I’ve recently found myself discussing apparitions with some SSE members and various other correspondents. And to my dismay I’ve discovered that many suppose, all too readily, that when apparitional cases require paranormal explanations, they should be viewed as instances of telepathic interaction. I addressed this topic quite some time ago (in Braude, 1997), arguing that the telepathic interpretation of apparitions is problematical—at least as an approach to apparitions generally. And back then I expected (admittedly, rather foolishly) that my trenchant and extended analysis would settle the matter decisively. So now that I’ve been humbled once again by this latest indication of my lack of influence, I’d like to revisit the topic briefly and review its essentials, in the hope that some might then adopt a more sophisticated and nuanced approach.
Apparitional phenomena have intrigued me for a long time. One reason is that they reach into all corners of the human population. Even hard-nosed, otherwise outwardly skeptical academics have confided their apparitional experiences to me and acknowledged they were baffled and impressed by them. That august group even includes an ex father-in-law (an anatomist at Ohio State) and my dissertation advisor (a distinguished and suitably hard-nosed philosopher).
From the earliest days of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), the dominant view, at least within parapsychology, has been that if apparitions aren’t simply internally-generated (e.g., exhaustion- or drug- or illness-induced) hallucinations, they can then be explained by appealing to various sorts of telepathic interaction. And I suspect that’s still the prevailing view. So for example, according to this view we’d understand apparitions of the dead to result from telepathic interactions between a postmortem and an ante-mortem individual, and we’d explain apparitions of the living entirely in terms of ante-mortem telepathic interactions. Thus, a so-called “crisis apparition” would be understood as a kind of moment-of-death (or peril) telepathic reaching out from the agent to the percipient.
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