Wednesday, May 27, 2015

On the impossibility of precognition and whether it's science

Back in the early 1990s, I worked in the field of genetics. Back then we understood the importance of epigenetic effects (i.e. cross generational inheritance of environmental effects or acquired characteristics) but the field was overtaken by a tyranny of the sequence. Why? Well, possibly due to the abundance of vendors selling costly sequencing machines or just an enthusiasm for the sequence. Still, over time we've come to understand the importance of the wider system and epigenetic effects are back with a vengeance.

Despite our pretence of understanding, we understand very little of how the human body works, especially the mind. Most view the brains operations through simply electrical signals however we're discovering all sorts of acoustic propagation or action waves.

I generally try to keep an open mind and not to dismiss things out of hand no matter how unlikely they are unless we have observations that it doesn't happen. Into this mix, I was recently asked whether I thought precognition was possible with reference in particular to the experiments of Dean Radin.

Now, I'll freely admit to having a bias against some of the work but I won't dismiss it out of hand. So let us take Dean Radin's  paper on 'Electrodermal Presentiments of Future Emotions' and precognition in humans, a subject which has garnered some interest of late. The experiment describes how subjects experienced a physical reaction upto 4 seconds in advance of an event happening. Now, naturally we should be highly skeptical of such work but is it impossible given our weak understanding of the human system or could a scenario be imagined where it might be possible?

First, we should have no doubt that any mechanism of precognition - a sense of danger before the danger - carries huge evolutionary advantages. But is such a mechanism even remotely feasible?

Let us invoke a set of proteins that contain part of a entangled pair and a mechanism to transmit and receive information through some form of interference pattern. Let us now assume one of the pair (the transmitter) remains attached to the neuron whilst the other (the receiver) travels around the circulatory system and attaches to the neuron periodically.  With an approximate speed of 0.1 m/s for a period of 20 years, this gives us a time dilation effect of around 2 seconds. Let us assume that at any moment in time that some neurons have both members of these pairs attached (the 'attached pair'). As neurons fire in response to some event, all the normally attached transmitters send a signal to their receiver. In the case of the 'attached pair' the receiver will receive the signal a full 2 seconds before the transmitter sends. The receiver causes the neuron through some other mechanism to activate prior to when the main signal is received. Time travelling information over an entangled pair? Well, maybe.

We can therefore imagine a scenario that enables some of the neurons associated with a response to 'spontaneously fire' prior to the event that triggers that response creating a sense of forewarning. However to do this you'd have to invoke mechanisms of entanglement, mechanisms of transmission / receiving information, time dilation effects and overturn the 'No communication theorem'. To compound the problem, there is absolutely no evidence that such a system exists or even is remotely possible.

Our imaginations can often run wild of what is possible, hence we have the glorious world of science fiction.

That's the problem with such imaginary scenarios, they are easy to construct despite being nonsense. Invoking such a scenario as a possibility would be a ridiculous stretch and there are numerous more likely explanations of the effects reported by Radin and others including error in experimental design, expectation bias, confirmation bias in the observer to statistical error or maybe the 'anticipatory effect' is simply an aberration caused by the brain using 'pre-played' templates.

The question therefore becomes about the quality of the experimental effects. Are there statistically significant results? Is there a rigorous methodology that can be independently tested and reproduced providing consistent results? Is there a reasonable sample size with a strong enough effect or is this statistical noise? As far I'm aware, the answer to all of these is no.

However, I don't agree with simply dismissing precognition as impossible out of hand because you could create conjecture (regardless of how fantastically implausible) on why it might occur. But without evidence that such a system or effect exists, though precognition might not be 'impossible', it firmly remains in the realm of science fiction.