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24 September 2003

Telepathy is real

Turns out telepathy is real. This from Sheldrakeís The Sense of Being Stared at, in which he describes experimental work done in recent decades. Sheldrake is a reputable biologist and a Fellow of The Royal Society. His reports are reliable.

Iím astounded. Not that telepathy turns out to be real. That has long looked to be an empirical question that might be confirmed by experiment, but could be hard to disprove. Many people have claimed telepathy operates unreliably and only with certain people. That would make it hard for experimenters to get a grip. Not so: while some people do better than others, telepathy is widespread, statistically highly significant, and independent of distance. Itís susceptible to training. Moreover, itís more easily demonstrated in (many species of) animals than in humans.

What astounds me is not that all this turns out to be true, but that the work was done, results reported and I didnít know. (I got Sheldrakeís latest book as a birthday present.) This work has huge implications, and even in these days of information overload, Iíd expect news of this to filter through from different directions. Nope. Zip. Not a whisper, not a passing reference. Which leaves me with What else this important donít I know?

Consider the implications. Out intuitive psychology takes an intentional stance towards the world: we do well to be concerned with the intentions other humans and animals have, especially about us. Itís easy to see how adaptive such a psychology would be. Evolution trained us to pay attention to intentions.

From that itís easy to see how inclined pre-scientific thinking was to explain things by imputing intentions to all sorts of phenomena ó weather, for example. If you like, gods were explanatory hypotheses. Then five centuries of spectacular scientific advance rooted firmly in disavowing the intentional stance. No spells, no conjuring, no evil eye, no witchcraft. Just the physics, maím, just the physics.

Science investigates reliably repeatable phenomena. Since intentions are hard to measure, science has been methodologically committed to investigating what is independent of intention.

Thus the rationalist creed: intention has no effect, except through physics. As a methodological stance, this is admirable. Avoid explanations that involve intentions, explore only the physics. That has been unthinkably rewarding. Instead of prescriptions for placating deities, we got transistors. Good swap!

But itís time now to notice that the commitment is methodological. It is unscientific to believe in spirits and ghosties if that leads you to accept intentional explanations instead of seeking physical cause-and-effect. Good scientists should prefer explanations from physics. But that doesnít mean explanations from intention are false, just that scientists have been successful precisely by avoiding them. So they are understandably unenthusiastic about considering them now.

If Rationalism is the belief that (apart from us, dogs, chimps and a few other species) there is nothing intentional in the world to investigate, then notice that Rationalism is exactly that: a belief, a creed. It is not, and never could be, proved true by any amount of science. Think of it rather as an intellectual investment strategy. We tried intentional explanations. Look where they got us. Weíre not having any of that. Itís not irrational to be a Rationalist, but that doesnít mean Rationalists are right.

There may be a physics underlying telepathy, but it corresponds to almost nothing in the physics we have, barring the weird results of the ĎParis experimentsí. (From memory, experiments in Paris in the 1980s with high-energy particles demonstrated that ó was it spin symmetry? ó is preserved between particles even after separation. And instantaneously. It must have been the high-energy physics lab in Paris. Can anyone give me a reference to the work Iím thinking of?) Either our physics is about to become even stranger than it already is, or weíre investigating effects with no discernible underlying physics. Itís time to dust off and review what we used to think we knew about magic.

Oh, this is too good. Rereading this I thought warmly of my friend Nick Sowicz, who knows Sheldrake slightly. Immediately the phone rang: Nick, not knowing why he called, but just wanting to be in touch. Iíve always ascribed a coincidence like that to chance. Now I know it might not be.

Truly this is the most exciting time to be alive.

Posted by SJT at September 24, 2003 06:38 AM

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