Telekinesis and Quantum Field Theory

In the aftermath of the dispiriting comments following last week’s post on the Parapsychological Association, it seems worth spelling out in detail the claim that parapsychological phenomena are inconsistent with the known laws of physics. The main point here is that, while there are certainly many things that modern science does not understand, there are also many things that it does understand, and those things simply do not allow for telekinesis, telepathy, etc. Which is not to say that we can prove those things aren’t real. We can’t, but that is a completely worthless statement, as science never proves anything; that’s simply not how science works. Rather, it accumulates empirical evidence for or against various hypotheses. If we can show that psychic phenomena are incompatible with the laws of physics we currently understand, then our task is to balance the relative plausibility of “some folks have fallen prey to sloppy research, unreliable testimony, confirmation bias, and wishful thinking” against “the laws of physics that have been tested by an enormous number of rigorous and high-precision experiments over the course of many years are plain wrong in some tangible macroscopic way, and nobody ever noticed.”

The crucial concept here is that, in the modern framework of fundamental physics, not only do we know certain things, but we have a very precise understanding of the limits of our reliable knowledge. We understand, in other words, that while surprises will undoubtedly arise (as scientists, that’s what we all hope for), there are certain classes of experiments that are guaranteed not to give exciting results — essentially because the same or equivalent experiments have already been performed.

A simple example is provided by Newton’s law of gravity, the famous inverse-square law. It’s a pretty successful law of physics, good enough to get astronauts to the Moon and back. But it’s certainly not absolutely true; in fact, we already know that it breaks down, due to corrections from general relativity. Nevertheless, there is a regime in which Newtonian gravity is an effective approximation, good at least to a well-defined accuracy. We can say with confidence that if you are interested in the force due to gravity between two objects separated by a certain distance, with certain masses, Newton’s theory gives the right answer to a certain precision. At large distances and high precisions, the domain of validity is formalized by the Parameterized Post-Newtonian formalism. There is a denumerable set of ways in which the motion of test particles can deviate from Newtonian gravity (as well as from general relativity), and we can tell you what the limits are on each of them. At small distances, the inverse-square behavior of the gravitational force law can certainly break down; but we can tell you exactly the scale above which it will not break down (about a tenth of a millimeter). We can also quantify how well this knowledge extends to different kinds of materials; we know very well that Newton’s law works for ordinary matter, but the precision for dark matter is understandably not nearly as good.

This knowledge has consequences. If we discover a new asteroid headed toward Earth, we can reliably use Newtonian gravity to predict its future orbit. From a rigorous point of view, someone could say “But how do you know that Newtonian gravity works in this particular case? It hasn’t been tested for that specific asteroid!” And that is true, because science never proves anything. But it’s not worth worrying about, and anyone making that suggestion would not be taken seriously.

As with asteroids, so with human beings. We are creatures of the universe, subject to the same laws of physics as everything else. As everyone knows, there are many things we don’t understand about biology and neuroscience, not to mention the ultimate laws of physics. But there are many things that we do understand, and only the most basic features of quantum field theory suffice to definitively rule out the idea that we can influence objects from a distance through the workings of pure thought.

The simplest example is telekinesis, the ability to remotely move an object using only psychic powers. For definitiveness, let’s consider the power of spoon-bending, claimed not only by Uri Geller but by author and climate skeptic Michael Crichton.

What do the laws of physics have to say about spoon-bending? Below the fold, we go through the logic.

  • Spoons are made of ordinary matter.

This sounds uncontroversial, but is worth explaining. Spoons are made of atoms, and we know what atoms are made of — electrons bound by photons to an atomic nucleus, which in turn consists of protons and neutrons, which in turn are made of quarks held together by gluons. Five species of particles total: up and down quarks, gluons, photons, electrons. That’s it.

There is no room for extra kinds of mysterious particles clinging, aura-like, to the matter in a spoon. That’s because we know how particles behave. If there were some other kind of particle in the spoon, it would have to interact with the ordinary matter we know is there — otherwise it wouldn’t stick, it would just zip right through, as neutrinos zip right through the Earth nearly undisturbed. And if there were a kind of particle that interacted with the ordinary particles in the spoon strongly enough to stick to the spoon, we could easily make it in experiments. The rules of quantum field theory directly relate the interaction rates of particles to the ease with which we can create them in the lab, given enough energy. And we know exactly how much energy is available in a spoon; we know the masses of the atoms, and the kinetic energy of thermal motions within the metal. Taken together, we can say without any fear of making a mistake that any new particles that might exist within a spoon would have been detected in experiments long ago.

Whoa Again: imagine you have invented a new kind of particle relevant to the dynamics of spoons. Tell me its mass, and its interactions with ordinary matter. If it’s too heavy or interacts too weakly, it can’t be created or captured. If it is sufficiently light and strongly interacting, it will have been created and captured many times over in experiments we have already done. There is no middle ground. We completely understand the regime of spoons, notwithstanding what you heard in The Matrix.

  • Matter interacts through forces.

We’ve known for a long time that the way to move matter is to exert a force on it — Newton’s Law, F=ma, is at least the second most famous equation in physics. In the context of quantum field theory, we know precisely how forces arise: through the exchange of quantum fields. We know that only two kinds of fields exist: bosons and fermions. We know that macroscopic forces only arise from the exchange of bosons, not of fermions; the exclusion principle prohibits fermions from piling up in the same state to create a coherent long-range force field. And, perhaps most importantly, we know what forces can couple to: the properties of the matter fields that constitute an object. These properties include location, mass, spin, and various “charges” such as electric charge or baryon number.

This is where the previous point comes in. Spoons are just a certain arrangement of five kinds of elementary particles — up and down quarks, gluons, electrons, and photons. So if there is going to be a force that moves around a spoon, it’s going to have to couple to those particles. Once you tell me how many electrons etc. there are in the spoon, and the arrangement of their positions and spins, we can say with confidence how any particular kind of force will influence the spoon; no further information is required.

  • There are only two long-range forces strong enough to influence macroscopic objects — electromagnetism and gravity.

Of course, we have worked hard to discover different forces in nature, and so far we have identified four: gravitation, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. But the nuclear forces are very short-range, smaller than the diameter of an atom. Gravitation and electromagnetism are the only detectable forces that propagate over longer distances.

Could either gravitation or electromagnetism be responsible for bending spoons? No. In the case of electromagnetism, it would be laughably easy to detect the kind of fields necessary to exert enough force to influence a spoon. Not to mention that the human brain is not constructed to generate or focus such fields. But the real point is that, if it were electromagnetic fields doing the spoon-bending, it would be very very noticeable. (And the focus would be on influencing magnets and circuits, not on bending spoons.)

In the case of gravitation, the fields are just too weak. Gravity accumulates in proportion to the mass of the source, so the arrangement of particles inside your brain will have a much smaller gravitational effect than just the location of your head — and that’s far too feeble to move spoons around. A bowling ball would be more efficient, and most people would agree that moving a bowling ball past a spoon has a negligible effect.

Could there be a new force, as yet undetected by modern science? Of course! I’ve proposed them myself. Physicists are by no means closed-minded about such possibilities; they are very excited by them. But they also take seriously the experimental limits. And those limits show unambiguously that any such new force must either be very short-range (less than a millimeter), or much weaker than gravity, which is an awfully weak force.

The point is that such forces are characterized by three things: their range, their strength, and their source (what they couple to). As discussed above, we know what the possible sources are that are relevant to spoons: quarks, gluons, photons, electrons. So all we have to do is a set of experiments that look for forces between different combinations of those particles. And these experiments have been done! The answer is: any new forces that might be lurking out there are either (far) too short-range to effect everyday objects, or (far) too weak to have readily observable effects.

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Here is a plot of the current limits on such forces, from the Eot-Wash group at Julianne’s home institution. This particular plot is for forces that couple to the total number of protons plus neutrons; similar plots exist for other possible sources. The horizontal axis is the range of the force; it ranges from about a millimeter to ten billion kilometers. The vertical axis is the strength of the force, and the region above the colored lines has been excluded by one or more experiments. On meter-sized scales, relevant to bending a spoon with your mind, the strongest possible allowed new force would be about one billionth the strength of gravity. And remember, gravity is far too weak to bend a spoon.

That’s it. We are done. The deep lesson is that, although science doesn’t know everything, it’s not “anything goes,” either. There are well-defined regimes of physical phenomena where we do know how things work, full stop. The place to look for new and surprising phenomena is outside those regimes. You don’t need to set up elaborate double-blind protocols to pass judgment on the abilities of purported psychics. Our knowledge of the laws of physics rules them out. Speculations to the contrary are not the provenance of bold visionaries, they are the dreams of crackpots.

A similar line of reasoning would apply to telepathy or other parapsychological phenomena. It’s a little bit less cut and dried, because in the case of telepathy the influence is supposedly traveling between two human brains, rather than between a brain and a spoon. The argument is exactly the same, but there are those who like to pretend that we don’t understand how the laws of physics work inside a human brain. It’s certainly true that there is much we don’t know about thought and consciousness and neuroscience, but the fact remains that we understand the laws of physics in the brain regime perfectly well. To believe otherwise, you would have to imagine that individual electrons obey different laws of physics because they are located in a human brain, rather than in a block of granite. But if you don’t care about violating the laws of physics in regimes where they have been extensively tested, then anything does in fact go.

Some will argue that parapsychology can be just as legitimately “scientific” as paleontology or cosmology, so long as it follows the methodology of scientific inquiry. But that’s a slightly too know-nothing attitude to quite hold up. If parapsychologists followed the methodology of scientific inquiry, they would look what we know about the laws of physics, realize that their purported subject of study had already been ruled out, and within thirty seconds would declare themselves finished. Anything else is pseudoscience, just as surely as contemporary investigation into astrology, phrenology, or Ptolemaic cosmology. Science is defined by its methods, but it also gets results; and to ignore those results is to violate those methods.

Admittedly, however, it is true that anything is possible, since science never proves anything. It’s certainly possible that the next asteroid that comes along will obey an inverse-cube law of gravity rather than an inverse-square one; we never know for sure, we can only speak in probabilities and likelihoods. Given the above, I would put the probability that some sort of parapsychological phenomenon will turn out to be real at something (substantially) less than a billion to one. We can compare this to the well-established success of particle physics and quantum field theory. The total budget for high-energy physics worldwide is probably a few billion dollars per year. So I would be very happy to support research into parapsychology at the level of a few dollars per year. Heck, I’d even be willing to go as high as twenty dollars per year, just to be safe.

Never let it be said that I am anything other than open-minded.

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172 Responses to Telekinesis and Quantum Field Theory

  1. Thorns says:

    I can’t believe how well this article is written. It makes a strong point and it’s funny. :)

    To be honest, the truth is brings is a little sad…
    So I hope you are wrong.

  2. Sarah Covenant says:

    Sadly, this beautifully written article will not move those who are hell-bent on doing research on the paranormal.

    E.g. I showed this to a friend who is obsessed with people that purport to predict the future. He totally missed the point of the article and countered by saying “in another 400 years the laws of physics might be written so as to allow for the paranormal.”

    I guess it is about seeing what we want to see and believing what we want to believe. Any evidence, no matter how strong, can be refuted by “anything is possible”. E.g. With regards to this article, believers in the paranormal win their argument by stating that the author admits to a 1 out of a billion chance of Telekinesis being true.

  3. Tim Chard says:

    I would put the probability that some sort of parapsychological phenomenon will turn out to be real at something (substantially) less than a billion to one.

    So are you saying that there are possibly 6 or 7 people out there who could actually prove parapsychological phenomenon? If thats the case let the search begin. lol

    Good Article!

  4. Tim says:

    you sound like the people that tool columbis the world is flat

  5. NameBlank says:

    You don’t need to search there’s one right here. There’s actually about 142 that have already posted in this thread & about 6 billion others around the world.

    How many people have figured it out for themselves?

    This is an answer i don’t have.

  6. Dave says:

    Science is not a religion, you ignorant science fanboys. It’s ironic that those who opposed your beliefs are now considered to be the greatest minds in history. Thanks for the fish..

  7. Greg says:

    I totally agree with Dave, Yeah, thanks for the fish…

  8. ladden says:

    But there are many things that we do understand, and only the most basic features of quantum field theory suffice to definitively rule out the idea that we can influence objects from a distance through the workings of pure thought.

    I think tiller, tesla and feynman wouldnt say this………

  9. jay wolf says:

    i was woundering what if there was a partical that makes up that make the atom proton, electron, neutrons are made of something smaller and those are made some something smaller than that what if telekinesis didnt make a new partical but used the ones that are already there and the everything has a magneticle pull or push on everything but things like glass that can speed up light and magnets that speed up electrons. the brain being magnetic and make electricity in the brain is send and though the body to move the body but the brain is a elecltromagnet meaning the brain changes its magneticle power. the electricle impules flow though the nervus system like wire but the nerves are up aganst the other nerves if the nerves are like wires why dont your body freck out like it should the brains magneticle power has aother effect it makes and conrtols the electricity in the body and one more thing i the electricity the body makes seems to beable to leave the body in your heat it changes as soon as the body stops focusing on it if it can focus on it i should beable to control things out side of the body if the body can control whats in side than i can control whats out side because the magneticle force effects everything and what i am trying to say is that everything uses telekinesis to move to thank and to live the electric lee can zap people just with a touch. so if you dont understand i can try to make it make were you can understand it just leasin to what i have to say you might learn something

  10. jay wolf says:

    oh and if i was wroug i am still right because there is one thing that makes up everything so you tell me ther is no way i am wroug i can find as may ways as you can

  11. jay wolf says:

    i am that 1

  12. Guthrie Prentice says:

    Hey Sean, a fellow skeptic here, and love your arguments. I have two things I wanted to cover in this post.
    The first is that your previous post had one slight flaw in it. There haven’t been any well controlled experiments, done by believers or skeptics.

    Every study towards these paranormal claims has been vulnerable to an effect known as the Rosenthal Effect or Experimenter expectancy effect.

    This is an effect where an experimenter can communicate a hypothesis to a subject via body language and tone of voice without saying anything outright, and hence influence the performance of the human subjects you are trying to test. This issue is actually a problem not only with testing paranormal claims, but is in fact quite rampant in behavioural research, psychology, and certain areas of medicine. (Fortunately in medicine, they’ve managed to negate this effect fairly well.) Further information can be found on this in “Experimenter Effects in Behavioural Research” by Robert Rosenthal, published 1976.

    In the cases of parapsychology AND anomalistic psychology (the skeptical study of these supposedly paranormal phenomena) skeptics and proponents of these claims have directly interacted with the subjects. An addendum written by Julie Milton for the Milton and Wiseman 1999 meta-analysis of the Ganzfeld studies pointed out that the “Sheep-Goat” effect pointed out that skeptics might inadvertently block out data coming in from weak sensory leakage, making it harder to detect. As skepticism and belief can be communicated to the subject through body language, until the experimenter expectancy effect is controlled for,
    we can’t really tackle the lack of replication in parapsychology, and on top of that, determine, whether or not every study had some sort of flaw in it, or whether or there actually is a paranormal effect. As James Alcock said in his editorial “Give the Null Hypothesis a Chance”:

    “The problem for parapsychology, however, is that the difficulty in replication means that it may not be possible to get the same results a second time, whether the methodology is
    cleaned up or not.”

    The only effective way then to properly control for this is skeptic/proponent collaboration on experiments (already started, with the previous Schlitz/Wiseman collaborations on psychic staring, and the current French and Sheldrake collaborations on telephone telepathy) to remove every flaw possible, and use an experimental assistant who is both blind to the hypothesis and target material and neutral in their beliefs towards the existence or lack thereof of psychic abilities, so as to control for the experimenter expectancy effect and avoid influencing whether or not the subject interprets any possible data coming in, be it from a methodological flaw, or (highly unlikely) a psychic source.

    Now, that that’s dealt with, the second thing I wanted to deal with is a question pertaining to the force of gravity. Since we’re dealing with paranormal claims, rather than spending a ton of money on testing for paranormal claims, we should look at whether or not the laws of physics actually allow for these types of claims. You’ve already shown a very convincing argument that they haven’t. However, there is one question I have, and this is in relation to the force of gravity itself. I came across a paper recently by one Heinrich Pas entitled “Closed timelike curves in asymmetrically warped brane universes” (http://arxiv.org/abs/gr-qc/0603045) which was referenced in New Scientist (http://science-junkie.group.stumbleupon.com/forum/41510/) and was described as demonstrating that there might be certain warps of higher dimensional bulk, or solutions of M theory, in which gravitons and sterile neutrinos could exit our three dimensional physical universe, and by traveling through these shortcuts, appear to travel backwards in time or faster than light when they reentered our universe. Apparently, the MiniBoone experiment has already found some evidence for the existence of sterile neutrinos and such higher dimensional shortcuts (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MiniBooNE). My question is, would such higher dimensional shortcuts allow for causality violation, or meaningful information or gravitational fields to be sent FTL or over sufficient distances that they wouldn’t weaken as they otherwise would according to the inverse square law? If they do, then might it behoove us to put in the relevant controls necessary, and do one proper serious look at parapsychology, and then be done with it once and for all? An easy test I can think of to test for telekinesis, at least of the random number generator variety, is to run a well controlled RNG experiment, while having the subject sit on a properly calibrated scale (properly calibrated to take into account ideomotor shifts and things like that). If the subject loses mass, and a statistically significant effect is found and all other normal explanations have been removed, and the loss in mass could be correlated to the significant effect found with the RNG, an argument could be made that the subject sent gravitons, or part of their gravitational field, to where the RNG was at certain times, influencing the radioactive decay rate by time dilation, and by doing so, they would no longer be attracted to the earth as strongly, hence their drop in mass.

    Anyway, I guess the bit I was hoping for an answer back from you about Sean was the bit about the higher order dimensional models described. Are they consistent with the known laws of physics, and if so, do they allow for causality violation or meaningful information to be transmitted backwards through time or FTL? If so, it might provide a basis within the laws of physics for psi phenomena (something I hope isn’t the case) which is testable. Anyway, just my thoughts on the subject.

    In conclusion, I am currently skeptical of psychic powers and all other paranormal phenomena, because of my current understanding of the laws of physics and Occham’s Razor. Nonetheless, there hasn’t been any well controlled study into these supposed claims, and I’m curious if M theory allows for causality violations which provide a basis within the laws of physics for ESP and PK. If so, I’d like to see it tested rigorously to get the issue dealt with once and for all so we can move on to more important things.

  13. Guthrie Prentice says:

    A slight clarification of my previous post, the addendum by Julie Milton stated that skeptics blocking out data would make an effect difficult to detect, paranormal or not.

  14. Skank says:

    If TK, Psi, ESP, Remote Viewing and such are all just a load of bumf, then why do the military even have a budget for such things? It is well known that the Military has technology that exceeds normal consumer available technology by about 20+years. Who is to say that with the aid of technology these humans haven’t been able to enhance the psychic mind?

    Is it possible that while those physicists were working on the atomic bomb that other physicists had no clue that this existed as it was military? Maybe there IS available, justifiable and data rich information available on things like ESP but it is in the military vaults where such abilities would surely be best used and data readily available due to National and International security.

    As far as I am concerned anything is possible, the more improbable it is the more it adds fuel to the progression of Quantum Physics. To stifle Quantum Physics with data that is available and is subject to formulae is like telling an artist to paint with numbers. Open your mind further! Many serious physicists believe in a creator or composer of the universe and we are just dancing on the edge that is the true microscopic.

  15. Luis says:

    The thing is that we have been surprised by reality so many times throughout history … that now its hard to believe that something is not possible.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Well, this is bullshit!
    And although I love universe mysteries and are very interested in anything that has to do with science, I still think science is crap. I mean, c’mon! Our brains are way to small to understand everything about the universe, and we already know scientists hide a great part of what they discovered. Perphaps they don’t want to scare people. Maybe they just don’t want to look like idiots after centuries of saying something was not possible. Or maybe they just don’t have all explanations about it yet so they try to hide it while they discovered more. I don’t know. In any case, we WERE born with something bigger than our physical brains!

  17. Anonymous says:

    And anyway, 600 years ago we believed that the Earth was the centre of the universe, and everyone was just so SURE about that…then they said the Earth was flat! Maybe people will laugh at skeptics 200 years from now! who knows?

    p.s: no one said TK was magic…

  18. Dennis says:

    A very interesting article, and I think it makes a very good case in the context of our current knowledge of things. And that is very useful, I suppose. What other context is truly meaningful to us, since we need to live in the here and now?

    However, as soon as one calls himself a scientist, he must realize the limits of his own usefulness to humanity. Scientists help us live in the here and now by helping the common man to live more effectively within the rules that we currently understand.

    The inevitable outcome, however, is that the laws defined by that scientist will not stand the test of time. Years from now, another scientist will prove to the world how misguided you were. And he (or she) will excuse your ignorance, saying “how could he have known any better at the time?”

    Years from that, another scientist will do the same to discredit the one who discredited you. And so the cycle will continue, until new possibilities emerge and the universe looks like a drastically different place than the one we can imagine, from our current context.

    I appreciate the opinion of any scientist who realizes that although he may feel certain of his correctness today, there will likely come a time when his life’s work will be proven irrelevant to the new context.

    Scientists who become too certain of themselves become an example of how a little bit of knowledge is dangerous. A little bit of knowledge about particles and forces (compared to what will exist in a future context) will simply be limiting to the rest of the population. Scientific opinions must always end with “but anything is possible.”

    Although the opinion of one brilliant man or woman is valuable to us, I think it is much less useful than watching a trend. It is very easy for one person to be completely wrong about something. However, if a concept such as telepathy appears in human culture, is scrutinized by generation after generation, and becomes an idea that will not go away, then I find it likely that it does exist and we simply do not understand it yet.

    If time and the application of science cannot make a concept go away, then there is something that we are missing.

  19. Let me notice that some time ago (I think a month or 2 maybe) some guys announced that they created a computer completely controlled by the brain.
    I’m not sure if I’m right, but I think that pretty much proves telekinesis is possible.

  20. Pingback: What Questions Can Science Answer? | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine

  21. Karl says:

    Im not a scientist, Im an artist who is fascinated by the entire world and all of its possibilities. Instead of Breaking down the laws of physics as we understand, trying so desperately to explain to the masses that something isn’t real. consider this simple fact that space, scientifically and spiritually speaking is infinite, and based on that prospect as you said before… Anything is possible. I follow paganism because it incorporates both science and faith. and knowing that we as humans have a higher intelligence with the ability to ask questions and create the world as we want to see it, why shouldn’t we spend as much time researching about paranormal phenomena, and what we consider the impossible, as we do with science that you claim to be the logical truth?… maybe youd have a better time understanding the endless possibilities if you got laid instead of spending so much time contradicting concepts that we havent even remotely begun to start studying….

    after all, Einstein said there is no mathematical equation for love :)….loser…

  22. John says:

    I think that Karl has a point. I myself am a Traditional Catholic who is fascinated by the possiblilities of the human brain. I believe that telekenisis (forgive any misspelling) is both a spiritual and scientific probablility. I know others may think different (and I’m open to all criticism) but the fact still remains: if love has no mathmatical equation, no scientific method of experimentation, then there is no scientific way of proving its existence, yet we acknowledge it everyday, we observe its affects on others and even ourselves… But I’m getting off topic and I apologize.

    Where love is not experimentally possible, then, maybe, neither is telekenisis, but yet there have been documented acounts of it (especially in Russia and Japan). I have had my try at it myself. The ball of energy that they all talk about feels very much like electromagnetism (I have even compared the push between two magnets and my hands). Who knows, maybe it uses electromagnetism for all we know. Even though we don’t for sure there should always be a possibility, an oprotunity, to believe in it (even if it’s in jest, or for fun). That opprotunity should always be open despite the efforts of methodical experimentation. Many things can be explained methodically, yes, but there’s yet a minority ready to be observed if one is privy to it, or interested in it.

    Besides, we only use 10% of our brains (that’s scientifically proven), but there can and there might be a way of unlock the ramaining 90%.