Friday, June 20, 2008

Why don't you ever see the headline "Psychic Wins Lottery"?

Its not really that surprising to someone like me that we don't see the headline "Psychic wins dickloads of cash!", apart from the fact that your average editor probably wouldn't go with the adverb "dickloads". I was asked recently whether or not I believed in unmapped potential in the human brain, to which I answered "yes - especially in mine if the teachers in my school days are to believed", but I knew that was not the point they were getting at. Do we have the ability to predict the future, speak to each other over great distances using only our minds, or find my bloody car keys?
Absolutely! But not in the way you may be thinking.

My economics teacher many years ago was very fond of the saying "There's no such thing as a free lunch", as I'm sure many Economics teachers are. I've found that particular piece of advice more relevant in everyday life than anything else he ever said. Probably because it's the only thing I can ever remember him saying, but that's not important right now. My point is that you can apply that epithet to absolutely everything - all rewards require effort or payment in some form to be acquired. We work to gain money to pay bills and buy things we want. We cut firewood to stay warm. We throw water at the neighbour’s cat to stop it crapping on the lawn.

This does not however stop us yearning for the ability to get that easy money. "Wouldn't it be neat if" and "I wish I could" are always the beginning's to sentences of dreaming and fantasy. And dreaming and fantasy is squarely where psychic ability lies. It’s the mental equivalent of a free lunch - no real effort for big return. Speaking to the dead, moving objects by thinking about it, reading events yet to occur and speaking to others across large distances without talking. Wouldn't it be cool if we could do these things? Sure, but if wishes were doughnuts I'd be Homer Simpson. These things are all highly improbable, and all the current scientific testing and data tells us that its not possible for a human to perform any feats of psychic ability any more than it can produce a 20 kilowatt laser out of its butt.

Most of the psychic abilities that people profess to hold in high regard (a 2005 Gallup Poll indicated that 41% of Americans believe in ESP) are all ways of getting answers without any hard work. Can we find out what happened to a person without searching every square inch of ground between here and Timbuktu? Can I find out what my mother thought of me before she died without months of intensive therapy to realise I just need to let her go? Can I make the remote control come to me without me getting off my fat ass? I think most people want to believe in psychic abilities because it’s an easy way out, and people love easy answers. When was the last time a majority of people were satisfied with an answer to a question that was complex and convoluted? People like simple and straightforward, and much like religion, psychic abilities fill that niche in our psyche. How did that happen? God\psychic ability did it. Michael Shermer says “Most of us, most of the time, want certainty, want to control our environment, and want nice, neat, simple explanations...We must always work to suppress our need to be absolutely certain and in total control and our tendency to seek the simple and effortless solution to a problem. Now and then the solutions may be simple, but usually they are not.” 1

But I reckon there is a way we can have our cake and eat it too, and it won’t be through a bunch of scam artists, phone operators or tinfoil hat wearing new-agers. It’ll be science baby, and its not too far off neither.

With modern mobile telephony, we pretty much have this one now anyway. You can with the press of a few buttons speak to virtually anyone in the world, or with the appropriate routing, anyone on the moon as well. We already have the ability to communicate via phone without speaking and the next step is of course to have this technology implanted in our body. By the time they get to that stage, computing power will be so compact that we won’t just be talking, but we’ll be doing business and other important things like sharing pr0n.

Combine the ability to voice commands without speaking, and small robot army’s of either specific function robots, or multipurpose nanotech, we can do pretty much anything. Sound a bit farfetched? We are making leaps and bounds in nanotech, and not too far off we will be able to perform the smallest operations by programming these nanobots to do the job for us. The ability to affect objects physically with our brain power is something we can do now with remote manipulation of robots. Remove the joystick and console, and wire it directly to our brain and you have in essence the basics of telekinesis. Also why get the remote to float across the room when you can change the channel by thinking about it?

Speaking to the dead
We can already, but not it a conversational “Yo deadhead - hows it hanging?” kind of way. Advances in forensics and medicine allow us to interrogate the dead to get information specific to their life and their death. Every year we expand the techniques for extracting information from the dead, and we increase the reference material to which we refer to when deciphering that information. While we may never get the answer out of the corpse about what they thought of our Sharon, we can tell if it was indeed our Sharon that had a hand in their death.
I know that people want answers from the dead more as a reminder of who they were when they were alive, and to delay the realisation that they are gone forever. But today’s advances in digital recording technology also make it virtually impossible for anyone to be truly gone forever. Everyone leaves an imprint in this digital world through home video, television, cell phone cameras, YouTube, Google Video and many other shared mediums.

Predicting the Future

The more we know about the past, the better we can predict the future. That does not mean we won’t make the same mistakes, and it will never be foolproof, but what is? Tell me one thing in this universe that involves human decision, that will 100% reliably, every single time a coconut, never fail always be correct? With faster computing power and more and more accurate modelling programs we can predict outcomes faster and more accurate than ever before. This allows us to look to the short or long term and make decisions based upon our projections for the future.

It all sounds very next century I know, but most of the technology or techniques are currently available or in development at the time of writing this post. The biggest problem people have is not that its available, or that we as a species can accomplish these technological marvels, but that its based on hard work. And that’s why, for a while at least, psychics and seers will be able to fleece the unsuspecting mark by selling them the dream of easy answers. Until technology reaches the point where it overtakes these charlatans and delivers the ability to accomplish these feats without “magic”, they’ll be sniffing round the fringes for a while yet.

1 - from Michael Shermers book Why People Believe Weird Things (2002) p59

No comments: