There are certain topics which will mark one out as being in some sense beyond the pale, not to be taken seriously, perhaps psychotic, once one broaches them. At some point on this blog I plan to talk about ad hominem, which is the alleged fallacy committed when a person’s reputation is used to dismiss their arguments, but not yet. That said, there is an element of ad hominem here because once I’ve said that I believe in psychic abilities it may mark me for some as an unreliable source of accurate information.
I’ve told this story before on here but it’s worth revisiting. A number of years ago, I gave a talk on philosophical counselling at Leicester Secular Society. In case you don’t know, philosophical counselling is a method of applying philosophical methods and theories to a client’s feelings, behaviour and thoughts to reveal inconsistencies or examine them more closely in a revelatory manner and reach a state of greater well-being as a result. I’m almost accidentally qualified to offer this service although I haven’t explicitly done it very often except as part of a herbal consultation, but it does exist independently of herbalism as a therapy. Unfortunately, the person introducing me mentioned that I was a herbalist, which was fine for most of the audience but one of them was unable to hear my talk without filtering it through that lens and simply became critical and acerbically attacked me verbally. Dunning-Kruger was in full effect, but it’s also an example of ad hominem, since I was from that point on unable to penetrate their K-skepticism.
Many people reading this will already be aware that I’m theist and that this forms an important part of my life, and having learned this they may consider that I am in a sense unreachable to rational argument. If, however, you view my theism in a broader context, it means that I reject metaphysical naturalism, and I have that in common with many people who either reject organised religion or are agnostic or atheist without necessarily focussing that strongly on those labels, but do believe in psychic abilities.
However, I ask myself, is it actually necessary to believe in the supernatural to accept ESP, and what does it even mean to say something is supernatural? Before I go on, I want to mention specific categories into which psionic abilities are usually categorised. I may well miss some, and I want to point out that this is a conceptual classification which is not yet meant to involve commitment as to whether these things are real:
- Remote viewing (or other senses)
- Clairvoyance, clairaudience and others.
- Telekinesis and psychokinesis
- Communication with the dead
- Psi missing
There may be others, and there are overlaps. At least one of these would in theory require absolutely nothing more than a particular physical ability, and it may be worth reversing some of these to see if they reveal anything extra.
I’ve put telepathy first because I think it’s different from most of the others. We are familiar with signals being transmitted and received via radio waves, and there are animals with magnetic senses such as rays, who hunt by detecting electrical signals within the bodies of their prey. They may of course be aided by the fact that both are immersed in water, although pigeons are able to navigate using Earth’s magnetic field. Whether or not human telepathy exists, there is no need to posit the existence of anything exotic or supernatural to accept its possibility. We detect light with our eyes and there are many organisms with luminescent organs. There seems to be no reason at all why an organ could not exist which transmits or receives radio signals. Whether they actually do exist is another question, and whether this is how telepathy operates, if it exists, is equally mysterious. However, in principle there just could be such abilities, even if all they amount to is the ability to communicate silently in a similar manner to vocalising. On a broader level, there also seems to be no reason why an animal wouldn’t be able to sense brain activity, perhaps by contact with the head in a Spock-like manner. Electroencephalograms exist.
Dowsing is in the same category. There has been a theory that bodies of water influence Earth’s magnetic field. It would clearly be an evolutionary advantage for an animal living in an arid environment to be able to detect subterranean water, and water is a very unusual substance. When I say dowsing, I’m not talking about using a pendulum over a map to find sources of water or something else which is more divorced from the circumstances where one is in close proximity to the body in question. Whereas dowsing may or may not be corroborated by experiment, the fact remains that it makes sense to be able to perceive the proximity of water, and in fact magnetic fields do interact with water: for instance, applying a magnetic field to water increases its melting point. It also makes sense that some native metals would be detectable for similar reasons.
The “gotcha” in these two categories is the question of the actual presence of such organs in the human body, or perhaps a more diffusely distributed function throughout the body manifested on a cellular or systemic level. There does not in fact appear to be any such organ, but there is an issue with post hoc “adjustments” which is the essence of pseudoscience, so if an experiment were to be conducted, it should be rigorously designed enough to postulate exactly what physical basis is sought and how it might operate.
Phenomenology is also an issue. Do we all encode our consciousness uniquely, or do we have a universal language of experience? Is it intelligible to “tune into” another’s brain and find that their red is one’s blue, for example? I think it isn’t, because concepts fit into a network. For instance, of the spectral colours yellow is the brightest and so arguably the closest to white and indigo is the darkest and therefore closest to black. If you disagree with this subjective judgement, you and I may perceive colours differently but we do appear to be having a meaningful disagreement, which can be checked using some other part of our mental systems. When it can’t, it’s possible that one of us is simply wrong. But there’s another level of phenomenology. Would we be experiencing the world of another person from a first person perspective, or would it be more like hearing their voice? What is telepathy actually like? What would it be like for a blind telepath to tap into a seeing person’s mind or vice versa? These questions might not depend on the reality of telepathy, or it could be that if they were pursued far enough they’d reveal that there is something wrong with the idea of telepathy.
Inverted telepathy is in a sense telekinesis, in a rather sinister sense in fact. A telepath detects events in someone else’s mind, but a practitioner of telekinesis is causing events to happen outside their body without using directly motive force. The mental analogue of this is mind control and thought insertion. Thought insertion is said to be a symptom of psychosis, although clearly the likes of gaslighting, brainwashing, propaganda and advertising kind of are thought insertion in a way, and of course mind control. It isn’t clear that psychic mind control would necessarily be any more disturbing or unethical. In fact, given the recent advent of “nudge” psychology, therapeutic use of mind control would be akin to hypnotherapy. In the right setting and with informed consent it could be completely benign.
Telekinesis is the more physically forceful sibling of mind control. Just to clear up a minor point of nomenclature, telekinesis is the ability to move objects with the power of one’s mind, whereas psychokinesis is an instance of telekinesis, or so it seems. Apply this to telepathy, incidentally, and you have psychopathy as a specific instance of telepathy, which in fact does make sense in terms of mind control to some degree! There’s also a bit of a caveat here as regards plausibility. One example of telekinesis might be pyrokinesis, which is the ability to set fire to inflammable objects by touching them, which may in fact be physically possible by influencing nerve impulses in a similar manner to electric organs in fish. From that it may also follow that it’s possible to interfere with electronics or move ferrous metals without this being a particularly paranormal talent, although again the necessary anatomy and physiology in a human body is not known to exist. Psychic surgery would fall into this category if it existed. Belief in the power of prayer is effectively belief in psychokinesis via an intermediary, and I’ve long maintained that if one is to believe such things are possible, accepting that prayer is sometimes granted is a brake on delusions of grandeur. One could believe either that one can directly affect the world or that one’s prayers might lead to God affecting the world, and the second position is humbler, and I would say psychologically healthier. This doesn’t depend on it being true either.
Precognition is something I firmly believe in because I seem to have experienced it pretty unambiguously, and recorded it before the fact in some cases. For instance, this is mixed, but when new clients would contact me by ‘phone for the first time, I would sometimes experience sympathy symptoms a few seconds before and expect to receive a ‘phone call imminently for a complaint associated with those symptoms, which would then happen. This, again, is not hindsight because my preconception of the client’s health preceded their first contact with me. Along with several other incidents, my experience and the way I have recorded it before the fact is enough to convince me that precognition exists. My attitude towards it is that it’s probably a universal ability, not that I’m special, similar to Beverly Jaegers, a C-sceptic who believed psychic abilities were latent in everyone and just needed training and practice to be brought out. This also suggests that K-skeptics are ignoring their own precognitive experiences or attributing them to chance. All that said, it’s entirely unclear how precognition would work given current science, although bafflingly, nothing ever seems to rule out time travel back in time no matter how much physics is discovered. A less personal example is Nostradamus’s apparently successful prediction of 9/11, which was also publicly interpreted as such more than two decades before it happened. With precognition, it’s important to be sure to make a detailed record protected from potential editing before the event predicted.
Remote viewing, which presumably involves other senses too, is the ability to see things at a distance. For instance, in one experiment the island of Kerguelen in the Indian Ocean was described without foreknowledge and in another, details of the Saturnian system were ascertained which were later confirmed by the Voyager probes. However, Immanuel Velikovsky also made a number of predictions about planets in this Solar System which turned out to be correct, but they were based on false premises. It’s possible to be correct by chance or educated guesses, and that mechanism for success could be hidden from consciousness. That said, this presumes to know another’s mind better than they know it themselves, which is dodgy ground. Remote viewing was researched by intelligence services up until the mid-’70s, but it was discontinued owing to the lack of useful results. It isn’t clear that this means they didn’t find it worked. However, police departments have attempted to use remote viewing to find missing persons, Beverly Jaegers again having been involved in this in 1971. The UK government researched it in the ‘noughties. It’s hard to know what to make of government agencies taking the idea seriously, as it could just reflect the non-scientific background of the people running the departments. One gets the impression generally that parapsychology was taken a lot more seriously in the 1960s and 1970s than it was later, and there’s a clear trend in a less accepting direction, which I perceive as a lack of openness to the possibility, but the clear implication is that there have been only negative results, or at least a meta-analysis would show this because statistically there could be some outlying positives which have no significance in a larger setting, that is, they’re just good luck. However, a general trend towards physicalism or mechanism would also show this and the mere fact that it isn’t fashionable needn’t be taken to mean there’s nothing in it.
Psi missing is a phenomenon which could be seen as pareidolia – a tendency to see patterns where none exist. If you take data such as with the Zenner Cards illustrated above and you ask people to guess twenty-five in a row, the null hypothesis is that 20% of the guesses will be correct. However, two other claims could be made looking at such data. One is precognition, where one card ahead is guessed correctly. If this is done twenty-five times, the final result can be discounted because it would be after the end of the experiment, so the probability of being correct is already four percent higher in this situation, making the probability of a positive result for precognition higher. Psi missing is an unusually low result, so it would be a result whose probability is significantly worse than random guessing. However, given the same data set and these three possibilities, the probability of finding something in them becomes much higher even though it may not in fact reflect anything genuine.
Larry Niven called psi missing “Plateau Eyes”. In the Known Space universe, there is a planet circling τ Ceti which is generally Venus-like and uninhabitable but has a high plateau called Mount Lookitthat sticking out of the clouds which humans have settled. On this planet, there is a high proportion of people who tend to be ignored. This enables them to get away with things other people wouldn’t, but it also means they find it very hard to find work or be promoted. I sometimes wonder if I have this! It could also be understood as bad luck, although it isn’t quite that because it can work to one’s advantage. If it exists of course.
Clairvoyance and clairaudience are older terms for a more generic form of ESP. Clairvoyance is the ability to visualise things beyond the “norm”, so for example it could include the past, the future, distant places or spirits, auras and energies. Clairaudience is the auditory equivalent, suggesting that clairvoyance is focussed only on vision but this doesn’t seem to be how it is.
I’m going to have to stop at this point. Part II tomorrow.