Existence of ESP confirmed

It’s often claimed either that science doesn’t have the tools to identify ESP, or that scientists have a prejudice against the whole idea. But American researchers have recently confirmed that certain individuals are indeed able to detect an energy field given off by living creatures in the absence of any other sensory cues. The only thing is, those individuals are young paddlefish.

This large, shark-like species lives in the muddy waters of the Mississippi, filtering plankton from the water with its gills. Young paddlefish use sensory organs on the sword-like “paddle” which extends in front of the mouth to detect prey animals (mostly small crustaceans) individually by the electric fields they produce. Some marine sharks, and the duck-billed platypus, have similar abilities. Still no sign that Homo sapiens can work this particular trick, however.

New Scientist, 7 April

What Does Quantum Mechanics Show Us?

Attempts to interpret the results of quantum mechanics in ways people can understand can themselves lead to confusion.

Some physicists and philosophers conspire to waste intellectual resources on pseudoproblems with no empirical consequence — notoriously, quantum interpretations. In the process, it is perhaps not surprising that some more ancient conceptual cul-de-sacs put in an appearance.

Some of the words that get thrown around often are “determinism”, “causality”, “reality” and so forth. Some pictures, like Bohmian hidden variable interpretations, are best seen as attempts to preserve the viability of certain labels, though empirically the whole enterprise remains vacuous. However, since interpretations are useful only as conceptual tools if at all, certain conceptual perversities introduced can be grounds for criticism of an interpretation beyond its inconsequentiality.

Bohmian pictures typically preserve a classical-like sense of reality, universality of causation (there are no fundamentally uncaused events), and, provided standard quantum mechanics is retained, determinism. Note, however, that these terms refer to nothing of any possible empirical consequence, and are but descriptive of a particular language used to describe the physical content. The conceptual perversity enters in confusing idiosyncratic features of descriptive language with information content.

To illustrate, let us go back to some venerable theology (actually quite an apt comparison for some pathologies of theoretical physics). One of the classical “proofs” of God invokes the notion that everything must have a cause. This would appear to be a perfectly good generalization from our experience, and we would of course like to extend this to a universal statement instead of having unseemly exceptions to the picture. Even if all in the universe is in a causal chain, it as a whole cannot be explained by causes internal to it.

So, instead of leaving the totality of everything uncaused, we declare it to have an external cause, and equate this to God. To terminate the potentially infinite causal series there, we call on the total self-sufficiency or self-causedness of God. This is basically the classical cosmological argument. There are many reasons for its failure, one being that no coherent self-sufficient God-concept can be found.

Is “God” Useful?

But let us ignore such problems for a second, and ask if any information is being conveyed by the God explanation for “it all”. The answer is none: the whole argument is driven by the principle that everything must have a cause, and “God” merely serves as an empty label to provide us with a cause, within this argument. Instead of inventing spurious entities to save principles, it is better to acknowledge the notion of uncausedness. It is intimately related to patternlessness, i.e., randomness, and it is inescapable. The cosmological argument merely points to a deficiency in our conceptual equipment.

It is not only theology that ties itself into knots over causes, but philosophy as well. Interpretations of quantum mechanics that have no empirical consequence whatsoever, but restore the notion of full causality by invoking permanently hidden variables and non-communicative superluminality, similarly convey no information while preserving the universality of causation.

The necessity of causation is a conceptual deficit that has been embodied in theology, which has regularly offered pseudo-explanations for cases where no pattern existed. Randomness is one of our psychological blind spots, in areas having little to do with religion as well; even a so-called “hard” science has its troubles with it (not only in QM, but in statistical mechanics also).

It is in this sense that interpretations can be pernicious, beyond being a waste of time. Taking them seriously as anything but inessential conceptual tools dictated by convenience leads to the pretense that predictions of consequence can be obtained from them.

Consciousness or holistic connectivity can be invoked in consequence-free ways, but it is regularly stretched to the point where one can pretend that empirically relevant forms of these words naturally have a place in the physics. They do not, unless some very important modifications are made in quantum mechanics. It will not do to propose revolutionary ideas merely by resorting to information-free, obfuscatory philosophizing.

In his Minority Report (1956), H.L. Mencken summed it up well:

“Astronomers and physicists, dealing habitually with objects and quantities far beyond the reach of the senses, even with the aid of the most powerful aids that ingenuity has been able to devise, tend almost inevitably to fall into the ways of thinking of men dealing with objects and quantities that do not exist at all, e.g., theologians and metaphysicians … of all men of science, they are the most given to flirting with theology.”

The Facts of Life: Shattering the Myths of Darwinism

The Facts of Life: Shattering the Myths of Darwinism, by Richard Milton; Transworld Publishers; $15.95

Richard Milton has written this book as a “hang on a minute” reservation about Darwinism and its apparent unquestioned acceptance by mainstream science from geology through to biology (and in one chapter political science) in the manner of the small boy who questioned the reality of the Emperor’s new clothes — “Look Mummy, all those university professors, all those Nobel Prize winners, have got no actual proof to cover their hypotheses with”.

To this reader, familiar with these matters only to the level of a wobbly School Cert. result, the book provides persuasive arguments against the theory of Darwinism, believing it to have evolved itself as a theory that succeeding scientists have simply forgotten to question, claiming serious flaws concerning the critical “missing links,” [see Finding Fossils] and detailing circular arguments and apparently illogical aspects, to the point where he refers to the theory as much an act of faith as that of any religion.

He claims he is not a creationist but rather an agnostic waiting for proof either way, and he has no idea how it all happened. On the other hand, having questioned the credibility of most of the current scientific community, he goes on to hint at the age of the Earth being possibly no more than 10,000 years instead of the generally accepted 4.6 billion years (a conclusion taken in part from his claim of absolute unreliability of carbon-dating techniques) and also drops in the occasional mention of a life force that could stir up biology in the way that quantum theories have derailed 19th century mechanistic physics, and which sounds vaguely theological.

“Biological telepathy”, “metaphysical psychic blueprints” and an “intelligent cosmos” get a mention towards the end of the book and detract from the generally non-paranormal emphasis of the bulk of his ideas.

I enjoyed at least his link between Darwinism and the New Right references to “winners and losers (Darwin’s struggle for survival)”, the cruel, stark grandeur of the free-market policies, natural economic selection, and the assumption by many in the business community that for some to succeed, others must go under. “The fit survive and those who survive are the fit.”

But what about luck, chaos, chance — why do share prices go up and down unpredictably even for the bluest chip? Why are some of the companies that survive well ultimately found to be not too fit at all? Milton asks these questions to counter the flawed theories of the New Right, the political version of Darwinism.

From time to time he targets a neo-Darwinist, Richard Dawkins, a reader in zoology at the University of Oxford, implying that his research is misguided and his conclusions faulty. Dawkins in his review of this book in the New Statesman and Society retaliates bluntly, both about its contents (“drivel”, “twaddle”) and about its author (“disingenuous or — more plausibly — stupid”) but in between these colourful outbursts refutes with some authority the arguments put forward. It was with some relief that I was reassured that rather than evolution being noted more for its gaps (“missing links”) than for its slender fossilised evidence, Dawkins is quite clear that the “fossil links between humans and our ape ancestors now constitute an elegantly continuous series”.

Phew! Books like this are trouble to an armchair scientist and skeptic. It is written well enough, suitably dry in places and avoids unseemly popular language, and you find yourself thinking, “Maybe the Earth really is only 10,000 years old, maybe there was a great flood (it occurs to me that anyone who assumes the Bible to be literally true will believe they are descended from not only Adam and Eve but also from Mr and Mrs Noah), perhaps the original life force did come from outer space, and why should the Himalayas not be formed in a matter of minutes and within living memory.”

All of these claims and many more are put forward either as original theories or borrowed freely from other scientists — none is researched to the point of adequate proof, they simply add up to another theory.

Perhaps the little boy who embarrassed the Emperor hasn’t realised that his Mum has forgotten to put his own trousers on.