Re: Attempt to put Paranormal discussion in context

From: Damien Broderick (
Date: Sun Jan 01 2006 - 11:09:53 MST

At 11:49 AM 1/1/2006 -0500, Richard wrote:
<big snip>
>I have actually taken part in an experiment to do this. A colleague of
>mine collected a huge quantity of experimental data, from dozens of
>subjects, over a period of several months (using the same experimental
>design that I mentioned I used, earlier). He, one other person and I then
>went to a casino with fifty pounds sterling (a lot of money for a
>penniless student to invest in an experiment, I can assure you) and then
>used the distilled essence of all the collected data to bet on a roulette
>wheel. That was all we did in the casino, mind: walk in with the money,
>go straight to the roulette wheel and make the bet using the numbers he
>had written down. It took just a few seconds for the wheel to turn and
>the money to get flushed into the croupier's stash. Months of effort,
>hundreds of hours of tediously collecting data, and all gone in a couple
>of seconds.

Richard's general account, here snipped, is spot on, and I'm glad he took
the trouble to spell out patiently the points I made in highly compressed
form yesterday. But to concentrate on just the example cited above: this
account will doubtless be taken by some as adequate evidence that there is
no such phenomenon (after all, these parapsychologists worked very hard to
predict roulette numbers, and failed; this disconfirms precognition, let's
move on). Suppose, by contrast, they had succeeded. Their winnings would
have been small (the stake was only 50 quid, after all). Yet it had taken
them hundreds of tedious hours expended over months to get that far. In
other words, the supposed test of the reality of psi, the ability to profit
in a casino or lottery by precognition, would probably not have
earth-shaking consequences unless many thousands of psi-talented and
inhumanly patient people could be conscripted to the task.

I think the key to the credibility problem, at least among thinkers
characteristic of this list, is the difficulty in retaining a distinction
between inanimate physical systems that are highly reliable, even if
entirely novel, such as x-ray machines, and purposive, complex, opaque
cognitive/emotive systems ("human beings", for short). It seems completely
reasonable to some people to expect that if humans can do Y, and you know
how to do Y, you should be able to do it every time you're asked to. That
is largely true of such tasks as tying your shoe laces, but it breaks down
badly when an artist is challenged to "Go ahead, then, if you're so
`creative', write a book/paint a painting/compose a symphony, and make a
million dollars with it!" Even so routine a human experience as falling in
love has proved to be unpredictable, even zany. Those humans! So much more
irritating than simple machines.

Damien Broderick

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