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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Will This Change Anything?

I have often written about the way that mainstream discourses tend to marginalise discussions about subjects related to intuitive perception and spiritual experience. Here's an extract about exactly this problem, from a journal paper entitled "Entanglement: The idea that changes everything?", which I recently wrote for Foresight. I know many journal articles are about as fascinating as observing rocks erode, but I do try to make my papers personal, interesting and readable. I hope I have succeeded with that goal here. If interested, you can find the rest of the paper here, including relevant citations. (BTW, Brockman's This Will Change Everything is actually a very readable volume, and chock full of fascinating ideas for anyone interested in science and the future).


I recently received my copy of John Brockman’s This Will Change Everything: Ideas That Will Shape the Future. No self-titled futurist could not be excited by the prospect of reading such a volume, which contains a collection of short essays by more than one hundred of the self-described brightest and most influential scientific and philosophical minds on the planet, including Daniel Dennett, Paul Davies, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Freeman Dyson, and Rupert Sheldrake. Contributions are taken from the Edge website ( Edge was formed by Brockman in 1991, and each year a volume is produced outlining some of the most provocative and innovative ideas emerging from the world of science (although a few philosophers and figures from popular culture are also included).

Every year the question changes. In 2010, the following query was posed:

“What will change everything? What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?”

Such questions are perfect fodder for the imagination of futurists. So it came to pass that I put in my order for This Will Change Everything via and waited impatiently for the volume to arrive. That took about one minute: whereupon my Kindle alerted me to the “delivery” of the volume.

Over the next few days I read the volume, and was stimulated by the wide range of ideas put forward. J. Craig Venter writes of the impending arrival of synthetic biology; Sherry Turkle enthuses about the benefits of robotic companions—and the dangers; James Geary talks up “the brain-machine interface” and how controlling machines more intimately will make for a better quality of life; Donald D. Hoffman gets excited about the prospect of quantum computing; John Tooby and Leda Cosmides believe that artificial intelligence will assist humans in reaching their intellectual zenith; David Eagleman argues that consciousness will be downloaded onto computers, guaranteeing immortality; Gary Marcus predicts that we will soon decode the brain, comparing the development to Crick’s decoding of DNA; and Rodney Brooks, Paul Saffo, and Douglas Rushkoff discuss the implications of discovering alien life forms.

Yet I was disappointed to discover a general absence of two of my domains of “expertise”: the philosophical questioning of the way science is practiced; and the expansion of human cognitive development to embrace intuitive ways of knowing. These two domains are related, because the present narrowly defined scientific “rationality” implicitly rejects the intuitive mind.

In the remainder of this paper I am going to refer to several of the contributors in This Will Change Everything, and use their thinking as examples of a delimited conceptualisation of the future of the science of mind commonly found in mainstream scientific thinking. The reasons for such unnecessarily shallow thinking will be outlined, specifically via reference to theory of knowledge. I will also state why I think entanglement, a concept taken from modern physics, is potentially an idea that will change everything. I am then going to discuss how entanglement might expand thinking about the limits of mind and consciousness, and in particular the idea of the extended mind: consciousness that extends beyond the confines of the brain, and transcends space and time. The discussion will include thinkers not found in This Will Change Everything.

Entanglement and deep connection
Given my predilection for Deep Futures, my perspective on This Will Change Everything should not greatly surprise. Not a single practicing futurist was invited to contribute to the volume (which immediately indicates one level of the knowledge trap[i]). So I thought I would invite myself to the party. If I had been asked to make a contribution to the volume, my idea that would change everything would be the wider acceptance of the concept of “entanglement.” Entanglement has been acknowledged in quantum physics for many decades. It first came to light in the famous EPR thought experiment (published in 1935 by Albert Einstein, Nathan Rosen, and Boris Podolsky), which established the theoretical reality of so-called “spooky” connections between sub-atomic particles. Entanglement incorporates the concept of non-locality, as the observation of one of a pair of sub-atomic particles which were once connected results in the immediate “establishment” of certain properties of the other particle, regardless of the distance between them (Clegg, 2006). Later, in 1981, the so-called Aspect experiment in France established entanglement as an inviolable part of quantum physics (Clegg, 2006), an experimental finding which has been confirmed numerous times since.

However, the implications of entanglement have yet to be fully realised in other domains of knowledge beyond physics. This is most likely due to the fact that non-local connectedness not only defies everyday physical reality, it also contravenes the dominant mechanistic paradigm of modern science.[ii]

Entanglement and the psi taboo: not changing anything
Despite the vital importance of the subject, discussing the full implications of entanglement and mind is effectively off limits in dominant mainstream science. This is because it traverses the similar ground to what Dean Radin (2006) calls “the psi taboo.” Discussions in the volume This Will Change Everything provide further evidence for this taboo. Here I will simply mention a few examples.

In his essay entitled “A Change in Who we Are,” Paul Zachary Myers, associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, writes that one major shift

… is coming from neuroscience. Mind is clearly a product of the brain, and the old notions of souls and spirits are looking increasingly ludicrous. Yet these are nearly universal ideas, all tangled up in people’s rationalisations and ultimate reward or punishment and in their concept of self… (Zachary Myers, in Brockman, 2010, italics added).

Yet ironically, it is entanglement which threatens the idea that mind is merely a product of brain. At the very least it muddies the “clear” presuppositions upon which Zachary Myers’ worldview and modern biology are founded. Further, the belief that the brain produces mind is a metaphysical presupposition of modern neuroscience, and has no direct evidence (Grof, 2000; Sheldrake and Smart, 2003). Zachary Myers goes on to write:

This will be our coming challenge: to accommodate a new view of ourselves in the universe that isn’t encumbered by falsehoods and trivialising myths. That’s going to be our biggest challenge: a change in who we are. (Zachary Myers, in Brockman, 2010).

Zachary Myers’ statement may represent a further possible irony because entanglement and the extended mind threaten modern biology’s founding presupposition of the mechanistic/
materialistic nature of life, which in turn may in time be shown to have both mythic and “false” elements. The mechanistic paradigm, like all paradigms, can be seen as a pervasive and invisible narrative which mediates the perceptions of those affected by that paradigm. Entanglement of mind, if shown to be a reality, will most certainly challenge who we think we are.

The irony does not end there. Conceivably, mainstream science may only finally embrace entanglement and the extended mind when a machine informs those who have forgotten how to intuit that deep connection is real. A quick look through This Will Change Everything is fully suggestive of this. Of the few scientists willing to discuss ESP, all prefer to hide behind a machine interface as an explanatory mechanism. Kenneth W. Ford, for example, believes that we will soon be able to read signals from brains—but only with machines.

We can probably safely assume that the needed device would have to be located close to the brain being read… We could let Mind Reader, Inc, make and market it (Ford, in Brockman, 2010).

Such conceptualisation appears to be mediated by a “money and machines” mentality, and is suggestive of the way that science has become embedded within, and restricted by the commoditisation of science and education.

Similarly, Freeman Dyson, in an essay entitled “Radiotelepathy,” sees telepathy operating via mechanical means, assisted by microwave signals penetrating the flesh of the brain and detected by a mechanical device outside. Freeman writes, “A society bonded by radiotelepathy would experience human life in a totally new way” (Freeman Dyson, in Brockman, 2010). He continues:

We will feel in our own flesh the community of life to which we belong. I cannot help hoping that the sharing of our brains with our fellow creatures will make us better stewards of our planet (Freeman Dyson, in Brockman, 2010).

Such an argument, in yet a further irony, has long been posited by mystics, philosophers, and thinkers with a mystical bent. Only they see such a connected mind as being a natural, innate expression of human intelligence.[iii]

The psi taboo seemingly makes many mainstream thinkers almost terrified to be associated with the ideas related to the extended mind. Throughout his essay, “Slippery Expectations,” Corey S. Powell rates the likelihood of various groundbreaking developments happening in his lifetime, given his age of sixty-two years. The end of oil is given a ninety-five percent probability. The discovery of dark matter is rated ninety percent likely. He also believes that there is an eighty percent chance that he will live to see genetically engineered children.

But what of telepathy? Once again, the key for this thinker is whether there are machines involved. Powell gives a full seventy percent chance that synthetic telepathy, mediated via “rudimentary brain prostheses and brain-machine interfaces,” will be a reality within the next thirty years. He writes:

Transmitting specific, conscious thoughts would require elaborate physical implants to make sure the signals go to exactly the right place—but such implants could soon become common anyway, as people merge their brains with computer data networks (Powell, in Brockman, 2010).

It is interesting to compare these estimates of Powell’s to some other controversial domains of science to which he refers. He writes that the development of “conscious machines” is fifty percent likely while he is still alive. Communication with other universes is given a ten percent chance, and there is even a five percent chance of the development of an anti-gravity device.

What, then, are the odds of the verification of actual human ESP? According to Powell there is currently:

… nary a shred of evidence to support the idea—unless you count reports of dogs who know when their owners are about to return home and people who can “feel” when someone is looking at them… Everything I know about science and human objectivity says there’s nothing to find here (Powell, in Brockman, 2010).

While Powell does concede that this is the one discovery that really would change everything, he then goes on to give the chances of its verification in his lifetime as being precisely half a percent.

Given that several meta-analyses of studies into telepathy and other of psi-related experiments have delivered significant results against chance in the millions and even billions to one (Lloyd Mayer, 2008; Radin, 2006; Tressoldi, et al, 2010), it is reasonable to query why Powell feels the need to give the odds of its verification a full fifty times less than the chance of the development of an anti-gravity device, the next lowest rated item. As pointed out above, the mechanism for the existence of gravity itself is not currently understood, let alone that for an anti-gravity device. Further, to my knowledge no human being ever experienced an anti-gravity device, nor does anti-gravity inform a legitimate experience for the majority of human beings. Compare this to the widespread belief in and experience of psi-related phenomena.

Further, we can note Powell’s assessment that the development of machine consciousness is five hundred times more likely than the chance of concrete evidence for telepathy emerging. This is despite the fact that the emergence of consciousness from brains remains a mystery (Grof, 2000), and that there is a complete absence of any adequate explanation (mechanism) which might explain how a non-conscious, mechanical system might become conscious. Why, then, is Powell five hundred times more confident of the development of the artificial replication of mind in his lifetime than he is of the confirmation of telepathy?

Clearly, the comparison of Powell’s attitudes toward these three concepts reveals a mindset which is not “rational” in any sense of the word.

Perhaps the most revealing statement made by Powell is his admission that “everything I know about science and human objectivity says there’s nothing to find here.” Beyond the likelihood that Powell simply has not done much research on the subject, his ignorance indicates that he has simply never gone to the inner spaces, nor explored the ways of knowing that make mystical insights and the connectedness of minds understood at a personal level. For it is in inner, meditative, and mindful experience that direct insight into the extended mind and integrated intelligence is commonly experienced (Anthony, 2008).

Limited discussions of telepathy, such as these found in This Changes Everything, and the seeming incapacity of modern mainstream thinkers to envisage its existence without mechanical mediation, make it clear that the psi taboo is still deeply entrenched in dominant science and academia. Even scientists exploring the vast frontiers of scientific Futures are reluctant to risk their academic reputations by seriously considering the idea. Perhaps most revealingly, not one of the more than one hundred writers within the volume makes any reference to the experimental data.

[i] “The knowledge trap” is a term used by lateral thinker Edward de Bono (1986) to describe the way that knowledge becomes delimited by preexisting concepts and ways of thinking. Being a self-organising system, the mind tends to sort data into preexisting schemas.
[ii] The mechanistic paradigm is the overriding, implicit, and thus unconscious model pervading modern scientific thought, one which sees the cosmos as being essentially machine like, and operating according to causal and unchanging deterministic laws.
[iii] This idea is almost pervasive amongst mystics and those influenced by mystical insight. I also have put it forward many times (e.g., Anthony, 2005; 2008, 2010a,c). Others with a similar mindset include Lloyd Mayer, 2006; Radin, 2006; Sheldrake, 2010; Wilber, 2000).


  1. I find this whole thing disheartening. How can science call itself science without exploring stuff that people experience daily - telepathy, for instance, or precognition. Or synchronicity. This is precisely the problem I have with science and academics. Why is PSI such a taboo? It's also why your blog and mind are so refreshing, Marcus!

    - Trish

  2. Yes, it is somewhat disheartening, Trish. Yet the science writers I quoted above are clearly not addressing the evidence, and are restricted by very narrow paradigmatic thinking, and restricted ways of knowing. The good news is that these so-called "extrasensory" ways of knowing do exist, and its just a matter of time till they are conformed and accepted. The bad news is that it may be a long, long time before that happens. Marcus

  3. That shold have been "confirmed", of course. Freud has a lot to answer for... ;-)