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Published: Jun.7.2014

Moving Experiences and the Experience Movement

Charles F. Emmons
Professor of Sociology
Gettysburg College

What is the importance of subjective experience in the study of anomalous or “paranormal” phenomena? Although Greeley found that “the paranormal is normal,” or widely experienced even in American society, subjective experience is typically dismissed as “anecdotal evidence” in mainstream normal science. This rejection of the subjective is strongest in laboratory science that depends upon objective observation external to the experimenter. Thus the behavioral psychologist Watson could say in the 1920s that “there can be no such thing as consciousness.” With the revival of interest in consciousness due in part to modern neuroscience, we can still not observe consciousness objectively or even know whether it is located entirely in the brain. Indeed there are persistent reports suggesting that consciousness may be nonlocally connected to distant objects or intelligences. Studies of subjective experience in combination with neuroscience (as in lucid dreaming studies) may be a way to get beyond the impasse.

However, researchers willing to admit subjective evidence of paranormal consciousness risk being labeled deviant scientists. Typically paranormal researchers have had their own anomalous experiences that motivate them to run the risk. Especially some anthropologists and other social scientists who have been trained in scientific methodologies for studying subjective human experience have contributed to an intellectual movement that is taking subjective paranormal experiences more seriously as ontological clues instead of merely bracketing them as cultural beliefs. Experiential source theory (vs. cultural source theory) is indicative of this approach. Abandoning the myth of scientific objectivity and exploring the insights provided by subjective experience can contribute to a holistic approach in the study of consciousness and of other scientific anomalies (e.g. UFO sightings) that have a human experiential component.