Friday, November 16, 2007

Dead Real

Without any doubt the most watched reality television programme in New Zealand today is "Sensing Murder", the Ninox Television version of the Danish Nordisk Films series "Sensing Murder".

The programme sets a group of pre-qualified psychics against unsolved New Zealand murder cases. In most cases the psychics are given nothing more to work with than a picture of the victim which in a good many cases they don't even look at until they have already stated the victims name, age at death, description and some aspects of their character.

The most important person in the whole series is forensic psychologist Nigel Latta who witnessed the whole process as an independent observer and has posted his views on his Goldfish Wisdom website. While the format of the programme (with its over-the-top music and eerie graphics) might otherwise suggest a load of drivel this additional level of scrutiny endows the programme with a serious level of credibility.

In one of the most recent programmes Nigel said something which I completely agree with. He said "this is not soft stuff, this is hard science" and drew a parallel with the mysterious nature of quantum entanglement.

For some comparing the showmanship of stage psychics with replicable physical phenomena will sound like a complete travesty. The former is not a controlled experiment, is not repeatable and the only theoretical framework sounds like fairies at the bottom of the garden. By contrast entanglement is so predictable that it is beginning to leave the science lab and enter the province of engineering.

But this is where the real problem is not with fairies vs reality but the limits of the philosophy of science. The fundamental problem with science is that unlike life it demands repeatability. Life simply isn't repeatable. You can send the same lovers to the same place in the same weather with the same picnic basket and one day they will have a fabulous time and another come home bitching. You cannot, as the Greek Philosopher Heraclitus observed, step into the same river twice. Science works by pinning down all the variables and trying to determine the correlations between those left free. It "interrogates nature" or in the case of some parts of biology to do with vivasection frankly tortures the information out of nature. The problem is, not surprisingly, what if nature doesn't want to be interrogated?

To my mind it must always come back to two things. Phenomena and theory. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" science has tended to be governed by a basic doctrine. The doctrine seeks out reinforcing evidence and discounts equivocal or dissenting evidence. But gradually over time the evidence of phenomena outside the doctrine builds until a revolution occurs and a new theory/doctrine is promoted. There is no recognition of psychic phenomena in the doctrine of classic science. All evidence is dismissed as "unscientific" in line with Kuhn's predictions.

However there are some scientists who believe there are real phenomena which current scientific doctrine dismisses which should be more properly investigated. Rupert Sheldrake has long contended that biological systems demonstrate a capacity for adaption and learning which exceeds any conventional explanation. He has proposed "seven experiments which would change the world" which rely heavily on the proposition that many phenomena defy statistical prediction of outcomes.

And it is to statistics that the science of psychic phenomena must ultimately turn. What is the probablity that an individual given a photograph face down can correctly determine the name, age at death, and characteristics of a murder victim. The problem is that such a question dissappears into the fuzz of confidence intervals and sample sizes. But one's naive response is that when an experiment is repeated over and over again and the phenomena does indeed defy statistical prediction one must be forced to recognise that the phenomena is real and should be accounted for.

One theory which possibly provides some answers is string theory. String theory proposes that the universe composed in ten or eleven dimensions and in this way mathematically solves the long standing disjunction in physics between quantum mechanics and general relativity. But the idea that the Universe really does have more dimensions than we percieve with our stongest five senses is in some ways unnerving. Fortunately some writers have taken the time to provide insights into how higher dimensions may "look". Edwin Abbott Abbott wrote Flatland in 1884 as a combination of social satire and explanation of higher dimensions. In it he describes a world of two dimensional shapes who percieve only area. When one of these encounters a three dimensional being, a sphere, it appears only as a circle that grows and then shrinks. Exploring this concept further mathematician Ian Stewart has published Flatterland in which the descendants of Edwin Abbotts fictional two-dimensional family explore the world of modern physics, eventually ending up with String Theory.

All of this suggests to me that "Sensing Murder" should be taken seriously. For many this will come as a challenge. As one of my colleagues said regarding the show "I don't want it to be true, I was quite happy thinking that when you come to the end of your life, that's it, all over".

I used to share this view as well. Let's face it the idea of anything else is rather scary. But the fact is that what happens doesn't depend on what we hope or fear will happen. What happens depends on the rules of the universe and we don't know what they all are yet.

One possibility I have toyed with is that consciousness is actually a dimension. From a diagram in Flatterland this would show a dimensional line of consciousness transcending the four dimensions of space-time. In other words consciousness can be independent of space-time. This would allow for prophesy as well as intersections with past consciousnesses. This would mean the sensing murder psychics are tapping into the past rather than dealing with the present.

However it is important to listen to the psychics themselves, and here those who "see dead people" tend to be remarkably consistent. All speak of encountering 'spirit', all speak of experiences of 'the other side' and many have encountered reincarnation. Another who has written of this is Tenzin Palmo (born Dianne Perry) who's mother was a spiritualist. Her experience led her quite logically to Buddhism and she is now an Abbess.

I have been fortunate in my life that I was not raised in any particular religion, although I was raised in a Christian country. I have no preconceived notions on whether we survive death or not and what happens afterwards or not. I have experienced foreknowledge of events which I cannot explain but I have never encountered ghosties, spirits or anything else except in dreams. To my mind the most important thing is not to reject the experiences of others out of personal fear. I do not want to die and am scared of dying but I am not frightened of not being. At the same time if death means a step to a new level of existence where one begins as helpless as a baby and slowly discovers that the universe is even vaster and more magnificent than it already seems I am not frightened of that either. Perhaps I should be.

But one thing I utterly reject as any consequence of the "Sensing Murder" phenomenon is the suggestion that we should abandon rationality and seek out the weird and the strange. One of the most interesting tales of that journey is "The Mothman Prophesies" . The story is ultimately banal but the incidentals are interesting. The author suggests that the more people became embroiled in their own belief the more the phenomena reflected their belief. That may be a description of psychosis but personally I also believe that in fact it reflects something about our universe and that is that it may in fact be even stranger than we can imagine.

Sphere: Related Content

No comments: