Absence of Evidence

Graphic of telepathy from Pinterest.

Shepherd: It’s my belief that those sheep are laborin’ under the misapprehension that they’re birds. Observe their behavior. …witness their attmpts to fly from tree to tree. Notice that they do not so much fly as… plummet. (Baaa baaa… flap flap… thud.) …One thing is for sure, the sheep is not a creature of the air. They have enormous difficulty in the comparatively simple act of perchin’. (Baaa baaa… flap flap… thud.)

Tourist: But where did they get the idea from?
Shepherd: From Harold. … He has realized that a sheep’s life consists of standin’ around for a few months and then bein’ eaten. … He’s patently hit on the idea of escape.
Tourist: Well why don’t you just get rid of Harold?
Shepherd: Because of the enormous commercial possibilities should he succeed.

Could there be ESP? Can sheep fly? Monty Python speculated about it…

The topic of Extra-Sensory Perception came up yesterday, and my initial reaction was that it was too broad to write about and that it hadn’t affected me personally, so I had nothing to say. I then got it into a hot debate with my spouse about the limits and definitions of ESP–does it include ghosts? is telepathy part of ESP and therefore BS whereas telekinesis might be possible so it’s not BS? what about twin studies? and so on. This led me down the Internet rabbit hole; what exactly is the research? I realized that I never have nothing to say.

This Provocative Question was asked by blogger Fandango (in summary): “Do you believe in ESP, defined as 1) Telepathy; 2) Clairvoyance; and 3) Precognition?”

Fair enough. For definitional purposes, let’s not include all unexplained phenomena, no ghosts, traveling back from the dead, global consciousness, or UFOs. Let’s get even simpler. Telepathy, and its corollary, telekinesis. Moving and communicating with just your mind.

Belief is the Wrong Word

While assessing whether ESP is possible might seem a simple question, I have to start by picking at the word “belief.” Belief can be a function of drawing a conclusion based on facts, even though the dictionary suggests that “Belief=confidence in truth of something without proof.” Proof is a bit dodgy, since it could be limited to what I’ve observed, but ought instead to be limited to what has been developed by experiment. This is important: Belief in scientific fact can’t be limited to what you have personally experienced.

I believe the world is round based on photos I’ve seen and textbooks I’ve read. I haven’t personally seen the “roundness.” I believe there is a sub-atomic world. I believe that there were giant sloths (we have the bones). I believe there could have been unicorns.

Photo from Pinterest. Megatherium.

I don’t know why you got stuck at the last one. We can graft horns on to animals with today’s science. There are rhinoceroses, animals with horns. There were giant sloths, animals that went extinct; they used to be there, they aren’t now. Oh, but there’s no unicorn skeletons now… If unicorn horns were perceived to be of value, they’d not be left with the rest of the skeletons. Unicorns were depicted in medieval art, which suggested they might have been seen. If they existed, they’re extinct now, as is the dodo and the saber-toothed tiger. Absence of evidence of unicorns today is not evidence of absence of unicorns.

My point is we have to navigate a narrow path when it comes to unexplained phenomena. We could be like two-dimensional creatures without the visual perception capabilities for a third dimension. For every article on ESP that blithely states, “no scientific evidence exists…,” we could slap a date on it and insert a scientific discovery, like “in 1400, no scientific evidence existed that germs transmitted disease” or “even with DaVinci’s fanciful drawing of plans, no scientific evidence existed that flight was possible.” We don’t know what we can’t know.

At the same time, anecdotes are insufficient. The “no scientific evidence exists, but…” opinions seem to be equally prevalent. I read one blog where the ability for twins to read each other’s minds was explained, not through telepathy but through intertwined cultural shared experience. Yet the writer still said, “But my twin and I always had the same answers on tests.” If we are to evaluate a phenomenon, we have to use whatever scientific tools we have, and “it happened to me” isn’t repeatable, which is the underpinnings of the science that builds factual models.

Collapsing the Particles in the Spoon

We have to start with Uri Geller because he is probably the best known living proponent of ESP, demonstrating spoon bending in public for as long as I can remember. Researchers in the 1970s tried one experiment that they thought showed he could replicate their drawings without seeing them. Other peole came along and suggested various non-telepathic ways that could have happened. Many magicians have routinely demonstrated how spoon-bending can happen without resorting to telekinetic abilities. Forty years later, where we are is that Geller has made a living based on whatever it is he does, but there isn’t a flock of talented spoon benders running around even though the population has quadrupled. So whatever that it is, isn’t replicable. I can’t evaluate ESP based on Uri Geller, whether he’s a charlatan or a uniquely-endowed single person.

But is telekinesis generally possible? Here’s one angle proposed by Dr. Eric Haseltine in Psychology Today. One part of quantum theory is that electrons exist in many places at once; they are probabilistic. Electrons, which are a part of matter, aren’t anywhere in particular. Until you try to look at them. (I know this is hard to think about it, but it’s actually scientifically established. ) When you move an electron with an electrical field, it causes a “collapse”:

You cause multiple, simultaneous incarnations of that particle to “collapse” into occupying one particular place.

from “Telekinesis (Making Things Move With Your Mind) Is Possible

Here’s the thing. Your brain is an electric field. Your brain works with neurons moving electrical impulses, so that when you have a thought, you collapsing that probability of electrons into a single one. You are moving the universe. That’s telekinesis.

Does that seem too limited? What about electrical-based prosthesis? Medical science has developed replacement body parts which are myoelectric. The brain sends signals to the remaining muscles, which can be converted into electric signals that move the prosthetic limb. That’s also telekinesis.

You might be thinking that this is just definitional. Prosthetic limbs have nothing to do with spoon bending or being able to move that remote control you left on the counter over to your La-Z-Boy. But scientific advances are often about reframing the discussion. I can move a robot with a remote control, typing directions into a computer or manipulate a joystick. Those are examples where the object being moved doesn’t have to be touched by the mover. People who have been immobilized, for example, with ALS, can move objects with their eyes, by looking at screens. Still not telekinesis?

You can link a person up to a computer, have them move a body part which conveys an action–like slowing down a toy train–and the computer will communicate the action to the object. How long will it be before the computers get more sophisticated and the programs get more sophisticated? In fifty to a hundred years (or less who knows?), I might have a socket in my brain that tells my house robot to bring me the remote. Or maybe the remote will itself be attached to a drone.

I Know What You’re Thinking That This Is BS

Another experiment conducted in 2014 showed how humans could communicate with each other without speaking or typing into a computer. This was a scientific collaboration between Spain, France, and U.S. researchers published in a peer reviewed journal. Subjects separate physically were hooked up to computers. They established a binary code linked to body parts–foot was 0, hand was 1, for example. Moving only hands and feet–but without typing–they sent specific words of greeting into a computer, which relayed them into the receiver’s mind.

From “Conscious Brain-to-Brain Communication in Humans Using Non-Invasive Technologies” published in PLOS One, August 2014.

Strangely enough, one big complaint about the experiment was that it wasn’t unique, i.e. it had been done before at the University of Washington. Repeatable. That’s pretty strong evidence that this type of technology works.

Your complaints might more likely be that’s not really telepathy because (a) it’s very limited with the binary code and (b) body parts were moved, so it’s not technically mental. As for the binary code part, that’s a question of computing power. Everything we do on computers–like me typing this right now–is built on a tower whose base consists of binary code. You’d just need to build a system to make that more efficient.

As for moving from 0/1 signals with hands and feet to the brain, let’s go back to the toy train experiment and the myoelectric prosthestics. All these experiments show that it may soon be possible for me to move my finger a tiny bit and get the remote to fly across the room or have someone in India know what I’m typing. Would it only be telepathic or telekinetic if the impulse is purely from my brain, not involving my finger? That seems like a pretty easy bridge for technology to cross.

Yes, it’s computer-aided brainpower, but these could be descriptive approaches to telepathy and telekinesis. If you decide that’s not ESP because technology is involved, then you’re simply pushing ESP perpetually outside the boundaries of known capabilities. Instead, I suggest thinking differently. Some things outside our boundaries today–telepathy and telekinesis in particular–may not be that far away from capabilities we’d have in the future, if not us, then our children or grandchildren. Then, we’d have to believe in them.

As for members of the family Bovidae (ruminant mammals) living in trees, I leave you with this.

Harold’s relatives in Morocco have already figured things out. Photo from culturetrip.com.

5 Replies to “Absence of Evidence”

  1. I see you ended up having a lot to say on the subject of ESP. And you made a good point. I shouldn’t have asked, Do you believe there is such a thing as ESP?” I should have asked, “Is there such a thing as ESP?”

    1. I did, apparently… I had to let it ferment overnight. That made it a really good provocative question!

  2. You need to explore this sheep and Morocco thing further. In Morocco it is either sheep or goats who eat the hard Argon nuts, digests them (which softens the nut), then poops them out. The nuts are then processed to produce Argon oil. Then we rub it on our bodies. True story.

    I so much enjoy your writing. Keep it up.

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