Milestone: the Psychology Establishment Acknowledges PSI

Since man has been on earth, there have been reports of paranormal events.  Since the scientific method was established, it has been applied to study telepathy, precognition, remote viewing, psychokinesis, and spiritualism.   On the one hand, evidence for all these phenomena has not been scarce; on the other hand, accepting their reality calls into question the reductionist framework on which modern science rests.  Is there an objective physical reality that unfolds mechanically according to laws that operate at the microscopic level?  (In this case, mind is an epiphenomenon that came into existence as brains evolved.)  Or is mind part of the fabric of reality, as fundamental or perhaps more fundamental than matter, space, and time?

Research in telepathy and other paranormal phenomena has proceeded outside the purview of the scientific establishment.  Researchers have realized the need to integrate a science of mind into the physical and biological sciences, and have adopted increasingly rigorous protocols and bulletproof statistical methodology in order to beat down the walls of censorship and earn a place in the scientific canon.  Finally, this may be happening.

Last month, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association published this review of experiments in many different fields of parapsychology.  The author concludes

The evidence provides cumulative support for the reality of psi, which…is comparable to that for established phenomena in psychology and other disciplines, although there is no consensual understanding of them.

(Daryl Bem prepared the ground for this event 7 years ago.)

If you are interested in reading in more depth about experiments in parapsychology, I recommend Dean Radin’s books and videos. He is both a rigorous scientist and an engaging communicator. You might start with Supernormal or this on Youtube .

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Evolving the Web of Life

Darwin's sketch of the tree of lifeDarwin was first to substantiate the idea of a tree of life.  Offspring an be different from their parents, and over generations the differences can accumulate in different directions until the cousins are identified as entirely different species.  THAT was the Origin of Species.

The idea stood up for 100 years, but we now see a story that is vastly more complicated.  At crucial points in the history of life, evolution proceeded via mergers and acquisitions.   Bacteria have been passing genes around for 2 billion years or more, shedding copies willy nilly, picking up other people’s genes and keeping whatever they find useful.  We worry what monstrosities are being created when Monsanto takes a bacterial insecticide gene and implants it in a patented strain of corn.  But nature has been performing such chimerical experiments for a long time, though it’s probable that the vast majority of these experiments are abandoned before they get very far.  The successes are few and far between, but they have had an inordinate impact on the history of life.

We know much less about evolution than we thought.  David Quammen has a new book.

Why do such different processes produce the same statistical effects?

If Jackson Pollock flings paint randomly at a canvas, there will be, occasionally, large areas that have no paint at all, and, also occasionally, a few areas where different paint drips are so close together that they overlap and cover each other.

JacksonPollock

But Pollock’s aesthetic instincts guide his brush, and the result is that the drips look random, but they are more spread out than if they had really been random.

enter image description hereIt turns out that the same thing is true of the distribution of cones on a hen’s retina, and the energy states of a Uranium nucleus, and the distribution of prime numbers along the number line.  They are all distributed with a curve that looks like a standard bell-shaped curve, but just a bit lopsided.  The curve is lopsided because it goes out indefinitely at the right end, becoming asymptotically small, but it is cut off by zero on the left side, because the distance between any two semi-random points is never less than zero.

Mathematicians have plotted this function and scientists have observed the function in diverse places in nature, but no one has a good theory yet about why this distribution arises anywhere, let alone in so many different contexts.

Eddington

We all know that there are regions of the human spirit untrammeled by the world of physics.  In the mystic sense of the creation around us, in the expression of art, in the yearning towards God, the soul grows upward and finds the fulfillment of something implanted in its nature.  The sanction for this development is within us, a striving born with our consciousness or an Inner Light proceeding from a greater power than ours. Science can scarcely question this sanction, for the purpose of science springs from a striving, which the mind is impelled to follow, a questioning that will not be suppressed.  Whether in the intellectual pursuits of science or in the mystical pursuits of the spirit, the light beckons ahead and the purpose surging in our nature responds.

Arthur Eddington

‘This has to be wrong’

Science derives its legitimacy from grounding in what anyone, anywhere can observe.  It’s called “empiricism.”  But the very success of science has tempted people in all fields to promote theoretical ideas before there is appropriate empirical support.

String theory had its origins in 1968, and over 50 years it has become the darling of theoretical physicists as a candidate for a Theory Of Everything.  Thousands of scientific papers have been written about string theory, because the mathematics is so much fun and leads to so many interesting places.   But the acknowledged drawback of string theory is that it has so many different forms that it you have to write an exponent within an exponent to write the number.  Hence, there are no predictions from string theory, and no way to test it against the reality of our world.

This spring, finally a general prediction was derived, true of all string theories.  Dark energy must decrease as the universe expands.  But in our universe, dark energy seems to be holding steady.

Woops.

String theorists are not taking this sitting down, but are applying their creative energies to the discovery of loopholes and exceptions.

Article in Quanta Magazine by Natalie Wolchover

An illustration of upside-down grassy hills topped with cosmic blue spheres

Intelligent Design

Dear Readers –

I’m an evolutionary theorist, and it prejudices my professional reputation to be saying this, but I think there are big questions about the current evolutionary paradigm.  At professional gatherings and in journal articles, I have no trouble saying that the prevailing Selfish Gene model is ridonculous.  But privately, my doubts go beyond this.

I don’t question that complex living things have evolved from simpler living things, I don’t question the archaeological record, and I believe the standard time scale of 4 billion years.

But I think we have no idea how life on earth might have gotten started, and that all ideas that I know of on the subject are inadequate.  I think that the process of evolution has itself evolved over 4 billion years, so that now Lamarckian inheritance is routine, which is to say, the lived experience is fed back into epigenetic and even genetic changes in the next generation.  Even Lamarck, I think, is inadequate to explain how efficient evolution has managed to be in creating new structures and adapting to changed environments.

The most conservative hypothesis I can imagine involves a micro-consciousness operating at the quantum level that steers molecular changes in chromosomes toward new functionality.  This is not a man with a white beard who created the world in six days, but it does sound dangerously close to Intelligent Dizzine.

Ever irreverent, provocative, and amusing, Fred Reed writes on the subject at Lew Rockwell’s blog.

— JJM

David Bohm

Scientific American has a personal recollection piece about David Bohm that captures just a slice of his humanity and his genius.

Bohm did a PhD thesis at UC Berkeley under J Robert Oppenheimer which offered basic insights into the physics of plasmas.  This was toward the beginning of the reign of Joe McCarthy and the Unamerican Activities Committee, which introduced the phrase witch hunt into the American lexicon.  [Oliver Stone’s video]   Bohm was commanded to testify against another student, who was a Berkeley activist, and he refused.  In retribution, the HUAC blacklisted him and, though he was one of the most brilliant physicists of his generation, no university could hire him.  His thesis was classified, so that he could not publish it nor talk about it in applying for jobs.  He fled to University of São Paolo in Brazil, and the State Department took away his passport, so he could not attend scientific meetings or interview for professorships outside Brazil.

It was during this time that Bohm did some of his most important and original work, writing a textbook about quantum mechanics that offered a new view of what it means.  Eventually, Bohm found asylum in England, and a professorship at University of London.  He could not return to the US because there was a warrant for his arrest.

Later in his life, Bohm offered us a fundamental insight into physics that we know how to study and physics that is impossible to study by our usual methods.  What we know how to study are patterns in space and time, where things close together are related to one another, and where an event has effects that ripple out from that center, becoming weaker as the waves travel further out.  What is so difficult to study are patterns that are spread over space and time, but the laws of quantum mechanics suggest that fully half the order in the universe is spread out in this way.

What appears to us as disorder or randomness or Heisenberg’s uncertainty is actually not disorder at all, but rather an order that is spread out so that we cannot see it with our eyes or instruments.  For example, if you put a drop of ink into a glass of water and stir the water, the dot disappears as the ink spreads through the water.  On a microscopic level, all the information is still there, specifying where the water was clear and where the ink drop was.  Under some conditions, you can actually unstir the water, and get your ink drop back.  (The secret ingredient in this video is corn syrup.)

Bohm gave us the insight that half of physics is hidden from us in a form that he dubbed the Implicate Order.  Bohm became a disciple of Krishnamurti, and though he never wrote about the connections of quantum mechanics to spirituality, his work was popularized by Nick HerbertGary ZukavFritjof Capra, and others.