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Atheism/Supernatural and surprise: Thomas Edison


QUESTION: Sometimes in our exchange you have used the term supernatural for a paranormal experience. Why? If a psychic ability or paranormal event took place it would seem to me to be a natural physical experience that is yet to be explained. We know now that the causes of many diseases are not sin and demons (the old supernatural explanation) but a natural explanation caused by microbes, viruses, genetics, environment, radiation, etc. Sometimes you only need to ne at the wrong place at the wrong time. Certainly the boundary of scientific knowledge has not been reached in our life time. There will always be new discoveries outside our present understanding tomorrow. The history and discoveries of psychiatry and psychology are not over. I  think many of the most unusual physical phenomena related by Dr. Oliver Sacks: the man who thought his wife was a hat and the island of the color-blind, etc.  bear this out. There is much about the human mind we are still only beginning to explore. And there will be surprises. Whether we and the public like it or not. Much will depend on the critical thinking, imagination, patience and art of the explorer. Not all are qualified.

ANSWER: Introductory Notes:
This link is the link for our previous discussion[1].

Hey Charles, I see that you submitted a second question listing the Wright Brothers as an example of unexpected physical discovery and identifying yourself as the wiki user “Kazuba” that I previously discussed. For simplicity. I will bring that discussion into my response here and (only in the AllExperts system) reject to answer that question. So please don't feel put-off when I do so, I have read it and attempt to talk about it here.

Paranomal, Supernatural, Telepathic:
Indeed I have used supernatural and paranormal interchangeably. From Merriam-Webster, the definition of “paranormal”[2] directly refers do the definition of “supernatural”[3]. But I won't use them as synonyms anymore because you want to use them to differentiate between two distinct concepts. For “paranormal” you want to say “something that is yet to be explained by science” and for “supernatural” you want to say “something that is incompatible with scientific explaination”. Our difference in opinion would be that you would tend to classify telepathy in the former categoy and I would classify it as the latter category. Allow me to explain why.

Most things that I put in the category of the supernatural are things which make intutive sense to people but don't have a clear mechanism and don't fit with what we already know about the universe. This talk by Eliezer Yudkowsky[4], talks about the difference between explainations which appeal to the brain versus explainations that are probabilistically more likely.

So, let's talk about telepathy now. For humans to understand the concept, it's relatively simply. The idea is that your thoughts, your sensations, or your ideas are in someone else's. Instead of experiencing what they would normal experience, they partially experience the same thing. In fact, I would argue that this situation is not only easy to imagine, its easier to imagine than the standard situation – in which someone experiences something different that you cannot have access to (that's harder to imagine because you have to imagine two things at once and then imagine what it is like to imagine each of those individually). To the human brain, things that are easier to imagine may appear more possible or more likely than they really are.

But take the same phenomenon from a scientific perspective. In this clip, theoretical physicist Sean Carroll rather effectively summarizes the sweeping evidence against telepathy and similar parapsychological forces[5]. Quantum field theory is essentially a mathematical framework that not only includes all known particles and forces, but it is general enough to include new forces which are very different from known forces. So to address telepathy from a scientific perspective we have to say, as Sean Carroll does, “Tell me what particles contain the information”.  Especially when the difference in scale is so staggering[6], how is it that a particle is too weak to be noticed by electrons and atoms (when looking for the particle) but strong enough to affect neurons (when the particle is being used)? To believe that is almost to believe that the particle “hides” when one looks for it.

And how would evolutionarily developed cell structures learn to interface with a force on a completely different scale? And if humans are able to evolutionarily develop psychic communication, why isn't it a fully-fledged features? Wouldn't early humans have a strong evolutionary pressure to develop psychic communication? After all, conventional communication would have been limited by the danger of alerting a predator or being overheard by an eavesdropper. Conventional communication is further limited by range, clarity, and language-barriers in a way psychic communication might not be.

Leaving aside the lack of evidence for such a force and the shrinking range for which it would be possible to exist, such a force (the part of it outside the brain) would also have to be exceedingly complicated in such a way that makes it seem too improbable to exist in nature. Thoughts and sensations are more than just finding the corresponding neuron and activating it, rather, a complicated pattern in the neurons is where the information lies. For a psychic transmission force to respond to neuronal activity is to stipulate that the psychic force has an interaction pattern just as complicated as the brain it interacts with. And how does the psychic force store this information anyway? Moreover, since the neuronal architecture is built differently for every individual, its not enough to simply successfully transmit the neuron patterns either – the pattern must actually be interpreted and translated.

So you see there is a very large number of violations in scientific principle and assumptions about the unknown involved in a scientific explaination of telepathy. To believe in it, seems to me, to regard the universe as the sort of entity engaged in a conspiracy to prevent its own discovery. This is the territory
of gods and spirits, not of new scientific discovery. This is why I see telepathy as supernatural.

Of course there are some known ways in which humans do exchange thoughts and share information. I'm speaking of course, of conventional communication and language. Speaking, emoting, gesturing, writing, etc  – all of these communication techniques have in common is that they are transmited through the known senses (hearing and sight mostly). And all of these forms of communications also take advantage of language. The human brain has fairly sophisticated mental machinery for language[7][8], a common way to interpret sensory and express data to represent deeper thoughts. When I hear about people sharing ideas, I think about communication. If people don't understand how they communicated, than that seems like a mystery of psychology, not a mystery of physics or biology.

The Wright Brothers and Discovery:
I found a couple of links on the research progress that the Wright brothers made towards the first heavier-than air self-sustained flight[9][10][11]. It is true that the Wright brothers had to do a lot of new work in their field and that their were many people who were skeptical of their ability to suceed. However the Wright brother's work did build on that of others and the principles of aeronautics fit into the scientific framework even when they were not well understood. Drag and dynamic pressure[12] are concepts that date back to studies in hydrodynamics that came with boating and plumbing technologies. Applying those concepts to imagine realize lift, and creating a viable engineering frame to execute them is not easy, but it could never have been classified as paranormal or supernatural even at that time.

I do worry about striking the creativity-reliability balance in my own work as a physicist. On the one hand, if I never stray from conventional wisdom and is I always follow the work of others, than I close myself off to any possible a new innovation that I am in a unique position to provide. On the other hand, if I stay to far from known information and work only alone, than I fail to use the resources I have and will likely waste my efforts trying to invent something impossible or redundant. How does one try to become a creative genius without becoming a crank? Advice given by the late Martin Gardner (that you spoke so positively of), is what comes to mind[13]. Real science is collaborative and builds off of the work of the past. Creative insight can come from past experience or from interdisciplinary applications. When I am trying our a physics concept that is unverified or risky, I make every attempt to break it into manageable tests of slowly increasing involvment so that I can minimize the time lost if I am wrong. I also always make sure I have a practial and well-grounded project to advance which I can work on at the same time. Some of my great ideas work and some of them really don't. You start to learn to tell the difference over time, but no one is perfect.

[6] A neuron with about 1nA in about 10ms, so an amount of 10^-11 C of charge are involved in a neuron firing or about 6*10^7 electrons. By my calculation, a neuron is 7 orders of magnitudes off the scale of an electron. Using the energy scale of gravity being 42 orders of magnitude below the energy scale of electromagnetism, means that a neuron is more that 49 orders of magnitude whatever that new force is (for each of the three dimensions). To put it another way, that new force would much further off the scale of a neuron, than the scale of a neuron is from the observable universe.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thanks for answering my questions, Jeff. You sure can talk. You brought up a number of points I had never thought of. I thought the idea of telepathy particles and quantum is a bit strange. For there don't seem to be particles necessary for thought, sight and hearing.
Waves? Still undiscovered? Possibly... Certainly Thomas Edison thought so. For a while. I do believe modern parapsychologists believe they are following the positive results and successes of their predecessors. And are not working alone. From what I have personally gathered.( The history of the psychical research is fascinating. My favorites being the mediums of the late 19th and early 20th century. Love Daniel Dunglas Home, Henry Slade, Leonora Piper etc. Terrible documention.) It looks like their psychical research predecessors were foolish and made no breakthroughs in a number of earlier paths they followed and present parapsychologists are basically deaf and selective. After all he was a scientist and I am one too. Wise magicians seem to be unpopular. But that was not always so.  Most likely this is due to some over powering personal experience the psychic researcher has tagged as paranormal or spiritual in their own life rather than their experience being mundane and explainable by conventional knowledge. The death of a loved one is a total disaster. It drove Harry Houdini. And there have to be striking coincidences in your life time. As for a necessity for telepathy in our ancestors what is the necessity of being color blind or having psychophrenia? And it is passed on. For the ancient psychic past parapsychologists love to hit on the Bible: healings, and prophecy, etc They seem to be basically illiterate of the modern Biblical sciences and completely unaware of this. (I know that ancient Bible stuff pretty well. Love it! Some of it, but certainly not all of it, is brilliant detective work.) Wow! Did I say all that? Thanks again, Jeff. Enjoy talking to you.

Hey Charles,
It's been nice talking to you as well.

Indeed there are waves necessary for sight, hearing, and thought. I supposed non-physicists don't tend to think of things in these terms, but when one is talking about what is physically possible I think it is important to refer back to them. In sight, it is of course light that relays information about the world around us. You may know light propagates as a wave, but we know also that it is composed of discrete units called photons.

Before 1905, physicists understood light only as a wave, and this was conclusion was drawn from the interference effects[14] first discovered by Thomas Young in 1803[15], as well as a Maxwell's equations which described light as an electromagnetic wave[16] in 1862. Evidence for the electron had steadily increased (related to the photon by Maxwell's equation) and Planck's constant showed up in the description of blackbody relation[17]. Drawing upon the work of Becquerel, Hertz, Tesla, and others, in 1905 Einstein explained the photoelectric effect[18] as compelling evidence for the photon (the work that would cause Einstein to win the Nobel prize in 1921). The number of electrons generated from a material was proportional to the intensity of the light, but the energy of the electrons was proportional to the frequency of the light. This situation makes sense if we consider the light interacting with electons and atoms individually with the momentum of a photon relating to its frequency rather than its speed (which is constant) or mass (which is zero). Schrodinger's Equation[19] from 1925 explained how an object could be both a particle and a wave, and the modern understanding of physics put an end to the idea that light was only one or the other. Schrodinger's equation, along with de Broglie relations[20], form the foundation of modern quantum mechanics that describes all “waves” have a particle nature and all “particles” have a wave nature. Photons, and all other particles, are composed of objects known as a wave packets[21]. A wave-packet may be difficult to imagine without a deep understanding of differential equations, probability theory, and fourier analysis. It's much like a wavelet[22], a wave whose amplitude starts at zero increases and then goes back to zero, with the non-zero amplitude moving in space.

When photons hit the retina of the eye, the energy of the photon is transferred to a bound electron, changing its molecular electron orbital[23], and therefore triggering a chemical reaction called photoisomerization[24] which then triggers other biochemical reactions. The whole process is call visual phototransduction[25] (and from there its gets into complicated biological details that are beyond my knowledge as a physicist but are certainly well understood by biologists and medical professionals).

For sound the signal is carried by the movement of molecules that make up the air (or whatever medium the sound waves propagate through). In air, a balance of a electromagnetic forces known as Van der Waals forces[26] which maintain an equilibrium intermolecular spacing. A sound wave begins when something disturbs the spacing of a large number of air molecules (think about the surface of a drum or the end of a brass instrument), the forces attempting to restore the spacing cause a wave to propagate (like many coupled oscillators[27][28]). The ears feel the vibrations in the air and the brain interprets it as sound. So all of the dynamics involved in sound and hearing can be thought of as electromagnetic interactions between molecular structures (neutrons, protons, electrons).

While we are talking about particle motion and sounds, I want to mention the concept of a phonon[29]. When sound propagates through the air, the air molecules don't travel the distance from the source of the sound to where the sound is received – they vibrate in such a way that the information is passed from one area to the next. To talk about that which “carries” the information from source to receiver, the concept of a sound wave is useful to introduce. But a wave is a continuous entity and we know that sound is actually made up of individual particles. The wavelength of sound can't be any smaller than the molecules that make it up, for example, because sound is an oscillation between particles not within particles. It turns out that using what we learned about particle-wave duality in quantum mechanics that  we can describe sound waves as being composed of particles called “phonons”. So for sound there are actually two particle theories which describe it, one fundamental (molecules & E&M forces) and the other emergent (phonons). The fundamental theory can tell us how it is that sound exists and where it fits in with the other forces; the emergent theory can shows us how the quantum mechanical framework works and how it can be used to identify and simplify even complicated motions.

My understanding of science and philosophy has led me to believe that all conscious experience corresponds to neural activity (ask me about it if you disagree or want to hear more). If that is true than the fundamental theory of thoughts is relatively simply – thoughts are things that happen from the interactions between atoms, molecules, and electrons (and the largers biological objects they make up).

Whether a quantum mechanical framework for describing the emergent properties of the brain is the best or some other scientific framework is yet to be seen. Do neural signals travel over neurons like phonons travel over atoms? Take for exampe this biophysics research[30],  one of the many such papers starting to lay the groundwork for understanding the brain in these terms. Similarly, in his Pulitzer winning book “Godel Escher Bach”[31][32] (a book I highly recommend) Douglas Hofstadter lays out a hypothesis that the brain requires many layers of analysis to be understood. So if neuron signals are a type of wave across neurons, might symbols be a type of wave across neural signals? And might thoughts be a wave across symbols? And thinking a wave across thoughts?

Thought you would find it interesting.

Telepathy: Neither has a successful fundamental theory nor a successful emergent particle theory.



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Jeffrey Ellsworth


I am well versed on the arguments for both sides about the existence of God and am especially aware of the philosophical ramifications and psychological reactions to atheism. Also, if you have a question about atheism as that pertains to Science or Skepticism, I may be an especially good pick. However my knowledge of non-Judeo-Christian religions and Biblical archaeology is generally limited to knowledge about directions to more informative resources.


I've been an atheist for 14 years now, open about it for 9 years after being raised in a Roman Catholic family. In that time I have held many different philosophical perspective on the subject and had different emotional and psychological reactions to atheism. I have absorbed many internet articles, video debates, atheist publications, and secular podcasts in my process of understanding and supporting the atheist movement. I routinely hold conversations on the subject.

One article in If Journal, an interfaith publication.

I have a BS in Physics and Mathematics from the College of William & Mary I am pursuing my Ph.D in Physics at Indiana University at Bloomington. I have very little formal training in philosophy or sociology.

Awards and Honors
I was president of the William & Mary Students for Science & Secularism before graduating.

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