On the Fringe

Discussions of telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition tend to be dismissed as so much New Age crystal-gazing. As it turns out, though, the scientific evidence for these phenomena is overwhelming. The only people who doubt that such things really happen either are ignorant (probably because they’ve been misled by self-appointed debunkers) or have a strong vested interest in a hard-headed “scientific” world view that not even physicists believe in any more.

This week I’ve been reading a couple of very interesting books — The Conscious Universe by Dean Radin and Morphic Resonance by Rupert Sheldrake. I recommend them both. Together, they unveil some very provocative possibilities.

Radin provides an overview of decades of meticulous experiments designed to verify (or disprove) the idea that telepathy, precognition, and similar phenomena are real. Be prepared for a crash course in statistics — this is not a book of impossible-to-reproduce anecdotes about Aunt Greta’s dream that her dog had died. There are graphs.

What Radin doesn’t do is provide a theory that might have the power to explain the phenomena. He dips his toe in quantum physics to the extent of talking about non-locality (which is an interesting and highly suggestive topic), and also examines the psychology of skeptics in considerable detail, but he pretty much leaves it up to you to draw your own conclusions.

Sheldrake has a theory. His book is mainly concerned with biological phenomena such as embryo development and instinctive behavior; telepathy isn’t even listed in his book’s index. Nonetheless, his theory of morphic resonance provides a framework within which psi phenomena fit rather neatly.

Sheldrake’s goal is to pry apart the consensus that evolution is all about natural selection operating on the random mutations in DNA. Along the way, he documents the now proven fact that acquired characteristics can be inherited. (Yes, Virginia, Lamarck was right. So was Darwin, who thought the same thing.) Sheldrake then goes further to suggest that learned behaviors can be imparted not only to the descendants of the animals that learned the behaviors but also to other genetically similar animals whose ancestors didn’t learn those behaviors. That is, ideas can propagate from one animal to another across space and time, and without any physically detectable form of causation.

And yes, he has scientific evidence. It’s not as strong as the evidence for telepathy, but this is a newer theory. His theory is that, in addition to matter/energy, the universe exhibits a non-energy-based phenomenon in which patterns that have occurred tend to recur. They tend to resonate through similar physical systems.

The human brain being a physical system, if Sheldrake is right we shouldn’t be at all surprised to find that ideas and images in one brain can appear in another brain through the action of morphic resonance.

Radin’s book is mainly about traditional tests for telepathy designed and conducted in universities. What I find odd is that such tests are typically conducted (a) between senders and recipients who are only casual acquaintances and (b) using test images that are of no special emotional significance to the participants. Or perhaps it’s not odd; that’s how university psychology departments generally do their tests. But if Sheldrake’s ideas are correct, one would expect telepathic resonance to occur much more frequently between people who are closely bonded (married couples and identical twins, for example). And based on the enormous wealth of anecdotal evidence for telepathy, one would expect that emotionally significant ideas would be transmitted from sender to receiver more reliably. It would be interesting to study statistically, using standard double-blind procedures, whether telepathy is stronger when these factors are aligned.

It also occurs to me that if telekinesis is real (and it is — test subjects can control the outcome of rolling dice in a small but statistically significant way), evolution may have more tricks up its sleeve than we imagine. Choosing the roll of dice is not very significant emotionally. Producing babies is much more significant. At a moment when millions of sperm are swimming toward an egg, dare we assume that it’s entirely a random affair which sperm wins the race?

It would be difficult to design an experiment that would test this, but I think it’s clear that even a small non-random influence on the selection of sperm, when it operates in thousands of matings per year across thousands of years, could have an enormous impact on the evolution of a species. If a bunch of antelope can see those tasty leaves dangling just out of reach on the trees, might they want to produce baby antelope that had longer necks? Might their desire cause sperm with genes for long necks to have a bit of an edge? Again, this doesn’t have to be a large, obvious effect. Even a small non-random bias, over the course of thousands of years, would produce the giraffe.

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3 Responses to On the Fringe

  1. Marco Alpert says:

    “As it turns out, though, the scientific evidence for these phenomena is overwhelming. The only people who doubt that such things really happen either are ignorant (probably because they’ve been misled by self-appointed debunkers) or have a strong vested interest in a hard-headed “scientific” world view that not even physicists believe in any more.”

    Whoa! Jim, I usually have a great deal of respect for your intellectual integrity, but “overwhelming,” “ignorant,” “not even physicists believe in anymore”? That Kool-Aid must be pretty tasty. It’s one thing to present information you find interesting or stimulating, but to begin by labeling everyone who doesn’t agree ignorant, misled or prejudiced and hard-headed is pure ad hominem.

    While it’s from one of the “self-appointed debunkers” you might find this review interesting (or maybe not):

    http://www.skepdic.com/refuge/radin1.html

    Suffice it to say that I don’t consider myself ignorant or misled. And personally, I would love nothing more than to discover that these amazing phenomena actually existed. (This from someone who has a collection of over 400 tarot decks.) As such, I’ve done a lot of reading on the subject on my own. But I have so far encountered no credible evidence that they do. That’s certainly no reason to stop investigating, but labeling non believers as ignorant or misled is pure emperor’s new parapsychology.

    • midiguru says:

      Have you read Dean Radin’s book, Marco? If not, I suggest you read it. He provides detailed statistical analysis of the scientific evidence for these phenomena, and also rips apart the diatribes of the skeptics. I’ll check out the link you provided … but suffice it to say, I’m no longer in the materialist reductionist camp. Materialism has been enormously successful at producing technologies, but its attempts to explain the nature of the universe we live in have been a distinct and embarrassing failure.

    • midiguru says:

      Having read R. T. Carroll’s review of “The Conscious Universe” (and it’s a heavy slog), I have three or four quick notes. Perhaps I’ll write more about it later.

      First, Carroll is quite right to criticize some of Radin’s more effusive and off-the-wall notions. Trying to draw a connection between psi and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, for instance, as Radin does, is just silly.

      Second, Carroll is at least as guilty of straw-man attacks and hyperbolic rhetoric as he claims Radin is. I would call this one a draw. Carroll’s penchant for dragging in preposterous analogies with Zeus or “intelligent design” and casual references to psychic results produced using Ouija boards do him no credit.

      Third, I’m pretty sure Carroll’s criticisms of Radin’s statistical techniques are accurate, or mostly accurate. Radin should never have dredged up extremely old accounts of research from the 1920s, for instance, to include in his meta-analyses.

      Fourth, I would suggest that Carroll is quite wrong to dismiss psi phenomena on the grounds that the statistical evidence is so minor as to be trivial. Granted, the statistical evidence IS so minor as to be trivial — but that’s not the whole story by any means. There’s a whole universe out there that can’t be brought into the laboratory without trivializing it. Carroll dismisses the Eastern mystical tradition as unscientific, but this is only true if we define “scientific” as something that necessarily involves statistics and precise measurement.

      About 15 years ago, I myself ran into a real phenomenon (while researching a music software review) that disappeared under test conditions. I don’t remember the details by now, but it had to do with latency in a C-Lab MIDI interface. So I’m comfortable with the idea that the laboratory findings relating to psi may be trivial simply because we’re not doing the right experiments.

      A lot more could be said on this subject — I took notes as I read the review — but I want to mull it over. Also, doing as detailed a critique of Carroll’s review as he did of Radin’s book would be largely a waste of time, because his review will be read by very few people. What one wants is to understand the essential features of the controversy.

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