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. Martin says:

    This kind of post is the reason I read your blog… you have the ability to bring down the complex stuff to support ordinary knowledege. I admit I didn’t fully understand the graph, but I think I can believe you anyway.
    But just as your arguments are powerful, so can other arguments have the same power given a good writer and an ill-informed listener, and that happens a lot.

    Do you think blogging/teaching is the only way to help the ill-informed be more suspicious of what they believe?
    Do you think there’s a certain point in which persons are not going to understand more arguments? Is it bad to give up?

  2. thomas says:

    It’s ok to give up on certain people, such as charlatans and preachers- to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, those whose paychecks are dependent on their lack of understanding.

    The people who have been fooled by those charlatans and preachers can and must be won over by science, unless you want to just give them up to superstition and let them come back to fight you later (most of the fighting right now is around issues of public health and education. but that bad science education mandated by creationists affects physics education too).

  3. Allyson says:

    Sean, I’ve been working on an essay called The Atheist’s Guide to Tragedy, and about my frustration trying to explain to a friend/neighbor that the hundreds of dollars she’s spent on Astral Projection classes is a complete waste since it’s not possible.

    Since I’m not a scientist, it’s often hard for me to put into words why it’s crap, but this post has helped a lot in how I’ll explain in the future.

    And also, it gives me great happiness that I’m not so alone in not believing in magic.

  4. Henrik Jonsson says:

    Awesome article. I’m definitely saving a link to it to refer people towards when they point out that science doesn’t know “everything” next time. The probability/cost estimate at the end is just brilliant, though I can’t help thinking that studying parapsychology to a limited extent could be useful, for the purpose of understanding why so many people believe pseudoscience (but perhaps it’s just psychology in that case?).

  5. Adrian says:

    I’ve been working on some ideas to try to explain to some friends why Astrology is almost certainly bunk. Going through the fallacious arguments and lack of evidence is useful, but this sort of approach is much more concrete and I’d bet it will make more sense to some of them. Thanks for the ideas.

  6. Chris says:

    Sean, posts like this are the reason I love this blog. Like others here in the comments, I am continually frustrated by those who do not understand the limits imposed by well-understood physics. However, while I personally would put the odds at telepathy working at less than a billion to one, I’m inclined to question some of your comments near the end of the article. Obviously telekinesis, astral projection, and some other forms of paranormal activity would require the existence of forces that we know don’t exist, as you say; however, it is known that brain activity created EM-waves. From what I understand, these waves are fairly weak, and difficult to detect even with our sophisticated technology, but nature has beaten us in technological advancement before. Isn’t it possible that some very special people have equally special sensors that allow them to detect and translate these electromagnetic waves into thoughts? Perhaps they would need to be in direct contact to detect them, and I think it is 100% safe to assume that they couldn’t detect them over any appreciable distance, but in this theory of telepathy, no mystical new forces of nature are needed – just the detection of weak electromagnetic waves. Again, I’m NOT saying I believe those who claim they can do this, just asking if it isn’t outside the realm of known physics? Am I wrong? I would love it if I am.

  7. Sean says:

    Chris, you’re right, and that’s why the telepathy case is less straightforward. Brains are made of charged particles, and in principle they could create and detect electromagnetic signals — radios and walkie-talkies do it all the time!

    But that’s just the point — they are really easy to detect. Setting up a radio receiver would be a much better way to test the phenomenon than looking at abstract symbols on cards behind a screen. And when we get into the details, the brain isn’t really set up to transmit very strong waves; its functioning is more chemical than electromagnetic. There are many other sources all around us that are creating much stronger electromagnetic waves, at all sorts of frequencies.

    Still, at the level of the brain itself, there is much we don’t understand, and I would certainly support research into the role of electromagnetic fields in the brain. It would fall under “neuroscience,” of course, not “parapsychology.”

  8. Jolly Bloger says:

    Fantastically well written. Coincidentally, your post here is somewhat related to one at Bad Astronomy today.

  9. Pingback: Two excellent contributions to the “pseudoscience FAQ” | Geoff Arnold

  10. Howdy CV,

    There is another approach to the question of whether or not such phenomena exist. While I appreciate (and enjoy) Sean’s argument, there is a more basic, perhaps easier to appreciate, starting point for many people. While I am very happy to start from very basic principles, it’s often easier to convince people with much simpler and more direct arguments/evidence.

    Suppose the possibility of an outside, here-to-fore unseen, unknown interaction mechanism that is responsible for telekinesis. Many people without a firm knowledge of what we already understand about nature will find this a familiar starting point. Without seeking to construct a possible method or mechanism, it is fairly simple to test for its presence in a direct fashion. This does not require the budget of the LHC or the APS or even much of any budget. Some modest money, time and effort is all that is necessary to perform such a test. And in fact, many people have done just such experiments in the past.

    The simple fact is that, in all reliable, controlled tests, no telekinesis has been observed. In the cases where there was a “positive” the outcome was not repeatable at different times (anyone remember Carson’s excellent show where Uri Geller attempted to perform?). As such, with no repeatability, with no independent verifiable evidence, those reports of positive tests must be miscounted. It is entirely possible, even for career scientists, to either make a mistake (often through a preconception of the outcome and improper control) or to be fooled (human subjects are not entirely known to be completely honest, Uri Geller for instance). Give Martin Gardner, James Randi or Carl Sagan a good read as a starting point for such information.

    Anyhow, people have gone to look for such phenomena directly and never found any consistent, reliable, reproducible positive outcome. In a total absence of observable evidence and a long list of negatives, we are left with the conclusion that it just doesn’t exist. Further testing of the same phenomena, under the same conditions (I predict!), will produce the same results (and hence not tell us anything new, nor be worth serious effort). If there was any real evidence of “paranormal” phenomena, then of course it could be included within the rubric of science. But as it stands now (and has for some time), it just doesn’t hold water and therefore isn’t science. Even without a well phrased argument of how it doesn’t fit with our current understanding of nature, the simple repeated experimental failure should be enough to remove it from science (and hence the AAAS).

    If such tests had not been previously performed, it would be very good to consider your argument before attempting to pursue such a course of research. Especially when considering the question of spending money and effort on something completely off the envelope of current understanding. Anyhow, the simple, “people have looked for it in the past and not reliably seen it” statement, while a bit dry, may find readier acceptance by some people.

    best wishes

    Michael

    (apologies if my statement is a bit scattered. I’m polishing/cleaning samples with only scattered 5 minute spots of time between cycles to write this)

  11. anonymous says:

    I used to think that Scientists should have an open mind about testing paranormal phenomena, until I read the following passage from Steven Weinberg, and suddenly I understood why they should not:

    “When the Spanish settlers in Mexico began in the sixteenth century to push northward into the country known as Texas, they were led on by rumors of cities of gold, the seven cities of Cibola. At the time that was not so unreasonable. Few Europeans had been to Texas, and for all anyone knew it might contain any number of wonders. But suppose that someone today reported evidence that there are seven golden cities somewhere in modern Texas. Would you open-mindedly recommend mounting an expedition to search every corner of the state between the Red River and the Rio Grande to look for these cities? I think you would make the judgment that we already know so much about Texas, so much of it has been explored and settled, that it is simply not worthwhile to look for the mysterious golden cities. In the same way, our discovery of the connected and convergent pattern of scientific explanations has done the very great service of teaching us that there is no room in nature for astrology or telekinesis or creationism or other superstitions.”

    That’s from the end of the second chapter of “Dreams of a Final Theory”

  12. andy.s says:

    Man, that’s a lot of words.

    All I’d say is “Because it’s all a bunch of crap! Because I said so!”

  13. B says:

    Hi Sean,

    Nice post, very clearly written.

    I understand what you are saying with ‘science never proves anything’ with which you seem to refer to ‘real world objects’ (with all the clutter that comes with the word ‘reality’), but you have thereby declared you don’t consider mathematics to be a science. Which I find admittedly somewhat inappropriate. ‘Scientia’ (Lat) means simply ‘knowledge’ and is not necessarily bound to knowledge about meteorites or spoons. I would think mathematics qualifies as a science, even if you call this kind of knowledge ‘tautologies’.

    Also, I think the matrix spoon isn’t concerned with interactions at all, it rather refers to our fragile notion of reality. The human imagination can make up many scenarios that violate the laws of nature, and reality is never objective, it is just what your brain believes it to be.

    Best,

    B.

  14. andy.s's alter ego says:

    Pay no attention to andy.s

    Moving spoons with your mind is (in principle) trivial.

    The distance between my mind and the spoon is three feet, but as is well known, the space-time interval between my mind (now) and that same spoon three nanoseconds in the future is 0.

    So in a sense, the future spoon and everything in the universe on the forward light-cone is a distance of 0 from my mind. So my mind should (in principle) be be able to wield any force imaginable on the spoon, no matter how short range such a force may be.

  15. andy.s says:

    Pay no attention to my alter ego.
    He gets this way when I forget to take my meds.

  16. Jazurel says:

    Just a matter of time with new tech before we see sht move with the mind. If you could would you let anyone know. Being a lab rat would really suck. We’ve all had it happen to us and laughed it off as being strange. Now think of generations of people thinking and practicing with the mind. Research the spells of the Vatican. The History channel said they have real SHT and real spells said to work, to call on angels. Micheal…
    Need moor brain power see what science says to do on Livingwithoutcancer.org!

  17. Analyzer says:

    ‘Scientia’ (Lat) means simply ‘knowledge’ and is not necessarily bound to knowledge about meteorites or spoons. I would think mathematics qualifies as a science, even if you call this kind of knowledge ‘tautologies’.

    The etymological origin of the word “science” has nothing to do with the current meaning of the English word science; if “science” merely means “knowledge,” then every field of study imaginable is a “science.” Memorizing the capitals of the 50 US states will give you knowledge, but I don’t think anyone would call it a science.

    Anyway, I would indeed assert that mathematics is not a science. Science follows the scientific method; mathematics does not.

  18. carey says:

    Chris (#6) – re telepathy:
    Thoughts are not some Platonic form floating in space. My thoughts consist of patterns within my brain. Those patterns exist in a unique neural net that grew in accord with DNA instructions and in response to unique personal circumstances (eg, nutrition, training, trauma, infections, etc). So there is no one-to-one mapping of my brain onto yours. The pattern in my brain for ‘rice pudding’ may be very different from your pattern for that concept. So why do some people think that we can ‘read’ the thoughts of others? Even if we knew the appropriate patterns to look for, we would need extremely fine resolution to discern events on a cellular scale. So our existing scientific knowledge seems to indicate that mind-reading is an unlikely event.
    But more to the point, no one has yet repeatably demonstrated any ‘psychic’ phenomenon. So for all the billions of words written about such abilities, they appear to be wishful thinking.

  19. Freiddie says:

    Hey, what if the spoon just bent itself coincidentally at the time the performer says so? I mean by some weird extraordinarily unlikely case when the air molecules are all just pushing in the same direction to bend the spoon? Just a thought.

  20. JimV says:

    Thank you! (Both literally, and in the current way that people ackowledge support of their own opinions.) And yet, Freeman Dyson, whom I otherwise respect, says this in “The Scientist As Rebel” (hope I am not violating any Fair Use laws):

    From a review of “Debunked: ESP, Telekinesis, and other Psuedoscience”, by Charpak and Broch:

    … There are strange events which appear to give evidence of supernatural influences operating in everyday life. They are not [always] the result of deliberate fraud or trickery, but only of the laws of probability. The paradoxical feature of the laws of probability is that they make unlikely events happen unexpectedly often. A simple way to state the paradox is Littlewood’s law of miracles. Littlewood … a professional mathematician … defined a miracle as an event which has a special significance when it occurs, [and which] occurs with a probability of one in a million.

    Littlewood’s law of miracles states that in the course of a normal person’s life, miracles occur at the rate of roughly one a month. The proof of the law is simple. During the time that we are awake … we hear and see things happening at the rate of about one per second. So the total number of events that happen to us is about … one million per month.

    [Discussion of attempts to detect paranormal “abilities” by the Rhine methods and others, “a sorry story”.]

    … Charpak and Broch and I agree that attempts to study ESP … have failed. Charpak and Broch say that since ESP and telepathy cannot be studied scientifically, they do not exist. Their conclusion is clear and logical but I do not accept it because I am not a reductionist. I claim that paranormal phenomena may really exist but may not be accessible to scientific investigation. This is a hypothesis. I am not saying that it is true, only that it is tenable, and to my mind plausible.

    … One fact that emerges clearly from the stories is that paranormal events occur, if they occur at all, only when people are under stress and experiencing strong emotion.

    … I should here declare my personal interest in the matter. One of my grandmothers was a notorious and successful faith healer.

    … Whether paranormal phenomena exist or not, the evidence for their existence is corrupted by a vast amount of nonsense and outright fraud.

    … A deluge of eloquent letters came in response to this review. Orthodox scientists were outraged because I considered the existence of telepathy to be possible. True believers in telepathy were outraged because I considered its existence to be unproven.

  21. Jim Harrison says:

    It isn’t just physics that rules out parapsychology. You can also get a lot of mileage out of mere physiology. Consider telepathy. The relative size of the parts of animal brains that process the various sensory modalities are proportionate to the extent to which the organism relies on that sense. Animals that track their prey by smell, for example, have large olfactory lobes. Visual animals such as eagles and hawks have large sections of their brains dedicated to processing information from their eyes. Electric fish, which navigate muddy water by interpreting electric fields, have special sections of the their brains to deal with electrical data. Thing is, there is just no section of the human brain that is a plausible candidate for the organ of telepathy.

  22. Reginald Selkirk says:

    20. JimV: quoting Freeman Dyson: “and to my mind plausible.”

    So much the worse for Freeman Dyson’s mind.

  23. moveon says:

    “Thing is, there is just no section of the human brain that is a plausible candidate for the organ of telepathy.”

    One can also argue from an evolution theoretical standpoint. Would it be possible to communicate by telepathy at all, then this would have an obvious positive effect on survival, and it would have been developed by many species. That only a few people would be able to do this, and this barely, just does not make any sense.

  24. Sean says:

    I think it’s useful to reserve the word “science” for the particular type of contingent, empirical knowledge about this actual world that we obtain through hypothesis testing, observation, and experiment. The type of logical truths revealed by mathematics (and amenable to proof) seem very different. There are obviously similarities, but the distinction is worth emphasizing — especially because too many people suffer under the misimpression that physics and biology actually do “prove” that certain things are true or false.

  25. Allyson says:

    One can also argue from an evolution theoretical standpoint.

    No, we all would have killed each other if we knew what we were all thinking of each other.

    Plus, no poker.

  26. MxPt says:

    One of the most stunning revelations of quantum physics is the role of consciousness, weakening forever the notion of an objective world. Consider the possibility that the very belief system many of those involved in this discussion are reinforcing actively selects the world you perceive and experience out of an infinity of potential worlds.

    I am a physicist, yet I have had indisputable premonitions. Completely unanticipated events seen in advance down to minute, arbitrary and irrelevant details. Of course, my experiences are anecdotal, and are non-repeatable. Therefore, they cannot fit within the standard scientific paradigm. Yet they are real to me, and real to many others I know who have had similar experiences.

    I used to work as a programmer, and very often in conversations with my collegues, I would answer a question of theirs before they asked it. When this happened, I was in something approaching a trance-like state, almost as if I was listening to someone else speaking. No deliberate effort was involved. My collegues at first were amazed, then began to be frightened, so I restrained myself.

    I suspect that if I had made a point of reinforcing in myself the limited scientific paradigm rather than spending years developing my consciousness through meditation, I would not have had the experiences I have. I believe that our conscious and unconscious belief systems have an enormous impact, not only our perceptions of an objective Newtonion-like world, but actually on the quasi-creation of a subjective world. Did you every wonder about how free will fits into physics?

    Science is more exciting when one continually asks the question, “What if….?” rather than if everyone agrees that the world is ordinary.

    For those of you who still have an open mind about parapsychology, I recommend that you read Broughton’s book.

  27. Qubit says:

    Yes, but the current laws of Physics could be just, due to the fact that we are close to uniting them. The Laws are dynamic as far as I know; they know when your looking and will know already if we are going to unite them. This mean Quantum physics could simply due to our knowlege in the future.

    We also could have created these laws, to prevent us from knowing too much too soon. The laws of physics can be altered within Teddy Bears, e.g we can take a Teddy Bear and surround a section of space-time with a Teddy Bear. The bear can contain different laws within its self, while on the outside reality remains the same. There are probably natural bears, that allow for laws to be circumnavigated and prevent life from distorying the universe. Once you can live without your Teddy Bears, you can start to find out what life is really about

    People can create there own teddy bears, were the laws of physics break down, while the rest of the universe remains sane. But the universe could reverse this if there is a possiblity that it can be contained within somebodys Teddy Bear. I may not ever be able to see the future, but I can move an entire universe without breaking any laws.

    Qubit

  28. Lord says:

    Yes parapsychology would fall outside the realm of known physics, but that cannot disprove it. That which is outside the realm of known physics, the unknown, is the very province of science. Assuming one knows almost everything and then rejecting something as inconsistent with that knowledge demonstrates only the limits of that knowledge. As you say, science never proves anything. There may be no evidence of it, there may be no worth pursuing it, but this can only be established by experiment. Even when experiment fails, we can only say that the experiment was unsuccessful. Now parapsychology as it exists, is sterile and not worth pursuing without some keener insight or evidence, but that doesn’t disprove it or falsify it. Someday, it may be resurrected, as continental drift was resurrected in plate tectonics, and we may find some truth which we have failed to elucidate to this point. Science is best reserved for the imaginative, and needs to as skeptical of itself as everything else in order to progress.

  29. Count Iblis says:

    Many people would consider an ability some people have that is the subject of this article to be paranormal if they are not told that nothing paranormal is involved.

  30. Carl Brannen says:

    Since science doesn’t have an explanation for my sense of free will, I don’t see why I should expect science to have an explanation for telekinesis (sp?). As far as science is concerned, my ability to hit the “submit” button is just as much a mystery as spoon bending.

    The really bizarre belief is that physicists would conclude, from a few tricks with very simple experiments covering only the simplest possible interactions, that they know enough about the world to know it all.

  31. Dan says:

    So I’m a total non-believer in parapsychology and all that crap, but I don’t find this argument convincing at all.

    I mean, we know that our model of the universe is not quite accurate, right? So how is it that even though we can’t get general relativity and quantum physics to fit together, we can still say with absolute certainty that once they do fit together, it will be in a way that doesn’t allow for the existence of any other types of particles or long-range forces that we haven’t predicted yet? You say things like “we know that only two kinds of fields exist”, etc. But scientists 100 years ago knew a lot of things too, and they were wrong. And we know that we’re wrong too, we just don’t know exactly how we’re wrong.

    I mean, yes, you’d have to be completely obtuse to try to argue that “telekinesons” exist, and are plentiful on Earth, but have precisely the correct set of properties so as to not be discovered by physicists. But well, we’re talking about completely obtuse people here. Can you actually say that it is literally impossible that any future discovery in the field of physics would allow for a new type of long-range force, or are you just saying it’s incredibly implausible? Because if it’s the latter, I think the Texas and evolutionary arguments above do a much better job of pointing out the implausibility.

  32. onymous says:

    even though we can’t get general relativity and quantum physics to fit together

    They fit together just fine, unless you try to ask questions about physics at the Planck scale (many orders of magnitude shorter in distance scales than anything we can experimentally test) or subtle questions about correlations among vast numbers of particles (as in the black hole information paradox). The “contradiction” between gravity and quantum mechanics is vastly exaggerated in the popular literature. The fact that we don’t know the right description of quantum gravity near the Planck scale is presumably less important in day-to-day life than the fact that we don’t know the right description of electroweak symmetry breaking at the TeV scale. And all of those unknown things are happening on scales where they cannot possibly influence macroscopic objects like the brain in any meaningful way.

  33. FileNotFound says:

    (yawn)

    How did I know this was coming? (Oh, right – behavioral analysis.)

    Here’s the simple point you miss, Sean. Parapsychology doesn’t exist as a scientific discipline because somebody dreamed up the ideas of telepathy and telekinesis. Nor does it exist because one person persuasively argued that such a thing would be cool so let’s see if we can create it.

    Parapsychology exists because many people have have experiences that defy conventional explanation. The first step in parapsychology was phenomenological – classify and describe them. The next step was to try to get them to appear under controlled conditions. (This step is where we have had some trouble, unfortunately. And this is what allows people like you to squawk.) Parapsychology is scientific precisely because it started from data. I’m sorry you have never seen that data as it was being collected or had a ‘psychic’ experience yourself, but then I have never seen a sub-atomic particle and I’m willing to believe the many scientists who tell me they exist. (It’s amazing how open-minded I am.)

    The fact that you spent so much time explaining why psi ‘cannot’ exist makes me wonder what you hope to accomplish by that. People who have had these experiences will not be persuaded by your arguments and will keep looking for explanations. Bravo to you if you can convince people who have not had these experiences that they can’t exist; those people probably weren’t ‘aiding the cause’ anyway.

    You argue that gravity and EM are forces of insufficient strength to affect macroscopic objects. Okay. I argue that psi experiences are still real and therefore a theory that can explain them probably will not rely on those forces. Gravity and EM may describe observed behaviors of macroscopic objects, but when other observations exist that contradict them, they are incomplete.

    That’s what it all boils down to – observations. I’m not arguing for an ‘everything is the mind’ model of anything, but I am also not content with accepting that what works most of the time must be true all of the time. That’s inference, not science. Anything that ignores data is not science. Parapsychologists don’t ignore the laws of physics; they are simply curious about observed exceptions to those laws. That is, apparently, data that you choose to ignore.

    I’m scared to even broach the subject of the observer problem with you. Or consciousness. Or the idea that it’s perfectly valid to wonder why we can’t observe matter in its smeared state.

    Sean: “We are creatures of the universe, subject to the same laws of physics as everything else.” Heaven help me, I’m going to say it – that means that at some point we break down and start behaving according to quantum rules. Where is that point? And what does it mean that conscious experience allows us to observe only one of the possible states of a particle?

    You can’t answer that question with your ‘known laws of physics’. I can’t answer it either. But I can think about it. And I can think about what psychic experiences and parapsychological data might tell us about what the answer might be. And I can wonder about what it might be like to live in Smearland… 😉

  34. onymous says:

    You can’t answer that question with your ‘known laws of physics’.

    We can and do. Sean did. You’re wrong.

  35. Neil B. says:

    “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.”

    Sorry, wrong call on the second example. There are no hard laws of physics preventing correlative phenomena involving some parallel process happening in one brain due to activities in another one. It doesn’t have to be a case of, or even work like, classic quantum entanglement. QE is an example of correlations but I don’t see what requires it to be the only one.

    I do think telekinesis is a really long shot , but not necessarily impossible. If there’s something about complex arrangements and processes of matter that cause effects not so-far predicted from simpler phenomena (i.e., emergent in some extreme sense) that it could perhaps have a chance. A small chance, but I don’t think we should rule out the idea of complicated things having more effects and quirks than expected from their building blocks.

    Also, I has little chance of happening, but just “for the logical record” of accuracy: as I explained before, intervention in causality does not have to involve violation of laws of physics (the basic ones at least). For example (and I haven’t thought of any more non-probabilistic examples yet),

    (1.) There can be a delay in particle interactions, e.g. for colliding particles to be held up for a tiny interval before taking the same paths they would normally take – ergo same energy and momentum.
    (2.) In the center-of-momentum frame, the paths particles take exiting a collision can be rotated together without any violation: e.g., rotate the vector pair by say 30 degrees etc. The energy and linear and angular momentum stay the same in that frame (and therefore will in all frames.)

  36. anonymous says:

    Neil B. said: “I do think telekinesis is a really long shot , but not necessarily impossible.”

    See comment 11 for an illustration of why we still shouldn’t bother researching paranormal phenomena, even if what you say is correct.

  37. Neil B. says:

    BTW, how many went to http://www.parapsych.org/ to see if they linked to reports of ESP etc. in experiments, to find articles and see if the claims were credible, instead of just repeating tropes (?) that there isn’t any evidence etc? I don’t know if there is and make no general claims, but as a framing-buster I again ask: How does a person find out that there aren’t any such successful results, in principle and in practice? Aside from burdens of proof, if you say *that there aren’t any* (not to be confused with just challenging others to provide if it is), you are making an actual claim about the state of affairs of experimentation and data, not just challenging. You are implying that you know what surveying the claims shows you (maybe not personally having checked every single report, but at least collected through “sifters and funnels” that are credible and not axe-grinders with their own credibility problems.)

    I have looked at reports of studies showing better than average clairvoyant “hits” in ganzfeld studies, etc. I was in such an experiment as a student at UVA in the 70s. I described some rough outlines of the imagery in the actual target revealed later. The guy doing the tests told me later, he got better hits than chance. Maybe, maybe not (I see no reason not to believe his data claim, whatever the explanation), but what makes it appropriate for someone to claim “no evidence” instead of “that didn’t impress me much because….” ?

  38. Neil B. says:

    anonymous: I don’t think the cities of gold in Texas is a good enough analogy: people would have run into the cities and they would be reachable, on maps etc. They are “gross” entities that stick out like a sore thumb once we have a lead to go on. But if PK really happens but is evanescent and not easily repeatable (and what logically entails that phenomena have to be accessible, to exist?) then we could expect just what goes on: some people say it has been observed, most experimenters can’t replicate it, etc. BTW, did you know that new large animals, like types of deer, have been found in recent decades, such as in remote parts of Vietnam (!)?

  39. Count Iblis says:

    Neil, these so called “ganzfeld” tests are not so reliable because you have a person who is interpreting the picture the “receiver” is describing and he also knows what the “sender” is trying to send.

    I’m sure that if these tests are done in a completely double blind way there will be no correlations.

  40. anonymous says:

    Neil B. asks: “what logically entails that phenomena have to be accessible, to exist?”

    Nothing entails that existence requires accessibility. But inaccessibility entails that phenomena are outside the purview of science. If PK are not accessible, then they should be in the same category as God etc.

  41. Dan says:

    onymous:

    And all of those unknown things are happening on scales where they cannot possibly influence macroscopic objects like the brain in any meaningful way.

    But that’s the logical leap I don’t get. Sure, the only known holes in our current theories occur at ridiculous scales. But how can we get from that to saying that there are no unknown holes in the system at human scale? How can we know the limits of what we don’t know?

    Newton thought his system was pretty good, but it turns out it’s just an approximation that works in certain cases. How do we know that our entire system of physics isn’t just an approximation too? One that works in more cases than Newton’s, but still breaks down when you get too close to Uri Geller? :-)

  42. Neil B. says:

    Well Iblis you have a point, but some such experiments did involve how many you got right. The one I was in had specified points (pick five different features) and so wasn’t just a sloppy estimate. The trouble is, you say you are sure it wouldn’t but that isn’t the same as knowing what results are out there, as I said.

    PS: Would you maybe start posting to your blog again? I dig the sort of ideas you played with, like the posing of what modal realists say (one of my pet kicks):

    The Universe doesn’t ”really” exist
    Our universe only exists as an abstract mathematical entity.

    I don’t agree with that, but it is amazingly hard to refute! There is no clear, logically rigorous way to prove it wrong, incredibly, AFAIK. I have posed the refutation that true randomness (as in QM of decay) cannot be represented by a “mathematical structure”, since math is a rigorous logical system and therefore must be deterministic in principle (even if chaos, pseudorandomness etc. appear in practice.)

  43. Lawrence B. Crowell says:

    Sean:

    You probably should have discussed quantum mechanics! There is a lot of quantum quackery out there. But before that your write here is a good job.

    As I say, there are two relationship systems for particles. One involves geometry, the other involves quanta. The geometry one involves first space, time and spacetime, and a system of symmetries on that spacetime. There is a theorem by Coleman and Mandula on this, which gets a bit of an upgrade to supersymmetry, which spells this out very nicely. Here the geometry is a measure system, a set of kinematics so to speak, which permits us to determine a relationship system between particles by forces and the transfer or communication of energy, information and the rest. The other relationship system is quantum. This is not a metric geometric system — two quantum states can be entangled across the whole universe as “strongly” as on an optic bench — well in principle. Quantum gravity is about merging these two relationship systems into one.

    There are many people who think that quantum mechanics is involved with nonlocally influencing things. There are a lot of theorems for why this can’t be the case. But a simple way of thinking about this is that if quantum entanglements don’t involve distance or metric geometry then the simplest and most basic equation in physics

    F = ma

    is something which does not operate according to quantum entanglements. We have that acceleration “a” and that involves space, or d^2x/dt^2 (space changes with time etc). Quantum relationships, or nonlocality and entanglements, don’t involve metric distances in geometry, and so one can’t impart a change of states remotely by quantum entanglements. Any imparted force or communication of information or energy necessitates a metric geometric description. There are no faster than light communications, no remote viewings, and of course no Uri Geller spoon bending by quantum nonlocal effects — or quantum mind nonsense ideas.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  44. Neil B. says:

    anonymous: I should have said, “easily accessible” instead of implying maybe not accessible at all. If the former, then phenomena could exist but easily not have been found or be “around” or readily observable despite efforts to look for or cause them. One actual (by now, agreed on AFAIK) example is ball lightning.

  45. Brian Mingus says:

    Awesome that Boulder (my locale :) showed up in the graph.

    It seems to me that people are willing to believe in the paranormal and parapsychology because they want to believe in it. Evidence and good arguments do not factor into it because it gives meaning to their lives to think that there are profound things that are yet to be discovered and (hopefully) explained. This is something that arguments based on physics are going to have a hard time dealing with. It’s no bother to them that it would require new, undiscovered forces of nature so long as the force of subjective experience goes unexplained by physical theories. Neuroscience is a long ways from making progress in explaining phenomenal consciousness (whether it can be explained is a deeply troubling philosophical question) and I strongly doubt that Quantum Field Theory is going to help. It is most applicable in that other most important question of our time, that regarding the Big Bang, which is the reason I read this blog. In the meantime, I’m OK with parapsychologists and religion. Even though they are mistaken, it’s not all that bad in the grand scheme of things.

    IMHO, grain of salt and all that. The kind of thing I’d say over a beer, if they served them here.

  46. Neil B. says:

    Lawrence, quantum correlations have to do with “hits” of photon states and make no interference with laws of conservation of energy and momentum etc. Those laws are are conserved just as much when photon polarizations are correlated as when they are not, f = ma is not an issue and your neoclassical framing of issues is not current theory. That leaves the door open for ESP based on correlated brain states, quantum issues in choice and free will, etc., however long a shot you think it is.

  47. Eugene says:

    You know, I have been mangling with dimensional regularization lately, and that totally feels like pseudoscience.

    (I keed, I keed!)

  48. Count Iblis says:

    Neil, yes, I have some new things to write on my blog. Check my blog again early next week :)

  49. Allyson says:

    See comment 11 for an illustration of why we still shouldn’t bother researching paranormal phenomena, even if what you say is correct.

    I don’t know about that. If hundreds of people report seeing a ghost in the same place, I believe people are probably seeing something. Not a ghost, but I’d still like to know what it is.

    Thousands and thousands of people report out-of-body experiences, for example. To just say it’s all rubbish and not try to find out why people feel that sensation is sort of sad.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2007/aug/24/2

    So now there’s a theory, and not an irrational one, which is nice.

    Sean’s lovely wife once had a post about “ghosts” and weird sensations caused by magnets, which was fantastic. Not everyone reporting “paranormal” phenomena is a crackpot, they just don’t know where or how to find the cause of what they’ve experienced.

    “Psychic” phenomena can likely be traced to a keen observation of body language, which is incredibly useful in negotiating the social world, and having a sharp sense of it would be an incredibly useful trait passed down through our evolution. It isn’t mind-reading, but you can sort of see how it could be confused for that. It isn’t magic, but it’s a skill employed by tarot card readers and palm readers…as well as salespeople, card players, and counselors.

    It really is worth studying these things instead of dismissing outright, interesting things about human behavior/evolution/how our brains work can be found.

  50. Eric says:

    Give me a break. I’m not an advocate of parapsychology, but it’s not clear how valid current QFT is. Yes, it may agree with extraordinarily well with experimental data but so did epicycles. At least Dirac and Feynman were willing to admit that we might have to change our views drastically:

    “[Renormalization is] just a stop-gap procedure. There must be some fundamental change in our ideas, probably a change just as fundamental as the passage from Bohr’s orbit theory to quantum mechanics. When you get a number turning out to be infinite which ought to be finite, you should admit that there is something wrong with your equations, and not hope that you can get a good theory just by doctoring up that number.”

    – Paul Dirac, Nobel laureate 1933

    “The shell game that we play … is technically called ‘renormalization’. But no matter how clever the word, it is still what I would call a dippy process! Having to resort to such hocus-pocus has prevented us from proving that the theory of quantum electrodynamics is mathematically self-consistent. It’s surprising that the theory still hasn’t been proved self-consistent one way or the other by now; I suspect that renormalization is not mathematically legitimate.”

    – Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate 1965