by giving a valid reason why gravity has pull. In his theory, in which mass, energy, time, and space are all one, Einstein proposed that accumulations of mass cause bends in the fabric of space, similar to a heavy ball sitting on the mattress. The tendency to fall toward a massive object is nothing more than the tendency to slide into the valley it has created. A parallel can be drawn between psychic phenomena and gravity, for what gravity accomplishes is nothing more than an action at a distance. (Leder 2005) He explains that some paranormal researchers theorize that psychic phenomena are not brought about by transmission of energy over distance, but rather by the manipulation of fields. This way, the medium of ether is replaced by a more observable one: the universe itself. In the unified field theory of actions at a distance, the very fabric of space-time-mass-energy is subject to mental influence.

The next possible theory is Nonlocal Entanglement. Whereas Einstein’s theory is still considered a “classical” one due to its reliance on spatiotemporal location, Nonlocal Entanglement breaks down even this barrier to create more possibilities (Leder 2005). In more laymen terms, Einstein’s theory, though claiming that everything was woven from the same fabric, still distinguished things based on their location and time of existence. Nonlocal Entanglement, however, operates within the realm of quantum mechanics and therefore operates on different rules. Put as simply as possible, it is the belief that particles created in conjunction can be entangled “such that what happens to one simultaneously affects the other although no signal passes between them.” (Leder 2005, pg. 927) The resulting particles will behave identically to each other, regardless of distance and are not truly considered different particles. Rather, they are viewed as the same particle occupying two different locations at the same time.

The importance of Nonlocal Entanglement to the field of parapsychology/metaphysics is that it is possible that, through will power and emotional attachment, one’s mind may become entangled with a person or object, giving them extrasensory perception of that target and the ability to physically manipulate it. It is common among psychic healers to need to spiritually connect to their targets in order to best help them. Also, the theory of Nonlocal Entanglement explains why actions at a distance are said to be instantaneous, faster than the speed of light. Both Ether Theory and Path Facilitation require time to occur. Ether obviously would require time for waves to travel through. Path Facilitation is still operating in the realm of Newtonian physics (governed by space and time). If the moon were to vanish from the sky, it would still take 1.5 seconds for the tides on Earth to be affected (Leder 2005). Gravity is still affected by distance and time, but proponents of psychic phenomena claim that it is absolutely instant, meaning that it cannot be a force on the same level as gravity.

Finally, and most advanced of all is Actualization of Potentials. This theory may be best summed up in the words of Heisenberg: “[The probability wave] was a quantitative version of the old concept of ‘potentia’ in Aristotelian philosophy. It introduced something standing in the middle between the idea of an event and the actual event, a strange kind of physical reality just in the middle between possibility and reality.” Or more poetically in the words of Herbert: “What the math seems to say is that, between observations, the world exists not as a solid actuality but only as shimmering waves of possibility.” This is the theory first discovered by observations of particles shot out of an accelerator during which researchers noticed that their expectations were influencing the results. It is often talked about and seldom understood, so for the sake of being concise, a very simplified version of the theory will be presented here. Simply put, subatomic particles are believed not to have definite properties, but rather possibilities that are expressed in something called a wave function. When the particle is measured the wave function collapses and gives the particle a 100% probability of being somewhere. Since the location of subatomic particles is, in essence, what creates everything perceptible to man, if these particles were to be meditated on, with an intended change in mind, they may rearrange themselves creating a different reality on the macro level. A coin with a 50% chance of landing heads up can be influenced to have a 100% chance; a fatal tumor with a 20% chance of survival can be influenced to have a 100% chance; and so on (Leder 2005).

A practical example of how psychic phenomena must be more than just psychological is remote viewing. Remote viewing is a psychic technique in which the viewer meditates on an intended object to reveal information about it. Its effects can range from learning about the target (history, age, physical appearance,) to the targets location. Many psychic practitioners of remote viewing agree that it is different from astral projection (phenomenon occurring when a person’s center of consciousness leaves their body). During remote viewing, the viewer is completely conscious and still present within their body, but is able to perceive information much like a radio antenna. The target acts as a broadcaster, emitting psychic information about every facet of their being (McMoneagle 1997). Like radio waves, psychic emissions are always present, and a remote viewer need only to tune into these.

Whatever means these psychic impressions are carried through, they are not entirely psychological. True, it does have the ability to interact with thoughts, but it carries this information across time and space, which places it in the realm of physics. Furthermore, though this force can be perceived by the mind and can carry thoughts and feelings, it can also carry impressions of an object’s physical nature. A rock has no thoughts, and yet a remote viewer can (theoretically) describe a rock’s features without ever seeing it. If remote viewing is to be taken as true, then it must follow that it is operating on principles reaching beyond the human mind.

Cases Against Metaphysics Being Physics

One of the greatest challenges to any psychological researcher is the presence of confounding variables. In the world of the natural sciences such as chemistry and physics, confounding variables can be identified more easily and addressed more readily than in the social sciences. Psychology students are ingrained with a sense of skepticism to any and all research methods. All data is open to interpretation, and there are no “laws.” It is chiefly for this reason that psychology cannot be removed from the study of paranormal phenomena. Due to the difficulty in experimentation and research in the field of paranormal investigation, psychologists are the best equipped to wade through the subjectivity to reach any sort of objective truth.

The role of subjectivity in making psychic research difficult can be seen in the prevalent belief in an “experimenter effect.” Consistently, paranormal researchers have noticed a tendency for those among them who believe in psychic activity to yield results that are favorable of paranormal phenomena existing, while those who do not believe in psychic activity yield results unfavorable to paranormal phenomena (Smith 2003). To make the matter more complicated, attempts at running experiments to test the experimenter effect vary, meaning that confounding variables must be present. It is best that psychological methods of evaluation continue to be used, rather than the theoretical equations of physics which will not even make sense if tests do not yield the same results each time.

Remote viewing, having been used to demonstrate that psychic phenomena is more than psychological, can also be used to show how psychic phenomena is best studied using psychological methods. Though, earlier in this paper, it was stated that observing a comet should not be considered psychology, an exception is made if those observing it cannot agree on what they see. Psychology is brought into other scientific fields as needed when subjectivity gets in the way of research. The picture in Figure 1 is a popular ambiguous drawing designed to show the difficulty that human perspective and subjectivity can play in objectively studying the world.




Remote viewing presents a problem of subjectivity. Objective characteristics are picked up on and transmuted across time and space, allowing subjective beings to pull them directly into their minds. The transmissions are therefore even more subjective than things viewed with the eyes. Rather than the viewer receiving unaltered objective truth, they get instead a hodgepodge of information filtered through their brains’ forms of perception (McMoneagle 1997). Joseph McMoneagle, a remote viewer himself, claims that during his viewing sessions he “could expect to hear a pattern, smell an activity, taste a sound, or feel a color” (McMoneagle 1997, pg 101). He explains this by saying that the information comes intermixed.




Due to the nature of paranormal events and the fact that thought plays an important role in their occurrence, psychology cannot be taken out of the equation all together. It is true that a comet is a matter of astronomy. But when people wanted to understand how it was that they were able to perceive the comet, they turned to optics. All sciences are connected and certain topics are best viewed from an interdisciplinary perspective. Biomechanics, neuropsychology, biochemistry, and astrophysics are all combinations of at least two scientific fields coordinated to observe certain phenomena that do not fit into just one area of study.

An Eastern Perspective

In Eastern arts, the presence of some form of unifying force has been accepted for millennia. The theory has permeated their entire culture, from religion to more mundane things. Only until recent times have the ancient arts of energy work been put under the severe gaze of skepticism. For the purposes of concision, this paper will briefly examine Taoist philosophy as a paradigm for how to approach the concept of psychic phenomena that Western science may benefit from.

In Eastern cultures, the definition between science, philosophy, and religion is blurred. While this is a Western scientist’s nightmare, there is a valuable lesson to be taken from this approach. In Taoist philosophy, the entire universe is made of one driving force, broken down into multiple sub-forces. In short: all is one. This is similar to Einstein’s unified field theory, and could be a beneficial mindset for any scientist who is contemplating advanced physics theories that attempt to describe a force that can affect both the mental and physical world.

An example of the complexity of psychic phenomena is the Taoist book, the I-Ching, or the book of changes. The book presents a method for addressing any possible problem the reader could have (Storm 2006). Taoists do not focus on detail like Westerners, but instead find paradigms that they believe to be universally true. Western studies have been done using the methods laid out in the I-Ching, but they were off the mark. They were done as a way to test the effects of willpower on chance, to see if the flipping of coins could be altered depending on a person’s state of mind (Storm 2001; Storm & Thalbourne 2006). This approach to studying the Taoist principles of divination is erroneous because it sets man at the center of the formula. While human willpower is certainly important in many psychic phenomena, the I-Ching is based on a principle that the universe is permeated with and affected by a force (The Tao; Qi), and as this force changes, the universe changes and vice versa. Thus, coins, nature, and human interaction (and much else) are all affected by this force similarly. When coins land in a certain pattern, the theory is that they are doing so because of a force that is also affecting the coin tosser, and how they land has been correlated to certain patterns in the universal energy and how they might affect the tosser’s life. It is not supposed to be a simple number generator that is affected by the tosser’s will.

As important as it may be that Western scientists take away a philosophy of how to approach psychic phenomena, it is also important to note that Taoism and many other Eastern practices have been geared toward the practical end of the scientific spectrum (as hard as that may be to believe). They do not care about what exactly qi is, or why it functions, as long as they are able to manipulate it for their purposes. It is for this reason that, though a psychic phenomenon has such a strong place in the Eastern mindset, Easterners are no further along than Westerners on proving its existence.

An Interdisciplinary Field

Taking a page from the Eastern philosophy of all-inclusiveness, but operating from Western scientific principles, researchers may be best equipped to study paranormal phenomena as an interdisciplinary field. It may be possible, as Oliver Lodge believed, that there is a vital element missing in the study of physics (Raia 2007). It may also be possible that scientists have not delved deep enough to uncover all the quantum mechanics at play in psychic phenomena (Leder 2005). And certainly, how the human mind is able to directly interact with these things remains a mystery. One thing, however, is certain: if researchers are to perform studies under the assumption that psychic phenomena may be real, then in order to do the research justice, they must be willing to take a multifaceted, holistic approach.

It has become evident that a psychic phenomenon, assuming that it exists, is the point at which matter and mind meet (Raia 2007). Eastern healers refer to things such as “good” and “bad” chi, and that such things can be caused by people’s thoughts. They urge people to stay away from negative people, and to remain relaxed so that they don’t harm themselves by creating energy “blockages” through tension. No explanation is offered as to how this mind-body connection works, but it is clear that there is some external force, capable of being encoded with thought patterns. It may even be true that this force is what human thoughts are encoded in within the mind. As indicated earlier, psychology has only delved as deep as cellular networking in regards to explaining how thoughts are encoded. For this reason, psychology cannot be removed from the study of paranormal phenomena.

Physics too must play an important role. Just as neuropsychology heavily falls in the realm of biology, so too must parapsychology heavily fall in the realm of physics. Compartmentalizing research as one or the other will result in no progress either way. Psychologists have the research skills to deal with the inconsistencies in experimentation, while physicists have the mathematics to deal with the complexities of theory. Both fields must work as one to properly understand the phenomena that fall under the jurisdiction of parapsychology.

Works Cited

Leder, Drew. (2005). 'Spooky actions at a distance': Physics, psi, and distant healing. Journal of

Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11, 923-930.

McMoneagle, Joseph W. (1997). Perceptions of a paranormal subject. Journal of

Parapsychology, 61, 97-118.

Raia, Courtenay Grean. (2007). From ether theory to ether theology: Oliver Lodge and the

physics of immortality. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 43, 19-43.

Smith, Matthew D. (2003). The psychology of the 'psi-conducive' experimenter: Personality,

attitudes towards psi, and personal psi experience. Journal of Parapsychology, 67, 117-128.

Storm, Lance, Thalbourne, Michael, A. (2001). Studies of the I Ching: II additional analyses.

Journal of Parapsychology, 65, 291-309.

Wiseman, Richard, Watt, Caroline. (2006). Belief in psychic ability and the misattribution

hypothesis: A qualitative review. British Journal of Psychology, 97, 323-338.

Table 1: Rabbit or Duck?


Table 2: Subjective filter of psychic broadcasts


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