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September 12, 2008


How much could any experimental evidence whatsoever really raise your estimate of psychic powers, given the possibility of 'Matrix' type abilities in a simulation?

Hence the complete lack of interest on the part of reductionists in impartially examining the accumulated body of evidence for psi phenomena, rivalled only by the lack of interest of young-earth creationists in impartially examining the accumulated body of evidence from geology and paleontology.

It can't possibly exist, therefore any evidence must be poorly controlled, fake, delusional, etc., thus not we're not interested in hearing about it. . .

"a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest. . ." - Paul Simon, The Boxer

If anyone here is interested in psi from a nonskeptic viewpoint, I'd sooner recommend Damien Broderick's "Outside the Gates of Science". (I haven't read it myself, but I don't want to leave you with just Matthew's recommendation.)

If there's an online page with central references and abstracts for allegedly repeatable psi experiments, I'd be interested in glancing through that - fodder for future posts.

dont worry eliezer, no editor in this blog is getting any modesty points either.

But if there are repeatable psi experiments, then why hasn't anyone won the million dollars? (or even passed the relatively easy first round?)

Uh, "The Irreducible Mind" is garbage.

I don't see how you can shrink the number of rules even in the non-reductionist case. You'd need enough rules to describe, not a simple-behaving ontologically basic psychic power (like quantum spooky action at a distance seen by a Copenhagen theorist) but a complex one (like statistically barely noticeable psychokinesis) that does a nearly-perfect imitation of a meat brain, down to the quarks. You have to model the whole of the reductionist case AND the psychic power as well. That's necessarily more entities.

I took psi seriously back when I thought that the scientific method defined rationality. Once I learned about Bayes I realized that the sort of reports of psi that science turns up would be expected if psi isn't real while much more blatant things would be expected if real psi inspired the investigation. I also noticed that priors matter and psi really should be ignored without very large effects based on low priors. Somewhat earlier pre-Bayes psi had blended somewhat into the category "Everything you know is wrong" and loose specific identity as 'psi'. Post-Bayes the "Everything you know is wrong" itself split into a few categories and psi went in the "reason is a mistake" extreme category.

"If the 'boring view' of reality is correct, then you can never predict anything irreducible because you are reducible."

Maybe I missed this yesterday, or in another reductionism post, but doesn't that imply that there is no fundamental level of reality - nothing which is not reducible to something else? It could also be that I'm just not understanding what you mean.

Eliezer, what if psi phenomena are real, but they work through as-yet-unknown laws of physics? In this case reductionism could still be true (and probable), even if psi is real. I can't really see why psi phenomena rule out a reductionist universe (and I guess Damien Broderick agrees...).

By the way, I don't believe in psi, and think that all effects found thus far are based on the misapplication of statistics and related errors.

Pyramid: The point is that sure, that's possible, but we shouldn't bet on that. That is, if we do discover psi is real, without having discovered a reduction for it, then we should increase our belief that the universe has irreducible mental (or mental like) components.

It is not absolute proof. The point is that it actually would be evidence favoring that position. It's not quite obvious to me that it would be strong evidence, but the argument does seem convincing that it would be evidence.

Post-Bayes the "Everything you know is wrong" itself split into a few categories and psi went in the "reason is a mistake" extreme category.

I don't quite see this one. Telepathy and telekinesis would be easy enough to implement via the Matrix or even lesser technologies. Even precognition holds out the possibility of expanding our account of causality to allow loops, which General Relativity occasionally seems to threaten. How is psi on the same order as 2 + 2 = 3, or Jehovah as the one true God of all reality?

"Irreducible Mind" by Kelly and Kelly et.al. is an excellent book in that it presents evidence and makes a case very well. How well is for each reader to determine, of course.
Psi is not something that could be seen, but it could be experienced.
It is always interesting to discuss what people believe in that nobody has ever seen, for example--
Abiogenesis (biology), dark matter (big bang), being surrounded by a googol of unseen beings (MWI)...

The supposed evidence consists of stigmata, hypnotic suggestion, automatic writing, multiple personality disorders, near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, apparitions, visions, genius level creativity and ecstatic states of consciousness. Since the stated aim is:

For an enlarged scientific picture of human mind and personality to emerge, two things need to happen: First, it must be demonstrated that the currently dominant physicalist theories of mind-brain relations are inadequate in principle; and second, an alternative theory must be found that remedies these defects. The present volume has sought mainly to address the first of these tasks, by assembling in one place large amounts of credible evidence for a wide variety of empirical phenomena that appear difficult or impossible to explain in conventional physicalist terms. (Irreducible Mind, p. 639)

...that evidence is plainly inadequate. You would need to find evidence that is incompatible with current theories in order to disprove them.

But I have a crushing reply to your argument, such that, once I deliver it, you will at once give up further debate with me on this particular point: You're right.


[...what's that? Foul! Foul! You can't do that! Now I shall have to find a new nit to pick!]

It's not on that level, that's the level which I respond to with the forbidden bet, e.g. p = 0, along with all the other stuff that implies strongly that our concepts of probability are simply broken.

Reason is a mistake for less extreme reasons such as "I'm dreaming" or "I'm a Boltzman Brain" or some forms of "my life is not merely a simulation but a psychological experiment".

The possibility that many "paranormal" or "psi" experiences are caused by undiagnosed or transient temporal lobe disorders should not be overlooked. Epilepsy is still poorly understood, underdiagnosed, and misdiagnosed. These "supernatural" things could be caused by natural but unusual brain states.

Vassar, I don't understand why psi is on that level. Unless you're presuming that someone is telepathically influencing you to make mistakes.

You pretty much said it. Hypotheses suggested by mind-projection priors turning out to be true pretty much refutes Occam and consequentially science.

I considered going anonymous for this because I know I'll be decimated here among you guys, but I decided to be bold because I think it's an argument worth making.

I have a world view that's very similar to many of you here, with reductionism as one of the center pieces.

So now to queue the lamentation and ridicule which I bring willingly: I am a psychic as well.

Many, many wishful people come at this from the fairy tail perspective of wishing paranormal things to exist, and therefore convincing themselves that they do.

I came from an opposite perspective.

I began with the assumption that it couldn't be true because of my reductionist beliefs, but am faced with a body of evidence so overwhelming that I cannot deny it.

I do not WANT to believe in psychic phenomena, but I am forced to as a result of the evidence I've been exposed to.

How can I explain the improbably accurate and precise information I know about people and the future? How can I explain the images that come into my mind that have such a crushingly high correlation with the images in the minds around me? How can I accurately guess the history of the occupants of particular building?

I mean, seriously, _I_ hardly believe it -- why in the hell would someone occupying some arbitrary location in space, that happens to be surrounded by a building, leave some kind of information there after his body is gone? What is the mechanism by which the information is stored? It flies against my entire world view, and my concept of how the universe is fundamentally organized. Yet there the information is, and on the occasions I'm able to get corroboration on the information I receive, I'm right about it the overwhelming majority of the time.

If I say to you, Eli, that as an experiment to rule out this nonsense, I had my wife imagine an arbitrary object, and that I was able to tell her what that object was within a minute, then you would have no reason to believe me. But imagine, hypothetically, that it was you who had done such a thing, and had done it often, with a high degree of success. You might not be able to compel others in your circle to believe you, but you yourself would HAVE to take notice. Even if you couldn't explain how it worked, you'd have to acknowledge that it worked, or at least try hard to find the trick your mind was playing on you.

I do not pretend to know the mechanism by which this works, but I am confident that it does, in fact, work, and that the mechanism is natural, not supernatural.

To those skeptics, I ask: why are you confident at all that your map matches the territory in anything more than a fleeting, superficial way? If the territory is so much more complex than we're capable of mapping, then why can't there be entire apparati built into our brains or other constituent parts that we have no basis for detecting or understanding at this point? Parts of our mind that despite our ignorance, can deliver accurate perception to those parts that we currently DO understand?

Most people here would answer: why would we try to hypothesize some extra constituent part that do not constrain our expectations in any way?

To that I answer: I am one who has observed evidence for which I have no explanation, which may in fact require those extra constituent parts.

I know psychics exist because I've worked hard to debunk my own abilities but I've failed. I'm also sure reductionism is correct, and therefore I'm sure reductionism and psychic abilities are not mutually exclusive.

Ken, I look forward to hearing about your lottery wins.


I hear your cry. I take you seriously and have no interest in insulting you. If you think this is an issue for you, may I suggest you consider a neurologist? Have you ever had a brain scan? There are many kinds of temporal lobe events, and you may benefit from diagnosis and possibly treatment. You may find relief with Tegretol or a similar agent.

Of course you know what your wife is imagining: you know her well and are obviously adept at reading her subconscious facial and body cues. Many of us often know what our friends are thinking, but I assure you it is simply because we are quite attuned to such subtle signals. This is a talent that can be learned, as anyone who has seen the English stage magician Derren Brown can attest. Best wishes to you!

Ken: Do the experiment with your wife repeatedly and see what happens.

Alternately: do you right now have "visions"/guesses/whatever of say, tomorrow? Write down a list of them, say, ten of them. Tomorrow note which were accurate and which were inaccurate.

Alt alt: I have written down on a small piece of paper a four digit number, and underneath this, drawn something. What is the number and what have I drawn? (Alternately, have your wife do that experiment with you a few times)

A few things.

First, I have actually been through a process of diagnosis that I submitted myself to for this very purpose -- to uncover whatever underlying neurological issue I had. They found nothing out of the ordinary, and I function perfectly well. I am well adjusted, not on medication, and otherwise "normal."

Second, comments like Eli's about the lottery aren't fair, because I never claimed to be omniscient, only to have some sort of extra perception.

Imagine a scenario in which the world is filled with deaf people. Human beings have never had a sense of hearing. I, through some genetic quirk, am born with a sense of hearing, however faint it may be, and I am faced with convincing the people around me that I can "hear." My first obstacle is to explain what hearing even means to someone who has no basis for understanding it.

Even if they were able to form a mental image of what a sound might be like (I'm not sure how they would, but for the sake of argument...), they wouldn't have a sense of the boundaries. Why can I hear air planes that are very far away from me but not hear what's going on in the next room very well?

I cannot see lotto numbers, I'm afraid... however, and this brings me to the next point, I can "see" people's superficial thoughts and one great way to demonstrate it is paper rock scissors.

I have done an experiment in which I played 100 games in a row with my wife, and wrote down the results. I can see which she'll throw, and I'll throw the opposite. I won 90% of the time (91 I think, but I didn't keep the paper I wrote it on). That's not really possible statistically.

You might wonder why I don't submit myself to public scrutiny if my results are so consistent. Frankly, I'm terrified of it. Anyone who cared to test me would be doing so in the spirit of "outing" me, with the attitude that I was a crackpot... I don't generally enjoy such circumstances.

If I did go forward in the interest of research, despite my personal reservations, then I know any mistake on my part would be magnified by the researchers and public to debunk me thanks to confirmation bias. In addition, I would expect to be faced with experiments devised in ignorance and so I'd be asked questions like "what are tomorrow's lotto numbers?"

Frankly, under those conditions, I will fail. I am not that good. It's a weaker sense that's easily overwhelmed by the normal senses and by emotions, and I'm not that good. I couldn't perform under pressure.

Even if I could, there would be very little upside: if I perform less than optimally, I'd be chided as an idiot or charlatan, and if I performed perfectly the experiments would be disregarded as flawed, and the subject matter silly. That's all without mentioning the possible damage to my reputation... there's not a lot of incentive.

@Ken: I am interested in your claim. You can understand that your personal testimony is not really enough to convince, but I will assume that you are posting in good faith and are serious about (dis)proving your psychic abilities to your own satisfaction.

You may wish to attempt the following modification on the rock-paper-scissors experiment: Your wife (or another party) will roll a six-sided die. 1-2, she will throw rock; 3-4, she will throw paper; 5-6, she will throw scissors. In this way, her throw will be entirely random (and so not predictable through ordinary mental reasoning), and yet she will know in advance what she plans to throw (and so it will be predictable given sufficient access to her inner mental state). If over a large number of trials you are able to guess her throws more often than expected, you are probably onto something.

See Derren Brown - Paper, Scissors, Stone

Tim, that was fascinating. I don't know how he did it. I certainly don't have a "trick," but of course you can't know that.

Ian: that's a great idea, I'll try it tonight if I have some time. I'll report back honestly. I think I'll be able to perform under those circumstances, but it'll be interesting to see.


First, great blog.

Second, it would be nice to hear back from Ken. I'd like to know if the experiment suggested by Ian yielded any results (even though I think that it could be done much more rigorously than what he's suggested with little additional effort).

Third, I want to raise two points about Eliezer's post:

a) Nothing can raise the probability of something being true if this something isn't logically/mathematically possible. No matter how much evidence we find that apparently supports the claim that there's a logical contradiction in our universe, we should still believe that the claim is false and continue to look for the truth.

I'm no expert, but it seems absolutely obvious to me that a non-reducible 'entity' is a logical impossibility. I think you'll agree with me that another way to say that something is reducible is to say that the complexity of its behavior is precisely equivalent (in some mathematical sense) to the complexity of its nature, i.e. behavioral complexity must equal compositional complexity. Therefore a non-reducible entity is an entity whose behavioral complexity is greater than its compositional complexity. The supernatural, as defined by Richard Carrier, is the most extreme case of this, since the human mind is the most behaviorally complex thing that we know of.

The question I want to ask is this: Is there really a difference between behavioral complexity and compositional complexity? Aren't these two categories something that we humans have made up completely arbitrarily? Aren't compositional and behavioral complexity one and the same? Therefore, isn't the claim that something is compositionally simple but behaviorally complex exactly like the claim that that 2 = 999?

b) What is the distinction between "the discovery of information transfer between the brains in the absence of any known material connection between them" and, say, the observation made by primitive human beings thousands of years ago that striking two stones together near a piece of wood results in this weird phenomenon they decided to call "fire"? Fire has pretty complex behavior, it's practically alive according to some definitions of 'life'. And of course, there was no known reductionist explanation for fire back then. If these primitive humans had been Bayesians, would they then have been justified in favoring the supernatural explanation that a sentient flame-spirit is responsible for the existence and behavior of fire? In fact, if you're right, wouldn't the supernaturalistic explanation be preferable _in every single case_ where there is no known naturalistic explanation for something?

I've been reading the posts and would love to throw some ideas in. With a little bit of patience and practice, I think it's easy and possible for anybody to see their own psychic ability in action.

There are several good online tools that can help test psychic perception. My favorite is http://www.psychicproject.com

I just went through the targets again and was able to get several hits that would be impossible to guess (there are objects and people that have been recently interviewed which serve as the psychic targets). I think the biggest thing is first having an open mind, not being a sucker, but having an open mind.

When I first got into testing my abilities for fun like this, I thought I would prove the whole process wrong, which I was always able to do. But when I made a shift, my results made a shift. Who knows, maybe it's all in my head. Anyway, just something to ponder.

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