Monday, April 16, 2007

Psi Factor

There seems to be an upsurge of interest in psychic phemomena in the last few years, particularly on television and in film, usually two pretty good barometers of what the public is fixated on.

But is there a scientific basic for Psi?

If that's a question that interests you (and frankly how could it not), then you should pick up The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena by Dr. Dean Radin, Director of the Consciousness Research Laboratory at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Radin has done cutting edge psi research for Princeton University's department of psychology, the U.S government, AT&T, the University of Edinburgh, and other groups, agencies, and businesses. You might not buy everything he has to say (I'm not sure I do), but it's certainly thought-provoking stuff.

Here is an excerpt from chapter 1:

In science, the acceptance of new ideas follows a predictable, four-stage sequence. In Stage 1, skeptics confidently proclaim that the idea is impossible because it violates the Laws of Science. This stage can last from years to centuries, depending on how much the idea challenges conventional wisdom. In Stage 2, skeptics reluctantly concede that the idea is possible, but it is not very interesting and the claimed effects are extremely weak. Stage 3 begins when the mainstream realizes that the idea is not only important, but its effects are much stronger and more pervasive than previously imagined. Stage 4 is achieved when the same critics who used to disavow any interest in the idea begin to proclaim that they thought of it first. Eventually, no one remembers that the idea was once considered a dangerous heresy.

The idea discussed in this book is in the midst of the most important and the most difficult of the four transitions – from Stage 1 into Stage 2. While the idea itself is ancient, it has taken more than a century to conclusively demonstrate it in accordance with rigorous, scientific standards. This demonstration has accelerated Stage 2 acceptance, and Stage 3 can already be glimpsed on the horizon. The idea is that those compelling, perplexing and sometimes profound human experiences known as "psychic phenomena" are real.

This will come as no surprise to most of the world’s population, because the majority already believes in psychic phenomena. But over the past few years, something new has propelled us beyond old debates over personal beliefs. The reality of psychic phenomena is now no longer based solely upon faith, or wishful thinking, or absorbing anecdotes. It is not even based upon the results of a few scientific experiments. Instead, we know that these phenomena exist because of new ways of evaluating massive amounts of scientific evidence collected over a century by scores of researchers.

Psychic, or "psi" phenomena fall into two general categories. The first is perception of objects or events beyond the range of the ordinary senses. The second is mentally causing action at a distance. In both categories, it seems that intention, the mind’s will, can do things that – according to prevailing scientific theories – it isn’t supposed to be able to do. We wish to know what is happening to loved ones, and somehow, sometimes, that information is available even over large distances. We wish to speed the recovery of a loved one’s illness, and somehow they get better quicker, even at a distance. Mind willing, many interesting things appear to be possible. Understanding such experiences requires an expanded view of human consciousness.

Is the mind merely a mechanistic, information-processing bundle of neurons? Is it a "computer made of meat" as some cognitive scientists and neuroscientists believe? Or is it something more? The evidence suggests that while many aspects of mental functioning are undoubtedly related to brain structure and electrochemical activity, there is also something else happening, something very interesting.

This is for real?

When discussing the reality of psi phenomena, especially from the scientific perspective, one question always hovers in the background: You mean this is for real? In the midst of all the nonsense and excessive silliness proclaimed in the name of psychic phenomena, the misinformed use of the term parapsychology by self-proclaimed "paranormal investigators," the perennial laughing stock of magicians and conjurers … this is for real?

The short answer is, Yes.

A more elaborate answer is, psi has been shown to exist in thousands of experiments. There are disagreements over to how to interpret the evidence, but the fact is that virtually all scientists who have studied the evidence, including the hard-nosed skeptics, now agree that there is something interesting going on that merits serious scientific attention.

This isn't dull grade 10 introductory physical science here. This is "gee-whiz" stuff that could have a very real application in our day-to-day world, and could alter the way we look at ourselves and our universe (or is that "mulitiverse"?). For example, Radin speculates about some of the applications Psi might have for politics:

A society that consciously uses precognitive information to guide the future is one that is realizing true freedom. That is, the acts of billions of people seeing into their own futures, and acting on those visions, may result in fracturing undesirable, "fated" destinies set in motion long ago. This would allow us to create the future as we wish, rather than blindly follow a predetermined course thorugh our ignornace.

On the other hand, Radin points out the potential problems, which sound like something straight from a science-fiction novel, but which may be more real than we currently imagine:

If too many people begin to accurately peek at their possible futures, and they change behaviors as a result, the causal loops established between the future and the past may agitate the future from a few likely outcomes into a completely undetermined probabilistic mush.

If all of this sounds a bit too much like Minority Report for some, it's worth remembering that often science fiction authors have been better at predicting future events than so-called experts. In this case, however, Radin goes much further than science fiction, and provides a scientific framework around which we can discuss intelligently the possibilities of things that have fascinated humans, in one way or another, for thousands of years.

Radin concludes:

Future generations will undoubtedly look back upon the twentieth century with a certain poignancy. Our progeny will shake their heads with disbelief over the arrogance we displayed in our meager understanding of nature. It took three hundred years of hard-won scientific advances merely to verify the existence of something that people had been experiencing for millenia.

At the turn of the twentieth century, imaginative scientists were slowly becoming aware of radical new theories on the horizon about space, time, matter, and energy. Some sensed, correctly, that developments such as relativity and quantum theory would radically alter our understanding of reality itself. Almost a century later, the impact of those discoveries is still reverberating throughout science, technology, and society.

As the twenty-first century dawns, astounding new visions of reality are stirring.

One thing that Radin says above all others rings true with me. We are arrogant. We assume, in many respects, that we know all there is to know, and we have experienced all that there is to experience. In taking this attitude, we have allowed ourselves to stop progressing. The desire to challenge new frontiers has waned. We have become complacent.

It's time to change that, and to rediscover the essense of the human spirit - the desire to explore, and the ability to embrace change. Our journey shouldn't be based on belief, or faith, but rather on science, and logic, and reason - none of which precludes an examination of that which might be called "the paranormal".

After all, if history has shown us, one generation's "paranormal" can become another generation's relatively mundane fact-of-life.

Remember that the next time you get on an airplane, or use a computer, or talk on the telephone.

Paul Kimball


Annalisa said...

Dean Radin has a new book out now called Entangled Minds. If you liked his first book, you might like this one too.

Anonymous said...

Check out Chris Carter's book "Parapsychology and the Skeptics." He does a good job of debunking the debunkers (Blackmore, Hyman, Randi, etc.):