Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Skeptical Talk about Powers

Psychic or paranormal powers could refer to any number of things - ESP, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, remote viewing, etc.  This is a long post, and I apologize in advance for being a buzzkill on this topic.

When I was very young, particularly at single digit ages, you could say I believed in powers.  I think of it as a stage of magical thinking that children go through, and I guess you could say that I used these powers all the time.  For example, I occasionally used them (i.e. believed in them) while taking tests to call up an answer here or there, if the answer was a bit hard to recall at first.  Sometimes it worked, and importantly, that is all I really paid attention to at the time.

One of the more notable things I did was to attempt to use these powers to get the elementary school teacher that I wanted for the upcoming year.  Every day during the summer, I would focus my intent in this way.  And for two years in a row, this worked - I got the teacher of my choice (1 out of 3 odds).  But imagine my surprise when in the third year, following the exact same process, I somehow got the "wrong" teacher.  I couldn't believe it - how had my powers failed?

The teacher failure didn't exactly change me overnight, but in the scheme of things I suppose it was an important data point, and frankly I consider it lucky that I had ended up creating a testable experiment (of course a sample of three is a complete joke).  But in a larger sense I began to find that I was simply paying attention to everything that was happening, and I was beginning to notice that there were misses to this power thing as well as hits, and over many years I began to see that it really didn't matter whether I focused my magical intent or not.  Coincidences were happening at about the same rate regardless of my focus on the powers.

One big question, really THE question, is whether or not it is a problem that people believe in such things. 

Is it a problem if someone hears an old wives tale and rubs a potato on a wart to make it go away?  In a smaller sense, maybe not.  We just have people wasting time and potatoes, and for the most part they will still have warts.  But in a larger sense, the passive acceptance of such things trains people to believe in superstition and to use sloppy thinking, things that will plausibly affect society in the long run.  And I fear that it is ultimately a surprisingly small step to go from believing a potato will cure a wart to believing that sex with a virgin will cure your AIDS.  And that is a criminally negligent and dangerous belief.

There is a pragmatic aspect to this - if there is some kind of magical imagination that enhances reality with little downside, perhaps we can go along with that, long term societal effects notwithstanding.  After all, William James suggested "we judge the mystical experience not by its veracity, which is unknowable, but by its fruits: does it turn someone’s life in a positive direction?"

Perhaps someone is having some difficulties in life, and by imagining certain powers and "calling" upon them, they end up getting themselves in better alignment with positive outcomes, more focused on what they want.  Perhaps they let go of any subtle or not so subtle mental beliefs that are obstructing their desired goals.  This could be a good thing.

But my point is that these are all things can be done without magical thinking.  Call it simple logic, or more to the point, a simpler form of pragmatism, clear thinking about life and goals.  To me, calling up the image of a deity or something is extra work.

Once upon a time, in graduate school I smoked some hash oil which turned out to be much more powerful than I had anticipated.  I ended up retreating to my bed in a fetal position to ride it out, and I had an out of body experience (OOBE) - it seemed as if I had floated up to the ceiling above where I was resting.  But my eyes were closed, I was virtually tripping, and I think it would be much more accurate to say that I had an OOBE daydream, an OOBE imagination.  Many things are possible in imagination.

I am reminded of Susan Blackmore's OOBE experience (also on marijuana) where she had the experience of floating outside the building she was in for several hours.
"It was just over thirty years ago that I had the dramatic out-of-body experience [OOBE] that convinced me of the reality of psychic phenomena and launched me on a crusade to show those closed-minded scientists that consciousness could reach beyond the body and that death was not the end. Just a few years of careful experiments changed all that. I found no psychic phenomena - only wishful thinking, self-deception, experimental error and, occasionally, fraud. I became a sceptic."
I would mention that during her OOBE, as she floated outside she reported seeing gargoyles on the building.  I think it is highly relevant to the discussion that there actually were no gargoyles on the building, something that was made clear in the cold hard light of day the next morning.  But she was impressed enough nevertheless to spend many years on paranormal research.

For those who believe in remote viewing, I cordially invite you over to my place.  Come on by and float around.  There are 4 decent sized works of art in the dining room / living room area.  Clearly demonstrate to me (or a neutral party) that you've seen one or more of these.  The piece over the fireplace is one that would be very easy to be specific about.

If you believe you are skilled at clairvoyance, why not consistently send me an email each morning disclosing what the change in the stock market will be for that day, or the winning number of the lottery.  If this was successful over time, we could start a non-profit and distribute the winnings to the most effective charities. We could do a lot of good for a millions of people that are suffering.

A few years ago, while getting out of the car, I noticed a couple of women's hair bands just outside of my car.  I can probably say that up to that point in my life, in 50 years I had never noticed hair bands on the ground.  For some reason, maybe because they were right there, right where I was about to step, or the phenomenon just seemed kind of odd to me in that moment, I just paid some attention to them.  Now, after a few years, I've probably seen a dozen or more of those things lying on the floor or on the pavement somewhere.  But never until that one day.  So what is happening?  Am I "manifesting" these things, has the law of attraction gone somehow bizarrely askew?

I would say no.  It's just that out of all the zillions of things I could be aware of, I somehow became aware of hair bands and my pattern recognition became primed for recognizing these things which I previously ignored.  This is one of many cognitive biases.  It is referred to as the frequency illusion.

A practical understanding of these kinds of cognitive biases is in my view tantamount to a kind of enlightenment.  This is a kind of vipassana, a kind of clear seeing, seeing things as they are.  But traditional spiritual enlightenment does not encompass this.  People learn to let go of the illusory qualities of a separate self, while maintaining beliefs in many crazier things.  But to me there seems to be a direction of letting go of beliefs in general, at least ones for which there is no reasonable evidence, that correlates somehow with the direction of enlightenment.  Of course the central problem is that many people fail to
understand what is reasonable evidence.

I find that people who claim these various powers often list many things which they consider to be proofs of these powers in their lives.  I can't really discount every single one of these things, but it is notable to me that the overwhelming majority of these claims easily fall into the category of coincidence.  And coincidences will reliably happen in complex lives of billions of people interacting with millions of things.

I guess if you want to claim something as proof, it needs to be something extraordinarily specific, and something that is not really possible by other means.  For example, when I've heard people say things along the lines that they caused a cigarette smoker across the room to light up a cigarette, you have to understand that's not very impressive to me.  It's something that was pretty clearly going to happen anyway.  You tell me in advance that the person is going to suddenly place their pack of cigarettes on top of their head, that might be something.

If we're hiking in the wilderness, and you suddenly stop and say that you have a "premonition" that there is a snake 20 feet ahead, hidden in the leaves, well, that might be interesting, but it's something that you may have some kind of legitimate information about based on something weird about the pattern of the leaves, some kind of movement that was not consciously processed, etc.  But it would be indeed be interesting if you told me that a half a mile down the trail there's going to be a copperhead.

For those who understand how to be pragmatic and can offer intelligent caveats along with their indulgences in crazy beliefs, fine, I suppose, but the problem is that many people are not going to be pragmatic.  And we end up with people with dashed hopes, people living in poverty sending money to Peter Popoff (debunked faith healer), people spreading AIDS to virgins.  The danger is that some people will not see the harm, and they will have been encouraged in their delusion by people that are in many cases much smarter than them, people who should know better.

We can use things like good thinking and knowledge of our biases, and a thoughtful alignment with our goals, in conjunction with an openness to possibilities, as an intelligent alternative to spreading beliefs about powers that might not actually exist.


  1. A) You'll never convince me, not after some of the insanely precise experiences of telepathy I have had. Things on the level of being able to describe the art in your home. This isnt reliable, in the sense that I cant always manage it, but when I feel it is working, my accuracy is very high. Also, some people are much better at this than others. Some people can barely shoot a basket; other people are Michael Jordan. Just because you dont have much in the way of siddhi doesnt mean that it doesnt exist.

    B) Youre right that a lot of the coincidence that occur after attempting to exercise powers dont really add up to proof, since we cant be sure that we arent choosing only to pay attention to those that support our view of powers, on the other hand that doesnt add up to disproof either. The only way to get objective about that kind of thing is in a controlled environment: so, are you familiar with the body of laboratory psi research? I wish there were a good, impartial primer or guide to the field, but I dont think there is. My reading of the data, and it seems the reading of most people involved in the field, is that some amount of psi is objectively established, but there are some materialist die-hards who do manage to find weaknesses in the methodology of all the experiments with postive psi results. Dean Radin has a pretty extensive list of studies, including both those with positive and negative results.

    C) Probably the most intellectually interesting issue that this post raises is the question of objective-and-subjective in the matter of interpreting sensory experience and life experience, and finding meaning in all that. You raise this issue through the question of cognitive bias. You speak as though there is (1) a background of objective facts and entities through which moves (2) your finite sensory system, selecting which of those factual beings to notice and experience and then (3) ascribe a meaning to those experiences, making a story out of it, or something. This is a pretty common-sensical attitude, and it works well in general, but it is not really how things are. All experience emerges through a complex interaction of sensory field and sensory system, and intentionality is an inherent part of this process. Meaning, selectivity, and delimited entities are fundamentally interwoven in the emergence of experience. Since experience is already a field of meaning, I dont see why we would dismiss certain higher-order meanings that emerge from it as erroneous.

  2. Thanks. You feel what you feel, and that's your experience. Like when a basketball player feels they have a "hot hand". Statistics show that these "hot hands" are exactly what you would expect based on a series of random events. One of our primary biases is to see patterns, and thus we tend to see more patterns than actually exist. In order to see reality for what it is, we have to take this bias fully into account.

    I do have some familiarity with the body of psi research. A lot of people believe that if a scientific looking paper is published somewhere then that is as good as gold. That is a misunderstanding of science. There's way too much to go into here, but basically the design and methodology of a study needs to be airtight, and then we need a couple of independent studies to validate that research. In psi research we just don't quite have that kind of thing, but who knows, perhaps it's just around the corner.

    There is a certain logical amount of materialistic pushback to things that fall outside what is currently known, but this has been true of many things, such as plate tectonics. But plate tectonics is now accepted because they proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Psi research could plausibly do this, but it hasn't happened yet.

    There is certainly a level where we don't really know what *this* is, living here in Plato's cave, so yes, this is very interesting stuff. But there's a certain level where you have to understand, for example, that theoretical physics is theoretical. Many people believe in things like string theory or whatever, as it is part of popular culture. But there's nothing really there yet. Maybe it will be proven experimentally, maybe not. We'll see.

    I do think that the general direction of an openness to possibility and a flexible view of our world is useful. I take it as possible that some kind of psi effect might eventually be proven. The picture over the fireplace awaits. Do you take it as possible that such things may never be proven?

    1. A) The hot-hand phenomenon is not at all comparable to my experience with telepathy, in two ways. First, the telepathy cant really be explained as a clumping of events that were bound to happen anyway by chance. Second, my sense of having telepathic intuitions is not a post-hoc belief in a streak of successful guesses about what another person is thinking. Rather it takes the form of a prediction that I know, followed by a testing of that prediction, and a confirmation that my belief was correct.

      B) New research is showing that there is in fact a real hot hand phenomenon, it is just more complex than single streaks. Here are a few news sources reporting:
      (The final link contains links to 4 recent studies demonstrating the existence of a hot hand.)
      In particular, I would like to bring your attention to this suggestion by one of the researchers quoted in the NYT article "Yes, we probably imagine and desire patterns where they do not exist. But it may be that we also are capable of sensing and responding to some cues within games and activities that are almost too subtle for most collections of numbers to capture." This expresses well my sense about powers, etc. We may have a tendency to exagerate their significance, but paying attention to this kind can bring a useful level of subtlety to our perception. Just from an evolutionary standpoint, humans have been basing their hunting, warfare, and healing practices around powers for the vast majority of our existence. There is probably some useful stuff in there.

      C) Im quite science literate (thank you very much), being actively engaged in particular with medical research, and the fact is that, outside of perhaps physics, experiment design and research methodolgy always has weak spots. Living systems are just too complex and factors are hard to isolate. This is why we have to do multiple studies on the same subject, instead of doing just one good study and then moving on. See: Hot Hand research, see also: recent findings on the irrepoducibility of most biomedical experiments (http://www.jove.com/blog/2012/05/03/studies-show-only-10-of-published-science-articles-are-reproducible-what-is-happening). And this is going to be doubly true of a field like psi, where we dont even understand what it is, how it works, how to bring it out in its most dramatic or pure expression, or how to control for it. Nevertheless, as I read the field, and, again, as most those working in the field read it, the preponderance of evidence is that some psi has been objectively demonstrated.

      D) Your view seems to be that you are willing to see psi proven, but until it is proven (to some undefined standard), one should not belief in it. My view is that in my mind it is already proven, but I accept that it is a very tricky and slippery subject (see: The Trickster and the Paranormal), and may never find wide acceptance. That doesnt bother me too much. But there seems to be a bigger question here, and that has to do with how to sort through or make ones way through information and fields that are not widely understood, respected, demarcated, and acclaimed. My answer is that this has to be done with intelligence and discernment, rather than trying to eliminate the problem by shutting out whole fields of activity just to avoid the risk of fraud. All kinds of fields have fraud.

  3. Thanks for the information about the hot hand phenomenon. Perhaps it was not a great example. But even if all such materialism were disproved, it would not prove psi phenomenon.

    My intention was not to "shut out whole fields of activity". Perhaps my editorial was one-sided. It's an editorial. My interest is more along the lines of a call for a pragmatic agnosticism. We're living in a world where we're having measles outbreaks because some mostly intelligent people are engaging in sloppy thinking. We've gone a bit overboard - a certain amount of prudence is in order.

    If people want to practice Magick, or do concentration practice until they hallucinate, or whatever, that's fine. My desire is simply that when people talk about these kind of phenomenon, that they include some reasonable skepticism and caveats. I can recall theoretical physicist James Gate talking about his work, commenting that it might well amount to nothing. That's it, that is agnosticism, that is a real understanding, a clear seeing.

    You're absolute correct that I am looking for a certain standard of evidence. As I believe Carl Sagan put it, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I would say that's reasonable. I don't think Bell's Theorem was exactly accepted after the first paper. As a quick shorthand, let's say that if the psi research starts to bubble up to the higher and higher quality journals and we finally get an excellent study published in Nature, that would be something. If what you are saying is true, the findings would be groundbreaking, stunning, paradigm changing. It would be kind of cool.

    Susan Blackmore's experience is very, very relevant, I'm not going to be able to say it any better than this:

    And, as always, the picture over the fireplace awaits.