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Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP) In African Cultural Context

An Inquiry Into The Idea Of Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP) In African Cultural Context In The Light Of William James’ Pragmatic Notion Of Truth



1.1     Historical Background And Development Of Extra-Sensory Perception

We must hold open door to the possibility that the ways of knowing may be multiple and that each of these ways may be entitled to be dominated by the term ‘knowledge’…traditionally, epistemology has tended to confine itself to sense perception and intellectual cognition. The latter narrowly conceived. But this does not appear sufficient. Knowledge is an event by which human consciousness emerges in the light of being. We cannot prescribe in advance how being is to be revealed.[1]       

How do we know?” is the epistemological question that has spurred interminable disagreement among philosophers down the ages beginning from the Greek skepticism, to the idealism of Plato, realism of Aristotle, moving through the neo-Platonism, to its climax in rationalism and empiricism. The contention is whether the senses or reason should be accorded primary status in acquiring knowledge. The empiricists agree that our knowledge comes essentially through the senses and this is represented in this scholastic axiom: Nihil est intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensuthere is nothing in the intellect which was not first in the senses. Even spiritual realities such as God are knowable by the human intellect only because the foundation of such concepts existed in what is in the senses and could be derived from sense knowledge by a process of reasoning and analogy. The Rationalists hold that reason is the essential source of knowledge. However, Immanuel Kant, harmonizing the two opinions (views) says that knowledge is the synthesis of the epistemic contributions of both the senses and reason, with the senses being the starting point in the process of acquiring knowledge.

1.2    Statement Of Problem

At this point, the question of Extra-sensory perception arises. Can we acquire or communicate ideas without going through the sensory channels? Researches and experiments in psychic powers and parapsychology answer this question in the affirmative. This is outside our normal concept of knowledge and may sound nonsensical to the traditional epistemologist. How do the Africans view this sort of knowledge? How do they conceive it? What is its position in their epistemic orientation? In this work, we shall be inquiring into the possibility and truth-value of such knowledge in the African cultural setting.

Actually our interest in this study was motivated by these two thoughts. First: the words of A.G.A Bello who advised:

Philosophers had better take the evidence of yogis, prophets, mystics, witches etc., more seriously. For if the sorts of things they claim happen really do, it may require more or less radical changes in our conceptual framework. There is of course need for skepticism, since fraud and charlatanism abound, especially concerning phenomena which are not amenable to easy verification or falsification, or observation or experiment. It would be naïve to think that yogis, prophets, witches, etc., throughout history have been talking trash; or self-conceit. [2]

With this, we take the next step to bring it home more concretely, that is to say, contextualize it in our African cultural setting. Is it not high time we examined the conjectures of the local native Doctor who claims to cross the boundaries of space and time to psychically diagnose spiritual problems and sickness from a distance, the testimonies of the Ezenwanyi (medium) at the bushy forest, the claims of messages, visions and other unexplained phenomenon of different religious groups around our nooks and crannies, the claims of the so-called occult man next door and finally our own personal psychical experiences of which we most of the times attribute to mere coincidence?

Secondly, this research paper is an attempt to respond to the address of Joseph Banks Rhine, a leading psychical researcher in his letter to Walter Franklin Prince:

I had much rather send a copy to an intelligent school teacher out in a small middle west city whom I happen to know would do something about the subject – perform some experiments, interest some students, start a working class…[3]

Sr. Ezeanyino M.N is that teacher that has interested and stirred my curious mind to also do something about the subject.

Our objective in this research paper is basically to expose the epistemological status of Extra – sensory perception in African cultural societies. Two convictions are behind this, viz: the urgent need to make it clear that ESP. is a veritable gift natural to mankind as against the most prevalent superstitious beliefs in African societies about ESP.; secondly, to examine the idea of Extra-sensory perception in African societies in the light of the pragmatic conception of truth in William James. This is where the pragmatism of William James comes to play. Pragmatism interprets an idea or belief as a plan or rule of action. If my following out this plan verifies or validate the idea, this process constitutes the truth of the idea.

1.3   Its Relevance To Philosophical Discourse

Studies and researches in Extra-sensory perception have shown that the ways of knowing which epistemologists have argued down the ages require a revision. They seem to indicate and suggest that knowledge is more than sense perception and intellectual cognition. Importantly, these researches have shown that man is not entirely a corporeal being just like the materialist conceives him; he is also a spiritual entity. Also, these researches have given a blow to the materialists led by Democritus who are of the opinion that everything that exists is completely physical and that even all mental activity is explainable in terms of neural functions or changes. Also, these researches have dealt with the logical positivists who opined that any phenomenon that eludes empirical demonstration is meaningless.

Finally, studies about psychical phenomenon have shown that empirical science does not have all the answers to the questions of human knowledge of reality and human nature in particular.

1.4   Explication Of Terms

1.4.1    Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP)

It is the knowledge of or response to an external event or influence not apprehended through known sensory channels. The term designates all forms of perception that have no connection with any known sensory apparatus. It is said to involve communication between the mind and the mind or the mind and events without the mediation of the perceptual senses.

1.4.2   Telepathy

Telepathy is a form of ESP. which means mind to mind communication; that is, mental response or awareness of another person’s mental state or content. Initially, it was called thought- transference.

1.4.3   Clairvoyance

It is a form of ESP. that denotes extrasensory awareness of objects or objective events; that is communication between the mind and the objective world.

1.4.4   Precognition

It is the perception of future events which could not have been predicted or inferred by normal means. It is also a form of ESP.

1.4.5   Psycho-Kinesis (PK)

Psycho-kinesis is the mental influence on external objects or processes without mediation of known motor organs. It means that the mind can directly affect physical object without any mediation of the senses.

1.4.6   Paranormal

Paranormal refers to what is beyond the normal, unusual occurrence; what people are not able to explicate scientifically. It includes puzzles, occurrences, manifestations and paradoxes which neither man can easily nor science can verify in a scientific manner. That is “beyond the range of scientifically known or recognizable phenomenon”. Often, paranormal occurrences are attributed to be the work of supernatural (and evil) forces.

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[1] Kenneth Gallagher, Philosophy of knowledge, United States of America: Forham University press, 1982, p. 18.

[2] Bello, A.G.A., “Individuality and Reincarnation” in Reviewer journal, quoted in Ezeanyino, M.N., The Epistemological status of Extra-sensory perception:  J. B. Rhine and  J.G Pratt revisited, Enugu: Snaap press Ltd., 2007, p. xx.

[3] Rhine, J.B., “Letters to Prince” in Mauskopf, S.H., and McVaugh, M.R., The Elusive Science, Origins of Experimental Psychical Research, London: Hopkins University Press, 1980, p. 165.


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