Monday, 12 August 2019

Skeptical Inquirer attempts to explain why psi could not possibly exist.


I read the following article:

Why Parapsychological Claims Cannot Be True

It says:
The entire field [of parapsychology] is bankrupt—and has been from the beginning. Each and every claim made by psi researchers violates fundamental principles of science and, hence, can have no ontological status. 
We did not examine the data for psi, to the consternation of the parapsychologist who was one of the reviewers. Our reason was simple: the data are irrelevant. We used a classic rhetorical device, adynaton, a form of hyperbole so extreme that it is, in effect, impossible. Ours was “pigs cannot fly”—hence data that show they can are the result of flawed methodology, weak controls, inappropriate data analysis, or fraud.

This is pivotal to the impasse between parapsychologists on the one hand, and paranormal skeptics on the other. The latter regard psi as simply being impossible as they regard it as contravening what science has told us about the world. Hence, no matter how compelling the evidence for psi is, it cannot be what it seems.

But how exactly does psi violate science? They go on to say:

We identified four fundamental principles of science that psi effects, were they true, would violate: causality, time’s arrow, thermodynamics, and the inverse square law.

Okay, so let's see what they have to say about each of these.


They say:
Effects have causes. Bridging principles identify the causal links for observed effects. The appropriate response to circumstances that lack such a mechanism is skepticism or an existential agnosticism—and, historically, this has been the case. Newton’s notion of gravity as “action at a distance” was considered suspect until rescued by Einstein’s relativity theory.

Within the study of psi, there are no causal mechanisms, and none have been hypothesized.

There are all sorts of issues here. But the most crucial one is that there is also no mechanism for the production of the very existence of consciousness itself, nor how it is able to affect the body in the case of our voluntary behaviour. Our current physics, dealing as it does only with the measurable aspects of reality, necessarily wholly leaves out consciousness in its description of reality. Indeed, given the immaterial nature of consciousness, no tinkering with current laws can be fruitful in this regard. This is why we have what has been labeled the mind-body problem, a problem that has been particularly acute since the birth of modern science in the 17th Century. We require a radically new theory that doesn't just deal with the measurable aspects of reality but has consciousness at its core.

The important point to make here is that if we have no mechanism or explanation for why consciousness exists, then, of course, we could not expect to be able to discern any mechanism for any possible abilities of consciousness, such as psi. However, if such a mechanism or explanation were to be found, it may be that we will come to understand that psi is brought about as a consequence of that very same mechanism or explanation.

My own view is that I regard it very likely that consciousness is fundamental in the same way that the elementary constituents of reality are (electrons and quarks? superstrings?). We normally explain the existence of something by reference to the parts it is composed of. But, what of the ultimate constituents of reality? Such things simply exist as a brute fact with the properties they possess existing as a brute fact too. So, if consciousness is fundamental, then psi might be such a property, as indeed might the causal power of consciousness initiating our voluntary behaviour. No mechanism for psi is then required, although of course we still do require a scientific theory that incorporates such a fundamental consciousness.

Regardless, the bottom line is that it is only if we have a scientific theory at our disposal that incorporates consciousness could we hope to infer what properties and causal powers it has. Hence, once we have such a theory we will be in a better position to stipulate whether we can expect consciousness to exhibit psi abilities and whether such psi abilities require a mechanism. But, at the present time, we lack any such theory.

I should point out that my response here has no relevance should modern materialism be true since it holds that consciousness is identical to some physical processes, or at least what those processes do. In which case we already know how consciousness is produced. In particular, it is tied to specific brains and arguably, if psi is to exist, we then have a problem in that we need some method of communication between brains. Possible mechanisms to explain such communication would seem to be thin to non-existent.

There are 2 points I should immediately make here:

  1. To presuppose modern materialism is largely question-begging.
  2. Modern materialism is incoherent.  See a blog post by me.

Largely question begging since most of those who accept the existence of psi will reject modern materialism, and indeed any form of materialism.

But, even if modern materialism were correct, I question whether we necessarily need to propose theoretical mechanisms, that is mechanisms that are not directly observable. They mention Newton's law of gravity and that the concept of a gravitational force was suspect. Then Einstein came along and replaced it with the more satisfactory idea of warped space-time. The idea here is that influences have to be contiguous. Gravitational force fails to fulfill this criterion since it acts at a distance. Warped space-time, in contrast, allegedly does fulfill this criterion. My own position is that the job of physics is merely to map, predict, and manipulate our environment via mathematical models -- a position which Newton himself subscribed to. Proposing that reality exhibits patterns as circumscribed by invisible mechanisms seems to me to completely ignore the underdetermination of scientific theories by data thesis. I briefly talk about this here. More generally, I think they're confusing metaphysics with science (although, to be fair, most scientists are just as guilty). For an elaboration of my views on this topic go here. Finally, I should mention that the phenomenon of entanglement pays scant regard to this demand for a mechanism.

Inverse Square Law:

Related to this issue over a mechanism the article states:

In telepathy, the distance between the two linked persons is never reported to be a factor, a claim that violates the principle that signal strength falls off with the square of the distance traveled.

Should modern materialism be correct this objection has more force than the demand for a mechanism. But what if one rejects materialism? Personally, I do not buy into this idea that each of our streams of consciousness are isolated, that is confined to our individual brains. I think that although our essences are individual selves, we also to a degree partake in a universal consciousness. Telepathy is not then a signal passing from one stream of consciousness to another, nor is there any transference of energy, that is simply an entirely wrong way of looking at it. Rather the ability to sense others feelings, thoughts and so on is innate since our separateness is not as absolute as we might suppose. Indeed, I suspect that communication via telepathy might be the natural state of affairs in an afterlife realm or realms. However, whilst we're embodied, the brain serves to inhibit or diminish such abilities.


They claim that psi, at least in the form of precognition, would violate the conservation of energy. They say:

 Again, take precognition. If the future affected the present, it would violate the thermodynamic principle that energy cannot be created or destroyed in an isolated system. The act of choosing a card from a fixed array, a common procedure used in psi research, involves neurological processes that use measurable biomechanical energy. The choice is presumed to be caused by a future that, having no existential reality, lacks energy.

This is all terribly confused. Are they, for the sake of argument, supposing that the future exists or not? They initially appear to assume that it does, but then contradict this by saying it has no existential reality. If the future does exist (implying we exist in a block Universe), then it's not true that the future lacks energy. If the future doesn't exist, implying the past doesn't either, then neither the future or past have energy. But our memories influence present actions without violating energy conservation, so what is problematic for future "memories" doing likewise? In the final analysis, this objection seems to collapse into the time's arrow objection that we will now address.

Time's Arrow:

They say:

Within parapsychology time is turned upon itself, most glaringly in precognition.

Here they are thinking precognition would only work by the future actually existing and causally influencing the past. But, despite some parapsychologists favouring this notion, why assume this? Perhaps only the present exists. In which case, there isn't a future that is causally influencing the present. Instead, precognition might simply be an implicit awareness, similar to telepathy, of how present events will play out should no preventative action be taken. If this strains one's credulity I suggest it's because they have bought into the mechanistic conception of reality. But, as I previously intimated, we are in no position to dictate to reality how it can or cannot behave; specifically, we are in no position to demand that it must exhibit patterns as circumscribed by invisible mechanisms. We must rely on what our experiences tell us.

If psi effects were real

The authors say:

[I]f psi effects were real, they would have already fatally disrupted the rest of the body of science. If one’s wishes and hopes were having a psychokinetic impact on the world—including computers and lab equipment—scientists’ findings would be routinely biased by their hopes and beliefs. Results would differ from lab to lab whenever scientists had different aims. The upshot would be empirical chaos, not the (reasonably) ordered coherent picture developed over the past several centuries.

This implies that scientists' findings are not biased by their hopes and beliefs, and indeed what will be financially lucrative. Is there any good evidence that this is the case? I feel also that they are overstating the effects of psi. I've had a few psi experiences in my life, mostly in my childhood, but I haven't experienced anything that I would judge to be psi for a fair few years. Why do they think that if it exists it has to be operating all the time regardless of one's psychological states? And even if it is omnipresent, why can't the effects be very slight? Or why can't various psychokinetic effects from differing people cancel each other out? If I'm in a casino mightn't any very marginal psychokinetic effect from me wanting a certain outcome be cancelled by other people wanting other outcomes?

It's either science or psi?

They also say:
[P]arapsychology cannot be true unless the rest of science isn’t.
So, psi cannot exist otherwise we wouldn't be able to get to the moon? We wouldn't be able to make smartphones? We wouldn't expect objects near the earth's surface to fall at an acceleration of around 10 m/s^2? This is clearly preposterous.

There's this persistent misunderstanding -- and one that the authors, Arthur S. Reber and James E. Alcock seem to share -- that scientific theories describe reality both with complete precision and in their totality. So if there's some aspect of reality a theory fails to describe -- namely some phenomena that contravenes what we should expect from the theory -- then that theory is simply not correct and hence it cannot adequately describe any aspect of reality. But that's not what we learn from the history of science. The history of science teaches us that our old scientific theories are often perfectly adequate to describe a given domain, but break down when attempting to describe that which resides outside that domain. Also, it teaches us that our theories give approximations only even if those approximations might be very close. Thus, the science prior to relativity and quantum mechanics is, in a sense, "wrong", however, that does nothing to prevent the Newtonian mechanical description of reality being able to be used to get us to the moon and back. In addition, the classical mechanics espoused before the advent of Quantum Mechanics is perfectly adequate to describe the macroscopic realm even though it might be "wrong". Quantum Mechanics is only needed when we describe the microscopic realm.

It seems that our present science describes reality where consciousness is not involved to a very close approximation, just as classical mechanics describes the macroscopic realm to a very close approximation. But that it breaks downs when it comes to consciousness, just as classical mechanics breaks down with the physics of the very small. So we need a new physical theory that incorporates consciousness. Once we have such a theory we might be able to judge from the consequences of such a theory whether consciousness requires a body, whether it is causally efficacious, whether it has psi abilities. But, until then, we can only go on the evidence. And the evidence very firmly says psi does exist, not just the evidence from parapsychological research, but also the collective experience of humankind throughout history and across virtually all cultures.


  1. More on why the Skeptical Inquirer essay in question is toothless and laughable:

  2. > We identified four fundamental principles of science that psi effects, were they true, would violate: causality, time’s arrow, thermodynamics, and the inverse square law.

    Quantum entanglement violates classical notions of causality, and the notion of spacetime in general relativity violates the idea of a universal unidirectional arrow of time. These "fundamental principles" are based on 19th century theories, not the 21st. Linking thermodynamics to evidence for precognition is a category mistake. And the inverse square law does not hold for all physical systems (e.g., magnetic fields), and in any case it assumes psi is signal-based, which is not supported by the data.

    > We did not examine the data for psi, to the consternation of the parapsychologist who was one of the reviewers. Our reason was simple: the data are irrelevant.

    I don't understand why this paper was published in a scientific journal, because the above statement is the epitome of a faith-based position. I.e., it assumes that current theoretical ideas are inviolable, which is a religious position, not a scientific one. It is also demonstrably false as is easy to demonstrate by looking at any series of scientific textbooks over the course of say 40 years. Our theories regularly are revised based on new data.

  3. What these 'scientists' are really saying is that a) they don't want the trouble of re-thinking all their ideas (which give them the 'security' of thinking everything is under control), and that, b) they don't want 'religion', which has been vanquished, to re-appear in their world-view, to again, show that everything is not under their control. Basically, it's just insecurity.

  4. Here's a paper that also criticizes Reber and Alcock (American Psychologist paper):


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