Thursday, February 14, 2008

Psi, Closed-Mindedness and Fear

Some of the followup (private) emails I've gotten in regard to my just-prior blog post on Damien Broderick's book on psi, have really boggled my mind.

These emails basically present arguments of two forms:

  1. You're nuts, don't you know all the psi experiments are fraud and experimental error, everyone knows that...
  2. Look, even if there's a tiny chance that some psi phenomena are real, you're a fool to damage your reputation by aligning yourself with the kooks who believe in it

What shocks me (though it shouldn't, as I've been around 41 years and seen a lot of human nature already) about arguments of the first form is the irrational degree of skepticism toward this subject, displayed by otherwise highly rational and reflective individuals.

It's not as though these people have read Damien's book or carefully studied the relevant literature. I would welcome debate with suitably informed skeptics. Rather, these people dismiss the experimental literature on psi based on hearsay, and don't consider it worth their while to spend the 3-10 hours (depending on individual reading speed) required to absorb a fairly straightforward nontechnical book on the subject, like Damien's.

What shocks me about arguments of the second form is how often they come from individuals who are publicly aligned with other extremely radical ideas. For instance a few Singularitarians have emailed me and warned me that me talking about psi is bad, because then people will think Singularitarians are kooks.

(Amusingly, one Singularitarian pointed out in their conversation with me that, to them, the best argument for the possibility of psi that they know of is the Simulation Argument, which contends that we probably live in a computer simulation. This is I suppose based on the idea that the laws of physics somehow rule out psi, which they don't; but anyway it's an odd argument because whether we live in a simulation or not, the laws of physics are merely a compact summary of our empirical observations of the world we see, and so if psi data are real, they need to be incorporated into our observation-set and accounted for in our theories, regardless of whether we interpret these theories as being about a "real" world or a "simulated" one.)

Whoa!! So psi is so far out there that people who believe the universe is a simulation and the Singularity is near don't want their reputations poisoned by association with it?

This really baffles me.

I have no personal axe to grind regarding psi.

I have never had any unambiguous, personally convincing psi experiences (except when under the influence of various psychotropic compounds, but that's a whole other story ;-)....

I don't actually care much whether psi is real or not.

About psi and physics ... I am skeptical of attempts to explain psi based on quantum theory, due to not understanding how decoherence would be avoided in the hypothesized long-range quantum nonlocal binding between brains and other systems; but I recognize that quantum theory as such does not actually rule out psi. And, I am acutely aware that modern physics theories are incomplete, even leaving out psi data -- just taking into account well-accepted physics data. Modern physics does not provide a complete, conceptually consistent accounting of all well-accepted physics data. So all in all, our incomplete physics model doesn't rule out psi but makes it hard to explain. This does not seem a strong enough reason to ignore the available psi data on theoretical-physics grounds.

My observation is merely that, after spending a few dozen hours perusing the available data, it seems fascinating and compelling. Ed May's data is not the only good data out there by any means, but it's a great place to start if you want to dig into it.

I do not think we, as a community of thinking and understanding minds, should be ignoring all this high-quality data collected by serious, intelligent, careful scientists.

What is the reason for ignoring it? Presumably the reason is that a bunch of bullshit about psi has been promoted by a bunch of flakes and kooks. It's true. I admit it, Damien admits it, it's obvious. Let's get over that historical and cultural reality and look at the actual data -- quite possibly there's something to be learned from it. I don't know exactly what, but that's how science works -- you investigate and then you find out. What's frustrating is that in this extremely fascinating, important, potentially highly impactful area, research is proceeding so slowly because of excesses of skepticism and fear in the scientific community.

Scientists want to preserve their careers and reputations, so going out on a limb for something perceived as wacky is something very few of them are willing to do. As a consequence our understanding of the universe advances much more slowly than it otherwise could.

Finally, a brief aside.... For those who believe a Singularity is likely but who are highly skeptical of psi (a small percentage of the world, but disproportionately represented in the readership of this blog, I would imagine), I ask you this: Wouldn't it be nice to understand the universe a little better before launching a Singularity? If psi is real that would seem to have various serious implications for what superhuman AI's may be like post-Singularity, for example.

Well, anyway. I'm going to drop this topic for now as I have other stuff to focus on, like building AGI.... And I've been (finally) mixing down some of my music from MIDI to MP3; I'll post some on my website within the next month or so.... I don't have time to push ahead psi research myself nor to actively advocate for funding for those doing the research; but by writing these blog posts and reviewing Damien's book on, I've tried to do what I can (within my limited available time) to nudge the world toward being less closed-minded and less fearful in this regard.

Come on, people! Really! Have some guts and some mental-openness -- it's a big, weird, mysterious world out there, and I'm damn sure we understand only a teensy weensy bit of it. Experience gives us clues, empirical science gives us clues -- and the extent to which we manage to ignore some of the most interesting clues the world provides us, is pretty disappointing...