Sunday, 27 September 2015

Frontiers 6 - Precognition

Can we see the future? Is there any way that we can rely on our perception to predict certainly rather than our reason to extrapolate uncertainly what will happen in the future? Since reasoning has a very poor track record on prediction in practice (observe The Economist on the 2008 Crash) and often the best personal predictions are those made on instinct, it is not axiomatic that analysing the future should follow the same patterns of thought as analysing the past, especially as the data that we require is simply not there. The past has things and events in it which we might possibly know and any failures of analysis come down to our imperfect knowledge of those things and events. The future, of course, has no events or things about which we can reason except as extrapolations from the past and the present - and, as any fool investor knows, past performance is no predictor of certain future success.

The problem is that, notwithstanding the research and ideas of J.W Dunne in the 1930s and others since, we have no hard scientific evidence of our being able to know future events and things although that only means that we have no evidence of precognition and not that precognition does not and cannot exist.The most obvious challenge to precognition is that our experience of the world says that no effect can exist before its cause. Cognitive biases are also well attested that give cause to be suspicious of many claims of precognition. Yet what is puzzling perhaps - given the widespread fascination with the alleged phenomenon - is why no independent and open-minded scientist without a prejudice in either direction has yet conducted a series of experiments that can fully stand up to peer scrutiny in order to decide the matter one way or the other - either finally to quash this last bastion of irrationality or, alternatively, show some interesting effect that needs material explanation. Those experiments that come nearest to the necessary scientific criteria tend to show that there is no such phenomenon but not decisively.

Perhaps the only suggestive finding that one would think would be explored further, if only to eliminate it from the enquiry, is the possibility that precognitive effects exist for some persons in a heightened state of erotic or other arousal. This is intuitively interesting because, inconveniently for scientific minds, if shown to be true, it offers the hint of proof for the practice of sex magick and the claims of Alastair Crowley, altered states and magick and Austin Osman Spare. Of course, it has not been shown to be true, merely a possibility to be investigated further.

The argument that no effect can exist before its cause is not an absolute truth that can be demonstrated philosophically. It is true enough about the world in which we live and in which we experiment but it is not necessarily true. The best that can be said is that it is pragmatically true for a species whose existence arises from a series of causes and effects, whose relationship to the world is one of cause and effect and whose observations have always been made under conditions where time always flows in one direction and where no effect can exist before its cause.

Unfortunately, this also means that, though philosophically it might be possible to conceive of an effect existing before its cause (that time can flow backwards), scientifically and pragmatically we are 'stuck' in a world of forward moving time. Those physicists, psychologists and neuroscientists who poo-poo the possibility of parapsychology are probably to all intents and purposes correct - within their observable world. However, the assumptions of selective bias, unconscious perception, self-fulfilling prophecy, the 'law of large numbers' and memory biases may equally be presumptions since no psychologist can possibly know what is happening in another person's mind at any one time. That cognitive biases are possible or even probable is a reasonable working assumption but that they are certain is not something that any scientist can or, if they are honest, would claim.

Perhaps we should simply accept that 'to all intents and purposes' precognition is not possible from the perspective of not only rational science but also usefulness and probability but also that it is not proven that it does not exist simply because such a claim is impossible to prove. Just one precognition that is true by one person amongst the human billions taking place at just one moment in the long history of the species would mean that ... precognition is possible. And there are philosophical reasons for not entirely closing the door on the possibility because of a healthy scepticism about any scientist who makes absolute claims to knowledge (which no good scientist will do). But the 'to all intents and purposes' is sufficient to make precognition a non-issue for social and cultural investment. As we suggest below, the lack of interest in research may owe more to psychological barriers in dealing with the implications of a definitive answer far more than it does to rational engagement with the utility of such research. After all, the horrible discovery that sex magick might work might seriously frighten the horses.

In an excellent overview of the state of play in research as at May 2014, Schwarzkopf tell us what is at stake:
Such findings of “psi” effects fuel the imagination and most people probably agree that there are things that current scientific knowledge cannot explain. However, the seismic nature of these claims cannot be overstated: future events influencing the past breaks the second law of thermodynamics. If one accepts these claims to be true, one should also be prepared to accept the existence of perpetual motion and time travel. It also completely undermines over a century of experimental research based on the assumption that causes precede effects. Differences in pre-stimulus activity would invalidate baseline correction procedures fundamental to many different types of data analysis.
Which is precisely why precognition is recognised in our series as a Frontier. It is not only the implications for science and religion if a scientifically validated discovery of precognition is presented to the public that matter here but equally the implications for human culture of a major unquestionable test of the claim that appears to prove or disprove beyond any reasonable doubt (and in a replicable form) that precognition exists. At the moment, the fact that psi has not been discovered to be true is not taken (by any reasonable scientist who has not turned his appropriate scepticism into a rationalist cult) to mean that it is not existent but only that it cannot be demonstrated to exist and so only 'to all intents and purposes' does not exist. The door is open at all times to a genuinely fool-proof replicable experiment by open-minded scientists that demonstrates its probability. This must then raise questions of the sort raised by Schwarzkopf.

This is where it gets interesting because the recurring problem in parapsychological research is poor methodology and blatant distrust between the scientists involved. It should not, however, be impossible - though one suspects rationalist and believing partisans are both reluctant subconsciously to put the matter to the test, given what is at stake culturally, lest the experiment comes up with the 'wrong answer' - to construct a devastatingly simple large-scale controlled psi investigative experiment using artificial intelligence within a few years as the objective assessor of the statistics involved, including such variables as sexual or erotic or other emotional excitation. This is the Frontier to be broken - a decisive experiment that sends our culture in one clear direction or the other.

There are probably no better clues to the problems presented by psychical phenomena than those provided by Professor Broad, a serious mid-twentieth century Cambridge analytical philosopher but also twice President of the Society for Psychical Research. Psychic phenomena, in his view, would challenge five basic limiting principles of philosophy (he proposed nine basic limiting factors in philosophy but it is these five that 'stick' in this case). He is not saying that these limiting principles actually are limits but that they are only unquestioned principles that underpin our view of the world and are hard to refute in terms of experience, habit and experiment. Here, I update the five limiting principles to take account of some beliefs and theories about quantum mechanical processes that have emerged as classical physics has not so much been superceded as added to. Part of the problem of 'psi' is that it does not fit into a materialist view of the world based on classical physics but that quantum physics has introduced concepts that seem to permit the theoretical possibility of something materialist permitting, in turn, something approximating psi effects. It is quite possible that one, some or all of the limiting principles could be shown to be philosophically unsound or not quite as sound as they appear at first sight though, as humans living in a human-centred material world, the struggle to do so and be credible is immense. However, accepting that the limiting principles as not necessarily absolutely true philosophically gives us an argument similar to that which notes how 'common sense' is frequently overturned by science: in short, current science may be being faced with subversion by the possibility that it is the common sense now to be overturned by itself.
  • Backward causation - that effects can precede causes is the most evident limiting principle although at the quantum level, it is clear that there is plausible theory that posits something like this actually occurring though not in ways that affect the world which we experience. Quantum backward causation is the straw which those determined to see psychic phenomena as really existing will clutch at without any proven basis for any link between quantum physics and psychic experience other than belief. However, if a 'psi' phenomenon is proven, the scientists have nowhere else to go but here to describe what is happening without having to abandon a materialist conception of the universe. Cause and effect will not be abandoned, just redefined in the context of new thinking about time and matter.
  • An argument is that, if minds are non-physical and the world is physical, there is no means by which non-physical things can act on the world without actually being physical. Psychokinesis would seem to demonstrate that dualism is wrong (a major event in philosophy) and that monist materialism is correct, raising only the issue of the physical process by which minds can move matter - which brings us back to the current fantasies but theoretical realities of quantum level events in the mind having physical effects.
  • If minds can actually communicate with each other (as in 'mind-reading') then the notion of minds being of a separate substance from the physical might start to fall apart (although, of course, it is possible, that insubstantial entities might be able to communicate on equal terms even if that stil begs the question of how insubstantiality communicates with substantiality in order to crerate effects). Skepticism about the non-interaction of apparently non-physical things becomes dubious. The cat is set amongst the pigeons because scientists, again, either have to accept some mystical spiritual explanation or seek a material mechanism by which information can flow over distances between minds. This, again, might be resolved by minds being material and being connected at another level of materiality - which brings us back again to quantum physical effects as the only current road to go down (or to postulate some materiality undiscovered).
  • The ability to perceive events in other places than those available to the senses in one body located in one particular place not only offends human reason but offends our assumptions about perception, that perception is limited to five senses plus prioperception (our groundedness in the world), in order to add a sixth sense or set of senses. This is the key claim of those who champion a strong view of parapsychology and the subject of the experimentation by these scientists (for scientists at their best, they are) though not yet proven. If they do prove the existence of a sixth sense, then the offense to reason begins to place reason itself in doubt insofar as reasoning in the human being is calculated on the evaluation of sensory inputs combined with logic. Mental reasoning finds itself having to take account of intuitions that may be pulling data private to the individual from other sources that cannot be evaluated by an outsider ... such 'romanticism' becomes 'true' if science finds that the mind's perception of things outside immediate sense-data observable by others is true. Psychology and the social sciences become far more problematic as alleged sciences on the uncovering of such a 'sixth sense'. Power shifts a little from the expert to the 'volk'.
  • A final limiting principle is that persons cannot live without their bodies. The denial of this belief represents the very heart of the transition from folk culture to modern rational and scientific culture. It offends or puzzles many folk with strong beliefs in spiritual matters but educated and rational man can see no means by which persons can live without their bodies. Elaborate schema have been proposed by such religiously-minded scientists as Tipler to give persons their bodies back at the resurrection of the dead but few are persuaded according to the dictates of reason. The idea that persons can live without their bodies is a matter of mere belief while speculative transhumanist science still presupposes that persons as information can only survive if embodied elsewhere - in machines as emulations. Although the least likely of all parapsychological phenomena to be true (because of the complexity of the claim compared to simple experiences of sensory psi), if ghosts (for example) were shown to be 'true', then the idea of insubstantial immateriality as capable of existence in the world as (say) pure thought or experience shatters the rational materiality of the age or at least forces the scientific community to reconsider the material underpinning of reality, It might lead to a sceptical belief that we cannot know our own deep materiality: the uncertainty in itself will shift power a little back from the expert to the volk.
So where we are left is in a state where any form of proven psi (not only precognition) might unravel the materialist assumptions of our time (and so the ultimate reliability of science) if science cannot reasonably quickly and certainly come up with an alternative material theory that can be tested through experiment. It is one things to prove that 'psi' exists. It is entirely another to demonstrate how it works if it exists. The 'mystery' left by scientific inability to prove rather than surmise the processes involved leaves sufficient gap for folkish spirituality to slip through the gaps. There is no philosophical reason why any of these unravellings of accepted reality could not be theoretically possible even if they cannot currently be reasonably argued for. All it takes is one piece of super-verified, fully tested, replicable proof that backward causation exists beyond the quantum level, that quantum effects have material effects on higher levels of matter, that psychokinesis happens, that the 'sixth sense' exists or that a ghost exists (the least likely of all) and a lot of rethinking has to be done about the nature of matter (though not necessarily about materialism) and of reality. Perhaps Cramer's ideas on testing retrocausality based on the quantum entanglement of photons (which might have important communications benefits) will get the funding and interest it requires. If it does and it proves retrocausality at the quantum level, then the first tiny crack may have appeared in our current cultural paradigm. A lot is at stake and scientists and funders seem to be steering clear of the psi area not only because of the unlikelihood of results given current understanding but also because the implications might be beyond what they can cope with in terms of career or mental models. It might be left to a major trading house or the Mars Programme to follow through on retrocausality but that still won't tell us anything about human precognition.

On the one hand, a decisive probability for precognition (even if highly specialised and rare), to take our main example, will raise questions about the second law of thermodynamics and so about the inherent nature of the cosmos that will overnight thrust our cosmology and physics from near-certainty into the more pragmatic realms of 'to all intents and purposes' true for nearly all available situations but yet not all. The gap created may encourage all sorts of spiritual nuts and loons to project their fantasies on to the results but that particular effect does not necessarily follow on from that cause. More likely, the discovery would have a lot of immensely clever mathematical minds considering how, why and when such things might be - assuming every aspect of the experiment had been passed as viable and replicable. It would be a revolutionary event if only because of its effects on the presumption of man in his claims to knowledge if no mathematician or physicist can come up with a viable explanation or an explanations that are not demonstrable except as dodgy but entertaining thought experiments ('speculative science').

On the other hand, a decisive and relicable proof that there really is no replicable scientific basis for precognition (and the psychologists have a slew of alternative explanations for most claimed phenomena) and the matter can be passed finally to the realm of private folk belief and left for its expansion into public life to the fraudster and aforesaid spiritual nuts and loons. Outside these areas, the elimination of precognition as last hope (for many) of the mystery of existence that underpins much private spiritual belief will be an important final cultural nail in the anti-materialist vision of our condition. Not enough to destroy it for all the reasons that make precognition still a viable subject for research today (no proof to date does not equate to non-existence of a phenomenon) but enough to make it an even stronger signifier of difference between the educated (and so culturally 'intelligent') and the uneducated (or culturally 'stupid').

So much is at stake and yet the lack of interest in this field - given the extent of folk belief in it - is curious from this perspective. It is as if no one actually wants to have to deal with the answer to the question. The risks of being proven wrong are far too great for the world-views of the competing radical spiritualist and radical materialist camps. Perhaps that final decisive set of experiments is held back because it is a weapon in the cultural equivalent of a nuclear exchange and some instinct - some sixth sense - stops the species from taking any decisive move that would force humanity to choose one or other fork in the road towards either absolute materialism or renewed uncertainty.