Charlie's Diary

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Sun, 15 Aug 2004

If the theory is broken, work harder to fix it

Back in the day -- oh, call it 1940 through 1970 -- a lot of science fiction made the tacit assumption that ESP (extra sensory perception) was real; ditto telepathy, telekinesis, a whole battery of "powers of the mind". Belief in ESP and related phenomena is still fairly widespread, despite a lack of strong and unequivocal supporting evidence and a host of people who, if posessed of such abilities, would be powerfully motivated to use them. (Contemplate your local prison population, the successful escape rate, and then consider what that says about the probable existence of "mind reading" powers in the general population ...)

A number of interesting hypotheses have been advanced to explain ESP. One of the most persuasive (to me, at any rate) is blindsight, the phenomenon of seeing things one is not consciously aware of; a lot of visual pre-processing appears to be done in the retina or the optic nerve, before any signal reaches the visual cortex. I can come up with any number of "just so stories" that explain (in the context of evolution) why it would be developmentally advantageous for a small furry mammal to be able to react rapidly to visual phenomena at an autonomic level, before its brain gets deeply involved in working out what the phenomenon represents. And blindsight gives us a decent explanation (at last!) for why we sometimes feel as if we're being watched -- we might not be conscious of directly observing someone watching us, but some bunch of synapses, hard-wired in our pre-hominid evolution to twitch if a predator is present, has just registered an alarm.

Meanwhile, on the flip side of the ESP-explaining world, we get things like this: String Theory, Universal Mind, and the Paranormal, by Brian D. Josephson, Department of Physics, University of Cambridge.

ABSTRACT: A model consistent with string theory is proposed for so-called paranormal phenomena such as extra-sensory perception (ESP). Our mathematical skills are assumed to derive from a special "mental vacuum state", whose origin is explained on the basis of anthropic and biological arguments, taking into account the need for the informational processes associated with such a state to be of a life-supporting character. ESP is then explained in terms of "shared thought bubbles" generated by the participants out of the "mental vacuum state". The paper concludes with a critique of arguments sometimes made claiming to rule out the possible existence of paranormal phenomena.

Wow: he's got them all. String theory, the anthropic principle, ESP, cartesian dualism resurrected with a big bang, even references to Penrose! This isn't so much a defense of the flat earth theory as a full-frontal attempt to prove that we're all living on the surface of an Alderson disc.

As a skeptic, I'm kind of irritated by the idea of invoking Big Physics™ to explain what's probably a psychological phenomenon. (And as a materialist, I'm really irritated.) But as an SF writer I'm overjoyed. Whee! A respectable gloss for a whole bunch of more-or-less discredited ideas that make the universe a bigger sandpit to build castles of the mind in! I'm going to milk this for a whole novel or three, if nobody comes along and kicks out the foundations from under it first. It is, after all, a perfect fit for the world of The Atrocity Archives, and the idea of writing a sequel has been on my mind of late ...

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 12:16 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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Some webby stuff I'm reading:

Engadget ]
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The Memory Hole ]
Boing!Boing! ]
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Walter Jon Williams ]
Making Light (TNH) ]
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Junius (Chris Bertram) ]
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Bruce Sterling ]
Ian McDonald ]
Amygdala (Gary Farber) ]
Cyborg Democracy ]
Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
Atrios ]
The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ]
This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ]
Jesus's General ]
Mick Farren ]
Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
Respectful of Otters (Rivka) ]
Tangent Online ]
Grouse Today ]
Hacktivismo ]
Terra Nova ]
Whatever (John Scalzi) ]
Justine Larbalestier ]
Yankee Fog ]
The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
Cough the Lot ]
The Yorkshire Ranter ]
Newshog ]
Kung Fu Monkey ]
S1ngularity ]
Pagan Prattle ]
Gwyneth Jones ]
Calpundit ]
Lenin's Tomb ]
Progressive Gold ]
Kathryn Cramer ]
Halfway down the Danube ]
Fistful of Euros ]
Orcinus ]
Shrillblog ]
Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
Hitherby Dragons ]
Counterspin Central ]
MetaFilter ]
NTKnow ]
Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
Fafblog ]
BBC News (Scotland) ]
Pravda ]
Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

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(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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