16. Evolving Nature – July 1999

Paper published in the Paranormal review in July 1999 following letter to the editor dated 4/12/97. The original paper was titled by myself “The problem of Repeatability” but was changed to:


I produced three other improved drafts before July 1999 but it seems there was not time enough to incorporate these improvements before publication


I have been a member or the SPR since 1978, and have therefore been reading the journal for nearly 20 years. I have formed my own fairly definite ideas on a possible  explanation for ESP, which means that I do not spend too much time taking in the detail of the tentative explanations and the views expressed in the journal, unless I see some possibility of their being adapted to, or an improvement on my world view. I dare say that most people are guided by a similar subjective propensity, much as we would wish to see ourselves as objective.

I have not observed in these two decades any palpable sign of progress in the discovery of answers to the problems of the paranormal. This is frustrating, considering the leaps forward generally in other sciences that have been made over the same time. The subject seems to be stuck in nearly the same old rut that we were a century ago, never mind two decades, despite the introduction of laboratory techniques by the Rhines half  way through the century.

There does seem to be an increasing public interest in the subject, which is good, but how much this has to do with the efforts of the society and other similarly inclined bodies, I am not sure. This increasing public interest seems almost in spite of the attitude of established science which can be encapsulated in the dictum that if an effect is not reliably and regularly repeatable, then it does not exist.

This is depressing since it is one of the most fascinating problems left to be solved, being inextricably intertwined as it must be, with the operation of  thought and memory. One of the reasons so little progress has been made is that established science refuses to admit that such a thing as a paranormal effect exists. If the subject has only de facto, rather  than de iure existence, research is inevitably going to be an underfunded, at near dilettante level. I apologise for stating the obvious in all the above  but after many years reflection, it occurs to me that the crux of the problem is not receiving the right degree of attention. I shall try to explain.

In attempting to isolate a new effect or phenomenon, what does the scientist do?  I assume in very general terms he has to reduce a multitude of observations and then try to identify a lowest common denominator of action and effect, or a basic common behaviour pattern, from which a new general rule might be teased out.

In ESP or paranormal research it appears to me that the common factor is that all the effects under observation are not repeatable, and they cannot be controlled as everybody knows. This fact in itself presents an immediately identifiable category, ripe for investigation, which is what your members have no doubt had the clear sightedness to realise. It makes a very identifiable category.

The required repeatability argument is based on the assumption that the rules of nature and physics are constant: they do not change. An electron at this side of the universe will be identical to one on the other side. But it strikes me that this is a very large assumption and one for which we have no proper established basis. The problem was addressed in Rupert Sheldrake’s second book, “The Presence of the Past”. Maybe if more attention was paid to the point he makes in this and other books, this initial and overwhelming objection of established science could be more easily set aside, with the ensuing result that paranormal research could then be legitimised and properly funded. Dr. Sheldrake asks the questions:

“Do the laws of nature evolve?  Or does physical reality evolve while the laws of nature stay the same? In any case, what do we mean by the Laws of Nature’?

He shows that since the discovery of the Big Bang, the 19th century mechanistic world view of the permanence of physical laws has been thrown into doubt.

“But wait a minute. How could we possibly know that the laws of nature existed before the universe came into being? We could not ever hope to prove it by experiment. This is surely no more than a metaphysical assumption. nevertheless, this assumption is still taken for granted by most scientists, including evolutionary cosmologists, and has been incorporated into the common sense of the modern world. Probably all of us can recognise it in the background of our own thinking.

This assumption that the laws of nature are eternal is the last great surviving legacy of the old cosmology. We are rarely even conscious of making it. But when we do bring this assumption into awareness, we can see that it is one of only several possibilities. Perhaps all the laws of nature came into being at the very moment of the big bang. Or perhaps they arose in stages, and then having arisen, persisted changelessly thereafter. ……..Or perhaps the laws of nature have actually evolved along with nature itself, and perhaps they are still evolving. Or perhaps they are not laws at all, but more like habits. Maybe the very idea of laws is inappropriate.

The concept of laws of nature is metaphorical. It is based on an analogy with human laws, which are binding rules of conduct prescribed by authority and extending throughout the realm of the sovereign power. In the seventeenth century, the metaphor was quite explicit: the lasts of nature were framed by God the Lord of all creation. His laws were immutable; his writ ran everywhere and always……..

Eternal laws made sense when they were ideas within the mind of God, as they were for the founding fathers of modern science. They still seemed to make sense when they governed an eternal universe from which God’s mind had been dissolved. But do they any longer make any sense in the context of the Big Bang and an evolving universe?”

If the laws of nature evolve, then we might expect that there are certain peripheral areas where development is occurring and that the rules governing these fringe phenomena are as yet hazy and not properly established. One might also expect that, ex hypothesi, it is hard to produce results in such areas simply working under the classical paradigm of permanent laws, because rules have not yet crystallised and do not fully apply.

If the laws of nature evolve, then indeed it would be surprising if we had not been able to identify certain fringe phenomena which were not subject to predictable behaviour. It is what common sense would anticipate. One might also expect authority figures in academic circles not to want their power base eroded and to be inclined to take a dim view of such a possibility, if their whole career and mind set has been based on the invariance of physical laws.

If this argument were debated fully and its possible consequences recognised, then the prospects for proper funding for paranormal research and further advances would be greatly enhanced. Unfortunately, it seems to be more within the jurisdiction of philosophy than any other one subject, and I fear that the professional academic  philosophers would make such a meal of the question that we can anticipate another half century before resolution is obtained from that quarter. Perhaps they are already well dug into the subject? I do not know, but they certainly ought to be.

My belief is that we, the human race (along with the rest of the universe), are indeed evolving and developing into more complex and sensitive organisms. We slowly develop our ability to understand our behaviour and that of the laws of nature which govern our existence. Whether or not we shall evolve enough to be able to play an executive part in the forming and changing of the laws of nature, is a delightful topic of speculation but premature, given our current degree of comprehension.

Our ability to communicate more effectively with each other is also escalating rapidly through advances in electrical technology, which brings about increased intelligence and understanding. I see no reason why another huge  increase in intercommunication would not occur if a mechanism for ESP was produced so that now so called “paranormal” methods of communication could be developed and made part of our normal behaviour pattern within a century or two, and hopefully sooner, given the exponential rate of increase of knowledge over the last century. But we shall see, or rather the next generation will.

However all this cannot easily occur without the paradigm of the fixed laws of the universe first being removed, and shown for the dinosaur belief I assume it to be.

Nicholas Greaves