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...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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;"
As the Singularitarian in question, I'll say that the argument based on Occam's Razor: a world with laws like the Game of Life, or something like the Standard Model, is vastly less complex than one in which the exotic physical effects posited by psi are triggered by certain extremely particular arrangements of matter that we call brain states but not blocks of wood or worms.

Similarly, I allow for the possibility of an intelligence creating our observed reality, a 'Creator' but I would expect such an intelligence to have ancestors produced by evolution: if we consider different possible starting conditions in a universe, those realms that begin with a godlike intelligence will be much less common than those that begin with initial conditions conducive to evolution eventually producing intelligence, and that intelligence producing superintelligence.

10:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"the argument *is* based on Occam's Razor"


10:23 AM  
Anonymous steven said...

"I recognize that quantum theory as such does not actually rule out psi"

As far as I know you can't use quantum effects for psi if many-worlds QM is true, and despite the claims of a dwindling number of denialists, many-worlds is the only simple and precise model we have.

"Modern physics does not provide a complete, conceptually consistent accounting of all well-accepted physics data."

The exceptions AFAIK are all at huge energies. Do we all have LHC-scale particle colliders in our heads? I tried searching the net for a plausible mechanism that could cause psi effects, but I couldn't find any. I'm not going to buy Broderick's book; as far as I'm concerned, if I have to pay to see an argument, the argument doesn't exist.

12:01 PM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

Response to the anonymous Singularitarian: The thing is, we don't know whether some tweak of the Standard Model (or loop quantum gravity, or whatever the next super duper unified physics theory turns out to be) is going to lead to an explanation of psi phenomena as a side-effect.... So it seems to me that in your application of Occam's Razor, you're condemning as complex a whole class of as yet almost wholly unknown possible theories.... -- Ben G

12:07 PM  
Blogger LĂșcio said...

Well, there is psi research on animals, so I am not so sure about your elimination of worms as sources of psi phenomena.

Anyway, I am not convinced by this Occam Razor argument simply because it seems to equate "psi" with "supernaturalism". That is, from what I get you are thinking about a universe that works according to known laws of physics for non-brain systems are considered and then works according to "psi laws" different from natural laws when brain systems are considered.

However, as Ben pointed, physical laws do not preclude psi, and so the evocation of "supernatural" laws for explaining psi does not sound much parsimonious. (And we are talking about Occams...)

I see that the more parsimonius view would be that psi, if it exists, is not the manifestation of supernatural laws, but rather an uncommon use of natural laws by uncommon arrangements of matter. And that description fits the description of life and technology themselves. For instance a thing as prosaic as a square wave is not (IIRC) naturally occurring in the universe, but you can assemble a very particular arrangement of matter (an eletronic circuit) to produce such a square wave. Oxygen-rich atmospheres are unlikely to occur unless you have a habitable (exobiologically speaking) planet with a photosynthetic atmosphere. (Or perhaps an A-class, ultraviolet-rich blue sun.) So you don't need to evoke supernaturalism for square waves nor oxygenated atmospheres - they are just employing existing laws in "unlikely" ways - and so I can't see why supernaturalism would be needed for psi.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

Response to Steven: Yes, the known exceptions to current quasi-unified physics are at high energies. However that doesn't mean those are the only exceptions. Precognition effects as noted by May, may or may not be exceptions too.... My point was that we don't even have a coherent conceptual account of how the world operates, excepting psi. We have a hacked-together account that seems to work in low-energy regimes for reasons that are very incompletely understood.

Anyway, focusing on physics theories seems the wrong approach to psi. I agree with Damien that we should start by focusing on the empirical data. We don't want to reject the data based on our theories.

The fact that our physics theories have other holes in them is only peripherally relevant. Even if our physics theories had NO other holes in them, the psi data would still be worthy of much attention.

As for not wanting to read an argument if you have to pay for it, well I don't really know how to respond to that.

One response is to go to your local public library and ask them to get the book for you on interlibrary loan. Another response is that the raw scientific literature on psi is mostly freely available online in PDF files.

Damien needs to eat and pay rent, so I find no problem with him charging money for his book. Yes "information wants to be free", but society is still self-organizationally solving the problem of compensating artists, authors, musicians etc. in the information age .. and while the socioeconomic problem resolves itself, artists and authors and musicians need to eat in the meantime...

All in all not wanting to pay for a book that reviews and summarizes the data, is a damn lame excuse for not making yourself aware of the data.

Basically your reply demonstrates a desire to avoid confronting the actual data. Whether this desire on your part results from closed-mindedness or fear or some other motivation, I don't know.

-- Ben G

12:16 PM  
Blogger LĂșcio said...


Actually, obvious "bugs" in our understanding of physics appear at very prosaic levels of energy. For instance IIRC if you try to analyse with general relativity the quantum behavior of a simple proton you will end up with an absurdly high proton mass, because the low-probability but existing quantum states where that proton is moving at relativistic speeds and with increased mass will sum up in the end result. Indeed QM and Relativity have been for a long time considered fundamentally incompatible, and that explains the Holy Grail of finding a unified theory. *That* is the size of our gap of knowledge in fundamental Physics, and has been so for the past 80 years.

Finally, I think that the attitude of "if I can't find a known explanation for a phenomenon then it does not exist" is unscientific at best. Remembers me of people denying that the continents once were joined (despite the obvious fit) because at the time there was no known mechanism for continental drift. Judging if something may exist or not should be based on empirical evidence, and *then* hypothesis and models should be elaborated or corrected to accomodate experimental results.

12:27 PM  
Anonymous steven said...

[sorry if this is getting posted multiple times, it doesn't seem to be appearing]

"Yes, the known exceptions to current quasi-unified physics are at high energies. However that doesn't mean those are the only exceptions."

But we've looked really hard for a long time and found no other low-energy exceptions whatsoever. [edit: I've just read Lucio's post and will need to think about it.] If human brains tap into some unexplored physics effects, why haven't we found these operating in lots of other processes? If the laws of physics don't have an AI built in, how do they recognize whether a bunch of cells is organized in a special enough way to tap into psi effects?

I don't begrudge Damien Broderick the right to make money from his book, and what I said was probably a little harsh, but I genuinely am annoyed that if there are reasonable mechanisms for psi explained in the book, psi advocates haven't put some explanation online in an easy-to-find place. I'm not looking for papers about experiments, I'm looking for plausible mechanisms. I'm open to pointers!

Who says I'm not "aware of the data"? I spent a fair amount of time reading about the psi controversy some years ago. In a lot of cases it just looked like bad statistics. (I don't think I've ever seen a parapsychologist correctly explain p-values. Hint: the p-value is not the probability that the result is due to chance.) For the rest I'm comfortable just saying "I'm not sure what's going on, but it's much more likely to be something fishy than actual psi". What experiments would you consider the most convincing? I'll look at the May link from your earlier post.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Shane said...

This doesn't surprise me at all. In my experience, most people, including AGI and singularity people, are very conservative and dogmatic. If somebody who isn't already well respected suggests something unusual what is the typical response? Scorn and chest beating rather than inquiring and reasoned argument. It's a bit like how if you want to join a motorbike gang full of "rebels", you have to very strictly conform to what they deem to be acceptable!

My solution has been to not try to engage with the general community, especially online. Instead I hunt down those people who have similar ideas or are able to provide good criticism. I then engage with these people on a one to one basis (in person, skype, email etc). I've found this approach to be much more fruitful.

1:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A theory that referred to 'thoughts,' which correspond to various different arrangements of physical entities as basic entities with magical connections to other physical systems (in the sense of following the rules of magical thinking) would wind up with a lot more basic entities. Without a fundamental, direct relationship between physical motions in distant locations and 'thoughts,' one would need to have some sort of complex mechanism to manipulate the unknown physics, something like a neural radio transmitter. Then we can make evolutionary arguments, look at animals, etc.

You asked why someone might believe in the Simulation Argument and reject psi, and implicitly indicated one reason in your discussion of empirical versus theoretical evidence. There are strong theoretical arguments for the SA, but little tangible sense-data to support it (beyond the world looking like one that might result in simulations being produced in the future). For psi there are strong theoretical reasons to reject it, and frequent sense-experiences that intuitively seem to support it. Likewise, there are an enormous number of accounts of alien abduction, Elvis sightings, the Virgin Mary appearing in food items, the Sun going around the Earth, God having a personal relationship with people or answering their prayers, etc.

I think that we have to use theory to get good prior probabilities. I will read Broderick's books, but I expect that I will most likely reduce my credence in psi after doing so (otherwise I should shift my credence level right now to eliminate that expected shift).

2:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's also important to note that we have strong psychological reasons to produce bogus psi experiences, and since effects tend overwhelmingly to disappear under investigation, the frequency of anecdotal psi experiences doesn't really provide significant evidence.

Properly controlled random number generator experiments, with unselective reporting of data, no fraud or broken methods, and susceptible to replication, could provide that evidence. Historically every psychic result looks worse and worse as it is investigated, but perhaps this time is different. I will say more after reading the book.

3:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also don't rule out Psi, though I don't know if it requires a big research program, since the evidence for it is weak (but not non-existent).

It's like UFO's. Sure there are a bunch of kooks, but a very few interesting things that are hard to explain away seem worth a closer look. See a pretty sober review of SETI, one that examines SETI assumptions, such as aliens being far away, critically.

UFO's and psi are not areas where I'd focus if I ran the NSF. That said, looking at Psi or UFOs aren't a "waste of time" or a sign of stupidity. Someone sober should look at these issues and report back if more looking seems worthwhile.

11:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looking forward to hearing your music!

4:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Properly controlled random number generator experiments, with unselective reporting of data, no fraud or broken methods, and susceptible to replication, could provide that evidence."

Such things exist. Skeptic Ray Hyman has been involved in these experiments for a long time and he now has no response to the positive responses - he simply states there is a problem "somewhere" because he can't give an actual reason that the results are constantly so positive.

4:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Might I add that I agree to an extent on testing self proclaimed "psychics" since I think they're mostly deluded, tricksters or unknowingly using other normal cues for their results. The best results come from "regular joes" who, under testing, are able to get significant results.

4:52 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Steven said:

"as far as I'm concerned, if I have to pay to see an argument, the argument doesn't exist."

You might like to try that intarweb thing. I hear it's got all sorts of stuff on it.

Kind regards,

9:11 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

Regarding "psi:"

I have great difficulty understanding why anyone wouldn't choose to experience it first, then attempt to analyze it, develop theories, and so on, if doing so interests them. (Whether or not they'd succeed is creating a testable theory is another question but at least they'd know, personally, that "psi" exists.)

This is easily accomplished in any number of ways.

One way would be to teach yourself to wake up and record dreams, keep careful records for, say, between one and five years, and periodically review them.

A more direct way would be to teach yourself to still your conscious mind and explore what is gradually revealed by doing so on a regular basis.

This could very well include deeper regions of self (depending on your orientation these have different names -- subconscious, unconscious, subliminal self, and so on).

There are those who either possess or develop an ability to translate experience, knowledge, and understanding found in these deeper regions. (This is more art than science; a creative endeavor. There are always some artists and musicians who are better than others, with occasional exceptional individuals, yet nearly anyone can develop this to some degree.)

What might you already know on this topic, knowledge that is buried, obscured from your conscious awareness?

You can guess at this, analyze possibilities indefinitely, or rule out its existence in advance because it doesn't align with your beliefs.

These are all valid choices, as valid as choosing to explore whatever begins just beneath the surface of your conscious mind.

(Of course doing this has a way of expanding the region of conscious awareness; be forewarned.)


Bill I.

11:46 PM  
Anonymous Nick Tarleton said...

This could very well include deeper regions of self (depending on your orientation these have different names -- subconscious, unconscious, subliminal self, and so on).

What does the presence of unconscious stuff in one's own mind have to do with psi?

7:50 PM  

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