Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Solve et Coagula
An optimistic look at how we can progress the study of paranormal and occult subjects.
I have been thinking a great deal about quantum theory recently and the increasingly popular claim that we will find the answer to mysteries such as psychic phenomena and magic within its folds. I must admit that whilst I would be happy to see a comprehensive, and above all working theory of this phenomenon emerge, I am sceptical, highly sceptical in fact that this is the direction we need to be looking in to explore this phenomena.
Even since the earliest "scientists" looked at the world and concluded that reality was composed of four elements; earth, air, fire and water, magicians have been jumping on the bandwagon and claiming that these components were also the substrata of magic. For example let us look at the Victorian idea of the luminiferous ether which was proposed as the medium through which light as a wave propagates as it travels. The idea is that just as a sound wave travels through air, so therefore if light were a wave it must also travel through a substance analogous to air; this substance was dubbed the ether. As soon as this idea was proposed it seems that occultists (particularly Theosophists) jumped on this and used the term etheric in an occult context; claiming that the substance of the bodies we walk about in when experiencing an "out of body experience" is etheric. Science moved on and disproved the idea of the ether, leaving us with some rather embarrassing jargon.
We see another example of occultists trying to appropriate scientific concepts with another favourite, DNA. Theories arise which attempt to explain phenomena such as reincarnation with "Genetic Memory" because it sounds scientific and therefore attracts a pseudo-acceptability and proxy-respectability. Let us disprove that one now as a quick aside. Many accounts of reincarnation include a description of the subjects’ death. If genetic memory were an explanation I would like to know how these memories get into the DNA since one is very unlikely to have children to pass on the DNA at or after death. As a final nail to its coffin, let us remember that (with the exception of the odd random mutation) DNA does not change through life, so the idea that it is a reservoir for memory is preposterous, since if it doesn’t change therefore it is not the store to which new memories are added.
Another example concerns uninformed people putting the effect of the moon down to gravity, which is pure nonsense. I do not doubt in the slightest the emotional effects of the moon; in fact Selene is happy to give me a full dose of depression whenever she is fully lighting our sky, however gravity clearly cannot be the answer. First of all, the amount of moon does not change through its 28 day cycle, all that changes is the amount of the moon which is reflecting light; the position of the sun dictates how much illuminated moon-surface we can see from Earth; that is all. So since the gravity of the moon does not change, that cannot be responsible for the common mood-swings many many people experience in sympathy with the moon.
The more astute person might cite the tides as evidence of the moons effect, however whilst; with the correct equipment; it is perfectly possible for the tides in a teacup to be detected; I doubt that they are relevant here. Tides work because the gravitational pull of the moon changes due to the location of the moon in relation to the earth (or more particularly bodies of water on earth). So as the moon travels round the earth it is basically pulling the water with it. If I were to stand perfectly still for 24 hours, the moon may well pull the various fluids in my body with it as it circles us. However this must have a cancelling effect since I do not stay very still during the day, and probably face each direction for an approximately equal period each day.
Please remember (and I will repeat this) that whilst I am totally against these pseudoscientific explanations I do not doubt that the phenomena that it is trying to explain exists. Elemental Magic does work, Out of Body experiences do happen and memories reaching back into to past lives do exist. I have experienced each of these on occasional and absolutely accept their existence. It is the explanation of the phenomena that I am objecting to since it is leading us onto a blind path.
I feel very much that we are doing something very similar with quantum theory. It is as if people are taking something which they don’t understand such as psychic phenomena and then taking something else that they do not understand such as quantum theory and saying that this mysterious thing explains that mysterious thing. It is very worrying logic and I feel that it is of a similar vein to what occultists have been doing since we first discovered that we can travel out of out body, pick up on thoughts and emotions and encounter ghosts and other entities and then desperately trying to make it acceptable by plugging in the science of the day.
In "The Character of Physical Law" super-genius Richard Feynman said "I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics". This is true and quantum theory is very unintuitive. It, along with Einstein’s general and special theories of relativity are the two most tested theories in all of human history. Both are shown to be correct to a high degree of accuracy and alleged superluminal neutrinos at CERN aside, it is fairly safe to say that both models of reality describe our universe very well and whilst there are incompatibilities between the two models; quantum and relativity; these will doubtless be ironed out in time with a theory of everything. It doesn’t even matter if exceptions to these laws are found such as the recent CERN news, between them, they still describe the (physical) universe to both an infinitesimal and cosmic level of detail. Newton’s models of celestial mechanics also break down in certain areas such as close to a black hole. It doesn’t mean that they is wrong, just that it is only accurate to a certain scale; which in this case happens to be finer that that described between quantum and relativity physics. If Newton were wrong we would not have been able to get to the moon using his laws of motion, if Einstein were wrong, in-car Navigation systems would not work since the constant triangulation calculations they need to make must factor in relativity.
As an aside, we must also be wary of sensationalism. The media are happy to claim that Einstein has been proved wrong with the finding of alleged superluminal neutrinos, however even if this is the case; general relativity (which is general because it includes gravity in its description of nature) only says that one cannot accelerate from rest to the speed of light and beyond. There is nothing about starting from rest then moving straight to a superluminal speed or of particles travelling this fast without ever slowing down (although we do not have a clue how to do this or whether it is possible). Theories and mathematics have also modelled particles called Tachyons (small fast ones) which only travel faster than light and these remain within the allowable parameters of relativity. Like Newton’s celestial mechanics we will doubtless find exceptions to Einstein’s rule in areas such as nanoseconds after the big bang where the rules break down and that is fine, all we are talking about are levels of accuracy. All these areas within our universe are explainable by science, and the fuzzy bits which we cannot explain will one day be explained.
I also feel that is it imprudent to attack science and say that these are only theories. The term theory is often used to say that "therefore scientists only think this is the case". In mathematics we can produce theorems which are seen as a proof because the expressions of mathematics show that such a theorem is universally true.
So if we consider Fermat's last theorem that "no three positive integers a, b, and c can satisfy the equation an + bn = cn for any integer value of n greater than two". For a long time the proof to this statement was a mystery; in fact Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation pondered this in an episode. However in 1994 a mathematician Andrew Wiles established a final proof that this was the case 358 years after Fermat scrawled a note in a margin of a book describing something he knew but did not elaborate upon.
Basically a theorem such as we find in mathematics can be indisputably proven. Let us take another theorem; that of Pythagoras who stated that in any right angle triangle, the areas of the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. This can be expressed as a2 + b2 = c2. There is not a single right angled triangle in the universe which breaks this rule and this can be shown because every single right angle triangle in the universe can be mathematically modelled and expressed within Pythagoras’s theorem.
Theories rather than theorems are what are found in physics. This is because at its root physics is concerned with observing and describing nature and then making predictions upon its behaviours. Because philosophically we cannot check all of nature in an exhaustive way such as we can verify all of mathematics, we refer to these models as theorems.
Let us take an example. I have a theory that “all swans are white.” I cannot call this a theorem because in order to do so I would need to examine all swans and show that each one is white. Since that is impossible we can never we absolutely sure; however since each scientist, using concepts such as repeatability and peer review always comes up with the same results we can be fairly sure that as a description of reality, this is accurate. So, let us not get hung up on the term “theory”. To all practical intents and purposes they can be treated as “practically proof” and whilst exceptions may be found, all that this means is that that the theory will need fine-tuning, it is still basically correct. With the recent CERN results; supposing that they are vindicated in peer review; all that it means is a tweak to relativity; it will not be a sensationalist case of throwing relativity out of the window, whatever reporters tell you.
The other point I wish to make with regards to scientific models is that generally they are all connected to each other and never really stand in isolation. The exception seems to be the apparent inconsistency between quantum mechanics and relativity. However generally speaking, the findings of physics, chemistry and biology are all interconnected and consistent. We can use the physics explanation of electron shells to explain the properties of a particular chemical in chemistry and the chemistry of a protein; DNA; to explain the properties of a particular organism etc. This is important because the consistency between the physical sciences show that a unified and consistent model of reality is being built up; a fact which further adds to its strength as a valid description of nature. To find a fatal flaw in one of these is to find a flaw in everything and such an unthinkable finding would go against the conclusions of many modern researchers in the field.
The above statement is very important because it shows that research is more-or-less on the right track. There is of course room for new things, however the consistency of each description of reality suggests that science is unlikely to experience any paradigm shifts such as discovering a fifth force. If such a force were to be discovered, the mathematical models which describe the physical mechanics will fall over, which means our models in chemistry will fall over and so will our models of biology etc. The fact that everything fits together so consistently strongly suggests that this is unlikely to happen and that science is therefore correct in describing (physical) reality.
One aspect of quantum theory I have particular trouble with in relation to the paranormal is quantum entanglement. This is described very well on its Wikipedia page. Essentially it has been shown that two particles (typically electrons or photons) which have been paired show predictable behaviour in particular defiance of Heisenberg when separated. This occurs when paired properties (such as energy and location) are measured. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principal shows that with a single particle you cannot measure both properties because the act of observation affects the properties.
The relationship between entangled particles is profound however. If you were to measure a property of a single entangled particle, say spin (which can be either up or down) and find it is an up spin, the entangled particle will always be the opposite. This is an important feature of the system, that the quantum superimposition of the two will be zero. If one particle has a property value of 1, the other particle will have a property particle of -1. So, it doesn’t matter how far apart the two particles are, you will be able to find the properties of the distant particle at the same time you “read” the properties of the near particle, meaning (sort of) that the information has travelled faster than light; a fact which bothered Einstein a great deal.
In a thought experiment, Einstein, Podolski and Rosen showed that Heisenberg’s uncertainly principal and the violation of the speed of light limit are both consequences of entanglement. With a single particle, Heisenberg showed that it is impossible to measure it location and its energy accurately, you can have one or the other; there is no magic here; the act of measuring one property affects the state of the other property. However with two entangled particles you can use a timey-wimey-wibbly-wobbly way around this limitation, since you can measure the location of one particle, and the energy of the other particle. Since the net effect of properties will always add up to zero, you can not only work out the other property and violate Heisenberg’s uncertainty principal, you can get the answer at superluminal speeds even if one of the entangled particles is on the other side of the universe; thus violating relativity. This is referred to as the Einstein, Podolski and Rosen (EPR) Experiment or sometimes as the EPR Paradox. This really bothered Einstein, however I do urge everyone to research why there is a speed-of-light limit in the first place; it is beyond my scope here however very interesting.
So, entanglement allows us to gather some information faster than light and in defiance of both titans, Einstein and Heisenberg; violating relativity and the uncertainty principal. However one property of this information is that it is fairly useless. To quote Michio Kaku (Physics of the impossible, Page 61 and Location 1324 of the Kindle edition):
“You cannot send a real message, or Morse code, via the EPR experiment even if information is travelling faster than light.
Knowing that an electron on the other side of the universe is spinning down is useless information. You cannot send today’s stock quotations via this method. For example, let’s say that a friend always wears one red and one green sock, in random order. Let’s say you examine one leg, and the leg has a red sock on it. Then you know faster than the speed of light, that the other sock is green, Information actually travelled faster than light, but this information is useless. No signal containing non-random information can be sent via this method.”
I would be remiss however if I also failed to point out the entanglement is proving to be critical in the new science exploration of teleportation. However don’t reach for your Blake 7 video’s yet, teleportation works by using entanglement to transfer properties from one pair of entangled particles to another. This is wonderful, brilliant stuff, but I feel not of interest from an occult perspective.
I hope that I am wrong, however for something like entanglement to serve as the mechanism behind telepathy it is not enough to say that one entangled particle is in each one persons head, and the other particle in the other persons head. We have seen that the sort of information transmitted by entanglement is limited to the state of the particle. Even if we could encode information relative to concepts viable on a human scale (such as don’t travel on that plane, or that the lottery numbers on a given week are 1, 5, 12, 15, 17, 29) into this and transmit that information from entangled particle A to it sister-particle B, we would need a mechanism for that to happen in and a decoder in the recipients brain. Furthermore, we have occasions when a number of psychic people pick up the same information. Entanglement only links pairs of particles so there would need to be a mechanism which propagates the entangled state onto other particles. Such a mechanism is not impossible and in fact recent advances in teleportation suggest that this is at least partially possible, however on the scale where psychic information becomes meaningful to humans it seems to me that this is very unlikely to be the mechanism behind it. I also feel that I must point out that effects such as entanglement require some fairly exotic technology to demonstrate, suggesting further that these effects are not in action when humans experience the paranormal.
Rather than filling us with dismay this should thrill us to the core. It means that we do not need a scientific model to valid our experiences. Let me be clear that I fully accept that paranormal phenomena exists and happens, I am not trying to disprove it but show that the explanation for its existence does not lie within physics and our models of the world. In accepting that this phenomena is real and that it is not a part of the standard models opens a door to a more mysterious and wonderful reality than we can yet imagine.
This also explains the objections of alleged sceptics such as James Randi and Richard Dawkins. If we can imagine people who have not experienced any phenomena and then experienced the wonder of science at its greatest, separate from academic funding, we can understand why they can have such issues with the subject. To me it doesn’t matter, the tiniest experience trumps the greatest scientific model so my world-view has no issues with accepting this sort of phenomena. However my intellectual understanding also accepts that physics is correct with respect to its status as a description of physical reality I feel the need to stand up and ask questions when we are perhaps over enthusiastic of using quantum theory as the explanation to psychic phenomena.
There is further evidence that we will not find the explanation to paranormal phenomena within physics, which is by looking at its track record in studying psi within laboratory conditions. Apart from a few threshold results as suggested by experiments such as those carried out by JB Rhine at Duke University in the 1930s science has returned a practically total blank in generated psychic effects in the lab. Let us compare this with what is experienced in the field, where poltergeists (generating physical effects) get encountered relatively frequently, cryptids defy common sense and so many people experience psychic dreams and accurate out-of-body experiences with regularity. Speaking from experience it is easy to visit a genuinely haunted house, and as soon as one puts down the distracting toys and “tunes in” experiences, even shared experiences are easy to find.
I feel that part of this comes down to scientific methodology. Do you remember my swan example, elsewhere in this essay? A scientist in testing the rigor of a theory cannot believe in White Swans. Rather he or she must be sceptical and look for the black swans which break the theory. Remember that without finding the crucial black swan (which should be easy if they exist) he or she must check that all swans are white, something philosophically impossible. In physics a scientist can (in fact should) be separate from the experiment or that being observed and so can dispassionately record the results and evaluate accordingly. However this is not possible with psychic phenomena, so much depends upon a group-mind being generated which serves to energise (be careful with this word), shape and direct results. However when one approaches this as a sceptic the group mind fails to form properly preventing results from occurring (even if one is working with genuine psychics). This in fact is why parapsychologists who “believe” get results whilst those that don’t believe fail to receive results.
Where therefore do we stand as psychics, occultist and magicians? How are we to work with concepts such as telepathy if there is not a general theory underlying their existence? Can we expect to find hidden forces which point to the explanation of this sort of phenomena? Well, ultimately I do not think that underlying theories matter. In fact basing a magical philosophy on physics will serve only to limit rather than inspire ourselves. In science there is always a list of impossibilities, things such as the superluminal barrier which we cannot transgress; a list which has poisoned the intellects of the like of Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, in magic we can transcend this unless we believe otherwise.
Dion Fortune was very clear about not confusing the planes, confusing the worlds where we are investigating and I feel that this advice is crucial to our evolution as occultists. Science is impregnable in its home area and I feel that, just I do not believe that we should use scientific models to explain the paranormal; we also must shy away from arguing that science has it wrong. This may appear to leaving myself backed in a corner as I still stand firm in insisting that paranormal effects are real, however all I am really trying to do is open up research in areas which will be more relevant (and certainly more fruitful) in the investigation of magical and psychic phenomena.
We already have a toolbox to help us explore this phenomena and this toolbox has tools rooted in a myriad of cultures, traditions and interpretations. Whether we chose to use Tibetan methods to explore Bardo states, Hindu Tattwa’s to explore elemental planes within the astral light or simple meditation to go with the flow, I guarantee you will get better results than you would with spectrometers and infra-red sensing technology.
I hope that with this essay I am helping us to disregarding those aspects of investigation which are not really relevant for psychic and magical exploration. In releasing this conceit that physics will explain all, we open ourselves to a world of real magic which underpins physical reality, makes it more interesting and meaningful and most of all frees us from the paradox that psychic phenomena works, however it cannot be explained by physics. We need to accept this and then use our own methods to investigate, explore and study. Let us not confuse the planes!
I do welcome further discussion on this subject however so please do argue and feedback. :)