Friday, January 13, 2006

"Weak" ID theory, psychic phenonemena, and Oprah

Been continuing to think about the issue of intelligent design and the "problem" of positing a mechanism for it. One doesn't have to posit a "God" designing nature and interfering with natural processes to consider the issues of intelligent design as having some legitimacy. But one does have to suggest a mechanism - other than randomness - for the creation of design in nature, particularly in biological evolution. It's not just Christians who suggest that their God created the world, or participates in the events of the world. It's a common belief, and even present in the highest non-creationist teachings, which suggest that even the physical world is a creation of "mind". Whether God or "mind" creates the world, it does so by some process or mechanism that is not merely random. But what evidence is there for such a process.

That's where Oprah comes in. One of the more embarassing personal details of my life is that my wife is a devotee of the Goddess of daytime TV, Oprah herself, and in order to spend time with her, I am often required by circumstances and compassionate tolerance for all beings to sit down with her and watch Oprah strut across the American landscape. I usually spend about half the show making snide comments about Oprah and her guests, pushing the envelope of connubial bliss, but I have to admit that some of the time she puts something interesting on. Yesterday on her show she interviewed a mother and her daughter who had a remarkable psychic experience. The daughter had a friend who had disappeared about a week earlier while driving back from a long trip. The mother had never met this daughter's friend, but the daughter was increasingly disturbed by her friend's disappearance, as were many people in town, and one night a week after the disappearance the daughter asked the mother to pray for her friend. I assume the family was at least mildly religious, and the mother prayed for the friend. That night, the mother had three consecutive dreams about the friend's disappearance. In the first, she dreamed of an intersection on a country road, one she actually recognized from an area outside of town. She woke up wondering why she would dream of such a place. When she went back to sleep, she dreamed of the intersection again, and of the area down to hillside from it. A rabbit appeared in the dream and spoke to her, telling her to go further down the hill and look. She had the distinct impression that this was where her daughter's friend was. When she awoke in the morning she knew she had to go out to this place and at least check it out. She told her daughter and husband about the dream (not mentioning the talking rabbit), and both were skeptical, but the daughter agreed to go along. They drove out to the intersection and began looking around. The road bordered a steep gulley, and it was difficult to get down it safely. At first they couldn't see anything, and she was about to give up when they daughter said "go further". The mother recognized that phrase as the same as the rabbit's in the dream, and she decided to risk going down the hillside. Finally they spotted something down at the bottom, and as they got closer realized it was a car. The daughter's friend was inside the car, badly injured, having been in a coma for most of the 8 days she was missing. Rescue squads rushed to the scene, and the girl miraculously recovered completely.

What made this story interesting to me is that many similar stories have occurred before and will in the future. It's not a scientifically verifiable account, but it strains credulity to think that anyone could randomly dream such things that turn out to be true. It suggests that there is a mechanism for psychic events in nature, and one that intersects with the world of physical laws. Why? Because in order to have this dream, the mother's neurons had to be stimulated by something. Dreams don't just happen in consciousness, they happen in the physical brain. Some force has to act on those neurons to stimulate them in a manner that produces the right cognitive information in the brain. It doesn't have to be a precise process, but it does have at least exert some form of physically verifiable energy and force in order for anything to happen. Considering what kind of force or energy that could be is the first step in trying to understand what mechanism could be responsible for this sort of thing.

In the first place, let's not presume off hand that it's an "intelligent" force. Let's not presume it was Gods or angels putting this dream in the mother's head. Such explanations are part of the common folklore, but so was the idea that lightning came from angry Gods in the sky. A scientific approach has to look for a more mundane explanation first. So let's make a few leaps of faith here. First, let's presume that there is a natural mechanism involved. Second, let's presume that this mechanism involves a force or field of energy that human neurons can somehow be stimulated by. Maybe the stimulation is indirect, but let's presume that it does exist. But let's not presume any operative "intelligence" behind it, and see if that explanation is the only good one.

One of the interesting characteristics of psychic phenomena - not so much evident in this dream, but in many other psychic experiences - is that physical proximity doesn't seem to be a huge factor. In other words, people have dreams or psychic intuitions about events all over the world. Whatever field of force is involved, the events themselves do not seem to obey any inverse square laws. That doesn't mean that the actual forces behind the events don't obey such laws, but that the outcomes do not. This is a significant observation, because it brings to mind a system which behaves in a similar fashion: the telephone system.

No one would suggest that the telephone system doesn't obey physical laws. Obviously it uses electricity to translate sound into electrical signals which are transmitted through wires and satellites to a specific destination where it converts back into sound. But when you make a call, it connects anwhere in the network without much loss of signal, regardless of physical distance. Now, what if the psychic information that is conveyed in dreams like this one is not simply "radiated" like radio waves from a source, say the girl's unconscious mind in a gulley, but is sent out on a network, like a telephone line? What if the reception of that "call" involves a series of interconnecting steps, in which connections are made allowing the call to "get through" to its destination? One thing that seems evident in psychic phenomena is that it occurs most frequently when there is a "connection" between the source and the receiver. People have dreams about people they know, people they love, people they have some personal connection to. Scientists often see this and are skeptical, because they think it implies some kind of personal bias rather than an objective phenomena. But what if this occurs because there is a literal "network" that is created by personal contact, which makes it possible for psychic information to pass from party to party?

I read that years ago in early research into psychic ability that scientist took a mother rabbit, hooked her up to an EEG, then took her baby rabbits on a submarine to a depth at which no radio waves could pass, and at a predetermined time killed her babies one at a time. Apparently the EEG showed a spike of distress at each death of her babies, even though there was no physical mechanism for that information to get to her. What this suggests of course is that something did in fact stimulate her neurons to spike. Further, it suggests that the intense personal connection of mother and child made this communication possible. So perhaps the way the psychic mechanism works is, indeed, similar to a phone system, or better yet, an internet system, where each person can act like a server, transmitting information to those with direct connections, who transmit it further down the line. The strength of the signal is dependent not on inverse-square laws, but on the strength of the connections, combined perhaps with the strength of the original signal. Life and death moments seem to create the biggest initial signals, but even those signals are dependent on fairly strong direct connections.

In this dream case, what's interesting is that the mother had no personal connection with her daughter's friend. The daughter and her friend had a strong connection, and the mother and daughter had a strong connection, and this seemed to be enough. It's also interesting that the dream didn't occur right after the accident, but only after the daughter had mentioned it to her mother, and after the mother had said a prayer for the friend. What this suggests is that the connection had to be made conscious in this case. The daughter's bringing her concerns for her friend to her mother created a connection from the mother to the friend. And this connection may have been strengthened by the act of prayer. This suggests that one of the things that may go on in prayer is a strengthing of the psychic connections between people.

The dream itself suggests things about the process. Rather than getting precise information, the dream gives only a few bits of information. One was the location. It's important to note that the mother already knew of and could recognize this intersection on that country road. The "network" connection somehow stimulated the memory neurons the mother already had which made this location appear in the dream. It didn't come out of nowhere. Likewise, the voice that spoke to her and guided her somehow became associated with a rabbit. We can't presume the source was a rabbit, but rather that the neurons associated with "rabbit" somehow got stimulated also. This appears to be a common phenomena. So the network was able to get some of the information accross, but not entirely accurately and smoothly. One has to ask whether this was an intentional and specific process all the way through, or in some respects a passive, global process relying to some degree on chance.

Perhaps what was going on is a kind of "internet broadcast" of information on an imprecise network dependent on strong connecting links and the right combination of servers and receptors. In other words, perhaps the girl lying in the gulch was "broadcasting" a distress signal, that went out to all her close psychic connections, but got passed on only through the close connections of those close connections, and only then when made conscious and deliberate. So each successive generation of connections might have passed the signal on only where it was strong and conscious, until finally it managed to find a receptor with the right combination of features to recognize and interpret it consciously. Others may have received the signal, but were unable to recognize or process it properly. They may not have had that particular intersection stored in their memory neurons, such that a simply stimulation could trigger its surfacing. They may not have had the write "frequency" tuned in to receive it. Or they may simply have garbled the message.

Anyway, what does this have to do with intelligent design? Only that the psychic world may resemble not just a phone line, or an internet connection, but a giant brain. In other words, it may be a huge interconnected web that operate more like neurons than digital computers. Which means that it is both extremely complex and yet also not very reliable. It may be dependent to such a large degree on establishing and maintaining complex interconnections that it doesn't amount to some kind of precise mechanism at all, anymore than the brain is. Scientists who often scoff at psychics because they can't produce universal results may be expecting the psyche to operate like an advanced digital computer rather than as a loose, inconsistent biological network like a primitive brain.

What this means is that the intelligent design hypothesis may need to look for a mechanism that is more along the lines of a giant psychic "brain" that has evolved along with the evolution of living forms themselves. This network of interconnections may indeed be seen as an "extra" element in the process of evolution itself. If this network can somehow manage to stimulate neurons in various loosely"intelligent" ways, is it impossible to suggest that it could also stimulate mutations of DNA in loosely intelligent ways? Keep in mind that the term "intelligence" here is not the same as the creationist view. In some respects it's not much different from the notion of intelligence emerging from the physical properties of matter. It's just suggesting that there may be a psychic network of interconnections that has a subtle role to play in the process of evolution. But it also suggests some wiggle room for ID theory to posit a mechanism by which some kind of prior conscious intelligence could naturally weave its way into the evolutionary world of biological organisms.

The arguments against the kind of "strong ID" proponents who dominate the news, almost entirely Christian fundamentalists who think of a "God" out there actually deliberately interverning in the physical universe from time to time, are so powerful as to literally make monkeys of them. There is so little evidence for "strong ID" that it can safely be thrown in the dustbin of mythic history. But "weak ID" is another story. "Weak ID" depends not on a hugely omniscient God, but on a passive network of relatively weak psychic interconnections that can yet influence the activities of neurons, and perhaps even DNA mutation. This requires giving some credibility to the evidence for "passive psychism" such as is present in the dreams of Oprah's guests, rather than intentional psychic powers as claimed by well-known blowhards. Again, the evidence for active psychic powers is not terribly strong, maybe stronger than that for "strong ID", but not greatly convincing. But passive psychic events such as this dream are fairly common and quite convincing. It suggests that psychic "ability" is really not an ability at all, but simply a functional part of the autonomic nervious system, operating for the most part well below the level of conscious control. Occasionally it rises up to consciousness, but even there often simply as a series of thoughts that we are aware of but have no control over, such as dreams or reveries. There may be a few individuals who have developed some very loose ability to manipulate these connections consciously, but if so, it's only on a very hit and miss basis.

It does suggest that there's something to be found, somewhere, linked to the neural activity of the brain, which can receive data through an as yet unknown conduit, likely involving an as yet undiscovered force or form of energy. It's hard to see how dreams such as this could be accounted for otherwise.


Anonymous said...

Q: Forgive me a strange question. If somebody with a razor-sharp sword would suddenly sever your head, what difference would it make to you?

Sri Niz: None whatsoever. The body will lose its head, certain lines of communication will be cut, that is all. Two people talk to each other on the phone and the wire is cut. Nothing happens to the people, only they must look for some other means of communication. The Bhagavad-Gita says: "the sword does not cut it". It is literally so. It is in the nature of consciousness to survive its vehicle. It is like fire. It burns up the fuel, but not itself. Just like a fire can outlast a mountain of fuel, so does consciousness survive innumerable bodies.


Anonymous said...

Hi BY,
A fun speculation. Someone just put me on to a book called The Field. Its an alternative mechanism to the one you suggest. The author claims to stick to rigid science although I'm getting that 'Oprah' kind of feeling before I've even read it. On the other hand, could be just a prejudice. At a certain level, her vision is quite beautiful. Here's a short quote from the prologue:

"At our most elemental level, we are not a chemical reaction but an energetic charge. Human beings and all living things are a coalescence of energy in a field of energy connected to every other thing in the world. This pulsating energy field is the central engine of our being and our consciousness, the alpha and the omega of our existence."

Here's the Amazon connection to see inside the book:

I always like Ramana's take, more or less to the effect that for those who believe in God, God exists, and for those who believe in something else, that something else exists. Finding something that ordinary science can accept is a bit tougher. Arthur C. Clarke does give a good review and I think he is a at least a bit of a skeptic in most cases. See what you think.

JB said...
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JB said...

JCB here, revising. Excellent considerations! Great to see your blogging on these things. I agree with your general approach to "weak ID" and dreams here.

I've been thinking about what on earth could have triggered the Oprah guest's neurons to create her precognitive dream. One thing that occurred to me is that the information that came to her in her dream is not unlike the sort of information a good astrologer or tarot-card reader might get in a similar situation, and that her dream and divinatory readings may share common mechanisms. What is the source of the correlation between planetary positions and the mundane events with which the astrologer correlates them? As an example, say an astrologer notices that your basement flooded right at the time that Neptune (water) transited the cusp of your fourth house (your domicile). Is there some force coming from Neptune that causes the basement to flood? Is there no correlation at all, and the astrologer is just using the "tabula rasa" of planetary positions to tune in directly to some akashic information storehouse? Or are the two events -- basement flooding, Neptune transiting -- both reflective of some larger pattern, which the astrologer helps to decipher? I don't know, but suspect (to the extent that astrology has any objective validity) that it's something more like the last possibility.

If that is the case, then we may need to look beyond the interface between "energy" and "neurons" for the source of Oprah's guest's precognitive dream. We don't really understand that much about what activates ANY dream (precognitive or not), but presumably it has to do with some "churning" of memories and impressions, combined with sensory inputs during sleep. This woman's dream can be seen as the equivalent of divonatory reading: her intention, combined with X input, gives the result. But what was X input? That's the question. It could have been almost anything. An astrologer uses planets; a Tarotist uses cards; maybe this woman's bodymind somehow decoded the pattern of the wrinkles in the sheets, or the fluctuations of the wind outside. Do you see what I'm getting at? Maybe some sort of energy did interface with her neurons, as you suggest, but maybe her body used entirely naturalistic inputs which were themselves determined via some unknown (synchronistic) means.

I guess the hypothesis here is that (a) synchronicity is real, and (b) intention and focus may allow us to "read" it, using capacities we don't fully understand. Maybe the signals are around, and our ability to decode them is what needs honing -- but sometimes, under certain conditions of stress or longing, some latent decoding ability crops up. As for what mediates such signals, correlating them with one another, I have no idea!

Fascinating and thought-provoking stuff; thanks for writing about it.